Emmanuel United Reformed Church
William Boyce: Peleus and Thetis
John Frederick Lampe: Pyramus and Thisbe
Benjamin Hulett (Peleus/Wall/Moon), Angela Henckel (Thetis), Arwel Treharne Morgan (Prometheus/Pyramus), Michael Bundy (Jupiter/Prologue/Lion), John Lucas (Boy), Alan McMahon (Mr Semibrief), Charles Neville (A Gentleman), Pethich Edwards (The Master), Bernadette Lord (Thisbe)
Peter Holman (conductor), Jack Edwards (director)
Opera Restor'd Band
Opera Restor'd have found a niche, at times almost literally, performing mainly eighteenth-century English opera in a wide range of venues, which include barns and pier-end theatres as well as churches. The instruments are few, the productions detailed and low-tech ingenious, and the whole operation is effortlessly historically informed. Their main contribution to the gaiety of nations is probably the rediscovery of works that are far from the Purcell-Beggar's Opera-Handel canon but recognisably based in the tradition of English theatre and music theatre, and still thoroughly entertaining because of it. Although opera in English is often taken to mean mainly Gilbert and Sullivan, Britten and (these days) the odd staged Handel oratorio, music has always been an integral part of English theatre, as has spectacle. A good show with might not be for the ages, but it hits the spot at the time, and the best shows often have something that can be (precisely) restored even if its moment has past.
The works in the double bill currently on tour are part of the circuitous quest for full-strength English opera that started with The siege of Rhodes under the Commonwealth and ended officially in 1762 with Arne's Artaxerxes, a completely realised recits-and-arias opera with an English text, expertly translated from Metastasio, that was commercially successful for fifty years and then sank without trace. Congreve's Semele, in both Eccles' setting and Handel's, was the work that probably came closest before that, though Eccles' opera was never performed and Handel's drama was theatrical in everything except its actual staging. Boyce's Peleus and Thetis, more or less contemporary with Handel's Semele, shares with it a fraught heroine, a love triangle and an epiphany of Jupiter in full thunder. But it is an old-fashioned masque perhaps commissioned for a private event, not too far from the ones in some of Shakespeare's plays, and short of drama as well as wit. Jack Edwards' production nevertheless took it completely seriously and found something touching in the devotion of Peleus and Thetis in the face of death. The horror of Prometheus' torment hardly came over, though, through no fault of Arwel Treharne Morgan, and the painted flats and baroque armour covering Michael Bundy's Jovial diaphragm didn't really have cosmic resonance.
John Frederick Lampe's Pyramus and Thisbe is inevitably easier going for a modern audience, since the text is familiar and famously comic, but it fits nicely into the argument about what English opera ought to be like. Lampe replaces Shakespeare's Theseus with Mr Semibrief, an impresario, Hippolyta with a young man just back from the grand tour who Semibrief hopes will turn into an angel, and Demetrius with the theatre manager. Pyramus and Thisbe (the opera within the opera) is touted as a fashionable Italian opera but in English, which everybody is guaranteed to like. Unfortunately, the English singers lack Italian style, even if the tenor has delusions of stardom, and the Handelian-style music goes on just a little to long so that the singers get fractious. As in Lampe's The Dragon of Wantley, which Opera Restor'd put on a year or so ago, there is a neat balance between low comedy and rather sophisticated musical parody -- the singers are funny both because they are hayseeds and because their words and music are overblown. You get more than a hint of why Handel refused to write an opera in English: this is what the punters would expect.