Two one-act operas, Donizetti's Rita and Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, take place on the same stage, their scenes and stories intertwined. One mute servant appears in both, tying the two tales together.
A scene of commotion arises when the dominating Rita and her timid husband Peppe receive an unexpected visit from Rita’s first husband Gaspar. Each believing the other to have died, Gaspar unknowingly arrives seeking Rita's death certificate so he can remarry. Peppe sees it as an opportunity to escape, as Gaspar is still Rita's legal husband. The two men agree to a game, the winner of which will have to stay with Rita. Each of them tries to lose, but Gaspar cunningly manipulates Rita and Peppe to fall in love again.
Meanwhile, wealthy old bachelor Uberto is kept under the thumb of his maid Serpina.He enlists his manservant Vespone to help him get rid of Serpina by finding him a wife. Serpina convinces Vespone to trick Uberto into marrying her. Their elaborate plan works and by the time Uberto has agreed to marry Serpina he realises he has loved her all along.
To someone who has never been to an opera before, the evening could not have been more inviting or appealing
Founded in 2011 by leading soprano Clementine Lovell, Pop-Up Opera proves to be a highly innovative company, whose primary aim is to make opera more accessible whilst maintaining a high standard of music and singing throughout.
The touring company specialise in adapting their opera performances to specific venues: they have been known to perform in completely non-traditional venues including a boat made of scrap metal, a restored Victorian poorhouse as well as candlelit caverns 100ft underground! In this case they informally staged an integrated version of Donizetti’s Rita and Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona above the intimate Sun Tavern in the heart of Covent Garden.
To someone who has never been to an opera before, the evening could not have been more inviting or appealing. Although flawlessly sang in the original language of Italian, modern translations and commentaries are, almost in silent-movie style, projected onto a screen ensured that the typically confusing plot was easily understood. This is aided by the heightened, extremely amusing deliveries of all the cast, hinting at 16th Century Italian commedia dell’arte in their performances.
The singing is beautifully executed in all cases, with strong characterisations bringing the admittedly obscure stories to life. Accompanied by award-winning Elizabeth Challenger on a single keyboard, the accomplished professional opera singers utterly charm the audience with their extremely high calibre, assisted by a great deal of well-timed audience interaction.
The cast truly commands the space with a wonderful spirit and energy, working seamlessly as an ensemble to form smooth transitions between sections. We are transported quickly to different settings by use of a plethora of different props, often with hilarious consequences. One particularly memorable section involves personal assistant Serpina, played by Melanie Lodge, tormenting her employer Uberto (Oskar MaCarthy) by forcing him to eat a selection of snacks, including a carrot, a bunch of grapes and a spoonful of melted chocolate, which ended up all over MaCathy’s face much to his dismay (or perhaps delight!)
Stage director Darren Royston has created an absolute gem. His crazy, highly creative staging has the audience in fits of laughter, ensuring a cheeringly light-hearted evening. Pop-Up Opera really is a brilliant way to introduce people to opera, without being intimidating and without the hefty costs usually associated with them. The cast and creative both should be congratulated for successfully achieving the company’s aim to broaden the appeal of opera, making it enjoyable and inviting without sacrificing any quality in the music.
For anyone wanting to see opera for the first time, or indeed existing opera-lovers, Pop-Up Opera is a charming, if slightly bizarre, experience. Broadway Baby deemed them the group to “make opera converts”, and it seems I have been converted!
What's Peen Seen****
This is theatre at its most engaging and resonates with the company’s ethos of bringing opera to the masses
Pop up Opera’s productions are the modern day theatrical equivalent of a warehouse party. Not quite site specific, their productions are, for lack of a better term, pre-packaged and performed for us in shopping centres, disused spaces and on this occasion, in a small cosy room with a well stocked bar (big bonus!) on the top floor of the Sun Tavern pub.
Pop-up Opera should be commended for their ambition and the quality of the music and performances are never sacrificed by the limited budget or lack of space. The stage is set on a small raised platform in the back corner of the room with a keyboardist seated in the rear, props scattered about the room and performers occasionally seated amongst the audience. In place of surtitles is the overhead projection screen that summarises the action for us, with hilarious lines such as a female character’s tips for domestic harmony Don’t stop until you’re on top and Treat em mean, keep em keen.
The operatic talent on display here is of a high calibre. Cliff Zammit Stevens and Simon Wallfisch are very good as Beppe, Rita’s current husband, and Gasparo, as are the rest of the small ensemble. Often with opera singers I find that they perform their solos as songs rather than the monologues or soliloquies that are needed to communicate with modern audiences. Not here however. Darren Royston has ensured each moment and change in action is made clear and precise. The scene changes are fluid and performed as part of the action, helping to keep the performance moving at a constant pace.
This is theatre at its most engaging and resonates with the company’s ethos of bringing opera to the masses. Audience members are even encouraged to pop off to the bar for refreshments during the performance. A special mention has to go to Harry who welcomed each audience member into the venue and whose infectious enthusiasm really set the tone for the evening.
So immersive and entertaining that it will convert the most opera-sceptic of people into a devoted fan
Pop-up Opera is exactly that: a dynamic young opera company which takes shows around the country, popping up where you least expect to find them to wow audiences anywhere from pubs to barns and even caves. Their latest touring production is an amalgamation of two short comic operas: Donizetti's Rita (1841) and Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona (1733). The result is seamless and sensational and the stories are expertly interwoven. What Pop-up Opera create is a wonderful experience to be enjoyed by longstanding opera patrons and newcomers (to opera, Italian or, like me, both) alike.
Eponymous Rita (company's founder and soprano Clementine Lovell) believes her violent husband to be dead so remarries and becomes the violent partner instead, beating poor, lovable new husband Beppe (Cliff Zammit Stevens) into submission. The pair's vocals are flawless and the best of the production but the strongest couple is that of the other storyline: Serpina (Melanie Lodge), La Serva Padrona (The Servant Turned Mistress), and Uberto (Antoine Salmon) her harsh master, who have more chemistry between them.
The operas are modernised so Rita becomes the owner of a health centre and Uberto her landlord. Rita's therapy is achieving her client's dreams through disguise but the dreams soon become nightmarish when Rita's villainous ex-husband Gasparo (Simon Wallfisch) returns and Uberto's PA Serpina starts demanding more of her employer. What follows could have been stripped from a modern rom-com rather than from the operas of centuries past as the trials and tribulations of love culminate in inevitable, but still charming, happy endings. The action is helped along by commedia style acting which, combined with witty, silent cinema subtitles, largely overcomes the language barrier.
I saw the show in the Thames Tunnel Shaft at the Brunel Museum. The acoustics in this unique performance space, a cylindrical chamber underground, provides are stunning and it showcases the incredible talent of the cast, who are all professional opera singers, as their voices and perfect harmonies bounce around the chamber completely surrounding and enchanting their audience. The performance is laugh out loud funny too, with most of the laughs coming from brilliant Clown/Vespone/Director Darren Royston who takes to the stage as a health and safety inspector, general dogsbody and muscleman in a Morphsuit. Rita & La Serva Padrona is so immersive and entertaining that it will convert the most opera-sceptic of people into a devoted fan. That said, Rita & La Serva Padrona is by no means an easy performance. There are many obstacles that this operatic vehicle must veer around and the decline of opera's popularity is probably the least problematic of them. However, once you get over the very difficult entrance at this particular venue (which requires you to descend some precarious steps and almost crawl through the tunnel's small passage), recover from being sprayed by the Clown's water gun before you reach the 10 minute mark, and acclimatise yourself to the Italian, the performance drags you on board. I even love the amateur-ish dressing up box costumes - at first these seem faintly ridiculous and a sign that the company is desperately in need of funds but are really a result of its admirable no frills but lots of nice trills approach. The atmosphere, charged by the cast's unwavering passion, is invigorating.
Opera is perhaps the most undervalued of art forms today and so Clementine Lovell's mission when she founded the company just two years ago - to make great opera more accessible - was always going to be a challenge. Yet, with this vast array of talent at her side, she achieves it. Pop-up Opera takes opera out of the posh, expensive opera houses and out into the world. Much like a newly-freed bird from a restricting cage, it takes off and I for one cannot wait to see where Clementine et al fly to next. Wherever their project takes them they are sure to be followed by beautiful music and much applause. Bravi! and Encore!
Plays to See*****