Opera round the corner from the Royal Opera House! Upstairs at the Sun Tavern.
A great little pub in the heart of Covent Garden, we were amused to perform here just metres from the Royal Opera House, but offering tickets for a fraction of the price!
Seamless and sensational
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*****
They’re serious about opera but know opera isn’t always serious
For their latest production, Pop Up Opera has really pushed the boat out. The company, who already perform in boats, barns and garlic farms, aren’t doing two operas back to back; instead, they have intertwined Donizetti’s ‘Rita’ with Pergolesi’s ‘La Serva Padrona’ or ‘The servant turned mistress’. Although the two stories only overlap at the beginning and at the end, connected in the middle by a mute servant who moves between the two, the marital problems of both adorned with mischievous japes, leave the whole affair feeling very much like ‘Twelfth Night’. Here playing in The Sun Tavern, Long Acre, an intimate and comfortable venue, Pop Up Opera pull classical material into a modern setting.
The performers, part of a rotating cast, pull it off with the usual charismatic charm. For those who have not yet attended a Pop Up Opera production, Clementine Lovell, who also founded the company in 2011, often plays the female lead, here delivering another stunning turn as the recently ‘widowed’ Rita, stunned at the return of her abusive and manipulative husband Gaspar (played by Simon Wallfisch). Wallfisch’s hilarious performance throws into light another of Pop Up Opera’s strengths: their shows are always very funny. Although the subtitles aren’t exactly direct translations of the original librettos – mentions of Facebook, Twitter and other modern obsessions regularly occur – their slightly sardonic approach is refreshingly light and tongue in cheek: they’re serious about opera but know opera isn’t always serious. As Beppe, Cliff Zammit Stevens, his comic gifts shining through as they did in Pop Up Opera’s previous production of Don Pasquale, takes this to heart, impressing the audience by matching the veracity of his singing with the expressiveness of his face.
At the end of each scene of ‘Rita’ we take a break to watch the unfolding drama on the other side of the house. ‘La serva padrona’ concerns the loveless Uberto, kept on his toes by his secretary Serpina. Played here by Oskar McCarthy and Melanie Lodge, they make for a dysfunctional and amusing couple. As they bicker and fight with repressed affection, they provide heart-warming relief from ‘Rita’ and its backstabbing treacherousness. Like the rest of the cast, McCarthy and Lodge are both excellent, adept singers and competent actors. In fact it’s hard to find a weak link in the cast. You should even keep an eye out for Elizabeth Challenger in the corner, on the piano. Her energetic performance on the piano is a surprisingly watchable delight.