When we think of opera we think of tiny spectacles on sticks, huge red velvet curtains and a particular type of audience member. Mid Wales Opera is sort of the antithesis of all that, packing all the power of a tour-de-force show you’d expect into the places you wouldn’t. Places such as Herefordshire’s Lingen Village Hall, where I was invited to watch the dress rehearsal for the company’s first major post-pandemic production, Il tabarro.
One of Puccini’s lesser-known works, Il tabarro (“The Cloak”) is a one-act opera about an unfolding love triangle between barge owner Michele, his young wife Giorgetta and one of Michele’s workers, Luigi. Comedy, tension, passion, and dark desires are all deftly woven into the tightly-stitched story, culminating in an impactful and shocking climax.
“It’s a 50-minute feast of drama, driven by lust, hatred and envy,” Elin Pritchard, who sings Giorgetta, describes. “[…] It’s just like a really lovely, wrapped-up opera with a lovely dramatic bow.” Not content with that downer ending, though, the second act lightens the mood with a jukebox of crowd-pleasing songs themed around the Parisian setting – and, after a quick round of face-washing during the interval, a grime-free cast.
About to embark on a tour through Wales – from Brecon to Presteigne – the MWO is more than used to setting up shop wherever they can squeeze themselves into, as Artistic Director Richard Studer acknowledges. “Presenting opera in small spaces is always a challenge. It’s one that [the MWO] operates in. Very quick rise to and very good at; we’re quite a small team, we’re quite adaptable. We’ll rock up at a venue, it could be a small church or village hall. And it’s absolutely thrilling to walk up to these community-led performance spaces where you’ve already got the community behind you. They want to come out and see what you’re doing. And the support from our audiences on these tours is fantastic.”
He’s isn’t exaggerating about the kinds of spaces Il tabarro will be performed in, as Lingen certainly demonstrates. The stage itself, grey brushed wood creating the illusion of the 1930s docks along the Seine, take up the entire width of Lingen Village Hall, leaving only space for the stage lights – and Studor’s dog – in place of an audience. (The crew are quick to explain this is only a temporary rehearsal venue.)
But these intimate environments are what the MWO is all about. From sourcing young cast members from the furthest corners of Wales to selecting the kinds of performance spots you’d need a pair of wellies to reach, this is opera at its most accessible; the biggest tunes for the smallest stages.
Music Director Jonathan Lyness calls arranging Il tabarro, which became an unintended lockdown project, “a labour of love.” He and the cast and crew have been keen to get back to what they love doing, knowing that eagerness is reflected back at them by remote audiences who have similarly been starved of live music for months.
“When we’ve done these sort of small scale shows in smaller communities and the show has come to an end, I’ve been sitting at the piano and audience members have come down to the stage and said how fantastic an evening it was and that it wasn’t what they expected. ‘I can’t believe I’ve never heard this piece before. What are we doing next? Where are we going next?’ You know, these sorts of comments are just what we want more than anything else, particularly audiences that have never seen opera before.” That kind of instant feedback, Lyness notes, isn’t something you’d get in larger venues.
Not having as much of – if any – barrier between the performer and the audience also encourages the players to take more creative risks on stage, turning the “friction,” as Elin Pritchard puts it, between them into “excitement.” This works especially well for something like Il tabarro, the cast of which is a “close-knit family” who share in each other’s dreams and over-share, in some cases, in each other’s passions. It’s all right there in front of you – almost around you.
“You know, for the price of a pie and a pint,” Richard Studor enthuses, “you can experience not only the quality of singers that you would otherwise expect to be down on the Millennium stage in Cardiff but a smash-hit opera [as well].”
Mid Wales Opera’s Il tabarro tours to the following venues:
Theatr Colwyn, Colwyn Bay, Wed 6 Oct. Tickets: £15.50-£16.50. Info here.
Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, Fri 8 Oct. Tickets: £14-£16. Info here.
Neuadd Dyfi, Aberdovey, Sat 9 Oct. Tickets: £12-£48. Info here.
Congress Theatre, Cwmbran, Tue 12 Oct. Tickets: £14-£15. Info here.
Pontio Arts Centre, Bangor, Thu 14 Oct, Tickets: £14-£15. Info here.
The Holroyd Theatre, Oswestry – Hafren Satellite Stages, Tue 19 Oct. Tickets: £11 (+£1 booking fee). Info here.
The Courtyard, Hereford, Wed 20 Oct. Tickets: £15.50-£16.50 (+£1.50 booking fee). Info here.
Ludlow Assembly Rooms, Fri 22 Oct. Tickets and info available at venue.
Trefeglwys Memorial Hall, Hafren Satellite Stages, Sat 23 Oct. Tickets: £11 (+£1 booking fee). Info here.
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wed 27 Oct. Tickets: £13-£15. Info here.
St. Andrews Church, Presteigne, Fri 29 Oct. Tickets: £15.50 (+£1 booking fee). Info here.
words HANNAH COLLINS
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