24 Italian Songs and Arias – Battersea Arts Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Creators: Brian Lobel and Gweneth-Ann Rand

What would a show about failure look like? 24 Italian Songs and Arias is ‘award-losing,’ deadpans performance artist Brian Lobel and straightaway we know we’re in good hands. His own failure came early. Auditioning for a prestigious New York choir and expected to know 1894’s collection of Italian songs, a near-perfect score was necessary to begin the journey towards Carnegie Hall. His preparation was intense. He watched La Dolce Vita hoping to improve his non-existent Italian. But then he scored 94. Not a failure exactly, but the end to his dreams.

Thus starts a gently comic, intimate exploration of the theme. Addicted, as we are, to narratives of triumph, we are made to wonder about the devastating effect of not-quite making it. Beautiful songs from the collection of the title are sung by soprano Gweneth-Ann Rand, contralto Naomi Felix and newcomer Joshua Furtado-Mendes (tenor), a brilliant late-minute substitute on press night. The genre of formal song recital is deconstructed by Lobel’s highly inventive segments of confessional narrative and funny devices – subversive surtitles offer alternative readings, banners roll down proclaiming the precise number of an artist’s failures.

Rand’s promising trajectory from Royal Opera House Young Artist to finalist of Cardiff Singer of the World ends when she comes second. In her eyes she failed: second-best isn’t good enough in the competitive world of classical music. For years, she tells us, she felt ‘far out at sea’. All the more moving, therefore, are her exquisite performances of a few plangent arias, intensified by her own story. In an imagined workshop, she critiques Furtado-Mendes’ accomplished rendering of Amarilli, Mia Bella giving a glimpse of the intensity of professional training. Accompanying them is pianist Allyson Devenish, who at first denies she has ever experienced failure, but then admits that after 240 recitals, she quit as a solo artist.

There is nothing self-indulgent about the show. It somehow retains its warmly comic surface while daring to reveal glimpses of the pain of failure.

Runs until 19 March 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Intimate, engaging, lyrical

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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