Composer: Errollyn Wallen
Librettists: Selina Mills and Nicola Werenowska
Director: Jenny Sealey
Female composers seem to be few and far between, at least the historical record confines them to domestic spaces, co-librettist Selina Mills explains but her new opera, composed by Errollyn Wallen, explores one woman who managed to surpass not just the confines of court but also her visual impairment to become a very public figure. The Paradis Files, which held its world premier at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, attempts to restore Maria Theresia von Paradis to her place in eighteenth-century classical music.
Visited by her estranged mother after many years apart, Marie Theresia von Paradis – known as Theresia – initially refuses a reconciliation, unable to forgive a past of neglect and judgement. But the arrival of the Baroness awakens memories of the past, of music lessons with an overly friendly Salieri, of a personal love for Mozart, of the torturous treatments to cure her blindness and the love of a father she cannot blame. But as Theresia’s fame grew, her desire for freedom had a terrible price.
The concept here is an excellent one; a central character whose life is fascinating, who travelled widely, and who mixed with celebrated contemporary composers both musically and personally. Theresia’s life is ripe for dramatic interpretation even without the added dimensions of her gender and disability and much of The Paradis Files does her justice, exploring her determination, talent and entrepreneurial flair, a feminist icon able to support herself financially as well winning plaudits for her composition. “I am limitless” she sings much as Jennifer Lopez would 250 years later.
Errollyn Wallen’s’ score evokes both the style of the eighteenth-century and, later, almost musical theatre styles at times to capture the emotional fluctuations that affect the central character. Particularly effective is Scene 5 in which Theresia’s parents hire doctors to try and cure her blindness, employing a range of techniques including cutting and electric shock therapy which was as ineffective in the 1770s as it would prove to be in curing neurasthenic soldiers in the First World War. But Wallen creates so much tension in the music, dark, heavy notes evoking the ominous feeling to reflect Theresia’s pain.
Yet, in focusing so entirely on Theresia’s biography, the show does little to investigate her talents as a composer and performer. The programme notes explain that only a few of her works survive, but understanding more about how she worked, her inspirations, the satisfaction she derived from performing as well as the reception she received would be interesting avenues to explore. How did she develop her reputation, who heard her play and how did her fateful tour lead to the cherished music school she went on to establish?
With only 70-minutes to play with, even the backstories feel a little rushed, so it is never entirely clear to the audience why she despises her mother so entirely but professes a deep love and respect for a father who was equally culpable for her treatment. Likewise, an eleventh-hour dip into the Baroness’ past and the complex relationship with her husband needs far more than a brief flashback to provide a satisfactory impression of their marriage and its consequences.
In staging the production Jenny Sealey introduces a number of very successful ideas to improve the show’s accessibility including clear screen captions that distinguish much more clearly between different singers and two Performance Interpreters who sign multiple characters; Chandrika Gopalakrishnan and Max Marchewicz actually provide some of the most engaging performances, engaging in, reflecting and emotionally responding to every moment.
But it is also a little too cramped on stage with six characters playing multiple roles and a chorus of ‘Gossips’, the five strong orchestra, the interpreters and some unnecessary props so it’s not always clear who is physically in the scene and, with roles sung largely to the audience, which characters are in conversation with one another.
The Paradis Files is a potentially great story, Bethan Langford is excellent as Theresia while Maureen Brathwaite brings plenty of layers to the stern but regretful Baroness Hilde. Ella Taylor is a protective and maternal maid. Comparisons with Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus are somewhat inevitable and if librettists Mills and Nicola Werenowska can find a better balance between the protagonist’s work as a musician and her personal life, then Maria Theresia von Paradis may well find her place in the history of classical music after all.
Runs until 14 April 2022 and then tours