Music and Lyrics: Pamela Tan-Nicholson, based on the operas by Giacomo Puccini and Georges Bizet
Director: Pamela Tan-Nicholson
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Making opera more accessible to newcomers who may be intimidated by the traditions of the form – long shows, often sung in a foreign language, plots that manage to be simultaneously labyrinthine and simplistic – is a laudable goal. But Trioperas, which condenses three full-length operas into roughly half an hour each, is probably not the way to achieve it.
The brainchild of Pamela Tan-Nicholson, Trioperasuses a small onstage band and a cast of 18 (who rotate roles amongst themselves each performance) to tell abbreviated versions of Puccini’s Turandot and Madama Butterfly and Bizet’s Carmen. And if it stopped there, this could be a promising evening: demonstrating that opera doesn’t have to be daunting, that the story can be followed, and that the arias which have come to be known outside their source material have their place in a larger piece of storytelling.
Unfortunately, what is realised seems more likely to put off prospective operagoers, who may come to believe that these classic tales need to be presented with all the intellectual rigour of a sixth form talent show.
The problems with Tan-Nicholson’s approach emerge swiftly, as her libretto for Turandot– as with the other operas, sung in English, with surtitles whose poor grammar and propensity to mix characters’ lines together, often on the same line reduce comprehension rather than enhance it – struggles to fit the story into the abbreviated score. Lines are injected into the melody with scant regard for scansion, ease of singing by the cast, or any semblance of characterisation.
Many opera companies, from the ENO down, choose to sing translated versions of the classics. But they work because they take care to ensure that the translated libretto flows with the same sense of lyricism as the original, and that the syllabic emphasis implied by the rise and fall of the melody makes as much sense in English as it did in the original language. No such care is taken here.
And that is before Calaf starts rapping – a mercifully brief interlude – and royal courtiers Ping, Pang and Pong attempt a feeble breakdancing routine. Breakin’ Convention’s Jonzi D is listed as an associate choreographer for this project, so one would hope for rather better hip-hop dancing than witnessed here.
Indeed, everywhere where modern stylings are injected into the classic operas fails. From an opening wirework fight, designed to look like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s treetop swordplay but more resembling the Chuckle Brothers with weapons, to tap-dancing geishas in Madama Butterfly, an awkward trapeze-based sex scene which not even the participants seem to be enjoying very much – every attempt to jazz up each opera detracts from, instead of enhances, the storytelling.
Part of the problem with both Turandot and Butterfly is that the musical abridgement is interested only in the key, well-known arias. Anything which prevents the narrative from reaching Nessun Dorma or One Fine Day can go. Once introduced, those arias stay around, then forming the conclusion to each operatic summary, the surtitles switching to a karaoke-style presentation.
By the time the third opera – Bizet’s Carmen– rolls around, attendance has become a form of endurance challenge, even for a show whose intervals are nearly as long as the acts they separate. Thankfully, the final third of the show is somewhat redemptive in places, thanks to an original score which has shown time and time again that it is resilient to adaptations and tinkering, and which is closer to our views of modern musical theatre than many other operas.
Even the introduction of a brief pole-dancing sequence cannot detract from the seductive charms of the tango-infused score. In addition, the use of a Chinese Wushu-dragon style bull for Escamillo’s bullfighting showdown shows the promise of what Trioperasmay have been aiming for all along. But the introduction of a rock beat to the Toreador Song, of endless scene changes (in a half hour distillation of an opera, one would have thought there’d be less time spent watching stage managers and cast members lug sets around) and, once again, a libretto that cares not for lyrical beauty ultimately doom this third piece to the same fate as its predecessors.
There may be ways for classic operas to be re-presented in ways that can entice and enthral new audiences. Trioperasis not one of them. The best that one can hope for is that those in attendance – even those who chose not to stay to the end – are not put off opera for good.
Runs until 1st July | Image: Contributed