Opera going south

A Peckham production of "Dido and Aeneas" is not quite bold enough

Dido and Aeneas, Bussey Building, Peckham. 7.30pm Thursday 10 January 2013

Although still more synonymous with knife-crime than culture, Peckham is enjoying something of a sea-change at the moment. Last year saw the Royal Court venture south for a series of performances in their new “Theatre Local” project, and for one night during the summer a multi-storey car-park became the unlikely stage for a remixed performance of Stravinsky’s iconic ballet The Rite of Spring. The hub of the action is Peckham’s Bussey Building – a venue best-known for its raves, but now developing an alter-ego as the progressive arts venue of choice south of the river. But while the Royal Court’s brand of contemporary theatre is a major step, how much greater a leap is the venue’s latest project: 18th century opera.

In many ways Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is the perfect opera for today. Tate’s English libretto may have the odd metaphorical flight of fancy, but is otherwise straightforward and easily understood, even without the help of surtitles. The themes – love and betrayal – are classics, and the whole cycle from infatuation to despair and death takes just under an hour to run its course, leaving plenty of time for a drink and debrief afterwards.

So why did I leave Opera In Space’s performance so confused?

It’s always going to a challenge performing opera in unusual spaces. I’ve attended performances over the years in warehouses, office-buildings, pubs, gardens, boats and even a nightclub, and each unusual venue only makes me more grateful for the classic opera house, with its controlled acoustics and excellent sight-lines. While the promenade elements of this Dido give everyone a fair shot at seeing at least some of the show, a directorial preference for on-floor writhings means that large chunks are completely obscured, and the traverse-style setup in the main staging area effectively prevents a third of the audience from seeing all but the merest glimpse of the action.

The concepts too are decidedly unclear, not aided by some rather gawky tableaux vivants by way of “overture”, juxtaposing bursts of African drumming with blandly symbolic stage-pictures. Spoken text is also rather unnecessarily included later in the show (which exists in that generic no-time, no-place of contemporary theatre), adding little by transforming the Carthaginian Queen and her ladies into schoolgirls chattering about their A level studies. If director Richard Pyros had a coherent vision for the piece then he kept it concealed.

Pasticcio was a favourite genre of the 18th century opera house – essentially stitching together the best bits from various composers’ works into a single dramatic work – and Opera In Space make a clever nod to this in their interpolation of jazz songs into Purcell’s score. But I would have loved to see smarter choices than the unambiguous “Misty” (in case we hadn’t realised that Dido was smitten with her charisma-free Aeneas) and Jerome Kern’s “All The Things that You Are”, which suffered from an awkward arrangement and uneasily low key.

There is much to like here though. The singing is generally solid, with the cast led by Carleen Ebbs’ polished Belinda, singing elegantly and idiomatically in ensemble with Marie Degodet (Second Woman) and Sylvia Gallant’s Dido. Gallant is at the higher end of mezzos, which lends her despairing queen a youthfulness but also a lightness that Purcell’s writing happily accommodates. Adam Kowalczyk did his best with Aeneas, but struggled to make much impression dramatically in the space of his limited music.

There is a saucily revisionist take on the Sailors’ “Come Away” that works beautifully, and some effective atmospherics for the Sorceress and her lair. But the chief delight though is the instrumental work from harpsichordist Katie de la Matter and her skeleton band. Not for nothing was Purcell the master of the ground bass (a riff, by any other name); his music has such excellent bone-structure that even when you strip away all the usual layers of colour you are still left with something beautiful, especially when stylishly articulated here by cellist Poppy Walshaw and violinist Eleanor Harrison.

It’s hard to leave Opera In Space’s Dido and Aeneas and not feel like you’ve just had an evening of cut-price Punchdrunk. The promenade setup and venue are great, and cry out for something just a little bolder, a little less politely safe. There’s an uneasy compromise here between traditionalism and experimentation which hasn’t quite found its balance. Would I return for another production? Absolutely. But on current form it may take a few more tries to make this worthy and interesting project the enjoyable experience it could so easily be.

An image from Opera in Space's "Dido and Aeneas". Credit: Sally Neville
Photo: Getty
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Toys R Us defined my childhood – 6 of the toys I won't forget

Memories of a now-struggling toy shop. 

For my family, visits to Toys R Us usually took place around Christmas time. Since it was invariably freezing, this first meant being wrapped up by fussy parents in the cheapest and scratchiest of woolly hats, gloves and scarves. 

My Toys R Us was on Old Kent Road in south east London. It has a stupidly big car park, and was opposite a sofa-store which changed its name every few years. 

The store itself was as well-lit as a supermarket, but instead of cabbages, the shelves were lined with colourfully-packaged toys. 

On a street with few constants, Toys R Us has remained ever present. Now, though, the firm is filing for bankruptcy in the US and Canada. UK branches will not be affected for now, but the trends behind its demise are international - the growth of online retailers at the expense of traditional toyshops. 

Each year at Toys R Us is different as each is defined by a different set of best-sellers - the toys which defined my childhood are unlikely to define yours.  

Here is a retrospective catalogue of my Toys (and yes, they deserve capitalisation):

1. Beyblades

Perhaps my most treasured toy. Beyblades were in essence glorified spinning tops. 

The hit TV show about them however, made them anything but. 

On the show, teenagers would battle their spinning tops, which for some reason were possessed by ancient magical monsters, against each other. 

These battles on TV would last for multiple (surprisingly emotional) episode arcs. Alas, in the real world battles with friends would be scuppered by the laws of physics and last no longer than 30 seconds. 

Not so with the remote-controlled Beyblade. An electric motor provided an extra minute or so of flight time. 

It was wild. 

2. Furbies

At aged eight years old, I thought Furbies were stupid. I was wise beyond my years.

3. Barbies

Trips to Toys R Us inevitably also meant buying something for my younger sister. I would choose the ugliest looking doll from the shelves to annoy her. She was always annoyed.

4. Talking Buzz Lightyear

A toy which I will always remember as it led me to the epiphany that Santa Claus wasn't real. How did I figure it out? The Christmas tag was written by someone who had the distinctive handwriting of my father. I for one, am not looking forward to Toy Story 4. 

5. Yu-Gi-Oh Cards 

Yu-Gi-Oh was a card game about magical monsters that actually required a lot of strategy. It was cool to like them for a bit. Then we quickly realised that those who were actually good at the game were the losers and should be made fun of.

I was one of those losers. 

6. Tamagotchi

The first birthday present I ever bought my sister (with my hard earned birthday money, no less). She didn't care for it. Who did?

As much as all these playthings, Toys R Us itself has defined a specific part of childhood for millions. But for those growing up in the US however, that may not be the case any longer.