First published in The Times, Wednesday April 18 2018
In 2002 the inaugural production from Streetwise Opera, which works with people affected by homelessness, was a staging of Benjamin Britten’s Canticles at Westminster Abbey in London. So it is a nice touch that this show should take its title from one of Britten’s Cabaret Songs, written in collaboration with WH Auden.
The song Tell Me the Truth About Love made for an arresting opener to the exuberant production, created in partnership with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and Sage Gateshead, although its playful mood and amusing lyrics could hardly be said to set a consistent tone. Britten rubs shoulders in this musical compendium with composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky, Stevie Wonder and Brandy Clark.
Pic: Rey Trombetta
A rather contrived sung-through narrative, written by Meriel Sheibani-Clare and composed by Anna Appleby, revolved around a wedding on Tyneside where perpetual bridesmaid Tina (Anna Huntley), tiring of being “nobody’s number one”, spots a handsome fellow guest across the crowded dance floor and wonders if the time has come to lower her defences.
Inevitably, much of the vocal heavy lifting fell to the mezzo-soprano Huntley, as the only professional singer onstage. Nonetheless the big set pieces, including renditions of Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong and Jimmy Nail’s Big River, were made to soar thanks to tight musical direction from Timothy Burke, energetic, infectious performances from the large chorus and lush arrangements, with stirring accompaniment from the ten-strong band.
Pic: Rey Trombetta
The staging, cabaret-style, in the round with the audience seated at tables, encouraged some audience participation, notably during a rendition of the Geordie traditional classic, Blaydon Races. Samal Blak’s Newcastle United-inspired black-and-white colour scheme was striking, even if the wedding venue setting, with its tables crowded around a wedding cake centrepiece, inhibited fluid movement around the space, meaning that some of the dramatic scenes were interrupted by scraping chairs and falling plastic champagne flutes.
At times, Bijan Sheibani, the director, struggled to reconcile such an assortment of elements, and the scenario only narrowly skirted getting bogged down in cliché. The passionate commitment of the ensemble couldn’t be denied, however, and Sheibani-Claire’s libretto, delivered in a proud Tyneside accent, contained enough wit and grit to make up for any shortcomings.
Run ended. Streetwiseopera.org