BambinO – opera for real beginners

Heywood Civic Centre, Rochdale; Grange festival, Hampshire; Royal Opera House, London
An audience of under-twos is captivated by Scottish Opera’s latest new work – and so, for many reasons, is our critic

Eugene, seven months old, has discarded his shirt and is down to his vest. George, quite senior at 16 months, tumbles modishly in rainbow jumpsuit. A tiny infant on all fours, frock over her head, is investigating someone’s legs. They are about to witness their first opera. Not bad when you have not yet learned to speak or, in some cases among the two-dozen strong audience (each accompanied by an adult), crawl. The venue is Heywood Civic Centre, Rochdale, whose mix of events tends not to include much opera. That may change. Part of Manchester international festival, this one is a sell-out.

Every company wants to catch the under-30s crowd. Scottish Opera, whose pioneering initiative this is, has made a beeline for the under-twos. BambinO was commissioned from the company’s resident composer, Lliam Paterson, directed by Phelim McDermott and Improbable (credits include ENO’s Satyagraha), with designs – pillows like clouds, clouds like pillows – by Giuseppe and Emma Belli. For imagination and enchantment, this enterprise deserves every rosette going. It worked, contrary to expectation (mine), on so many levels it’s hard to tease them apart.

Unstinting praise, first, to composer and performers. Paterson’s world-premiere score is for two singers, and two musicians playing multiple instruments, based around cello (Laura Sergeant) and percussion (Stuart Semple). It’s notated but with some improvisation – essential given the unpredictable nature of the audience’s possible response. The story is mostly wordless, with a few bits of Italian for authenticity. Uccellina (the outstanding, bewitching young soprano Charlotte Hoather) finds a golden egg, which grows and hatches. Out comes a very big chick, Pulcino (the versatile and engaging baritone Timothy Connor). Eventually others hatch. The end. Mozart’s bird-catcher Papageno – with some imitative pa-pa-pa moments for the singers – is a loose inspiration, for the iridescent feather costumes too. Flowing arpeggios and snatches of melody at times echo baroque opera but BambinO has its own, mercurial character.

The level of concentration was astonishing. Brief outbursts aside, the babies watched, listened, on and off, for nearly 40 minutes. Eugene-in-his-vest sat transfixed, a wise, observant expression on his face. One boy, perched on his father’s shoulders, beat out rhythms with impressive accuracy, using Dad’s head as a drum. Others showed more theatrical instincts, romping on the cushions and joining in with the performers. Babies were encouraged to do whatever they wished, but there was no urging, no “now, children”, no patronising. This is a pre-patronisable age. A lovely final duet about flying high in the sky proved, apart from anything, an effective lullaby for those whose postprandial sleep had been interrupted.

There was another element, crucial to Rochdale in particular, a town suffering some of the worst deprivation in Britain, with above average numbers of asylum seekers and refugees, low employment, and the recent horrors of a child abuse scandal. It is, too, on the lowest percentile nationally of cultural engagement. “Rochdale needs every joyful distraction it can get,” Tom Besford, arts and heritage manager at the town’s Link4Life, told me. Eighty per cent of tickets – £5 each – were restricted to people with Rochdale postcodes. For most, word had spread via Manchester international festival. (The show has toured other towns including Oldham and Wigan.)

Watch a trailer for BambinO.

The previous day, however, Besford and his team, working with Rochdale library services, had enabled an entirely different and diverse audience, many socially isolated or with poor English, to attend free of charge, transport provided. One mother had never been to a civic centre, let alone a theatre, and put a bow tie on her baby, not in irony but believing it was obligatory opera etiquette (perish the thought). A toddler with impaired vision had been taken by the musicians, in advance of the show, round the instruments and props so that by touching them he would know what was happening. “And he did,” Besford said. “He was laughing, waving. I’ll never forget it.”

The pay-off for an initiative like this is incalculable. If nothing else, children will comprehend that sounds – music – are made physically, by people and instruments, rather than coming only from a box or an earplug. Every adult present will have had a new experience, not least the mum from Stockport who had been to opera “proper” but hated it. For a few it was just a chance to get out of the house and meet people. Rarely has innocent pleasure felt so vital. BravO Scottish Opera. BambinO is at the Edinburgh fringe next month, Glasgow in October.

Letting go of mama’s apron strings a little later is the theme of Britten’s Albert Herring (1947), a comic tale of stuffy Suffolk village life c1900. Gauche young Albert is chosen as May king because all the girls have indulged in sluttish sins like winking at a boy. Helped by a few glasses of rum-laced lemonade, he becomes a man. For the Grange festival, Hampshire, Herring was the standout production of its first season. A new company, under the artistic directorship of the illustrious countertenor Michael Chance, now occupies the former home of Grange Park Opera (now flying high at West Horsley, Surrey).

Adrian Thompson (Mr Upfold), Clarissa Meek (Florence Pike), Orla Boylan (Lady Billows) and Alexander Robin Baker (Mr Gedge) in Albert Herring at the Grange festival.
Classy… Adrian Thompson (Mr Upfold), Clarissa Meek (Florence Pike), Orla Boylan (Lady Billows) and Alexander Robin Baker (Mr Gedge) in Albert Herring at the Grange festival. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

Conducted by Britten’s friend and interpreter, Steuart Bedford, and directed by the unquenchable veteran John Copley, this production had a top pedigree before anyone had sung a note, with sharp period designs (by Tim Reed, fine chamber orchestra (Aurora) and a cast led by Richard Pinkstone as Albert. Orla Boylan’s wild, craggy Lady Billows made every pronouncement a threat. As smug Mr Upfold, Adrian Thompson proved his reputation as one of the best character tenors around. Timothy Nelson’s slick, half-baked Sid, Kitty Whately’s susceptible Nancy and all the other ghastly inhabitants of Loxford made this a witty and classy evening.

Andrei Serban’s classic 1984 production of Puccini’s Turandot, conducted by Dan Ettinger, is back at the Royal Opera House with two casts. I heard the second, with Lise Lindstrom, sensational as the fair Miss Frigidaire of the title, Roberto Alagna bursting with renewed vocal strength as Calaf, and Aleksandra Kurzak as Liú. It was Kurzak’s night. At once powerful and fragile, ardent and tender, she communicated every nuance of her agony, with Brindley Sherratt’s old Timur heart-rending in his remorse at her death. From cradle to grave, opera covers all eventualities.

Turandot at the Royal Opera House.
Turandot at the Royal Opera House. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

Star ratings (out of 5)
BambinO ★★★★★
Albert Herring ★★★★★
Turandot ★★★★


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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