The Paradis Files review – Graeae and Wallen breathe life into a woman of spirit and courage

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
The story of the blind composer, singer and business woman Maria Theresia von Paradis is told in this lively but uneven chamber opera by Errollyn Wallen

Experimental, disabled-led theatre company Graeae here give us their first opera. Composed by Errollyn Wallen to a libretto by Nicola Werenowska and Selina Mills, The Paradis Files deals with the life of Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824), a blind composer, pianist, singer and teacher, feted Europe-wide in her day and admired by, among others, Salieri, Haydn and Mozart. Much of her music is lost, and history primarily remembers her for her parents’ unavailing search for a cure for her blindness, rather than for her own often considerable achievements. Wallen and her librettists attempt to redress the balance by giving us a portrait of a self-determined woman of considerable spirit and courage.

The primary focus falls on the relationship between Theresia (Bethan Langford) and her estranged mother, Hilde (Maureen Braithwaite), and the bulk of the narrative unfolds in flashback during a fraught, if eventually reconciliatory confrontation between the two women at the school for blind musicians that Paradis established in her 30s in Vienna. We witness the young Theresia fending off the attentions of her teacher Salieri (Ben Thapa) and rebelling against the ghastly regime of attempted cures imposed by quacks and specialists at her parents’ behest. The excitement of concert tours gives way to the tragic stillbirth of a baby, fathered by one of several lovers taken at the height of her career. A chorus of Gossips follows her every move, while her maid Gerda (Ella Taylor) consoles, comments and cajoles.

A portrait of a self-determined woman of spirit and courage… The Paradis Files
A portrait of a self-determined woman of spirit and courage… The Paradis Files Photograph: Patrick Baldwin

Wallen’s eclectic score ranges allusively over different periods and styles. Quotes from Mozart and Clementi jostle with Viennese waltzes, and the names of Theresia’s lovers are gleefully reeled off in ragtime. It’s generally uneven and very close to pastiche at times, but there’s a touching duet at the midpoint for Theresia and her ambiguously motivated father (Omar Ebrahim), and some ensembles of great wit for the Gossips.

The performances are strong. Langford, herself visually impaired, makes a terrific Theresia, passionate, dignified and resilient, her warm, insistent singing contrasting with Braithwaite’s refined intensity and Taylor’s greater brightness of tone. Ebrahim brings considerable gravitas to Theresia’s father, while Thapa is deeply creepy as Salieri. There’s fluid, elegant playing from a chamber ensemble from the BBC Concert Orchestra under Andrea Brown. Jenny Sealey’s clever, stylised staging, meanwhile, draws on cabaret and revue, and, in line with Graeae’s policy, incorporates British Sign Language and video captions, the latter ingeniously designed by Ben Glover.

• Repeat performance on Thursday, then touring until 12 May.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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