Saturday, October 27, 2018

Hidden Extras – dynamic gateway operatic farce demonstrates young artists’ talents (NI Opera/Tinderbox)

As a gateway piece to introduce new audiences to opera – and to entertain existing audiences – NI Opera have hit upon a gem with Rossini’s Hidden Extras (originally performed as La Cambiale di Matrimonio) and their co-production with Tinderbox Theatre Company.

It’s a one act, 70 minute betrothal soap opera with a woman, already in love with a lad, promised by her father to a brash American businessman who later backs out of the contract and incurs the wrath of the man who intends to box him into the original deal.

Hannah Shepherd’s barcoded costumes emphasise the transactional nature of the exchange of merchandise and bring a visual consistency to the performance that uses only a minimal set and is played out on the floor surrounded by the audience sitting at tables in the Crescent Arts Centre. Later a fabulous receipt-endowed wedding dress continues the capitalist refrain of knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing.

While sung in English using a modern translation of the libretto – modern in the sense that it can comfortably rhyme ‘placid’ with ‘flacid’ – Patrick J O’Reilly’s direction and choreography compensates for any words the audience miss by telling the story through actions. His trademark physicality – and a couple of moves reminiscent of The Man Who Fell to Pieces – turn up the farce factor.
“Send me a bride of the following specifications”

Giving the American businessman, Slook, a more authentic accent might have magnified the crassness of his initial letter requesting a bride. However, Malachy Frame creates a fun character whose intentions recognisably shift as the story unravels towards its suitably operatic gunfight conclusion. Brian McAlea plays Sir Toby as an agitated and easily flustered father and succeeds in getting his tongue and baritone voice around some very rapid phrasing.

Dawn Burns and Nathan Morrison play two of his employees, dusting the furniture and his daughter, as if she was a mannequin on display. Their able voices introduce the story and set the tone and quality of the rest of the performance.

Soprano Jessica Hackett plays Fanny whose secret relationship with less well-off Edoardo (played by tenor Vladimir-Mihai Sima) is threatened when the Yank comes on the scene believing that “the little lady, she’s enchanting”. But Fanny’s quite capable of standing up for herself – “I am not merchandise for you sir!” – while looking increasingly disdainful as men fight over her with little consultation. Her voice fills the reverb-less space, cutting through Keith McAlister’s nimble piano accompaniment and emphasising her frustrated and disempowered role in the story.
“We have made a great transaction: they are happy, and so are we.”

The modern libretto together with fine singing, clear diction, imaginative choreography and a hearty pace shows off the young performers’ talents. Small studio opera productions are typically static and voice-based. Following in the footsteps of the larger Threepenny Opera in partnership with the Lyric Theatre in February, this new collaboration between NI Opera and Tinderbox proves that more dynamic works can be created that engage, entertain, and look a lot more fun to perform.

Having completed its three-night run, Hidden Extras will hopefully return – perhaps at Out To Lunch or another festival – and become a stalwart in NI Opera’s repertoire to show off their NI Opera Studio participants.

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