PopUp Opera – not Pop Opera, they insist – has a mission to take ‘real’ opera into new places and reach new audiences. This includes such unlikely venues as the upstairs front room of Black’s Club in the heart of Soho, where they presented Donizetti’s evergreen comic masterpiece. Here, with the buzz of the Dean Street crowd constantly in the background, an audience of 30 filled the space to overflowing, leaving a performing area of about 10ft wide by 6ft deep for the cast of 5. No stage lights, just a projector, no orchestra, just an electric piano – and not even a full-size keyboard at that. Clearly a company that loves to live dangerously.
Donizetti’s original opera has the peasant Nemorino fatuously in love with local landowner Adina; she only wants to play the field. Nemorino goes to a quack, Dulcamara, for a love potion, which he provides, and, having his eye on the exit, tells him it will start working the next day. But while the klutz is waiting, enter the flashy handsome soldier Belcore, who woos Adina in double-quick time. A wedding is set the next day. The penniless Nemorino raises more money for more potion by signing up for the Army, but the village learns that he has inherited money from a rich uncle, and all the girls throw themselves at him. Adina is furious, but relents when she realises how much he loves her, buys up his army contract to get him out of the army (as indeed a wealthy woman did for Donizetti himself), and all ends happily.
This version presents the music and sung libretto pretty much straight, but takes outrageous (and fun) liberties with everything else. The setting is transposed to a rather trendy café, with Adina as proprietress and Nemorino as dishwasher. Belcore is the visiting flour salesman – sorry, Senior Saoles Executive for Global Flour Suppliers Inc; cue the most absurd PowerPoint presentations you are ever likely to see (“It’s a Graph! It goes Up!”). There’s plenty of other updating – news of Nemorino’s new wealth comes in a gossip over a mobile phone, while Belcore spends the time waiting for the wedding ceremony to start texting furiously. “Dr” Dulcamara allows for some good ‘alternative’ medicine gags – the Elixir is homeopathic and “personally endorsed by Jeremy Hunt, MP.” When Nemorino signs up as a trainee Sales Executive, he gets the company briefcase and tie, and the surtitle declares he’s off to work himself to death. The surtitles (more sur-summaries) catch the spirit exactly: “We should touch base, yah?”
Some of the greatest fun comes with the use of the audience to create an impromptu overture with tea-cups and an Act Two opener with pots and pans. Someone is roped in to play the Notary to officiate at the marriage. We the audience all but supply the chorus. It’s impossible not to be drawn in.
Ultimately, however, the evening stands or falls by the quality of the singing; and this is high quality indeed, particularly from Clementine Lovell as Adina and Cliff Zammit Stevens as Nemorino, who delivers the opera’s Greatest hit, “Una furtive lachrima”, with a very fine legato and superb tone. Lovell is not a natural comedienne, but the two make the most of their three impassioned duets.
I have, however, two cavils. Opera singers are trained to produce large sounds, and while they do their best to scale down to the venue, it can’t be said they entirely succeed. The sheer volume can be overwhelming. More seriously, Darren Royston as Director seems uneasy about allowing the genuine emotion in the opera to make its impact. He has Nemorino distributing Kleenex to the audience before launching into his big number, and the effect is slightly apologetic. Yet the opera needs to engage the emotions if we are to engage with the characters.
In the end the piece works with the sheer joy and energy of the youthful score, which the performers squeeze till its teeth bleed, and the free-flowing gags from the screen and the witty heart-themed patisserie props. If any group can make opera converts, this one can. I defy anyone not to come out with a silly grin all over their face.