Pop-Up Opera are a (very) small-scale touring company taking opera with piano accompaniment to unusual venues in the hope of creating new audiences. Operating with a hair-raising lack of resources, often in rooms no bigger than your living room, they bring to their work great good humour, inventive visual gags and musical flair.
Their latest offering might better be called Cut-Up Opera, because they present Donizetti’s ‘Rita’ and Pergolesi’s ‘La Serva Padrona’, not as a double bill, but as two interwoven stories. Though the compositions are separated by over a hundred years, they segue neatly and unobtrusively into each other thanks to tasteful editing by MD James Henshaw.
‘Rita’ (1841) is to modern sensibilities a nasty piece of misogyny. The tyrannical Rita, whose first husband Gasparo used to beat her, remarries and bullies in her turn a timid second husband, Beppe. But Gasparo is not dead as she thinks. Believing Rita died in a fire, he returns to try to get hold of their marriage certificate, so he can destroy it and be free to remarry. Cue a card game between Beppe and Gasparo in which the winner will take Rita; since neither of them wants her, both try to lose….
‘La Serva Padrona’ (The Servant As Mistress) features another bullying female, Serpina, who dominates her master, Uberto, to the point where she refuses to let him leave the house. He instructs his servant, Vespone, a mime character straight out of Commedia del Arte, to find him a wife so can escape Serpina’s clutches. Cue an implausible charade in which Vespone impersonates Serpina’s new fiancé, a soldier, and bullies Uberto into marrying her.
The two operas are linked by making Uberto into the estate agent who sells Rita the premises that she turns into Marguerita’s Health Farm at the start of the evening. From then on, the two stories proceed in parallel. Great liberties are taken in updating the text, but since the jokes are nearly all good, only purist nerds could object. The back-projections are a constant delight, throwing in references to the English Defence League, a Marxist Critical Opera Analysis and a very post-modernist commentary (“Now it’s time for a fight for no reason really”).
‘Rita’ turns out to be weaker of the two pieces. Admittedly, a comedy of domestic violence is difficult to pull off: while we expect opera plots to be implausible, the relations between the trio, and especially the bullied Rita turning into the bully second marriage round, never convince. It is as if director Darren Royston has to apologise for the theme. It would really only make sense by going for something darker, more caricatured – more like Punch and Judy, which springs from the same tradition.
Clementine Lovell’s performance as Rita does not help in this respect. Though she negotiates the coloratura of the part effectively, there is little sense of shrewishness in the over-glamorous interpretation. Her rival husbands fare better, being nicely contrasted: the quivering cowardly Beppe (tenor Cliff Zemmit Stevens) vs. the swaggering, charming Gasparo (baritone Simon Wallfisch). Both have splendid voices, true and well-supported, and their duet is one of the highlights of the evening. Both also have great comic timing, but in addition Wallfisch has the looks and charisma to make him a name to watch out for.
In the ‘La Serva Padrona’ section, Penelope Manser’s Serpina is the more fleshed out female character, with the right edge of shrillness; Oskar McCarthy is more actor than singer, and the part of Uberto, originally a buffo bass, is really out of his baritone range in the lower registers. Director Royston in the silent role of the servant Vespone owes something to Harpo Marx, and is hilarious.
Performing in different venues every night means constantly adapting and improvising, which keeps the production fresh, and if a gag falls flat, there’ll be another one along soon; there are also cast changes from time to time. But the core is solid enough to guarantee a good night out.