The Little Sweep

One of the primary aims of The Little Sweep by Benjamin Britten, an opera for children, is to demystify the genre to a younger generation. With a child friendly story and brief explanation of what we mean when we talk about opera, this seems like quite a good fit for Norfolk YMT on face value. Unfortunately the show becomes a little bit of a contradiction in terms, as the young cast struggle to handle the score and style and lose the audience pretty quickly. 

There are some really lovely moments of tentative harmonies and cannoning, which I think could be really pretty with a little more confidence and projection

The story opens with a group of children going through their grandmothers things. As they do, they are told a story about her, and how she and her cousins helped to save a young chimney sweep, and the children decide to act it out. Their uncle (played by MD Adrian Connell) suggests that they act it out in the form of an opera. The plot then follows that of a young boy, sold by his parents to Black Bob and Clem, the local chimney sweeps. He is treated unfairly by the men, forced to work in horrible conditions, until a group of children find him up their chimney, stuck and crying they decide to rescue him, clean him up, hide him from harm and help him to run away to safety. I have to congratulate this small, young cast for sheer confidence and bravery. With the average age being approximately 12-13 years old, they plod along with this as best they can, carrying the whole show on their little shoulders. There are some really lovely moments of tentative harmonies and cannoning, which I think could be really pretty with a little more confidence and projection. 

What becomes glaringly obvious, however, is that with the exception of maybe one or two, this cast just don’t have the voices to carry off anything near an operatic style. Recitative sections sound mumbled and at times a little as though they are being improvised on the spot.I can understand why this show could seem like a good choice in its attempt to be an opera for children, played by children. However the story line is desperately old fashioned, which at times makes the cast come across as precocious rather than confident. The few children who are in the audience quickly became restless and I could hear them chatting and questioning what was happening around me. Some of this cast clearly have bright futures in front of them with a little more training and perhaps more suitable content. At this time of so many talented young performers, it’s a really competitive and difficult thing to get right and I think the production team missed the mark here.

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The Blurb

Benjamin Britten's little opera is a musical morality tale in which Sam the sweep boy is sold into service and bullied by his masters Black Bob and Clem. Can the children of Iken Hall rescue Sam and set him free? Britten's work embodies a rounded and involving theatrical experience, introducing young and old audiences to the conventions of opera by means of a simple yet affecting story with which they can sympathise and identify. Sung by the multi award-winning cast of the Norfolk YMT.

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