BWW Reviews: THE YOUNG WIFE AND DIDO AND AENEAS, King's Head Theatre, February 24 2014
Katarzyna Borochocka found a 100-year-old story by a Polish writer (Gabriela Zapolska) that might have been written yesterday with its themes of status anxiety, the isolation of a woman in an unsuitable marriage and the longings of escape - and made it into an opera. The result has won awards and is now presented as up close as OperaUpClose's name suggests at The King's Head Theatre (until 29 March).
Maud Miller is very funny in this one-woman show, particularly when adopting the tone of voice and smarmy conversation of other local wives (and rivals), keen to maintain their social status against the threat of this 20-year-old interloper. She also captures the pain of a loveless marriage and the longing for another, as the inner trauma begins to spill out into plans for violence. But just when you think Grand Guignol is about to barge in... well, things turn out rather better than expected, as they do when one is so young, wife or not.
Ms Miller's singing is as powerful as one has come to expect from this company's productions and, though she is given a lot to do on a small stage, she holds our attention throughout. She is helped enormously by Ms Brochocka who plays her own composition at the piano, pounding the keys at times of high anxiety and tinkling away in the comic intervals. Just watching the her fingers tells you all you need to know about the Young Wife's state of mind - the music, the singing and the acting is a wonderful bonus. And the sound balance is just right, something many fringe venues seem unable to manage.
If the first half of the evening's fare is new, the second half is old - except that it's not. Dido and Aeneas may well have been written over 300 years ago and Alex Beetschen's arrangement for harpsichord, cello and violin unequivocally honours that long heritage. But the cheerleaders? The American footballers? The iPhones? Yes, we're given another extraordinary staging at this venue ready to vie with last year's Verdi in an Ikea store as its most innovative yet.
Traditionalists may shudder at the thought, but for the likes of me and my 16-year-old son, this is exactly what opera needs - we get the magnificent sweep of the melodrama, the glorious voices and those melodies set in an environment that makes as much sense as anything else does in musical theatre. We will (and this is the triumph of OperaUpClose's approach) seek out more traditional stagings because we now have our "in".
Zarah Hible has moved on from her gold lamé menswear suit of Die Fledermaus (at this venue in December) into a red cocktail dress, the better to knock out quarterback Aeneas (Ian Beadle). But she reckons without the Mean Girls jealousies of the mean girls of her cheerleading team, who trick Aeneas away, breaking Dido's heart.
There's plenty of room for laughs as the tragedy unfolds (if you're on the front row, beware of low flying pom-poms) but this is no send-up. Throughout the singing is beautiful - even a country-and-western number is delivered in pitch perfect Tennessee drawl - and Ms Hible's setpiece finish sent me to youtube to find more versions of Dido's Lament. Sure enough, the hairs on the back of the neck were bothered again.
A bold, beautiful and inclusive evening - there's nothing quite like it in town.