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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Composer – Errollyn Wallen

Musical Director and Conductor — Andrea Brown

Director — Jenny Sealey

Librettist — Nicola Werenowska

Co-Librettist and Original Idea — Selina Mills

Designer — Bernadette Roberts

Lighting Designer — Emma Chapman

Video Designer — Ben Glover

Assistant Director — Sonny Nwachukwu

Casting Director — Sarah Playfair

Dramaturg — Bill Bankes-Jones

Till April 14th at QEH and touring till May 12th. Consult Graeae website.


This isn’t so much an event as a concentration. Not just because the 105 minutes billed reduced to 70 in rehearsals. And not just because in The Paradis Files – receiving its London premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – we get the second of three Errollyn Wallen operas in a year, and two in one month, as Quamino’s Map opens in Chicago on 22nd; and the first dramatization of the life of blind composer Maria Theresia van Paradis (1759-1824).

Paradis’ few surviving works proclaim her as far more than the great pianist Haydn, Salieri and Mozart wrote for (his underrated Concerto No. 18 in B flat with the songlike slow movement); someone who survived her parents’ torturing attempts to cure her sight with a gallimaufry of quacks, which she rejected. And infinitely more than being the (in this opera, exuberant) lover of these composers and others. Paradis hewed then helmed her own destiny, founding a school for women musicians, defining this as her legacy.

Scholar and co-librettist Selina Mills first drew librettist Nicola Werenowska’s attention to Paradis, drawing in director Jenny Sealey to her original idea. Soon Wallen was hooked too.

Graeae’s foregrounding and championing creatives with disabilities shatters a few more glass ceilings; and prove gloriously not the slightest impediment to world-class productions.

Wallen’s profound eclecticism proves ideal to a work both irreverent and one of deep homage; celebratory whoops and a refusal of tragedy. Typical Wallen ostinato patterns emerge at such moments as a father’s anxiety (’Take me to that beautiful place’ almost erupts as wry self-quotation); often in duets and trios between the three women protagonists. Her choice of instruments nods to classicism but also 18th century popular entertainment. So a piano, violin and double bass, yes. But a percussion battery and accordion too.

Such a line-up and minimal props grow from necessity. What’s so thrilling about this production is the way a touring work’s pared-down aesthetic delivers a sonic and theatrical punch out of proportion to its size. There’s quite a sizeable cast anyway.

The whole team introduce themselves with mock pratfalls and asides. Bethan Langford in the title role of Maria Theresia von Paradis makes droll reference to her clumsiness as partially-sighted, but many will remember her as a piercing Lucretia in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia at Grimeborn in 2018.

Even in an opera explicitly refusing tragedy Langford exudes the tonal pain you get in such a heroine. Here vocally she and Wallen approach and swerve tragic sonance but not its profundity. Langford’s on stage nearly all the time, and produces a penetrating, full tone: a soprano soar with dramatic plangency as Paradis.

Werenowska’s and Mills’ libretto – attractively projected on a rectangular surtitle screen, often with clouds, by video designer Ben Glover – makes witty use of da capo repeats and the way 18th century libretti litanise phrases to ensure the composer lays down a tonally emphatic pattern. Wallen follows and subverts of course, as the libretto breaks up into key words for dramatic emphasis. Stravinsky and Auden essayed a bit of this with their 1951 neo-classical The Rake’s Progress, but it’s taken further here, with slyer wit.

Some of the finest moments come when Langford duets with Ella Taylor’s Maid Gerda (as well as one of the (Soprano) Gossips, a Wallen/ Werenowska coup). Taylor’s powerfully projected role propels Gerda from anonymous servility to peacemaker, ambassador and go-between bridging Paradis and her once-overbearing mother. Langford’s and Taylor’s duets ravish through classical quotation, including from that trio of philanderers plus – definitely – Paradis. There’s chromatics at once both edgy (even Hindemithian) and spiky too: as well as deeply harmonised in the nearest to a love duet this opera has.

Maureen Braithwaite’s redoubtable Hilde, The Baroness von Paradis only wants the best as she sees it, including torture. Braithwaite traverses a reverse arc to her daughter’s increasing confidence, by starting out the commanding matriarch and shrinking – the word’s used often in the libretto – to a dying woman’s plea for forgiveness. It’s a role Braithwaite starts brutishly, then fines down vocally to a thread of former grandeur, stripped back to pain and confession. Her duets with Taylor’s Gerda and Langford’s Paradis are memorably held.

This is the dramatic heart and the men constellate as aiders, abetters and naysayers all at once, as well as blocking themselves with others as Gossips, a catty classical chorus. Omar Ebrahim’s warm tones also strike a cosy but powered formality as Joseph, The Baron von Paradis; he’s also one of the Doctors and Baritone Gossip. Joseph is the loved parent, the one who despite being a hidebound court aristocrat loves and champions his daughter. But…

Ebrahim’s fine on indulgence, with a hint of holding back when he feels decorum might be breached. But there’s a peripeteia. Who was it wanted the daughter dead at birth, and who wanted her alive? Paradis challenges Hilde that she wanted her dead. ‘That was later’ answers her mother drolly, getting one of the great laughs of the night. Another is when Hilde announces her doctor’s pronounced it’s her last winter. ‘Don’t believe in what doctors say’ her daughter fires back, and after what we’ve just seen it provokes gales from serried rows.

Because Ebrahim’s just one of a trio who execute a passacaglia of pain on Langford’s strapped and bandaged patient: there’s Andee-Louise Hypolite, Doctor and Alto Gossip, and Ben Thapa as a commandingly groping Salieri as well as Doctor and Tenor Gossip.

It’s a horribly patriarchal set-piece where Langford’s voice struggles and finally triumphs in a dotted rhythm of ‘noes’ as she breaks free of (platonic) tight bandages, lances to both eyes and electric shock treatment to just one. One Doctor Mesmer was the only sympathetic – and temporarily successful – medical intervener. He’s sent away, Langford sings, and significantly he’s offstage.

The work’s not strictly chronological, though framed with the climactic visit. There’s flashbacks, coherently engaging ones. Hilde’s imploring and Gerda’s quiet insistence have their effect. It’s a satisfying climax to a work imbued with pathos, but a refusal to mourn.

Being Graeae there’s two performance interpreters, Chandu Gopalakrishnan and Max Marchewicz – with blue hair and signing from her wheelchair. It enhances, almost orchestrates the vocal pyrotechnics onstage. You want to see this used again.

Bernadette Roberts’ portable design is as witty as an Yves Tanguy surrealist painting. Little packages artfully placed – the musicians upstage, a door frame with an elegant red curtain the Baron uses for the finale, where at the start Langford steps through perilously; and a rack of clothes occasionally visited (once audio-described by the Baron as beige) by cast members.

Upstage front there’s a white fortepiano (with Rococo-cloud-painted soundboard) that doesn’t play but lights up from its keyboard instead. Langford’s often seated there, giving us a heartwarming moment as two protagonists ‘mess up’ playing for Paradis herself in the finale. And a surprise from Gerda. Emma Chapman’s lighting design spots and splashes colour on the set pieces.

Bill Bankes-Jones’ Dramaturg might be responsible for a touching moment framing Langford’s ‘late’ debut. She arrives in a turquoise shawl – and later dons a dress of the same colour. ‘Can’t I have it on now?’ she asks. Her peers are adamant. It’s only worn at the end, which is duly is. But all this verbal emphasis on turquoise and beige wittily paints the scene for those visually impaired or challenged, by kerning it to deft badinage.

Musical director/conductor Andrea Brown paces the work allowing poise and stillness. Yet she and the ensemble have knocked off 35 minutes from the estimated performance-time. It breathes with assurance on only its third outing: the first two were at the Curve, Leicester, and after the QEH’s blink-and-you-miss-them brace of performances, The Paradis Files continues to May 12th on tour.

If you want to get an idea of this opera’s soundworld, Wallen’s Concerto Grosso was premiered on January 15th by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields conducted by John Butt. It’s also a piano-driven neo-classical by-product of the creative DNA of The Paradis Files, a bit Martinu (he of ‘I am a concerto grosso type’) and Francaix. It gets thrummy, pizzicato-like and profound in the slow movement with another lead violin. And it’s on YouTube. It’ll lead you to Wallen’s Songbook and others there.

Many will have heard Errollyn Wallen as Composer of the Week on Radio 3 on 3-7th  January; not before time.  ‘Not for the likes of you’ one music teacher patted the eight -year-old Wallen. Pity she didn’t live to see the like of Wallen’s genius. As recently as 2015 one woman on Record Review discussing new women composers’ recordings (Radio 3 finally making a dash for inclusivity that March) pronounced Wallen’s ‘Meet Me at Charlie Moore’s’ a charming example of her lightweight talent. Hope she was there to see this.