Trans-Atlantic: music theatre piece from Boutique Opera

Trans-Atlantic: music theatre piece from Boutique Opera, devised and directed by Alison Hodge and Michael Vinten
Where: Saint Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 28 February

The tradition of concocting new operas or music theatre from popular bits of existing operas goes back almost to the beginnings of opera 400 years ago: the word is pastiche.

That’s what Boutique Opera, Wellington’s enterprising little company, now seven years old, has done for its 2009 production. There were three performances in Wellington, 27, 28 February and 1 March, and the following Saturday in Otaki.

Michael Vinten and Alison Hodge made a collection of mainly well-loved numbers from shows by Cole Porter, Ivor Novello, George Gershwin, Noel Coward, Richard Rodgers, nostalgic of the feckless 20s and 30s; great numbers like ‘Someone to watch over me’, ‘I can give you the starlight’, ‘It’s de-lovely’, ‘This can’t be love’, ‘Waltz of my heart’…. For me, it was the several Novello songs that struck a real nostalgic note, particularly evoked the era.

Trilbies and wide-brimmed straw hats, white-topped shoes, long white scarves announced the era clearly enough, though the atmosphere would have been helped with some more subtle and pointed lighting: a fully-lit church is hardly a suggestive setting for the era’s easy-virtue.

However, the aisles of the church were well used though the reason for certain violent chases escaped me.

I was half expecting something resembling a story, though without rewriting the words, that would have been very hard. The reality was a series of numbers that lent authenticity to the setting and generally matched the singer. Events were confined largely to hints of love affairs igniting or falling apart, as dictated by the songs.

It was of course set on board a big trans-Atlantic liner, in the days when the aim of a sea voyage was to get somewhere, albeit to have a good time on the way – the sole aim of today’s cruises. A cross-section of passengers typical of the day was on board, not all very well assorted in terms of appearance, but mostly better than adequate as singers; from aristocrats, a love-sick couple and honeymooners to an assortment of singles, including a theatrical Frenchwoman, a novelist and a matinee idol (Greg Rogan and Andrej Morgan: both good) and the Ship’s Purser (well-cast Jason Henderson): 23 in all.

The singers range from the polished to the passable, but all are directed, by Alison Hodge, with such flair that most excel themselves, both individually and in ensembles. Among the most accomplished were the Honeymooners Barbara Graham and Charles Wilson; the Widow, Nikki Hooper – her ‘They’re writing songs of love, but not for me’ was a high point; Fiona McCabe and Stuart Coats; and as a whole, the chorus was splendid.

There was an excellent, small band of Vinten leading from the piano, with striking contributions from trumpets, violin, cello, and particularly, Murray Khouri’s clarinet.

Most of the songs simply reminded me what a very rich era the 20s and 30s had been for the various genres of musical/light opera/operetta, not only with their durable music but libretti that were witty, frankly sentimental, ironic, generally literate, with a gift for sharp if not profound characterisation, qualities that seem scarce today. It was these qualities that made this show a success, making the tenuous, almost non-existent character of the narrative irrelevant.

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