Boutique Opera does “the Jones boy” proud

Edward German: Tom Jones

Boutique Opera

Directed by Alison Hodge

Arranger and Musical Director, Michael  Vinten

Wellington High School Hall,

15 October, 7.30pm

Apparently there were five different scores for German’s light opera, premiered in Manchester in 1907.  Since it became so popular, it was performed frequently, the last version being from 1913; a concert version for performance by choral societies (sung by the Orpheus Choir’s predecessor in the Hutt Valley in 1953 and 1957).

Michael Vinten has taken the music from various versions of  Tom Jones, including film and television versions, introducing situations from Henry Fielding’s novel of 1749, which were not included in German’s work.  He has done a great job!

The result was a seamless, fast-moving entertainment, involving both speaking (some with music in the background) and singing.  Though there was no set, and little in the way of props, the costumes were excellent, and the whole production gave evidence of much rehearsal and learning.  However, mention must be made of the delightful hobby-horses used in the second Act.

A seven-piece orchestra, including piano, worked hard and played well, though occasionally too loud for the singers, or more particularly the speakers, especially when the latter were at the orchestra end of the performing space.  The pianist was Ken Ryan, whom I recently heard performing at the other end of the musical spectrum, as a baritone soloist with The Tudor Consort.

The hall’s stage was virtually not used, the action taking place ‘in the round’, with rows of chairs (hard plastic school chairs, not designed for sitting on for two and a half hours) on each side, the rear ones raised on platforms.

Described as “A Musical Farce in Two Acts”, this was a considerable undertaking for the producers, Lesley and Ian Graham.  There was a cast of seven main characters and a chorus of 16, many of whom undertook minor solo roles also.

There was a lot of intrigue, sub-plot and counter-plot for the audience to keep track of; programme notes under the headings ‘The Plot’ and ‘The Music’, plus a list of the songs and a cast list, helped a lot.

The show commenced with talking (sometimes with musical background), the cast explaining the situation and the roles – all in character as they did this.  Finally, Roger Wilson began the singing, with chorus.  As Squire Western, father of Sophia, the heroine (Rose Blake) he was, as always, characterful and convincing, with an English country accent appropriate to Somerset, where the story was set.

We then met the ‘West Country Lad’, Tom Jones, sung by Jonathan Abernethy.  He has a well-produced, smooth and most attractive voice, and invariably sang convincingly in this, the main role in the show.  He was confident and had good stage presence.

With 28 songs, most relatively short, there was a lot of singing going on.  The chorus was very accurate, and each was fully involved in their roles.  Words came over well, on the whole; the singing was good, and cohesive.

Next up of the soloists was Rose Blake.  Her singing was excellent, although occasionally a little too operatic in style for a farce.  However, her acting was certainly appropriate to this show.  The trio that followed, ‘Festina Lente’ with Sophie, Honour (mezzo Natalie Williams) was very successfully sung and acted.

Blifil (Michael Miller) was not so satisfactory vocally, although he looked and acted his anti-hero part well enough.  The sextet ‘The Barley Mow’ was quite a highlight – a drinking song, sung very robustly.

Charles Wilson made the most of his role as Benjamin Partridge, his acting exactly fitting for a farce, and raising many a smile.  Vocally, too, he was more than adequate, characterising his voice appropriately.

Tom’s next appearance was to sing ‘A Foundling Boy’, a suitably touching aria that Abernethy sang beautifully, as did Rose Blake in ‘By Night and Day’, though there was a tendency for her voice to be a little shrill at the top of her range.

Such were the affaires in which Tom Jones was involved, it was at times a little tricky to keep track of who was who amongst the women.  Mrs. Fitzpatrick (Maline Di Leva) was one such.  She had a lovely voice, but it was not always quite strong enough in the rather unsympathetic acoustic.  As to intonation, she was utterly accurate.

At the end of Act 1, the chorus was briefly ‘out of synch’, but this did not occur elsewhere in the show.

Following the introduction to Act 2, there was the ‘Gavotte’ scene.  If not a perfect gavotte as to steps, it was nevertheless beautifully done (and sung) in the rather confined space available.

The ‘Playhouse Riot’ was very effective.  Rose Blake acted the frightened country girl superbly, while the men made the most of their chorus.  Natalie Williams (Honour, which she tried to preserve in others as well as herself) followed with one of her several fine contralto arias and ensembles, this one, ‘As the maids and I one day’, being very reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan, as indeed were other numbers in the show.  And indeed, Lerner and Loewe may have learned something from Edward German.

An attractive ‘Barcarolle’ from the chorus was followed by ‘Waltz’, engagingly sung by Sophia and chorus.  This was the only song in the show that I knew, having attempted many years ago to accompany a singer performing it.  The following four-part ‘Madrigal’ again had echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan

Tom’s solo ‘If Love’s Content’ was quite lovely, and his sustained high note very fine.  This was followed by the jolly ‘Back to Somersetshire’, with the horses, and then the dénouement, in which paternity and maternity issues are sorted out, and Roger Wilson, as Western, in one of the funniest moments, has an exceedingly rapid change of heart as to the suitability of Tom as a husband for his daughter Sophie.

All is sorted, and the sizeable audience applauded heartily, in the knowledge that they had got their money’s worth and were thoroughly entertained by an innovative and lively production.  All responsible should give themselves a good pat on the back.

How fortunate we are to have, on the same day, an orchestra playing Brahms superbly well, and musicians and singers putting on a capable, first-class performance of Tom Jones!

The season continues in the Otaki Civic Theatre on Saturday, 22 October at 7.30pm, and at Expressions, Upper Hutt, Sunday 23 October at 2pm.


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