first night

Seven Deadly Sins

Ben Weaver-Hincks enjoys a night at the opera.

I’m generally inclined to be suspicious of attempts to popularise opera, and there was certainly more than a whiff of Classic FM about proceedings at DOE’s latest offering in Castle’s Great Hall. But Seven Deadly Sins combined several of opera’s best components: not just the chance to dress up and have a few glasses of wine in stunning surroundings, but also to listen to some beautiful arias and appreciate a number of exceptionally talented musicians.

The theme was adhered to admirably, with one operatic extract for each of the seven sins. I wondered at times whether or not this was too much of a constraint to the choice of music, but the sins in fact seemed perfectly appropriate subjects through which to showcase some fine opera, and meant that those present saw the form at its most fun, its most tormenting and its most passionate, all in the space of ninety minutes. India Furse’s and Matthew Caine’s direction also ensured that this was not a mere compilation, but mirrored the movement of a single opera, from overture through to a large chorus number at the close, via Mozart, Bizet, Gershwin, Handel and Strauss.

With Lust as their opener, DOE played some of their strongest cards first, and here Polly Leech as Carmen was the vocal highlight of the evening. In a very short extract, it’s hard to do justice to a dramatic role, but Leech managed it, drawing on the character and providing a sensuality that demonstrated a sympathetic understanding of the part. There were times when other voices were lost in the texture, and this was particularly so with the rather small male chorus, but voices soon warmed up, and fitted the space impressively. The a capella ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess displayed this vocal strength to the full, even if it made a slightly jarring follower to Bizet.

Completing the first half was a section from Handel’s Guilio Cesare. Some of Handel’s Italian operas don’t tend to get a huge amount of air time, and indeed this may have been an unusual choice for the event. Certainly, the recitative – following on from Gershwin – felt a little dry; but given that the ostensible purpose of the evening was to give the ensemble’s members the opportunity ‘to perform scenes from operas that might not be possible to stage in their entirety’, it seemed a fitting use of the medium.

The second half began promisingly with an all-male scene from Don Giovanni, where DOE proved that despite a gender imbalance, Durham does possess some strong male opera singers. The scene ended superbly, and set up a further two extracts from Mozart to represent Wrath and Envy. Yes, by this stage, the programme was getting slightly Mozart-heavy, but it was easy to see why: not only did these pieces play to the strength of the performers, but they also suited the cabaret style of the evening. Ben Craw’s Count Almaviva from Le Nozze di Figaro was perhaps the standout performance of the second half, but there were no weak links either musically or dramatically. The ending, taken from Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, couldn’t have been more apt, with its celebratory mood and rich chorus providing a powerful close to the evening’s music.

The orchestra from DUOS played superbly throughout, navigating between centuries with apparent ease. Musical directors Matthew Howes and Oliver Zeffman each conducted well in their turn, and got the most out of the musicians while accentuating the differences in style and period between sections. There were times when they seemed to struggle to adjust the levels to fit the acoustics of the venue, but the nature of the space had presented them with quite a challenge, which they nevertheless did their best to overcome.

It’s difficult to think of ways DOE could have significantly improved on Seven Deadly Sins. At the end, I just wished they could have invented one or two more sins to extend the evening a little longer, but this was at most a venial flaw in what was otherwise a highly enjoyable performance. With the talent, the venue and the high audience demand, DOE really should do this sort of thing more often.


Ben Weaver-Hincks

11 November 2012

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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