first night

The Poisoned Kiss

Jonnie Grande enters Castle Great Hall to review DOE's production of Vaughan Williams' opera.

            Vaughan Williams’ rarely-performed opera The Poisoned Kiss was a brave choice for Durham Opera Ensemble’s Great Hall show, and not necessarily for the right reasons. The rather droll tale centres on a spurned necromancer’s plan to take revenge on the Empress he once loved. Raising his daughter on poison, knowing that when the royal son falls in love with the young lady, their first kiss will kill him. Yes, really.


But the problems don’t stop at the plot. The libretto is naïve, and the somewhat simple spoken dialogue written in unsophisticated verse. Indeed, it is the inclusion of the latter that puts The Poisoned Kiss somewhere in the British musical comedy tradition, running from The Beggar’s Opera, through Gilbert and Sullivan and towards Ivor Novello. During its composition, Vaughan Williams himself expressed concern over the proportions of comedy and seriousness in the opera, and apparently with good reason. Despite revisions and alterations, the version performed today seems to lack enough of either.


Fortunately, in Hannah Noone, DOE found themselves a director with the novel and distinctive vision such an oddball piece requires. Her use of the chorus’ bodies as well as their voices adds a beguiling, otherworldly dimension to many scenes, cleverly complimented by an array of intriguing and colourful costumes. The bold make-up designs create a kaleidoscopic effect, frequently matching the score perfectly, as the chorus twist and turn through the audience and across the stage. The effect is hindered slightly by a lack of commitment amongst many of the chorus to this more physical side of theatre, which requires an expertise in its own right, and is all but forgotten by the final act. But it still leaves the show visually enthralling.


The leads are slightly more of a mixed bag. Alys Roberts, as the magician’s snake-loving daughter Tormentilla, is enchanting. At first a charmingly innocent girl, Roberts adds great depth to the character with an undertone of alluring self-confidence and repressed sexual desire in her initial meeting with the Prince. Here is a young girl not simply waiting for love to find her in the forest, but a young woman kept for too long from the company of men. And her voice – suggestive of the greater things that will surely lie ahead for her – matches perfectly, moving seamlessly from sweetness to a power that belies her small stature. As she lamented her ‘sulphuric kiss’ at the end of Act One, it wasn’t only the Prince falling for her…


Elsewhere, the leads meet with less success, a combination of miscasting, some misguided directorial decisions, and singers being forced to grapple with rhyming dialogue. Luke Woodhouse, as Prince Amaryllus, does add some longed-for splashes of comedy, but he has little of the ‘young, ardent lover’ about him. This becomes especially apparent in his scenes with Roberts’ Tormentilla on one side and his mother, the Empress, on the other, leaving both relationships unbelievable.


The decision for Freddie Coltart to focus solely on Dipsacus as an all-powerful magician, whilst undoubtedly adding a striking element to the production, takes away from his arguably equally interesting human dimension as Tormentilla’s father. Fleur Moore-Bridger’s Empress goes the other way; wonderfully maternal, she has less of the commanding authority she needs to match Coltart, leaving their scene together with little dramatic impetus. Katy Thompson, playing Tormentilla’s maid Angelica, certainly shines as she sings, but doesn’t seem quite so comfortable with the intervening dialogue.


The leads are not helped, however, by the use of the space and the set. The magical atmosphere inherent within Castle’s Great Hall is destroyed by the vast black stage and curtain dropped into the middle of it. Despite the best efforts of the costume, lighting and make-up, this acts quite literally as a black-hole, sucking much of the colour out of the show. Moreover, the absence of any real set and the size of the stage combine to leave the leads uncomfortably exposed during their dialogue.


The show is therefore at its best when accompanied by Calum Zuckert’s highly-polished orchestra. Zuckert’s interpretation of the score is magnificent, the detail of his engagement with it from overture through to finale quite astonishing, and he handles the transitions from one musical genre to another with ease. However, dramatic moments are occasionally lost as a result of mistiming between the music and the action on stage.


DOE’s The Poisoned Kiss is, then, an ambitious project, combining opera, physical theatre, dance and poetry. Whilst certainly not a forgotten classic, and although not the smoothest of productions, it has much to intrigue and includes an enamouring central performance.


17 February 2011

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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