Home » Reviews » Off West End » Rita/La Serva Padrona, The Sun Tavern (site-specific)

Rita/La Serva Padrona, The Sun Tavern (site-specific)

Gaetano Donizetti and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

Directed by Darren Royston
Pros: Rarely staged operas sung by new operatic talent.
Cons: Occasionally hard to follow due to inter-weaving storylines and lack of surtitles.
Our verdict: Innovative, fresh and intimate night of opera in an unusual space.
Courtesy of Pop Up Opera
Pop up Opera’s productions are the modern day theatrical equivalent of a warehouse party. Not quite site specific, their productions are, for lack of a better term, pre-packaged and performed for us in shopping centres, disused spaces and on this occasion, in a small cosy room with a well stocked bar (big bonus!) on the top floor of the Sun Tavern pub.
Two one-act operas are performed simultaneously, weaving in and out of each other. Whilst innovative, the result is that it can be hard to follow at times for those who can’t understand a word of Italian. Rita is the victim of domestic violence who re-marries after her husband dies and La Serva Padrona tells the story of a rich bachelor and his maid who tricks him into marrying her. Both mini-operas share common themes, namely the degradation and plight of unmarried women and the men who will control them. 
In one scene, Gasparo, Rita’s abusive husband, clad in cowboy dress, sits astride an invisible woman with a horse whip and sings a solo that details his methods of handling women. It is not so much shocking but more the kind of thing you’d find at a lads night out at Stringfellows or stag dos. Strange as it sounds, its choreography is nonetheless slick and its performance is the highlight of the evening.
Company Pop Up Opera should be commended for their ambition and the quality of the music and performances are never sacrificed by the limited budget or lack of space. The stage is set on a small raised platform in the back corner of the room with a keyboardist seated in the rear, props scattered about the room and performers occasionally seated amongst the audience. In place of surtitles is the overhead projection screen that summarises the action for us, with hilarious lines such as a female character’s tips for domestic harmony Don’t stop until you’re on top and Treat em mean, keep em keen.
Even though these operas belong to the Buffa style I do think Royston’s use of kitsch props and cheap gags sometimes undermines the stories’ content. The music is joyful but the subject matter is dark and I wish more was done to highlight the juxtaposition of the two. However, saying that I think this production will improve with age and I would not hesitate giving it a second viewing in another space.
The operatic talent on display here is of a high calibre. Cliff Zammit Stevens and Simon Wallfisch are very good as Beppe, Rita’s current husband, and Gasparo, as are the rest of the small ensemble. Often with opera singers I find that they perform their solos as songs rather than the monologues or soliloquies that are needed to communicate with modern audiences. Not here however. Darren Royston has ensured each moment and change in action is made clear and precise. The scene changes are fluid and performed as part of the action, helping to keep the performance moving at a constant pace.
This is theatre at its most engaging and resonates with the company’s ethos of bringing opera to the masses. Audience members are even encouraged to pop off to the bar for refreshments during the performance. A special mention has to go to Harry who welcomed each audience member into the venue and whose infectious enthusiasm really set the tone for the evening.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Rita & La Serva Padrona runs until 24th July, 2013 in various locations.
For information on tour dates and to book online visit: http://www.popupopera.co.uk/performances.php

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