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Belle Canto's Opera Hour: Tales Of Love And Lies
Published on Thursday, 13 August 2009

Publicised as an “opera-cabaret crossover”, the only thing cabaret about this show was that - instead of an orchestra - there was a harp and a silver Yamaha electric keyboard to accompany the singers. The cast were most certainly singing in full opera voice, and the pieces were most certainly operatic. In fact, the show could have just been a recital of standard operatic repertoire. But instead, Belle Canto have weaved all the music into a single narrative, producing an opera of operas which attempts to appeal to an audience beyond the typical connoisseur.

So do they succeed? Well, if you are a fan of opera and enlightened enough to consider the Festival Fringe alongside the International Festival, then you will enjoy this. Similarly, if you are new to opera and just want to hear talented singers of tomorrow showcase operatic highlights, you will love this. All the young singers were on top form, with not one weak link. They all have bright futures ahead of them and I expect they'll be gracing the world's opera houses soon enough.

However, if your knowledge of opera is patchy and you've signed up to the idea of an over-arching plotline, you're going to be utterly confused. Barely minutes into the show, you'll be wondering you've let yourself in for, when two female singers fall into a passionate kiss. Those in the know will tell you that in Handel's Giulio Cesare, the part of Caesar was originally for male castrato - and so in today's eunuch-free world, both Caesar and Cleopatra are sung by women. Despite the sometimes-contrived dialogue between pieces explaining their context, there are many such things you just need to “know” for the story to fit together.

To make matters worse, there are no subtitles or printed translations. So unless you are fluent in French, German, Italian and Russian, there’s a lot that’s hard to follow. But credit to the singers who seemed perfectly happy to sing in any one of the those four languages.

On the whole, I didn't feel the interwoven story added anything except a smug satisfaction for those who can deduce the details from just the programme listing (guilty). Worse still, some of the pieces had to be cut to fit the story, including my favourite duet in opera, taken from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. Still, I would love to hear these talented singers perform with a full orchestra – a synthesised keyboard simply isn't as good as a real piano, and both pale in comparison to woodwind and strings.

But I have to finish with the lighting. Due to a technical problem with the lights for half the stage and a bizarre lighting design, the pianist at the Yamaha was usually the best-lit person on stage. Also, someone committed the most cardinal sin in all of opera – having a mobile phone go off mid-performance. The culprit? The technician.

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