Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A (long) personal overview of A Christmas Carol

I've mentioned A Christmas Carol here once or twice before, but not much, even though it's taken up a great deal of my life over the last three months. 
It’s a somewhat curious opera in that almost all the chorus have specific roles, big or small, on top of their chorus work, so that there’s a requirement for the chorus members to be good singers as well as the principals. James Adams, playing Scrooge, the lead, has no aria to speak of ˗ when he’s onstage by himself he mostly sings a kind of recitative; the only ‘song’ he has is right towards the end, and it lasts less than a minute. Otherwise he sings in duets, mostly, and briefly in a quartet. But even most of these sections are not big sings; for a great deal of the opera he’s on the sidelines looking on, and commenting, or emoting with his mouth closed. Which makes it a difficult role. 
His opening piece, which is shared with Fred and his wife, Bob Cratchit and the chorus, is a tongue-twisting thing. Even though its tempo is a slow 12/8, Scrooge often sings long runs of semiquavers within it.
The rest of the principals are also mostly involved in ensemble music of some kind or other. Ben Madden plays Cratchit, and appears only during three consecutive numbers early in the first half, with only a small amount to sing; then he vanishes until halfway through the second, when he’s part of the Cratchit family ensembles. Marley’s ghost, played by Alex Lee, only appears in one scene, where he’s involved in two ensemble pieces, and curiously, is the only person listed with an ‘aria’. And a jazz one, at that. Alex spends his time in the chorus in the second half. He and Nathaniel Otley were present at all the chorus rehearsals and learned most of the chorus music. 
Nathaniel is probably one of the busiest performers in the show, mainly because of what he’s been cast as. He starts off as one of the three drunks, so is involved in both the chorus work at the beginning as well as the drunks’ trio. Then he appears as the solo fiddler at the Fezziwigs’ party, and plays two dances (from memory). Finally, in Act Two, he becomes the Ghost of Christmas Present and spends the rest of the opera in that role (in a wonderful green cloak, with a huge Christmas wreath on his head). He has a great bass voice ˗ still young (he’s not yet twenty) ˗ and holds his own well with the two female ghosts. 
The first of these, Ingrid Fomison-Nurse as the Ghost of Christmas Past, has some very high lines, often with words that are difficult to get across easily. The same applies to the Ghost of Christmas Future, played by Lois Johnston. Much of her music is slow, though often over fast-moving orchestral stuff, and isn’t easy to communicate. Composers have to tread a fine line between setting words too fast or too slowly. Philip Norman, the composer of the opera, has chosen to go to both extremes at times, making it quite difficult for some of the cast. Both the ghost ladies do an admirable job, however.
Another singer who has to contend with a lot of words in a short space of time is Nicola Steel as the Charity Collector. Her music is lovely, but it moves swiftly, and Nicola does very well to get the words across in the short space of time they're allotted (!) Nicola introduces the children onto the stage, with their plaintive Alms for the poor number. The children later have a scene entirely to themselves, and it's organised chaos, with games of tag and such going on. In spite of that, in a moment, it seems, the kids can be all in back in place and marching together - and singing together, which is even more important!
Fred, played by Matariki Inwood, is initially part of the chorus, then transforms in the blink of an eye. In the process he suddenly acquires Mrs Fred ˗ played by Caroline Burchall. (Caroline stepped into the role late in the proceedings after another performer had to pull out.) Caroline began the rehearsals as one of the eight dancers, and still appears as a dancer in other scenes. Matariki has a great voice with great potential, but has no solo to speak of. However he particularly comes into his own in the second half at ‘Fred’s party’, when he spoofs Scrooge’s behaviour.
The other two drunks (besides Nathaniel) are Geoff Swift and Sarah Oliver. Geoff also plays Mr Fezziwig, and acquired a new ‘wife’ the night of the last dress rehearsal. Brenda Jones had  been playing her, but became very ill with the ‘flu, and hasn’t been able to perform since. Kathryn Constable took over the role, but couldn’t cover Brenda’s other ‘role’ as one of the quartet in the ‘poorly dressed townspeople’ piece because she was already singing in it! So, Sarah Oliver sings it. And all three still sing in the chorus numbers.
Lilian Gibbs plays Belle ˗ Scrooge’s young love ˗ and Keiran Kelly is young Scrooge. They have a lovely duet as well as being part of Fezziwigs’ party, and being involved in most of the chorus numbers. Many of the chorus sing more than the principals. The chorus tells the story, really, and have several chunks of big stuff. There are also two quintets, an octet and a nonet that the chorus cover. A great deal of good singing is required by the chorus, and they’ve come to the party with enthusiasm.
Young Jesse Hanan, who plays Scrooge as a boy, gets one of the few real solo pieces, a beautiful song about loneliness. It’s not long, but it’s very effective. Equally moving is Tiny Tim’s solo, a ‘thanksgiving’ for all the family’s blessings. This same song becomes his funeral dirge a few scenes later, and is even more moving at that point.
The Cratchit family is a delight. This is the only time Göeknil Meryem Biner (to give her her full
name as listed in the programme ˗ she’s Tom McGrath's wife) appears apart from the Finale. She leads the Cratchit family’s first ensemble number (sung without Bob, who arrives for the next ensemble), and her terrific family, who all have individual bits to sing, and are very busy at the same time with the preparation of the Christmas meal, are terrific. The children are sung by Madi Dow and Sarah Hubbard, two teenagers, along with four younger children: Samuel Kelly (as Peter Cratchit) and Massimo Pezzuto and Ayla Biner-McGrath as the unnamed pair of children. Tiny Tim (Joseph Kelly) completes the family, arriving with Bob for the second number. The music for this group is a delight, being amongst the best in the show.
There are two ‘waifs’ ˗ Sam Meikle, who looks well-fed enough, really (!) and Ozan Biner-McGrath, who happens to look skinny! Their brief cry of ‘Feed me’ is only just audible under a fairly noisy orchestral section as well as the singing of Nathaniel. However, they mostly have to look as though they’re at death’s door, and they do that well.
Finally there’s Grace Hill. She’s part of the children’s chorus (some thirty of them) but she also plays the fiddler in a couple of the early scenes, accompanying the carollers. Confusingly, there are two sets of carollers in our production. Not quite sure why, except that one group in the score is listed as a quartet and the other as a quintet. In fact both of them are quintets in this production for various reasons!
There’s a minimalist set: two windows and a door with a profile of 19th century London across the back reaching to about chest height. Everything else is achieved by lighting (which is very good, as far as I can see from the pit). I was a bit dubious about the lack of scenery at first, but my daughter, after seeing the show, said it looks very effective. Above the door is a clock, which at other times shows the sign, Scrooge and Marley, and also at least one of the ghost’s face ˗ Marley’s, I think, though I haven’t actually been able to see that as yet. I’m not even sure how this is done: it’s obviously some sort of electronic device, but I don’t know what. I’ll have to ask.
Scrooge’s bed is, for some reason, enormous. When it first appeared late in the rehearsals it looked as though it was going to take over the proceedings, but the director worked around it without too much concern. Other than that there’s little else in the way of furniture: a park bench for the drunks, a chaise longue at Fred’s party, and a table and some chairs for the Cratchits.
Christine Douglas has done a great job with the directing. The chorus was worked with extensively to bring out character and detail, so that things are kept alive and lively every time they’re on. They never just ‘stand and sing.’ And in other scenes, such as the two parties, and the Cratchit family meal preparation, there’s a heap of things going on. I’d like to be able to see it all, but unfortunately have only my memories of what I saw during rehearsal to go on. I don’t play during every piece in the show, so I can watch some of it, but there are great chunks that I never see now.
The costumes are wonderful. Considering that there were around eighty people to dress (including the dancers) Brenda Rendall has done an extraordinary job. There’s an authenticity about all the costumes; they fit, they’re colourful, and there’s a lot of detail. Both men and women have wonderful hats: not just top hats, but bowlers and even a pork pie for one of the men. The women have all manner of caps and bonnets. Plus cravats, shawls, aprons: you name it. What a job it must have been pulling all these items together. On top of this there’s a make-up artist who does most of the performers each night, and a hairdresser, who does most of the women’s hairstyles. So it’s a busy, busy production.
The music is played by four keyboardists, rather than an orchestra. We don’t each stick to any one group of instruments all the way through, but get to share things. Two of us play a triangle, for instance (a real one, not an electronic one), and most of us swap wind instruments and strings around. I don’t get to play piano, and I seem to have a lot of oboe, but I share the xylophone and celesta. At one point Sandra Christie is providing thunder while I’m adding in a rowdy wind sound. I’m fortunate that I have a keyboard that can be set up in advance so that it’s literally a press of the button to change a sound, but two of the others have a different model that requires the pressing of three buttons in sequence to get the next sound ˗ similar to what my own electronic piano at home requires. I think it’s probable that they could also have been set up in an easier way, but they’ve chosen to go this route, and it’s working. The third keyboardist, Moriah Osborne, has the same model as me, but she’s using it differently: turning one wheel to get the class of instrument and then another wheel to find the specific one she wants. Apparently she has time to do this. I only have to do it once, when I play one note on timpani (!). I find it a bit of a rush, personally. Ihlara McIndoe is the fourth instrumentalist. 
What of the music itself? It’s quite varied, from near-musical comedy to full-on operatic, and there are some quirky moments that could come from anywhere. A lot of it is very catchy, with syncopated rhythms, and much of it gets used at least more than once, so that the audience isn’t hit with an endless stream of new musical ideas to grasp. It certainly requires a lot of good singers; none of the small roles can easily be taken by people who aren’t up to the mark. We’ve been very fortunate in the cast we’ve got, I think. And our young conductor, Tim Carpenter, has all the energy required to keep the thing moving at a good pace.

Update: I only realised I'd missed out Shona Bennett's name when she made a comment on Facebook about this post. Shona is the choreographer for the show, and had already choreographed the dance pieces that were set in the score when we began production rehearsals. But then Christine George, the director, wanted the dancers included in other scenes, and Shona quietly slotted them in, gave them additional steps where necessary, trained chorus members - on the spot - how to dance in one or two scenes, and in general was an enormous asset to the production. This is apart from her being warm and friendly, full of smiles, and plainly having bundles of energy - and being shorter than I am. I only mention that because not everyone is....and she made the dancers' costumes. Does the woman sleep?
I should also add that Judy Bellingham took the chorus and small role music rehearsals with flair, enthusiasm (I'd come home absolutely whacked from playing for her rehearsals!), and in spite of claiming not to be a conductor, did an admirable job of pretending to be one. John Drummond also had a considerable part to play, early on. (He's the father of the young man, Jonathan, who conducted my own production, Grimhilda! back in 2012.) John took the original score and set it out so that it was playable by the four keyboardists. There are a couple of moments in my part that I wish he'd given to one of other keyboardists (and the same probably applies to the other players), but in general I enjoy what's been allotted to me.
Every time I add something here, you can see just how much additional work has gone into this show, work you're not aware of.

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