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Cantata into opera

21 December 2012

by Roderic Dunnett


THE genre of pop cantatas on a religious subject began with Herbert Chappell's The Daniel Jazz (1963), which launched a series of Old Testament follow-ons: the Goliath Jazz, Holy Moses, the Creation Jazz; and the most famous, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Some of the catchiest, sacred and secular alike, were composed by the late Michael Hurd (1928-2006), who excelled at composing clever, manageable, but challenging scores for energetic children's choirs. Jonah-Man Jazz and Swingin' Samson have recently been revived on disc (Naxos) by the New London Children's Choir, directed by Ronald Corp. Adam-in-Eden and King and Conscience (about St Thomas Becket), witty and serious alike, are other prime examples.

One of the UK's most accomplished youth-opera groups, Jubilee Opera, based in Benjamin Britten's home town of Aldeburgh, has just staged Hip-Hip Horatio (1975), Hurd's spoof on the life of Admiral Lord Nelson, written for the Southend Boys' Choir, who also recorded it and several of the works above (now reissued on Vista).

What is not fully realised is how brilliantly these cheerfully irreverent works translate to the stage, given (as here) a suitably precocious cast, and captivating design and costumes. An intelligent orchestration for small forces, though not strictly necessary, is preferable. Here, one was supplied by Jubilee's conductor, Timothy Henty, who with five players elicited subtle combinations worthy of a full orchestra.

In the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, where Britten operas were first staged, the cast responded accordingly. The singing, from boys and girls, mostly drawn from three local primary schools, was exemplary. So was the acting: from the ubiquitous Rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields (13-year-old William Rose, an engaging mimic), and the slightly less frenetic Vicar (Fleetwood Daniels) of St Mary's, Burnham Thorpe, in Norfolk, Nelson's birthplace, to colourful cameos from Theo Bimson, who doubled "Kiss me, Hardy" with a colourful calypso band leader, and an empathetic Egyptian camel (Nathan Hayward).

Nelson (Toby Garrington), in Frederic Wake-Walker's inventive and endlessly detailed production, was a diminutive, semi-reluctant hero, hoisted from comfortable beginnings to an improbably lofty position on Europe's waters, before laudably expiring, one-armed, one-eyed, and seemingly one-witted, amid grieving burial mourners.

The vital quality of this gifted ensemble stemmed partly from the ability - given their head - of these children, mostly not yet teenagers, to devise characterful ideas for themselves. Wake-Walker, directing (and better known from the Opera Company, Mahogany Opera, and Glyndebourne), inspired in them a power of invention and stage discipline way beyond their years: not a gesture was wasted, fluffed, or muddied.

The final word, inevitably, goes to the indomitable cleric from St Martin's (hence guardian of Nelson's Column); but also to his elder brother, playing the landlord of the Trafalgar Tavern (Jamie Rose: a singer of some talent and pathos, and an engaging compère).

The company's repertoire is not all comedy. They recently excelled in Hans Krása's Brundibár, an opera conceived and performed in Terezín, the Nazi concentration camp. With a range such as this, it is hardly surprising that Jubilee leads the field in staging children's opera.

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