Michael Bartholomew-Biggs enjoys a Pop-Up Opera performance
at St Mary’s church, Islington

Pop-Up Opera gave an extraordinary and wonderful rendering of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore at St Mary’s church, Islington on June 6th (as one of the major events of an extraordinary and wonderful five-day community festival called Soul in the City http://www.stmaryislington.org/2012/05/soul-in-city-2012-festival-programme.html). Islington is the most recent stopover in this company’s spring tour which has involved a dozen or so performances in churches, pubs and barns across the south and west of England.

Like all Pop-Up Opera productions, the staging of the St Mary’s event was unique, being cleverly tailored to the layout of the church, using the whole length of the main aisle and one of the two impressive pulpits. It also made good use of the large audience, some of whom were given percussion instruments to play or assigned imaginary ailments for the attention of the opera’s quack doctor Dulcamara. One fortunate audience member was even allowed a walk-on part as a notary. Credit for this creative use of the performance space and for the simple but effective set design must chiefly belong to the stage manager, Fiona Johnston and to the director, Darren Royston – who himself made several enthusiastic appearances during the show to encourage audience participation. The performance was made even more accessible to those who are not regular opera-goers by Harry Percival’s amusing captions and subtitles – including Belcore’s splendidly meaningless sales presentation.

For me to speak first of the production’s surrounding elements is in no way intended to detract from its musical heart. All the vocal performances were first class and well supported by James Henshaw’s piano playing. Cliff Zammit Stevens was excellent as the love-lorn Nemorino, coping equally well with comic drunkenness and a seriously beautiful rendering of Una Furtiva Lagrima. Clementine Lovell wove her way snakily and lyrically through Adina’s devious toying with the affections of Belcore and Nemorino; and Alexander Learmonth gave the pompous businessman Belcore enough warmth and humanity for us to feel slightly sorry for him in his final discomfiture. Penelope Manser’s Gianetta was lively and mischievous in her collusions with Adina in tormenting Nemorino and with Dulcamara’s promotion of fake cures. Dulcamara himself was strongly played by Tom Kennedy as a wonderfully unscrupulous trickster from his brash trumpet-blowing entrance to his eventual puzzled acceptance of the efficacy of his “elixir”. These fine musicians and singers all seemed happy for their sophisticated skills to be seen in a broad and slightly pantomime setting; and by doing so they gave the St Mary’s audience a splendid evening.

Pop-Up Opera’s version of L’elisir d’amore is due to be performed again in Highgate in late July – see local press and http://www.popupopera.co.uk/ for more details.