A Feast in The Time of Plague,
Grange Park Opera online as part of its Interim autumn season
Libretto: David Pountney, based on Pushkin
Music: Alex Woolf
Cast: Claire Booth, Peter Hoare, Anne-Marie Owens, Soraya Mafi, Susan Bullock, Simon Keenlyside, Janis Kelly, Jeff Lloyd Roberts, Will Dazeley, Clive Bayley, Sarah Minns, Harry Thatcher.
As the arts lifeline of outdoor venues has been withdrawn and we face the prospect of a dark, culture-starved winter, Grange Park Opera once again dazzles us with hope that the performing arts can reinvent themselves for a pandemic age.
A Feast in the Time of Plague is the first opera commissioned in Britain since COVID-19 closed arts venues around the world. Performed on September 13, a filmed version has been released online, wisely chopped into two bite-sized halves in keeping with our shortened attention spans as we hunch over tiny screens when we would so much rather be lapping up the atmosphere of an auditorium.
Director and librettist David Pountney took his inspiration from a Pushkin play published in 1830. The religious focus and stereotyped characterisation could seem out-moded, but instead comes across as entirely relevant to the current rage for polarisation and viscerally-held views.
Less categoric than a confrontation of good and evil, the dramatic tension is between an eat, drink and be merry response and a revolutionary desire to seize on the scourge of plague to create a Utopian world, free of political bankruptcy and toxic institutions, as hailed by “radical Bohemian” Karl (Will Dazeley).
Whichever path you choose, the ultimate consequence for the individual human is death – and we don’t know whether it will come sooner rather than later – unless we’re Claire the clairvoyant, delivered with great gusto by Susan Bullock. She has foreseen it all from the fall of Adam and Eve to the Aberfan disaster, as Pountney, former artistic director of the Welsh National Opera, throws in a Welsh reference.
The exuberance has a very dark edge that veers dangerously close to surreal farce when Joyce the cook (Anne-Marie Owens) drops dead into her pièce de résistance – black blancmange, something of a contradiction in terms.
What redeems it all is the artistry of the entire cast from Simon Keenlyside’s baritone playboy Antoine to Claire Booth as the beautiful feast-giver Elena and Clive Bayley’s unaccompanied, extremely bass portrayal of Base Death.
Youthful star of the composing world Alex Woolf has swiftly provided an apposite score. It showcases the virtuosity of the cast, which rounds off a consummate performance with a chorus of laughter that is defiant, not nervous in the face of any challenge.
Barbara Lewis © 2020.