Young Maltese tenor impresses in London
Pop Up Opera is a small company of professional young singers with a mission to introduce everyone to opera and to brush away the notion that it is only for a small group of elite to enjoy.
They have been playing their latest production of Donizetti’s comic opera, L’Elisir d’Amore, to sold-out houses in a host of unusual venues all over the UK, including a garlic farm on the Isle of Wight, a cider barn in Herefordshire, an old workhouse in Guildford and many more.
Mathew Parris, the Times of London columnist, caught up with them in a pub in Highgate and was bowled over, describing them as “an arsenal of talent”.
Their final appearance took place on August 8, in Islington’s biggest and most beautiful church, St Mary’s on Upper Street.
Pop Up Opera perform without chorus and orchestra. This means a lot of singing for its five young stars. All of them are now at the start of promising professional careers, having won many prizes in their progress through London’s leading music colleges.
Their founder and inspiration is Clementine Lovell, who sang the role of Adina. She has exactly the sort of bright, flexible voice needed for the role and acted with aplomb.
Equally successful was Alexander Learmonth, who stepped in at short notice to sing Belcore. He has a fine, well-projected baritone and sympathetic stage presence.
Tom Kennedy, another baritone, who was, like Learmonth, a Choral Scholar at New College, Oxford, brought lots of guile and swagger to Dr Dulcamara.
Though some of these young singers began to tire towards the end of the two-and-a-half-hour performance in a very large space, in a production demanding great physical as well as vocal dexterity, Clifford Zammit Stevens (who sang Nemorino) still had lots of power in reserve for his famous last act aria Una Furtiva Lagrima, which received a huge round of applause.
The young Maltese tenor was undoubtedly the star of the evening. His voice is filling out well and now has the authentic Italianate gleam. Only he, among an Anglophone cast, was fully at home singing in Italian and phrasing in the natural way that comes most easily to singers from the Mediterranean. At this stage in his career, Nemorino is the perfect role for him. Like Parris, we were “blown away” by his performance.
His acting brought out the pathos as well as the good humour in his character and, above all, the charm.
Whether clattering the pots and pans in the kitchen, juggling rather unsuccessfully, getting up his confidence after a draft of the elixir or finally winning his girl, he always had the audience’s sympathy – and their admiration for some beautiful singing throughout the evening.
A great part of the audience was attending an opera for the first time in their lives. All of us were caught up in a skilful updating of the original story that moved along swiftly thanks to some witty captions on a screen at the side.
Adina, the central character, becomes the proprietor of the Amore Café, helped by her friend Gianetta.
Nemorino, who is hopelessly in love with her, slaves away as a dogsbody laying tables and doing the washing up in the kitchen.
Their lives are changed when a salesman for a dodgy cereals company, Belcore, turns up and appears to win Adina’s heart, but also enlists Nemorino as a junior executive in his company.
He is only doing it for the money to help him buy what he believes is the elixir of love (in actual fact, it is just cheap wine decanted into a plastic bottle).
All ends well when Nemorino inherits a fortune from a distant relative and Adina reassesses the relative charms of her suitors.
The audience was actively involved throughout the evening, making a percussion group out of tea cups and pan lids, wiping their eyes with the paper handkerchiefs that the love-lorn Nemorino handed out before his great aria Una Furtiva Lagrima, getting a taste of the elixir and, best of all, laughing and crying with the singers as the opera unfolds.
With brightly coloured costumes and just a handful of simple props and stage furniture, Pop Up Opera was able to make swift scene changes without difficulty and to continue involving the audience.
Belcore, for example, arrived on his bicycle, peddling perilously down the main aisle of the church. Nemorino, after he has tasted the elixir for the first time, lurched drunkenly among the pews, and Adina and Gianetta made some pert entrances from the back of the church.
Zammit Stevens made his very promising operatic debut in Gozo last autumn in a memorable production of Norma. Audiences in Malta are in for a treat if, as he surely will, he comes home to sing Nemorino for them.