The Opera Story’s Beauty and the 7 Beasts brings them back with a vengeance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Opera Story’s Beauty and the 7 Beasts: Soloists / Berrak Dyer (conductor). Brixton Jamm, London, 7.4.2022. (CC)

Beauty – Katherine Aitken
Beast – Dan D’Souza
Advert – Sarah Tynan
Gluttony – Nicholas Lester
Envy – Chiara Vinci
Sloth – Henry Waddington
Lust – Anthony Gregory
Greed – Edmund Danon
Wrath – Rachael Lloyd
Pride – Joshua Owen Mills

Pride/Intro/Interludes/Epilogue – Composer Vahan Salorian/Librettist Dominic Kimberlin
Gluttony – Composer Jude Obermüller/Librettist Tom Powell
Envy – Composer: Lewis Murphy/Librettist: Annie Jenkins
Sloth – Composer: Lucie Treacher/Librettist: JL Williams
Lust – Composer: Ruth Chan/Librettist: Ellie Taylor
Greed – Composer: Sasha Scott/Librettist: Louis Rembges
Wrath – Composer: James Garner/Libretto: Anna Pool

Director – James Hurley
Set designer – Tomás Palmer
Video/Projection designer – Cheng Keng
Costume designer – AK Lie
Lighting designer – Danny Vavrečka

Part of the world premiere run of this multi-composer, multi-librettist theatre piece/opera from The Opera Story is a miracle of our times. Covid has taught us how to live and communicate at a remove, with meetings over Zoom (other apps and programs are available!), YouTube orchestras, choirs coming together to create composite performances meshed together digitally … the list is now endless and a huge testament to the indestructability of art and artists, regardless of circumstances. Beauty and the 7 Beasts offers a logical extension to all of this.

This is probably the most generous opera programme I have seen, too: it includes full libretto, articles on differing aspects of brining this project to life and a full set of biographies.

Katherine Aitken in Beauty and the Seven Beasts (c) Nick Rutter

Mixing the age-old and the modern is Beauty and the 7 Beasts: seven composers, seven librettists. Not as random as it seems, as there is pre-agreed shared musical material – a pool of music from which the composers can take their starting points. It resulted in seven panels in which the seven deadly sins are examined via the dating adventures – over video screens, positioned around the space – of our heroine, ‘Beauty’ (the astonishing Katherine Aitken) via the dating app Magic Mirrors, personified by the ‘Beast’, the wonderfully strong-voiced baritone Dan D’Souza. The conductor, Berrak Dyer, cues the singers, ensuring everything pulls together brilliantly.

Casting is carefully done, the video content exquisitely crafted. Take Wrath. As ‘Zoe’ (Wrath), Rachael Lloyd makes the perfect vocal counterpart to Aitken as we see her slide from refreshingly open possible match to complete nut job (she’s not the only one of those in this dating world!). Their voices work perfectly together and here, as everywhere in the evening, it is incredible to think that both instrumentals and the singers on the videos are pre-recorded, such is the sense of dialogue with the live performance element. Zoe also makes reference to something which at the time sounds like a ranting: ‘Toads. Revolting toads. You run the show, toads’, a clue to the opera’s penultimate twist (the last twist of plot is more predictable, but we are in a modern fairy tale …). It’s also a clue as to why Beast appears throughout in a characteristic posture that initially seems somewhat odd …

It is also Wrath that offers an example of the variety of musics here. By capturing each ‘beast’ with a different compositional voice, they take on real characters. James Garner’s music is some of the most modernist of the evening (and given its placement late on, it creates a tension that hurtles us towards the denouement).

The stage is Beauty’s home, created by Tomás Palmer, a circular piece of homely furniture which houses various drawers and a host of cables that account for her ‘dodgy’ internet (a nice touch). Aitken carries the show – although the Beast’s presence is undeniable, it is her and her alone on whom we are (trans)fixed. Aitken is a fine singer and has infinite stamina; but she has the acting skills, too, to draw us into this modern Brothers Grimm tale, where the forest of the app-based world leads us to seven exemplars of the darker side of the human psyche. With minimal stage means, therefore, we arrive at maximal impact. The videos are perfectly done, with close-ups rightly disturbing as we see the seedier side of these people gradually revealed (Gluttony – Nicholas Lester – a brilliant case in point). The way we believe these people, as Beauty wants to do, and then feel the trajectory of her disappointments with her, is wonderful.

The music for ‘Sloth’ is a brilliant realisation of the animal (composer Lucie Treacher doing the honours here) while Henry Waddington makes the most of the long – ever so long – vocal melismas. We should also credit the fabulous high tenor of Anthony Gregory in ‘Lust’ (it is no surprise to learn he won an award for his performance of Quint for Glyndebourne on Tour’s The Turn of the Screw). This section is also a prime example of the works’s humour: this chap (‘prospectives’ are both male and female), the only really possible candidate for a real date in the flesh of the seven, is actually standing in for someone else. It’s a lovely reveal. Humour-wise, I also love the use of ‘Gene Won’, ‘Gene 2’ and ‘Gene 3’ in ’Greed’.

There is not a weak link in the cast, present or virtual. A special mention, perhaps for soprano Chiara Vinci’s role in Envy, in which she appears as ‘Allure’. A singer who specialises in the creation of new roles, she seemed brilliantly at home in this hilarious character study of the self-obsessed.

It is all perfectly proportioned and includes several ‘Interludes’ which give opportunities for Beauty and Beast to interact. If sometimes some of the music can come across as a bit generic contemporary opera, that is very, very much the exception that proves the rule of an over-riding fabulousness. Beauty and the 7 Beasts is a triumph of invention, a true child of our time while referencing a mythos that has underlaid humankind since time immemorial. It is something of a miracle in itself that director James Hurley brings everything together so cohesively.

Of course, this piece is going to beg comparison with Kurt Weill (Die sieben Todsünden is what most immediately springs to mind). But my, how Beauty and the 7 Beasts speaks with its own voice: a multiply-tongued voice, for sure, but that’s all part of it.

The Opera Story’s last show was back in 2019. They are back with a vengeance. Rarely have I seen a production as inspiring as this. In a tiny performance space (audience probably around 30-40 max), via the wizardry of electronics and with clear reference to the way we communicate and have communicated via screens mid- and post-pandemic, we are reminded of eternal myths and truths. Amazing.

Colin Clarke

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