Sexy operas: The Tale of Januarie
How's this for unexpected endings? A brand new opera based on a Chaucer tale - and the first opera written in Middle English - is one we're itching to see again.
The Guildhall School presents the world premiere of The Tale of Januarie, with music by Julian Philips and libretto by Stephen Plaice. It has all the stuff of classic storytelling: an old man marries a young blonde girl, a young man is lovesick over that same blonde girl, and the whole story is fuelled by sex. In fact, Priapus himself (played by Carl Stone) sets quite the tone indeed, introducing the story with a penile hat atop his head, a wheelbarrow in front of him to carry the weight of his four-foot-long penis. (Before anyone says the word "gratuitous", we urge to you read up about Priapus.)
Director Martin Lloyd-Evans and designer Dick Bird turned what could have been a once-removed-type of story into something totally real and human. Bird's set looked like a giant illuminated book from the Middle Ages, and Lloyd-Evans' aesthetic wavered between exaggerated, Monty Python-esque comedy, to romantic moments right out of Disney fairy-tales. Plaice's text kept the story grounded in reality; the old man reaps the rewards of his status by choosing the prettiest, youngest girl he can get away with, and the young bride bears the burden of having sex with a gross old man, even complaining hilariously about being sore the next morning.
The exotic sounds of Middle English are a total treat for any language lover; hearing the curious mix of German, French, and Latin influences were fascinating when compared to the (merciful) modern English surtitles. The cast of singers and actors did a fine job of conveying clear meaning in Plaice's Chaucer-inspired text, especially when it came to jokes and their punchlines.
Philips' music is busy and evocative, and no small feat for the singers or orchestra, led deftly by Dominic Wheeler. As the old Knight of Lombardy, John Findon found his way through the schizophrenic score, instead introducing to us a character who was likable, despite his abhorrent disregard for the feelings of women in general. Joanna Marie Skillett sang May, the young bride, with a wonderful strength in her voice that helped give a strong backbone to what could have been a bland, blonde, role. As the lovesick Damyan, Dominic Sedgwick set himself clearly apart with his warm, honest baritone; immediately, we were rooting for him to get the girl.
Of course, no story from this age is complete without a divine element; Pluto and Proserpina were perfect foils to each other, the former looking like a sullen party-pooper, dragged on holiday by his social-butterfly wife. Elizabeth Skinner was a warm Proserpina, handling well the extraordinary musical demands of her role; Martin Hässler was a contained figure as Pluto, balancing divine wisdom with his lingering loyalty to the male sex. The ever-changing trio of Chloë Treharne, Bianca Andrew, and Jade Moffat were great as townsfolk and fairies; their scene with Priapus and his ever-insistent wheelbarrow penis was one of our favourites, including the line, "That has naught to do with love!"
The Tale of Januarie is exciting because it's a new opera that holds the audience's attention; the action moves quickly, and though the whole piece was a bit too long, the scenes run at a play-like pace. The production at Guildhall seemed an organic extension of the piece itself, and the cast of singers and actors did an impressive job of managing a difficult combination of music and text. The show runs with two casts until March 6, and it's a delightful night out. Tickets are available online or by calling the Guildhall box office at 020 7638 8891. For more details, click here.