Ever since a ground-breaking production of La Boheme by Opera Up Close in 2009, fringe opera in London has been on a roll. One innovative company to have joined the fray is Pop Up Opera, which specialises in bringing bel canto classics to bizarre venues for one night only — most notably the access shaft to Isambard Kingdom Brunel's famous subfluvian tunnel linking Wapping to Rotherhithe.
Anyone who missed their production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore in the shaft on 20 April has a second chance to experience the venue on 11 May, when they perform Don Pasquale, another comedy by the same composer. That will be their third and final performance of Don Pasquale in London, the other two being in the Bull, Highgate on 7 May and the Sun Tavern, Covent Garden on 8 May, which is already sold out.
Judging by the company's approach to Elisir, which we caught on Battersea Barge last week, this Don Pasquale should be lighter and funnier than the overblown Covent Garden production by Jonathan Miller. We were particularly impressed by their solution to the common problem of how to bring contemporary relevance to a silly 19th century plotline, which in this case involves girls fawning over soldiers in uniform. The opera was sung in Italian, but instead of the usual supertitles, the production featured witty spoof translations only when necessary to inform the action. They recast sergeant Belcore as a sales executive showing off his wares to the girls' tea-room, for example. What so often comes across as an uncomfortable fudge somehow became a rich source of humour.
What Pop Up Opera's venues all have in common is extreme intimacy. This is where fringe opera has a major advantage over the cavernous West End opera houses. Hearing even modestly trained voices in the confines of a pub can induce a physical thrill which only the very most experienced divas can match in a concert hall. In Elisir the tenor Cliff Zammit Stevens was the vocal highlight, producing an effortlessly authentic Italian sound that had us pinned to our bar stools begging for more. Baritone Ricardo Panela's Belcore was also beguilingly sonorous. Both are singing in Don Pasquale - which to our mind is already reason enough to go.