The Paradis Files
Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824), roughly contemporary with Beethoven, was an Austrian musician. Highly acclaimed in her day as a pianist and composer, almost all her music is now lost She was blind and, at the behest of her parents, underwent several appalling surgical attempts to restore her sight. She may have had affairs with both Mozart and Salieri – there are hints in letters. This is the story told by Errollyn Wallen’s new one-act opera with libretto by Nicola Werenowska.
But there’s much more to it than that. This is a Graeae production so the emphasis in on the cultivation and championing of the best in deaf, disabled and neurodivergent talent. The Paradis Files is Graeae’s first opera and is the most inclusive show I’ve ever seen.
It starts with cast and band members introducing themselves or each other orally. Everything they say is signed integrally by someone on stage. They wittily describe their clothes, body size and the set. Each band member plays a demo flourish or a couple of bars on his or her instrument before melting into the upstage band area. Conductor, Andrea Brown says a few words too. Her podium is downstage right so that both band and cast can see her – or one of the on-stand monitor screens at the side of the stage. Once the show starts there’s an over-stage screen for captions which are artistically presented in a timely font, getting larger to stress, for instance, incredulity.
A cast of six works with two performance interpreters whose presence brings another dimension. Max Marchewicz, for example, who identifies in a programme biography as “a queer, disabled, chronically ill and disabled person” signs with moving, balletic sensitivity and I loved the blue hair. Meanwhile Chandrika Gopalakrishnan lithely makes every nuance clear, sometimes climbing inside the upstage piano which is part of the set. Both are fine actors whose reactions to what is going on help to drive the narrative forward.
Every inch an opera – there is no spoken dialogue – The Paradis Files, exploits lots of styles. In England Paradis was known as “The Blind Enchantress” and there’s a lovely Mozartian riff on those words. And we end in Rossini-esque mode because it’s an upbeat story
Bethan Langford, who cheerfully tells the audience at the beginning “I’m visually impaired” brings warmth and depth to Paradis. Other actors lead her unobtrusively round the rather busy set and she sits at the piano stool in several scenes. Langford has a rich mezzo voice with some beautiful navy blue notes in the lower register. It blends particularly well with Maureen Braithwaite’s soprano. Braithwaite plays Paradis’s difficult, determined, troubled mother – a complex character. Ella Taylor finds lots of saucy kindness in Gerda the kind, gritty, feisty, trans maid who has an attractive soprano voice.
Wallen’s score makes a great play with the “gossips”. In any other art form we’d call them the “ensemble” with minor characters emerging from their ranks. Here they come somewhere between an operatic and a Greek chorus – commenting on the action and furthering the narrative. And, of course, this isn’t really an eighteenth century opera so Wallen has occasional fun with cross rhythms, jazz and rock borrowings so that sometimes the gossips dance incongruously as they sing. It’s great fun.
The Paradis Files is directed by Jenny Sealey, Graeae’s artistic director and she knows, really knows, how to create stunning theatre. This piece is stonkingly good: intelligent, funny, moving, beautifully sung and skilfully staged.
The Paradis Files opened at Curve Leciester before coming to the South Bank. It now tours until 12 May to Milton Keynes, Colchester, Hull, Perth, Cardiff and Sheffield. All details at www.graeae.org.
First published by Sardines: https://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/review/the-paradis-files/