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Susan Elkin reviews: The Selfish Giant

The Selfish Giant – Garsington Opera at Wormsley July 2021

Opera Pavilion | Garsington OperaThe lovely big playing space in this lightest, airiest of venues so elegantly (operatically) sited in the leafy undulations of the green and gorgeous Wormsley estate, is quite a setting for a youth opera. And every single one of the 75 young cast members does it justice. So does the team of young stage managers and the young designers who helped find ways of bringing this piece to stage.

This show was originally planned for 2020 but we all know what happened then. In the event it’s a very poignant story for now. The eponymous giant throws the children out of his garden so that they have nowhere to play. Eventually – it’s a one hour piece – he comes to think otherwise and human mixing is restored.

How do you depict a giant on stage convincingly in a fairly simple production? You find a portly singer/actor – Matthew Stiff – with a resonant bass voice, dress him (initially) in black with a flapping raincoat and give him a larger than lifesize model head on a pole to hold – and it’s neatly effective. One of two professional singers in this show, he brings real warmth to the role as his character gradually learns and changes. The other professional is Barbara Cole Walton who plays a linnet, holding a model bird and singing mostly from the top of a ladder. She is gently, smilingly avian and her top notes are quite something.

The other lead is a child – talented Barnaby Scholes – who confronts the giant and looks very effective next to him because he’s small. Barnaby sings treble poignantly. Ultimately his character turns out to be stronger in spirit than body although he achieves his aim. That blend of feistiness and fragility is well captured

But the real high spots in this show are the choruses in which it’s good to see so many boys and an accomplished group of over-18s who sing a couple of choral numbers.

Jessica Duchen’s libretto is clear and unfussy (“The garden looks marvellous. I couldn’t do this alone”) and John Barber’s music is highly evocative. Words and music complement each other. Scored for a small group and played by a six-piece band drawn from the Philharmonia and conducted by Jack Ridley, every note conveys a message. I especially liked the scoring for a winter dance sequence with tinkly discords, faintly reminiscent of Britten, followed by a minor key passage and lots of tambourine.

The whole show, under Karen Gillingham’s practised directorship, is actually a bit of a miracle. Young people have had to audition and rehearse digitally for much of the time with masks and distancing requirements even when they finally got together. The over eighteens didn’t meet each other or the rest of the cast until 5 days before the show. Twenty four hours before curtain up the accordionist was “pinged” so the part had to be rewritten for keyboard tight against the clock.

One always hopes that these enterprising Garsington youth and community operas will live on especially as this one got only a single performance at Wormsley. The good news is that The Selfish Giant, which was co-produced by Opera North, will be staged at Leeds next year.

First published by Lark Reviews

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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