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A Fool’s Paradise and The Happy Princess

Garsington Opera at Wormsley

The Happy Princess by Paul Fincham and Jessica Duchen, loosely based on an Oscar Wilde story, is a mini-masterpiece. In the directorial hands of the very talented Karen Gillingham and the Garsington Opera Youth Company it is a fine hour of opera by any standards, anywhere. I hope very much that this piece is soon published and licensed so that other youth groups elsewhere can have access to it.

Of course the smallest children (from nearby Ibstone CE School)  were show stealers as the city birds, flapping their wings and singing with terrific concentration and clarity, skilfully supported by conductor Jonathon Swinard,  but there is much more to this show than cuteness.

The thrust of the story is that pair of swallows (Owain Boyd-Leslie and Maia Greaves, both very young and very tuneful) undertake three errands for the statue princess (Lara Marie Muller – lots of gravitas and a fine voice). That takes us to some big ensemble scenes: sweatshop workers, a school and a group of refugees. Duchen is a fine story teller.

The singing is, from the very first note, incisive, dynamically well controlled and set against accomplished movement. And it all looks very natural – rather than rehearsed and that makes it all feel very professional and interestingly edgy.

Five stars too, if I were awarding them, for Fincham’s score which uses an eight-piece orchestra. It is highly atmospheric, nicely paced and varied, providing lots of opportunities for small solos along with some string choral numbers including harmony. I loved, for instance, the mysterious minor for the repeated trio between the Princess and the swallows with a rising scale motif – simple but very effective. It’s all unashamedly melodious too.

I suppose Offenbach is melodious too but, sadly, A Fool’s Paradise is definitely not his best work. Garsington Opera Adult Company (directed by Gillingham) had clearly gained a great deal from working on it but this 25 minute staged medley with narrated links never achieves lift off although the professional baritone, Robert Gildon, does his best to cut through the pedestrian woodenness.

It is a mistake to separate the adult and youth companies. In the recent past Garsington has commissioned works (Road Rage 2013 and Silver Birch, 2017 for example) in which the adults and young people work together as a single community and that works much better. It means that everyone can learn from and complement everyone else so that standards spiral upwards.

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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