Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Budleigh Festival: "Esther", an Operetta by Nicholas Marshall Saturday 23 July

"Esther" - an Operetta in eight scenes by Nicholas Marshall  Sat 23 July

Nicholas Marshall, who is familiar to 'Classical Journey' listeners as the Musical Director of the Exeter Bach Society, prepared and presented a quite remarkable operetta for children at the Budleigh Festival.
Each of the eight schenes was a small gem of storytelling and humour with superb incidental music, as one would expect from a musician of Nicholas' standard.
A retentive memory and a beautiful voice
Perfect narration by Isabel Shaw-Smith
The children performed faultlessly - twice! The operetta was repeated at noon and 3pm on Saturday 23rd July. In beautiful authentic costumes, the children , whether narrating (Isabel Shaw-Smith), singing the major roles (Madeline Buckley as King Ahasuerus, Sylvie Hodgson as Queen Esther, Orla Gunner as
The gentle, but volatile, King Ahasuerus of Persia
Madeline Buckley
Esther's father Mordecai, Adam Panhallurick as Grand Vizier Haman), or entertaining the audience as comic extras, acted their parts convincingly and with incredible grace and charm.
Isabel's introduction of Adam as Haman, drawing our attention to his devious eyes - which he demonstrated on cue, was a beautifully timed piece of comedy which let us all know what to expect.
The first chorus, starting as they intended to continue, was very clearly sung and perfectly synchronised. Every word was clear as a bell as Nicholas conducted from his position by the grand piano (not used in this performance).
Extraordinary unaccompanied singing by
Sylvie Hodgson as Esther, the King's Jewish wife
Madeline Buckley was impressively regal as King Ahasuerus, but flew into a fearful rage whenever her (i.e. his) wishes were defied.
Once the story was clearly set out in the first scene, we moved to a scene for pure entertainment. A troupe of acrobats and circus performers danced together in a delightfully simple but effective piece of choreography before each member performed their special stunt. 'Ahmed', to great suspense music from the orchestra, lifted a broom handle as if it were a heavy barbell. 'Rachel' walked a rope on the floor as if it were a high-wire. each stunt was beautifuuly crafted with that lovely element of comedy which keeps the audience amused.
The persecuted Jews petition Esther's father Mordecai
(Orla Gunner) to intercede with the King on their behalf
Adam appeared as an extra to perform a tug-of-war with 'Ahmed', introduced by Isabel as 'David and the Lion' - perfect theatre.
In the second scene the circus acts were mirrored by a 'pageant' where various potential wives tried to impress the King. (Madeline's line about 'firing' the previous Queen for non-attendance at court was one of the best in the show.) Silvie as Esther really did impress us when she appeared, quietly dignified and with her head covered. Esther's selection as the King's new wife was coupled with the appointment of Haman as Grand Vizier - a disaster for all the Jews in Persia, including Esther and her father Mordecai. The dramatic irony was enhanced by a very clever chorus with asides telling us what we had all realised already - Haman is bad news!
Their nemesis, Grand Vizier Haman
(Adam Penhallurick)
When Silvie came to sing her solo aria as the newly crowned Queen of Persia, she was understandably nervous, but very competent. To a gentle backing from the orchestra (held to a whisper by Nicholas) she sang with perfect poise and delightfully clear diction.
Ahasuerus revokes Mordecai's death sentence
and ends Haman's persecution of the Jews
The plea from the 'Jewish people' to Mordecai to intercede with the King on their behalf against Haman's repressive (i.e. genocidal) policy was sung beautifully, unaccompanied, a very moving appeal.
Before the final intercession scene there was just time for a very special glockenspiel piece played by percussionist Rosie Lester. Lightly played, in the special acoustic environment of the Temple Church, the sound was truly celestial - a perfect touch.
The full cast with Queen Esther in the centre
The wonderful acrobats are nearest the camera with
Ahmed the strong-man at the extreme left
In the final denouement violist Lucy Cross introduced Sylvie's intercession aria. Madeline, as Ahasuerus, realising Haman's duplicity and genocidal intrigue, flew into a convincing and terrifying rage. In a shocking finale to this children's operetta we are reminded of the terrible reality of politics in the ancient world. Having instigated and plotted murder and genocide, Haman could not be permitted to live. He is sentenced to hang on the gallows he himself has prepared for Mordecai. A shocking scene for children to perform.
Not forgetting Nicholas Marshall and his talented orchestra
Despite the horror of the conclusion the performance stayed sharp right to the end. Audiences at both shows were delighted and impressed by the standard of the singing, dancing and acting, and by Nicholas' inspired composition.
Many thanks and congratualtions to the actors and extras, and to the orchestra, to Nicholas for his composition and conducting, and to the Producer and Assistant Producer, Sue-Claire Morris and Gill Gray.

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