Monday, 16 July 2012

Budleigh Festival: Britten's Opera 'The Little Sweep' Nicky Marshall's production at Temple Church

Budleigh Festival started this year with an opera - Benjamin Britten's 'The Little Sweep'. The conductor was the musical director of Exeter Bach Society - and next year's prospective Budleigh Festival chairman, Nicky Marshall.

The first performance of the Little Sweep was on Thursday evening, not at Budleigh Salterton, but at Lympstone Village Hall - venue for John Welton's wonderful 'Lympstone Entertainments' throughout the year.

On Saturday there were a matinée and an evening performance at the Temple Church in Budleigh.

Nicky Marshall's ensemble for Britten's 'The Little Sweep'
Leader: Malcolm Latchem
(Chairman Academy of St Martin in the Fields 1992-4
musical director of the Pressenda Ensemble)
A mystery drummer - "your name here"
Next to Malcolm, concentrating hard on the second violin part:
Lindsay Braga (Divertimento Ensemble)
At the piano: two very versatile musicians
Jonathan Watts (organist and choral musical director)
Dartington Community Choir, Devon Baroque
Alex West (ditto - in a smaller way)
Ad Hoc Choir, Exeter Festival Chorus
Viola: Steve Gleed (Devon Baroque)
'Cello: Audrey Gullick (Trio con Brio)

A small string ensemble, with piano duet and drum-kit, provided the accompaniment for a select cast of local schoolchildren and well known Devon singers.

There was also a very strong 'audience participation' element. At each performance, Nicky trained the audience in four Britten songs - difficult, but not too difficult. Jonathan Watts and Alex West accompanied on the piano and were very gentle with everyone.

Once up to speed, the audience started the show for themselves with the 'Sweep's Song' which was then taken up by the evil master sweep Black Bob, and his equally hard-nosed son and apprentice, Clem

Immediately, the stage is awash with familiar faces. The housekeeper, Mrs Baggot, who is preparing the room with dust sheets, is the wonderful mezzo-soprano Dorothy Ferrier from Sidmouth. Rowan, the nurse, is St Margarets music teacher Alison Burnett. The Sweeps, under their veneer of black grime are two members of Exeter Cathedral Choir - not to mention soloists with 'Counterpoint' and many other choirs - Baritone Julian Rippon and Tenor Edward Woodhouse!

Sadly the sound did not carry well to the very back of the 'auditorium', i.e. from one side of the church to the other, but Julian's powerful bass voice was still very audible. Ed and Dorothy really had to sing out to be heard, but the highest voices - soprano and treble carried beautifully.

The first soprano solo was not Alison Burnett, however, but Exeter School girl Lucy Bray (who sang the Mozart Mass in C at the Cathedral). Lucy is the eldest of the children in the story, Juliet, who comes in to hide under the dust-sheets and discovers little Sammy up the chimney. Her singing was effortless and clear. Sammy, when he appeared, sang 'Please don't send me up again!' in the sweetest treble imaginable. The other children were equally strong singers - and excellent actors - engaging actively with the audience.

Alison Burnett got the best deal as an adult singer - her character Rowan is the only one sympathetic to Sammy's plight. Her aria 'Run, the poor sweep boy' was very sympathetically received by the audience.  Dorothy, however, has to be a rather officious servant, with the unfortunate name of Baggott. As Caroline Harries says, the mezzos always get the unpopular roles.

Julian Rippon and Edward Woodhouse enjoy slightly improved status as the jolly coachmen who carry Sammy to freedom - albeit unwittingly as a stowaway.

(Apologies. No photos of the performance were permitted - we'll have to imagine!)

The Audience get their moment too - singing complicated Britten rhythms and imitating English native birds. They did very well indeed!

The Budleigh Festival continues . . .

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