The Fisherman and his Wife is a nicely conceived opera for children. It’s blusteringly comic, a surreal folktale plot with a zany edge which references modern culture (the desire for free broadband) alongside timeless fairytale tropes (a talking fish who can grant wishes). It has a straightforward moral (greed can’t bring happiness) which is explored carefully through a clearly-structured plot. It’s eminently portable and simple to stage: everything happens on a trestle table with three puppets and some childishly painted cardboard scenery, and all you need to create it is an upright piano and three performers, pianist, soprano and puppeteer. Best of all, it’s fast paced, and not too long; indeed, one keen lad, who looked under ten, questioned afterwards by his father, opined in my hearing that it was “Not long enough”. [Was he the same young boy I spotted sitting transfixed in the Royal Opera House Stalls throughout Tristan und Isolde in December?]

<i>The Fisherman and his Wife</i> © Claire Shovelton
The Fisherman and his Wife
© Claire Shovelton

The Fisherman, a dreamy soul, lives in a tiny hut with a wife who harries him daily, threatening to leave him for the nearest rock (quite literally) if he can’t provide better for her. In desperation, he goes out to sea and catches a talking fish, who begs for his life, winning the Fisherman’s pity. In return, the fish grants the Fisherman’s wish for a better house and plenty of food, but the Wife’s satisfaction with this new arrangement lasts less than a day: once she has a house, she wants a better house with plenty of shoes and sushi; then a castle with servants; then to be president and CEO of a phone company so that she can have free broadband; and finally, to be master of the universe so that she can stop the rain. None of these bring happiness, and the last request sends them straight back to their old, dilapidated hut, the fish explaining regretfully that “there is already someone in charge of the universe”. Eventually, the Fisherman realises that his Wife will never be happy, whatever she is given; that happiness comes from within; and, instead of fruitlessly wishing for useless wealth where “every happy moment is a hard sell,” he will find his own happiness without magic.

Eralys Fernandez’s score confidently paints a range of moods and emotions in a cheerful piano accompaniment played for us by the composer, encompassing rowdy exchanges verging on Punch & Judy, little lyrical arias (the Fisherman’s “Almighty God of the Sea” a particular highlight), and dynamic comic passages. Our three characters are brilliantly voiced and characterised by Maya Sapone, singing both Fisherman and Wife with gusto and scrupulous distinction, and puppeteer Alex Winfield as the magic fish (whose name is Harold, though he’s quite private about it). Alex Winfield’s words veer oddly towards American patois, using “neat” and “candy”, and his eclectic references feel like a bucketful of cultural flotsam and jetsam. But it swirls along in a pleasingly nonsensical manner: the various children on the front row were all absorbed throughout.

Storm’s Eye was a piece which I came to with high hopes: I’m a big fan of Victorian poetry, Victorian Gothic, and Christina Rossetti. I even missed the temptingly-titled The Homosexual Necrophiliac Duck Opera in order to catch it. Unfortunately, my hopes were steadily disappointed over 30 minutes of poor singing, poor acting, and general incoherence. Sharon Eckman (playing Christina Rossetti) went flat more often, and more noticeably, than anyone I’ve ever heard at Tête à Tête. Her performance felt self-indulgent and under-rehearsed, constantly shrieking and whooping: singing in a musical-theatre (rather than operatic) style never fares well in an opera festival where technically competent opera singing is the rule, impressive the norm. More unforgivably, Eckman’s phrasing was lazily unimaginative: I hadn’t imagined Rossetti’s words could ever fail to capture my attention, but it turns out it is possible when they’re this dead on arrival. Michael Henry gave a better class of performance, singing and dancing with more presence and flair, but his part was entirely disappointing, a crude culling of quotes from Dante Gabriel (and Gabriele) Rossetti which failed to shed any light, or say anything interesting, about either character. It’s a work in progress, but currently entirely lacking in subtlety or spikiness, and needs to go right back to the drawing board in order to do this superbly troubled, talented poet justice. I found myself thinking longingly of those hard-sacrificed, fatally lustful ducks.