My expectations are always high for British Youth Opera: and, once again, they have not disappointed me, with exciting young singers, creative vision, and a slick production of The Little Green Swallow. Director Stuart Barker brings us an evening which sparkles like an operatic glass of champagne. Jonathan Dove’s pretty fairy tale, sung in an English translation by Adam Pollock and glittering with intelligent allusions to other works, is lightness and charm itself. Packed with humour, drama and romance, with strong moral overtones warning against vanity and selfishness, it is ideal for children as well as grownups: musically and dramatically, The Little Green Swallow really does have something for everyone to enjoy.

Tom Verney (The Swallow) and Emma Kerr (Ninetta) © Clive Barda | ArenaPAL
Tom Verney (The Swallow) and Emma Kerr (Ninetta)
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

Simon Bejer’s design, in all its beautiful details, seems to have stepped straight from the pages of a storybook illustrated by Arthur Rackham, dipped in a bright Pop Art palette. Gorgeous costumes (supervised by Beth Madden and Laura Stanfield) recall Rackham’s fairy tale silhouettes strongly: the three servants (also the Three Singing Apples, all singing beautifully) are dressed entirely in black to look like actual silhouettes for much of the time, to great effect. Lighting by David Howe makes deft use of colour to articulate different moods and spaces. The final, and most distinctive, magical touches come from Darren East's puppetry: extremely fashionable at the moment, the variety of puppets used here (hinged paper cutouts, rubber figurines, cloth creatures and more) makes East's the most original puppetry I have yet seen. 

Jonathan Dove's music is warm-toned and welcoming, easy on the ear and full of melody. But before it can be dismissed as easy listening, Dove's continual contrasts of texture and mood give plenty of depth and interest. Ethereal, shimmering strings greet the awakening of the proud statue Pompea; swaggering, dancing tunes suit the rustic clown Truffaldino and his wife Smeralda; heartfelt arias of arching intensity allow the nobler characters to pour out their hearts on stage. Dove's score fires on all cylinders. Conductor Lionel Friend's account is enthusiasm itself, occasionally spilling over into the boisterous and drowning out the singers, but always with the best intent. The Southbank Sinfonia plays with relish and vivacity. 

The British Youth Opera cast is strong and talented throughout. Tom Verney is wonderful as L'Augellino, the eponymous Swallow, his gleaming countertenor always commanding our attention even when softly sung. Verney not only sings beautifully, but manipulates his swallow figure (a puppet suspended in front of him from a frame fixed to his body) with astonishing skill: the bird swoops, dives and hovers with natural grace as he sings. Emma Kerr is a fabulous Ninetta, her brooding, tragic music a powerful contrast, delivered with shining clarity, a graceful sense of movement and strong characterisation which instantly gains our sympathy. Amid many picturesque scenes, Ninetta’s sewer-dungeon is memorably dark and atmospheric.

Singing Apples Katie Coventry, Llio Evans and Hazel McBain © Bill Knight
Singing Apples Katie Coventry, Llio Evans and Hazel McBain
© Bill Knight

Elizabeth Karani makes a formidable Tartagliona, balancing her many opportunities for comedy with a sense of nasty neediness which gives the Queen Mother believability and depth, as well as a sprinkling of pantomime-style humour. Her sidekick philosopher, Brighella, is sung expressively by Dominick Felix, though occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra; his slightly gnomic lines don’t always come across well. As King Tartaglia, Joseph Padfield also loses a few lines over the pit, though he sings with wonderful tone to communicate his grief for Ninetta, and mid-life-crisis passion for Barbarina. Filipa van Eck is a playful, petulant Barbarina who makes a fascinating transition from precocious child via spoilt princess to moral heroine. Van Eyck sings with ravishing beauty when mourning her twin brother, turned to stone in a quest to appease her vanity. As her brother Renzo, Adam Temple-Smith gives a fine performance, singing with brilliant clarity and giving a good sense of the slightly gawky teenage boy-turned-hero.

The statue Pompea is not an easy role: static and silent for much of the time, then only allowed to sing, but not to move, until the very last scene. Nevertheless, Eirlys Myfanwy Davies absolutely steals the show with her expressive voice and face, making us truly believe in, and care about, Pompea. Her fellow statue and another key role in the story, the philosopher Calmon, is played with grave, witty humour by Matt Buswell. Ed Ballard is a constant joy as the rascal Truffaldino, showing excellent comic instinct in a detailed performance, though his voice is occasionally lost in the storm of music around him. Rozanna Madylus gives Smeraldina energy, wit and a pathetic love for the children she rescued so many years ago, which it takes them almost the entire opera to finally return. But that’s teenagers for you.

All in all – a superb show, and an unmissable opportunity to see some exciting new operatic talent.

****1