“Assassination is but a bad preface to courtship.” Weber’s Oberon is a strange tale, based on the late 16th-Century epic poem Oberon by Christoph Martin Wieland, itself based on an even stranger French Medieval chanson de geste. It is charming nonsense, but New Sussex Opera’s simple production extracts sense and drama from Planché’s rambling libretto. Hovering somewhere between The Song of Roland and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with noble Eastern beauties and fairies galore, the plot hinges around the adventures of the French knight Sir Huon of Bordeaux. Our hero is challenged by Charlemagne to go to Baghdad, kill the man on the Caliph’s right hand (a future son-in-law), then kiss the Caliph’s daughter and take her as his bride.

Sian Griffiths (Puck) and Adam Tunnicliffe (Oberon) © Robert Knights
Sian Griffiths (Puck) and Adam Tunnicliffe (Oberon)
© Robert Knights

The Caliph’s lovely daughter Reiza has always dreamed of marrying a French knight, and isn’t especially keen on Daddy’s choice of suitor, so gaily elopes with Huon (despite his worries, the assassination is no problem). Reiza naturally takes her maid Fatima, who dutifully falls in love with Sir Huon’s squire, Sherasmin. The two resulting pairs, one noble, one sweetly rustic, then face various dangers and trials to test their love, all to prove a point in a larger cosmic quarrel between Titania and Oberon about whether lovers can be truly faithful... If all this sounds like nonsense to you so far, I’m afraid it is. 

Weber’s music more than compensated us for bearing with Planché. The famous overture to Oberon started the evening with a sense of poised tension balanced with languorous moments of romanticism, positively cinematic in scope. St Paul’s Sinfonia, conducted by Nicholas Jenkins, may not be quite full enough in their sound to have made this a complete showstopper, but it was still beautiful. Elsewhere, Weber’s strong use of the chorus, delicate duets and statuesque arias offered everyone a chance to shine vocally.

Director Harry Fehr pulled clarity from the chaotic plot in a modern dress production whose utter simplicity really worked, drawing us irresistibly into the story. Regular, spoken narration was excellently clear, saving the sense of the piece, while props were kept to a bare minimum. Choreography by Victoria Newlyn was sensible rather than stellar, but gave the production a sense of movement. Sinuous drapery made the female costumes highly effective, facilitating some lightning on-stage transformations. Charlie Lucas’ lighting design was the most ambitious I have ever seen at Cadogan Hall, creating immediate atmosphere. We were unfortunately subjected to other technical problems which caused some havoc, including a total break in performance, but these were handled with aplomb by all.  

Strong, commanding, but with an inner vulnerability at all times, Adam Tunnicliffe was an ideal romantic hero and gave a masterful performance as Oberon. The last time I saw Tunnicliffe I was impressed, but this time he was simply faultless, always setting the dramatic tone of all his scenes and giving his fairy king realism and depth. Sally Silver, another very strong lead, sadly fell victim to most of the technical problems, with Reiza’s famous aria “Ocean, thou Mighty Monster” an unfortunate casualty, despite Silver’s magnificent efforts to save it. However, once things were fixed, Silver’s superb performance, perfectly judged and smoothly lyrical, just showed what she can really do. Earlier, Reiza’s “Oh happy maid” duet with Fatima was particularly pretty.

Sally Silver (Reiza) © Robert Knights
Sally Silver (Reiza)
© Robert Knights

As Fatima, Carolyn Dobbin was a constant joy, singing “The desert’s simple child” in beautifully honeyed tones. Fatima not only got some wonderful arias, but some gorgeous Rumi-inspired imagery too. Later, Dobbin’s “Oh Araby, Araby” sounded simply fabulous in her soft, warm mezzo. Damian Thantrey was excellent as her lover Sherasmin, his voice supple and increasingly powerful, his physical gestures always detailed and natural. These lovers have more musical fun than their noble counterparts: two glorious duets, “On the banks of sweet Garonne” and the comic “Let us be merry while we may” almost recall Figaro and Susanna in their cheeky optimism.

In his modern desert combat fatigues, Adrian Dwyer played Sir Huon with more than a passing resemblance to Damian Lewis in Homeland, which never hurts. Not always sounding entirely in control of his voice, and occasionally straining, the unfortunate technical problems seemed to affect Dwyer as well as Silver. Still, Dwyer’s winning characterisation ensured we cared throughout about Sir Huon, his love and his fate.   

The New Sussex Opera Chorus were absolutely at the heart of this warm-spirited community production, singing with good tone and endearing enthusiasm. While their singing was not always quite strong enough, or clear enough, for the words to survive intact, their camaraderie and energy were a pleasure. It just goes to show that opera is an art form which can work at many levels, and in Sussex, opera’s grassroots are refreshingly vibrant. I left grinning from ear to ear.