An operatic clubnight is a new concept: Egg London opens its doors to the Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival for an evening containing four works. Although we move freely between them, they do have a linear start and end time, so our experience feels familiar at first, but is finally transformed by the original, immersive Boys of Paradise.

<i>Boys of Paradise</i>: Jean-Max Lattemann (Peregrine) © Claire Shovelton
Boys of Paradise: Jean-Max Lattemann (Peregrine)
© Claire Shovelton

One Day This Will Be Long Ago is a duet for baritone and soprano, who circle a kitchen table singing melancholy fragments of speech, conductor Ross Gunning and six talented instrumentalists silhouetted behind a white screen. Opera Breve’s intention is to reveal “the unseen moments of reality, which are no less heavy with emotion.” The problem is: which emotion? Thomas Humphreys and Victoria Atkinson sang beautifully and moodily, but in the absence of any narrative scenario, I couldn’t tell whether they were sad, confused, angry or anguished. Nevertheless, Alexander Horowitz’s music exerts a hypnotic charm and the sheer beauty of the voices, particularly Humphreys’, makes this an undeniably beautiful, if not emotionally eloquent, experience.

Charmless, silly, dull and badly executed, the less said about Bad Habit Theatre’s China Doll the better. It’s not an opera, but rather a poorly conceived musical, in which staging, direction, singing and acting are equally disappointing, while the libretto is agony from start to finish. Never has an hour seemed longer...  

By contrast, Cavalier’s Rock Tosca is basically one of the best ideas anyone has ever had. Big, sweaty, loud and brilliant, rock’s ego-heavy aesthetic is ideal for Puccini’s personality-driven thriller. Ella Marchment’s direction makes the most of this, focusing us on individual characters in turn, keeping the crucial claustrophobic air of persecution in each scene while blasting us with big volume and bigger emotions. The genius behind it all, as well as conducting from the keyboard and playing a fabulously nasty Scarpia (yes, all at the same time) is the multi-talented James Schouten. Schouten’s arrangements of Puccini stay melodically faithful to the original, sounding surprisingly natural on electric guitars (Nickolai Linnkick, Felix Stickland) or with the glitzy touch of a saxophone, bolstered by rock star drumming from Matt Lack. As well as Schouten’s sneering antihero, we have a superb Tosca from Justine Viani, note-perfect in gorgeous Italian. Her acting sassy and sensual, Viani’s “Vissi d’arte” allows each phrase to grow delicately into the vast emotion Puccini requires. Ed Hughes gives us a passionate Cavaradossi, finely sung throughout, his “Tosca, sei tu” and “E lucevan le stelle” both excellent: an impressively polished performance at short notice. Timothy Patrick, in an orange jumpsuit, gives Angelotti a memorably hunted look. The band can occasionally drown the singers, despite microphones, and arias in general work better than the recitative: newcomers to Puccini might get a little lost. However, if you already know and love Tosca, Schouten’s rock translation is an exuberant joy.

We move upstairs next, our hands stamped, to enter Paradaezia: an installation of a nightclub within Egg nightclub for Workshopera’s Boys of Paradise, a work which brings opera to the heart of contemporary dance culture. Paradaezia’s dancefloor is already populated with young, lissom dancers who encourage us to join their writhing throng until the opera itself starts. Singing from underneath huge headdresses with beaks and feathers by Maddy Rita Faye, Vulture (a full-voiced Jack Holton) commends Crow (the masterful Piran Legg) on his excellent selection of chemical delights as he racks up lines of cocaine before venturing to Paradaezia to search for beautiful young boys. Unashamedly graphic in its libretto (we even have a coke-laden chorus, “Sniff! Snort! Sniff! Snort!”), Boys of Paradise tells the story of three friends who embark on the drug-fuelled gay sex scene, one of whom, the Icarus-like Twink (Adam O’Shea), pushes through the happy ecstasies into a darker world beyond. Set to Vahan Salorian’s atmospheric and clever score, Dominic Kimberlin’s words observe rave culture deliciously (“Aren’t hands weird?”, the friends break off to marvel together) while simultaneously elevating the work to a higher, semi-mythical plane with the supernatural Crow, Vulture and Peregrine (a slightly hesitant Jean-Max Lattemann), each as intriguing as they are frightening. Anna Pool’s immersive production uses the entire space: we are shepherded by dancers and bouncers as the action moves around and through us, while a small orchestra play to one side, conducted by Ed Whitehead.

Adam O’Shea gives a courageous and skilful performance as Twink, while Eduard Mas Bacardit is instantly appealing as his friend Cub, and Emily Kyte gets a gloriously funny aria to tell us how tough it can be to be a Faghag. Amidst much skilful singing, Piran Legg just has the edge on the rest of the cast, his projection consistently superb, his well-controlled voice resonating with tone and colour. Truly genre-breaking and yet absolutely operatic in tone, intention and effect, Boys of Paradise is an exciting indication of how opera can successfully break creatively into new spaces – and connect with new audiences – if you just have the courage and vision to imagine afresh.    

***11