Britten’s one-act opera The Little Sweep was a roaring success at St George’s Bristol this Monday. What better way for the venue to celebrate Britten’s centenary than with one of his most successful and educational children’s operas, and the first of his operas to be entirely conceived, composed and produced at Aldeburgh? One forgets that despite the innocence of the story, the musical side of the performance is far from simple and features complex time signatures and key-changes.

Henry Wong Doe
Henry Wong Doe

On entering the hall, the audience members were given sheet music and song pages, so that they could participate in four songs, effectively becoming the chorus section. Conductor and musical director Mark Lawrence held a short rehearsal of all of the four audience participation songs before the concert started, with the aid of the children in the production. It was clear from the onset that this would be a fun evening’s entertainment and something fresh and different.

Britten wrote this opera to have six parts for children and five for adults, which included that of Juliet (the eldest girl). In this version of the production, the six children’s parts were doubled, along with the part of Juliet. The children ranged in age from nine to sixteen and were proficient and delightfully engaging on the stage. They held command of the orchestra and, despite a tendency for many children to overact or wander on stage, were captivating to watch. The music interlinked with the movement on stage, providing just as fundamental a part of the opera as the singers. The musicians for this performance played the work’s original scoring, for string quartet, piano duet and percussion. The percussion was set back a little on the side of the stage alongside the piano, so as not to be too dominating in sound and stature on stage. This created a perfect balance with the singers, who were at no point too dominating, considering they were walking through and around the audience.

The production values for this show were extremely high. The lighting had been thought through meticulously, to the point where “The Night Song” had a moon projected on to the back wall behind the stage, and there were red lights for Martin Le Poidevin’s gruff solo as Black Bob tried to find his sweep boy. Great use was made of the space in St George’s: not an area was unused. The stage was busy with props and set all in black and white. One of the highlights of the staging was the coach and horses, which was created with two children spinning umbrellas for the wheels as Laurie Stewart (playing Rowan) sat on a chair at the back, leading a song about Sammy’s journey to freedom at the end of the opera.

My only criticism of the entire performance was that Sammy should have come out of the chimney looking more dirty than he did – a song talks about turning him from “black to white” to make him clean, and there was no obvious change, despite a fantastically staged bath scene where a big white sheet was held up as Sammy, played by Toby Yapp, changed behind the audience joined in for the chorus song called “Sammy’s Bath”.

One of the unexpectedly impressive vocal performances of the evening was that of Will Sharma playing Clem/Alfred. Sharma, only fifteen years old, is certainly one to look out for in the future. He has a deep, resonant voice for his age, which sounded surprisingly mature but not strained. His duet with Le Poidevin, “Now the little white boy”, was energetic, with not a note out of tune, even the deep bass notes. In fact, that was one of my main worries of going to see a children’s opera – that some of the kids might not have had the same high standard as the experienced adult cast – but I was surprised by the level of talent. Music Box Children’s Opera Group has recently reformed in conjunction with the St George’s education programme to give children the chance to perform in a professional setting on stage.

This opera was fun, innocent and fantastic for educating – not only the children in the audience, but also the adults. Receiving a score for the chorus songs and partaking in the rehearsal beforehand enhanced the educational value. It was a much more casual approach to classical music than the more traditional concert setting, but it by no means felt patronising as some children’s events are. The Little Sweep will stay as one of my most memorable performances at St George’s. There was, of course, huge applause.