Tête à Tête is always a lucky dip, and every now and then, the patient operagoer strikes gold. After you’ve sat through a few ambitious conceptual pieces (everything from the well-intentioned disaster to the awkward, misconceived howler), Thousand Furs is one of those golden works that repays your festival opera karma in spades. An hour of effervescent creative and musical brilliance which enthralls adults and children alike, it tells the old European folktale of Allerleirauh: one of the earliest, and darkest, versions of the Cinderella myth, collected by the Brothers Grimm. Most excitingly, Re:Sound Music Theatre uses singer-instrumentalists, so that our singers are their own orchestra (conducted invisibly by William Petter), cavorting on stage with a selection of instruments, singing and playing simultaneously in an eye-popping display of multi-talented, multitasking bravura.  

Kate Smith (Maria) in <i>Thousand Furs</i> © Claire Shovelton
Kate Smith (Maria) in Thousand Furs
© Claire Shovelton

Our heroine Maria (a vivacious Kate Smith) grows up to be as beautiful as her long-dead, much-mourned mother, which would have been a comfort if it hadn’t attracted the incestuous eye of her father, a King maddened by grief (a magnificent Oliver Hunt, who also doubles as a jester-like servant in the next palace). The King has become obsessed by his last promise to his dead Queen (a memorable Rebecca Lea) that he will only marry someone equally beautiful: suddenly, he realises his daughter now fits the bill. In desperation, Maria asks for four impossible dresses as a condition of this loathsome marriage: one as silver as the moon, one as golden as the sun, one as beautiful as the stars and one made from the fur and feathers of every animal and bird in the kingdom. Undeterred, her father produces all four, so, disguising herself in the hooded fur gown which makes her look like an animal, and taking the others, Maria runs away. Soon she finds herself a kitchenmaid at another palace, working for a drunken Cook (the hilarious Rebecca Anderson) and an imperious Prince (an eyecatching Roderick Morris), whom Maria does eventually marry, but only after she has taught him crucial moral lessons about kindness, humility and love. Resourceful, independent and uncompromising in her search for happiness, Maria is a far more empowering icon for little girls than any doe-eyed Cinderella; nothing is made easy for her, and there is not a Fairy Godmother in sight.

Katharine Armitage’s brilliant libretto balances irreverent comedy (“Quince! What a colour! It makes me wince!”) with profound poetry, laden with beautiful allegories and images from the natural world (“The butterflies fly higher than you could ever go, yet can be crushed under a thumb”) which had me scribbling down quote after quote. Michael Betteridge’s music draws on the skills of his company, moving from soaring unaccompanied choral moments to gleeful, swaggering melodies, bolstered by violin, cello, ukulele, accordion, saxophone and trombone which are all fully integrated in the performance: one fine moment sees Anderson playing her cello while lying on her back in a supposed drunken swoon, another has Jonathan Ainscough play a flourish on his saxophone before pulling the Palace Ball Guestlist out of its bell to announce aristocratic arrivals in song. Betteridge is adept at setting words clearly, a vital skill, and articulation is excellent. Director Katherine Wilde peppers each scene with dynamic movement, while also creating moments of stillness which fill the eye, keeping a nice sense of pace, tension and energy. Minimalist design for set and costumes by Rachel Szmukler cleverly uses translucent folding screens, plain white boxes and dramatic lighting to create a series of elegant effects and strong images: the dying Queen sat on a tall and twisted throne with her impossibly long red silk gown stretching its many trains to the corners of the stage, Maria shedding her fur disguise behind a screen in an Arthur Rackham silhouette. Szmukler’s versatile and creative design will travel well as this production tours. 

Maya Sapone (Bita) in <i>The Doll Behind the Curtain</i> © Claire Shovelton
Maya Sapone (Bita) in The Doll Behind the Curtain
© Claire Shovelton

The Doll Behind the Curtain is the first Iranian opera to be performed in England. Although Amir Mahyar Tafreshipour’s music doesn’t sound overtly Iranian, remaining robustly contemporary with pronounced dissonance, angularity, sudden trills and plenty of pizzicato, it deals interestingly with the conflicted destinies of a modern Iranian generation, hopelessly attempting to reconcile a traditional upbringing with the possibilities of modern life. Originally a short story by Sadeq Hedayat, the plot references Pygmalion’s myth, though our hero Mehrdad (a well acted, but vocally hesitant Rhys Bowden) does not create his perfect statue, but buys her in Le Havre from the mysterious Tombeau (rich bass Steven East) and his sulky daughter Giselle (a playful Lily Scott): Mehrdad’s idol is a shop mannequin, played with eerie stillness by dancer Jessica Hill. Descending into alcoholism, Mehrdad sits alone in his flat in Tehran playing Russian roulette to the horror of his glamourous mother (Melanie Lodge), wry father (warm-toned Thomas Humphreys) and fiancée Bita, Maya Sapone, who also directs. Dominic Power’s words don’t always come across clearly, and it’s a tough listen, but The Doll Behind the Curtain throws up interesting questions of desire and cultural crisis before finishing with a gunshot-sharp shock. 

*****