Opera Theatre Company

A short history of the world of opera isn't short enough for Philip Hammond

A short history of the world... of opera? It’s an impossibility. In any case, why would anyone want to condense almost four centuries of one particular artform into a couple of hours? Opera Theatre Company, rashly or otherwise, has taken on the task.

In the Baby Grand at the Grand Opera House, a small but obviously empathetic audience listens to David Vivian Russell lecture them on what he considers to be some of the operatic highlights of the period from 1604 to 1791, from Monteverdi to Mozart.

Such presentations are fraught with pitfalls. If the language and manner of delivery are cosy and exclusively clever, those being lectured can feel distanced from the subject.

If the lecturer 'lectures', it becomes rather dull and academic. If there’s just too much information - 'a bumper crop' as Russell himself admits - the audience soon realise that there is little real substance to be had as the enormity of the undertaking gradually dawns upon them.

Add in a live ingredient and the stakes get higher. Assisting Russell in his Herculean undertaking are four young singers (and accompanist David Bremner). Unwisely perhaps, Russell also joins in the fray on occasion as a countertenor of dubious worth.

We learn later during a question and answer session that the singers are participating in Opera Theatre Company’s Young Associate Artists programme. In fact only three are, according to the OTC website - mezzo soprano Chloe Hinton, tenor Ross Scanlon and baritone Chris Cull. I couldn’t find a reference there to soprano Aoife O’Sullivan .

These young people are right at the beginning of their careers and their voices are by no means settled. That is immediately apparent in this event, and totally understandable.

What is also immediately apparent but less understandable is that they appear to be ill-prepared for this testing kind of presentation. They come across as gauche, awkward and ill at ease, seeming untutored in how to engage with the audience in visual and dramatic terms. And it’s not easy to jump from one excerpt to another and set the character at the drop of a hat, especially if there’s no set and no hat.

To some extent the excessive informality of this event should have eased the situation, but to my mind it exacerbates the sloppiness (verging on tackiness) of the presentation. This approach is all too arrogant and dismissive of the listeners for my taste.

I do not however blame the singers. If blame there is, it lies with Opera Theatre Company for letting down their young singers and relying on the empathy of the audience to allow this second rate event to pass unnoticed.

Its sequel will be closely scrutinised on February 18 when OTC returns to the Grand Opera House to make the journey from Beethoven to Puccini – CNI will be there to report.