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Thursday 17 October 2013

El gato con botas at ROH

Linbury Young Artists Programme

Xavier Montsalvatge's opera El gato con botas (1947) is an odd piece - musically it sounds like offcuts of Puccini's La Rondine, stitched together in a typically '40s, darkly parodic neoclassical style which touches on surreal elements (compare it for instance to Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis of 1943). It's often referred to as a chamber opera, but the original orchestration is not small - perhaps Albert Guinovart's 1996 chamber reorchestration that was utilized here has become standard? It's not a great piece of music, but it's surely meant to be more fun and engaging than in this gimmick ridden and deathly dull production by director Pedro Ribeiro and designer Simon Becher.

The set consists of a sinuous chequered path that extends across the stage like a concertinaed highway. Puss in boots is represented both by mezzo soprano Rachel Kelly dressed in a sort of androgynous cabaret costume, and as a puppet, handled by separate puppeteers. Our attention is constantly divided - Kelly is given little to do but is naturally more interesting as she is the source of the sound and can move her face; the hyperactive puppet is in constant motion, moving like no cat or animal I've ever seen, or even any person. Cat behaviour is surely one of the easiest things to imitate, even if only in a basic way, but that aside, if a puppet is meant to be one of the characters, it surely has to act like it has a mind and agency. But here it never appeared engaged in conversation for longer than a second before moving away again, either by turning its head away with bizarre frequency in an extreme figure of eight, or inexplicably swooping off upstage. Comedy moments of head shaking during high notes were frequent and frequently mistimed. Characterisation in the other roles, (already not exactly richly detailed in text or score) is reduced to costume and cliché, Ribeiro either not trusting or not interested in what a performer might be able to bring to a role. There is a nice piece of visual design in that the Princess' dress is a picture of the court, and she carries around her ladies in waiting which are at the right scale for the image on the dress. But it's a disaster for the actress because it means her hands are never free, and so all she can do is ditzy blinking. The level of the puppetry is similarly low in the ogre scene, presumably intended as the dramatic climax of the opera, but here rendered maybe the most boring portion of the evening by the tensionless dance/fight sequences.

The hyperactivity of the presentation and design constantly gives the feeling of a director trying to show everything that he can do with scale, space, and visual effects, whilst forgetting what it is that makes opera the greatest art form. I found the humour tepid and laboured, though some found the show hilariously funny. The cast do fine with what they're given, but are rarely called upon to act or interact meaningfully. All give perfectly acceptable vocal performances in a language which most of them are unlikely to sing in often.

One of the dullest evening's I've had in a while, and just the kind of fussy, emotionless, unreflective, design-led production that is the antithesis of why I go to opera. Obviously, this aesthetic has an audience or it wouldn't exist, but it's simply not for me.

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