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A marvellous success

The Jane Mallett Theatre
04/01/2016 -  & April 3, 2016
Peter-Anthony Togni: Isis and Osiris
Lucia Cesaroni (Isis), Michael Barrett (Osiris), Michael Nyby (Seth), Julie Nesrallah (Nepthys), Stuart Graham (Grand Vizier Khamet), Christopher Wattam (Imhotep), Leigh-Ann Allen (Sennefer)
The Voicebox: Opera in Concert Orchestra and Chorus, Robert Cooper (conductor and chorus director)
Guillermo Silva-Marin (dramatic advisor, lighting designer)

L. Cesaroni & M. Nyby (© Gary Beechey)

Few endeavours are riskier than creating a new opera. So many things can go wrong. We can only be grateful that librettist Sharon Singer persevered with her idea (actually more of an idée-fixe) of dramatizing ancient Egyptian mythology and that she eventually linked up with a composer, Peter-Anthony Togni, whose music is more than just apt or sympathetic but seems equally inspired.

The plot has echoes of other mythologies (Greek, Teutonic, etc) that have been given operatic treatment. The plot involves four sibling deities. The peace-loving king, Osiris, rules with his sister-wife, Isis. Their warrior brother Seth hungers for power. With the help of Grand Vizier Khamet, he traps Osiris and eventually chops his body to pieces. With the help of her sister, Nepthys, and high priest Imhotep, Isis reassembles her husband and they are granted a brief reunion during which a successor is conceived. Osiris then descends to rule the underworld as Isis awaits the birth of Horus. However Seth still asserts his ominous presence. The struggle between the forces of peace and war has not been resolved.

There is one element of the myth that, if handled awkwardly, could result in hilarity: the one missing piece of Osiris’s body is his phallus, and Isis must fashion one from pure gold in order to conceive a successor. One can just imagine how the late Charles Ludlum and his Ridiculous Theatrical Company might have handled this, or Mel Brooks. What transpires, though, is a riveting account of a foundation myth centering on the universal them fertility.

A key to the work’s success is that it avoids either a stilted, high-flown declamatory style in words and music or an overly-colloquial approach. There are no stand alone arias, but overall a series of arioso exchanges. Togni’s style is neither avant-garde (whatever that means these days) nor arrière-garde, nor is it warmed-over semi-pastiche. It provides a steady pulse helping propel Ms Singer’s well-chosen words, with instrumental punctuation at all the right moments.

The small size of the orchestra (just nine players) raised doubts, but it turned out to be perfectly suitable for the 500-seat space. Robert Cooper handled them and the 29-member chorus with his usual assurance.

We have come to expect well-chosen casting from Voicebox and once again such was the case. The rival brothers stood out most. Michael Barrett (Osiris) joined the cast just a couple of weeks ago; his voice has developed impressive heft and he tore into the role with a multi-layered portrayal - Osiris is the work’s good guy but he displays a fierceness equal to his brother’s. Michael Nyby is equally impressive as the implacable Seth.

Lucia Cesaroni gives Isis a flirtatious presence that adds to her portrayal of the determined, desperate queen. Julie Nesrallah and Stuart Graham make vivid impressions in the sidekick roles of Nepthys and Khamet.

One further surprise was that the work was staged. We are accustomed to Guillermo Silva-Marin’s deft work presenting semi-staged operas, but here he shows a dab hand at full-out direction as well. He is credited as "Dramatic Advisor" which includes design elements as well as direction. The set consists of just four statues and a throne which is exactly enough - the production is reminiscent of that for the Metropolitan Opera’s bare-bones classic Les dialogues des Carmelites. The costumes (uncredited) are entirely sufficient to establish just the right look.

Its wonderful to see all the elements come together in a new work. It has been a multi-year effort, especially for Sharon Singer. Isis and Osiris deserves to be widely seen.

Michael Johnson



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