a ramble through the Angel
I hadn’t been back to the King’s Head since Opera Up Close finished its collaboration with the theatre (it now is solely a touring company) so wondered how I’d feel returning to the place I’d felt so connected to.
I’ve had a long relationship with the Angel. When I left school my first job was there- that’s when it was an insalubrious place- I worked for a tiny outfit organising musicians’ gigs touring round the UK playing “Early Music”- at the time it was defined as anything from Medieval to mid 18th century- groups like Gothic Voices and Hesperion XX- now music household names- were pretty new on the block then.
The Angel was a seedy area- my boss, who owned a chrome bumper white MGB GT- yes, that’s when I fell in love- with classic cars- was badly beaten up a few weeks after I started working there, and had time in hospital plus recuperation so aged 18 I was left holding the fort, sounding as if I knew what I was talking about, bossing around musicians who thought I was the mature expert (no video conferencing then) and melting the soles of my cheap boots on the 2 bar electric fire under my desk in the vain hope of keeping warm. And I clutched my house keys knuckleduster fashion- as the lady police officer who’d come to our school to talk about personal safety had told us- as I half jogged to the station dodging tramps and druggies. My parents had no idea- they thought I’d got myself a glamorous job in the media….
The office was up in a garret- flights of increasingly narrow stairs in an early Victorian town house, rattling sash windows and a scummy loo. I learned to type on the job, having gone to an academic school which believed if you didn’t learn to type you couldn’t be a slave secretary. It aimed to produce doctors and lawyers, clearly not music administrators, journalists and writers….
Even then, perhaps more so then, I loved this area of London. Steeped in history, at that time crumbling away as it wasn’t trendy. No wine bar and up market estate agent full, sheltering the newly wealthy doing up their town houses, painting and polishing the front doors, framed by olive trees (brought back from our Tuscan holiday home, darling) in newly distressed tubs- it was tough, it was real, I had escaped suburbia to experience the London I knew existed and craved.
And now- it still buzzes but in a very different way. There’s lots of shiny perfection, trendy shops and bars. But scrape beneath the surface and there’s still the edginess. An unpolished diamond in a perfect setting- you can love both at the same time.
There are beggars and rough sleepers and beautiful people walking hand in hand. The tourists getting lost down Camden Passage and the Masserati driving up Upper Street, engine throbbing against the newly painted facades, crisp plaster mouldings casting their shadows in the sun.
And there’s the King’s Head pub and theatre. The pub always seems to be heaving with bodies, ale and white wine spritzers, old geezers and art school students. 19th century cut glass and 21st century vintage crockery.
And behind the bar, into the black hole of a studio theatre often a sweaty pit by the end of the performance and yet in some seats a gale of a draught twists round you. But it doesn’t matter -you can take your drinks in with you, bring a bottle of water and have a thin t-shirt on as a base layer, along with a warm coat in case of those gales, and you will happily sit through anything.
Cosi fan tutte is a case in point. This production is set in a Big Brother house, neon lights, reflecting mirrors and the ubiquitous diary room. The superficiality of relationships in Big Brother, and the potential for disastrous outcomes: embarrassments, fights, affairs etc make a perfect contemporary setting for the counterpoint and convolution of Mozart and da Ponte’s 18th century confection.
This opera has always had challenges for me- the music is perhaps the most sublime of all Mozart’s operas but the message behind it- that all women are the same- fickle, irresponsible….has always grated. However in this production we get the feeling that the men are protesting just as much too much as the women, and that Guglielmo, in particular, is as potentially fickle as anyone even before he takes an opportunity to have a quick fling.
Don Alfonzo, for once played as a relatively young man, not some seedy old man, (Steven East has remarkable stage presence as well as a delicious voice) is the suave friend who plants the seed of suspicion in the young men’s minds- as the compere of the BB show he can physically and emotionally move in and out of the house, be external to the action as well as within iit- a clever device. There is clearly a “thing” in the past with Despina, who is the stage manager/general dogsbody, who is cynical and bitter; the new libretto and some fabulous acting from Caroline Kennedy gives this part body and guts. So often Despina feels like a bit of a joke part, that we’re there to laugh at her; here we got to know her as a real person, jaded, damaged by being let down in the past but still with an underlying sense of fun and ability to laugh at life.
I’d seen Ailsa Mainwaring as Dorabella at the Frome Festival production last year, so I knew her voice was exquisite. However for me the star of the show had to be Stephanie Edwards as Fiordiligi- her stage presence, her ability to act and sing such a challenging role – to really make you feel with her the tearing apart of her soul as she fights temptation, is one of those opera experiences that isn’t going to go away.
I’m not going to spoil the ending – every time I see this opera the director does something different with it- and that is the joy of a contemporary production- we can return to the story and retell it in a new format, for today’s audience -not an 18th century one, or even one from a few years ago. It can reinvent itself, as The Angel has done- it can put on a new gloss, portray a 2016 message without losing the fundamentals, the building blocks of what made it so good in the first place.
There are only a few more performances, and I doubt there are many tickets, if any, left: the performance I went to was sold out, there was a spare seat next to me, but I had the pleasure of Don Alfonzo sit next to me at one point… but if you can, it is worth it!