VARIATIONS ON A CONCIERTO BARROCO
Three Mills Island, London E3
Opened 22 June, 1999

Every LIFT seems to include one show which contrives to feed its audience. This year, we are served a dish of black beans and rice "Moros y Cristianos" which is cooked on one of the several stage rostra during Opera Transatlantica's bonkers stage adaptation of Alejo Carpentier's magic-realist novel Concierto Barroco. (During one of the musical numbers, delightfully, I caught sight of chef Maria Fernanda di Giacobe doing a fan-dance with leeks.) As well as an onstage chef, the performance includes actors, opera singers, a pianist and a trio of percussionists. Oh, and a drag queen. And a fashion show courtesy of Central St. Martin's. And the entire audience in a snake-dance. An evening, in short, crammed with incident from the moment we are first welcomed into the space, more or less one by one, by a bosomy, extravagantly enthusiastic diva.

The story of young Mexican nobleman Amo and his Cuban manservant Filomeno's journey back to the old world and on into the future is interspersed with arias, Latin American songs and at one point what seems to be a Carmen Miranda number. (Earlier, in a telling juxtaposition, the traditional Dies irae segues into a rhythmic Santeria hymn in praise of Yemanyá.) Actors seem to quarrel with each other almost as much as their characters do; we first encounter Antonio Delli (who later appears as Vivaldi) as a heckler in the middle of the audience. The design uses simple materials, with red doors serving as flats, floors and rostra sidings as well as actual entrances. When Amo's ship runs into a storm, a tiny representation of the vessel on a rod and line is "blown" hither and yon across the room by audience members.

Edwin Erminy's production is almost endlessly inventive, only really running into trouble during the handful of protracted debates which he includes. With only a printed synopsis and occasional lines of English dialogue to guide us, non-Hispanophones experience these sequences as, for instance, when Amo castigates Vivaldi for so traducing the story of Moctezuma in his opera as little more than two blokes getting shirty with one another for several minutes, until exuberance and inclusiveness regain the upper hand. As with many magic-realist tales, the story does not so much end as peter out, with Filomeno travelling on to Paris to become a jazz musician, but the preceding two and a quarter hours are seldom less than fascinatingly engaging and the food is more than palatable.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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