Roman Fever/The Human Voice review by The Observer

Roman Fever/The Human Voice review by The Observer

Rating: 4 out of 5.

‘Held her audience spellbound’: Nadine Benjamin in The Human Voice. Photograph: Dominique Nok

Susie Sainsbury theatre; Royal Festival Hall; St Martin-in-the-Fields, London
Pegasus Opera sparks change with a tart two-hander and a woman on the edge

As a scenario for a chamber opera, try this: two women of “ripe but well-cared-for middle age” (an enviable condition) reminisce as old friends but soon reveal themselves bitter rivals, each harbouring a shocking secret. Edith Wharton’s featherlight short story Roman Fever (1934) can nearly be lifted straight from the page to make a crisp two-hander libretto. The American composer Philip Hagemann (b.1932) did just that in his 1989 opera, set to lush, singable, musical theatre-style music. Wharton’s words remain intact, the levity of the conversation exposed as bitchiness exemplified.

Roman Fever was presented as part of a stylish double bill with Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine (sung in English as The Human Voice) by Pegasus Opera, directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo and conducted by Rebecca Tong. Both shows were designed, with elegant economy, by Peiyao Wang. Pegasus’s credo, since its foundation in 1992, has been to provide opportunities “for artists from African and Asian heritage, promoting opera among people of all ages in underserved and culturally diverse communities”. In choice of repertoire, this open-minded company prefers the universal to proselytism. The two works here, based on texts by canonical writers (in Poulenc’s case, Jean Cocteau), plead no case except to explore the human condition.

A majority female production team and orchestra match the theme of the double bill, but this is treated as an opportunity rather than a condition. Many of the young and efficient production team were from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Pegasus now has a forward-looking partnership with Glyndebourne involving mentoring and masterclasses. In classic Wharton style, the two widows, sung by the soprano Alison Buchanan and the mezzo-soprano Bernadine Pritchett, are women of leisure. All is revealed in the opera’s last, climactic bars. As Alida, acid-tongued and glamorous, Pritchett was alluring, wry, diction clear. Buchanan, who is also artistic director of Pegasus, has an operatic fullness to her voice, well suited to the apparently dowdy Grace.

Alison Buchanan and Bernadine Pritchett in Roman Fever. Photograph: Dominique Nok

After this comedy came Poulenc’s intense monodrama in which a woman, Elle, pours her suicidal emotion into a phone call. The lyric soprano Nadine Benjamin, now a star name in British opera, balanced excess and restraint, even allowing glints of humour amid the darkness. She held her audience spellbound – an audience as comfortably diverse as many a UK city street. How is that mix achieved? Given the paucity of audience information in the recent Arts Council England Let’s Create survey, the question is worth asking. A Pegasus spokesperson summed it up as years of building up mailing lists and writing to general opera lovers as well as targeting black events, organisations and individuals, plus group leaders and bookers. Hard work, but not mysterious. Pegasus’s double bill, given three performances, may look like a small event. On the contrary, it is a catalyst for change.