The Six of Calais & Ruth at Susie Sainsbury Theatre

The Six of Calais & Ruth at Susie Sainsbury Theatre

Pegasus Opera presents a programme of two one-act operas at The Susie Sainsbury Theatre at the Royal Academy, both composed by Philip Hagemann who is also the librettist.

Alison Buchanan, Chike Michael and Angela Caesar. Photo credit Sisi Burn.
Alison Buchanan, Chike Michael and Angela Caesar. Photo credit Sisi Burn.

The first is a historical piece – The Six of Calais – an intriguing tale of retribution, forgiveness and wife-who-nags syndrome. It begins with The Six – Burghers of the city, enchained by severe but jolly King Edward III. The opening chorus by The Six is sombre and foreboding but for all that, it is a hauntingly evocative piece of music sung with superb depth and colour by The Six. The solemn tone that is set by this intro is soon relinquished though as we meet hard-nosed, wide-eyed Edward – ferocious King with a soft centre; his Queen, Philippa, her of the conspiratorial wink-eye with her ladies-in-waiting; and their son, the Black Prince, the intermediary in the marital shenanigans who wears the slightly bemused look of the referee who’s seen it all before and can eye-roll for England, and Calais and anywhere else that his dad lays his hat. Certainly in this production, the eyes have it. It’s a resoundingly strong performance from Carlos Felipe Cerchiaro as Edward and his interplay with the sublime Bernadine Pritchett as the naggingly persistent Queen Philippa makes for droll entertainment whilst Zahid Siddiqui as their interceder is a delightful surrogate court jester with his mellifluous tenor tones as he shapes and conducts the marital banter-fest.

Lead Burgher, Peter Hardmouth, the rebel who has home truths, is played convincingly by Dominick Felix whose rugged characterisation belies his soothingly effective mastery of Hardmann’s elegant arias. It’s a witty and funny opera – based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1934 play – and the company does it more than justice.

The second opera is a biblical piece – the story of Ruth – which explores the themes of hard work, generosity of spirit and that holy grail of peace between communities. Returning to the land of her birth to reclaim property Naomi is accompanied by her daughter, Ruth, in her quest. Having worked hard in the fields Ruth catches the eye of landowner Boaz – and they fall in love. We thus have a double act to die for – Chike Michael as Boaz sings with a depth and resonance that heals one’s woes and calms the soul whilst Alison Buchanan as Ruth is the real deal: an internationally renowned soprano, her rich and engaging timbre soothes the spirit whilst inspiring the audience to go out and sing to the world about love and peace and harmony.

These two are just great together and are wonderfully supported by a profound and sympathetic Angela Caesar as Naomi and a strongly contemplative Christian Joel as Amnon. Good to see eye-roller-in-chief Siddiqui back as part of the chorus in this one, the chorus in both operas playing an essential and inspired role in bringing these works to life and setting such a high standard.

Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong, who directs, shows an excellent eye for staging and managing a large chorus for optimum view and sight-lines, without fuss or unnecessary motion (helped by Movement Director Yojiro Ichikawa). Jida Akil’s simple design is effective for both operas and is cleverly enhanced by Chuma Emembolu’s superbly subtle Lighting design. And the top-notch orchestra, with, in particular, some exceptional oboe (Lorraine Hart) and bassoon (Daria Philips) solos is very capably conducted by Avishka Edirisinghe who clearly has a feel for Hagemann’s music. Marc Verter is Repetiteur and Assistant Conductor.

Because of high prices and a kind of ingrained elitist outlook, opera is not always open to a wider public. But here Pegasus have found a niche – a very welcome niche – of high-quality, accessible operas that are affordable, engrossing and thoroughly entertaining.

5 Star Rating

Review by Peter Yates

The first opera in the double bill is The Six of Calais, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play, which
premiered in 1934 and featured Greer Garson. Shaw was inspired by Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Burghers of Calais which commemorates a moment during The Hundred Year’s War when King Edward III of England offered to spare the lives of the people of Calais if six of their leaders surrendered themselves to him. In a contemporised production setting, after the unrepentant Peter Hardmouth berates him for his warmongering, King Edward resolves to sentence them all to death. His wife, Queen Philippa intercedes and demands that the burghers be treated kindly to avoid a bad omen being placed on her unborn child. Much bickering and light hearted chaos ensues and an unexpected family connection is revealed which convinces King Edward to spare the men’s lives.

The second opera of the double bill is Ruth, which sees Naomi and her husband Elimelech flee famine in Judah to seek a new life in Moab. They lived happily for many years and their two sons married Moab women, Orpah and Ruth. After Naomi’s husband and sons die, Naomi tells her daughters-in-law that she must return to Judah to reclaim Elimelech’s property. Orpah decides to remain in Moab, but Ruth decides to leave the life she knows behind and go with Naomi. Back in Judah, Naomi encourages Ruth to meet Boaz, a prominent land owner. Ruth and Boaz soon fall in love. However, their future happiness is threatened when it is revealed that another landowner, Amnon, is first in line to claim Elimelech’s property. When Amnon learns that he can only own Elimelech’s land if he commits to sheltering Ruth and Naomi, he offers the property to Boaz instead. Boaz announces happily to the entire village that he will claim Elimelech’s land and Ruth will be his wife, with everyone welcoming Ruth to their community. Both exciting adaptations will be staged in a modern-day setting and look at themes of female power migration, loyalty and acceptance, as well as the rebirth of nature and human connections.

21st – 23rd April 2023