The Six of Calais/Ruth review
This double bill of one-act operas highlights the talent and versatility of Pegasus Opera Company. Versatility is the byword here, with a tonal shift from the loopy comedy The Six of Calais to the sombre biblical story of Ruth, both directed by Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong, with music by Philip Hagemann. It makes for an engaging, if somewhat uneven, evening.
In 1889, Auguste Rodin sculpted the Burghers of Calais. It depicts an incident from the Hundred Years’ War when six leading citizens volunteered to die to save their besieged city from the revenge of the victorious English king, Edward III, in 1346. They were spared death through the intervention of Edward’s queen, Philippa of Hainault. Rodin’s dramatic sculpture was the unlikely inspiration for a one-act comedy by George Bernard Shaw in 1934 and has been given operatic treatment by Hagemann.
Shaw revels in cutting historical figures down to size and the Pegasus production sticks closely to his irreverent viewpoint. The self-important Edward (Carlos Felipe Cerchiaro) consults with his equally pompous son, the Black Prince (an amusing Zahid Siddiqui), before condemning the burghers. They all beg for mercy except for the defiant (and aptly named) Peter Hardmouth (an excellent Dominick Felix). Enter Queen Philippa. As portrayed by the witty Bernadine Pritchett, this Queen is feisty and indomitable. Pregnant with child number 11, she pleads with her husband to spare the men’s lives. Her magnanimity is soon tested by her own encounter with the insolent Hardmouth.
The evening’s second opera contrasts sharply with the slapstick of the first. The libretto closely follows the text of the Book of Ruth, found in a part of the Old Testament that is otherwise devoted to bloody battles and terrifying divine judgments. Over the millennia, this tale of a woman who returns to her homeland after years in a foreign land has resonated with many as a message of hope.
Distinguished soprano Alison Buchanan, artistic director of Pegasus, brings her considerable vocal and dramatic powers to the title role. Ruth, a Moabite, journeys to Judah, the land of her mother-in-law Naomi (an affecting Angela Caesar), when both are widowed. There, she finds acceptance from the community and love from the land owner Boaz (a rich-voiced Chikezie Chike-Michael). Musically, Ruth is more effective more than Calais, perhaps due to Hagemann’s strong background as a choral composer. Individual performances, too, are more substantial in Ruth.
Given the centrality of the female characters in both operas, it’s no surprise that they benefit from the most striking costumes by designer Jida Akil. Queen Philippa, in her bright-yellow flowered headband and red scarf, conjures the spirit of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, as do her fluttery attendants. Equally eye-catching are the richly coloured, shimmering costumes of Ruth and the other Moabites.
Last year, Pegasus Opera was given a vote of confidence by the Arts Council when it was declared a National Portfolio Organisation. For three decades, the South London-based company has stayed true to its mission of high-quality performances for under-served communities, while providing opportunities for artists of African and Asian heritage. I am eager to see what it does next.