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Biedermann and the Arsonists review at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells – ‘aptly incendiary’

Johnny Herford, Adam Sullivan and Bradley Travis in Biedermann and the Arsonists at Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells, London. Photo: Robbie Jack Johnny Herford, Adam Sullivan and Bradley Travis in Biedermann and the Arsonists at Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells, London. Photo: Robbie Jack
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Presenting its director fellow Max Hoehn, Independent Opera mounts the first UK performances of Czech-Austrian composer Simon Vosecek’s Biedermann and the Arsonists. David Pountney has produced an English translation of the composer’s own libretto, which is closely based on Max Frisch’s absurdist play concerning the petit-bourgeois Gottlieb Biedermann and his wife Babette who, out of middle-class politeness, embarrassment or just sheer spinelessness, end up putting up a pair of self-confessed arsonists in their attic. “Blinder than blind are the cowardly”, one of the arsonists observes: a truth borne out to the extreme by Biedermann who, unable to confront pyromaniac guests, goes as far as to lend them a match – with predictably explosive consequences.

The Britten Sinfonia is deftly directed by Timothy Redmond, with the score’s nervous gestures, tolling bell and comical trombones often giving the air of a grotesque cabaret. A trio of bumbling firemen offers a Greek chorus commentary from their colourful play fire engine, but the only ones with any clue or plan are the double-act arsonists Schmitz (a former wrestler) and Eisenring (a former waiter, recently out of jail). Sung respectively by Leigh Melrose and Matthew Hargreaves, they make a stunning contribution – especially Melrose who, wearing a comic book tattooed muscle suit, combines the precision comic technique of Jean Dujardin with an unsettling, knowing glare.

Mark Le Brocq perfectly captures the ineffectual Biedermann and, remarkably, never tires in vocal writing which continues to ascend as the character loses his grip on reality. Alinka Kozari and Raphaela Papadakis also give striking performances as Babette and the Biedermanns’ maid Anna. In all, an aptly incendiary show.

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Entertaining, disturbing and enduringly topical, this could turn out to be a modern operatic classic