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Tete a Tete Festival 2017 review at the Place, London – ‘an engine room for new opera’

The Woman Who Refused to Dance at the Tete a Tete Opera Fesival. Photo: Claire Shovelton The Woman Who Refused to Dance at the Tete a Tete Opera Fesival. Photo: Claire Shovelton
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With subjects ranging from Brexit to a Mars mission, from Trump to the Berlin Wall, this year’s 10th-anniversary Tete a Tete opera festival is as adventurous as ever.

My sample evening began with Shirley J Thompson’s The Woman Who Refused to Dance, the story of a black girl who was beaten and hung from her ankle on board a British slave ship for refusing to dance on command. The girl’s plight is related in parallel by a dancer, the freely expressive Tania Dimbelolo and a singer, Nadine Benjamin, lending a sense of stoicism and dignity.

In exploring themes of personal freedom Matteo Manzitti’s Deeply proves to be strikingly contemporary and heartfelt. A married, middle-aged woman visiting her mother in hospital strikes up a relationship with a pathologist, in which their childhoods as well as their sexuality are mutually explored. The work is deftly scored for five cellos – raised on platforms and semi-covered in sheets, as if awaiting their own post-mortems. Actor Alessandra Faiello and soprano Laura Catrani produce hauntingly atmospheric performances, accompanied by ravishing cello playing, sensitively and alertly conducted by Pilar Bravo.

The final performance was the least operatic, a monologue – more a 50-minute tour de force – in which Abigail McGibbon plays out 15 episodes in the life of Catherine of Aragon. The music, featuring a small piano-based ensemble, rarely does more than underpin the drama, but does so successfully, beginning with pointillist economy but later drawing on high-class Classical-period pastiche and full-blooded Romantic sweep. The music may take a back seat, but McGibbon’s myriad shifts of mood and pacing is spellbinding.

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Varied trio of productions from Britain’s best engine room for new opera