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Roles review at V&A, London – ‘provocative new operatic work’

Scene from Roles at V&A, London Marta Fontanals Simmons in Roles at V&A, London

Less an opera and more a collection of scenes for opera heroines, Roles is the culmination of Metta Theatre’s residency at the V and A during its Opera: Passion, Power and Politics exhibition.

In the centenary of women’s suffrage and the age of #MeToo, Company founder Poppy Burton-Morgan worked with emerging composer Oliver Brignall to develop alternative arias for five heroines who demand the right to rule, to reject servitude and, in Salome’s case, the right to keep her clothes on.

Brignall has written a cappella arias in simple melismatic lines that allude to the original opera scores. The soloists are brave and brilliant, running the gamut of emotions from frivolity to cold fury. But while each scene starts powerfully, it needs a brisk edit to make an impact.

As Ottavia, Marta Fontanals Simmons sweeps on in an exquisite champagne-coloured pleated robe to declare: “Power. Of course I love power”.

The bubbly Susanna, Raphaela Papadakis, fights her way out of a giant crinoline, while dramatic soprano Philippa Boyle, in a puffball dress of bloodied bandages, steals the show as the defiant teenager Salomé. Bess of Porgy and Bess and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk are squashed into a duet that gives no chance for Gweneth Ann Jeffers or Catrin Woodruff to shine. Cellist Alice Purton fills the interludes with percussive solos that seemed to belong to a different concert.

The spectacular costumes, like artworks, provide the only drama on a bare, starkly lit stage. In a last, noisy dinner-table tableau, the characters hammer home the message that there are countless women whose voices are never heard – a point made more subtly by their individual scenes.

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Opera’s leading ladies fight back against their male creators in this provocative but over-long new operatic work