It’s been a good year for New Sussex Opera. September saw the release of their world premiere recording of Charles Villiers Stanford’s opera, The Travelling Companion. The final performance was recorded live in Saffron Hall, with the Telegraph describing the production as an ‘accomplished revival of a little-known gem, greatly to the credit of the ever-enterprising New Sussex Opera.’
I meet NSO’s Artistic Director David James in his Lewes home, where he further explains how they are ‘enterprising’. When selecting which opera to perform, the NSO aim to strike a balance between the obscure and the mainstream: great news for opera fans who might want a change from the ever-presents in the repertoire. “On the one hand we want to do something people want to come and see, but on the other hand, if we do something really obscure, are we going to get an audience?”
Offenbach’s comic operetta La belle Hélène sits happily in the middle. The operetta form includes spoken dialogue and songs, so any fans of musical theatre might well have fun here. David is excited about this “very funny”, rarely performed, farcical parody of the story of Helen of Troy.
The NSO stages at least two shows a year. The first is an in-house production, which provides opportunities for individual chorus members to take their first steps as soloists. The second show each year is a fully professional production, which is what’s coming to Lewes Town Hall this month. The two forms of production are symbiotic: Jennifer Clark’s work in an in-house production has led to her performing as Bacchis, as a professional soloist in La belle Hélène.
The calibre of soloists appearing with the chorus is a source of pride; Katie Bray, for example, played Lazuli in their production of L’Etoile in 2013, and won the Joan Sutherland audience prize in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition this June (representing England). Soloists in La belle Hélène include mezzo-soprano Hannah Pedley (Helen, pictured), tenor Anthony Flaum (Paris), tenor Paul Featherstone (Menelaus), all of whom have worked at the Royal Opera House, and mezzo Catherine Backhouse
in the trouser role of Orestes.
La belle Hélène is the first co-production in NSO’s history. Opera della Luna’s 2003 production of the opera was directed and translated by Jeff Clarke; he returns for this adapted version and the NSO will be reusing “a fair bit of the set and the soloists’ costumes”. David shows me some photos of the original costumes: he doesn’t want to give away any surprises but it’s safe to say that the production will be bold and colourful.
“Jeff’s version is different”, says David. “It’s slimmed down. Offenbach turned it into a farce, and Jeff turns it into even more of a farce. It’s quite a rude version. He is bringing references and jokes up to date but it’s still just as outrageous, not for young children!”
Lewes Town Hall, 13th, 7pm, newsussexopera.org