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The Paradis Files at The Southbank Centre | Review

The Paradis Files is a 70-minute chamber opera commissioned by librettists Nicola Werenowska and Selina Mills as well as composer Errollyn Wallen by Graeae, a disabled-led theatre company including, as the director Jenny Sealey says, “deaf, disabled, neurodivergent and non-disabled actors and creatives all in one room”. Performances “creatively integrate BSL, captioning and audio description”, as was demonstrated last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall where, as well as having two BSL signers on stage all the time, linked to particular roles, there were also surtitles, which unfortunately failed for some minutes leaving all of us at a loss as it what was happening, plus a ten minute spoken introduction in which the cast described themselves and what they were wearing. Unfortunately, this was not amplified, and was difficult to hear even from the centre of Row E.

Graeae's The Paradis Files. Photo-Patrick Baldwin
Graeae’s The Paradis Files. Photo-Patrick Baldwin

The opera concerns the 18th-century musician Maria Theresia de Paradis who, a pupil of Salieri and alleged lover of Mozart, is the star of Viennese salons. She is called the ‘blind enchantress’ but her mother has plans to cure her and forces her to endure some very painful and unsuccessful operations. In fact, the plot is quite depressing, and its treatment appears rather shallow as, presumably to aid continual signing for the hard of hearing, most of the libretto seems to consist of one or two syllable words and does let allow us, the audience, to begin to empathise with Theresia, as she is never allowed to express her feelings in a soliloquy or aria, the stage being fully occupied with other characters most of the time.

The undoubted ‘star’ of this opera is the BBC Concert Orchestra quintet, including violinist Charles Mutter, plus uncredited double bass, percussion, piano and, above all, accordion. These five players lifted the music to a new level by the crispness and depth of their playing, especially the accordionist, whose contribution was often thrilling.

Theresia herself was strongly sung by Bethan Langford, who endeavoured to extract as much as possible from her role by really singing ‘off the words’ giving them as much meaning as the libretto allowed. In addition, she had a commanding presence on stage. Her maid, Gerda, was prettily sung by Ellie Taylor and it is a shame she was not given the opportunity to do more.

I should also like to have heard and seen more of Omar Ebrahim, a doctor, and Ben Thapa, Salieri, who possessed a ringing tenor that was too rarely used.

The simple set design (Bernadette Roberts), just a white piano centre stage and two doorways right and left, immediately gave the impression that we were in the eighteenth century, but seemed to take up too much space, giving the acting area a cramped look for much of the time, especially as there were also some unnecessarily large chairs on stage.

The whole production was clearly conducted by Andrea Brown, the opera being at its best in the infrequent ‘choral’ moments, and the director, Jenny Sealey, had wisely decided to keep movement down to a minimum.

An interesting evening, especially for the contribution of the BBC Concert Orchestra quintet, the opera now touring to The Stables Milton Keynes, who commissioned it, Colchester, Hull, Perth, Cardiff and Sheffield.

3 Star Review

Review by John Groves

In the glittering salons of 18th-century Vienna, Maria-Theresia von Paradis is a star. Pianist, composer, touring musician; this pupil of Salieri and friend (and alleged lover) of Mozart has captivated Europe with her own sensational talent. They call her The Blind Enchantress.

Yet behind this dazzling success story there are darker forces at work. Some of those closest to Maria-Theresia are looking to profit from her blindness. Others are looking to ‘cure’ her – whatever it takes.

In this newly commissioned chamber opera, this extraordinary woman is finally drawn out of the shadows to reclaim her place in the spotlight of music history.

Commissioned by The Stables for IF: Milton Keynes International Festival

A Graeae Theatre Company production in partnership with BBC Concert Orchestra and Curve Theatre.

THE PARADIS FILES
COMPOSER – ERROLLYN WALLEN CBE
DIRECTOR – JENNY SEALEY
LIBRETTIST – NICOLA WERENOWSKA
CO-LIBRETTIST AND ORIGINAL IDEA – SELINA MILLS
MUSICAL DIRECTOR AND CONDUCTOR – ANDREA BROWN
DESIGNER – BERNADETTE ROBERTS
LIGHTING DESIGNER – EMMA CHAPMAN

The Paradis Files
Until 14 April
Queen Elizabeth Hall

Graeae is a National Portfolio Organisation of Arts Council England.
www.graeae.org

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Author

  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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