Next week HK Gruber’s new opera, Tales from the Vienna Woods is due to have its premiere at the Bregenz Festival. Seventy last year, Gruber is truly a one-off and it seems fitting that the occasion of a major new work should be marked also by looking back over his musical life to date.
Among his stage works, Gloria – a Pigtale from 1994 is a typical example of Gruber’s quirky, fantastical imagination. This new staging by Mahogany Opera Group, sung in Amanda Holden’s English translation, will travel from London to the Buxton Festival and then on to Bregenz, where it will be performed alongside the new opera.
Gruber’s pig tale is a piece audiences will either love or hate. It is less an opera, more a cabaret. The period of the Weimar Republic is the essential background and Frederic Wake-Walker’s hyperactive production taps into that by employing a figure reminiscent of the emcee of the Kit Kat Club in the musical Cabaret for the spoken links and setting the opera in a cabaret format with the small, mostly brass orchestra on stage and the artists’ bead curtain replaced by hanging strings of sausages.
Unfortunately, everything is so geared towards zany, non-stop, relentless comedy that there was never a moment to stop and breathe. It would have helped if more than a handful of Holden’s words had been intelligible. As it was, Gloria’s tale – a supposedly satirical fable of how a pretty pig with blond ringlets is saved from the butcher’s knife by a dashing, young boar – was largely incomprehensible. All that came across was an exhausting visual display of comic piggery, from pigs in tutus and a song-and-dance routine for two hot dogs, to an orchestral interlude filled by a couple of the cast blowing up inflatable pigs.
Mahogany Opera Group’s hard-working cast will never want to see a rasher of bacon again. Gillian Keith was the sparkling Gloria, well seconded by Jessica Walker, Andrew Dickinson, Charles Rice and Sion Goronwy. Geoffrey Paterson conducted the excellent musicians of Chroma in Gruber’s many-faceted pastiche of a score. Altogether, though, a very wearing evening, guaranteed to send everybody in the audience out a life-long vegetarian.