Opera review: Crazy Jane | RSNO: Dream of Gerontius

Rachel Drazek gives a wonderful performance as the younger version of Jane Avril. Picture: Contributed

Rachel Drazek gives a wonderful performance as the younger version of Jane Avril. Picture: Contributed

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Turning imperfect lives into great art

Crazy Jane

Tron, Glasgow

****

SHE’S the woman in all Toulouse-Lautrec’s most famous paintings of Paris in the 1890s; thin, fragile, red hair piled high, often dancing, with strange, stylised movements. She is Jane Avril, one of the most famous and fascinating dancers of the age, and the woman Lautrec adored, although she never became his wife or lover; and now the Birds Of Paradise Theatre Company has created a two-hour drama-cum-cabaret about her life that adds another beautiful and haunting strand to the current generation of great work by Scottish-based companies involving artists with disabilities.

For if Avril was one of the iconic stars of Paris in the Belle Époque, she was also a survivor of a deeply traumatic childhood, marked by fierce maternal cruelty – her mother was a ruthless, high-earning prostitute – and strikingly enlightened institutional care; her dancing emerged as a response to a severe spasmodic twitching disorder she suffered in her early teens, which was gradually held at bay by the strength and focus of ballet training.

Backed by a tremendous suite of music and poetry by the Glasgow-based band Hector Bizerk, and by superb visual images by lighting designer Sergey Jakovsky with artist Pearl Kinnear, Nicola McCartney’s play adopts a swooping, non-chronological structure that weaves the story of Jane’s childhood into the texture of her later life as a true movement artist, uncompromising in her determination to own her own body, and to do with it what she chose. George Drennan, as the ringmaster figure who links all these sequences, sometimes struggles with the slightly plodding business of explaining where we are, and when; and some of the dialogue scenes, with both projected text and sign-language, seem a shade long and repetitive.

The show is sustained, though, by two wonderful performances from Rachel Drazek and Pauline Knowles as the younger and older Jane, both acting and dancing with a rare, haunting power and sadness. Caroline Parker, actor and BSL signer, gives fine support as Jane’s evil old mother. And at the heart of the story is Jane’s deep connection with Buchan Lennon’s baffled and poignant Toulouse-Lautrec, famous for his deformed legs and tiny stature, as two people who carry the visible wounds of a world that finally damages us all find one another, in fin-de-siècle Paris, and succeed – however briefly – in turning the pain of imperfect lives into truly great art.

• Crazy Jane is in Aberdeen, Inverness and Dornie this week, at Summerhall, Edinburgh, 9-10 June, Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, 11 June, and Dundee Rep, 13 June.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

RSNO: Dream of Gerontius

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

**

Whether or not you warm to the religious euphoria of Cardinal Newman’s poem about a Soul’s journey through death to Purgatory, Elgar’s musical setting of The Dream of Gerontius can, on a good day, move even the non-believer. Its philosophy and symbolism may be rooted in Catholicism, but the music’s mystical expansiveness embraces a universality that hits the spot for most folk.

The problem with Friday’s performance by the RSNO and RSNO Chorus, is that it played far too safe. Everything seemed prescriptive to the point of utter predictability. No risk, no spontaneous euphoria. Conductor Peter Oundjian seemed intent on micro-managing every single expressive nuance. Rather than allowing phrases to be shaped by the power of the moment - not least that terrifying climactic silence as the soul glimpses God - it all seemed a bit factory-made.

Sure, it was a faithful reading of the score. But where was the magic? The RSNO sounded reticent, turgidly so at times, as if Oundjian was manoeuvring a mighty juggernaut. The Chorus was accurate and clean, a little thin perhaps in the semi-chorus sections, but again there was a holding back that emasculated the big, exciting moments, especially the Demons.

Sarah Connolly brought enriched femininity to the role of the Angel, and Alan Opie a persuasive solidity to those of the Priest and Angel of the Agony. But critically, Toby Spence was miscast as Gerontius: too light, too pure, too dispassionate. A journey towards heavenly judgement that remained stubbornly earthbound.

KEN WALTON

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