A compelling story, superb singing, a fascinating musical score and delicate, expressive acting are the hallmarks of success when it comes to musicals and operas. By telling the incredible story of real musical genius Maria Theresia von Paradis, known as the blind sorceress, The Paradis Files offers all that. What’s more, this newly composed chamber opera is an all-encompassing Graeae production (in collaboration with the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Curve Theatre), so alongside clear, beautifully integrated audio description and subtitles comes BSL from two expressive performance interpreters who totally immersed in it are the emotions of the characters they sign for.
Blind from an early age, Marie Theresia von Paradis was an extraordinarily talented composer and virtuoso pianist, a big star in the glittering salons of 18th-century Vienna. To her parents’ annoyance, she was also the lover of a certain, more widely known musician of the time – a Herr Mozart. Later in life she proudly founded a music school for blind students. But despite her overwhelming success, despite her own belief that blindness was just a part of her and not an embarrassment or disadvantage, her parents belonged to a society that thought differently. Determined to let her “cure” at all costs, they inflicted on her every cruel, tormenting, traumatic, insane “treatment” that was being pedaled at the time—needles, electric tongs, cutting, bleeding, freezing, binding—until she couldn’t take it anymore. Not surprisingly, her relationship with her parents, particularly her mother, was particularly strained and complicated. That the racy Salieri groped around as her piano teacher and suffered stillbirth later in life only added to her woes. ‘Ah, the pain!’ is a frequent, painful refrain of hers and her mother’s.
Since this little chamber opera is only seventy minutes long and yet has so much to tell, it continues with a rather old flashback lick. This works well for the most part (although a two-act version, with opportunities to further develop and flesh out characters, relationships, and storylines, would be an extremely tempting prospect, and a stronger finale would do it more justice, too.)
To put everyone in the picture before the story unfolds, conductor Andrea Brown on stage and the cheerful singers and five accomplished stage musicians introduce themselves, their roles and their instruments in a pretty grand way. With humor and simple clarity, they describe the various elements of their costumes, appearance, color, impairments, and gender orientation, and provide set and prop details. It’s a set that sits well on the Crucible stage, simple and attractive with its delicate touches of Vienna – chandeliers, ornate antique chairs, gilded frames and a white prop piano with illuminated strip that serves as the mime keyboard, and a beautiful one Scene painted in its lifted lid. However, the piano is sometimes a little too prominent, separating the singers when interactions could be more closely aligned, especially when signing is also involved.
Errollyn Wallen’s eclectic score brings with it its own interest and fascination as it traverses from shrill to poignant, from plodding, plopping and abrupt spikes to beautiful harmony and Mozartian flourishes and flourishes, from piano practice and Viennese rolls to cabaret – with touches of the Westside Story after the way. Special moments come from violin, accordion, double bass, timpani, cymbals and piano, with the music generally reflecting the story’s drama and emotions well.
The vocals are great and uplifting all round, several cast members have additional roles as doctors and in the gossip chorus. Bethan Langford, himself visually impaired, as Theresia, her mezzo-soprano, is thoroughly engaging, strong and pleasing throughout his range. Meanwhile, Maureen Braithewaite brings emotion to her fine voice and sympathy as Theresa’s estranged baroness mother, who was once strict and inflexible. As Gerda, the go-between, Ella Taylor’s bright-toned soprano is a delight, while Ben Thapa delivers a robust, imposing performance as the touchy, dingy Salieri, his round tenor also ringing out to please the ear.
In short, this great little opera definitely leaves the heartily applauding audience wanting more.
Eileen Caiger Gray
THE PARADIS FILES, THE CRUCIBLE, SHEFFIELD – MAY 11, 2022
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