Time Zone Theatre begins an intriguing new venture this year at the Bridewell Theatre. While there is no shortage of opera as a whole around the country in the summer months, there is little on offer in the centre of town. So there is an opportunity available to showcase new or rarely performed works, without competing either with Grimeborn further eastwards, or the established West End houses. Director Pamela Schermann deserves credit for identifying this gap.

ZanettoThe Bridewell Theatre is a useful space for opera. There is a balcony running around the stage area to provide split-level action (and almost every opera has a balcony scene of some kind, or can devise one!). There is a large apron for performers to operate in and a useful side alcove in which a piano and instrumentalists can be located. The acoustic is large and resonant with no need for amplification. In other words it is a neutral, flexible space in an excellent location with a lot of potential, if the singers and players know how to use it.

This was certainly the case for much of this double bill, devoted to works written around 1900 that rarely get much of an outing. First up was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart & Salieri, which takes the mythology surrounding Mozart’s death at face value to produce a two-hander in one act that more than holds the stage. The libretto, delivered in English translation, derives from a Pushkin original.

This production first saw the light of day last year at Grimeborn, and the performers return here with greater confidence and experience in place. In particular, Nick Dwyer’s eloquent baritone has the full measure of Salieri’s self-awareness of failure, together with his brittle, prissy sense of musical and social proprieties, and distaste for Mozart’s cheerful boorishness.

ZanettoIn pleasing contrast, Roger Paterson makes full play of Mozart’s joshing charm, childish innocence and insouciant genius. Their joint exchanges are easeful on the surface yet tense underneath, as they should be, and the acting skill of the players ensures that we feel for each while not at any point condoning Salieri’s actions. This is not an ‘ideas’ opera as such, but there are lots of stimulating observations here about the difference between competence and genius and the relationship between hard work and inspiration in the creative arts.

This is not one of Rimsky’s most melodious compositions- indeed much of it might be called heightened arioso rather than any kind of aria-based structure. It does not lose much in piano reduction and Andrew Charity does a fine job in pointing up the musical structures and moving things along when they need to. He is accompanied by Nina Kopparhed on violin, whose clear silvery line provides a guiding emotional thread that is most helpful in the sections of introverted monologue.

The only aspect that does not work so well in this expanded space is the set. The dinner table and theatre box work well enough, but the suspended leaves of musical manuscript that resonated well at the Arcola Theatre failed to register here in the distant, gloomy recesses of the rear stage.

ZanettoZanetto is another one act rarity, from the pen of Mascagni, whom we most easily remember for Cavalleria Rusticana, also a one-act piece but a world away in theme from this two-hander.  This work originated in a play where Sarah Bernhardt had enjoyed great success, and Mascagni saw a chance to capitalise on its fleeting popularity. On this occasion we miss the orchestra rather more, as the piano cannot fully realise the frequent sweep of sumptuous string melody in the most dramatic moments of the original. But with two powerful and flexible voices, as we have here, the essence of the work is conveyed well all the same.

The plot is slight and indeed is more a matter of what might happen than of anything happening in fact. Silva (Becca Marriott) is a lady of mature years who has forsworn love through the fatal result her love has had on a succession of lovers. Marriott portrays her as an elegant, bored, apprehensive lady of leisure, whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of Zanetto (a breeches role sung by mezzo Sophie Goldrick).

The opera is relocated to contemporary London where Goldrick, bearing guitar rather than lute, is sleeping rough before moving on to a new pitch. After an immediate empathy and a transfer of location into Silvia’s plush mansion, both are unable to commit for different reasons: Zanetto, rather like Vaughan Williams’ vagabond, is more devoted to the road than to the cause of love; and Silvia fears to reveal the scale of her passion for fear of its destructive consequences.

This sounds trifling when summarised, but as performed it becomes a much more topical piece evoking many points of reflection on the skill at avoiding commitment we have developed in our own contemporary society, and the self-deception behind the sophisticated, elliptical rationalisations.

ZanettoIf the second half of the evening impresses less it is for two technical reasons. Marriott forces her tone too much and for too long in a role that calls more for the insinuating charm of Magda in La Rondine, than the kind of Valkyrie-defiance she has recently projected in the first season of Grange Park’s new venture. Also the stage area is just too vast for such an intimate encounter and a lot of dramatic tension is lost in such a milieu despite the best efforts of the players, especially Goldrick’s feisty Zanetto.

Andrew Charity does his best to invest the piano part with passionate lyricism despite a clattery instrument, and Kopparhed returns on her violin to lend a lilt and romantic inflection to the melodic lines.

In sum this is a very solid start to a musical venture which is full of distinctive promise both for this festival and for those that may come in future years.

Mozart and Salieri    4 stars

Zanetto    3 stars