OPERA REVIEW: If You Can Find Me

To hear from Kate Guelke, you would think that Spark Opera's Artistic Director has found a novel and exciting way to stage and present the medium. To see her production of NI Opera Studio's If You Can Find Me, at the Lyric Theatre, is to discover she has. Hands down the year's most humanely and intimately directed operatic piece, If You Can Find Me is a bold and passionate work, merging four fine singing and acting talents with twelve random Stephen Sondheim songs to tell a tale of performance. About people who reject societal norms and choose to reinvent themselves in a way in which they see fit. 

How is Sondheim relevant here? To start with, as NI Opera dramaturg Judith Wiemers notes in the programme, his work is evocative, rich and sumptuous musically, and sharp & observant in language. Lyrically it is as smart as it is sympathetic, skilled at "negotiating the perils and pitfalls of being a performer", as his Follies certainly does. 

Thus, If You Can Find Me is the perfect title for this enterprise – it is as much about the audience discovering, or re-discovering, the joy of Sondheim as the characters finding their true selves.

Perceive, if you will, performers Ross Scanlon (tenor), Rebecca Murphy (soprano), Margaret Bridge (mezzo soprano) and Elaine McDaid as actors on the stage as well as off it. Imagine that they are not a poet, a maid, a socialite and a servant, who they appear to be respectively playing, but are instead like children playing dress up. Admirably innocent dreamers, idealists without the insight and experience to fully grasp the realities of their roles. People still searching for who they want to be and what they want to do, therefore enquiring if Sondheim's music, and the audience, can "find" them. And if we can find, or re-find, the appeal in both Sondheim and such personalities.

That we do, as songs from Evening Primrose, A Little Night Music, Company, Merrily We Roll Along, Anyone Can Whistleand the aforementioned Follies successfully intertwine with performance firstly in the Lyric's Café Bar and secondly in the Naughton Studio. All aided by accompanying pianist Keith McAlister. 

The set-up is intriguing, but imperfect – while costumes are colourful and appealing, the transition from café area to studio is a little awkward. The time and space both we and Ross Scanlon enjoy during "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here" isn't quite there in the theatre itself, where I occasionally find myself tilting my head from the second row of three seats on the side of the room to see the action. 

It's a minor issue, however. Especially when the power of the vocals and the depth of the souls in the theatre are what they are. Rarely can I remember seeing the illusion of control so concisely dissected – everyone is more complex than the societal roles they try to pigeonhole themselves into.

Central to the drama is the twisted love between Scanlon's poet and Rebecca Murphy's maid, Ella, in a sort of Truman Show meets Cinderella scenario where she longingly paints incomplete pictures of an outside world that he persistently, almost possessively, discourages her from seeing. The question isn't whether or not she is ready to break free from her surroundings, but whether he has any right to tell her what to do. It is little wonder she may find more liberation, if equal pain, from an affair with Elaine McDaid's servant. Speaking of McDaid, she matches Murphy's vulnerability with laudable emoting, a strong and fitting complement to Margaret Bridge's nonchalantly commanding socialite and Scanlon's increasingly disturbing artist.

Heartfelt and incisive, If You Can Find Me transcends experimental opera to succeed as a musical showcase, love story and character piece all at once – something which elevates and pierces in a manner worthy of the finest theatrical romances. 

Simon Fallaha

If You Can Find Me premiered at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in December 2018. It will run at The Black Box, Belfast, as part of the Out To Lunch Festival, on January 16, at the Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, Newry, on January 17, and Derry-Londonderry’s Nerve Centre on January 18. Photography by Judith Wiemers.

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