H.K. Gruber - Gloria, A Pigtale
Buxton Festival, 2014
Geoffrey Patterson, Frederic Wake-Walker, Gillian Keith, Jessica Walker, Andrew Dickinson, Charles Rice, Sion Goronwy
Buxton Opera House - 26 July 2014
At the Buxton Festival, you don't just get the uncommon, you occasionally get the very unusual. HK Gruber's Gloria, A Pigtale is however not just an indication of the kind of adventurous programming you find at Buxton, it's also an example of how expansive an artform opera can be in the range of musical, theatrical and narrative ideas it can encompass.
Defining Gloria, A Pigtale then, much less evaluating its qualities, is difficult. Very difficult. Abandoning any attempt to figure out what it was all about, whether the bizarre story was supposed to be allegorical on some level and just what part the music played in the character of the piece, I found it was better to just let my preconceptions go, enjoy its idiosyncrasies and just consider it a bit of fun. The loving attention that had gone into the staging and the performances of the cast and the musicians showed that they were clearly enjoying the opportunities the work presented and were going along with the flow, so perhaps that's also the best way for the audience to approach it.
The plot, if you want to call it that, concerns Gloria, a pig with golden curls who is more than a little bit deluded. Her fanciful ideas about her station make her the laughing stock of the other farmyard animals, but she's determined that she will find and marry her Prince Charming. Somewhere along the way she dreams of Hollywood hotdogs, and seems to get involved with a frog (I think), but when this doesn't work out Gloria looks elsewhere. Her strange fancies lead her to mistakenly believe that the butcher's interest in her is romantic, when all he sees is prime pork sausages. Eventually Rodney, a wild boar looking like a Wookie, falls in love with her and saves her from the butcher's knife. They marry, have piglets and don't live happily ever after, the boar realising too late his mistake in marrying such a mad creature.
Like the plot, the music is something of a mix of styles, but it nonetheless has a consistent style and tone of its own. It inevitably has something of a Kurt Weill feel to it, a bit of German jazz cabaret, some Bavarian oompah brass and a lot of beautiful melodic harp playing. There's a wide range of singing and narrative voices with little actual songs but there's good interaction between chanted verse, narration and arioso soprano singing. It's a style that suits the somewhat off-the-wall fairytale subject approach here, and it's one that works equally as well for Gruber's latest opera (albeit on a grander scale), Tales from the Vienna Woods, which just premiered this summer at the Bregenz Festival (where this Mahogany Opera Group production of Gloria subsequently travels on tour).
Mamoru Iriguchi's cabaret stage set designs for Frederic Wake-Walker's production plays well on the delightful absurdity of the situation. The band play from a raised platform to the back of a stage that has a curtain backdrop of rows of sausages. It's as sausages that each of the performers is ejected onto the stage, colourfully dressed in a pink theme. Wearing a wig of golden curls a body suit and a pink tutu, batting her eyelashes and striking poses, Gillian Keith's Gloria is not dressed to look like a pig in any conventional way, the colour pink being perhaps the only concession. The bizarre situations are likewise colourfully and inventively depicted, the stage kept busy with inflatable pigs, costume changes and role-switching.
A satire, a burlesque revue, an opera, Gloria, a Pigtale is probably also an allegory of some sorts, but precisely what isn't entirely clear. For life I suppose, at a basic level, the sausage as a metaphor for the fact that "we're all meat wrapped in skin". Really, it's just an excuse to push around some ideas, wrap then in a skin of music and singing and see what comes out of the sausage-opera machine at the end. Like life also, there's not much point in over-analysing it - it will never make sense or come to a happy end. Might as well just enjoy the experience.