Art by Polina Miro
On June 26th, the Oxford Opera Society premiered their production of Cesar Cui’s A Feast in Time of Plague on YouTube—an increasingly common pandemic alternative to staged productions. The opera’s premise is exactly as it sounds: a group of young people gather around a feast while plague ravages the outside world. This production, led by Music Director Lucia Švecová and Director Toni Scharle, reimagines the characters as members of an Oxford student society, a plot-framing device that fits surprisingly seamlessly into Alexander Pushkin’s original text.
The decision to preface the short opera with a 20-minute concert performed by the actors in character was ingenious, providing the audience with an opportunity to become acquainted with each character through their chosen arias. The main characters take turns in the spotlight: the Chairman (Benoît Déchelotte), Louisa (Mehreen Shah), Mary (Antonida Kocharova), and the Young Man (Charles J. Styles) singing arias from Hamlet, Faust, Rusalka and Rigoletto respectively. Acting and vocal prowess are on full display from Déchelotte’s gallant rendition of Hamlet’s Drinking Song through Kocharova’s sustained high registers of the 6-minute Song to the Moon, to Styles’s impressive closing melisma in La donna è mobile. I also cracked a smile at Shah’s portrayal of a self-obsessed and excitable Louisa in The Jewel Song, to the utter disdain of background characters (which made the performance even more entertaining).
A stellar rendition of Quando m’en vo from La Boheme by chorus member Charlotte Pawley leads smoothly into the commencement of the opera. A brief summary is useful: The banquet opens with the Young Man and Chairman addressing the death of their friend Jackson, after which Mary sings a sad song further contemplating the destruction of the plague in her homeland Scotland. Flirtatious undertones between Mary and the Chairman are scorned by Louisa, who faints upon hearing the mournful sounds of a funeral cart and experiences a deathly vision. The Chairman, determined to take on a more hopeful tone, brazenly praises the plague as a path to eternal life. An unexpected entrance by the Priest questions for the first time the morality of these partygoers, revealing the Feast to be a desperate attempt at normalcy amidst tragedies in the youths’ own personal lives.
Scharle’s directorial choices successfully convey the incongruous blend of the quotidian and the nightmarish which characterises these pandemic times. The scene where funeral bells interrupt party chatter highlights this in particular; the gradual panning of the camera accompanied by a few seconds of slow-motion alters the temporal reality of the moment subtly yet powerfully, forcing the audience to view the ‘feast’ through a lens of trauma and loss. Scharle’s vision is elevated by Švecová’s musical direction, whose thoughtful arrangement of Cui’s original score succinctly foregrounds the recurring ‘Plague’ and ‘funeral’ themes at key moments. The frantic and melodically disjunct ‘Plague’ theme is heard at the time of Louisa’s collapse, as well as at the start and end of the opera, framing the production with an inescapably ominous tone.
The juxtapositions that so permeate Pushkin’s text are also adequately represented through a combination of stage movements, music and camerawork; bright vocalisations by the chorus is contrasted with the ‘funeral’ theme accompanying the Priest in his climactic exchange with the Chairman. Varied camera angles prove to be an advantage offered by a virtual production, although at times I found myself wanting for a fuller picture beyond the main conflict. Nevertheless, this performance overcomes the challenge posed by a limited frame, and is satisfying in both what it presents visually and the opportunities it offers to the imagination of the viewer.
Excellent casting is the cherry on top for this outstanding production. The actors’ brilliant emotional range and likeness to their roles is seen once again in certain key moments of the opera: Kocharova’s timid, pensive Mary exhibits depth in her lamenting song, and Shah’s portrayal of a strong-headed Louisa retains a degree of likability and memorability to a supporting character. Déchelotte and Styles are dissimilar enough to account for the Chairman and Young Man’s conflicting personalities, yet it remains clear they are on the same side of the struggle against the gloom brought by the plague.
The orchestra’s calibre could hardly be overstated, conveying richness, colour and contrast, even at a reduced size (one player per part, except for strings which were two per part). To have recorded the entire programme in one continuous session is an impressive feat, and the sound mixing also managed to achieve a suitable balance between the soloists, chorus and instrumental accompaniment. The lighting, set and costume design was also a delight to experience. A colour-changing ‘feast’ set up in the centre of the ‘stage’ not only provided a captivating setting but also helped to visually distinguish the opening concert from the opera. A rare camera angle at the 18-minute mark revealed the entirety of the set, and I was thrilled to find details such as a coat stand, which to me is a rare sight (having spent the past year locked down in the tropics) and reminded me all the more of the variety of life I long to experience once back in Oxford.
All things considered, this is a superb production that establishes the opera (and Pushkin’s 1830 play) as highly topical and eerily familiar to the modern post-Covid audience. The quasi-oxymoronic title itself sums up the existential dilemma we’ve all been facing—how do we reconcile immense tragedy with the human need for pleasure and optimism? To quote the Chairman, ‘Our homes now are depressing—youth demands enjoyment!’ This last line remains ringing in our ears as the Priest reveals a key piece of the Chairman’s background, sending both character and viewer into shock and dismay while the ‘party’ continues in blissful oblivion.
The Oxford Opera Society is a not-for-profit organisation managed by volunteers. To help the youth keep their enjoyment, consider donating to them here. Any donation you are able to give, however small, will ensure their fees can be paid and that future projects are possible.