Cabaret Fringe Festival
La Bohème
Until 19 Jun 2018

Review by Paige Mulholland

When we think of opera, we tend to think of grand theatres, exquisite costumes, and huge orchestras – not two women, one harpsichord, a pair of bloomers and a small cocktail bar. In this novel blend of opera and cabaret, soprano Kate Louise Macfarlane explores the stories of the few women in the Baroque period who dared to sing and compose music of their own.

Through the lives of composers Barbara Strozzi, Francesca Caccini and two male composers, Monteverdi and Cavalli, who wrote strong female characters, this show aims to express just how difficult it was to succeed in music as a woman in the Baroque era and, although many of these social barriers no longer exist, some have survived to this day.

Although it is notable and exciting that there were male composers in this period writing songs that paid tribute to the strength and skill of female singers, the time dedicated to their work could have been better spent elsewhere. Considering the fact that the show is based around the theme of strong women, it would have been more fitting to spend more time discussing the challenges and telling the stories of Strozzi and Caccini, or even bringing in other notable female Baroque musicians and composers, rather than what seemed like a token, filler gesture of paying tribute to men who, in reality, were probably only slightly less misogynist than the rest of the men in Baroque society.

Macfarlane’s soprano is clear and emotive, bringing a perfect blend of musicality and storytelling to each song she performs. As a speaker, she sometimes lets her opera training seep in, and her words feel scripted and dramatised rather than authentic and intimate (and intimacy is, after all, the definition of cabaret). However, she warms up as the show goes on, and the audience seem thoroughly charmed by the close of the show. Macfarlane works closely and easily with harpsichordist Glenys March, with the two taking each other’s cues seamlessly.

There is one moment where Macfarlane takes a lengthy break to chat to March and drink a glass of scotch, which, in a show that is only an hour, seems like an unnecessary luxury, but other than that she show is paced well and rolls easily to a close, with Macfarlane changing into a dressing gown and Ugg boots and offering a container of Tim Tams around the room.

“La Virtuosissima Cantatrice” is an exciting first attempt at blending opera, cabaret and historical criticism to create something entertaining, informative and artistic. Opera enthusiast or not, you’ll learn something from this show, and enjoy doing it.