In Charles Perrault’s telling of the tale of Puss in Boots, in his 1697 Histoires ou contes du temps passé, the moral is clear enough: hard work and knowhow – the cat’s – are worth more than any inheritance. It was also clear to the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge that this super-savvy puss – who ensures wealth and happiness for his master – would make a delightful operatic hero. The resulting one-act opera, El Gato Con Botas, was first staged in Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu in 1948, but a relative rarity since then.
Mid Wales Opera’s welcome new SmallStages production is predictably small scale – director/designer Richard Studer’s actual set has barely room to swing said cat – with just five singers and four musicians, plus music director Jonathan Lyness, presiding at the keyboard, stage left. Yet what it lacks in size or musical heft, it makes up for with a great deal of charm. There’s some Spanish colour and it’s the subtly nuanced and edgy harmonies that are most interesting.
Martha Jones’s Cat is the mainstay here: suitably feline with a touch of know-all swagger, never overdoing the plumed sombrero and thigh-boots flamboyance. Her flexible mezzo uses a range of colours to most telling effect; moments of quasi-purring or mewing, never histrionic, are mimicked by the violin in Lyness’s neat reduction of the score, in which the glockenspiel adds shimmer. As the miller – his legacy not money but the cat – Huw Ynyr’s tone was warm, and he moved more fluently than most tenors would in the pseudo-drowning and doubling as the dancing lion. Alys Mererid Roberts was his pert princess, straight out of The Princess and the Pea, but sweet both in voice and disposition to her doddery father the King,Philip Smith, dressed like Merlin. Bass Trevor Eliot Boweswas the ogre whose vanity in the matter of shape-shifting spells his demise: carefully characterised and not pantomimic, he also caricatured a prancing rabbit and then the ogre turned mouse felled by the cat to gain his castle. When the cat finally curls up on his master’s throne, it’s mission accomplished. And for Mid Wales Opera, too.