Based on a short story by Dostoevsky, The Crocodile is a biting social satire in which a Russian civil servant is swallowed whole by a crocodile. Naturally, this absurdity has great potential for comedy, and Tête à Tête's opera version – composed by Llywelyn ap Myrddin and directed by Alex Sutton – is absolutely terrific. With hilarious performances from the cast, outstanding crocodile puppetry, a richly authentic 19th-century set and a score that blends jazz and samba melodies with contemporary classical vocals, The Crocodile is a fantastic production to sink your teeth into.
The scene opens on Philip, a scientist about to reveal this fearsome creature to a select few members of high society. Nervously setting out refreshments and fussing over the details, baritone Kris Belligh plays this frantic academic with perfect comic timing. With his assistant Semyon (Leandros Taliotis), the two make a great pair of buffoons.
While their guest of honour, the high-ranking civil servant Ivan, prepares for his speech, giving a "sneak preview" of the crocodile results in disaster. Ivan is swallowed up by the creature, and with guests arriving in mere minutes, nobody can decide what to do. This will certainly not look good for "Russian progress", in whose name the great unveiling is taking place.
Among the guests at this soiree are Ivan's wife, played with all of the trappings and affectations of a highly-strung diva by soprano Kristy Swift. Her voice is perfectly adapted to the piece's comedy, faltering nervously when she pretends to swoon; shrieking like a harridan when she demands to know what has become of her husband. A pair of decadent Germans, Franz (James Sollar) and Mutter (Jane Webster), have apparently paid for the crocodile, and refuse to cut apart their latest acquisition in order to save Ivan. While it seems that poor Ivan has been irretrievably swallowed up by the jaws of fate, he begins to speak from within the belly of the beast and reveals that he is in fact quite comfortable. Ivan reasons that here, he will have more time to reflect on humanity, and negotiates an extended sabbatical.
As a resolution, this is of course all very silly, reflecting on the single-mindedness of capitalist bureaucracy. The Crocodile ends with an extended scene of confetti throwing, dancing, and, for some reason, a solo in Motown style by Swift, decked out in a blue wig and glittery dress. There are also some fantastic scenes clearly choreographed with a good sense of humour: when the guests grow antsy and demand to see the crocodile, much mimed jaw-snapping and pointing paired with a hot, jazzy orchestral number highlights the absurdity of social convention when faced with a sinister beast. Caroline Mathias' handling of the crocodile puppet was skilful throughout – particularly funny during the initial swallowing incident. A jaunty samba tune plays while strobe lights give the ensuing chase scene between man and crocodile a disjointed, Benny-Hill style appearance.
There is something of Rocky Horror Picture Show in this opera-comedy – particularly in how it blends the most absurd costumes (feathers, sequins and faces positively dripping with makeup) with a pastiche of popular music and dance. But what really makes The Crocodile the highlight of the Tête à Tête opera festival is its willingness to have fun with its subject: it squeezes every last drop of physical comedy from Dostoevsky's short text, and it was clear from their boundless energy that the cast enjoyed this performance as much as I did.