Friday, 10 February 2017

Opera review: The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak

My admittedly rare trips to opera haven't exactly been a famous success, but I guess there's something inevitable about me finally "getting" and opera when it involves puppets and probable cannibalism. Wattle and Daub's The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak, with music and libretto by Tom and Tobi Poster, is inspired by a true story, and something of a medical mystery, from 18th century France. A young man known only as Tarrare had a constant hunger, and a bizarre digestive system that allowed him to swallow almost anything in an attempt to satisfy it. He smelled bad, never gained weight, and was a subject of fascination to surgeon Baron Percy, who tried everything he could think of to cure him but failed - the framing device is his autopsy, in which Percy is searching for a golden fork Tarrare said he swallowed and was the cause of his death - but which was never found.

Percy tells the story of how he first discovered Tarrare in a freak show and tried to get him to come to his clinic - but first the young man was enlisted by the army, who thought he would be an effective spy by swallowing and regurgitating messages.

In Sita Calvert-Ennals's production Michael Longden and Daniel Harlock sing all the parts while Tobi Poster and Aya Nakamura operate the cadaverous puppets - of which only Tarrare has eyes, adding to the sympathy for him at the heart of the show. Tarrare's eating was never something he enjoyed but an attempt to stop a constant hunger (now thought to have been hyperthyroidism,) and everything he eats is shown as causing him pain.

The show revels in grotesque comedy - Tarrare swallowing cats whole, making himself gag or being tortured by Germans until he shits out his secret message - but also turns its hideous puppets into a very human story. The Posters have built the story around the mythical golden fork, here given to Tarrare by a conjoined twin in the freak show who'd fallen in love with him, and given by him in turn to a monstrous baby he befriends in the clinic, with tragic results. It's created a story that got the audience very invested in its tragic hero's life - a lot of awws, gagps and audible concern tonight. The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak is a bit of a gem, providing the comic gore the premise promises but with a surprising amount of heart on top.

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak by Tom and Tobi Poster is booking until the 18th of February at Wilton's Music Hall; then continuing on tour to Oxford and Bath.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Barney Witts.

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