Opera can often feel like an elitist art form, which Graeae’s production of The Paradis Files addresses right at the beginning , with their goal to challenge this notion, and make it a fully accessible production. That, it achieves.
We are taken through the story of Maria Theresia von Paradis (Bethan Langford), an Austrian composer and musician throughout the late 1700’s, who lost her sight at a young age. We are presented with her testing relationship with her mother, Hilde, The Baroness von Paradis (Maureen Brathwaite), as she visits her daughter after almost ten years apart. The whole affair is moderated by Theresia’s witty and sprightly maid, Gerda (Ella Taylor) – a true highlight of the show with a captivating voice. The mother and daughter have a lot to work through – the Baroness having afflicted a great deal of pain on Theresia as a child, trying to ‘cure’ her blindness through a range of horrendous treatments recommended by doctors at the time.
One factor that remains constant throughout the piece is Theresia’s strength of character – she does not view her blindness as a weakness, and she does not want to be ‘cured’. Librettists, Nicola Werenowska and Selina Mills do an excellent job of writing a piece that avoids pitying Theresia, but instead, celebrates her. Langford, who is visually impaired herself, is a compelling Theresia, with a beautiful voice and determined exterior.
True to form, Graeae puts accessibility at the forefront of this production. Performance interpreters, Chandrika Gopalakrishnan and Max Marchwicz sign for various characters throughout, with direction from Jenny Sealey standing out here as both interpreters seamlessly weave around the set and interact amongst the characters. The lyrics are projected above the stage, with beautiful video design by Ben Glover. Lastly, ‘The Gossips’, played by Omar Ebrahim, Andee-Louise Hypolite, Ella Taylor and Ben Thapa act as audio interpreters, narrating the action throughout. This is all accompanied by the flawless BBC Concert Orchestra under Andrea Brown.
The Paradis Files is a fascinating insight into a relatively unknown historical figure, with some feminist undertones. As we conclude, the mother and daughter reach an understanding with the support of Gerda – the women are united in love. Overall, the plot could have more intrigue – perhaps exploring Theresia’s relationship with Mozart more, for example. Nevertheless, this is a well-performed and slickly stylised opera with elements of deep despair, balanced by humour.