Category Archives: Opera review

A Fool Aloof

EUGENE ONEGIN

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 3rd November, 2017

 

Welsh National Opera’s autumn season is all about the Russians.  Tonight, it’s Tchaikovsky’s melodrama about a moody outcast and his effect on others.  Young Tatyana takes a fancy to the aloof stranger who comes visiting with a friend.  She rapidly falls head over heels.  He turns her down, gets into a row with his best mate and shoots him dead in a duel.  Years later, after travelling, Onegin returns to declare his love to Tatyana but she has married a prince and so Onegin is left alone and even more miserable than he at first pretended.

So much for the plot.  What matters here is the execution.  Natalya Romaniw shines as the love-struck Tatyana, especially in her extended aria in which she writes a letter to Onegin, an outpouring of emotion.  Onegin himself (Nicholas Lester) stalks around in black like Hamlet disguised as an undertaker, all mean and moody – he comes alive in the scene with his BFF, Lensky (Jason Bridges) during which they fail to find a way to cancel their duel.  The duel scene is the best of the opera, combining high emotion with action.  Bridges’s searing tenor brings the house down, and there is an impressive cameo from Miklos Sebestyen as the Prince, who comes across as a Zarastro figure – not the only Mozartian touch about Tchaikovsky’s work; everything from the orchestration to the structure (duets developing into quartets, for example) pays homage to Tchaikovsky’s favourite and mine.  There is pleasing support from Liuba Sokolova as Tatyana’s Nanny and Camilla Roberts as her mother.  Joe Roche makes his mark in an amusing appearance as Monsieur Triquet.

As ever, the WNO chorus is in superb voice – but their dancing, especially at the formal ball, needs polish.  They don’t look like they’re enjoying it which detracts from Onegin’s aloofness and boredom.  The mighty WNO orchestra plays flawlessly under the baton of Latvian conductor Ainars Rubikis, making his debut with WNO.

Tobias Hoheisel’s set design features windows, combining interiors and exteriors, which probably says something about people’s outer facades and their inner feelings, or insiders and outsiders – at times I find it too gloomy to fit with the lighter parts of the libretto.  There is humour here that is fighting against the murkiness of the setting and Andreas Gruters’s atmospheric lighting.

The nature of the material is such that all the action comes in the second act and Onegin’s devastation at the end – I think this production needs to make more of the frivolity of the other aspects for greater contrast with the darker elements and to emphasise Onegin’s otherness.  Tchaikovsky does well to emulate Mozart’s sound palette but he cannot match the Austrian’s sense of the dramatic or indeed the comic.

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He’s behind you! Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana and Nicholas Lester as Onegin (Photo: Betina Skovbro)

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If you’ve got it, flautist

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Stafford Castle, Stafford, Sunday 2nd July, 2017

 

Heritage Opera’s production comes to Stafford Castle for one night only – the grounds are set up for the annual Shakespeare production; this year it’s The Tempest and so there is rather a nautical theme to the design.  Add to this, the reduced size of the orchestra (only seven of them!) and there is a rehearsal feel to this scaled-down sound.  Not that players and singers don’t give their all – and the sound quality is excellent, even with the constant drone of the nearby M6 forever in our ears.

The Tempest set is not a bad fit, given that high priest Sarastro is much like Prospero; the Queen of the Night, Sycorax; and Monostatos is very Caliban-like in this production!  The Three Boys are here replaced by three Spirits – in excellent, imaginative mermaid garb.

Tenor Nicholas Sales is a robust Tamino, the heroic prince and is well-matched with Aimee-Louise Toshney’s princess-in-distress Pamina.  Sarah Helsby Hughes is a strident Queen with a fabulous crown of feathers (I’d been wondering what she does with her daily delivery of birds) while Philip Barton’s Sarastro looks like Matt Berry playing Willy Wonka – but sounds divine.  It’s all about the bass.  The Three Ladies are equally delightful (Heather Heighway, Serenna Wagner, Helen-Anne Gregory) – amazons in straw hats, bringing humour to the action and beauty to the harmonies.  Roger Hanke’s wicked Monostatos is also good fun, a cross between Kermit the Frog and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  But it is Francis Church’s birdman, Papageno that wins our hearts.  Church makes the best of the sometimes clunky ‘banter’ and his rich baritone is warm and pleasing.

Mozart crammed the show with catchy melodies and beautiful harmonies, with plenty of chances to showcase the main characters.  The Queen hits her top F, Sarastro his bottom one.  Everything that happens in between is aural perfection.  Except when they’re not singing.  The libretto between the musical numbers is hampered by a duff plot (it starts so promisingly with the death of a serpent, and a quest to rescue an abducted princess) riddled with po-faced quasi-masonic blether.  Thank goodness for Francis Church – and for Eleanor Strutt as his intended, Papagena.  Their eventual duet is a joy.

There are moments when the production could do with a bigger sound – the keyboard can’t make up for the absence of brass at key moments – but there are some lovely ideas that add wit to proceedings, like Papageno pushing a pram with an egg in it, and the animals gathering to hear the magical flute are fun if few and far between.

An enjoyable evening of fresh air and Mozart sounding as fresh as ever.  I look forward to more Heritage Opera productions in the future.

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Publicity material for Heritage Opera’s The Magic Flute

 

 


Apollo Mission Accomplished

APOLLO ET HYACINTHUS

Town Hall, Birmingham, Saturday 10th June, 2017

 

A marvellous evening of Mozart kicks off with the Symphony in G major (K45a), the ‘Lambach’, a chocolate box of a piece, sweet and soft-centred with the occasional note of dark-but-never-bitterness.  Classical Opera’s ongoing and long-term project to play out Mozart’s work in chronological order over decades is as laudable as it is ambitious.  The playing here is smooth under the baton of Ian Page, easing us in before the drama of the evening’s programme begins in earnest.

Up next is Grabmusik, a trio of lieder set at Christ’s tomb.  The mighty baritone Benjamin Appl is the ‘Soul’ getting off to a rousing start with plenty of sturm und drang, calling down thunder and lightning on the perpetrators.  Appl storms it, in fact.  He is a compelling presence, as facially expressive as he is vocally – and that voice, rich and versatile, is both a balm for the mind and a prod to the emotions.  The Soul is answered by the ‘Angel’ – Gemma Summerfield’s searing, soaring soprano – before the two sing together, having taken us the full gamut of emotions from anger to forgiveness.

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Apple of my ear: Benjamin Appl

I need an interval drink after that!

Mozart had reached the grand old age of eleven when he penned his first opera – what took him so long, the slacker? – and it’s a treat to hear it get an airing this evening.  The plot is basically a love triangle: Zephyrus loves the boy Hyacinthus but so does the god Apollo.  Zephyrus fingers Apollo for the death of Hyacinthus, but the boy’s dying words reveal the truth.  Meanwhile, Oebalus is hoping to marry his daughter Melia to the god – but the murder of his son casts a shadow over that arrangement.

Stripped to the bare essentials, the staging brings the music to the fore.  Standing in a row like actors in a radio drama, the cast does not stint in expressive delivery.  It is the human emotions of this mythological scenario that matter – and that is the heart of Mozart’s genius, whether it’s Christianity as in the Grabmusik, or older mythology, it is the humanity of the situation that touches us.  The prayer to Apollo, where the cast of five is joined by Appl as the Priest, is as stirring and lovely as any of Mozart’s pieces to the Christian God.  The man could dramatize anything.

Benjamin Hulett is marvellous as King Oebalus, despite being rooted to the spot behind his music stand.  Similarly, Klara Ek’s Melia gives us all the delighted anticipation of a young woman before her wedding to a celebrity.  Gemma Summerfield’s Hyancinthus is blooming great (ha ha) and her dying words, so simply and effectively scored by Mozart, are extremely moving.  Countertenor James Hall is the villainous Zephyrus, while another countertenor Tim Mead makes a regal and dignified Apollo.  When all five sing together, I miss the baritone undertones of Appl – Mozart was writing for a cast of schoolboy performers, after all.

It’s a lovely piece in which each character gets an aria, a moment to shine, a moment to explore their emotional state.  They are human beings in a fantastical situation and that’s what speaks to us across the centuries.

Le The a l'Anglaise chez le Prince de Conti, Salon des Quatre-Glaces, Palais du Temple with child Mozart at harpsichord...


Sing Like An Egyptian

AIDA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 21st November, 2016

 

Producer and director Ellen Kent is renowned for the lavish spectacle of her productions, yet this new staging of Verdi’s grandest opera seems somewhat scaled down.  A versatile, almost Romanesque set serves as the backdrop for each scene, and from the overture, the presence of stone walls is prominent, foreshadowing the tragic fate of the lovers.  (Spoiler: they get walled into a tomb, buried alive!)

As the prisoner/slave Aida, Olga Perrier sparkles.  Many of this production’s highlights are her solo arias, just Perrier in a spotlight, emoting her head off.  Similarly, Liza Kadelnik shines as the scheming Princess Amneris, suitably evil and cruel, although in her scenes with Perrier, the acting seems more mannered and more like melodramatic, silent-movie posturing.  In fact, the whole production style seems like a throwback – the show feels more like a reconstruction than a new staging.

There is strong, authoritative singing from baritones Vadym Chernihovskyi as High Priest Ramfis, and Oleksandr Forkushak as the Egyptian King.  Iurie Gisca makes a powerful impression as Amonasro, Aida’s cross and vengeful dad, but for me,  the standout performance comes from handsome teno Giorgi Meladze as the heroic Radames.  Meladze’s singing is robust and stirring – and he has a nice pair of legs!

The cast is augmented by extras from Theatre Workshop Birmingham and elsewhere, and while the choral singing is rather good, the acting leaves something to be desired.  Some of them look fed up or at a loss.  Standard bearers trudge across the stage as if they’re on their way to the job centre rather than taking part in a triumphal parade.  I applaud the involvement of local groups and appreciate the pressures but there is a sense that this bunch are under-rehearsed.

That being said, this is still an evening of superb singing.  The leads are all magnificent and Verdi’s score, under the baton of Vasyl Vasylenko, is unassailable, rousing and glorious.

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Fascinating Aida: Liza Kadelnik and Olga Perrier


Carmen Get It!

CARMEN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 19th January, 2016

 

Georges Bizet’s popular opera gets stripped down in this production by OperaUpClose, with only a quartet of musicians and a cast of nine. What we lose in sweeping orchestral arrangement and stirring chorus scenes, we gain in directness and intimacy. The material suits this kind of treatment very well. It’s a sordid little tale of women who work in a cigarette factory and the men who pursue them, soldiers, mainly, looking for ways to pass the time.

Among the women is Carmen. No shrinking violet, she is more than at ease in her sexuality and is out to have a good time, but on her terms. She’s a strong woman who might glass you as soon as look at you. Flora McIntosh is a feisty and seductive Carmen, exuding self-assuredness, while Anthony Flaum’s hot-headed Jose, captivated by her charms, is both stirring and dangerous. Along comes smoothie Escamillo (with his famous Toreador song) played by Richard Immergluck, igniting Jose’s jealousy, and the scene is set for violence and tragedy.

Director and English librettist Robin Norton-Hale keeps the lid on this simmering potboiler, bringing a naturalistic touch to the stage business and extempore action. Throwaway lines of dialogue supplement the recitatives, but the singers are allowed their head when the moment arises. The solos are sublime and so is the ensemble singing for that matter. Louisa Tee’s Micaela delivers an aria in the third act that blows you away.

The production may be small-scale in one sense but it is still big on talent and emotion. Led by Berrak Dyer on the piano, the quartet delivers Bizet’s luscious score, still richly textured in this arrangement. Famous tune follows famous tune – this is easy, accessible opera; OperaUpClose shine a new light on it by scaling the drama down to its essentials while losing none of the melodrama.

Carmen (OperaUpClose). Flora McIntosh (Carmen), Anthony Flaum (Jose). Photo Andreas Grieger

Up close and personal: Flora McIntosh and Anthony Flaum (Photo: Andreas Greiger)

 


Peter Panned

PETER PAN

Hippodrome, Birmingham, Thursday 11th June, 2015

Odd, you think, that Welsh National Opera present Richard Ayres’s opera at this time of year. Surely, it might attract more of an audience at a more festive time of year.

Anyway, here it is.

Ayres’s score is sophisticated and complex, at odds with the subject matter for the most part, making me think we are to observe through the lens of adulthood rather than the innocence of childhood. It’s a hard listen though superbly sung. Hilary Summers as Mrs Darling sings a weird lullaby in which she tells her kids she will ‘tidy their minds’ while they sleep. She returns as Tiger Lily later on, which seems a lot more fun. Ashley Holland blusters as her husband and struts and preens as a colourful Captain Hook – it is when the pirates come on that the whole enterprise lifts, as silliness and camp are permitted to creep in – but just for a moment.

Marie Arnet’s Wendy is both sweet and earnest, while her brothers (Nicholas Sharratt and Rebecca Bottone) throw themselves around with enthusiasm. It’s Aidan Smith in a dog suit as Nana who gets the best reception. An air of surrealism hangs over the whole enterprise: Jason Southgate’s set takes elements from an Edwardian nursery and enlarges them – Neverland, for example, is a collection of building blocks, and the pirate ship is an overgrown choo-choo.

Counter-tenor Iestyn Morris is Pan, in white and silver garb, performing aerial tricks while singing. He’s suitably heroic and boyish but there is something missing – and I mean with the entire production. It’s lacking in a spirit of fun and adventure, the playfulness of Barrie’s play.

It’s not just because of the dense music. The lighting (by Bruno Poet) is simply too dim for the majority of the show. Both the ‘real world’ and Neverland are murky places, never mind the mood of the characters or the time of day.

And it’s a shame because the orchestra under Erik Nielsen’s baton and the chorus (as ever) are in superb form, summoning up some of the exuberance the material requires to get off the ground.

Director Keith Warner adds some comic touches but they are lost in the general gloom – which is just as well in the case of some ill-advised fart jokes.

It seems to me a mismatch all around. Neither Ayres’s score nor this production’s design suit the material. Neither do they shed new light on the familiar story – in fact there is very little light at all.

Me and My Shadow: Peter Pan - Iestyn Morris; Wendy - Marie Arnet Credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

Me and My Shadow:
Peter Pan – Iestyn Morris; Wendy – Marie Arnet
Credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL


Far From Grimm

HANSEL AND GRETEL

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 7th May, 2015

 

This new version comes to the Belgrade courtesy of HighTime Opera company, a small-scale outfit whose mission is to bring opera to everyone and not just the elite few. With this production, they make a giant stride towards that commendable aim.

Adelheld Wette’s libretto translates the action from the traditional gingerbread cottage in the woods to a circus tent in a rubbish tip, swapping the Witch for an evil ringmaster. The grubby, big top setting (designed by Richard Evans) works for the most part, due to its built-in theatricality but I will own up to trepidation when a trio of clowns, (old-school Pierrot faces) perform in dumb show during the overture. The show is in danger here of becoming twee – these fears are dispelled as soon as the story gets going and the singing begins.

The new translation uses contemporary slang and modern-day references (television, Pukka pies…) to humorous effect, the witty rhymes a good fit for Humperdinck’s melodic score.

Alexa Mason is a magnificent Gretel, physically presenting a little girl and all her caprices and vocally one of the clearest I have ever heard. Sian Cameron is brother Hansel, all chavvy in hooded top and trackie bottoms. Both performers capture the childishness of the eponymous siblings – director Felicity Green gives them oodles of business. The stage is never static.

Wendy Dawn Thompson is their hard-nosed, hard-working (and yet trapped in poverty) mother, with a plaintive edge to her singing, while their father, a swaggering and affable Jon Stainsby is all optimism and tra-la-la. The contrast is highly effective.

There is a pleasing appearance by Caroline Kennedy as the Keeper of Birds and Charlotte Ireland impresses as a Magician. As the villainous, camp and cannibalistic Ringmaster, Oliver Marshall’s characterisation is delicious and I am sure his voice will develop more power as he gains experience.

The cast is augmented by a throng of local children who are incorporated into the action, singing sweetly and trying their best. Strange to see a story in which children run away from the circus!  But it is important to expose youngsters to this art form before any cultural preconceptions and prejudices set in, if opera is to be accessible to all.

Engelbert Humperdinck’s richly coloured score is served well, stripped down to a piano arrangement. Special mention must go to pianist Richard Black for his flawless, nuanced playing. Conductor Benjamin Hamilton keeps the whole thing ticking along, managing the timing of the action seamlessly with the tempo.

It’s an amusing take on the traditional tale (it’s more Roald Dahl than Brothers Grimm) and goes to demonstrate how small-scale productions can work extremely well, given an appropriate choice of material. This kind of treatment would suit something like Cosi fan tutte very nicely – but not so much Gotterdammerung!

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Sibling ribaldry. (Photo: Peter Marsh @ashmorevisuals )