Category Archives: Opera review

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 )


Tell: the Truth

WILLIAM TELL

Hippodrome, Birmingham, Saturday 22nd November, 2014

 

Rossini’s final opera is a more serious affair than his other works, like The Barber of Seville or The Journey to Rheims. Famous of course for its overture, this is the story of Swiss hero Tell who stands against the Austrian oppressors and shoots an apple of his boy’s bonce.

That overture: it begins (in its full version; Rossini made not just a meal but a banquet of his overtures) with a cello solo. The cellist appears on stage in a spotlight, does her bit and then is frogmarched away by Austrian soldiers! Then there is a sequence depicting a storm – all done musically; you don’t need stage effects when the music’s this descriptive. There’s a lilting fanfare to herald the morning, the calm after the storm, before we gallop off in the most famous, Lone Ranger section. Is there a piece of music more exhilarating than this? Under Carlo Rizzi’s baton, or riding crop, the WNO orchestra attack it at a fair lick. It is thrilling, rousing and played with pinpoint precision. I wonder if the evening has peaked too early.  (You can hear the full version of the overture here)

Raimund Bauer’s set is minimalistic: there are hints of an Alpine landscape projected on screens. Space is needed to accommodate the large chorus – in their scenes, Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costume designs dominate. The masses are dressed as early factory workers or labourers, all dowdy in several shades of grey (not quite fifty) but the overall effect makes for a very restricted palette. This is at odds with the wonderful colours in Rossini’s score. It makes for a production that is beautiful to hear but rather drab to see. As always the WNO chorus sounds divine.

The principals are all strong. In the title role, David Kempster in a long overcoat and white hoodie, looks and sounds impressive enough to rally the Swiss out of oppression. Leah-Marian Jones as Mrs Tell and Camilla Roberts as Mathilde fill their arias with emotion; the latter especially has a voice rich with melancholy. Fflur Wyn is son Jemmy, the apple of Tell’s eye, capturing the boy’s indomitable spirit – he represents the new Switzerland that will rise once the Austrian oppressors are chucked out. Barry Banks works the hardest in the demanding tenor role of Arnold – his voice soars and blares, like the horns that pepper the score. Baddie Gesler Clive Bayley, bald as a Bond villain and wheeling around like Davros, gets the boos his character deserves.

There is humour – a good deal of it from Amir Hosseinpour’s quirky choreography – and many sweepingly emotional passages. The apple-on-the-head scene, beautifully dramatized by Rossini, is cleverly staged by director David Pountney. Alas, other moments (the climactic shooting of Gesler, for example) do not come across so effectively. Sometimes the characters stand on what looks like a giant sunbed – I assume it represents a snow-capped peak – at others, the imagery is striking and powerful: the Swiss have black plus signs (like the cross on their flag) sewn to their clothing, and are herded around by the Austrian stormtroopers. It’s yellow stars and SS guards all over again. The Austrians have a fetish for wearing antlered helmets. They bray over the spoils of their hunt at some kind of stag do – and its more than hinted at they’ve been hunting people not animals.

You don’t have to watch the news for long to see stories of countries occupying other countries. Here the locals in rebellion are the heroes, which is not always how they are portrayed by the media; this production reminds us there is another side to those reports.

A feast for the ears, visually this production is patchy with its successes. A rare treat to hear this challenging Rossini performed live.

Who ordered the Strongbow?  David Kempster in a Tell-ing performance.

Who ordered the Strongbow? David Kempster in a Tell-ing performance.


Ko-Ko pops

THE MIKADO

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Saturday  28th June, 2015

 

A real treat: to be in this beautiful theatre for a special gala performance.  I’ve been coming here for over forty years and would move in if I could.  It’s 120 years since the foundation stone was laid (I know the feeling) and tonight’s offering from the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company gets off to a rousing start with a sing-along for those of us in our seats by 7:15.  This is followed by the national anthem for which we dutifully stand – how long since this tradition was observed at the theatre?  I’m not a monarchist but tonight as we look back to the Victorian age it seems to fit with the proceedings.

Director Simon Butteriss gives us a vibrant and funny Mikado – and rather a cheeky one too.  The setting is Victorian trad with Japanese kitsch a-go-go but, as Pish-Tush clearly signals when he brings on a Hoover to suck up the leavings of a sand dance, the comic sensibilities are very much in the present.   The anachronism sets us up for Ko-Ko’s infamous ‘list’ song – which does not disappoint: a hilarious and bang up-to-date rendition including references to biting footballers and the crooked friends and associates of our current Prime Minister.  Butteriss himself is Ko-Ko, the comedic centre of this camp nonsense, and is an absolute scream.  Bruce Graham’s Pooh-Bah seems to be channelling the late great Richard Griffiths and, like the collapsible cooling device he brandishes, I’m a big fan. Also strong is Sylvia Clarke in her third marvellous character part of the week: the old harridan Katisha.  Claire Lees is a sweet and feisty Yum-Yum, and Nick Allen’s Nanki-Poo gives a lovely “A Wandering Minstrel I”.  Show-stealer for me is John Savournin’s Pish-Tush who can speak volumes with a look before he uses his lovely baritone to sing a note.  He appropriates Katisha’s wig and stalks around like Boris Karloff in drag.  Butteriss’s direction brings visual and physical humour to add to the wit of Gilbert’s libretto and Sullivan’s catchy score – a score riddled with famous numbers, all of which are inventively and amusingly staged with choreography by Stewart Nicholls. “Three Little Maids From School” is a hoot and Butteriss’s melancholy interpretation of “Tit-Willow” is heart-breaking.

The hardworking chorus sing with vim, verve and vigour and you come away glad that the works of G&S are in such good hands.

Present day sensibilities might demur: is the show racist? Well, only in the same way that pantomime versions of Aladdin with Wishee-Washee and Widow Twanky are racist or say, Puccini’s Turandot.  All of these shows are set in fantasy versions of faraway lands; Gilbert and Sullivan took the fashion for all things Japanese that was permeating the arts at the time and used it as a distancing device with which they could mock and satirise aspects of British society.  It is not the Japanese who are being up for ridicule but the British.  There is a lot of hot air blowing around at the moment about so-called British values – surely among these must be our ability to laugh at ourselves.

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Peer Pleasure

IOLANTHE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 26th  June, 2014

 

The Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company’s second offering at the Grand this week is a tale of fairies – while Shakespeare mixed these supernatural creatures with the court of Theseus, Gilbert and Sullivan pit theirs against the House of Lords, providing the opportunity for direct satire – still funny today and still applicable, which goes to show how the institution has failed to change.

Director Simon Butteriss keeps an authentic late Victorian look and feel to the production, giving a star turn himself as the sprightly and slightly lecherous Lord Chancellor.  He heads a strong company – this time, I think the chorus numbers come across best. The Lords – so ridiculously self-important they sing their own fanfares (taran-tara!) – look fantastic; Tony Brett’s costume design gives them colourful cloaks, which they work to humorous effect, thanks to Stewart Nicholls’s choreography.  It’s funny, charming stuff from start to finish and Arthur Sullivan’s score is realised to beautiful effect by conductor David Steadman and a splendid orchestra.  In the second act there is a perfectly Mozartian quartet that is just sublime.

In the performance I saw a strong Charlotte Pearson stood in as the eponymous fairy, exiled because of her marriage to a mortal.  The excellent Sylvia Clarke makes a solid Queen of the Fairies, bringing out the grandeur and the comedy of the role.  Claire Lees sings beautifully as Phyllis the girl every man wants; her paramour Strephon (half-fairy, mortal from the waist down) is played by handsome Simon Pontin, although his voice does get a little drowned out in the duets.

It’s an entertaining piece, combining whimsy with political satire and oh-so-terribl English.  It all ends happily when the main contention of the plot is resolved on a quibble – the gossamer thinness of the story is like a fairy wing in itself. But that’s part of the fun of it.

I can’t wait to go back for the third and final production in what us shaping up to be a thoroughly enjoyable week in Wolverhampton.

Lording it

Lording it


G&S = Good and Silly

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 24th June, 2014

The Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company is in residence at the Grand this week, kicking off their three-production stay with Pirates. Having recently seen a marvellous all-male HMS Pinafore, I wondered how a production that plays it ‘straight’ so to speak, would keep me engaged – I have seen G&S shows in the past in which you can’t see the good for the twee.

Fear not: we are in safe hands. Director John Savournin pitches the tone exactly right. The thing is, with G&S, you’re not supposed to take it seriously, but that doesn’t mean performance standards may drop. Savournin lets the humour of the material shine through and he and choreographer Damian Czarnecki give his excellent company plenty of comic business to enhance the scenes. Only a little of it seems a bit laboured but the show moves along with such brio, you quickly find yourself laughing out loud (genuinely!) at something else.

The director himself appears as the dashing Pirate King, setting the tone for the high levels of camp that will follow. Towering over his pirate crew – camp as Christmas to a man – Savournin’s stature reminds me of John Cleese, which in turn reminds me how much the Pythons owe to G&S for their own comic songs. Anyway, the plot concerns pirate apprentice Frederic (Nick Allen) who finds himself free to leave having come of age, to pursue a career of pursuing pirates. Once ashore he meets Mabel (Elinor Moran) – with her entrance, all vocal fireworks and coloratura in a spoof of showy sopranos, the show reaches dazzling new heights of silliness and quality. Richard Gauntlett is the very model of a modern Major-General Stanley, easily the campest in the land.

There is strong support in the form of some great character acting and singing from Sylvia Clarke as Ruth and Bruce Graham as a lugubrious and timid Sergeant of Police. The chorus work, whether it’s the pirates, Mabel’s many sisters, the Keystone Kop style police or even a bunch of squirrel puppets, is detailed and funny.

It may seem like inconsequential fluff but you can revel in the silly, quintessential Britishness of it all. If you’re not an opera buff, G&S are definitely a gateway drug to lead you to the hard stuff. If you are, there is much to enjoy here as the conventions and tropes of opera proper are sent up mercilessly, while the piece retains an integrity and charm of its own. And there is a surprising moment that brings you back to earth: the ladies are flitting around on the beach, with some excellent parasol work, and they sing, “Though the moments quickly die, Greet them gaily as they fly” a bittersweet admonishment to us all to gather those rosebuds while we may. We are all mortal, remember.

I cannot wait for the next two shows later this week.

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John Savournin and Sylvia Clarke up to no good


Glitz and Clamour

NABUCCO

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 19th June, 2014

 

Verdi’s retelling of the story of Biblical king Nebuchadnezzar is given a pared-down treatment by WNO – in terms of staging; they don’t stint on the music. For the first act, the stage is bare and the company wear present-day clothes. It is as if we are watching the last run-through before the dress. This makes it difficult to differentiate between the Hebrews and the Babylonians but it does allow the score and the singing to hog the limelight. And such beautiful singing it is too, with a clutch of impressive soloists and a chorus that is nothing short of heavenly, Verdi’s music hits you like a wall of sound.

Kevin Short’s warm bass sets the ball rolling as high priest Zaccaria, and Robyn Lyn Evans’s plaintive tenor voice rounds out his Ismaele, despite him being dressed like a nerd, although at times he is a little drowned out in the ensemble singing. Baritone David Kempster’s Nabucco looks a bit like Bill Bailey as Gadaafi before his Lear-like descent into distraction and dishevelment while his evil daughter takes his throne. Kempster portrays Nabucco’s contrasting scenes excellently – there is top-drawer acting in this production to match the quality of the singing.

After the interval, Ben Baur’s set design really comes into play, with glitzy gold curtains and an illuminated dais that goes up and down as Nabucco proclaims his apotheosis. Director Rudolf Frey is more playful in this longer second half, but the evening belongs to soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams as the villainous Abigaille, who brings a good deal of humour to this melodramatic role.  One aria is delivered like a Las Vegas showgirl number, with men in balaclavas wielding ostrich feathers around Miss Williams in an unexpected moment of high camp.

Unsurprisingly the Hebrew slaves’ chorus, Va Pensiero, is the highlight – the number we’re all waiting for, and the superb WNO chorus do not disappoint.

It’s a Nabucco you warm to, as you grow accustomed to the staging and the outbreaks of hand-jive choreography (like directing traffic crossed with big-fish-little-fish push pineapple, shake the tree) – Personally I’d prefer a little more Cecil B DeMille and a little less TK Maxx.

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Give ’em some unexpected razzle-dazzle. Mary Elizabeth Wiliams as Abigaille.

 


Housebound

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 17th March, 2014 

 

To the infectious strains of the bustling overture, courtiers in evening dress play out scenes of drunkenness and indulgence.  One figure stands out.  Not only does he not join in, he is trapped and seeking an escape.

So begins English Touring Opera’s production of Mozart’s final work for the stage.  Whenever I see this piece, I look forward to the opening.  How will they do the serpent (or ‘monster’) that is chasing the Prince?  I’ve seen puppets.  I’ve seen a man in a kind of Godzilla costume.  Here, director Liam Steel opts for a very human giant snake, a conga line of courtiers that back Tamino against a wall.  It’s symbolic of his desire to quit the hedonistic lifestyle that threatens to consume him.  I think.

The fariytale story is played out on a set with three levels and lots of doors.  It’s like a darkened room in a stately home – a haunted house: hands pop up through little trapdoors to bring on a range of props, like Thing in The Addams Family.  The set fits some parts of the story better than others.  The scene where Tamino summons woodland creatures loses its magic when its just the courtiers in masquerade.  The Queen of the Night steps through a large mirror and fills the stage with the train of her dress in a spectacular moment but at other times the action seems confined by its interior-ness, and too housebound.  Also, the raised levels of the stage seem to amplify every footfall – it’s very noisy.

Nicholas Sharratt is a dependable Tamino and there is enjoyable interplay between him and Wyn Penacregg’s Papageno.  The first act is a lot of fun.  The Queen’s three ladies (Camilla Roberts, Amy J Payne, Helen Johnson) camp it up nicely in contrast with the staid and pompous goings on in the Temple during the second act.  With spoken dialogue rather than recitative, it soon becomes apparent who are the stronger actors.

As bird-catcher Papageno, Wyn Penacregg is a constant delight, using his Welsh accent to support the comedy of his lines.  His duet with Pamina (Anna Patalong) is just lovely, and both arias by Laure Meloy’s Queen are highlights.  Under the baton of Michael Rosewell, the orchestra plays spiritedly, although I feel the scene where Papgeno contemplates suicide is a little rushed.  The most beautiful moment is the achingly poignant aria by Pamina, when she can’t understand why Tamino won’t speak to her (he’s being tested, you see, as part of the initiation into a kind of masonic cult).  Anna Patalong is heartbreakingly good here.

Andrew Slater’s Sarastro, the cult leader, is competent, like a stern uncle, but doesn’t get the hairs on your neck stirring with his big bass moments – and I think that’s symptomatic of the production as a whole.  It’s well presented and performed but lacks that spark of magic to enchant us and help us overlook the ropeyness of Schikaneder’s plot.

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