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.
He’s behind you! Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana and Nicholas Lester as Onegin (Photo: Betina Skovbro)
Leave a comment | tags: Ainars Rubikis, Andreas Gruters, Camilla Roberts, Eugene Onegin, Jason Bridges, Joe Roche, Liuba Sokolova, Miklos Sebestyen, Mozart, Natalya Romaniw, Nicholas Lester, Tchaikovsky, Tobias Hoheisel, Welsh National Opera, WNO | posted in Opera review
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.
Leave a comment | tags: Amir Hosseinpour, Barry Banks, Birmingham Hippodrome, Camilla Roberts, Carlo Rizzi, Clive Bayley, David Kempster, David Pountney, Fflur Wyn, Leah-Marian Jones, Marie-Jeanne Lecca, Raimund Bauer, review, Rossini, Welsh National Opera, William Tell, WNO | posted in Opera review
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.
Leave a comment | tags: Amy J Payne, Andrew Slater, Anna Patalong, Camilla Roberts, English Touring Opera, Grand Theatre Wolverhampton, Helen Johnson, Laure Meloy, Liam Steel, Michael Rosewell, Mozarty, Nicholas Sharratt, opera, review, Schikaneder, The Magic FLute, Wyn Penacragg | posted in Opera review