Tag Archives: David Pountney

Dance in the Dark

UN BALLO IN MASCHERA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th March, 2019

 

Welsh National Opera’s Spring season at the Hippodrome kicks off with this Verdi gem in which the maestro blends aspects of opera buffo with melodrama.   It’s an opera with a split personality, with moods changing seamlessly.  Raimund Bauer’s set, of huge, substantial flats with lots of small windows and red curtains tower over the action and are rotated into various positions to suggest the different locations.  They are impressive things to be sure but their imposing scale and the general blackness of the background do not serve the comical, more playful moments of the score.

Political intrigue, dire prophecies from a fortune-teller, a love triangle, betrayal – it’s all here, as Riccardo (Gwyn Hughes Jones) struggles with his love for his bff’s wife Amelia (Mary Elizabeth Williams) while she struggles with her love for him.  The bff, Renato (Roland Wood) finds out (of course he does!) and falls in league with a bunch of conspirators who are plotting Riccardo’s assassination.

As Riccardo, Jones is a mass of energy, which he channels into his powerful tenor.  No weedy hero he, Jones is a delight to hear, bringing power and playfulness to the role.  As Amelia, Williams is sublime, heart-breaking and nuanced in her delivery – most of the melodrama comes her way – and she is perfect.  Wood’s baritone is earnest and passionate; Renato feels things as deeply as he sings them!

As ever, the WNO chorus are excellent value, cavorting around in top hats, doing a conga, before turning up at the ball like skeletal extras from the movie Coco.

Sara Fulgoni is a lot of fun as the imperious fortune-teller, Ulrica, as is Harriet Eyley’s Oscar, a perky manservant bringing comic relief and a breath-taking mullet.

While the setting may be too dark for us to catch all the comic business going on, the big moments are superbly staged, with some striking, symbolic rather than literal, imagery.  Director David Pountney gives us masks and mystery, with a touch of the Gothic.

It’s a banquet for the ears.  The singing is thoroughly top notch and the WNO, under the baton of Carlo Rizzi, delivers Verdi’s sumptuous music exquisitely.  On the whole, the production leans toward the darkness rather than striking a balance with the light, yet for all that it is hugely enjoyable.  I had a ball!

Bill Cooper

When your love-life ‘stalls’ – Mary Elizabeth Williams as Amelia (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 

 

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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.


Foxy Lady

THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 7th March, 2013

 

Janáček’s opera is an episodic story, along the lines of the adventures of Brer Rabbit: clever animal protagonist outwits a range of creatures with tricks and bare-faced cheek.  Here the trickster is Sharpears, a vixen who, as a cub, is captured by the Forester.  His attempts to domesticate her lead to trouble: a child’s leg is bitten in an incident that would make the Daily Mail more rabid than usual, and all the pretty chickens are murdered in one fell swoop as the vixen makes her escape, clicking her heels like a cartoon character.

We are most definitely on her side.  She is a fox who speaks up for the downtrodden.  The chickens fail to rise to her call for direct feminist resistance to their exploitation.  She despises their ‘right-wing conservatism’ and slaughters them.   She evicts a bouffant-haired badger from his sett, decrying his supposed entitlement. “Being rich does not make you respectable,” she admonishes him.  She later goes on to point out that “Animals have rights too” – she could be speaking up for beleaguered foxes everywhere and also, topically, the latest to be victimised by Man and his media, the deer that are apparently threatening all that is decent in society.  The points are glibly made; Sharpears is a free spirit, making satirical swipes at the establishment rather than provoking any kind of serious or detailed debate.  The emphasis is on fun, after all.

The set, a green and pleasant landscape that changes with the seasons, splits apart for the human habitations: the Forester’s yard, the pub… It’s a storybook illustration writ large, as rich and lush and full of life as the score.

Sophie Bevan is a mass of energy as clever Sharpears.  She spends a lot of her time on her back, cycling her legs in the air, from the sheer joy of being alive.  Her costume doesn’t disguise her human form.  Bunches in her bobbed hair suggest pointed ears; a boa represents her tail; she wears a fringed frock like a flapper dress, reminding us of the opera’s first appearance in 1924.  Sharpears is more of a hedonist than an activist.

Jonathan Summers’s Forester is avuncular and disgruntled, disappointed by his lot in life.  His life is entwined with the vixen’s – there is a longing there, to own her, perhaps, or to be like her.  There are times when the orchestra swells and his voice is engulfed by the crescendos, but the overall sound is so sumptuous, you don’t really mind.

Sarah Castle, in plus fours, is the handsome fox who courts Sharpears in a funny and charming love duet.  The scene borders on operatic parody but it’s so enchanting you buy into it.  In due course, when their litter bursts out of their underground den, it must be the cutest scene in all opera.

But it’s not all fun and frolics.  Even though the animals are very human in appearance and behaviour, there is harshness and cruelty in this picturesque world.   Defiant to the last, Sharpears is gunned down by a poacher (David Stout).  This moment, even if you know it’s coming, is superbly handled by director David Pountney, with dramatic lighting (designed by Nick Chelton).  For a moment the world stops still.  Everything is silent.  Sharpears is dead.

Life goes on.  The Forester is still morose but he returns to the forest where he first encountered Sharpears.  One of her daughters is dancing for joy.  This is the circle of life and it moves us all…Etc.

Touching, funny and bittersweet, this is a thoroughly enchanting evening that manages to be more than cartoon capers.

Sophie Bevan

Sophie Bevan

 


Blood and Circuses

LULU

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 5th March, 2013

 

Welsh National Opera bring Alban Berg’s unfinished opera to startling life in this stylish and colourful production that somehow manages to accentuate the grubbiness of the subject matter.

This is the tale of Lulu, a woman who is like catnip for men.  Around her, men drop like flies – some to their knees in supplication, some from heart attacks, suicide or murder.  But despite or perhaps because of her chequered past, the men keep coming.  Through it all, Lulu is indifferent, taking what she can get, knowing her power over these weak creatures.

Marie Arnet is sublime as glamorous, free spirit Lulu.  There is an ambiguity to the character: is she predator, prey or parasite?  Immoral or amoral?  My view of her shifted with each scandalous event in the plot but Arnet remains unassailable.  Lulu’s ‘availability’ keeps her apart.

As ever with WNO, the ensemble is excellent.  I was impressed by Paul Carey Jones’s Dr Schön but found his Jack the Ripper compelling.  Mark Le Brocq’s Artist is great fun but for me, the belle of this ball is Natascha Petrinsky as Countess Geschwitz, the lesbian lover Lulu shamelessly exploits with tragic consequences.  Her anguish and devotion are in direct contrast to Lulu’s cold indifference and opportunism.  Geschwitz is the most human of these bizarre characters – perhaps that was seen as shocking at the time, that we should have most sympathy for a ‘deviant’.

David Pountney directs the piece as a surreal circus, a carnival of animal-headed, dinner-jacketed creatures.  There is no attempt at naturalism – this is all about keeping us at a distance from the characters.  We are to weigh Lulu’s conduct, and society’s conduct, from an emotional detachment.  The absence of melody in Berg’s atonal score helps with this.  There are some lovely touches.  When dead, the men are replaced by life-sized effigies of themselves that are hauled up into the air, suspended over the rest of the action.  They are literally ‘hung up’ over Lulu.  The set (by Johan Engels) is a circus ring of tall ladders, a cage for the menagerie of characters, with a spiral staircase at its centre that can be covered with a gauze for reveals of the more shocking moments.  As she goes from man to man, Lulu’s outfits are colour-coded: gown, shoes and even hair all match.  Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costume designs are sharp, clean and striking, both stylish and stylised, providing a unity to the look of the piece – although I must admit the schoolboy clad entirely in white made me think of the ghost of wee Jimmy Krankie.  But only for a moment.

The Verfremdungseffekte keep us detached but this also works to make the final scene, the brutal murder of our heroine at the hands of the Ripper all the more powerful and shocking.  Lulu’s bleeding body is thrown against the gauze with a splat, and she stays there, naked, revealed, an object and ultimately, a victim.

The impact of the final scene remained with me as I left the theatre, defining the whole piece.  It’s a challenging listen – I’m more of a bel canto boy at heart – but this sumptuous and inventive production rewards the effort.

 

"You can bring Pearl, she's a darn nice girl..."

“You can bring Pearl, she’s a darn nice girl…”