Tag Archives: Elizabeth Watts

Juan to Watch

DON GIOVANNI

Hippodrome, Birmingham, Wednesday 7th March, 2018

 

Welsh National Opera is back in town and this time they’ve brought my favourite opera, Mozart’s masterly take on the Don Juan legend.  The setting is dark: huge slabs hold doorways (which are put to comic use) but also bear reliefs, friezes depicting human figures in a variety of poses.  Are they souls in torment, and a foretaste of what awaits this dissoluto when he is punito?  Or are they souls in love – which, as the opera demonstrates (in case we didn’t know already) brings its own kind of torment?  These huge pieces, further adorned with statuary, speak of a dominant power, of a ruling class imposing its will on the environs.  Which is what Don Giovanni does in spades, of course, under the guise of generosity and general benevolence.  In these days of sexual harassment cases brought against those (men) who abuse their positions of power, the opera takes on a sharp and contemporary relevance, although I doubt the likes of Weinstein will face his comeuppance via supernatural means!

Against this darkness and walls closing in and moving back, plays out the drama and the comedy of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto.  Melodrama is countered with wit, high emotion with low, physical gags.  Mozart’s music ties all the mood swings together so we are aware of the contrasts but don’t see the join, and this revival of John Caird’s production serves all aspects, every change of tone, very well.

Gavan Ring’s swaggering Giovanni certainly looks the part and uses his baritone well for seductive decoration.  It’s a pity his voice comes across as somewhat underpowered when singing against the full orchestra: the champagne aria is a bit of a damp squib, alas, whereas La Ci Darem is delicious.  His serenade of Elvira’s maid is ‘accompanied’ by a mysterious, cowled figure, supposedly on the mandolin, thereby aligning Giovanni with the supernatural forces that crop up throughout.  This is the one production choice I query.  If Giovanni is in league with these forces and therefore doing the devil’s work, it doesn’t quite gel with his damnation, brought about by the spirit of the man he murders in the opening scene… Oh well.  I’m not going to let it ruin my night.

David Stout’s Leporello is instantly likeable.  He has the cockiness, the cheekiness and the grovelling down pat, and plays the comedy to the hilt.  Meeta Raval’s Donna Anna provides most of the high drama, while Elizabeth Watts’s Elvira’s melodramatic turn also contributes to the laughs.  Watts is arguably the best actor of this impressive ensemble; her wide-eyed Elvira, like the opera as a whole, balances the dramatic with the comic.  She is a drama queen.  Gareth Brynmor John gives us a solid hothead in his Masetto, while Katie Bray is sweet, funny and charming as his wayward fiancée, Zerlina.  Miklos Sebestyen’s Commendatore is suitably imposing but, for me, best voice of the evening comes out of Benjamin Hulett’s dashing Ottavio.  His tenor soars over the orchestra; his Ottavio is upright, moral and heroic, and not the wet lettuce he is sometimes portrayed as.

The orchestra is in excellent fettle under the baton of James Southall and although the fabulous WNO chorus has little to do, they make an impression with some country dancing at Zerlina’s wedding.

The world is a dark place, the production tells us, and those in charge will seek to exploit us.  Nevertheless, life is to be enjoyed, despite tyrants, despite the tyrannies of love.  At the end, the characters seem unable to embrace life’s pleasures: Anna defers her marriage to Ottavio – who agrees to it! – Elvira heads for a convent – and Leporello seeks out further servitude in a new master.  With Giovanni out of the picture, their lives have lost purpose.  We must allow ourselves a little dissolution, it seems, in order to be happy and fulfilled!

don giovanni

Leporello showing Donna Elvira Russell Brand’s biography – Elizabeth Watts and David Stout (Photo: Richard Hubert Smth)

 

 

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Tutte Fruity

Così fan tutte
Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 9th November, 2012

Welsh National Opera return with their seaside production of Mozart’s delectable rom-com. The setting is the seafront of an English resort, with Victorian street lamps along the esplanade. This is a fish and chips. Punch and Judy world, with Italian seasoning.

Director Benjamin Davis gets the laughs coming as soon as possible. The effervescent overture underscores a silent movie of seaside life: young lovers walk along the prom, dog walkers struggle to keep their canine charges under control… It sets the tone perfectly for what is to follow.

The plot involves a bet made between two soldiers and an older man who tells them even their beloved fiancées will do the dirty on them as soon as the soldiers turn their backs. The soldiers accept the terms of the wager and bid farewell to their girlfriends, pretending to go off to war. They immediately reappear in disguise (as camp holiday camp redcoats) to seduce each other’s girl. Eventually the girls succumb, and the whole scheme blows up in everyone’s faces. (Kate Bush was to explore the same territory two hundred years later with Babooshka!)

There is much silliness to the plot – the suitors pretend to drink poison and are ‘cured’ by the maid dressed as a mystic with a giant magnet –and the score adds charm and humour to the comic business. The girls’ arias and duets, beautifully sung, show them to be giddy drama queens, melodramatic but heartfelt all the same. But, as with all Mozart, there are moments of absolute beauty too. The farewell to the soldiers, Soave sia il vento, is at once stirring and soothing. It is so gorgeous it makes you ache.

Elizabeth Watts is a petite powerhouse as Fiordiligi, the more serious of the sisters. Maire Flavin is the flibbertigibbet Dorabella – and both are very funny. As the faux holiday reps, Gary Griffiths’s Guglielmo is an absolute hoot in a pair of shorts and Andrew Tortise’s Ferrando has something of the Syd Little about him with his prosthetic nose and buttoned up blazer. Neal Davis dons a chequered Max Miller-type suit as Don Alfonso, engineer of the scheme. A man with a comb-over shouldn’t be able to sing so divinely! He is aided and abetted by chambermaid Despina – Joanne Boag having fun in a range of disguises, able to belt out her opinions while cleaning a toilet.

The singing is flawless although I would have liked Ferrando to be a little more forceful in his seduction scene. Mark Wigglesworth’s baton allows for moments of silence, not just to allow for the applause, but as pauses to let the action breathe, as the characters reel from some outburst or turn of events.

It is a feast for the eyes and ears – the sweetness of lettered rock tempered with the saltiness of the seaside air. Everything coruscates with wit and there is something of the fruitiness of seaside postcards in the humour. Max Jones’s design is the colourful package of this box of delights, incorporating fairground attractions and life-size Punch and Judy characters whose conflicts complement those of the main characters.

There is a cynicism to the piece in its claim (and apparent proof) that all women do the same. The men who put this hypothesis to the test suffer the most, caught in their own trap, but such is the other-worldliness of this little society, it operates solely for the purpose of fulfilling the terms of the bet, you go along with it, as the heart-shaped box of confectionery it really is. Mozart’s music tickles and seduces more effectively than any comedy moustache.


A Marriage Made In Heaven

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO
Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 8th March, 2012

Welsh National Opera give Mozart’s most farcical opera an Upstairs Downstairs touch. The elegance of the 1930s fits like a tailored dinner jacket. Wealth is suggested – designer Paco Azorin limits the set to walls and doors and very little furniture, giving the cast room to move in this fast-paced comedy. They have room to perform their big reactions and dashing around and crawling across the floor – (how unlike the Beatrice And Benedict from the night before, where the stage is so crowded, the action – such as it is – is swamped).

David Soar is rich-voiced servant Figaro although his wiles are upstaged by his wilier bride-to-be Susanna (a delightful Elizabeth Watts). Also excelling in comic playing is Rebecca Evans as the Contessa, contrasting the broad reactions necessitated by the twists and turns of the plot with heart-breaking tenderness in her beautiful arias. Striding around as if he owns the place, which of course he does, Dario Solari’s philandering Count Almaviva is a complete and utter Conte but a totally enjoyable one nevertheless. Cream of the crop for me was Jurgita Adamonyte as randy page boy Cherubino, looking like Justin Bieber in plus fours.

The score is riddled with beauty and humour in equal measure. The libretto is very funny, retaining albeit in translation, many of the best lines from the Beaumarchais play but, such is the genius of Mozart, there is much to amuse in the actual music. The singers do their utmost to bring out this humour and three hours fly by in their delightful presence.

Director Lluis Pasqual makes the most of the potential for physical comedy, keeping a balance between the machinations of the plot and bringing out the humanity of the characters. Yet again the WNO proves it is a world class opera company with this accessible, hugely entertaining and touching production. It was heartening to see such a diverse audience, packed into the Hippodrome, all enrapt and united by their enjoyment and appreciation.