Tag Archives: English Touring Opera

A Date with the Don

DON GIOVANNI

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 10th May, 2016

 

English Touring Opera brings a new production of what, in my view, is the finest opera ever written – I always look forward to new productions with a mix of excitement and trepidation: will I be outraged by liberties taken with staging and interpretation?

Prepared to vent my dismay, I take my seat…

The setting is 1900s Vienna, or rather beneath the city.  Apparently it was quite the thing back in the day: the workers who had built the network of tunnels ended up living down there, with nowhere else to go.  My first impression is that Anna Fleischle’s set may be too dark and gloomy for the more humorous sections… but it turns out my worries are unfounded.  If anything the humour shines through.  The set and the atmospheric lighting (by Guy Hoare) cannot swamp the irrepressible Don Giovanni or indeed Mozart’s rich and vibrant score.

Nicholas Lester is a tall, dark and handsome Don Giovanni – you want your lotharios to be swoonsome and he most certainly is.  His baritone is seductive, like being tempted with melted dark chocolate, and his hearty laughter is delicious.  He forms an hilarious double-act with his servant Leporello (a marvellous Matthew Stiff), here looking rather well-fed, so we can take his protestations about the privations he suffers with a whole peck of salt.  Leporello’s catalogue aria is one of the comedy highlights of the night.

Ania Jeruc’s Donna Elvira is suitably wild-eyed, driven to derangement by her undying devotion to Giovanni.  Strident but never shrill, Jeruc brings a touch of the exotic to the piece.

Gillian Ramm’s Donna Anna may be small in stature but she’s a powerhouse of emotion, and she is paired with a Don Ottavio (Robyn Lyn Evans) that for once actually seems to have a pair himself.  This Ottavio is upright, decent and above all strong – you don’t always get that.

Lucy Hall is sweet and funny as peasant bride Zerlina – her ‘Beat me’ aria is cute and flirtatious.  Bradley Travis brings out handsome husband-to-be Masetto’s hotheadedness and indignation.

We’re all waiting to see how the murdered Commendatore (Piotr Lempa) will be staged, when he returns to take Don Giovanni to Hell.  Here the tunnels and shadows of the underground setting come into their own.  A chorus of demons, here reminiscent of the workers who built the place, stand sinisterly around Giovanni, before carrying him away like pallbearers.

John Andrews conducts with verve – all the colours of Mozart’s impeccable score are brought out, sometimes at quite a lick.

A thrilling, witty production (the translation by Jeremy Sams is clever and laugh-out-loud funny) it is also stylish and powerful.  The design supports the action – there are glimpses of colour reminiscent of Gustav Klimt – director Lloyd Wood’s ideas enhance the libretto, and the actor-singers are the focus of the production.

Every time I hear it, I marvel that something so wonderful can exist, can be created by a human being.  This production by English Touring Opera reaffirms the notion that Don Giovanni is one of humanity’s finest achievements.

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Climbing the walls – Don Giovanni and Leporello (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

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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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Not so simple Simon

SIMON BOCCANEGRA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 16th April, 2013

 

Verdi’s opera of politics and melodrama packs a lot in to its two-and-a-half hours.  So much so, it can be difficult to keep clear who is who and what they’re up to, but this I think is mainly the fault of the libretto rather than this production.

Director  James Conway brings the action forward in time to the 1930s depression.  There is more than a hint of organised crime to the carryings on.  Boccanegra (traditionally an ex-pirate) is described as an ex-black marketer.  This is the world of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, except everyone is clamouring for Boccanegra to become Doge, dodgy though he may have been.

Most of the intrigue centres around Boccanegra’s bastard daughter, who went missing when she was an infant.  Her maternal grandfather resents Boccanegra for this and for the death of the child’s mother.  He – Fiesco – forms an alliance with Paolo against Boccanegra.  It all comes to a head twenty five years later, when the girl shows up, is mistaken by her boyfriend for Boccanegra’s mistress and… Well, there’s a slow-acting poison, some touching reunions and reconciliations and a death scene.  Oh, and some off-stage riots, although I’m not clear why exactly.  As opera plots go, it’s all pretty standard and nothing to worry about.  What matters are the moments of emotion.  These come across clearly and effectively.  There is some very powerful singing indeed.

In the title role, Craig Smith is every inch the statesman and protective father.  His rich baritone conveys authority and warmth.  It’s like being ordered about by a bar of dark chocolate.  Charne Rochford is a strident tenor, which suits Adorno’s impassioned outbursts and anger a little better than his love songs.  Grant Doyle oozes ‘bad guy’ as Paolo but for me the strongest performances of the evening come from Keel Watson as Fiesco, credibly grieving for his dead daughter, and Elizabeth Llewellyn as the long-lost daughter Amelia, who goes through the widest range of emotions and sings them all beautifully.

Samal Blak’s inventive set: planks that can be cleverly reconfigured to suggest different locations, provides an evocative setting without overshadowing the performers.  Lighting direction by Ace McCarron enhances both the mood and the sense of place: There is a gorgeous moment when Boccanegra reminisces about his past, and the stage becomes iridescent, like sunlight catching the tops of ocean waves.  Beautiful.

So while the comings and goings might be a little hard to follow, this is still a superior night at the opera.  English Touring Opera show yet again they are a hallmark of quality and talent.

Reunited and it feels so good. Craig Smith and Elizabeth Llewellyn


Getting Cosy With Mozart

Così fan tutte

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 15th April, 2013

The splendid English Touring Opera brings Mozart and Da Ponte’s effervescent confection of a show to town in a lively and elegant production.  Paul Higgins directs with a flair for comic business that is totally in keeping with the spirit of the piece and supporting Martin Fitzpatrick’s witty translation.

This was the first time I have heard Così in English; I have hitherto been a bit of a purist (snob) preferring to hear opera in their original languages (composers repeat words, phrases and even syllables for a particular sound) but I found not having to keep an eye on surtitles liberating and actively listening to the words as dialogue made the show fresh, and what is usually an amusing and charming piece became laugh-out-loud funny.

It is an unadulterated delight.

It begins with the cast spending the overture tearing around after each other in a game of hide and seek, running in and out of the doorways of decreasing size in Samal Blak’s elegant but simple set.  This matches the instruments that chase each other through Mozart’s coruscating motifs and also sets the tone for fun and game-playing.

Laura Mitchell is a striking Fiordiligi; her duets with Kitty Whately as her sister Dorabella are sublime.  The sisters are a silly pair, given to histrionics and melodrama at the drop of a hat.  When they are faced with real rather than theoretical temptation, they each falter and succumb – although Fiordiligi is harder work.  Her seduction by the disguised Ferrando is one of my favourite moments in all opera.  Speaking of Ferrando, Anthony Gregory is superb, with excellent comic timing and an achingly beautiful tenor voice.  Toby Girling is his mate, the cocksure Guglielmo, is also a fine comedian.  There is a wealth of physical humour going on and the men in particular handle it very well.

Richard Mosley-Evans is a delight as the scheming Don Alfonso.  His trio with the girls “Oh, breezes be gentle” (Soave Sia Il Vento) is absolutely delicious.

Paula Sides steals it, however, as disgruntled maid Despina.  She gets to dress up as a doctor of magnetism to cure the disguised suitors of poisoning (don’t ask) and also an attorney to stage a false wedding.  Her vocal distortions are very funny without distorting the quality of the notes.  It’s a shame her hilarious doctor’s outfit with its rather medieval beaked mask muffles her a bit.

It’s all a frothy bit of nonsense, a rom-com of no import – or is it? Mozart gives us confection but also sneaks up on us with the emotional power of his score.  This is not merely a box of posh chocolates.  It is something more nutritious than that.  Mozart reminds us that even these airheads and ninnies are people too and as we respond to their emotions, points out that our own humanity lies beneath the faces and pretexts we adopt in our own ridiculous lives.  It’s an absolute pleasure to spend an evening in his company.

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