Tag Archives: Mozart

Concerted Effort

COSI FAN TUTTE

Town Hall, Birmingham, Friday 8th November, 2019

 

Sometimes you see plays that are ‘reconstructions’ of radio studio recordings, where the cast stand behind microphones, holding scripts, and the action is limited, leaving it to the audience to imagine setting, costume and everything else.  This concert performance of the final collaboration between Mozart and librettist Da Ponte reminds me of such plays, with the microphones replaced by music stands and the scripts by scores.  With this material, it works very well, thanks in no small part to a company of singers who can act their heads off.  With them facing out most of the time, we see the characters’ expressions to their best advantage.  And sometimes, they interact, where the limited space allows, bringing out the humour of the situation.

Richard Burkhard is a marvellous Don Alfonso, enjoying his masterminding of the plot’s central scam.  Tenor Matthew Swensen sings stirringly as Ferrando, but he could do with lightening up a bit, especially at the outset of proceedings.  Guglielmo is performed by possibly the most handsome man in classical music today, the mighty Benjamin Appl, who is wonderfully expressive facially and vocally.  His comic reactions and his musical phrasing are both sublime.

Ana Maria Labin, fighting a chest infection but you wouldn’t know it, shows remarkable range and poise as Fiordiligi.  Her ‘Per Pieta’ commands the stage – a virtuoso rendition.  Martha Jones, a late substitution as Dorabella, the giddier of the sisters, is delightfully funny, but the funniest performance of the night comes from Rebecca Bottone as Despina the sassy, savvy maid.  This is a Despina to savour, as Bottone wrings every shred of comedy from the role, distorting her soprano to depict the characters she assumes as part of Alfonso’s plan.  At one point, she dons a pair of steampunk goggles, and it’s the little touches like this that make this concert performance more engaging.

Ian Page conducts The Mozartists with a light touch, bouncing on the spot like Tigger in a black suit, almost teasing the music from this superlative orchestra.  And such music!  From the woodwinds chasing each other through the rousing overture, to the abundance of trios, quartets and quintets, this is playful yet passionate stuff.  Mozart is an exquisite dramatist, blending farcical humour with insightful glimpses into human psychology.  It’s a profound, sweet and silly piece of work, like receiving words of wisdom from a master chocolatier.

The material shines through this pared-down treatment and I enjoy it very much, but I still miss the knockabout comedy of the ‘Albanians’ pretending to poison themselves.  I still want to see their comedy moustaches!

Classical Opera 29 January 2019

Conductor and artistic director, Ian Page

 

 

 


Bells and Whistle

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 7th March, 2019

 

I jumped at the chance to see this production again, having first enjoyed it a couple of years ago.  Director Dominic Cooke sets the action in a box, with walls the colour of a Magritte sky and sets of doors that lend an almost-farcical aspect to proceedings.  The influence of Magritte does not stop with the sky; Sarastro’s cult members all sport bowler hats and coats very much akin to the famous surrealist painting – you know the one, where the man has an apple for a face.

In this box, Mozart’s divine music and Schikaneder’s amusing libretto (here presented in a superlative translation by Jeremy Sams, complete with rhyming couplets) combine to tell the story of a young Prince on a fairy-tale quest to save a Princess.  From the opening moments, with a giant lobster trying to grab him with its claws and the arrival of the Three Women, the stage is set for a lot of fun.  The Three Women (Jennifer Davis, Kezia Bienek, and Emma Carrington) are a collective hoot, and Cooke gives them plenty of comic business as they vie with each other over the unconscious Prince.  Ben Johnson’s Prince Tamino is dashing and forthright, singing beautifully, as when he falls in love at first sight of Pamina’s portrait.

Stealing the show in every scene he’s in is Mark Stone, hilarious as the bird-catcher Papageno.  In some productions, the dialogue scenes can be clunky and awkward, but in the hands of someone like Stone, they are a delight.

Soprano Anna Siminska is a powerful Queen of the Night.  Her second, most famous aria brings the house down.  Her oppo, high priest Sarastro, is her polar opposite.  While Siminska hits her Top Fs with piercing accuracy, Jihoon Kim gets to his Bottom Fs, but could do with a bit more power behind them.  Kim makes a striking figure as the cult leader; Sarastro’s rules for the way women ought to behave can seem problematic, but his solos are exceedingly beautiful.

Anita Watson makes a perfect fairy-tale princess as a heartfelt Pamina.  Her aria when she believes Tamino is shunning her remains one of the most heartrending moments in any opera, and Watson delivers the goods impeccably.

This is a production that doesn’t get bogged down by the pomp (and pomposity) of Sarastro’s order, with plenty of laughs throughout, both from the script and from the direction.  What happens when Tamino plays his flute or when Papageno plays his magic bells is charming and funny.

Inevitably, the star is Mozart.  His music adds humour, pathos, and, yes, holiness to the characters in this quest for love.  The opera is a plea for the end to hatred, for living in peace, a message that we need to hear in these nasty-minded times.

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Tamino (Ben Johnson) finds his lobster undercooked (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 

 


Cosy fun totally

IN PRAISE OF FOLLY

Crescent Theatre, Friday 16th November, 2018

 

Based on the comic opera Cosi fan tutte by Mozart and Da Ponte, this fresh little farce from the Foppish Theatre Company is vibrant with wit.  The script by Dewi Johnson (who also directs) and Andrew Buzzeo (who also appears as ‘Alistair’) adheres to Da Ponte’s libretto after an establishing scene in which soldier buddies, William and Benjamin, accept a bet from their cynical, worldly chum Alistair, who claims that within a day he can make the soldiers’ girlfriends turn to infidelity…  This scene, performed between the three, on the apron with nothing more than a simple bench, shows how direction can keep things engaging by eliciting energetic performances from the actors.

As Alistair, Andrew Buzzeo is hugely enjoyable, a sardonic manipulator and social commentator.  Equally entertaining are Luke Grant’s Benjamin and Zach Powell’s William, posing and posturing in ridiculous disguises (oh, those moustaches!) and flailing around from the effects of poison; Powell provides a superb study in comic playing when Alistair’s scheming bites William in the backside.

As the unwitting participants, the girls, Zoe Birkbeck is a haughty and bookish Fiona, never less than elegant, while Tessa Bonham Jones’s Charlotte is delightfully dim and frivolous.  As Phoebe, the conniving maid, Georgina Morton gives an arch but down-to-earth performance; her appearance as a notary, with a beard as long as she is tall, is ludicrously funny.

Johnson and Buzzeo’s script crackles with witty lines, and the dialogue has an authentic sound, with only the occasionally anachronistic turn of phrase to remind us that this is a modern-day pastiche and not a long-existing text.  I even recognise some lines as direct translations from Da Ponte’s original; well, if it ain’t broke…

The set, by Ludwig Meslet Poppins, consists of white cloth, creating flats and wings, like the ghost of an 18th century stage.  It’s a blank backdrop against which the colourful characters play out the farce, allowing the actors to come to the fore.  Rosemarie Johnson’s costumes are bright, evoking the period setting, and adding to the elegance of the enterprise.

It’s fast-moving and funny, and irresistible in its appeal.  Johnson’s direction is sharp, like a cut diamond  The sexual mores on display may remind us of the distance between the past and our present, but the machinations of the plot, played here to perfection, show that ‘old-fashioned’ conventions can come across as a refreshing and, above all, entertaining alternative to the pervasive naturalism of the modern-day stage and screen.

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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!

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

 

 


A Fool Aloof

EUGENE ONEGIN

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.

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He’s behind you! Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana and Nicholas Lester as Onegin (Photo: Betina Skovbro)


Man-Made Monsters – a double bill

FRANKENSTEIN: MAN OR MONSTER

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 21st July, 2017

 

This new piece from Mad Tom Theatre is written and performed by Augustus Stephens.  Using familiar characters from Frankenstein – the book and the old films – Stephens gives us a kind of tour of mental illnesses as he brings to life a range of personalitie:   Victor is a paranoid schizophrenic; Igor has OCD to the point that it makes him dangerous to himself and others; abandonment exacerbates Elizabeth’s eating disorder; the so-called Monster hears voices, hallucinates and is confused why everyone rejects him…

Stephens is an affable stage presence, swiftly swapping characters so they can exchange snappy dialogue.  There’s a laidback, casual feel to the show even though Stephens is working hard to appear effortless.  He invites us to participate in a song about a yodeller and a cuckoo clock and we do, because we will him to succeed.  Yes, there are songs: witty ditties that shed light on a character’s mindset.  Typically, the Monster is the most sympathetic, childlike and confused, wondering what he has done wrong.  “You see a monster where I see me,” he sings plaintively.  Igor, in a solo scene, reveals his inner struggle, his fears of harming someone, and it is heart-rending and a little frightening.

As a whole, the piece highlights how the mentally ill are treated, by the public, by the authorities, as monsters because of a lack of understanding.  Lucy Poulson directs, keeping Stephens on the move and the action clear.  A tilt of the head and a change in vocal register and he is a different character – it’s effective and impressive and a lot of fun.  The writing is delightful with sparks of wit that surprise as much as the poignant moments.

Entertaining and enlightening, this neat little show deserves a longer life and a wider audience.

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Augustus Stephens and Teddy

THE MARRIAGE OF KIM K

Blue Orange Theatre, Friday 21st July, 2017

 

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro collides with ‘reality’ TV star Kim Kardashian in this vibrant new musical theatre experience by Leo Mercer (lyrics) and Stephen Hyde (music).   Hyde also directs and appears as Stephen.  Three couples: the Count and Rosina from the opera, Kim K and her short-term husband Kris, and TV viewers Stephen and Amelia, share the stage and our attention as their marriages come under strain.

Amelia is a lawyer but loves nothing more than watching trash TV.  Her composer husband Stephen seeks solace in Mozart.  Cue arguments and fights over the remote control.  And a lot of La La Land-type self-expression.  Meanwhile, Kim K is exchanging text messages with her next love interest, Kanye.  Beefcake Kris is on his way out.  Count Almaviva and his wife reflect on their courtship and wonder where the spark went and when jealousy and distrust moved in.

It’s all beautifully sung (Yasemine Mireille and James Edge both belt like troupers and add depth to Mr and Mrs K) and for the most part the three styles of music (opera, pop, electro) blend, complement and contrast with each other euphoniously, accompanied by string quartet Echo Chamber.  It makes its points in the first fifteen minutes and with a charming and fitting resolution, when roles are reversed and the couples from the television gather on the sofa to watch the ‘real-life’ Stephen and Amelia negotiate a peace.

A feast for the ears, the singers fill the Blue Orange with their voices; it’s a good listen but perhaps my unfamiliarity with the world of Kim K and her ilk (which I have up to now studiously avoided) is a bar to some of the satire.  The elevation of her glamorous, self-promoting life to high art, I suppose, mirrors the recognition of our own emotions in something as ‘lofty’ as opera.  Emily Burnett’s Countess is sublimely human, with a reworking of Cherubino’s ‘Voi Che Sapete’ that touches the heart.  Nathan Bellis is also in great and funny form as the suspicious, adulterous Count Almaviva.  In the light of the two larger-than-life couples, Stephen and Amelia (Amelia Gabriel) seem small potatoes; while we are amused by the Count and touched by his wife, and tickled by the notion of Kim Kardashian as a role model and diva (in the musical sense), the couple on the sofa seem petty and inconsequential.  It’s almost as though ‘real-life’ doesn’t matter.

Musically dazzling, often amusing, this is a clever piece that works as a showcase for the talented cast rather than a biting insight into popular culture.  But that’s postmodernism for you.

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If you’ve got it, flautist

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Stafford Castle, Stafford, Sunday 2nd July, 2017

 

Heritage Opera’s production comes to Stafford Castle for one night only – the grounds are set up for the annual Shakespeare production; this year it’s The Tempest and so there is rather a nautical theme to the design.  Add to this, the reduced size of the orchestra (only seven of them!) and there is a rehearsal feel to this scaled-down sound.  Not that players and singers don’t give their all – and the sound quality is excellent, even with the constant drone of the nearby M6 forever in our ears.

The Tempest set is not a bad fit, given that high priest Sarastro is much like Prospero; the Queen of the Night, Sycorax; and Monostatos is very Caliban-like in this production!  The Three Boys are here replaced by three Spirits – in excellent, imaginative mermaid garb.

Tenor Nicholas Sales is a robust Tamino, the heroic prince and is well-matched with Aimee-Louise Toshney’s princess-in-distress Pamina.  Sarah Helsby Hughes is a strident Queen with a fabulous crown of feathers (I’d been wondering what she does with her daily delivery of birds) while Philip Barton’s Sarastro looks like Matt Berry playing Willy Wonka – but sounds divine.  It’s all about the bass.  The Three Ladies are equally delightful (Heather Heighway, Serenna Wagner, Helen-Anne Gregory) – amazons in straw hats, bringing humour to the action and beauty to the harmonies.  Roger Hanke’s wicked Monostatos is also good fun, a cross between Kermit the Frog and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  But it is Francis Church’s birdman, Papageno that wins our hearts.  Church makes the best of the sometimes clunky ‘banter’ and his rich baritone is warm and pleasing.

Mozart crammed the show with catchy melodies and beautiful harmonies, with plenty of chances to showcase the main characters.  The Queen hits her top F, Sarastro his bottom one.  Everything that happens in between is aural perfection.  Except when they’re not singing.  The libretto between the musical numbers is hampered by a duff plot (it starts so promisingly with the death of a serpent, and a quest to rescue an abducted princess) riddled with po-faced quasi-masonic blether.  Thank goodness for Francis Church – and for Eleanor Strutt as his intended, Papagena.  Their eventual duet is a joy.

There are moments when the production could do with a bigger sound – the keyboard can’t make up for the absence of brass at key moments – but there are some lovely ideas that add wit to proceedings, like Papageno pushing a pram with an egg in it, and the animals gathering to hear the magical flute are fun if few and far between.

An enjoyable evening of fresh air and Mozart sounding as fresh as ever.  I look forward to more Heritage Opera productions in the future.

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Publicity material for Heritage Opera’s The Magic Flute