Tag Archives: Mozart

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

 

 


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)


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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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.


Juan Of The Best

DON GIOVANNI

Live Broadcast from The Met, Saturday 29th October, 2011-10-30

 

The astronomical cost of a ticket to live opera is just one of the reasons most people don’t go.  This new initiative of broadcast plays and operas around the world, live or “as live”, is a wonderful opportunity to see some of the greatest works of art and world class performers, for a fraction of the cost, (roughly what you’d shell out for a 3-D movie of dubious quality and a pair of the snazzy specs that come with it).

 

The Metropolitan Opera in New York are currently staging Mozart’s finest (in my view THE finest opera ever written) and it is a cracking production.  I have seen several stagings of Don Giovanni, some of them symbolic, some of them translated to different eras, but this one, in the costumes of the period on a simple staging of walls, doors and balconies, is one of the greatest.  The splendid singers are all top drawer, and Michael Grandage’s direction places emphasis on characterisation as much as on the action.  The humour of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto survives the translation into subtitles and the drama of Mozart’s magnificent score is unassailable.  That I had shivers throughout the evening was nothing to do with the air-conditioning.

 

Ramon Vargas brings something rarely seen in a Don Ottavio: impatience and frustration.  There is a lovely moment right at the end, when Donna Anna tells him he must wait one more year before they can be married, and he turns from her with a look of comical exasperation that is just delicious.  This is the beauty of a cinematic presentation – you get close-ups the people in the expensive seats do not. Marina Rebeka’s Donna Anna is both striking and sympathetic while Barbara Frittoli as Giovanni’s abandoned wife displays tenderness and helplessness in the face of her addiction to the man who done her wrong.  Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello always has a twinkle in his eye – his growing unease with his master’s carryings-on is coupled with his undeniable devotion to the man.

 

As it should be, my heart was won by Don Giovanni himself. Mariusz Kwiecien has something of a young Kurt Russell about him.  Clad in frockcoats and flouncy white shirts, he swaggers around the stage enjoying himself.  As the philandering Don, he can ‘turn on’ the charm.  His voice goes into turbo-charge for his seductive arias.  This is a man who knows what he is doing and is in full control of his talent for womanising.  Life is to be enjoyed and he enjoys it to the max.  When he is dragged into Hell, in a beautifully realised scene with a blue-faced Commendatore, he remains unrepentant.  With him gone, the rest of the characters have to grasp around for their next move: a deferred marriage, the taking of holy orders, the search for a new boss… It is as though Don Giovanni gave their lives purpose.  Without him, there is only anticlimax.