Tag Archives: opera

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

 

 

 


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)

 

 


Far From Grimm

HANSEL AND GRETEL

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 7th May, 2015

 

This new version comes to the Belgrade courtesy of HighTime Opera company, a small-scale outfit whose mission is to bring opera to everyone and not just the elite few. With this production, they make a giant stride towards that commendable aim.

Adelheld Wette’s libretto translates the action from the traditional gingerbread cottage in the woods to a circus tent in a rubbish tip, swapping the Witch for an evil ringmaster. The grubby, big top setting (designed by Richard Evans) works for the most part, due to its built-in theatricality but I will own up to trepidation when a trio of clowns, (old-school Pierrot faces) perform in dumb show during the overture. The show is in danger here of becoming twee – these fears are dispelled as soon as the story gets going and the singing begins.

The new translation uses contemporary slang and modern-day references (television, Pukka pies…) to humorous effect, the witty rhymes a good fit for Humperdinck’s melodic score.

Alexa Mason is a magnificent Gretel, physically presenting a little girl and all her caprices and vocally one of the clearest I have ever heard. Sian Cameron is brother Hansel, all chavvy in hooded top and trackie bottoms. Both performers capture the childishness of the eponymous siblings – director Felicity Green gives them oodles of business. The stage is never static.

Wendy Dawn Thompson is their hard-nosed, hard-working (and yet trapped in poverty) mother, with a plaintive edge to her singing, while their father, a swaggering and affable Jon Stainsby is all optimism and tra-la-la. The contrast is highly effective.

There is a pleasing appearance by Caroline Kennedy as the Keeper of Birds and Charlotte Ireland impresses as a Magician. As the villainous, camp and cannibalistic Ringmaster, Oliver Marshall’s characterisation is delicious and I am sure his voice will develop more power as he gains experience.

The cast is augmented by a throng of local children who are incorporated into the action, singing sweetly and trying their best. Strange to see a story in which children run away from the circus!  But it is important to expose youngsters to this art form before any cultural preconceptions and prejudices set in, if opera is to be accessible to all.

Engelbert Humperdinck’s richly coloured score is served well, stripped down to a piano arrangement. Special mention must go to pianist Richard Black for his flawless, nuanced playing. Conductor Benjamin Hamilton keeps the whole thing ticking along, managing the timing of the action seamlessly with the tempo.

It’s an amusing take on the traditional tale (it’s more Roald Dahl than Brothers Grimm) and goes to demonstrate how small-scale productions can work extremely well, given an appropriate choice of material. This kind of treatment would suit something like Cosi fan tutte very nicely – but not so much Gotterdammerung!

Act1_Sc1_Dress8

Sibling ribaldry. (Photo: Peter Marsh @ashmorevisuals )


Housebound

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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Manon, Manoff

MANON LESCAUT

Hippodrome, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th March, 2014

 

A railway platform is the setting for Welsh National Opera’s current production of Puccini’s version of the classic French novel.  The chorus, in stylish business suits, are all commuters.  Des Grieux is similarly attired, a business man rather than a young student.  Yellow lines edge the stage – the kind you’re supposed to stand well behind.  It’s symbolic of a problem with this setting that keeps us at a remove from this world.  We are observers and sometimes it’s too voyeuristic for comfort.

It’s not a good fit of setting and content.  I don’t buy the chorus of commuters who sing chummily as if they’re a bunch of locals in a pub but behave like people do on trains, bustling about like ants intent on their individual business.  Manon is depicted as a victim from the get-go.  Exploited by her brother in the most horrible way, she is little more than a sex slave.  She might enjoy the trappings of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita but she is a kept woman and possibly a drug addict.   Women in this world are objects, chattel, possessions.  Exotic pets.  It’s a misogynistic place.  Des Grieux spots Manon when she is wrapped up in a red mackintosh and masked by sunglasses – this is the woman with whom he falls desperately in love.

As Des Grieux, Gwyn Hughes Jones is a more mature figure than the love struck youth I picture.  All the greater is his desperation because of this.  And Hughes Jones has a searing tenor that makes every note of his arias compelling.  Chiara Taigi’s Manon has the setting working against her: she snorts a line of cocaine, rolls over and off a sofa, and still keeps perfect control of her voice with all its dynamics and colours.

Under Lother Koeniga’s baton, Puccini’s score reaches out to us through the distancing effects of the staging.  Act 3 begins with some of his most beautiful music before a dramatic and disturbing scene in which some women, including Manon, are paraded around with their hands high above their heads like pieces of meat hanging from hooks.  They are being punished for fulfilling the roles imposed on them by the men in this horrible society.

The final scene is presented like an out-of-body experience.  Des Grieux and a Manon-a-like sit on a bench on the railway platform, like strangers, while Manon herself stands apart for her last aria, before walking off the platform.  Apart from the singing it was all a little too dispassionate for me, a little too stark.

Sounding wonderful, thanks to a top class cast and marvellous orchestra, this Manon is sometimes visually disturbing but a little too removed, however clever the ideas.

Sometimes la vita ain’t always so dolce, babe.


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


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