Tag Archives: Welsh National Opera

The Joker is Wild

RIGOLETTO

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th November, 2019

 

Welsh National Opera is back in town and they’ve brought with them this revival of James Macdonald’s 2002 production.  Set in what looks like Nixon-era America, the production gives us the Duke as a womanising, presidential figure, complete with Oval Office – How prescient!  His courtiers are besuited, secret service types, and his jester, the title character, is a lounge-type entertainer in chequered blazer.  Rigoletto’s humour is cruel, of the roasting variety, and it soon lands him in trouble when the butt of his jokes pronounces his curse upon the comic.  The notion of being curse obsesses Rigoletto for the rest of the story – it’s how he views everything that happens from that point, while everyone else is going around enjoying themselves, playing ‘hilarious’ pranks, falling in love, and did I mention the womanising?

David Junghoon Kim is a magnificent Duke, sharp in his tuxedo with a tenor as clear as a bell.  Verdi gives him the best tunes, the most seductive melodic lines – it’s like the Duke’s superpower, or supervillain power, because we have to keep in mind, this chap is the bad guy here.  When he sings with Rigoletto’s daughter, this is not two people falling in love, although he later admits “her modesty almost drove me to virtue”.  He’s a fine one to talk, in that most famous, most jaunty aria, that women are fickle and not to be trusted.  Pot/kettle, mate.  It is this dim view of the ladies that lets him treat them so badly.

Mark S Doss, limping and shuffling around, is superbly plaintive and melodramatic.  It’s not the most enlightened approach to keep your daughter shut indoors but we sense that it comes from deep love for her and a desire to protect her from this environment that treats women as objects for male enjoyment.  Rigoletto’s impassioned plea and his final heart-wrenching grief are powerfully done.  Quite rightly, he gets the hump!

As the daughter, Haegee Lee is quite simply the best Gilda I’ve ever seen.  Innocent yet inquisitive, she has inherited her dad’s sense of the melodramatic, and there’s a naïve nobility in her self-sacrifice for a cad who doesn’t deserve it.  Lee almost steals the show, whether it’s duetting with Doss or Kim, or singing solo.  A towering performance from such a diminutive figure.

There is strong support as ever from the WNO chorus – including offstage when they give voice to the wind during the stormy climactic scene – and from Woytek Gierlach’s burly assassin Sparafucile, a powerful bass that seems to come from his boots, and from Emma Carrington as the assassin’s sister Maddalena, bringing a sleazy touch of humour to proceedings.

Alexander Joel’s baton elicits stirring emotion and a sense of foreboding from the orchestra.  It all comes to a head for a flawless third act of high drama and high emotion.  With a clarity of storytelling, superlative vocal and acting talent, and excellent production values, this is Verdi how he should be presented, a gripping emotional ride that thrills and exhilarates.

Bravo!

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Bear with me: Mark S Doss as Rigoletto (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

 


Yes, Queen!

ROBERTO DEVEREUX

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 8th March, 2019

 

Loosely inspired by English history, this story of one of the favourites of Queen Elizabeth begins with an overture that includes a sinewy rendition of ‘God Save The Queen’, quite anachronistically, before building up to a frenetic series of crashing chords; conductor Carlo Rizzo throws himself around energetically.  It’s an exhilarating opening.

Elizabeth loves Roberto, but Roberto loves Sara, wife to his best mate, the Duke of Nottingham.  Roberto stands accused of treason but Elizabeth offers him a get-out-of-jail-free card.  He can go free if he names her rival for his affections.  Roberto would rather die than put Sara in the frame.  There’s some business with love tokens (a ring from Elizabeth, a scarf from Sara) and the Duke of Nottingham rumbles what’s going on…

Director Alessandro Talevi eschews the grandeur of the Elizabethan court and sets this love quadrangle in a dark world of shadows and screens.  Elizabeth keeps a spider in a tank – perhaps this signifies her treatment of Roberto, keeping him as an exotic pet but one that can bite… Later, it emerges that it is she who is the spider, as she careers around in a chariot like a giant robotic arachnid.  Talevi brings surprises to the melodrama.  The bald queen stalking around on mechanical legs while her favourite languishes in prison, caught in scarlet strands – his entanglement in the web of Elizabeth’s emotions.

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Elisabetta (Joyce El-Khoury) Photo: Bill Cooper

Joyce El-Khoury is magnificent as the tyrannical queen, giving us the regal power of the monarch and the volatile emotions of the woman.  She commands the attention whenever she is on – not just because she is a splash of vibrant colour in an otherwise monochromatic setting.  Also strong is Justina Gringyte as the noble, distressed Sara, fighting her feelings for Barry Banks’s robust Roberto.  Roland Wood’s passionate Duke, pleading for the life of his friend is lovely stuff.

The marvellous WNO chorus have their moment in the spotlight with a solemn, hymn-like piece, while the orchestra play Donizetti’s stirring score with verve and beauty.  Madeleine Boyd’s design work owes more to the 19th than the 16th century, with a touch of Vivienne Westwood and Jules Verne thrown in.  It’s all very stylish, a world with its own rules rather than any attempt at historical reconstruction.

This is a striking, powerful production with a tour de force performance by El-Khoury at its heart.

Majestic.

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Roberto Devereux (Barry Banks) gets caught up in red tape (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 


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)

 

 


Dance in the Dark

UN BALLO IN MASCHERA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th March, 2019

 

Welsh National Opera’s Spring season at the Hippodrome kicks off with this Verdi gem in which the maestro blends aspects of opera buffo with melodrama.   It’s an opera with a split personality, with moods changing seamlessly.  Raimund Bauer’s set, of huge, substantial flats with lots of small windows and red curtains tower over the action and are rotated into various positions to suggest the different locations.  They are impressive things to be sure but their imposing scale and the general blackness of the background do not serve the comical, more playful moments of the score.

Political intrigue, dire prophecies from a fortune-teller, a love triangle, betrayal – it’s all here, as Riccardo (Gwyn Hughes Jones) struggles with his love for his bff’s wife Amelia (Mary Elizabeth Williams) while she struggles with her love for him.  The bff, Renato (Roland Wood) finds out (of course he does!) and falls in league with a bunch of conspirators who are plotting Riccardo’s assassination.

As Riccardo, Jones is a mass of energy, which he channels into his powerful tenor.  No weedy hero he, Jones is a delight to hear, bringing power and playfulness to the role.  As Amelia, Williams is sublime, heart-breaking and nuanced in her delivery – most of the melodrama comes her way – and she is perfect.  Wood’s baritone is earnest and passionate; Renato feels things as deeply as he sings them!

As ever, the WNO chorus are excellent value, cavorting around in top hats, doing a conga, before turning up at the ball like skeletal extras from the movie Coco.

Sara Fulgoni is a lot of fun as the imperious fortune-teller, Ulrica, as is Harriet Eyley’s Oscar, a perky manservant bringing comic relief and a breath-taking mullet.

While the setting may be too dark for us to catch all the comic business going on, the big moments are superbly staged, with some striking, symbolic rather than literal, imagery.  Director David Pountney gives us masks and mystery, with a touch of the Gothic.

It’s a banquet for the ears.  The singing is thoroughly top notch and the WNO, under the baton of Carlo Rizzi, delivers Verdi’s sumptuous music exquisitely.  On the whole, the production leans toward the darkness rather than striking a balance with the light, yet for all that it is hugely enjoyable.  I had a ball!

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When your love-life ‘stalls’ – Mary Elizabeth Williams as Amelia (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 

 


Out of the Ashes

LA CENERENTOLA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 15th November, 2018

 

The influence of Mozart, the king of comic opera, is easily apparent in this version of the Cinderella story by Rossini, a worthy successor to the crown.  Rossini’s characters, for all the delight they bring, lack the psychological complexity of Mozart’s but in this colourful, storybook production this matters not one jot.

Director Joan Font keeps the staging simple: a staircase, a huge fireplace that becomes a huge set of palatial doors.  On this grey background, vibrant figures act out the familiar drama (there are a couple of diversions from the norm: the glass slipper is a bracelet, presumably because back in 1817 when the opera premiered, showing bare feet on stage would bring about the apocalypse; the fairy godmother is the Prince’s wise old tutor, disguised as a beggar…)  Joan Guillen’s design dresses the characters in traditional storybook costumes, with exaggerations and some Fauvist colourings: the male chorus all sport blue wigs; the clownish make-up of the comic characters includes painted on blue beards… Font doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to the comedy, and if you spend too long peering up at the surtitles, you might not catch some bit of business that augments the situation, and supports the overall tone of Rossini’s effervescent score.

Tara Erraught is sweetly dowdy – if that’s possible – in the title role, petting her only friends: an infestation of man-sized mice, who serve as stagehands and silent commentators on the proceedings.  Fresh-faced tenor Matteo Macchioni is, well, Charming as the Prince, who for reasons of plot, spends most of the show in disguise as his own manservant, Dandini.  Speaking of whom, Giorgio Caoduro, amid a host of amusing performances, proves the funniest of the lot as the manservant in disguise, camping it up as the Prince.  Fabio Capitanucci all but chews the scenery as bombastic, ostensible villain-of-the-piece, the purple-wigged Don Magnifico.  He and Caoduro excel at the patter, barking out rapid staccato almost to the brink of frenzy.  Rossini, like Mozart before him, makes music sound funny.  It’s a wonder to behold.

Wojtech Gierlach brings gravitas to this bit of froth in the role of the wise and slightly wizardly Alidoro – a figure who owes more than a bit to Sarastro in The Magic Flute,  while Aoife Miskelly and Heather Lowe have and give and lot of fun as the preening, posturing, bitchy sisters Clorinda and Tisbe, beneath towering pompadours of pink and bright yellow.

The WNO male chorus are in splendid voice, whether singing on-stage or off, but it strikes me at curious that, at the ball, the Prince has only three female guests from whom to select his bride.  The orchestra, under the flawless aegis of Tomas Hanus, deliver every note of Rossini’s frantic music to perfection.  Sometimes it’s so fast it’s as though the characters are in a hurry as they try to express the thoughts and emotions that are pouring out of them like champagne from a newly-popped bottle.

A delight from start to finish, this is a breath-taking feast for the ears with plenty of visual humour to keep the funny-bone tickled.  For me, it serves as a curtain-raiser for the impending pantomime season, as yet again WNO provide world-class entertainment with a production that would make the perfect introduction to the genre for anyone.  It would be a cin-der miss it.

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Giorgio Caoduro and Fabio Capitanucci as Dandini and Don Magnifico (Photo: Jane Hobson)


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)