Tag Archives: Welsh National Opera

Tell: the Truth

WILLIAM TELL

Hippodrome, Birmingham, Saturday 22nd November, 2014

 

Rossini’s final opera is a more serious affair than his other works, like The Barber of Seville or The Journey to Rheims. Famous of course for its overture, this is the story of Swiss hero Tell who stands against the Austrian oppressors and shoots an apple of his boy’s bonce.

That overture: it begins (in its full version; Rossini made not just a meal but a banquet of his overtures) with a cello solo. The cellist appears on stage in a spotlight, does her bit and then is frogmarched away by Austrian soldiers! Then there is a sequence depicting a storm – all done musically; you don’t need stage effects when the music’s this descriptive. There’s a lilting fanfare to herald the morning, the calm after the storm, before we gallop off in the most famous, Lone Ranger section. Is there a piece of music more exhilarating than this? Under Carlo Rizzi’s baton, or riding crop, the WNO orchestra attack it at a fair lick. It is thrilling, rousing and played with pinpoint precision. I wonder if the evening has peaked too early.  (You can hear the full version of the overture here)

Raimund Bauer’s set is minimalistic: there are hints of an Alpine landscape projected on screens. Space is needed to accommodate the large chorus – in their scenes, Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costume designs dominate. The masses are dressed as early factory workers or labourers, all dowdy in several shades of grey (not quite fifty) but the overall effect makes for a very restricted palette. This is at odds with the wonderful colours in Rossini’s score. It makes for a production that is beautiful to hear but rather drab to see. As always the WNO chorus sounds divine.

The principals are all strong. In the title role, David Kempster in a long overcoat and white hoodie, looks and sounds impressive enough to rally the Swiss out of oppression. Leah-Marian Jones as Mrs Tell and Camilla Roberts as Mathilde fill their arias with emotion; the latter especially has a voice rich with melancholy. Fflur Wyn is son Jemmy, the apple of Tell’s eye, capturing the boy’s indomitable spirit – he represents the new Switzerland that will rise once the Austrian oppressors are chucked out. Barry Banks works the hardest in the demanding tenor role of Arnold – his voice soars and blares, like the horns that pepper the score. Baddie Gesler Clive Bayley, bald as a Bond villain and wheeling around like Davros, gets the boos his character deserves.

There is humour – a good deal of it from Amir Hosseinpour’s quirky choreography – and many sweepingly emotional passages. The apple-on-the-head scene, beautifully dramatized by Rossini, is cleverly staged by director David Pountney. Alas, other moments (the climactic shooting of Gesler, for example) do not come across so effectively. Sometimes the characters stand on what looks like a giant sunbed – I assume it represents a snow-capped peak – at others, the imagery is striking and powerful: the Swiss have black plus signs (like the cross on their flag) sewn to their clothing, and are herded around by the Austrian stormtroopers. It’s yellow stars and SS guards all over again. The Austrians have a fetish for wearing antlered helmets. They bray over the spoils of their hunt at some kind of stag do – and its more than hinted at they’ve been hunting people not animals.

You don’t have to watch the news for long to see stories of countries occupying other countries. Here the locals in rebellion are the heroes, which is not always how they are portrayed by the media; this production reminds us there is another side to those reports.

A feast for the ears, visually this production is patchy with its successes. A rare treat to hear this challenging Rossini performed live.

Who ordered the Strongbow?  David Kempster in a Tell-ing performance.

Who ordered the Strongbow? David Kempster in a Tell-ing performance.

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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.


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

 


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.


Not Up To Much

BEATRICE AND BENEDICT
Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 7th March, 2012


Much Ado About Nothing is one of my favourite plays. Tamper with it at your peril. Hector Berlioz, in trying to create a lightweight and witty comic opera, has not so much tampered with Shakespeare’s sublime romantic comedy as diluted it to almost homeopathic proportions. The main plot has been excised in order to bring the rocky relationship of Beatrice and Benedick to the fore. The problem is without the main conflict the couple’s tentative attempts to realise and declare the feelings they have for each other is nothing more than a matter of their own wilful pride. They don’t wish to lose face having railed against each other so publicly. Their relationship is never in any real jeopardy and as a result lacks depth and, frankly, I found it difficult to care.

The piece is more of a singspiel – the music stops every now and then for passages of dialogue, some of it cut and pasted from Shakespeare; it is painfully obvious when the words aren’t Bill’s . Robbed of dramatic tension, the scene where the couple finally admit their feelings is a pale imitation, a weak imposter. With no “Kill Claudio” line, there is no opportunity for Benedict (sic) to prove himself.

Despite my misgivings and disappointment with the material, I have to state in no uncertain terms that, as ever, the production values are second to none. Welsh National Opera is a world class company and everything is as you’d expect: sumptuous, detailed and the singing sublime. As Benedict, Robin Tritschler is both dashing and very funny. He appears more at ease with the spoken passages than others in the company. All the more frustrating when Benedick’s scenes and speeches are truncated! There is also some fine comic playing from Sara Fulgoni as a formidable and yet tender Beatrice but she is denied her eavesdropping scene. I couldn’t help wishing Mozart had written this adaptation and began to think I should have listened to Cosi fan Tutte instead.

Comedy policemen, Dogberry, Verges and the Watch have all been removed. In their place we get choirmaster Somarone (Donald Maxwell) who is a likable comic turn, interspersing his musical incompetence with topical quips and musical in-jokes. His choir is huge, filling the stage. Their rehearsal is funny but there is too much of that am-dram silent meeting and greeting where everyone is pleased to see each other. This is a cliché of crowd scenes director Elijah Moshinsky could easily avoid.

Laura Mitchell’s Hero is in fine voice, singing about her (somewhat inexplicable) pre-wedding misgivings and there are some moments of real beauty and fun. On the whole though, the piece is dramatically unsatisfying. It is a confection, a chocolate box from which someone has already snaffled the best chocolates.