Tag Archives: WNO

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)

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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)


Peter Panned

PETER PAN

Hippodrome, Birmingham, Thursday 11th June, 2015

Odd, you think, that Welsh National Opera present Richard Ayres’s opera at this time of year. Surely, it might attract more of an audience at a more festive time of year.

Anyway, here it is.

Ayres’s score is sophisticated and complex, at odds with the subject matter for the most part, making me think we are to observe through the lens of adulthood rather than the innocence of childhood. It’s a hard listen though superbly sung. Hilary Summers as Mrs Darling sings a weird lullaby in which she tells her kids she will ‘tidy their minds’ while they sleep. She returns as Tiger Lily later on, which seems a lot more fun. Ashley Holland blusters as her husband and struts and preens as a colourful Captain Hook – it is when the pirates come on that the whole enterprise lifts, as silliness and camp are permitted to creep in – but just for a moment.

Marie Arnet’s Wendy is both sweet and earnest, while her brothers (Nicholas Sharratt and Rebecca Bottone) throw themselves around with enthusiasm. It’s Aidan Smith in a dog suit as Nana who gets the best reception. An air of surrealism hangs over the whole enterprise: Jason Southgate’s set takes elements from an Edwardian nursery and enlarges them – Neverland, for example, is a collection of building blocks, and the pirate ship is an overgrown choo-choo.

Counter-tenor Iestyn Morris is Pan, in white and silver garb, performing aerial tricks while singing. He’s suitably heroic and boyish but there is something missing – and I mean with the entire production. It’s lacking in a spirit of fun and adventure, the playfulness of Barrie’s play.

It’s not just because of the dense music. The lighting (by Bruno Poet) is simply too dim for the majority of the show. Both the ‘real world’ and Neverland are murky places, never mind the mood of the characters or the time of day.

And it’s a shame because the orchestra under Erik Nielsen’s baton and the chorus (as ever) are in superb form, summoning up some of the exuberance the material requires to get off the ground.

Director Keith Warner adds some comic touches but they are lost in the general gloom – which is just as well in the case of some ill-advised fart jokes.

It seems to me a mismatch all around. Neither Ayres’s score nor this production’s design suit the material. Neither do they shed new light on the familiar story – in fact there is very little light at all.

Me and My Shadow: Peter Pan - Iestyn Morris; Wendy - Marie Arnet Credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

Me and My Shadow:
Peter Pan – Iestyn Morris; Wendy – Marie Arnet
Credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL


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.


Glitz and Clamour

NABUCCO

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 19th June, 2014

 

Verdi’s retelling of the story of Biblical king Nebuchadnezzar is given a pared-down treatment by WNO – in terms of staging; they don’t stint on the music. For the first act, the stage is bare and the company wear present-day clothes. It is as if we are watching the last run-through before the dress. This makes it difficult to differentiate between the Hebrews and the Babylonians but it does allow the score and the singing to hog the limelight. And such beautiful singing it is too, with a clutch of impressive soloists and a chorus that is nothing short of heavenly, Verdi’s music hits you like a wall of sound.

Kevin Short’s warm bass sets the ball rolling as high priest Zaccaria, and Robyn Lyn Evans’s plaintive tenor voice rounds out his Ismaele, despite him being dressed like a nerd, although at times he is a little drowned out in the ensemble singing. Baritone David Kempster’s Nabucco looks a bit like Bill Bailey as Gadaafi before his Lear-like descent into distraction and dishevelment while his evil daughter takes his throne. Kempster portrays Nabucco’s contrasting scenes excellently – there is top-drawer acting in this production to match the quality of the singing.

After the interval, Ben Baur’s set design really comes into play, with glitzy gold curtains and an illuminated dais that goes up and down as Nabucco proclaims his apotheosis. Director Rudolf Frey is more playful in this longer second half, but the evening belongs to soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams as the villainous Abigaille, who brings a good deal of humour to this melodramatic role.  One aria is delivered like a Las Vegas showgirl number, with men in balaclavas wielding ostrich feathers around Miss Williams in an unexpected moment of high camp.

Unsurprisingly the Hebrew slaves’ chorus, Va Pensiero, is the highlight – the number we’re all waiting for, and the superb WNO chorus do not disappoint.

It’s a Nabucco you warm to, as you grow accustomed to the staging and the outbreaks of hand-jive choreography (like directing traffic crossed with big-fish-little-fish push pineapple, shake the tree) – Personally I’d prefer a little more Cecil B DeMille and a little less TK Maxx.

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Give ’em some unexpected razzle-dazzle. Mary Elizabeth Wiliams as Abigaille.

 


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