Opera North Serves Up Baroque, Bel Canto and Verismo in Salford

March 5, 2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Bellini, Handel: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North. The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 28.2.2012 – 3.3. 2012. (RJF)

Puccini: Madama Butterfly(1904). Sung in Italian with surtitles in English.

Bellini: Norma (1831). Sung in Italian with surtitles in English.

Handel: Giulio Cesare (1724). Sung in Italian with surtitles in English.

Madama Butterfly.

I first saw this production when it was new in the autumn of 2007. It was the second year after Opera North’s refurbishment of Leeds Grand Theatre and the provision of extensive stage matching rehearsal facilities. Then, as now, producer Tim Albery was having a big impact on Opera North’s year, also being responsible for this season’s Giulio Cesare.. Albery has the happy knack of moving dates and sometimes circumstance in his productions without destroying the essence of the composer’s intentions, whilst at the same time getting to the kernel of the plot and bringing out the dramatic emphases. In this Madama Butterfly he does not stray too far into an updating that loses the essence of the opera. This was the fourth time I have seen the production and find the blend of mis-en-scène of Hildegard Bechter’s sets alongside Albery’s felicitous detail overwhelming. This was especially so with a cast that has featured in several of the earlier reprises and has the words and music deep in their psyche- notably Anne Sophie Duprels in the eponymous role, even though, on a personal level, this work is my least favourite opera story.

It is Puccini’s Tosca that is often described as a shabby little shocker. The words are more apt still for Madama Butterfly. It an unwholesome story of a yank who buys his sex from a virginal Japanese fifteen year old with a marriage to which he explicitly states even to the US consul as being non-binding stating for ninety nine years terminated by a month’s notice. Butterfly herself takes her husband’s religion, forsaking her own as well as her family who have an honourable past, but have fallen on hard times after the death of the father who chose suicide as an alternative to dishonour. The production has got rid of the original dumb show of a mime pointing the cultural gulf between traditional Japanese values and those of twentieth century America. After the so-called marriage, Butterfly herself adopts the high heels and floral dress of an American wife, whilst her maid, Suzuki, in a rather fey manner of one who can see the outcome, maintains her dress and religion. The marriage broker is in late twentieth century garb and is played as a bit of a swide boy. In contrast, Butterfly’s family at her wedding and her later princely suitor are in traditional dress reminding the audience of the clash of cultures, idealism and morality. There is no attempt to soften Pinkerton’s immature laddish and caddish approach to the whole matter. In this production Pinkerton does not get the act one aria that Puccini added to soften the impact of his hedonistic character, but reverts to the original first night that was a fiasco after which Puccini withdrew the work for revision. The first night audience at La Scala lived in an era before the nasty face of imperialism and the whole was too harsh for their sensibilities. This also means an enlargement of Kate Pinkerton’s role. She is the proper American wife he brings to persuade Butterfly to forego their child for a better life. But, his action in trying to pay Butterfly off, not even by himself but via the proxy of the Consul, is a vicious insult to Butterfly’s integrity. It tips her over the edge as she realises her destiny. She returns to her traditional dress, to the Shinto shrine used by Suzuki throughout, and stabs herself.

As I have indicated there are many felicitous details, even minutiae, in Albery’s staging that are easily missed and which impacted on me in this reprise rehearsed by James Hurley. The balletic choreography of the spreading of flower petals to welcome the returning Pinkerton is elegant and joyous and contrasted sharply with the lead up to Butterfly’s suicide. The latter was particularly poignant, even harrowing, leaving few dry eyes in yet another full house at The Lowry for this production. Albery’s staging takes place in Hildegard Bechtler’s evocative and apt set of moving screens and a picture window view of mount Fujiyama.

As when the production was new the title role of Butterfly is sung by Anne Sophie Duprels, now a firm favourite of Opera North’s. Her voice is full in tone, amplitude and colour. Her smallish figure is wholly appropriate for the role. She eschewed any attempts to sound girlish, as many interpreters have done, particularly on record; Puccini’s orchestration does not lend itself to such attempts. A welcome addition is the sincerity of her acting, never once forgetting whether she was a Japanese or an err American. Hers is a considerable achievement. Not as svelte now as when I first heard him as Ernarni at the Royal Northern College of Music in 1994, Rafael Rojas is a favourite in the Italian big lyric roles with Opera North and Welsh National Opera. Then as now he tends to sing full out and with little attempt at graceful phrasing. Bereft of Pinkerton’s aria, Rojas had really only the love duet in act one to show off any tonal grace and by then Pinkerton has other matters on his mind. Albery’s having Pinkerton light a fag at every tense, or to him procrastinating time, was another nice touch played well. Rojas’s Pinkerton was a thoroughly arrogant and unlikeable yank with no redeeming feature. There were even humorous boos at his curtain call – not for Rojas’s singing, but for the character, and he took this in good part. This response was doubtless aided by the presence of English subtitles to the sung Italian that left the audience fully aware of everything going on in the opera. But I hope ON audiences at The Lowry are not going to adopt such habits on a regular basis.

Peter Savidge’s lean, slightly dry, toned singing as Sharpless could have gained from more colour. However, his acted portrayal was of a yank with conscience and principles alongside human feeling and empathy for Butterfly. He portrayed the better side of the American persona, showing respect for the culture of a foreign land as he removed his shoes on entry to Butterfly’s home, even when she put on her high heels to welcome him; another production touch I admired. His acted contribution made the final scene even more harrowing. Ann Taylor’s Suzuki was also a model of acting with her sonorous mezzo now more fulsome than five years ago. Wyn Davies, one of the UK’s unsung opera conductors, knows the particular challenges of The Lowry acoustic well. In the first scene in particular he held the orchestra on a tighter rein than the autumn conductor who let the orchestra hit the climaxes forcing the singers to force too much.

The full house at the first night of this Butterfly at The Lowry was matched at the second performance, with not a seat to be had. It is by far the best production of the work I have seen in over fifty years of opera going and many productions.

Norma.

In his all too brief life, Bellini wrote a mere ten operas, Norma being his eighth. After the great success of La Sonnambula earlier in the year at the rival Carcanno Theatre,he had been commissioned to write an opera by La Scala to open the Carnival Season of 1831-32 on December 26th. Both operas were written to libretti by Romani, the leader in the field, but often dilatory in delivering the goods. Based on a play by a French dramatist the opera is set in Gaul at the time of the Roman conquest and oppression it concerns a Druid priestess, Norma, who has two children by the Roman Consul Pollione. The Druids want to revolt against their oppressors, but are deterred by Norma. The music is characterised by the long flowing elegiac cantilena that was Bellini’s hallmark and which achieved its apogee in his final work, I Puritani, premiered in Paris in January 1835 shortly before Bellini’s death.

I was excited by the announcement of this production of Norma. The formidable challenges of the title role mean that I have seen only a handful of performances in my sixty years of opera going, although one featured Joan Sutherland alongside the Adalgisa of Marilyn Horne. However, it wasn’t just the excitement of seeing the opera again, but the scheduled appearance of Takesha Meshe Kizart in the challenging title role. I had greatly admired her singing and acting as Tosca in Opera north’s production in 2008 (see review) when I eulogised that “hers was the best-sung Tosca I have heard for many a decade. Her vocal power, tonal lustre, variation of colour and evenness of phrasing over her wide range, reminded me of Leontyne Price at her best”. The best-laid plans went astrayand MissKizart had to with draw after abdominal surgery, being replaced by Annemarie Kremer who had sung the demanding role in the Netherlands.

As well as the eponymous role, the opera demands a spinto tenor as Pollione; a soprano or mezzo with a wide range as Adalgisa, a virgin of the druidic temple; and a full toned bass as the Archdruid Oroveso, Norma’s father. In the eponymous role Annemarie Kremer’s basically lyric soprano struggled when real heft was required, even to the extent that I worried that she was likely to damage her instrument; it is not only tenors who sing outside their natural fach that develop vocal problems. That being said, she sang with tonal beauty and gracious phrasing, particularly in the well-known Casta Diva of Act One. The Adalgisa of Keri Akema was a big surprise. A singer whose CV includes Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme, very much a soprano role, she also has also a clutch of demanding mezzo roles in her repertory. She was quite outstanding in her singing and interpretation of the role with full refulgent tone, excellent diction and acted expression. The act two duet between the two ladies of the temple, Mira O Norma, was the vocal highlight of the evening. As the servant Clotilde, the role sung by Sutherland to Callas’ Norma at Covent Garden in 1953, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers acted well and fielded generous tone in her minor part.

As Pollione, the seducer of the two women of the temple, I regret that Luis Chapa was sorely stretched vocally and in this production had little impact, often looking little more than a spare part. This was not a criticism one coould level against James Cresswell’s Oroveso. Perhaps more Germanic than Italianate, he was sonorous in tone, but he made what he could of limited opportunities in this production with its many idiosyncrasies, singing with good diction and expression. In the pit Oliver von Dohnányi was a welcome revelation doing justice to both the drama as well as Bellini’s melody and elegiac cantilena

Knowing producer Christopher Alden’s reputation for changing location and time in his productions, I was determined not to see any reports on the first night in Leeds so that I could puzzle out for myself what he was about. This was not difficult as I left the UK for a couple of weeks two days before the premiere. Given Alden’s reputation, and having experienced his productions, I knew Druids and Roman Togas would not be on the agenda. What we had seemed to be a mid American obscure sect of tree worshippers in the late nineteenth century. A large tree trunk, set at an angle of thirty or so degrees and angled across the stage was the dominant feature within a wooden slatted shoebox surround. The costumes of the believers were uniformly dull whilst the Consul and his Centurion, Flavio, were dressed in long black greatcoats and top hats. Being honest, I had some difficulty in relating his act one to Bellini’s opera. I found it easier in Act Two, which had more dramatic cohesion, including the de-bagging of the Centurion who had attempted a sexual assault on one of the women and got castrated for his trouble. I did not understand Oroveso sitting in a corner throughout act one sharpening his axe. In Act Two, when Norma was about to kill her and Pollione’s children with the axe, she buried it in the slated sidewall above their heads instead. To the audience’s amusement they, not unreasonably, did a sharp runner across the stage. With the titles indicating Druids and Romans many audience members were understandably confused but, like me, found the drama of the music and even this portrayal convincing in Act Two, helped, perhaps, by the convincing firework display on the trunk of the tree as Norma and her seducer climbed towards the flame – a coup de théatre of sorts.

Giulio Cesare

As with Norma there were no Togas for the Romans in Albery’s updating of Handel’s first great success depicting the conflict between Caesar and Pompey, and his dalliance with Cleopatra. Leslie Travers’ costumes were very modern with the Romans in army greatcoats and the Egyptian Ptolemy (Tolomeo) and Cleopatra sporting some very with it royal blue costumes. His main set is evocative of the sands of Egypt in its colouring of reflecting gold surfaces whilst being versatile as a palace or battleground. The scene inside, lit by candles reflecting on the surfaces was particularly notable. I could have done without the scene shifting that involved frequently turning the whole set round to reveal a black chopped off pyramid, which I did not quite relate to. Large flats all round the edge of the stage emblazoned with the letters wth SPQR represented Rome.

The performance was of a version by Albery and the conductor Robert Howarth involving some shortening of a long opera. As is normal in Handel, and other baroque performances in the present day, the cast included a clutch of counter tenors as well as two mezzos en travesti as Caesar and Sesto. James Laing as the baddy lacked bravura and vocal heft whilst his opponent as Caesar, Pamela Helen Stephen, was too soft grained in tone. Maybe Anne Taylor, who sang Suzuki in the Madama Butterfly, would have brought more vocal strength and depth of tone to the role. As it was, her portrayal of the much-abused Cornelia, loved by Achilla was another well-acted and sung role from her. As her son, an ultimate avenger, albeit having to get some iron in his soul to do the deed, Kathryn Rudge, in her second professional engagement had not only promise but also realisation in her portrayal; she is a significant emerging talent I suggest. Whilst the vastly experienced Jonathan Best was his usual sonorous and well-acted self, the evening’s laurels went to Sarah Tynan as Cleopatra, in respect of both her singing and acting of the role. Her appealing light soprano has a pleasing flexibility and adequate variety of colour. She also expresses the emotions of the words well, and with clarity. In the pit Robert Howarth was variable, some tempi seemed turgid and the drama ossified as a result.

Given the esoteric nature of the repertoire, audience attendance at The Lowry was pleasing on the whole, with Butterfly playing to nearly full houses again. Handel opera seria is something of a rarity in these northern climes and was appreciated by a reasonable house in its one performance. (Matters could be changing in respect of that genre as the Royal Northern College of Music is scheduled to present Xerxes later in March.) Given the rarity also of bel canto Norma was significantly better attended than the same composer’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi (see review) in 2008, whose setting to present day with gang or paramilitary sectarian warfare put off potential audiences.

I wrote in 2007, when the Albery’s Butterfly production and set was new “they are good for many a year without recourse for replacement; economic sense as arts grants look tenuous as we approach the funding crisis of the 2012 Olympics”. Little did I know that the credit crunch and the budget deficit would make matters even worse as Opera North has had to sustain a massive fifteen per cent cut from the Arts Council grant. Bums on seats and revivability must be the name of the game. This Norma production was part funded by a bequest and is shared with Theater Chemnitz, Germany, where Regietheater and off the wall producers are an everyday occurrence. Maybe they will want to keep it, certainly many of the audience members at The Lowry made it clear to me that they would have appreciated some Romans and Druids and I referred them to the DVD recording of 1974 from the Roman Theatre at Orange. With the Mistral blowing Montserrat Caballé’s priestesses dress around, she, alongside Jon Vickers as Pollione, give a performance one can only dream of today. In the meantime we can all wish Richard mantle well as he struggles to get his aspirations for Opera North back on an even keel in the face of the savage budget cuts that have ravaged his plans.

The Opera North tour continues with this repertory to the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, from 6th to 10th March. The company will return to The Lowry for staged performances of Carousel from May 23rd to 26th.

Robert J Farr

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