Opera North’s Autumn 2011 Tour Attracts Good Audiences

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sullivan, Puccini, Tchaikovsky: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North, The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 15-19.11.2011.(RJF)

Gilbert and Sullivan: Ruddigore (1887). Sung in English
Puccini:  Madama Butterfly (1904). Sung in Italian with titles in English.
TchaikovskyThe Queen of Spades (1890). Sung in English with titles.

In a postscript to my review of Opera North’s Spring Season last May (see review), and after experiencing Welsh National’s greatly reduced Touring Programme (see review), I expressed concern for the future plans of both companies as the Arts Council Report, with the inevitability of cuts to budgets, was still awaited. I suggested that audience attendances would become even more important and it would be incumbent on managements to take that on board in choice of repertoire. Attendances at The Lowry in the spring had seemed relatively poor, even for the Beethoven’s Fidelio I attended, when I expected a full house for the famous composer’s only opera. Also important, from the outside, was not merely repertoire, but the revivability of productions, the possibility of sharing and the selling on of productions to other opera companies in the UK or abroad; all have been done in the past and reflect credit not shame on the planning.

Opera North has enjoyed a deserved reputation for straying outside the core repertoire and the poor spring season attendance at Weinberg’s Portrait was hardly unexpected. However, if my mini focus groups are any measure, the Company has sometimes paid for poor attendances, even for a work by a composer such as Bellini, when the productions were rather off beat. Whilst English National Opera seems to get box office satisfying attendances from way out productions, provincial audiences seem more conservative. Well, both regional companies mentioned seem to have settled into a pattern of revivals of recent successful productions parallel with one (Welsh National Opera) or sometimes two, (Opera North this coming winter) new productions each season. The former is the pattern for this autumn’s Opera North season with two outstanding and eminently revivable productions in the form of Ruddigore, from last year, and Madama Butterfly from the autumn of 2006, (and reprised the following winter season) alongside a new production of Tchaikovsky’s too rarely seen The Queen of Spades. The welcome return this week of both the revivals could not only be measured by the audience applause at the conclusion of the performances, but also by the well filled, even sold out, theatre on the evenings I attended and which will, I am sure, please the budget department, as the cuts to Opera North’s Arts Council Grant have been particularly savage and have made planning for a spring season in 2012 challenging. However, all is not gloom and it as well to remember that come February Opera North will be back at The Lowry with two new productions including the most popular works of two of the greatest opera composers of their generation, Handel and Bellini.

First up at The Lowry was Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore seen only last year. As then, it is an absolutely super show, superbly cast, costumed, staged and imaginatively lit. The principal roles are as seen last year. My colleague, a G and S expert, in his review suggested that Opera North had been particularly brave in this foray into the genre as he believed this to be one of the less successful of the Savoy Operas, enjoying a run of only 288 performances when first presented in 1887 compared with 665 for the Mikado, which it followed, and had been absent from the D’Oyly Carte repertoire for 34 years until revived by Rupert D’Oyly Carte for his Princes Theatre 1921-22 season. In an attempt to promote public interest, Ruddigore was adjusted and some of the Act II music reworked. The score is one that shows considerable skill of composition and one can understand why Opera North came to their decision to mount this edition.

This production forwards the period via 1920s flapper girl costumes and late Edwardian moustachios. With a cast as outstandingly as good as this, with all participants fully into their roles and singing and acting to near perfection, it is invidious to pick out individuals. But needs must. I was particularly impressed by Grant Doyle in his dual role of shy young man and later as avoiding the daily crime required of Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd. His clear diction and convincing acting made a considerable contribution to my enjoyment. However, when it came to acting and dancing Hal Cazalet was in a class of his own, not only able to match the professional dancers in his foot movements, but arms and legs and face projecting every nuance of the role’s many facets throughout; it was a tour de force. Amy Freston’s Rose Maybud only needed a little better projection of her spoken words for a “full marks” performance. Heather Shipp’s zany Mad Margaret is also worthy of special mention as were the patter duets that surely owe something to Rossini. All the other roles were well sung and acted to make a convincing whole with the help of Jo Davies’ production in the imaginative sets by Richard Hudson, whose Act Three was outstanding in conception and realisation. It is an understatement to describe the availability of G and S on DVD whilst sound only performances abound. Are The Savoy Operas too British-oriented as to make the feasibility of a recording and profit out of the question? Opera North’s Pinocchio made it onto a commercial DVD issue, and this Ruddigore deserves the same. If audience attendances around the country match those at The Lowry, there would be at least a parochial market.

For the two performances at The Lowry, Timothy Henty took over the baton. His management of the beat and sensitivity to his singers in The Lowry’s challenging acoustic were exemplary, with his rending of the overture a particular joy.

In my review of the initial production of Madama Butterfly, in the autumn of 2006 (see review), I questioned why it is that Puccini’s Tosca is often described as a shabby little shocker. I suggested the words were more appropriate for Butterfly, an unwholesome story of a yank who buys sex from a virginal Japanese fifteen year old with promises and a mock marriage to which he explicitly, even to the American Consul, states as being non-binding. Poor Madam Butterfly herself, who takes his religion, forsaking her own along with 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 –  a path she follows as she is left holding their baby for three years and is faced with handing him over to a real, all American, wife. It is indeed a sad and harrowing story which, if well staged as here, can reduce even the most hard hearted in the audience to shedding a tear at the conclusion as Butterfly commits suicide at little more than eighteen years of age, disillusioned, with a broken heart and faced with the loss of her child after years of seeming hope and belief in her all American so called husband.

In the original production, before the start of the performance and during the prelude, the cultural gulf between traditional Japanese values and twentieth century America is played out in mime on stage as a geisha in traditional dress, and with characteristic small steps, moves among and alongside American floozies, or tarts, in high heels and fishnets making up in front of mirrors. In this revival it was replaced by the marriage broker choosing a photograph from a collection on a mirror of possible brides for his customer, a visiting sailor, much as a yank would choose a woman in a down town brothel in rural America. It was a much tauter introduction to this sorry tale.

Albery’s staging takes place against Hildegard Bechtler’s evocative and apt set of moving screens and a window view of mount Fujiyama. Throughout Albery’s staging there are many felicitous details. The balletic choreography of the spreading of flower petals to welcome the returning Pinkerton was elegant and joyous and contrasted sharply with the lead up to Butterfly’s suicide which was particularly poignant, even harrowing. We were also spared the American floozie who, in the original production, came to look uncomprehendingly at the dead Butterfly. Instead, a weeping Pinkerton cradles the dead girl in his arms, as he recognises, perhaps for the first time, his own lack of human values. What price his marriage to the all American Kate? In this production the role of Kate gets the enlargement that Puccini added following the disastrous first night in 1904. The role here was well sung and portrayed by Erica Eloff.

From the 2006 performances Opera North brought back Anne Sophie Duprels in the eponymous role, Ann Taylor as Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid, and Peter Savidge as Sharpless the American Consul who tries to pick up the pieces of Pinkerton’s behaviour. His voice is powerful, a quality he needed in the opening scene when Puccini’s dense orchestral colours has the two Americans having to nearly shout over the orchestra with conductor Robert Houssart not getting the feel of The Lowry acoustic and letting too much leash off the orchestra. He should listen to Tulio Serafin’s recording that lets both the American’s create and savour their phrases rather than belt them out. As Pinkerton the American Noah Stewart was suitably tall, unusually lithe and handsome as to make any girl feel romantic, even a fifteen year old shy former Geisha. His strong lyric tenor has a free and open top to the voice, and strength in the lower region that perhaps portends more spinto roles ahead. He also, regrettably, has a tendency to sing too loudly. He perhaps got into this in the opening scene, but he should surely have tempered this with some more elegant phrasing, half tones and vocal colour in the love duet at the end of the first scene as he takes Butterfly to the nuptial bed. He could gainfully listen to Carlo Bergonzi in the recording referred to and who is one of the few tenors to portray any redeeming appeal to Pinkerton’s character.

But the greatest singing pleasure of this performance came, as in 2006-07, from the remarkable Sophie Duprels. She never tries to be girlish in her sung expression, letting her warm soprano, with its wide variety of tonal colour and her ability to caress a phrase, bring out the nature of Butterfly’s gamut of emotions which go from trepidation, through genuine love of Pinkerton and pass to her agonies in waiting for his return and ultimately realising, desperately, their relationship. It is a consummate performance and one that I have rarely heard surpassed in my many years of opera going. Tebaldi is unsurpassed on record, and having reviewed Covent Garden’s latest wonder woman in this role, I can but note that in my view Duprels stands comparison with both (see review).

In eulogising Duprels’ performance, particularly in Act Two, I must not forget the part contributed by Anne Taylor as Suzuki. Her portrayal of Butterfly’s Japanese maid and companion is outstanding whilst the quality of her singing is superior to that which one often gets in the role. Well done the casting department.!  Daniel Norman flitted about as a convincing spiv marriage broker, Paul Gibson was a sonorous Yamadori whom Butterfly turns down when all the others recognise the truth of her situation.

It was too late to purchase a ticket for this Butterfly at The Lowry for a week or two before the season opened. However, all is not lost, as the production, with only a change of the tenor singing Pinkerton, is returning to play alongside Bellini’s Norma and Handel’s Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), both new productions, at The Lowry in the week commencing February 28th .

The final offering of Opera North’s visit to The Lowry was a new production of the rarely staged Queen of Spades, or Pique Dame, by Tchaikovsky. Without trawling my files for an exact date I guess it must be thirty years since I have seen the opera staged. The great Russian symphonist’s Queen of Spades is no more demanding to follow than his better known Eugene Onegin which gets far more outings – certainly in the U.K. Pique Dame tells the story of the fated love of a young officer, Hermann, for Lisa, granddaughter of the Countess, a renowned gambler, and who is believed to hold the secret of the three cards; Lisa is betrothed to Prince Yeletsky. Hermann yearns for Lisa but believes he has not the money to displace Yeletsky in her affections and that the only way to obtain it is by winning at cards. To succeed, he needs the Countess’ secret. She dies of shock as he goes to her room to get it from her. Returning as a ghost she reveals the satanically influenced secret to him as three, seven and ace to Tchaikovsky’s leitmotif. Hermann gambles all he has against Yeletsky, but the third card is the Queen of Spades and the Countess’ apparition appears to him again as he stabs himself; the devilish pact is fulfilled.

For their very first production of this work, Opera North followed the prevailing fashion at English National Opera in London and handed the challenge to a stage producer, Neil Bartlett, for his first shot at the lyric stage. The designs by Kandis Cook are simplistic in the extreme, a dull mustard gold shoebox, with elongated doors and sidewalls that could narrow upstage for the shepherd’s scene where an ornate centrepiece was an added attraction. There was little more in the way of stage props except the regular appearance of chairs and a gaming table for the last scene. A few chandeliers would have helped without breaking the budget. This sparsity may have been budget-influenced given Ms Cook’s superb period costumes which must have cost a bomb – particularly for the Countesses’ resplendent gowns, even as a ghost. Where this sparsity significantly failed was the bedroom scene when Herman arrives to get the Countess’s secret and later when she returns as a ghost and where, for me, the effect should be as spooky as possible. Better lighting would have helped to better create the effect and go along with the more dominant strings in the orchestra as the eerie leitmotif is reprised.

The most outstanding singing came from William Dazeley as Prince Yeletsky. Suave and elegant with every word clear he was the rather starchy rich aristo to perfection He has certainly has impacted on every one of the productions I have seen him in this year with Opera North and at Buxton. Add the sheer charisma of Dame Josephine Barstow as the Countess and the dramatic balance was adrift somewhat. When Barstow’s Countess was on stage, as a live and kicking drinking madam or, most significantly, as she died of shock at Harman’s intrusion to her bedroom, and then, magnificently, as she returned as a ghost, lacking in requisite spookiness though that scene was, she dominated proceedings. Whilst not quite in the Domingo post seventy years of age vocal shape, her erstwhile Verdi soprano wasn’t too bad either and certainly sufficient to get the drama across. Veteran Jonathan Summers sang strongly as Count Tomsky creating a distinct reprobate and cynical character. Vocally, much sap has gone from his tone and there is some spread when, often unnecessarily, he puts too much pressure on his voice. It was a pleasure to see Alexandra Sherman as Pauline seemingly really playing the piano as she sang her song with vocal elegance, meaning and also with the good diction she shared with the rest of the cast. Did we need the titles? I was OK at the front of the stalls for the soloists, but appreciated the titles when the superb augmented chorus was singing full out. I guess the titles were more appreciated at the back of the gallery.

Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts sang Tchaikovsky’s textually demanding music with strength, conviction and the requisite vocal heft, but did not, perhaps with his physique could not, physically convey the role of romantic lover. Irish soprano Orla Boylan sang with care and tonal truth when more passion was needed in her voice and body reactions. If one dare suggest it, she should watch and listen to Anne Sophie Duprels. Certainly Boylan has the requisite voice for this repertoire. In the pit Richard Farnes, Opera North’s Music Director, was careful with the orchestral dynamics in the first act but seemed to have trouble with getting the emotion that is within the music in the final one and particularly those chords associated with the cards.

For this new production, for what is deemed less popular repertoire, it was most heartening to see a well filled Lowry. I hope a long overdue loyalty to Opera North, and appreciation of its efforts in the adversity of budget cuts, is building up in the Manchester environs.


Robert J Farr