United Kingdom Welsh National Opera on Tour. Autumn 2011 : Theatre Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno, 1-5.11.2011(RJF)
Mozart (1756-1791): Don Giovanni, Sung in Italian.
Janáček (1854-1928): Katya Kabanova, Sung in Czech.
Rossini (1792-1868): Il barbiere di Siviglia, Sung in English.
I had approached the winter Welsh National Opera’s Llandudno season in March 2011 with some trepidation. This unease had been induced by the much-reduced operatic fare on offer – a brief three-day visit with only two works compared with the usual five days and three operas. Was this, I wondered a vision of things to come with the Arts Council Report still some months away? It does not take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that budget considerations were a part of the decision and I also suspect also that it was a case of a stitch in time as I quickly learned during my stay that normal service was scheduled for the autumn tour to all venues including Llandudno. Further, the autumn would also see a welcome return to the usual pattern of a new production: a revival of an older productions from the popular repertoire, each performed twice, and a single performance of a lesser known work produced by the Company some years before, in this case Katya Kabanova. This production was first seen in May 2001at the New Theatre Cardiff before the opening of the architecturally impressive Millennium Centre at Cardiff Bay, their new base.
Added to this resumption of normal service has been the news of the appointment of David Pountney as the new Chief Executive and Artistic Director. Most recently, he has been in charge at the Bregenz Festival which included the promotion of the operas of Weinberger. This season’s programme was planned long before his appointment, but much of the talk in Llandudno was of the likely direction of Welsh National Opera under his direction together with the relatively recent arrival of Lothar Koenigs as Music Director. It seems that, with funding secured, plans are afoot to publish a two-year programme in January 2012. This is said to include the revival of previous productions by Pountney as well as new works with mention of bel canto – a proposal that caught my eye. Apart from Rossini’s Barber, featured again in this season, and the likes of Donizetti’s L’Elixir d’Amore, both shared productions with Opera North, bel canto is not a genre that has featured much in WNOs repertoire since the halcyon days of over twenty years ago with Suzanne Murphy singing Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani and the eponymous Norma.
With Opera North also scheduling the latter for the winter of 2012 belcantists can view the future with more enthusiasm than for a long time, with one proviso. Pountney was associated with the so-called Powerhouse Regime at English National Opera twenty odd years ago when productions of Verdi operas involving green blood and beds protruding from walls were not unusual. He must remember, as Opera North has discovered, that way-out productions might find favour in the Metropolis but they do not put bums on seats in the provinces. – and the balancing of budgets will be de rigeur in the coming years. I have suggested that the motto should be revivability allied to sharing and even the sale of productions. We shall see how it all unfolds, always hoping that the scheme does not go belly up.
Perhaps the first offering of this autumn touring season, Don Giovanni, directed by John Caird in sets by John Napier illustrates the dilemma. Criticised as old fashioned by some London critics, I, like my colleague Glyn Pursglove (see review), found them traditional in the best sense and of the kind that would allow Mozart to recognise his own opera. This is not something that can be said of some productions of this and other operas I have to sit through which seem to be the order of the day in the regietheater common on the European mainland, which some seem intent on importing to our shores. Yes, the set is a little chunky, but it is so in a manner that allows the setting of the work and the necessary easy flow between the scenes to happen with fluidity and without the necessity to see all the operating mechanisms of the stage machinery as in the Glyndebourne production first seen last year. Furthermore, the period costumes by John Napier and Yoon Bae fit well into the scenario to make a satisfying whole as far as physical presentation is concerned.
Regarding the singing cast, the life of the opera reviewer is full of surprises. All the singing teachers I talk to always sing from the same hymn sheet: “start with Mozart and always go back to him to tone up the voice in respect of legato, phrasing and colour”. What does one say then in respect of a singer, David Kempster, who started, at least in his professional career, with Verdi and after more than a decade assays his first major Mozart role. He was di Luna in Il Trovatore earlier this year where I felt he depended too much on his physical stature whilst his strongly coloured baritone was a little awry. On this occasion Mozart worked his magic and Kempster played and sang a satisfying, somewhat sadistically saturnine, but valid Giovanni. David Soar, Ferrando in the spring Il Trovatore was a brilliant Leporello acting the seedy scrounge (or put-upon servant) to perfection with vocal purity and nuance to please the most demanding ear. His talents have become increasingly recognised at some of the best addresses and in 2012-13 he will sing Masetto at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Opportunities and challenges do not come bigger than that. His career with WNO as Associate Artist and holder of the Chris Ball Bursary has enabled him to develop his vocal and acting skills with more care than many are allowed and I hope he will not be lost to the Company. His presence in the forthcoming revival of The Marriage of Figaro indicates his loyalties.
One who hopefully will follow in his footsteps is Associate Artist Gary Griffiths as Masetto. He has the vocal equipment as well as ability to create a character on stage. He certainly has promise and I will watch how he develops under the care of WNO. Of the lower voices, another to stand out was Carlo Malinvero as the Commendatore, a difficult role for a singer with the long gap between appearances. He exhibited the ideal vocal steadiness allied to sepulchral sonority that the role demands but so rarely gets. He is one to watch and if WNO were ever to revive their Don Carlos, or be tempted by La Forza del Destino, his is a voice to head the casting list. Of he remaining men Robin Tritschler added another Mozart role as Don Ottavio, finding his act two aria easier than that of Dalla sua pace in act one, this version being a conflation of the Prague and Vienna versions in the New Mozart Edition published by Bärenreiter-Verlag Kassel.
With such strength in the casting of the male singers it was important that the female side were not overwhelmed. WNO regular Nuccia Focile was, to me, a surprise choice of the harridan type female who, infatuated by Giovanni, pursues him to foil his various attempts at seduction on this fateful day. Her acted portrayal could not be faulted, although I would have preferred a richer tonal variety than she could muster. As the assaulted woman, who seems more scared of men and marriage by her encounter with the Don, Camilla Roberts had a mixed evening being somewhat vocally tight at times before rising to the demands of Non mi dir. Claire Ormshaw, a pert rather knowing Zerlina giuving Giovanni a little bit of come-on before realising the dangers, sang and acted with vivacity with a particularly well phrased regret to Masetto.
If matters were satisfying on the stage so too they were in the pit where the young James Southall had taken over from Lothar Koenigs and showed a clear musical vision and management of the orchestral forces whilst keeping pit and stage well co-ordinated. Don Giovanni is not the easiest of operas to bring off with distinction, so WNO’s efforts in this staging and performance deserve plaudits for providing a believable setting and then putting together a cast to match it.
Second up with this touring trio of operas was as big a contrast musically as one could ever meet. Whilst the other two operas are built round melodic invention, in Katya Kabanova melody comes a poor second to dramatic expression in the orchestra. Legato singing has little place; the voice has to follow its own line in declamatory fashion – a great challenge for singers. The story of a mother-in-law from hell, a weak and bullied son who takes his mother’s instructions despite his wife’s state of mind, is as depressing as it gets. The wife, inevitably, looks elsewhere for love, and when her conscience determines a confession and her lover has to leave, she drowns herself. Gareth Jones in the pit deserves plaudits, along with the soloists, for the manner in which the painful drama is unfolded with clarity. In this they were greatly aided by the staging within a stage setting of Vicki Mortimer and the original direction of Katie Mitchell, whose slight updating was not important. The proscenium of the inner stage widened or narrowed both from the sides and top to vary the spatial view and separate the more intimate scenes from the public ones.
The nearly unbelievable acting and singing of the two leading female roles, Leah-Marian Jones as the mother-in-law and Amanda Roocroft as Katya was of the highest standard. I first saw Roocroft as Alcina and Fiordiligi over twenty years ago when she was a student at the Royal Northern School of Music. Her performances were so admired at that time that she went straight from college to sing Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier under Sir Charles Mackerras. It was he who did so much to bring the music of Janáček out of the isolation of Eastern Europe to the wider Western audiences and to whom this series of performances is dedicated by David Pountney in the programme.
If the leading female singers were of high standard so they were on the male side with Peter Wedd a formidable Dikoy and Stephen Rooke’s more lyrical voice surmounting the dense orchestral textures to portray, by his voice and acting, the weakness of character of the dominated Tichon. All the lesser roles were also well sung.
The Barber of Seville
After the harrowing drama of Katya, a cleaning of the palate was required. It came with the singing cast, alongside Giles Havergal’s stage-within-a-stage setting of Rossini’s voice supporting bel canto comedy. Alexander Polianichko conducted with verve and brio. This was the third staging on the WNO Tour in recent years of this long lived (1986) production (shared with Opera North) following revivals in 2005 and 2008 with director Giles Havergal returning on the latter occasion to refresh his creation. The other constant has been Eric Roberts as Bartolo, one of opera’s great interpretations. He is getting no younger and his singing is a little wiry to say the least, but his portrayal is one I have never seen bettered in fifty odd years of opera going. He does not play the role; he IS Bartolo and each time he adds another detail to his consummate interpretation. As Figaro Jacques Imbrailo was superb as singer and actor, and matched in both respects by Christine Rice as Rosina. However, Andrew Kennedy’s opening worried me. Where, I wondered, was that mellifluous lyric tenor voice ideal for the role? He got better as Act One went on but still a little out of sorts. At the interval we discovered why: he had arrived it seems after a trip to Delhi and was suffering the consequences. It was brave and generous of him to carry on and all is forgiven. I suspect however, he was greatly relieved that at the time of this production the tenor’s Act Two aria had long since bitten the dust and was not de rigeur as it is often nowadays. Megan Llewellyn Dorke made a fulsome vocal contribution to the Act One finale and acted her part with maturity – just the skills that the vastly experienced Clive Bayley brought to the role of the sleazy music master who would sell his soul for a shilling (or less, if pushed). His acting and strong well-articulated aria was an added delight to a light and frothy evening. It brought to mind Beethoven’s advice to Rossini when the two met in Vienna during the Rossini season in that city: “to only compose comic opera like your Barber of Seville”. Whilst a great a lover of Rossini’s comic opera but also of his opera seria I beg to differ; I will truly know bel canto has arrived on the agenda when one of his Naples operas of the latter genre reaches WNO, or any other UK stage. I hear that one such is scheduled for Covent Garden in a couple of year’s time to go alongside the composer’s final operatic masterpiece, William Tell. I live in hope.
The Welsh National Opera on tour continues to:-
Bristol from Tuesday November 8th to Saturday 12th.
Birmingham from Tuesday November 15th to Saturday 19th.
Oxford from Tuesday November 22nd to Saturday 26th.
And finally, Southampton from Tuesday November 29th to Saturday December 3rd.
The Company will be back at Theatre Cymru, Llandudno on Tuesday March 14th 2012 with a programme of two performances of La Traviata, one of Berlioz’s rarely performed Beatrice and Benedict, the composer’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing andtwo of The Marriage of Figaro. This trio will open in Cardiff with the premieres on the on 6th, 17th and 26th of February respectively. As well as Llandudno the tour of that trio will visit Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Southampton, Plymouth, Bristol and Swansea.
Robert J Farr