Revivals and Shared Productions Promise Exciting Future for WNO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Berlioz, Mozart: Welsh National Opera, Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno, 13-15.3.2012 (RJF) 

Verdi. La Traviata (1853). Sung in Italian with titles in English and Welsh.
Berlioz. Beatrice and Benedict (1862) Sung in English with titles in English and Welsh.
Mozart. Le Nozze de Figaro (1786). Sung in Italian with titles in English and Welsh.

It hardly seems twelve months since I approached the WNO Winter/Spring season at Llandudno with much trepidation. I had been reviewing the WNO touring seasons for some years and attending for my own pleasure since the days when the Company played at the Astra Cinema for two weeks every summer way back in the distant 1960s. There were many great names who visited Llandudno to sing or conduct; James Levine comes to mind immediately as one who went on to a not inconsiderable career in the world of opera! The diverse repertoire included productions from many of the greats such as Peter Stein who directed Otello for WNO in 1986. When he did so it was something of a coup. His work at the Berlin Schaubühne had marked him out, (unlike some other east European producers indulged at that time by opera houses in the west, including WNO) as being true to a composer’s work whilst not eschewing modernity. He had, however, kept away from opera, his Otello for WNO showing something of the loss to the lyric theatre. Contact made, Stein returned to WNO in 1988 for Falstaff in sets by his favoured designer Lucio Fanti. He later returned for Peleas and Grimes and to revive his Falstaff in 2008 with North Wales’ operatic hero Bryn Terfel in the eponymous role. That production, and associated memorable performances, was seen in Llandudno and later on Welsh TV. Regrettably, it was never transmitted to the rest of the UK and never appeared on DVD for some unaccountable reason considering the quality of the singing and the production.

With the above kind of lineage why my anxiety? The season at Llandudno had become twice yearly, with three productions spread over five nights. However, the 2011 the March season was a mere two operas on only three nights. With the UK economy on the rocks and the sword of the Arts Council cuts hanging over our touring companies, I feared worse would come. However, WNO’s budget planning of revivals of proven and shared productions, was to prove sound and not only have they survived with repertoire intact but have, under David Pountney, the newly appointed as Chief Executive and Artistic Director, come clean with exciting and budgeted plans and repertoire for several years ahead. What a relief!

La Traviata,

This production by David McVicar and revived by Marie Lambert is shared with Scottish Opera. It was given in Llandudno in the Autumn of 2009 (see review). It was to have featured the Greek soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu as Violetta. who had featured in Zefferelli’s Rome production where the renowned director had gone to great trouble to see and audition singers who would looked perfect in age and appearance as well as vocal capability. WNO followed suit in casting the youthful looking young tenor Alfie Boe as Alfredo alongside her. It was, however, a question of best-laid plans. Miss Papatanasiu took advantage of the break between the Cardiff season and the tour to return home to Greece and was unable to fly back due to an ear infection. Ever ready for such inevitabilities, WNO fielded Naomi Harvey as Violetta and she gave a superb performance, albeit a little hesitant in the coloratura of Act One. It is the reigning diva of New York’s Metropolitan Opera who contends that La Traviata needs three different types of soprano voice for the role, one for each act. She herself has had a good try and fellow American Joyce El-Khoury was faced with the task in this run of this realistic production with its black draped curtains contrasting well with the colourful party scenes.

Joyce El-Khoury looked a very appealing Violetta and acted particularly well. In the Act One party scene her warm womanly tone was quickly in evidence, the top of her voice going somewhat white in tone during the coloratura passages as Violetta assesses her prospects of love as distinct from her current mode of life. In Act Two she was particularly effective when Violetta had to face up to Germont Pére’s demands. Miss El-Khoury did so with vocal distinction. In Act Three, a little more body of tone in Teneste la promessa was needed as Violetta reads the letter from Alfredo and then raises her self for the desperation of É tardi and Addio del passato. In the latter her portrayal and singing reached histrionic heights, whilst in handing her portrait to Alfredo and referring to the innocent girl he will marry she was superb.

They say lightning never strikes twice. Well it seemed to for WNO with this production. The scheduled tenor withdrew shortly before the premiere and the young American Leonardo Capalbo stepped in with minimum rehearsals as described by my colleague., Glyn Pursglove in February. I first heard Capalbo as a light lyric tenor singing for Opera North in lighter repertoire some years ago. His appealing, clear open sound has a distinct Italianate patina, very suitable for this role as is his appearance and physique. His voice has grown and now has an edge of greater vocal resource so that from Alfredo’s Brindisi of Act One through an ardent Lunge da lei in Act Two to Alfredo’s desperation at finding Violetta so ill in Act Three he is able to portray the semi autobiographical young lover with acted and vocal sincerity.

Acting and vocal strength are also a feature of long time Welsh favourite, Jason Howard as Germont. I feared too much Wagner (he has sung Wotan) would have affected his tone. Not so. His vocalism was as steady as a rock and his acted portrayal was distinguished, going from seeming to dominate Violetta physically, his long greatcoat and a raked stage to a particularly sympathetic and understanding Germont that I have rarely seen. Sitting next to Violetta, and seeming to respect her integrity and empathise with his own demands on her, he was an unusually sympathetic father who would embrace Violetta as a daughter with sincerity. Germont gets both verses of his aria in this production and Jason Howard did them justice, even if Alfredo ignores this father’s heartfelt and tonally expressed pleas.

Of the lesser parts Amanda Baldwin’s Flora and Sian Meinir’s Annina were notable with the chorus particularly vibrant in the two party scenes. It was good also to see the ballet and simulated bullfight done well. In the pit Julia Jones took a little time to master the awkward acoustics of Venue Cymru and lost a little of the mood of the prelude to act one, but by the ethereal chords of that of act three, with all its inherent pathos with which Verdi invested the melody, she was master and we all knew there was no good news ahead.

Beatrice and Benedict

This revival, by Robin Tebbutt, of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1995 production served to remind the full audience of the virtues of Michael Yeargan’s elegant set, and Dona Granata’s sumptuous costumes for the ladies, whilst also convincing them of the vacuous nature of the plot. The said plot is rumoured to relate to Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. One wag, when asked about that relationship, which could be considered a serious slander on the Stratford bard, is said to have replied, delete Much ado! The work was composed in the last decade of Berlioz’s life with after such monumental works as Benvenuto Cellini (1834-37) and Les Troyens, based on Virgil’s Aeneid (1856-58), the latter not brilliantly successful even when split into smaller manageable parts. Berlioz, not exactly popular in Paris for his acerbic reviews of other people’s work had to resort to a friendly Casino owner in the spa town of Baden Baden to get it staged.

Berlioz’s own opera comique libretto (one with spoken dialogue as well as musical numbers) lacks structure and balance; there is not even much tension between the manoeuvred lovers. Apart from the tenor role of Bénédict, sung without much mellifluous tone by WNO’s favourite Mozart lyric tenor Robin Tritschler, the not inconsiderable talents of Gary Griffiths as Claudio and Piotr Lampa as Don Pedro were largely wasted. As the comic, inebriated music master Somarone the vastly experienced Donald Maxwell milked the part for every laugh with a few gags that Berlioz would not have recognised.

Of the ladies Sara Fulgoni as the eponymous Béatrice, whom I have admired since her Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo as a student at Manchester’s Royal Northern School of Music and Carmen for WNO, was strangely muted, lacking bite in her sung portrayal. Yet it was nevertheless beautifully phrased tonally refulgent. Laura Mitchell’s Hero was somewhat underpowered at times, but was well matched by Anna Burford’s Ursula in the lovely duet Nuit paisible et sereine that concludes Act One. Likewise,joined by Sarah Fulgoni the trio Je vais d’un Coeur aimant was an act two highlight.

Whilst Michael Hofstetter in the pit had a good feel for Berlioz’s musical idiom, and the chorus were vibrant and involved as actors, this is an opera comique and the spoken dialogue, except for that by Donald Maxwell and Gary Griffiths, twho rained as an actor before becoming a singer, was often inaudible. Perversely the dialogue was not shown in the titles. This is not the first time I have experienced this failing from singers, even those who can make the rafters of big operatic barns like the two main London Houses rattle in arias and even recitative, but do not translate projection to their spoken interjections.

At the end I could not help but think what Offenbach, dubbed by Rossini as ‘The Mozart of the Champs Elysées’, might have done down at his Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens in Paris with this story, even in Berlioz’s mangled and inadequate libretto.

Le Nozze de Figaro.

This production of Lluís Pasqual’s updated version of Mozart’s supreme opera buffa with revolutionary bite, shared with the Liceu, Barcelona, and now revived by Caroline Chaney, was seen in Llandudno in 2009 with several of the present cast unchanged from that series of performances. As I noted then, of all operas to be updated (this one is to Spain in the 1920s or thereabouts) Le nozze de Figaro with its central presumption of droit de seigneur is hardly the one to choose. Add in the silliness of the dancing and prancing that goes on along with the climbing on furniture, there is a danger of reducing Mozart’s divine creation to farce or even slapstick. How on earth can the concept of a sexual predator survive if he first appears in tennis gear looking like Henri Cochet in 1925? At least, the racquet was in period as was Susanna’s ironing board. Later this Count appears in a rather chic smoking jacket and totting a pistol – not a seducer of his wife’s maid, but a rapist! Things get worse.

Mozart called Figaro an opera buffa not giocoso, even though there is a distinct revolutionary bite between downstairs Figaro and the aristocratic Count and his perceived entitlement of droit de seigneur. Beaumarchais’ play was banned in Vienna and it took a lot of comings and goings on Da Ponté’s part before the Emperor Joseph II conceded its use in Mozart’s opera. Figaro’s Se vuol ballare predicts that the Count will dance to his tune whilst he, Figaro, will not stand idly by whilst allowing the Count to take the virginity of his bride to be. As Figaro, David Soar sings with sonority and if not quite the requisite bite of anger he does better than three years ago and manages to look and behave somewhat less of a refugee from P G Woodhouse novel despite the costume, white gloves and clicking heels. Whilst Dario Solari’s count was not exactly a wimp, he hardly portrayed a sexual predator. I think even his wife was not really afraid of him discovering the plot she and Susanna had in mind. Whilst strong of tone, Solari’s poor vocal characterisation also failed in legato in the final act. Of the other men Timothy Robinson was a very camp Don Basilio whilst Henry Waddington was over-pompous as Dr. Bartolo and struggled to reach the lower notes of his aria.

At least two of the ladies of the cast acted and sang their roles with distinction. Despite looking like a waitress at a 1930s Joe Lyons teashop, Elizabeth Watts sang quite beautifully and acted with conviction; I suspect it will be some time before I hear such a fine rending of deh vieni, non tardar in Act Four as I heard from Miss Watts. Just as hers was an interpretation to treasure, so was Jurgita Adamonyté’s Cherubino. Both her arias were sung with ideal legato, enunciation and characterisation with acting to match. She looked a little silly and rather like a chocolate box soldier in Act Four, but then the whole of the staging of that act in this production is a mess with meandering massive mirrors, with trees reflected on their surface, allowing for neither the realisation of the magic in the music nor the dramatic realisation of the opera. As for the uncertainties of recognition of Countess and Susanna in their disguises, let alone the necessary comings and goings, these were non-starters with the participants nearly standing on each other’s toes. As the Countess I found Rebecca Evans no nearer to my ideal than last time. Maybe I dream of a soprano with ethereal high floated notes clearly enunciated. As it was, she, assisted by Arthur Negus in the pit, did decorate Dove Sono with some vocal elegance. Sarah Pring’s portrayal of Marcellina, presumably under direction, was too inclined towards farce for my liking and she did not get her act four aria Il capro e la capretta in compensation. Joanne Boag’s Barbarina was convincingly portrayed and acted.

Further touring dates this spring.

The tour continues with the same repertoire to

Milton Keynes Theatre from March 20th –24th.
Southampton, Mayflower Theatre from March 27th –31st
Plymouth, Theatre Royal. April 3rd-7th. (Only one performance of Figaro).
Bristol, Hippodrome. April 10th –14th.
Swansea, Grand Theatre. April 19th-21st. (Only one performance of each opera).

For anyone going to any of these performances I strongly recommend attendance at one of the half hour long pre-performance talks given by Simon Rees, WNO’s dramaturg. He is the best combination of erudition and humour I have ever heard. No matter how well you know a work or composer you will learn a little more that will add to your enjoyment of the performance. Individual theatre schedules give the times of these talks.

Future plans.

In the Autumn of 2012 Welsh National Opera will present a programme of Handel’s Jephtha, Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and Puccini’s La Boheme starting in Cardiff on September15th. These operas will be toured to the usual venues starting with Swansea on October 10th and arriving at Venue Cymru on October 16th.

The Company have also outlined detailed plans and dates up to summer 2013 as well as outline proposals beyond that.

Robert J Farr