United Kingdom Handel, Mozart, Puccini: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera,Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno. 16-18.10.2012 (RJF)
Handel. Jephtha.(1751) Sung in English with titles in English and Welsh.
Mozart. Cosi fan Tutte (1789). Sung in Italian with titles in English and Welsh.
Puccini. La Boheme(1890). Sung in Italian with titles in English and Welsh.
Jephtha: Robert Murray.
Zebul, his brother: Alan Ewing.
Storge, his wife: Diana Montague.
Iphis, his daughter: Fflur Wyn
Hamor, bethrtothed to Iphis: Robin Blaze.
Angel: Claire Ormshaw.
Conductor: Paul Goodwin
Director: Katie Mitchell revived by Robin Tebbut
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting: Chris Davey
Movement Director: Struan Leslie
I have been around the UK opera scene for over forty years and for over half of those I have seen signs of a Handel renaissance; somewhat ephemeral in reality. Some of the composer’s greatest creations were written later on in his career as oratorios, after financial troubles had forced him out of opera production, and they contain some of his greatest music. However, that music is in the baroque style and governed by practice and convention of the time – particularly the use of the great castrati of the seventeen hundreds. Thankfully, such practices had died out by the time of Rossini who only wrote one opera using that voice type, the practice of a mezzo in travesti (trousers) being considered satisfactory. In the UK, the emergence of period instrument bands following key registers of the period was paralleled by the emergence of counter tenors, or falsettists, to take the roles originally assigned to the castrati. This proved popular with the Festival Scene but less so with our regional opera companies. Yet Handel’s music, in its many diverse and superb qualities, cries out for performance. Recently, the likes of the Buxton Festival have presented an oratorio as a staged work, the production being less than successful, whilst both the Royal Northern School of Music with Xerses (see review) and Opera North (see review) have staged two of the composer’s operas for the first time for many years; English National Opera have also revived an earlier interest.
Although in the small performance theatre at the RNCM the College cast mezzo-sopranos en travesti, Opera North cast a clutch of counter tenors. There, as here, they were well-schooled voices who acted well but whose means of vocal production is limited when it comes to the matter of dramatic vocal heft. I cannot fault Robin Blaze for his histrionic commitment in this staging of a Handel oratorio, but vocally his agonising and dramatic capability did not match the demands of the role. In this respect Robert Murray, in the eponymous role, also left something to be desired, his voice not having the clarity or ping needed at the top. As his brother Zebul, Alan Ewing had vocal strength and sonority and conveyed the role in his acting and singing particularly well.
Of the ladies, Fflur Wyn as Jephtha’s daughter was the vocal star of the evening. Her singing was well characterised and with plentiful variety of tonal colour. The latter was also a feature of the acted and vocal quality of, forgive me, veteran mezzo Diana Montague as Jephtha’s wife. There were times when I wished she were singing the role of Hamor and maybe yesteryear she could have done so, but times change. Claire Ormshaw as the Angel disappointed me somewhat vocally.
The staging was updated to a 1930s hotel lobby with obvious signs of collateral war damage to walls and mirror. The revealing of a curved staircase facilitated the necessary speedy scene changes. Frankly, the emerging story might have been better realised without us having to worry about the role of various suits who wondered around if the setting had been biblical with recognisable prophets and priests. It would have cost no more and been as relevant.
In the pit Paul Goodwin had the traditions in mind whilst also drawing good playing from the modern tuned orchestra.
Così fan tutte
Guglielmo: Gary Griffiths
Don Alfonso: Neal Davies
Fiordiligi: Elizabeth Watts
Dorabella: Mairie Flavin
Despina: Joanne Boag
Conductor: Mark Wrigglesworth
Director: Benjamin Davies
Designer: Max Jones
Lighting Designer: Philip Gladwell
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris
Così fan tutte, the last of the three operas that Mozart wrote to librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte, is the most enigmatic. Once the opera going populace had become less influenced by the so called immorality of the story it has come to be recognised at least as the musical equal of Le Nozze de Gigaro and Don Giovanni. Premiered in Vienna in 1790 it is described as opera buffa, which is comic opera rather than dramma giocoso, the description given to the latter. If this story of deceits, conceived by the cynical Alfonso, is comic opera, then composer and librettist forgot about that fact at the end as Despina regrets her part in the proceedings and the two couples do not know where their relationships are at, or are going. However, the Director here seems to have taken the word to its extremes and by the end of act one went beyond burlesque to the extreme of slapstick. I have seen many settings of this opera, but none so determined to be as silly as this. The set, be it end of seaside pier or whatever, has Despina as the proprietor cum chambermaid of an ice cream parlour cum bed and breakfast. She comes complete with baby, indicating, perhaps that like Alfonso she is a cynic of life or at least her moral scruples are few, particularly the way the poor child is thrown, literally, around. As to Alfonso being an elderly cynic, in plaid trousers and red waistcoat he looks more a spiv or con man as proprietor of the local Punch and Judy show with walk-about extras, such as a crocodile and policeman among others, who emerge from his show for a general frolic. The two male lovers, who are persuaded to test Alfonso’s view in respect of female fidelity, go off to war looking like two double-striped US airmen and re-emerge as 1950s Butlins holiday camp redcoats, complete with false noses. Add Guglielmo in shorts, with knees that would have been better covered, and Ferrando in smart white trousers as were de rigueur for gentlemen tennis players at Wimbledon in the 1920s. Mind you, even in those far off days even gentlemen sportsmen didn’t smoke as many fags as this lot got through in the three hours, nor would they have simply despatched their fish and chip papers and beer bottles over the rails into the sea!!
You get the drift about my feelings for this setting and the director’s efforts to make it relevant. The bigger trouble is that Don Alfonso and the two men have trouble escaping their costume and the silly business expected of them. Consequently, their musically delightful duets and solos pass with little impact, with none of the singers able to escape the setting and impose a character that is true to the music. The women fare better, not least because they are better singers with Elizabeth Watts’ Fiordiligi, after an uneasy start in Venue Cymru’s unresponsive acoustic, giving us a splendidly shaped and sung Come scoglio in Act 1 and matching it with an equally delectable Per pieta as an Act 2 rondo liqueur. Along the way she also had to put up with the nonsense involving being sprayed with a lavatory brush in the B and B. As her sister, and joining for the rest of the tour, Mairie Flavin was a visual and audible delight making the more flighty Dorabella very believable with excellent characterisation in both her singing and acting. Somehow or other Joanne Boag broke out of her ice cream seller cum mother cum cleaner roles to make something of Despina as facilitator of Alfonso’s plot as well as doctor and notary; her sung and acted efforts deserved better than presented by this production. The Director could have made more explicit Despina’s return of Alfonso’s cash too.
As to Mark Wrigglesworth in the pit I have little comment. I was so distracted from Mozart’s divine music by the excess happenings on stage, I couldn’t even appreciate it with eyes closed, and looked forward to an early ending. What a waste!! I have never felt like that before in any Mozart opera let alone one of the masterful creations the composer realised to a Da Ponte libretto. This production should join that of the Calixto Bieto Die Fledermaus of a decade or so ago and never be seen again! A pity in these financially straightened times that the precious budget should be spent on such efforts.
Rodolfo: Alex Vicens
Mimi: Giselle Allen
Marcello: David Kempster
Musetta: Kate Valentine
Colline: Piotr Lempa
Schaunard: Daniel Grice
Benoit: Howard Kirk
Parpignol: Michael Clifton-Thomas
Alcindoro: Martin Lloyd
Customs Official: Laurence Cole
Customs Sergeant: Stephen Wells
Conductor: Simon Phillippo
Director: Annabel Arden
Designer: Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell
Projection Designer: Nina Dunn
It took only a few moments from the opening chords and the revelation of the set and Paris backdrop of roofs for me to realise that here was a production of greater imagination than the previous evening. Add the superbly atmospheric sets and lighting effects and this was lyric theatre at its best. Yes there was updating, to the turn of the century I guess, a few years after the opera’s premiere in 1896. That at least allowed for one of the backlit scenes to show the foothills of Eiffel’s tower and allowed a particularly sumptuous dress for Musetta in the Café Momus act. The rooftop views of Paris had me looking for the Sacre Coeur whilst the masts of boats on the Seine were a luxury touch. However, it was the opening of Act 3 that took the biscuit in terms of designer and lighting imagination. The lighting effects of snow as the customs officers opened the gates for the traders evoked a lump in the throat, especially as the sparsely clad Mimi in even thinner shoes sought Marcello as she coughed her life away.
With Simon Phillippo drawing emotional breadth of frivolity and pain from the orchestra a night to remember was on offer; all it wanted was singers to match the setting. If the main soloists were not quite perfect in their singing, their acting and characterisation compensated for the very few shortcomings. As Mimi Giselle Allen was outstanding, even managing in the last act to overcome the difficulties of singing, whilst propped up with pillows on a mattress on the floor, to invest the phrases with all the pathos and emotion that is inherent in Puccini’s music. It was a good night for shares in Kleenex. If Alex Vicens, her Rodolfo, lacked the vocal heft to match her and the orchestral textures in his opening aria and the duet of act one, his bright Italianate tone was welcome in the less dense music that followed and allowed him to create sympathy for his efforts to help Mimi and stimulate the tear ducts in Act 4.
As to the other couple, Marcello and Musetta, it was all good news. Kate Valentine sang a particularly fine Act 2 waltz song while making the nature of the character tell as she manipulated her latest conquest with appropriate histrionics and then leaving him to pick up the tab for the Bohemian’s food and drink as well as their own. David Kempster as Marcello was vocally outstanding, what a tower of strength he has been for WNO in recent years. His imposing physical stature gives him advantages, but it is his capacity in creating a character and singing with exemplary tonal variety and colour that sets him out in this production. Piotr Lempa as Colline lacked some sonority and lower notes as he said farewell to his warm overcoat whilst Daniel Grice sang eloquently and made what he could with restricted opportunities as Schaunard. All the lesser roles were more than adequately sung with the only jarring moments involved some ape prancing about and a couple of drag queens, one with shaven head, who would not have gone down at all even, I suspect, in 1890s Bohemian Montmartre. Can no Director resist such inanities?
The WNO tour continues with the same repertoire as follows: –
Oxford. New Theatre. From 23rd to 27th October.
Southampton. The Mayflower Theatre. From 30th October to November 3rd.
Birmingham. Hippodrome from November 7th to 10th.
Liverpool. Empire Theatre from 20th to 24th November.
Bristol. Hippodrome from 27th November to 1st of December.
Welsh National Opera will be back at Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno from March 12th to 16th 2013 with three performances of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, one of Alban Berg’s Lulu and one of The Cunning Little Vixen.
Robert J Farr