United Kingdom Gounod, Mozart, Janáček: Opera North On Tour: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North. Various conductors as shown.The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 6 – 10.11.2012 (RJF)
Gounod: – Faust (1859). Sung in French with titles in English
Mozart: Don Giovanni (1787). Sung in Italian with titles in English.
Janáček: The Makropulos Case (1926). Sung in English with titles.
Faust, Peter Auty
Méphistophélès, James Creswell
Wagner, Paul Gibson
Valentin, Marcin Bronikowski
Siébel, Robert Anthony Gardiner
Marguerite, Juanita Lascarro
Marthe, Sarah Pring
Conductor, Stuart Stratford
Directors, Ran Arthur Braun and Rob Kearley
Set by Ran Arthur Braun
Lighting designer, David Cunningham
Video Artist, Lillevan
Gounod’s Faust has a particular place in my affections. In the early 1950s, having attended one of Gigli’s farewell concerts – only Frank Sinatra managed more – and being used to listening to opera arias at home, my parents took me to my first live opera, a performance of Faust.. The cast was memorable. Harvey Allan as Mephisto, Roland Jones in the eponymous role and the redoubtable Amy Shuard as Marguerite. The production was made more memorable, by the use of ultra-violet light and responsive make-up with Mephistopheles’ flashing and glowing eye effects remaining in my minds eye sixty years on. In those far away 1950s, Gounod’s Faust was one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. Rather suddenly it seemed to fall out of fashion among those in control of opera houses. It was deemed rather trite by cerebral conductors and critics who clamoured for new works rather than depending on those from the19th century. A production at English National Opera in 1985 restored the spoken dialogue to reveal a significantly different work, an Opéra comique. It did not, however, presage a revival of interest in the opera or spoken dialogue. My last live performance of Faust was by Opera North in 1991 with the excellent cast of Richard Van Allan, Anne Dawson and Arthur Davies. Whilst not as memorable as my first encounter, the production was sensible and recognisable although it did not include, like this one – presumably because of cost – the ballet added by Gounod for performances at the Paris Opéra.
The new Millennium seemed to presage a second coming for Faust with new productions at Covent Garden in 2004 and at the Met the following year, where the work had not been seen for a number of years. It was the 714th performance, no less, for the Met Company since 1883; no wonder it was once called the Faustspielhaus! That production has been followed rather quickly by an updated one set in some kind of laboratory and which was transmitted live to cinemas around the world in December 2011. Likewise, the Covent Garden production has recently been revived and also seen in cinemas in Britain. It is available as a DVD (see review).
Faust was composed for the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris in the opéra comique tradition; that is with spoken dialogue. Gounod’s intentions were butchered by the management and the diva with the result that the première in 1859 was not as the composer intended. Over the next ten years, as Faust was seen and acclaimed all over the world, Gounod made additions and amendments to the score according to the needs of various singers and theatres. In consequence there is no definitive version of the work. With much autograph material in private hands none seems likely. Like that at Covent Garden, Opera North makes some cuts in this performance and it is not as complete as many CD recordings, such as that on Teldec (4509 90872). As at Covent Garden, where it was rumoured the diva did not wan to learn it, Marguerite’s Ils ne revient pas is omitted.
Performed in more than 50 countries and translated into 25 languages, Gounod’s great melodramatic opera has been captivating audiences since its Paris premiere in1859. Alongside Carmen, it remains one of the most popular French operas of all time. I came to this performance in the hopes that Opera North had not managed to do to Faust what it had done to Bizet’s masterpiece; ruin it and remove large chunks of music as were thought irrelevant to the Directors concept. Well, the Director in this Faust at least does not massacre the musical content as the director of that Carmen did (see review); as to the dramatic context for the wonderful melodies I am less sure. As is the habit in all too many opera productions of the present day, I will simply observe that without the benefit of his music, Gounod seeing this staging would never relate it to his opera, nor would Goethe for that matter to the original play. As always it seems when updating is the name of the game, the Director’s concept is all that matters and hang the composer – and many of the audience for that matter.
The set in this production is made up of large movable screens on to which are projected innumerable images of rotating faces, psychedelic paintings, images of gambling machines, high rise apartments and even what looks like the latest stock market prices. Faces and locales often melt into a miasma of shapes and colour. Props as such are restricted to white packing cases pushed across the stage, plenty big enough for a casket of jewels or Marguerite to stand on. Otherwise the rest is left to the imagination, albeit distracted by the ever rotating or changing visuals. With the BBC giving warning of flash photography in any relevant news item, any person with sensitivity to flashing or moving lights might find themselves in trouble with this production; such effects do not merely make some people queasy but can induce serious mental disturbance. The costumes are in the present day with Valentin, the brother who goes off to war and returns to find his sister pregnant, dressed in suit and red tie before his departure and on his return. There are no weapons for his fight with Faust and he is seemingly killed, very unimaginatively, by a fist blow to the chest; a not very fit soldier! Before all that the so-called elderly Faust, looking all of mid-forties and wearing specs, goes into an operating theatre to be transformed into a younger version. He emerges with a nose job, in a lighter suit and looking, er, well, paunchy mid-forties!! Marguerite elects to abort her child in the local clinic with pro-life demonstrators with baseball caps and placards demonstrating outside. She still ends up in prison, not that one would know from the mis en scène, whilst much of the dynamic of the magnificent closing trio is lost. Thankfully the closing apotheosis is not wholly ruined – a descending flat with religious symbolism is involved.
In the pit Stuart Bedford lingered tastefully over the motifs in the introduction, but thereafter seemed to think it was a verismo opera. Maybe he was influenced in this by the lack of francophone vocal suavity from some of the cast, notably Peter Auty who seemed to be in can belto mode, rather dry toned and straining for vocal elegance throughout and particularly in Salut! Demeure chaste et pure. The Valentin of Marcin Bronikowski was vocally penny plain and he was unable to create a meaningful dramatic persona dressed in his suit and tie. Juanita Lascarro, slim, even petite of figure, was a strong-voiced Marguerite. She, too, failed to get inside her role albeit I welcomed her security of tone for both the King of Thule and Jewel Song itself. I exempt Robert Anthony Gardiner, a light tenor unusually cast as Siébel instead of a mezzo en travesti, from my comments about the mangling of the French language and style. His singing was secure and characterful as well. The whole performance was held together by the acting and singing of James Creswell as Mephisto. Upright of stance, with a ponytail haircut, he managed to inflect his tone and acting so as to create a meaningful saturnine portrayal from virtually nothing. Without him this production and performance would have been a travesty. His contribution was reflected by the response of a somewhat sparse audience at the curtain.
Don Giovanni, William Dazeley
Leporello, Alastair Miles
Donna Anna, Meeta Raval
Donna Elvira, Elizabeth Atherton
Donna Elvira, Maribeth Diggle
Don Ottavio, Christopher Turner
Zerlina, Claire Wild
Masetto, Oliver Dunn
Il Commendatore, Michael Druiett
Anthony Kraus, (conductor)
Director, Alessandro Talevi
Set and Costume Designer, Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer, Matthew Haskins
By 1785, with his strengths as an opera composer widely recognised, Mozart had moved from Salzburg to Vienna, via Munich, so as to enlarge his opportunities in a genre that was to remain central to his ambitions. In 1786 he commenced collaboration with the poet and sometime libertine priest, Lorenzo Da Ponte, to realise the immensely popular Le Nozze de Figaro. With its taut plot and integrated music the work was immediately widely acclaimed and was later produced in Prague with unprecedented success. Bondi, the Manager of The Prague Opera, keen to capitalise on Mozart’s popularity in the city, commissioned a new opera from him for production the following autumn. Back in Vienna Da Ponte was working on libretti for two other composers but he agreed to set the verses of Don Giovanni for Mozart, perhaps using some existing material. Like Figaro, and the third of their collaborations, Cosi Fan Tutte, it was concerned with sexual shenanigans.
Any production of Don Giovanni needs to be capable of quick change from one often-short scene to the next, whilst the producer needs to accommodate the intimate with the more public group situations. Madeleine Boyd’s shoebox-shaped set, narrower upstage than at the front with numerous door spaces, sometimes open, closed at other times, facilitated this. The Punch and Judy front and upper back was used with discretion, the puppets telling a story that kept the momentum of the piece going. There were few other props. Her costumes however, were a mish-mash of dates and styles with Don Giovanni a suave bowler-hatted 1950s aristo, moving around among the similarly dated and costumed locals and friends of Zerlina and Masetto. Masetto appeared as a 1950s teddy boy, complete with quiff, the making of a DA haircut and velvet around the collar of his jacket, his rig completed by drainpipe trousers and smoocher shoes. Zerlina, with bobby socks and high heels, looked quite delectable in her flared skirt. She had obviously been around sexually and had studied more than a page or two of the diagrams in Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex, or perhaps the Kama Sutra, as she did the business, in a variety of positions, to placate Masetto after he had been dusted up by Giovanni! Meanwhile Leporello, Giovanni’s much put-upon servant, was costumed in a kind of Chaplinesque waistcoat and boater. That left the constantly-bereft Elvira to appear in a variety of white dresses whilst Anna, and her ever-frustrated but dependable, put-upon Ottavio, were costumed in late Victoriana. As I say a mish-mash for no conceivable reason except, perhaps, in the dance at Giovanni’s party, thrown to get Zerlina away from Masetto and into Giovanni’s hands. In that scene the 1950s locals did the Twist – a dance which was not really in vogue before the Sixties – whilst Anna and Ottavio gavotted more formally.
All this extraneous business, as well as the ill conceived conclusion where Giovanni is flown to the upper regions of the fly tower instead of descending to hell, preferably with some red flames, is a consequence of Alessandro Talevi’s ambitious, but ill thought through, conception. In reverse of that latter gimmick was the complete lack of meaningful realisation or atmosphere in the graveyard scene!
Musically, matters were somewhat better. Anthony Kraus on the rostrum was a little tentative in the first half of Act One, perhaps finding, as others have before him, the Lowry acoustic to be rather fragile and not the easiest to master. Once over that hurdle his conducting was never less than apt in pace or dynamic. The singing was never less than good and often better than that. The biggest vocal disappointment for me came, unexpectedly, with the Don Giovanni of William Dazely, who I have admired in many roles for Opera North and at Buxton. His voice, suave and smooth, just did not have the weight required any more than he conveyed the evil, saturnine, side to Don Giovanni. This vocally light character of his portrayal made completely implausible the exchange of character between the Don and his servant as Giovanni attempts the seduction of a servant girl. In the role of the servant, Leporello, Alastair Miles, via his characterful and expressive singing and involved acting, completely stole the show, much as James Cresswell had done the night before. His consummate realisation was one I had not expected and was again reflected in the knowledgeable audience response at the curtain. Meeta Ravel as Anna, convincing in her acting, sang Non mi dir with elegant phrasing and fulsome tone. In the more difficult role to play of Elvira, Elizabeth Atherton popped up everywhere, and whenever inappropriate to thwart Giovanni’s carnal intentions, and sang Mi Tradi with good expression and vocal commitment. Christopher Turner was appropriately wimpish as Ottavio and deserved to get his second aria, but didn’t.
The cast, particularly Alastair Miles, were well received at the curtain by the audience in a well-attended, but not full, Lowry Theatre.
The Makropulos Case
Emilia Marty, Ylva Kihlberg
Albert Gregor, Paul Nilon
Vítek, Mark Le Brocq
Kristina, Stephanie Corley
Jaroslav Prus, Robert Hayward
Janek, Adrian Dwyer
Dr Kolenatý, James Creswell
Technician, Matthew Hargreaves
Cleaning Woman, Sarah Pring
Hauk-Šendorf, Nigel Robson
Chambermaid, Rebecca Afonwy Jones
Richard Farnes (conductor).
Director: Tom Cairns
Set and Costume Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet
The production was originally premièred at the Edinburgh Festival in the summer and continued Opera North’s love affair with Janáček’s operas, this being the sixth of his operas the Company have staged. Perhaps only Charles Mackerras had more experience among non-Czech conductors in this genre than Richard Farnes, Opera North’s inspirational Music Director. Well used to the Lowry’s idiosyncratic acoustic he gave the orchestra their head as appropriate and stretched the singers to their dramatic limits whilst not drowning out their words, albeit the English titles helped us follow the plot.
With Janáček’s operas it is necessary, even more than any other composer and particularly in the case of this rarely performed work, to have a comprehensible production and set. Both were well realised by the experienced duo of Tom Cairns and Hildegard Bechtler, her designs being slightly updated but wholly in the spirit of the work and with a particularly fine setting for the last act.
With lyrical melody at a premium, and complex chromatics emanating from the orchestra, strong voices are needed. Opera North, as with the conductor and production team, have cast from strength. Indeed there are a number of singers in this production who would have significantly bettered some in the other two operas in the season. The same might be said of the production team too!
Emilia Marty was sung and portrayed by the Swedish soprano, Ylva Kihlberg. Though a little thin in tone from time to time, she acted with conviction and brought the role to life, and ultimately to a timely death. Whilst vocally stretched from time to time, Paul Nilon achieved what few other British interpreters could do by singing with strength and clarity as well as acting with conviction. So too did James Cresswell as the lawyer and Robert Hayward as a macho Prus who, having spent the night with Emilia, thought himself short- changed by her frigidity for his obtaining her secret. Stephanie Corley presented a particularly well-sung and sympathetic Kristina who burns Emilia’s secret. Likewise Mark Le Broq and Adrian Dwyer sang well and created meaningful characters. Nigel Robson was brilliant as Emilia’s old roué and Sarah Pring created the perfect cleaner.
It is always a balancing act when deciding on repertoire, particularly for the tour, so as to put bums on seats and develop repertoire and customer loyalty. So far Opera North has failed to acquire a loyal following in Greater Manchester. They are not the first to fail in this way and, as indicated by my comments on the Faust, my experience goes back longer than I care to remember. The difficulties of getting to the Lowry are do not help, but more than that a conservative public do not respond to some of the more avant garde productions that seem to be the nature of Opera North’s direction. Attendance for the all three offerings could have been better and whilst a full house for Janáček would not have been expected I wonder how far reviews of idiosyncratic productions deter potential audiences; a significant matter in these times of tight budgets.
Robert J Farr