Effective Poulenc, Disappointing Purcell from Opera North

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Poulenc, Purcell: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North/ Wyn Davies (conductor). The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 12-16.3.2013. (RJF)

Francis Poulenc: La voix humaine (1959). Sung in English translation
Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas(1689). Sung in English

I look back at this time last year when the General Director of Opera North was declining to put on the usual spring/summer season of three operas until he knew he had funding and wonder how far we have come from those recent days of financial crisis. His decision last year came after savage cuts in the Arts Council grant to Opera North. The normal three opera spring/summer season that had become the norm over the ten years that I have been reviewing at The Lowry was reduced to the pre-planned Wagner concert performances with the addition of Carousel. This year The Lowry will only see the next instalment of that Wagner cycle before Opera North returns in November with its titled Britten Season. The Britten Season will feature three of the composer’s operas including two revivals of particularly memorable Opera North productions and a new production of Death in Venice. The Britten Season celebrates the centenary of the greatest British opera composer. Meanwhile the most celebrated and performed opera composer ever, Giuseppe Verdi, only gets Otello in a shared production with Scottish Opera, to celebrate his bi-centenary.

I can only presume that budget considerations are still paramount with further cuts a distinct possibility as a consequence of more savaging of Arts Council funds by Government likely. In this scenario I do wonder about the company policy with this programme. Whilst I welcome the new productions of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito alongside Otello, both shared productions, I do wonder about the cost involved in new productions of La voix humaine and Dido and Aeneas when Opera North has perfectly serviceable productions on the stocks. Neither of these two works is likely to defray costs via bums on seats with both playing to sparse audiences this season and when last played, November 2006 and June 2007 respectively.

This present season is entitled Jealousy, Betrayal and Heartbreak, referring to the women involved, although one comes out well from the experience.

La voix humaine

At its last showing with Opera North in 2006 the role of Elle was sung with some distinction by Joan Rodgers in Deborah Warner’s imaginative production. The 45 or so minutes of Elle’s monologue on the telephone to her ex, interrupted by her tensions, or others on the line, requires a singing actress of some ability. This series of performances provides and ideal setting for Lesley Garrett’s return to the operatic stage after an absence of nearly eight years. A Yorkshire lass, and proud of it, it is fitting she make that return with the Leeds based company. She is a stage creature and knows how to use her histrionic strengths to good effect. Her soprano is lighter than her predecessor’s, but at forte she is well able to rise to the demands of Poulenc’s more strident passages as the emotional temperature of Elle’s desperation rises. Her soprano is well able to vary by inflection the various moods that the heroine experiences in the course of the one sided conversation we hear.

The production is much more straightforward than that of Dido. Framed by a mirror with lights all around and facing the audience at the start, Elle and the set moves inwards and upstage as Elle reveals her innermost torment, so capably paralleled in Poulenc’s music. The man at the other end is seen through the mirror from time to time, blasé and oblivious to the mental cruelty he is inflicting and which is reflected, almost stridently at times, in the orchestra. In this work Wyn Davies is much more at home than in Dido, giving the orchestra its head when he could and supporting Lesley Garrett’s characterisation and limitations in terms of vocal heft at others. The costume changes allowed Lesley to indulge her concert habit, but on a more restricted scale! For a lady past her middle fifties she looked stunning in whatever costume she wore.

Dido and Aeneas

Purcell’s opera was staged in a new production with this same director in 2007 when it was coupled with Stravinsky’s Les Noces. That evening, with its dancers was in many ways memorable for the right reasons. This second shot by Aletta Collins and her team of set designer Giles Cadle and costume designer Gabrielle Dalton I found distinctly less so. The set is a bedroom with a large double bed on which Dido is writhing as the opera opens. Dressed in a housecoat and underskirt, the former quickly divested, with the latter becoming the costume of choice for her and all the rest of the female cast, Belinda excepted. The chorus was hidden so presumably not costumed; the shares in Marks and Spencer must have plummeted!. What was most confusing in this production was the doppelgangering, for want of a better word, of the rest of the females to match Dido in both dress and hair – again Belinda was the exception. This multiple duplication of dress and wig did not help the understanding of the story, new to many in the sparse audience, nor was it helped by poor diction and projection into The Lowry auditorium, at least to the stalls. I am told there was no such problem at Leeds but at The Lowry titles would have helped. There were no titles in 2007 when Susan Bickley’s singing of famous lament was heart rending (see review), and I cannot attribute the blame on an over-loud orchestra. Yes, in 2007 it was a period band under a specialist conductor. If hardly idiomatic, Wyn Davies on the rostrum is well used to The Lowry acoustic and kept the orchestra on an appropriately tight reign.

This production was a significant disappointment because of its conceptual incomprehensibility alongside the inaudibility of far too many, indeed most, of the words. What the communal pill popping was about I didn’t work out, unless Dido was choosing that way out and taking her visually identical metaphorical sisters with her. I found pleasure in the clear enunciated tenor singing and vocal projection of Nicholas Watts in his all too brief appearance as the sailor. As to why Opera North cast a New Zealander as Aeneas makes little sense either with a surfeit of quality singers coming out of our music colleges. Amy Feeston made as much as she could as Belinda.

Robert J Farr