United Kingdom Various composers: Lesley Garrett (soprano), Michael Clifton-Thompson*, Simon Crosby-Buttle*, Howard Kirk* (tenor), Martin Lloyd*, Alastair Moore*, George Newton-Fitzgerald*, Stephen Wells* (bass), Chris Tudor (dancer), Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Alexander Martin (conductor), Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 7.2.2015.
[* indicates members of the chorus who took in solo roles at various points in the production]
Prokofiev Epigraph (War and Peace)
Britten Who holds himself apart (Peter Grimes)
Wagner Spinning Chorus (The Flying Dutchman)
Verdi Murderer’s Chorus (Macbeth)
Verdi Anvil Chorus (Il Trovatore)
Verdi Rataplan (La fora del destino)
Purcell Hush, no more (The Fairy Queen)
Puccini Humming Chorus (Madam Butterfly)
Stravinsky With air commanding (The Rake’s Progress)
Weill Alabama Song (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny)
Shostakovich Police Scene (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk)
Bizet Cigarette Chorus (Carmen)
Sullivan A policeman’s lot (The Pirates of Penzance)
Offenbach Barcarolle (The Tales of Hoffmann)
Janáček Wedding Scene (The Cunning Little Vixen)
Bizet Les voici (Carmen)
Sullivan With cat-like tread (The Pirates of Penzance)
Verdi Witches’ Chorus (Macbeth)
Verdi La vergine degli angeli (La forza del destino)
Handel Hallelujah Chorus (Messiah)
Franck Panis angelicus
Mussorgsky Wailing chorus (Khovanschina)
Verdi Va,pensiero (Nabucco)
Leigh The Impossible Dream (Man of La Mancha)
Bernstein Make our garden grow (Candide)
Director: David Pountney
Designer: Johan Engels
Associate Set Designer: Matthew Rees
Lighting Designer: Ian Jones
Choreographer: Denni Sayers
It is a striking phenomenon in theatrical history that one of the primary elements in the western theatrical tradition – the chorus – (so central and crucial to its origins) should have faded away from spoken drama (so that in recent centuries its presence in a play is a mark of archaic revival or eccentricity), whereas in opera it has flourished as a central element of the form. Dramatists and the spoken theatre seem largely to have lost interest in it, while the history of opera is full of the exploratory and innovatively creative use of the chorus, for many different purposes and to many varied effects.
This living performance-anthology of (mostly) operatic choruses, devised and directed by David Pountney was richly entertaining and, I would guess, very inviting and persuasive for anyone in its audience not already a committed lover of opera, but it also prompted many thoughts in the minds seasoned opera-goers (at least for this one!), about some of those purposes and effects – the chorus as commentator and (to a degree) as moral guide to the audience, the chorus as a sounding board (almost literally and certainly metaphorically) for the soloist(s), the chorus as an active protagonist in the narrative (think of Peter Grimes or William Tell), the chorus as a mob easily misled, the chorus as an agent in musical and dramatic transitions, the chorus as the voice of a downtrodden people, etc. There is a book to be written on this – but not here and now! Better to celebrate the musical feast put before us!
When I saw an earlier version of Chorus!, back in 2006, I ended my review (see http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2006/Jul-Dec06/chorus0210.htm)
by writing: “There was, then, much to enjoy and for WNO regulars it was good to see the chorus, which has contributed so much to the company’s success in recent years, being given the chance to dominate the stage. Still, the evening left one with the feeling that one had only been entertained. The greater depths and heights were missing, not through any fault in the performers, but because, by its very nature, this was an evening lacking the sense of narrative and dramatic necessity, or those fascinations of character development and extended relationship, the larger structures of musical pattern and argument, that a single opera by, say, Mozart, Verdi or Wagner can give us. However well-made the anthology – and this was very well-made – it necessarily lacks the insistent coherence, the sheer weight, of the fully realised single work. Still, it is hard to imagine this particular exercise being done very much better”.
In fact, this 2015 version was ‘done’ a good deal better! It was far more wittily directed and inventively staged, the choice of material was, on the whole, more varied and yet better integrated. First time around we were well entertained. This time, we were not “only entertained”, since alongside the entertainment was the sense that the function(s) of the chorus had really been thought about and that the audience was invited (provoked?) to think about that question themselves. The use of the solo dancer, Chris Tudor as a recurrent presence in various ‘items’ effected links between those items and there were thematic groupings which similarly linked (and stimulated thought), as in the opening sequence which put before us the interrelated ways in which the ‘power’ of the crowd can be active both for ill and good and how it can be exploited by politicians and generals, as much as it can be turned on an innocent victim, a sequence culminating in the simple-minded (and musically powerful) celebration of the military spirit in ‘Rataplan’ (from Act III of Verdi’s Il forza del destino). There was something very magical in the way in which that was immediately followed by Purcell’s ‘Hush, no more’ from Act II of The Fairy Queen, with its evocation of the private pleasures of night and repose. In fact, ‘Hush, no more’ began a second sequence, of Nocturnal choruses, which were very varied in mood and implication, any simplistic ‘reading’ of night being rejected in favour of a sense of its complex meaning – a time of lust and crime, as well as of love and repose. Everywhere in the two parts (see above) of this carefully and intelligently designed programme, these kinds of connections and transitions were evident. My only serious reservation was with the inclusion of non-operatic material such as the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ and Franck’s ‘Panis angelicus’. As works not written for the operatic stage (even if they have something of the opera in their musical idioms) they rather muddied the waters of the programme’s ‘thesis’. Nor were they, in terms of performance, amongst the highlights of the evening.
The chorus of Welsh National Opera has long (and properly) been regarded as one of the company’s particular glories and amongst the best of British opera choruses. Their performances of this very varied material, mixing familiar (even the almost hackneyed) with the rarely heard, was generally very strong, even if, inevitably, they couldn’t overcome the harsh fact that taken out of their complex contexts within individual operas all of these choruses lose something, emotionally or theatrically. One major way, apart from those mentioned above, in which this was rather different from the 2006 version I had previously seen, was in the use of an established soloist at many points throughout the programme. This was soprano Lesley Garrett, whose name and reputation may well bring in some who don’t normally book seats at the opera. Garrett is a consummate professional and even if, understandably, her voice no longer has quite the purity and sweetness that it had back in 1979 when she was (effectively) launched by her winning of The Kathleen Ferrier Award or during her heyday, from the mid 1980s, as principal soprano of English National Opera, she is still an accomplished singing actress, able to create a character quickly and convincingly. Her stagecraft is masterly and she made valuable contributions throughout the evening. For me she was most absolutely convincing in ‘The Impossible Dream’, from Mitch Leigh’s 1960s musical Man of la Mancha. Other solo roles (for male singers) were taken by members of the chorus, all performed with, at the very least, a high level of competence. Particular highlights included Simon Crosby-Buttle as Kuzka in the extract from Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina and George Newton-Fitzgerald as Samuel in ‘With cat-like tread’ from The Pirates of Penzance. But, it must be stressed, no one was ever in any danger of letting the side down.
This, in short, was a production which, to adapt a common phrase, killed several birds with one stone. It made for an inviting and accessible approach to opera for the neophyte listener; it put some fine singing and music in front of its audience, showing off the particular quality of the company’s Chorus; it raised (and to a fair degree answered) questions about the chorus and its importance in the theatrical experience. The whole was fuelled by David Pountney’s encyclopaedic and perceptive knowledge of the operatic repertoire, by the wit and inventiveness of his work as a director, everywhere respectful of the qualities of the material he was working with but nowhere inhibited by excessive reverence. In The Art of Poetry it is stated that “the poet should teach, or please, or both” and I have often thought that we should make the same demands of an opera director. This performance of Chorus ! very effectively demonstrated how both demands might be met.