United Kingdom Bock, Harnick, Stein, Fiddler on the Roof: Soloists and Chorus of Grange Park Opera, BBC Concert Orchestra / David Charles Abell. (conductor), The Grange, Bishop’s Sutton. Alresford, Hampshire, 5.6.2015. (JPr)
Bryn Terfel: Tevye
Janet Fullerlove: Golde
Charlotte Harwood: Tzeitel
Katie Hall: Hodel
Molly Lynch: Chava
Anthony Flaum: Motel
Jordan Simon Pollard: Perchik
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock, orchestrated by Don Walker
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Produced on the New York Stage by Harold Prince
Director/Designer: Antony McDonald
Costume Designer: Gabrielle Dalton
Lighting Designer: Lucy Carter
Choreographer: Lucy Burge
I shall start with some excerpts from the Grange Park Opera website (http://www.grangeparkopera.co.uk/). Firstly about the company itself and how founded in 1998 it has quickly established itself as one of the major music festivals in Europe’s operatic summer season. As Fiona Maddocks of The Observer has noted “Grange Park continues its unstoppable progress.” The season runs for seven weeks, with four productions that are staged in a 550-seat theatre (with red velvet seats from the old Covent Garden) built within the 19th century orangery. To date, there have been some 53 productions, many of which have been acclaimed for superb singing, outstanding conducting and magnificent stage sets. At the heart of the festival is a commitment to presenting both international and rising talent, introducing British audiences to little heard operas and bringing in a new audience to hear opera for the first time. To help develop the next generation’s love of opera there are special schemes that give free tickets to young people and subsidised tickets for under 30s … With no Government support, the company, a registered charity, is funded by box office income, its donors and supporters. ‘Fiddler on the Roof is possibly Grange Park Opera’s most ambitious production ever.
I do not have the space (and possibly the words) to do full justice to my first experience of Grange Park Opera. Getting there is an experience in itself and although not far from London in rural Hampshire it reminded me of travelling to Bayreuth. Wagner built the Festspielhaus there far enough away from Munich so only those most dedicated to his music would undertake the journey and as I drove up a long rutted road through green fields the portico of The Grange – a magnificent seventeenth-century neo-classical mansion – loomed in the distance and it gave me the same feeling of anticipation as I have when I see the Festspielhaus from the train on arrival in Bayreuth. Yes there are marques for patrons to enjoy their champagne picnics and everyone is dressed in evening attire but there a great informality to all the splendid formality and everyone seems so friendly and welcoming. Again this is the same feeling I get in Germany … but not always for similar summer festival occasions in the UK.
I could go on and on but I urge you if you have not been to Grange Park Opera do go and experience its splendours outside and inside their wonderfully intimate theatre as there is no better way to spend a balmy summer’s evening. Their enterprising chief executive, Wasfi Kani, introduced the evening with a quite reasonable hint at the need for more donors but she also said how traffic problems had meant some of the audience and cast had not arrived. (Later I learned that Grandma Tzeitel was sung by a member of the chorus who stepped in at the last moment.) More significantly, she revealed how the performance was not using microphones – unusually for a musical such as this – and the orchestrations were the original 1964 ones by Don Walker, give or take some brief moments for the wind instruments.
Fiddler on the Roof was created by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Joseph Stein (book) and Jerome Robbins (direction and choreography) and is based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem published between 1895 and 1915. It was a big hit when it opened on Broadway in 1964 with Zero Mostel as the first Tevye and the initial production lasted for 3,242 performances, holding the record as the longest-running show on Broadway for many years. In 1967 it opened in London with Topol in the lead role and that kept going for 2,030 performances. There have been several revivals both on Broadway and in London with a number of national tours in both countries: a school or amateur theatre group will put it on somewhere every year and there was a successful 1971 film adaptation. Some wonderful singing-actors have appeared as Tevye and as well as Topol and Mostel there have been Alfie Bass, Henry Goodman and recently on tour in the UK Paul Michael Glaser (https://seenandheard-international.com/2013/10/horwoods-fiddler-on-the-roof-leaves-a-warm-glow/) who also starred with Topol as Perchik, the revolutionary student, in Norman Jewison’s film.
Of course the story has been now overtaken by modern history because the Anatevka shtetl (a small village in the country with a large Jewish population) that we see is in the Ukraine – at the time part of Tsarist Russia! ‘Tradition’ is the very memorable opening number and what follows is the unravelling of that tradition as our milkman hero, Tevye, sees three of his five daughters challenge this old order. We see two choose their own husbands rather than take the often quite unsuitable one arranged by their father and the village matchmaker. Another marries outside of the Jewish faith. Tevye, is a bit like the fiddler trying to keep his balance on the rooftop, because he struggles to maintain the balance between the love of a father for his children and his acceptance that the world is changing. Tevye right from the start is constantly caught up in the dialectics of what is best for the community – should it be stasis or change – and before our eyes is shown having to weight up the arguments of every dilemma – or as he puts it ‘On the one hand … on the other hand’ – when talking to God. The musical brings us a lot of warmth, humour and love but perhaps is a little light on the hunger, heartache, and tears the story demands.
Therefore Fiddler on the Roof is not a perfect musical but its heart is in the right place. Everything happens before the interval (a long supper one at Grange Park) and Act II is a little flat in comparison with minimal plot development and totally devoid of any big number. It just seems to peter out and all we are left with is our own thoughts about the diaspora and perhaps how ending up in America as some of them do wouldn’t have meant they would get to the promised land.
What drew me and possibly other first-timers to Hampshire was Bryn Terfel’s debut as Reb Tevye. Bear-like and bearded it is a fine assumption and very much we did see – as Wasfi Kani suggested – ‘A Welsh farmer’s son playing a Jewish milkman’. He looked totally at ease in the part and sang with great warmth and, of course, it is unlikely the role has ever been sung before as well as he did it. ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ is the show-stopper that comes much too earlier in the musical but was dispatched in a particularly heartfelt manner and without affection. Terfel needed to give more energy and spontaneity to the dialogue and here the lack of any miking did not help him or his colleagues as they needed to speak out their words to the back of the small auditorium. Terfel’s Tevye reminded me a lot of another great assumption of his, Hans Sachs, as both characters are genial and paternal but also prone to angry outbursts.
The cast around him are fine and mostly have a background in musical theatre yet there was a believability to the performances that you do not always get for musicals. None had voices to match Bryn Terfel but a couple came close, such as Jordan Simon Pollard as Perchik and Anthony Flaum as Motel the Tailor. Charlotte Harwood (Tzeitel), Katie Hall (Hodel) and Molly Lynch (Chava) were an appealing triumvirate of recalcitrant daughters, and the splendid ensemble of principals was completed by nuanced performances from Janet Fullerlove as Golde, Rebecca Wheatley as Yente the Matchmaker and Cameron Blakely as Lazar Wolf the Butcher. They were wonderfully supported by the spirited chorus of Grange Park Opera and the splendid BBC Concert Orchestra. It is unlikely the music of Fiddler has ever sounded so good before and their young energetic conductor, David Charles Abell, deserves great credit for this. I wonder if it was him or the original orchestrator, Don Walker, or Jerry Bock’s music that is responsible for the direct quote from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman which we hear at the start of the overture to Act II. Whoever it is, it is there and perhaps links Tevye to Wagner’s ‘Wandering Jew of the ocean’. Finally, it would be too easy to overlook the extremely accomplished Houcheng Kian as The Fiddler whose virtuosity is often needed to help link one scene to the next.
Grange Park Opera therefore do not seem to stint on musical values and neither did the production we saw suffer either. Antony McDonald’s staging treated the musical with reverence and obvious affection. It was straightforward and traditional in every sense. His wooden sets and Gabrielle Dalton’s detailed costumes very convincingly represented a slightly down-at-heel 1905 Russian shtetl and there was some suitably energetic choreography from Lucy Burge particularly for Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding. Was I alone in seeing some Tim Burtonesque moments in some of the imagery especially when Tevye recounts his Fruma Sarah ‘nightmare’?
This Fiddler on the Roof is not to be missed! I am only sorry that I cannot get back to Grange Park Opera this summer as their season also includes La bohème, Eugene Onegin and Samson et Dalila but I do hope to get back there again next year.
For full details of Grange Park Opera’s season see http://www.grangeparkopera.co.uk.