Opera North’s Ensemble Fanciulla

15 Mar

Opera North seems to be the UK company that has the nearest to an ensemble.  By that, I mean a group of singers who work together frequently and who you can see in a number of roles as the season goes on.  It must give an edge to a company – giving confidence to its performances and some sort of loyalty.  This struck me particularly at the performance of La fanciulla del West which I saw on 14th March at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.  Here the three leads and all of the minor roles were Opera North regulars and this must have helped the performance.

I have mixed feelings about Fanciulla.  The first act, in particular, strikes me as over long and taking time to get going.  It’s difficult to get a handle on who the minor characters are and I’m not sure that it matters if you don’t succeed.  The second and third acts are pure, enjoyable hokum with Puccini ratcheting up the tension very professionally and, with some good arias, actually almost making these quite unattractive characters sympathetic.  It improves as it goes on and, if it’s not on the same level as his earlier pieces, makes a pretty jolly evening.

Opera North did it very nicely indeed.  I very much liked Giles Cadle’s set – nicely suggesting the milieu and I liked the very slightly tongue in cheek videos – a desert landscape with shadows of people coming up to the bar or Minnie’s cabin.  I wasn’t sure that it was the sort of landscape that would see a lot of snow and I assume that the very large full moon while snow was falling was meant to be a joke.  In some ways, it’s that sort of opera.  Aletta Collins directed it absolutely straight, telling the story clearly, allowing the emotions to be felt.

The cast was good.  I found Alwyn Mellor slightly strident as Minnie at first and wasn’t sure that she was finding it easy to get the character.  She warmed up significantly by the end and did her last number very convincingly indeed.  Rafael Rojas looked like a convincing bandit chief and sang really nicely – perhaps at the Royal Opera House you would need a bigger voice but this was a very nicely acted, beefily sung performance and he managed to be touching in his Act III aria.  Robert Hayward made a great, brooding, hulking Rance.  The role suits him as well as the many that he’s done here and he suggested the intense introversion and despair that characterised his Scarpia here.  The was a towering, memorable performance.

Graeme Danby as Ashby, Bonaventura Bottone as Nick and the rest gave committed, strong performances.  Richard Farnes conducted securely – the piece flowed nicely, tension was kept up and the orchestra was on good form.

This was a very enjoyable, home team performance and, if it didn’t quite match Opera North’s greatest evenings, it showed them at their best – a committed, dramatic performance by a good cast.  The shame was that the Theatre Royal wasn’t packed out for it.  Where have Newcastle’s opera lovers gone?

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