Archive | March, 2017

ETO’s Patience

11 Mar

Patience may not be the best known of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas but it’s near the top of my list of favourites and it was great to see that English Touring Opera had chosen it as their first ever G&S piece.  I caught its second performance at the Hackney Empire on 10th March.

It’s an interesting piece in their canon.  It’s probably the most directly satirical of a particular idea.  It’s also one of the few without an obvious romantic couple and, for that reason, may be probably Gilbert’s finest libretto.  You don’t have to have seen Topsy Turvy to suspect that he probably had a deep cynicism about romantic love and this, piece, with barely a sympathetic character in it enable him to poke fun at ideas, at pomposity at self-indulgence – which is what he did best.

I’m very, very fond of Sullivan’s score.  There’s a lot of really beautiful music here: from the simply gorgeous opening interesting to that rather gorgeous sextet, I hear the soft note of the echoing voice, and the teasing Long years ago, it’s all glorious stuff.  Perhaps, however, it shows more than most the way in which Sullivan undermines Gilbert’s satire by producing music that is absolutely serious.  I find this tension one of the most interesting things about their partnership.

This was a very good performance of it, indeed.  It was a joy to read Timothy Burkes’s appreciation of the score in his programme note.  He conducted it with love, perhaps with a slightly gentler edge to it than, say, Mackerras or even Isidore Godfrey for the old D’Oyly Carte, but the music sounded as good as it should.

And the cast was excellent.  I hugely enjoyed Lauren Zolezzi’s Patience.  As the one individual with anything like common sense, she caught the intelligence of the character and sang really well: a lovely light soprano who can sing words with taste and spirit – probably the best Patience that I’ve heard.  Bradley Travis played Bunthorne as the heartless, self-indulgent popinjay that he is andmade the most of his arias.  Ross Ramgobin as Grosvenor gave one of the best acting performances that I’ve in Gilbert and Sullivan. His way with the dialogue was incredibly assured and he gave an object lesson in how to make intelligible and funny without guying it.  I was slightly less taken by his voice – there’s a bit of work to be done there.

Valerie Reid made an excellent Lady Jane – notably older than the other ladies, with the right wry sense of humour and she had a nice way with her double bass in Silvered is the raven hair – is there a better example of Sullivan ignoring the sheer nastiness of Gilbert’s text?  Gaynor Keeble was a strong Lady Angela, seconded admirably by Suzanne Fischer as Saphir (Ella was cut – no great loss).

Andrew Slater was as good as you’d hope as Colonel Calverley – managing the two patter songs really well and maintaining just the right element of bemused outsrage.  Aled Hall didn’t make as much of the Duke as he could have done and I’ve heard more lyrical singing.  Chorus and orchestra were excellent and this was a really excellent, loving, musical performance.

Liam Steel directed.  It was a firmly traditional production: set in that Victorian/aesthetic/pre-Raphaelite look that, doubtless, Gilbert intended.  I enjoyed the alert direction of the dialogue and the words (even if there were rather more glitches about those than you’d expect at this performance).  There were lots of deft touches (Patience seemed the only person able to lift anything) and there was pelnty of fun with flowers.  This was a production which would not upset anyone who thought that D’Oyly Carte, c. 1960 was the acme of perfection.  And, on its own terms it was really enjoyable.  I was smiling throughout and enjoying the opportunity to see the opera again.

And yet I had doubts.  If you’d never seen G&S before, would you think that this was an outstanding example of their wit and satire?  Did the business and moves not look a bit like what you’d get from a very good school or amateur performance?  There are enough example of pretension and fatuousness in our time for this piece to have much greater resonance than it did here.  You can also, I think, be a bit more outrageous with You hold yourself like this. I enjoyed it because I love the piece and, I suspect, there are enough people  who feel the same way for this to be a success.  But don’t you need a bit more; a bit more flair and brilliance to persuade people that this isn’t a museum piece of limited interest.  I was sitting next to a ten or eleven year old boy with his parents.  I really wondered if there was enough there to engage him  (I don’t think there was).  A more modern approach might have been even more fun.

That’s the only cavil.  On its own terms, it’s a lovely, intelligent, musically delightful performance. Anyone who enjoys G&S, let alone Patience, will love it and I do hope ETO decide to do some more.  We’re crying out for Iolanthe.







Video Hansel and Gretel

5 Mar

Opera North’s third fairy tale opera of their spring season is Hansel and Gretel I caught it at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 4th March.

I’m not a great fan of Hansel and Gretel.  The music’s sumptuous but it does feel awfully heavy for the fairy tale and also for the very simple text.  These days, particularly, people tend to impose a layer of social commentary on to it as well and I’m not sure that the piece really bears it.  I’ve never got the idea that it provides a profoundly moving experience.

I had some sympathy with a woman in the audience who complained that she wanted a traditional production.  I have never seen one and it made me think that one of the problems opera faces is the lack of productions like, say, the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker which some audiences want to see because they provide a fantastic entertainment. There’s a place for those heavy with social commentary, but maybe you don’t want to see them that often.

Anyway, Edward Dick’s production set the piece firmly in modern day Britain.  Hansel and Gretel live in a tower block on a council estate. Their parents put together cheap, pound-shop type goods.  They still have a video camera and spend most of the first scene filming each other – projected on the wall at the back.  Instead of dashing out to find strawberries, they sneak off to their bedroom and, once the parents have gone, return and use the plastic Christmas trees and other goods to create a forest, again projected on the wall, looking very convincing.  The Sandman is a Mrs Doubtfire-like woman who brings a huge teddy bear for them to sleep with.  The angel sequence is of her taking them on a trip to the seaside where they guzzle food and do all the things children like to do there.

They wake up to find the fridge full of food – projected onto the walls.  The witch uses an egg whisk to cast her spell.  After the oven explodes, the curtain drops and rises again to the flat decorated for Christmas and the children there.  Apart from the that curtain drop, you couldn’t fault the technical ingenuity and ability to find solutions to the challenges of a single set.

And yet, the more I think about it, the less satisfactory it seems or at least the less clear it was.  Were the children making some sort of video of the story?  How far was it fantasy and how far intended to be reality.  Dick created the poverty and the sheer desperation of the first act really well and then, for me, failed to carry it through.  How did the leap to the Christmas celebrations happen?  The witch’s magic doesn’t sit that well with the modern setting.  What was there to frighten them about in the “forest”.  The very rural fear of the forest doesn’t translate to an inner city – or didn’t here.  I thought there were just too many loose ends.  Maybe he needed a different translation (David Pountney’s very decent one was used).

The cast was good and did the roles so well that they almost hid the problems with the overall conception.  Fflur Wyn was a fine, bossy Gretel.  Katie Bray a really convincing, boyish Hansel – acting absolutely superbly and looking like a ten-year old.  Both sang nicely, though towards the end you realised what a heavy sing these roles are.

Susan Bullock doubled Mother and Witch and was great as both, catching the Mother’s desperation and nailing the mixture of the comic and sinister as the witch to perfection.  Stephen Gadd was Father – strong singing, fine acting.  You believed in this couple.  Sandman and Dew Fairy struck me as both being a bit under-cast.

Justin Doyle conducted at this performance.  He caught the counterpoint, the symphonic structure of the music and, mostly, didn’t drown the singers.  The orchestra played pretty well for him.

So, for me, this was the least satisfactory of the three evenings.  It still showed Opera North’s enquiring ingenuity and there was a lot to enjoy but I’ve still to be convinced that there’s a way of really making this opera work on a higher level than as a simple fairy tale.

Snow Maiden Revival

4 Mar

It was cheering that there was a pretty full house at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal for its performance of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Snow Maiden on 3rd March.  It was even better that the performance was hugely rewarding.  This must have been the first Rimsky work performed outside London since Scottish Opera’s Golden Cockerel in the late 1970s.  It was also my first chance to see this one staged (I caught the Mariinsky concert at the ROH 17 years ago).

It’s a strange piece.  The story feels very much in the tradition of Dvorak’s Rusalka and explores a distinction between an immortal/natural world and that of human beings.  You probably have to be far more steeped in Russian culture to really get it, but there are surely things in this piece that we can relate to: a desire for the unattainable, an outsider at the mercy of others.  It’s a rather horrible story of a maiden who will die if she falls in love – and she makes all the men fall in love with her and causes havoc in the land.  She does fall in love and dies.

I thought John Fulljames’s production made a really good stab at the piece.  The humans work in a sewing factory creating clothes that are suitable for the season.  He aptly shows the chaos that the Snow Maiden causes when she arrives.  He deftly associates the arrival of spring with sex and, for the final chorus after Snow Maiden’s death, the factory starts producing children’s outfits.  It’s rather touching.

His direction of the characters is great: he gets clear, believable acting from his cast.  Giles Cadle’s set does well enough and there are some lovely projected effects.  Maybe there was a bit much clutter on the stage – cardboard boxes, ladders, sewing machines.  I would have liked bit less of this.  But the story was clearly and touchingly told.  There were some lovely, witty touches and I had the sense of someone engaging affectionately with this rather lovely piece. You actually empathised with the characters and their dilemmas.  Alistair Middleton’s clear, sensible translation helped a lot here.

I’d not remembered how glorious Rimsky’s music is, particularly as the piece goes on.  The sheer variety of the textures and rhythmic changes are gorgeous.  The orchestra, conducted by Leo McFall, was on very good form indeed – not quite Gergiev and the Marii.  The horns were rich, the percussion glittered and the woodwind was sinuous and warm.  It worked well with the production.

The cast was very young but really good.  I very much enjoyed Aiofe Miskelly’s clear, pure voice in the title role and she made a very sympathetic figure.  I wonder if there’s a coldness here that she hasn’t quite found (or wasn’t encouraged to find): this is a figure who is, at best, ambivalent. Elin Prichard contrasted nicely with her as Kupava, the human love interest and seized the lively, vigorous aspects of it.  The point where she’s jilted by Mizgir was funny and angry – just right.

As Lel, the boyish singer,Heather Lowe displayed a really lovely mezzo.  She’ll be a lovely Cherubino and, in time, Charlotte.  She sang strongly, intensely, fervently and acted confidently.  I hope that all three of these young singers come back.  They’re hugely promising.

Philip Rhodes as Mizgir has the least grateful role (and had to spend an awful lot of the time bound and gagged) and I’m not sure that his grainy baritone is completely suited to the role, but he sang intensely.  I rather look forward to hearing him as Anckarstrom next season.

Of the more experienced members, Yvonne Howard was a touching, clear Spring who did her Act IV aria very well, James Creswell was reliable as Winter and Bonaventura Bottone was rather fatuous, Prince Charles-ish Tsar.

The reviews have been a bit dim for this opera.  Maybe the show’s coalesced a bit as the run has gone on, but I thought this was a lovely, thoughtful, musically strong production of an opera that deserves to be seen more.

Cenerentola charms

3 Mar

Opera North’s new Cenerentola begins in Don Magnifico’s dancing school.  During the overture, we see him giving a lesson to some ghastly-looking children.  I started giggling happily at Henry Waddington’s preening, not-too corpulent Magnifico going through his paces after about three seconds and the smile remained on my face for the remainder of the evening at the performance I saw that Newcastle’s Theatre Royal on 2nd March.

Aletta Collins’s production manages to be witty and touching in the right places and gets as close to the heart of the piece as any other that I’ve seen.  It would be easy to think that this was just a neatly choreographed romp were it not for the tenderness of the Ramiro/Angelina duet, for the sheer nastiness of the way Magnifico and the sisters treated Angelina and for the happiness of the ending.  Her take on the opera uses Giles Cadle’s unit set really effectively, moving from dancing school to backstage at the ball really cleverly and without making you feel short-changed.  It’s possible to take this opera too seriously and I thought Collins got the balance spot-on.

Just as important, this was a slick, happy show that kept its audience engaged and where the cast was alert and intelligent.  It felt as though they were having a lot of fun.

This went a long way to overcome the fact that, on occasion, the cast was pretty stretched by Rossini’s savage writing.  There were two very good performances from the leads.  Wallis Giunta has a lovely, gentle mezzo and the waif-like figure that the role needs.  She’s an appealing actress.  Her tuning wasn’t always completely spot on, but she managed the bravura finale (together with dance movements) really impressively.  I think we’ll hear more of her.

Sunnyboy Dladla has a light, Florez-ish voice that suits the music well.  The top notes didn’t seem to be a problem and he sang with real taste and expressiveness and acted really intelligently.  I don’t know how far his voice would work in larger houses but here it sounded like an answer to Opera North’s bel canto tenor prayers.  Any chance of some Donizetti/Bellini revivals with him please?

Quirijn de Lang doesn’t strike me as a natural Rossini baritone.  The florid passages made you realise exactly how difficult they are.  But he’s a smashing performer.  He did the entrance number beautifully – very nervous in disguise indeed, hands, shaking with the coloratura and his confidence built up quickly.  His acting was alert and witty.

Henry Waddington made a really good Magnifico, vain, nasty and utterly self centred.  He is a great comedian and was just as monstrous as he ought to be.  He sang it with absolute confidence.  Sky Ingram and Amy J Payne had a lovely time as his daughters – very funny and nasty.

John Savournin was a splendid Alidoro.  He’s a natural stage performer – alert, able to express stuff simply by raising an eyebrow.  The director had him firmly in control of the action.  He also sang pretty well including and made as good a job of La del ciel as you could hope for.

The chorus were on good form and had lots of fun as photographers, make up artists, waiters etc.  The orchestra was less so with some rather lax playing.  Derek Cowan conducted lightly and looked after his singers well.  He caught the wit in the score.  I enjoyed the music.

The score was sensitively cut – quite a lot of recitative was missing, as was one of Magnifico’s arias.  Neither was an unbearable loss and we were out in just over two hours 30 with the show never having felt remotely too long.

I’m not saying that this clever, economical, happy show would necessarily go down well at classier addresses, but it made for a happy, honest, hugely enjoyable evening.  It’s well worth catching.  Not a bad introduction to opera for children either – they’re doing a matinee on Saturday.

A Tale of Januarie: Operatic irrelevance

2 Mar


Julian Philips’s new opera, The Tale of Januarie, which I saw at the Guildhall on 1st March is undoubtedly the first opera with a libretto allegedly in Middle English.  Before getting into the merits of the piece and the performance, I think it’s worth asking some questions about that.

Let me quote from the programme: the opera constitutes the Guildhall School’s contribution to the [Arts & Humanities Research Council funded…] programme’s translingual strand which seeks to promote Opera in a contemporary cultural context, generating dialogue and debate around the form within the school’s existing and well-established audience community.  With its Middle English libretto, the project hopes to heighten audience sensitivity to language in opera, whilst also allowing for a sharing of aesthetic practice both within the context of Guildhall composition programmes but also in its strategic partnership with the Royal Opera House…”  This is the sort of mixture of pretentious pseudo-academic speak and corporate jargon that instantly raises my hackles.  Is that really what opera has descended to these days: a vehicle for academic discussion?

Earlier on, the authors talk as if comprehending the words in opera has always been a problem.  I think that needs to be debunked.  There are some operas which were written for audiences who would not understand the language (Handel’s and some of Mozart’s spring to mind) but most composers wrote operas where the words were meant to be heard and understood.  And listening to recordings, combined with recollection and, indeed, the experience of The Winter’s Tale two days ago, suggests that it is very possible to do so.  While undoubtedly some people think that opera “sounds better” in a language they don’t understand, what are you hoping to achieve, if you think that the story is at all important, by setting the piece explicitly in a language that makes it less comprehensible?

I know that surtitles are universal but doesn’t it admit defeat from the start to write something which is intended to be witty, where the laughs depend on an audience reading the surtitles?

In any case, the experience here was strange.  The Middle English certainly wasn’t pronounced the way I was taught to pronounce it: it sounded like an uneasy mixture of 21st century vowels, with some unfamiliar words and formations.  Middle English-lite, I’d say.  What sort of contribution to the debate do you make if you write in a language and then encourage people to mispronounce it?

Oh dear, maybe I’ve just been contributing to an academic debate.  Better get on with the opera itself.

The plot is a good one about an elderly knight who marries a much younger woman and is cuckolded by his servant: good scope for comic scenes and, as happened, a rather touching ending.   Philips and his librettist Stephen Plaice add bits of local colour, choruses about the seasons and gods (Pluto and Proserpine) commenting on and providing something of a counter-point to the story.  It reminds me slightly of the part played by the chorus in Gloriana or the ballets in an opera by Rameau and it feels consciously archaic.  The episodes also go on far too long: one in particular where Proserpine’s nymphs tease Priapus (a sort of bawdy narrator figure) made me lose the will to live.  It’s not an especially long opera, but I felt that the local colour elements held things up and took time away from greater elaboration on the characters themselves.  The presentation felt about relevant and interesting as Merrie England.

And opportunities seemed to be missed.  Couldn’t you broaden out the opportunities for exploring the Damyan/May relationship?  For saying more about the Damyan/May relationship.  And there’s an episode where Damyan has problems with a key where the poor guy has nothing to sing at all and the mugging has to come entirely from the direction with no musical or verbal assistance at all.

Philips’s music adds to the archaisms by including medieval bagpipes, recorders and nods towards Machaut and other sort-of contemporary composers. Juxtaposed with an orchestra of sixty and a gently late 20th century easy idiom.  It’s all inoffensive and pleasant enough to listen to but with anything that stops you in your tracks or makes you come out with music lodged in your mind.

There are some effective moments: the love making of Januarie and May is quite amusing in a vulgar, carry-on sort of way.  The last scene with the dead Januarie is quite touching and there’s some grateful music to sing.  Philips’s music is confident and accomplished with nothing to stop you in the tracks or lodge in your mind.

It was done outstandingly.  Dominic Wheeler conducted clearly and the orchestra played superbly.  The chorus were excellent and the singing uniformly good.  Everyone has pointed out John Findon’s commanding performance as Januarie – and he’s very good indeed and makes a convincing old man.  His tenor is strong – ideal for Britten, I would say.  There is some lovely singing from Joanna Marie Skillet as May, Elizabeth Skinner as Proserpine (both displaying gorgeous creamy voices), Dominic Sedgwick (a bit wasted) as Damyan, the love interest and Martin Haessler as Pluto.  These were superbly committed performances.

Martin Lloyd Evans’s production was set firmly in a medieval never, never land while Dick Bird’s sets and costumes created a Breughel-ish picture that had been very firmly dry-cleaned.  The direction was sound enough without ever making the work feel exciting or interesting.

So it made a pleasant enough, unchallenging, unmemorable evening.  I don’t think I’ve ever though opera so irrelevant.  This is what happens when academics get hold of it.