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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.

Powerful Opera North Billy Budd

4 Nov

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad performance of Billy Budd.  Rather like Janacek, which is slightly dodgy box office, you have to want to do it.  Opera North’s latest production, which I saw at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal on 3 September is no exception and was, indeed, one of the two or three most shattering that I’ve seen.

The central performance here was Alan Oke’s Vere which, for me, eclipsed Philip Langridge.  I will not forget the sheer agony that he conveyed during and after the trial – something which turned him from the academic, rather remote figure into someone who had to engage in life and death and who got it wrong.  At that moment, you realised that the opera is about Vere and his journey.  The picture of him sitting, awkwardly askew, face line with doubt and sadness is one of the most haunting that I’ve seen.  Oke sang beautifully, the words clear, perfectly weighted, sounding not unlike Pears.  I’m not saying that it would come across so strongly in a larger theatre – it sounded to me as though he was tiring towards the end – but that isn’t the point.  It was a riveting, moving performance that, quite rightly, led to a moment’s silence at the end.

The rest were pretty good too.  The problem with Billy Budd is that people tend to cast it with young singers who aren’t always ready musically for it.  Roderick Williams still has the looks in spades to convey the youth, enthusiasm and charisma of the role combined with the vocal experience to do it musical justice.  I don’t think I’ve heard the role sung more simply before: the scene in the darbies was simply him with the thoughts coming out spontaneously, softly, effortlessly.  It’s an original, un-operatic, absolutely direct approach and I found myself listening and following as rarely before.  Again, the intimate theatre helped.

Alastair Miles was Claggart.  He sang it magnificently: the darkness of the voice is ideal and he sings the words clearly, incisively.  Vocally it’s ideal casting.  Dramatically, I was slightly less certain.  He has a slightly aristocratic figure and I wasn’t quite sure that he got the sheer vicious thuggishness of the role – having said that, the scene with the novice and with Budd himself were terrifying.  At the confrontation, the smirk on his face, as he stepped forward, goading Budd was outstanding.

Orla Phelan’s production begins in a faded 18th century room with the ship becoming part of that set, as if reminding you that this is Vere’s story.  Leslie Travers’s set is strong, though I think it might have looked a bit less cramped on a larger stage.  Within it she does not shirk the sheer brutality of life on the ship, the worry about mutiny and the fact that the officers are only just able to control the men.  She creates the images, the confrontations beautifully and let’s the work speak for itself.

The other roles are all strongly taken – Peter Savidge predictably fine as Redburn with Callum Thorpe and Adrian Clarke as Ratcliffe and Flint adroitly stressing the social differences between them and Vere.  Oliver Johnston was really good as the novice and Gavan Rang as his friend more than made his mark.  Stephen Richardson got all the cynicism and honesty of Dansker.

It’s not the easiest of operas.  I was aware during the first act that it’s long and that, probably, you could knock ten minutes from it.  The text stands up pretty well, though I have huge problems with the redemption piece at the end: it works because Britten’s music is so persuasive and powerful rather than because of the text.  Garry Walker’s conducting demonstrated the full power of it.  There were times when I think slightly faster tempi might have helped, particularly in the first half.  Elsewhere, however, he built up the climaxes and paced the confrontations as well as you could hope.  The orchestra and chorus were on their very best Ring form.

The second act  for me was one of those experiences where you simply had to let the music and production take you forward and slowly coil up to the climax at the end, watching helplessly at the tragedy and the raw honesty of the performances.  At the end, I felt wrung out, shattered as you should after this opera.  It may not quite match my memories of Graham Vick’s Scottish Opera production in the 1980s or the sheer imagination of Alden’s for ENO but this got the power of this marvellous opera and left you shaken, thoughtful and moved.  Please go.

Normal service resumed

17 Sep

I’m sorry that I’ve been silent recently.  No good reason for it beyond idleness.  The opera going certainly didn’t tail off.  Anyway, autumn has begun and it’s time to get back to writing.  I thought I’d use this blog to as a catch up, before doing some separate entries on the more recent activity.

I left a quarter of the way through the Opera North Ring.  It was a fabulous achievement for Richard Farnes and his orchestra, for Kelly Coe Hogan as Brunnhilde, Mats Almgren as Fafner and Hunding, Andrew Foster-Williams as Gunther and Jo Pohlheim  as Alberich and, above all, for Opera North that managed to produce a convincing, fascinating and gloriously played cycle.  Of course there were flaws – neither Siegfried was ideal – and the semi-staging doesn’t tell the full story.  But it left me on one of those unforgettable highs that great Wagner performances do and it demonstrates Opera North’s ability to produce something uniquely special on limited resources.

The Glyndebourne season has been mixed this year.  They revived Melly Still’s rather lacklustre Vixen with lovely conducting from Jakob Hrusa and a splendid Forester from Christopher Purves.  Beatrice et Benedict had all its colour washed out of it by an extraordinary decision by Laurent Pelly to set it in some sort of grey post-war austerity era in boxes.  But there was a glorious performance of Beatrice by Stephanie d’Oustrac and her second Act aria was unforgettably staged as servants slowly moved all the chairs surrounding her, leaving her alone.  It’s a very patchy opera.

Altogether better was the Nozze di Figaro revival which was probably the best of the incarnations of Michael Grandage’s amiable production.  Jonathan Cohen conducted a fizzing, alert, witty and exciting performance from the orchestra and there were lovely performances from Rosa Feola as Susanna, Golda Schultz as the Countess and Gyula Orendt as the Count.  Finally there was a lovely revival of the classic Peter Hall production of Midsummer Night’s Dream with Tim Mead and Kathleen Kim outstanding as Oberon, Elizabeth DeShong luxury casting as Hermia and Matthew Rose very funny as Bottom.  There wasn’t a week link in the cast and the 35 year old production came up as fresh as if it were brand new.

Finally, I ought to give a plug for a performance by Opera della Luna at Wilton’s Music Hall of two Offenbach one-acters: Croquefer and The Island of Tulipatan.  Both are daft, both diverting, both have some gorgeous and witty music and Tulipatan, in particular, is a small masterpiece with at least three numbers that nag away at you for days afterwards.  They were given cheerfully cheap, witty performances that probably weren’t a million miles away from the spirit of the originals.  There was a nice translation, daffy choreography and a particular engaging couple of performance by the tenor Anthony Flaum who, in Tulipatan made everything out of being a very masculine boy brought up as a girl.  It was one of those evening where the life, the enjoyment of the material conveyed itself to the audience and a really lovely time was had by all.

More to come.


Opera North Rheingold

6 Jul

The final complete cycle of Opera North’s much-praised Ring began at the Sage in Gateshead on 5th July.  It’s four years since my last complete Ring and it was high time for another.  On the evidence of this Rheingold it’s not going to be a disappointing week.

I often find Rheingold the hardest work of the four: it’s like a play: political, with dialogues and none of the lyrical love duets or vast monologues of the other operas.  It’s easy to feel, sometimes, that Wagner takes rather a long time as characters circle round each other and use that “hard will you find it O crafty but credulous god/nibelung/giant” formulation before actually getting to the point, while nothing that interesting happens in the music while they’re at it.  In a good performance, however, the politics and the tensions between the characters are fascinating and you begin to pick up the parallels with the sorts of political dilemmas between justice and self-interest, of emotion and intellect that are crucial to the cycle.

Opera North’s approach – an acted concert with images projected on huge screens together with surtitles and a very slightly arch narrative – gives you the essence of the piece and rather more.  The acting and characterisation is as good as you’d get in a full staging.  The closeness of the singers to the audience allows you to savour the words and see the expressions: it’s immediate, you’re not distracted by the additions that most directors feel they need to add and you can form your own ideas from the words and music.

So at this performance, I became aware of the fractured Wotan/Fricka relationship in a way that I’d never quite got before, together with that tension between the gods over how you treat the giants.  And, of course, the more I hear the score, the more I get the interplay of leitmotivs.

There are disadvantages.  There are times when you long for a stronger visual representation of Valhalla, of the Rhine, of the Rainbow bridge, where you would just like more space and more physicality about the performances and a a more concrete interpretation.

And it’s important to be honest that this isn’t a perfect performance.  The orchestral playing had its share of fluffs, the singers aren’t world class.  This Ring is limited by resources and by space.  What isn’t limited is the imagination and enthusiasm and these overcome any doubts.

Richard Farnes is central to this.  He has the orchestra expertly drilled and it makes a thrilling sound.  Those huge climaxes, the details sound glorious.  He paces the climaxes superbly and the playing and consideration to the singers helps you concentrate.  I was never bored or found my mind wandering.  The orchestra doesn’t disappoint.

And it’s a pretty good cast.  Only Michael Druiett makes a vocally dull Wotan, at the limits of his range and without the nobility of sound and sheer arrogance that you ideally want from a Wotan.  He manages, he’s acceptable, but I wanted a little more.

Otherwise, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacker is an outstanding, I would say world-class, Loge.  He seizes the dramatic opportunities, creating a cynical, dislikeable, but also sympathetic character.  His clear tenor sounds perfect for the role.  I loved the way he gentle played with the red handkerchief, representing the dead Fasolt, at the end.  Here was a Loge completely in control.

Jo Pohlheim was a powerful, clear Alberich.  Maybe I’d have liked a bit more intensity in the curse but he caught the craving for power and wealth and the hatred of the gods. Richard Roberts made a clear, servile Mime.

The other gods were strong: Yvonne Howard’s sensible, rather sad Fricka, Giselle Allen’s gorgeously sung, frightened Freia – personally, I wouldn’t have let Wotan near my golden apples after that experience.  Mark le Brocq and Andrew Foster-Williams were fine as Froh and Donner.  Perhaps I could do with a slightly darker, firmer mezzo than Ceri Williams’s for Erda, but she knew absolutely what her episode was about.

James Creswell made a clear, almost sympathetic Fasolt and Mats Almgren an ideally dark Fafner – the by-play between the two was marvellously clear and perhaps the only way in which costumes and a full staging might have helped could have been to accentuate the fact that the giants are, surely, rather terrifyingly powerful and have a strength that the gods just don’t.  Good, strong Rhinemaidens too.

A really good start.



Compelling Cosi from Opera North

5 Mar

Tim Albery has had the monopoly on Cosi fan tutte at Opera North for the last fifteen years or so.  His first, with designs by Martin Howland, in 1997 had a set that slowly collapsed in the Act I finale.  His second has designs by Tobias Hoheisel and I caught its third outing at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 4th March.

Albery is back to rehearse it with an entirely new cast and this performance had the freshness and questioning that you’d expect in a brand new production.  He portrays it as an experiment by Don Alfonso – the women are in a vast 18th century camera and the action takes place there.  At the end, Alfonso is left alone in there while the lovers have escaped outside.  It is as if he has helped them grow up.

Costumes, rather like Anthony Besch’s Scottish Opera production begin in greys, the officers and girls not too easily distinguishable.  As the opera goes on the colours become more vibrant, characters more distinctive.  Unlike Besch, these people do not revert to convention and the monochrome at the end, but are traumatised, unable to relate to each other.  Both readings work.

The direction of the singers was alert and truthful.  Despina had her doubts about joining Alfonso’s plots – persuaded by money. Ferrando’s love for Dorabella was as palpable as I’ve ever seen in Un aura amorosa – sung directly to Alfonso, who was looking distinctly guilty at this point.  At the end, the lovers hadn’t a clue who was in love with whom.  You sensed that both Alfonso and Despina had had some bad experiences in the past.  You followed the emotions like a play.

The cast is very strong indeed.  Nicholas Watts is stretched to his limits by some of Ferrando’s music, but the sheer intelligence of it and his committed acting made you over look the occasional shortness of breath.  Gavan Ring is a glorious Guglielmo: it’s a splendid, rich voice and he created a fine, impulsive character.

Maire Flavin was an outstandingly good Fiordiligi: she caught the conflict between what she knew to be right and the temptations offered by Dorabella and Despina.  I thought that her singing of both Come scoglio and Per pieta was glorious and she caught the conflict marvellously.  Helen Sherman was rather more anonymous as Dorabella, but she sang well and acted alertly.

William Dazeley was a really strong Alfonso – nasty, certain, in command and really strongly sung.  Ellie Laugharne’s Despina was also excellent – just the right mixture of seriousness and lightness and I thought she sang both arias really well – much more than the usual soubrette.

The piece was sung in English with excellent diction from the men, less clear from the women but, above all, there was the sense that you were following a play in which what happened was natural and true.

Jac van Steen conducted – fast tempi for the overture and for Soave sia il vento – I think he could have allowed that to breathe a bit more.  He slowed down later.  Orchestra was generally pretty good.

Great to see pretty full house for this and an audience that was patently enjoying and engaging with the wonderful opera.  You left disturbed, exhilarated and admiring the sheer genius of Mozart and da Ponte in creating an opera that, even after 28 visits, can still reveal more.