London City Opera, formerly Crystal Clear Opera,
has for many years had the laudable aim of making opera available, understandable
and affordable to all, and I am sure that if I still lived in the wilds
of rural Northumberland I should be suitably grateful for their existence,
but whether or not they should be performing in London, even during
the doldrums of the post-Christmas season, is highly debatable.
This production, previously seen in such venues as
Lincoln's Theatre Royal, is very simple in conception, based mainly
around sliding screen doors and some pesky slatted screens, and it is
very beautifully lit in shades of apricot, azure and rose, colours which
also form the basis of the pretty costumes. Movement and acting are
basic and amiably carried out, but without any special distinction.
The Crystal Clear Orchestra play well under Stuart Stratford's direction,
managing to make the most of their very limited numbers; string playing
was particularly noteworthy, with some success at suggesting the vigorous
romantic sweep of Puccini's score.
A review of the performance at Wolverhampton's Grand
Theatre suggested that this "Madam Butterfly" is a nice gentle introduction
for anyone who isn't sure whether or not they like opera; the problem
is, that this kind of grand romantic opera really needs great voices,
or at least voices which have a youthful potential to soar, and with
one exception, no such voices were on display on this evening. So much
depends upon Cio-Cio-San herself, and Fiona O'Neill was, to put
it kindly, unlikely to win any competition for the "most credible impersonator
of a girl of 'quindici'anni'..." since both her voice and presence are
matronly, and her acting suggested self - confidence rather than delicacy.
Her voice is a capable one, but lacking in warmth and sweetness, and
her 'Vogliatemi bene' failed to move me, as did her "Un bel di," after
which she indulged in some unnecessarily diva-ish gestures.
Her Pinkerton was the graceful ex-dancer Antoni
Garfield Henry, who made as much as he could of this ungrateful
role, whilst never suggesting that one might wish to hear him in other,
more rewarding parts. Kate Woolveridge made a sensible,
credible Suzuki, her unaffected stage presence and rich mezzo providing
much of the pleasure of the evening. The undoubted star of the production
was the Sharpless, Jonathan Gunthorpe, the one singer
on stage with a really impressive operatic voice; he is also a gifted
actor who made the role completely credible as well as singing it with
some distinction. His voice is soft-grained yet gives hints of darker
tones, and some of his phrasing reminded me of Norman Bailey's style;
he is clearly a baritone to watch.
A full house received the performance with what might
best be described as modified rapture, and I am sure that it has been,
and will be, appreciated more gratefully in areas where there is less
competition; that being said, it does the mainstream houses no harm
to be reminded that one does not always need to pay large sums to hear
respectable singing and see a credible though hardly life-enhancing