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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Malcolm Williamson, Our Man in Havana, soloists, Trinity College of Music Opera Company, Greenwich Theatre, 10th July 2004 (MB)


Novels can, of course, transpose quite successfully to opera. There are, however, those that cause problems in the transition – Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, for example. Graham Greene’s 1958 novel Our Man in Havana, an outrageous satire akin to spoof, strikes me as having similar problems when it comes to creating opera from it. The books undercurrents of typical Greene fare – social snobbery and Catholicism – are certainly there, but so too are elements of imagination, invention, intrigue and farce, difficult things to bring off in an opera. Moreover, the book moves at breakneck speed something it can be difficult to replicate outside the confines of its pages.


The surprise was that Trinity College’s brave – if flawed - production did indeed move swiftly, perhaps helped by the fact that this was a cut version of the opera (it ran some 30 minutes shorter than it should: the mass for Hasselbacher, and his aria, were both absent, for example, the latter particularly unfortunate given the more than accomplished singing of John Savournin in the role.) It was largely a compelling evening, even if the natural break one might expect for an interval was not at the end of Act II but midway through it, something that dissipated tension.


First performed in 1963 at Sadler’s Wells, the opera has had little exposure in this country since (the last performance being at Cochrane Theatre in 1987.) There have also been a handful of productions in Australia and in part it is easy to see why it is so under-performed. It is a challenging score, rhythmically driven with its Cuban habaneras and mock Viennese waltzes, melding music that that recalls both the serialism of Berg and the classicism of Stravinsky. That difficulty was more than transparent in the playing of the orchestra – much reduced, presumably not to overwhelm the voices – and the problems they encountered in trying to bring life to Williamson’s invention. Rhythms, if not clumsy, were brokered with some difficulty, and there was little distinction between Williamson’s challenging balance of orchestration that traverses both the tragedy of the passacaglia and the semi-comedy of the dance.


The vocal writing, too, is a notch or two above the norm. Perhaps most problematical was the high tessitura Williamson wrote for Mrs Weston – notably at the end of Act II where she suddenly realises the extent of Bramble’s (Wormold’s) duplicity. Jennifer Snapes struggled to reach any of her top notes and a loss of diction and clarity was unfortunate. Yet, there were compensations. Telman Guzhevsky’s vacuum-cleaner salesman turned spy brought considerable power to his tenor voice and evidently feels comfortable at the top of his range. Often his tone rang beautifully and a decent legato is already there, but at the bottom of the register and when singing pianissimo (which admittedly Williamson does not utilise often) the voice is uneven. In a very different league is the baritone John Savournin as Dr Hasselbacher. Here is an imposing singer with a rich sound and an ability to bring depth of meaning to what he sings. His Act II aria where he reflects on his youth in the German army was sung with considerable maturity, and indeed his assumption of a role considerably older than his years revealed a natural acting ability largely missing from any of the other singers. Both conveyed an unusual care for diction meaning clarity was first rate.


The staging made the most of the difficulties Greenwich Theatre throws at any director. Careful use of lighting – rather than constant scene changes – directed the listener towards the shop and Wonderbar fixed at the stage ends, whilst for the scenes involving the Foreign Office or Hasselbacher’s flat the centre of the stage was used with purposeful effect. The sets were an impressive reproduction of a Batista ruled Havana and there were touches of irony – such as the atomic mushroom illustrating the wonders of the vacuum cleaner – that Greene would have appreciated. One drawback was that the wings of the auditorium were unusually busy with dancers and tourists flocking on stage when needed. Choreography, if stilted (some of the dances seemed very wooden indeed), and decent costumes, brought out the colour of pre-Communist Cuba convincingly (though one did wonder if the young man in ripped jeans who appeared on stage during the street serenade in Act I had forgotten to change.)


Trinity College has a well-established reputation for promoting unusual repertoire (in the past they have staged performances of operas by Virgil Thompson, Diana Burrell and Nino Rota) and it was a brave choice to stage Williamson’s opera, even if one can now confirm it is not a masterpiece of theatricality. Perhaps the comparatively short rehearsal time devoted to these productions needs to be rethought, even if the conviction of all involved never seems to be in doubt. In July 2005 Trinity College will stage the UK premiere of Bernard Hermann’s Wuthering Heights at Hackney Empire. Such an important premiere probably does deserve a little more attention to casting and staging than this worthwhile production of Our Man in Havana was given.


Marc Bridle



Picture caption: John Savournin as Dr Hasselbacher, Helen Jordan as Milly and Telman Guzhevsky as Bramble.



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