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Seen and Heard Opera Review
WELSH NATIONAL OPERA ON TOUR North Wales Theatre, Llandudno. October 18 - 22.10.2005 (RJF)
The WNO autumn season
features two new productions, Don Carlos and
The Merry Widow together with a revival of the 1986
Barber of Seville for which the original producer, Giles
Havergal, has returned to refresh his original conception.
Normally, the company leaves
highlight of the current WNO season, and perhaps even of the
British opera season altogether, was the new Don Carlos.
It was not merely that it was sung in French, but it was also
performed with the various additions Verdi excised, albeit
reluctantly, before the premiere in 1867, in order to facilitate
Parisians' transport home. Furthermore, the tauter scena between
Rodrigue and the King from the
The updating of the costumes in this production (which had Don Carlos looking as if he had been to the charity shop in Act I) was even more of a mish mash. Carlos is the Infante of Spain after all, and when he meets Elisabeth, in her appropriately regal dress, she could easily have been forgiven for thinking him a woodsman. Similarly, Rodrigue is described in the libretto as a ‘Grandee of Spain’, but he was required to spend most of his evening looking like a cowboy on a night out. And as to the chorus in the auto da fé scene, their ‘costumes’ could easily have passed muster in the average Cardiff nightclub on any weekend over the past five years.
Production and costumes apart however, I can forgive quite a lot if the singing, orchestral playing and choral contributions to a performance are adequate, and they were certainly better than that on this occasion. The new Elisabeth, Greek-born Sofia Mitropoulos who shares the role with Nuccia Focile, sang with good colour, variation of strength and a steady legato throughout. Her acting might have been more characterfulhowever: she was somewhat too aloof from her ‘son’ and husband, and she should surely have shown Carlos more affection in the last scene, where her rendering of the long aria, known in the Italian version as Tu che le vanita, was vocally everything that could be hoped for.
Other vocal highlights of the production were the scene between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, sung with power and nuance by Daniel Sumegi. Paul Charles Clarke as Carlos showed he could sing softly as well as strongly and just needs to caress the phrases a little more often to equal the expressivenes of his wife, Nuccia Focile, the Elisabeth in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Scott Hendricks as Rodrigue sang strongly in his duets with Carlos and held his own against the powerful tones of Andrea Silvestrelli’s Philippe in their meeting; his singing and death in Act 4 was sensitive with well-supported line, smooth legato and a wide range of expression.
Sadly, expressiveness was also lacking in much of Guang Yang’s Eboli, although she sang a fine O don fatal et détesté. The chorus sang superbly and Carlo Rizzi drew fine playing from the orchestra; he has a natural feel for Verdi, even though his interpretation was more Italianate than French, especially when compared with Bertrand De Billy’s realisation of Verdi’s original intentions recorded in Vienna in 2004 on the recently issued Orfeo label CD.
The staging of The Merry Widow with its inclusion of extensive dialogue, has already come in for much criticism particularly in the London press. By the time the production reached Llandudno, the timing of cast interactions was spot on, which made the first act somewhat less of a chore than I had expected. The producers (Caurier and Leiser) could usefully have reduced the many comings and goings a little, but with the benefit of Donald Maxwell’s stage experience as Zeta, the action certainly never ground to a halt. It was a pity though that Maxwell's india-rubber face was so whiskered; his capacity for facial expression usually enlivens even the most turgid proceedings. The singing of Tracey Welborn and Jeffrey Black was generally poor although the latter played his part well and Welborn’s portrayal was unoubtedly hindered by the height difference between him and Ailish Tynan’s nicely sung and acted Valencienne.
In Llandudno, the Widow herself was sung by Naomi Harvey in place of Lesley Garrett. She looked great in the Paris made costumes and moved and acted well with good facial expression and body language. Her singing was slightly stretched in the Vilja lied where her voice needed to open up more in its highest tessitura. That apart, her portrayal was wholly convincing and her timing, dancing and general movement showed off all the benefits of proper rehearsal time well spent. Although the set in Act 2, Hanna’s apartment, was sumptuous, with a view through the windows that was particularly effective and realistic, the Act 3 set at Maxime’s was a bit over the top in respect of simulated sexual activity. Yes, I know that the place was a bordello at the time, but the wall paintings really didn't need to have been so explicit as to debar them even from Channel 5.
The Barber of Seville production is shared with Opera North. Its conception as a stage within a stage, with chorus members as the stage audience is therefore not new. In the original production there was a great deal of activity during the overture, and elsewhere from this 'audience' and in Opera North's 2004 revival, some of this activity was reduced to the benefit of production and performance. There were even fewer shenanigans in this current revival during the overture, which helped considerably in the full appreciation of Gareth Jones’ shaping of Rossini’s invention and also with later interactions between the singers. Eric Roberts' Doctor Bartolo was a repeat of last year’s at Opera North and he must surely match even the best Italian buffa singers in his interpretation of this role. Every movement of his face or body, none of them superficial or superfluous, matched each vocal nuance and situation in the plot. His timing is simple perfection and the result is that Roberts becomes Bartolo, not merely a singing actor portraying him. Rossini designated the work a Comic Opera not a ‘farse’ however, and although there were times, when Bartolo was on stage, that a touch of farce did creep in, the audience appreciated this consummate portrayal immensely.
A performance and portrayal as good as Roberts' requires reciprocal timing from the other singers and with Andrew Schroeder in the eponymous role, Colin Lee as Almaviva and Daniel Sumegi as Basilio, (all of whom sang with strength and style) and also with Bartolo’s ward Rosina rising to the challenge superbly, this superb Bartolo seemed even better. Owing to Imelda Drumm's indisposition, the young mezzo Arlene Rolph sang Rosina. She looked a peach and produced a wide palette of colour, a secure coloratura and played so perfectly to (and off) Roberts’ Bartolo that she looked as if she had been in the role from the outset of the production.
Arlene Rolph has been an Associate Artist with the company from 2003-2005. The programme gives young entrants to the profession some guaranteed work as well as the benefit of tuition and the 'feel' of the company and is clearly a very successful scheme. The the manner in which Miss Rolph slotted into this production, speaks highly for the programme's virtues as well for as the adequate rehearsal facilities provided for 'understudy' singers at WNO. This Barber performance was easily the highlight of the season in Llandudno and anyone who can catch it during the rest of the tour should go out of their way to do so. I venture to say that it will be a very long time before a comparably well-sung and (and well-acted) version Rossini's masterpiece becomes available in the UK.
Other Associate Artists in this season's productions include Elisabeth Donovan as a rather young looking, but vocally secure, Berta in the Barber, and the particularly elegantly portrayed and strongly sung Thibault of Elisabeth Atherton in Don Carlos. Ailish Tynan of course, was a former member of the Young Artist Programme at Covent Garden. Together, these young singers provide very good evidence indeed for the importance of such training programmes for the future of opera in the UK. They will, hopefully, obviate the current need for WNO and other companies to import so many of their soloists from abroad.
Robert J Farr