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Seen and Heard Opera Review



Opera North On Tour: The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 27.02 - 3.03.2007 (RJF)


For their second tour since returning to their Leeds Grand Theatre home, with its new superb rehearsal facilities and air conditioned theatre, Opera North have taken three productions to their standard touring venues of Nottingham, Salford and Newcastle. The productions include two revivals, The Magic Flute and The Elixir of Love and one new production, Monteverdi’s Orfeo. The latter is considered as seminal in the evolution of opera, being one of the earliest of the genre for which records are extant. First produced in
Mantua in February 1607 its anniversary has stimulated several productions in the U.K. alone.


Mozart and Schikaneder’s pantomime dates from 1791 when Mozart collaborated with his fellow Masonic Lodge member to produce, in The Magic Flute, one of the all time most popular operatic compositions. The demand of any production, and also the singing and orchestral contribution in this opera, is to balance the pantomime with the Masonic allegories evident in the search for ‘truth and wisdom’. The Elixir of Love on the other hand is simpler. It is typical bel canto opera buffa typical of Rossini and Donizetti and many other long forgotten composers of the period. It was the 37th of Donizetti’s sixty-six operas. Premiered at the Canobbiana Theatre, Milan in 1832 it is firmly of the bel canto tradition requiring vocal skills of the highest order from the singers.


Opera North claim no theme or commonality between the three operas of the season and there is no reason that they should. What the three productions do have in common however, is updating in some particular respect, costumes, set or being sung in English. The matter of updating is a contentious issue, some believing that it often goes against the plot or thread of a work. In my view it need not do so and I have seen many fine updated productions. However, if the producer /director/set and costume designer fails to understand the circumstances of the composition, and the nuances of the libretto, it can be ridiculous. This was the case with Opera North’s Rigoletto with which the Company  opened the their refurbished home last October.


Tim Supple’s production of The Magic Flute was first seen at Leeds in April 2003. The set is simple, dateless and at the start of the first act, rather bleak. The focus of an empty stage, with just the three ‘boys’ being present, is a large doorway; perhaps itself an allegory for the access to truth and wisdom. Soon representational hills drop from the fly tower and later, ropes and translucent strands fall across the stage in similar fashion. The latter serve to distinguish the inside of the temple which Tamino eventually seeks to enter and become one of the brethren. In between we meet the first of the major idiosyncrasies of the production. There is no monster for Tamino to fight! Rather, a barefooted figure with white hair, in what looks like a nightdress appears carrying a knife to attack him. Later it becomes evident that this is none other than The Queen of the Night the foe of Sarastro, her former partner and holder of the secrets of the brethren. Normally night is darkness and Mozart’s queen is in black. This queen is not only too touchy feely physically involved but also gives the impression of vulnerability rather than being imperious as would normally impress Tamino and Pamina. Elsewhere, I could not quite work out the workmen’s orange costumes but found no problem about the other leading singers in modern dress or that of the distinctive red scarves to distinguish the brethren.


The Magic Flute makes heavy demands on the number of first class singers it needs. If I say that this production was cast from strength in this respect that is not to say all was perfect. Ed Lyon as Tamino was tentative in his portrait aria; a little husky of tone and with an edge to the voice, he lacked a honeyed head voice to caress the phrases. That hurdle over, he went from strength to strength, his voice opening with power and plenty of expression. His acting too was convincing, as was that of the rest of the cast. The three ‘boys’ - at least one was a girl - were excellent, singing with power and moving and acting with conviction. In this respect the Three Ladies, with Camilla Roberts being particularly impressive, matched them. The tall Chester Patton was a physically imposing as Sarastro and seemed to tower over the diminutive Pamina. He had to reach somewhat for his lowest notes and his vocal range was not wholly even throughout. None the less his sympathetic acting and impressive stage presence overcame any minor reservation. As Sarastro’s nemesis, Penelope Randall-Davies had a more difficult job in putting over the role due both to her totally unsuitable costume and the physical involvement required of her with the other singers. Her Act II Der Hölle Rache was distinctly better sung than O zitt’re nicht where her coloratura divisions were sketchy. The Speaker of the rotund Keel Watson and Charne Rochford's Priest of were well sung in both tone and expression whilst the tall and lithe Andrew Clarke, a real black man Monostatos, made his intentions towards Pamina very obviously carnal, especially when he returned stripped to his tight fitting underpants!


I have left the very best until last in respect of the consummately acted and sung Papageno of Roderick Williams and the Pamino of the Japanese born, Paris trained, Norika Urata. Petite of size, Miss Urata sang with fine legato, clear diction and a wide variety of colour and modulation. Her natural stage presence and convincing acting made her portrayal of one of Mozart’s great lyric soprano roles a particular delight. Her odd moment of accent difficulty in the spoken dialogue was no more a disadvantage than that of the American accents heard. Over forty years ago, I heard a baritone called Thomas Allen sing Papageno for WNO. It was not long after his stage debut and sung, like this performance, in English. He illuminated the role with his superb singing and acting to which he added topical jokes in his native North East, ‘Geordie’ accent. In the intervening years I have seen and heard many baritones as Papageno, but until this performance by Roderick Williams I have not seen that portrayal by Tom Allen matched. Williams is a natural stage animal, moving with grace and letting his face and body match the words and emotions of what he is singing. I have admired both his Don Giovanni and Ned Keene for Opera North but this sung and acted portrayal was a quantum leap from those fine achievements. His voice is full toned, even and used with naturalness. Whether it will grow to fill the largest theatres I do not know. But with careful self-management, like his illustrious predecessor, he has a secure future ahead of him and which may take him to some of the best addresses.


Musically the orchestra played well under Paul McGrath who lacked some lightness in his interpretation, finding the sonorities of the Temple music more to his liking and lacking some fleetness in the lighter moments. The chorus sang well and camped it up a bit as Tamino ‘played’ his rather bent flute, with his finger it be noted, to charm those threatening him. At the end of an enjoyable evening I drove home with a lightness in my heart that matched Mozart’s music and Schikaneder’s warm hearted and entertaining libretto.


The second night of the tour brought Donizetti’s evergreen Elixir of Love. The production was not only in modern dress but updated to Italy of the late 1950s. The set was the façade of Hotel Adina with al fresco tables under an extensive sun canopy. Nemorino is no country yokel but a waiter in the hotel owned by, guess who, Adina. The recruiting sergeant, Belcore, is suave marine who, like some of his contingent, arrives on a Vespa with a floozie on the pillion. The quack Doctor Dulcamara arrives by a simulated but realistic hot air balloon, the arrival of which was preceded by a model that caught the attention of the hotel afternoon drinkers who watched it across the sky with interest; a very affective piece of stage management. The ladies looked elegant and as far as the sets and costumes were concerned, there was no problem with the updating. There were, however, two problems, which limited my enjoyment of the evening and both concerned the matter of language. Whereas the translation of The Magic Flute was good, its audibility was facilitated as much by the translation as well as the diction of the singers and the nature of Mozart’s music. Italian bel canto is distinctly different in respect of the prosody of the original and any translation into English; far more difficult in respect of the metre of the language than a translation from German. It makes the caressing of a phrase more difficult when the Italian is shoehorned into an alien metre. Add the particular manner of the vocal production of Andrew Kennedy’s very English tenor and the lovely melodic lines of Nemorino’s opening Quanto e bella and the ever-famous Act II Una furtive lagrima went for nothing. He did attempt a head note end, but this tended to sound more a croon. As a general comment, his singing lacked Italianata as did that of the rest of the male principals, a fact not helped by the performance in English. Peter Savidge’s lean toned baritone voice was in no way a buffa Dulcamara, lacking  both vocal sap and colour, whilst Riccardo Simonetti was strong on volume but rather monochromic. However, both acted their parts with conviction. As the heroine, Anna Ryeberg sang well with a good range of vocal expression and colour and acted with conviction. But if the performance has to be in English then her diction must improve, although as I have indicated she was not alone in this respect.


Donizetti’s bel canto period opera is also an opera buffa; there were times when the ever-committed Opera North chorus took the performance over the border into slapstick. A tighter directorial hand was needed in this revival. As Dr. Jeremy Commons’ programme essay points out The Elixir of Love is one of the happiest and most delightful operas one could hope to meet but I left the theatre feeling I had missed out somewhere. Perhaps next time Opera North revives this production they will do so in the original language where the words and music live together like hands in gloves. The provision of surtitles might obviate the visual distraction of a signer as well as enabling those who do not know the details of the story to follow it whatever the limitations of diction of the singers. Bel canto lover that I am, I went home without even the melody of that famous tenor aria in my minds ear.


The single night offering was Monteverdi’s Orfeo with Paula Nilon in the title role. Sung in Italian and directed by Christopher Alden it is a co-production with Glimmerglass Opera, Den Norske Opera and Greek National Opera production and made possible in this UK tour by The Opera North Fund. In his programme introduction, Richard Mantle, General Director of Opera North writes as part of our continuing quest to reinvent the traditions of opera, we have invited Christopher Alden to direct…..Christopher regularly produces work throughout the world that is intellectually challenging, sometimes provocative, and there’s no denying that on occasion it infuriates some.

It certainly infuriated this critic and many audience members who restricted their polite applause to the singers, particularly Paul Nilon who somehow managed to overcome his hoody costume top, baggy jeans to convey something of the drama within Monteverdi’s music. His is not the most beautiful tenor voice, but he uses its flexibility with an admirable musicality. Whether his recourse to periodic swigs of water from a large plastic bottle on the ledge of one of the ‘windows’ of the set was for reasons of laryngeal lubrication or some further manifestation of the director’s convoluted imagination I do not know. I do not mind being intellectually challenged by a production, but when the music and singing is disturbed by the frequent sound of decorators masking tape being unrolled, or the loud noise of the cast’s shoes as they make unnecessary movements across the stage, then something is amiss with the director’s appreciation of the music and work he is meant to interpret. Masking tape? You might well ask. It is used to bind Orfeo and Euridice together as they are married and then, after her death to fix her, upright, against a sidewall of the set. Maybe forty or so noisy unrollings of the tape are involved as Orfeo is singing one of his longest solo arias!  To denote Euridice’s death and separation from Orfeo, the tape was torn from them and thrown through one of the high ‘windows’ of the set as was a music stand used by Orfeo for one aria; two crudenesses of many in this production.


The costumes varied between those appropriate for Mantua in 1607, I think they were the Gods and who lounged about smoking on a motley variety of easy chairs and settees that would have been more appropriate in a rest home. The boatman of the Styx and another man who sat with a microphone and headphones, and turned out to be Apollo, were in 21st century suits. I went home from this performance tearing out what remains of my hair in frustration.


Mr Mantle may wish to reinvent the traditions of opera; with this kind of farcical production and staging he will be doing it to empty theatres. Surely, what Opera North should be doing is building up as secure a base of devoted opera-goers as Glyndebourne Touring did in Manchester forty or so years ago. The productions they brought were not always traditional but they made sense to the audience and the composer’s concerned would have recognised their creations. Neither of those things was true with this production.    The consequence of the Glyndebourne Touring policy was that they played to full houses, which was manifestly not the case with this Orfeo, or, to a lesser extent, with The Elixir of Love. Of course, in those days GTO was unsubsidised and needed to put bottoms on seats but whether the subsidy Opera North receives from the Arts Council is well used by massaging the wallet or ego of such idiosyncratic directors as Christopher Alden is a matter for debate. For me, I have never seen such a ruination of an acknowledged masterpiece in fifty years of opera going that includes some of Mr Alden’s other work as well as that of the equally infamous and iconoclastic Calixto Bieto. Mancunians are fortunate to have the opportunity of seeing a semi-staged performance of this work by Jonathan Miller at the Bridgewater Hall on March 16th with Philip Picket’s specialist band. Whatever insights he brings to Monteverdi’s masterpiece remains to be seen. I can be fairly confident however, that masking tape, and clumping feet across the Bridgewater stage will not feature.


Opera North will return to the Lowry on Tuesday 19th of June with a reprise of the Rigoletto production seen in the Autumn, but with Alan Opie, who sang in Leeds but not on tour, as Rigoletto, and local Cheshire girl Linda Richardson as Gilda There will be one night of The Magic Flute with a new Papageno and Tamino and two evenings of new productions. The first, of Katya Kabanova produced by Tim Albery, will feature two Opera North favourite singers, Giselle Allen in the title role and Sally Burgess as Kabancha. The second production, again for one night only, features the unusual duo of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, with Susan Bickley in the title role, and Stravinsky’s Les Noces. Dido, premiered in 1689, is the earliest masterpiece of English opera whilst Diaghilev commissioned Les Noces for the ballets Russes in 1923. The music is raw and dominated by driving rhythm just as in The Rite of Spring which provoked a riot at its premiere in Paris ten years later. The text is sung but the essence of the drama is conveyed through dance.


Opera North’s summer programme will be seen in Leeds from 21st April to 26th May before being toured to Nottingham (5th to 9th June), Newcastle (12th to 16th June), Sheffield (26th to 30th June) and Bradford (3rd to 7th July) as well as the Lowry on the dates above.

Robert J Farr




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Contributors: Contributors: Marc Bridle, Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling,  Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas,Alex Verney-Elliott,Raymond J Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)