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Opera North on Tour: The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 13 – 17. 11. 2007 (RJF)

Giacomo Puccini :  Madama Butterfly
Giuseppe Verdi  : Falstaff. (1893)
Reinhard Keiser : The Fortunes of King Croesus

Opera North enter their second full touring year since the refurbishment and update of their home theatre and rehearsal facilities in Leeds. This first tour of the year features a revival of Peter Relton’s direction of Verdi’s Falstaff, first seen in 1997, and two new productions, Puccini’s ever popular Madama Butterfly and Reinhard Keiser’s The Fortunes of King Croesus,  a British premiere. In my preview of the company’s 2006-07 season, I expected that  the producer Tim Albery would have a big impact on Opera North’s year since I greatly admired his production of Katya Kabanova seen at the Lowry during the company’s summer tour (Review). He seems to have the happy knack of moving date, and sometimes circumstance, in his productions without destroying the essence of the composer’s intentions while getting to the kernel of the plot and bringing out the dramatic emphases. It turned out that these were prophetic words in respect of his treatment of Puccini’s opera: this was  a production of overwhelming impact.

It is Puccini’s Tosca that is often described as a shabby little shocker but  the words are more apt still for Butterfly. It's an unwholesome story of a Yank who buys sex from a virginal Japanese fifteen year old with empty promises and a mock marriage to which he explicitly, even to his Consul, states as being non-binding. Butterfly herself takes his religion, forsaking her own,  along with her family who have an honourable past but have fallen on hard times after the death of the father who chose suicide as an alternative to dishonour. Before the start of the performance, and during the prelude, the cultural gulf between traditional Japanese values and twentieth century American is played out in mime on stage as a geisha in traditional dress, and with small steps, moves among  some American floozies, or tarts, in high heels and fishnets making up in front of mirrors. After the so-called marriage, Butterfly herself adopts the high heels and a floral dress whilst her maid, Suzuki, in the rather fey manner of one who can see an unhappy outcome, maintains her dress and religion. The marriage broker is in late twentieth century garb and is played as a bit of a sharp boy. In contrast, Butterfly’s family at her wedding, and later her princely suitor, all dress traditionally  reminding the audience of the clash of cultures, idealism and morality. There is no attempt to soften Pinkerton’s immature laddish and caddish approach to the whole matter. In this production he does not get the Act I aria which Puccini added to soften the impact of his hedonistic character, but reverts to the original first night score that was a fiasco - after which Puccini withdrew the work for revision. The first night audience at La Scala lived in an era before the nasty face of imperialism and the original story  was too harsh for their sensibilities. Using the original scoring  also means an enlargement of Kate Pinkerton’s role. She is the proper American wife Pinkerton brings to persuade Butterfly to forego their child for a better life.  But, his action in trying to pay Butterfly off - not even by himself but via the proxy of the Consul -  is a vicious insult to Butterfly’s integrity. It tips her over the edge as she realises her destiny. She returns to traditional dress, and in  the Shinto shrine used by Suzuki throughout, she stabs herself.

Albery’s staging contains many felicitous details. The balletic choreography of the spreading of flower petals to welcome the returning Pinkerton was elegant and joyous and contrasted sharply with the lead up to Butterfly’s suicide  which was particularly poignant, even harrowing. The American floozie arriving to look, uncomprehendingly, at the dead Japanese was perhaps a vicious step too far although it brought the mime of the opening full circle. Even so, the ending was musically and dramatically harrowing enough and few dry eyes were left in the full house. Albery’s staging takes place in Hildegard Bechtler’s evocative and apt set containing  moving screens and a picture window view of Mount Fujiyama. This production and set, unlike last year’s Rigoletto, are good for many a year without recourse for replacement; sound economic sense as arts funding look tenuous as we approach the cost crisis of the 2012 Olympics.

The title role of Butterfly is sung by Anne Sophie Duprels who was Violetta in Opera North’s 2005 La Traviata. Her slightly tremulous voice is now significantly fuller and capable of a full palette of colours, a wide dynamic range and great vvariety of expression. She made no foolish attempt to sound girlish, as several famous interpreters have done on record. She is also  capable vocally of riding the orchestra when Wyn Davies let it off the rein in Puccini’s moments of denser and typically coloured orchestration. Add the sincerity of her acting, never once forgetting whether she was a Japanese or a would-be American and  hers is a considerable achievement. It's a strong step forward in her career.

Not as svelte now as when I heard him as Ernarni at the Royal Northern College of Music in 1994, Rafael Rojas is a favourite in the Italian big lyric roles both with Opera North and Welsh National Opera. Then as now he tends to sing full out and with little attempt at graceful phrasing. Bereft of Pinkerton’s aria, Rojas had really only the love duet in Act I to show off any tonal grace and by then Pinkerton has other matters on his mind. Albery’s having Pinkerton light a  fag at every tense, or  procrastinating moment, was another nice touch played well. Rojas’s Pinkerton was a thoroughly arrogant and unlikeable Yank with no redeeming feature. There were even some hisses at this curtain call - not for Rojas’s singing, but for the character, and he took this in good part. This response was doubtless aided by the presence of English subtitles to the sung Italian which left the audience fully aware of everything going on in the opera. But I hope O.N. audiences won't always adopt habits like this:  in general they are commendable in the interruptions to the drama for applause and the like,  being supportive and never  impeding the flow of the drama.

Peter Savidge’s lean toned singing as Sharpless could have gained from more colour and expression. However, he did his best to portray the better side of the American persona.  His eveident  respect for the culture of a foreign land as he removed his shoes on entry to Butterfly’s home, even when she put on her high heels to welcome him, was another production touch I admired, even though the shoes  were flip-flops covering white socks,  and which grated! Ann Taylor’s Suzuki was a model of acting with her sonorous mezzo a little underpowered from time to time. In this she suffered, as did Amanda Echalez as Kate, when Wyn Davies let the orchestra hit the climaxes. Otherwise his conducting was idiomatic. The Goro of Alasdair Elliot was also notably well portrayed.

The full house at the first night of this Butterfly  was matched at the second performance, with not a seat to be had. The same cast are reprising the work during Opera North’s winter tour which arrives at The Lowry on 12th February next. Those disappointed this time had better get their tickets booked soon as performances are already selling well. The production stands alongside last year’s Grimes which went on to win hearts and prizes and which is being reprised between the two performances of Butterfly.  Whether this Butterfly will win similar awards only time will tell but it deserves them. It is by far the best production of the work I have seen in over fifty years of opera going.

Second up in the tour was Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff. Sung in English it was a return visit of a production first seen in
Manchester in March 1997 and this time directed by Peter Relton. Then as now,  I found the sets for Act III lacking in character and atmosphere. Yes,  the swift move from the outside of The Garter Inn to Windsor Park is slick  but, I did not find either scene really able to portray the action. There is no dripping Falstaff outside the inn and no Hermes oak; wintry trees and snowballs are no substitute. Given that the audience had to suffer the distraction of a signer,  it is a pity that for those who would have benefited from them, there were no surtitles. I know that the performance was sung in English, but   Verdi’s quickly fluttering and scampering melodies and few formal arias do  not lend themselves to easy translation. The prosody of the music and the Italian are a perfect match and  surtitle words do allow all the meanings and nuances to be clear to the audience throughout this opera.

In its first life ten years ago,  Andrew Shore was Falstaff, and Robert Hayward sang a strong Ford. This time round Hayward took on the title role. In between he has moved on to sing Wagner’s great bass baritone roles for Wotan, the Wanderer and Amfortas. Despite these  heavier roles I was pleasantly surprised at the power and even line of his Verdi singing and the excellent vocal characterisation he brought to the performance. There was the odd moment when the tessitura taxed him, but his general portrayal, acting and fleetness of foot in the little dance as he courted Mistress Ford, were as to the manner born. As Ford, the Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdson suffered a little from being rather smaller than the ladies in both physical size and in  vocal strength during his monologue. Susannah Glanville was a tall and elegant Mistress Ford, her silvery lyric soprano cutting through the orchestral textures and portraying the role with visual sharpness to match her vocal clarity.  Deanne Meek was her visual and vocal match in the smaller role of Meg Page. As Quickly, who has to set up Falstaff for his humiliations, Susan Bickley lacked the fruity tones and chest notes of the best interpreters. Nor does the English translation quite catch the possibilities of the sonorous reverenzas of the original Italian with which Quickly greets Falstaff effusively at their meetings, with the orchestral strings in full support. The Franco-Italian Valérie Condoluci was a visually appealing Nanetta. She made a good effort at floating her melodies with appropriate grace but didn't come over as well as she might have done.  Ashley Catling’s Fenton couldn’t match her;  he was physically and vocally more lumpy. The Pistol of Andrew Slater and Bardolph of Keith Mills were both excellently sung and portrayed and in the pit Tecwyn Evans had a better feel for a Verdian phrase and line than his predecessor of ten years ago.

It is a matter for some regret that the public did not support this performance of Falstaff in greater numbers. Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, the last of the great composer’s operatic creations, have never had the following in the UK of his great middle period trio of Rigoletto, La Traviata and Il Trovatore. Along with Aida and perhaps Ballo in Maschera, these are the works the public think of when the name of Verdi comes up. While musicians and the opera cognoscenti know better, the general public miss out on the dramatic and melodic operatic riches they choose to forego! I sincerely hope there is better support to Opera North’s imaginative theme of a series of operas deriving from Shakespeare which will be presented over the coming eighteen months. The  works include Britten’s A Midsummer Nights Dream, Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette, Bellini’s take on the same story,  I Capuleti e I Montecchi, and Macbeth - Verdi’s first opera based  the great playwright's works.

For the final offering of the autumn tour and season, Opera North presented what is claimed to be the first staged performance for three hundred years of a work by Reinhard Kreiser. With the English title of The Fortunes of King Croesus, this  is one of sixty or so operatic works that Keiser wrote whilst in charge of opera in Hamburg in the first decades of the eighteenth century. As the name Croesus might imply, the plot concerns the Eastern Mediterranean and  historical periods and subjects like this were a safe bet for opera composers at that time. Even so, composers and librettists  had constantly  to bear in mind the political sensibilities of their audiences as well as the oversight of the censor -  government or church -  a state of affairs that plagued Rossini, Donizetti and even Verdi before the final unification of Italy. Kreiser was an important influence on Handel and followed the norm of the time in respect of the use of castrati for male roles, with florid vocal ornaments as the standard means of expressing high emotion.

The production, given in English in an abbreviated version by  director Tim Albery, is shared with Minnesota Opera. The plot is convoluted to say the least involving a war between Lydia and Persia and several crossed loves along the lines of C loves A who loves E who loves Z who cannot respond to her love, at least for a while. All this goes along with the war and internecine power struggles. And if that were not complicated enough,  it was nothing to sorting out the extended dramatis personae, especially as the proceedings start with a fancy dress party with styles across many periods up to the near present. Life was made easier by recognising John Graham-Hall’s tall figure and being able to clearly follow his immaculate diction; likewise the costume and enunciation of Paul Nilon as the king, even without his armour. Both acted with conviction and sang well.

Tim Albery updated the action to a time around t World War II with an appropriately costumed and caped Feldmarshal Goering look-alike as the leader of the Persians, sung with vocal security and fine stage presence by Henry Waddington. He was accompanied by appropriately helmeted troops who focussed further attention on the updating which depicted the war as involving aeroplanes. In Act I these were models that were moved and shot down and Act II was played out on a larger scale broken wing and fuselage. Did the update work? Yes, but it would have been easier to follow with the benefit of surtitles to complement the sung English once again. There was some gratuitous violence in the treatment of Croesus by the winning side after which he was left laying prone, as if dead, on the stage. Later the threat of his assassination by pouring petrol on him, and presumably lighting it, was made chilling in the wrong kind of way as a recent event in
Lancashire streets has shown.

Of the rest of the male singing cast, William Dazeley was particularly noteworthy in the fullness of his tone and contrasted nicely  with Mark Le Brocq. The role of Croesus’s son was sung by the unique, in my experience, all male and stocky macho male soprano Michael Maniaci. I use the term male soprano, not falsettist or countertenor, as he sings with his natural voice, a situation made possible by the structure of his larynx. The quality character of his voice as much as his vocal expression and characterisation captivated me. The impact was heightened when he sang in florid duet with his confidante and partner in deceit of the Persians, Stephen Wallace a true countertenor. In typical baroque opera style, with ornaments always the name of the game, this was absolutely absorbing and presented a new opportunity for performances of opera from this period where often a shapely leg, or two curvaceous denials of masculinity, is no visual substitute for an obvious macho portrayal. While Maniaci's  uniqueness may limit his career possibilities,  Albery’s use of his skills and his appropriateness to  this work were wholly apt, as was the playing of the period ensemble under Harry Bicket.

Of the female singers,  the slender Gillian Keith carried the heaviest burden. She started tentatively before striking a rich vein of secure vocalism, complete with ornaments. If her diction did not match her male counterparts, much of that was due to the music's tessitura. Although similarly in vocal tone to Ffleur Wyn their clear differentiation of costume sorted out any possible confusion. Sarah Pring as the lady in waiting was rich and secure vocally whilst Eric Roberts, complete with trilby, sauntered along nicely as the Greek philosopher.

After this Lowry season, Opera North return to their
Leeds base to prepare for the World Premiere of Jonothan Dove’s The Adventures of Pinocchio. This takes place at Leeds Grand Theatre on December 22nd.  Together with Madama Butterfly and a reprise of last year’s award winning Peter Grimes, Pinocchio will be performed in Leeds during January 2008. The programme then tours to the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, from February 5th, to The Lowry, Salford, from the 12th,  to Belfast from the 19th, and then for a week at Sadlers Wells, London, with Grimes and Pinocchio only from February 26th. The tour  concludes at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, from March 5th.


Robert J Farr


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