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AND HEARD OPERA REVIEW
Welsh National Opera on Tour:
North Wales Theatre, Llandudno.
30.10.2007 to 3.11. 2007 (RJF)
James MacMillan – The Sacrifice
Rossini – La Cenerentola
Verdi - Il Trovatore
Welsh National Opera’s autumn tour got under way at Liverpool on October 17th passing on to Southampton before arriving in Llandudno. Along the way there had been various cast and conductor changes since the Cardiff premieres of the three productions constituting the touring programme, two of which were new.
Perhaps the most excitement within the company's autumn season has been the production of its first newly commissioned work for ten years. With music by James MacMillan to a libretto by Symmons Roberts in sets by Vicki Mortimer and titled The Sacrifice, it is based on an episode from the Celtic legend of The Mabinogion. MacMillan’s composition comes after nearly two hundred years after Rossini’s twentieth opera, La Cenerentola, premiered in 1817 the second new production of the WNO autumn season with the third, Verdi’s Il Trovatore, the last of his middle period triptych being the third opera presented. There is barely forty years between the Rossini and Verdi works yet their musical ethos and genre are miles apart. What price MacMillan’s music then, with the giants like Janacek, Shostakovich and Britten - to name a few - coming between his composition and Verdi’s Trovatore?
In the density of its orchestration The Sacrifice did remind me of music by Janaceck, Shostakovich and Britten, and even of Wagner in the occasional use of leitmotif. Act I is musically very dense indeed, often verging on cacophony – at least in the relatively small confines of the Llandudno North Wales Theatre. Early on, the composer sets off at forte and finds the only way to go is triple or even quintuple forte as the dramatic tension of the story rises. The Act II love duet is a timely reminder, just as in Grimes, that there is a place in opera for melody, but it is only in Act III that MacMillan achieves complete coherence with music that starts quietly with semi-liturgical choral singing, raising the drama through the mini coup de theâtre at the burning of the flag before finishing with Sian’s (the heroine's) final aria. This finale, full of pathos and emotion, was really Lisa Milne’s only opportunity to show off her considerable vocal skills: elsewhere she had to struggle to compete with the orchestra, or with the situation she was placed in by the director as in the love duet referred to above. Otherwise Sarah Tynan as the fey Megan upstaged her. Leigh Melrose as Sean’s ex-lover Evan, Peter Hoare as the leader Sian is to marry to weld warring countries / tribes together, and Christopher Purves as her father the General, sang with dramatic conviction. With the tessitura often high and orchestral textures dense in the many dramatic situations, their achievements with diction and vocal expression were commendable.
I mentioned Britten. MacMillan uses orchestral interludes between scenes, but whereas in Grimes, the interludes illustrate what has gone before or is to come, MacMillan’s simply fill in between scenes changes. The opera is set and dressed in a mixture of the present and immediate future. Not without reason Rossini set opera seria like Tancredi or Maometto in a medieval period, a choice which allowed clear visual distinctions to be made - at least in costume - between the warring factions. In The Sacrifice, who was who was not at all clear. Within the context of the time - period chosen (2080 according to the programme notes) the sets were appropriate enough but there were frequent occasions when markers for the setting - like the video cameras at the televised wedding and later coronation of Sian's elder son were overdone, resulting in clutter and distraction from the action. The question inevitably arises as to whether MacMillan’s composition will last the pace. I had to remind myself that this was only his second opera and think back to where Rossini and Verdi were dramatically at a similar stage in their operatic compositional maturity. The trouble was I kept thinking what Verdi would have made of the excellent libretto and the situations it facilitated. As a composer Verdi was much more theatrically aware, even from his earliest works, than MacMillan appears to be. Only the future will tell, but I have my doubts as to long term future of The Sacrifice on the lyric stage. It is featured at each of the touring venues in the remainder of the touring season as listed below, as well as a visit to London. I suggest any opera lover who enjoys any of the triptych of Janacek, Shostakovich and Britten as his preferred operatic genres should at least give it a try.
The second production of the tour to Llandudno brought a change of conductor for Rossini’s 1817 comedy, La Cenerentola, with Gareth Jones replacing Carlo Rizzi. He took only a few bars to get the feel of the theatre and set tempi, after which the evening was a scintillating romp in the best meaning of the phrase. Rossini composed this work in little over three weeks having arrived in Rome to find a libretto by Ferretti so altered by Papal Censors that he ditched it. With less than a month to go before the scheduled first night, Rossini asked Ferretti to supply a new libretto. Under the pressure of time, both composer and librettist made compromises. Rossini borrowed the overture from his own La gazzetta written for Naples a mere five months earlier and employed a local musician, Luca Angolini, to assist him by composing all the secco recitatives as well as other pieces now omitted in performance and recordings. These were replaced by music that Rossini himself wrote later for a revival of the work in Rome in 1820. The additions replace the music provided by Angolini and constitute the basis of Zedda’s Critical Edition which was used by WNO in this production.
Papal Censors didn’t go in for magic on stage or transformations either, so what we usually know as Cinderella has more to do with the original source of the story than Rossini and Ferretti could get away with. Joan Font directs this co-production between WNO, Houston Grand Opera, the Gran Teatre del Liceu and Le Grand Théâtre de Genève. Font and his Barcelona-based company Comediants have long been associated with a carnivalesque approach. This when applied together with magical scenic transformations, brought the work nearer to the pantomime that Britons know as the story than is often the case with productions elsewhere. With vividly coloured costumes and six choreographed rats acting as sceneshifters, facilitating swift scene changes, and with meaningful and expeditious use of props, the evening went with a melodic swing. Add superb singing, not an altogether regular occurrence in Rossini’s comic operas, and this was an evening to savour. Colin Lee, who can be heard on a number of Opera Rara bel canto recordings and who recently alternated with Juan Diego Florez in Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment, was an excellent Ramiro even surpassing his elegant Almaviva of two years ago in a Barbiere di Siviglia dominated by Eric Robert’s consummate Bartolo, by a considerable margin (Review). Earle Patriarco who had taken over from Roberto Candia as Dandini, started a little dryly but soon got into his vocal stride and acted. Andre Foster Williams dealt well with Rossini’s demanding replacement aria in Act I for Alidoro and acted well throughout to make a convincing magician cum tutor. Whilst I could have done with a touch more bass colour from Robert Poulton’s Don Magnifico, he and his daughters, Clorinda and Tisbe were more than satisfactory in their singing and conveying of character. But the evening really belonged to Marianna Pizzolato in the title role.
Miss Pizzolato has sung at the Rossini Festival at Pesaro for the past three years. She missed out on the DVD recording of her Tancredi in 2004 with the recording being made in Florence in October 2005 with Daniela Barcellona in the role that she had created in in 2000 (Review). Miss Pizzolato does appear in Dynamic’s recording of Pesaro’s reprise of Dario Fo’s L’Italiana in Algeri from 2006 (Review) and which is also available on CD (Review). This, however, had not fully prepared me for her portrayal of Angelina / Cenerentola. She sang with a wide range of colour throughout whether in coloratura or recitative. I have no doubt that this production will be filmed and appear on CD some time in the future. If it does Miss Pizzolato deserves to be the heroine.
WNO's Il Trovatore was presentd in sets originating from Scottish Opera and last seen in 2003. These were the complete opposite of those in La Cenerentola being bleak, unimaginative and sparse. Any supporting stage prop was a rarity and everything was dependent on large vertical curved surfaces that were moved around the stage in a way that only became really interesting or dramatic in the Convent Scene. There are certainly those who find the opera's plot unimaginative and that is as may be. What Il Trovatore does require is good singing and acting from its five principals. These qualities were lacking in the performance I saw. Add the flaccid conducting of the first two acts by Michal Klauza, who had replaced Carlo Rizzi, and Verdi was not being well served by an opera company whose performances of his operas in their earlier years are legendary. The return of Dennis O’Neill, a long time WNO favourite, guaranteed a very full house but when the romantic hero is the smallest in stature of the principals and in a costume of black trousers and what looked like an off red anorak, visual impact left much to be desired. I heard O’Neill in his prime as vocally and visually elegant a Duke in Rigoletto and Alfredo in La Traviata as one could hope to hear. He was then the most Italianate lyric tenor Britain had produced for many years. However, for some years now, he has been singing heavier repertoire including Otello and the effect on his singing was all too obvious in this performance. Even though his essential lyric tone is still well in evidence he lacked legato in softer passages whilst his singing at forte was too often strained: to my ears his conclusion to Di quella pira was not pleasant. Likewise, Ann Marie Owens as Azucena did not do justice to her Act II Stride la vampa lacking the necessary chest notes for the declamatory passages of the scene. Her acting and the lack of props did not help; or maybe I have too many memories of Fiorenza Cossotto. Her Act IV Ai nostri monti was better, although the conclusion of the opera – when Luna takes her to observe the execution of Manrico - was a production non-event in what should be one of the most dramatic denouements in all opera. This kind of thing was typical of the production throughout.
Dario Solari's Luna gave an altogether better acted and sung performance. His voice is that of a strong baritone with a wide palette of colour. His tone dried a little in the second verse of Il balen, but elsewhere his singing was excellent as was his acting. How Leonora could fall for this Manrico compared with di Luna I failed to understand. As Leonora, Katia Pellegrino was a little tentative in the high tessitura of Tacea la note placida, but was highly effective elsewhere, conveying marvellous dramatic conviction and singing in Act IV where her D’amor sull’ali rosee brought the best ovation of the evening. As Ferrando, the young bass David Soar showed much promise with his expressive acting and tonally steady singing. I hope his voice will fill out as he should a distinguished future in the profession. This Il Trovatore was disappointing to many in the audience - some of who were new to the work - foundering on the facts that lack of dramatic impetus in the production, the playing and some of the singing and acting did not marry with what they expected. It certainly did no service to either Verdi or WNO.
The tour continues in Bristol commencing on November 4th, Oxford on November 13th and Birmingham on November 20th with one performance of The Sacrifice in each venue and two of each Il Trovatore and La Cenerentola. The Company performs The Sacrifice in London on Monday November 26th before beginning a three-day season in Swansea on the following Thursday. There they will give two performances of Trovatore and one of Cenerentola.
Welsh National Opera Cardiff resumes in Cardiff on February 15th with a spring season featuring Mozart’s Magic Flute followed by Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Verdi’s final masterpiece Falstaff. Bryn Terfel is promised as the eponymous knight in Cardiff, Birmingham and Llandudno. Roberto de Candia sings the role in the rest of a full spring tour commencing on March 11th and which includes a visit to Plymouth as a change from Liverpool in the autumn schedule. Carlo Rizzi conducts the performances with Terfel and Michal Klauza the remainder. It was a great coup for the company when Peter Stein, the eminent theatre producer, chose to bring his skills to the opera stage for the first time with Otello in 1986 and with Falstaff two years later. Thus will be the first major revival of Stein's Falstaff, seen on British television with Donald Maxwell as in the title role. I do not know if Stein is returning to prepare the revival, but the production is full of wonderful felicities and worthy of both a DVD and anybody’s money, including mine. Catch it if you can.
Robert J Farr
Welsh National Opera on Tour: North Wales Theatre, Llandudno. 30.10.2007 to 3.11. 2007 (RJF)