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Welsh National Opera on Tour:  North Wales Theatre, Llandudno. March 18th to 22nd 2008 (RJF)

Verdi. Falstaff. (Sung in Italian)

Tchaikovsky. Eugene Onegin.(Sung in Russian)

Mozart. The Magic Flute. (Sung in English)

After the matinee performanceof Verdi’s Falstaff at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on Sunday March 9th, the Company went on the touring road and after a week at Birmingham it arrived  for an abbreviated visit, at Llandudno in what really should be its North Wales home; the recently extended Venue Cymru. The visit was abbreviated because this was  Easter Week and there were no performances on Good Friday.

The tour brought the three productions, all revivals, seen and reviewed at their first performances in Cardiff by my colleagues. However, the tour always brings planned cast and or conductor changes. It also brings challenges in the form of different theatre acoustics, stage size and even the lack of an orchestra pit in some of the venues visited. Many viewed the Company winter season with some suspicion, as there were no new productions. But the headline doesn’t always tell the whole story. Whilst the Magic Flute and Eugene Onegin were reprises of productions first seen in recent years, this was not so of the Falstaff production by Peter Stein. This was first seen in 1988, being reprised in 1993. For this revival he returned.

When Peter Stein directed Otello for WNO in 1986 it was something of a coup. His work at the Berlin Schaub
ühne had marked him out, unlike some other east European producers indulged at that time by opera houses in the west,  as being true to a work whilst not eschewing modernity. He had  however, kept away from opera with his Otello showing something of the loss to the lyric theatre. Contact having been made once more, Stein returned to WNO in 1988 for Falstaff in sets by his favoured designer Lucio Fanti. He later returned for Pelléas and Grimes. This production of Falstaff was widely acclaimed at the time for its detail and sympathy with Verdi’s creation and was filmed in an empty New Theatre, Cardiff for simultaneous transmission on BBC television and Radio 3,  the broadcast taking place during March 1989. I was fortunate to see the production twice in the theatre in its initial season with Scots baritone Donald Maxwell in the title role. Even more fortunate, I was able to prepare for seeing it again in Llandudno by watching my recording of the BBC broadcast. Then, as now, I was struck by the wealth of detail Stein brings to his work; illustrating the piece but never losing sight of the composer and librettist’s intentions. There are no producer egos or concepts here, just attention to bringing to the forefront the beauty of Verdi and Boito’s creation. Lack of surplus horseplay in Scene One, where Falstaff illustrates his honour monologue with chalk on an upturned table, whilst Bardolph and Pistol take  note is typical. So too is the management of the wives as they plan to play tricks on Falstaff, but  more importantly still, there is order among the chaos as Ford’s men search for the knight  hidden behind  screen or in laundry basket. Likewise in the final scene leading to the great fugue, where so many productions fail, magic and clarity prevails as the various scores are settled and Verdi’s fugue draws the opera to a conclusion, in this case with Falstaff rising heavenwards.

Most baritones learn Falstaff by singing Ford. Bryn Terfel sang it to Maxwell’s Falstaff in the 1992 revival of this production and whatever he learned then is now well subsumed into his own very individual and consummate interpretation, which has been seen and heard in many of the best addresses in the operatic world. Whereas Maxwell used his jowls and India rubber face to great effect, Terfel uses a wink, a lift of the finger, or a nod to illuminate his superb characterisation. When  Mistress Quickly, in the person of Anne-Marie Owens, thrust her capacious décolletage under his nose, his ogling eyes and baritonal Reverenza’s both had the audience in uproar. Whereas Maxwell had to manufacture his lower notes and heft, Terfel's strong bass-baritone finds them  much more easily, allowing him more vocal nuances in the natural prosody of Boito’s verses and Verdi’s music.  At a good size over six feet tall and with appropriate build, I doubt Terfel had to spend the two and a half hours that  Maxwell needed to attach the enormous latex belly and leg padding for his appearances; he called it his sauna suit! Maxwell also sang the Verdi baritone roles of Iago, Ankarstr
öm, Rigoletto and Germont and Terfel's acting and singing as Falstaff made me regret that his considerable natural vocal strength and career choices had taken him in other directions.

In Llandudno,  Terfel was not merely returning to the land of his fathers, but was only a few miles from his birthplace and current home. He and Rhys Meirion, singing Fenton, are Welsh speakers, and this was the language heard most in the auditorium. I wonder how many of the capacity audience were regular opera goers:those that were would have realised that the rapport between stage and audience, the natural laughter of the latter, with rather than at the production and participants, is all too rare these days. The surtitles, in English and Welsh, were in some ways superfluous, the detail of Stein’s production and the acted involvement of the singers making so many nuances of Boito’s libretto extremely clear. How different this circumstance is to occasions when the audience has to struggle to work out what is supposed to be going on, surtitles or not, as producer concepts flout  logic and massacre a composer's intentions. Stein’s masterful handling of this Falstaff, with even more, but never inappropriate, detail than in the original, marks true genius in a job that seems to draw egocentric charlatans who care little for text or music.  In 1973 I saw the previous WNO production of Falstaff by Michael Geliot in the small and intimate Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool and two days later saw the opera again  at Covent Garden in a joint production by John Copley and Welshman Geraint Evans. My good luck was that Evans was singing in Liverpool and his renowned histrionic and vocal interpretation in that production has remained my benchmark until this performance, and staging, which will go down as one of my top dozen or so in sixty years of opera going. Interestingly, Elisabeth Vaughan's Alice, Welshman Delme Bryn-Jones'  Ford and Joan Davies'  Mistress Page sang in both the Covent Garden and the Liverpool performances. Who suggested that a singer zooming up and down motorways is a new vice?

The singing cast of this performance were of a generally high standard. Notable were Janice Watson as Alice, less arch than Suzanne Murphy twenty years ago, whilst Anne-Marie Owens was suitably more mature of appearance and voice than Cynthia Buchan. If Claire Ormshaw did not erase memories of the young Nuccia Focile those years ago, she floated the phrases of her aria very well. Of the other men, the character tenors Anthony Mee, a little dry at the top since I heard him last, and Neil Jenkins swapped what might be considered their normal roles of Bardolph and Caius, presumably because Stein did not want them to bring habits from other productions but to take on their new characters and challenges with fresh minds. Mee’s rotund figure was put to good use in an amusing belly bouncing interlude with Falstaff near the end of the work. Rhys Meirion couldn’t float Fenton’s lines as well as his Nannetta managed hers, but he phrased well. Christopher Purves however, did not convince me as a natural Verdi baritone, his rendering of Ford’s monologue lacked bite. I see from the programme biographies that he is carded for the title role in a forthcoming Falstaff at Glyndebourne. He will need to bring far more vocal colour and tone if that is to be a success.

Compared with my colleague’s review from Cardiff
, the only change in Llandudno was on the rostrum where Michael Klauza took over from Carlo Rizzi, a vastly experienced Verdian. Suffice it to say that Klauza held the orchestra and stage together in the nuances and complexities of the music, no easy task in this opera with few formal arias and with skittering melodies that come and go in a flash, particularly as the wives plot and laugh as Ford’s men search the house. His pacing of the mellifluous music of the last act with its concluding fugue was pure magic.

A recording of performances of this Falstaff production made in Cardiff has already been broadcast on S4C, the Welsh television channel, and I hope it will also appear on  national TV and on DVD. If it does,   it will allow Stein’s masterly production, together with Terfel’s interpretation, to be given its proper due, the latter’s contribution far too often lost in the over frenetic multi-coloured Covent Garden production already available on DVD. Those who particularly like opera on DVD might also like to watch Stein’s work on Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, particularly the clarity and dramatics he brings to the Council Chamber scene that Boito persuaded Verdi to add for the 1881 revision for La Scala of the 1857 original and which served as a dry run for their collaboration on Otello and Falstaff (Review).

Eugene Onegin, which followed Falstaff for one performance only, has perhaps one thing in common with Verdi’s opera - the shortage of formal arias with the exception of Gremin’s sonorous  Lyubvi vsye vozrasti pokorni as he explains his marriage to the lovely, now mature and womanly, Tatyana to Onegin. The evening was preceded by apologies from the front of stage for the absence of the carded Gremin and that Nuccia Focile had developed a sore throat during the day but would sing. On such occasions I sit and hope. Since her Nannetta in 1988 Focile’s lyric soprano has grown and is now a considerable voice heard at the world's best operatic addresses in a wide variety of repertoire. However, she and her husband Paul Charles Clarke, singing Lensky (and who met at WNO)  have kept faith and return to the Company regularly. She may have asked indulgence, but none was needed. She sang an expressive letter scene whilst rising to seemingly effortless dramatic heights in the closing scene when Onegin returns, regretting his earlier arrogant attitude. Rodion Pogossov as Onegin, a native Russian speaker, was something of a disappointment. He was lacking in vocal variety and expression in his sermon to Tatyana with this critical scene going for nothing.

In the final act as Onegin pleads his case to Tatyana,  he did a far better job showing more vocal and tonal variety of colour and strength as well as expression. He could well have learnt something from Paul Charles Clarke’s expressive and lyric voiced Kuda, kuda with well modulated pianissimos keeping company with expressiveness and dramatic heft. The portrayals of Alexandra Sherman as Olga, Naomi Harvey as Madame Larina and Kathleen Wilkinson as a sympathetic Filipyevna were all excellent. My surprise package, however, came in the singing of David Soar the replacement Gremin. He was scheduled for later in the tour and was obviously well rehearsed, but it was the quality of the voice, its legato, sonority and expression that really raised my eyebrows. He is an associate artist with WNO and learning his trade. I missed his Alidoro in last years La Cenerentola, but was impressed by his Ferrando in, to my ears, a generally disappointing Il Trovatore (Review).  Though I might have been initially disappointed by the withdrawal of Brindley Sherratt who so impressed editor Bill Kenny in Cardiff (Review) this Gremin confirmed my hopes for him. Although short, the role all too easily exposes vocal weaknesses. In the autumn he is down for the title role in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.; I will doubtless catch up with him as King Philip in Opera North’s scheduled revival of Verdi’s Don Carlo next year.

Tchaikovsky’s dances were well choreographed and Alexander Polianichko on the rostrum had complete mastery of the dramatic and lyrical modulations and aspects of the diverse score. The dramatic thrust of Tchaikovsky’s creation was, however, somewhat lost with the frequency of - and time taken for - scene changes. A large vertical flat going from the right to upstage left dominated the stage. Inset was a large rectangular proscenium through which views, and some scenes, were displayed with varying success. In the first scene, Tatyana was seen lying in a meadow with her books whilst Madame Larina and Filipyevna were making jam in an absolutely bare area. No furniture, even for the moneyed Larinas? The set was better when adapted for Tatyana’s bedroom but a disaster in the ballroom scene when an over large column and its base were a considerable restriction and distraction from the dance. A pity, but  overall enjoyment by the large audience compensated.

In stark contrast to the virtues of Stein’s production and sets for Falstaff, were those for Mozart’s last staged opera The Magic Flute. This was a perfect example of director and set designer completely ignoring both the libretto and the music. The set was shoebox shaped with doors; nine before the rear three were flown for the Queen of the Night’s entry, the only instant of dramatic imagination in the production. The dragon to be killed by the three ladies was an over sized prawn cum lobster with large antennae and threatening mandibles, both protruding through open doors. Sarastro’s brotherhood were dressed in orange greatcoats and bowler hats -  oh, and orange shoes, not even a brown boot in sight to give Stanley Holloway a giggle. Unlike Falstaff the audience here laughed at the production, the titters at the monster becoming outright hilarity when the heads of Sarastro’s brotherhood appeared, complete with orange bowler hats, through stage trap doors. When their votes were solicited on Tamino’s admission to their number, assent was signified, readily or otherwise, by the raising of orange umbrellas; which looked just as daft as it sounds. For the trial by fire, the same trap doors opened to give the effect of lit torches - but the front two did'nt work!

Within this staging the singers were expected to do justice to themselves and Mozart’s sublime music but only Rebecca Evans with her flexible well coloured and expressive soprano did so. As Tamino, black American Russell Thomas did his best, but his lyric tenor could not invest the phrases with much expression and his characterisation was flat. If he was love struck by Pamina’s portrait in 'Dies Bildnis'  he didn’t manage to sound it and  I mention his colour only because the Monostatos, specified in Shikaneder’s libretto as Sarastro’s black slave, was white and dressed in grey greatcoat and black bowler. By the time Monostasos’s attempted abduction came along I had quite lost track of the Mozart opera I know so well and love. I fear also that was the case with Neal Davies as Papageno. His singing and phrasing of Mozart’s music was outstanding, but he did not convey the role. Papageno is a working lad, not a toff and  he knows his place is not among the brothers. Davies did not attempt to eke out Papageno’s suicide attempt from a chair with the rope slung over a door; oh,  for a tree. The scene was made even more farcical when a hand came round the door to remove the chair after Papageno had changed his mind, Very crude.

As Sarastro, David Soar in white suit and looking like a liner captain, sang a reasonable O Isis und Osiris but struggled somewhat with the legato line in In diesen hell’gen Hallen at Anthony Negus’s pace. Laure Melroy as Queen of the Night hit the money notes of her arias with security, for which thanks, although I hope she will develop more vocal colour in time. With a trim figure that suited her costume, Claire Hampton’s sung and acted portrayal of Papagena was a success. The same could be said of the  three ladies although their waitress or parlour maid outfits had drawbacks to a meaningful interpretation. When they drew back their skirts to reveal not only trim ankles but crimson linings I thought we were in for Offenbach’s Can Can: by that time I would have believed anything possible in this production, although I doubt if Anthony Negus could have raised his tempo to such excitements. I am surprised that only Rebecca Evans had heard of appoggiaturas, but then she has worked with Charles Mackerras, who knows more than a thing or two about this opera and Mozart’s musical intentions, as well as practice at the time.

The Welsh National Opera’s tour moves on from Llandudno To Southampton (from Tuesday 18th March), then to Milton Keynes (from Tuesday 1st April), then to Bristol (from Tuesday 8th April), Plymouth (Tusday 17th April concluding at Swansea from 22nd April. All these venues will see two performances of Eugene Onegin and The Magic Flute and one of Falstaff. With the injury and withdrawal of Roberto de Candia as Falstaff, Bryn Terfel will sing the role at the first two venues followed by Robert Poulton for the reminder of the tour. Robert sang Don Magnifico in the admired production of La Cenerentola last autumn.

Welsh National opera return to Llandudno on Tuesday 25th November with new productions of Verdi’s Otello, featuring Dennis O’Neil in the title role, and The Marriage of Figaro. Appropriately for the story of Figaro and the Almavivas, there will also be a further revival of Rossini’s Barber of Seville in the production seen in autumn 2005 (Review) and featuring the brilliant Bartolo of Eric Roberts and mellifluous tenor voce of Colin Lee as Count Almaviva. These productions will be sung in the original language with  surtitles in English and Welsh.

Robert J Farr

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