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Opera North on Tour: The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 10.11 to 14.11. 2009 (RJF)

Mozart, Così fan tutte. Sung in English
Massenet, Werther. Sung in French with English titles.
Janácek, The Adventures of Mr Broucek. Sung in English with titles

As I noted in my preview of Opera North’s year ahead, the frivolities of the previous year looked to be well past with real opera once more on the in 2009-2010 programme. Looking more like what one would expect from a non-touring opera company, this programme really sets the tone for the year, as well as getting the pulse racing in anticipation for the winter and summer season programmes to follow.

Mozart, Così fan tutte

First up was a revival of Tim Albery’s 2004 Così fan tutte. This was his second shot at this problematic confection of crossed lovers and a cynic, created by Mozart and Da Ponte. Before the overture, the curtain opened to show a large brown box that resembles a Kodak Brownie camera, except with a lens protruding from two sides and what I presume to be a viewing tunnel at the top. A scientific-looking type inspected this and climbed a ladder to polish one of the lenses. As the opera opened, so did the box to reveal the sisters in their sitting room. This view in turn expanded to reveal two doors; a large eye overlooked the whole. The complete opera was played in this set with the only incongruous element being the mechanical opening of the doors, if we are into a scientific analytical view of human personal and sexual relationships, that is. There were no boats for the departure of Ferrando and Guglielmo, nor an accompanying chorus, nor any garden for the swapped-over lovers to walk in. None of this was missed in this stark conception which left the characters feeling manipulated, emotionally broken and uncertain: except, of course, for Don Alfonso, the arch manipulator and scientist type.

If the concept was meant as a scientific experiment then this Don Alfonso, as portrayed by Geoffrey Dolton in his debut in the role, made the perfect experimenter of human sexuality and emotions. His singing was good, his diction excellent and his portrayal perfect within this production. The manner Albery had him move and cajole the characters to meet his objectives was masterful. And if the set was post-eighteenth century, the costumes were totally in period with perfect wigs to match; a joy. Whilst the early parts of the opera, with well sung solos for the two male young lovers, had perfectly audible words, once the women began to sing, particularly in the duets, trios and concerted passages of quartets and sextets that proliferate in the work, then following the nuances of the story became more difficult.

Which brings up the matter of titles. I am delighted to note from the Mr Broucek programme that it, and the Spring season season revival of Rusalka, although sung in English, will have titles. This policy change follows the experiment with Don Carlos last Spring, when the company surveyed the customers and found a majority in favour. Decisions will be taken on a case-by-case basis and doubtless will include the likes of the 2007 Katya Kabanova with its dense orchestration, which, as I noted in my review, caused some difficulty for the audience in following what was going on. However, it seems that Così fan tutte is considered orchestrally to be much lighter and thus not qualifying for titles. Yet so much of the sexual chemistry in this opera unfolds in the duets when following the words, however good the singers’ diction might be, becomes difficult. Most people do get the gist of the action from the brief act précis in the programme of course, but relying on that alone is to miss much of Da Ponte’s finely crafted libretto with all its verbal nuances, detail and above all, its humour.

All the singing in this Così fan tutte was of a high standard. As Ferrando, Allan Clayton, whom I admired as Belmonte in The Abduction from the Seraglio last season, seems to have grown in vocal strength since then, with an edge to his tenor that promises a bright future. If this comes at the loss of some of the heady tones of the perfect Mozart tenor in Act I then that is only a small cost to bear. Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang, a newcomer to Opera North, was a physically and vocally imposing Guglielmo singing with a wide variety of colour and expression. Both acted with conviction under Albery’s direction to best effect.

If I seem to have criticised the women for their diction, then I should draw back. The higher register occupied by the female voice and the relationship with consonants is always a problem, even for the greatest practitioners. This trio might not qualify exactly for that description, but both individually and collectively they were very good and vocally well-balanced trio: I stress collectively here, since so much of the action comes about in the form of duets and trios between them. Again, Albery’s direction, and the trio’s individual skills as singing actresses, made a greatly satisfying impression. Individually, Elizabeth Atherton’s Fiordiligi faces the greatest vocal challenges with Act I’s Come scoglio, full of vocal leaps, being accomplished with security and her Act II rondo Per Pieta delivered with heartfelt emotion. The more flighty Dorabella, sung by Victoria Simmonds has it little easier but still has to surmount the demands of Smanie implacabili and E amore un ladroncello as she reflects on the bitterness of love. Like her stage sister she was equal to all the sung and acted demands. And as the co-conspirator, the maid Despina, who begins prepared to sell her soul for a shilling, but then ends up disillusioned, Amy Freston made the move from slovenly maid to putative lawyer and to doubting conscience with committed acting and secure and well nuanced singing. As to the ending? Yes it is cruel. The two pairs of lovers would need a lot more than some Relate Counselling Sessions before they got it together with one partner, or even another!

The reduced orchestra played crisply under, I assume, Justin Doyle. Why assume? Because the programme’s presentation and layout preferred style over function. There was no list of singing roles, one had to get to page twenty-six for the cast biographies to discern who was singing what, and it was only by looking at the dates given in the biographies that we could work out if Doyle or Andrew Parrott was conducting. And if the guy who took the bow was Andrew Parrott, he has either discovered the secret of eternal youth or a magic cream! Given the programme’s cover, with its title written in mixed scientific symbols and letters, then maybe the latter was indeed the case.

There’s an important point here though. Interesting as the General Director’s programme essay, The School For Lovers might be, I’d guess that most people prefer the first programme page to list the production team and the performers; not least, the conductor on the day of the performance they have come to see and hear. Similarly, perhaps the programme contents, which currently include essays on Moral Geometry and diagrams of human genes should stick closer to the matters on stage. Some background and lists of recorded performances are fine, but so much irrelevant padding adds to punters feeling the cost even more in these straightened times. Certainly the less-experienced members of the audience, some of the space might have been better utilised with mentions - or even descriptions - of the individual vocal numbers listed in turn.

Gripe over. I went away invigorated by this performance of one of the lyric theatres greatest works. Recognising the enigma of human relationships at its heart, and giving it something of a new slant without becoming too way out is Albery’s and his designer’s great achievement here. The downside seemed to be a lack of laughter among the audience at other than the obvious moments involving magnets, poison and a lawyer. Another reason for titles, I’d say.

Massenet, Werther

If the genesis of Così, except than in the devious imagination of the licentious Da Ponte perhaps, is much debated, there is no such doubt about the basis for Massenet’s Werther. Firmly based on Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, as it is known in this country, Massenet started work on the opera in 1886 only to have it rejected as too gloomy; and hardly lightened by having children practice Christmas Carols in July either. Paris was recovering from the traumas of the sieges of 1870, with the fall of the Second Empire, and of 1871 when the Communards burnt the Tuileries, the Hȏtel de Ville and the Palais de Justice. It was a city heading back to all the decadent immoral glory that Dumas knew there in the1840s and which stimulated the play that would produce Verdi’s La Traviata. Although Offenbach had long gone from the city, lighter subjects were preferred. After being turned down in Paris however, Werther was eventually premiered, in German, in Vienna in 1892 and France first saw it a French version at Paris’s Lyrique Theatre the following year.

Hildegard Bechtler’s sets in Acts I and II were a delight to see; the perfect pastoral idyll, whilst those for the final two acts were just as well conceived and realised. Donald Maxwell acted the avuncular Magistrate as to the manner born while trying to rehearse the children in their premature carols. Richard Burkhard and Joshua Ellicott’s Johan and Schmidt and played and sang with commitment and made a significant contribution to the evolving story. Dressed like all the participants in costumes that appeared 1950s or so, and with pinched waist accentuating her small trim figure, Flur Wyn’s secure high register and natural acting, made her the perfect younger sister. Peter Savidge’s Albert came over as more of a wimp than usual although Massenet really surrounded the role with high drama for Charlotte and Werther, without giving Albert much to get his teeth into.

At the end of the day what makes a performance of Werther spark is the orchestra and the two lovers. My heart sank as indulgence was asked for Alice Coote’s Charlotte. She had been ill with swine flu and had withdrawn from the performances in Nottingham the previous week. Charlotte is one of the biggest sings in the repertoire for Alice Coote’s strong but essentially lyric mezzo, with the dramatic demands of Acts III and IV set against the composer’s concentrated orchestration and the demands of high emotion from the singer. But Cheshire born, and also trained at the Royal Northern College of Music, Alice nurtured in her early career by Opera North, was not going to pass home turf by. She eased her way in the first two acts with security but then, as the music moved from the essentially lyric to the wholly dramatic, Richard Farnes set fire to the orchestra and Massanet’s textures. In Charlotte’s confrontations with Paul Nilon’s Werther, first in her bedroom and after he has shot himself and is deing, Alice Coote’s singing rose to a marvellous dramatic and tonal pitch. It was not only the vocal lustre, but dramatic expression and emotional variety expressed in her singing that dominated the performance. Her portrayal in these two last acts was a veritable tour de force. No wonder she looked absolutely shattered at curtain.

Alice Coote’s achievements would not have had the impact they did without a Werther to match. The role can be sung by a lyric or heavier voice, but it must be one with the sheer heft to match the drama, particularly when the conductor lets the orchestra off the leash. Paul Nilon’s instrument might not have the vocal lustre or mellifluousness of Alice Coote’s, but his dramatic and expressive involvement and singing of the words was every bit as good.

I always prefer opera to be sung in the language of composition, so the prosody of the words and music are the match the composer intended. Whilst I realise this is not a view widely held, this performance illustrated the principal to perfection. Yes, the singers were English, and they were singing in French. But, with the music under the control of a master magician on the rostrum, titles for all to see, sets and production which allowed the story to unfold without obscure concepts, the resultant whole was an experience far too rarely seen on the English opera stage. It was fully appreciated by a well-attended audience for what is after all not a mainstream work.

Janácek, The Adventures of Mr Broucek.

Finishing the works presented on  thetour was one performance of The Adventures of Mr Broucek, often translated as Excursions rather than Adventures. It is an eccentric plot deriving from two novels, The Excursions of Mr Broucek to the 15th Century and The Excursions of Mr Broucek to the Moon. This translates into an opera of two halves where singers play multiple characters with many costume changes and similarly the music seems to be in two distinct idioms. John Filljames’ production, is shared with Scottish Opera; sound economics as I doubt this is a piece for regular revival. This visually imaginative production with many cinematic effects starts off with a timescale clock following a journey through interstellar space which eventually focuses on the moon’s surface and introduces the first act. The focus here was on the American moon landings with film of space-suited astronauts planting a flag on the lunar surface and other people in space suits inhabiting Broucek’s tipsy stupor. The trouble with this approach was that it detracted from the identification of the roles and particularly the relationship of the young lovers portrayed by the imposing figure of Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and the more diminutive Anne Sophie Duprels, whose costume, if it could be called that, did nothing for her at all. This costume was, however, more than adequate compared to Donald Maxwell’s outfit as Shiny Radiance which would have been just about acceptable in a rugby changing room; where his plump figure might have qualified him a place in the front row.

1968 and 69 were the time-bases, and 68 was the year of the ‘Prague Spring’ of course. The cinematic effects introducing the second act included the ominous Soviet tanks on the boulevards of that lovely city. But despite this look back to near history, the production runs very true to Janácek as the sozzled Broucek falls down into the tunnels supposed to exist below the Vikarka inn where he is landlord. His stupor ridden journey goes back to medieval Prague and some very realistic scenes of patriotic fervour that were more successful than those of 1968. The music in this second act was distinctly more lyrical than that of Act I which is more in keeping with the composer’s Katya Kabanova.

This well cast performance was dominated by John Graham-Hall as Broucek. His modern suit made him look even taller and more angular than usual whilst his performance dominated all others in its quality and commitment as well as diction, good as the others were. He is without doubt the character tenor of our time and without him this uneven work would have been much less comfortable for the audience than it was. This was partly the fault of John Fulljames’s production in Act e. Someone put it to me, that without the titles it would have been utterly incomprehensible. In the pit Martin André managed the disparate demands of the two acts and held the ensemble together with some distinction.

The Opera North tour continues to Theatre Royal, Newcastle, 17 – 21 November whilst the company’s Winter season will commence on January 15th, 2010 in Leeds with a revival of Phyllida Lloyd’s 1993 production of La Bohème. Set in the slightly grimy Paris of the 1950s it is revived by Peter Relton. The performances feature Anne Sophie Duprels as Mimi and the Turkish tenor Bulent Bezduz as her lover. The second offering of the Winter season will be Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore opening in Leeds on  January 30th. There will also be further performances of Cosi fan tutte.

These three operas will tour to:-

The Lowry, Salford Quays, 23 – 27 February 2010

Theatre Royal, Newcastle, 2 – 6 March

Theatre Royal, Nottingham, 9 – 13 March

- with two performances each of Bohème and Ruddigore and one of Cosi fan tutte.


Robert J Farr

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