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Puccini, Suor Angelica  and Ravel, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges : (Premiere), Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, David Jones, conductor, Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, 1.7.2009 (GPu)

Conductor: David Jones
Director: Stuart Barker
Movement Director: Caroline Lamb
Set / Costume Designers: Medard Mankos and Katerina Pazderova
Lighting Designer: Jamie Spirito

Puccini, Suor Angelica

Sister Angelica: Elin Pritchard
The Princess: Ting Wang
The Abbess: Llio Evans
The Monitor: Justina Gringyte
The Lay Sisters: Adriana Copland
The Mistress of the Novices: Catherine O’Carroll
Sister Osmina: Helen Appleton
Sister Genovieffa: Joanne Mayling
A Novice: Victoria Quigley
Sister Dolcina; Amy Whittle
The Nursing Sister: Rhian Lois Evans
The Alms Sisters: Andrina Vrcic, Reisha Adams
Sister Angelica’s Son: Joseff Collins

Ravel, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges

Conductor: David Jones
Director: Stuart Barker
Movement Director: Caroline Lamb
Set / Costume Designers: Vicki Male and Rachel Wingate
Puppets: Emily Soord
Lighting Designer: Jamie Spirito

The Child: Catrin Lewis
Mama: Catherine O’Carroll
The Armchair: Osian Gwynn
The Bergère Chair: Sophie Kirk
The Clock: Gareth Treseder
The Teapot: Jorge Navarro-Colorado
The Chinese Cup: Hannah Robins
The Fire: Adriana Copland
Cinder: Anna Koukoullis
A Herdsman: Tom Bates
A Country Lass: Janet Kan
The Princess: Amt Whittle
Arithmetic: Jorge Navarro-Colorado
The Black Cat: Osian Gwynn
The White Cat: Sunniva Stiansen
A Tree: Nicholas Boyd-Vaughan
The Dragonfly: Justina Gringyte
The Nightingale: Marian Hull
The Bat: Llio Evans
The Squirrel: Tom Bates
The Frog: Jorge Navarro-Colorado
The Owl: Anna Koukoullis

The first thing to say is that this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of opera, both musically and theatrically. One scarcely expects perfection (or even a very close approach to it) from student productions. Inevitably there will be some weaknesses – a few individual singers are likely to be overparted, there will generally be some problems of diction and occasionally of musical idiom. Against such – almost inevitable problems – one can often balance a few special performances, a general air of enthusiasm and commitment and a kind of freshness which the professional opera house doesn’t always offer. This striking double bill needed less understanding tolerance, less sympathetic adjustment of the balance of strengths and weaknesses than is usually required in such cases. Naturally, neither performance would pass muster by the highest professional standards; but what both productions did was give the audience a very fair representation of the merits of the opera concerned – indeed, in some ways, they did so more comprehensively than many professional operatic production so these days.

The talented students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama clearly benefit enormously from having their work overseen by experienced mentors. The work of the singers is much enhanced by the perceptive work of so experienced a conductor as David ones, who has conducted operas for Scottish Opera, Lyric Opera Dublin, English National Opera, Lucerne Opera, Welsh National Opera and others. His judgement of tempo and dynamics was well conceived so as to allow these young singers to be heard at their best.

Both productions were the work of Stuart Barker – and how good they were, intelligent, ungimmickily responsive to text and music (how pleasant to be reminded of just how much can be achieved by a director who honestly respects the work, without being at all lazy or passive). He too has a long list of credits on his CV, including work for English Touring Opera, European Chamber Opera and (most extensively and most relevantly) with British Youth Opera.

Puccini’s Suor Angelica has too often and too easily been dismissed as “sentimental” – Charles Osborne, for example, is content to say that, when heard as part of Il trittico, it offers “an hour of sweetness and sentimentality between the brutal tragedy of Il tabarro and the not entirely un-brutal humour of Gianni Schicchi”. But put the work in its context and its “sentimentality” makes complete sense; it is a product of its time and place when most popular Italian attitudes towards Catholicism in general, and towards nuns and miracles in particular, were precisely what a northern European (or for that matter an Australian!) sensibility would regard as sentimental. Here, as in his other operas, Puccini is very much a composer who reflects his milieu. In any case, Suor Angelica is surely a little subtler than some of its critics have allowed, especially at its close. Giavacchino Foranzo’s text and Puccini’s setting of it leave open several possible ways of understanding the end of the work. Has Angelica died, and been admitted to heaven and reunited with her son, so that the last scene is set in heaven? Or is it a visionary promise of what will happen? Or the fantasy of a disturbed and dying woman, a piece of mere wish-fulfilment?

The set for this production, a plain area with cloisters to the left, imagined as leading to the church, a patch of herbs and flowers for Angelica to tend (and from which to obtain her fatal poison), with heavy rear doors to help support the sense of enclosure and its associated pressures, was both admirably functional and evocative. The lighting was also purposeful and atmospheric, though perhaps rather more might have been made of the sunlight on the fountain, which matters so much to the sisters.

In the opening scenes the mixture of humour and menace, the sense of the nunnery’s hierarchies of power and its jealousies, was well presented – its triviality (and its implicit sense of threat, the sense of this as a place of imprisonment) was disturbingly broken in Angelica’s first sustained solo, her contribution to the discussion about desires, which is memorable for its affirmation that “la morte è vita belle”, the revelation to us that she is in the words of the sisters (for they recognise it) “tanto tormentata” even if she appears calm and resigned on the surface. Retrospectively, we might even hear Angelica’s words as a kind of death wish. As early as this first relatively brief solo passage, Elin Pritchard brought a considerable dramatic intensity to Angelica. Throughout she conveyed a very real sense of Angelicas inner conflicts and he effort of will needed to keep them under control. In her ‘debate’ with the Princess she was very moving as, indeed, she was in ‘Senza mamma’. Her voice is already quite full and rich, though with an occasional shrillness at the top. In most respects, however, she was able to cope with the technical demands of the role, a role in which she was dramatically very convincing. Only at the very end did her passion rather impair her control of her voice. That difficult balance will surely come with more experience, though, and this was a promising interpretation.

Elsewhere, Ting Wang initially struggled to inhabit the bleak austerity of the music Puccini first gives her, but grew into a plausible reading of the character (and one with unexpected depths). In truth, Ting Wang’s voice is still too young and light for the role, but in the ways in which she persuaded one that the Princess did have some real feelings and that she was suppressing them in maintenance of what she understood as the nature of her caste and in defence of family ‘honour’, made for a more interesting figure than one sometimes gets, more interesting than the simply inhuman Princesses of some performances. Joanne Mayling was a sweet-toned Sister Genovieffa and the ensemble work of the rest of the cast was generally very satisfying. All were helped by some largely effective orchestral playing – the whole an object lesson in how much can be found, musically and theatrically, in an accomplished work, even if its sentiments and attitudes are currently very unfashionable, if one resists the temptation to drown it in irony or make it more obviously ‘relevant’ (thankfully a friend who planned a production based on Prisoner Cell Block H never carried out his plan – but I dare say somebody did somewhere!). In its relatively straightforward fashion this production actually illuminated the work – for which all concerned deserve warm praise.

A first reaction is that L’Enfant et les Sortilèges makes a pretty unlikely companion piece for Suor Angelica. Seeing them together however, and reflecting on the experience, one becomes aware of connections and analogies: both are concerned with cruelty and the lack of compassion, with love and penitence, for example (as well as, in oddly different ways, having things to say about mothers and daughters). Perhaps, in general, the young singers found Ravel’s idiom harder to adopt and certainly its sheer diversity presents problems rather different from the relative uniformity of Puccini’s writing. Ravel’s opera was sung in an English translation by Katherine Wolff, while Suor Angelica was sung in the original Italian, but the complexities, and often the sheer pace, of Ravel’s music meant that diction here was often less clear than it had been in the Puccini.

A pacy, constantly inventive production articulated the humour, the beauty and the occasional fear, of the opera’s fable in a thoroughly engaging fashion – figures emerged from furniture and fireplaces, delightful puppets and some charming choreography by Caroline Lamb – the whole full of fantasy and magic, by turns menacing and cute in its evocation of the world of dream / nightmare. The orchestral playing perhaps responded more fully to the tartness of Ravel’s score than to its occasional passages of lushness, but it captured much of the music’s alternations of the faux-innocent and the sardonically witty and its aural painting of objects and events. Catrin Lewis sustained the role of the boy well, registering his changes of mood (and morality) in generally convincing fashion. Most other roles make only relatively brief contributions and a number were doubled here; Amy Whittle made a beguiling princess; the countertenor voice of Tom Bates was impressive as A Herdsman and The Squirrel; Osian Gwynn and Sunniva Stiansen caught the eye and ear as a pair of amorous cats. But, essentially, the success of L’Enfant et les Sortilèges depended upon the work of the whole ensemble, and that didn’t only include those on stage or in the pit – Emily Soord’s puppets made a significant contribution too.

All in all, a rewarding evening – more so than many experienced in far grounder surroundings than the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff and featuring far more celebrated names.

Glyn Pursglove


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