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SEEN AND HEARD UK OPERA REVIEW
Verdi. La Traviata (sung in Italian)
Puccini. Madama Butterfly (sung in Italian)
Berg. Wozzeck (sung in German)
My first thoughts at seeing the three operas presented in WNO’s Autumn touring season was that an appropriately title for the series might be To Verismo And Beyond. Then it struck me that even the most ardent opera buff might bridle at the word verismo being applied to Verdi. After all, verismo emerged in Italy just as Verdi was laying down his pen after the great masterpieces of Otello and Falstaff and is most often associated with the likes of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) and Puccini’s La Boheme (1894). By then, freed of the constraints of the overpowering influence of city and state censors, opera composers in Italy in particular, could write about real life in all its often-sordid and melodramatic reality.
But still, La Traviata (1853) as verismo? The libretto is based on Alexander Dumas’ semi- autobiographical play (and the novel) La Dame aux camellias which Verdi had seen this work in Paris whilst openly living there with his mistress Giuseppina, later to be his wife. He recognised that he might have problems with the censors at home, but nonetheless, with a commission for Venice’s premier theatre La Fenice in his pocket and with local boy Piave as the librettist, he persisted, depending on Piave’s influence in the right quarters to prepare the way. La Traviata is the only one of Verdi’s twenty-eight titled operas set to a contemporary subject and the composer was correct in worrying about censorship: to his chagrin La Fenice and set the contemporary work in an earlier period.
The composer had also been worried about the suitability of the principal soprano. At the end of Act 1, with its florid coloratura singing, Verdi was called to the stage for extended applause by by Act III the audience was much less sympathetic to a portly soprano portraying the consumptive Violetta and laughed loudly. The tenor singing Alfredo also was poor and the baritone Varesi, who had premiered both Macbeth and Rigoletto, considered Giorgio Germont beneath his dignity and made little effort. Verdi himself though the premiere a fiasco and while other theatres wanted to stage La Traviata, Verdi withdrew the work until he was satisfied about subsequent casting for the three principals. The administrator of Venice’s smaller San Benedetto theatre undertook to meet Verdi’s demands promising as many rehearsals as the composer wanted and to present the opera with the same staging and costumes as at the La Fenice premiere. Verdi revised five numbers in the score and on May 6th 1854 La Traviata was acclaimed with wild enthusiasm in the same city where it had earlier been a fiasco.
La Traviata is now recognised as one of the lyric theatres greatest music dramas. Its vocal demands on the heroine are considerable and very diverse between the three acts. The first act demands vocal lightness and coloratura flexibility, the second act needs a lyrical voice capable of wide expression and some power, coupled with verismo heft for its first scene. By Act III Violetta needs not only the power of a lyrico spinto voice, but also the vocal colour, dramatic intensity and histrionic ability beyond many singers.
Welsh National Opera had originally cast the Greek soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu as Violetta. She had featured in Zefferelli’s Rome production where the renowned director had gone to great trouble to see and audition singers who would looked perfect in age and appearance as well as vocal capability. Similarly, the company followed suit in casting the youthful looking young tenor Alfie Boe as Alfredo alongside her. But the best-laid plans……. Miss Papatanasiu took advantage of the break between the Cardiff season and the tour to return home to Greece, contracted an ear infection and was unable to fly back. The cover in the person of Naomi Harvey, last year’s Mimi, was summoned to Llandudno where she made a considerable impression, particularly in Act III where I have rarely seen such a convincingly acted and sung interpretation. Her Act I coloratura was less flexible but all the notes were still there, except for the unwritten high e flat at the end.
In Act III Ms Harvey really came into her own. As she recited the phrases of Teneste la promessa (You have kept your promise) while reading Germont’s letter indicating Alfredo’s return and in Addio del passato as she realises it’s all too late, the variety of colour, vocal intensity and nuance were particularly. She finished the act with distinction and vocal strength.
Miss Harvey’s interaction with the youthful Alfie Boe was also a feature of the performance. I have already extolled the virtues of their Parigi, o cara. Perhaps she missed having her back massaged in the intimacies of the opening of act two, as had been the practice in Glasgow in this shared production, but it did not show as the lovers gloried in their life together before the clouds of lack of money descended as Amina revealed Violetta’s sacrifice of her worldly goods to finance their love nest. Boe’s youthful looks and Italianate tenor were ideal for the role. All he needs vocally is some gentle caressing at the ends of phrases and his career as a lyric tenor will know no bounds, unless of course he is tempted by roles too heavy for him too early. He, or the director, overdid the drunken antics of Act II Scene 2 where Alfredo throws his winnings at the gaming table at Violetta and is denounced by his father. But this scene lacked electricity, as did Germont’s meeting with Violetta.
For me, the production’s only real fault lay with Dario Solari’s rather dry light toned baritone, more suited to Donizetti than Verdi I’d suggest. He certainly seemed to lack the sonority and variety of depth of vocal colour needed, and had nothing much to offer in body language as Germont softened towards Violetta in their Act II confrontation, despite Naomi Harvey’s well acted and sung portrayal in this scene. More help from the Andrea Licata on the rostrum, in terms of modulation and urgency of phrasing would also have been apt. However, he also had to accommodate the new Violetta and perhaps did not want to stretch her too far.
Eddie Wade as Baron Douphol and David Soar as Dr. Grenvil was casting from strength, although I did find the latter’s drunken acting and groping a little over the top, maybe producer influence again. The singing and acted involvement of the chorus was, as usual, first rate.
I have left comment on the production, by David McVicar, and sets by Tanya McCallin to the last. They have been well reported on this site (see review) and elsewhere from Glasgow where the production was first seen in this shared production; sound economics. The single set with imaginative use of curtains drapes, gauze and lighting was distinctly late nineteenth century Paris, a city that had fully recovered from the sieges of 1870, with the fall of the Second Empire, and 1871 when the Communards burnt the Tuileries, the Hotel de Ville and the Palais de Justice. It was a city back in all its decadent immoral glory, as Dumas knew it in the1840s. The costumes, with the women in full gowns and bustles, making bottom pinching somewhat difficult but not impossible, were resplendent. I was a little confused by the red camellias around. White, I thought, denoted sexual availability in the world of the courtesans of the demi monde, whilst red was the opposite, for obvious female hormonal reasons. No matter, the production was thoroughly realistic with many felicitous details, too rare these days. Add good acting, interacting and singing from two of the principals, it was one of the most enjoyable performances of La Traviata I have seen for some years.
Lightning never strikes twice. Well, not so in this WNO tour season with its scheduled diva Amanda Roocroft, being injured in a road traffic incident and having to withdraw. How long she will be out I do not know, but she is scheduled to be replaced by Judith Howarth from November 4th when the tour reaches Oxford. It is typical of the attention to detail paid to performances at WNO that the rest of the cast will return to Cardiff for more stage rehearsals before then. After my experiences with La Traviata and Il Barbiere it was no surprise that the cover, Anne Williams-King, slotted into the production as though there from the start. Of course there is less interaction between the characters in Butterfly than Traviata, but that between Butterfly and Pinkerton or Butterfly and Suzuki and the Consul are vital to the dramatic integrity of the opera. The meeting between Neal Davies superbly portrayed Consul and Butterfly herself, when he brings her the letter from Pinkerton, was exceptional dramatic theatre. This is not to understate the interplay between the caddish Pinkerton and Butterfly when they meet to prepare for the wedding ceremony and takes her off to the bridal chamber.
In Belasco’s play, Butterfly is only fourteen or fifteen years of age. In some opera recordings this has tempted interpreters of the role into affecting a younger voice. But a young sounding voice cannot deal with Puccini’s orchestration satisfactorily or fully express Butterfly’s the more stressful. This was particularly true in the first fifteen minutes or so at Llandudno when the conductor, Simon Phillippo, failed to get an early feel for Theatre Cymru’s difficult acoustic and caused the singers to go at full vocal throttle to be heard over the orchestra thus inhibiting more gentle phrasing, clarity and expressiveness. Anne Williams-King had enough heft to take this on board and she did not try to portray the ingénue of the play, as some sopranos have done. Her One fine day was sung with strength, dramatic nuance and tonal variety but it was in the vigil and her realisation of what Pinkerton was proposing that her interpretation reached the full height of exemplary characterisation. I have never before realised how Americanised Butterfly had tried to become until seeing her sitting in her rocking chair wearing Western dress in Act II as she did here - one of the many fine touches in this production.
That Russell Thomas, as Pinkerton, had to sing out so strongly at the beginning was a loss. As Tamino two years ago (see review) if he was love struck by Pamina’s portrait in Dies Bildnis he didn’t manage to sound it. Here his lyric tone had developed in both strength and expression although more variety would have been welcome in the love duet. Rarely have I seen and heard a tenor manage to portray Pinkerton’s brutal lasciviousness of Pinkerton as effectively. The fact that in this conflation of Puccini’s three versions, he does not get a final chance to invoke any sympathy was wholly appropriate. He took the hisses and boos at his curtain, like a pantomime baddy in the way they were intended and followed them with a broad grin that drew a deserved cheer. He is now singing major roles in the 3500 seat New York Metropolitan Opera, and as long as he does not over-force his voice, this is a tenor to watch.
Claire Bradshaw portrayed a sceptical Suzuki, and like Philip Lloyd Holtam as Goro, sang her role with a wide variety of expression and good diction, both singers making a significant contribution to the unfolding drama, which is revealed with exemplary clarity in this thirty-year-old production. The set was refurbished ten or so years ago and still provides a perfect setting for this opera especially when allied to imaginative lighting as here. The only problem remaining is how to replace it in due course. I’d suggest they put it away for a year or five: its quality is precious.
The final offering of this season was Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, premiered in 1925, the same year as Puccini’s Turandot. But, where Puccini has strident orchestrations and some atonal passages, the singing is based as much on melody as declamation. With Wozzeck, the atonality is deliberate and only occasional lyric passages, often between the five scenes of the three acts, have sung declamation. It’s a sharp contrast with the season’s other ‘verismo’ opera because Berg’s musical takes its atonality to expressionist limits and is always a challenge for the singers.
This Co -Production between Welsh National Opera and Komische Oper Berlin was first produced in Wales in February 2005 and director Richard Jones is well known for his somewhat whacky if illuminating productions. The opera is based on George Büchner’s play and Berg, who attended performances numerous times, was greatly taken by its political and sociological messages as well as its portrayal of Wozzeck’s mental state. The original shocked Berg’s friends at its depiction of common people in degraded circumstances and they found it unappealing. Berg may have found the co-genesis of the story in one of his father’s medical journals which reported on a case in which a real life Woyzeck pleadec diminished responsibility for murder because of paranoia and hallucinations, but lost. In Büchner’s play, and the original operatic version, Wozzeck is the barber in an army barracks. Here. Jones moves from the overtly military theme and sets the action in a baked bean factory, where the tedium of Wozzeck’s job and his treatment by the Captain and Doctor, as well as the deceit of his wife, is brought even more starkly into focus.
Lother Koenigs conducting a top form WNO orchestra was a major virtue of the performance, equalled by the singing of the soloists led by Christopher Maltman in the title role. The bel canto diva Giulietta Pasta was renowned for her three octave range but Maltman’s could not have been much less whilst battling the denser moments in Berg’s orchestration and maintaining good diction. It was a considerable achievement. As Wozzeck’s two-timing wife Marie, Polish soprano Wioletta Chodowicz sang with clarity, her sound cutting through the orchestration with great power. Clive Bayley’s lean bass and saturnine interpretation as the Doctor was chilling whilst Peter Hoare and Hubert Francis each strove manfully as the Captain and Drum Major.
The baked bean factory and its tedium had some harsh messages about the down trodden proletariat but I wonder how many of the sparse audience went away believing that this was Berg’s intended setting. Adventurous producers must often face this dilemma especially with rarely performed works. It would have be hard to understand why Wozzeck, having cut Marie’s throat a jagged baked bean tin lid, would then search a skip of bean cans looking for ‘a knife.’ No worse perhaps than seeing balaclava hooded mobsters with armalite rifles sing about drawing their swords.
WNO’s tour season continues to Liverpool from Wednesday 21st of October without including any Wozzeck. The remaining tour, with the programme as in Llandudno, goes to Oxford from November 3rd, to Bristol from November 10th, Birmingham from November 17th and concludes in Southampton from Tuesday November 24th.
Welsh National Opera’s new season will include revivals of Puccini’s Tosca, Bizet’s Carmen and a new production, in a most unusual and challenging setting I suggest, of Mozart’s singspiel The Abduction from the harem. It will begin in Cardiff on Saturday February 13th 2010 before travelling on to Llandudno from March 9th, Birmingham from March 16th and Southampton from March 23rd. In Milton Keynes there will single performances of TheAbduction from the harem andTosca on April 1st and 3rd respectively, before Plymouth from April 6th, two nights in Swansea on April 16th and 17th presenting Tosca and Carmen, with Bristol following from Tuesday 20th April.
Robert J Farr