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Opera North On Tour: The Lowry Theatre, Salford, UK 2 -6.6. 2009 (RJF)

Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail
(1782). Sung in English as The Abduction from the Seraglio.
Verdi, Don Carlos. Opera in Four Acts. Sung in English. (1884 version)
Paradise Moscow (composed as Cheryomushki, 1958). Produced by David Pountney in his translation and presented in the version with extra music by Gerard McBurney originally commissioned by Pimlico Opera.

The Abduction from the Seraglio

When I saw the proposed productions for Opera North’s spring programme, involving the names of recognised operatic works, by three renowned composers from three distinct historical periods and genres, my first thoughts were that in its thirtieth year the Company had given up the musical trivialities of earlier in their anniversary year, given up its childish things, so to speak and had got down to proper opera at last. I was to discover just how wrong I could be on the first evening when the season at The Lowry opened with Mozart’s Singspiele, Die Entführung aus dem Serail Directed by Tim Hopkins in his own sets and sung in English as The Abduction from the Seraglio.

The work was originally composed for presentation at the opera company that Emperor Joseph II established in Vienna in order to promote musical comedy in the German language and with spoken dialogue. The Emperor’s venture opened at the Burgtheater in 1778 and Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s contribution to the crusade moving from opera seria, to this attempt at popular entertainment. Mozart also hoped it establish him in Vienna and the Emperor’s Court. In thi work however, Mozart does not eschew formal musical forms in pursuit of simplicity nor hesitate to include elaborate arias and complex textures in the orchestra. The Emperor’s aspirations for his theatre were dead by 1788 and Mozart, his own aspirations at Court left unrealised, had moved on to greater things in association with Da Ponte. Meanwhile, Die Entführung aus dem Serail remained his first outstanding success. Its libretto by Gottlob Stephanie was an adaptation of an earlier work and sought to benefit from Viennese society’s captivation with the exotic settings of the Ottoman Empire.

Given Die Entführung’s popularity in its own time it is surprising that it so rarely features in the repertoire in Britain. It may be that Mozart’s great trilogy, Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte and, later Die Zauberflöte, so far outclasses the merely good that it is mistaken by some as inferior and not deserving of room space. I do not think it has been seen in the regional areas of the U.K since the Glyndebourne Tour of 1997 and, ten years before that, in another contentious Opera North production by Graham Vick, shared with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. In the light of the work’s background, it was no surprise that this production by Tim Hopkins was updated to the present as is now the vogue, particularly, with Opera North. What is also becoming a more questionable directorial habit is the addition of words missing from the original libretto. This kind of insertion is done wholesale in this production with a ‘mute’ explaining - surely a contradiction in language - the story as she sees fit, especially at the start of each of the three acts. There are also other, brief, interjections of the plot via the surtitle screen.

The updating is not confined to dress but also of style and venue with holograms of skyscrapers and the Pasha’s prisoners escaping by airplane. The ambiguity of the women towards their captors, particularly Constanze, is highlighted by her quick snogs with the Pasha. Blonde is more straightforward in her lack of appreciation of Osmin’s advances. But what we are to make of the third act where Constanze is joined in bed by Belmonte and the Pasha in turn, while Blonde, Pedrillo and Osmin seem to be making out on the latter’s desk, I simply do not know. By then, the new jokes, with the mute dressed as a Panda and the escapees running back and to across the stage accompanied by often rude electronic noises played from the stage, had degenerated into slapstick and beyond. In this farcical last act, Pedrillo was dressed as Batman with Blonde as Robinette perhaps? Yet the Act II set and lighting had been a delight which, with some excellent singing and orchestral playing, reminded us that there was a great opera in there somewhere trying valiantly to get out. This Director really must, I suggest, learn to respect his composer’s integrity as well as giving his creative ideas free rein; a state that need not inhibit creativity. As it was, he seemed like a child in a toyshop unable resist the temptations. That being said though, there were many in the audience who found the show, burlesque, vaudeville, slapstick or whatever, greatly to their liking. Others, perhaps an older generation or people who knew the work, were thoroughly bemused.

For the traditionalists the virtues came with the musical contribution about which there can be few quibbles. In the pit, Rory Macdonald conducted with lightness and sparkle. Of the singers, there was no more beautiful voice and singing in the cast than that of the Australian Elena Xanthoudakis as Blonde. Like the other four young detainees of Pasha Selim she also looked the part. As Constanze, Kate Valentine sailed through the fearsome coloratura demands of Martern aller Arten although, like every soprano before her, she couldn’t make the words count. Perhaps surtitles would have helped here and also obviated the need for the talking mute, whether in Panda disguise or Turkish robes. Alan Clayton was a vocally flexible Belmonte lacking only a little mellifluousness and head voice to match his elegant Mozartian style and good diction. Manchester trained Nicholas Sharratt sang a well schooled serenade whilst another R.N.C.M. graduate, Clive Bailey, had all the low notes for Osmin if not the ideal fruitiness in his strong lean bass voice.

With the Welsh National Opera scheduled to present a new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail in the coming autumn season, perhaps the work is coming back into fashion. That production is billed as being set on the Orient Express, a Harem on wheels! Watch this space.

Don Carlos

There could be no doubt about the genre of the first of the two revivals of the season, Verdi’s Grand Opera, Don Carlos. This was a his longest and grandest opera when composed, in French, for the Paris Opéra to run alongside the Great Exhibition held there in 1867. Complete with the de rigueur ballet it was too long to allow the Parisians to get their last trains home to the suburbs and the composer ditched some music before the premiere on March 11th. When translated into Italian it was also too long for his native land, particularly when the shorter more cogent Aida arrived in 1871, also complete with ballet. Faced with theatres butchering his work by ill planned excisions, Verdi tinkered with Don Carlos over the next sixteen years before coming up with a four-act version with reworked scenes and music safeguarding the logical sequence of the story. For these scenes he also had a new words, written in French before being translated into Italian, at the premiere at La Scala in 1884. For those interested, the story of these alterations is told in detail in Part IV of my article on Verdi’s life, operas and their recordings. (see review).

The 1884 version dominated performances of Don Carlos until revivals of the five act original at the Met in 1950 and particularly, Covent Garden’s production by Visconti in 1958 conducted by Giulini. Even in its shorter form this is a big undertaking for a regional company. This production dates from 1993, a halcyon period in Opera North’s history with productions of Boris Godonov, The Thieving Magpie, Jerusalem, Faust and La Gioconda appearing in the roster. Like some of those other productions Don Carlos requires some financial backing to mount and tour it: this revival has the assistance of the Peter Moores Foundation and is tied in to a recording to be issued by Chandos in their Opera in English Series, like the performances of Nabucco (see review) a few years back, and others recorded in association with English National Opera.

The original production by Tim Albery in sets by Hildegard Bechtler featured John Tomlinson as Philip with Opera North stalwarts Keith Latham, David Gwynne and Clive Bayley as Rodrigo, the Inquisitor and the Monk. By the first revival in 1998 Bayley had become the Inquisitor with Alastair Miles as Philip and Julian Gavin as Carlos; all three reprise these roles in this revival with Albery returning to refresh his creation.

Miles and Bayley have not dissimilar strong, but lean, bass voices. If Miles is not as steady as he was in 1997, any loss is compensated for in the depth of his interpretation, nowhere more so than in the King’s great soliloquy when, alone in his study in the night, he reflects and laments that his wife does not love him. The following duet with the Grand Inquisitor is one of Verdi’s greatest creations and with two such strong singers, and with Richard Farnes raising the orchestral temperature, the effect is hair raising. Julian Gavin’s Carlos is equally strong voiced, if anything too much so; more gentle phrasing and caressing of the vocal line would have not have come amiss. But the excellent diction of the male singers in particular made me acutely aware of the limitation on them of the poor relationship between the prosody of the English language and Verdi’s music. They had all to get their voices round the words while keeping true to the vocal line in what is accepted as a good translation by Andrew Porter. Verdi’s constant reversals to the French language for his revisions, meant writing in a manner for the words to sit on the music, much as the belcanto composers did half a century before. Somewhat perversely perhaps, given the excellent diction here and Richard Farnes’tight control over the dynamics, Opera North chose to experiment with surtitles for an opera sung in the vernacular here. I do welcome this development: it might have been unnecessary in this performance but in others in recent seasons such as Janacek’s thick orchestration and dynamics in Katya Kabanova, or even in parts of Peter Grimes, surtitles would have helped many of audience members present. 

Perhaps the outstanding vocal portrayal - added to convincing acting - was from William Dazely as Rodrigo. His rendering of the prison scene in which Rodrigo dies was expressive Verdian lyric baritone singing of the highest order. I noted in my review of his part in the Gershwin’s Of Thee I sing last autumn, that his mellifluous tone is easy on the ear and his acting both natural and committed (see review); Rodrigo is a role wholly appropriate to his gifts..

Janice Watson portrayed a rather glacial Elisabeth; not many marital comforts for Philip from her one suspects, more like a new case for Relate. She sang her last act aria however with silvery tone and well-drawn phrasing. Like all sopranos, she had difficulty with the vocal line and consonants and the surtitles then came into their own. Jane Dutton’s lyric mezzo brought a variety of vocal colour to f Eboli’s two demanding arias. Appropriately dressed in scarlet contrasting with the predominant dark of Philip’s Court, she navigated the vocal pitfalls of the Moorish song nicely while meeting the demands of O don fatale with commitment and dramatic accomplishment.

Tim Albery’s refreshment of his production was evident throughout, in terms of attention to detail, interaction between the singers and management of the chorus. Only in the last scene did I find some confusion at the point where the monk, face uncovered, enters to save Carlos and moves to a downstage tomb. Standing by the tomb, Elisabeth, refers to herself and Carlos not letting Rodrigo’s sacrifice go for nothing. Was this meant to be Rodrigo’s tomb, rather than Charles’ tomb in the cloister shown upstage in the first scene?  No matter, Albery’s management of the auto de fe scene was exemplary with an impressively staged pyre providing a real coup de theâtre.

Any minor quibbles about the singing or sets could easily be put aside because Richard Farnes’ conducting. His control of the sonorities and dynamics of the many scenes, whether lyrical or dramatic, as well as his shaping of Verdi’s sublime music was of the highest order. I shall listen to the forthcoming recording with interest and compare it with Giulini’s from 1958 (see review). My feeling, although without immediate direct comparison, was that Farnes was the better in balancing Verdi’s moods and dynamics.

The final contribution to a fine evening came from the committed singing and involved acting of the chorus. As one singer, sometime of La Scala and elsewhere in Italy and the world, put it to me, you do not get better involvement than from British choruses; that of Opera North comes high on the list.

Paradise Moscow / Cheryomushki

I missed out on David Pountney’s take on Shostakovich’s zany operetta Cheryomushki, staged in English as Paradise Moscow, when it had its Opera North premiere in 2001. I have only know the composer as a musical heavyweight constrained by Stalin and the Soviet dictatorship’s limits on musical creativity, literature, and even the laws of genetics meant bending to political dictate and theory. Seeing this entertaining production, the work seems to me to be an irreverent satire on the Soviet reconstruction of the decade of its composition and the thought passes my mind that it was a good job Stalin has died by then. This was a time when Russia, like Britain, was struggling to provide homes for an expanding population when housing stock had been devastated by the Second World War. Pehaps the story’s Cherry Estate was better built than some in England which were demolished within twenty years of construction. That’s as maybe though: this imaginative production deserves a longer life and a performance like one this would surely run on Broadway or Shaftsbury Avenue for months.

The Cherry Estate is where the opera’s characters are promised accommodation in new high flats. The politics of allocating space play a major part in the comedy; Party hierarchy first or others more needy? Like Opera North’s other ventures into lighter musical genres, like the Gershwin duo earlier this year, a good show comes out of having professional dancers in the principal roles, even if they are not fully trained opera singers. This matters not at all: their singing is always adequate and their dancing, stage technique and acting are all outstanding. Elsewhere, the genuine opera singers’ lighter voices are accommodated nicely, as is James Holmes idiomatic conducting of Gerard McBurney's version of the score.

Audiences for Opera North’s 30th anniversary year, at the Lowry at least, have often been sparse. Whether this due to recession, repertoire or production style will doubtless be examined by the company’s management. And despite cynical comments in the press about public support for opera in Manchester, following the floating of the Covent Garden (North) idea for the area, we might remember that only eighteen months or so ago, Opera North had played to full houses for imaginatively produced versions of Madama Butterfly and Peter Grimes. There is an enthusiastic audience for opera in and around Manchester and as it balances its books at the end of the year, the Company’s administration might properly ask if it is failing to and building up loyalty and not meeting the needs and expectations of its target audience. Many of my generation of golden oldies find whacky productions a bit of a trial. The desire to see works as they should be is a phrase that I often hear these day. And while opera performances clearly shouldn’t become mere museum pieces, the fact remains that some of us do find watching balaclavas and guns on stage, while the words are all about swords, just a little bit of a trial. Just a point.

Opera North continues its tour to the Theatre Royal Newcastle from June 9th and to Nottingham’s own Theatre Royal from the 16th before returning to its base at Leeds Grand Theatre for the season’s last week from June 23rd. The year’s repertoire concludes at the Festspielhaus, Bregenz, on August 15, 16 and 17 with Paradise Moscow and the Gershwin musicals Of Thee I Sing and Skin Deep.

Next year’s repertoire includes revivals of Così fan tutte, La Bohème and Rusalka alongside new productions of Massanet’s Werther, Janáčeks The Adventures of Mr Brouček, the G and S Ruddigore and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. The season will open in Leeds on September 11th and full preview will be published on this site in mid-August.

Robert J Farr

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