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SEEN AND HEARD UK OPERA REVIEW
Opera North On Tour: The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. November 2 - 6. 2010 (RJF)
Franz Lehar: The Merry Widow. (1905)
Benjamin Britten : The Turn of the Screw. (1954)
Jonathan Dove : The Adventures of Pinocchio (2007). Not reviewed.
In the introduction to my review of Opera North’s Summer Tour (see review), in noting the continued practice of reprising a popular work from the previous season, sometimes with cast changes, I commended this as economic sense in the then very obvious climate of cuts ahead. I also noted it helped to build up reserves, which, in Opera North’s case, allows for more new productions this year than might be expected and certainly exceeds those of the other UK regional companies who are not only having to reduce tour seasons, but also having to reschedule productions seen only a few years before. My fears about future budgets are the focus of General Director Richard Mantle’s introductory welcome in the programme. We now know the scale of the arts budget cut but, as he outlines, not how and where it will fall. He stresses the importance of corporate and private individual support for Opera North and will doubtless also be aware of the contribution of paying audience to the coffers via the number of seats sold. This is particularly germane as a stock of productions are built up that will have welcome revival potential in the coming hard times such as those of Peter Grimes and Madama Butterfly.
This has not necessarily been in the forefront of minds even in the recent past when my ears have often been assaulted by paying friends in the audience venting their feelings about the rather off beat production they have just seen. The Arts Council subsidy might wish to promote extension of the repertoire, but sometimes it can be seen as being used to massage the egos of producers and designers out to make a name. I note also that the first offering of this tour, Lehar's ever-popular Merry Widow is a co-production with Opera Australia as was the rather wacky Romeo and Juliette (see review). In the not too distant past productions were often shared by our own regional companies with effect that I have reviewed the same production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore by both Opera North and Welsh National Opera in the past few years. With no overlap of touring venues this is fine. Yet such economic sense seems to have passed by recently with all three major regional companies staging Carmen as is the Royal Northern School of Music and involving three new productions in all; I had assumed that sets and costumes were the major items of cost in a new production and sharing helped budget, preferably without the cost of shipping halfway across the world.
Back to the realistic present, or that of a century ago in the opulent times of Paris in 1905 in Lehar’s operetta of sexual intrigue and threatened budgets that are the basis of his Merry Widow. This first offering of Opera North’s new touring season year is of a work which W.N.O. also staged a new production in 2005. As this production is infinitely superior in nearly every respect it could be considered to negate my argument for shared productions within the UK. The set is essentially the same over the whole of the work with changes being via drops and the movement of six statues, of elegant and nicely proportioned naked ladies, around the stage. In fact my only criticism of the staging is that these statues would have been more appropriate in the conflated second and third acts when the widow Hanna sets her party to tempt Danilo from Maxime’s and in the latter venue itself which was played without a break, the change of venue being represented by an illuminated drop through which participants stepped, as the supposed entrance. This invention of set and production is the work of producer Giles Havergal and his set designer Leslie Travers, the duo responsible for the similarly colorful and imaginative production of Andre Messager’s Véronique at Buxton in 2009 (see review). The costumes of the Paris scenes were very much period fin de siecle opulent and extravagant elegance that followed in that city thirty years after France had recovered from the disasters of the siege of Paris and the end of the second Empire. The Pontevedrian contingent, and particularly Baron Zeta, were costumed in a kind of Slav come Turkish, wholly appropriate. What was obviously saved from the budget on the set has been spent on the costumes and then some I guess. Quite, quite magnificent are the only true comment I can make.
With the work being sung in English the matter of translation was by Kit Hesketh-Harvey, another of the Buxton team. There were added gags to the spoken dialogue and some changes to sequence, this is after all operetta or opera comique, the changes produced healthy laughs form the audience. Indicating the clarity, which was also true of the male cast when singing. Here, I come in a manner to another team effort as the cast was largely assembled from what might be considered the Opera North regular premier league team. Outstanding in his acted, spoken and sung portrayal was Geoffrey Dolton as Baron Zeta, the ambassador charged with getting Hanna married to a genuine Pontevedrian, the chosen spouse to be being the dilettante womanizer Danilo, who had earlier had a dalliance with the lady and who tended to spend too much of his time admiring the ladies figures at Maxime’s rather than his own financial state. The tall elegant William Dazeley has the ideal figure du part. I made no secret as to admiration of his singing in the lyric baritone role of Rodrigo in last summer’s revival of Don Carlos, (see review) reckoning him as giving perhaps the outstanding vocal portrayal of the cast. Rodrigo is certainly stronger meat than some of the lighter roles he had sung with Opera North previously. I stick to my view that his voice is now wasted in this oeuvre being somewhat stretched at the top but full bodied and expressive lower down and evidenced when he has to convey emotions as Danilo has to with Hanna in the last scene.
Of the three tenor roles the most important is that of Camille de Rosillon who is involved with Baron Zeta’s wife; the Merry Widow sub plot is also about who is cuckolding whom! Allan Clayton who I admired as a Mozart tenor in previous work with Opera North sang this role. His voice is growing and now has that important edge of strength. Being able to do cartwheels is no bad virtue for a tenor either, as long as he remains more like Florez than Pavarotti, en fugure that is. The supporting tenor roles were well acted and adequately sung.
The proof of a Merry Widow is the title role itself and that of Valencienne, wife of Zeta. She is fancying, to say the least, Camille, and who has to be rescued from an embarrassing rendezvous in a summerhouse nicely flown into place, good design again. As Hanna, and making her debut with the company, Stephanie Corley was something of a disappointment. Her Vilja lied was not well supported vocally nor the phrases caressed, whilst her diction left something to be desired making following the detail difficult for those not intimate with the story. She did, however, look very elegant and danced and moved well to give a convincing acted portrayal. As Valencienne, Amy Freston, with a string of Opera North successes behind her, and to which she added another success at Buxton this year, was a shade too small voiced. Her lean soubrette soprano cut through the textures to some extent and her spoken dialogue came over well.
But herein is the dilemma. In Wales, Welsh National Opera give titles in English and Welsh, whatever the language being sung. They do not inhibit the audience following the story, who always manage to laugh at appropriate points when it is a comedy, here there were moments of amusements that were lost because the sopranos in particular found difficulty enunciating consonants on the vocal line, a problem accentuated when a translation is involved or when a conductor lets the orchestra of the leash. There was no chance of excessive orchestral dynamics under Wyn Davies’s hands. His vitality on the rostrum is used to convey pulse and idiom and there are few, if any, operating in this genre who do it better, he is far to often under appreciated in the UK. As to Amy Frestons Valencienne, I will forgive a lot for a soprano who can cartwheel and do the splits; memories of high wire acrobatics in A love of three oranges years ago.
The second new production of the 2010-2011 season is Britten’s enigmatic opera The Turn of the Screw. In the programme introduction for this opera Richard Mantle notes that 2013 is the centenary of Ben Britten’s birth. Referring back to the acclaimed 2006 Opera North production of Peter Grimes he hopes that the anniversary year will see a revival of that work and also the Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. More importantly, he is open that discussions are under way about the possibility of new productions of the composer’s other operatic works such as Death in Venice, The Rape of Lucretia and even Billy Budd, with the inevitable caveat of funds allowing. Well, with the scimitar of savage budget cuts hanging over our operatic companies we must not hold our breath. However, given these aspirations it is something of a surprise that Opera North chose The Turn of the Screw, one of the composer’s most enigmatic works and one renowned as difficult to stage for a production. The fact that Mantle considers it a consummate masterpiece and that Opera North had never staged it would also been of consideration.
The Turn of the Screw was premiered at Venice’s wonderful theatre La Fenice, so tragically burned out in the early 1990s and now rebuilt in all it opulence and character. Also in the programme is an essay by Myfanwy Piper, the work’s librettist, about Britten’s ideas on the use of Henry James’s text with its complex language and how it might fit his then musical style. Opera North faced the challenge by giving the manifest and widely recognized production and design challenges to two youngish tyros, Alessandro Talevi and Madeleine Boyd, with the all-important lighting of their creation to Matthew Haskins. Their creation whilst not standing alongside that for the Peter Grimes referred to, takes the spooky story at face value and creates the visual ambience for the story to unfold. Opera North did insure themselves somewhat by having their Music Director, Richard Farnes, on the rostrum to draw so many moods and tonalities form his thirteen instrumentalists.
If the Merry Widow was built round a core of Opera North regulars so to was this production. The near impossible task of portraying The Governess, one of the most difficult roles to convey in the Britten oeuvre, and who arrives to take charge of two highly stressed children, was given to Elizabeth Atherton, a recent Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte. She rose to the challenge to give a sung and acted interpretation of the highest order. Yvonne Howard, another Opera North regular, took the part of the rather starchy and unimaginative housekeeper, albeit rather less challenging, with considerable aplomb. The act one duet between the two was a highlight in interaction, but also revealed a question to me. Understanding the content of that interaction is vital as to what follows. But did Britten write the supporting music so that it could be comprehended via words or by the mood and feeling of his music? Despite the best efforts of the two singers the words were largely unintelligible as the orchestral colouring and tonal structure made it so, despite the tight rein Richard Farnes kept on his players. As the dead who appear as ghosts, or figments of the imagination of disturbed children or neurotic adults, are roles that need to be seen and heard. Giselle Allen last season's Rusalka (see review)sang the previous Governess, Miss Jessell, who appeared pregnant with the malign dead Quint’s child in the second act. She knows how to get the best dramatic effect vocally by colour and dynamic and did so here. Benjamin Hulett, a British tenor who has established his career in Germany, was making his Opera North and role debuts as Prologue and Peter Quint. He was a little nervous in the loneliness of the former but found his strength, vocally and acting as the baleful Quint.
The opera - including its undertones - is built round the relationship of the children and what had gone before and what hey had seen, heard and learned. The boy expelled from school, the girl acting out sexual activity with puppets, are manifestations of their disturbed minds. The girl was sung by Fflur Wyn, in reality a woman in her twenties. She did convey a young girl and this one with all her problems particular well. If she was to a degree upstaged by her brother sung by the thirteen year old James Micklethwaite, she might have heeded that well-known adage of actors, never share the stage with children or animals. He was outstanding in his well-tuned singing and committed acting. One never knows how a boys voice will be after puberty overtakes them. One can only hope his musicality, commitment and stage savvy find a good career for him.
The entire goings-on in this disturbing story, with too many undertones for comfort, unfolded in sets that I found convincing. Add the musical contribution of Richard Farnes and his reduced band and, if not matching Opera North’s acclaimed Peter Grimes, it served Britten, the company and a good audience for a little known work, well.
The Opera North visit to The Lowry concludes with two performances of the acclaimed The Adventures of Pinocchio seen in 2007 (see review) and available on DVD.
Opera North's autumn tour continues with the same sequence of operas at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle from November 9th before concluding at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham from November 16th. There will be performances of The Merry Widow and Pinocchio at the company's home base at The Grand Theatre, Leeds from December 17th to 31st.
Opera North will be back at The Lowry on March 1st with new productions of Bizet’s Carmen and the British premiere of Weinberg’s The Portrait. There will also be further performances of The Merry Widow to cheer up any Winter blues.
Robert J Farr.