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Welsh National Opera On Tour - Autumn 2010: Theatre Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno 18-20.11.2010 (RJF)


Richard Strauss. Ariadne auf Naxos. (Sung in German)

Ludwig van Beethoven. Fidelio. (Sung in German)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Magic Flute. (Sung in English).


In the introduction to my review of Opera North’s autumn tour 2010, I noted that their General Director, Richard Mantle, prefixed his programme’ welcome note’ with worries about how the Arts Council Grant to Regional Opera companies would pan out and impact future policy. Whilst thanking various people and bodies for their support for WNO efforts and productions, John Fischer, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of WNO, addresses none of those issues in his programme introductions, rather referring to their Eternal Light series with reference to producers, singers and the new Musical Director, Lothar Koenigs, who conducts two of the three operas presented this season. Most worrying for supporters of WNO in Llandudno, their northern outpost in the Principality, is the reduction, both this season and that of next March, in the offerings of only three performances instead of the previous five and which are available at the other touring venues. Is this an early consequence of budget constraints and a pattern for the future? I have seen no dropping off of support for the Company in Llandudno, but bums on seats are going to play a more important role in touring venues in the near future alongside a careful management of resources and particularly repertoire.

Often, Opera North manages its budget limitations by reprising a new production, or revival, over two consecutive seasons. WNO has tended to revive productions, after relatively much shorter periods, share productions or, as in the case with this season’s production of Fidelio and the recent Il Seraglio, (see review) buy in a ready made production from abroad. It seems the downside of this policy is you take what is on offer in totality and with all its limitations.

Whilst there is a link between two of the operas presented in both being able to be considered as light at the end of darkness or a less tenuous link to opera buffs would be the facts that all three are Germanic in origin, and although separated by over one hundred and twenty years have the commonality of being Singspiele. More tenuous, perhaps, the two could be considered rescue operas, a popular genre found also in Italian opera in the likes of Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie), Torvaldo e Dorliska and Matilde de Chabran. The singspiel, dominant in German opera, is a tradition that found its way into French opera in the Opera Comique tradition within the works of Bizet and others as well as the operettas of the German born Offenbach. Not always popular in France, the spoken dialogue of the indigenous opera comique was often set to music by later self-nominated improvers, as was the case with Bizet’s Carmen. The tradition was eschewed south of the Alps with sung recitative, accompanied or otherwise, used, as in the Singspiel to explain or move the plot on.

What is important with Singspiel when presented in the original language is that of the problems faced by the non-German speaker. This was evident in the first of the three works of those presented in Cardiff, Ariadne auf Naxos. Premiered in 1916, this second collaboration by Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hoffmanstahl followed their highly successful Der Rosenkavalier premiered in Dresden in 1911. Originally conceived as incidental music for Moliere’s play Le bourgeois Gentilhomme it evolved, after some strife and much compromise between composer and librettist, into a Prologue and one act opera in Vienna in 1916. In Llandudno the extensive spoken dialogue caused some difficulties, even for that consummate singing actor Eric Roberts, famous for his attention to acted detail very evident here, in the wholly spoken role of the Major Domo. Despite such difficulties I must say I personally prefer an opera sung in the language of composition as the prosody of words and music are as the composer intended and with words and vocal line in harmony, musically and metaphorically.

demands considerable and varied skills from the three female leads, the Composer, the eponymous heroine herself and the coloratura flexibility and acting ability of the flirtatious Zerbinetta. The outstanding sung and acted performance of these three was the cornerstone of this revival of a justifiably acclaimed production first seen in 2005. The sets allow for the convoluted mixture to evolve in a meaningful manner. Add the cohesive conducting of Lothar Koenigs and a Straussian evening to remember was on offer to a very well supported house. I have seen and heard Sarah Connolly in two bel canto roles this last couple of years and been deeply impressed by the variety of tone and expression of her singing allied as it is to committed and meaningful acting. Richard Strauss, with his propensity for dense orchestration, makes very different demands on a singer to those of Bellini and Donizetti. It is a tribute to her skills and abilities that Miss Connolly met those demands and built a wholly convincing portrayal. Orla Boylan’s singing and acting was of a similar high standard making Ariadne’s lament in the opera, as distinct from the comedia del’arte component of this complex plot, very meaningful indeed. Throughout she managed, as had Sarah Connolly, to be heard without forcing the tone or loosing the sense of the words, so easy with the heavy orchestration, a tribute also to the conductor’s handling of the score. Gillian Keith’s Zerbinetta was a classic interpretation. Her lithe figure and appropriately acted interpretation was allied to superbly secure vocal gymnastics and made her big scene a highlight among many fine interpretations. I note she has recently sung the role for the Chandos label in their Opera in English series.

In concentrating my comments on the three leading ladies, I must not forget how the contribution that Neil Armfield’s original production, revived by Denni Sayers, makes possible the humour of the work to come out. If I was a little disappointed by the Brazilian tenor as Bacchus, I was perhaps too influenced by the thought of our indigenous artists who I hear in singing competitions and yet get few opportunities.

Second up in this trio of Singspiele was Beethoven’s rescue opera Fidelio in a production by Giuseppe Frigeni imported from Bordeaux. This 1814 version is that usually presented and without the use of the Leonore Overture No. 3 before the second act. This would have been a big plus as the main, overwhelming, virtue of the evening was the conducting of Lothar Koenigs. Whilst Klemperer made his staged interpretations famous, they were, as I understand, traditional. The fact that I mention the name Klemperer in an adjacent sentence to Koenigs, says a lot about how satisfying and appropriate I found the latter’s interpretation from the opening of the overture to the concluding bars; regrettably this was the last of the good news.

The set of the production was very basic with two caged movable walkways, a few table and chairs and in act one a backdrop facade; oh, I nearly forgot, three triple lighted candelabra whose function I failed to appreciate. There was the inevitable mimed show during the overture, but at least the purpose was comprehensible from the interaction between the roles. In much of the opera itself this interaction was not merely lacking but wholly absent. This was particularly so in act two when Pizarro arrives in the dungeon and Leonore reveals her identity as the wife of Florestan. The way this poignant scene, also full of danger for the brave lady, was portrayed, she would have been snapped in two by the adjacent brute, her weapon being, like other artefacts such as a spade to dig Florestan’s intended grave, wholly absent. Similarly missing was large chunks of the explanatory dialogue, which must have left ingénues of the work bemused. That I find this lack inappropriate is not to contradict my statement regarding the difficulty many British singers have with it, rather the fact that too much was omitted in this instance. Are these limitations and idiosyncrasies an unfortunate consequence of buying in a production and particularly where the Director was also responsible for stage, costume and lighting?

An outstanding cast of singers might have saved Beethoven’s only opera. However, by this stage of the tour there were significant changes with Philip Joll taking over the role of the dominant Pizarro and James Cresswell that of Rocco. If this was not enough, Lisa Milne, with something of the voice required for the role of Leonore, had finally succumbed to the tracheal infection going the rounds and was replaced by Anne Williams-King. It was she who replaced Amanda Roocroft as Butterfly last Autumn’s season at Llandudno (see review) when there was also withdrawal by the principal soprano in La Traviata; whose says lightening never strikes twice? I found Miss Williams-King’s Butterfly, a lyrico spinto role, wholly satisfactory. The vocal requirement for Leonore, however, is another step up towards the full dramatic soprano; think Birgit Nilsson. Miss William-King’s slight figure doubtless made for a more convincing and boyish Fidelio than that of Lisa Milne, but as well as she sang, her voice lacked the ultimate heft the role demands with her Abscheulicher lacking in spontaneity and depth. As to whose idea it was to have her long hair, or hairpiece, tied and hanging down her back throughout act one and the start of act two, must have their judgement questioned. It made this Fidelio less convincing as a young man, and suitor of Marzelline, and considerably reduced the impact of that magic moment, also portrayed in the orchestra, when Fidelio reveals herself as Leonore by letting out her hair.

If Miss Williams-King was underpowered for an ideal Leonore, Dennis O’Neill was even more so in his first assumption of the role of Florestan. His essentially Italianate lyric tenor, even after several assumptions of Verdi’s Otello, was not up to the opening declamatory Gott! Welch Dunkel hier his tone spreading uncomfortably and a beat predominant. If Fidelio is seen, visually, as a suitor of Marzelline then this Florestan looked like her grandfather rather than husband with his white beard and hair. Yes, I saw men return from war and imprisonment with changed hair colour, but a wig and colouring was called for here.

If vocal spread was evident at the start of O’Neill’s Gott! Welch Dunkel hier it was regrettably and painfully evident throughout Philip Joll’s singing and which did much to detract from his physically imposing and threatening Pizzaro in his long greatcoat. James Cresswell as Rocco was steadier in his singing but failed to create a distinct character. As his daughter, Elisabeth Donavon was pure of tone, but like the Jaquino of Robin Tritschler looked lost. Her acceptance of his suit at the conclusion, where Quentin Hayes at least brought steady tone as Fernando, is not found in the music. In the end, this production left me frustrated by its lack of detail with Beethoven’s creation only saved by the chorus singing, the conducting and playing of the orchestra. If this is the future with budget cuts then I will stick to DVDs with well-known and reliable Directors supported by designers who know what they are about.

I approached the final work of this season of Germanic Singspiele with some forewarning, having seen the production at Llandudno a mere two years ago (see review). The basic shoebox shaped set of nine doors, in sets of three, allowed the comings and goings, but there is also the gaucheness of hands coming round doors to remove a chair; likewise the noose that Papageno hangs over the door for his own use and which disappears as if by magic in full view of the audience. The dragon to be killed by the three ladies was an over-sized prawn cum lobster with large antennae and threatening mandible, both protruding through open doors. Sarastro’s brotherhood is dressed in orange greatcoats, bowler hats and shoes. The removal of twelve or so pieces of stage floor trap doors, having to be handled in a kind of choreograph, to permit the orange bowler hatted heads of the brethren to appear and vote, had the audience laughing at the production rather than with it, an important difference. The trial of fire was one of the few really imaginative and creative instances as were the offspring of Papageno and Papagena emerging from the trap doors and the three boys on bicycles.

I said in my earlier review the production was a perfect example of director and set designer completely ignoring both the libretto and the music. I was perhaps a little harsh. There are a thousand and one ways of doing the opera, and then there is this one. Mozart’s truly magnificent musical creation is played in this production wholly as a pantomime. In all of the many other productions I have seen there has been a balance between that concept and the more serious side of the work, be they about brotherhood, prejudice or the trials of life. This wholly pantomime view was also reflected in the music as conducted, without any great depth, by Gareth Jones.

The plague of illnesses struck again to add to the changes of cast since Cardiff and the earlier part of the tour. This was most important in the case of Sarastro when illness struck down the new Sarastro. The role is that on which the more serious aspects of the work hang and was taken for the evening by chorus member Laurence Cole. He has not the even tonal sonority of the best and on which hinge the two arias as well as the role’s spoken parts. None the less he made a good shot at it and his physically imposing presence helped a lot. He might gainfully learn that authority can be conveyed by physical presence and in this respect he did not use his imposing height to best effect. Less vital to the proceedings were the substitution of George Newton-Fitzgerald as Second Armed Man, he having appeared as a rather camp wig maker in Ariadne. His height was well used here with his spoken dialogue clear and expressive. Amanda Baldwin joined a strong trio of ladies without detriment to their singing or antics in impressing Tamino, with can-can displays of underwear, or with caresses that might have caused difficulties for a certain Welsh rugby player currently appearing in BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing.

Of the scheduled singers Peter Wedd had plenty of edge to his tone. Two years ago the American
Russell Thomas failed to express Mozart’s words with elegance and conviction and I was hardly surprised when he turned up a year later in the much heavier role of Pinkerton in the 2009 performances of Madama Butterfly. In this instance Peter Wedd sang a well-phrased and ardent Dies Bildnis with a power and edge to his tone that convinced me he might well succeed as Don José in Opera North’s Carmen in the New Year. Elisabeth Watts as Pamina sang with Mozartian grace if a little on the cool side expression wise. Both lovers enunciated their dialogue with clarity and meaning. Spoken dialogue was the weakness of David Stoat’s Papageno. His spoken voice was flaccid and posh for a working lad. His full low baritone lacked some measure of expressive singing and variety of vocal nuance. Claire Hampton’s Papagena was a visual delight vocally and physically pleasing in her interpretation. As The Queen of the Night, Laure Melroy managed the series if high F’s in her second aria better than the single one in the first. In this production the Queen’s entrance through a door lessened the dramatic effect whilst her final departure wasn’t as good as it might have been; those trap doors in the stage floor again.

The clarity of diction in the spoken dialogue was notable, with the audience readily responding to the situations. This negates my stated preference for the original language to a degree. However, what was also evident, despite Jeremy Sams’ felicitous translation, were the occasions when the vocal line suffered as singers audibly manoeuvred to get round the English words whilst also following Mozart’s musical line and phrasing. Some you win, others you lose!

The Venue Cymru season at Llandudno was well supported with many in the audience travelling to see the productions from as far away as East Cheshire as well as the more likely Anglesey, Gwynedd and Clwyd. To cater for Welsh speakers the titles at Llandudno are given in Welsh as well as English. All in all, a very mixed season for WNO’s visit to the town. The Company return in March, again for only three nights and now with only two operas. The programme will comprise a welcome new production of
Die Fledermaus, being given twice alongside one performance of Peter Watson’s period production of Il Trovatore last seen in 2007 (see
review). It will feature near local boy Gwyn Hughes Jones as Manrico, Katia Pellegrino as Leonore, David Kempster, whose Iago in Verdi’s Otello in 2008 I described as the vocal and histrionic strength of the performance (see review), as Di Luna and Patricia Bardon the admired Carmen of earlier this year as the gypsy Verdi nearly named the opera after (see review). The Die Fledermaus will be set in period and will replace the much criticised one of a decade or so ago by the Catalan Calixto Bieto. It will feature Company favourite Nuccia Focile as Rosalinde, her husband Paul Charles Clarke as Alfred, Mark Stone as Eisenstein, Joanne Boag as Adele and Helen Lepalaan as Orlofsky. To be produced by veteran John Copley, a true man of the lyric theatre whose 1974 La Boheme for Covent Garden nears its three-figure outing; unlike its predecessor it should be eminently revivable. We must hope the infections and accidents afflicting principal singers prior to their scheduled appearance at Llandudno in recent seasons absent themselves. Meanwhile the current productions go on to Southampton before concluding at Oxford in the first week of December. In both those venues there will be two performances of The Magic Flute and Fidelio and one of Ariadne.

Robert J Farr

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