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Opera North on Tour:The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. March 2nd to 6th 2011

Georges Bizet: Carmen (opera in four acts 1875). Sung in French with English titles

Franz Lehar: The Merry Widow. (1905). Sung in English.

Mieczysław Weinberg: The Portrait (1980). Sung in English with titles.

In the introductions to my reviews of Opera North's Summer (see review), and Autumn Tours (see review) I noted and commended the Company's continued practice of reprising a popular work from the previous season, sometimes with cast changes, seeing this as sensible in the current economic climate. I also noted it helped to build up reserves, which, in Opera North's case, has allowed for more new productions in the 2010-2011 year than might be expected and which far 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 couple of years earlier. My fears about future budgets were also a focus of General Director Richard Mantle's introductory welcome in his notes to the Autumn programmes. Whilst the scale of the cuts has been known for some time, exactly where they will fall awaits the end of this month, March, as I write.

Richard Mantle was at pains to stress the importance of corporate and private individual support for Opera North and will doubtless also be aware of the contribution of the 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. Examples such as the productions of Peter Grimes and Madama Butterfly come readily to mind. This revivability factor has not always been in the forefront of minds and even in the recent past my ears have often been assaulted by paying friends in the audience venting their feelings about the rather off beat production they had just seen. This has never been more so than this current season when my own Opera Appreciation Group, and another group to whom I gave a preparatory talk, having seen the dire reviews opted out in total from paying out money for the production of Carmen offered. It is, I suggest, a worthy and totally appropriate use of the Arts Council subsidy to promote extension of the repertoire, as with Mieczysław Weinberg's The Portrait whilst recognising that seat sales would not be high. It is significantly less so in what can be seen as providing employment and massaging the egos of producers and designers out to make a name. In the case of this new production of Carmen it does a disservice to the name of Opera North and to Bizet's music.

My own brief is to see, listen and record my own judgement. In doing so I always try to be aware of the genre of the work in question, its place in a composer's oeuvre, his intentions and how the view taken by the producer and his team fits in with those parameters whilst always allowing for a fresh look at a work. Bizet's Carmen is certainly in the top ten in the popularity and awareness stakes among opera cognoscenti and what may be called, for want of another description, lay enthusiasts. Based on Prosper Merrimée's novella, Bizet's take on the tragedy and disintegration of an honourable man as he falls victim to the sexual attraction of a Gypsy caused a furore before the premiere at Paris's Opera Comique in March 1875. The theatre's name, the Opera Comique, was not a misnomer for comic opera, but denoted opera with spoken dialogue. This was perhaps where the producer of this Carmen started his misplaced view of the work. The carnal nature of the attraction was the cause for concern on that first Paris night, but soon waned, as the work became the staple of the Opera Comique theatre clocking up a thousand performances by 1903 and helping to keep the theatre afloat. Before the Lowry performance the audience was warned, by announcement, that the production included gunshots and partial nudity. If the partial nudity was Carmen presenting her naked breasts as Don José's aperitif to her favours, which to her chagrin, and for the first time in her life, was swiftly declined as the call to barracks was heard with him replacing them and raising her dress onto her shoulders. If this was the advertised nudity, then, entendre intended, it was mere titillation and trades description could well have a case!

The start of the performance resembled comic opera with the prelude marred as an audible entertainment and introduction, along with some of its themes and motifs by the caterwauling of the soldiers as they flung basketball around the stage! Matters did not improve with the arrival of the replacement troop, in shorts, Canadian Mountie type hats, and silly deliberate shambolic turns and response to calls for attention. Don José looked like an overgrown boy scout with an early tendency to middle age spread; I had better not suggest scoutmaster as the connotations, after the gratuitous groping of Micaela by the soldiers, and the later treatment of Carmen by a thuggish Zuniga, might be misinterpreted , though it could help explain the absence of a children's chorus given the contemporary concern about paedophilia. Heather Shipp as Carmen was the poor singer who was generally mistreated in act one with her head being repeatedly ducked in the water and ending fully soaked. Before acts three and four, she asked our indulgence as she was struggling with flu, I was merely thankful the production had not been staged in December when it might have been pneumonia; backstage and passages to dressing rooms are not draft proof. By then the full horror of this misguided production was apparent with squeals during arias, simulated sexual humping centre stage among many other mistaken actions including scantily dressed cheer leaders for Escamillo, not a toreador but a dog fighter who minced in with his dog which looked as if it would like to lick him not fight. This was supposed to be Seville, as the road sign, in English, next to the traffic lights denoted. Why we were treated to a swim-suited beauty, carrying a lounger who rubbed sun cream into her arms, defeated me. This is the centre square of an inland town not a seaside resort - or at least that is what my map tells me.

The sets were incomprehensible, whilst much of the action irrelevant with gratuitous violence and sexual harassment being the name of the stupid games going on. As I note there were no children, so no children's chorus in act one nor to proceed the act four finale. Acts three and four were butchered to little effect, Bizet's music, the dialogue as well as the sequence of the story being sufferers along with the Smugglers' Chorus, by which time Remendado and Dancairo had become supernumerary ciphers. Poor Anne Sophie Duprels, a singer I have admired in previous Opera North productions, was badly wigged and not the ideal voice type for the ingénue Micaela. Heather Shipp's Carmen was more promising in theHabanera than realised in the whole, whilst Peter Auty's Don José could not shake off his appearance although his Flower Song was well shaped. The best singing of the evening came from Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo. The replacement conductor, Alexander Ingram, found shape in what was left of Bizet's music.

The Act Four spectacle was a non-event. No children, no spectacle, no parade, no drama of the confrontation between Carmen and José. The finale was a farce with Don José prancing past Carmen with a knife in his hand with hardly sufficient intent to give her a scratch; nevertheless she died convincingly. Convincing is not a word I would use for this production. The advertising blurb said Bizet's masterpiece of sexual obsession and self-destruction has not been seen by Opera North audiences for over ten years. On the basis of this production I hope it will not be seen again in the next ten. Revivability? Well audience attendance was better than in the other two productions in the season due to the reputation of the opera? The reputation of this production may well influence attendance in the summer reprise. Meanwhile I look forward to my visit to Welsh National Opera on Tour in Llandudno. They have learnt the harsh lesson of employing producers with little appreciation of what they are doing or respect for the audience. Their now abbreviated touring season - economic reality again - will include a new, traditional, production of Die Fledemaus. It will replace one of a mere ten years ago by the notorious Catalan enfant terrible Calixto Bieto, that was wholly out of sympathy with the work and was ditched with no reprise; a costly mistake even less affordable now than then.

The second production of this Opera North season was the reprise of the Autumn staging of Lehar's Merry Widow. In the autumn I greatly admired Giles Havergal's staging along with the single set design of Leslie Travers who was also responsible for the opulent costumes. The production is not absolutely true to the text. However, significantly different to the Carmen, the alterations were in the spirit and the oeuvre, and added rather than detracted from the enjoyment. It was an evening of delightful music, superbly paced by Wyn Davies on the rostrum with all the participants thoroughly enjoying themselves and, combined with the production, drawing in genuine laughter and involvement from the audience. What a difference to Carmen the evening before when the laughter was at the production rather than with it - an important difference. As in the autumn the added gags to the spoken dialogue also produced healthy laughs from the audience. Still present is the clarity of diction, particularly of the male cast when singing as well as speaking. Outstanding in this respect together with his consummate acting was Geoffrey Dolton as Baron Zeta, the ambassador charged with getting Hanna married to a genuine Pontevedrian. The tall elegant William Dazeley has the ideal figure du part for the chosen spouse Danilo. His ideal languorous manner allied to mellifluous and well-characterized singing were a joy. Allan Clayton seemed in even better voice than in the autumn and was, if anything, easier in his acted manner - as were the two French would be suitors of the eponymous Widow.

Amy Freston's Valencienne continues to be a class-act interpretation. She seemed more vocally at ease this time round. Her cartwheels and the splits, twice, were an added bonus, as was her involvement in the grisettes' cancan complete with all the flourishes and with the colourful underwear well on show. Although acting with aplomb as well as being ideally elegant in costume and movement, I still found Stephanie Corley somewhat over-parted as Hanna. She lacks the golden hue, and even power, to caress the phrases in the lied.

The whole performance was roundly applauded at the conclusion, not least by myself who found solace from the previous evening's travails and disappointments. My only sorrow is that this production is shared with Opera Australia and its availability for the revival bank may be in doubt.

The final offering of the visiting tour season was one performance of a new production, by David Pountney, of what has been the British premiere of Polish born Mieczysław Weinberg's The Portrait. The composer practised his skills in Stalinist Russia and this doubtless influenced his style, as it did Shostakovich with an often strange mixture of the lyrical with more strident cacophony. The story derives from Gogol and concerns a talented painter, Chartkov, who acquires a cursed portrait that grants him wealth and success allowing him to pay his rent and eat, but causes him to betray his own skills as an artist.

Pountney has been a supporter of this little known composer at the Bregenz Festival where he is the supremo. He is also well known for often off-beat productions, some of which he has presented at Opera North as well as during his period at English National Opera. I am pleased to report that he uses his skills here to illuminate the score rather than divert attention from it. A high-heeled long-legged lovely is the artist's psyche, occasionally throwing her shoes at him in an effort to remind him to be true to his art, whilst her use as a camerawoman in the artist's prolonged death scene is an imaginative master stroke. The large portraits of Stalin, whose eyes were caused to light up, drew attention to the fact that in the Russia under his control art was subservient to other values and the creative artist was always under surveillance and coercion, as we know Shostakovich was.

The whole of the opera hangs around the acting and singing of the artist Chartkov. In Paul Nilon, an Opera North regular, Pountney could not have hoped for a better protagonist. With little melody involved on which to sit his singing, how Nilon learnt his role and then conveyed it with such emotion, involved acting and exemplary diction is beyond mere admiration. His was a formidable achievement. Notable too was Richard Burkhard as the artist's assistant.

The set and designs illuminated the story and conductor Rossen Gergov brought taut playing from the orchestra without drowning the singers in the more densely orchestrated parts. Whilst I will continue my love affair with earlier Russian opera composers such as Borodin, Glinka and Mussorgsky - as well as Tchaikovsky - this was a revelation as to the evolution of the genre post Shostakovich. The staging and performance drew loud approval from a section of the relatively small audience. This is a shared production whose revivability is probably limited.

In the Spring season to come Opera North will present a brand new production of Janáèek's From the House of the Dead and a shared production with Scottish Opera of Beethoven's Fidelio. These will be shown, along with further performances of Carmen, at the Lowry from May 17th to 21st and continue to Gateshead and Nottingham afterwards.

The Lowry will also host one concert performance from the Company of Das Rheingold, the first of Wagner's Ring Cycle, on September 10 th.

Robert J Farr

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