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Welsh National Opera on Tour Spring 2011 - Theatre Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno. 17-19.3.2011 (RJF)

Johann Strauss II, Die Fledermaus (1874). Sung in English with surtitles in English and Welsh.
Giuseppe Verdi, Il Trovatore (1853). Sung in Italian with surtitles in English and Welsh

I approached this Welsh National Opera Llandudno season with a strange mixture of anticipation and unease. Why the unease? Well, I have always thought of Llandudno as being the Company's second home as well as their main outpost, Swansea not forgotten, in the Principality. Part of this derives from my own experience of opera seasons by WNO in this lovely North Wales resort and which goes back well over forty years when the single annual visit lasted two weeks and was based, as best could be, in the Astra Cinema. Every year our family holiday involved our camping nearby and inducting my young family into opera, sat on cushions on the very back row. Early Verdi was stirring, as was Carmen with my youngest keen to join the toreador's aria; I have to be honest though in admitting that their enthusiasm for Boris was less, despite Forbes Robinson's fine portrayal. Names on the roster included James Levine on the rostrum and the very best of British singers. So why my anxiety? Part was related to the brief season. In recent years, as I have covered the visit for Seen and Heard, it has always been five nights with three operas scheduled. Was this brief three day visit with only two works scheduled a portent of things to come, with the details of the Arts Council axe ominously becoming known in ten or so day's time. Well it is the same for all the touring venues. However, the good news is that on the basis of the schedules for the Autumn visit, and that of Spring 2012, I am pleased to report my fears are unfounded with reversion to the more usual five nights scheduled and three operas on offer.

My anticipation was in respect of the scheduled Die Fledermaus. It has been common knowledge for some time that the production was to be traditional. As one who had suffered the previous production ten years ago, and yet loved the music and the genius of Strauss, this was a great relief. When I say suffered I mean just that. The Catalan producer Calixto Bieito perpetuated every crude vulgarity in his extensive repertoire on his staging. In the event, I had travelled to Oxford, a journey of over a hundred and fifty miles and bought expensive seats; the latter was the only reason I did not join the large numbers who walked out at the interval. Never revived, that production, and the opprobrium it brought, must have influenced the decision to ask veteran John Copley to take on this new one. I have seen some comments than verge on faint praise, not from me. The near period sets and opulent costumes were ideal and Copley, also taking advice also from another veteran and expert on Viennese operetta, added all the tricks, plus a few gimmicks he has learnt over his long career.

The setting was right, how about the singing? The casting department focussed, with one notable exception, on regular Company singers and others well known around the UK and elsewhere. It may be that the real life partnership of Liverpudlian Paul Charles Clarke and Sicilian soprano Nuccia Focile, long time artistes with WNO, was the starter. His tenor was a shade too beefy for Rosalinde's paramour Alfred, although he played the role to perfection often reminding us of his skills in the more serious Italian repertoire and being a willing party to Alfred's hurried departure from the Eisenstein lounge in the Tosca manner, complete with a Caballé bounce! She too is perhaps not the first soprano one would think of as Rosalinde, but she is a consummate actress with a voice that belies her size. An amusing thought crossed my mind during her well-shaped Czardis; here was an Italian singing a Hungarian song in English, one that was originally written in German and coming complete with Welsh translations! Such thoughts were provoked by the fun nature of the staging and the production with the odd up-to-date jokes in the spoken dialogue, including a little ad lib in Welsh from comedian Desmond Barrit as jailer Frosch in Act Three and which he thoughtfully translated for us non native Welsh speakers. It was that kind of evening and there were no walkouts at either interval and much cheering to the rafters at the end. But I precede myself. Mark Stone, as something of an unrepentant philanderer Eisenstein, was suavely ideal as an actor and his lyric baritone completely comfortable in the tessitura of the role. His comic play as a supposed Frenchman was matched by Alan Opie as Frank the prison Governor, who made the most of his Act Three play with the portrait; this was luxury casting. As Dr. Falke the vengeful bat of the title, David Stout was appropriately a little sinister and achieved his end of show change of costume with aplomb. The newcomer to the UK and WNO was the Estonian mezzo Helen Lepalaan as Prince Orlofsky. Tall and elegant in her costume, very correct in her acted demeanour, she was, for me, the vocal discovery of the season. She has a distinguished and extensive repertoire that extends through the florid Rosina of Il Barbiere to the drama of Carmen. Oh that WNO would get back to those heady days of bel canto other than constant revivals of Giles Havergail's Il Barbiere that it shares with Opera North, due yet again next November, and remember when Bellini featured in the Company repertoire! Miss Lepalaan's has a voice and the figure du part to make an excellent Romeo in Bellini's I Capuleti e I Montecchi, although not in a shared production with that travesty Opera North inflicted on Bellini's sixth opera a year or so back (see review).

The evening of Johann Strauss II was made absolutely perfect by the orchestra under Viennese conductor Thomas Rösner. I have no doubt that the vastly experienced Andrew Greenwood will bring similar lilting waltzes to the staging later on in the tour, much as Wyn Davies brought to Opera North's recent Merry Widow, also a production and staging to savour (see review). Both are names for future revivals of this eminently revivable staging. John Copley's La Boheme at Covent Garden is in its fourth decade, this production could last as long and is certainly moneys worth for the Company and the audience.

When money is tight, and do not doubt it is getting tighter, shared productions between the UK's regional opera companies is a sensible policy; after all, their venues no longer overlap. Hopefully this will not involve sharing with English National Opera who seem intent on dissipating their generous grant from the Arts Council on ever more ridiculous staging by producers with little or no opera experience. But care is the name of the game. It might well be applied to the second offering of WNO's brief visit to Llandudno, and also to the other touring venues, Peter Watson's production Verdi's great middle period Il Trovatore in sets by Tim Hately. Deriving from Scottish Opera, it was first staged by WNO in 2002 and again in 2007. Whatever direction it ever had is long gone; the singers were left to their own devices with the outcome dependent on individual acting skills. The sets are representational. The large vertical, slightly curved pieces are moved about to represent the venues of the scenes, but not without the curtain being lowered and a delay spoiling any dramatic build-up. The stage is dark and gloomy most of the time and the sets really only work in the Convent Scene; elsewhere, despite mention of castles and towers no hint of crenellations are to be seen. The costumes are passable for the soldiery whilst those for the gypsies in act two are indeterminate scruffy and add nothing to the colour of Verdi's wonderful music. A more atmospheric camp, even a fire and proper anvils for the famous chorus would have helped a little. I have no idea how to describe the oval set of metal pipes that was the centrepiece of this act other than to say the at least some of the metal tubes must have been tuned. Maybe it was a relic from some aborted Wagnerian opera production.

As is well known, Caruso was reputed to have said that all that was required was the four greatest singers in the world for Il Trovatore. However, that is to underplay the role of Ferrando whose singing dominates the opening scene. Sung by David Soar, one of the two survivors of the 2007 staging, the role deserved a comparable imprimatur. How he and his portrayals have grown in stature were both in evidence here. His careful nurturing by WNO, and a Chris Ball (Chair of WNO Friends) bursary, are paying handsome dividends for him and the Company. Already he has sung at Covent Garden and is scheduled to appear at New York's Metropolitan Opera, whilst also staying loyal to WNO.

Of the four other principals, honours were divided between two Italian ladies and two Welshmen. Despite massive local support for Gwyn Hughes Jones from Ynys Mon (formerly called Anglesey) as the hero Manrico, and David Kempster as the villain Count di Luna, I risk a lynching by suggesting that the ladies won hands down. As Leonora, Katia Pellegrino, the other survivor from 2007, sang a particularly vocally beautiful and expressive Tacea la note placida and did full vocal justice to those long neo Bellinean arching phrases in the long act four scene and the aria aria D'amor sull'ali rosee, with both secure and appropriate trill and coloratura. As Azucena Veronica Simeoni was very badly costumed and seemingly shod in Doc Martens! But her acting contributed to her survival and impact. Her vocal characterisation and portrayal helped overcome the lack of any Gypsy accoutrements for Stride la vampa. She also made vocal and acted impact when Azucena is captured by De Luna's soldiers and in the final act Ai nostri monti as Azucena, half asleep, dreams of the mountains.

In the acting stakes David Kempster's physical stature gives him a flying start. Vocally he started poorly singing too strongly and a beat evident in the voice. This settled down, and despite a tendency to singing at full throttle far too often, he tempered this to sing an expressive Il balen. Gwyn Hughes Jones's tightly focussed lyric tenor had the range and heft for both verses of Di quella pira as well as a well held and secure high C to finish. Personally, I prefer a fuller and wider palette of colour from my tenor in this role, which is well on the way to the spinto Verdi roles of Radames in Aida and Don Alvaro in La forza del destino. His travelling fan club, not very far for them to come this time, were more than satisfied and enthusiastic at the end of the aria and the curtain.

If Wales won in the music stakes over Italy, it was only because there are more orchestral musicians and chorus members than the single conductor, Andrea Licata, whose natural feel for Verdian line was a great virtue with the orchestra fully responsive to his sweep and beat. When it comes to choruses in Verdi, few can match the native Italians of La Scala who add the virtues of their native vocal squilla. But, they don't do acting in the manner of the WNO chorus; even in the days of an amateur chorus they were good, now they are superb.

With the musical side of this Il Trovatore having many positive virtues overall, it is a pity about the staging and lack of direction. I suggest WNO send it back to Scotland, maybe adding Green Shield Stamps as a temptation; failing that to Australia and sink it on the way! Verdi, WNO and the customers of the full house here in Llandudno deserve better, although in the present economic climate I fear we might wait a long time for a worthy new production.

The WNO Tour continues on to Southampton from March 24th, Bristol from March 31st, Plymouth from April 7th and Milton Keynes from April 14th with three nights at each venue including two performances of Die Fledermaus and one of Il Trovatore.

Robert J Farr


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