Category Archives: Opera

A Christmas Carol

reviewed at Moyses Hall, Bury St Edmunds on 7 December

There ar as many different ways of staging Dickens’ seasonal story as there are twists and turns in the plot. Spinning Wheel Theatre does it with just three actors, imaginative use of puppetry and lighting effects by Becca Gibbs and director Amy Wylie’s respect for the text of the tale.

Antony Eden plays Scrooge as a man in middle-age, his revelling in the power which hoarded money and the death of his business partner Jacob Marley gives him is almost orgasmic . Alice Osmanski takes on the women’s roles and a couple of masculine ones while Samuel Norris is Scrooge’s light-hearted nephew and clerk Bob Cratchit. Scrooge’s first employer Mr Fezziwig and the Cratchit children are all neat little puppets.

The essence of the story comes from the spirits conjured up by Marley’s chain-laden ghost to emphasise to Scrooge how his greed has brought his present isolation on him and to warn of his future. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a mist of shimmering gauze with softly-lit eyes, symbolising Scrooge’s sister Fan and this lost love Belle.

A coat-hangered scarlet dressing-gown, topped with a matching fez, stands for the jollity of Christmas Present. An eyeless black shroud denotes Christmas Yet To Come when an unrepentent Scrooge is forced to face the robbery of his corpse and ill-attended burial.

Norris is on stage throughout, and gives an assured performance which allows the audience to understand as well as to dislike the man portrayed. Both Osmanski and Eden move seamlessly from one characterisation to another and carry conviction as the story unfolds.

Realism is as much a matter of the audience’s imagination – and at the Moyses Hall it faced the actors on three sides – as it is of heard words and displayed actions. This simplified but inventive staging works with Dickens and not against him, seamlessly joining the 19th with the 21 st centuries.

Four and a half-star rating.

A Christmas Carol plays at the Moyses Hall, Bury St Edmunds until 9 December and then tours village halls across East Anglia until 23 December with a performance at the John Peel Arts Centre, Stowmarket on 22 December.

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Die Entführung aus dem Serail

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 18 November)

Mozart’s first adult success in Vienna was also one of the highlights of this year’s Glyndebourne Festival. David McVicar’s production directed for this autumn’s Glyndebourne Tour by Ian Rutherford gives us a far more complete version of the spoken text than is usual nowadays; one effect is to bring Pasha Selim (Franck Saurel) centre stage.

SeLim is, of course, a spoken role. Saurel displays all the character facets of this complex personality, a convert to Islam as much through circumstances as through initial intention. There’s an erotic tension to his scenes with Ana Maria Labin’s marvellously sung Konstanze – she negotiates “Martern aller Arten” flawlessly – which suggests that her relationship with Tibor Szappanos will never quite resume its old pattern.

Szappanos sings Belmonte’s arias impeccably, but one cannot help feeling that he is the most nebulous character of the story. Osmin is a gift of a part for any singer who can act as well as encompass the deepest notes of the part, notably in “Solche hergelaufne Laffen”, and Clive Bayley does it superbly. Rebecca Nelsen’s Blonde is a servant-girl with attitude and a way with kitchen paraphenalia (fresh eggs included) which wouldn’t disgrace any pantomime slop-scene.

Her Pedrillo is James Kryshak offering a lilting “In Mohrrenland” in the foiled abduction scene and holding his own in the frught exchanges with Osmin. Vicki Mortimer’s set glides effortlessly through a deft arrangement of lattice-screens; Selim’s harem is populated by an interesting selection of women, all under the watchful gaze of Daniel Vernan’s overseer. The conductor is Christoph Altstaedt.

“Die Entführung aus dem Serail” is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 21 November.

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Don Pasquale

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 17 November)

It’s a classic comedy story, as old as love and lust – not to mention greed – themselves. Impecunious young man wants to marry an equally badly-off young widow. His uncle threatens to disinherit him. A friend steps in to remedy the situation. Between this beginning and (sort of) conclusion there’s a vast open space for composer, librettist, stage director and designer to fill.

Marianne Clément (who staged the 2011 Glyndebourne production) and Paul Higgins (responsible for the Glyndebourne Tour revival) add some twists to the apparently simple tale. They’re abetted by designer Julia Hansen to present us with a circular red-curtained setting within which revolves three distinct personal spaces flexible enough to allow for a few more abstract ones.

Flitting between them all is John Brancy’s well-sung and acted Dr Malatesta. One feels that he would be struck off any professional medical register; there’s a tinge of Offenbach’s Dr Miracle in the way he steps from one room setting to the next. Not to mention his relationship with Eliana Pretorian’s sexy minx of a Norina, engagingly sung but leaving one wondering how quickly she will tire of Tuomas Katajala’s puppy-dog Ernesto.

There’s a slightly anachronistic air to the costumes – lots of Boucher and Fragonard erotic references but also a hint of classic 19th century French farce and even a whiff of Sofia Coppela’s 1988 Marie Antoinette. With all this engaging the eye, it would be easy to relegate Donizetti’s lilting score to the background, but the cast, the bewigged, powdered and white-silk clad chorus and the orchestra under Duncan Ward pull us back into a due sense of proportion.

José Fardilha takes the title role with true buffo style; his one-breath patter songs – including the Act III Scene I duet with Malatesta – deserve their applause. it’s a merit of this production that we oh-so-slightly care about the plights in which Don Pasquale and Ernesto find themselves rather than being mere disinterested spectators of something which, however memorable the music and accomplished the singers, is so far removed from real life. Let alone its pains and penalties.

Don Pasquale is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 19 November.

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Lady Macbeth

(reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 24 October)

This solo operatic cantata by Kenneth Ian Hÿtch takes the words spoken by Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s tragedy and weaves them into a tonal but uncompromisingly modern examination of a woman with ambitions who ultimately fails because she finds herself able to initiate but not to execute.

It requires a singing actress, which is what Lisa Cassidy shows herself to be, managing the coloratura and bravura passages (notably in the banqueting scene) as well as the guilt expressed in the repeated “The Thane of Fife had a wife” from the sleep-walking scene which Hÿtch sets to a quasi folk tune which haunts the listener well after the conclusion of the piece.

Pianist William Fergusson and violinist Elizabeth Marjoram accompany Cassidy as – black-robed and variously mantled and crowned (with thorn-like spikes) – she demonstrates her love for her husband (a fur-collared cloak thrown over the back of a throne-like chair) and writhes both vocally and physically in a tortured torrent of impotence; she can take no action herself.

The promotional image for Lady Macbeth is the famous Sargent painting of Ellen Terry in the rôle, robed in Byzantine splendour and holding the crown aloft. Cassidy also holds the crown but shows that Lady Macbeth’s grasp is altogether less secure. it would be interesting to see and hear Cassidy in the Verdi Macbeth opera – the 1865 revision rather than the 1847 version.

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The Pirates of Penzance

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 9 June)

Sasha Regan’s all-male staging of the much-loved Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance is closer in spirit and appearance to a Matthew Bourne production, such as his mainly male Swan Lake, than to a pure drag show.

Designer Robyn Wilson-Owen has created a nice blend of late 19th century white gowns when the hard-working ensemble portray Major-General Stanley’s bevy of wards with little attempt to disguise the arm muscles, hair-styles or facial features of the singer-actor-dancers. As pirates, they also wear white with a flamboyant waistcoat to differentiate Neil Moors’ Pirate King and a modest jerkin for Samuel Nunn’s Frederic.

Miles Western’s Major-General is natty in scarlet coat, white breeches and gleaming black boots; he also manages the tongue-twisting two patter songs very well. If Alex Weatherhill’s Ruth carries off the acting honours, it is Alan Richardson’s Mabel, with a seemingly effortless ability to sing coloratura embellishments who wins the vocal stakes.

Mabel is flanked by a finely differentiated quartet of “sisters” – Chris Theo Cook, Dale Page, Ben Irish and Richard Russell Edwards; their corresponding pirate persona are equally well played. Lizzi Gee’s choreography is inventive while not above taking a couple of side-swipes at G & S conventions.

Pirate King Moos is a genial sort of cove, a trifle light-voiced perhaps for the role. The platoon of police, with their blue shirts and lorgnette moustaches, are led by James Waud; both “When the foeman bares his steel” and “when a felon’s not engaged” make their proper impact and proved near-showstoppers.

Most of Gilbert’s (to 21st century ears) excruciating puns are left intact. The score is a piano reduction with musical director David Griffiths at audience level in the orchestra pit; the a cappella “Hail, poetry” is particularly fine. Some of the shifts between registers, particularly falsetto and natural voice, lie a trifle awkwardly; Nunn and Weatherhill wandered off-key in their “Oh! false one” exchange.

If you’re an old-school G & S purist, wedded to the old D’Oyly Carte Company style, you may not enjoy this type of production. But if you take an open mind to it, there’s much to savour. And – these days – what a treat to hear people humming the tunes as they leave the theatre.

The Pirates of Penzance plays at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 13 June and at the Hackney Empire between 24 and 28 June.

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Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo / The Wild Man of the West Indies
(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 25 March)

ETO (English Touring Opera) continues its exploration of the operas of Donizetti, both those virtually unknown to a modern audience and more established repertoire pieces with this new production of an 1833 piece based on one of the tales-withn-a-tale in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. This one tells of Cardenio, a Spanish gentleman driven mad when he discovers that his wife Eleonora has had an affair with his own brother Fernando.

Escaping the home he now cannot bear to inhabit, he has been washed up on the Spanish possession of San Domingo. The plantation slaves fear him but the overseer’s daughter Marcella pities him (her father is somewhat ambiguous in his attitude). Subsequently a shipwreck leaves a battered and hardly conscious Eleonora on the shore, followed by Fernando himself.

So far the plot seems set to be a straightforward drama which might, or might not, have a happy ending. Cervantes, librettist Jacopo Ferreetti and Donizetti have conspired to give us a species of tragi-comedy, thanks to the introduction of the most three-dimensional character in the opera. This is the salve Kaidamà, brilliently portrayed by Peter Brathwaite. Kaidamà not only has some of the best tunes; he is also the timeless and instantly recognisable wheeler-dealer survivor.

With the exception of the excellent Donna Bateman as Marcella, so kind-hearted that she’s bound to find herself bypassed when Cardenio (Craig Smith) and the sweet-voiced Eleonora (Sally Silver) finally reconcile. Smith sings and acts with great intensity; so does Njabulo Madlala as Bartolomeo, torn between natural human compassion and his duty to his employer.

The week link at the performance I attended was Nicholas Sharratt’s Fernando. It’s not the most forgiving of tenor roles, let alone the most sympathetic, but I felt he was straining after his top notes at the end of his two arias.Director Iqbal Khan keeps the stage movement, notably that of the all-male chorus slave chorus, persuasive as the cast clamber up, under and around Florence de Mare’s set which suggests part of the skeleton of some enormous beached sea-monster.

Jeremy Slver conducts the ETO orchestra with respect for the score and the performers. It’s no fault by anyone on-stage or in the creative team that, for me, this genre felt slightly unnatural and as though the composer wasn’t completely at ease with it, as he had been for L’elisir d’amore (1832) which preceded it and Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) which followed.

Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo also plays at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall on 17 April and the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 27 May.

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