Category Archives: Opera

Madama Butterfly

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 23 November)

Once you’ve seen Annilese Maskimmon’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, specially created for the Glyndebourne Tour 2016, you’re likely to find the more usual, traditional stagings lacking. Not that this one is flawless – dropping the main curtain, rather than a gauze, to cover the scene change between the two parts of the second act just doesn’t work.

At the end of the “humming chorus”, the stage darkens leaving the upright back-turned figures of Cio Cio-San (Karah Son) and her son silhouetted as they wait for dawn and Pinkerton (Matteo Lippi). It’s a memorable and heart-breaking image (for we know what will happen next morning) that is completely negated by that curtain. Not to mention that the intermezzo bridging the two scenes is then smothered by excited audience applause followed by chatter.

Son sings with passion and lyrical fluidity; she also acts superbly as the teenager trying so uselessly to make herself into an acceptable American wife. The director and her designer Nicky Shaw have updated the action to the 1950s, and set the first act in Goro (Alun Rhys-Jenkins)’s office where we experience his production line of short-term Japanese brides for US officers in full swing. The little house above Nagasaki is a neat model for display purposes – no more real than all those brisk ceremonies we witness.

Whatever the production, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for Pinkerton, though Lippi characterises his immature personality well, epitomised by his toast to his future American wife clashing with his Japanese bride’s lyrical arrival, complete with a coterie of relations. There’s an excellently sung and acted Sharpless from Francesco Verna and an equally fine portrait of Susuki by Claudia Huckle, pragmatism always warring with sympathetic understanding.

Conductor Gareth Hancock allows the score to breathe, though never to wallow. The arrival of the Bonze (Michael Druiett) and his curse on his apostate neice is a blood-chilling moment, one which hovers in the air throughout the love duet. Seeing the uneasy hybrid which is an ancient culture fitting itself into another, more modern and brash one is the dominant theme of this production. Cio Cio-San’s adoption of western dress (she wears a kimino only for her first and last appearances) and Goro’s cynical counting the day’s takings as the last ecstatic phrases of “Vieni! vieni!” fade into the night underlines the point.

Madama Butterfly is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 26 November.

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Don Giovanni

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal Norwich on 22 November)

This production for Glyndebourne’s 2016 tour uses the 1788 Vienna version of the score. That means, among other things, that Don Ottavio is shorn of “Il mio tesero” in the second act – a pity on many ways, as Anthony Gregory both sings and acts what is arguably the most frustrating part in the opera impeccably, giving a strong as well as lyrical account of “Dalla suo pace” in the first act.

What we do hear is the duet for Zerlina (Louise Alder) and the trussed-up Leporello (Brandon Cedei) just before the graceyard scene. Alder has a Marilyn Munro air of knowing innocence which serves her better as a Sweeney Todd in the making than it did at her slightly underpowered first entrance. Her Masetto is Bozidar Smiljanic who endows the part with the right aura of buccolic bullheadedness.

Ana Maria Labin’s Donna Anna carries off her complex arias superbly, investing them with great musicianship as well as the full force of Anna’s mental torment. That is true also of Magdalena Molendowska’s Donna Elvira; her own torment runs parallel to Anna’s but is subtly differentiated. Revival director Lloyd Wood and designer Paul Brown keep the contrast between the two women clear.

Their one meeting point, of course, is Don giovanni himself. This dras a bravura performance from Duncan Rock – “Finch’han dal vino” in particular fizzes along – but the sheer nastiness of the character’s attitude to women, those who cross him and his servant is underpinned by the suggestion of equal pleasure being taken in violence.

When Andrii Goniukov’s stentorian Commendatore arrives to exact his just vengeance, it is not just Brown’s decontructed set which makes Giovanni lose control. We are throughout in a vaguely pre-and post-Second World War Seville. Costumes, like most of the triangular set, are mainly grey and black; the exceptions are occasional accents of blood-red and the more pastel-clad wedding party.

At the beginning we see a baroque painting of Mary Magdalene, luxuriant tresses, swelling draperies and look of extasy at odds with the skull she clutches. Otherwise there are only tall, dark buildings fronting slightly sinister streets and surmounted by a moon which might have drifted in from a Lorca play or poem. If you are intrigued by how a production such as this is realised, then take yourself to Don Giovanni: Behind the Curtain which explores this in depth, focussing on the Act Two finale.

Don Giovanni can be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 25 November. Don Giovanni: Behind the Curtain is at the Theatre Royal on 24 November.

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Carmen

(reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 9 September)

The Russian State Opera & Ballet Theatre of Komi has a new production of Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen for its autumn UK tour. Artistic director Ilya Mozhaysky sets the action around the 1920s and offers us a kind of danced dumb-show during the second half of the overture, prefiguring the menace and violence associated with its recurrent “death theme”.

Yuri Samodurov’s painted back-drops and flats have a nightmare surreal quality eachoing this. Act One is mainly whte-clad, from the soldiers’ uniforms to the shifts worn by the girls of the cigarette factory. Only Carmen herself flaunts a scarlet shawl. For the second act (Lillas Pastia’s louche tavern) red wih black accents prdominates. Black and a shrouding grey underlines the encounters in the mountain pass while the final scene flames scarlet with coal black.

The dancing is exellent (no choreographer is credited in the programme) and there is lively interplay among the chorus members in the crowd scenes. Of the principals, Evgenia Gudkova is a sultry Carmen with a strong chest register and secure top notes. Dimitrii Demidchik is a somewhat unsubtle (and therefore unsympathetic) Don José who hits all the right notes but with little sense of shading.

Michaela in Olga Georgieva’s interpretation is a far cry from the blonde-plaitd milkshop of many roductions. Yes, she’s naïve, a village girl out of her comfort zone in both Seville and the bandit-affected mountain pass. But Georgieva offers us the steel backbone which allows her to negotiate these perils and fulfil her mission each time.

As Frasquita and Mercédès, Anastasia Podzigun and Elena Lodigina make the most of the card trio in the penultimate scene. Nikolay Efremov is a somewhat under-powered Escamillo; the smaller male rôles are well diferentiated. There are always production teething troubles at the start of a tour, but Nelli Svatova’s lighting design left too many faces in shadow when singing downstage. The necessary surtitles need proof-reading.

Carmen is at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 10 September, the Princes Theatre, Clacton on 11 September and The Cresset, Peterborough on 13 September. Other tour dates include the Alban Arena, St Albans on 5 October, the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 6 October and the Watford Colossem on 8 October.

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Don Giovanni

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 21 March)

Time and place an seem irrelevant as far as Mozart’s Don Giovanni is concerned. The story of the lethal heart-breaker is universal, and we accept it as such. Lloyd Wood’s production for ETO sets us in a fin-de-siècle location with his designer Anna Fleischle has produced a dark grey setting with a grim exterior stairway to one side (leading to a long upper platform) and cavernous vaults below. In the fore-stage is a lit oubliette grating.

George von Bergen is a sinisterly athletic Don Giovanni, a many who exults in wreaking havoc, selfish to his core. His masterly interpretation is helped by Jeremy Sams’ wittily contemporary translation, clearly enunciated by most of the cast. Sams is a compose and theatre director and he knows how to balance constants and vowels with the melodic line.

Then there’s Matthew Stiff’s burly Leporello, much put-upon but never quite managing to break away from his master. The “catalogue aria” is beautifully sung; Stiff balances the bitter comedy of the list of Giovanni’s seductions (albeit “one hundred and three”, rather than “mille e tre”) with a beguiling smoothness which may leave Ania Jeruc’s Donna Elvira unhappy, but not we in the audience.

Jeruc has the hardest of the three female roles, a woman who wants her seducer back and knows in her heart that this will never happen. By contrast, Camilla Roberts’ Donna Anna is a tiger-cat in her pursuit of vengeance (though I did wonder why a woman who proclaims her extended mourning for her murdered father so persistently wears soft, spring-like colours).

Matching Roberts, who throws off both the legato and the decorative elements of her arias and accompanied recitatifs with precision as well as legato, is Robyn Lyn Evans as Don Ottavio, less of a dull stick than he sometimes appears and winning applause for his one, second-act aria (conductor Michael Rosewell uses the original Prague 1787 score).

The two young peasants whose nuptuals Don Giovanni so successfully manages to disrupt are a seductive Lucy Hall as Zerlina – a girl who knows how to make a double-entendre out of any phrase while singing – let alone acting – and Bradley Travis as Masetto. he is a thoroughly earth-bound clod while she has a thistle-down element.

Timothy Dawkins’ Commenadatore, emerging in formal top-hatted grandeur from what Don Giovanni (in one of Sams’ best throw-away lines) calls his tasteless monument, dominates the finale. If his first scene confrontation shows the enraged human father, the entry into the increasingly anarchic supper-room is as menacingly supernatural as one could wish.

Don Giovanni is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 22 March, at the Snape Maltings on 8 April and at the Cambridge Arts Theatre 27-28 April.

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