Saturday, 21 July 2018

Review of Clonter Opera's La Bohème

Clonter Opera does an amazing job each year putting on a complete production of a mainstream repertoire opera, in its own theatre, with young singers who are at the threshold of their professional careers. Its track record bespeaks its skill at talent spotting and the value of its away-from-the-hothouse environment in building skills for future star performers.

This year’s La Bohème is no exception to its form. In many ways it’s one of the best productions it’s done. The set strikes you as soon as you sit down – Grace Venning’s design of a garrett for the starving artistic young men of the title may be largely a collection of junk, but it’s striking and evocative.

And there’s a concept behind the junk, too. Director Harry Fehr presents the story as Rodolfo, the main protagonist, returning after years to the attic in which those great formative experiences of his youth took place. So he enters the stage before the music starts, looking around and remembering. Everything seems to happen within his memories, and at the end the other characters slip away backwards through the doorways, like wraiths at the rising of the sun.

I could quibble about minor incongruities (Rodolfo has to be middle-aged throughout the story, as he can’t rejuvenate instantly to fit the imagined flip back in time; the attic is full of chairs which enable it to convert into the Café Momus for the middle acts, but you wonder at first whether, if the lads were so short of fuel for the winter, they didn’t just burn them), but it’s a cinematic way of telling the story, and you have to suspend disbelief as you see it on stage.

The stark and bare third and fourth acts work brilliantly: in fact the last was one of the best acted endings to La Bohème I’ve ever seen. Movement and placings are well worked out, and at the same time we see young people facing, all unprepared, the reality of death and its ending of their dreams.

There was perhaps a little nervousness in Act One which detracted from a sense of young love’s first joys as the richly famous music was sung (and very well sung), and in a setting with no extras and limited space there’s not much scope for the Christmassy merriment of Act Two, but no doubt later performances will allow for compensation here.

But with Clonter it’s always the voices that are the thing, and here they have struck gold again. Estonian soprano Mirjam Mesak (Mimì) is surely a singing actress with a great future, and she effortlessly shone out over the biggest vocal ensembles and accompanimental textures. Russian Alexey Gusev (Marcello) is a natural actor as well as a very good baritone, and Lebanon-born Bechara Moufarrej (Rodolfo) has a refined, mature and flexible tenor. Connor Baiano (Colline) and Jolyon Loy (Schaunard) will have much to give in future, too, and Pedro Ometto (Benoit and Alcindoro) has a comic gift in the making. And Erika Baikoff gave us a Musetta with attitude, not so much a hardened cynic as a youngster blending aggression and naivety (very convincingly), and singing beautifully.

The Clonter Sinfonia, led by Liz Rossi, played the reduced orchestration with fire and affection, and Clive Timms conducted with his accustomed sure hand and dramatic skill. He has been music director for Clonter for the last several years and its achievements under his care have been exceptional.

Further performances on 22, 24, 26 and 28 July.

Clonter Opera's set for La Bohème

Friday, 13 July 2018

Review of Tisbe, from La Serenissima, Buxton International Festival

Just a concert performance of an obscure baroque opera, it seemed – but Tisbe turns out to be one of the serendipities of the 2018 Buxton Festival.

It’s by Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello, and I hadn’t heard of him either. Worked in Munich, Stuttgart and Württemberg in the second decade of the 18th century, apparently, and charmed the Germans with his Italian styles. This is quite a big piece for its time, with an orchestra including horns, oboes and recorders, and a chorus as well as four protagonists – the indefatigable Adrian Chandler has created a performing edition from a score that looks slightly incomplete (judiciously filling the obvious instrumental gaps from Brescianello’s other works) and may never have even been performed originally.

The story, though, is definitely one we know: Pyramus and Thisbe, told by Ovid and Boccaccio and memorably rendered by the rude mechanicals in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It’s all there, though with Italian names: the lovers agree to rendezvous at Ninny’s tomb (Nino’s in this case), Tisbe is a bit late, Piramo finds her veil with blood on it and concludes a lion got her, stabs himself but takes his time a-dying and lasts long enough for them to be together for a final farewell.

The only thing you don’t get is a singing wall, but the other two characters are Licori, a shepherdess, and Alceste, a virile young man who fancies Tisbe at the start and whom Licori tries to persuade to fancy her.

Musically, it’s all high-quality as you would expect: Julia Doyle (Tisbe), Robert Murray (Piramo), Hilary Summers (Licori) and Morgan Pearse (Alceste) are first-class soloists and the chorus and band are excellent, too.

What gives it extra attractiveness is the acting ability of all the singers (including the chorus, who collectively become the lion for a lively showdown with bold Piramo), and the direction of Mark Burns. ‘Concert performance’ hardly does his work justice – it’s semi-staged (although the band takes about half the stage space) and full of inventiveness and humour. A most lamentable comedy … or should that be comical lament?

Either way it is a good evening out. Whether it qualifies as ‘the finest baroque opera ever’, as Adrian Chandler suggests in a programme note, is perhaps more debatable. I did find Brescianello’s endless sequential repetitions became a bit tedious in the end. But Licori’s ‘L’amare è follia’ was good fun and her ‘Cari orrori’ had a lovely affekt of wistful regret; Piramo’s ‘Pace, pace’ was a fine show-off aria, and Tisbe’s ‘Fiero leon’ likewise full of life.

Repeated on 17th July.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Review of Alzira, Buxton International Festival

Alzira completes the trilogy of early Verdi operas performed at the Buxton Festival in recent years under Elijah Moshinsky’s direction. In Giovanna D’Arco in 2015, and last year Macbetto (the original 1847 version), he showed his awareness of human and relationship tensions in Verdi’s work and brought them clearly to the fore.

He also made use of video projection and sound effects to evoke the scenarios. With Russell Craig as designer and Stanley Orwin-Fraser as video designer again, we have impressive results this year, too.

The story (based on Voltaire) is about Incas rebelling against their Spanish conquerors several centuries ago. Moshinsky’s brought it up to date and made it show guerilla fighters harassing a present-day (or near present-day) Peruvian government. The heroine (title role) is in lover with the peasants’ leader, Zamoro, but is captured by government forces and mercilessly used by their leader Gusmano: he forces her to agree to marry him in order to save the life of Zamoro. In the end Gusmano gets his just deserts, and before he dies he has a (rather unconvincing) change of heart and forgives his enemies.

Moshinsky and his team see themes of nature and innocence versus power and cruelty in this, and the projections show the beauty of the jungle as a contrast to the stifled atmosphere of government: they also set a few scenes by using the small side-title screens and remind us of the human cost of political violence with what looks like authentic news footage.

The opera is Verdi’s shortest and least often performed: this is the first fully staged version in the UK. It does not have the depth of much other Verdi, but has a concision of construction and kaleidoscopic variety of mood almost akin to fast-cut movie direction, and these mean it has much to offer still.

The reason it doesn’t often get put on is probably to do with Cammarano’s plot. But there are some thundering good tunes (with several marches and a drinking song), and with retiring artistic director Stephen Barlow conducting again, plus a strong cast and well-resourced company (a bigger chorus than Buxton’s often managed historically), the musical results are first-class. It’s stirring stuff.

Kate Ladner (Alzira) has strength and stamina in her voice and expresses tenderness and courage rapidly alternating. Jung Soo Yun cuts the right dash as Zamoro and is a very fine tenor. James Cleverton makes Gusmano as believable as probably anyone could, while singing with distinction, while Graeme Danby brings maturity and experience to Gusmano’s father, Alvaro.

Jung Soo Yun and Kate Ladner in Verdi's Alzira

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Review of The Daughter of the Regiment, Buxton International Festival

The Buxton Festival has often been at its best when it has balanced high drama with comedy in its operatic offerings. This year, with two heavyweight pieces as its in-house productions, it has wisely turned to Jeff Clarke and his Opera della Luna to make up the fun quotient.

They do it splendidly. Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment is a classic light opera, but needs singers of real quality to do it justice. The famous tenor aria with the nine high Cs (‘Ah! mes amis’) is in it, for one thing, and there are some superb soprano showpieces, too, and a clever trio.

But for Opera della Luna adaptation is the name of the game. Clarke has not only got John Longstaff to reduce the score – the chorus is all-male here, and three of the six of them double in other roles – but he’s re-written the book completely.

‘The Regiment’ is no longer a section of the French army operating in the rural Tyrols, but a desert-based Harley-riding biker gang in California, USA, and Sulpice is their president. The Marquise is now Los Angeles based social climber Marsha Berkenfield (she lives in West Hollywood, of course), and the Duchess of Crakentorp is heiress Dulcie Crackenthorpe. Marie, the daughter of the title, is still a lovely girl brought up by the good-hearted guys of The Regiment, and it’s all about her falling for Tonio – now an Hispanic immigrant, rather than a peasant – and then turning out, finally, to be the long unacknowledged daughter of Marsha.

It’s all great fun and very cleverly matches the essence of the original. The dialogue is all-American (and they’ve had dialect coach Matthew Bloxham to help them get it right), and the set (Graham Wynne) looks like an Old El Paso chili chips packet, plus cactuses.

This is a second incarnation for Opera della Luna’s interpretation of the piece, as they did it four years ago for the Iford Festival, but I fancy (from the stills of that version) that this is a fuller staging. And it is a hugely entertaining gem of a show.

What makes it most satisfying is the quality of the singing. Jesús Álvarez has got the top Cs – he doesn’t belt them out like a circus act, rather weaves them into the aria’s melody line, but they’re all there.

And his Marie is Elin Pritchard, both a great comedy actress and a wonderful soprano, who both Opera North’s and Buxton Festival’s audiences know well. Her finale aria to the first act (‘Yes, we must part’) was lovely, and she made a delight of the ‘singing lesson’ in act two (which Clarke transforms to include some neat bowdlerizations beginning ‘I dreamt I dwelt …’ and ‘My tiny hand is …’).

The roles of Sulpice (Charles Johnston) and Marsha (Katharine Taylor-Jones) are character studies above all, but very finely done (and sung) here, and Robert Gildon made Hortensius the butler into a comedy cameo in his own right.  Toby Purser conducts the company, and a great little band, with skill.

The Daughter of the Regiment - Jesús Álvarez, Elin Pritchard and Charles Johnston

Monday, 9 July 2018

Review of Idomeneo, Buxton International Festival

Idomeneo is an opera that reveals its secrets only to the patient. Generally considered Mozart’s supreme creation in the ‘opera seria’ genre (in the formal Italian tradition), it is a long piece.

But there is a wonderful final act, when not only do we get the appearance of a sea monster but also the disembodied voice of Neptune and a near-mad scene – and then a final denouement, reconciliation and the triumph of humane and enlightened values over ignorance and fear.

The story is from the Trojan Wars, with King Priam’s daughter, Ilia, captive on Crete, loved by Idamante, son of king Idomeneo, whose army captured her … and Idamante is also loved by Elettra, Agamemnon’s daughter, who wants revenge.

Pretty straightforward as classical plotlines go, and of course it gives Mozart lots of scope for arias of passion and dramatic switches of tension.

But what about the sea monster (a judgment from Neptune, who is angry with Idomeneo and his whole nation for his failure to carry out his earlier vow to sacrifice the first living thing he saw on being delivered from a storm at sea – in fact his son)? And the disembodied voice?

Director Stephen Medcalf has come up with great practical solutions for staging these within the constraints of Buxton Festival opera production budget. The monster is seen in Idomeneo himself, in a kind of wild transformation on the lines of The Incredible Hulk (‘You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry …’). And the voice of Neptune comes as an oracular declaration, seen from Idomeneo’s lips but sung with echo effect off-stage.

There are other neat touches that give the outlandish story a kind of reality and bring it into the realms of psycho-drama. With a useful single set by Isabella Bywater (a two-sided building half submerged by sand … presumably the effect of a terrible sea-storm and maybe even global warming) and non-period military gear for the king, his son and other combatants, it takes on a timeless quality.

But this is also Buxton, where the music comes first. Nicholas Kok was in charge in the pit, the music was stylish and energy-filled, and the Northern Chamber Orchestra and Festival Chorus were both magnificent. 

Buxton did a concert performance of Idomeneo eight years ago, in Richard Strauss’s somewhat eccentric version (he wrote some syrupy music of his own into the Mozart score), but this is the first time we’ve had the original. That time the wonderful Paul Nilon took the title role, and this time he embodied it again. Almost everything depended on him, and he did not fail. Quite apart from the Hulk impression, he portrayed nobility and passion, and his ‘Fuor del mar’ aria captured a sense of survivor guilt as I think few others could. He never lost his ability to sing, and stay, in character.

Heather Lowe was an excellent Idamante, ardent and at times (rightly) piercing and powerful, and Rebecca Bottone sang with lovely tone and intonational precision – a little bit studied and static by comparison with her co-stars, perhaps, but always a joy to hear. Madeleine Pierard almost stole the show with her Elettra, particularly in her great Act two aria.

And the final act, with its ensembles and climactic sense, was, as I said, worth the wait.

Idomeneo, Buxton International Festival

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Review of Buxton Festival gala concert

It’s the 39th Buxton International Festival, and they like to get off to a flying start with a gala concert. With Lesley Garrett as both hostess and performer, plus the Northern Chamber Orchestra (led by Nicholas Ward and conducted by Nicholas Kok) in the pit, it could hardly fail to do that.

The music was a mix of favourite tunes from opera and operetta with generous scoops from musicals – ending with the fabulous Ice Cream Sextet from Kurt Weill’s Street Scene (this time licked by 11 soloists) which was right on the button for a sweltering evening in the Peak District … normally a rare enough experience.

The NCO sounded great as a Broadway pit orchestra from the off with Gershwin’s Strike up the Band overture, and morphed into a precise and stylish opera ensemble for the overture to Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. One of the festival’s greatest assets in recent years has been this orchestra’s superb contribution to its music-making, and long may it continue.

But what I enjoyed most in the evening’s programme was the varied array of talent on offer from 11 soloist members of the Opera North Chorus. The company prides itself nowadays on engaging top performers in its chorus who can bring something distinctive to any role they’re asked to undertake, and boy did they shine in this programme of lively vignettes.

I’m glad to say I first heard Amy Freston sing when she was still training to be a dancer – and today she brings both skills to the stage brilliantly. ‘I could have danced all night’ (My Fair Lady) was made for her, and she led the troupe in many ways in ensemble numbers such as ‘That’s him’ (One Touch of Venus) and the Infernal Galop from Orpheus in the Underworld.

Nicholas Watts proved himself a charmer – and an accomplished siffleur – in ‘Johnny’s Song’ (Johnny Johnson), and Alexander Banfield was excellent in ‘Lonely House’ (Street Scene), as was Dean Robinson with ‘Some enchanted evening’ (South Pacific), but the real showstopper from the men came in ‘Wouldn’t you like to be on Broadway’ (Street Scene).

But for sheer stage presence and delivery, with virtuoso singing, precise in rhythm and pitch, as well as acting, the stand-out was Lorna James – another singer who I’m glad to say I saw early in her musical journey, at the RNCM, and rated very highly – with Bernstein’s ‘Glitter and be gay’ (Candide).

The singers worked tirelessly, even contributing rarely heard vocal lines to the orchestra (and Nicholas Ward’s) Méditation from Massenet’s Thaïs, and Opera North’s Martin Pickard was a supreme piano accompanist.

Changing the atmosphere near the close with the sweetly soulful ‘My Ship’ (Lady in the dark), sung by Kathryn Walker, was a lovely stroke, and Lesley Garrett followed that with ‘If love were all’ (Bitter Sweet), Noel Coward’s sentimental number about the ‘talent to amuse’. Everyone on stage certainly had that, and the ability to inspire, too, with a final ‘You’ll never walk alone’ (Carousel).

BELOW: Lesley Garrett, and Nicholas Ward leading the Northern Chamber Orchestra