Monday, 29 July 2019

Review of Don Giovanni at Clonter Opera

Clonter Opera is 45 years old – what began as a kind of summer party for enthusiasts sitting on bales of straw in a barn has become a north west artistic institution, with a purpose-built theatre and proven track record of providing real nurture for young singers as they begin to make their names in a demanding profession.

This year’s summer production of Don Giovanni is notable for the calibre of the production and music team behind it and the results they have achieved: Clive Timms is completing 10 years as music director and finally conducting his 75th performance here, with Robin Humphreys the long-time assistant music director and repetiteur, and Valeria Racco assistant conductor. Martin Lloyd-Evans has brought a fresh re-thinking of the story as director, and Nate Gibson has created an inspired design concept that neatly overcomes the problems of its varied settings (an issue that can easily defeat other designers).

We’re in the present day, or pretty near (mobile phones are much in use; one is the source Leporello consults for the ‘Catalogue’ aria of his boss’s sexual conquests in Act 1). Gibson and Lloyd-Evans have imagined the place as the USA, but it could easily be any other prosperous, soulless and fundamentally seedy Western society. The characters are nearly all genuinely young in years (that fits the Clonter casting), and what separates the powerful from the powerless is not so much aristocrat versus low-born as money and hypocrisy.

Don Giovanni would have a clear case to answer from the #MeToo movement these days: but how much are the victims of such a libertine complicit in moral failure themselves as they thirst for revenge, redemption or respectability, Lloyd-Evans asks. Perhaps his amorality carries more honesty than their conformity. In this view the homespun couple Zerlina and Masetto, in their attempt at a banal, Las Vegas-style wedding and enjoyment of simple, loving carnality, are the ones we should really admire …

The single set has two movable ‘walls’, with shutters that can each be closed or open to reveal a second view: evoking inside and outside, foreground and background, a bar, a club or a morgue with instant effect.

And the statue of the Commendatore, murdered at the outset and who finally answers Giovanni’s invitation to dine and then drags him down to Hell? In this case we see the man spookily re-appearing as silent Uber driver, barista or barman, and finally as a corpse that moves and a living head served up on a platter …  

The singers are all technically excellent – some much more than that. Eliza Boom (Donna Anna) and Alexandra Lowe (Donna Elvira) are familiar to RNCM opera attenders, and each impressed here, the former for her passionate delivery of ‘Or sai chi l’onore’, the latter for the power in her singing, her believable characterization and a glorious ‘Mi tradi’ aria.

New to me was Alexandra Oomens (Zerlina), who deserves a medal just for wearing the crazily high-heeled boots she was kitted out with but whose acting and voice had life and loveliness; ‘Vedrai, carino,’ especially.

Of the men, Fabian Langguth rightly dominated the show, as the Don himself. He got the idea of the louche seducer perfectly, and his light baritone, endearing in his amorous songs and almost a croon in ‘Deh vieni all finestra’, converted itself to a convincing imitation of Leporello’s bass tones moments afterwards: there’s a lot yet to be revealed there.

Simon Grange, who was Leporello, has enviable resonance and a great comic gift, his face never still, which should stand him in real stead in the future. Andrew Henly (Don Ottavio) brought golden tone to ‘Il mio tesoro’, and Stephen Fort was finally imperious as the doom-beckoning corpse-Commendatore.

Masetto can sometimes seem a one-dimensional idiot – but in this production he’s a more regular guy and even a bit of a hero in his own way. Jacobo Ochoa has a fine baritone voice and acts, and reacts, very well.

Fabian Langguth, Alexandra Oomens, Jacobo Ochoa, Alexandra Lowe, 
Andrew Henley and Eliza Boom in Clonter Opera's Don Giovanni. c Andrew Billington

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Review of Georgiana at Buxton International Festival

While Manchester International Festival prides itself on its biennial ‘new work’ (sometimes less than complete, less than new or less than work), Buxton International Festival creates new productions every year. This time, in the 40th anniversary festival, it has created its own new work as well.

It’s a very interesting species, too. They’ve revived the genre of ‘pasticcio’ opera – once common practice all over Europe – which is made by taking musical numbers from existing sources and giving them new words to fit a new plotline. In England the words would be in English, even if the arias and ensembles were originally in foreign-language opera, and there would be spoken dialogue and probably melodrama (speech with background music) as well.

The story here is that of Georgiana, Duchess to the 5th Duke of Devonshire – portrayed by Keira Knightley in the film, The Duchess – and it could hardly be more fitting for Buxton. Almost every stone and blade of grass in the town is connected to the denizens of Chatsworth in some way, or bears the name of Cavendish or Devonshire. In the old days the 11th Duke, and Deborah the Duchess, used to be at every festival first night in Buxton Opera House.

Georgiana, though, was an unusual Duchess. Fabulously good-looking – just look at Gainsborough’s portrait – she was a daughter of the Spencer family, as was Diana Princess of Wales in a later era. Funny, that: there were three people in her marriage, too.

When at first she failed to provide her husband with a male heir, she was joined in his affections and home life by Lady Elizabeth Foster (‘Bess’) – herself the victim of a time when even the noblest married women were their husband’s chattels, and, intriguingly, very good friends with Georgiana, who introduced her to him.

She formed her own extra-marital liaison, too, with Charles Grey (later the Earl Grey of tea fame), who, fitting the style of the time, is played as a mezzo trouser-role here. Their daughter was not allowed to join the Cavendish home.

The film makes you feel Georgiana was a victim. She was in many ways, but she was also a reckless gambler, as well as socialite, political organizer and author. This scenario, by Buxton Festival CEO Michael Williams (who also penned the lyrics for the musical numbers) puts that side of her life in focus, fleshing out her many-sided character.

The music has been chosen by Mark Tatlow, who has achieved an extraordinary thing by making a pasticcio entirely of music Georgiana might or could have heard in her lifetime and adapting it to a tale that’s both comic and tragic.

They make a comedy duo of playwright Sheridan and politician Charles James Fox, and present the early part of Georgiana’s story with a broad, comic brush (though there are strongly dramatic entrance arias taken from Soler and Storace for Georgiana and her mother, and an appealing bit of Mozart to introduce the unhappy Duke).

We also get some popular songs of the period to suit the scenes of public life, one literally from The Beggars’ Opera, whose atmosphere percolates much of the first half of Georgiana.

But the impressive part of this compilation-piece comes later. As the story reaches its tragic culmination, Tatlow introduces his adaptation of Mozart’s wonderful concert aria, ‘Bella mia fiamma’, its chromaticisms bearing the weight of the Duchess’s feelings as she loses her daughter borne to Grey. And the ‘duettino’, adapted from Paisiello, for Georgiana and Bess as the friends (whom the scenario suggests had their own intimate relationship, too) prepare for the parting of death, is superbly chosen and was movingly sung by Samantha Clarke (Georgiana) and Susanna Fairbairn (Bess), under Tatlow’s tender direction.

There’s a touching detail, too, in the introduction to this one – it’s a tune, played on fortepiano by Mark Tatlow as maestro al cembalo, which apparently was the real Georgiana’s own composition.

This performance has been cast with very fine and experienced performers. Benjamin Hulett is powerful and particularly excellent in the florid runs of his Act 2 aria (taken from Linley’s The Duenna). Samantha Clarke and Susanna Fairbairn are wonderful singers and effective actors; Olivia Ray makes a very effective contribution as Lady Spencer (Georgiana’s mother); Katherine Aitken sings Grey beautifully and Rhys Alun Thomas makes a baleful Blackmailer; and Aled Hall and Geoffrey Dolton keep everything alive as Sheridan and Fox.

Matthew Richardson’s direction is sure-footed, clear and entertaining with a simple but effective set (design by Jon Morrell). It’s quite remarkable … and could even set an example for the future. Pasticcio lives again.

Samantha Clarke and Benjamin Hulett in Georgiana

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Review of Orpheus in the Underworld at Buxton International Festival

Seen in Salford on tour in 2015, Jeff Clarke’s reinterpretation of Offenbach’s operetta for Opera della Luna has been revamped for the Buxton International Festival and is even more fun than before.
Jeff is still in charge as director; the choreography by Jenny Arnold enlivens the whole show again, with four ‘infernal dancers’ for the Cancan and much else besides; Maria Lancashire’s jolly costumes are back.
There is re-introduced ballet music rarely heard in other productions – I guess they knew they needed proper dancers for the infernal CanCan, and so they might as well use them thoroughly – so we have a pas des moutons in the opening pastoral and a flies’ polka later on.
And changing from a thrust stage arrangement without much of a set to the proscenium view at Buxton, with some very nice cloths and props by designer Elroy Ashmore, makes quite a difference.
There’s a little orchestra with single strings plus six others, playing an arrangement of the score by Thibault Perrine which works very well, and Luna performers from the previous version are Louise Crane (Juno), Katharine Taylor-Jones (the character of embodied Public Opinion – in this case transformed into an Arts Council of England assessor who knows even less about art than Sir Les Patterson) and Tristan Stocks as Orpheus, who has to sing tenor and play Che Faro on the violin while in character – ie badly, which he does rather well.
We also have some very good new actor-singers, in particular Daire Halpin as Eurydice, Anthony Flaum as Pluto, Matthew Siveter as Jupiter, Lynsey Docherty as Diana and Paul Featherstone as Mercury and John Styx.
The operetta, brought back to its historical roots by Jeff Clarke, shows the inhabitants of Olympus (all one dysfunctional family, rather like Downton Abbey at its worst) and an Orpheus and Eurydice who don’t actually like each other, with Pluto disguised as a shepherd carrying her off to the nether regions. Jupiter and the other gods descend to the underworld, Jupiter gets Eurydice out by disguising himself as a fly, and it all ends with a party and … see for yourself.
Jeff Clarke’s updated the text again with lots of topical allusions (MeToo, fake news, Wikileaks, etc., etc.), ‘When I was king of the Beotians’ this time becoming a soliloquy by one ‘Dave’ who was ‘king of Chipping Norton’ and ‘called that referendum … Donald Tusk has since confirmed it – I have a special place in hell’. Too true.

To the barricades! Scene from Orpheus in the Underworld credit Craig Fuller

Monday, 8 July 2019

Review of Eugene Onegin at Buxton International Festival

Shelley Jackson (Tatyana) and George Humphreys (Onegin) in Eugene Onegin 
at Buxton International Festival (picture: Genevieve Girling)

There’s freshness in the air at the Buxton Festival this year as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, and nowhere more so than in the first of the year’s opera productions, with new artistic director Adrian Kelly conducting for the first time, Jamie Manton making his Buxton debut as director of the production, and a young cast all of whom are making their house debuts.
That’s all to the good, and one continuing factor very much to the good is the quality of the 24-strong festival chorus. They were stalwarts of this interpretation, not just in their singing but in performing some simple but nicely executed choreography as well (by Jasmine Rickets, with dancers Lowri Mashburn and Katie Fairs incorporated into the ensemble), and moving stage props around – indeed, becoming stage props of a sort in some scenes.
Onegin has to have dancing in it, with the much-excerpted waltz and polonaise in the score, each essential to a scene of social dance as much rooted in the story as the ball scenes in Pride and Prejudice. Its typically Romantic saga could have been the outcome of that other plotline if you imagine Mr Darcy spurning Elizabeth Bennet’s feelings and going off for a few years’ Casanova-style adventures, only to return to find her married to someone else and himself wishing he’d taken his chance when he could have.
Of course Tatyana, the heroine here, begins as a much more innocent and lovestruck girl than Elizabeth (with her father to guide her) ever was. Onegin himself is pretty much a cad, killing his best friend in a duel occasioned by his flirting with Tatyana’s sister. So there’s a much more Byronic flavour to Pushkin’s story, which was originally told in sonnet-like verse, giving the whole thing an ironic tone akin to Childe Harold (reflected in this English translation).
All this gives the opera subtleties one hopes to find in its protagonists’ interpretations, as well as enjoying the soaring romance in the music. Jamie Manton leaves them with plenty to do, as the set is about as minimalist as they get: bare boards, autumn leaves, a few chairs and some chandeliers for the first part of the story, some snow for the middle, and better quality chairs for the posh ball in St Petersburg at the end. There is symbolism in the shape of a little girl in ballet shoes who appears beginning and end, and the climax of the duel scene, a sudden plunge into red light, is effective – intriguingly followed by the Polonaise dancers at first carrying death masks and dressed in black.
The principals’ singing is high-quality in every case, the men – George Humphreys as Onegin, David Webb as Lensky, Joseph Doody as M Triquet and Joshua Bloom as Gremin – to my mind filling their roles adequately without ever making you think they’d got real psychological depth in them.
The younger female ones, though – with whom Tchaikovsky perhaps felt the greatest empathy – were contrasted. Shelley Jackson, as Tatyana, has a darkly-shaded soprano tone of real potential and yet never quite made me think she was a youngster in the agony of desperate passion, even in the highspot of her role, the first act’s famous Letter Scene – though she never wrote a word, as far as I could tell.
Angharad Lyddon, as Olga, sang very well and acted the youthful, carefree soul I always imagined: you could see why Lensky fell for her. Gaynor Keeble and Ceri Williams, Madame Larina and Filipyevena, were excellent and inhabited the older women’s characters.
The Northern Chamber Orchestra were in the pit as usual and made a fine fist of the score.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Buxton Festival's revival of the opera pasticcio

Buxton Festival is 40 years old this year, and offering the mix of contrasting operatic experience it has so often in the past.

There’s Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, with the new festival director Adrian Kelly conducting and a gifted young cast. There’s a visit from topsy-turvy comedy specialists Opera della Luna, with their version of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, which I’ve seen before and want to again. There’s also a happy return to Buxton by Adrian Chandler’s baroque specialist ensemble La Serenissima, with the first production in the UK of Lucio Papirio Dittatore, by Caldara, 300 years after its Vienna premiere: Adrian will conduct and Mark Burns directs.

But most intriguing of all is a specially invented new work called Georgiana, about the 18th century Duchess of Devonshire – that’s the same lady as played by Keira Knightly in the film, The Duchess. If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember her as a fun-loving young innocent who was pretty badly treated by her Duke, having to live in a ménage-a-trois at Chatsworth with his mistress, Bess.

That’s but the half of it, apparently, and Buxton’s re-telling of the tale fills in much more about her life and times.

The thing that’s interesting about this piece is that it’s a revival of the tradition – standard procedure in Georgiana’s own time – of creating an opera pasticcio, in other words a theatre piece with its own story and characters, but borrowing and adapting music from other existing works.

In an age before copyright, it was frequent practice. Today we might call it a jukebox musical.

But Buxton’s pasticcio is itself to be an exercise in authenticity, with the musical numbers taken from composers of Duchess Georgiana’s time and all constructed in a way that could have been the case in the London she knew, with the text in English.

Its musical creator – and conductor for the performances here – is Mark Tatlow, scholar and former artistic director of the Drottningholm Court Theatre in Sweden.

Festival general manager Michael Williams first came up with the idea of creating a new version of an 18th century pasticcio, Mark Tatlow told me. ‘Michael created the basic shape of the piece and storyline, and he wrote the lyrics for the sung sections, while Janet Plater wrote the dialogue, with Matthew Richardson, the director, advising us,’ he said.

‘My role in bringing it about was to say that I thought it should reflect the music Georgiana herself would have – or could have – heard in the London of the 1780s and 1790s.

‘There are arias, duets, trios, some accompanied recitative, some stage music and some melodrama – and one street scene that’s more in the style of The Beggars’ Opera. The music comes from Thomas Linley the Younger, Stephen Storace (the composer who was the brother of Nancy Storace, Mozart’s first Susanna for The Marriage of Figaro), Martín y Soler, Paisiello – and also Mozart. That consists of three short pieces from La Finta Giardiniera and one major aria.’

Part of the piece’s faithfulness to 18th century practice is that the audience will not find attributions of the individual numbers’ music to their composers in the printed programme … but there will be an email address enabling us to find the details out after we’ve seen the show.

(The Mozart aria, though, is ‘Bella mia fiamma, addio’, originally written for Josepha Duschek and published as a concert aria but with a text that originally had a stage setting).

Soprano Samantha Clarke will create the enigmatic title role of Georgiana, with tenor Benjamin Hulett as the Duke of Devonshire and Susanna Fairbairn as Bess.

It’s a fascinating prospect – and not entirely without precedent in this part of the world. In 1850 the Manchester Theatre Royal put on a version of Cinderella in which much of the music was from Rossini’s La Cenerentola, but others’ compositions were interpolated, too.

Newspaper accounts tell us that one of those was Mozart’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni – sung by Cinders herself with English words beginning ‘Thou, chid by them, lamb – ah, no!’.[1]

You wonder whether the similar sound to the original was to enable the knowledgeable members of the audience to compliment themselves for spotting it … or perhaps to ensure that even if the singer forgot the new lines she could revert to the ones she knew without anyone noticing the difference.

Georgiana in rehearsal - picture Genevieve Gurling

[1] See