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The Barber of Seville

The Barber of Seville

The audience laughed and applauded this jolly production of Rossini’s opera, sung in English and using the witty translation by Robert David Macdonald.  In marked contrast to the futuristic Madame Butterfly, which is the WNOs alternate production this season, this is a more traditional offering, directed by Giles Havergal, which WNO have been including in their repertoire since the mid-eighties.  The staging presents a play within a play, reflecting the joint origins of the piece. The centrepiece of the setting is a stage on three levels, some of the rear structure being visible, which has apparently been set up in a town square for a production of The Barber of Seville. The main characters enact the central story, with townsfolk (the chorus) watching and stepping in to play minor roles. In homage to the original opera by Beaumarchais, the ‘players’ are dressed in sumptuous eighteenth-century costume, while the townsfolk are dressed in early nineteenth-century costume, Rossini’s own era. This works well in allowing the characters to acknowledge the applause for the solos, although it does somewhat distance the audience from the action by placing them firmly outside the production. Nevertheless, the story charms, with youth and wit winning through and age and greed being successfully thwarted.

I loved the opening, where the chorus sit and watch the orchestra as they play the overture. This enables the superb WNO orchestra to be fully acknowledged from the start, from the stage as well as the audience. It is worth noting that some members of the orchestra and some members of the chorus have been with WNO for over twenty years. A happy company.

Once the piece is underway, your attention and admiration are captured by the virtuosity of the singing and each song receives its just reward from the rapturous applause.  Although the opera is named for Figaro (a cheekily entertaining Nicholas Lester), it really belongs to Count Almaviva (engagingly played by Nico Darmanin) and Rosina (an enchanting and humorous Heather Lowe). Each principal really owns their character, whilst stepping out of them to acknowledge the applause. Heather Lowe moved as well as sang gracefully and it comes as no surprise to find she is also a dancer.

There is no weak performance here; Dr Bartolo (Andrew Shore) embraces his comic-villainous role, Berta (Angharad Morgan) and Fiorello (Howard Kirk) amuse in their supporting roles, and it is wonderful to enjoy so much more of the rich tones of Keel Watson, seen so briefly as The Bonze in Madame Butterfly.

This production can be seen in November and December in Oxford and Llandudno but leaves the repertoire in 2022. Catch it if you can.

  • : admin
  • : 06/11/2021
Madam Butterfly

Madam Butterfly

Photos: Richard Hubert Smith

This is a new production of Puccini’s opera, a troubling piece in any age but which highlights issues which make it very current to modern eyes. This opera dissects and displays the privileged white males’ attitude in foreign countries, where girls are treated as commodities to be sold to the highest bidder for as long as they want to keep them and are then discarded. Butterfly, a young girl from a family thrown into poverty, still dreams of escape through her ‘marriage’ to Pinkerton. She wilfully or wishfully refuses to accept that it is not worth the paper it is written on and is convinced she can become a true American bride. Pinkerton, of course, makes it apparent from the outset to everyone except Butterfly that he wants her for her body and skills at pleasing a man.

Attempting to avoid the pitfall of criticising Japan, this production is set in some sort of futuristic country. It is impossible to avoid the references in the libretto to Japan but we are in a white world with largely pastel colours. The costumes look like they have been borrowed from a 1960s episode of Star Trek, except for Butterfly’s wedding dress which has an open front over many layers of bright pink frills making her look like a head on top of a giant vulva – doubtless to emphasise how the other characters see her, particularly Pinkerton and the sleazy ‘marriage-broker’, Goro, (Tom Randle). Horrifyingly, at fifteen, Butterfly is close to her sell-by date (already losing her looks according to the catty chorus). The first age guessed for her at the wedding is just ten.

The centrepiece of the show is the stark white house on two levels, the only room of significance the sparsely furnished bedroom. This is accessed through stairs and passageways which enable cast to go out and reappear from elsewhere, especially as the house rotates so we can see into the bathroom and kitchen. It feels somewhat as though Butterfly is trapped in an Escher drawing.

The singing is, of course, divine, as one anticipates from the WNO, and the production is slick but rather failed to engage me in the actual characters in the first Act. Pinkerton, played with unpleasant charm by Leonardo Caimi, refuses to heed the warnings of the consul, Sharpless (Mark Stone). He is one of the two sympathetic characters in that first half and is played with sincerity, although his helplessness in the situation chafes. The other is the faithful maid, Suzuki, (Anna Harvey), whose attempts to support and protect her mistress are ultimately unsuccessful. One dreads to think what her fate will be after the dreadful denouement of the piece.

While beautifully sung by Joyce El-Khoury, I did not feel Butterfly’s fragility in the first act. This was partly because the character feels more powerful in that act. She has thought through how she will proceed, going to the lengths of changing her religion, knowing this will lose her the support of her family but hoping it will help to secure her future with Pinkerton. It was also partly because of that dress which makes it difficult for the audience to see past the male assessment of her.

In the second half we see her and Suzuki living now in squalor and penury. I particularly liked the touch of Suzuki’s pink hair growing out. We learn the rent has been paid by Sharpless, they believe with money from Pinkerton but one wonders. However, there is no money left. Butterfly remains convinced that Pinkerton will return and save her and the son she has given birth to and raised in his three-year absence. She resolutely refuses a second marriage to the wealthy Prince Yamadori (an engaging Neil Balfour).  The most poignant section is when Pinkerton’s ship is finally sighted and the two women and the child, endearingly played in a dinosaur onesie, try to decorate the house for his expected return and then Butterfly maintains a vigil through the night, waiting for him to appear. Here, the wonderful orchestra, conducted by Carlo Rizzi, come into their own as the lighting takes us through the night and to the dawn.

This production is part of the WNO’s tour through England and Wales, which extends through to May 2022.

Die Walküre

Die Walküre

Photo: Bethan Langford, Elizabeth Karani, Katie Stevenson. (c) Alex Brenner

It’s always good to return to the glorious Hackney Empire and the staging of a Wagner opera in the building seemed to have attracted a number of first-time visitors who were stunned to see this beautiful theatre (although a little peeved that after being told the doors would open at 6pm they were kept outside till nearly 6.30). The production was from the Arcola Theatre and the Grimeborn Festival, which aims to widen the accessibility of opera and is seeking to complete the full Wagner Ring Cycle. At Hackney, the production was Die Walküre, the second of the four parts to this epic group of operas, having previously produced the first part, Das Rhinegold, at the Arcola Theatre two years ago.

Die Walküre continues the story, based on Norse mythology, and calls for a magic sword buried in a tree, fights with sword and spear, escapes on horseback, gods on mountaintops and a ring of perpetual fire. No surprise then that this production, presented for three days only, was not a literal one but an interpretation on a basic set and in vaguely modern dress. The cast of 9 were accompanied by the excellent 19-strong Orpheus Sinfonia conducted by Peter Selwyn, using the full depth of Hackney’s orchestra pit and more than up to any challenge thrown at them.

Of course, this opera is capable of presentation in a great many forms: this, after all, is the main source material for Bugs Bunny’s What’s Opera, Doc? considered by many to be the best animated short every made. Director Julia Burbach decided to set the opera in a large warehouse (according to the programme) but Bettina John’s design was very much a backstage setting with flight cases as rostra and various lengths of stage scaffolding as swords, spears, trees and mountains. Lighting designer Robert Price made the most of this basic set, particularly with his use of colour reflecting off the silvery scaffolding, although in the first act the emphasis on lighting from behind and the side meant that it was difficult to see the faces of the singers at times.

As a regular theatregoer but only occasional visitor to the opera, this production would seem to be aimed at me, since the company aims to welcome newcomers to the genre by performing the reduced version of Die Walküre originally created by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick. The surtitles (Lydia French) helped greatly and gave only the minimum needed to follow the action, so that newbies were able to watch the stage as well. It was unfortunate that the Stage Left screen developed a fault in the first half, leaving many of the audience glued to the message on screen to Press Any Button to stop it closing down… all was resolved during the interval however.

Much of the action in the first part of the evening was set around the tale of the incestuous love of two twins, played by Finnur Bjarnason and Natasha Joul, both managing to surmount their drab costumes which left them in danger of fading into the background. Watching much of the action from a tallescope at fisrt, Mark Stone was a commanding presence even before he sang, and came to dominate the production (as his character does the plot) by the end of the evening.

The battle between Wotan and his rebellious daughter Brünnhilde (a spirited Laure Meloy in a red dress which seemed somehow less than god-like) enlivened the latter parts of the evening and provided the clear narrative drive which proved elusive earlier for newcomers to the Cycle. As the other Valkyries appeared, the mysterious black chains spotted on the set earlier were released, revealing three large swings. This raised the prospect of rampaging Valkyries swinging wildly out over the audience but in the event they just sat (and in one case stood) on the swings briefly and slowly moved to and fro.

It is a remarkable achievement at any time to mount a production of any of the Wagner Ring Cycle operas; to do so with 50% capacity limits at the present time deserves copious congratulations. The evening was not perhaps as accessible as I had hoped but was still a good introduction to this much-discussed but not often performed group of operas, and all involved were given a rapturous reception.

All photos: Alex Brenner (click an image for full size)

  • : admin
  • : 04/08/2021