3rd Act Critic Barbara Michaels gives a personal response to being a critic with Get the Chance.
With over half a century of reviewing under my belt, I can hardly remember a time when I wasn’t passionate about both music and theatre. This was intensified when I got my first job on a local paper. I was eighteen, as the most junior member of the staff – and the only female in the days when women on newspapers were few and far between. I was expected to cover tasks such as weddings, flower shows and (to my delight) amateur dramatics.
This was a wonderful training ground which led to me covering professional theatre on my second paper. My big break came later, when I was working freelance and also running a syndication agency. The reviewer covering a first night ballet performance at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden was ill and asked if I could do it. I have always loved dance but had never previously reviewed a dance production so cut my teeth on the Creme de la Creme. To this day dance is my favourite of all the art forms and – like all the arts – underfunded, if I had the money (which, as an OAP, I don’t) I would support.
Opera in Wales is still regarded by some as only for the elite. This is far from being the case. Please give it a try! We are so fortunate in Wales to have the WNO – a world-class opera company performing in a wonderful venue. Their production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, which I reviewed recently, was as near perfection as you are ever likely to see.
Life is busy for me. As well as reviewing I edit a community magazine and last year published my first book for young children, entitled WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH SLITHERS? The publication of the book, shortly;to be featured in a Cardiff book festival, coincided with the birth of my first great granddaughter Chloe Jo, and I am now expecting another great grandchild.
“Age doth not wither her.” The old adage definitely can be applied to Rebecca Evan’s portrayal of the demanding central role of the Marschallin in a new production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, a co-production between Welsh National Opera and Theater Magdeburg. Evans is at the top of her scale, with a soaring soprano and equally at ease in Act I as the skittish Bichette (her lover’s name for the Marschallin) and in the final scenes as a mature and gracious lady, bowing to the inevitable.
Right from the start there is poignancy behind the comedy, as a lone figure portraying the Marschallin in age is seen either seated in a chair or wandering around at the back of the stage. A nice touch of individuality in that the (non speaking) part is played by actress Margaret Bainton who was in the chorus of the WNO for thirty-seven years and played a child in Der Rosenkavalier fifteen years ago
The Marschallin is married to a high-ranking Field Marshall who is conveniently away on duty as she enjoys a bit of rumpy pumpy with her young lover, Count Octavian (nicknamed Quinquin) , only to be most inconveniently interrupted by the boorish Baron Ochs, up from the country and hell-bent on acquiring a young wife with money. The machinations become more and more involved, as Octavian is nominated to carry the obligatory silver rose – the Der Rosenkavalier of the title and traditionally symbolising and engagement– to the Baron’s prospective bride. What no one has bargained for is that the two young people are instantly smitten with one another and fall in love.
As often with operatic comedies, there is a hint of pantomime. The young Count Octavian is a female role, performed here by the delightful Canadian mezzo-soprano Lucia Cervoni, making her debut with WNO and singing the role with evident relish. Brindley Sherratt’s Baron not only shows perfect timing but his mastery of a difficult bass role, requiring as it does a range that is rare, Sherratt being one of the few who have this accomplishment. The Baron’s intended is Sophie, daughter of the daughter of nouveau riche businessman Faninal. Singing Sophie is the delightful newcomer Louise Alder, in Cardiff for Singer of the World and only the night before shortlisted as a contender for the title, while as Faninal her social climbing father with dreams of grandeur, Adrian Clarke is a Hitler-like figure of hand-rubbing nastiness.
Strauss’s wonderful music, bound together with its string of memorable waltz melodies, is a given, but in the hands of WNO’s new young conductor Tomáš Hanus takes on new dimensions, underlying the comedy and recognising the poignancy beneath. A small caveat – there is a sight hesitation, no more than a breath, in Act II when the tempo drops, otherwise this would have been five star. All in all – a masterpiece culminating in the superb singing of the trio as the opera draws to a close. Director Olivia Fuchs and designer Niki Turner are to be congratulated. Turner has resisted the temptation to go overboard, and instead opts for a single glittering chandelier that reflects the opulence of 1911 Vienna against elegant pale grey walls. An added pointer to the theme of the opera are the sands of time running out from above onto the stage, much appreciated by the audience but a nightmare for the stage hands.
Absolutely beautiful – the colours of India, the sentiments of its time, the tragedy of love over birth – exquisite.
It makes me cry. I have loved the music from this rarely performed opera for years and years. It is absolutely beautiful. And the characters are all visually believable – both leads are young and lovely looking, their voices ardent as their passion. No one is miscast, no one is out of place.
It is as gentle and as curiously English as a Wildean play but with the underlying expectation of tragedy teasing us along the way. It is Madam Butterfly meets Passage to India. I wonder whether I may feel less or more affected were it sung in the original French and conclude a handsome, manly colonialist colliding with a hidden jewel of a local lass will sound the same in any language where it is sung with conviction.
The clash of backgrounds, religions, family and commitments is very predictable and the terrible messy tragedy of it all plays out predictably too. Delibes opera is based on Pavie’s story. But this is a predictable tale prettily told, beautifully visualised and fabulously well sung.
The Flower Duet between Lakme and Mallika is exquisite, Lakme’s Bell Song heart-achingly lovely with the sopranos comfortably balanced by the tenor of Gerald and the bass-baritone of Nilakantha.
The set feels a little clumsy initially but its simplicity allows us to concentrate on the opera and enjoy the music, the period costumes and the sublime singing. How lovely it is to revel in Lakme performed as it might have been at the turn of the last century.
But yet again, I leave a performance wishing I could take it home with me somehow – I want to listen to it all again and again and I can’t – I want to take Lakme home with me, fill my house with her voice, send it out into the darkness of the night so others can hear her, feel her hope and her sorrow, scent the flowers in her garden, scream at her not to take the poisonous datura…
The operaLakmé is possibly best known for the popular Flower Duet, composed by Delibes as a showcase for sopranos and performed in Act I by Lakmé and her maidservant Mallika. Lakmé is the daughter of Nilakantha a Brahmin Priest, and the story, set in British-governed India in the 19th century, centre around the love story of Lakmé and a British officer, Gerald. Nilakantha has been forbidden to practice his religion by the British and, full of hatred for the occupying force combined with an obsessive patriarchal love, vows revenge. When he discovers Lakmé has become attracted to Gérald, Nilakantha sets a trap for the soldier and knifes him. Lakmé hides Gérald in the forest and nurses him back to health, but his officer friend Frederic appears to remind him that he has been posted elsewhere. Duty calls – with tragic consequences.
All photographic credits Guy Harrop
The atmosphere of British India comes to the fore in the picnic scene in Act I with the two Army officers, their English girlfriends and governess, with a neat cameo role by New Zealand mezzo-soprano Rhonda Browne as the governess Mistress Bentson, permanently clutching her black Gladstone bag as if it were her saviour.
Romanian born soprano Madalina Barbu’s delicacy of appearance are ideal for the role of Lakmé. Barbu has performed in a number of demanding operatic roles,but does not cope well with all the high notes in the Act II aria Bell Song – a long-time favourite with coloratura sopranos – which is a pity given the high standard of other solo arias and in particular her duets with Gérald (Luke Sinclair). However, Barbu’s diction is not always clear, especially in Act I. Sung in English, it should not be a problem but surtitles would have helped.
As Gérald, Sinclair’s rounded tenor is first class, outstandingly so in his solo arias and duets with Barbu. His interaction with Mark Saberton’s Frederic is also good. As the Mr Nasty of the piece Nilakantha, Håkan Vramsmo bestrides the stage with lofty disdain and a powerful bass, while in the role of Nilakantha’s slave Hadji, Bo Wang gives a neat and well timed performance.
As both director, artistic director and set designer Brendan Wheatley has his work cut out. With the exception of the colourful market scene in Act II, Wheatley’s minimal set is just that, resulting in much of this opera’s Oriental ambience and emphasis on the natural beauty of flowers and trees being lost. There is not a tree or flower to be seen, unless you count the solitary lily thrown on stage in the final act. Surely, Mr Wheatley, you could have run to a token miniature tree or so, and maybe a flowering bush? A local garden centre might be pleased to offer them gratis in return for a programme mention. For greenery, Wheatley relies heavily on the lighting to engender atmosphere, and full credit to lighting director James Thomas for doing his utmost to comply.
With its melodic score and passionate themes of love and persecution, this is opera to tug at your heart strings and this production by Swansea City Opera does that on all fronts. Considering the restrictions of opera on a shoestring – the company was rescued by funding from the Arts Council after Swansea withdrew their support – all credit to them for staging a most enjoyable performance. However, despite manful efforts, the small orchestra struggles to cope with the richness and delicate orchestration of Delibes score.
Sweet little Butterfly is but 15. A child. A beautiful, lost child to us.
Pinkerton is to our eyes horribly unattractive, horrible in deed, fact and person. I don’t want him anywhere near her.
But, she is in love and he is in lust.
He is the archetypal American soldier – overpaid, oversexed and over here. He has the tacit and overt support of his colleagues. He blinds Butterfly’s friends and family with his pomp and wealth.
It is an arranged marriage. Butterfly enters into it with enthusiasm and a love for Pinkerton which is not reciprocated.
He, of course, leaves her. She brings up their child with the help of her servant, Suzuki, over the 3 years of his absence in hope and penury. Pinkerton returns with his American wife and they assume the boy as their own. Butterfly kills herself. She has loved too much.
Not a new story in any sense. It is utterly predictable and pitiful. And honest.
I have seen this production before but I have not heard or seen such an utterly perfect Butterfly before. She is a little light burning into the sepia staging. She sings with her soul on fire.
Le Vin Herbe
The story of Tristan and Iseult the fair. Accidental lovers brought together by circumstance and potions. Their love is inconvenient and uncontrollable. Their exile and their isolation disrupted by a secret visit from the king, Iseult’s husband to be, who leaves his sword to show his lenience. The lovers overthink his intentions and return to their respective lives at court.
Tristan marries Iseult of the white hands who takes her revenge on his love for the ‘other woman’ when he is dying. Iseult returns to die over his dead body. The brambles entwine their bodies for eternity.
An outstanding production. Skeletal, dark, passionate, ironic. Show-stealing leads against an outstanding chorus. This is a well-known story well told and chest-beatingly hot.
A few thoughts:
Now, both of these operas are about love and life and fate and death. They both imply you can love too much. They both sing to us of the nasty twisty business of chance and tell us that passion will end badly. They both show us women who give up their hearts to their men, to their lords and masters.
Butterfly sees a way to a happy, comfortable, settled life with her soldier and gives up her faith, family and friends to do so. Iseult gives up a husband, crown, wealth and status to follow her knight into the woods to live in a poor shed full of flowers.
Pinkerton makes no sacrifices; he is not in love. Butterfly, Tristan and Iseult are all in thrall to love and make the ultimate sacrifice. Pinkerton is rewarded for his disinterest.
Messing with fate is clearly a bad idea but the music it invokes is not. These are two visually and vocally disparate operas with similar stories to tell. They are well chosen, well cast and masterly.
Madam Butterfly’s Un Bel Di Vedremo is Puccini at his best; Le Vin Herbe is opera at its best.
Mid Wales Opera’s exciting new production of Mozart’s TheMagic Flute opened appropriately in the Company’s home venue of Theatre Hafren in Newtown to a packed audience, proving once again that opera, once regarded as mainly for the elite or the cognoscenti, is gaining in popularity across Wales. And rightly so, given that Wales has given birth to some of the best singers in the world. Mozart’s sardonic fairy-tale, with its contending forces of good and evil, has more than a hint of the pantomimic, but is none the worse for that, consisting as it does of some of the composer’s most memorable arias and lyrical duets.
This opera has it all – romance, comedy and mysticism. The connecting link which runs throughout is the quest of Tamino, a Prince no less, who sets out to find and rescue Pamina, who has been kidnapped.by the villain Monostatos by order of Sastro, head of a mystic cult. Tamino is helped by the magic flute and Papageno, the birdcatcher who lives in a hut in the woods and whose idea of heaven is hearth and home with Papagena, the girl of his dreams, and a clutch of little Papagenos to make it complete. The story, with its mix of wonderful music , soaring arias, lovers’ tiffs and misunderstandings, set against a background of birdsong and mysticism, also manages to reference the power of womanhood and the number three, the latter being a send-up of the Masonic w which is both spooky and hilarious.
In the role of Tamino, William Wallace is a perpetually perplexed fresh-faced Tamino with a clear tenor, heard to advantage in his duets with Pamina. Frederick Long’s Papageno pulls out all the stops in a performance that bears evidence of Long’s familiarity with the opera and grasp of the role – truly a delight. The latter also applies to Papagena, sung by Laura Ruhi Vidal, who makes her appearance in Act II,
This wouldn’t be opera without the element of evil, the equivalent of the Wicked Fairy in pantomime, here in the shape of the Queen of the Night, Pamina’s wicked and scheming mother ( making a change from the classic wicked stepmother.). This is possibly one of the most demanding soprano roles in the history of opera, with an incredibly high range with which even the most accomplished of soprano can struggle.
Full credit to soprano Samantha Hay who, cocktail-hatted, masked and black ball gowned, takes command of the stage with confidence, soaring to the difficult top F. A creditable performance deserving of the calls of “Brava!” awarded to her at the end. The forces of evil are well represented, with Matt R J Ward as the sinister Monostatos, swooping down like a predatory crow on the unsuspecting and naïve young Pamina, sung prettily by Moscow-born Galina Averina, who has worked with Dame Kiri Te Kana and WNO’s Dennis O’Neill.
Mention must also be made of the three ladies, an enthusiastic performance and some great costumes – I particularly like the red cross outfits in Act I. The orchestra, under the baton of conductor Jonathan Lyness, segues seamlessly between the familiar themes despite Lyness’ reduced orchestration.
Scenically, the production is helped by Declan Randall’s excellent lighting – a necessary facto, as, due no doubt to budget restrictions and the difficulties of touring, scenery is kept to the minimum, a lack particularly noticeable in Act I. Not even a token bush or tree in sight in the opening scene set in a forest, although designer Richard Studer’s ploy of using a backdrop of a giant sun /or moon works to some extent.
That most heartrending of operas, Puccini’s Madam Butterfly is staged by Welsh National Opera as the second in their Love’s Poisoned Chalice season. Following on after La Boheme, which opened the season, Butterfly is, like the former, one of the most popular operas and as a consequence – in these days of cuts to the arts funding – one of those most often performed.
Once again, it is a case of reach for the tissues as the story of the Japanese fifteen-year-old geisha, Cio-Cio San, who gives her heart to, and marries, a bounder of an American naval lieutenant, one Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton who doesn’t take the marriage seriously, unfolds towards its tragic end. In restaging this opera which they first performed back in 1978, WNO have wisely adhered to the original format directed by Joachim Herz and first performed at La Scala Milan in 1904.
Sepia toned sets emphasise that this is old Japan – and the gulf between the two worlds and their values runs as an undercurrent throughout, at times becoming more prominent. The political undertones are emphasised throughout the libretto, epitomised by recurrent musical themes in the orchestration, as well, as in the repeated playing of the Star Spangled Banner.
This time round WNO has honed and polished their performance of the poignant story set to Puccini’s wonderful score to a state of near-perfection. This is due in no small part to Karah Son’s portrayal of the central role of Butterfly. Not only has the South Korean soprano a voice of the utmost clarity, with a seemingly effortless ability to soar to the high notes which the role demands, but Son excels both in Act I, as the innocent young girl who believes in true love everlasting (only to be thoroughly deceived and let down by that cad and absolute bounder Pinkerton) and in Act II, where she achieves the difficult shift to the more mature Butterfly, bringing depth to the tragic denouement This requires not only a change in characterisation but in style of singing, and this Son does, notably so in the beautiful aria One fine day..
In the role of the bad guy (and what a cad Pinkerton is to abandon his young wife so callously) Jonathan Burton’s tenor is pleasing, particularly in his duets with Son. His portrayal of the callous and worldly Pinkerton contrasts well with the naivety of the young Japanese girl who has never been further than Nagasaki, but Burton does at times lack facial expression. One could perhaps argue that this is intentional on the part of the director in that Pinkerton is a reflection of the attitudes that existed during that era. Nevertheless I would have liked a tad more expressiveness from Burton, as this can at times make him appear a tad wooden in the role.
Welsh baritone David Kempster brings gravitas to the role of the Consul who does his best to avert the tragedy, while as the bowler-hatted marriage broker Goro, Simon Crosby Buttle skips around the stage in great form. As ever, the WNO chorus is an added bonus, particularly so as the posse of Butterfly’s geisha friends in Act I, and the rendering with the orchestra, under conductor Lawrence Foster, of the humming chorus in Act II.
A production honed to near perfection which should not be missed. Catch it if you can.
Runs at the Wales Millennium Centre 17, 18 February, then touring,
Interested in theatre, dance, visual art, gigs, poetry, film and more?
Want to access a free workshop which will give you an insight into the role of a critic?
Then, this is for you!
You will take part in a 1 hour workshop with Guy O’Donnell Director of online magazine website Get the Chance http://getthechance.wales
During the workshop you will be given an insight into the role of the arts critic. You will be given instruction on how to create a review and upload your response online. Participants will look at blogging, video, social media and much more! All workshop participants will get the opportunity for their reviews to feature on the Get the Chance website.
If you have one please bring a laptop, tablet and/or smartphone.
Workshops are on Saturday the 14th at 11.30 and 1.45 pm at Venue Cymru as part of Take Part 2017
Killology The Sherman Theatre Cardiff and Royal Court Theatre
“The show that I am most excited for this year is “Killology” at the Sherman Theatre, written by my absolute favourite Gary Owen and directed by my also favourite Rachel O’Riordan. Two of the most moving and real life productions of the last two years are Iphigenia in Splott which I saw in Cardiff and Violence and Son which I travelled to London to watch so you can imagine my excitement. I love Gary Owens raw approach on controversial, gritty and jaw dropping subject matter. “Lie out darkest fantasies, but you don’t escape their consequences” a line used in the write up to the play… it gives me goose bumps as I know this play will take the viewers on a phycological trip they wouldn’t have imagined possible.I hope this play is in the studio theatre as the intense momentum that can be built up in there will be electric, with director Rachel O’Riordan no doubt pulling out all the stops.”
The Moot Virginity of Catherine of Aragon The Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
“I am particularly interested in seeing this play as the writers and creative team alike are unknown to me so I am eager to enjoy and observe their styles and approaches in tackling such a controversial and historical topic. I have recently watched the BBC drama “Six Wives with Lucy Worsley” which give quite a different perspective of Catherine to that I had imagined and observed to date. I wonder whether this show will evoke more feelings and insights into the life of Catherine of Aragon for me and can it change my strong views I already have on the story? We will see!”
Zero for the Young Dudes as part of NT Connections at The Sherman Theatre
“I am also drawn towards Zero for the Young Dudes performed by Sherman Youth Theatre which will be used as their competition entry to NTC festival. In attending the NTC festival in 2016 I am aware of the quality produced by these young individuals and in some circumstances when experiencing barriers which is always extremely insightful and inspiring to me. It’s also a good opportunity to catch glimpse of the up and coming stars that are going to rock the world of theatre in Wales and beyond for years to come!”
“Firstly, Legend and a tribute to Bob Marley 28 January at the Globe being a 7 piece band which is noted to be a flawless musicianship. I am attending with a fellow reggae lover so set to be a fun evening.
I am gassed for Cardiff’s very own asteroid boys who will be championing their recent success of their sold out tour and signing by Sony records and will be supporting Wiley at Y Plas event in one of my most memorial venues in Clwb ifor Bach”
Im looking forward to any events for 2017 from Pryme cut and Rhyme cut entertainment incorporating Wild boys wasted and likes of Brave Mugraw, Crash, Lord Bendtner, Two Putt and more on battlers… Performers.. Saykridd, Jake the Ripper, Ferny Mac, Chew, Conrad Lott and Beatbox Hann plus much more as the events over the last two years have been something to shout about. These nights are open to any performers any styles making them completely diverse perfect for our very cultural city of Cardiff.
I am also looking for anything to attend that includes again Cardiff’s own Baby Queens with their album being released the latter end of 2016 and being noted in BBC online top 100 single. This band are the ones to watch.”
Get the Chance Creative Associate Jonny Cotton
The House of Bernarda Alba
By Federico García Lorca, Directed by Jenny Sealey A Royal Exchange Theatre and Graeae Theatre Company co-production
Graeae has a new play, ‘The House of Benarda Alba’ which will be coming out in Feb and will be performing at The Royal Exchange in Manchester so I will be looking forward to see that.”
“My dream or wish is to see a disability-led organisation to come to Wales in 2017. Although I don’t mind travelling to see the likes of Fingersmiths, Graeae, Birds Of Paradise I would like to see them perform in Wales. That would be my wish! I think the difficulties is because of the Arts strands and lack of support from venues which preventing these organisations coming to Wales. We need to see a change in that!”
Young Critic James Briggs
“I am looking forward to this year there are two which I have already got press for in St Davids Hall and they are ‘Anton and Erin’ and ‘Riverdance’.”
“I am particularly keen to see Sunny Afternoon. It started its journey at the Hampstead Theatre, one of my favourite venues in London. Then, as most good productions it is home to, it made it successfully to the West end and now there is a touring company. It’s also the start of an era for me as the Kinks played the Capitol in May 1965, I was there and witnessed the altercation between Dave Davies and Mick Avory”
“Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes which is coming to Cardiff. I was fortunate to be given house seats at Sadlers Wells on Christmas Eve. It is arguably the best thing Bourne has ever done. On the home front WNO start the new season with La Boheme. A great atmospheric production and an excellent on to enjoy if you have never seen opera before. “
A rather controversial topic perhaps but one which raises its curious head regularly in conversation if not in print.
Having touched on this in my review of Bafta Cymru, I feel a personal need to explore the impact of Welsh identity projected in the Arts on audiences.
2 Opera & Dance
Having absolutely adored having access to so much of both through 2016, I plan on deepening my knowledge through further attendance at performances, continuing to draw at open rehearsals and through interviewing performers and artists.
Leaving events in Cardiff at night has opened my eyes to the problem of homelessness. The stark contrast between the opulent glories of the stage and the plight of living on the streets has been brutal to witness, far more brutal to those who live it. Everyone has a story and I would like to help those stories be heard.”
Creating opportunities for a diverse range of people to experience and respond to sport, arts, culture and live events.