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Review: Love’s Poisoned Chalice season – Madam Butterfly & Le Vin Herbe

Madam Butterfly & Le Vin Herbe

Love’s Poisoned Chalice

Welsh National Opera at Wales Millenium Centre

 

Madam Butterfly 4 Stars

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  5 Stars

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.

 

Event:                   Madam Butterfly, Puccini

Seen:                    Feb 10, 2017

Website:              https://www.wno.org.uk/event/madam-butterfly-0

Running:              Friday, February 10, 2017 – Saturday, April 29, 2017

Conductor                           Lawrence Foster (until 4 Mar). Andrew Greenwood (from 24 Mar)

Director                               Joachim Herz

Revival Director             Sarah Crisp

Designer                              Reinhart Zimmermann

Costume Designer         Eleonore Kleiber

Chorus Master                 Stephen Harris

 

Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton           Jonathan Burton

Goro marriage broker                                                 Simon Crosby Buttle

Suzuki a servant                                                             Rebecca Afonwy-Jones

Sharpless the American consul                                David Kempster

Cio-Cio-San (Madam Butterfly)                             Karah Son

A Welsh National Opera production, sung in Italian

……………………..

Event:                   Le Vin Herbe, Frank Martin

Seen:                    Feb 17, 2017

Running:              Thursday, February 16, 2017 – Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Conductor                                           James Southall
Director                                               Polly Graham
Designer                                              April Dalton
Lighting Designer                            Tim Mitchell
Storytellers                                        Full Company
Iseult’s mother                                 Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Iseult the Fair                                    Caitlin Hulcup
Brangien, companion                    Rosie Hay
Mark King of Cornwall                   Howard Kirk
Tristan his nephew                         Tom Randle
Duke Hoël a nobleman                 Stephen Wells
Kaherdin his son                              Gareth Dafydd Morris
Iseult of the White Hands           Sian Meinir
Solo narrators                                   Anitra Blaxhall, Rosie Hay, Sarah Pope, Joe Roche, Howard Kirk, Stephen Wells, Catherine Wyn-Rogers

A Welsh National Opera production, sung in English

 

 

Review Madam Butterfly, WNO, WMC by Barbara Michaels

You can listen to Barbara reading her review at the Soundfile below just click on the link.

Madam Butterfly Wales Millennium Centre Cardiff

Music: Giacomo Puccini

Libretto: Guiseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica

Director: Joachim Herz

Revival Director: Sarah Crisp

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels

4 Stars4 / 5

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,

 

Review Macbeth/Merchant of Venice WNO by Helen Joy

wno-macbeth-main

3 Stars3 / 5

Macbeth – an operatic trip

I saw, no, I experienced, no, I what? I tripped. A singing trip through Shakespeare’s tragedy.

I have no idea where to start. What words can do justice to this bizarre and jarring production. This crippling tale of the power of suggestion, the excuses of politics.

The women. Boy. What women.

Lady Macbeth: opulent, passionate, the voice of an angel with the presence of a god. ‘I wouldn’t mess with her’ I overhear. I wouldn’t. Magnificent. An audience is besotted.

The witches: awful, writhing, peculiar, calling like sirens; sexy, funny, raunchy. Wonderful choral singing. Quite wonderful.

The men don’t come close. With Macbeth simpering at his wife’s side and Duncan striding around in turquoise, they were a motley crew. Hard roles to sing, emotionally challenging to act and in unusual surroundings; but then there is a duet between Macduff and Malcolm to die for.

Visually, this is a difficult work to like. Colours clash. The period is unclear. The costumes ugly. Elements are comic – are they supposed to be? Those around me in the audience aren’t sure so the odd titter at an odd moment feels inappropriate. This is Macbeth after all.

The lady next to me closes her eyes. This is a beautiful opera to hear. To see? I’m not so sure. It is very, um, challenging.

I chat with others afterwards: we agree that whilst it has been a most peculiar evening, we expect we will remember it for a long, long time; it has been an entertainment. What are we here for, if not to provide entertainment? So, a huge thank you to all involved for something quite exceptional.

Running time: Approximately 2 hour 55 minutes with one interval

10, 15, 17 & 24 September 2016

Conductor Andriy Yurkevych
Director Oliver Mears
Set & Costume Designer Annemarie Woods
Lighting Designer Kevin Treacy
Choreographer Anna Morrissey
Video Designer Duncan McLean

Macbeth Luis Cansino
Lady Macbeth Mary Elizabeth Williams / Miriam Murphy
Macduff Bruce Sledge
Banquo Miklós Sebestyén
Lady-in-Waiting Miriam Murphy

Sung in Italian with surtitles in English and Welsh.

Co-production with Northern Ireland Opera.
Supported by WNO Partners.

ne619_wno-birmingham-web-images_1800x900_merchant-990x495

Merchant of Venice – an operatic orgy

4 Stars4 / 5

This Edwardian extravaganza of a strong story is sung with passion, grace and wit.

Shakespeare would have loved this epic play revived with such clarity and lust for life.

He would’ve loved the stylish eroticism, the flirtations, the overt sexuality of characters hard-pressed against the rugged back of trade. The wimpish Antonio, the love-lorn Bassanio, the women running rings around their men again and again.

Shakespeare’s reputation for relaying the crudeness of man losing to the manipulation of women intact. Portia and Nerissa transforming from girls in town to legal hotshots, the real heroes of the piece. Swapping their dresses and hairpieces for robes and wigs, they must resemble men to use the intelligence of women!

Portia is clear, her voice rings out and we hang on her words. Antonio sings like a bird, beautiful, girlish, self-denying. He lends his money selflessly, he offers his flesh willingly. The scales glisten invitingly.

Shylock is a world apart. He is arresting. He is pathetic. He is the Shylock I see in my head when I read the play. He carries his faith on his shoulders like a giant and he falls under its weight.

This is a difficult tale to tell. Shakespeare forces us to see the trouble caused by bigotry and racial hatred; Tchaikowsky makes us hear it.

This is a sumptuous performance. It is a romp, an orgy and a lesson. ‘My first opera’ says a friend, ‘I love it, it makes me think, it makes me gasp’.

So, what do these productions have in common?

Opera often convolutes and exaggerates a storyline but here, it finds a way through the morass of Shakespeare which is clear and refreshing. It brings characters to life with a pathos I had not expected and with a love for the complexities of the human spirit. Italian for Macbeth, English for Merchant of Venice: the language of the sung word gives depth and feeling where the spoken word cannot.

There is humour, colour and vivacity throughout. The men sink into the shadows of the women as perhaps Shakespeare intended. His leads are visceral, deadly, massive: Lady Macbeth and Shylock are the meat on the bones of these tales.

They contrast and whilst Macbeth often feels disjointed, ugly, unhappily humorous in parts; Merchant of Venice is a comely blend of the bawdy, the raw and the difficult.

See them both, see what you think.

Donald Gordon Theatre

Welsh National Opera:
The Merchant of Venice

André Tchaikowsky | UK Première

16 Sep – 30 Sep 2016

Tickets: £7 – £43 (£8.50 – £44.50*)

Running time: Approximately 3 hours 10 minutes (including 1 interval)

16 & 30 September 2016

Conductor Lionel Friend
Director Keith Warner
Designer Ashley Martin-Davis
Lighting Designer Davy Cunningham
Movement Director Michael Barry
Associate Director Amy Lane

Shylock Lester Lynch / Quentin Hayes
Antonio Martin Wölfel
Lorenzo Bruce Sledge
The Duke of Venice Miklós Sebestyén
Bassanio Mark Le Brocq
Solanio Gary Griffiths
Salerio Simon Thorpe
Gratiano David Stout
Jessica Lauren Michelle
Portia Sarah Castle
Nerissa Verena Gunz

Sung in English with surtitles in English and Welsh.

Supported by the Getty Family as part of British Firsts.

Co-production with the Bregenzer Festspiele, Austria, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the Polska Music programme & Teatr Wielki, Warsaw.

Review Cavalleria rusticana & Pagliacci WNO by Helen Joy

Cav_Pag475

4 Stars4 / 5

Before I say anything about the production, let me say a few deservedly kind words about the staff at the Wales Millennium Centre. Always prompt to reply to calls and emails, always delightful at the counter; and on this occasion, exceptionally welcoming, generous and professional. A special thanks for the glass of water at the bar and the seat at the back on my return after a sharp exit in the first half. Note to self: keep cough sweets in handbag.

CavalleriaRusticana.DavidKempster(Alfio)andWNOChorus.Photocredit-BillCooper59

All production photographs credit Bill Cooper

Now, it is an interesting thing to change seats during a production. One minute I am gazing directly at centre stage and the next, I am at the back, looking side on. We forget how staging has accommodated us over the years and a 1970s repro set is a thing of beauty from the front; a thing of inconvenience from the side.

However, it is always a lovely thing. An old Victorian Christmas card has come to life in all its grandeur and its pathos. All bonnets and bayonets, Cavalleria rusticana is a comforting production. Camilla Roberts is cripplingly and sweetly intense, David Kempster is healthily robust and Gwyn Hughes Jones sturdily in control throughout.

Pagliacci.GwynHughesJones(Canio)andMeetaRaval(Nedda).Photocredit-BillCooper1291

It is dense and fat and fulsome – a wealthy work, confidently wrought.

Pagliacci is cloaked in the familiar faded colours but we are now in the 1940s, just a touring car for clowns and a troupe of singers keep us watching, listening.

Pagliacci.DavidKempster(Tonio)GwynHughesJones(Canio)MeetaRaval(Nedda)andCompany.Photocredit-BillCooper1395

A very funny cavalier play within a play becomes a tragedy within a tragedy; and we love it all. Meeta Raval is hot opera – sexy, winsome and hopeful, a tricky character well-played and so beautifully sung. Kempster and Hughes Jones give us opera on a plate – they sing a rich dish of verse and music designed to entertain and please as only the Italians can. It is superb.

Pagliacci.MeetaRaval(Nedda)TrystanLlŷrGriffiths(Beppe)andGwynHughesJones(Canio).Photocredit-BillCooper820

It is a production reminiscent of a period of flares and strikes but contemporary in its slick direction; popular pieces deserving of the magic touch of the Welsh National Opera.

Opera, Cavalleria rusticana & Pagliacci

Wales Millennium Centre

Mascagni & Leoncavallo

Welsh National Opera

Conductor            Carlo Rizzi

Director                 Elijah Moshinsky

Designer               Michael Yeargan

Lighting Designer              Howard Harrison

Seen:              7.15pm, 26th May, 2016

Reviewer:      Helen Joy for 3rd Act Critics

Running:        Birmingham Hippodrome 9 Jun – 11 Jun

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff 26 May – 4 Jun

Links:               https://www.wno.org.uk/event/cavalleria-rusticana-pagliacci

Cavalleria rusticana cast

Turiddu Gwyn Hughes Jones

Alfio David Kempster

Santuzza Camilla Roberts

Mamma Lucia Anne-Marie Owens

Lola Rebecca Afonwy-Jones

Pagliacci cast   Canio Gwyn Hughes Jones

Tonio David Kempster

Nedda Meeta Raval

Silvio Gyula Nagy

Beppe Trystan Llŷr Griffiths

 

 

 

 

 

Review In Parenthesis WNO by Helen Joy

WNO In Parenthesis. Photo credit - Bill Cooper 925

5 Stars5 / 5

Remember me. The evening before I had sung those words when rehearsing with the Forget Me Not (dementia) Chorus. Haunting to hear them sung out again across the cavernous auditorium of the WMC by men in khaki uniform looking to their end in the First World War.

I am surrounded by men in uniform. Bearskins worn at the doors borne by giants amongst men. Soldiers in full dress, silver horn covers wedged in place with bits of blue cardboard and happy for a head scratch. Red carpet. ‘Busyness’ everywhere and the Centre comes alive to remember the dead.

The first half is hard going, like the waters of the Channel and the muddy war-torn ground Royal Welsh Fusiliers will tread on the Somme. Granddad Joy was injured out on the Somme. Joined up at 17, he would never talk about the war. Here we are, being entertained by it.

I wonder what the soldiers around me are thinking. The first act is removed from them by at least two generations, probably three. Soldiers on the stage sing their way into personalities of a different time.

Act two is different. The visceral consequences of a, by now, boring war. Surreal; trees engulf the men and pick them off one by one. The floral bonnets of the women are lain on the laps of the dead and they are commemorated, returning to the soil to push up new daisies, new trees.

I wonder how the men around me are feeling now.

The choral pieces, from both the male voice choir and the women’s, are gently discordant and hauntingly beautiful. David Jones’ words are spun through the air. The solos are clear and strong and tell the tale of men, old and young going to war. The women are left behind.

There is some humour amongst the pathos – in the back-chatting amongst the men – but not many of us laugh. We all sigh with the joyful relief of recognition when our lads sing Sospan Fach but we are only half way through. We sigh again over the filthy battlefield of Mametz and hope for them.

The sets are clever and simple – the inscribed grey wall slides down and the floor rises and soldiers are in a bunker, crawling away from safety and towards the light of fire.

We leave and push out into the red light of the commemorative installation outside the doors of the Centre. We have been entertained by war. It has been magnificent and dreadful and mad.

Type of show: opera

Title: In Parenthesis

Venue: Wales Millennium Centre

Dates: May 13 to July 1, 2016

Composer: Iain Bell

(Libbrettist: David Antrobus and Emma Jenkins – after David Jones)

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi

Director: David Poutney

Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins

Lighting Designer Malcolm Rippeth

Cast includes:

Private John Ball Andrew Bidlack

Bard of Brittannia/HQ Officer Peter Coleman-Wright

Bard of Germania/Alice the Barmaid/The Queen of the Woods Alexandra Decorates

Lieutenant Jenkins George Humphreys

Lance Corporal Lewis Marcus Farnsworth

Sergeant Snell Mark Le Brocq

Dai Greatcoat Donald Maxwell

The Marne Sergeant Graham Clark

Performances start at 7.15pm, except Royal Opera House on 29 June and 1 July at 7.30pm

Running time: approximately two hours and 30 minutes including one 20 min interval

Sung in English with subtitles in English (and Welsh in Cardiff)

See more at: https://www.wno.org.uk/event/parenthesis#sthash.6q0pYOy8.dpuf

Review by Helen Joy

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