BarbaraMichaels

Review MACBETH, National Theatre at Wales Millennium Centre by Barbara Michaels

Play by William Shakespeare

Director: Rufus Norris

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Reviled by many as one of Shakespeare’s more unpleasant plays, and referred to by thespians as ‘The Scottish Play’ because of its reputation for bringing bad luck to performances, Macbeth is open to a huge range of interpretations on account of its deep psychological reference.  Rufus Norris’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s work balances this with an urban modern setting that screams disruption and corruption in high places from start to finish.

For those unfamiliar with the play, Macbeth is a soldier whose wife’s aspirations of greatness proof to be his downfall.  Returning after a successful battle, he meets a coven of witches who predict his speedy promotion and ultimate Kingship.  On arriving home, Macbeth tells his wife, who informs him that Duncan, the present King of Scotland, will be visiting and staying the night – giving an ideal opportunity for the skulduggery which is necessary i.e. the King’s murder. One killing leads to another as both the Macbeths become victims of a bloodlust that lead inevitably to their downfall.

Played out against a forbidding darkly lit set which hardly changes throughout, this production focuses on making Shakespeare’s work compatible with contemporary times, with the obvious intent of the original text becoming more accessible to present day youth.  In this, the National Theatre’s most recent version of Macbeth, it succeeds brilliantly. The parallel with the knife crime so prevalent in today’s society is evident. The fights are, at times, almost too realistic Costume designer Moritz Junge dresses the soldiers including the main protagonists Macbeth and his rival Macduff in combat uniform, while Lady Macbeth is seen in jeans and T-shirt. Set designer Rae Smith uses a steeply sloping ramp for much of the main action in a stark setting.  Even the banquet in Macbeth’s castle is an austere affair.

. BUT – there is a caveat. Some of the poetry and fluency of the memorable speeches is lost, or drowned out by overloud music which adds to a cacophony of sound in some scenes.   And did the three witches really have to climb poles? Having said that, the pluses in this production by the prestigious National Theatre are many. Overall this is good theatre, due in no small part to the acting of Michael Nardone, who projects as a Macbeth in emotional torment yet unable to resist the possibility of ennoblement and its accompanying riches and the blandishments of his evil (soon to become deranged) wife, with disastrous consequences. Kirsty Besterman plays Lady Macbeth as a malevolent sex kitten who has no scruples in using her bedroom wiles to persuade her husband to embark on a wicked course that will lead to his destruction. Norris tackles the wickedness head-on – literally. (Forgive the pun – beheading is part of the on-stage action).

As for light relief:  there is not much of that around, but what there is gets its full due in the hands of Deka Walmsley whose spot-on timing and comedic touch provide a most welcome moment of lightness in this searingly dark tragedy, giving rise to appreciative chuckles on the night reviewed. A welcome moment of respite from the relentless discords of a brutish production that demonstrates that, while we may stop short of beheading in today’s society and guns have replaced swords, in some respects – you have only to consider the fighting in Afghanistan and Syria, for instance – the similarities with our own times are all too apparent.

Runs until Saturday March 23rd.

Review Ignite the Passion, Mid Wales Opera, Gala Concert by Barbara Michaels

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)I

Theatre Hafren, Newtown.

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels.

In celebration of their 30th birthday, Mid Wales Opera pulled out the stops for a Gala Concert which also marked the start of their Spring tour of Tosca.  After a welcome by Board member Alun Jones, the programme began with a spirited performance of The Laughing Song from Johann Strauss II’s  Die Fledermaus by guest artiste soprano Galina Averina (who sang the role of Pamina with outstanding success in MWO’s 2017 production of The Magic Flute), setting the tone for a programme of opera favourites in the first half.  

GALINA AVERINA
soprano

A selection from Puccini’s La Boheme followed: the aria Che Gelida and ensuing duet Si, mi chiamo Mimi sympathetically sung by Norwegian tenor Stian Økland and soprano Stephanie Lloyd was a clever and popular choice, while scarlet gowned mezzo soprano Dilan Saka’s performance of Nel Giardin del bello from Verdi’s Don Carlos deservedly won huge applause– a young artiste to watch, as proved by her performance with Økland in the Seguedilla from Bizet’s Carmen.  All of these young and personable singers are emerging talents in the opera scene and to be kept an eye on in the future, while Averina’s solo aria Saper Vorreste, from Verdi’s In Ballo in Maschera showcased her true and clear soprano.

STIAN ØKLAND
lyric tenor (WIAV)
STEPHANIE LLOYD
soprano (WIAV)
DILAN SAKA
mezzo (WIAV)

A concert programme consisting of only operatic items is not easy, the components of opera stretching as they do far wider.   The fabulous music for full orchestra is impossible to replicate with a solo pianist and full credit to MWO accompanist Siân Davis who rose admirably to the challenge.  Additionally, an opera traditionally involves a considerable amount of both scenery and props, both of which are lacking in a concert performance.  While on this occasion fully understandable owing to full scenery for the following night’s opening performance of Tosca being hidden behind the all-concealing black drapes.  A gala evening could perhaps have done with a bit more.

 Addressing the audience at the end of the evening ,Gareth Williams, chair of MWO, spoke of MWO’s intention since its foundation thirty years ago to bring opera to parts of Wales  previously unable to access opera, and also to smaller venues, while  Emily Gottlieb, Chief Executive of the National Opera Studio and a former production and development designer with the Royal Opera House, spoke of the immense value of Mid Wales Opera as a testing ground for the operatic skills emerging today.

All singers are former or present students of Dennis O’Neill’s Academy of Voice in Cardiff.

Gala concert at Theatr Hafren, Newtown, Powys,on Friday February 22nd.

                                                                                                                                                   

WNO Orchestra in concert, St Davids Hall by Barbara Michaels.

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi

Violin: Alexander Sitkovetsky

Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave)

Bruch: Scottish Fantasy

Rachmaninov: Symphony No.2

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

A pleasure to see the orchestra of the Welsh National Opera performing – stand alone, as it were – as part of the 2019 International Concert series at the St. David’s Hall on Sunday.

With a programme which begun with Mendelssohn’s melodic Hebrides Overture, known as Fingal’s Cave and one of the first examples of musical impressionism, the performance continued with a further nod to the recent Burns Night with Bruch’s all-embracing Scottish Fantasy, with solo violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky giving a performance which showcased the expertise and versatility of this Moscow-born musician.

But it was not Scotland all the way – not by any means.  After the interval we were treated to the symphony which was to stabilise Rachmaninov’s success – Symphony No.2. This performance of what is arguably Rachmaninov’s most highly charged  and emotional symphony, embracing thematic material in a work that encompasses so much, and described from the podium by Rizzi himself as being “a virtuoso performance from the entire orchestra” proved to be, under Rizzi’s baton and performed by the WNO, indeed that, showing the strengths of this Wales-based orchestra and once again demonstrating that it is up there with the best.

A tumultuous and well-deserved ovation for Rizzi and the orchestra, as well as for the talented Sitkovetsky who gave us our money’s worth with an encore.

Review The Nightingales, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Michaels

 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

The setting is a church hall for William Gaminara’s witty new comedy The Nightingales, on tour before coming in to the West End. Gaminara has taken the concept of a local acapella group at their weekly rehearsal in said church hall. Despite a few missed chords and the like the group, under the direction of their Cambridge educated choirmaster Steven (played with empathy by Steven Pacey), the four singers who make up the group get on fine – until one day a newcomer, Maggie (Ruth Jones) arrives.

The role makes a welcome return to the stage for multi-talented Welsh actress Ruth Jones, who in 2014 was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list for her services to entertainment. The role of Maggie who upsets the apple cart in more ways than   one, is perfect for Jones, best known for playing Nessa in the popular BBC TV comedy Gavin and Stacey, Jones engages with the audience from the moment she arrives on stage; her timing is spot-on. At first garrulous but otherwise harmless, before long Maggie’s arrival puts the cat among the pigeons, proving to be the catalyst which results in the layers being peeled back to reveal what lies beneath the surface bonhomie.

This is particularly applicable to the relationship between the scholarly choirmaster and his wife Diane, played appealingly by Mary Stockley, while the other female in the group, Connie (Sarah Earnshaw) has aspirations to hit the celebrity spotlight. Earnshaw’s characterisation is good, but her voice a tad shrill at times. Completing the Capella group are the two male singers: Connie’s husband Ben (Philip McGinley) a down to earth sort of bloke with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, contrasting with the charismatic and sexy Bruno – a great performance by the likeable Stefan Adegbola .

Peppered with bon mots and clever ripostes, Gaminara’s slick dialogue, on opening night in Cardiff, rained down upon a packed and eager audience, appearing at times somewhat laboured, at others too fast for all the jokes to be appreciated. There was also occasionally a need for a couple of the cast to guard against turning their backs to the audience, or at least to speak more clearly when doing so. Having said that, in this co-production by Jenny Topper and Theatre Royal Bath, director Christopher Luscombe has handled Gaminara’s concept cleverly, grabbing the flavour and that unique smell of the village hall – at atmospheric set by Jonathan Fensom – to the extent that one can almost smell the dusty floorboards.

Some of the best moments are – perhaps not surprisingly – the songs, notably George and Ira Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me, raising a tear among the laughs, as is so often the case with good comedy. Which brings us to the question: although billed as comedy, as the play progresses into the second half and home truths are revealed we see behind the masks to the sadness – so true to life.

And therein lies the skill in this play by actor-playwright Gaminara.

Runs until Saturday 24th November at New Theatre, Cardiff.

Worth a mention are the programme notes which include several highly amusing cartoons relevant to a play about a village choir,

Playwright: William Gaminara

Director: Christopher Luscombe

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels

 

La Cenerentola, WNO Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff  by Barbara Michaels

 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

The Cinderella story with a twist, Rossini’s Cenerentola has all the magic of the fairy-tale –and more. The composer’s sparkling score, with the lightness of touch that characterisesso much of Rossini’s work, lifts it up even further. This revival by the WelshNational Opera , first performed back in 2007, cleverly uses a clutch of talented Italian singers performing the central male characters, giving extra appeal when touring to European cities.

This is comic opera at its best. Cenerentola keeps most of the ingredients of the fairytale with which we are familiar, with one notable exception. There is no glass slipper.

Instead we have a sparkling bracelet – two, to be exact. – the reason being that when the opera was conceived, in Rome back in 1817, it would have been considered bad form to show a lady’s ankles on stage.

Act I opens with the Cinderella of the story, here named as Angelina, slogging away at the housework, in the crumbling castle overun by mice where she slaves away trying to cope with the demands of her two ugly sisters Clorinda and Tisbe and trying in vain to get some sign of affection from her self-important stepfather Don Magnifico – portrayed with gusto by Fabio Capitanucci. His evident enjoyment of the role, coupled with a sonorous bass, makes this singer a perfect choice for the part.

Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught has a voice of exceptional depth and clarity which calls forth our sympathy as she is vilified and hassled by Clorinda (Aoife Miskelly) and Tisbe                                                                                                                                         (Heather Lowe), both of whom give great performances as the two throughly nasty stepsisters who make Angelina’s life a misery. The arrival of Alidoro (Wojtek Gierlach),officially the Prince’s tutor and mentor but actually a kind of wizard in place of the traditional fairygodmother, disguised as a beggar, hints at the chnages to come. Angelina’s kindness convinces him that she is the bride for his Prince Don Ramiro (Matteo Macchioni). Macchioni’s pleasant tenor blends well with Erraught in their duets, but with the change of identity – his valet Dandini (Giorgio Caoduro) masquerading as the Prince andvice versa – it is the latter whose performance in Act II is of particular note.

Set against a minimalist backdrop presided over by a giant fireplace centre stage, WNO’s revival is notable for its attention to detail – watch closely in order not to miss any of this.

The stepped stage could be hazardous but at Sunday’s performance any possible pifalls were dexterously avoided, not least by the team of dancers that make up the pose of mice that is a feature of this production, swishing their tails and gesturing on stage throughout. So enchanting are the make-believe rodents and so expert their delivery of revival director and choreographer Xevi Dorca’s great choreography that they are at times in danger of diverting our attention from the main action as the story unfolds.There is a cleverly portrayed storm, an overturned coach, and much more to excite as Dandini and the Prince change back to their true persona and Anglina/Cinders dream comes true.

A happy-ever-after ending – although it is rather a shame that Rossini’s Cinders is still in her kitchen dress when she marries her Prince. She does wear a sparkling tiara, but a bridal gown would have been nice. Other costumes – among them those worn by WNO’s legendary chorus – are colourful yet traditional in some respects, so why not keep this one?

There are underlying themes – good triumphs over evil, etc etc – but this pantomimic take on Rossini’s popular comedy is fun and overall should not be taken too seriously.

Now touring

Music: Gioachino Rossini

Libretto; Giacopo Ferretti

Director: Joan Font

Revivial Director/Choreographer: Xevi Dorca

Barbara Michaels 

Review Evita, Wales Millennium Centre by Barbara Michaels

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

The real-life story of Eva Perón is a classic case of fact being stranger than fiction, and couldn’t be more suited to adaptation as a musical, and a highly successful musical at that ever since Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s hit production in London’s West End back in 1978, followed by Broadway a year later and since then a string of professional productions worldwide.

Eva Duarte was living in poverty in rural Argentina in the late 1930s when her involvement with a musician takes her to Buenos Aires where her determination to become a star eventually results in a meeting with Argentinian Colonel Juan Perón at a benefit concert. He too has an ambition – in his case to become President of Argentina. With Eva – who later becomes known as Evita – by his side he succeeds. Meanwhile, despite her unflagging work for the poor of the country, Eva’s extravagant lifestyle leads to criticism.

This new production by the really Useful Group under the banner of Bill Kenright breathes new life into the show with a brand new cast including the charismatic Glenn Carter as Che. Acting as narrator, Carter’s expressive delivery and fine voice guide the audience through the twists and turns of the story of the ambitious girl from the sticks who becomes the wife of the President of Argentina, with all the trappings of wealth and status that go with it.

Taking on the role of Eva is Lucy O’Byrne – not an easy task, given that not one but two showbiz icons – Elaine Paige in the Seventies West End production and Madonna in the film – have previous in this respect. O’Byrne’s voice is strong but she needs to guard against a resulting loss of clarity at times, which is shame given the emotive quality of Tim Rice’s wonderful lyrics. O’Byrne came into her own in the second half with her performance of what was to be Eva Perón’s last appearance and her singing of ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina’ – heart-rending in its beauty. Interpreted by, and under the baton of musical director Anthony Gabriele, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s marvellous musical score is given full throttle, at times to the extent of being overloud in the first half but meltingly moving in the highly charged and emotional second half.

Good to see some of the talent that comes out of Wales in Swansea-born Mike Sterling as Perón. Historically in the musical the role is underplayed in relation to that of Eva. Accordingly, Sterling gives us only a glimpse of the man that was Perón leaving us aware that behind a pragmatic exterior lies an ability to recognise and rely on the power behind the throne – Eva.

Important to the first half of the story is Magaldi, the musician whose eye for the girls is Eva’s route to Buenos Aires. The dark good looks of Oscar Balmaseda make for a neat bit of casting, as does that of Cristina Hoey as Perón’s former mistress, swiftly given the boot by Eva. Although Hoey makes only one appearance, and a brief one at that, her singing of Another Suitcase, In Another Hall is up there with the best. This girl is definitely one to watch.

At the end of the day it is, as with much if not most musical theatre, the story plus the songs that make or break the show, and here the plot is a given and as for the songs – beautiful.

Runs until Saturday 8 September 2018

Review The Sound of Music, New Theatre, Cardiff by Barbara Michaels

 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

Everlastingly popular, and guaranteed to play to packed audiences – in the materialistic world in which we live the story of the tempestuous Maria, the young would-be nun who ends up marrying the naval commander Captain Von Trapp with a brood of children, is eternally popular. Not surprisingly, this Bill Kenwright touring production played to a packed house on opening night in Cardiff, despite Sound of Music having been staged here barely three years ago.

It is, course, the music which is largely responsible for making The Sound of Music unfailingly popular with both young and old: Songs such as The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Music and the tear-jerking ‘Edelweiss’. Welsh soprano Megan Llewellyn’s powerful soprano is well suited to the Mother Abbess of the Abbey, capable of coping with a demanding part central to the story and the action. As for the nuns who form the choir – some wonderful singing although I would have preferred the show’s opening number The Nuns of the Nonnberg Abbey to have begun on a softer note.

Set in Salzburg at the end of the 1930s, with the rumblings of war closing in on Europe, the musical has its dark side, reminding us of the perils that faced those who did not agree with the Nazi regime when their country was overrun by the Germans. This element is projected in the dilemma facing the Captain and the danger he and his family face when he receives a so-called ‘invitation’ (in fact an order) to command a ship in the navy of the Reich.

Not easy for any actress to take on the role of Maria – Julie Andrews’ soaring soprano in the hit 1965 film is a hard act to follow. Lucy O’Byrne, who was runner up in BBC One’s The Voice in 2015 and appeared as Fantine in Les Miserables, was accorded rave reviews in the 2016 tour of Sound of Music. O’Byrne has a great voice and the seemingly boundless energy that the role demands, excelling in the musical numbers with the Von Trapp children.

Playing a central role in the story are those very children – and what a great band they are, from the ‘Sixteen, going on seventeen’ Liesl, played by Katie Shearman, to the smallest, Gretl. Which brings me to what stands out in this production – the choreography. Choreographer Bill Deamer has brought an added dimension to the role of Liesl with a balletic pas de deux danced exquisitely by Liesel and her pro-Nazi admirer Rolf Gruber, an edgy performance by Jordan Oliver.

As the naval Captain Von Trapp, Neil McDermott’s stiff upper-lip appears to preclude much in the way of facial expression, and at times he appears not altogether at ease in the role. It is not until Act II that McDermott’s strong baritone is heard to advantage in Edelweiss – a tear-jerker if ever there was one.

The cameo role of Max Detweiler, is tailor-made for Howard Samuel, who brings a touch of the Noel Coward to the role with a canny but warm-hearted Detweiler, unashamedly backing the winning side.

Gary McCann’s sets are in the most part faithful to the original, in particular the interiors of the Abbey and the Von Trapp mansion, although at times the hills between Austria and Switzerland are perhaps more reminiscent of, say, the Sierra Nevada.

Runs until Saturday February 17 at the New Theatre.

Book: Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse

Music: Richard Rodgers

Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II

Director: Martin Connor

Choreographer: Bill Deamer

Musical Director David Steadman

Barbara Michaels

 

Review Funny Girl Wales Millennium Centre by Barbara Michaels

 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

Funny Girl brings West End’s finest to Cardiff, with a cast and supporting ensemble singers and dancers honed to the highest degree of excellency. Based on the real-life story of actress and comedian Fanny Brice, Funny Girl opened as a musical in 1963 on Broadway, transferring to the West End a year later. For many of us, Barbra Streisand’s performance as Fanny in the film still remains in the memory as one of the shining star performances in theatre history.

All the more credit, then, to Sheridan Smith for taking on and embracing a role that calls for every ounce of energy as well as talent in the current revival which opened in the West End last year. Taking place in and around New York just prior to and following World I, this production is staged in its entirety beneath the proscenium arch of the Ziegfeld Theatre, with settings including Fanny’s dressing room at the theatre, Fanny’s home and various other venues where she performed. It’s a rags-to-riches story of Fanny’s rise to stardom and the rise and fall of the courtship and marriage between the unconventional, quirky Fanny and dishy gambler Nick Arnstein.

Smith has the poignancy and the self-doubt behind Fanny’s jokey façade to a T, bringing a tear to the eyes with her singing of People in Act I and belting out with gusto numbers such Don’t Rain on My Parade, although with a tendency now and then to go over the top. Great duets, too, with Darius Campbell as the inveterate gambler Arnstein, who sits down with alacrity to play poker with Fanny’s mum, the indomitable Mrs Brice, and her mates without realising he has fallen into the hands of experts. Campbell is at his best in that scene and in Act I, but not always convincing in the scenes with Smith in the latter half.

The supporting roles do a huge amount towards making this musical what it is, with real star quality from Rachel Izen as Fanny’s mother and Myra Sands as her friend and fellow poker player Mrs Strakosh and some great rendering of numbers such as If A Girl Isn’t Pretty in the opening scene. The nimble-footed Joshua Lay is a wonderfully emotive Eddie Ryan, the dancer who encourages fanny but gets no encouragement from her as far as their personal relationship is concerned. Lay displays some brilliant and acrobatic tap dancing, while Nigel Barber’s portrayal of the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld is almost surreal in its believability.

The dancers and singers of the ensemble have style and panache, with some high speed numbers, notably Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat in Act II, with choreography which includes a touch of the Irish, backed up in intensely green costumes (St Patrick’s Day et al). As for the music – wonderful, with Jule Styne’s tremendous score arranged for this production by Alan Williams and top rank choreography by Lynne Page.

A feel-good show, this – catch it if you can.

Runs until Saturday 8th July

Music: Jule Styne

Lyrics: Bob Merrill

Book: Isobel Lennart

Director: Michael Mayer

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels