Ninety years on and a cartoon strip that appeared in a Moravian newspaper continues to show us the nature of life and its cyclic immortality. Leoš Janáček’s beautiful and musically inviting The Cunning Little Vixen is currently being performed at the Sherman Theatre by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
Every time this opera is recreated, the director is faced with a decision as to whether the human context is more important to focus on than the cartoon comic woodland fairy tale. On this occasion, Harry Fehr chooses an extreme and creates a complete human adaptation with a darker edge that plays against the cartoon (aside from the wedding party which is a welcome folk interlude). Rather than the human characters being anthropomorphised, Fehr concentrates on the characters’ animal instincts being dramatised.
The ‘Vixen’ is a moniker just as her love interest (Zlatohřbitek) goes by the name of ‘The Fox’. Throughout her youth Bystrouška (Sophie Levi) is convicted for a number of criminal activities. Locked up by Sheriff (Emyr Wyn Jones), her obsessive pursuer usually takes the form of a forester but the creatures of the animal kingdom are replaced by their domestic counterparts: holiday makers, police offers and a gang of ‘liberated’ female convicts that replace the clucking hens of the animal kingdom.
Whilst the production loses its comic enchanting quality, it was an interesting interpretation and one that comfortably plays to all the advantages of a young ensemble; the life cycle focuses on growing up and the adolescent right of passage. Sophie Levi’s expressive and impassioned performance as the cunning Vixen also captures an awkward teenage insecurity whilst she is being courted by Zlatohřbitek, her love interest, charmingly played by Jessica Robinson. In the male cast, Emyr Wyn Jones’ command of the Sheriff role and his character’s journey is particularly impressive. Whilst the futile attempts to catch the Vixen enrage him, his concluding paean to nature is poignant and his rich tone is perfectly complimented by the moving orchestral score.
Aside from a few stage glitches, the production was performed to an incredibly high standard and the star voices were as good any professional production. The RWCMD chamber orchestra conducted by David Jones brought the colourful and boisterous score to life as the comic character resonated through the music. If you are a fan of Janáček’s work, this unusual adaptation is well worth a watch.
The Cunning Little Vixen is on from 7-9th July at the Sherman Theatre.
In Flight, Wendy (Mariet Arnet), Michael (Rebecca Bottone) and John (Nicholas Sharat) on their way to Neverland. Photography credit: Clive Bardat
Music by Richard Ayres
Libretto by Lavinia Greenlaw
Directed by Keith Warner
Conducted by Erik Nielsen
J.M Barrie’s literary classic Peter Pan has been transformed into a whole spectrum of genres. From numerous film and television adaptations, to Broadway, comedy and even video game; now the magical story of a boy who never wanted to grow up has been reworked into a family targeted opera. As part of their ‘A Terrible Innocence’ summer season, directed by Keith Warner, the WNO have had pillow fights, dressed as pirates and Indians and have even worked with a flight choreographer but despite the chorus and orchestra’s best efforts, the material they are working with struggles to take off.
Visually complying with Barrie’s description of Pan as ‘the little white bird’, counter tenor Iestyn Morris all shimmered up is flighty and graceful. His fluent falsetto provides an unsettling juxtaposition with his growly spoken voice and embodies a Peter Pan with a slightly unpleasant edge full of spontaneity and arrogance who is unusually detached from the three children he brings to Neverland. Both Mrs Darling (Hilary Summers) and Wendy’s (Marie Arnet) arias are musical flourishes that break through but neither character is given much room to develop.
If a little crazed, Ayre’s full-bodied score, performed masterfully by the WNO orchestra under Erik Nielson’s hand, is an exploratory idea platform that I could appreciate but one that is hardly accessible to children as the themes just aren’t there. He incorporates essence of Gilbert and Sulivan with the pirates sea shanty and draws strong parallels with the likes of Stravinsky and Janáček but the vibrancy and anarchic intensity does not always fit with Lavinia Greenlaw’s slightly stagnated libretto. The WNO chorus work tirelessly but soloists were on occasion overpowered by the full-bodied nature of the score and I found myself searching for the subtitles to clarify what was actually being sang. My attention was often drawn to the interesting things going on in orchestra pit where the addition of the ticking clock sounds and the inventive concept of sawing on wood during the creation of Wendy’s story house joins sight and sound together, giving it an animated quality.
Creating Neverland from the children’s nursery, the parallel world production is colourful and childlike with its jack in the box James Hook (Ashley Holland) who despite fulfilling the role of dastardly pantomime villain provides snippets of comedic light. The novel and entertaining old grandfather clock that progressively transforms into the hungry crocodile will have appealed to a younger audience but the stage feels too cluttered, obstructed with children’s alphabet blocks that seem to get in the way of the fight scenes. Imagination and potential is there but the child’s vision of the world is lost. Instead, we’re offered an adult’s reconstruction of a child’s world restricted by the nursery set up and shadowed by constant allusions to the darker sub structure of Barrie’s work. The numerous re-imaginings of the train remind us of Peter Llewellyn-Davies’ suicide, one of the boys who inspired the author’s protagonist Peter Pan with the station sign for Sloane Square at the beginning making this an overtly clear reference. However, I did like the contemporary concept of the pirate ship as a London Underground train.
With too little in Act One, there is consequently far too much material in Act Two to develop any characters. It really felt like the ticking croc was chasing the performance the whole way through either to hurry it up or slow it down. Despite my indifference, as an introduction to opera, the WNO have done a fantastic job of encouraging families to experience a musical genre that for too long has been unfairly restricted by elitist clichés. By hosting workshops, introductory talks, doing face painting and creating an affordable family solution, children of all ages flocked in to the Donald Gordon theatre to experience something new but whether it hooked its target audience is something that is yet to be determined by the feedback from the families to come.
Ballet Cymru’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast is really one to go and see.
The way that Beauty played by Lydia Arnoux dances really helps you understand the ballet with no words but her facial expression to movement it is all quite beautiful and elegant. I also loved the music that gave the production a forest like atmosphere and at some points tense feeling, the Beast played by Mandev Sohki made the iconic character come to life. The Beasts costume created a towering imposing monster from the wearing of stilts gave him height and created an awkward and stubbing effect that helps Beauty fall in love with him and helps him to dance. The characters in the play like Beauty’s sisters, brothers and friends helped the scene changes they changed into dancing candles this made the play dynamic and different. The costume design was stunning and delicate my favourite outfit would have had to have been Beauty’s sisters red dresses I love the way that they moved when the sisters danced.
The scenery of the play was very simple but also interesting, I really liked how they initially showed Beauty’s house having a fire-place and then the outside snowflake background. Another thing that I thought was a good part of the ballet was when before it stated they had the rose from Beauty and the Beast projected on the screen, this begins to explain the story of the fairy tale and how children will believe anything that you tell them. In my opinion I think the production is brilliant and well worth going to see.
MOSES IN EGYPT WNO at Wales Millennium Centre
Music: Gioachino Rossini
Libretto: Andrea Leone Tottola, after ‘L’Osiride’ by Francesco Ringhieri
Director: David Pountney
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
Musically flowing majestically from one theme to another, Moses in Egypt is one of the least often performed of Rossini’s operas. And what a pity that is. From start to finish, this opera – described as ‘tragico-sacra’ and based on the Exodus story of the Israelites flight from slavery in Egypt, is one to appreciate and enjoy on so many different fronts. An added bonus, for this new production by Welsh National Opera, is that it is one to which suits WNO down to the ground. The reason for this is abundantly clear from the start, for the chorus is one of WNO’s many strong points, and the huge scale of the music of this dual-themed opera is a perfect vehicle for their amazing talent.
Act I opens to a darkened stage. Atmospheric and spine-tingling, it heightens the senses as we listen to the off-stage singing. The darkness clears, engendered by the wave of his staff from a be-sandaled and white robed Moses, who raises his hands to God in a paean of thanksgiving and in exhortation to the Egyptians to forsake their wicked ways. Hungarian singer Miklós Sebestéyn gives us a prophet per se, with grey locks curling down to his shoulder and a resonant bass baritone. This is not an easy role to interpret, but the interpretation of it can make or mar a production, and Sebestéyn has most definitely got it right. As, indeed, has Andrew Foster-Williams as the weak and vacillating Pharoh, changing his mind from one moment to the next when exhorted by Moses to ‘Let my people go!’ On the distaff side, Christine Rice is magnificent as Pharoh’s wife Amaltea, particularly in the grand arias of Act II.
In tandem with the Old Testament Biblical theme is the love story of the racially impossible love affair between Pharoh’s son Osirides and the young Hebrew girl Elcia, a sympathetic portrayal as well as superb mastery of difficult and technically demanding arias by British soprano Claire Booth with sympathy. Spanish tenor David Alegret in a yellow-gold trouser has some wonderful duets with Booth and their voices work well together, although, with his flowing dark locks and in a yellow-gold trouser suit Alegret does appear at times more rock star than opera singer..
Immensely important in an opera that includes scenes where God is heard to speak and in which miracles take place is the lighting, and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour proves more than equal to the task with some of the most striking lighting effects seen in opera, dealing superbly with its many difficulties. Not least of these, and one with which many other companies have struggled in the past, is the parting of the Red Sea in Act III; Kebour does his best with the lighting here, but nevertheless what should be a mega-dramatic moment is something of a damp squib.
Despite this, that superb master of the theatre, David Pountney, has once again hit the jackpot with this a colourful and inspired production. It is never easy to mount a little-known opera but this ‘Moses in Egypt’ (or Mosès in Egitto to give the original title) more than justifies his confidence in so doing.
Wonderful music, under the baton of that great conductor Carlo Rizzi, great interpretation, performance and singing, a brilliant Biblical spectacle and a romantic love story – surely enough for any audience.
Moses in Egypt will be performed in Bristol on Friday November 14.
Touring until the end of November.
CARMEN Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Stadium (Performance 2.10.2014)
Music: Georges Bizet
Libretto: Henri Melham and Ludovic Haley
Based on the story by Prosper Marilee
Directors: Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leaser
Revival Director: Caroline Chaney
Review: Barbara Michaels
Passion and death are dominant in the story of Carmen – the Spanish gypsy girl and her soldier lover, Corporal Don José, in a torrid relationship that is doomed from the start. This production – a second revival – by the world class WNO, pays homage to both in a blood-red fore drop (as opposed to a backdrop) that is raised and lowered between scenes. However, be not deceived – this is in stark contrast to the minimalist and monotone backdrops throughout. Although doubtless designed in order not to detract from the complexities of this justly famed opera, the sets in this instance fail to enhance it.
In the central role of Carmen, American mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chavey, who has performed the role internationally, gives us a sluttish Carmen, sitting centre stage in Acts I and II with a skirt hitched up provocatively above legs wide apart. In a season entitled overall ‘Liberty or Death’ Carmen’s switch between unthinking abandonment to lust, and the realisation that she is doomed to death whatever road she takes, fits neatly into that slot. Chavez’s singing of the habanera ‘Lamour et un osseous rebelled’, sung in Act I as Carmen enters cannot be faulted, and this high standard is maintained throughout Act III, although her declaration of independence as she chooses death rather than trading her freedom for love in the grand finale to Act IV is not entirely believable. As her besotted and desperate lover Don José, Gwyn Hughes Jones has a pleasing tenor heard to advantage in Acts I and II, gaining strength in Act III when he is pitted against the bullfighter Escamillo, his rival for Carmen’s favours, sung at this performance by Kosmas Smoriginas who cuts a glamorous figure in bullfighting garb but whose performance is somewhat lacking in the necessary charisma.
What is outstanding in this production is the singing of Jessica Muirhead, as Micaëla – the girl from back home whose love for Don José goes unreciprocated. While her role as an episodic messenger is secondary to that of Carmen, her pure soprano, soaring poignantly, in both her solo arias and duets with Don José, gained a deserved and prolonged ovation both during and at the end of the performance.
Singing and dancing the roles of Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mércedès respectively, Samantha Hay and Emma Carrington give performances which encapsulate the spirit and mores of the piece and its times, while the chorus of the WN0 maintains its high standard throughout, both in its male singers as Don José’s fellow soldiers, and the female singers as Carmen’s co-workers in the cigarette factory, and together in the scene at the tavern run by Lillas Pastia, sung full throttle by Howard Kirk. Worthy of mention too is Huw Llywelyn’s Remendado.
Much to commend here, and an enjoyable performance, but, while in the original as visualised by Bizet the curtain comes down on Don José throwing himself onto the body of his beloved Carmen, who he has killed after her final declaration that she prefers death to giving up her freedom, in this production revival director Caroline Chaney has him walk off stage. Sorry, Caroline, but it doesn’t work.
Carmen is now on tour. For venues, dates and casting see WNO website www.wno.org.uk
Nabucco Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Music: Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto Temistocle Solera
Director: Rudolf Frey
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
Showcasing the charismatic chorus of the WNO, this seldom performed yet musically familiar opera is presented in a 1950s setting in this new production. Almost ten years since WNO’s last performance (staged at the New Theatre) of the epic Verdi opera best known for its splendid ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va, pensiero’) director Rudolf Frey and choreographer Beate Vollack have created a production which embraces not only operatic tradition but the mores of modern times. The result is a soaring production that has audiences jumping to their feet and calling out “Bravo!”
The Biblical context of the conflict between the Hebrews and the Egyptians is the background of the story and generates a web of warlike violence and political intrigue. Nabucco (sung by David Kempster) is the King of the Babylonians whose daughter Felena (sung by Justina Gringyte), is held hostage by the Hebrews, under the jurisdiction of their High priest Zaccaria, sung by Kevin Short. Not only does Short bring a powerful and compelling bass-baritone to the role, but shows that he is also an actor of considerable merit. After defeating the Hebrews, Nabucco is convinced that he is God, and becomes insane. Baritone David Kempster – well known to WNO audiences – once again does not disappoint, bringing pathos to the role as Nabucco descends into madness. His projection is of a quasi King Lear – the richness and decadence of Babylon replacing the blasted heath of Shakespeare’s play.
The dominant female role of Abigaille, Nabucco’s other daughter and rival of Felena in succession to the throne, is a key factor and soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, making her return after singing Tosca with the WNO last autumn, rises to the challenge superbly. A combination of lyricism and dramatic energy projects her relish for the role as well as her expertise and holds the audience spellbound.
Set designer Ben Baur deserves an accolade for opting for such devices as the singular usage of gold lamé drapes to represent the dross of the Babylonian scene and a symbolic wall (the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem, capital of Israel?) that of the Hebrews. Less fortunate, perhaps, is the inclusion of Fifties dance steps and hand-jiving. Costume designers Silke Willrett and Marc Weeger are to be commended, in particular for distinguishing touches such as the yarmulkes (skull caps) – traditional synagogue wear for men of the Jewish faith – worn by the Hebrews.
Highly commended is the dynamic conducting of the diminutive Xian Zhang whose debut with WNO this is. Zhang wields her baton with expertise over Verdi’s diverse score for this production of one of Verdi’s earliest yet most successful operas; an opera which, in the best of operatic tradition, culminates in an intense and gripping finale..
Runs at the Wales Millennium Centre until Saturday, June 15th , then touring.
Under Milk Wood Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
Words: Dylan Thomas
Music: John Metcalf
Co-production by Taliesin Arts Centre, le Chien qui chante (Quebec) and Companion Star (New York), in association with Welsh National Opera.
Reviewer; Barbara Michaels
Re-imagined and set to music by Wales’ leading opera composer John Metcalf, the words and imagery of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood are given a new slant in this presentation by Taliesin Arts Centre, staged as part of the Dylan Thomas 100 festival. Given Metcalf’s sensitive handling of the poet’s ‘Play for Voices,’ and a talented thirteen-strong company of singers and multi-instrumentalists, it can hardly fail. Together with director and producer Keith Turnbull, Metcalf has succeeded in translating Thomas’s mythical village of Llareggub with its gloriously eccentric residents into the format of opera. Not grand opera, to be sure, but rather the melding together of the different genres of poetry and music, requiring in addition considerable acting skills – quite a tall order.
Not surprisingly, in the centenary year, there are many productions of the famous poem, originally written for radio back in 1954, going the rounds. This one is unique, being the only operatic presentation ever – a world premiere, no less. With visuals used as backdrops and a realistic sound track producing the sound of waves crashing onto the beach, it succeeds to a remarkable degree. For those – and at a guess this applies to many of the audience – familiar with the text, it adds a valuable dimension to the whole.
However, there is a caveat. The overture, in the form of a musical introduction before the performance gets going, is overlong when balanced against the overall length of the piece. Also, the music is at times overloud, drowning out the voices and thus inevitably causing some members of the audience to, as it were, lose the plot – not to mention Thomas’s wonderful language, of which every word is to be treasured.
Fortunately, this rights itself and, as the singers settle into their parts – parts plural, for each one takes on the mantle of different persona – one begins to realise what a treat, and a rare one at that, this is. Centre stage, bass/baritone Michael Douglas Jones gives a sympathetic portrayal of the narrator blind old Captain Cat, ably backed by baritone Richard Morris who shines as Mr Waldo as well as in a number of other roles. Soprano Elizabeth Donovan is a wistful tart-with-a-heart Polly Garter who tugs at our heartstrings, while Helen-Jane Howard shows considerable acting ability along with a melodic soprano voice as Goassamer Beynon and other parts. Nice comedic touch from Gweneth-Ann Jeffers in the role of Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, Mrs Organ-Morgan etc.
Considerable musical ability from harpist Deian Rowlands and some excellent viola playing by Parmela Attariwala.
All in all, a remarkable take on the best known work of the iconic Welsh poet.
Bearded adolescents in plaid shirts, sopranos disguised in mascot-esque cat costumes and a pre-recorded, omnipresent, convincingly American Stephen Fry are what to expect of the Welsh National Youth Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan, currently at the Wales Millennium Centre. The sprightly, young cast of what seemed like eighty-odd certainly injected some youthful joie de vivre into this operetta – if I can call it that – yet the dated humour and disjointed plot left the audience slightly bemused.
Britten and Auden collaborated on Paul Bunyan when they relocated to America in the 1940s due to their mutual pacifistic views. Inspired by the consumer capitalism that swamped America during this time, they went on to write this satirical, sardonic take on the American Dream using the eponymous folkloric character – a giant lumberjack called Paul Bunyan. Auden (of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame) targets plenty of minorities in his charmingly witty libretto – namely, the Swedish, whom he depicts as dithering idiots with names like Andy Anderson and Hel Helson. It’s odd that he didn’t compose their lines as simply, ‘hurdy-gurdy-purdy’. Come to think of it, this mirrors another nonchalantly racist comment in another of Britten’s operas: Billy Budd. In Billy Budd, one of the ship’s staff proclaims that he doesn’t like the French ‘with their hoppity-skippity ways’. So… That was a bit naughty, wasn’t it, Benjamin?
What Paul Bunyan lacks in plot and sense is made up for with the exceptional talent of the company. Elgan Llyr Thomas makes an impeccable Jonny Inkslinger; the independent wannabe novelist who arrives at Paul Bunyan’s logging camp in search of food. Ross Scanlon and Vanessa Bowers are clear rising talents vocally and the quintet of mentally-deficient Swedes is suitably amusing. The entire ensemble’s enthusiasm is worthy of admiration and Only Boys Aloud’s soaring voices pack some oomph into a previously oomph-less operetta.
Director Martin Constantine has tried his utmost to update the relevance of Paul Bunyan with the addition of a young boy watching the entire show on television in his bedroom. He is essentially being sold the American Dream through advertising and this political undertone the operetta now holds is especially profound today. A notable moment in the production is when Paul announces he is to leave and the entire company enters in what looks like army uniforms, making a thought-provoking statement on the effects of mass consumerism on our minds.
Structurally, it’s messy. Sudden arguments are littered hither and thither and a romantic interest is established without even so much as a solo aria proclaiming it. This is more the fault of Auden and Britten than anything else. When the operetta first opened, it was subjected to a tourbillion of vitriolic reviews. The music isn’t at all moving nor is it memorable which, I admit, isn’t peculiar for Britten (ooh, what am I like?!). However, if one were to look at it as a piece of intermittently humorous light entertainment with a modest political message at its heart, Paul Bunyan is worth seeing for the promising talent of our up-and-coming opera stars.
Paul Bunyan will be at the Wales Millenium Centre on 23rd and 24th August.
A complex, challenging piece for an opera novice…
Despite attending the pre-performance talk, expertly given by the Nick John trainee, Sophie Rashbrook, in which she emphasised the unusual usage of electronic sounds and the uniqueness of this 90 minute opera, I still took my seat expecting to hear fine, fluid melodies and to feel moved by the storyline or, at least, the plight of the characters.
Jonathan Harvey’s composition of electronic effects within jarring phrases did, initially, disappoint me. This style of composition seems to lend itself to performances that are decidedly different and apparently “contemporary”. Clever though it undoubtedly is, the aggressive, adverse nature of the music in the early section of Wagner Dream did nothing but put me on edge, and I found myself focussing more on that than on the voices and the action on stage, which were in turn excellent and interesting.
There are two stories being told in Wagner Dream – that of Wagner’s last moments in life, and a Buddhist parable that he apparently intended to turn into an opera: a story about a young, female ‘untouchable’, Pakati (Claire Booth) who falls in love with a Buddhist monk, Ananda (Robin Tritschler).
The themes of desire explored in the parable are touched upon in Wagner’s reality: the love of his strong, devoted wife Cosima is not enough for him, and the young Carrie Pringle, whom he is obviously having an affair with, arrives on stage at the same time as the goddess Vajrayogini.
These two stories are set apart in style, with the reality played out in stark dark colours, the action spoken in hard German. In contrast the parable, which exists in Wagner’s ‘limbo’, is infused with bold, warm colours and told through song, and the gentle language Pali.
The contrast between the reality and limbo is also made with the music; Wagner’s world is dark, harsh and staccato, whilst Pakati’s story is accompanied with warmer, melodic sounds, which I found much easier to digest.
Though I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, it was certainly thought provoking and an interesting experience. The cast and creative team must be commended, particularly Conductor Nicholas Collon and his orchestra, for whom the music and inclusion of such diverse electrification of sounds must have been a challenge.
If you’d like to see Wagner Dream and you don’t have tickets for tonight’s performance at WMC, you can catch it in Birmingham’s Hippodrome on 12th June.