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La Traviata at the Soho Theatre

Il Divo

Live Reviews

World Premiere - Letters of a Love Betrayed
Eleanor Alberga
Music Theatre Wales
Linbury Studio London

Reviewed By Della Couling

Christopher Steele as Luis

Christopher Steele as Luis
Credit: Clive Barda
Click to enlarge

This two-hour opera by Eleanor Alberga and librettist Donald Sturrock is based on a short story by Isabel Allende, and both works seem to borrow heavily from elsewhere. I’ve always had a problem with Allende – she comes across as a sort of Marquez-lite, starting with those narrative titles – and in this stage work, I also sensed a whiff of Puccini’s Suor Angelica at the outset, and Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac at the end, among others (funnily enough, although other sources of inspiration are mentioned in the programme notes, the latter is left out). Strange indeed when you consider the plot: orphan girl living in a convent is wooed by letter, marries whom she thinks is the writer, soon discovers her mistake, and only after highly operatic events have taken their course (Cav&Pag with a dash of Carmen), does she meet the real writer, yanking the tale to an improbable Happy End.

Mary Plazas as Analia

Mary Plazas as Analía
Credit: Clive Barda
Click to enlarge

Call me an old cynic (go on), but I couldn’t help thinking of Oscar Wilde’s ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing’, when we see Analia (what a name to give a kid, for God’s sake!) dreaming of woods and streams and other things lonely orphan girls apparently dream about, when her uncle (Jonathan May) arrives and tries to bully her into giving up the farm she has inherited. She resists, so he goes into plan B, which is to get his womanising playboy son to marry her, beginning with writing the letters. This takes up the first act, with little action and lots of soliloquising, on a very bare stage, which led to some audience leakage in the interval. A pity, because Act II shows us the uncle’s world, and the über-macho son Luis (Christopher Steele), swaggering about, and the action hots up.

The music is a mixture of diluted Mascagni and, in Act II, South American folk music. The undisputed star of the show is Mary Plazas as Analia, as usual acting and singing her socks off. I don’t know what the woman is on, but it certainly works. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her put in a dud performance. The others also gave it their all: Jonathan May was a convincing old money-grabber, and Christopher Steele as his son Luis showed fine talent and a fine tenor. Arlene Rolph taking the two roles of Mother Superior and good-time-girl Gloria succeeded in a difficult feat, likewise Paul Keohone as the Priest and a hard-drinking taxi driver known as El Chofer Loco. Michael McCarthy directed competently if a little crudely.

World Premiere - Ulysses
Laurence Roman
St John’s Church, Waterloo
London

Reviewed By Richard Fawkes

Composer Laurence Roman first thought of turning The Odyssey into an opera when he was a schoolboy. Thirty-five years later, Ulysses – A Musical Odyssey received its premiere as a community opera thanks to the Walled City Performing Arts Foundation, a major new charity set up to support young artists in the north west of Ireland. It opened at Thornhill College, Derry, played in Co Donegal and then in London.

Roman, professor of composition at the University of Ulster, calls the piece an opera. It may be through-sung but musically its attractive, pulsating score owes more to Les Mis and Sondheim than to Verdi or Puccini; Roman’s excellent word-setting frequently has the élan of Sondheim. Indeed, in 1995, a preliminary draft of the piece won the Vivian Ellis Prize for new musicals. In spite of the interest generated by that win, Ellis’s death the following year stalled thoughts of production – until now.

Telling the tale of Ulysses’s voyage home, it is necessarily episodic and each scene centres on a big choral number. A very talented 65-strong cast, drawn from Ulster University students and two performing arts schools in Derry and Co Donegal, deliver these choruses with great gusto, singing well, moving well.

Much fell on the shoulders of tenor John Porter in the title role. A 22-year-old student at the University of Ulster, he was barely off the stage, Porter is at the start of his professional career. He possesses a clear, lyric voice with no problems in the upper register – top notes were as easy as shelling peas. What he lacks at the moment is the sustained power to get his words over; too often he was inaudible.

Roman, who also directed this modern-dress production, handled the crowd scenes effectively but was less assured with the soloists. The huge on-stage forces were kept on a tight rein by conductor Sean Ryan, also from Ulster University’s music department, and a word of praise for the two outstanding pianists: Colin Norrby (himself a composer) and Atsushi Tamura.

This was an auspicious start both for the Walled City Foundation which looks set to make a major contribution to the musical life of Northern Ireland, and for Roman’s opera. With a few changes (particularly to the end which, despite the chorus being on-stage, closed with a duet), it could well secure itself a place on the community opera circuit.

Prima Donna Wainwright

MANCHESTER FESTIVAL, UK

Prima Donna

Prima Donna: Rebecca Bottone and Janis Kelly
Credit: Clive Barda
Click to enlarge

Amid a mini-media frenzy, composer Rufus Wainwright and partner arrived at the theatre dressed respectively as Verdi (complete with beard, grown, I suspect, especially for the occasion) and Puccini, along with fellow singer-songwriter sister Martha. Given the very particular style of his songwriting, it was hard to know what to expect from Wainwright’s first foray into the world of opera. But, with minds opened, once the queues of adoring fans paying homage across the aisle from where I was sitting had subsided, we took our seats in the Palace Theatre’s marvellously ornate, and as it turned out aptly grand auditorium.

Prima donna, written in French with co-librettist Bernadette Colelomine, follows the events over a couple of nights in 1970 as a famous soprano battles with her demons and crisis of confidence to make a comeback in the role of Aliénor d’Aquitaine, which she created and for which she was once feted as a diva. By various means – confiding in her maid, her butler’s reliving of her glory days, and an interview with a journalist with whom she later falls in love – we learn about the singer’s life, through which the opera explores what being a diva means to her and what divas mean to us.

Prima Donna

Prima Donna: Jonathan Summers and Steve Kirkham
Credit: Clive Barda
Click to enlarge

As to the subject matter, Wainwright can certainly draw on a lot of personal experience, particularly from the private battles he has fought (and won) in dealing with his fame. He is hailed by many as a songwriter of unique abilities, as well as being a gay icon.

As for the music, I was, frankly, pleasantly surprised to be blown away and glued to my seat at the same time. There are a few small chunks of the opera that could be pared down, such as the opening 15 minutes with their meandering Puccini-esque scene-setting; and a rather overextended excerpt of the Aliénor d’Aquitaine ‘opera’ in the second act. But on the whole, I believe that Wainwright has a thing or two to teach many of today’s composers with operatic ambitions.

The overriding success factor was that he has written with conviction, from the heart and in a vein which he loves. The musical tone could be summed up as early to mid-20th century. The score is full of influences which are very pertinent to the story of an opera singer’s life. The references are not at all cheap, easy-to spot clichés, but rather through-running and deftly incorporated. Operatic references extend to the action on stage, with a ‘Rosenkavalier moment’ between the Prima Donna and her ‘trouser-role’ maid on the singer’s bed; then there is the return of the journalist at the end of the opera – after he has been caught cheating – with his Japanese fiancée dressed in full Madame Butterfly get-up hovering in the light of the doorway.
The orchestration was delightfully descriptive, humorous, dramatic, and full of colours and moods, conducted with flare by Pierre-André Valade. The piece as a whole had dramatic tension, was theatrically driven, and the dynamics between the protagonists was fully explored in their characterisations and supported in the music.
By the middle of the second half, the audience was totally engrossed in this ‘grand opera’. What more could you ask?

Prime Donna

Prima Donna: Rebecca Bottone and Janis Kelly
Credit: Clive Barda
Click to enlarge

Despite a touch of the ‘Sunset Boulevards’, and although one could immediately cite Callas as basis for his character, prima donna Régine Saint-Laurent is most definitely a unique creation, helped in no small measure by the outstanding talent of Janis Kelly in the role. This diva deserved an Oscar for her performance, and I only hope they take the trouble to capture it on film. Rebecca Bottone, as the Maid, and the only true, understanding, loyal friend of Mme Saint-Laurent (something every great artist craves), has added another notch to her belt as a fine creator of new roles, displaying a particularly finely spun top-note in a lovely little aria from Act II, which will, I’m sure quickly become a recital piece for many singers.

Prima Donna

Prima Donna: William Joyner and Janis Kelly
Credit: Clive Barda
Click to enlarge

Jonathan Summers, as Philippe, the over-the-hill dandy butler, suited his role well – though he seemed vocally hesitant at times. William Joyner as the journalist André must have been suffering from something nasty, as his voice was cracking alarmingly and he was forced into an unpleasant falsetto for some higher notes.

Steve Kirkham, in the non-singing role as the Butler’s little bellboy/plaything, deserves a mention for his excellent comic contribution.

Director Daniel Kramer produced a tightly interlocking, evenly balanced piece of ensemble theatre, as did designer Antony McDonald, whose lofty Paris apartment sets and 19th-century model theatre-style proscenium curtains and opera boxes added a further dimension to the grandeur of this woman’s life on and off stage.

This is the kind of work to take the opera world by storm and which may turn opera-writing on its head. Let’s hope so.

ANTONIA COULING

Sadler’s Wells (co-producers of the opera with Manchester Festival) will present Prima Donna, the new opera by Rufus Wainwright in April 2010.
www.sadlerswells.com

Tosca Puccini

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
LONDON, UK

Opening night review: 9 July 2009

High drama: Tosca

High drama: Bryn Terfel as a magnificently evil Scarpia and
Angela Gheorghiu as a feisty Tosca
Credit: Catherine Ashmore

Click to enlarge

Although compared to the Zeffirelli production, which the Royal Opera ran for 40 years, Jonathan Kent’s production of Tosca is but a mere youngster, it has still had its fair share of each opera season since it received its premiere in 2006. This production saw two of the original cast return: Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca, replacing Deborah Voigt who pulled out due to illness, who shares the role with Nelly Miriciou; and Bryn Terfel as Scarpia.

It’s the same gloriously old-fashioned and richly furnished staging. There’s nothing to shock the eyes as such, and one can watch the drama unfold within its equally rich setting – particularly the church of Act I and Scarpia’s towering, magnificent, lonely library of Act II.

While there was no doubt about the quality of voices on show, the drama did not always keep up with Puccini’s melodramatic music – it occasionally felt that Gheorghiu might be thinking about something else. While engagingly at turns coquettish and feistily jealous in Act I, she was not reduced to quite the desperation one expects by Scarpia in the second Act. Perhaps her costume, of wedding-dress proportions, was causing her problems. Similarly, Marcello Giordani as Cavaradossi brought a fantastic voice to the occasion, but seemed to leave his acting skills at home.

The highlight was a lick-lippingly evil Terfel as Scarpia. I’ve often thought it’s a shame to lose Scarpia at the end of the second Act – he is such an enthrallingly dark character, and we got a particularly oily, lank-locked personification of evil from Terfel. Here we got the whole dramatic parcel: the glorious Terfel voice on fine form, and a deliciously malicious Scarpia.

Tosca continues at the Royal Opera House until 18 July

Manon Lescaut
Puccini

New Orleans Opera
USA

Reviewed by Karyl Charna Lynn

Images by Janet Wilson

On Saturday, January 17, 2009, the New Orleans Opera returns to its newly restored home, the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts, three and a half years after hurricane Katrina severely damaged the structure. Opera Now’s US correspondent, Karyl Charna Lynn, will be there, reporting on the company’s long awaited homecoming celebration and refurbished opera house. Here, she reports from the final production in the temporary space that was used by New Orleans opera during its exile.

There’s a bitter irony in a New Orleans audience watching Manon die in the desert outside of their city. As everyone knows, the problem there is not too little water, but too much. And because in 2005 hurricane Katrina flooded its permanent home, the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts, the company has been performing in a wingless, fly-less, and tiny pit auditorium while the theatre has been repaired. Despite these obstacles, the company offered an attractive, if predictable, staging of the opera that captured the desperate passion between Manon and Des Grieux with dazzling singing and believable acting so their defiance of social convention and the resulting tragic consequences was credible.

Manon

Click to enlarge

Manon Lescaut hadn’t been performed in the city in more than three decades, although Massenet’s Manon is popular fare, due to the French connection, so the supertitles, in addition to translating what was sung, offered periodic explanations of the story, putting the action in context for the audience.

Surmounting the inherent difficulties in staging opera in a venue not built for it with creative use of the limited stage space, the production offered handsome sets which realistically, (and by necessity, simplistically) recreated the different locations (Amiens Square, Bedroom in Geronte’s House, Le Havre, New Orleans ‘desert’), but it was the galvanising chemistry of the cast which made it an evening to remember. Melody Moore was an exciting Manon, with volcanic eruptions of vibrant, yet nuanced singing. Her ‘sola, perduta, abbandonata’ was achingly intense. Roy Smith sang Des Grieux with impassioned artistry, with an idiomatic ringing Italianate sound and fine vocal colour. ‘Guardate, pazzo son’ tore the heartstrings.

Manon

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Brian Mulligan (Lescaut) has a notable instrument with an individual vocal timbre. Timothy Nolen portrayed Geronte with aplomb. Of special note was the New Orleans Opera Chorus, under Carol Rausch's direction, which proved a formidable asset throughout the performance.

Manon

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Puccini’s opera reflects a fusion of strong French influence, with its melodic evocation of atmosphere and place. Puccini made reference to ‘powder and minuets’ from Massenet’s Manon, along with Wagner’s chromatic music, leitmotifs and musical depiction of unrestrained passion from Tristan und Isolde, and music that he borrowed from his own earlier compositions. Under the capable baton of Robert Lyall, the 38-musician orchestra not only expertly captured the diverse aspects of the music, but offered a surprisingly rich, full sound that belied its small size.

Karyl Charna Lynn’s report on the opening of the restored Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts in New Orleans will be posted in our web news section. A full report will appear in the March/April issue of Opera Now

Welcome to the voice
Steve Nieve

THÉÂTRE DU CHÂTELET
PARIS

Reviewed by Antonia Couling
21 November 2008

Images by Marie-Noëlle Robert

Opera Now reports on a world premiere, starring pop icons Sting and Elvis Costello

As Steve Nieve and Muriel Teodori’s opera Welcome to the Voice is a work about the celebration of the human voice, it was a pleasant surprise not to have one’s expectations of melody and beauty dashed. The overture begins with a single, open, almost vocal line for cello, building to clusters of clawing strings with muted trumpet cutting across. A back screen projected a steelworks – its fire and imagined noise very much at odds with the music we were hearing. After a few minutes, the mood changes to flowering piano – pleasing, expressive – then changes again to reflective, lighter string exchanges. Thus the musical mood was set, with strings and piano featuring most, and no brass apart from solo interjections.

Chatelet - Sting

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As the central figure Dionysos, a steelworker and son of a Greek immigrant, Sting made his entrance stage-front through the mist, and addressed the audience with his story: how he discovered opera one day, which led to an obsessive collecting opera recordings. It becomes clear that he is waiting near the steps of the opera house, as he does every day and night, to catch a glimpse of the opera singer who has become the embodiment of his obsession.

On a cold set of glass building façades and scaffolding (sets by Bernard Arnould), we see him visited by the Ghosts of the Opera – Carmen, Butterfly and Norma – who beseech him to die and join them in opera heaven. Pulling at him from the other side is Dionysos’ Friend, played by Sting’s son Joe Sumner (who must have an exact replica of his father’s voicebox in his throat, so similar is the essential tone of his voice), who constantly tries to persuade him that his passion for opera will make him lose his fight for real causes.

Chatelet

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The workers sing the names of their heroes, while Dionysos lists the names of composers. In a beautiful declamatory aria, he expresses his passion for the power of the human voice in all its forms, from opera to the lullaby and songs of freedom. Eventually, Dionysos is offered the chance he has been waiting for when the Opera Singer comes out of a perfume shop. He tries to kiss her, but she is afraid and pushes him away. The police arrive along with a huge crowd of bystanders, the homeless and Dionysos’ workmates.

Chatelet - Arrest

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The Chief of Police (Elvis Costello) utters a raging diatribe against the street people and just as Dionysos is about to be taken off to prison, the Opera Singer stands up for Dionysos with a passionate declaration of love. Her words save him. Everyone rejoices, except the Chief of Police who expresses his fear that he may never feel such an emotion.

Chatelet - Costello

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He then explains to Dionysos that the Opera Singer has actually left for Tokyo and that she spoke up only to save herself from bad publicity. Dionysos is in despair. But the Ghosts of the Opera interfere and create a huge windstorm, which forces the cancellation of all plane flights. The Opera Singer re-appears and Dionysos is filled with renewed hope on seeing her. The two agree on the ‘unlikely’ nature of their encounter and conclude the opera with a duet.

Chatelet

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Dressed in shabby, muted greys – almost tramp-like – Dionysos is very much a Brechtian figure whose journey of discovery leads us to the understanding of a lesson – in this case, the appreciation of the human voice. The music too is reminiscent of Weill (indeed Weill is listed as one of Dionysos’ composer heroes – a clue perhaps to Nieve’s influences). The libretto is rich and flowing pretty much most of the time, falling only occasionally into the slightly preaching, but not enough to detract from the impact of the opera’s message.

Chatelet - Ghosts

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The juxtaposition of the pop voices of Sting and Costello with the classical voices of the opera singers was intentional as a means of underlining the different types of beauty the human voice can possess. The piece was written with these artists in mind and had already been recorded in 2007 – with Barbara Bonney as the opera singer. Sting himself opted for a slightly more musical theatre voice than we are accustomed to hearing from him, but was nonetheless consistantly true to the idiosyncracies of his own voice. Costello seemed to struggle slightly more with the leaps and range demanded of him, but again we are familiar with his sound and Nieve wrote sensitively for him, allowing the pathos that is inherent in Costello’s voice to come out. It was very effective to have two such unique and instantly recognisable voices placed against the more general, flowing beauty of the opera singers. And all four opera singers were outstanding. The Ghosts – Marie-Ange Todorovich as Carmen, Sonya Yoncheva as Butterfly and Anna Gabier as Norma – fulfilled their roles to the max, both physically and vocally. But the crowning glory had to be Sylvia Schwartz as Lily, the Opera Singer. In a most beautiful piece of writing for the voice, her declaration of love for Dionysos displayed the entire range of her sensitive, spun tone.

In all, Nieve should be congratulated for his ability to display the full beauty of the voices he is writing for – a rare gift these days – and one which gives meaning to the whole argument of the opera. Little wonder that there was a spontaneous standing ovation at the end. ANTONIA COULING

Don Carlo
Giuseppe Verdi

TEATRO ALLA SCALA, MILAN
ITALY

Reviewed by Juliet Giraldi
10 December 2008

Images by Marco Brescia

Opera Now reports from this year’s season opener at La Scala – Verdi’s Don Carlo

This was a severe but poetic production by Stéphane Braunschweig, an implacable delving into the intimate recesses of the human soul and the strengths and weaknesses of human nature.

The opening night turned into a fiasco when supporters of Giuseppe Filianoti loudly protested the tenor’s unceremonious last-minute sacking from the title role (opening night at La Scala wouldn’t be the same without some drama off stage as well as on). On the second night, the opera received a dignified if not exactly rapturous reception. Conductor Daniele Gatti, after a fairly uncertain first act with a conspicuous lack of cohesion between pit and stage, reassured by a more sympathetic audience, was finally able to express all the pent-up passion of Verdi’s music, achieving some big, exciting episodes as well as moments of melancholic tenderness.

Don Carlo

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The production emphasised the contrast between the optimism and promise of childhood and the harsh realities of the adult world: the child’s world, in colour, was projected back stage; the adult world was a large empty space in the foreground in stark black and white. One inventive touch was the appearance down stage of the three main protagonists as children: the encounter of the royal princes in the forest of Fontainebleau (against Carlo’s aria ‘Io la vidi e il suo sorriso’) and the swearing of the oath of reciprocal loyalty between Carlo and Rodrigo neatly replaced the whole of the first act of the five-act French version. These three childish figures were to reappear at intervals during the opera, so there was this constant visual reminder, reflected in the music, of their happy past.

In stark contrast was the dreaded Inquisition. Against a black background, a row of vertical white slabs serve as cell doors, with clearly sepulchral associations, and the white marble tombstone of Carlo V appears at the front of the stage. The friars, dressed in black and white, their faces hidden behind their cowls, enter accompanied by the grim motif of the double basses.

The simple sets set off the rich period costumes by Thibault von Craenenbroeck; Filippo in waspish black and yellow stripes, the ladies in white silks and pearls, the Queen magnificent first in ivory, later in black. In a quirky piece of telling anachronism, the thronging mob in the tremendous auto da fé scene could be glimpsed dressed in costumes from Franco’s Spain, behind a row of 16th-century soldiers.

Don Carlo

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Unfamiliar to Italian audiences, the American tenor Stuart Neill as Don Carlo came as a pleasant surprise. His physical bulk does him no favours: he certainly doesn’t fit the figure of a pining, lovelorn young prince. But his voice is a subtle and lovely one – ranging from generous and well-projected to the gentlest pianissimi; his vocal production is faultless and his Italian pronunciation excellent.

Stuart Neill as Don Carlo

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Ferruccio Furlanetto portrayed Filippo as an obstinate, tired, deluded and solitary figure; one of the best scenes was the famous encounter with the blind Grand Inquisitor, admirably played by Anatolij Kotscherga; but the ‘jealousy scene’ was equally powerful, and the pathetic way in which, after his outburst, Filippo cradled the swooning Queen, in a gesture of immediate regret and tenderness, was a masterly touch. Fiorenza Cedolins gave a moving interpretation of the dignified and dutiful Queen. As always her voice was true and beautifully modulated, although it was occasionally overpowered by a dominant orchestra. Her ‘Carlo, addio’ was particularly poignant. Dolora Zajick as Princess Eboli was certainly more convincing as the ‘tigre ferita’ than the alluring seductress and she came into her own later as soon as she could give vent to Eboli’s fiery character, with those rich and penetrating low notes. Dalibor Jenis gave a passionate interpretation of the heroic Rodrigo and Gabor Bretz stood out in the small bass part of the Friar and Carlo V.

Don Carlo

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Don Carlo continues at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, until 15 January 2009

 


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