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Holland Park Opera proves there's nothing like a Dame

4 June 2009, London, UK

Majella Cullagh as Elisabetta and Yvonne Howard as Sara
Majella Cullagh as Elisabetta and Yvonne Howard as SaraFritz Curzon

 

By Francis Muzzu

'The other night we stood in the wings watching the dress rehearsal, and we thought "that's Richard Bonynge!"' says General Manager of the Festival, Mike Volpe. Apparently Bonynge came to see the production of La Fille du Régiment last year, and was grabbed for the job then. 'We were thinking of Roberto Devereux, and off the cuff I asked him and he said yes' says James Cutton, the Festival Producer - 'Well', adds Volpe, 'he was right there!' They obviously still can't quite believe their luck at persuading the veteran maestro to open this summer's run with the Donizetti rarity.  

After this mutual pinch-yourself session, the pair describe how they plan the festival each year. They’ve just finished organising 2011, and Clutton explains how each year comprises of a mixture of operas to appeal to as wide an audience base as possible; ‘We do a couple of certainties, and we’ve had a theme of verismo, and with Janáček we’ve found a new thread’. He’s referring to the success of Jenufa in 2007, and the forthcoming Kát’a Kabanová this year, for which they aimed to get as many of the same production team back together; Olivia Fuchs returns to direct, and Sophie Duprels and Anne Mason to lead the cast. In fact they’re very keen on the idea of threads, indeed ‘breaking down the barriers’. The verismo specialism has offered rarities such as Iris, Fedora and L’amore dei tre re, and next year a new thread starts with Pelléas et Mélisande. 2010 also sees the first Holland Park productions of La Forza del Destino and Francesca da Rimini, another long-lost verismo warhorse; ‘We’ve already got the hospital treatment lined up’ laughs Volpe.

Still, the great and the good descended upon the park for the opening performance of the 2009 festival. The immaculately tailored Bonynge looked sprightly and received much cheering as soon as he appeared. Lyndsay Posner’s production look very fine in a traditional way, and Leonardo Capalbo made a welcome return in the title role, as did Yvonne Howard as Sara. Majella Cullagh’s Elisabetta went for the full Bette Davis effect, and her dramatic focus and vocal technique compensated for a less than beautiful voice. And one last treat – as the audience entered the auditorium for Act II, a ripple of spontaneous applause started upon the appearance of Dame Joan Sutherland as she took her seat, soon leading to a full-scale ovation as the cheering audience stood and craned for a glimpse of the legendary diva.

Deborah Voight makes role debut as Alceste in New York

27 May 2009, New York, USA

As another installment in the New York City Opera’s dribs-and-drabs, homeless season, the company and the Collegiate Chorale presented Gluck’s Alceste (the 1776 Paris version) at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center, in a one-night-only, concert performance on May 26th. The raison d’être was clearly to showcase soprano Deborah Voigt, who was singing the title role for the first time in her career. It was not a happy outing.

George Manahan led the approximately 60-strong orchestra and close to 170-strong chorus in a beautifully played and sung but gargantuan and un-stylish, un-French performance, and Voigt sang accordingly. She was announced as having a bit of flu, but while that may excuse the rawness at the top of her voice, the un-focused center, weak lower register and utter refusal to sing below mezzo-forte seem more fundamental at this point. In addition, with eyes glued to the score, she seemed not quite familiar enough to offer any textual nuance or shadings; her anger at the gods was of the same texture as her pleadings and exhortations of love for Admète, here sung with true style, flair and consequence by veteran tenor Vinson Cole.

The others in the cast were unsubtle, and one is left with the impression that Alceste does not fit Ms Voigt either vocally or temperamentally. A disappointing evening, all around.

Robert Levine 

 

75 years old - and still plenty of life in the old dog

22 May 2009, Glyndeboure, UK

Christopher Purves makes a splash as Falstaff
Christopher Purves makes a splash as FalstaffPhoto: Alastair Muir

Ash Khandekar reports from Glyndebourne's 75th anniversary season opener, Verdi's Falstaff

Opening night at Glyndebourne marks the start of the summer opera season in Britain, but though rain never stops play as far as performances are concerned, it more often than not puts a dampener on things outside the opera house: most opening nights in recent years have been notable for scenes of picnickers having to resort to sitting under their rugs rather than on them.

As the Glyndebourne Festival launched its 75th anniversary season on Thursday, however, the sun shone on the proceedings and all seemed right with the world. Things were equally sunny on stage, with Richard Jones’s triumphant new staging of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff.

Jones has a chequered history at Glyndebourne, where his productions have tended to favour a subversive approach: his ‘Planet of the Zombies’ Euryanthe in 2002 turned Weber’s uber-chivalric Romanticism into B-movie schlock. In 2007, Jones shocked and tickled Glyndebourne audiences in equal measure with his determinedly low-life Macbeth, dressing Verdi’s admittedly jaunty heroics in naff Scots clichés, abetted by a welter of tartan and Highland kitsch from favoured designer, Ultz.

The pair returned to Verdi and Glyndebourne in a much less hyperactive mode for this Falstaff. The aristocratic aspects of the story are expunged to bring it into a more domestic focus. Shakespeare’s Royal Windsor is transposed to Neo-Elizabethan suburbs at the end of World War II, a period of austerity (flowerbeds dug up for cabbage beds), but also hope.  Falstaff is full of the affectionate nostalgia of an old man saying farewell to a fond world. Jones and Ultz capture the mood of Verdi’s score perfectly, embroidering a Betjemin-esque vision of a half-timbered England with images of warm beer, busty barmaids and Eton schoolboys boating on the Thames. Falstaff’s rooms above the Garter Inn are flanked by shops selling wedding dresses and novelty jokes – Love is, after all, a charming prank that leaves a bitter-sweet aftertaste.

This is one of the most evenly cast ensembles that Glyndebourne has put together in recent years – not the starriest of voices, but all beautifully finished and somehow just right for this production. Christopher Purves portrays the self-delusional Falstaff not as one of nature’s grotesques, but as a preening petty official gently hoisted by his own petard.

Other highlights include the young lovers, touchingly sung by Bülent Bedüz (Fenton) and Adriana Kucerová (Nanetta). Dina Kuznetsova, meanwhile, is a delightful tour de force as an Alice who radiates good-natured intelligence and Marie-Nicole Lemieux hams it up beautifully as Mistress Quickly. In the pit, Vladimir Jurowski proves that he does possess a lightness of touch which is sometimes missing from his comic turns, and the London Philharmonic rises playfully to the occasion.

All proof that Glyndebourne can still charm the pants off its audience, even at the venerable age of 75.  

New opera proves an asset to the Abbey in St Albans

22 May 2009, St Alban's Abbey, Hertfordshire, UK

Opera Now’s Roderic Dunnett reports from the world premiere  an accomplished chamber opera that recalls the church parables of Benjamin Britten . . .  

With last Wednesday's world premiere of Alban, young British composer Tom Wiggall has served up a cogent chamber opera worthy of Britten’s Church Parables. Admirably structured around a wittily unsentimental libretto by award-winning poet John Mole, Wiggall’s score freshly persuades at every turn, from the haunting initial oboe and strings motif to the forcefully designed confrontations/mishaps that engineer a cogent dramatic build-up, thanks to conductor David Ireson. Director Beckie Mills had her alert large chorus marshalled in impressive detail: slyly plotted, all action relevant, strikingly well-clad (beiges, russets, browns) by Ann Hollowood.

Dominique Thiebaud (Alban’s wife) shines amid six strong principals and a bevy of believable youngsters (notably Alban’s Miles and Flora-like children), drilled to perfection.  Thanks to a shrewdly judged text and Wiggall’s fertile, assured composing, Alban, full of absorbing storytelling echoing the Gospels, easily rose far above a kitsch local-historical piece of amateur dramatics.

Set against the ancient stone-clad backdrop of St Albans Abbey, the ecclesiastical ambience was sensuously lit by Colin Innes-Hopkins, yards from Alban’s martyrdom. This may be harder to recreate in a theatre context, but the strength of the work should mean that it’s eminently viable. This piece should travel (Buxton, York, the Linbury Studio in Covent Garden). It betokens great expectations of composer and producers alike.  

Click here for more details about this project

Opera gets into the swim of things

19 May 2009, Manchester, UK

Juliana Snapper dives into opera

The world’s first underwater opera, You Who Will Emerge From the Flood, had its premiere in one of  Manchester’s half-derelict architectural gems, the Victoria Baths. 86,000 gallons of water were pumped in for a single performance of this new ‘operella’ devised by the Los Angeles-based soprano Juliana Snapper and the Parisian composer Andrew Infanti, and presented as part of the city’s gay and lesbian festival  Queer Up North.

Adorned with swathes of white fishnet and silver sequins, Snapper impressed in the role of Blorkra – a genetically engineered aquatic ‘posthuman’ living 500,000 years in the future. She is used to challenging situations having previously worked with the extreme performance artist Ron Athey on The Judas Tree in which she hung upside down singing until her voice collapsed. But on this occasion a faulty underwater microphone rendered at least half of her underwater vocal sequences inaudible so that the unique sound of Snapper’s voice filtered through water, accompanied by percussive bubbles, was drowned out before it could surface.

What was left was a ululating warble, with snatches of intense soprano tones as Snapper glided through a sea of words by Wedekind, Wagner (Erda’s Warning) and Brecht, sung in German and the forgotten, constructed language of Volapük. Infanti’s watered-down score began promisingly enough, drawing on obscure musical systems and pitches, but ended up burbling on inconsequentially. Film footage featured some live projections of Snapper while the Sing or Swim Choir provided a suitably aqueous background to this soggy night at the ‘operella’. As a piece of performance art, You Who…  had distinct potential which was somewhat thwarted by the technical difficulties.

The experiment is not going to spawn a new genre of underwater ‘operellas’, however, and while Juliana Snapper is clearly committed to expanding the boundaries of music theatre, neither the bland pre-recorded score nor the predominantly unengaging visuals seemed to match that keen seriousness of purpose. As a work I think it is likely to sink without trace.  

Lynne Walker  

The Queer Up North festival continues in Manchester until 25 May.

www.queerupnorth.com


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