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Opera North scores a hit with Puccini's La fanciulla del West

22 January 2014, Leeds, UK

‘Stick’em up’: Alwyn Mellor as Minnie and Rafael Rojas as Dick Johnson
‘Stick’em up’: Alwyn Mellor as Minnie and Rafael Rojas as Dick Johnson(Photo: Clive Barda)

Review by Anthony Arblaster

Of the mature Puccini's seven full-length operas, his tale of the American Gold Rush is probably the most neglected.  When you see and hear it well performed and well produced, as it is in this new staging for Opera North by Aletta Collins, you wonder why. 

Puccini’s La fanciulla del West has fewer of the self-contained arias that you find in more popular operas. It is not a work of pathos, and it is not notably sentimental, even though it does have a happy ending.  However, it abounds in an outpouring of Puccinian melody, and offers three fine singing roles as well as a host of rewarding smaller roles for men.

This is a story with plenty of topical resonances: the Gold Rush miners in the opera are working far from home seeking their fortune, like today’s migrants from eastern Europe, and their homesickness is beautifully expressed in the Act I song of travelling cowboy-minstrel Jake Wallace (baritone Gavan Ring). The threat of lawless violence is always present, and in Act III, the miners turn into a lynch mob ready to string up Ramerrez, the ‘Mexican’ bandit who arouses their racist hostility.

Aletta Collins wisely sticks with the opera's original Californian setting, which is evoked in Giles Cadle's simple but effective sets and in Gabrielle Dalton's subtly varied costumes.  Collins's handling of the ensemble scenes which open and close the action is masterly, and rich with significant detail.

Much hangs on the casting of the three principal roles, and here Opera North has come up trumps.  The Sheriff, Jack Rance (in effect the local Scarpia), is ruthless, unscrupulous and consumed with desire for feisty saloon proprietor Minnie. Robert Hayward has all the vocal power needed for the role, and invests it with spine-chilling menace.

Minnie finds the man she really wants in Ramerrez, who disguises himself by the name of Dick Johnson. Rafael Rojas – Mexican by birth – makes him an entirely credible and sympathetic character.  His Italianate tenor has really blossomed and is a treat to hear.

Soprano Alwyn Mellor takes the title role, the lone woman who rescues Ramerrrez and brings out the better side in the miners whom she tries to educate.  She fills it splendidly, and makes a believable heroine. The scenes at the heart of the opera, in which she and Ramerrez get to know each other, are beautifully sung and acted.

This show deserves to become something of a classic, especially under the dynamic yet sensitive conducting of Richard Farnes.

Opera North's The Girl of the Golden West continues at Leeds Grand Theatre until 21 February. The production then tours to Nottingham, Salford Quays and Newcastle between 5 and 21 March.

The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013

29 November 2013, Melbourne, Australia

Stalwart: Stefan Vinke as Siegfried
Stalwart: Stefan Vinke as Siegfried(Photos: Jeff Busby)

Jud Arthur, terrifying as Fafner
Jud Arthur, terrifying as Fafner

The final scene from 'Götterdämmerung'
The final scene from 'Götterdämmerung'

Review by Ashutosh Khandekar

An air of expectation hung heavily around this Ring cycle, Opera Australia’s first, staged in the wake of the runaway critical success of the 2004 Adelaide Festival production, exuberantly directed by Elke Reinhardt (who, in a cruel twist of irony, died in Sydney after a battle with cancer during the run of this current cycle).

A year-long international publicity campaign delivered a clear, confident message: this new production of the Ring would have a strong Australian identity, with an all-Australian creative team, establishing the credentials of Melbourne, rather than Sydney, as Australia’s top opera destination.

The result was a sell-out for all three cycles within 24 hours of the box office opening. Self-styled ‘Wagneroos’ from all over the world descended on the Melbourne Arts Centre for what was the last significant production of the Ring in Wagner’s jubilee year. A street parade through the centre of Melbourne, with celebrities and citizens in horned helmets and blond plaits, launched the event with a real air of celebration.

This outward confidence hid a somewhat less secure genesis. This Australian Ring actually started life in Houston, where the Grand Opera was looking for a co-producer for a new cycle. Opera Australia came on board, but then Houston decided to place its allegiances elsewhere. That left the Australians holding the baby – but they ran with it, turning a problem into an opportunity. In stepped Maureen Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet guides, who backed the project to the hilt, both financially and as a tireless advocate garnering support both at home and abroad.
Neil Armfield, one of Australia’s leading theatre directors and an experienced opera hand, was invited to direct, assembling a design team who had worked together on several significant projects; composer/conductor Richard Mills, a distinguished figure in the Australian opera world, was given his first shot at the Ring. Mills, in the end, stepped down, citing a ‘lack of chemistry’ between him and the cast; and before curtain up, there was some last-minute shuffling of the cast itself.

Mills’ replacement was the young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen, due to conduct a new Ring cycle in Sicily, a troubled affair which self-destructed when funding ran dry. Melbourne came to the rescue, snapping him up for his first staged cycle.

So, there we have the backdrop to this new cycle. What started out as an out-and-out Australian Ring ended up being an altogether more eclectic undertaking, featuring home-grown talent and international names, bringing a curious mix of experience and naivety to the project.

Armfield and his set designer Robert Cousins had already scored an international hit with another saga of a dysfunctional family in their five-hour theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s quintessentially Australian novel, Cloudstreet.  Using the same ‘Poor Theatre’ approach in the Ring, Armfield subverted Wagner’s grandiloquence at every turn. This was an understated, everyday Ring, inspired by a world of end-of-pier entertainments and bourgeois aspirations, with the gods in sharply tailored suits and furs, and mortals in baggy, ill-fitting leisurewear (costumes by Alice Babidge).

There are half-remembered allusions to the Ring’s performance history: exquisite recreations of painted backdrops from the 1896 Bayreuth production of the Ring, showing romantic landscapes of rivers and forests with Valhalla looming in the distance. Nostalgia reigns in Das Rheingold, with its simple pleasures of beach holidays and variety shows. The Rhinemaidens are  showgirls in aquamarine ostrich feathers entertaining the chorus who cheer on with golden pompoms; Alberich is a magician with a box of tricks; Wotan meanwhile, is found assembling the remnants of an old world that is in the process of self-annihilation – stuffed animals either extinct or on the verge, packed into cases, ready to move to their new home as exhibits from a lost era. Fasolt and Fafner make their entrance on forklift trucks, contractors insisting on their fees. The rainbow bridge to Valhalla is a team of cheerleaders brandishing yet more pompoms.

Die Walküre depicts a world of innocence lost, full of threat and menace. Oppressed peoples wander over the landscape as drab refugees. The maiden-warriors in combat gear descend from the flies on steel wires, an air ambulance team clearing the battlefield of the dead.

This was where Armfield’s production began to get a bit lost. What was this all adding up to? Walküre began to make me think that this Ring had no overarching vision – a series of disconnected ideas, evocative as tableaux, perhaps, but at odds with the unified dramatic sweep and rapture of Wagner’s score.

Siegfried hinted at something more thoughtful, though Armfield remained grimly determined to avoid any epic gestures. Only the image of Fafner, a sinister actor making up his face, projected in terrifying close-up on a large screen, provided any sense of a superhuman dimension where the imagination could be unleashed. Götterdämmerung delivered some pyrotechnics by the end, but was for the most part resolutely unheroic with its backdrop of a kitsch suburban wedding.

The underwhelming staging was enlivened by some fine performances. Memorable among them was Warwick Fyfe’s engaging pantomime villain of an Alberich; Heyseoung Kwon’s fragile, touching Freia; Jud Arthur as a violent Hunding and a vicious but strangely vulnerable Fafner; the big-hearted Siegmund of Stuart Skelton, riveting our attention with his emotional incandescence; Stefan Vinke’s stalwart, indefatigable Siegfried, full of adolescent ardour; and an intense, fulminating Deborah Humble as Erda and Waltraute.

Susan Bullock, exhausted perhaps at the end of a long Wagnerian year, fell short of the big moments as Brünnhilde, scuppered by rather static direction that left her to rely on histrionics of her own devising. Terje Stensvold grew in stature to become a satisfying Wotan, though once again, any notion of a heroic aspect to the king of gods was kept firmly reined in.

The Melbourne Ring Orchestra played exquisitely and expansively over much of this cycle. Pietari Inkinen’s interpretation was strong on beauty, poise and balance, but his tempi were often excruciatingly slow and deliberate, killing any dramatic momentum.

Armfield and his team have given Opera Australia a Ring that tells the story clearly and free of directorial clutter. That is a huge asset. However, the first cycle felt like a Ring-in-progress, a self-consciously unassuming, introspective staging, strong in narrative power, but struggling to find a coherent, expressive language of imagery and imagination to match Wagner’s sublime blend of music and metaphysics.

Jubilee Opera presents new Lord Nelson show this weekend

16 November 2013

Hip-Hip Horatio! is a new music theatre work by Michael Hurd, staged by Jubilee Opera this weekend (17 and 18th November).

Specially chosen to suit the mood of the Jubilee and Olympic Year, this entertaining and dramatic piece charts Admiral Lord Nelson’s life and achievements. The music is lively and engaging, exploring songs of different genres in the choruses and, with a narrator and solo parts, allowing opportunities for cameo roles and a number of choreographed dances. 

Jubilee Opera, based in Suffolk, works with children and professional practitioners from different areas of performance art, aiming to give opportunities for young people to work together on music-theatre productions of an extremely high quality. Thirty-four children have been selected to participate in Hip-Hip Horatio! together with  a group of seven professional instrumentalists. The production will be preceded by semi-staged traditional and modern sea songs and shanties sung by children from local primary schools with a number of solos and ensembles performed by senior members of Jubilee Opera Chorus.

The Conductor is Timothy Henty, music director on several of Matthew Bourne’s celebrated ballet productions at London’s Sadler’s Wells. The director is Frederic Wake-Walker, who has just directed Julian Philips opera The Yellow Sofa, currently on Glyndebourne Tour and seen at the Royal Opera House’s Lindbury Studio.  

Hip-Hip Horatio! is intended as a stepping-stone for younger members of Jubilee Opera in anticipation of the company’s special Britten Centenary production in 2013. This fully staged Jubilee Opera production will combine excerpts from Britten operas and vocal music to create a  dream journey through childhood, reflected through the eyes of the tenor soloist, sung by Alan Oke. Performances will take place on 9 and 10 November 2013 in Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh.

Hip-Hip Horatio! takes place in Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall, Suffolk, on Saturday 17 November 2012 at 3pm & 6pm, and on Sunday 18 November 2012 at 3pm


Runners-up in the Opera Now Montblanc competition

15 October 2013

Thank you to our many readers from all over the world who sent in their memorable encounters of opera. 


My first time

I first experienced opera in an Iowa City living room. A friend of mine asked me to accompany him to a DVD screening at the home of an Austrian couple. I would be the only person who wasn’t, in his words, an ‘opera fanatic.’

I was anxious. I searched for opera information online. I learned new phrases: opera buffa and libretto and bel canto. I researched the history of the show we were watching, then listened to various renditions of the music we would be hearing.

The internet had no answers for one of my biggest concerns: what do you wear to a living room opera? I decided jeans and a sweater were fine.

The night came, and the four of us had a home-cooked Austrian dinner and then watched Così fan tutte on a flat-screen TV. I enjoyed the music, the production, and the acting (even though I didn’t understand a word of what I was watching).

Before that night, opera was something I thought I could only appreciate during opening ceremonies of the Olympics or when an opera singer released a new Christmas album. Before that night, I thought someone like me could never be cultured enough to ‘get’ opera.

To be fair, I still don’t ‘get’ opera. I’m not comfortable discussing the relative merits of the Italian and German style. I’m not interested in comparing Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Anna Netrebko. They’re all great, to me.

I’m an uneducated beginner, but watching my first opera in an Iowa living room taught me to appreciate opera on my own terms. Feel like switching between arias and Jay Z on YouTube? Go for it! Don’t have enough money to visit the Lyric Opera for every show? Do what you can.

The lesson was: enjoy opera in living rooms, in theatres, or through live broadcasts of the Met at your local cinema. Rent a tux when you have to; but, if you enjoy it, find ways to experience opera on your terms.

Maybe someday I’ll feel educated enough to choose between modern or traditional stagings of classic operas (I think I prefer modern stagings ... but I love traditional too). Until then, I’ll enjoy it however I can.

Drew Cummings-Peterson, Iowa USA


A lingering memory

It was Nabucco in 1953, performed by what was at the time the pro-am Welsh National Opera company. It was at the Grand Theatre Swansea and I was just 14. My father persuaded me to go; he was a good amateur tenor of concert standard, but he couldn’t go with me as he was working night shifts at the local steelworks.

I caught the bus for an eight-mile ride into Swansea and queued. There was some advance publicity but we couldn’t book as we had no phone. It was a long queue and I was kept busy by looking at pictures of the stars – Ruth Packer as Abigaille and Tano Ferendinos as Ismaele. I can’t remember the others sadly. One comment in the queue was ‘any good tunes in this one?’ We also saw the chorus arriving at the stage door, many still in their work clothes.

The box office opened and I bought my ticket which was way up in the ‘gods’. The opera began. I was stunned; the colour, the sound, the costumes, the exoticism of Nebuchadnezzar’s Mesopotamia, couldn’t be further removed from the coal mining and steelmaking grimness of the lower Swansea Valley in the early ’50s. How did they manage to get the massive and monumental sets up there? How did the singers sing over the orchestra? When ‘Va, pensiero’ ended, there was silence and then a crash of sound I have never heard since – even when Wales beat England at rugby!

Then it was over. I left the theatre in a daze, got to the bus stop and found I had spent all my money on a programme and a drink. So I walked home, all eight miles, humming and singing all I could remember. I got home shattered and my mother frantic as it was after 11 at night and I had school the next day.

It was unforgettable, however, and I became an instant operaphile – and I still am at 74 years of age.

David Price, Tonbridge, Kent 


A star is born

Cape Town as a venue for operatic productions is by no means a rival for the great companies operating at Covent Garden, the Met and other famous houses. Our currency is too weak, and our shores too distant to attract booked-to-the-hilt stars like Netrebko and Kaufmann.

Fortunately we have some enviable home-grown talent, though admittedly they operate out of more conveniently located cities like London and Milan. Thus it was that local opera lovers girded their loins and dusted off their finery when Pretty Yende and Colin Lee rolled into town for a concert performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, under the baton of Richard Bonynge. Front row seats were the only sensible choice

Colin Lee is a favourite in Cape Town, but it must be said that the evening was Pretty’s. She trained at the University of Cape Town some years ago, and it was clear from the start that here was an exceptional talent. Even so, her meteoric rise has taken our breath away. Is this the little girl inspired by a British Airways ad? There was a palpable sense of excitement. She just had to walk onto the stage to have us in the palm of her hand. And what a performance it was, her soaring lyric soprano washing over us, her clarion top notes sending shivers down our spines. I glanced at the audience behind me. The word swooning came to mind. During her mad aria I struggled to suppress hysterical giggles: it was so…well…insane. The standing ovation went on and on, and when Richard Bonynge warmly congratulated her, I couldn’t help wondering if he was remembering his late wife Joan Sutherland’s benchmark performances of this aria.

What an impossible task Colin Lee had, with so much of his role still to come, and after such a climax. So here’s my confession: Lee’s Edgardo stole the show. I’m a sucker for a lyric tenor, and what a lyric tenor we had! A friend commented to me afterwards that this thought kept on flicking through her brain: he sings like an accountant. She didn’t know that he is one, and it was meant (believe it or not) as a compliment. His passionate, effortless lyricism was so precisely rendered that I immediately understood why my friend had thought accountant. I’m sure that was Pretty’s mother sitting three seats down from me (didn’t have the courage to ask). She was the first to leap to her feet to give him the standing ovation he deserved.

I don’t need to tell you the rest: the clap clap, bow bow, trooping in and out, smile smile. The race to the car park. There’s something about world-class opera: it stays with you forever.

Rose-Mary Hyslop, Cape Town, South Africa 


NI Opera scores a hit with Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore

9 October 2013, Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland

Unaffected and heart-warming: Anna Patalong and John Molloy in NI Opera’s 'Elixir of Love'
Unaffected and heart-warming: Anna Patalong and John Molloy in NI Opera’s 'Elixir of Love'(Photo: Paul Moane)

Recasting Donizetti’s comedy of gullible hicks as Grease set in a dowdy Irish high school might sound odd, but Oliver Mears’s production for NI Opera pulled off the trick with witty charm (helped along by Arthur Jacobs’s lovely old translation).

So well pitched was Mears’s staging of this bel canto classic, that the unpretentious crowd in the spanking new Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, a few miles north of Belfast, awarded it one of the most spontaneous standing ovations I’ve seen.

The tiny orchestra of 17, soloists of the Ulster Orchestra, could have had a bit more zing but David Brophy conducted with a lilting elegance that conjured Schubert in chamber-mode in the overture before reverting to the strumming accompaniments of Donizetti’s graceful, pathos-laden idiom; the (mostly) single instruments revelled in the chaste detailing of this affectionate score.

It may not have been strict social realism, but Mears treated his personnel like real people, letting relationships develop and creating familiar characters without cliché. Anna Patalong’s teacher Adina was a buttoned-up, repressed romantic just waiting for someone to melt her ice, and her beautifully controlled singing brought many shades and a rare ardour to what can be a chilly character. There was a palpable sense here of someone growing up and admitting her true nature to herself.

Anthony Flaum sang Nemorino, rather squeezed at the top but altogether very fluent. This geeky no-hoper actually turned out to be a pretty snappy mover, and Flaum caught the mix of baffled innocence, droopy defeatism and childlike glee brilliantly; teased, beaten up, rejected, he just bounced back like a beach ball.

The beating-up was administered by James McOran-Campbell as bluff chancer Belcore, with his army-recruitment gang the object of much cooing admiration from the sixth-form girls. Inevitably stealing the show was John Molloy as Dulcamara, a slippery customer equipped with a chemistry set and stage-Oirish asides that were, for once, actually quite funny. From his first insulting greeting to the ‘provincial folk’ patsies, this Dulcamara was a ball of opportunistic energy, resourceful and adept, creating a proper relationship with Adina (their ‘Senator’ cameo was particularly smart) and the happy vehicle for Donizetti’s optimistic contention that human nature can create good out of the most unlikely motivation.

Mears’s fast-moving, inventive and sensitive staging was full of good things: I particularly liked a foolish wedding-feast parade of historical lovers. There weren’t too many subtexts here, but this was among the most unaffectedly heart-warming and well-thought-out Elisirs you could hope for.

NI Opera’s Elixir of Love will tour to the Republic of Ireland from 25 January to 8 February 2014, visiting Navan, Sligo, Dun Laoghaire, Letterkenny, Dublin, Tralee and Galway.

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