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Murder Most Magnificent

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on February 23, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Review – Medea (English National Opera, Wednesday 20 February 2013)

Medea – Sarah Connolly
Jason – Jeffrey Francis
Creon – Brindley Sherratt
Creusa/Phantom – Katherine Manley
Orontes – Roderick Williams
Nerina – Rhian Lois
Cleonis/Cupid – Aoife O’Sullivan
Arcas – Oliver Dunn
Corinthian/Jealousy – John McMunn
Italian Woman/Phantom II – Sophie Junker

Director – David McVicar
Designer – Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer – Paule Constable
Choreographer – Lynne Page

Chorus Master – Jörg Andresen
Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera

Conductor – Christian Curnyn

English National Opera is a company that operates at both extremes of the performance spectrum.

To put it bluntly. Their productions are either incredibly good and thought-provoking. Or completely dreadful and ill-conceived. Although in those cases they are saved from complete ignominy from the general quality of the casting.

With their current production of Medea they are off the spectrum of incredibly good. Excellent. Award-winning. And I would even hazard to say a potential long-runner.

ENO would do well to consider building on their French baroque credentials based on this production and their previous production of Castor and Pollux.

David McVicar has matured from being the enfant terrible of opera directors with great ideas with great ideas to a great opera director with a great vision full of sharp ideas.

But first, the cast.

Charpentier’s music moves seamlessly from air to ‘recitatif’ – through composed or not – and therefore has few main numbers as it were. Therefore attention to the detail to the music and a keen eye to the shift between the two is required. And all the singers keenly demonstrated both.

It was a strongly knit cast without a weak link but clearly this is a production that will most be remembered for the tour-de-force of Sarah Connolly as Medea. This role could have been composed for her. I saw her recently perform scenes from French Baroque operas and this is clearly a genre that suits her voice and temperament.

It is clear – as she said in an interview – that completely trusts McVicar but they obviously share common ground when it comes to developing a character. It goes without saying that musically this was an incredibly distinguished and passionate performance. Sarah Connolly is in possession of a lustrous voice that can switch from the lightest, most delicate of tone and colour to an instrument of incredible force and volume and never was a word dropped or muffled. Witness for example her scenes with Nerina and better still the scene when she wrestles with killing her own sons for example. And it was also a subtle yet masterful transition from loving wife to spurned, vengeful woman. Her acting was incredibly convincing not only in the most obvious scenes but for example in her scene with Jason before her descent into revenge and as well as those scenes with Creon and Creusa.

As the King’s daughter-cum-starlet, Katherine Manley’s bright and full soprano was perfect and glittered like her ill-fated gown. Her closing air – as she lay dying – was sung with great poise but each of her scenes was beautifully and eloquently sung even when she had an inadvertent wardrobe malfunction. Katherine Manley is clearly someone to keep an eye on.

Jeffrey Francis as Jason was a pleasant find. His light, crisp yet sweet-toned tenor was a delight and a good fit for Charpentier’s music as well as with the rest of the ensemble. Particularly impressive was his love duet with Creusa.

The remaining warriors – Brindley Sherratt’s Creon and Roderick Williams’ Orontes – completed the very strong ensemble. I particularly enjoyed Roderick Williams as Pollux in Kosky’s production at ENO last year and here he returned with an equally strong portrayal of Orontes, displaying the same strong, darkly hued baritone with excellent diction. And Brindley Sherratt was superb as Creon. His resonant bass dealt comfortably with the delicacy of Charpentier’s writing.

Special mention too of Rhian Lois as Nerina, Aoife O’Sullivan as Cleonis and Cupid, Oliver Dunn’s Arcas and Sophie Junker’s Italian Woman for the strength and intelligence of their performances.

And of course the ENO chorus sang not only with conviction but with passion. The chorus revealing the death of Creon and Orontes was particularly impressive.

Christian Curnyn led the entire ensemble with great verve and attention to the music. There was an equal balance of rhythmic vitality and beautifully phrased suavity combined with a greater attention to the orchestra colour of Charpentier’s score than I found in his Rameau last year.

And so to the production.

The production was built around a combination of McVicar’s motifs but didn’t suffer because of it. The set could have been borrowed from his Covent Garden Figaro for example, and he maximised the size of the Coliseum’s stage – sometimes its own handicap – by focusing some energy on the activity surrounding the main characters without it being distracting.

The setting was – with its Wrens manoeuvring armies around a map and the costumes – reminiscent of the Second World War and there was a general air of decadence to the entire production. Ms Manley may have inadvertently lost her underwear in the second act but it added to the subtle hint of loucheness – almost decadence – at the court of Creon. His own desire for his daughter made clear by the way he touched her early in the opera, was heightened when the Phantoms in the penultimate act are all doppelgangers of Creusa. Similarly Cupid’s night club scene was smart and witty but again managed to deliver and underlying sense of menace.

The scene when Medea calls upon her demons was brilliantly done, and McVicar spared none of the savagery as Connolly cut her own skin and while I was somewhat at a loss with the shaved-headed, red painted male demons in shift dresses and high heels, the dancing in this scene was brutally effective.

Indeed for the most part the choreography – always a difficult thing to integrate into baroque opera and ENO’s dismal Julius Caesar is testimony to – was smart and efficient. When it didn’t add to the narrative, as it did in the aforementioned scene, it was hearty and jovial, which was no bad thing.

Medea shows what ENO is capable of when everything comes together – an excellent cast led by a superb conductor under the auspices of a smart and intelligent director. It’s a shame that John Berry dismisses the idea of cinema broadcasts. This production would – I am sure – be successful on the big screen because it has everything – a great story committed to stage with great singing, marvellous playing and brilliant direction.

Definitely worth seeing if you haven’t already purchased a ticket.

And the second of two very clever and enjoyable French baroque productions by ENO. I do hope that John Berry realises that here is repertoire that is waiting to be explored and will decisively stake a claim to this genre in the capital.

Can we hope for a more new productions? Indeed perhaps some Lully?

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NSA Don With Strings Attached

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on November 9, 2012 at 8:30 am

Review – Don Giovanni (The Lowry Theatre, Wednesday 7 November 2012)

Don Giovanni – William Dazeley
Leporello – Alastair Miles
Donna Anna – Meeta Raval
Don Ottavio – Christopher Turner
Donna Anna – Elizabeth Atherton
Zerlina – Claire Wild
Masetto – Oliver Dunn

Director – Alessandro Talevi
Set & Costume Designer – Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer – Matthew Haskins
Choreographer – Victoria Newlyn

Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor – Anthony Kraus

It’s a hit and miss affair with Opera North it seems. A magnificent Das Rheingold but a disappointing Die Walküre. And productions of Norma and Giulio Cesare that were lacklustre and in the case of the Bellini, miscast.

So it was with some trepidation that I returned to The Lowry for their new production of Don Giovanni.

However, bar a few misgivings this new production was smart and occasionally sassy. Some future fine tuning is needed and perhaps a new look at some of the casting will also strengthen what is, overall, an intelligent take on an oft-performed opera.

And personally, it’s originality is miles ahead of the schlock currently on stage at ENO and stringer than Covent Garden recent attempt.

Therefore it’s a shame that there was inconsistency in the quality of the singing. To start at the top, Dazeley’s Don was vocally and for most of the time dramatically one dimensional. It’s not that he isn’t a fine singer, he was just the wrong singer for the role. His light-weight voice didn’t only fail to always carry above the orchestra – not helped at the end by swinging him wildly around the stage ahead of his denouement – but didn’t possess the light and shade to reflect both the amorous and more threatening aspects of his character that needs clear portrayal in the music. For example, the dual vocal personality required in the quartet Non ti fidar, o misera. And there was little sense of the dual personality of a man who one moment is a charmer and seducer and the next a potentially brutal thug.

But where Dazeley did shine was as a foil to Leporello. Garbed – so it seemed – as a Victorian freakshow manager, Alastair Miles was both one of the more vocally accomplished characters as well as an intelligent actor. The only place where he didn’t seem to take advantage of the inherent humour of the narrative was at the opening of the Second act and his initial interaction with Donna Elvira. But side by side, their master/servant act was both humorous and Miles’ assured vocal delivery seemed to transfer to Dazeley.

Both Meeta Raval and Elizabeth Atherton as Donne Anna and Elvira respectively were vocally brittle. Ms Raval’s harshly metallic voice unpleasantly cut through her fellow Valkyries earlier this year and within the confines of this production it sat uncomfortable across Mozart’s music. Technically she is an accomplished singer but her voice simply has a brittle, harsh tone not suited to Donna Anna. Similarly Ms Atherton’s voice was on the hard side and struggled in places to get through entire phrases, leading to distracting pauses in her music. Also there were serious intonation problems throughout and most alarmingly in Mi tradi. However it has to be said that in ensemble the two ladies seemed re suited for example in Non ti fidar and Protegga il giusto cielo.

Don Ottavio is a difficult role to cast. It is not Christopher Turner’s natural ken but he made a valiant attempt at the role. A ‘stand-and-deliver’ tenor he was – again – marginally stronger in ensemble. Dalla sua pace – an often under-rated Mozartian gem – is beguilingly difficult to carry off and Turner struggled, relying at critical moments, such as the closing bars on a technique more suited to the verismo and bel canto roles that seem to make up the mainstay of his repertoire.

But by far the two stand-out performances came from the Zerlina and Masetto of Claire Wild and Oliver Dunn. While Dunn may not always have carried across the orchestra he sang and acted with conviction and possesses a warm, round baritone. And Ms Wild’s Zerlina was strongly characterised and her singing was bold, confident and burnished. Her Batti, batti quite rightly brought cheers not only for her acting ability but the musicianship she displayed.

Following the below par playing of Die Walküre the Orchestra of Opera North under Anthony Kraus delivered some clean, light almost chamber-like playing. It’s always interesting in the opening bars of the overture to see if the conductor observes the correct length of the double bass notes as pointed out by William Mann. Kraus did not and neither did he create enough of a contrast or tension between the adagio opening section and the ensuing allegro. Indeed on the whole, Kraus’ tempi was on the fast side, sometimes so fast that the singers struggled to keep up or get the words out. But the orchestra skittered though the music with aplomb if not much character.

So to the production.

Talevi’s take – with his colleagues – had some clever ideas hidden within it built around themes of control and time.

First of all the very obvious reference to Punch & Judy and puppetry. Talevi smartly and with charm incorporated this into the narrative. For example in the Catalogue aria as well as in the scenes with Don Giovanni and Massetto as well as Leporello and Donna Elvira. Framing Donna Anna and Don Ottavio as if in a painting, perhaps alluding to their more suppressed lives, was also intriguing. Where the puppetry seemed to come undone for me was with Don Giovanni himself. All well and good having him play puppet master as Massetto tries to escape in the second act but having him hoisted into the flies at the end as a puppet himself was more of a stretch, despite the nice touch of his demise at the hand of jilted brides. Similarly an inference at the end to the other characters merely as puppets of a Deus ex machina was confusing as relying on the connection with either the Punch & Judy element or the Commendatore’s return wasn’t enough.

There was also a sense of Victorian drama-cum-farce running through the production. As I’ve noted Leporello was a freak show circus master with Don Giovanni a booted and suited Dorian Gray-like character and Donna Anna and Don Ottavio extras from a Wharton novel. Don Ottavio as kleptomaniac slash grave robber got a laugh but was wasted or pointless – depending in your view – as it wasn’t developed.

And Donna Anna’s costume evolution from Like-A-Virgin Madonna to an Oscar Wilde female lead to Sharon Stone from Fatal Instinct hinted at a temporal theory to the story that didn’t really gel even with the inclusion of Masetto and Zerlina as teddy boys and girls.

Clearly the juxtaposition of different eras hinted that Don Giovanni himself was timeless – perhaps immortal to chime with the immortality of themes of Makropulos and Faust in the rest of Opera North’s season – but it didn’t really gain momentum even with the brides in the final scene.

Yet an unexpectedly poignant moment was Don Giovanni’s serenade, sung not to an individual but rather to the female characters daubed on the walls of the set. Was it a whorehouse? His house? Hard to tell. But it seemed as if at that precise moment it wasn’t so much Don Giovanni as seducer as Don Giovanni as dispossessed and tragic.

So in a sense Talevi had too much going on. A plethora of ideas – most of them good – that need thinning out and finessing.

If that can be done, and the casting can be sorted then Opera North has a production that will be not only bankable and enjoyable for the audience, but thought-provoking as well.

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