A Slice of Operatic Cake: Six Reviews for Six Little Greats
In their autumn season, Opera North put on six short, one act operas. I was fortunate to see all of them, and this blog post brings together all six of my reviews from this blog's original site.
L'Enfant et les Sortilèges
So here's something new - I'm doing a review! This season, I will be attending Opera North's entire 'Little Greats' season at the Grand Theatre in Leeds - a series of six one-act operatic gems arranged into various double bills. Today's outing was their adaptation of Ravel's 'L'enfant et les Sortilèges', performed at 2.15pm on 7th October 2017.
L'enfant is an incredible piece - just 45 minutes long and absolutely packed with meaning and emotion, both musically and within its narrative. Without giving too much away, a young boy misbehaves, trashes his room and then the items which he's trashed come to life to show him the damage he's done. Even within that synopsis, there could be a lot to infer and unpack. Annabel Arden's interpretation, while very full of visually pleasing extremes in colour and character, allows for the subtleties of interpretation to shine through in such a brilliantly non-pompous way, so much so that I was having new thoughts about the meanings of moments hours after the performance had ended! A clever beginning, where the child enters a simple door to the real set of the piece allows the audience to suspend disbelief for the wackiness that is to come.
And this really is a wacky piece. The music is at times unsettling and in combination with Hannah Clark's bold costuming and Theo Clinkard's suitably brash choreography, the audience is treated to an onslaught of heightened sensitivity. The dark and mature aspects remain, though, and are easily inferred (perhaps too easily during a rather hilarious moment with a teapot spout and a pair of teacups). This is clearly an adaptation that exposes the madcap beginning and darker moments towards the end to the maximum in order to appeal to children and adults alike. While sometimes, due to the subtleties of interpretation also being present, the meaning on either side of this scale can get lost or sometimes even go too far, on balance it is successful in doing so.
Orchestrally, this music doesn't sound easy at all, and the skill of the orchestra of Opera North and its conductor for this performance, Anthony Kraus really did shine through. There were some beautifully played moments where the music was executed with such sensitivity in combination with beautiful staging so as to produce one of the most memorable operatic moments for me to date (the scene, in case you are wondering, where the child arrives outside... check out the croaking song below for a taste).
As always, Opera North takes the chance to show some of the best operatic talent to us. Most memorable for me was Fflur Wyn with her incredible vocal acrobatics as Fire, and beautiful sensitivity as the Princess. Wallis Giunta as the child did an admirable job, but for some reason I never quite took to her character. Perhaps this was to do with Ravel's music, Colette's libretto or indeed Giunta's performance - I'm not too sure. Perhaps, as a bratty child, she did brilliantly, in fact. Almost too brilliantly.
Kudos, too, to Opera North, for creating the opportunity for young people like myself to be able to attend an opera like this and sit in one of the best seats in the house for only £5. Opera North is a company I am proud to work for on occasion for just this reason - it strives to be inclusive in so many different ways and this opera is a shining example of that. I can't wait for the next five!
Overall, L'enfant is a brilliant, entertaining and wacky little gem, uncomfortable in all the right ways, and some of the wrong ways, I'd highly recommend it for a quick, fun, thought-provoking and memorable trip to the opera.
Trouble in Tahiti
I was very much looking forward to seeing this rarely performed piece by Bernstein (on 13th October at 7.15pm), and I'm pleased to say that my high expectations were exceeded! This somewhat dark parody of the American Dream as a piece in itself expertly conveys layers of meaning without feeling too heady, and the music is, as one would expect from Bernstein, rather ingenious. Not to mention the beautiful yet effective libretto.
The narrative is framed by a jazz trio, commenting on how life is 'great' in American society, and yet our main characters - almost the stereotype of an American family - show us that life isn't so rosy. 45 minutes isn't long to convey themes of masculinity, femininity, consumerism, egoism, love and self image, and yet here we are treated to all this and more in an incredible depth.
It must be said, in the opening moments, I had my doubts. There were some slight balance issues with the orchestra, and the 'jazzy' solos expected of the orchestra, while not easy at all, were underplayed. However, this was easily forgiven just a few moments later, and it became apparent that the music was in fact being tackled expertly, with some tricky moments tackled with precision. The singers, too, made this tricky music seem easy - and it was a joy to watch. Wallis Giunta was phenomenal as Dinah, singing beautifully and employing just the right mix of over-the-top stereotype and sensitive individual which created genuine empathy. At times, Quirijn de Lang as Sam was a little overshadowed, but on the whole his performance matched Giunta's, showcasing them both as almost perfect for the roles.
Special mention must be made of the direction and set design. Matthew Eberhardt brings an expert's eye to such a multi-layered little opera, brilliantly conveying all subtleties and extremes through the direction of the piece. The set design works hand-in-hand with this, with some brilliantly clever moments involving lighting shifting the audience's perception. The sets follow the same pattern as the Ravel here - using the back or 'backstage' side of the set pieces almost more than the fronts. This feeds into a very clever idea from Opera North, whereby all promotional material and even the operas themselves seem to have a 'backstage' feel somewhere about them - almost as if you're being welcomed into a community putting on six operas, rather than watching the operas themselves. This might seem strange when seeing each opera in the season individually, but holistically it is a stroke of genius.
This, to me, showcases the best of Opera North and is a brilliant example of them doing a rare/unpopular opera extremely well. Bravo to all involved - I highly doubt I'll see something of the same calibre for a while!
Trial By Jury
After seeing the marvellous Trouble in Tahiti - the second half of my evening at Opera North on 13 October being Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Trial By Jury' (at 8.30) was always going to be a risk, as I've never really been taken with works by this pairing. Unfortunately it's not a risk that really paid off.
However, there were many many merits to this performance. Firstly, Opera North excels itself again due to the entire cast being made up of chorus members - and there really was some incredible talent on display. Most notably, Jeremy Peaker as the Learned Judge and Nicholas Watts as the Defendant shone as examples of brilliant musical, dramatic and comedic talent. Unfortunately, Amy Freston as the Plaintiff was somewhat lost among the other singers - which is strange seeing as her character is, in many senses, the 'main attraction'.
It's difficult, from hereon, not to review the opera as a piece itself rather than Opera North's interpretation. Quite frankly, Gilbert and Sullivan's music simply annoys me. It never feels original or in the slightest bit witty, and while there were some funny moments in the libretto, most of the humour came from John Savournin, the director in the form of visual gags or nice little additions. A joke in which the punchline is repeated again and again is never funny, so listening to a moderately funny line be repeated by all cast members about 100 times at the end of each verse really starts to irritate. Of course, I can't blame Opera North for what the composers have done, especially as this is just a subjective opinion. I can, however, question their choice of inclusion of this opera in the season of otherwise tonally varied yet somehow much more coherent short operas.
Unfortunately, the set design fails to live up the the ingenuity of my previous two experiences. Moving set pieces were a clever idea, but the coherence was not there - with framing scenery not fitting with the aesthetic of the rest of the season so far and simply looking a little lacklustre...
Credit, though, must go to Oliver Rundell and the orchestra of Opera North as well as the singers themselves for performing very well - and especially Rundell for maintaining an impressive synergy between singers and players, something not easy at the best of times, especially in such a frantic musical style.
I cannot, however, ever forgive an opera that has an ending such as Trial By Jury - after sitting through a very... trying... 30-odd minutes, everything was wrapped up within about six seconds in a conclusion that was not in any way funny, but so utterly pointless that it became insulting and made me yearn for those precious minutes back.
Overall, Opera North did an admirable job at making an almost unbearable piece somewhat entertaining with some great intentions, ideas and talent.
Janacek's rarely performed short opera, 'Osud' (meaning 'Destiny', and seen by me at 7.15 on 14th October) really is quite intense. At 1 hour and 25 minutes, this is the longest of Opera North's 'Little Greats' and although it acts as one half of an evening at the opera, there are still three clear acts separated by relatively lengthy 'breaks' in which the house lights come up briefly.
Opera North have form with bringing rare operas into the spotlight. Earlier this year, Rimsky-Korsakov's 'The Snowmaiden' was a prime example of this, and although it was an entertaining evening, it did have its faults. When 'Osud' started, I immediately thought a similar thing might happen, with act 1 consisting mainly of standard operatic narrative (albeit slightly more 'meta', with the main character being an opera composer) with a few confusing cultural references (this opera has been translated into English for Opera North's run). However, once the plot began to develop in acts 2 and 3, I realised that subtly, both Janacek and director Annabel Arden were working on bringing the true meaning behind the opera together so that the threads weave together by the end in genius fashion. More on this later.
Musically, this is some of the most expressive and grand music I've heard in an opera, expertly played by the orchestra and conducted by Martin Andre and sung by the entire cast. Arden's version seems simple but becomes increasingly more complex as it begins to mirror the opera within the opera, and it is when the two converge that the climax occurs. An opera about an opera, staged in a way in which the backstage can be glimpsed (as is the running theme in this season of operas) works perfectly, and is perhaps the inspiration for the theme of all six operas in terms of Charles Edwards' design. To be able to bring an obscure miniature opera that is almost entirely self referential to life in an interesting and emotionally engaging way as well as fit it into the aesthetic of an entire season compiled of far more well known pieces is really quite an astonishing achievement.
My problems with the opera are insubstantial on their own, yet did slightly colour the experience. Firstly, the choice of a Czech setting for the opera worked to a point, but perhaps if the piece is to be sung in a different language than originally intended, a different setting may help to also tease out the subtleties in the piece that remained unapparent, such as the mirror between the opera, Zhivny's relationship with his wife and the growth and the development of their son. These things are all interlinked, but this was somehow lost during the moments of more 'traditional' operatic tendencies towards the start. Secondly, unfortunately Rosalind Plowright as Mila's Mother, while her singing was intensely emotional, her annunciation was frankly confusing, and made me glad for the English surtitles present over the English singing. Finally, there were a few confusing additions which slightly skewed the narrative direction, making me wonder whether perhaps some things had been oversimplified whilst others had been over-complicated. The balance, though, in the end, did its job just fine.
I was very impressed with the ending. While some were confused I thought the creative choices were perfect for the type of opera that we were seeing. Such an intense little show is an immense achievement (I'm almost glad I am seeing my remaining operas on another instance rather than tonight, as for such a short opera it contained so very much to chew on!). Despite a few flaws in the finished performance, this opera, and the operas within, aren't about to be forgotten any time soon.
My final night at the opera this season began with Leoncavallo's Pagliacci on 21st October at 7.15pm. And what a way to spend my final evening at the opera. In this production, we are treated to an adaptation which is by turns unexpected, delightful and tragically dramatic.
The show begins quite literally before it begins, with the 'company' wandering into the rehearsal room on stage. Charles Edwards, here fulfilling the roles of both director and stage/lighting designer really sits the opera, in quite an ingenious way, into a very unified seasons (with staging designed by him also throughout). Clever manipulation of the language the performance is sung in, the actual house lights in the opera house itself and the 'backstage' feel to the whole performance (fitting perfectly in with the narrative) creates not only a very immersive hour and a quarter, but also adds a great and innovative twist to the experience of the opera itself. In a great move, Edwards sets Canio's explanation of the plot of the opera within the opera (yes, another one!) in a 'model showing', mirroring Opera North's own processes when putting on an opera. This is a dangerous line to tread but was done exceptionally well, with the opera gently poking fun at itself while managing to be wholly effective in doing so.
In fact, this opera essentially unifies the whole season thematically, featuring genuinely funny moments as well as exciting, romantic or tragic moments exactly when is appropriate. To be able to pull that off on its own is an incredible feat but within the context of five other operas to create a 'series arc' both visually and thematically really is impressive.
A huge bravo goes to the cast of this one. Elin Pritchard as Nedda especially, who injects a very human quality into her performance whilst simultaneously performing the music beautifully. Peter Auty seemed strained as Canio at times, but didn't let this get in the way of the intense emotion he was so effective at portraying throughout. Furthermore, under Tobias Ringborg, the Orchestra of Opera North were able to pull of an extremely slick performance.
Overall, this is an incredibly well considered and executed production of an exceptional opera. One I'd highly recommend seeing if you get the chance, as it's the embodiment of what this season and ultimately Opera North is about... more literally than you might think (except for, you know, all the death).
My final instalment of opera this calendar year (which feels very sad to say...) was Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana at 9pm on 21st October. After an astonishing first half to the evening (see my previous review) I was sure to brace myself for something which didn't quite manage to top 'Pagliacci'. Needless to say, this very much did. And more.
Mascagni's beautiful and extremely emotional score explores so many themes in so much depth as it is, and Karolina Sofulak's direction adds an incredible new layer to the proceedings. Wide open spaces where a crucifix takes centre stage really plays on the idea that this is an opera which primarily explores emotional concepts. At times, the lack of definition between settings on stage was a little confusing, but as an audience member this facilitated questions about what was conceptual or imagined, and what was real - and so was actually quite effective. The setting, a struggling Polish town rather than Italy in this production, not only works well but draws out so many complexities and themes in the opera that might not have otherwise been apparent. All of this, plus Charles Edwards' standout lighting which creates luscious sepia tones and sunsets/sunrises so beautifully means that this was not only a breathtaking piece to listen to but also to see.
Giselle Allen was phenomenal as Santuzza, her religious mania seeping into her relationship with Turiddu in a captivating way, and Phillip Rhodes (in his second performance of the night, too) was also extremely impressive as Alfio, especially and oddly enough during the famous orchestral Intermezzo in which so much emotion was portrayed with not a note sung. Rosalind Plowright here was just the right amount of foreboding and struggling, adding real gravitas.
The music was, of course, played expertly by the orchestra of Opera North (as I've not come to expect) under Tobias Ringborg. One particularly notable moment in which music, singers and set combined to create something deeply affecting was the scene of the church service in which the set moved subtly to bring the crucifix to the centre, with Turiddu and Santuzza representing Jesus and the Mary Magdalene. It was not only beautifully played and sung but incredibly emotively acted.
If Pagliacci acted as an ingenious summary of Opera North's creativity, Cavalleria Rusticana was them saying 'right, now look what we can do'. And it worked beautifully. In fact, I'd go as far as to say I've never seen anything quite so involving and moving. Bravo.