Posts Tagged ‘Opera Holland Park’

Fidelio, Holland Park Opera, OHP, July 2010

10 July, 2010

Beethoven’s only opera is a plea for justice, an idealistic cri de coeur from a composer who originally wanted to dedicate his third symphony to his hero Napoleon, only to be vastly disappointed when the general declared himself emperor. In this story, Florestan has been secretly imprisoned for two years by Don Pizarro, simply because he had exposed him as a rascal. When Pizarro hears that the Minister of Justice will arrive the next day he decides to murder Florestan and bury him before the visit. That all goes vastly wrong owing to the intervention of Florestan’s wife Leonore, who has been working at the prison under the assumed name of Fidelio.

Florestan and Leonore, photo by Fritz Curzon

Yvonne Howard as Leonore/Fidelio started gently and built up power as the evening progressed, performing well in her role as a man. But what really brought fire to the evening was Tom Randle as Florestan. As soon as he opened his mouth to sing in Act II, we had some real emotion and his voice was a powerful and welcome addition to what had gone before in Act I. At the start of the opera, Nicky Spence had given a rather vicious portrayal of an immensely frustrated young prison warder, Jaquino, desperately wanting Sarah Redgwick as Marzelline, the daughter of Rocco the jailer. She, in love with Fidelio, sang well, more strongly in my view than Stephen Richardson as Rocco, who was engagingly human, but a little underpowered. Phillip Joll sang strongly as the corrupt prison governor Don Pizarro, but portrayed a rather insipid character, not helped by the production where the movements of the guards on his first entrance looked very contrived. The prisoners chorus in Act I was the high point of that Act — powerfully sung.

The prisoners, photo by Fritz Curzon

However, the production’s main weakness was in Act II. When Njabulo Madlala entered as the Minister, foreshadowed by two goons with shades, he had entirely the wrong body language for such a powerful man, behaving more like a police community support officer new to the beat. But what really made this 2003 production by Olivia Fuchs so unsatisfactory was the inconsistency of having microphones and photographers accompanying the Minister, showing an open society, whereas Pizarro can apparently imprison someone for merely personal reasons. Was there a coup? I think the story has been perverted, and if the essay in the programme that mentions Guantanamo Bay reflects the producer’s intentions then this is not the opera it’s supposed to be. Are Pizarro’s prisoners supposed to be terrorists? I think the original idea has been lost in this rather incoherent staging, where the Minister pretended to glug down red wine straight from the bottle, and the nasty prison warder who had beaten everyone with his stick handed round loaves of bread. At the end the audience booed Don Pizarro in true pantomime style.

Fortunately the City of London Sinfonia played well under Peter Robinson, giving Beethoven’s music the serious tone it deserves.

Don Giovanni, Holland Park Opera, July 2010

5 July, 2010

This production by Stephen Barlow gives a clear and convincing take on the story, with pre-First World War costumes by Yannis Thavonis rather than elaborate wigs and clothing from the eighteenth century. Nicholas Garrett sang a powerfully aggressive and hyperactive Don of short stature — looking rather like Nicholas Sarkozy — and Matthew Hargreaves was an engaging and sympathetic Leporello. Money in the form of large bank notes exchanged hands between them several times, and it was as if Zerlina and Masetto were watching from the wings, as they purloined the remaining money from the Don’s corpse at the end.

Nicholas Garrett as the Don with Laura Mitchell as Donna Elvira

Zerlina was a prim and bespectacled girl, very well sung by Claire Wild, whom the Don turned into a sexy charmer when he removed her glasses and let down her hair — a clever touch. Her fiancé Masetto was played by Robert Winslade Anderson as angry but ineptly assertive, and his swift sharp beating by the Don was horribly convincing. Laura Mitchell was a strikingly beautiful Donna Elvira with a lovely voice, only spoiled by straining to fill the auditorium. Her acting was superb, and she was utterly convincing in her desire for the ruthless Don. Ana James sang well as Donna Anna, with Thomas Walker looking suitably ineffective as her fiancé Don Ottavio, and Simon Wilding came over very strongly as her father the Commendatore, singing an excellent bass.

Ana James as Donna Anna

The ego-centricity of the Don in this production is well indicated by nearly twenty portraits of him, hanging on the wall and propped up on the floor — all exactly the same — and it’s through one of these that the Commendatore arrives to dine with him. There is no statue of this dead potentate, but a large coffin is brought on and the Don and Leporello see him inside it while a vision appears in a mirror over the fireplace. Stephen Barlow, who created the production — not to be confused with his namesake the opera conductor — is clearly a man to watch, and I had already been delighted by his direction of the Tosca revival in 2009 at Covent Garden. This is an excellent staging in which to understand Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Robert Dean did a very fine job conducting the City of London Sinfonia.

Katya Kabanova, Holland Park Opera, August 2009

8 August, 2009

OHP Zac 1.jpg

This dark and intense Janaček opera is based on a nineteenth century Russian play, The Thunderstorm by Alexander Ostrovsky, that takes place in a village on the river Volga. An excellent essay by Robert Thicknesse in the Holland Park programme magazine describes the background to Ostrovsky’s play as being an “old-fashioned feudal [society] governed by superstition and immemorial custom and ruled by a particular breed of uneducated violent despots from what was known as the merchant class”. This was a Russia quite different from the polite society portrayed by writers such as Pushkin, Turgenev and Tolstoy. The story is essentially very simple. A daunting matriarch called the Kabanicha keeps her son Tichon in thrall to her whim, while emotionally abusing his wife Katya. When Tichon goes away on business, Katya begs him to take her along, as she fears her own attraction to a young man named Boris. The household also contains a young woman named Varvara, the Kabanicha’s foster daughter, who is in love with a man named Kudrjaš. Varvara makes the running in arranging night-time meetings between the young women and men, and when Tichon returns home, Katya cannot bear not to admit her guilt. The opera ends with her suicide, drowning herself in the Volga, after which her husband manages to blame his mother the Kabanicha for driving his wife crazy, and she simply thanks the many people who have come to witness the death.

This performance was a team effort, led with great emotional sensitivity by Stuart Stratford in the orchestra pit. The young men, Boris and Kudrjaš were very well sung by Tom Randle and Andrew Rees, with Patricia Orr very convincing as Varvara, and Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts as Tichon. The Kabanicha was portrayed with calm dignity by Anne Mason, and Katya was beautifully sung by French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels. Altogether a wonderful performance of this gripping drama, which Janaček’s music so ably brings to life. Hearty thanks to the Korn/Ferry opera for putting it on stage with such a fine cast, mainly reassembled from those who were in the production of Jenufa two years ago, particularly conductor Stuart Stratford, and Anne Sophie Duprels who was Jenufa herself.

Un Ballo in Maschera, Holland Park Opera, July 2009

19 July, 2009

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This Verdi opera is based on an 1833 play by French playwright Eugène Scribe (1791–1861), which in turn is loosely based on the death of King Gustav III of Sweden. He was the victim of a political conspiracy, and shot while attending a masked ball. The opera was first given in 1859, but in a different guise because the censor would not allow a king’s murder to be represented on stage, and the setting was transposed to Boston. The king was replaced by the colonial governor, renamed Riccardo, and his secretary Count Ankarström was renamed Renato. The fortune-teller Madame Arvidson (based on Ulrica Arfvidsson, the most famous fortune-teller in Swedish history) was called only by her first name, Ulrica. Legend has it that the king went to Madame Arfvidsson in disguise, as happens in the opera, and she warned him, “Beware the man with a sword you will meet this evening, for he intends to take your life”. After the king’s murder many of her clients were apparently scared away and she died in poverty.

This production by Martin Lloyd Evans, with designs by Jamie Vartan, set everything in the modern world, centred on the US Government. I found Act I a bit fussy with all the mobile phones and the rushing around, but I thought things improved later and gave a sense of reality to the drama. The key scene in the opera is the Act II midnight encounter between the king and Amelia, where they are surprised by Amelia’s husband Ankarström, and she veils her face. He has come to warn of the conspiracy, and as the king escapes he commands Ankarström to escort the veiled lady back to town without enquiring after her identity. Unfortunately the conspirators intercept them and when her veil comes away in the tussle, and Ankarström sees it is his wife, he joins the plot and the king’s fate is sealed. In this production, Amelia was disguised by sun glasses and a blond wig, rather than being veiled, and the encounter took place in the back-streets, with drug addicts and other ne’er-do-wells appearing and vanishing. Act III was back in the government building, and the scene between Ankarström and his wife, joined later by the conspirators, was very well played, with party guests entering through a metal detector. When the party was underway the guests stayed mainly behind a screen, which I thought focussed the drama well.

Rafael Rojas was to sing King Gustav (presumably the US President in this production) but being out of voice on opening night he acted the part, with David Rendall singing it beautifully from the orchestra pit, and the two of them combined their forces to perfection. Count Ankarström was Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdarson, whom I saw last year at Holland Park as Barnaba in La Gioconda, and the year before in L’amore dei tre Re; his voice was strong and fitted the part well, though he lost his pitch at one point. The vital role of Amelia was brilliantly sung by South African soprano Amanda Echalaz — she seems to be a coming star on the operatic stage. The page, portrayed as a young woman, was very charmingly sung by Gail Pearson, the fortune-teller by Carole Wilson, and the conspirators, Counts Ribbing and Horn by Paul Reeves and Simon Wilding. Peter Robinson conducted with great sensitivity to the singers, and I thought this was altogether a very fine Ballo.

Roberto Devereux, Holland Park Opera, June 2009

31 May, 2009
Robert Devereux — from Wikipedia

Robert Devereux — from Wikipedia

This gloriously dramatic opera by Donizetti, composed in 1837 at the time of his wife’s death, provides a powerful vehicle for the soprano as Queen Elizabeth. The story is loosely based on the life of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex (1565–1601), adapted by the librettist Salvatore Cammarano from the French play Elisabeth d’Angleterre by Francois Ancelot, and freely using much of Felice Romani’s Il Conte d’Essex, written in 1833.

The essentials are as follows. Robert is a favourite of the queen, but has made a mess of commanding England’s troops in Ireland, and is under attack because of his apparent treachery. The queen, fearing for Robert’s life, has given him a ring that he should return to her if need be, and she will save him. But unbeknown to the queen he is in love with Sara, wife to the Duke of Nottingham, and he entrusts the ring to her. She in turn gives him a scarf she has embroidered to express their love. In Act II the queen’s ministers arrest Robert, search his apartments, and discover the scarf. The queen is furious at the declaration of love embroidered on the scarf, and wants to condemn Robert to death despite entreaties from his friend Nottingham. Later Nottingham realises what is going on, but when the queen interrogates him and Robert as to the identity of the mystery lady, both remain silent. The queen signs Robert’s death sentence, and he is sent to the Tower. In Act III Nottingham confronts his wife and orders her seclusion at home. When she eventually manages to take the ring to the queen, followed by Nottingham, it is too late — a canon shot announces Robert’s death. Nottingham has detained his wife long enough to forestall the queen’s intervention, and she now orders their arrest. But haunted by Robert’s ghost and her own coming death she abdicates the throne. Needless to say, this is a deviation from history, though Devereux was executed in 1601, and the queen passed away two years later.

This exciting new production at Holland Park, conducted by Richard Bonynge and directed by Lindsay Posner, boasted elegant designs and glorious Elizabethan costumes by Peter McKintosh, well lit by Peter Mumford. The stage was more extensive than it has been for many Holland Park productions, and with movement directed by Adam Cooper it all came off with great effect. Irish soprano Majella Cullagh looked suitably regal as Queen Elizabeth, with her high head-gear and almost white make-up. She sang the role well, gaining power as the evening progressed. Leonardo Capalbo was an eminently realistic Robert, with Yvonne Howard doing well in the mezzo role of Sara. Baritone Julian Hubbard sang strongly as her husband Nottingham, and Aled Hall was a sinister Lord Cecil, showing excellent stage presence. For opening night on June 2, Joan Sutherland was in the audience and when people began to recognise her shortly before the start of the second half, there was a warming round of applause. Her husband Richard Bonynge conducted with excellent precision and restraint, and this would have been a terrific performance if the singers had not seemed so nervous, perhaps because it was opening night, and possibly because of the famous diva in the audience.