WNO Autumn Season 2019

Feisty females and foolish fathers: the Welsh National Opera present Carmen, Rigoletto and The Cunning Little Vixen
Carmen. Photo credit: Bill Cooper
New Theatre, 2 George Street, Oxford OX1 2AG

This autumn, Welsh National Opera return to New Theatre, Oxford with a new production of Bizet’s Carmen. Performing from 19 -23 November, the Company will also bring performances of Verdi’s Rigoletto and Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen.

Directed by Jo Davies, who returns to WNO following Kiss Me, Kate in 2016, the new production of Carmen is set in 1970s Central America, which will serve to show the hardships that Carmen and her community wrestle with. The opera will provide a new perspective on the character of Carmen: her survival instinct, and the economic and socio-political forces that drive her to use her looks and sexuality to further her cause.

Full of fiery Latin spirit and some of the best-loved music in opera, this new production will be conducted by WNO Music Director Tomáš Hanus.

French mezzo soprano Virginie Verrez makes her WNO debut taking on the lead role of Carmen, with Dimitri Pittas as Don José, Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo and Anita Watson as Micaela. WNO Associate Artist Harriet Eyley will take the role of Frasquita.

Also in the Autumn Season, WNO will present David Pountney’s production of Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen which will be the start of a series celebrating the composer’s work over four years. The series will include Jenufa in Autumn 2020 and will culminate with a new production of his penultimate opera, The Makropolus Case, in 2022. WNO Music Director Tomáš Hanus will conduct The Cunning Little Vixen. Tomáš was recently awarded the Leoš Janácek Memorial Medal for his performances of From the House of the Dead with WNO in Autumn 2017, and will bring his passion and internationally-recognised expertise in Janácek’s work to this series.

The Cunning Little Vixen sees a return to WNO for Aoife Miskelly who will take the role of Vixen. Also returning to WNO are Lucia Cervoni (Fox), David Stout (Poacher), Claudio Otelli (Forester), Wojtek Gierlach (Parson) and Peter Van Hulle (Schoolmaster).

Completing the mainscale programme for the Autumn Season is Verdi’s Rigoletto, which the composer himself described as his best opera and features well-loved music, including the famous aria La donna è mobile. Alexander Joel conducts this production by James Macdonald, which sets the action in the White House during the era of John F Kennedy.

Mark S Doss returns to WNO following his recent portrayal of Scarpia in Tosca to take the role of Rigoletto. Young Korean tenor David Junghoon Kim will take the role of The Duke, with soprano Haegee Lee as his love interest and Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda.

November 25, 2019
A production that slips back 50 years

Rigoletto, Fri 22nd Nov 2019

The regular visits of Welsh National Opera to the New Theatre are one of the musical highlights of the year for many local residents. As a rule, we are a treated to great singing and interesting productions. Sadly, this was the weakest work I have seen from the company and it did not reflect well on them.

Much of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the original production. The updating of Rigoletto to the Washington DC of the Kennedy Era needs subtle and detailed direction to make the new setting work. It simply didn't. It was a broad brushstrokes production with no credible characterisation - fatal to this particular opera.

Similarly, the set design was underwhelming. From the wobbly standard lamp or the door that didn't fit the frame, to the set dressing that looked half finished, none of it was up to the standard that we have come to expect from WNO.

What disappointed me the most was the quality of the acting from the singers. It felt like we had slipped back fifty years in terms of the way too many of the singers inhabited the stage. It is not enough to just stand and deliver your well-known aria and then to wait for the applause. It is not enough to use generic gestures and facial expressions - we have come to expect genuine emotional engagement with the characters being portrayed.

Vocally, there were, thankfully, some highlights. My favourite voice of the night came from Wojtek Gierlach, who had the right rich bass and sense of menace for the role of Sparafucile, Haegee Lee was an accurate and flexible Gilda - coping with the writing well - but, perhaps, lacking real variety of tone to deliver a full finished performance. A voice to watch out for in the future nonetheless.

Sadly, Mark S Doss did not use his instrument well as Rigoletto. It is a challenging sing, without a doubt. But he lacked precision, and his intonation was not always accurate. I could tell he was going for maximum character - but it felt forced and his overall performance did not truly reflect what Verdi had written.

The orchestra was the real star of the night. Some lovely detail emerged from the score that I had not heard before, and it was a top-notch performance of some of Verdi's greatest writing for the stage.

I am hoping this is a just a temporary blip from WNO - and not a sign of things to come. We shall see what their return next autumn brings us.

November 22, 2019
A Stunning Little Vixen

The Cunning Little Vixen, Thu 21st November

One December when I was young I had the perfect advent calendar. Depicted on the front was a snow-bound forest, the day fading over faraway hills. Small houses spilled their yellow light onto the frost. All this upped the cosy factor, but it was the mysterious wood itself I kept returning to: the far branches sagged under their seasonal weight, and in amongst them (up in the tops, nestling in the roots, peeping out from behind the trunks) were creatures. Hedgehogs, ermines, badgers simultaneously jostled for space and worked happily round each other. And when you opened a calendar door (shaped enticingly to fit round this knoll or into that nook) other animals appeared, and the light shone through.

It is this scene I am reminded of when the curtain rises on WNO’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Maria Bjørnson’s set is both bonkers and evocative: rolling hills; hidden trapdoors, leafy branches pendant over the stage and in them rocking-chaired woodpeckers. A silvered dragonfly (danced by Stefanos Dimoulas) elegantly navigates the undulating ground while an accordion-shaped caterpillar (Dylan Harding) ba-doings over to a corner. The overall effect is so stunning I actually gasp.

Into this scene wanders Claudio Otelli’s expertly gruff Forester who, while he sleeps, is bitten by a mosquito. The questing proboscis of the puppet is frankly Freudian. Siân Price has also done a great number on costumes: the Vixen’s gorgeous flapper dress is fringed in autumn colours, while the hens she nearly succeeds in luring to dangerous feminine emancipation are kitted out in charity-shop weeds. If I’m lingering on the stagecraft it’s because it is so admirable – both light and carefully plotted – and it aids the performers wonderfully in their task: balancing the absurd and the relevant, holding the doublethink of ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ in their minds at the same time. Aoife Miskelly’s vibrant, irrepressible Vixen is both wholly fox and wholly woman; the opera works at both levels simultaneously, while somehow also managing to skip lightly between them, evading capture.

The orchestra, under Tomáš Hanus, are clearly enjoying themselves too. It is an opera that is preoccupied with yearning – first forward to the future and (sexual) freedom, and then back into memory. Janácek’s score is delivered crisply, with a sense of humour that is puckish and never tips the other way towards either the slapstick or twee. And if the opera goes to ground somewhat in the second act when the Vixen is no longer in play, this production keeps the life in it: the actors skip over uneven, unfair ground, wonderfully sure-footed as they navigate paths we couldn’t see until they showed them to us. It is rare to be able as an audience member to settle back in your seat and give yourself up to pure enjoyment. WNO should be proud of this production, which allows us to do exactly that.

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

November 20, 2019
Strong, defiant and sexy

Carmen, 19th November 2019

The Welsh National Opera get their 'wow's in early. As the curtains rises, a towering three-storey set is revealed, dominated by chain-link fence and grimy modern tenements. The multitudinous cast fairly swarmed across all layers of the stage, as rough-looking soldiers loitered below. In five seconds, director Jo Davies sets the scene: an urban ghetto, exciting and dangerous.

Enter our heroine - just as exciting, just as dangerous. Strong, defiant and sexy, Virginie Verrez’s Carmen is the queen of her environment. Always in control and always doing exactly what she wants, Verrez does a fantastic job of delivering this ambiguous character. Whether in love or hate, you just can’t take your eyes off her. Carmen is unafraid and unapologetic, perfectly happy to use her body and her voice to get her own way.

And what a voice. Clear, resonant and powerful, Verrez effortlessly carried the hall both in groups and by herself. Of course, the rest of the cast were absolutely top-notch as well, singing with emotion, humour and force. I felt a little sorry for Dimitri Pittas, whose Jose, due to a throat infection, struggled a bit to keep up.

Accompanying our singers was a fabulous, sizeable orchestra, taking up almost a quarter of the stalls. It was pretty wonderful to be in amongst the music, and conductor Tomas Hanus’ joy and passion for the material were fully evident.

It was a flawless production: the only difficulty for me was the story. At its heart it’s an old-school morality tale; the evil city temptress seduces the good soldier boy away from his rural mother, and they all come to a sticky end. Still, the ambiguity of the main character, and the conflict between freedom and stability, continue to be relevant.

On reflection, it really is all about the music. I enjoyed the second half more than the first, having given up trying to read the translation above the stage and, instead, fully engaging with the performance. Accessible and engaging, the WNO are clearly very good at what they do. There are more performances of Carmen, as well as The Cunning Little Vixen and Rigoletto scheduled, so if you like opera done well, these will be for you.

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