WNO's Autumn Season 2007

Il Trovatore, The Sacrifice and Cinderella (La Cenerentola)
New Theatre, Tue November 13th - Sat November 17th 2007:
Il Trovatore, Tue 13th and Fri 16th November
The Sacrifice by James MacMillan, Wed 14th November
Cinderella (La Cenerentola), Thu 15th and Sat 17th November

November 16, 2007
La Cenerentola

The overture starts up. Immediately the audience are plunged into the flowery frills of Rossini's music. This is luxuriously the only time there is nothing else to concentrate on! It's light, and frothy, and frivolous, and we all prepare to be charmed.

Everyone knows the story of Cinderella, and the operatic plot is still very recognisable from Perrault's classic. The Fairy Godmother has become instead Alidoro, philosopher and tutor to Prince Ramiro, as Rossini did not want magic in his version. (WNO have not taken this lying down, however, and have put back as much as they can get away with! In a brilliant use of lighting Alidoro's shadow is projected large on the wall behind him, as he transforms Cinderella ready for the ball.) The other main deviation is that Prince Ramiro and his valet swap places, so the prince can find someone who loves him for himself. This creates a nice symmetry of the sudden changes in fortune - with Dandini the valet demoted again as suddenly as Cinderella is raised up the social ladder. And there's no slipper, apparently for reasons of Italian modesty, which is a great shame given the fabulous costuming!

The colours in this production are gaudy and sumptuous, and are used to reflect the difference between Cinderella and her morally corrupt family, and also between dreams and reality. Stepfather Don Magnifico's crumbling palace is grey and unsurprisingly ashen, and for the Palace the same scenery becomes a light box. The set and lighting are very well crafted - simple (mostly!) and very versatile. The chest of drawers becomes a carriage, the mirror scenery has a splendid double use which I won't reveal, and the Prince's fantastical horse becomes a throne.

Possibly the best device in the whole production is the team of rats. Much use is made of them, and they're so much fun they upstage everyone else, even earning themselves a round of applause during someone else's aria! They shift scenery, they drive the prince's carriage, and they bring about much of the magical change. They manage to be entirely credible as a largely invisible but ever-present troupe, and in doing so are a useful plot device in addition to their practical aspects: only Cinderella and Alidoro the wise see them for what they are, and they mark another boundary between dreams and reality. And of course they are not taken in by high rank, running amok just as happily in the palace as they do among the cinders.

The singing is really good. Cinderella (Marianna Pizzolato) in particular displays both lyricism and vocal dexterity in her leaps and ornamentations which mark out her performance as spellbinding. All the main characters sing richly and suit their parts perfectly. There are many ensemble pieces but the sextet "Questo è un nodo avviluppato" (something like "What a tangled knot we're in") with its rattling consonants and canonical structure was gripping.

There are various holes one could pick - there's a fair bit of repetitive action, notably in the tussling between Cinderella and Don Magnifico which happpens several times at the side of the stage. It doesn't go anywhere, but this is probably Rossini's fault as much as anyone else's! There are a couple of other places in which the production seems at odds with itself, inclusion of magic being one, visuals overshadowing music (the rats vs the aria), and Cinderella's character a third. She pleads passionately in Act 1 and yet appears so virtuous and submissive in Act 2 it's positively sickening. Again this is Rossini's choice, but doesn't sit so well in modern times where we're used to individual spirited heroines rather than the stock characters of the Comedia dell'arte. WNO then superimpose a much more satisfying ending, which again I won't tell you!

But one would have to be in a particularly churlish mood to want to pick holes in this production. Go and see it - admire its proficient stagecraft, its ornamentation and lightness of musical touch, its saturated technicolour costumes, and its wayward rodents. Treat yourself to a particularly early and upmarket pantomime and be transported from the realities of the housework!

November 15, 2007
The Sacrifice

Audiences in Vienna, Prague, and Milan attending the premieres of what are now the foremost operas of the reportoire surely knew when they’d seen something special; unfortunately, critics in the national and international press were not kind to this world premiere production when it had its first performance at the Wales Millennium Centre at the end of September. It is on a grander scale, however, than most new opera that reaches Oxford in a professional production, and is probably worth seeing for this alone. That it is a provoking, complex and heartbreaking study of power, love and death is purely a bonus.

Inspired by the Branwen branch of the Mabinogion (prose stories from medieval Welsh manuscripts), James MacMillan’s new opera in three acts makes a fantastic, if somewhat fractured, musical impression, but the story of a divided state’s passage toward peace is handled in a way that exposes both the personal and public dimensions of politics, and the power of operatic music to explore both.

The love duet in Act Two is stunning. The geographical character of the lovers’ song, ‘skin is border country/your heart is my homeland’, heightens the intimacy of the scene and the music by reminding us that the powerful love story that unfolds is both crucially bound up in the political saga, and a brief respite from its fractious factionalism: Lisa Milne as Sian and Leigh Melrose as Evan deserve much praise for their performances throughout the three acts, but in this scene in particular they shine. Milne is one of the foremost young stars of world opera and in Sian she has a definitive role she can claim with even more authority than those of the Mozart heroines on which she has built her considerable reputation.

Conducting his own composition, MacMillan provides plenty of shocks and discordances, especially in the ballroom scenes that conclude each act. There are some conflicts between the score and Michael Symmons Roberts’ libretto, which builds up much of the tension onstage with its delicious half-rhymes. In the folk-like wedding and investiture songs of Sian’s sister Megan, a half-mad wisewoman played by the young soprano Sarah Tynan, the music and words come so beautifully and sweetly together, becoming catchy in a way that little modern opera, is, excepting perhaps John Adams’ ‘the people are the heroes now’ from Nixon in China.

Vicki Mortimer’s sets for the bedroom scenes that begin the first and last acts and form the centrepiece of Act Two do look as if they might have been acquired lock, stock, and barrel on the Tottenham Court Road, but their sense of cheap impermanence fits with the burgeoning and ever-changing nature of the state in which The Sacrifice is set. The hotel is all we see of this country, it is for us, and presumably millions of unseen citizens, cathedral, palace and parliament. It reminds one somewhat of the autumn Party Conference season, and the opening out of the set into the huge festive scenes, with a final scene that oddly resembles Goya’s The Third of May 1808, is visually stunning, despite the drab hotel backgrounds still in sight. The chorus is used beautifully in this last sequence singing sections adapted from masses and plainsong, rounding off the night on a typically solemn note but one that is poised, powerful and passionate.

November 14, 2007

Il Trovatore

The most striking feature of this production was surely the stage sets. These were extremely spare, composed almost exclusively of towering walls, each a small segment of a circle and painted as an indeterminate texture somewhere between stone, wood and burnished metal. Despite this sparseness and indeterminancy they were astonishingly eloquent: at times the actors, huddled at the base of walls or scurrying between sections, seemed a minor infestation in a landscape built for giants, while at other times the walls felt like divine onlookers, closely noting events but always staying aloof and keeping their own counsel. The segments were creatively rearranged between each scene, creating a great variety of effects. Some worked brilliantly: the convent scene made inspired use of open and enclosed spaces to modulate the timbres of the nuns’ and soldiers’ choruses, while the opening scene was a stylised recreation of Vicenza’s Teatro Olimpico through which the posse of guards could accumulate and melted away. Others worked less well; the perfectly symmetrical concentric circles of the gypsy encampment were distractingly reminiscent of classic stagings of Parsifal’s grail sequences.

Sadly the choreography often failed to match the potential of the sets. Choruses crowded together in amateurish knots, and the anvil chorus was accompanied by lackadaisical hammering. There were some arresting tableaux – still photographs of the production would look fantastic – but they were spoilt by the apparently clumsy way they were reached and departed. Similarly the effective colour scheme of washed-out reds to deep russet browns for the gypsies/outlaws against greys and steely blues for the Aragonese was undercut by weird costume detailing: at times the Aragonese soldiers looked like nothing so much as giant teddy bears in pyjama jumpsuits.

Of the singers, Dario Solari was stunning as the Count di Luna, and ably matched by Anne-Marie Owens as Azucena. There were moments when conductor, singers and orchestra had divergent opinions on how much rubato to take, but in general they gave a very agreeable, coherent presentation. The orchestra gave Verdi’s score moments of great charm and character, despite some defiantly prosaic phrasings from the woodwind. Overall we found the production a proverbial curate’s egg: unquestionably good in part, but not unreservedly satisfying.

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