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WNO's Autumn Season 2008

The New Theatre, Oxford, 2-6 December 2008:
Otello
Jenůfa
The Barber Of Seville

December 5, 2008
WNO: The Barber of Seville, 4th and 6th December at the New Theatre
This was so marvellously spot-on it's hard to know where to start. It's a classic farce involving young lovers trying to fox an old guardian, abetted by the town's resourceful barber, and is the origin of the beloved operatic aphorism "If it's too silly to say, sing it". This production from 1986 is a magnificent, exuberant cross between an upmarket pantomime and a very well-produced Gilbert and Sullivan, with beautiful music beautifully performed.

The curtain is never down: the audience arrives to find another audience of players in 19th century dress fussing around on stage and beaming at the orchestra, and they remain part of the action throughout, applauding at appropriate moments and helping with the scene-shifting on the colourful curtain-and-scaffolding set (reminiscent of a Punch and Judy booth). During a storm they produce an antique barrel-shaped wind-machine: that was my favourite.

So often in opera one has a feeling of anxiety about at least one member of the cast - will he or she manage the next high note? - but on this occasion, every player was in full vocal command. So much so that they could afford to relax about it: disguises are created and conversations hammed up with deliciously Monty Python-esque vocal masquerading - but always within the boundary of respect for the score. Balancing faithfulness to the music and the entertainment potential of the piece is a tricky job, and they manage it beautifully. There's hilarious "business" throughout, but always placed judiciously and with care not to distract us from the sound.

Eric Roberts came some way towards stealing the show with his crotchety old guardian Dr Bartolo: a genius of physical comedy rather reminiscent of Bagpuss’s Professor Yaffle. His musical snoring was particularly fun. Laura Parfitt as Rosina was lovely, with a blossomy petulant beauty that justified the plot. And the young heroes - the charismatic John Moore (Figaro the barber) and the honey-voiced tenor Colin Lee (as the Count) - pranced around endearingly like a couple of tomcats, so terrifically pleased with themselves that I was on their side from the word go.

The pace is fast, the players terrific, the story farcical and Robert David MacDonald's Gilbertian translation is well-rhymed and gloriously funny. There are intermittent surtitles, even though it's sung in English. This really worked for me - occasionally helpful yet unobtrusive. Make sure you’re comfortable for the first Act; it’s about twice as long as the second.

If you can buy, beg, borrow or steal tickets for this Saturday, do so. Probably the best thing I've seen all year.

December 4, 2008
WNO: Jenůfa, 3rd December 2008 at the New Theatre.
Jenůfa, composed by Leoš Janáček and performed by the Welsh National Opera, was an outstanding night's entertainment and an ideal first opera for a novice such as myself.

The story revolves around Jenůfa (Nuccia Focile), who is in serious trouble, having become pregnant out of wedlock. The jealousy of another suitor and the interfering machinations of her religious stepmother result in tragedy as Jenůfa loses her good looks, future husband, honour and baby. Yet despite the bleakness, Jenůfa's future is not yet forsaken.

Set in a simple village, this is an opera about ordinary working people. The dusty brown settings and conservative clothes are a far cry from the stereotypical flamboyant dress which Bugs Bunny has made the majority of people associate with opera. The contrast between the very ordinary people being depicted, and the fabulous music with which they are portrayed, works very well.

And the music was indeed fabulous. The powerful score set the mood on stage perfectly, and was filled with booming crescendos and subtle reprisals. The singing, as one would expect, was top notch. Though not to everybody's taste, I must stress that live opera is worlds apart from the tinned radio variety you may have hitherto caught snatches of when tuning the wireless.

Nor was the superb music was let down by the acting, which was - contrary to expectation -believable and moving, though of course, due to the singing, cranked up to 11 on the 'emotion' dial. My only reservation was the casting, which admittedly can often be an issue in opera due to the paucity of younger singers with the necessary ability and experience: many characters, supposed to be young men and women, looked far older than they should have. This was most notable in Števa (Stephen Rooke), who had grey hair and was dressed like an accountant, despite having just escaped being drafted to the army. But this is trifling. Overall, this production of Jenůfa really was the perfect first opera. The story was easily followed, dealing with the universal issues of jealousy, love and scandal in a down-to-earth environment. This familiar backdrop was ideal for letting the uninitiated experience the distinctive feel of classical opera without being totally overwhelmed. It is a pity then that this was a one-night-only show. Fear not, however - for the Welsh National Opera are still in town for three more days. The same cast are sure to dish out some more awesome opera before leaving. That said, tickets are selling out fast (especially for The Barber of Seville), so swift booking is recommended. If you don't get them this time, they should be back in Oxford in November of 2009.

At fifty pounds a ticket, this is definitely something to make a grand outing of, and not to take too lightly. So dress yourselves up to the nines, break out your binoculars and go get yourself some culture.

December 3, 2008
WNO: Otello, 2nd and 5th December 2008 at the New Theatre.
Verdi’s operatic version of the Shakespearean tragedy Othello is a real masterpiece. The WNO have brought it to life in a vibrant new production. Their visit to Oxford marks the end of a long tour – evidenced by the (very occasional) strain in a couple of voices, but also by a smooth and accomplished presentation.

The story is told through the music, which is a fabulous and complex tapestry, masterfully handled by the conductor Michał Klauza. While it's gorgeous to listen to, there are no "tunes" as such, unlike earlier Verdi – the score begins dramatically with the discordant chaos of a thunderstorm and then follows closely the darkening mood of the plot, telling the story as much as the words or the action.

A particularly fine point about this production was the way the neo-Elizabethan, faintly dream-like sets and costumes worked with the music to create a cohesive narrative whole. Opera, I feel, should be visually arresting, and this one certainly was: the sets are full of contrast, colour and - at first - comedy - descending to nightmare. The moment of Otello's murderous entry in act 4 was particularly effective: announced with delightful synchronicity not only by the music but also by the massive light-pattern thrown as the door opens.

The singer due to play Otello, Dennis O’Neill, was sadly unable to perform; but the title role has been shared in any case on this tour, and Terence Robertson didn’t disappoint at all. His voice admirably expresses Otello’s rage and anguish, and his moody, frightening stage presence was right at home in the dramatic set. This is not the place for a debate about whether colour-blind casting is appropriate for this role (though we argued about that most of the way home), but the minimalist make-up enabled the audience, just about, to suspend its disbelief without being offended.

Otello’s helpless wife, Desdemona, is played effectively and appealingly by Amanda Roocroft, especially in her final scene where she and Emilia (Claire Bradshaw) created a convincingly hysterical atmosphere. David Kempster, as Iago, has a satisfyingly classical voice but also an oddly classical posture, stiff and one-dimensional like a pantomime devil. Perhaps this was intended; it certainly made an effective contrast with Wynne Evans's bouncy and sympathetic Cassio - an excellent performance in what is a small and often a thankless role.

The choreography was generally successful, especially in the very engaging early crowd scenes, but at certain moments was oddly static where one would have expected, from the earlier touches, more engagement between players. The death scene in particular could have been made more climactic with better action.

Nit-picking aside, this was an unforgettable opera. Working with such fabulously rich material allows opportunities for drama everywhere in the music and in the staging, and the WNO make the most of them with professional and creative skill. If you can get a ticket for Friday, I'd highly recommend doing so.
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