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WNO's Autumn Season 2009

Welsh National Opera do La Traviata, Madam Butterfly and Wozzeck.
New Theatre, Oxford; Tue November 3rd - Sat November 7th 2009

November 6, 2009
Wozzeck:
In Casablanca, Rick says life’s problems don’t amount to a whole hill of beans. But in this enthralling Welsh National Opera production of Wozzeck, that’s exactly what they do amount to. Wozzeck is a drone in a militaristically-managed bean-tinning factory – an idiot savant who has apocalyptic visions and a cheating partner, Marie. He is dismissed and mocked by his boss, and subject to peculiar medical experiments by the company doctor. Wozzeck’s overalls carry more than a suggestion of those worn by slave labourers in world war two Germany.

In this production, directed by Richard Jones, we are given a sense of the state or a corporations’s hold over an individual, how that individual is manipulated, either to work or indulge in state-sanctioned entertainment. In Wozzeck’s case, a clearly disturbed and intensely sensitive man, this oppression, and Marie’s infidelity, lead to madness and murder.

The set has an Eastern bloc feel: great oppressive slabs of what look like concrete or wood lower over the subsequently small playing area; ever-growing towers of shiny tins of beans gleam over the actors, ironic counterpoints to the dark tale unfolding. The performances and staging are generally very expressionistic; poses are struck, simple physical activities are repeated ritualistically. Wozzeck’s boss capers like a monkey; the drum-major swaggers, groin to the fore, in his golfing slacks.

Within this ritualised, inhuman world Jones allows for moments of real tenderness and affection to come: Marie’s love for her child is simple and affecting and Wozzeck’s discovery of her unfaithfulness is actually downplayed beautifully by Alexander Ashworth (here filling in for the lead, Christopher Purves) as if it is simply one more crushing burden to add to those already on his shoulders. Wioletta Chodowicz is superb as Marie, at turns coy, petulant and terrified by what she has become. She is a visionary of sorts, like Wozzeck, but her visions are of jewels and riches and fantastically romantic soldiers, then latterly her own perceived role as Mary Magdalene.

The tale is compelling and snappily told: I liked that little plot details occur as the curtain is coming down between scenes. The adaptation from the Buchners original is smart and for the most part effective. I enjoyed the concept behind Wozzeck’s demise: having consumed tins and tins of beans for the doctor’s experiments, he eventually is himself consumed in a great skip of empty cans. I did however feel that the ending was a bit trite.

The music is famously challenging of course, however not so discordant and baffling as one might be led to believe. It serves to communicate the drama of the piece, like any good score. Berg’s sympathetic rendition of these two victims, Marie and Wozzeck, ensures there is beauty here as well as savagery.

November 4, 2009
La Traviata:
The Welsh National Opera’s all-star production of La Traviata opened on a bleak note: sobbing strings follow the gaunt figure of the lovelorn Alfredo across the stage, red petals dropping from his fingers. Behind him, the vast stage of the New Theatre was bare and dark, quickly covered by a black curtain. However, mere minutes later, as the Prelude gave way to the brash dance music of the first act, the stage was revealed in a blaze of light: chandeliers, tables laden with food and a boisterous chorus of revellers. This sleight of stage was typical of the seemingly effortless excellence and playful spirit of every part of this production.
 
The director, David McVicar, appears to have taken Verdi’s frequent frustrations by Venetian censors as a personal slight: the production is not only set in contemporary dress, as the composer intended, but infused with a boisterous atmosphere` entirely appropriate to the fallen woman of the title. When Violetta gives Alfredo a flower as a symbol of love, it’s a red camellia plucked from her bodice: a reference to Verdi’s inspiration, the Parisian courtesan who wore flowers at parties to advertise her availability that night. The great balls which make up much of the first and second acts felt not only real, but risqué, with gypsy dancers flashing their legs cabaret-style, and partygoers talking, flirting and occasionally even fondling on-stage. Bringing the seamier side of Paris to the fore helped make Violetta’s attempts to redeem herself through love, honour and religion all the more poignant.
 
It can be tough to merge the emotional intimacy of a tragic romance with the grand score and scope that opera demands. The WNO managed it, however, with a staging that brilliantly used the space of the New Theatre. During delicate duets between the lovers, sweeping curtains cut the elaborate, soaring ballroom down to a softly lit boudoir, simultaeously lending a sense of intimacy to the scene and suggesting the secrets that Violetta keeps hidden. However, the cast deserve at least equal credit: every one of the main roles was perfectly sung, and, more unusually, excellently acted. Katie Pellegrino's range as Violetta was extraordinary, and Alfie Boe was Alfredo, his vocal confidence and virtuosity constantly growing as the character first blossomed from shyness, through passion, and into rage and regret.

It's frankly unfair to single out any particular performer for especial praise, because every single one was pitch-perfect, musically and otherwise. Dario Solari's brilliant distraught father, first fearing to lose a daughter and then doing so, was extraordinarily powerful, as was Louise Poole's playful Flora, and Joanne Thomas as devoted Annina. Andrea Licata, as conductor, displayed absolutely perfect control over cast and orchestra alike. There was too much talent on display here for me to adequately describe it. 
 
Fortunately, the program contains a helpful guide to “what to listen out for”. Even if you don’t know your aria from your oboe, you can skip pre-ordering interval drinks to peruse it, avoid worrying that you’re missing any musical nuances, and concentrate on the splendid staging, magnificent performances, and sheer spectacle and emotion that the Welsh National Opera have mangaged to infuse into la Traviata.
The Welsh National Opera’s first Oxford performance of Madame Butterfly was brilliantly received by the packed New Theatre on Wednesday evening. Nearly three hours of passion, heartbreak and tragedy kept the audience enthralled and in tears, from the moment when the orchestra’s first chords filled every corner of the hall until Cio-Cio San’s final moving scene.

The evening saw the Judith Howarth’s first performance of the tour in the role of Cio-Cio San, convincingly capturing the innocence and passion of the young geisha. Russell Thomas was faultless as the well-intentioned but cowardly Pinkerton, but the show was stolen by Claire Bradshaw as the popular Suzuki, Cio-Cio San’s faithful maid. A special mention is reserved for the menacing entrance of the priest, striding on to stage to disown his daughter.

This powerful performance by WNO transported us to 19th Century Japan, dragged us in to the tumult of youthful love and left us overwhelmed, before spitting us back out into the cold George Street night.
Puccini's Madam Butterfly is a tragic opera in the classical style, but with a surprisingly modern theme of culture-clash. The Japan portrayed has an uncomfortable relationship with intrusive foreigners: it’s all smiles when an American officer proposes marriage to the poverty-stricken geisha, but she is immediately cast out by society when she chooses to embrace US culture and leave behind the traditional Japanese religion. Butterfly’s despair is complete when her all-American hero returns after a long absence not to reclaim her, but to claim her son, and she dies abandoned by all but her maid.

This version is a revival of one of the WNO’s classic productions, originally performed in 1978. It hasn’t dated much, partly because the designers set the story in its original context of 1890s Japan. The subdued period clothing and elegant but simple set keep the focus on the music, and on the emotional dimensions of the story. The lighting, I felt, was a bit underused before the last act and there were one or two baffling errors - particularly where Butterfly has to deliver her song of hope with the shadow of a telescope stand flickering over her face.

The WNO are always musically sound, and this production was no exception. The orchestra was well-drilled and sensitive, confidently conducted by Simon Phillippo. Butterfly was played with passion and pathos by Judith Howarth. When she climbs the hill to her new home, her powerful voice combines stunningly with those of her attendants to produce a soaringly beautiful song of celebration. She is also capable of passages of exquisite purity and sensitivity, and gets the audience thoroughly on her side.

We were very impressed by local girl Claire Bradshaw as Butterfly’s loyal maid Suzuki, and Neal Davies as the well-intentioned US Consul. Both had voices which amply filled out their roles, and both were thoroughly convincing in their helpless compassion for Butterfly. Russell Davies gave an assured performance as Pinkerton, the US naval officer whose casual selfishess triggers the tragedy. His American bride, played by Alison Dunne, had few sung lines but acted her part deliciously, showing flashes of gruesome glee at the success of her plan to take Butterfly’s baby son back to America; the child actors playing this latter (silent) role and that of the stroppy nephew also deserve congratulations.

Madam Butterfly is based on a modern play (which itself was based on a short story, which in turn was based on a missionary’s diary) and provides much more expressive potential to the performers as actors than do many older operas. At times, there’s so much emotion going on on-stage that it can be difficult to pay full attention to the marvellous music; but the effort spent in doing so is handsomely rewarded by this well-balanced and mature production.
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