The Welsh National Opera Autumn Season 2018

Whether you are a dedicated opera fan, or are interested in trying something new, the varied programme the talented WNO offer at the New Theatre this autumn truly has something for everyone.
The New Theatre, George Street, Oxford OX1 2AG, to Sat 13th October

October 15, 2018
Hugely powerful performances

War and Peace, Sat 13th October

Prokofiev's War and Peace has struggled to gain a foothold in the repertoire since it was first conceived at the height of the Second World War. It has been subject to many revisions at the hand of the composer (and others) and it never found a finished form that would persuade opera houses around the world to programme a work on this scale.

It is a huge feather in the cap of Welsh National Opera that they have taken on the challenge of staging a production the demands 70 named roles, a large chorus and an even larger orchestra. They have not simply risen to the challenge, they have exceeded expectations with what, on the whole, is an outstanding piece of work.

It is a production that is well cast throughout. Many of the principal actors take on multiple roles throughout the evening - I think one cast member alone played 7! All are well characterised and well sung.

Vocally the spoils are shared between Jonathon McGovern's elegantly sung Andrei and Mark Le Brocq's tormented and humane Pierre. Both tackle the testing music with confidence and ease. Lauren Michelle is a very touching Natasha - using her youthful soprano to good effect - with some very beautiful floated notes at key moments.

Leah-Marian Jones, David Stout and James Platt each made outstanding contributions in their many roles. To be fair, the same is true of all the principals. It was very grown-up music-making from everyone involved.

Tomas Hanus marshalled his orchestra forces with absolute authority from start to finish. He allowed the dances to flow with finesse whilst also being able to ramp up the power where needed for the battles and rousing chorales. He brought a difficult score to life with apparent nonchalance.

Special credit should also go to the costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca. Using a limited palette and a witty mix of 19th and 20th century elements, she conjured up the world of Tolstoy's characters beautifully. A really impressive set of designs.

My main concerns about the evening rest on the shoulders of the director, David Pountney. There is no doubting his passion for the project or his devotion to it. But overall his direction is somewhat old fashioned. It lacks any real originality or flair. At times, it is downright clunky - particularly in the handling of chorus movement which rarely convinces (even though musically, the chorus are flawless). The translation does occasionally become banal but it does serve to tell the heavily-edited story well enough.

Productions of War and Peace are rarer than they ought to be. It is a piece with enormous power and WNO are to be applauded for giving audiences a chance to hear it sung and played so well.

October 12, 2018
A sparkling spectacle

La Cenerentola,Thu 11th Oct 2018

First performed in 1817, Rossini’s La Cenerentola is based around a retelling of the famous Cinderella story by librettist Jacopo Ferretti. WNO’s sparkling revival of their 2007 production is set in the castle of cash-strapped nobleman, Don Magnifico, and the sombre scenery on stage is illuminated by flashes of lighting and optical illusions. The action throughout is complemented by a company of six actors dressed as mice who, applause from the audience suggests, are far more popular than the real thing.

In Act One Don Magnifico is woken by two of his daughters, better known to posterity as the ugly sisters, who suck up to him beneath garish neon bouffants. His third daughter is Cenerentola herself, better known to us as Cinderella, who has been banished to the kitchens, her inheritance squandered.

Much is made in the libretto of Don Magnifico’s financial difficulties and the details of the plot differ from those found in the popular fairy tale. For instance, Cenerentola is often called by her first name, Angelina. A diamond bracelet takes the place of the famous glass slippers. It takes a wise old beggar and not a fairy godmother to change her fortunes. And there is a comedy of mistaken identities as the prince makes the rounds of prospective brides before his ball.

To complete this task the prince has exchanged costumes with his valet, Dandini. This being Italy, the prince falls in love with Angelina before the ball has even commenced.

Dandini is wittily played and sung by baritone Giorgio Caoduro. The baritone, who has previously performed at both Sydney Opera House and La Scala, sports a bright blue beard for his WNO debut, and takes a virtuosic route through Ferretti’s explosive text.

The best performance of the night however belongs to Angelina, played by Tara Erraught, who lights up the closing moments of Act Two with La Cenerentola’s best known aria, Non più mesta. Cascading cadences of notes conclude the action, and by the time the opera reaches its climax, even the ugly sisters are forgiven.

October 10, 2018
Decadent glamour, love and death

La Traviata, Wed 10th Oct (next on 12th Oct)

WNO's sumptuous production of La traviata has more than a hint of Dracula-chic about the aesthetics. Heavy black curtains, black marble floor, and black furniture are invaded by a party in black tie and dark velvet gowns. Only the good-time girls in scarlet and the candle flames brighten the scene. I loved the sense of chaos created by the disorderly mass of revellers and the lurching stage whose angle seemed to suggest both drunkenness and skewed perception of the surroundings. Would Violetta turn from the darkness to the clean white surroundings of pure love in the countryside and be saved? Would she be sent back again into the evils of the Paris highlife and succumb to her illness?

Opera lovers will already know the plot, and Verdi's beautiful music, which the WNO of course do justice to. There is nothing like a live orchestra, for the spectacle as well as the sound, and under the energetic guidance of conductor James Southall (who appeared to know every word of the libretto as well as every note) they bring to life the score, haunting and rollicking by turns, with threatening undercurrents, and Violetta's trademark lilting waltzes.

Linda Richardson and Kang Wang made a sweet pair of lovers, though I felt Richardson and Roland Wood as Germont senior had a more interesting chemistry. I haven't looked up the ages of the singers and am only really judging on voice timbre, but it felt as if Wood and Wang were very similar ages, and that Richardson played an older Violetta, which added to the poignancy of her time running out, and perhaps made a little more sense of the Germont family's disapproval. Richardson approached the very demanding lead role with self-possession and feeling, and seemed to grow in vocal power as her character's strength declined. With superb control right across the spectrum she rendered power to her big arias, and perfect wavering wistfulness in her quieter more heart-rending moments.

While I enjoyed the performance a lot, I wasn't drawn in enough to be really moved. The gulf between today's liberal attitudes and the various causes of dishonour and discredit in the opera (and, I suspect, the original novel) are just too wide. The pacing is also off-kilter, with the protagonists given almost no time to fall in love and decide whether to live together, but a very long wallow in penury and final doom, not to mention the fact that because the chorus don't really get to take part in Act III, we didn't get to applaud them at all! In choosing to play it straight, this production seems to highlight the ludicrous elements. Maybe it's been infected by the spirit of La Cenerentola, or maybe I'm just not Romantic enough at heart.

If you want an opera that chimes with today's mores, maybe try something more contemporary. But if you want to immerse yourself in the glory of traditional opera, filling your eyes, ears and soul with rich textures, then catch the WNO's rendition of this favourite.

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