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Local Opera: The Barber of Seville

Review by Ben Hunt - Welsh National Opera - New Theatre, Oxford - 12 Nov 2021
WNO The Barber of Seville - Cast of The Barber of Seville photo credit Richard Hubert Smit

Rossini’s vibrant comedy injected new life into the opera buffa genre in 1816, and this consistently amusing production (judging by the admirable amount of audience laughter) succeeds in infusing the evening with witty language play and comedic characterisation, undercut by pertinent explorations of the extent to which people will risk juggling the security of their lifestyle with the pursuit of young love.

The traditional central stage design sets a wonderfully intimate scene to house the complexly intertwined trajectories of the characters’ encounters and disguises. It is a shame that Director Giles Harvergal seems to have felt an urge to add a modern twist to the whole performance with the show-within-a-show concept, which only detracts from the compelling action of the inner stage. The constant stage presence of the chorus ‘audience’ to the sides, drinking wine and moving position through otherwise still and intimate scenes, only distracts from the central action, as does the clear visibility of actors changing props and adjusting costumes behind the inner stage. Their rare entry into the plot at the end of each act also featured re-appearances of an onstage ‘conductor’, over-using a genuinely very funny aspect of the piazza musicians scene from the opera’s opening.

 

The production begins enticingly, as the chorus unroll the curtain with the house lights still on, instantly drawing the audience into the crisply executed orchestral overture. The placement of the orchestra on full show at the front of the theatre, in place of the first few rows of seats, is immensely enjoyable in the overture, but immediately after became the production’s biggest issue. The irony of an overly emphasised string section drowning out the singing in the opening number’s insistence that everyone must be “piano, pianissimo” is only the prelude to an evening of successive moments where the singing was lost to the orchestra to the extent that it looked at times as if characters were mouthing the words.

 

This was all the more unfortunate because there were some truly excellent singers who managed to consistently pierce through the solid wall of orchestral density – Heather Lowe’s excellent portrayal of Rosina saw a stunning voice paired with admirable acting, whilst Angharad Morgan as Bertha sang in a pure voice that carried beautifully every time. Unfortunately, other characters simply lacked the vocal strength to be heard above the orchestra, with much of Nicholas Lester’s low range (as Figaro) and the majority of Keel Watson’s lines (as Basilio) either having indistinguishable text (especially notable when being sung in English), or being entirely inaudible. To be fair, this was not helped by conductor Tomáš Hanus at times pushing the tempo beyond a speed at which the cast could physically enunciate the translated libretto. This became especially problematic at the end of Act I, where co-ordination between the cast and orchestra began slipping, not helped by the genuinely painful (and bizarrely loud) timing of the off-beat percussion chimes, which somehow managed to slip off the off-beat.

 

The orchestral dominance was truly a shame because the action onstage was highly compelling. Andrew Shore gives a convincing and relatable realisation of Dr Bartolo, playing him as an old man out of touch with the younger generation, yet painfully aware of his own deficiencies, making his acceptance of the ending believable and not a sudden jarring. His hilarious moment of falsetto singing, following on from a castrato reference, was the comedy highlight of the evening, which in general presented a long line of very funny punchlines, clever lyric puns (all the more impressive for a translated libretto), and moments of slapstick choreography. The painful neglect to properly balance the sound removed the possibility of greatness from an otherwise very enjoyable production, which had every other constituent to be exceptionally good.

 

Nevertheless, it still provides a very fun evening, as a highly accessible and unintimidating entry into opera. The New Theatre’s COVID-19 precautions were impressively dealt with, with timed entry slots ensuring smooth and uncrowded entry to the theatre. The relatively intimate performance space offered the perfect housing for the personal interactions of The Barber of Seville’s characters.

WNO The Barber of Seville - Cast of The Barber of Seville photo credit Richard Hubert Smit

Local Opera: Madama Butterfly

Review by Rhiannon Petteford - Welsh National Opera - New Theatre, Oxford - 9 Nov 2021
WNO Madam Butterfly - Joyce El-Khoury (Cio-Cio San) & WNO Chorus - photo credit Richard Hu

Replacing an established production of an even greater established opera is an almost thankless task. The memory of the previous performance erodes the satisfaction of the creative process through the inescapable state of competition, and the sharper inevitability of being unable to please everybody. That said, such productions are not therefore fated to be unsuccessful. Lindy Hume and the Welsh National Opera’s certainly is not, and though its success often manifests in ways simpler than the director imagines herself, it delivers a nonetheless effective and uncomfortable statement on the abuse of young women. 

 

Sporadically, the production embodies anxieties regarding the management of its content, and the cultural conversation surrounding it. Hume herself describes the production’s setting as an “imagined biosphere”, and perhaps does herself an injustice by over-intellectualising what is actually a sophisticatedly minimalist production. Where designer Isabella Bywater’s set flourishes is in its neutrality, an exposed space vacant of safety and affection, where all that is made pointedly known is Hume’s anger, and disgust. Rather than complicate things with notions of futurism and dystopia, the production is most successful through its almost virginal state, a clinically white enclosure untouched, unmarked, and isolated from the outside world, providing a contrast to its deeply troubled and abused occupant. Decorations of the wedding guests you wished you didn’t invite and pastel televangelists fade out, leaving merely the bright white of Butterfly’s home, and the dark themes of sexual exploitation that mark it even more starkly as a result. 

 

Hume’s production is intentional. Under her determined and angered instruction there is no room to romanticise. Hume sought to portray the story of an underage girl, trafficked into the hands of a disinterested stranger, a fleeting amusement, and a fiction that causes her descent into delusion. There is no avoiding this against Bywater’s set, and the production’s well-managed pacing ensures there’s little opportunity for the message to become lost. Butterfly’s desperation builds over an uncomfortable, longer second act, and ends swiftly, brutally, as short as her own, painful life, where unlike the production, each precious second wastes away with no direction. 

 

Where it succeeds perhaps more successfully is in its appreciation of Puccini’s music. In such a continuously demanding piece, Carlo Rizzi’s expertly and easily conducted orchestra resonated thunderous and reverberant, giving sickly sweetness to Pinkerton’s manipulation, and manic power to its disastrous consequences. El-Khoury as butterfly grew into her own as the second act continued, her higher notes with a trill that teetered just on the edge of Butterfly’s descent into truly paranoid delusion. Caimi’s Pinkerton appeared boyishly irritating, frivolous and keen and an obvious flake, a reflection of his invested performance. Stone, too, as Sharpless was particularly impressive, displaying natural strength and deft movement between Pinkerton’s gladly unthinking collaborator, and genuine sympathy for Butterfly. Note should be made of the orchestra’s diversity, noticeably spanning several age brackets, and introducing several new members on opening night. The production’s cast too reflected similar diversity, and felt better for it. 

 

Small details take on great profundity in this production. The nods to modern Japan by the eerily choreographed chorus, the American spelling of ‘Honor’ etched on the wall by Butterfly before her death, all serve to create a production that lingers and grows in significance in the days following its viewing. Though Hume’s interpretation may be a little single-minded, and occasionally strange without reason, it is greatly successful, and a brutal answer to the difficult question of how to revamp an established production, one that is nonetheless in increasing need of readdressing.

WNO Madam Butterfly - Alexia Voulgaridou (Cio-Cio San) & Mark Stone (Sharpless) - photo cr
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