Local Opera: Ellen Kent's Aida
Review by Lucia Henwood - Ellen Kent – New Theatre, Oxford - 4 March 2023
Ellen Kent’s spectacular operas first visited Oxford in 1994 and it was exciting to see another return of her acclaimed production of Aida to the New Theatre stage, nearly thirty years on. Verdi’s classic tale of love, treachery, war and duty, which premiered in Cairo in December 1871, has long been a popular favourite and was well-received by its Oxford audience on the evening of March 4th.
The most striking feature of the performance, from the moment the curtain rose, was how visually spectacular its designs were. An Egyptian temple was constructed on stage, all the more impressive for a touring production, while traditional but lavish costumes completed a filmic effect. The combination of the realism and drama of the staging evoked Hollywood epics, a reminder of Aida’s status as a melodrama as much as a musical work. Because of the scale of the set, the basic design remained the same throughout, but varied and atmospheric use of lighting, changing statues (from life-sized black-and-gold Anubises to marble sphinxes) and a succession of colourful costumes meant the set felt far from static. Throughout, there were added visual treats for the audience – a troupe of ballet dancers, a procession of dancing children and even a flame-thrower.
Yet the appeal of the performance did not rely on its visual impact. There were no weak performances in the cast and the orchestra played with both vitality and crisp precision. Sitting near the front of the stalls, a few rows away from the orchestra, it occasionally came close to drowning out the singers near the start, but a better balance was struck by the second act. The quality of the performers meant that the visual effect of the production did not overwhelm the action onstage. The power of the music rose to match the drama of the design. At times, this only just saved the staging from feeling overdone. At the end of the second act, when the marriage between Radames, an Egyptian commander and military hero, and Amneris, the pharaoh’s daughter, was announced, golden glitter rained down onto the stage, but the jubilant sound of the chorus was soaring enough to stop this from feeling out of place.
Still, some of the most compelling moments of the opera were also the simplest ones. At the end of the first scene of the first and second act, Aida, an enslaved Ethiopian princess at the Egyptian court, played with emotional force by the French-Ukrainian soprano Olga Perrier, sang alone on stage against a simple grey background. The contrast with the drama of much of the production made these two moments especially touching in their simplicity, as Aida wrestled with the competing demands of duty, towards her country, and love of Radames. Perrier played these moments movingly, her Aida visibly torn apart by sorrow and conflicting emotions, as she wept and knelt on the ground.
Natalia Matveeva, the Ukrainian mezzo-soprano playing Amneris, gave an especially strong performance. In the first two acts of the opera, she was devious and vindictive. Cutting an imperious figure on stage, crowned in a gold serpent headdress, she seemed as much motivated by a petulant bitterness as by love for Radames. Yet she was especially good in gentler moments of the performance in the final two acts of the opera. It was a testament to the impressive versatility of Matveeva’s acting that she was equally convincing as the villain of the piece and as a tragic figure, haunted by guilt at the consequences of her jealousy.
An opera as long as Verdi’s Aida (over three hours including two intervals) could easily have dragged but the energy and vibrancy of the production was maintained throughout. The performance went from strength to strength and the ending struck a perfect balance between the dramatic and the poignant, the richness of the music and the emotional power of the story given full expression in the final act.
A sense of cultural collaboration and collective endeavour was one of the great strengths of the production, ranging from the local to the international. The dancers in each performance come from local dance schools, in this case Stagecoach Theatre Arts in Abingdon and Didcot. When I spoke to her during one of the two intervals, Ellen Kent was clear about her commitment to creating a sense of connection with the local community, as the production travels around the country. At the same time, the team involved in the production is an international one. Ellen Kent has worked with artists in eastern Europe for decades. In 2005, she was awarded a Golden Fortune Honorary Medal for her contribution to the cultural life of Ukraine. The orchestra on her current tour are from the Ukrainian Opera and Ballet Theatre, Kyiv, while many of the singers came from Ukraine or elsewhere in Europe, including France and Moldova.
The performance ended with the audience standing for the Ukrainian national anthem, performed by the cast, chorus and orchestra, Ukrainian flags unfurled on stage, in a moving display of solidarity. With many of the performers coming from Ukraine, it brought added poignancy to some of Aida’s most moving moments, including when Aida and her father, Amonasro, sang of their lost and war-torn homeland in the third act.
This production will not be to everyone’s tastes. Opera-goers with a preference for more stylised, minimalist staging or expecting a modern reinterpretation, bringing something new or unexpected to a classic, will not find it here. Nevertheless, anyone would be impressed by the drama of the sets and the quality of the music, the energy and the spectacle of the performance.
Sadly only at the New Theatre for one night, this visual and musical feast is well-worth seeing elsewhere on its tour or when it hopefully returns to Oxford in the future.
Local Opera: WNO's Makropulos Affair
Review by Alexander Bridges - WNO - New Theatre, Oxford - 2 Dec 2022
A mysterious opera singer with a hidden past, or captivating every man around her; a hundred year-old lawsuit that could be straight out of Bleak House; alchemists and immortality, illegitimate sons and turbulent passions – Leoš Janáček’s Makropulos can at times stray dangerously close to unbelievable melodrama. Olivia Fuchs, however, sees the potential for grandeur inherent in the work, blending the expansive, sweeping score with ambitious staging to bring out its tense mixture of the fantastic and the realistic.
Nicola Turner’s set design plunges us into the dusky world of lawsuits and backstage theatre, dominated by the motif of the ticking clock, which makes itself known as soon as the curtain rises, in an innovative multimedia sequence that shadows the haunting overture. The black-and-white montage of hourglasses and fading faces could be from a Jean Cocteau film and perfectly creates a sense of whirling transience and confusion that permeates the opera. The rising strings of paper that appear in the first Act are a nice symbol of the legal complexities tangling the characters together, while the massive clock face in Act Two’s ‘opera backstage’ and the clock-cum-bed in Act Three, blending Emilia’s sexual domain with her eternity, nicely unite what could easily become an overcomplicated plot through the inescapable passage of time. The family tree that appears during Emilia’s explanation of the lawsuit’s complexities, for instance, is as much an aid for the audience as it is a symbol of the tangled
skeins of family ties and illicit couplings!
The dusky grandeur that the production aimed for was magnificently fulfilled by conductor Tomáš Hanus, standing proudly in full view of the audience and directing a superb orchestral performance with both rigour and visible excitement. The subtle tune of shimmering suspicion that makes its way into the main melody when Emilia is first mentioned, for instance, was beautifully done, while the mournful brass and silvered strings ensured the emotional intensity of the production did not lessen, even during pieces of perhaps over-stretched exposition.
In some ways, the orchestral performance slightly put the singing to shame. Nicky Spence’s Gregor was often hard to hear over the music: his voice boomed out powerfully in moments of high tension, only to subside minutes later into a performance that, while tuneful, seemed to lack timbre and roundness. Emilia Marty (Ángeles Blancas Gulin) performed well, dominating the stage on all sides (especially in the latter two Acts) with a powerful voice, commanding in its sharp tones that pierced the expanse of the auditorium, although her singing could perhaps have benefited from more nuances of shading to add to its uniformity of tone and timbre. It was David Stout’s Baron Prus who stole the show, swaggering in with bowler hat and cane, lording over the stage before slowly yet irresistibly being drawn in by Emilia’s magical allure. However, all the singers played their parts with a grand majesty, perfectly complementing Fuchs’s creative vision, and leading to a confident, thoroughly enjoyable production.
Local Opera: Ellen Kent's Madama Butterfly
Review by Alexander Bridges - Ellen Kent – New Theatre, Oxford - 3 March 2023
What to do with the classics? In a world where opera funding is being cut, while the art form itself is increasingly viewed as the preserve of the elite, the question of how to bring ‘canonical’ operatic works to life and relevance in the 21st Century is a matter of increasing importance. In Ellen Kent’s Madama Butterfly, however, no answer is given to this question, or even attempted, resulting in a production caught strangely between the power of Puccini’s original while also making no attempt to revitalise the essentially static nature of the plot.
Puccini’s choice of subject matter is rather dubious anyway: a one-act play written by a hack playwright detailing a young Japanese woman who falls in love with a US Navy officer, marries him, and then spends her time pining away for him before he comes back with another wife and another life. In the first act, little happened to distract us from the essential triviality of the subject matter: Vitalii Liskovetskyi’s Pinkerton strutted stiffly around on stage, with a melodious tenor that, however, much of the time could not be heard over the orchestra. Credit must go to conductor Vasyl Vasylenko and the Orchestra of the Ukrainian Opera and Ballet Theatre, Kyiv, for their stellar performance of Puccini’s marvellous score (even if their sound was a little timid at first). However, this did not make up for marriage broker Goro’s (Ruslan Pacatovici) rather tuneless performance, lacking both volume and depth and failing to establish a compelling dynamic with Pinkerton. The Consul (Olexandr Forkushak) was a welcome breath of fresh air in this environment, with a rich baritone that commanded the stage, yet by the end of the first act, one could only wonder at how Kent’s performers would manage to carry off one of the most drawn-out and static scenes in operatic repertoire (Butterfly’s lonely wait for Pinkerton, lasting approximately 40 minutes) in the second act.
The saving grace of Kent’s production was Elena Dee’s magnificent performance as Butterfly, which, while injecting the proceedings of the first act with a fresh vitality, really came into its own in Act 2. Her mellow, rich soprano had none of the silvered purity of, say, Maria Callas’s famous interpretation of the role, but in some ways was even more impressive, fluctuating between anger and despair at the drop of a hat. Her maid Suzuki (Natalia Matveeva) complemented this performance perfectly with a beautiful, wavering soprano that betrayed the care she felt for her mistress and the height of emotional drama reached between the two, which was to come crashing down beautifully when Pinkerton returned. Together (ably assisted by the Consul’s steady, smooth bariotone), they carried the performance along with such a compelling energy that one barely noticed how static the action described really was.
However, it was in this static nature, and the production’s inability to address it, that ultimately the fault of the performance lay. The set’s beautiful design did not change throughout the performance which, although the original artistic intention of Puccini, grounded us in the same rut throughout. The versatility of Kent’s Aida, where emotional heights were scaled, reached and destroyed, accompanied by a background of subtly-changing set pieces, shows that she clearly has this in her repertoire, but in Butterfly it unfortunately did not come out. Pinkerton did not make a lasting impression as a character one way or another: his marriage to a naïve 15 year-old bride could easily have been problematised more, bringing out the manipulative and unpleasant side of his character; on the other hand, his reappearance towards the performance’s end might have been an easy way to show a moral depth previously absent, especially since Puccini makes clear that he is in some ways tormented by his decision. Unfortunately, Kent’s production does little to problematise any of these aspects, relying on a superb score and a stunning soprano to carry it through its rocky patches and, while excellent in parts, leads one to think that this particular caterpillar needed some more time in its chrysalis.
Local Opera: WNO's La Bohème
Review by Emma Hunt - WNO - New Theatre, Oxford - 30 Nov 2022
La Bohème is a love story set at Christmas, and Welsh National Opera’s production truly brings the magic of Christmas and love to life. As Mimi and Rodolfo fall in love, the sun sets on the Bohemian skyline behind them, through the breathtaking combination of set and lighting.
As said by Aidan Lang, the general director of WNO, “La Bohème is an opera about young people. It’s about their struggles to find themselves in a challenging world, about their hopes and aspirations, their fears and loves.” The tragedy of this story provides a scary glimpse into the future of life after university for Oxford students. However, the clever directing from Annabel Arden and Caroline Chaney provides moments of light comic relief. The passionate conductor Pietro Rizzo is a delight to watch as he directs the sympathetic strings, and there is something enchanting about the venue of the New Theatre, as the orchestra are in the auditorium with us.
This production has something for everyone. If you new to opera, but are a musical-lover, you will recognise the storyline from the Broadway musical RENT, making this the perfect opera for a newcomer to the art form. The show is equally loved by seasoned opera-goers, and the warm tone from the singers makes this a heartwarming classic on a cold winter’s evening. A must-see this festive season!
Local Opera: Ellen Kent's Carmen
Review by Betty Yan - Ellen Kent - New Theatre, Oxford - 16 Apr 2022
There is nothing more exciting than watching one of the most famous opera shows in the glorious theatre with beautifully crafted production. Premiered on the stage in March 1875, Carmen still shines glamorously in this spring at Oxford after 147 years. The night of April 16th saw New Theatre at Oxford welcoming the renowned Carmen by the award-winning Ellen Kent Production.
Featuring a "hot-blooded" story of love, lust, jealousy and bravery, Carmen tells a tale of a beautiful charming and sexually attractive Gypsy girl named Carmencita (Irina Sproglis) who gets entangled with a Corporal, Don José (Sorin Lupu), in a relation full of insanity, fury and desire. When Don José's love is no longer responded because Carmen turns to another man, the great toreador Escamillo (Racovita Petru), Don José stabs Carmen outside of the bullring in despair, killing her.
It is always a rewarding experience to see the audience interacting with what is going on the stage, which means the boundaries of on- and off-stage spaces are mingled and diminished. This was what happened at Carmen that night. The audiences couldn't stop chuckling when the drunk officer, Lieutenant Zuniga (Valeriu Cojocaru), staggered up dishevelled, and when Carmen did her seducing yet irresistible strip dance to Don José to show her passionate love. You could also hear people gasping when the curtain was unveiled for Act 2 with those stunning gypsy girls lining up in flamboyant fans and clothes, and notice the specific excitement stirring the crowd when the preludes of the famous arias (like Habanera and Song of Toreador) started. Although a large portion of the spectators must have been made up by the experienced audience who should have watched Carmen for plenty of times (that's an inevitable thing for being such a top-class world-known opera!), there were people, especially younger generations, who experienced Carmen (or even live opera show) for the first time in their life. Henceforth, the interactions between on- and off- stage made sure that the audience was involved as part of the performance, which not only ensured it as an engaging show, but also confirmed its success. After all, we need more opera shows like this which make people feel sublimed as well as entertained to keep the industry alive and afloat.
The gorgeousness of the set and costume design is absolutely another highlight of this production. Although the protagonists suffer as the dark and furious story unfolds on the stage, the colourful costumes and bright and lavish background design were absolutely eye-catching. The darkness of the plot and the lightness of on-stage display formed an unforgettable contrast, which even made the whole play more heart-breaking and breath-taking. In my limited experience, most production of Carmen would set the stage in a black/red colour combination which resembles the blood and parallels with the Spanish and gypsy vibe. However, what we saw from Ellen Kent's production was the shining and stunning brightness with the burning torch, the ethereal blue background, and the pink or ginger dresses and feather fans. The glamorousness fascinated the audience, turning the show into a feast for ears, eyes and souls.
Noticeably, it is rare to have a blond Carmen while most times people take this gypsy girl in a black hair image with red flowers pinned at her temples. However, a sense of innovation and rebellion has occurred when Irina Sproglis showed up as Carmen with blond hair and white dress. Rebelliousness is rooted in Carmen undoubtedly. As one century and a half have almost passed since Carmen's premiere, the disapproval of stereotype and the craving for freedom should be more explicitly revealed, especially when we look at Carmen from a feminist perspective. From the beginning when she sings "love is free like a bird", to the end when she has her last words as "kill me or let me go", Carmen is full of agency as a woman who has been genuine and cherishes her free will above all. There are other great operas in which the heroines die in the end, i.e., La Traviata (Verdi) and La Bohème (Puccini) with heroines dead because of illness leaving the audience the melancholic sweetness, and Tosca (Puccini) with the heroine committing suicide in despair. Most female images were depicted as innocent, pure, craving for love and driven by fate. Carmen, however, chooses to confront death bravely and calmly, and emphasizes the power of women choosing their own destiny, even it leads to death. This could probably be the reason why Bizet was not recognized at his life time, and also the reason why people are still crazy about Carmen nowadays. Being twenty years ahead of what audience was prepared to accept, the tragedy of Carmen was also the tragedy of Bizet. But with Carmen now being one of the most popular operas, Bizet is vindicated, and Ellen Kent's production of Carmen is another explicit and breath-taking assertion of the freedom and power of women.
Local Opera: Ellen Kent's Tosca
Review by Megan Sharp and Jenny Huang - Ellen Kent - New Theatre, Oxford - 15 Apr 2022
It was the hottest day of the year so far when Ellen Kent’s Tosca visited the New Theatre in Oxford. Despite a few seats remaining unfilled (arguably due to it being Good Friday), the performance was received to great acclaim. A traditional, classical backdrop was complimented by stylish costumes, and the added presence of real life dogs as part of the guard’s entourage added a little sparkle.
Puccini's background setting in the year 1800 perfectly brings out Tosca's dramatic but contradictory personality in the dilemma of saving her love. Tosca's jealousy threatened her love for Cavaradossi, allowing for Scarpia to plant seeds of doubt for his own gain. The sensual performance from the orchestra, combined with the visual spectacle of the staging, had my heart vividly beating with the love between Tosca and Cavaradossi.
Elena Dee’s portrayal of Tosca was both charming and captivating, and her aria “Vissi d’arte” was received to huge applause. With a steady and rich voice, the Moldovan baritone, Vladimir Drago delighted audiences with his portrayal of the nasty Scarpia, and the Ukrainian tenor, Vitalii Liskovetskyi, relaxed into the role by the third act. A large proportion of the cast were Ukrainian, so it was fitting and moving that the performance finished with everyone in the auditorium standing for the Ukrainian national anthem. A moving end to a moving performance.
Local Opera: The Barber of Seville
Review by Ben Hunt - Welsh National Opera - New Theatre, Oxford - 12 Nov 2021
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.
Local Opera: Madama Butterfly
Review by Rhiannon Petteford - Welsh National Opera - New Theatre, Oxford - 9 Nov 2021
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.