Opera North

Opera North’s Ring project started five years ago in 2011 with the concert staging of Das Rheingold. The other three parts followed over the next three years. There was a break last year, filled by a similar semi-staging of Der fliegende Holländer involving several of the same singers.

Clarity and impact

This summer, the project has climaxed with six complete Ring cycles in five different cities. Five of the cycles were each done within a single week (as was the first staging in Bayreuth in 1876). It would be a vast undertaking for any opera company, let alone one with the relatively modest resources of Opera North.

From the start, the company decided to go for concert semi-stagings. Expense was an obvious factor, but so too was the fact that few theatre pits can accommodate the full Wagner orchestra and another problem is some of them have newborns so they may need the best lightweight double stroller for the staying .

Singers would, to a degree, act out their roles on a strip of stage in front of the orchestra, which would be heard with exceptional clarity and impact.

Above it a triple-panelled screen transmits surtitles and an overall narrative, together with appropriate but generalised images of water, flames, rocks and so forth. The semi-staging worked well overall, but less singing straight out at the audience, and more interaction and eye contact between the leading characters would have been welcome.

The three female ensembles – the Rhinemaidens, Valkyries and Norns – all played well as groups, especially the brilliant Valkyries, but in doing so they showed up the rather static performances of some of the central characters. Several singers took on more than one role: Lee Bisset was a passionate, eloquent Sieglinde in Die Walkure, but also appeared as First Norn in Götterdämmerung; Kathleen Broderick was a Valkyrie, but also sang Brünnhilde in Siegfried; James Creswell was the giant Fasolt, and also an implacable and powerful Hunding.

Quite outstanding was Susan Bickley, a forceful Fricka in Die Walküre, but also touching and eloquent as Waltraute, pleading in vain with Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung.

In Leeds we saw three Wotans, all distinguished: Michael Druiett in Das Rheingold, Robert Hayward in Die Walküre, and Béla Perencz as the Wanderer in Siegfried. It was Perencz who had the rich and powerful sonority the role ideally requires. Of the two Brünnhildes, Kelly Cae Hogan outshone Broderick, and was tirelessly expressive and full-throated up to the very end of the cycle.

Lars Cleveman’s Siegfried was more than adequate, but less apt and engaging than Mati Turi in the final part of the cycle. Several singers reprised their roles from the original performances. It’s hard to imagine Loge better characterised than by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke.

Nine brilliant Valkyries with Lee Bisset (seated) as Sieglinde

The role of the orchestra

Richard Roberts is a vividly comical Mime, and Jo Pohlheim a resonant, powerful Alberich. Mats Almgren appeared first as the giant Fafner, and then a superbly cunning and sinister Hagen. (He was a remarkably genial Daland in the 2015 Dutchman – clearly a very talented singing actor.) Overall, the standard of singing through four long evenings was extraordinary, and a tribute to Opera North’s shrewd and discerning casting as well as to the singers’ level of commitment.

But one purpose of this style of performance was to highlight the role of the orchestra. This was amply achieved. The orchestra was expanded to Wagnerian scale, with six harps, live anvils in Das Rheingold, and an extended brass section. These were Richard Farnes’ final performances as Opera North’s music director, a role he has held for the past 12 years, and they were magnificent.

The many beauties and splendours of Wagner’s orchestral scoring, both grand and intimate, were clearly brought out, while at the same time the dramatic pace and direction of the music was constantly sustained. These were not hard-driven performances, but neither were they episodic.

Farnes is not one to blow his own trumpet, so we must blow it for him. He is surely, as Richard Mantle, Opera North’s general director says, ‘one of today’s leading interpreters of Wagner’, and this superb Ring cycle absolutely confirms this judgement. To see and hear the Ring done with such commitment and quality within a week is an unforgettable experience.

Basketball fan, doer, drummer, International Swiss style practitioner and communicator, collector, connector, creator. Performing at the fulcrum of modernism and programing to craft meaningful ideas that endure. I sometimes make random things with friends.

The Mikado Sullivan

The opening night of Martin Lloyd-Evans’ colourful new production of The Mikado seemed as if it was being thrust on us before it was truly watertight. It has potential, but it didn’t hit the ground running.

Crossing over to the dark side: Rebecca de Pont Davies as Katisha

It does look good

A recurring aspect of Scottish Opera’s productions these days is that they take a while to warm up. Has rehearsal time been cut back along with everything else? That’s a problem with G&S, especially for a professional company tackling what amateur ones do pretty well and which other professional outfits have done superbly. It does look good, though.

Pomp and pompousness: Stephen Richardson as the Mikado

Dick Bird’s designs do exactly what’s required to make a Victorian period piece look fresh and relevant: a delightful fusion of Japan-meets-British Bulldog, both in the tasteful scenic artwork and the culturally confused clothing. However, the promise falls short when it comes to the performance itself. Sure, the dancing decapitated heads of the opening scene are a tantalising touch: quirky, macabre and funny.

Lovely moments

Richard Suart’s Ko-Ko, delivered in his very best Del Boy accent with a sardonic hint of Dudley Moore, has its best intentions suppressed by the singer’s tendency to rush key lines. I found myself looking at the subtitles for help – crazy, you’d think, when it’s all in English! Yet Suart remains, as he should, the lynchpin, his character acting convincing, and his neatly turned duetting in ‘Tit Willow’ with stuffed bird a gem of a conclusion. Around him revolves as mad a Gilbertian troupe as ever.

Delicate charm: Rebecca Bottone as Yum-Yum with Scottish Opera’s female chorus

Stephen Richardson’s Mikado is imperious with a smidgeon of pompous buffoon. Rebecca de Pont Davies’ Katisha, a hideous Gothic hag, fulf ls the dark side of the satire, her wholesome alto scouring the vocal depths with conviction. There’s a delicate charm in Rebecca Bottone’s Yum-Yum, and a Yes Minister-ish drollness in Andrew Shore’s Pooh-Bah. Nicholas Sharratt was a slow starter as Nanki-Poo, a little pedantic in the humour stakes, though the simple honesty of his portrayal could nail it as the UK- wide run continues.

There were lovely moments, too, from the Three Little Maids and the female chorus. Nonetheless, there were major first night problems with the music. Under Derek Clark, the Scottish Opera Orchestra was lacklustre, despite this being one of Sullivan’s most interesting scores. More critically, the synchronisation between orchestra and chorus was way out at times, and untidiness in the choreography robbed many big numbers of their pizzazz. Hopefully, the best is yet to come

Basketball fan, doer, drummer, International Swiss style practitioner and communicator, collector, connector, creator. Performing at the fulcrum of modernism and programing to craft meaningful ideas that endure. I sometimes make random things with friends.

In Parenthesis Bell

Welsh National Opera celebrated its 70th anniversary with a newly commissioned opera. In Parenthesis is based on David Jones’ prose poem of 1937 about his experiences in the First World War, and this production marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme Iain Bell’s score for the opera calls on the full resources of WNO and its chorus, celebrating the sense of ‘company’ that has always been so central its identity.

What though of the choice of Jones’ text, one of the great masterpieces of high modernism, notoriously dense, multi-layered and shifting in perspective from almost one line to another?

The two Bards with the women’s Chorus of Remembrance

Like many other operatic settings of great literature, it is only a starting point for something quite different. Librettists David Antrobus and Emma Jenkins felt ‘clarity of story-telling was paramount’; picking ‘one thread out of the myriad in the poem’, they have attempted to present Jones’ journey as ‘an Orphic rite of passage’.

Donald Maxwell as the larger-than-life Dai Great Coat

The result is a radically different and more two-dimensional experience than Jones’ original and one that, on opening night, seemed to resonate strongly with the audience at Cardif ’s Wales Millennium Centre. It’s easy to see the text’s appeal to WNO for its anniversary: although London-born, David Jones was half Welsh and his art is shot through with references to Wales’ mythology, medieval history and literature.

In Parenthesis concerns the odyssey of Private John Ball, the sole survivor of the Welch regiment whose members were wiped out at the advance on Mametz Wood in 1916.

Musical language shifts constantly between a heightened expressionism

This is composer Iain Bell’s third opera, and his response to the text is theatrical and thoroughly professional with a sharp instinct for the relationship between words and vocal line. The musical language shifts constantly between a heightened expressionism that might not have been out of place in the Germany of 1916; and in the final mystical scenes, there is a pantheistic ecstasy reminiscent of Tippet’s Midsummer Marriage.

It’s a colourful score, not afraid to make large gestures, but perhaps only really begins to approach something of Jones’ inward vision in the opera’s closing scene in Mametz Wood. Robert Innes Hopkins’ monolithic stage design is an enclosed foreground looking up to a large sky, constantly transformed to accommodate the changing emotions of the text.

Andrew Bidlack, magnifi cent in the challenging lead role of Private John Ball

The production, by WNO’s artistic director David Pountney skillfully guides the work though its many emotional stages. Andrew Bidlack, as Private John Ball, scaled magnificently what must be one of the most ambitious leading operatic roles in recent times, his flexible tenor encompassing not only the character’s bumbling attempts at soldiering but the ecstasy of his inner vision.

Nature of the opera

The narrative is framed by two Bards representing Britain and Germany, Peter Coleman-Wright and Alexandra Deshorties who guide the action forward. Modelled on Jones’ 1941 drawing Britannia and Germania Embracing, their roles look back and are similar in conception to the chorus in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia.

The nature of the opera means that this is a very male-heavy cast featuring a varied line-up of smaller parts: Donald Maxwell is a boastful and larger-than-life Dai Greatcoat, representing the soldier who has fought in every battle stretching back thousands of years; Mark Le Brocq’s Sargeant Snell is a suitably loud and aggressive presence; the smaller parts are admirably taken by George Humphreys (Lieutenant Jenkins), Marcus Farnsworth (Lance Corporal Lewis) and Joe Roche (Private Watcyn). Carlo Rizzi negotiated the many twists and turns of the score with passion and commitment.

Basketball fan, doer, drummer, International Swiss style practitioner and communicator, collector, connector, creator. Performing at the fulcrum of modernism and programing to craft meaningful ideas that endure. I sometimes make random things with friends.