Opera review


Bear

William Walton - The Bear

NI Opera, 2013 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Anna Burford, Andrew Rupp, John Molloy | The MAC, Belfast - 26 March 2013

There was quite a change of content, style and scale between NI Opera’s last production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman for the Grand Opera last month and their production of William Walton’s short one-act chamber opera The Bear, performed at the smaller arts theatre of the MAC in Belfast. Directed again by Oliver Mears with Nicholas Chalmers conducting, The Bear at least conformed to Wagner’s preference to have the orchestra and conductor remaining invisible to the audience, but that’s about the only level on which The Bear can be compared to Wagner. Walton’s work was far from the most challenging NI Opera production then and the merits of the work itself are questionable, but in terms of the approach adopted for this lightly humorous work, it was everything it should be.

Based on a comic short play by Chekhov, ‘The Bear‘ is not one of the Russian master’s more notable works that stand as masterpieces of the dramatic repertoire like ‘The Cherry Orchard‘, ‘The Seagull‘ or ‘Three Sisters‘. It’s one of Chekhov’s earlier comedies that has its own peculiarly Russian sense of humour and it is also rather dated by today’s standards. Walton’s opera version of the work, written in 1967, is an almost identical word-for-word adaptation that retains the pace, the dynamic and the tone of the original work, with its comic interplay operating effectively between just three characters.

The comedy revolves around the widow Yeliena Ivanovna Popova who has been in mourning for her dead husband Nicolai Mihailovich for almost a year now. That’s a period of grieving that is regarded as most unseemly by her footman Luka, who wept over the death of his old lady for a month - but seven? Well, the old woman wasn’t worth that and surely no-one is, not even Nicolai Mihailovich. Yeliena Popova moreover is still young and there’s a whole regiment of troops billeted in a nearby district, so Luka don’t know what all the fuss is about. It’s a middle-aged landowner Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov however who makes an impression when he appears at the household trying to recover one of her husband’s debts, but the road to courtship is not without some trouble along the way.

The Bear, as the title might suggest, is very much as a parody on distinctly extreme Russian qualities and characteristics involving drinking vodka (the name Smirnov obviously gets an extra laugh here), running up debts, extravagant mourning, headlong plunges into deep emotions and fiery outbursts of temper that lead to duels. It may not be one of Chekhov’s most insightful serious works, and the farcical humour might appear to be slightly dated, but the manner and the truth of the characteristics he exposes through this short comic situation are no less precise and revealing. It’s hard to fault Walton’s take on the work either other than on similar questions of musical fashion and personal taste. It’s a genuinely comic score of a kind that is all too rarely heard, perfectly matching the tone of the drama, with jaunty rhythms and tooting instruments, extending ‘ooohh!’s and expressions of despair to the point where they do indeed become funny - but it’s all very much in a music-hall kind of idiom. It’s pleasant and entertaining but by no means a great work.

Obviously however with a small cast, a chamber score and a situation with plenty of dramatic incident, there is ample compensation in the opportunities The Bear provides in the performance of the musicians and the singers. That depends very much of course upon the director and the conductor working together to the rhythms and the pace of the work and with the solid team of Oliver Mears and Nicholas Chalmers there are no problems there. All of the singers moreover are simply marvellous. John Molloy, a Wexford regular, is something of an expert on rare material, particularly those with comic interplay, and he’s excellent here as Smirnov. The other young members of the cast are just as impressive, Andrew Rupp’s Luka getting the best laughs, but it’s Anna Burford ’s Yeliena Popova who has to carry much of the work’s comedy and singing challenges and she does so exceptionally well, never faltering in even some of the more testing situations.

One of only two operatic works written by William Walton (the other being Troilus and Cressida, written in 1954), The Bear might not be one of the greatest or most challenging opera works, but it is designed to be lightly entertaining and funny and NI Opera’s production certainly brought out those qualities. You can’t ask for more than that. NI Opera’s production of The Bear at the MAC in Belfast was programmed with five Songs and Sonnets from Shakespeare in beautiful jazz-influenced musical and choral arrangements by George Shearing (1919-2011).

Leoš Janáček - Věc Makropulos

La Fenice di Venezia, 2013 | Gabriele Ferro, Robert Carsen, Ángeles Blancas Gulín, Ladislav Elgr, Andreas Jäggi, Enric Martínez-Castignani, Martin Bárta, Enrico Casari, Guy De Mey, Leonardo Cortellazzi, Judita Nagyová, Leona Pelešková | Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 15 March 2013

Although it would be surpassed by the musical progression in From the House of the Dead, Leoš Janáček at the time considered Věc Makropulos (The Makropolus Case, 1926) as his greatest work to date. In many ways, Věc Makropulos is the one where many of the themes in Janáček’s previous works come together. The contemplation on the passing of time, the renewal of life, death as a necessary and intrinsic part of existence are perhaps at their most beautiful in The Cunning Little Vixen, while other aspects of living in difficult circumstances, making choices and dealing with adversity in a wider social context can be found in Jenůfa and in Katya Kabanova. There is something beautifully expressive in the freshness of those earlier works, but the sophisticated arrangements of Věc Makropulos are much more ambitious without losing any of the concision of expression that is so characteristic of the composer.

That concision reduces some of the social context found in the original 1922 play of the same name by the celebrated Czech science-fiction author Karol Capek (the man credited with inventing the term “robot”), but Janáček’s focus - as indicated by letters he wrote at the time - was very much on the question of the question of eternal youth as a personal burden on its main character Emilia Marty or Elina Makropulos as she was originally known. Very little of socialist leanings of Vitek remain in the opera, the lawyer’s clerk in the original work believing it would earn man the right to elevate himself and the condition of humanity, while his employer Kolenatý can only see the destruction of social institutions that are based on life being short. Who for example would want to be married to the same person for 300 years? Janáček’s own libretto however reworks the story slightly to consider the question of life only having meaning when it has an end.

Canadian director Robert Carsen’s designs for the La Fenice production of Věc Makropulos in Venice then is fairly straightforward and traditional in its 1920s period setting, but he does find something interesting to play with in the theatrical nature of Emilia Marty being an opera singer. A parallel on the question of identity is drawn immediately in the repetitions of the theme in the Overture (the only overture written for any Janáček opera), where a series of rapid backstage costume changes reflect the fact of Emilia Marty has played many opera roles and at the same time taken on many identities in her 327 years of existence. Following in such quick succession, you also get the sense of her weariness of living such a life for such a long time.

Opera also plays a major part in the backstage setting of Act II, Carson choosing Puccini’s near contemporary Turandot as the opera backdrop, a choice that works well with the unfeeling ice-queen personality that Emilia has developed over the years, showing little concern for the lives or deaths of other lesser beings. Elsewhere however, Carsen’s staging is fairly traditional and the sets by Radu Boruzescu are not as stylised or high-concept as you would more often find with Carsen’s productions. It many not be as visually impressive either, but judging by how strong his presentation of the characters is and the overall success of the production, it is however clearly a thoughtful and appropriate reading of the work.

What is rather more crucial in determining the success of a production of Věc Makropulos - or indeed any Janáček opera - is in how it captures the rhythm of the music, the flow of the singing and the whole essence of life that lies within it. Conducted by Gabriele Ferro, that was achieved marvellously by the orchestra of La Fenice, the score performed with verve and drive, vividly describing the wonderful details in the use of instruments that make the work so unique and expressive. No less important to the rhythmic flow are the inflections of the Czech voice and the singing was strong across all the main roles here. Spanish soprano Ángeles Blancas Gulín sang Emilia Marty wonderfully with the necessary command, particularly for the way that the diva role was played in this production, her death on the stage, alone under the spotlight, making the work all the more poignant.

OtelloGiuseppe Verdi - Otello

Opera North, 2013 | Richard Farnes, Tim Albery, Ronald Samm, Elena Kelessidi, David Kempster, Michael Wade Lee, Ann Taylor, Christopher Turner, Henry Waddington, Dean Robinson, Paul Gibson | Grand Opera House, Belfast, 9 March 2013

There are some operas that are so emotionally raw and overwhelming that they are almost too much to bear. Sometimes you wish the singers and the orchestra would just tone it down a little, purely for the sake of those poor souls of a more delicate sensibility. Verdi’s Otello is one of those operas. You go into it knowing what is in store and hope you can get through it relatively unscathed. From the opening moments of Opera North’s new 2013 production, seen at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, with the chorus, orchestra and thunder sound effects resounding around the theatre right from the outset, it was clear that this was not going to be one of those occasions.

Otello is of course one of Verdi’s darkest operas, but I wasn’t aware quite how dark it was until I heard Opera North’s production. It’s a late, mature Verdi work, Verdi doing Shakespeare moreover with a sophisticated libretto provided by Arrigo Boito that is composed to the highest levels of subtlety in the characterisation and in the musical arrangements. It’s a piece of the utmost dramatic integrity, with no overture, no show-stopping arias or interludes for ballets. It’s direct, to the point and, in as far it describes characters capable of the extremities of human feelings, Otello takes no prisoners. That much I already knew and had experienced before.

With the sheer force of the huge choral arrangements, the volume of the orchestration and the thunder and lightning effects accompanying the opening storm, it seemed like Opera North were going to play this mature Verdi like one of his early pot-boilers, full of blood and thunder. There’s nothing wrong with those early works of Verdi, but should Otello not be handled with a little more delicacy than Oberto or even the composer’s earlier Shakespeare adaptation Macbeth? Richard Farnes, Tim Albery and the orchestra of the Opera North show that there is a case for the score of Otello to be thunderously played, for the extreme emotional content to be sung resoundingly, for the dramatic interpretation to be played to the hilt, and every ounce of human emotion to be wrung out of the work. You would expect no less from Shakespeare’s play, so why not Verdi too?

There’s a reason why the delicate sensibility of the listener shouldn’t be spared the ravages of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello‘ or Verdi’s Otello, and that’s because they are works that explore the extremes of love, hatred, jealousy, beauty, compassion and delicacy. Act I of Verdi’s Otello alone is a masterful expression of a whole range of human characteristics, from the fear over the fate of Otello’s fleet in the storm, jubilation at the Moor’s success in battle with the Turks which turns into celebration at the garrison in Cyprus where the boisterous play turns into a brawl. That’s followed by a tender love-scene between Otello and Desdemona. And then Act II has Iago’s famous Credo and the bitter poison of jealousy spreads into every aspect of all those joyous moments of the first act.

That’s wonderfully presented in Tim Albery’s meticiously pitched production for Opera North which has been updated to what looks like a WWII-era marine barracks. Act I is bustling with life with Michael Wade Lee’s Cassio energetically leaping over tables to take part in a violent brawl, David Kempster’s Iago delivers Act II’s Credo forcefully and without histrionics, while the confrontation between Ronald Samm’s imposing Otello and Elena Kelessidi’s delicate Desdemona is violent and shocking. And it should be when you know what dark passions have been stirred and where they are going to lead. That’s warning enough for you to steel yourself for where Act IV takes us, but the conclusion nonetheless still manages to take you unawares.

That’s down to Verdi’s brilliant scoring of the work, and in this case, a perfect reading of those intentions by Albery, Farnes and the Opera North team, where the perspective and the tone of Act IV is determined by Desdemona. Her beautiful nature, her kindness and generosity towards Cassio, her love for Otello is an antidote to the sentiments and nature that has been twisted in the testosterone-fuelled duelling that has taken place in the previous acts. Rather than lessen the impact of the charged atmosphere that has been created of course, this only makes it more tragic. The finale, like the rest of the performance here, was superbly balanced in this respect, maximising impact, perfectly in accord with the delicate Wagnerian leitmotifs that Verdi employs so effectively at those key moments.

The challenges of playing Otello were compounded by the effort made to perform it at this ultra-charged level of high emotion. The performance of the Opera North Orchestra was a loud and muscular one, yet it was one that was at the same time very carefully attuned to the fluid changes and subtleties of the range of musical expression. That could nonetheless potentially present problems for singers who not only have to match the powerful nature of the sentiments expressed here, but also rise above the sheer volume of sound that was coming from the orchestra pit. Otello is evidently the most challenging role, as much for singing as for making his jealous nature comprehensible if not exactly sympathetic, and Ronald Samm coped extremely well with the singing challenges, but just as importantly succeeded in creating a rounded human portrayal of the devastation a man can wreak upon himself.

A full picture of Otello however cannot be achieved without a sympathetic Desdemona to bring out those human qualities - the noble ones as well as the less admirable ones - and Elena Kelessdi was just such a Desdemona. Any minor concerns at times that she might not be able to hold her own against the forceful delivery of Samm or David Kempster’s Iago were soon put to rest by her spirited performance and an Act IV that really hit the mark in its expression of her character’s nature. Michael Wade Lee’s Cassio was also spot-on in his wearing of his heart on his sleeve, giving an open, unguarded and enthusiastic performance. Special mention should be made of the Opera North’s Chorus and the Children’s Chorus which really punctuated the work with the necessary impact at the critical moments in the drama. I’m sure I’ll see a few more Verdi operas before this bicentenary year is over, but I’ll be surprised if anything forces a reevaluation of one of the composer’s works as much as this muscular and sensitive performance of Otello by Opera North.

VoixDidoFrancis Poulenc - La Voix Humaine

Henry Purcell - Dido and Aeneas

Opera North, 2013 | Wyn Davies, Aletta Collins, Lesley Garrett, Pamela Helen Stephen, Phillip Rhodes, Amy Freston, Gillene Herbert, Heather Shipp, Louise Mott, Jake Arditti, Nicholas Watts, Rebecca Moon | Grand Opera House, Belfast, 8 March 2013

Opera North’s Winter 2103 touring programme wonderfully covers four centuries of music, with Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito from the 18th century, Verdi’s Otello from the 19th, Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine from the 20th century and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas from the 17th century. It’s the combination of the latter two operas on the same bill however that represent the widest dynamic in such a way that they hardly seem complementary at all. In reality however - particularly with the source of Dido and Aeneas stretching back 1,000 years to its source in Virgil’s ‘Aeneid‘ - what they demonstrate is the universality and commonality of human emotions that still have resonance in the 21st century.

The common theme that relates the two works is of course one that opera has specialised in over the years - that of the woman seduced, betrayed and abandoned. The two works given here however represent lesser-known examples of that theme and certainly approach it musically and dramatically in very different ways.  As different as they are however, they each present a unique take on the subject and stand as important, powerful pieces that demonstrate the power of expression of the operatic art form.

Composed by Francis Poulenc in 1959 to a libretto by Jean Cocteau based on his own 1930 dramatic monologue, the one-act opera La Voix Humaine is unusual opera work in that it is written to be performed and sung by a single person, and sung moreover as a one-sided conversation that takes place on the telephone. The unnamed woman (’Elle’) is alone in her room, waiting anxiously for a phone-call from her ex-lover. The conversation, occasionally interrupted by the unreliable service and a party-line, reveals that the man who had been her lover for five years is now about to be married to another woman and ‘Elle’ has been contemplating suicide.

There’s an interesting ambiguity and modernity in the fact that the woman’s desire for the warmth of love in the comforting sound of the human voice (la voix humaine) is brought to her electronically through a telephone line, but Poulenc and Cocteau’s little drama abounds in such contradictions and ambiguities. Is it a monologue or really a one-sided dialogue? A dialogue would imply that the conversation is two-way, but it’s clear that there is only one person who hopes to gain or express anything through the conversation. In many respects, the woman is speaking to herself, grasping at the meagre lifeline that is being held out, but only for as long as the call lasts, trying to fool herself that all is not lost. When that is gone all she is left with is that terrifying figure she sees reflected in the mirror before her.

Opera North’s production, directed by Aletta Collins, played further on the ambiguities within the work with some clever visual references to that hateful mirror. It not only reflects the truth about her lie that she is glamorously dressed after an evening dinner date, revealing instead a tired, graying woman on the edge of breakdown contemplating a bottle of pills on the dresser, but she can also see reflected in it all the horrors of her imagination, seeing her ex-lover enjoying parties and affairs with other women. It’s as vivid a visual representation of the harsh reality of the woman’s situation and her mindset as it is possible to imagine.

With Lesley Garrett singing the role of ‘Elle’, it’s also about as effective and expressive a performance of the woman’s situation as you can imagine. Poulenc’s composition of the music and the singing part reflects the cadences of the spoken voice in a similar way to how Janáček would write, with rhythms and pauses, the rising and falling of tones and inflections, but evidently that’s particularly relevant to a work that is called La Voix Humaine. As a singer whose spoken voice alone is most musical, Lesley Garrett is the ideal kind of singer for this kind of piece, even if it is far from the more popular style of singing that she is famous for. Her every gesture and inflection - singing the work in English - was perfectly judged in a way that made her character’s circumstances compelling to watch and her inevitable fate as touching as it was chilling.

Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (c. 1689) is one of the earliest versions of a subject that Francesco Cavalli first covered in his opera La Didone (1641), but which became something of a standard in the Baroque opera repertoire with at least 50 works adapted to Pietro Metastasio’s libretto (Didone Abbandonata) in the 18th century (including Hasse, Galuppi, Porpora, Vinci and Piccinni). It might not have been the model that Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine draws from, but the essential characteristic of a woman left to face her demons alone is just as vividly depicted in the fate of Dido when her lover Aeneas, who has “stopped over” in Carthage with the fleeing Trojans and abandoned her to fulfil the destiny that the gods have in store for him in Italy.

Although it is fully scored - innovatively without recitative at this stage in the development of opera - and has a larger cast than Poulenc’s mono-opera, the strength of this version of the Dido and Aeneas story (unlike Berlioz’s Les Troyens, to take the most extreme example) is that it similarly focusses all its musical and dramatic elements on the predicament of the lone figure of a woman abandoned. Dido’s confidante Belinda tries to warn her and turn her away from her dark thoughts and Aeneas even appears and attempts to put his case to her, but the opera remains firmly viewed from the perspective of a woman who has suddenly become aware that her youth and happiness are slipping away.

Like the reflections in the mirror of La Voix Humaine, Dido’s thoughts, fears and nightmares are vividly real, given human form in witches and visions of herself - as a younger woman? - that follow her, mimic her, torment her and drive her to her doom. This element is beautifully expressed in Aletta Collins’ direction and Giles Cadle’s set design of the darkened bedroom of long shadows, with spectres in the form of dancers that slip out from under and behind the bed, hovering in the background and persistently at the edge of Dido’s vision until they overwhelm her.

Just as effective is the rhythmic drive of Purcell’s score as performed by the Orchestra of the Opera North under conductor Wyn Davies, switching over to Baroque period instruments after the interval. Although Dido threatened to become swamped by the figures and doppelgangers of her nightmares, there was no danger of Pamela Helen Stephen losing her grip on her character. Purcell’s Dido is as strongly defined as any of the many different depictions of this character in other works. It may be short, around an hour long, but the focus on Dido and her reaction to her predicament is deep and intense. Stephen gave that full expression in her singing, never more so than in those final moments of Dido’s rejection of Aeneas’ weak justifications.

Like the other two productions in this Opera North Winter 2013 touring programme, there was a wonderful completeness and attention to detail in the concept and the execution for both these short works. From the casting of the roles, the direction of the performances, the staging, the costumes and the musical delivery, great care has evidently been put into making sure that everything comes together as a whole to express these works in the best possible light, and that was all the more evident in the complementary approach taken towards works as diverse as La Voix Humaine and Dido and Aeneas, separated by almost 300 years, but shown here still to be vital and relevant in the 21st century.

ClemenzaWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

Opera North, 2013 | Douglas Boyd, John Fulljames, Paul Nilon, Annemarie Kremer, Fflur Wyn, Helen Lepalaan, Kathryn Rudge, Henry Waddington | Grand Opera House, Belfast, 7 March 2013

Mozart’s final opera La Clemenza di Tito was composed in 1791 as a commission for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. It had a short-life span which barely lasted much beyond the death of Mozart just three months after its first unsuccessful performance. The opera’s failure and subsequent disappearance into near-obscurity for centuries can be put down to the haste in which it was written (once account claims it was written in just 18 days), its old-fashioned opera seria structure that was based on an old libretto by Metastasio that had already been set more than 40 times by other composers, and the fact that its story of a benevolent and forgiving king was somewhat dated and out of touch even then with the revolutionary upheaval going on in Europe at the time.

Mozart was of course in ill-health and in financial difficulties by the time he came to write La Clemenza di Tito, requiring the assistance of his student Süssmayer and Catherino Mazzolà to adapt Metastasio’s libretto into a workable form, but Mozart also completed some of his greatest works during the same late period, not least of which were The Magic Flute and the Requiem, so it’s not surprising that the composer’s final work has resurfaced and been subjected to a number of successful productions that have highlighted the aspects of the qualities that are to be found within it. Despite the rigidity of the opera seria form and the seemingly outdated libretto, it’s also a work that can sustain modern and stylised reinterpretations. And, contrary to its unrealistically optimistic outlook on the wisdom and goodness of the monarchy, certain elements of Mozart’s own enlightened views can be found in the work if a director is willing to delve deeper beneath the surface.

Opera North’s fresh, unfussy, clean and modernistically classical account of La Clemenza di Tito (seen on tour in Belfast) is just such a production. Recognising that the strength of the work lies within Mozart’s writing, there’s nothing too radical attempted here in terms of interpretation. Douglas Boyd’s conducting of the Orchestra of Opera North places emphasis on the structure and rhythm of the piece, not seeking to overstate the relative simplicity of the arrangements, yet it pays attention to how certain lyrical touches give warmth and personality to what would otherwise be stock opera seria characters. This is where the danger lies in any performance of La Clemenza di Tito. It can seem like a dry, conventional and academic work, remote and aloof, uninspired in many sections, simply going through the motions and without some real emotional investment on the part of the singers, it can come across as just the rote recital of lines.

A work like La Clemenza di Tito however needs some careful consideration if it is to bring these characters to life and make their predicament seem relevant. On the surface, it doesn’t look like director John Fulljames has done much tweaking of the piece. The subject remains grave and serious, each of the characters involved seem to have their own personal predicaments and it seems that anything that the Roman Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus (71 to 81 AD) does will only lead to unhappiness for others. As far as traditional opera seria goes, Metastasio’s libretto then meets all the necessary conditions that allow a composer to express these deep feelings of anger, resentment, jealousy, betrayal and vengeance in the musical arrangements, while the work as a whole fulfils its function as a suitable piece to put on to celebrate a coronation, showing how a monarch rules for the good of his people, with wisdom, compassion, forgiveness and clemency.

Making the work feel relevant while remaining faithful to its intentions is however still something of a challenge. Setting it in the past, in its historical setting (whether from an Ancient Roman or with regard towards its 18th century relevance), will not do a great deal for this dusty opera seria, other than making it look like an ancient operatic curiosity, but it’s difficult to see how it can be applied to any modern context. Fulljames doesn’t attempt to impose any specific present-day parallel (an interesting essay in the programme attempts to relate it to Boris Johnson and David Cameron’s present UK coalition government, but it’s far from convincing), but rather sets it in a more generically timeless modern office boardroom setting of clean lines and geometric structures. While this might not seem to do much to give La Clemenza di Tito contemporary relevance, it does however provide a perfectly appropriate environment for the meticulous elegant structures of Mozart’s score, and it also reflects the progression of the drama as those lines and structures break up and fragment, only to become whole again at the end.

What brings considerably more humanity out of this work however is the careful attention paid to the emotions and the predicament of the characters, and the degree of emphasis placed on their respective positions. The key to the relevance of La Clemenza di Tito in Opera North’s production, and the principal reason for its success here, lies in the consideration it gives to the relatively secondary characters of Annio and Servilia. There’s good reason to assume that this is not just an arbitrary tweak that distorts the balance of the work, but that it does fit in closer to Mozart’s own personal views and his distinctive approach to the work. While all the others are running around striving to further their own personal and political agendas (Vitellia to become Empress, Sesto to win the love of Vitellia, the recently appointed Tito to give his people firm, stable leadership), Annio and Servilia strike a balance between these opposing positions that seemingly cannot co-exist.

Tito’s clemency at the end of the opera evidently lies at the heart of the work, mending the divisions that have been stirred up to have such terrible consequences. That healing comes about however through the intervention and selfless appeals of Annio and Servilia. Although they are indeed motivated by their love for each other, they are prepared to put their own happiness aside if it is ultimately for the greater good. Tito responds to the openness and honesty in Servilia pleas. She is the only one who speaks the plain truth that other yes-men in his inner-circle, too concerned about their own position, will not. It’s Annio’s honest, heartfelt appeals too that touch Tito much more than Sesto’s belated regrets for his betrayal, as sincere as his sentiments may be. None of this takes anything away from the opposing contrasts that are so important in the work, or the reconciliation that takes place between them, but rather it makes their resolution just that little bit more meaningful and credible, to say nothing of truly humanistic.

It’s to the credit then of Fulljames and Boyd that not only does the warmth of Mozart’s writing for these parts and their importance come through, but it’s not to the detriment of the other figures who are traditionally given a bigger billing. That was reflected in the way that the casting was not only strong for the main roles of Tito (Paul Nilon), Vitellia (Annemarie Kremer) and Sesto (Helen Lepalaan), but that attention was paid to singers of warmth of expression in the roles of Annio (Kathryn Rudge) and Servilia (Fflur Wyn), as well as the rather serious Publio (Henry Waddington). Not one of the performances felt like routine deliveries, but rather like their characters and personalities had been carefully thought through and given expression, without mannerism, in the smallest of details and gestures.

La Clemenza di Tito can still have challenges making a staging visually interesting and meaningful, but Conor Murphy’s innovative designs and geometric lines suggested classical structures in a modern context. Back-projections and a rotating dividing screen that projected images and transformed from transparency to opacity, opened up and closed down spaces with perfect precision, working wonderfully in accord with the musical content, playing to the strengths of the work and the singers.

DutchmanRichard Wagner - The Flying Dutchman

NI Opera, 2013 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Bruno Caproni, Giselle Allen, Stephen Richardson, Paul McNamara, Adrian Dwyer, Doreen Curran | Grand Opera House, Belfast, 15th & 17th February 2013

The outcome was never really in doubt. NI Opera’s award-winning track record has been impressive since their inception two years ago, the scale and calibre of the works presented increasingly ambitious, from Menotti’s The Medium and Puccini’s site-specific Tosca in Derry through to newly commissioned work for NI Opera Shorts and a production of Noye’s Fludde that travelled to Beijing. Putting on a Wagner opera however is a challenge on another scale entirely. Even if Der Fliegende Holländer is one of the composer’s shorter works, it is scarcely any less demanding in the very specific orchestral and singing requirements that are quite different from the popular aria-driven Italian opera.

Admittedly however, while the First Act of the English language version of The Flying Dutchman was capably performed here at the Grand Opera House in Belfast - the first ever fully-staged performance of the work in Northern Ireland - it did feel a little flat. Something was missing. Still, no cause for immediate concern. The First Act of The Flying Dutchman is quite difficult, the stormy overture a prelude to a gloom-laden hour of long passages of deep, grave male singing - mostly basses and baritones - as the dark figure of the Dutchman recounts the horror of his curse, doomed to sail the seas for eternity, finding land again after seven years in the vain hope that the love of a good and faithful woman will set him free. There’s not a whole lot of light and shade here, much less dramatic action and, even with the familiarity now of Wagner’s brilliant leitmotifs and their hints of what is to come, it’s always been a fairly demanding opening sequence.

Like much of Wagner though you just have to bear with it, as the forthcoming rewards more often than not merit the long drawn-out pacing and slow development of situations. (And yes, I realise that this review seems to be adopting the same principle - long-windedly positing doom and gloom with the promise of redemption to come). That’s because Wagner has a secret weapon in reserve for the Second Act, which is the arrival of Senta. It’s a device that Wagner would unleash in a more fluid manner in the revised version of the opera - played straight through with linking sections and no breaks between acts - but if you listen carefully she’s there in a leitmotif during the Vorspiel to Act One. Recognising this, NI Opera’s production did indeed effectively and with musical validity try to lift the First Act by bringing forward Senta’s first appearance to the dreamily melancholic Senta leitmotif in the overture, the young woman walking across a stormy shoreline as the snow starts to fall. And it even sounded to me like conductor Nicholas Chalmers wrung an extra ounce of romantic sensitivity out of the Ulster Orchestra during this sequence. Despite the dramatic shortcomings then and musical unevenness of the weighty first Act (Daland and the Dutchman’s duet sounding like something that has wandered in from an Italian opera) with a staging was unable to give it any kind of boost, this nonetheless boded promisingly for what was to come.

We had to wait until after the interval then for the deployment of Wagner’s incendiary device, but NI Opera clearly also had one or two secret weapons of their own in their armoury to ensure that this Dutchman took flight. One was the remarkable performance of Giselle Allen as Senta, the other was the energetic drive and virtuosity of the Ulster Orchestra. OK, nothing there that will really come as any great surprise to those of us familiar with the qualities Northern Ireland’s finest, but the way they were brought into play was impressive nonetheless. You could virtually hear a sigh of relief from the audience as the curtain lifted on what looked like a church assembly hall in the 1970s - a bright, colourful scene-shift from the gloom of Act One - where the ladies sat spinning at their Singer sewing machines, the beauty of the assembled female voices soaring with optimism and hope that the sea would deliver the safe return of their men.

Doreen Curran’s glowering Mary wonderfully kept the proceedings from getting too cheery, but it was of course the ringing tones of Giselle Allen’s Senta whose romantic spinning of the tale of the cursed captain and his crew dominated and directed the whole tone of the Second Act. Responding to the urgings of her fellow seamstresses, this Senta did indeed seem to be possessed by a demon, sitting down and seeming to slip into a trance as she recounted the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Much as Chalmers managed to place some emphasis on the Vorspiel’s dreamy Senta leitmotif, stage director Oliver Mears similarly allowed Senta’s romanticism to invade the whole work whenever she was present, allowing the necessary spell to be woven that would make the Dutchman’s arrival - and the long silent gaze that lies between them - all the more dramatic. Retaking the same positions into this locked gaze after their duet, it was as if the romanticism of the encounter takes place in more in Senta’s head than in reality.

Dramatically then, as well as in the all-important delivery of the exceptional singing demands that are necessary to make this work convincingly, NI Opera’s The Flying Dutchman succeeded at least in finding the right tone. It even allowed for one or two moments of humour to sit well alongside all the weighty recounting of ancient legends, such as Senta’s father Daland approving of the couple making each other’s acquaintance while they are in the middle of a hot-and-heavy, passionate, sweeping-everything-off-the-table kind of entanglement on the nearest available substitute for a bed. Quite why the setting of the seventies was chosen however wasn’t entirely clear. There didn’t appear to be any real attempt to connect the legend of the Dutchman to the Troubles, even if there is a certain amount of recognition of Belfast’s history as a port and ship-building city. There’s no obligation of course for NI Opera to make every local production site-specific, and attempting to do so with Wagner could lead to some ill-advised and ill-fitting parallels that would never work convincingly (Senta a militant activist waiting for the delivery of an arms shipment? The homeless “Dutchman” seeking to rid himself of the curse of his nation’s occupation?), so perhaps allowing the work to speak for itself in the 70s is enough. It certainly worked on those terms alone.

Well, not quite alone. Both the male and the female choruses were in wonderful voice and with the driving accompaniment of the orchestra, their powerful contribution to the impact of the overall work was well directed and delivered. Crucially however there were also solid performances from the main roles in Bruno Caproni’s brooding Dutchman and Giselle Allen’s obsessive Senta. The Belfast soprano sustained a magnificent tension right the second act and the close of the third, a veritable Senta-bomb that exploded on the stage of the Grand Opera House in a blood-drenched death scene climax of nerve-shattering high notes. If my own reaction is anything to go by, the audience were surely gasping for breath by that point. If you can’t achieve that kind of impact doing Wagner though, there’s really no point even attempting it, but when you have Giselle Allen and the Ulster Orchestra at your disposal and operating on the kind of form shown here, there was never likely to be any serious concern about the outcome.

Magic FluteWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - The Magic Flute

Scottish Opera, 2012 | Ekhart Wycik, Sir Thomas Allen, Nicky Spence, Claire Watkins, Rachel Hynes, Louise Collett, Richard Burkhard, Mari Moriya, Laura Mitchell, Jonathan Best, Peter Van Hulle | Grand Opera House, Belfast - 1 December 2012

If you want to, you can consider The Magic Flute to be a complex work, and with all the qualities that make up the complex personality and musicianship of Mozart placed within it, it most certainly is a work of incredible richness and variety. Written however with Emanuel Schikaneder as a popular Singspiel, what Die Zauberflöte should be above all else however is witty, charming, funny and entertaining. It has a serious side of course, and a meaningful message to put across - and it does get a little bogged down in solemnity on occasion - but it’s the means by which those ideas are put across that is essential to the brilliance of the work. Comedy, in The Magic Flute, proves to be a much more effective means of getting that across. And music - but I’ll come to that as well.

The light-hearted side of Mozart in Die Zauberflöte can often be undervalued and underrepresented, but the Scottish Opera’s production - seen here in Belfast at the end of the tour on 1st December - gets the balance just about right. That’s a tricky balance to maintain in this work. How, for example, do you account for all the mysticism, the Masonic initiation rituals and grand solemn ceremonies that undoubtedly underpin most of the enlightened ideals that make up the fabric of The Magic Flute, while at the same time making it accessible and entertaining to a modern audience? How do you reconcile the Tamino and the Papageno? Mozart does the hard bit through his remarkable music, showing love to be the most ennobling and life-affirming act that any human being is capable of, but finding a way to make that work in a setting that accounts for all the trappings of the Masonic rituals is a more difficult prospect for a modern production.

Directing for the Scottish Opera, Sir Thomas Allen’s idea isn’t a bad one, setting the story up as a kind of fairground show in a Victorian “Steampunk” setting with gentlemen in stovepipe hats, operating pulleys and clockwork mechanical constructions. Visually it’s a delight, creating the right kind of ‘magical’ background that accounts for freaks and animals, smoke and mirrors, but the steam engineering also feels utterly appropriate to the idea of human ingenuity, progress and man’s ceaseless endeavours to better himself. It doesn’t go all the way to differentiate and clarify the natures of the opposing forces of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, or establish where dragon slaying fits into the picture, but it’s more important to provide a suitably “fun” setting that better engages the audience and allows the story to flow in a relatively consistent manner.

And who better to engage with the audience than Papageno? Well, the Scottish Opera played an interesting trick in making Tamino a regular member of the audience also, picked out sitting in the Circle by a spotlight during the overture and invited to join in the fun on the stage. Tamino can be a little too earnest a figure to entirely identify with, so some pantomime-style banter with the audience on the part of both Tamino and Papageno - and engaging performances from Nicky Spence and Richard Burkhard - helped break down those barriers between the characters and the audience, which is really what The Magic Flute is all about. It’s about showing what noble sentiments and actions any man is capable of, whether Prince or fool. Or indeed woman.

Much scorn is poured upon womankind in The Magic Flute, no doubt in line with Masonic tradition - but Mozart’s truly enlightened attitude (and I’m sure his love for women) shows that they also have an important part in directing the progress of all mankind on to better things. If there’s any doubt about the work’s intentions towards women, one need only listen to the remarkable music that Mozart scores for the female figures. The masculine characteristics are straight, direct and measured in both their nobility and, in the case of Papageno, playfulness, but the women bring a wildness, an unpredictability and a sense of abandon - most notably in the case of the Queen of the Night’s coloratura and range, but also in the sentiments that plunge Pamina from the heights of love to the depths of despair within the span of minutes, a descent that was handled well in this performance by Laura Mitchell.

All of this is part of what The Magic Flute is about, so in addition to making it look engaging and entertaining, it needs to musically take you on this journey, and on all accounts the Scottish Opera’s production was sympathetic to the rhythms and moods of the piece. There were a few curious lapses in tempo that, for example, drained the intensity both from the Queen of the Night’s entrance and from Sarastro’s grave pronouncements. If they were to give the performer’s room to approach the demands of their ranges, it may have been necessary, but Mari Moriya and Jonathan Best didn’t seem to have too many problems in these tricky roles. All of the main performers then managed to strike that balance exceptionally well, matching the tone and sentiments of Mozart’s writing, and they were well supported by the rest of the cast, with a strong trio in the three Ladies, but also the exceptionally beautiful harmonies produced by the three Boys for this performance.

If there were any minor concerns about the limitations of the fairground setting or in the singers meeting the exceptionally high standards of the work’s vocal demands, it’s more the spirit and the heart of Mozart’s music that is essential to getting the wonder of The Magic Flute across, and the Scottish Opera’s heart was in the right place here.

IntermezzoRichard Strauss - Intermezzo

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Stephen Barlow, Stephen Unwin, Janis Kelly, Stephen Gadd, Andrew Kennedy, Jonathan Best, Njabulo Madlala, Robert Poulton, Richard Roberts, Colin Brockie, Susanne Holmes, Martha McLorinan | Buxton Opera House - 13 July 2012

Intermezzo is, of course, an opera notoriously based on the real-life domestic circumstances of its composer Richard Strauss and his wife Pauline de Anha, a turbulent but happy marriage between two quite different personalities. The reason we know so much about the nature of their marriage is that Strauss depicted it in frank and some would say vulgar detail in his symphonies and in aspects of his operas. There’s no disguising the fact however that Intermezzo is unprecedented for the level of detail in which the composer’s domestic affairs, specifically two notable incidents, are exposed to the full view of the public. Whether the opera is vulgar or not is open to question and undoubtedly interpretation, but if there’s a case to be made for it, it was made here with the wonderful production at the 2012 Buxton Festival.

Coming after such important works as Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier and Die Frau ohne Schatten, Intermezzo can’t help but appear to be a minor work with a rather trivial subject unworthy of a composer of Strauss’s stature. A light comedy, a farce, a domestic drama of minor disputes and marriage difficulties, played out in short chapters like edited scenes from a movie (cinema an influence to some extent on the work, and reflected in the staging here), played out in music that accompanies and supports conversational arrangements rather than imposes its own expressive presence, Intermezzo hardly seems like a subject that would appeal to the lofty ambitions of Strauss’s regular librettist at this time Hugo von Hofmannstahl. Yet, in taking this unexpected direction with a new librettist, Strauss himself shows himself to be just as ambitious and willing to experiment with a subject and a style that is far from what is traditionally expected of an opera work.

Adapting to this new form, Strauss’s glorious compositions prove to be surprisingly musical and dramatic. It’s a typically detailed score from this composer, attuned to the smallest emotional gestures as well as to the broader ones called for by the farcical situations that ensue when Christine, the temperamental wife of a famous composer, Robert Storch (not much disguising of identities going on there), reads a love letter sent mistakenly to her husband and promptly, to the complete bewilderment and distress of Storch, sues for divorce. Working in another incident drawn from real-life where the lonely Christine - her husband frequently away working and conducting - is deceived about the nature of a friendship she strikes up with a young man who claims he is a baron, but is really looking for someone to pay his bills for him, Strauss balances our sympathies in his depiction of the complex and difficult personality of Christine with flashes of humour and compassion.

Despite the apparent triviality of the subject and autobiographical content that seems a little self-aggrandising - particularly in the manner in which it is richly scored here by Strauss - Intermezzo is by no means vulgar entertainment. It’s thanks to this work that we have real insight into the Strauss household, the personality, temperaments and the passions that fuel the composer’s work, but it’s not entirely self-regarding and self-important. These are fully-fleshed out characters, their personalities, whims, mannerisms and deeper natures expressed with tremendous skill by Strauss. The extraordinarily detailed score may be aligned with a very different kind of dramatic content to the classical subjects of earlier works - to humour, to flashes of wit, jealousy, rage, love and passion rather than the death lust of Salome or the revenge fantasies of Elektra, but really, the scoring is no less precisely nuanced. These are much more human emotions, glorified (perhaps more a little over-glorified) by Strauss’s perceptive, impressionistic swells and rhythms, but it’s honest, it’s witty, it’s human and it’s real.

It’s surprising then that Intermezzo is not more frequently performed on the stage, as it is undoubted much more of a theatrical work than is it musical. The fact that this theatrical conversational drama can come across with such musicality and works so well on the stage however depends entirely on the nature of the production, and in just about every respect, this Buxton Festival production was simply outstanding - fully aware of the potential of the piece and capable of putting it across. The stage design, the costumes and the direction were an absolute joy. Every single scene struck the exact right note, with simple sets that were nonetheless pinpointed with delightful period detail. There was also remarkable precision in the setting of tone and circumstance through the use of lighting, the drama able to slip between a drawing room and a brief encounter on a ski slope with barely a pause for the cinematic intertitles to indicate the scene change. Everything about Stephen Unwin’s direction was perfectly in line with Strauss’s score and the dramatic tone and intent of the work.

Even so, Intermezzo is a work that would still be rather difficult to pull off effectively were it not able to make the characters seem human and sympathetic. In this respect Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Christine, a tremendously challenging role that despite the surface impression given is actually much warmer and human than just about any other character to be found in Strauss’s work. Utterly mesmerising, her attention to detail was evident not just in the terrific singing, but in her bearing and in the manner and timing of her delivery, which was that of a consummate actress. This was a delightful performance that drew all the potential out of the role, as well as giving something personal to it as well. Stephen Gadd was also exceptionally good as Robert Storch, similarly finding warmth and humour in the personality of the composer, singing the role well and in perfect accord with the performance of Janis Kelly. The two roles are the obviously the most vital, supported well by the reminder of the cast, all of them achieving a wonderful rapport with the fluid performance of the orchestra conducted by Stephen Barlow. Intermezzo was undoubtedly, the most accomplished achievement of this year’s Buxton Festival.

BuxtondoubleJean Sibelius - The Maiden in the Tower
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Kashchei the Immortal

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Stuart Stratford, Stephen Lawless, Kate Ladner, Emma Selway, Richard Berkeley-Steele, Robert Poulton, Owen Gilhooly | Buxton Opera House - 12 July 2012

Even though they are both very different in style, approach and meaning, there is at least one very obvious common theme between the two exceptionally near-contemporaneous rare one-act operas brought together in Buxton’s “Festival Double Bill” - both clearly deal with young women held captive in a tower by an evil, oppressive figure of power. If Jean Sibelius’s The Maiden in the Tower (Jungfrun i tornet), the composer’s only opera work, is the slighter and more superficial of the two in its treatment of this theme - both in narrative and in musical terms - it’s contrasted nonetheless to good effect in this clever pairing with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsahov’s Kashchei the Immortal, which is characteristically a richer and more complex reading of fantasy fairytale elements for this composer, aligning its themes and concept towards making a very real statement about the political situation in the Russia of its time.

The Buxton Opera production smartly avoids making reference to any early Russian turn-of-the-20th-century social or political messages, which though interesting are far from relevant today and perhaps one of the reasons why the work is so rarely staged outside of Russia. Instead, Stephen Lawless’s direction cleverly links the two works through having the same singers play corresponding/contrasting roles in both works, allowing the characterisation of the earlier Sibelius work to influence the meaning of the Rimsky-Korsakov. Removing the original context of a work and replacing it with another artificial background is of course not an uncommon practice in opera productions, but usually it is achieved through an updating or reworking of the stage setting, period and location. It’s highly unusual to see a work given a different musical background as a basis in this manner but it’s cleverly and most successfully done here in a way that doesn’t distort the deeper meaning of the two works.

It’s probably the Sibelius work however that gains the most from this double-bill enhancement. The Maiden in the Tower has a very simple storyline set at a children’s birthday party, although one immediately thinks of Oscar Wilde’s fairytale ‘The Birthday of the Infanta‘ and how dark and twisted that can be. The Maiden in the Tower does indeed set out with just such an intent, emphasised during the short overture in this production where the bailiff’s son, at his birthday party, is seen cruelly twisting off a doll’s head and furtively peeking up its skirt before donning a demon mask, effectively summarising his character is a few brief stokes - as does Sibelius in the score. When the bailiff’s son’s advances are rebuffed by a young uninvited guest, the boy has her locked away in a tower intent on having his wicked way with her. The girl’s reputation is mocked by the other guests, but her young boyfriend discovers the truth and tries to rescue her, fighting the bailiff’s son. A governess intervenes and releases the girl and the party continues without the birthday boy.

As a version of the Britten-like theme of the corruption of innocence, The Maiden in the Tower is not a terribly complex or insightful affair, the dialogue straightforward and declarative, and it’s not scored in any particularly subtle way either by Sibelius. It does however sound ravishing, with a Tchaikovsky-like Romanticism in its symphonic and folk-tinged arrangements which give strong dramatic punctuation to the Cherevichki-like folk and fairytale elements, with some wonderful chorus work that strikes those moments home even further. The piece is however given a little more edge from the stage direction which plays on the awkward age of innocent children approaching sexual awareness and makes the most of the singers evidently looking older than the children they are playing. This takes on another layer of depth when placed alongside Kashchei the Immortal. Is the kind of childish devilment and humiliation that has been inflicted at an early age capable of developing into something rather more unsettling and dangerous in later life?

Kashchei the Immortal, despite its more obviously fantastical setting, does actually suggest that this could indeed be the case with its evil magician. Played by the same actor/singer who played the bailiff’s son in The Maiden in the Tower, Kashchei has not only imprisoned a princess in his tower (Kate Ladner again the unfortunate captive), but he has brought-up his daughter Kashcheyevna to seduce and kill men in order to avenge himself “for past humiliations”. Seeing in his magic glass (an old flickering TV set here) the threat of the Princess’s lover Ivan, he dispatches the Storm Wind to warn Kashcheyevna, but his daughter finds herself unable to carry out her evil deeds despite having Ivan at her mercy. The Storm Wind, who had been held captive by Kashchei, spirits Ivan to the castle to rescue the Princess. Realising that she is in love with Ivan, who rejects her, Kashcheyevna weeps, and in displaying such emotion she brings about the destruction of Kashchei.

As well as using the same singers for similar roles, the connection between the two works in this production is evident in the subtle transformation of the same set used in both pieces and the connecting element of the demon mask, but nothing else is over-emphasised to the extent that the shadow of Sibelius lingers over Rimsky-Korsakov’s work. It does however feel appropriate that the moral of goodness triumphing over the seemingly immortal power of evil and being rewarded as promised in childhood stories does indeed be seen to be true in later adult life. In an additional twist at the conclusion however, the production realistically considers that such experiences do not come without a human cost. It’s not just “happily ever after”. The Princess, released from her captivity, the cruel ruler destroyed, curls up beside the defeated Kashchei as if having endured the captivity, she is unable to recognise freedom or in some way her inherent goodness sympathises with his predicament. It’s a truthful touch that shows that the situation has been realistically considered just as thoughtfully as Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of the work itself with its underlying real-world meaning.

The performances in this production were simply marvellous across the board, the five main singers - Kate Ladner, Emma Selway, Richard Berkeley-Steele, Robert Poulton and Owen Gilhooly - equally strong, alive to the possibilities within these enhanced characters, giving them perfect expression in the singing and in the acting. The Northern Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Stuart Stratford also delivered a stirring performance that played to the strengths of these two very different musical works in a way that also made the most of their complementary contrasts.

JephthaGeorge Friedrich Handel - Jephtha

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Harry Christophers, Frederic Wake-Walker, James Gilchrist, Susan Bickley, Gillian Keith, Jonathan Best, William Purefoy, Elizabeth Karani | Buxton Opera House - 11 July 2012

Staging a Handel oratorio is an attractive proposition, since they often contain some of his most beautiful and stirring compositions in a much freer and more varied form outside of the restrictions and conventions of the Italian opera seria, but they inevitably present certain challenges when it comes to dramatising them for the stage. Works such as Theodora and Belshazzar are indeed semi-dramatic, their religious subject sometimes the only reason preventing them being staged as operas due to English censorship restrictions of the time on the staging of biblical subjects, and they have been successfully adapted as staged opera works, as even has Messiah. Categorised as a “dramatic oratorio in three acts”, Jephtha however doesn’t actually have all that much happening in the way of action, but the qualities of the music in Handel’s final oratorio, finished while partially blind and losing his sight completely soon after, mean that it’s certainly worth trying to find a way to present it to a modern audience.

The libretto by Dr Thomas Morell presents the biblical story of Jephtha from the Book of Judges in the oratorio style of repeated declamations and pronouncements, the devout sentiments expressed in a poetic fashion with only small sections of recitative to link them together. Not a lot actually happens in the relatively straightforward story, where Zabul asks his brother Jephtha to lead the Israelites into battle against the Ammonites. If successful, Jephtha will continue to rule and he vows that if God helps him, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees on his return. It’s his daughter Iphis however who he encounters, come to meet her father. Jephtha agonises over what has happened, but intends to carry out his promise, only to be prevented at the last moment by the intervention of an angel. The biblical story is filled out (and given a happy ending) by Morell by way of Euripides, with some scenes featuring Iphis’s beloved Hamor, and Jephtha’s wife Storge lamenting the premonitions she has had of what is to befall her family.

Like opera seria work from this period, it’s difficult to stage such scenes naturalistically, and particular so in a work that was created as an oratorio, where not only is there much expression of interiorised emotions, but those expressions are particularly ‘elevated’, by which I mean relating to religious convictions and conceptual ideas more so than simply reacting to circumstances. A conventional stage setting won’t work, and might even work against such a particular means of expression, so director Frederick Wake-Walker’s approach is appropriately conceptual. Initially, the staging seems to take a leaf from the book of Christof Loy, the stage bare but for five chairs, the singers dressed formally, taking their places as if for a rehearsal of a performance, walking forward to sing from the stand placed at the front of the stage, with some brief interaction between them. The idea of it being a performance remains throughout, coming through again at the presentation of flowers at the end, but there are other elements at play here that are more difficult to pin down.

It’s left to the chorus - an important element in Handel oratorios, and the principal attraction for staging such works - to take on the task of enhancing the meaning or deeper expression in this Buxton Festival production of Jephtha. Dressed in black robes, with ruffs around their neck, quite what their movements and placements on the stage mean can’t really be defined, but in many respects, they are the embodiment of the scenery, the sentiments and the whole mood of the piece. I know that sounds like grasping for meaning, but meaning is there for the individual to find in the work and its presentation, and if you are attempting to express dark thoughts and “scenes of horror”, then this approach is much more appropriate than setting it in a countryside location or some such naturalistic location. The measure of whether this approach works or not is in whether the full force of the work comes across without the need for literalism (which would be difficult to find in this work in any case), and there was no question that it served Handel and Morell’s work exceptionally well.

Just as vital, if not evidently more so, is the musical accompaniment and the singing, and in that respect, the staging supported what was being expressed here and didn’t detract from it. The playing from the Orchestra of the Sixteen in the pit conducted by Harry Christophers was marvellous, finding the drama in the music itself and working in accord with the singers. The role of Jephtha has the widest variety of emotions, from angry declamation and fervent passion though to complete dejection and soft humility, and James Gilchrist matched the tone and delivery for each sentiment perfectly. This is a wonderful work however for the variety of voices and in how they work together side-by-side in individual sections, but also in unison in duets and trios. Susan Bickley’s Storge, Gillian Keith’s Iphis and countertenor William Purefoy’s Hamor were all outstanding in this respect, each fully characterising their roles through the voice even more so than through the expression of somewhat obscure pronouncements. Jonathan Best and Elizabeth Karani in the smaller roles of Zebul and Angel fitted wonderfully into this arrangement, an arrangement of voices and expression that is amplified by Handel’s choral writing, delivered passionately by the Festival Chorus.

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