Welsh national opera

Think flute-playing Sir Keir will rescue opera? Look at Labour-run Wales

A tale of two opera companies from the Land of Song. After its distinctly gamey new Cosi fan tutte, Welsh National Opera has sprung dazzlingly back to form with a new production of Benajmin Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice. It’s directed by Olivia Fuchs, in collaboration with the circus artists of NoFit State, and in a word, it’s masterful. Fuchs’s Serenissima is a city of shadow, its landmarks glimpsed distantly in smudged, restless scraps of black and white film. The tourists and locals wear monochrome period dress; only Aschenbach (Mark Le Brocq) is in a noncommittal grey. The colour has drained from his world and from the peripheries of

WNO sinks an unsinkable opera: The Magic Flute, at Birmingham Hippodrome, reviewed

As stage directions go, the The Magic Flute opens with a zinger. ‘Tamino enters from the right wearing a splendid Japanese hunting costume.’ That’s right, a Japanese hunting costume. What does that even look like? More to the point, what would a Viennese theatrical costume designer in 1791 have thought it looked like? Surviving evidence suggests that the answer was ‘nothing on Earth’, which is handy because it gives subsequent interpreters a huge amount of licence. Schikaneder’s rag-bag libretto has its quirks and non sequiturs, but it’s an astonishingly robust piece of theatre. I’ve seen The Magic Flute done as panto, as manga, as gothic fantasy and as 1970s British

A fine cast, superbly conducted – just don’t overthink the production: Royal Opera’s Lohengrin reviewed

To be a Wagnerite is to enter the theatre in a state of paranoia. Mainstream culture has decided that Wagner was uniquely wicked; that’s just how it is, and it’s futile to retort that we seem comparatively relaxed about, say, Richard Strauss’s membership of the Reichsmusikkammer, or Stravinsky’s post-1945 anti-Semitism. Or that within recent memory Prokofiev’s October Cantata was presented in the UK as a bit of kitschy fun. (Never mind the dead kulaks: enjoy those accordions!) True, Wagner was an immeasurably greater artist, so he should be held to higher standards. No quarrel with that, at least not here and not now. But it does mean that in any

Madam Butterfly and a pointless discussion about colonialism

Welsh National Opera’s new version of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly opens today. To help audiences understand the opera’s historical significance this week the producers staged an online discussion, ‘The Long Arm of Imperialism.’  It was chaired by professor Priyamvada Gopal who teaches postcolonial studies at Cambridge. She began by reminding us that many of the greatest operas in the canon were written in the 19th century, ‘when 85 per cent of the earth was, in some form or other, annexed to the cultural project…so there is no culture untouched by that project.’ In addition, she said, the concept of west-versus-east was a creation of colonialism: ‘The familiar categories of the west and the east…are

More Grace Kelly than Grace Jones: Welsh National Opera’s Carmen reviewed

How do you take your Carmen? Sun-drenched exotic fantasy with a side order of castanets, or cool and gritty, sour with violence and politics? Jo Davies’s new production for Welsh National Opera seems unable to make up its mind. Sternly rejecting colour and fantasy, it then fails to commit to an alternative, leaving both its heroine and audience stranded in an unlovely theatrical no-man’s land. Programme notes place us in contemporary Brazil, in a favela painted in unvarying textures of brown and steel. But there’s little in the action to confirm this. Who are the soldiers that guard the compound with desultory inefficiency, and what is their relationship to the

Deft and daft

Operas are like buses. Both are filled with pensioners and take ages to get anywhere, but more importantly they always seem to arrive en masse. You wait ages for a Magic Flute, then five come along at once. Opera North started us off in January, Welsh National Opera and English National Opera are currently following suit, with Scottish Opera and Glyndebourne covering the summer shift. It’s a mess and, when you consider that at least four of these are touring with inevitable overlap, a wanton, self-destructive splitting of an already small opera-going audience. With more Flutes than a school wind-band to choose from this season you can afford to be

The Berlioz problem

Hector Berlioz was born on 11 December 1803 in rural Isère. ‘During the months which preceded my birth my mother never dreamed, as Virgil’s did, that she was about to bring forth a laurel branch,’ he writes in his Memoirs. ‘This is extraordinary, I agree, but it is true… Can it be that our age is lacking in poetry?’ And so on, for nearly 600 candid, facetious, outspoken pages. Berlioz’s Memoirs are the inner voice of the Romantic generation as you’ve always imagined it, and everyone who’s interested in music in the 19th century — no, scrub that, everyone who’s interested in European culture — should read them. As a

Pole apart

Alas, poor André Tchaikowsky. A survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, with an assumed name that probably did his musical career as much harm as good (he was born Robert Andrzej Krauthammer), he died of cancer in 1982 shortly after his only opera, The Merchant of Venice, was rejected by ENO. He’s remembered today principally for bequeathing his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company for use as a prop, in which capacity he starred alongside David Tennant in Hamlet in 2008. That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once. Welsh National Opera’s programme book doesn’t credit the skull that’s removed from Portia’s casket in Keith Warner’s UK première

Speech impediment | 19 May 2016

‘So you’re going to see the gay sex opera?’ exclaimed my friend, open-mouthed. People certainly seem to have had some odd preconceptions about Mark Simpson’s new chamber opera Pleasure. The distinguished critic of the Daily Telegraph let it be known that he awaited ‘with trepidation, something set in the lavatories of a gay nightclub’. And to be fair, the news that Pleasure was to star Lesley Garrett — last seen in Welsh National Opera’s Chorus! ascending to the heavens aboard an enormous pair of lips — didn’t exactly dampen suspicions that we were about to see some sort of camp spectacular: Adès’s Powder Her Face meets RuPaul’s Drag Race. In

Not a pretty sight

‘Forget Downton Abbey!’ exhorts David Pountney in the programme for Figaro Forever, Welsh National Opera’s season of Beaumarchais operas, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and Elena Langer’s Figaro Gets a Divorce. ‘A televisual age in which the vast narrative panorama of a “series” strung out across many episodes seems to capture people’s imaginations is perhaps exactly the right moment to follow the fortunes of the Count and Rosina, their servant Figaro and his fiancée, Susanna,’ he continues. What WNO’s artistic director means is the opposite of what he says. The reader is in fact being asked to remember Downton and make an improbable connection between the unpredictable

Lost boys

In Beryl Bainbridge’s novel An Awfully Big Adventure the producer Meredith Potter issues a doughty injunction on the subject of staging Peter Pan: ‘I am not qualified to judge whether the grief his mother felt on the death of his elder brother had an adverse effect on Mr Barrie’s emotional development, nor do I care one way or the other. We all have our crosses to bear. Sufficient to say that I regard the play as pure make-believe. I don’t want any truck with symbolic interpretations.’ Symbolic interpretation hangs heavily over the rough-and-tumble jumble of Janacek, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Satie, Handel, Vivaldi, sea shanties and klezmer in Lavinia Greenlaw and Richard

ENO’s The Girl of the Golden West is irresistibly seductive

Puccini’s La fanciulla del West is, one suspects, one of those works that modern audiences struggle to keep a straight face through. The hero, for a start, decides to call himself Dick Johnson. The piece’s Wild West trappings, long since staled into Hollywood cliché, still seem a strange fit for the operatic stage (it was performed here as The Girl of the Golden West, with Kelley Rourke’s translation delivered in a variety of American accents). The redemptive, into-the-sunset conclusion takes for granted a belief that capitalism in its most primitive, brutal form could leave a group of hardened Gold Rush miners capable of forgiveness. That it might have done, ENO’s

Robo-Tell hits Welsh National Opera

Is there a fundamental, insuperable problem with staging Rossini’s Guillaume Tell on a budget, without the resources to conjure up the sense of scale that was part of grand opéra’s appeal and raison d’être? Take away the special effects, whip away the phantasmagorical curtain, and, as with any Hollywood blockbuster, you are left with a modest little plot whirring away at its centre. In Tell, this involves the love between Arnold and Mathilde across a national divide. It’s the struggle of the Swiss — in a time before neutrality and cuckoo clocks — against their Austrian oppressors that, along with the Alps, forms the backdrop. Rossini’s score can occasionally seem

WNO’s production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is an overwhelming experience – but make sure you close your eyes

On paper, Moses und Aron might seem intractable and abstract: a 12-tone score setting a libretto that meditates on God, faith, the essential inadequacy of language to express the ineffable, and a great deal more. Put it in the theatre, as Welsh National Opera has done as the first part of its ‘Faith’ mini-season, and it’s an overwhelming experience, compelling because of, rather than in spite of, its subject matter and musical methods. And just over 80 years after Schoenberg stopped work on it (he left it incomplete, having written only a fragmentary text for the third act), its themes are as pertinent as ever. Political parallels with a people

Opera’s fallen women

Opera’s grim fascination with ‘fallen women’ — as Welsh National Opera has called its latest mini-season — lies largely in the spectacle of the fall itself. But in Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, the composer’s 1952 operatic debut, the heroine — a tart denied even a heart — starts off near the bottom; her fall is less precipitous than those in the other two operas the company has chosen for its theme, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Verdi’s La traviata. Like Puccini’s opera (and Massenet’s Manon), Henze’s is based on an 18th-century novel by the Abbé Prévost. But it updates the action to shortly after the second world war: the warm

Manon Lescaut is twerking — should we applaud or shudder? 

Last seen clambering over the MDF wheelchair ramps of Laurent Pelly’s Royal Opera House production of Jules Massenet’s opéra comique, Manon the minx, the ‘sphinx étonnant’ of Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, reappears in two guises as part of Welsh National Opera’s Fallen Women season; as the heroine of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and the antiheroine of Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, both directed by Mariusz Trelinski. The connection between her story and La traviata, the third opera in WNO’s season, is deeper than a coincidence of job descriptions. In La dame aux camélias, the source for Verdi’s opera, Marguerite’s lover, Armand, buys

The state of opera today (it’s not good)

I’ve been hoping that in this, the last of my weekly columns on opera, I would be able to strike a positive, even cheerful note on the present and future of the art form, but honesty compels me to say that I don’t think it is in very good shape. Not, probably, that it has ever been, or at least only for brief periods. Owing to its mongrel nature, there has usually been a tendency for one or other of its ingredients to lord it over the others, so that the ideal balance of music and drama, spectacle and action, personalised in the collaboration of singers and conductors, stage directors