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S & H Opera Review

Puccini: Madam Butterfly London City Opera, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 26th December. (M.E.)

London City Opera, formerly Crystal Clear Opera, has for many years had the laudable aim of making opera available, understandable and affordable to all, and I am sure that if I still lived in the wilds of rural Northumberland I should be suitably grateful for their existence, but whether or not they should be performing in London, even during the doldrums of the post-Christmas season, is highly debatable.

This production, previously seen in such venues as Lincoln's Theatre Royal, is very simple in conception, based mainly around sliding screen doors and some pesky slatted screens, and it is very beautifully lit in shades of apricot, azure and rose, colours which also form the basis of the pretty costumes. Movement and acting are basic and amiably carried out, but without any special distinction. The Crystal Clear Orchestra play well under Stuart Stratford's direction, managing to make the most of their very limited numbers; string playing was particularly noteworthy, with some success at suggesting the vigorous romantic sweep of Puccini's score.

A review of the performance at Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre suggested that this "Madam Butterfly" is a nice gentle introduction for anyone who isn't sure whether or not they like opera; the problem is, that this kind of grand romantic opera really needs great voices, or at least voices which have a youthful potential to soar, and with one exception, no such voices were on display on this evening. So much depends upon Cio-Cio-San herself, and Fiona O'Neill was, to put it kindly, unlikely to win any competition for the "most credible impersonator of a girl of 'quindici'anni'..." since both her voice and presence are matronly, and her acting suggested self - confidence rather than delicacy. Her voice is a capable one, but lacking in warmth and sweetness, and her 'Vogliatemi bene' failed to move me, as did her "Un bel di," after which she indulged in some unnecessarily diva-ish gestures.

Her Pinkerton was the graceful ex-dancer Antoni Garfield Henry, who made as much as he could of this ungrateful role, whilst never suggesting that one might wish to hear him in other, more rewarding parts. Kate Woolveridge made a sensible, credible Suzuki, her unaffected stage presence and rich mezzo providing much of the pleasure of the evening. The undoubted star of the production was the Sharpless, Jonathan Gunthorpe, the one singer on stage with a really impressive operatic voice; he is also a gifted actor who made the role completely credible as well as singing it with some distinction. His voice is soft-grained yet gives hints of darker tones, and some of his phrasing reminded me of Norman Bailey's style; he is clearly a baritone to watch.

A full house received the performance with what might best be described as modified rapture, and I am sure that it has been, and will be, appreciated more gratefully in areas where there is less competition; that being said, it does the mainstream houses no harm to be reminded that one does not always need to pay large sums to hear respectable singing and see a credible though hardly life-enhancing production.

Melanie Eskenazi

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