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S & H Opera Reviews

Welsh National Opera in London and Oxford (PGW)


BEETHOVEN Leonore conductor:Yves Abel, starring Franzita Whelan
BERLIOZ Beatrice & Benedict conductor: Jean-Yves Ossonce, starring Ann Murray and Paul Nilon. Sadler's Wells, London 9 & 11 October 2001

STRAUSS Salome conductor:Carlo Rizzi, starring Eliane Coelho. Apollo Theatre, Oxford 15 March 2002

WNO had taken a gamble, perhaps, in choosing two marginal operas for their eagerly awaited visit to London, instead of going to Oxford as usual. Both were given on touring sets which only half filled the Sadler's Wells stage, those for Leonore distinctly basic. This earlier version is well worth studying, but of dubious viability in the opera house. It was a long evening, and confirmed what we all know; Beethoven's revision as the Fidelio we love was better by far. The production was stiff, with the grouping of the prisoners unnatural (bringing to mind, by contrast, a wonderfully moving shoe-string production of Fidelio by Opera Kent, with a chorus of only 6 prisoners). The cast, led by Franzita Whelan as the eponymous cross-dressed heroine, was satisfactory and Yves Abel conducted briskly, but this was not one of Welsh Opera's most memorable productions.

Beatrice & Benedict went far better. Again, Berlioz's opera is not one that will ever hold an assured place in the repertoire, but its weaknesses are forgiven for some marvellous music on the way. Placed in a glowing Sicilian setting, Elijah Moshinsky directs it affectionately, and the original words of Shakespeare used in this English version gave style to the spoken parts. Ann Murray as Beatrice and Paul Nilon (Benedict) sparred and made up as they must, but Rebecca Evans (Hero) sometimes upstaged them with the most ear-warming singing. Donald Maxwell was very funny as the choirmaster, Somarone, who represents those clowns who usually counterpoint the romantic and tragic in Shakespeare's plays, though this character is not to be found in Much Ado About Nothing.

However, from press seats in the middle of the Circle the evenings were dominated by the dry acoustics of the rebuilt Sadler's Wells - the previous theatre was held in affection by older opera goers. The new one compares very unfavourably with Oxford's Apollo Theatre, to which we have made regular pilgrimages to review WNO. There (with no orchestra pit) everything is vivid & the sound full and enveloping. At Sadler's Wells spoken texts came across with admirable clarity, but the excessive dryness of the acoustics played havoc with the music, tending to drain it of life and feeling. The Beatrice & Benedict overture was given in a determined but unyielding, militaristic vein, and the orchestra sounded scrawny, with strings distictly fallible. Conductor Jean-Yves Ossonce made no allowance for the instantaneous cut-off and (from where we sat) the zero resonance of this unsympathetic venue. Perhaps we had been unduly spoilt by our recent experience of the state-of-the-art acoustics in Lucerne? Settle instead for the fine Sir Colin Davis account on LSO-Live CDS 0004, recorded at The Barbican June 2000, with spoken text omitted - a recommendable bargain, with full notes and synopsis by David Cairns and bilingual texts.

Salome in Oxford by contrast was a great theatrical and operatic experience - and a great day out in Oxford - in which all the components came together. Amidst all the British self-flagellation about our appalling and apparently incurably transport systems, spare a hurrah for the Oxford Tube, which will whisk you comfortably from Victoria right to the Apollo Theatre and back again for 7, departing every 12 minutes! In the afternoon, Trauma at the Museum of Modern Art, including a topically salutary film about hijacking through the decades, a quite remarkable exhibition with drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, video and installation - a National Touring Exhibition organised by the Hayward for the Arts Council; try to catch it somewhere near you.

This healthy revival of a landmark co-production with Scottish Opera of Salome was in fine fettle. Eliane Coelho acts her every minute on stage completely in character. Instead of going through the tired old seven veils routine, she waltzes lasciviously with Herod (Robin Leggate, restored to fine vocal health after having had to be replaced at the Cardiff premiere (q.v. TheOperaCritic). Hers is the best all round performance of this taxing role I have ever seen, and she sings beautifully - uglily too as she insistently screws up her demand for "the ultimate accolade any performer has ever received, the decapitated head of one's choice" (Adrian Mourby). WNO's comprehensive programme books, full of informative essays, are the best I know of any UK company - Simon Phillippo on The music of Salome is especially illuminating.

André Engel & associate director Aidan Lang achieve a convincing sense of place with Nick Rieti's set (elaborate for a touring show) and the costumes (Elizabeth Neumuller) update the dreadful little shocker to around Oscar Wilde's own time. There are a few little oddities that might be improved; Narraboth's suicide (Peter Hoare) could be better managed, the cache of priceless jewels to entice Salome were brought out of a seemingly unlocked trap-door in the middle of the stage and, before Jokaanan's entry from the 'cistern' (Matthew Best in commanding gesture and stentorian voice), the billowing clouds of dry ice suggested a lid being taken off a pressure cooker rather than desert wind - but those are small caveats in an overall production which wears its 14 years well.

But what set the particular seal upon the experience was the generous and clear acoustic of the Apollo Theatre and the WNO orchestra under Carlo Rizzi, the company's former Musical Director (1992-2001). Arrayed beneath us in a wide semi-circle at floor level (not hidden in a pit) the sight of the orchestra in front of the stage was good to see, with its sound magnificent and at climaxes suitably overwhelming. The singers, however, were rarely drowned, showing Strauss's skill in deploying his huge forces, and we were aided (and not at all distracted) by being able to glance briefly at the sur-titles to keep us on course. A great deal to savour - and to read - on the Oxford Tube homeward-bound to London.

Peter Grahame Woolf


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