Tuesday 14 December 2021

STUDENT OPERA REVIEW: Double Bill - The RNCM, Manchester.

In between pantomimes and children's theatre, what better than to get your teeth into something a little more meaty; and the RNCM's Opera students have just the thing: a double bill of 20th Century operas which are just about as far removed from Christmas as anything could be. 

Annoyingly (and one supposes dur to covid) there were no programmes available, except by an app on the mobile phone. However, surely, if you are using the app during the opera then the phone is switched on, which goes against standard theatre etiquette (?)... Moreover, for the poor folks like myself who don't have a Smart-phone, my only recourse being to come home and read the online programme on the computer long after the opera has finished, I found inadequate and unsatisfying. 

However, back to the operas themselves:

The piece chosen to open the double bill with was Richard Strauss's prologue to his opera, 'Ariadne Auf Naxos'. I know the music but have never seen a performance of it before. Here, the setting had been updated to 1973 (the opera was written in 1912), and we are backstage at a Vienna conservatoire. Two different companies of theatrical performers have assembled in order to present their shows to their benefactor (who is currently dining), but since the dinner is overrunning, and the fireworks have been planned for 9pm, the two shows must be performed simultaneously! This is horrifing news for the composer of the serious opera (Ariadne Auf Naxos), whilst the burlesque comedy troupe take it all with a pinch of salt. However, reluctantly, they agree, and just as the curtain closes, the composer gets a glimpse of what a catastrophic and shambolic mess he has agreed to.

Strauss's music is sweeping, lyrical and firmly rooted in the Late Romantic period, despite it's 20th century composition date. It harks back to a time when Grand Opera and Musical Comedy were, even more so than they are now, completely separate styles of entertainment and could not possibly be integrated. Bouffon style commedia-dell'arte performers, jugglers, acrobats, and other such performers, which would probably be more at home in a Circus these days, were the order of the day in one camp, whilst, prima donnas, lengthy, dramatic arias, and death scenes dominated Grand Opera. The premise is therefore hugely comedic and we (as audience) should find this hilarious, and be at the edge of our seats waiting for the main body of the opera to see just how ridiculous this is. 

Setting the opera in 1973, (why that year specifically?) we lose all of this.. musical theatre has moved on apace! Meaning that sadly, that was not the case with this production. Directed by Stuart Barker with Muscial Direction by Peter Robinson, my feelings were that the music was not light and ebullient in any way, and we were given Germanic Wagenerian majesty throughout the whole piece; whilst on stage, the comedy players showed little or no signs of comedy, buffoonery, commedia dell'arte or indeed anything. Zerbinetta, the leading lady of the comedy troupe, was dressed ready to do a tightrope walk, but was not given any comedy in her role at all; whilst the rest of the comedy players looked more like they belonged to an adult cast of 'Bugsy Malone', but again, provided little or no comedy relief throughout. The pace of the opera was very slow, and so despite the cast doing everything in their power to give performances of a lifetime, it dragged. Even when Barker had filled the stage and given the ensemble lots of business to do around and behind the lead singers, it still didn't make the atmosphere on stage any lighter; and between watching the principals, the actions around them, and reading the subtitles on the sides of the stage, it became rather confusing.

The cast sang in German, and it was, by and large, excellent, and I understood it all (I am a fluent German speaker). The entire cast are worthy of note, and it would be wrong (or perhaps even impossible) for me to single any one out over and above. The quality of their singing and their belief in the production incredible, from students who are one short step away from being taken up by the likes of ENO, WNO or similar.

The set was intelligently thought through, and I truly liked the idea of opening up the rear of the stage at the end to reveal the 'stage'. This worked excellently, and indeed, I also liked the directorial segue into the second piece by starting after the interval (more or less), where we left off. Clever.

The second opera, after the interval was Menotti's 'The Medium'. It is an opera I am unfamiliar with, and so was watching this for the first time, although I am familiar with his work, and indeed sang the role of Amahl in 'Amahl And The Night Visitors' when my voice was still "unbroken".. however....

Here we are at the home of Madame Flora (or Baba as she is known), who is a local medium and holds regular seances in her home. She has a daughter, Monica, and a young mute boy, Toby, she rescued from the streets of Budapest living with them. After one particular seance Baba feels a ghostly presence around her neck and is unable to explain it, so tries to convince herself that it was Toby. Toby however is in love with Monica but since he is mute cannot express this, and refuses to even communicate at all with Baba, which drives her to a state of distraction. In the second act of the opera (through-performed), the regulars return for their seance, but Baba is both quite drunk and so disturbed by the ghostly touching that she reveals herself as a fraud, and throws the guests out, as well as kicking poor Toby back out on the streets again. She becomes more and more drunk and eventually passes out. It is at this point that the libretto and Stuart Barker's direction seem to differ greatly. Already we are completely uncertain about Toby.. is he real, a figment of their imagination, or a ghost, it isn't clear. And yet, in this version, when Toby returns to the house to try and see Monica again finding her door locked, he accidently awakens Baba who doesn't see him or try to shoot him, but instead, he opens the door for Monica, and she is then shot by he mother and dies, with the final picture of Toby, smiling, holding a hand out for Monica to come and join him; meaning that he must already be a ghost.

This production used lighting to great effect; in fact it was the mood, look, and feel of this opera which seemed to matter more to Barker, than clarity of content. using a tacet ensemble of ghosts to fill the bare stage, and use creative and stark lighting contrasts between the living and the dead. 

The principal role of Mme Flora (Baba), was performed this evening by Sasja Haeck, who was tall, thin, commanding, controlling, and in charge. Her descent into drunkenness and full delerious stupor was too little too late however, and it was impossible to believe that she would resort to whips and pistols when she wasn't signposted earlier as a matriarch and a lush, more than slightly off balance. I thoroughly enjoyed her singing however.

In fact, the singing was second to none from all, and Pasquale Orchard playing the role of Monica was in a word, superb. The RNCM proving once again that their students are indeed 'world class', displaying a quality of training and innert ability that is almost nigh impossible to beat.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 13.12.21

No comments:

Post a Comment