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The Magic Flute; Rigoletto; Iolanta & The Nutcracker Suite
Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome June 21-23 2005

WNO's touring schedule brought them to Birmingham this week with a new production of The Magic Flute , a revival of Rigoletto , and a concert performance of a rare Tchaikovsky double-bill. As well as the heat wave, they had to contend with a spate of indispositions amongst the singers, including two leading ladies, and it no small credit to the company that they were able to fill the gaps apparently seamlessly.

The Magic Flute - 21 June 2005

Conductor : Jean-Yves Ossonce
Director : Dominic Cooke
Designer : Julian Crouch

This new production is set in the surrealist world of René Magritte's paintings. The action takes place within a rectilinear space constructed from precisely lined boarding, punctuated by numerous sets of three doors, under the familiar constant blue sky with puffy white clouds. Sarastro's kingdom is peopled with bowler-hatted, umbrella carrying orange suited figures, often just their heads appearing through trap doors in the floor. Magritte's frequent combination of two or more expressions of reality in the same image relates well to the essential ambiguity of Mozart's characters and gives the opportunity for some striking visual effects which clearly appealed to the audience: the serpent is depicted as a massive rolling-eyed lobster, the three boys cycle through the air on a wheeled fish skeleton, and the animals charmed by Tamino's flute were in turn completely charming. Perhaps inspiration flagged a little by the end and I was surprised that the Papageno - Papagena duet in Act 2, usually accompanied by the appearance of nests/eggs, prams/dolls etc, was left unillustrated - sure not an opportunity Magritte would have missed.

The work was presented in Jeremy Sams' translation, and the audience clearly had not need of surtitles to appreciate the words and comedy.

Pamina was sung by Elizabeth Atherton the absence of the indisposed Rebecca Evans. Atherton is scheduled to take over the part later in the tour and she has the right vulnerability and sweetness of tone for the role. Tamino (Peter Wedd - pictured) skilfully managed the progress from fear and confusion in a strange world to determination to win through any ordeal, but his voice sounded under strain at times in the first act.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes , who represented New Zealand in the 1999 Cardiff Singer of the World competition was a direct and "full in your face" Papageno. His is a strong and melodious baritone, but a little more variety in volume would have been welcome.

The three ladies ( Elizabeth Donovan , Julianne Young and Antonia Sotgiu ), demurely dressed in parlourmaids' uniform with more than a glimpse of scarlet petticoats, were well matched vocally and presented nice cameos. The Queen of Night was sung by Katarzyna Dondalska , a 2001 "Cardiff Singer" entrant from Poland , but this was clearly not her night. It's a hard enough role to sing in any event, but hampered by high heels and a hooped costume that seemed as hard to manoeuvre as one of those supermarket trolleys whose wheels are permanently locked in the wrong direction, proved too much of a challenge.

A rather less than dominant Sarastro was well sung by Brindley Sherratt , but watch out for David Soar (leaving the WNO Chorus for National Opera Studio in September) who will take over the role from 5-12 July. As Speaker, Matthews Hargreaves sang with exemplary diction, and his tall thin frame was particularly suited to the Magritte costuming.

The WNO orchestra were in the experienced hands of Jean-Yves Ossonce .

Rigoletto - 22 June 2005

Conductor : Michal Klauza
Director : James Macdonald
Designer : Robert Innes Hopkins

This production, first seen in Cardiff in 2002, moves the setting to the Washington of the JFK era, which works well dramatically especially in the Capitol Hill "court scenes" Rigoletto's home and the inn scene survive the move less happily, and the contradictions to the text displayed in Simon Rees's excellent surtitles become more bothersome.

Michel Klauza's sensitive conducting brought out the best in the orchestra. Klauza, a relative newcomer to the WNO podium, trained both in his native Poland and in St Petersburg under the legendary Prof Ilya Musin . I look forward to his return for "The Merry Widow" this autumn.

In the title role, Jonathan Summers gave a fully mature and assured interpretation both musically and dramatically. His daughter Gilda, was sung by Olga Trifonova , whose polished Mariinsky trained voice was perhaps a little too sophisticated for a teenager in bobby -sox . Wynne Evans is an accomplished actor well able to portray the dual aspects of playboy and power figure in the Duke's character, as well as a true Italianate tenor.

The predominantly male chorus were in fine voice, clearly relishing their roles as men behaving badly!

Iolanta & The Nutcracker Suite - 23 June 2005

Camilla Roberts as Iolanta – (GSMD November 2001)

In 1891 Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write a double bill consisting of a one act opera, Iolanta and a two act ballet The Nutcracker. Such an extravaganza is beyond current resources but, by combining the orchestral suite from The Nutcracker with a concert performance of Iolanta, WNO served up just such a lavish musical feast in which both orchestral playing and singing sensational.

Vassily Sinaisky was an ideal conductor; his meticulous attention to details brought out every nuance in the scores and an authentically Russian sound.

E T A Hoffman's fable, The Nutcracker and The Mouse King, telling of a little girl's nightmare in which a Nutcracker leads a Victorious army of toy soldiers against the sinister mice who infest her home, is the basis for the ballet, and Sinaisky's interpretation emphasised this rather dark and scary side of the action. A giant angled mirror was suspended above the orchestra giving an extra dimension to the audience's view and a rare chance to watch the celeste and harps being played.

Iolanta also has fairy tale qualities, being set in the 15 th century realm of good king René of Provence about whom legends abound. His blind daughter, Iolanta, lives in a secluded garden ignorant of her blindness. She is cured with the help of a mysterious eastern doctor and the arrival of a knight who repeatedly asks her to pick him a red rose, only to be presented with a series of white ones, and awakens her love and desire to see. Her full happiness is assured when Robert of Burgundy, to whom she has been betrothed since childhood, admits that he loves another, and King René quickly agrees to a new match for his daughter. The libretto, by Tchaikovsky's brother Modest, does little to enhance the dramatic possibilities, and despite some wonderful music, the piece has been largely neglected.

WNO fielded a uniformly strong cast. Ilya Bannik , looking remarkably like the statue of Roi René at the top of the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence , is a thrilling bass, with strength and beauty in his voice throughout the range. Vladimir Moroz's velvety baritone gave a most persuasive account as Robert's lament in praise of his absent love Mathilde, and Peter Hoare , who had learnt the role of Vaudémont in a mere six weeks, gave an impassioned and polished performance, sounding every inch a Russian tenor. But the evening belonged to Camilla Roberts [pictured], who sang the title role at less than an hour's notice, following the indisposition of Nuccia Focile. Fresh from representing Wales in Cardiff Singer of the World, she walked onto the platform looking calm and confident and every inch a princess. She had the advantage of having sung the role in a fully staged performance at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2001, and she built on that experience to give a really superb performance.

The cast also included two entrants from the 2003 Cardiff Singer competition, Elizabeth Donovan ( Wales ) as Brigitta and Pavel Baransky ( Ukraine ) as Ibn-Hakia, underlining the general high quality of singing being presented.

The only problem was one of stage space. The slightly reduced chorus were seated at the back, the orchestra filled the centre of the stage, and the ten soloists were seated in line at the front. Some dramatic interaction was possible between singers standing next to each other, but too often characters were widely separated and could not even establish eye contact. The performance will be repeated at the Proms on 15 August, when hopefully more flexible positioning can be arranged on a larger platform area. It is certainly a concert not to be missed.

Serena Fenwick

© Peter Grahame Woolf