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A WEEK OF "OPERA" at Oxford, Holland Park and Islington
(Jephtha, Don Giovanni, L'Arlesiana & Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?)

Handel: Jephtha WNO, Apollo Theatre Oxford 4 July 2003
Mark Padmore (Jephtha)
Christopher Purves (Zebul)
Susan Bickley (Storge)
Sarah Tynan (Iphis)
Daniel Taylor (Hamor)
Charlotte Ellett (Angel)
Katie Mitchell (director)
Vicki Mortimer (design)
Struan Leslie (movement)
Chris Davey (lighting)
WNO Orchestra and Chorus Paul McCreesh (conductor)

Handel's oratorios provide a rich quarry for thoughtful theatrical production. This is a vindication for their staging, equally revelatory as the Guildhall SCM's Susanna and, by all accounts, the Early Opera Company's very different staging of the same work, now touring UK. It does not - cannot - quite make Jephtha into an 'opera'.

Kate Mitchell's production for WNO of Jephtha, seen at Oxford 's Apollo Theatre, where operas always sound good, exemplifies the great ingenuity needed to turn to advantage the inherent problems posed here, these to do with pacing and with the important role of the chorus. Morrell's libretto for Jephtha brings together elements of familiar myth about Abraham and Isaac, Idomeneo and Idamante, Iphis close to Iphigenia, all brought out in a series of fascinating and genuinely illuminating essays in the programme (none are worthier of permanent places in your library than WNO's pocket-size booklets, this one complete with libretto). Whereas Idomeneo at Glyndebourne may be depicted struggling onto the seashore only to confront his son on the beach, Handel's victorious Jephtha here meets his daughter coming down the stairs to greet him in a fully populated government centre and has to confront the significance of his rash vow in public. But suspension of disbelief has always been part and parcel of opera, so this is no great hurdle for the audience.

There are many paradoxes in the story line, summarised well by Helen Elsom in one of her always thorough & analytic reviews in ConcertoNet, which I commend. Here, I want to stress the amazing recent development of movement in opera, stand-&-deliver nearly a thing of the past, the chorus comprising individuals who react in so many ways, producing thereby a vibrant, living picture - one viewing is insufficient to take in all the ideas suggested. That it was going to be special was apparent from the first moments, in which we happen upon the Zebul (Christopher Purves) in discussion of political options for the state - he urges the return of the exiled Jephtha who strikes a deal and ultimately takes on the reins of government, but only after his rash literalness in pursuing what he conceives to be his obligation is thwarted by the Angel, who has been in attendance throughout in this conception. In normal oratorio performance, Zebul is a less than enthralling character; and so it goes on for the whole cast, with singing and orchestral support to match the acting, lighting and marvellous chorus work. There is so much detail to admire, which must have required a great deal of coordination in preparation by Kate Mitchell and her collaborators - especially Struan Leslie to single out one of them.

One could go on at infinite length, but there were three more music theatre events covered that week; next evening, 5 July, the second performance at Oxford of WNO's revival of Don Giovanni. This should perhaps not detain us so long - there were problems with the musical direction being taken over that night by Anthony Negus, whose faster tempi (without rehearsal) seemed to throw some of the singers, who did not adjust immediately and lagged behind the beat; a review of it under Tugan Sokhiev indicates that musically it was rather different at Cardiff. Of the women, Catrin Wyn Davies was particularly affecting in her vacillations between suspicion and misplaced trust, but seemed unduly rushed in her 2nd act aria. Kate Mitchell'sl inventive production had some unusual reversals - the off-stage bands on stage, and the Don left on stage instead of running off to escape the masked pursuers. The Commendatore's memorial statue, linked to a copy of Fra Angelico's Christ in Majesty, humanised Christopher Purves's presence as the Don's guest for his last supper. Revived under the care of Elaine Kidd, the production flowed convincingly in the first act but less so towards the end; not WNO at its greatest that night, but this is bound to happen with a touring company.

Cilea: L'Arlesiana Opera Holland Park, 6 July 2003
Rosa Mamai – Rosalind Plowright
Vasilly Savenko - Baldassare
Federico – Sean Ruane
Vivetta – Kate Ladner
Metifio - Nicholas Todorovic
Marco - William Peel
L’innocente – Zoe Todd
Director Jamie Hayes
Conductor Charles Peebles
Designer Peter Rice
Lighting Designer Roger Frith

So back to London and another triumph in Holland Park. L'Arlesiana was produced successfully by Opera Holland Park in 1998 but this new production makes even finer use of the setting and semi-rural surroundings and the huge width of the canopied stage. It brings the action into the auditorium and even places some important scenes in front of the orchestra, all done with great panache and attention to detail, and naturalness. As with WNO's Jephtha, we have again chorus, and too children, in character, so as to bring to life the feeling of a community. The story is complex enough to hold interest to the end and I find the score captivating and under-rated by many commentators.

Charles Peebles has the orchestra playing idiomatically, and this evening can be strongly recommended to doubters for the real 'Italian opera' experience, with lots of local colour, and a good strong plot with dramatic contrasts - the betrothal feast is disrupted with a magnificent fight and total mayhem, and presiding over the family and the opera is the baleful figure of a destructive, possessive mother who precipitates the conflicts and finally suicide of her too well-loved older son, who is torn between duty and his own surrender to the charms of the girl from Arles, who we never see. All this is managed by Jamie Hayes on sets by the veteran designer Peter Rice, and from seats near the front it was possible to see the surtitles and follow the twists and turns of the story which gradually uncovers the fragile relationships around the frustrated and hysterical mother of Rosalind Plowright, a thin figure suggesting a lack of genuine warmth (especially towards her handicapped younger son) and packing a powerful punch vocally. The principals are cast from strength and we were particularly pleased to see, as the wise shepherd Baldassare, the sonorous Russian bass Vassily Savenko, who had emigrated from the Soviet Republic to UK and initially had some difficulty re-establishing a career based in England. Kate Ladner as the besotted and gullible Vivetta (something of a Micaëla figure) is pressed into service to try to lure Federico (Sean Ruane) back into the family circle, but a sinister intruder ruins all the plans, which we could tell were never going to work.

This is a production of something of the same class as Opera Holland Park's Fidelio, and that is high praise indeed. The opera tingles with life and warranted its acclamation by a well satsified audience. As previously noted in my review of the earlier production, the EMI CDs CMS 566 762-2 are highly desirable as a complement to this live presentation, and I think that Cilea's L'Arlesiana, the opera in which Caruso made his debut, has a good claim for restitution to the regular repertoire.

Per Nørgard Achilles and the Tortoise
Simon Holt Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?
Salvatore Sciarrino Infinito Nero
Almeida Opera, 7 July2003
Conductor: Alexander Briger
Direction: Cathie Boyd
Video & Design: Julia Bardsley
Lighting: Cathie Boyd & Malcolm Rippeth
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Cast includes:
Singers Andrew Slater, Rachel Nichols (Bella)
Katalin Károlyi (Infinito Nero)
Piano: Rolf Hind
Violin: David Alberman

Harder to write about Who put Bella in the Wych Elm? in the refurbished Almeida Theatre. Simon Holt's who-done-it, to his own libretto, is a compact many-layered mystery story given a complex and inspired music-theatre treatment, deceptions spreading back to the previous item, Nørgard's Achilles & the Tortoise, when we felt for pianist Rolf Hind having to play this difficult piece composed for Yvar Mikhashoff - father figure of the earlier Almeida Festival - with a page turner who seemed unable to read music! The technological backing - video, lighting and sound manipulation - for Holt's music was impressive, and baritone Andrew Slater's delivery impeccable. One was glad, however, to have the text because Rachel Nicholls as Bella, long dead inside the tree at Hagley Wood, could not possibly be expected to get over her words in the high soprano tessitura. There are so many secrets embedded in this creation that to tell all would spoil the pleasure for readers who may catch it around the country on an Arts Council England tour.

The Sciarrino setting of poetic rantings by a crazed 17 C mystic developed painfully slowly from woodwind whisperings (so quiet that the previously intrusive air conditioning had been switched off for this item) to writhing and emoting by the protagonist Katalin Károlyi. Having greatly enjoyed Salvatore Sciarrino's music in the past, notably the unforgettable Lohengrin at Strasbourg, I have had difficulty with some later pieces and this seemed to plumb the depths of pretension and esoteric cult appeal.


© Peter Grahame Woolf