24 Mar 2009
Katya Kabanova/The Magic Flute — English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire Theatre
English Touring Opera is 30 years old this year, and has never been more adventurous.
After the horrors of Jagoš Marković’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro in Belgrade, I was apprehensive lest Nabucco in Serbia’s second city of Novi Sad on 22nd October would be transplanted from 6th century BC Babylon to post-Saddam Hussein Tikrit or some bombed-out kibbutz in Beersheba.
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English Touring Opera is 30 years old this year, and has never been more adventurous.
Later this year the company will be dispensing with the usual two- or three-opera tour format, as well as their now-regular opening venue of the Hackney Empire, in favour of a five-opera Handel festival at the Britten Theatre in this 250th anniversary year of the composer’s death.
For the spring tour, though, the format is largely the familiar one: an opera from the borderline of the standard repertoire paired with a popular hit that will guarantee consistent ticket revenues. As this is a major birthday for the company, there are a few concert performances of Norma thrown in for good measure — about which more in late April.
James Conway’s production of Katya Kabanova, with a set design by Adam Wiltshire, looks a little like a miniature version of Trevor Nunn’s 1994 production for Covent Garden, all grey colours and sloping wooden walkways. My only real complaint here would be that neither ETO’s production nor the orchestra made much of an attempt to evoke the Volga, whose presence is so central to the opera that it is virtually a character in its own right. As a minimum, Katya’s death plunge (a cramped and unconvincing affair) really needs sorting out before the tour goes much further.
In a fairly small space and with a reduced orchestra, the full lyrical power of Janacek’s scoring was never really going to be a possibility, though one could hardly have asked for better playing from the forces available. Conductor Michael Rosewell ensured that the the musical line was tautly controlled and powerfully driven, and paid detailed attention to the expressiveness of the more transparent and intimate moments.
But here the vocal performances made the greatest impression. The title role was compellingly and radiantly sung by soprano Linda Richardson, who managed to convey the essence of the lively spirit and physical beauty trapped behind the dowdy façade Katya has been forced to adopt. Mezzo Fiona Kimm was a truly despicable Kabanicha — and I mean that in the most complimentary sense. Like her Jezibaba in last autumn’s Rusalka, there was a grandeur to her stage presence which defied her petite stature; the physical contrast between her and Dikoy — the immensely tall and broad Welsh bass Sion Goronwy — made the nature of their relationship all the more telling. Colin Judson’s Tichon was a perfect portrait of a man who wouldn’t know how to stand up to his mother even if he wanted to.
Jane Harrington was an ideal Varvara, her voice and manner warm, lively and straightforward; together with Michael Bracegirdle’s Kudryash and Richard Roberts’s Boris, they made a vivacious trio of youngsters who served to highlight only too plainly how Katya’s own life might have been.
Onto the next night, and there was predictably a full house for The Magic Flute. When the curtain went up, it at first seemed that the production might be quite unconventional: Tamino’s serpent is a writhing chain of contemporary(ish) whores and playboys, his wilderness a human one. A clean-cut youth dressed smartly in a pale jacket, the prince (Mark Wilde) is an obvious outsider to the black and silver lace of the figures which dominate his nightmare world. There’s even some suggestion that Papageno (complete with fluttering birds borne by scurrying members of the chorus) might be a drug-induced hallucination, and Tamino is rightly unsure where vision ends and reality begins. The Queen of the Night makes her first appearance from the rear centre stage with an immense royal-blue train which fills the entire set; as she sings, it has rolling waves like a nocturnal sea. But as she turns to make her exit, the train disappears through a trapdoor leaving her clad in black; from then on, reality stabilises somewhat, and Tamino’s quest of self-discovery continues along more conventional lines.
Scene from The Magic Flute [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of English Touring Opera]
The production remains slightly surreal throughout, being set in an enclosed room with panelled walls painted a deep blue, several doors and trap-doors, and an aperture at the rear which is used for grand entrances and whenever a visual focal point is required. The guiding role of the three boys (here sung by women, as is practical for a touring production) is underlined by their surprising costumes, with skirts made of lit lamp-shades. There are a lot of lights and lamps in this dark-coloured staging, but these are often confusing to the adventurers rather than illuminating; at one point a forest of standard-lamps springs up around Papageno as he searches for his Papagena. The young American soprano Paula Sides was a passionate Pamina, her soprano richer and more complex than is often heard in this role. Other than a slight hardness under pressure at the top of her voice, she sounded truly glorious, with some beautifully controlled pianissimo singing towards the end of ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’. Also vocally impressive was Laure Meloy as the Queen of the Night, again with a fuller and more refulgent tone than many; however, although she cut an imposing and elegant figure, her body language conveyed little in the way of rage and fury. Andrew Slater’s Sarastro had physical presence aplenty, but vocally he lacked weight and authority. Daniel Grice’s Papageno had energy and good humour although his bright and forward baritone was rather monochrome and unvarying in volume.
A little more variety would have been welcome in other areas too. In the pit, Paul McGrath started the overture with such pointed deliberation that I feared it could be a long evening, but if anything he tended towards the other extreme; ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’ had a folk-tune feel to it, and if ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ had been any faster it would have been one-in-a-bar. Generally his approach succeeded in maintaining momentum, but it sidelined the moments of grandeur, reflection and calm.
Singing in Jeremy Sams’s gently humorous English translation (well-known to London audiences from ENO’s popular production), the cast generally did an excellent job with the English text.
Ruth Elleson © 2009