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Reviews

05 Oct 2015

English Touring Opera - Debussy, Massenet and Offenbach

English Touring Opera’s recent programming has been ambitious and inventive, and the results have been rewarding. We had two little-known Donizetti operas, The Siege of Calais and The Wild Man of the West Indies, in spring 2015, while autumn 2014 saw the company stage comedy by Haydn (Il mondo della luna) and romantic history by Handel (Ottone).

)Earlier in 2014, ‘cultural myth’ was the theme, bringing together three very different operas: Tippett’s King Priam, Britten’s Paul Bunyan, and Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

A blend of unity and diversity characterises this autumn’s tour too. ETO are staging three French operas from the late 19th century: Debussy’s landmark ‘symbolist’ opera, Pelléas and Mélisande, Massenet’s drame lyrique, Werther, and Offenbach’s opéra fantastique, The Tales of Hoffmann. Given the range of idiom and tone, and the scale, of the genres represented, General Director James Conway’s comment that the new season has been entered ‘with a spirit of experiment’ seems apt. The three operas are all being performed in ‘chamber versions’, with the accompaniments (commissioned and found) re-arranged for small orchestra or chamber ensemble - and although the company’s states its desire to perform ‘compelling dramas that could be especially well told on an intimate scale’, the practical contingencies of touring must surely also have played a part in this decision.
On the evidence of the first two operas, Pelléas and Werther, staged in the fairly small Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music, there have been both gains and losses.

In 1886 Jules Massenet travelled to Bayreuth to hear Parsifal, and then, with his friend and publisher Georges Hartmann, on to Wetzlar, the setting of Goethe’s quasi-autobiographical novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Massenet’s opera was completed in 1887 but, turned down by Léon Carvalho at the Opéra-Comique, it waited five further years for its first performance, at the Vienna Court Opera. Here it was presented in a German translation by Max Kalbeck, but the French-language premiere took place shortly after, in Geneva in December 1892, and Massenet’s sensitivity to the French language - his instinctive feeling for its natural inflections and expressive richness - is surely one of the opera’s finest features. ETO’s decision to perform the work in English was apparently taken during rehearsals: Conway explains, in the programme booklet, that the intention had been to retain the original French, but that director Oliver Platt thought that this would seem anachronistic in the chosen setting: the Midwestern USA c.1950 replaces Wetzlar c.1780.

In the event, I felt that the English text, together with the reduced scoring, resulted in a prosaic tone far removed from the fervour and emotional immediacy that we associate with a work which embodies the composer’s grand formal and expressive ambitions, rejecting as it does the conventional form of opéra-comique (separate numbers linked by spoken dialogue) for a through-composed idiom whose use of reminiscence motifs surely bears the imprint of Wagner. Werther seems to me to be a ‘large-scale’ work in just about every sense of the term; but ETO have essentially reduced it to a tale of domestic mundanity.

One of the engaging elements of the opera is the way that it combines rustic simplicity - the routines and rituals of the home-life of Charlotte, her sister Sophie and her father - with obsessive passion and agonising sentiment. Director Oliver Platt and designer Oliver Townsend have adopted a naturalistic approach, pushing aside the moonlight and natural landscape which enchant and inspire the lovers (in the novel, following a failed love affair the protagonist has sought refuge in this rural paradise) and re-create a composite domestic interior of the 1950s. The design is imaginative, apportioned to suggest a kitchen, parlour, study and play-room, with a stairway rising left to intimated upper floors. But, in striving so determinedly for ‘realism’, the director and designer clutter the stage with pots, pans and buckets, coat-hooks and hat stands, mirrors, ironing-boards, tables, chairs, rocking-horses - even the stairs are strewn with children’s dolls and toys - that there is scarcely any room for the emotions which drive the work to blossom and expand.

There is some suggestion of mystery and of the inner life, though, in the curving mirror which embraces the four instrumentalists, who are placed on stage, to the rear. And, it must be noted that Iain Farrington’s arrangement of the score for ‘salon ensemble’ - piano (Farrington), violin (Philippa Mo), cello (Morwena Del Mar) and clarinet (Oliver Pashley) is exquisitely scored and was beautifully played. In particular Mo’s lyrical phrasing of the recurring theme which comes to characterise the love of Werther for Charlotte was full of tenderness and beauty: at such moments one can understand how Massenet came about his nickname, ‘Gounod’s son’. But, while Conway may have been seeking ‘the distinctive sound of French chamber music’, such a world does not do justice to crazed agonies which drive Werther to his death or to the hysteria of the ‘Werther Fever’ which inspired young men all over Europe in Goethe’s day to mimic their hero’s dress and women to wear ‘Eau de Werther’ with, in some cases, the obsession spiralling to tragic ends.

Thus, despite the best efforts of the principals, the internal anguish which drives the drama is never convincingly communicated. Goethe-Massenet’s anti-hero essentially does little other than mope and brood: but, baritone Ed Ballard’s bespectacled office gent - his dull grey suit is far from the ‘blue frock, waistcoat and breeches of yellow leather, and boots with brown tops’ Goethe described, and hardly likely to give rise to a cult following - is more nerdy geek than fashionably anguished poetic dreamer. Werther is one of opera’s great ‘outsiders’ and the original high-lying tenor line rings with ardency and extremity. It’s true that the composer himself provided a version for baritone - when the opera was performed in St Petersburg with Mattia Battistini in the title role - but, the lowering of Werther’s vocal line (no other element of the score is altered) also depresses the emotional temperature.

Ballard sang with warmth, strong phrasing and a clear line, but his baritone was short of dramatic richness (he was recovering from illness) and Werther’s rapturous ruminations never quite took flight. The baritone’s tone was aptly dark, but lacked the ‘ring’ that a tenor would supply. And, ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ didn’t quite find the required touch of wistfulness as Werther seeks an imagined succour in self-annihilation. Ballard never looked fully comfortable in the role, and the drawn-out death scene, complete with bloody splatters, prolonged staggering and quasi-resurrection, really was an over-prolonged agony
.
As Charlotte’s betrothed, Albert, Simon Wallfisch seemed a neater fit for his role, and contributed a much needed intimation of inner unrest, doubt and tension; there was an energy and buzz every time Albert was on stage. His voice was well-supported and communicated with directness; this was a confident performance, musically and dramatically. Bass Michael Druiett was also on good form as Le Bailli, Charlotte’s father; he acted vividly as the patriarch, and his voice had depth and presence.
It was mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin, though, whose performance was most noteworthy, and Charlotte’s letter-scene aria, ‘Va! Laisse couler mes larmes’, the most tender moment. Dobbin found layers and colours which were expressive and moving, and there was considerable artistry in her delivery. Lauren Zolezzi was vivacious and sweet-toned as Charlotte’s sister, Sophie; while tenor Jeffrey Stewart was forthright and energised as Johann Schmidt (the bailiff’s two friends being merged into this composite comrade), though I found Stewart a bit too ‘up-front’ in this minor role.

There was undoubtedly much musical sincerity and melodic beauty in this performance of Werther, but it lacked the sentimental power and sensuous perfume which has made this opera such a universal favourite.

If Massenet’s visit to Bayreuth played its part in shaping Werther, Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande has an even stronger kinship with Wagner, and with Parsifal in particular, though the relationship between Debussy’s opera and Wagner is an equivocal one. The following evening’s performance of Pelléas et Mélisande (the opening night was 1st October) promised to be a more successful candidate for a reduced-scale arrangement than Massenet’s romantic tragedy; the cast is small, the focus claustrophobic, and the self-absorbed protagonists live in a world of suggestion: the mythical Allemonde where no one can ‘see’ - an oblique dream-scape where paring down might paradoxically enhance the potential for ambiguity of evocation and intimation.

ETO are employing Belgian composer Annelies van Parys’s arrangement for five strings, single woodwind, horn, percussion, harp and harmonium. Conducted confidently by Jonathan Berman, the chamber ensemble produced some moments of expressive power but overall I felt that Berman did not summon the requisite fluency and flexibility demanded by Debussy’s continuously evolving textures, arabesques and misty recollections. The five string players, in particular, perhaps understandably struggled to produce the necessary shimmers and flickerings, and the string tone was occasionally a little too visceral.

More problematic, though, are the cuts - to characters, chorus and score: two whole scenes (Act 2 scene 3 and Act 4 scene 3) are missing in van Pary’s score. Director James Conway observes that ‘this is more cogent than shaving every scene, but we did have to try to remember the missing scenes in the production’; but there are in fact other smaller omissions and alterations, and this does at times weaken our understanding of characters’ motivation and conflicts. Indeed, Conway has reinstated, as spoken text, what he calls a ‘crucial’ speech - shortly before the rather oddly placed interval - suggesting a slight uneasiness about the dramatic lacunas.
Fortunately, the work was performed in French - it would surely be impossible to ‘translate’ the deceptive simplicity of Maeterlinck’s language and Debussy’s understated stress and phrase patterns into another tongue - and the diction was on the whole serviceable, though the large screens relaying the text in English, placed at either side of the stage, were an intrusive presence.

The set and staging are, however, convincing. James Conway lets the events follow one after the other without undue directorial intervention (the only false note was some minor stage business with the filing cabinet which serves as the well into which Mélisande drops her ring and, later, as the castle vaults) and the shifting relationships are thoughtfully interpreted and clearly delineated. Oliver Townsend’s blue-green room with narrow rose-coloured interior is evocative without offering overly defined allusions. We are in a crumbling manor whose flecked wall-paper peels menacingly from the dilapidated walls, the palette suggestive of both watery depths, as the light ripples, and the glowing enticement of deep-hued jewels gleaming in a treasure chest. A gauzy mesh obscures some of the action, creating further distance and ambivalence as Arkel’s castle appears as of espied through a red mist, Mark Howland’s superb lighting further deepening the mystery
.
And, the cast sing very well. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Susanna Hurrell’s Mélisande whose fragility was contradicted by a strong, full vibrato which gave Mélisande more substance and animation than is usual. But, Hurrell conveyed the ambivalence of Mélisande’s feelings for her husband, Golaud, effectively, and there was an impulsive feeling in her fragments of melody. Mélisande’s protestations that her love for Pélleas are innocent were touching and sincere.Reviewing a recital given by Jonathan McGovern in December 2011, I remarked that he brought ‘youthful vigour and ebullience’ to the Wigmore Hall, that his ‘baritone rang out strong and clear’ and that ‘the upper range of his voice has great[er] flexibility and variety of tone’. At that time, McGovern had only recently graduated from the Royal Academy of Music (with a distinction and the ‘Queen’s Commendation for Excellence’ to add to other awards that year, including 2nd prize at the Kathleen Ferrier Awards). Four years later, the ‘youthful vigour’ of McGovern’s high baritone has blossomed further; his appealing tone and strong top made McGovern an immensely persuasive Pélleas, vocally and dramatically. He interacted particularly well with Stephan Loges’ Golaud, Loges’ lower lying and heavier baritone complementing the bright elasticity of McGovern’s voice. Indeed, Loges’ struggled a little with some of the higher passages, but this did convey the trauma that his emotional journey has wrought on Golaud, and his weeping despair at Mélisande’s death lingered compellingly.I was particularly impressed by Michael Druiett’s Arkel. He was a still, honourable centre amid the emotional turmoil, his voice noble and melodious, conveying gravitas and resigned acceptance that what will be, will be. Lauren Zolezzi’s Yniold was as sweet-toned and unpretentious as her Sophie had been the previous evening, but I found Helen Johnson’s contralto was a little too full and rich for the role of Geneviève.

This is a brave production which has much merit. But in the final reckoning it is Debussy’s orchestral score which carries the expressive burden. It conjures the half-spoken, the dreamy, and leads us into the darkness of the forest’s gloomy heart and the castle’s oppressive vaults, then challenges us with the glare of daylight which assaults the entangled protagonists when they rise from the crypts to the castle terrace; and, Berman and his 13 players struggled to do justice to the delicacy and colourism of the composer’s orchestration and textures.

I’m sure that these productions will settle and grow as the tour continues. ETO should be praised both for taking risks and for seeing through their commitment. The Tales of Hoffmann will complete the French triptych on 9th and 10th October at the Britten Theatre (and there’s another chance to catch Werther on 8th October), before the productions tour to Buxton, Malvern, Durham, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape and Exeter.

Claire Seymour

Werther (2nd October)
Werther - Ed Ballard, Charlotte - Carolyn Dobbin, Albert - Simon Wallfisch, Sophie - Lauren Zolezzi, Le Bailli - Michael Druiett, Johann Schmidt - Jeff Stewart; Director - Oliver Platt, arranged and conducted - Iain Farrington, Designer - Oliver Townsend, Lighting Designer - Mark Howland.
Pélleas et Mélisande (3rd October)
Pélleas - Jonathan McGovern, Mélisande - Susanna Hurrell, Golaud - Stephan Loges, Arkel - Michael Druiett, Geneviève - Helen Johnson, Yniold - Lauren Zolezzi; Director - James Conway, Conductor - Jonathan Berman, Designer - Oliver Townsend, Lighting Designer - Mark Howland, Movement Consultant - Bernadette Iglich, Video Design - Zakk Hein.

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