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Reviews

Grange Park Opera 2018
18 Jun 2018

Grange Park Opera travels to America

The Italian censors forced Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Antonio Somma to relocate their operatic drama of the murder of the Swedish King Gustav III to Boston, demote the monarch to state governor and rename him Riccardo, and for their production of Un ballo in maschera at Grange Park Opera, director Stephen Medcalf and designer Jamie Vartan have left the ‘ruler’ in his censorial exile.

Grange Park Opera 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Cast of Oklahoma!

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

Medcalf and Vartan resurrect their set for last year’s Die Walküre at the start and present us with a colonnaded state-room over-looked by a balcony approached by two graciously curving stairways, the sombre gravitas of slate-grey alleviated by the proud red, white and blue of six Stars and Stripes. Vicenzo Costanzo’s Riccardo makes an imposing entrance and takes his place at a central lectern to hear the petitions of his people, acceding to their pleas with patrician benevolence.

GPO Chorus .jpgRoland Wood (Renato - centre) and GPO Chorus. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Although the Riccardo of the libretto possesses little of this stateliness and stature, it’s a credible setting which allows Medcalf to juxtapose loyalty and treachery in the form of, respectively, the Bostonian populace and Riccardo’s arch enemies, Sam and Tom, who are plotting his downfall. The problem is that it serves less effectively for the subsequent locales. The transition to the fortune-teller’s Ulrica’s hut is slickly effected, as David Plater’s lighting translates us to a scene of nocturnal witchery and the hut slides to the centre of the state room, but the subsequent gothic ghoulishness - top-hatted skulls perched crookedly on Ulrica’s ‘altar’; she decapitates a chicken and smears her hand-maidens with its blood; flames shoot violently from the roof of her hut - seems out of place within the realist frame of state office. When the women start twitching and writhing hysterically it’s as if the confessions of Miller’s The Crucible are taking place in the White House.

Realism and romance further collide when Riccardo enters, disguised as a sailor, and utilises a skull as a ventriloquist’s dummy when begging Ulrica to tell him his fortune - though perhaps it’s a fitting symbol for the fatal future she reveals: that he will die soon, slain by a friend.

The scene of Amelia’s gallows-tree tryst is similarly awkward scenically. In Rigoletto, though the eponymous jester ignores the fatal shadow that hangs over him, we are intermittently reminded of Monterone’s curse by Verdi’s spine-tingling motivic repetitions of the parole sceniche. Riccardo is similarly blasé about his fate, but here symbols of death are more prevalent. As Amelia searches (on the balcony?) for the herbs which will cure her of her forbidden desire, nooses fall from the ceiling, dangling provocatively through the lovers’ declarations of love and their subsequent interruption by Amelia’s husband Renato.

And, symbols of death are not absent from the scene in Renato’s study. A platform furnished with chair, desk and a painting of former US governor who stares sternly from the frame, is pushed to the fore-stage, and it is here that Renato challenges and condemns his wife, holding a knife to her throat before allowing her a final farewell to her young son. The boy’s playful jesting with his father’s gun is ominous.

Claire Rutter as Amelia Vincenzo Costanzo as Riccardo .jpgClaire Rutter (Amelia) and Vincenzo Costanzo (Riccardo). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

If the settings jar a little, musically it’s smooth sailing, thanks in no small part to the superb playing of the Orchestra of English National Opera - in residence for the season - under the assured guidance of conductor Gianluca Marciano. Marciano wrings every ounce of drama from the score, from the quietest motivic and coloristic gestures to the most terrifying monumental climaxes, and he paces the drama discerningly; the dramatic sweep from Amelia’s drawing of the name of the conspirator who will be Riccardo’s assassin to the final tragic moments was compelling.

Some of the blocking of the Chorus feels a little stiff initially, and in the first Act the principals, too, often stand and sing straight to the house. However, the Grange Park Chorus were in final voice, both collectively and when stepping forward as individuals: Trevor Bowes was particularly fine as the drunken ‘sailor’, Silvano. The masked ball itself, though, is persuasively choreographed: Plater uses the vivid lighting design to ‘freeze’ the whirling dancers, creating a sense of an unstoppable tragic momentum escalating beyond the flowing intimacy of the ballroom, and, together with the richly coloured fabrics of the ladies’ ball-gowns, this injects a vibrancy and tension that had previously been lacking at times.

Claire Rutter’s dresses were rather ‘plain Jane’, but the soprano was in gloriously lustrous voice, rising to the top with both ease and beauty in Act 2’s ‘Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa’, as she foraged for the curative herbs, and in ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’, when she pleaded for one last chance to hold her son. Rutter persuasively responded to dramatic situation, altering her tone, which was both pure and powerful, accordingly. This Amelia out-sung her Riccardo, both in eloquence and passion, but if Costanzo’s tenor was disappointingly tight initially, the phrasing a little rigid and the intonation not always firm of focus, Riccardo’s Act 3 vow to renounce his love and resume his stately duties to his people, ‘Ma se m'è forza perderti’ had more conviction, both vocally and psychologically.

Ulrica Elisabetta Fiorillo Workman.jpg Elisabetta Fiorillo (Ulrica). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

One problem was that there was little sense of romantic rapport between Riccardo and Amelia, but if the lovers seemed somewhat detached, the male bonding was heated with genuine passion and fire, thanks to a tremendous performance by Roland Wood as Renato. The impulsive force of Renato’s emotions was evident from the first, and as his rage was stoked by betrayal and intrigue, so his menace grew ever more disturbing and fearsome. In Act 3, Renato’s ‘Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima’ - in which he realises that it is Riccardo and not his wife who should pay for his disloyalty and decries the loss of his former paradise of love and friendship - held the house spell-bound; Wood shaped every phrase with acumen and elegance, and, his head fallen onto his desk in the agony of betrayal and grief, sustained the final note with an impressive display of control and contour. The baritone had massive reserves of power, and did not tire, if anything growing stronger as the tragedy swept to its bitter conclusion.

Elisabetta Fiorillo’s employed a rather wide vibrato but was an ebony-toned Ulrica and had the power to sustain the fortune-teller’s slow-paced invocation, even as it plunged to the lowest depths. Bass-baritone Matthew Buswell and bass Matthew Stiff were a convincing pair of assassins.

The role of Oscar was sung with punch and brightness by Tereza Gevorgyan, but I found the soprano’s acting a bit heavy-handed: the ‘boys will be boys’ back-slapping and bottle-swigging didn’t really ring true - but perhaps the problem was that Oscar, dressed inexplicably as a cowboy, was a mis-fit among the men of state.

Ballo final scene.jpgTereza Gevorgyan (Oscar) and Vincenzo Costanzo (Riccardo). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

If Oscar seemed a little out of place amid the patricians of 19 th-century Boston, then he’d surely have felt at home on the prairies of 1930s Oklahoma the following evening, where the triangular frontier romances threatened to have similarly tragic outcomes but where the sunshine eventually drove the storm clouds far away.

Jo Davies’ production of Rogers & Hammerstein’s 1943 hit, Oklahoma!, skilfully balances freedom and optimism with danger and darkness, just as the streaks which pierce the pink sunrise which is lauded by Dex Lee’s golden-toned Curly McLain in the show’s wonderful opening paean to the land and the limitless opportunities of the frontier, ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’’, hint at the evening thunder to come.

When the corrugated barn doors slide lethargically aside, designer Francis O’Connor’s expansive rural vista invites us to cross the threshold and journey to a different time, place and culture where, as the matriarchal Aunt Eller commands, the ‘Territory folks’ should stick together - “Cowboys, dance with the farmers’ daughters! Farmers, dance with the ranchers’ gals” - but where community cohesion is threatened by individual desire and will.

Okl Act 1 C and L.jpgKatie Hall (Laurey) and Dex Lee (Curly). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

As the bright orange of dawn transmutes to the gentle grey of dusk, and the indigo of night overpowers the cornflower blue of day, Bruno Poet’s evocative lighting carries us through the slowly unfolding days. There’s an assuring sense of unity, despite the surface tensions. A wind pump spins lazily in the prairie breeze, a tree-sculpture of hoes etches a sharp silhouette against the sunlit sky and Claire Moore’s Aunt Eller emerges from beneath the steam engine she’s fixing, clutching a spanner and wiping her oily hands on her denim dungarees - gestures which seem to symbolise her disciplinarian role when cracks appear in the community.

The set and props are incorporated into the action with naturalism, enhancing the realism and dramatic fluency. Hay bales serve as tables and beds, ropes and hoes articulate the drama of the dances, the belching steam engine metamorphoses into a bunting-bedecked wedding coach. Davies’ stage direction, the set transitions and Andrew Wright’s choreography are equally slick and accomplished - and share an impressive eye for telling detail.

As the farm workers hoist ropes and harnesses in the barn, we’re taken by surprise when the boards are winched aloft to form the low, lowering ceiling of Jud Fry’s rat-infested smoke-house. And, when the cow-girls who arrange the scowling outcast’s hay-bale bed linger for a few moments, they seem a teasing embodiment of the pornographic postcards which are tacked on the walls, reminding us of the danger posed by Jud’s barely suppressed sexuality - just as the kaleidoscope of ‘pitchers’ that he purchases from the ‘Persian’ pedlar Ali Hakim is more than it seems: “Y’see it’s got a little jigger onto it, and you tetch it and out springs a sharp blade.” No wonder the wedding feast is disrupted by a downpour - a figurative deluge of the destruction which springs from Jud’s isolation and pain.

Dance - Will centre and chorus.jpgLouis Gaunt (Will Parker - centre) and Chorus. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Wright’s dances have a beautiful balletic quality which emphasises the essential fantasy of the dreams that these frontier folks indulge. This climaxes in the end-of-Act 1 dream sequence, when the ‘The Elixir of Egypt’ which farmer Laurey Williams drinks - she’s purchased it from Ali who has promied that it will help her to “see everything clear” - transports her from twilight reflections to an ugly nightmare. The balletic grace of her innocent fantasy of courtship and marriage with Curly contrasts disconcertingly with the terrifying reality of Jud’s fearsome sexuality which is explicitly represented by the vulgar sexuality of the seamy can-can dancers. I can’t imagine this dream sequence better done.

The light amplification of the singing is not intrusive, and the cast wear their cowboy boots and Stetsons with flair. As Curly, Dex Lee dances with an easy muscularity which is matched by the beguiling warmth of his voice, and it’s a real plus that there is such a strong and convincing romantic frisson between Lee and Katie Hall’s Laurey - a tension which persuasively sustains the dramatic development and resolution. Hall can do sweetness and sulkiness with equal charm but, more than that, she uses her voice - which expands at the top with a compelling bloom - to convey subtleties of emotion and a sensibility and sensitivity which the communal unanimity is designed to subdue.

Curly and Laurey.jpgDex Lee (Curly) and Katie Hall (Laurey). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Louis Gaunt is delightful as the naïve nincompoop, Will Parker, who woos his beloved Ado Annie with optimistic, indestructible enthusiasm. When he returns from Kansas City proudly and gleefully clutching the $50 which will, he believes, win him his promised bride, the utopian dynamism of his wondrous celebration - ‘ev’rythin’s up to date in Kansas City’ - sweeps all around him into an intoxicating dance in homage to progress and the power and potential of modern American.

At times the American accents border on hyperbole: I couldn’t count the number of syllables that Natasha Cottriall managed to find in the “cain’t” of her confession, ‘I Cain’t Say No’ - and in this number Cottriall forced her voice a little too hard, occasionally at the expense of the pitch. But, elsewhere this Ado Annie was not just enchantingly ditzy but also expressed believable frustration at the choices before her, and her relationships with Will, Ali and with her over-bearing but good-intentioned father, Andrew Carnes - played with a brisk, no-nonsense presence by Nicolas Colicos - were layered and real.

One of the musical highlights was Phillip Rhodes’s heart-touching rendition of Jud Fry’s ‘Lonely Room’. Rhodes brooded stormily and captured all of Jud’s menacing repression and injured soul. In this aria, his baritone swelled with inner rage and suffering, descending darkly and with a powerful focus which seemed to pin one to one’s seat, forcing one to reflect on the perceived, and perhaps real, injustice and isolation which he suffers. This was an ‘operatic’ soliloquy of gripping tragic depth.

Neither Steven Serlin as Ali Hakim nor Claire Moore as Aunt Eller indulged in hammy caricature and the result was a compelling dramatic credibility. Serlin, as he deftly transformed his suitcase into a table of wares, slickly conveyed Ali’s flirtatious superficiality and his suave patter seduced the ladies as quickly as it separated them from their dimes. Claire Moore’s Aunt Eller kept order with the authoritative efficiency of both her tongue and her rifle, and Moore’s convincing establishment of Eller’s role as community leader made her command of the trial scene - a dramatically awkward moment - more believable.

The big numbers all come in the first Act, and Act 2 can sometimes seem a little wordy, but Davies kept things moving along through scenes such as the auction, and the dances flowed seamlessly from the dialogue. The fluency was greatly aided by the superb playing of the BBC Concert Orchestra under conductor Richard Balcombe who achieved a terrific balance between punchy pizzazz and delicate sentimentality, from the piping birdsong which heralds the dawn to the barn-storming hoe-downs and show-downs of the dramatic climaxes.

There is some inherent tension in Oklahoma! between the realism of the theatrical tale and the escapism of the musical numbers - it’s discomforting that Jud has to die so that wedding day celebrations can reach their triumphant conclusion - and Davies did not fully resolve this unease. But, if at the close she couldn’t quite overcome our questioning of the rapid banishment of the threatening ‘other’ and the assimilation of all within the larger community - as both Curly and the immigrant Ali declare, ‘We Know We Belong to the Land! - then perhaps we should simply remember Aunt Eller’s pragmatism: ‘Well, le’s not break the law. Le’s just bend it a little.’

Grange Park Opera’s 2018 festival continues until 7th July.

Claire Seymour

Un ballo in maschera

Amelia - Claire Rutter, Riccardo - Vincenzo Costanzo, Ulrica - Elisabetta Fiorillo, Renato - Roland Wood, Oscar - Tereza Gevorgyan, Sam - Matthew Buswell, Tom - Matthew Stiff; Director - Stephen Medcalf, Conductor - Gianluca Marciano, Designer: Jamie Vartan, Costume Designer - Nicky Shaw, Lighting Designer - David Plater, Choreographer - Lynne Hockney, Orchestra of English National Opera.
Grange Park Opera, West Horsley; Thursday 14th June 2018.

Oklahoma!

Curly - Dex Lee, Laurey - Katie Hall, Aunt Eller - Claire Moore, Will Parker - Louis Gaunt, Ado Annie - Natasha Cottriall, Jud Fry - Phillip Rhodes, Ali Hakim - Steven Serlin, Andrew Carnes - Nicolas Colicos, Gertie Cummings - Lauren Hood, Ike Skidmore - Lee Ormsby, Kate - Natasha Hoeberigs, Cord Elam - Dermot Canavan; Director - Jo Davies, Conductor - Richard Balcombe, Choreographer - Andrew Wright, Set Design - Francis O'Connor, Costume Designer - Gabrielle Dalton, Lighting Designer - Bruno Poet, Sound Designer - Tom Marshall, BBC Concert Orchestra.
Grange Park Opera, West Horsley; Friday 15th June 2018.

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