Mini Review

There’s a Gorilla in my Opera

Back from Europe, Man in Chair has time for a few more operas before heading back to Australia.

ENO has opened a new production of Offenbach’s melodious creation The Tales of Hoffmann.

Meanwhile, over at Royal Albert Hall, a new staging of Aida, that arena stalwart, has premiered this week. Fingers were crossed that it would shave an hour or more off the La Scala running time.

The Tales of Hoffmann
English National Opera
7pm Thursday 23 February 2012

An entertaining staging with some interesting ideas that falls short of unlocking the full magic of the classic opéra fantastique.

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Full marks to prodigious soprano Georgia Jarman (seen taking her bow above) who joins the ranks of world sopranos who can pay all four roles in Tales (a list which is headed by Australia’s current diva assoluta Emma Matthews). Jarman, in fact, makes the task look so easy it’s a wonder more singers are not up to the job. Obviously, the trick is in her deceptively adaptive talent, which allows her to sing and play the three main heroines with beguiling appeal. The three characterisations are a wonderful achievement by Jarman and a prime reason to visit this production. The modulation in her voice as doll Olympia was particularly well done.

Also a highlight of the cast is Christine Rice, playing muse Nicklausse as an enthusiastic schoolboy. Rice maintained a fervent passion in her voice which added weight to the dramatic elements. Clive Bayley is a delight as the four villains, varying the shades of unpleasantness without resorting to overplaying any of the roles. Curiously, the least engaging singer is Barry Banks in the title role, missing the spark or charisma that is needed to capture the audience’s attention and affection.

Of principle success in Richard Jones’ busy staging is the central Tale of tragic singer Antonia. Standing alone, with an interval either side, this act is given the most thoughtful and insightful treatment, creating an affecting drama that could stand alone as a piece of theatre. Jarman is heartbreaking in this sequence, which also features a terrific song and dance number from Simon Butteriss and the best aria of the night from Rice.

Setting the three tales in the same room, while varying the decor, was a clever idea for unifying the tales, also aided by keeping three of the students on stage as observers. Well thought the design may have been but appealing it was not, with too many sickly pale yellows and greens, particularly in the lighting.

As with my fellow blogger Mark Ronan, who actually reviewed the production twice, I too found the gorilla curious to say the least. With the Giuletta set featuring a silhouette of a circus clown and Schlemil her pimp dressed as a ringmaster, perhaps the gorilla was meant to be part of some sort of circus? Or maybe it was just meant to get us all talking, in which case it has succeeded admirably.

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Fans of Offenbach’s music will be likely to enjoy this production.

Royal Albert Hall
2.30pm Saturday 25 February 2012

See La Scala, Aida can be done in 3 hours.Not that this production had your statues, dancers and horses.

Considering the populist nature of this arena-lite staging, the integrity and talent grounding the performance was a very pleasant surprise. Singing in Italian was certainly a pleasing decision.

Performed three quarters in the round, one of the most immersive elements of director Stephen Medcalf’s production was the frequent entrances and exits via the aisles of Royal Albert Hall. The audience enters to find a archeological dig in progress, the story subsequently ‘imagined’ by 1870s artist Amelia Edwards.

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The main set is an effectively designed floor of pillars and wells, backed by giant projection screens which, unfortunately, show images of video game quality at best. Costumes are an indistinguishable sea of white, with Aida, for some reason, in a vivid green satin gown. Arrival of the Ethiopian captives at least creates some visual interest. Lack of choreography to the superb dance music was a disappointment.

A highpoint of the production is the flawless sound design. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are a luxurious touch, and their beautiful music is balanced so perfectly with the singing that you may as well be in any of the world’s top opera houses. The power of the 70-strong chorus creates a thrilling effect, and full marks to the chorus members for their focus in terms of character and presence.

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At this performance, the rotating cast of leads featured the luminous Indra Thomas as Aida, Marc Heller as a solid Radames and Tiziana Carraro demonstrating her excellent acting skills as Amneris. All three gave well grounded performances, resisting the urge to overplay for the large hall. Singing was uniformly strong and emotional, unobtrusively picked up for amplification.

Raymond Gubbay has already advertised Carmen to be staged at Royal Albert Hall a year from now. The prospect of hearing it sung in English does not appeal but if as much care and attention are expended as went into Aida it will surely be a significant event.

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Photos: Simon Parris

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