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Manchester music reviews

David Soar (Leporello) i statue Nuccia Focile (Donna Elvira) in Don Giovanni by WNO Photo: Richard H Smtih

Welsh National Opera at Liverpool Empire

by Denis Joe October 2011

Mozart: Don Giovanni
Rossini: The Barber of Seville
Janáček: Katya Kabanova


Sadly, the Welsh National Opera only visit Liverpool for one season in a year, and is one of the highlights of the year. Opera in Britain is really strong with regional companies such as Welsh National Opera, Opera North and Scottish Opera consistently produce seasons of the highest quality, bringing neglected works to the public. Opera has had a reputation for being an elitist art form, but since the late 1980s, when I first started to go to see live opera, it was not unusual to see young people in jeans and t-shirts in the audience. The idea that the entrance fee is prohibitive is also a myth as it is no more expensive than a football match and far cheaper than going to see a band at some local stadium.


Opera is said to be the highest of art forms, and unlike a piece of theatre or a film, there are far more variables that go into producing an opera. Although in any one piece of work there are far more things that could go right or wrong, there is so much insight to be gained from opera. It so happens that there are also three exceptional masterpieces of the opera canon and we are pretty fortunate in this part of the world, when it comes to being served opera. Opera North regularly put on works at the Lowry theatre in Salford and WNO visit Liverpool Empire, both excellent venues for opera.


The themes that runs through these three operas - Don Giovanni, The Barber of Seville and Katya Kabanova deal with challenge and change, presenting to us, not only different worlds but also the opportunity to look at our own world.


Don Giovanni

Whilst Don Giovanni remains one of the most famous and much performed operas in the repertoire (as well as a personal favourite), it is not without its flaws and it takes an excellent production, such as the Welsh National Opera’s, to highlight the weaknesses. Without doubt, Mozart’s opera certainly became the standard by which future operas would be judged, especially those of the Romantic composers. It is strong on dramatics and though the opera is seen as ‘opera buffa’ I feel that is wrong. The planning of arias, duets, etc., may follow the opera buffa template, but the musical keys and the seriousness of the story is hardly something that can be seen as a laughing matter.


Though the overture opens in D minor, a key associated with serious emotions, such as revenge, the second section of the overture is far brighter, suggesting optimism. Much is made of the fact that Don Giovanni seems to go against the ideas of the Enlightenment that we associate with Mozart, especially the concept of a Hell. The idea of damnation, which seems to dominate the opera, chides with the Enlightenment idea of Man making his own destiny. Yet I think that there is too much of a literal reading put into this.


The story of Don Giovanni (or Don Juan) was seen as out-dated when Mozart adapted it, and many productions of the story at the time, preferred to leave out the Damnation scene - as being steeped in Medieval superstition. In the WNO programme Nicholas Till provides an overview of how the Damnation scene was viewed. Till may have a point when he argues that Mozart was reflecting the concerns of thinkers such as Locke and Kant, who were apprehensive about secularity creating a moral bonding of society, and how the statesman Josef von Sonnenfels felt that religion was the most reliable manner of maintaining that moral bind. Yet it could just as well be argued that Mozart, and the librettist da Ponte, were suggesting that the damnation is man-made. Giovanni refuses the opportunity of salvation from the Commendatore, yet it is not the physical being that damns Giovanni to hell but a statue: a man-made object.


From the opening scene where Giovanni, disguised as his friend Don Ottavio in order to seduce Ottavio’s fiancé, Donna Anna, we are in serious territory. Some commentators suggest that the attempted ‘seduction’ is really an attempted ‘rape’ (the synopsis in the programme uses that word), but I think that by using the term ‘rape’, there is a total misreading of the opera. Don Giovanni is a libertine (perhaps an example of ‘too much freedom’?), but his attitude towards women (wonderfully captured by David Soar as Leporello in the ‘Catalogue’ aria in scene two), is one borne out of his aristocratic position. Don Giovanni is a ‘gentleman’, and da Ponte and Mozart fully portray this, and he would not find any need to force himself on a woman as, he believed, his charm (and social standing) sufficed. The near seduction of Zerlina, and her obvious willingness to accept Giovanni’s false promise of marriage, later in the first Act, only seems to add to the image of Giovanni as a serial seducer of women rather than a rapist.


David Kempster as Don Giovanni. Photograph by Robbie Jack/CorbisThe Character of Giovanni, powerfully portrayed by David Kempster, is not the only strong character in the opera. From the outset we see Leporello bemoaning his demeaning role as a servant to Giovanni, who he sees as a boor (Neanderthal?), and wishing for the life of a gentleman, not simply because it is materialistically better but also, it seems, because it is morally superior to the corrupt life of an aristocratic libertine. And though Leporello is in a servile role there are many times that he chides Giovanni to his face. And this is the strength of the opera in that the characters, unlike conventional opera buffa, are not one-dimensional: Leporello may be in a demeaning role but his courage is never really in doubt - even towards the end, when he is forced to dress as Giovanni and his life is threatened by those who are hunting down Giovanni, his apparent fear is only a ruse in order for him to escape.


In fact all of the characters in Don Giovanni are strong and stand up to the travesties imposed upon them, that is except for Don Ottavia. One has to wonder why Leporello wishes to become a gentleman, if Ottavia is seen as an example. I have seen Don Giovanni about four times over the past couple of decades and it is one of my favourite Operas. Originally I heard the two Ottavio arias, Dalla sua pace and Il mio Tesoro intanto, sung by bel canto singers such as Richard Tauber, Gigli and Schipa, when I was a boy and my dad used to play them. The sugary tones of bel canto went out of fashion around the late 1950s and a deeper tenor voice became more popular. But this has done nothing to alter the fact that the Ottavio character is a pathetic, whingey brat, and since coming to know the opera, I could never understand why he is portrayed that way. The two arias are beautiful, but that does nothing to alter the view that Ottavio, to use the modern parlance, is a real tosser.


The cast of this production are outstanding and this is, perhaps, the best production of Don Giovanni I have seen. It is occasions such as this that makes you realise why it is such an outstanding opera. But also it makes you wonder why, after the heightened emotional tension that the opera ends so abysmally.


Once Giovanni is despatched to Hell it seems reasonable that we should expect the opera to end there; perhaps with a rousing chorus part. Instead we get a Bach like epilogue sung by the remaining cast. Ah! Dov’e il perfido? is a real anti-climax. When Gustav Mahler conducted Don Giovanni in the early part of the last century, he would omit the last part. WNO’s conductor, Lothar Koenigs, thinks that it is necessary to show “the emptiness felt by people left behind”, and this concern for those left behind also informs an essay by John Caird in the WNO programme, which talks about Giovanni’s ‘victims’ and how they will ‘survive’. This modern day concern for the victim stands in sharp contrast to the fact that they are all alive (and even appear strengthened by events) by the end of the opera and, indirectly, have played their part in bringing about the demise of Giovanni. Rather than highlighting the strengths of the characters, it seems that it is some imagined weaknesses that is of more importance for today’s interpreters.


It is interesting to note that the costumers have Giovanni dressed in white rather than black.This has the irony of making Giovanni the centre of the opera (which is presented, a little too clichéd, in dark colours in the set and much of the clothing), which tends to view the action in a less simplistic setting than Good vs. Evil, which is very important if the opera is to be seen as more than just a morality play.


I think that Mahler was correct in leaving out the last aria. It adds nothing to the opera and rather weakens the whole thing. Why Mozart chose to end this masterpiece in such a manner is anyone’s guess - perhaps it was his Catholicism, but it would have made more sense to have a prologue rather than to end this powerful opera on such a weak note.


The Barber of Seville

One of the funniest stories about Rossini and The Barber of Seville chimes so well with today’s ‘radicals’ who make such a big deal out of abundance and showiness. At the premiere of The Barber of Seville, in 1816, Rossini chose to wear a brown suit with ‘walnut sized’ gold buttons as conductor. Already the composer, Giovanni Paisiello, was having popular success with his version of Beaumarchais’s comedy, and Paisiello’s followers did not take too kindly to this young upstart using the same source for his opera. Unable to find fault with Rossini’s version they chose to attack him for his display of ostentation instead.


Today we know the story through two famous operas, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (which WNO are producing for their Spring 2012 season, unfortunately it is not coming to Liverpool) is the other. There is a tendency to compare both operas, with Rossini’s seen as second best for its perceived lack of seriousness. I think this is unfair because both operas are completely different. Whereas Mozart’s looks at social divisions through human emotions, Rossini presents us with an opera that stresses the changing structure of power relations and this is particularly noticeable in the fact that money, as opposed to property, is seen as the source to social success [for a useful explanation of the distinction between property and wealth it is worth reading The Public and Private Realm in The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt].


Mozart wasn’t rejecting the raising social issues (Don Giovanni is testament to that), but whereas Mozart lived during a period of the birth of revolutionary movements in Europe, Rossini was, like Beethoven, an ardent supporter of the ideals of the early Napoleon Bonaparte. This was reflected in some of the subjects he chose to set to music such as the nationalist Mosé in Egitto and Guillaume Tell, for instance.


The Barber of Seville - WNO. Photo by Johan PerssonThe Barber of Seville was still seen as a radical topic. As with Leporello in Don Giovanni, Figaro is a servant of sorts, but seeks every opportunity to better himself and the way to do this is through accumulating money. Figaro does not help the Count of Almaviva out of the kindness of his heart, he does so only when promised gold by the Count (all'idea di quel metallo). But this is not something that is frowned upon, like the musicians, earlier on in Act 1, who help the Count to serenade Rosina, he expects to be paid for his services. We are left in no doubt that Figaro is the hero of the opera. Nothing happens without his direction. In this production the baritone Jacques Imbrailo, in the role of Figaro, cuts a handsome figure and has a beautifully toned voice.


It takes an opera such as The Barber of Seville to make you fully appreciate the art of opera. The set is a traditional one as are the costumes, and the libretto is an excellent translation by Robert David Macdonald. I first saw The Barber of Seville in a production by Opera North, about 20 years ago and I think that the translation then is the one used for this production (Opera North, along with Vancouver Opera, are co-producers for this production), certainly Rosina’s aria, Una voce poco fa, sounded familiar.


Above all it is the stamina of the lead roles that amazes. Rossini placed great demands on his singers and wrote some arias (as is a tradition of Opera) in order for a particular singer to display the widest range possible. Some singers excel in roles such as those in Wagner operas, which demand a great deal of staying power. The Barber of Seville makes great demands on vocal dexterity and this is much the case with this opera. Whilst the music and singing is ‘accessible’, I doubt that singers are put through their paces in ‘modern’ opera as much as they are in this. Even the chorus has great demands placed upon them, particularly the finale of Act 1.


It makes it difficult to select a particular singer when you have a cast as strong as this and Rossini supplied the singers with some excellent arias, duets, etc. The idea of the opera as a spectacle is brought home by having a small audience, made up of members of the chorus, on stage, who also lead the applause after each song.


The Barber of Seville is the one opera that I would recommend to anyone who is new to the art. Whilst it is very comical it also has some truly beautiful and tender moments. It is an opera that makes you leave the theatre with a smile on your face and ... yes ... makes you forget the bad things that are happening in the world. It also has some of the most memorable music. Even though it is in many ways more complex than, say, atonal music, it is so infectious that you find yourself humming the tunes long after you can remember where they came from.


Katya Kabanova

Katya Kabanova by WNO. Photo by Robert WorkmanWelsh National Opera are certainly taking the lead in producing opera by Janáček - their production of Jenůfa a couple of years back, was excellent, and this Katya Kabanova continues that trend. Janáček was moved to compose the opera after seeing a performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Puccini was one of the most successful composers of Opera Verismo, as his operas featured real characters and real emotions. Some of his operas, such as La Boheme were seen as outrageous in their day - indeed Madama Butterfly struck many as anti-American for its portrayal of the raffish Pinkerton.


Whilst Janáček’s opera can be seen as Opera Verismo, it is very different from anything the Italian composer could produce. Whereas Puccini could cover the brutality of the story with some of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching music imaginable, the Slavic tonal system tends to emphasise the rhythms of music rather than the melody and, as such, much of the music of many East European composers can prove difficult for those used to a more melodic approach. The inclusion of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring in Walt Disney’s Fantasia may have made that particular work better known to Western audiences, but it has done little to make the rhythmic-driven compositions of many Slav composers any more popular.


Janáček is one of those composers whose every note of music has stayed with me over the years. I can’t think of any piece of his music that I dislike, but if his music may seem, on first hearing, to be ‘difficult, then Katya Kabanova is his most accessible composition. The story is based on the play Groza (translated as ‘thunderstorm’ but can also mean ‘terror’) by the 19th century Russian Realist playwright A N Ostrovsky. It concerns a married woman’s love for another man and how that man leaves her, leading to her drowning herself in the Volga.


The story itself sounds straight forward yet we are left in no doubt about where our sympathies should lie: with Katya. Katya lives in a town with her husband Tichon and her mother in law, a tyrannical matriarch Kabanicha, who dominates the opera and whose presence is felt even when the character is not on stage.


The moral vindictiveness is expressed in the opening scene set in a café. Katya, Tichon and Kabanicha enter the café and find a table, having just come from church, and Kabanicha chastises Tichon, saying that he no longer loves her since marrying Katya. Kabanicha’s voice raises and other patrons shift in their seats with obvious embarrassment. The scene, which begins amicably enough, slowly descends into an unnerving ambience. The credit for the power of the scene lies very much with the mezzo soprano Leah-Marian Jones, whose acting and singing create an incredible tension that sometimes threatens to overwhelm even the orchestra.


Tichon has had to leave the area for a business trip and Katya, devotedly religious, becomes aware of her temptation to commit adultery. When Tichon has left, Kabanicha rebukes Katya for her lack of proper emotion. Katya later meets with Boris and they go for a midnight swim in the Volga. They sing a wonderful duet towards the end of Act 2 that sounds, at times, like something from a Viennese operetta. But that is the nearto a Puccini sound that Janáček gets in this opera. There is no let-up in the emotional tension throughout, and Katya’s eventual suicide is almost a relief. Even when there is no-one on stage and the orchestra are playing, Janáček never allows the temperature to drop. The prelude between the last two scenes is one of the most powerful experience I’ve known in a theatre.


The design of the stage was a stroke of genius. Instead of curtains on left and right opening and closing we had three white screens: left and right and one from top to bottom. What this does is to make the stage seem smaller and it is another reminder of the contracting world that will eventually suffocate Katya. The costumes were turn-of-the 20th century bourgeois, and the stage, though sparse. seemed realistic. The acting was outstanding and the orchestra sounded every bit as good as any I’ve heard on recordings. This was a thrilling experience, but sadly, the theatre was less than half full.


Amanda Roocroft (Katerina Kabanova) and Peter Wedd (Boris Grigorievich). Photo by Robert WorkmanIf there was a triumph that stood above all else then it was Amanda Roocroft who was flawless in the role of Katya; never once getting too hysterical or too whingey. Her Katya was not a pathetic victim but a strong individual who becomes overwhelmed by the moralising of the world about her. And it is for this reason that Katya cannot be seen in the same light as Butterfly. Butterfly kills herself because she is rejected by the man she loves and believes in. Katya kills herself because there is nothing more a small minded life can give her and, as a woman, there is no escape. We knew from the start when she tells Vavara, in Act 1 that she loves Boris, that this will end in tragedy. Yet the ending still shocks us - even more so as the last character we see on stage is a triumphant Kabanicha. This could so easily be dismissed as a pessimistic ending, but it would be unrealistic to have given the opera (and the play) any other conclusion.


It is also tempting to see an allegory with today’s strongly moralistic environment, where everywhere there is a demand for people to conform with petty regulations and bureaucratic ‘advice’. But that in itself would be wrong. Katya’s infidelity challenges the convention of the townspeople. Today we do not have the certainty of opposing outlooks, in fact the most conventional thing any individual can do these days is to be (or appear to be) unconventional. Thankfully we do not live in a world that resembles Katya’s. If we can take anything from this opera it is the power of the individual to act as they believe and not to conform. This is, perhaps, why the power of this opera can still be felt after all these years.


Further Dates available at Welsh National Opera What's On page, but close by, here's Birmingham's dates..


Birmingham Hippodrome 
Katya Kabanova - Wed 16 November 2011 19:15 
The Barber of Seville - Thu 17 November 2011 19:15 
Don Giovanni - Fri 18 November 2011 19:00 
The Barber of Seville - Sat 19 November 2011 19:15 

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