By Frederick Delius
At the National Opera House
On reflection, Koanga by Delius contains some memorable passages of music, kept in the higher gear by conductor Stephen Barlow, but the promise on the page doesn’t fully translate to the stage.
The fault would seem to be with the deficiencies in the characterisation: the realisation of Koanga and Palmyra (Norman Garrett and Nozuko Teto, both superb), fully formed, is not extended by Delius to the villains, such as Jeff Gwaltney’s Simon Perez. They don’t appear to interest the composer.
The unbalance creates a vacuum on the ever busy stage where, with better material, they would have left an impression. But this is Delius, the master of atmosphere, but not, alas, text.
Because of his interest in the Proustian ideal of recapturing a significant moment of the past, and some of Delius’s best music is inspired by euphoric memories, it is arguable that in Koanga, as in his A Village Rome and Juliet, the role of untamed nature for the composer in crafting those memories, is important.
The challenge for the Wexford production team’s take on Koanga, set in a nineteenth century Lousiana slave plantation, is what to do exactly with the Delian atmosphere, conceived while the composer was sitting on a veranda in Florida, drinking a beer (it could have been cold tea, either.)
Director Michael Gieleta segues the indigenous African elements in the opera with the burgeoning African culture in the plantation, like La Calinda, the dance sequence, and the powerful Vodoo ritual which opens Act 3.
In moments such as these, sunrise in the epilogue and the hypnotic strings in the wake of Palmyra’s death, Koanga’s potential for sweeping sensuousness emerges from the shackles imposed by Delius’s text and a stage which kept coming and going, sliding this way and that.
This was a predominately South African interpretation of what has become a reductive theme – slavery in the plantations – and the aim was not just an operatic redivivus, but imbuing the opera with Delius’s radicalism. However, what Gielata and company considered to be intrinsic, Delius the dreamer might have thought otherwise.
Le Pre aux clercs
By Ferdinand Herold
At the National Opera House
For director Eric Ruf, modernising a space dripping with antiquity doesn’t interest him, and with a sumptuously staged Le Pre aux clercs, he remains faithful to his roots.
Ruf not only directed Le Pre aux clercs but designed the stage, for in this opera comique production, it is essential that both disciplines are on the same wavelength.
He is a director for whom the conventions of an old opera – the music and the libretto – are not to be treated with disrespect.
Le Pre aux clercs takes place in 1582 in France during the Wars of Religion, but Herold is more interested in the vagaries and vicissitude of his impressive cast of characters than their crude historical predecessors.
Marie Lenormand’s Marguerite de Valois is no more the blood thirsty Le Reine Margot of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, than I am Ernest Hemingway.
So it’s the desire for beauty inherent in the libretto and music which Ruf so successfully fishes for and lands in a production which married recitative and pure singing with unabashed joie de vive, but on an epic scale.
Large casts require intensely dramatic scenes (dancing, fighting etc) in opera comique, so the orchestral score is marked by colourata and accelerando, hinted at in the overture, conducted like a river in spate by Jean-Luc Tingaud.
Though Lenormand and Magali Simard-Galdes (making her stage operatic debut) were impressive, it is Marie-Eve Munger as Isabelle de Montal who is as bright as the North Star with two quite gorgeous arias, Souvenirs du jeune age and Jours de mon enfance.
For a centuries old production to have wheels you want a director to exhume characterisation from the aspic of the written word, and then have it mobilised by the music so that the conductor can emit emotions, both heart wrenching and playful.
Tingaud and Ruf did both in spades, and this is a production to live on in the memory.
Portraits de Manon
By Jules Massenet
Unlike Tosca, this production of Portraits de Manon came without sur titles, which was unfortunate because the story does not unfold with the same clarity as Puccini’s.
Director Rob Kearley and his strong cast, including Stephen Anthony Brown and Eunhee Kim, in the absence of sur titles, do their best to disentangle the convoluted plot, the abridged version of which now follows: old and alone with his thoughts, the Chevalier des Grieux is obsessed with the spectral memory of his lost love, Manon.
But the ailing Des Grieux has little empathy for his nephew, Jean de Moncerf, who has the hots for Aurore, indefatigably pretty but without a penny to her name: Des Grieux only relents after he learns that Aurore is in fact the niece of Manon, and so abundance of beauty prevails over paucity of shekels
To put meat on the bones of what must have been a threadbare concept to begin with, a short scene from Act 2 of Manon was appended, ostensibly to revisit and explain the flawed relationship between the protagonists – Manon and Des Grieux – from the earlier opera.
This is a reminder of how much the relationship between Manon and Des Grieux suffered fatally from social mores: with Manon long dead, Des Grieux has nothing but memories of his lost love to occupy his dotage.
The Manon scene is rooted in Paris at the height of the belle epoque, and Le Portrait de Manon on the cusp of World War I, a conflagration which will claim millions of young French men like Jean, who, by pursuing Aurore, proves the apple doesn’t usually fall far from the tree.
The story of Manon has been centre stage at Wexford on two occasions, with the less than memorable version by Auber as recently as 2002: an opera comique, like Le Pre aux clercs, Portraits de Manon was illuminating, but not electrifying.
By Giacomo Puccini
Unusual for a ShortWork at White’s, the production team didn’t take too many liberties with one of the most famous and compelling operas.
Suffused with gorgeous music and arias immortalised by Callas, Tosca appeals on so many levels musically that it would take an act of genius to make a dog’s dinner of it, and Wexford didn’t.
Director Dafydd Hall Williams prefers an unfussy stage, confident in Eunhee Kim’s ability to deliver a resounding and ceiling shattering Vissi d’arte, which she did like she was born for it: Vissi d’arte conquered, the audience can relax, as the holy grail is in the right hands.
Alexandros Tsiliogiannis is a satisfyingly tragic Mario Cavaradossi, and has a dramatic bag of tricks to bridge the Recondita armonia and E lucevan le stelle, as he prepares for death.
Because the arias are so well known, so well worn, you are more than happy if both soprano and tenor suffuse the performance with tone and intensity: the only danger is that Vissi d’artewill always interrupt the natural flow of the drama.
If there is one quintessential opera where the tenor and the soprano need to be of almost equal strength to balance the drama, it’s Tosca. Get the voices right, and everything else is wallpaper.
With the piano mimicking the words of the arias, it wouldn’t really matter if the setting was Disneyland and not the fabled Castel Sant’ Angelo, but the production team borrow heavily from Rossellini’s Rome, Open City.
Though Tosca as written takes place in a 24 hour period in 1800, Wexford’s adaptation is fast forwarded to Rome under the Nazi occupation: Cavaradossi is executed sitting on a chair (like Don Pietro in Rome, Open City) and the final scene is the still shocking still from the movie of a murdered Pina, played by Anna Magnani.