Tales of Disguise and Deception, York Opera
The Guildhall, York
Till Fri Apr 29
Tales of Disguise and Deception is an evening of excerpts from popular operas themed around trickery and subterfuge.
Opera has a bad reputation for its exclusivity and remoteness but this evening’s selection demonstrates that the repertoire has many glorious productions which do not deserve to be shunned.
This York Opera show puts to shame some of the performances I’ve seen on the London stage and makes it very clear why Opera is such a great medium for portraying large emotional happenings and grand ideas.
In addition, the performance of opera in the ‘round’ here in the Guildhall brings the action up close and personal and is as good as an experience, if not better than, the performances broadcast to cinemas around the country.
If you are not sure about opera, then get down to the Guildhall – you will be converted.
The first of the four operas was Donizetti’s L’Elizir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love) written in 1842. Nemorino, yes, these Italian names do not always fall easily on English ears, falls in love with a rich landowner, Adina, and makes a bit of a fool of himself to attract her attention.
In this excerpt, which is essentially Act I of the opera, Nemorino flirts with Adina, who somewhat insincerely encourages him until Sergeant Belcore turns up where in redirecting her flirtations the couple proceed to mock poor Nemorino, a plot device that predates pretty much every American high school film.
Doctor Dulcamera arrives selling snake oil to the villagers and Nemorino gets him to provide a love potion to make him attractive to Adina.
In one of those twists that are typical of English farce, Dulcamera, in order to be long way from the scene of his crime tells Nemorino that the elixir will take a whole day to become effective. Nemorino takes the elixir, actually a rather cheap wine, and proceeds to behave indifferently to Adina to give time for the potion to work.
This is the twist that triggers Adina’s love for Nemorino but in a fit of pique, she goes off and announces her wedding to Belcore.
This evening we are first introduced to the Chorus and then Andrew Powis as Nemorino tells us “How beautiful she is” in a rich rounded tenor. Powis has a difficult task to portray a simple villager yet be strong enough to attract the rich landowner, Adina, who is sung by the powerful and experienced Nicky Burrows.
Dulcamera’s entrance on a bicycle is itself quite entrancing and we are treated to a wonderful comic performance by Ian Thompson-Smith who anchors the scene with his selling of potions to the villagers and working with Nemorino to maximise his fee and to get away.
We we also see here the precursor of one of Sullivan’s patter songs in the exchange between Nemorino and Dulcamera. Belcore is sung by Anthony Gardner who establishes his worthiness as Adina’s suitor though one felt he was pushing his voice a little in this performance.
In the full opera, Nemorino is coerced into joining the army in order to finance his further wooing of Adina: it is interesting to note that Donizetti’s army service was bought out by a rich patron, and this tale would have been very close to Donizetti’s experience.
Marriage of Figaro
The first half was than concluded by a performance of the final scene of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. In this scene The Countess and her maid Suzanna switch places in the palace garden at night in order to test and revenge themselves on the Count and Figaro.
This is an ensemble piece which involves 11 characters weaving in and out as the plot develops. We experience here the York Opera’s amazing ensemble singing which is crisp, accurate and clear.
Hilary Dyson as the Countess Almaviva has a glorious voice and a great deal of experience and worked well with Clive Goodhead as the Count and Anthony Gardner as Figaro. The part of Figaro sat much more comfortably in in his voice and he carried the part of Figaro very well.
The Guildhall is a big space, both physically giving the performers challenges of filling it with sound, ensuring the audience who were on all four sides heard everything, and there was the physical agility needed to utilise all the space in the stage area.
Everyone in this segment has glorious and vibrant voices but occasionally one or two performers couldn’t quite maintain the timbre needed for this daunting task.
A special mention should go to Olivia Hildreth as Cherubino who was an energetic and earnest suitor for the Countess, yes a little cross dressing here, and she managed to give Cherubino a sense of purpose, to a role that is in the garden to ensure he/she is onstage for the finale.
After the interval, we are treated to an extract from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida. We often forget just how subversive opera is, with women in strong roles acting against the norm for 18th and 19th century women.
Princess Ida has locked herself away as the dean of an all women’s university, and the three male leads smuggle themselves in, a bit more comic cross dressing, for Hilarion with his friends to claim his betrothed (from babyhood).
The men, played by lighter and less experienced singers, though ideal for Sullivan’s music, worked well together, using the space and who’s speaking voiced filled the hall. These parts were played by Michael Foster, Hamish Brown and Alex Holland.
In particular, when disguised as lady scholars they sing a wonderful trio which is a precursor to the later Mikado Three Little Maids From School. As the ladies became aware of the faux scholars we are treated to some marvellous duets.
All three ladies, Clare Medley as Ida, Sally Lewis as Psyche, and Bethan Terry as Melissa, have marvellous voices, well suited to the genre. It is perhaps a shame that Meadley as Ida did not get a chance to fully demonstrate her prowess in this extract.
The evening closed with a scene from Verdi’s Falstaff. This extract really demonstrated the power of opera to transcend.
As much as Shakespeare’s pen dripped with genius, he was perhaps a tad wordy and in this scene where Falstaff gets his comeuppance from the two married ladies he is trying to seduce and the townspeople, the marvellous ensemble singing of both the principals and the chorus demonstrates just how one of Shakespeare’s comic scenes can be brought to life and Falstaff’s stupidity be properly highlighted.
Andrew Powis as Fenton introduces the scene, important as he is married to Nanetta by the end. Once again a rich tenor voice setting the scene before we are introduced to Falstaff, with a powerful head of antlers as reminiscent of Herne the Hunter.
Falstaff as sung by Ian Thompson-Smith in another commanding performance and as Falstaff he is confronted by Nanetta as Titania and her entourage of townsfolk all dressed as fairies. Elisha Lofthouse took control of the stage with her well rounded voice from Falstaff as she encourages the fairies to torment Falstaff.
I cannot not emphasize the excellence of the ensemble singing and the stage direction on a complex four-way facing performance space. Verdi is never easy, he writes very simple and steady harmonic sequences but somehow demands a lot from the performers.
This scene from Falstaff made an excellent and powerful finale to the evening.
The costume design was elegant in its simplicity. Simple accessories to common black base allowed for considerable variation in characterisation and allowed chorus members to move swiftly and easily from part to part. The chorus is the heart of York Opera’s ethos and they were well drilled and disciplined.
Overall, whole evening was a delight and makes a powerful introduction to opera for anyone who has not had the chance to experience it up close and personal: this is one opportunity to see just how powerful an art opera is and to get hooked.
In this modern world where the role of women is back under threat, the subversive support to women represented in these 19th century works is well worth our support.