Theatre Baby is a blog, to contain the archive of reviews that I have produced for The Reviews Hub and North East Theatre Guide, plus new reviews published under the banner of Theatre Baby.
The Pearl Fishers – Concert Performance 17 June 2023
Music by Georges Bizet
Libretto by Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon edited by Hugh Macdonald
Presented by Opera North
Director: Matthew Eberhardt
Conductor: Matthew Kofi Waldren
A superbly performed and effectively dramatic concert version of Bizet’s early opera, long overshadowed by Carmen but incorporating one of the most popular duets in the opera repertoire.
The Pearl Fishers, set in ancient times in the island now known as Sri Lanka, relates the story of two childhood friends, Zurga and Nadir, in conflict over their love for the same woman. She in turn has to deal with the conflict between worldly love and her sworn vow of chastity as a priestess. When Nadir and Leila are caught together, Zurga, mad with jealousy, condemns them to death. Later he discovers that Leila was the young girl who had saved him from captivity some year before and decides to repay the debt and save them. He sets fire to the pearl fishermen’s tents to create a distraction, allowing the lovers to escape.
Opera North’s splendid orchestra, seen here on stage with the soloists, under the baton of Matthew Kofi Waldren, gave a lucid and stirring rendition of the score. Perhaps the music is less polished and complex than Carmen but there is much to enjoy, melodically and in terms of the emotion generated.
The signature aria that introduces the two friends, ‘Au fond du temple saint’ is given full value by Quirijn De Lang’s, commanding and statesmanlike Zurga and Nico Darmanin’s urgent and edgy Nadir. De Lang’s rich, fluid, and versatile baritone blends perfectly with Darmanin’s thrilling and lyrical tenor, combining with the orchestra in a virtuoso performance. The theme of the duet is echoed throughout the piece at key moments of the plot, returning like a wistful memory.
The priestess and object of both men’s affections , Leila, is performed by Sophia Theodorides, her effortless soprano bright and warm across her range, with a sparkling coloratura. The quartet of soloists is completed by James Cresswell’s rich and resplendent bass as Nourabad.
Matthew Eberhardt, the director is to be praised for the amount of drama and storytelling achieved in a concert performance without the spectacle provided by set and costumes. The early part of Act 3, where Zurga laments the rift with his boyhood friend in ‘ô Nadir, tendre ami de mon jeune ȃge’ and his confrontation with Leila, come to plead for Nadir’s life, were particularly gripping. De Lang is popular among Opera North’s audiences and it easy to see why.
This was a truly enjoyable evening, giving an opportunity to relish the full, rich sound of a top-notch orchestra skilfully directed, and four world-class soloists at the top of their game.
The Pearl Fishers can be seen at Hull City Hall on 24 June and at the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham on 1 July.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo
Theatre Royal Newcastle
Until Saturday 10 June 2023
The bestselling chronicle of a refugee couple’s physical and emotional journey is adapted into a moving drama, well performed by an engaging cast.
Adapting Christy Lefteri’s novel for the stage was an ambitious undertaking, for which Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse deserve considerable credit. The story ranges over several countries on its way from Syria to Britain, through numerous characters and involving a great deal of loss, hardship and emotional anguish. Nesrin Alrefai and Matthew Spangler, the playwrights, say in the programme that they wanted to steer a path between the demonisation of refugees and the reductive approach of painting them as idealised victims. It is fair to say that they have broadly achieved that, though they use broader strokes when depicting the attitudes and language of the state representatives encountered on reaching the UK.
The play starts in Britain so there is no suspense about the physical journey’s end but the point of the play is whether Alfred Clay’s Nuri and his wife Afra, played by Roxy Faridany, can endure as a couple and recover from the emotional consequences of their odyssey.
After their contented and successful life in Syria is destroyed by conflict, and after Afra has contracted psychogenic blindness, Nuri and Afra escape to Turkey with the help of the first of a chain of harsh and unpleasant people smugglers. We are unclear as to what has happened to their only child. From there they take a boat to Greece and are stranded in an Athens park until they enter into some underworld dealing to fund their onward trip to the UK. The incidents that occur here have a profound effect on their already strained relationship. Along the way, Nuri befriends a small boy who later unaccountably disappears.
Nuri’s cousin and business partner, Mustafa, is already in the UK, ending up in Yorkshire where he is able to resume his beekeeping life. A troubled Nuri has begun to lose his grip on reality, is distanced from Afra and avoids contacting Mustafa because he cannot come to terms with what they have endured and what he feels he has become.
Having survived the exile from his homeland, can he make his way back from this more profound, self-imposed, emotional exile?
The central characters are well-drawn, and Clay gives a convincing portrayal of Nuri’s descent into despair. Faridany’s performance is also strong and nuanced. Joseph Long makes an excellent job of portraying two contrasting characters; the warm, nature-loving Mustafa and the gently comic Moroccan man who is enthusiastically grasping the British way of life and its language.
Nadia Williams’ charismatic portrayal of Angeliki and Aram Marsourian’s sinister Fotakis are highlights of the strong ensemble’s multiple roles in support.
An effectively versatile set by Ruby Pugh, music by Elaha Soroor and Tingying Dong’s sound design are all essential to the flow of the narrative, as is Ben Ormerod’s lighting design.
Miranda Cromwell’s direction is fluid and helps flesh out the parade of characters, largely avoiding caricature.
Overall, the characters are engaging, and the production stops short of being harrowing, despite portraying terrible loss and suffering. Somehow, it does not seem to be as gripping as it might have been but perhaps that is because of the lack of jeopardy in the structure, which replicates that of the source work.
This is an incredibly timely piece of theatre, fleshing out the human experience of the refugee in a well-researched and believable way. In a country that has allowed itself to be manipulated into blaming all its troubles on those escaping conflict rather than those who are actually in control, the human story needs to be told now, more than ever.
Ariadne Auf Naxos
Theatre Royal Newcastle 24/03/2023
Music by Richard Strauss
Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Presented by Opera North
Director: Rodula Gaitanou
Conductor: Anthony Hermus
A stylish and hugely entertaining blend of surreal comedy, romance and exquisite melody, beautifully performed by a stellar cast.
The concept of Ariadne Auf Naxos is somewhat bewildering; a grand opera troupe and a commedia dell’arte troop are due to perform on the same night for a wealthy and capricious patron, in this production the head of a movie studio in 1950’s Rome. To make time for the fireworks he has scheduled, the patron insists that the two entertainments be merged into one.
Divided into a Prelude and the performance proper, the work gives us first all the backstage action. This includes the despair of the young composer at seeing his masterwork bastardised in this way, the frustration of the diva at the undermining of her profoundly serious role, the glee of the commedia dell’arte troop at puncturing the pomposity of the grand opera company and the tenor’s temper tantrums over the styling of his wig. All this is tremendous fun, of course, and is played to the hilt by this versatile company. Also the 1950’s Italian setting allows for delicious costumes and the wonderfully cool vibe of Fellini’s heyday, much as evoked in the musical ‘Nine’.
Woven into this, however, are some lyrical and romantic melodies of real beauty, chiefly delivered by the young composer, sung by the wonderful lyric mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp in the ‘breeches’ role. She evokes the audience’s sympathy as she falls under the spell of the perky comedienne Zerbinetta, a delicious performance by Jennifer France, a versatile soprano who sings, acts and dances through the piece, delivering her dazzling coloratura aria with great finesse. The third of the splendid sopranos, Elizabeth Llewellyn merely teases us during the prologue, leaving her moment in the spotlight to the opera proper.
The second half starts with Llewellyn’s Ariadne marooned on a rock by her faithless lover Theseus, with the spirits of the island dancing and singing around her. She dreams only of death and the arrival of Hermes to take her to the underworld. She is a virtuoso soprano of power and finesse and Strauss’s score gives her plenty of opportunity to demonstrate this. Again, in the midst of absurdity we are presented with great beauty, which is perhaps the essence of this delightful and enigmatic opera.
The commedia troupe, Alex Banfield, Adrian Dwyer and John Savournin, in setting out to cheer her up, show real comic skill and Dominic Sedgwick’s Harlequin is charismatic and engaging, as he sees his lover Zerbinetta being taken away form him by the composer. In the denouement, David Butt Philip’s tenor appears as Bacchus and falls for Ariadne, who ultimately accepts his suit and he rescues her. He is a heroic tenor of real skill and vocal quality and he admirably matches Llewellyn in their soaring and romantic duet.
Opera North’s splendid orchestra is under the baton of Anthony Hermus, who is well up to all the twists and turns of this quirky but ultimately, hugely melodic score.
This was an evening of sheer delight. Something that starts out as if it would deliver something in the manner of The Play That Goes Wrong becomes the opera that goes, in every way, supremely right. Setting the piece in the film studio was inspired and director Rodula Gaitano and choreographer Victoria Newlyn are to be applauded for the flawless performances they have elicited from their versatile and hugely talented company.
Theatre Royal Newcastle 23/03/2023
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacoso and Luigi Illica, after the play by Victorien Sardou
Presented by Opera North
Director Edward Dick
Conductor Garry Walker
A tense and dramatic modern dress version, strikingly staged and sensitively sung, with genuinely chilling moments amongst the lush romantic arias.
Tosca is one of the greatest works of a hugely popular composer. As such, it has been continuously in the opera repertoire, providing a vehicle for many great tenors, from Caruso to Domingo and sopranos such as Maria Callas and Angela Georghiu. Always a popular success, it has had its share of brickbats from the critics, chiefly in respect of the plot. Nevertheless, the richly layered and stirring score contains some of the most beloved arias in all Grand Opera. The narrative is also richly dramatic and gives excellent performance opportunities to the characters, particularly Scarpia, the corrupt and priapic police chief, a plum role for a bass baritone.
This production is played out in modern-day Rome. The set design by Tom Scutt is beautiful and atmospheric. It features a domed painted ceiling, that the painter Cavaradossi is in the process of renovating in the first act, set around by spotlights and racks of candles to suggest initially the interior of a church. The dome is repositioned throughout, looking like a canopy in the second act, set in Scarpia’s elegantly modern bedroom and like a giant eye, as the castle ramparts for act 3.
The story concerns Cavaradossi’s relationship with the famous singer, Floria Tosca and the pursuit of her by Scarpia in the midst of civil unrest that Scarpia seeks to quash by capturing and executing the escaped rebel leader, Cesare Angelotti, who is being sheltered by Cavaradossi.
Scarpia manages to use Tosca’s quick and jealous nature to make her suspect her lover of infidelity, and lead to his arrest. Scarpia then tortures Cavaradossi to coerce her to betray Angelotti, which she does. To save Cavaradossi’s life, he persuades her to sleep with him but Tosca has other ideas, leading to a graphic and bloody outcome, stunningly staged.
Tosca then runs to Cavaradossi with the passport Scarpia has given her, telling him his planned execution is to be a sham and that they will flee Rome together. However, the police chief has one more card to play from beyond the grave…
The modern setting gives this production an edge, making the drama more immediate with genuinely shocking moments like black clad executioners in balaclavas, conjuring memories of the Northern Irish troubles and other recent guerrilla conflicts. Moments like Scarpia watching the celebrations outdoors on his laptop and filming Tosca on his mobile phone, work surprisingly well. Robert Hayward’s silky baritone and his imposing presence make for a very modern villain. No moustache-twirling caricature here but a measured and nuanced performance, showing the inner conflict between his sexual drive and his religious convictions.
Cavaradossi, was physically portrayed by Andrés Presno, though illness meant that he was unable to sing the role. This task fell to Luis Chapa, hastily brought up from London to save the show. The announcement of this brought some consternation from sections of the audience but they need not have worried. Singing from the corner of the stage, he delivered a sensitive but powerful performance of the score and one soon accepted the duality of Presno’s movement with Chapa’s voice.
If he was, forgivably, a little tentative at first, he soon hit his stride and his rendition of the climactic aria, E lucevan le stelle, was thrilling. He also showed real sweetness in the softer passages and blended beautifully with Magdalena Molendowska’s Tosca, no mean feat under the circumstances. Presno managed well in his thankless task of providing Tosca with a physical presence to work with.
Molendowska was a fiery but vulnerable Tosca, a true dramatic soprano with strength throughout her range and a ringing top register. Delivering the signature aria, Vissi d’arte from a recumbent position, as has become almost customary, would test any soprano and she was more than up to the task.
Callum Thorpe, a memorable poacher from Tuesday’s Cunning Little Vixen, showed his versatility in a richly sung cameo as the harried Angelotti.
Edward Dick has delivered a gripping and dramatic production, convincingly acted and genuinely memorable. Opera North’s chorus provided splendid support with moments of great impact and the marvellous orchestra, sensitively led by Garry Walker, gave the beloved score full value.
There are further performances on Saturday 25 March at 19.00 in Newcastle, and 30 March and 1 April at Hull New Theatre.
The Cunning Little Vixen
Theatre Royal Newcastle 21/03/2023
Revised version by Jiri Zahrádka
Presented by Opera North
A visually stunning, amusing and earnestly sung presentation of a capricious and charming opera, underpinned by a splendid orchestra