Mothers and Sons and L’arlesiana

Ali Wright

Yvonne Howard, Rosa Mamai and L’innocente sung by Samantha Price.

 

At a performance of L’Arlesiana at Opera Holland Park recently, I was bowled over by Yvonne Howard’s heart-breaking aria, Esser madre è un inferno (To be a mother is hell!). Howard as the long-suffering matriarch is superb. When she pleads for God to watch over her son, who has become enamoured with a woman of questionable repute, you really feel her pain.

The theme of unbridled, misguided passion in opera is a potent one and which still resonates with contemporary audiences, for man is flawed.

L’arlesiana was first performed in 1897 in Milan, over a century ago, but the psychological drama still  plays out (within reason) in our homes, for isn’t it every mother’s nightmare to see her son give his heart away to someone who makes him unhappy, or happy for that matter! The rejection a mother experiences is today’s best kept secret, for to admit to such feelings is to imply that you have failed in some way. It is astonishing to think that in these supposedly enlightened times, these lousy emotions are still felt by women who work, are independent and who enjoy interests outside their children. That they should feel that age-old jealousy towards their son’s lover seems inconceivable, but trust me, they do! And then they get over it. In opera it’s different.

In L’arlesiana Rosa Mamai’s solution is to steer her son in the direction of a nice girl, Vivetta, from their Provencal village. Flur Wyn played this role to perfection with her clean as a whistle soprano voice. Her devoted love heals him momentarily but alas Federico cannot forget his scarlet-clad arlesienne.

She appeared on stage in the OHP production, a dream figure, with her back to us, writhing her curvaceous body and smoking provocatively, before disappearing out of a door, out of Federico’s life forever. Her inclusion was unnecessary I felt, for she holds more power over the audience unseen. 

Sadly Rosa Mamai’s obsession with Federico, hoovers up any love she may have kept in reserve for her youngest boy, l’innocente, sung disarmingly well by Samantha Price. A simple soul, l’innocente feasts on tales of guiless goats and nasty wolves, all  recounted by grandfather, Baldassare, played sympathetically by Keel Watson. These tender moments are our only musical respite from the drag and pull of straining violin strings powering the drama along.

Cilea’s opera is beautiful in parts but it is far from perfect. OHP’s production reigns in the melodrama as best it can. And yet when Mamai clasps her hands together in Act 3 and sings Esser madre è un inferno, I knew why I had come. If you click on the Youtube link of the Renata Tebaldi recording, you will have some idea of Yvonne Howard’s fantastic live performance.

 

 

KH

Iolanta: Coming Into the Light

 

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Portrait of Peter Ilitsch Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Dimitriyevdi Kuznetsov 1893

 

Tchaikovsky’s philosophical and psychological opera, Iolanta, playing at Opera Holland Park, has been a big hit with critics and audiences alike this summer. It is easy to see why, with its starry line up of singers such as the soprano Natalya Romaniw together with tenor, David Butt-Philip (the two have wanted to sing together for quite some time!). These two, coupled with heavy-weight Russian bass, Mikhail Svetlov, had me rushing to go and see this little-known opera before it finished on August 3rd.

I admit to being a little worried about Iolanta’s story line at first, fearing its irrelevance to today’s audience as it had its origins in a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen ( I was greatly troubled by his stories as a child).

 It is the story of King René and the lengths he goes to to protect his daughter Iolanta, who is blind and blissfully unaware of the fact thanks to the King’s machinations. No one in his kingdom is to inform Iolanta of her visual impairment and if they do so, they face a death sentence! The weight of responsibility falls on ordinary citizens to check their language, ban colours, visual descriptions from their speech. The gagging order is played out on stage to shocking effect as rows of women bind their own mouths with their neck scarves! 

In the opening scene, Iolanta, played by Romaniw, loads her basket of fruit and falls inexplicably listless and tired. She wonders why her friends know she is crying without them having touched her eyes! Romaniw in an arioso of immense feeling contrasts her present restless state with her past happiness. Romaniw’s voice has everything. Beauty, power, shading, channelled emotion. In this scene, she conveyed all the vulnerability, sweetness, innocence, with that inimitable melancholic tone that only she can produce. 

A white-haired gentleman seated by me, produced a large handkerchief from the top pocket of his jacket and crushed it against his tear-stained cheek. 

The nurse Martha, played by a wonderful Laura Woods, tries to comfort Iolanta. Girls bring in flowers and sing a song about them, the scene ends in a beautiful trio with nurse and two friends who try to lull Iolanta to sleep. I was reeling from the rapturous, rich sound that was produced by all.

 

Ali Wright

Natalya Romaniw singing Iolanta at Opera Holland Park 2019 season

 

Most interestingly, the stage, designed by Takis, is minimalistic. Anything else would have been distracting and schmaltzy (I feared a fairy-tale landscape back drop!).  Composed of intersecting neon lit triangles and trees of lighted baubles, it reminds the audience of the darkness and light inhabiting the universe and possibly brings us back to Iolanta’s mindset, emphasising her visual limitations.

Svetlov, playing her father, produced magic on stage as only a Russian singing in his native language can do.  With his titanic bass, big stage presence, and strong but sympathetic character and tone, he produced many tears from the daughters in the audience. What it is to have a father who cares for you so much that he tries to adjust the world so that you won’t have to suffer!  He may be misguided, a censor – but he loves you that much!

I was particularly interested to hear David Butt-Philip singing Vaudémont, in the all important love duet with Romaniw. The moment critique when she presents him with two white roses instead of a red rose he has requested, was poignant and moving as it is the first time he realises that she is blind. Lost for words, he is numbed into temporary silence. Recovering, he sings of the beauty in nature. The climax comes as Vaudémont describes the importance of light in the world. Butt-Philip had the experience and vocal dexterity to scale up to those high notes cleanly. Butt-Philip bright , optimistic tenor voice was perfect for the role and complimented Romaniw’s mournful tones. In opera, the destructive side of love is often emphasised but in Iolanta it is love’s restorative and healing quality which comes through

Walking away through Holland Park after the grand finale, my head swelling with all the amazing score, my thoughts turned to Tchaikovsky who I imagined  hunched over his composition, late into the night. Did Iolanta allow him to approach the light of his true sexual orientation? Or was he hoping for others to be enlightened and more accepting in affairs of the heart. Who knows – but writing this opera must have been cathartic for him. It is an optimistic work offering hope and light to all of us.

A must if you haven’t seen this. Last two performances 1 and 3rd of August!

KH

Two performances left at Opera Holland Park. 1 and 3rd of August.

Classical Opera Goes Virtual

 

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Tim Benjamin is not the first composer to use digital sound and music in opera. Modern opera is all about experimentation and if you are a small opera company with constrained budgets, virtual is the way to go if you want a chorus in the score!

But this is not quite Tim Benjamin’s story, whose new opera, The Fire of Olympus is a contemporary reimagining of Prometheus’s story of stealing fire from Zeus and of Prometheus’s relationship with Pandora.

Thanks to an outreach programme funded by the Classical Association, Tim Benjamin was able to go in search of his chorus by travelling around the North of England this year. He visited choruses and choral societies with opera singer, Michael Jones, who plays Hephaestus in this production, and managed to amass 1,000 amateur singers! They turned out to be a very diverse crowd in the workshops but all of them embraced their role as Vox Populi in the classically-inspired opera Benjamin had written.

Once back from his UK wanderings, Benjamin assembled his recordings, comprising of song and the spoken word. In the properly staged 2hr opera you will be able to hear the finished product in surround sound.

I got a taster of what is to come the other evening when I went to listen to Tim Benjamin talk about the project and to hear his soloists perform the highlights.

Tim Benjamin was affable and engaging describing his journey into the musical genre. He had already written an opera on Emily Davison’s life (the suffragette who threw herself in front of the King’s horse). However it was his oratorio, Herakles, which got him thinking about Prometheus (if you know your mythology you will know that Heracles freed Prometheus from his eternal torment of having his liver pecked out by an eagle). The present opera backtrack to Prometheus’s story, before his spat with Zeus.

Four singers sat down in a row on stage. Over the speakers came a crescendoing babble (the chorus). Prometheus stood up. Sophie Dicks in a pulled-down hoodie, men’s shoes and trousers, was highly convincing as a man. She sang the mezzo-soprano role with conviction, power and intensity. The same could be said of Elspeth Marrow, singing the other ‘trouser-role’, that of of Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother. Both of the young women’s handling of the Handel-inspired score was impressive. So too were baritone, Robert Glyndwr Garland, Zeus and President of Olympus (the parallels to be drawn with Donald Trump are clear!), and soprano, Charlotte Hoather, singing Pandora. 

The libretto, sung in English, worked well mostly except when the aim was to shock and to bring us up to today’s zeitgeist. Pandora singing ‘A fuck is just a fuck’ jarred because she looked so demure! But maybe it is supposed to as at the end of the aria she is crying out for revolution!

What was really inspired was the weaving of the amalgamated chorus into the opera. When Prometheus sings in the finale, ‘What’s done is done… The fire will spread..’ You know we are all doomed!

What started out as an outreach programme for Tim Benjamin, has developed into a staged opera. In Brexit Britain composers are having to be more inventive in the way they raise money for their projects. Perhaps this is a good thing and will bring new blood and fresh ideas to a genre which seemed to be running out of steam not so long ago. No longer.

KH

For more information: https://radiusopera.org/productions/the-fire-of-olympus/

Is This The Future of Opera? Youthful Exuberance for Opera Holland Park.

 

12.jpgJack Holton (Anckarström) with Blaise Malaba (Ribbing) and Tom Mole (Horn).

 

Like Shakespearean actors and concert pianists, opera singers are outsiders in today’s entertainment world of self-made performers boasting one million subscribers on their Youtube channel.

Accessibility is of course a lovely idea and the internet has certainly provided an equal platform for aspirants. But there is one thing you can be sure of, even with the best will in the world, that you will never become an opera star just like that! Years of training and true grit might just get you over the first hurdle when you first set foot on the stage.

Knowing this, it is astonishing to think that there are still those willing to sacrifice the best of their youth to such a tough profession.

And yet they are, for opera is attracting more young blood and not always from the usual classical music schools. The Nadine Benjamins of this world are on the increase. Benjamin fought her way up from a Brixton council estate to become one of the UK’s most sought after lyrical sopranos. Of course it was a fight for her, even when she managed to find teachers, some of whom were most unhelpfully suggesting that she turn her efforts to jazz.

10Nadine Benjamin singing Amelia.

Still – there are now more job opportunities in opera as it opens up and is performed outside the established venues. The standard used to be middling to good outside ROH, Glynebourne, Garsington but all that has changed. Opera has evolved and what is more astounding, it is starting to get through to the young, thanks to people like Michael Volpe running Opera Holland Park, whose mission it has been to make opera accessible to all.

I was astonished to view a Twitter video recently of school children (10 years plus) giving a standing ovation to Un Ballo in Maschera at Holland Park Opera. The Ballo in question was a Young Artists’ performance of Verdi’s masterpiece. ‘Young artists’ in opera terms denotes singers in their mid to late 20s who are starting out in this careers.

Buoyed by this concept I was curious to see why the young audience had reacted so enthusiastically and made my way to the evening performance of Ballo the following day. The formula was thus: two leads sung by established singers, Nadine Benjamin in this production singing Amelia, and Adriano Graziani the ill-fated Swedish king, Gustavo. The rest of the troupe were youth artists. And of course all the above were supported by a strong OHP chorus and consistently brilliant City of London Sinfonia orchestra. The staging and set were gleaned from the original Ballo production at Holland Park the week before, which had been universally praised by the reviewers.

Never before have I heard Nadine Benjamin sing with such beauty and raw emotion. She was Amelia; married, loyal and gradually worn thin by her feelings for her husband’s employer.Wherever she was on stage she projected with passion and intelligence without overacting. Her centred approach gave more power to that astonishing voice of hers.

Adriano Graziani as Gustavo, excelled in the light-hearted arias in Act One, his bright tenor suiting the role. His body language was however awkward in the more intimate duets with Amelia. In Act III his solos in the penultimate scene were however intensely moving as he decides to let Amelia go to save her honour and marriage. Graziani was a generous support to his page, Oscar, sung by youth singer, Claire Lees. There was a nervous, tightness in Lees’s voice and body language to start (tough when you are singing coloratura) but with Graziani’s encouraging presence beside her, her life-enhancing, crystalline voice took off.

 

3Adriano Graziani (Gustavo) with Claire Lees (Oscar)

Meanwhile, Jack Holton embraced the onerous Anckarström role. At the matinée performance he had caused quite a stir on stage with his impressive stature, pony-tail and caressing baritone. He was almost too seductive for the role. It was only by clomping inelegantly around the stage did he succeed in making himself appear a little more prosaic. His young baritone voice was stretched a little in parts in the lower register, but in the main, it came across as rich and assured.

Other notable performances were Georgia Mae Bishop’s confident portrayal of Madame Arvidson the fortune teller. Conspirators, Ribbing, (Blaise Malaba), and Horn (Tom Mole) provided much needed black comedy to the piece especially in their mocking laughter trio with Anckarström.

Sam Oram finally, in the cameo role of Cristiano, didn’t quite get the opportunity to display his baritone credentials, but he is also someone scaling the operatic ladder.

All in all an exciting, highly ambitious project which came off brilliantly! Conductor, Sonia Ben-Santamaria, also from the young artist scheme, did a fine job of directing City of London Sinfonia in what is a fiendishly difficult opera to conduct with its fast tempos, quintets and intricate arrangements. Slight timing issues, when the French horns ran away with themselves for example, were just blips on an otherwise beautifully fluid interpretation of one of Verdi’s most ravishing of scores.

KH

Schools matinée curtain call of the year 2019: https://www.facebook.com/operahollandpark/videos/424337234958625/?q=Opera%20Holland%20Park&epa=SEARCH_BOX

My review of the adult performance of Ballo: https://artmuselondon.com/2019/06/20/verdis-ballo-in-maschera-a-revelation/

If you are interested in reading about the young artists at Opera Holland Park, here is the link: https://operahollandpark.com/news/introducing-the-opera-holland-park-young-artists-2019

    

Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera. A Revelation.

 

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Verdi and the Naples censor when preparing “Ballo”, 1857–58, caricature by Delfico

 

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, nearly didn’t see the light of day.

The problem lay in Italy’s troubled political situation and the opera’s libretto, based on the assassination of King Gustave III in 1793 during a masked ball. 

When Verdi was set to stage it in Naples in January 1858, the authorities were given more reason to feel jittery. Three Italian revolutionists, who saw Napoleon III as a hindrance to Italy’s unification, threw three bombs at the Emperor’s carriage in Paris. He was making his way to the opera with his wife. The bombs exploded, killing horses, staff. There were eight fatalities and a hundred were injured. Miraculously the Emperor and Empress escaped unharmed!

Back in Naples, the terrified censors asked Verdi to change his story-line, worried over the incendiary message the opera may be sending to the people. Verdi refused. The Neopolitans took to the streets, shouting ‘Viva Verdi.’ Verdi’s surname got caught up in the unification movement and became a code name for those who wanted Vittorio Emmanuele Re DItalia as King.

It wasn’t until February 1859 that Verdi agreed to change the name of the opera (it had taken on several different titles, Gustavo III and even Un Vendetta) to Un Ballo in Maschera, and for the narrative to be set as far away as Boston!

Nowadays the opera is back to its original Swedish setting. It is a political opera but with a love story thrown in. On a deeper level it is also, as the name suggests, an opera about secrecy and the suppression of truth.

Rodula Gaitanou, director of Holland Park Opera’s production, provided a sumptuous opening, drawing on the secrecy theme. It opens on a fencing school, the chorus and main singers, indistinguishable from each other, in their fencing apparel and visors. The set of wood panelling, stretching right  across the stage behind them, shields them from the outside world but also provides secret doors, through which those with things to hide, can disappear.

In the middle of the fencing class, a tightly-suited, young man with shapely thighs, leapt across the set, confidently wielding his foil. Oscar, King Gustavo’s page, is a wonderful incarnation and Alison Langer, bright-voiced and cheeky, sang him to perfection.

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But it is not only the staging, direction and cameo roles which impress, in this Holland Pk production. Matteo Lippi as King Gustavo never ceased to hold the audience’s attention on the night that I went, with his sympathetic portrayal of the pleasure-loving, decent monarch facing sentimental and political problems. His fine-phrased, focused singing seemed ideally suited to his role as chivalrous admirer to Amelia, his best friend’s wife. I also appreciated Lippe’s authentic rendering (he is Italian-born) of what seemed to be a simple folksong ‘Di’ tu se fedele/Tell me if the sea awaits me faithfully” and imagined the Italian audiences of Verdi’s time humming along to it.

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Anne-Sophie Duprels’s voice meanwhile, expressed all the torment of Amelia’s perilous standing. Married, and loving her husband’s best friend, from afar, she faced two years imprisonment in Verdi’s time, should she commit the unpardonable. Italian audiences would have been painfully aware of this fact.

Most heart-breaking and mournful however was her aria, ‘cello obbligato Morrò, ma prima in grazia, where she begs her husband, Anckaström, not to take her son away. I can still see her now, holding her baby to her breast, her face expressing loss, confusion, terror. Duprel’s goes to the very heart of this poor, defenceless woman.

Anckaström’s baritone voice, controlled, and also steely was excellent in Eri tu where he reveals his   contradictory emotions towards his wife, who he still loves.

I had never been to see Un Ballo in Maschera; perhaps I had been deterred by what I thought to be its innocuous title. The opera does have protracted scenes. In Act 1 Scene 2 for example, at the fortune teller’s. Rosalind Plowright singing Madame Arvidson provided a mesmerising performance however, her tall, crane-like figure occupying the stage, and her eerie contralto voice kept me on the edge of my seat. She had already made her mark in OHP’s Queen of Spades several years before. Once seen, never forgotten!

For three days now I have been reliving the highlights, the arias, duets, quintets. It is a very rich work musically and City of London Sinfonia orchestra under Matthew Kofi Waldren’s baton was seamless and totally in synch with the singers. I couldn’t detect any timing issues.

 This is a very slick production all round. Go! Only a few performances left!

KH

Un Ballo in Maschera is on for a few more dates : Friday 21st June, Tuesday 25th June, Thursday 27th June, Friday 28th June and Saturday 29th June.

https://operahollandpark.com/season-and-events/

Elizabeth Llewellyn In Fine Voice in Opera Holland Park’s ‘Manon Lescaut’.

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It had been quite some time since I had last seen Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s early opera. Not since 2014 when leading man, Jonas Kaufmann, the Tom Jones of opera, topped the bill, playing an overly confident De Grieux at the Royal Opera House. Nevertheless I lapped up his ill-fated love affair with Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais, singing Manon, and the extravagent sets. 

Thinking back on it now, I question the lavish production. The operatic couple may have melded beautifully and the contemporary staging may have dazzled at first, but somehow it was distracting. 

Puccini’s operas run on high octane emotion. To have an ostentatious set can be de trop!

Opera Holland Park minimalist set did its work with no frills: a bar, a boudoir, which morphed into a film set and finally the harbour with broken brick wall, where Manon and other fallen women are shipped off to New Orleans. New Orleans well – you just had to imagine it. You wouldn’t have known the places without checking the libretto. Sometimes this was a touch disorientating.

More important was the inspired casting and interaction between the lovers and other key members of the troupe.

Here, I believe, Opera Holland Park got it absolutely right. Elizabeth Llewellyn, a statuesque Manon, was good at fleshing out her heroine’s complex character. Kittenish and flirtatious at first, cavorting with abandon at a party on a Twister mat, she shows herself to be easily led and impressed by money. She has supposedly fallen for student De Grieux beforehand and yet it doesn’t stop her playful antics with her brother, Lescaut, before Geronte, the wealthy and aged pursuer of young women. 

Paul Carey-Jones, as Lescaut, artfully demonstrated his slippery character in the way he disappeared and popped up unexpectedly on stage, first in the De Grieux, then in the Geronte camp. His baritone voice contained the right amount of menace and humour required for the role.

TT_Ssv80Meanwhile Stephen Richardson, singing Geronte, had the air of an eminent professor one minute, his elegant grey streaks and sharp suits giving him maximum allure, and mafioso, the next, in his dark shades. Wherever he was, he seemed to dominate the scene. His solid bass voice was memorable in the lower register but not allowed much space in this opera for tenors!

Peter Auty, playing the all important paramour, De Grieux was an interesting one. It must be hard for all principal singers to interpret well known roles and works. The audience expects so much of you and your leading lady, and Puccini certainly expected 100 per cent from his singers. 

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There is also the problem of the way we perceive the lover. De Grieux in the story of Manon is a poor student and madly in love. The audience sympathies could well lie with him. In this production, he is seen as not only grief-stricken but obsessive and childish; even unhinged! I’m thinking that that might be what Karolina Sofulak, director of Manon, had in mind.

Peter Auty captures the restlessness of the lover, his jerky body language on stage, manifests physically the inner turmoil Manon instils in him. His Italianate tenor voice is at times close to breaking point and his high notes seem to be wrested from a truly tortured soul. Important arias like ‘Guardate, pazzo son’ (Have a care – I’m driven to madness’) when he persuades the captain of the ship, to take him on board to join Manon, are truly moving.  

Placed before the more poised Manon, whose strangled emotion only really comes through in the final act, De Grieux comes across as a psychological mess.

Llewellyn’s soprano voice was sophisticated, rich with all the necessary fragility in all the right moments. In the final act for example, when De Grieux has left her momentarily to seek help, she crumbles as the lights suddenly  illuminate the cinema posters on the wall where a ‘Manon’ tops the bill . She rips them to shreds, no longer able to contemplate her young, beautiful former self or is it her replacement? ‘Now I beg for the grave.’ ‘My love help me.’ 

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There was some consternation in the audience after the final scene as the lovers ended up far apart from each other, Manon standing beneath a flickering street lamp and De Grieux many metres away in despair. The ladies in question seated in front of me, might have seen Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais in the Convent Garden Opera version, virtually joined at the hip, lying on the edge of a truncated flyover (you had to be there!). 

There is method to Karolina Sofulak’s vision. This quirk at the end emphasises Manon’s complete isolation. When Manon sings ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata,’ she really is, even when her lover returns from his vain search for help.

Highly recommended as Elisabeth Llewellyn is in fine voice.

Manon Lescaut, Opera Holland Pk runs for four more performances : Tues 18th June, Thurs 20th June, Saturday 22nd June and Wednesday 26th June.

KH

A Riveting Ripper at the Coliseum

 

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Jack the Ripper’s frenzied killing spree in Victorian London has never ceased to fascinate and appall. 

Iain Bell, composer of the ambitious new opera of the same name, and his librettist Emma Jenkins, decided, when creating their new work, to rid the stage of his presence altogether and to focus instead on the Ripper’s female victims, the women of Whitechapel.

In the opera Jack exists merely in song, most memorably in the scene with the Pathologist, when Ripper’s grisly acts are revealed in minute detail.

The curtain rose on a doss house, resembling both prison and morgue, with its macabre drawers and recesses. The higher drawers slid back and out popped a row of heads belonging to Victorian undertakers in top hats, like clients at a peep show. 

Surreal yes! This strange scene also reflects the reality of doss houses at that time which not only attracted prostitution but also provided strange bedding arrangements. Ropes were on offer for tuppence a time, for those prepared to flop over them and sleep standing up. Coffin beds were the upgrade for a few pennies more.

What we see on stage are not coffins however but open graves, from which the female occupants rise, like the dead in Stanley Spencer’s famous painting, ‘The Resurrection’.

The stage was so starkly lit that at first we were unable to distinguish the main female protagonists hiding in shadow. Nor could we see who was singing!

The interval was the time to check the cast list so as to make quite sure that we were seeing who we thought we were seeing!

No doubt this was a ploy to show the anonymity of women living in the sprawling slum. In the 1880’s Whitechapel, one-in-four women were obliged to take to the streets when money was short.

I had recognised Natalya Romaniw playing the part of Mary, daughter of Maud, the doss-house proprietress. Romaniw, I am delighted to say, fully embraced her character. Her acting was assured in this opera and her voice – well what a voice it is. Mournful, pitch-perfect, the sort of voice which astounds and moves at once.

Romaniw was really convincing in the role of anxious mother trying to protect her daughter, Magpie, from prostitution.

 

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UKNatalya Romaniw Ashirah Foster Notice.

It helped too that Romaniw’s stage mother, Maud, was Dame Josephine Barlow, who disturbs in her evil, matriarchal role. (Think Flora Robson in Wuthering Heights with the strict hair bun, wiry figure in black with her cold, dead stare). 

Maud reminds us throughout the opera that she was raped aged eight, (‘the rasp of carpet under my cheek … it is with me always’). Hopelessly damaged, she can only think about herself, her suffering, her pain! 

The confrontational scenes with Romaniw and Barstow were tense, exciting and marvellously dramatic.

But all ‘six little trollops’ (their words not mine) were played convincingly. I particularly enjoyed Liz Stride’s comic character, sung by Susan Bullock. She was a humorous drunk as she belted out, ‘God, I love a fireman!’

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

An interesting, and for me, essential part of this opera, was its portrayal of men, who are not all hypocritical, sexual predators. Some are vulnerable.

Nor are all women victims. Maud is the ultimate female abuser. It is she who procures young flesh for the Victorian establishment and who wants her granddaughter to enter the profession so that she can earn her way.

Sometimes the abuser-victim lines were blurred. ’Don’t touch me,’ sang a furious male photographer, who produced erotica, when Catherine, his model (played by Leslie Garrett) tried to seduce him. But he is far from squeaky clean since he provides gory pictures of naked victims to Victorian gentlemen. 

Details like this prevented the opera from being overly simplistic in its conclusions and I applaud Iain Bell for that.

It is true that anonymous black-suited men did regularly flood the stage like  locusts feeding on their female prey. 

Two male outsiders come across as sympathetic to women. Squibby feeds the starving girls with scraps of meat he has put aside in the slaughter house he works in. He does have a motive meanwhile; he is passionately in love with Mary.

 The Writer meanwhile is a young, social reformer who has ended up lodging at the doss-house. He pens a letter to Queen Victoria to alert her to the misery of Whitechapel and its women and also undertakes to educate Magpie, Mary’s daughter. 

Sadly both men are not rewarded for their troubles.

 Alex Otterburn (Squibby) was particularly touching in the scenes in which he played with Mary’s daughter, Magpie.

As for the music itself, it is always difficult to review new music, especially opera. It warrants hearing many times over before it sinks in. All I can say is that Ian Bell’s stark composition really evoked the horrors of the slum. At times, the evil, death march sounds and pace seemed almost too much. Sensibly Bell had added humour and pathos to the mix.

Emma Jenkins’s libretto improved as the opera progressed. At first, there was a little too much telling of what was evident. The libretto firmed up, phrases of suffering were repeated over and over, adding urgency and tension to the piece.

There were moments of beauty and reflection as when Lesley Garrett and Janis Kelly sing a melody full of nostalgic longing: ‘I had a man before… I had a life before,’ with the chorus.

Bell and Jenkins must have felt blessed to have such a stellar cast of sopranos to work with. Indeed all the singers and chorus were excellent – not one bad apple among them!

My most vivid memory of the evening was the drinking song, performed in the friendly Britannia Pub. Its amber-lit, stained-glass window of art and crafts design was  a beacon of warmth in an otherwise living hell. 

In stark contrast, the final scene was visually chilling with its horizon of top hats and Victorian matriarch with black plume rearing up like the Queen of Spades in Tchaikovsky’s opera.

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Dame Josephine Barstow (centre) with chorus

 

All in all a fascinating multi-layered work and a rare opportunity to see six famous sopranos sing under one roof!

 

KH

 

 

Jack The Ripper. The Women of Whitechapel is on for a further 5 performances. 03,05,08, 10 and 12 April at 7.30pm

500 tickets for £20 are available for each performance.