The Welsh National Opera programme their seasons thematically, with future offerings including the ‘Madness’ season of Autumn 2015 and ‘Figaro Forever’ for the Spring of 2016. This season, ‘Spellbound’ consisted of Chorus!, The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel and promised a set of performances focusing on fantasy, make-believe and story-book imaginations. On the surface it therefore concerned itself with the ‘lighter’ side of opera, yet as with the best fairy tales the season also had a more sinister side to it – a deep, dark wood of bowler-hatted baddies and starving children. Even the thinking behind the lightest by far of them, Chorus!, was tinged with reflections of the operatic chorus as politicised mob or devoutly religious choir. However, of the three shows, Chorus! emerged as by far the weakest, whilst the Surrealist, seafood-invaded worlds of The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel succeeded in being beautifully creepy and very fun performances.
The basic conceit of Chorus! was potentially highly effective – what would happen if you slid down the rabbit hole into Operaland, where Madam Butterfly pours tea for the Fairy Queen and the witches of Macbeth spend Christmas day singing Handel’s Messiah in the local church. At times this conceit works very well, particularly at the beginning of the evening when all the cast are dressed in black like identikit marionette dolls and they merge together as much visually as vocally, morphing into opera’s different characters like pools of shape-shifting oil. Wagner’s seamstresses from the Spinning chorus are left on stage to be crept up upon by Banquo’s murderers in Verdi’s Macbeth and the unsettling repetition of the performers’ faces and fluid transition into different roles creates a suitable over-riding metaphor for the role of the chorus in general.
And then, quite suddenly, things go wrong. Enter: Lesley Garrett. The inclusion of a ticket-selling ‘star’ to the bill fails on several accounts. Most significantly, the actual idea of a soprano soloist on stage in Chorus! confuses the fundamental premise of the show, which is meant to be about foregrounding the operatic chorus and highlighting its best moments in the repertoire. Potentially having a soloist on stage as well could offer a chance to explore the interplay between the chorus and the soloist, but we do not see this done here as Garrett is plainly on stage to chase the spotlight and treat the chorus as her backing singers, and whilst she makes some tongue-in-cheek jokes about this, they fall slightly flat as her performance lacks the self-awareness needed to make these jokes not seem crass. The secondary problem lies with Garrett herself whose personality brings with it a super-spangly, Jane McDonald-esque campness that once is visited cannot be unvisited. In a show that started with War and Peace, we find ourselves contending with terribly broad bum-pinching, dry-humping humour flouncing up and down. Whilst it make sense to have a show that fluctuates in tone – indeed wildly undulating emotions are what opera is most famous for – the programme henceforth seems simply jarring, for once you have gone to the Pirates of Penzance, it is pretty damn hard to go anywhere else really – certainly not to the wails of peasants in Mother Russia – and the happy-clappy rendition of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus lacks any of the integrity needed to make it genuinely uplifting.
I understand that the sort of music people sing whilst wearing a sequined dress slit to the thigh can perhaps be categorised as simply ‘not my type of music’, but the inclusion of Garrett – who is not referred to once in David Pountney’s programme notes, suggesting her inclusion was not a part of the underlying conception of the piece – goes beyond notions of preference because of the way it undermines both the basic premise of the production and the quality of the WNO chorus singers whose ability more than warranted them being foregrounded in a show of their own and not drowned out by the distraction of Garrett ascending to the rafters in a settee that – as I am sure Salvador Dalí would agree – resembled a giant vulva.
This show could have been saved had it more unapologetically sold itself as music hall entertainment and fully embraced the Gilbert and Sullivan ditties of the nineteenth century. That era of populist song would in itself have promised the necessary dark underbelly of life alongside humour and fantasy in the same way that Hansel and Gretel and other Grimm tales do. Trying to achieve this mélange of tone by including wildly different composers and costumes given to Oxfam by Cilla Black ultimately failed, and this was in many ways made more of a shame by the quality of the other two operas, rather than atoned for by them. If the inclusion of Garrett and this type of show is created as a means of selling tickets and securing funding for the WNO, then that is an inherently sad state of affairs as the rest of the WNO’s 2015/16 programme speaks of a highly creative, comfortably intellectual and innovative company doing much for their local communities in Wales, who should not have to rely on something more low-brow than Strictly Come Dancing to sell tickets.
But enough of the moaning. As stories that require the audience suspending disbelief go, Mozart’s The Magic Flute is up there with the most absurd of them. It is a tale of a prince rescued from a monster by three ladies-in-waiting, who goes on a quest to rescue a princess (daughter of the Queen of the Night) accompanied by a birdman named Papageno and two magic instruments – some bells and the eponymous flute. Unlike Hansel and Gretel which, until the gingerbread house appears, could be the relatively credible story of some poverty-stricken children, The Magic Flute is pure fantasy from the start. As Opera at the Tobacco Factory proved with their version in October 2013, this can lead to it being a highly enjoyable opera to watch, one in which the company is free to really go crazy with their own weird imaginings. Here, the WNO has re-imagined it in the world of Rene Magritte in all his bowler-hatted insanity.
Although, particularly through conceiving the ‘monster’ as a giant lobster, Dalí the spiritual father of Surrealism is referenced, it is nice to see the work of this lesser-known artist taken up. Especially as in their ubiquity things like the lobster telephone or Marilyn’s lips sofa have lost their weirdness, the endlessly repeated Mr. Benns of Magritte remain deadly unsettling – see for example The Threatened Assassin of 1926. Changed into a uniform of orange, the brethren of Sarastro (kidnappers of our princess) resemble the next chapter in the workforce of Wonka’s chocolate factory after it was sold to Kraft foods and the disillusioned Oompa Loompas went looking for occupation elsewhere. The artistry of the stage designs by Julian Crouch are by far one of the best things about this production and the use of perspective in the rooms of never-ending repeated doorways makes it an interesting show to see in point of comparison to the 2013 Tobacco Factory show which was staged in the round and made similarly inventive use of that mode of setting. When stage scenery reaches this level of interest, it makes an opera really special, as you are simultaneously able to appreciate great visual art along with instrumental music, vocals, script and projection techniques. Much has been written in academia about the interplay between visual art and writing as though it were a remarkable marriage, yet in the theatre we often witness this interplay between different artistic media in seamless cohesion, as we do here.
The Magic Flute is also an adorable opera as it is essentially the story of what would happen if Big Bird from Sesame Street found love and had Baby Birds, millions of them all flapping happily around on their stripy stocking-ed feet. And whilst the heroic prince Tamino played by Allan Clayton is suitably brooding and charismatic, it is Jacques Imbrailo as the softhearted Papageno who wins the audience’s affections most strongly. With his lilting South African accent and lackadaisical attitude to the peculiarities of the brethren, Imbrailo keeps this comic role on the right side of being charming, preventing the birdman from becoming ingratiating or exasperating.
The high point of the show with regards to aesthetics comes with the charming of the woodland creatures by that magic flute. The beauty and hilarity of the costumes – especially the frou-frou white bird who has cleverly accessorised her own feathers with a matching handbag – is brilliant and again demonstrates how important costume and setting are to making a good production great. In the case of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, making the most of stage design and costume is important as the opera itself if inherently flawed with the narrative being pretty much resolved by the interval and the second half dragging on. I’d like to see productions of The Magic Flute emboldened to cut whole parts of the dawdling narrative, indeed being as bold as they have been here with the stage setting. Essentially, given the meandering Disney princess storyline and the, at times, repetitive musical score, this is never going to be one of the greatest operas. Here, however, the WNO have demonstrated that its flimsiness can be an advantage in the freedom it provides for productions to go mad with the setting and in doing so create an intensely enjoyable evening’s entertainment.
Similarly, in Hansel and Gretel – a sadly under-attended Saturday night performance – set design is a major component of the production. John Macfarlane’s blood-streaked (or so it appears) paintings of empty plates and the mouth of Hell adorn the multiple different curtains which come down throughout the performance to enable (disconcertingly noisy) changes in scenery. The choice of paintings, rather than large prints of, for instance, photographs, again makes this staging a celebration of different art forms, which enhances a basic plot.
The opera opens to Hansel and Gretel sitting in what closely resembles Don Draper’s childhood abode and their blue-grey costumes – the same hue as much of the setting design around them – fuses the characters to their surroundings in perfect aesthetic harmony, much like in Mad Men itself or a Martin Parr photograph. In one of the most substantial – in every sense – programmes I have ever come across, the thinking behind Hansel and Gretel, along with its history and a commentary on, amongst other things, Freudian interpretations of fairy tales is explained in detail. In fact, the programme (yours for five pounds) is so ample it could almost be considered an accompanying book to the season and it is a real treat to have the artistic thinking behind a production described in such depth, conveying the love and dedication that has gone into creating this show.
In 2013 mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton won Cardiff Singer of the World with a final show performance that included a fabulous rendition of the gingerbread witch (a role she had previously performed in 2008) singing ‘Jah Gretelchen…Hurr Hopp Hopp’ and was praised by the judges for an ability to send herself up and to have a sense of humour. Although, as Barton proved, the song perhaps sounds even better in the German, Adrian Thompson as Rosie Lickspittle in this production also demonstrated what a fun role it is to assume and play with foot-stamping Oompah pah pah. The star of the show, though, was Ailish Tynan as little skirt-swishing Gretel, a child who somehow bypassed ‘cute’ and ended up in ‘deeply creepy’ whilst remaining entirely sympathetic. Tynan enacted the childish body language with subtlety and made what could have been a very difficult role to play convincing.
Ultimately, as with The Magic Flute, it was the Surrealist qualities that really made the show, in particular the dream sequence in which the kinder are transported to a land of fourteen angels and a banqueting hall run by the maître d’: a terrifying dinner suited trout. The hysterical outcast from Wind in the Willows encapsulates a sense not so much of being ‘Spellbound’ – no one is really spellbound by slimy scales – as of being transfixed by uncanny yet beautiful horrors. In this respect the staging echoes the photography of Tim Walker, particularly his series including a giant toy doll. It is the imagination and freedom of childhood twisted just enough to send you home feeling you have seen something in the deep dark wood that perhaps you shouldn’t have.