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More fabulous productions at Wasfi Kani's Grange Park Opera

Lord Ashburton, patron of Grange Park Opera, is a Baring who worked as an investment banker for 39 years, so his foreword to the season programme book is all about the credit crunch. However, the significant artistic results of Wasfi Kani’s opera festival over 12 years with no taxpayers’ subsidy, depend on ticket sales and sponsorship or donations from profit-makers. Punters respond well to her begging speeches from the stage before the show delivered with racy jokes and tense charm. A musical Indian, originally from Agra, and raised near Wormwood Scrubs jail in London, she started her career in merchant banking. Last year Stephen Medcalf’s perfectly fleshed-out conservative staging of La Fanciulla del West, conducted with style by Rory Macdonald, was a huge hit. This year Kani has abandoned operetta. But her eclectic choice includes Norma, Cavalli’s Eliogabalo, and The Cunning Little Vixen. Top price mid-stalls was £115, with £50 for the cheapest stool in a side-box.
 David Alden’s Vixen production played up the ecological intent of Janacek’s opera, with the subsidiary humans as dysfunctional caricatures. For the composer the truly humane values lie in the poetic sensitivity to nature of Robert Poulton’s euphoric joyous Forester and David Stout’s canny realistic Poacher. The furniture shifting on stage between scenes involved purposefully clumsy dancing by the humans, which suited the hearty peasant rhythmic roughness of André de Ridder’s conducting. Designer Gideon Davy set the opera in a wooden-floored classroom (perhaps belonging to Wynne Evans’s depressed Schoolmaster): a huge sash window at the back, walls papered with a large greenish branch leaf and flower pattern, a bench running round below the window, a collection of hunters’ animal heads on one wall. Perky little Ailish Tynan was an engagingly affectionate Vixen in a Coco Chanel-type little black dress, sometimes wearing, sometimes dragging after her, a huge fox fur complete with head and teeth. A mechanical dragonfly hung from the ceiling, revolving like a model aeroplane. A child-size frog hopped on stage, while a Heath Robinson-style insect machine staggered around. Davy used inventive masks and head-gear for the non-humans. Fox-cubs in cardboard boxes had slits to see through for eyes, and ears and jagged teeth drawn on in biro. The vixen kills the hens and their champion wrestler-rooster by snatching off their caps. Humans wear 1920s peasant rig. The vixen in our heroine’s unrealisable dream stays outside the window, but raises it, so Frances Bourne’s nicely shy aviator Fox in leather helmet with pointed ears can enter the scene that way, along with other animals. Wolfgang Goebbel’s magical lighting creates the seasons and edits the narrative. Both the flow and the sense of conviction in Alden’s direction are compelling and exotically natural, the anthropomorphism never twee or sentimental. A miraculous success.
 The few lyrical moments in Cavalli’s Eliogabalo were well explored by baroque conductor Christian Curnyn who is not too much the purist. This story would attract Tarantino, and director-designer David Fielding provides a rich mix of bloody violence, playful sex, drugs and alcohol: like Pulp Fiction meets Hugh Hefner’s Bunnies. Renata Pokupic in the title role sang sophisticatedly, but it is hard to portray a passive gay male psychotic Roman emperor who liked wearing drag if you are a woman anyway. Joao Fernandez as the Emperor’s valet Nerbulone sported a bushy-moustache as a leather-fetishist biker clone waving a purple dildo. Eliogabalo drove his yellow sports car on stage. There were scenes in a gym with the emperor and a personal trainer. Nerbulone was mugged and killed in a toilet. A preposterous strutting gladiator failed to murder Julia Riley’s Alessandro, Eliogabalo’s respectable but ruthless young cousin and heir. Her alluring mezzo and believable acting in this trousers-role impressed one even more than Pokupic’s Eliogabalo. Countertenor James Laing, as the military straight-man Giuliano, sounded slightly exasperated by each new plot twist - like a modern British colonel being stoical on the television news. Tom Walker did a crisp Danny La Rue drag act as the Emperor’s corrupt nanny Lenia, while Ashley Catling tirelessly camped up the role of his pimp and bumboy Zotico. It was hard to tell assorted girlfriends apart, until the mellifluous final quartet. Cavalli’s librettist Aureli certainly provides a challenging overdose of decadence.
Cavalli: Eliogabalo. Premiere June 4 (review based on June 14 performance). Conductor: Christian Curnyn, Preoduction and design: David Fielding, Lighting: Wolfgang Goebbel, Cast: Renata Pokupic (Eliogabalo), James Laing (Giuliano Gordio), Julia Riley (Alessandro Cesare), Claire Booth (Eritea), Sinead Campbell-Wallace (Flavia Gemmira), Yvette Bonner (Atilia Macrina), Ashley Catling (Zotico), Tom Walker (Lenia), Joao Fernandes (Nerbulone) etc
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen. Premiere June 17 (review based on June 23 performance). Conductor: André de Ridder, Production: David Alden, Design: Gideon Davey, Lighting: Wolfgang Goebbel, Choreography: Ben Wright, Cast: Ailish Tynan (Vixen), Robert Poulton (Forester), Frances Bourne (Fox), Carol Rowlands (Forester's wife, Owl), David Stout (Poacher), Wynne Evans (Cock, Schoolmaster), Timothy Dawkins (Priest, Badger), Gary Griffiths (Innkeeper, Dog) etc


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