Sunday, 22 October 2017

Opera North's Little Greats: Janacek and Ravel

Opera North’s production of Ravel’s L'enfant et les sortilèges, Autumn 2017 John Graham-Hall as Tea Pot, Ann Taylor as Chinese Cup and Wallis Giunta as the Child (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Opera North’s production of Ravel’s L'enfant et les sortilèges, Autumn 2017
John Graham-Hall as Tea Pot, Ann Taylor as Chinese Cup, Wallis Giunta as the Child
(Photo Tristram Kenton)
Janacek Osud, Ravel L'enfant et les sortileges; John Graham Hall, Giselle Allen, Rosalind Plowright, Wallis Giunta, dir: Annabel Arden, cond: Martin Andre; Opera North at the Grand Theatre, Leeds
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 20 2017 Star rating: 4.5
The first of three double bills, Janacek's rarely performed and musically thrilling opera alongside an imaginative rendering of Ravel's masterpiece

With The Little Greats season Opera North is revisiting the imaginative idea of presenting a programme of one-act operas which they first did with Eight Little Greats in 2004. This time six operas were presented in Leeds in flexible programmes, which tour in fixed double bills, with operas by Janacek, Ravel, Bernstein, Gilbert & Sullivan, Leoncavallo and Mascagni. 

For the weekend of 20-21 October 2017, we took the opportunity to catch all six operas performed over two days at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. On Friday 20 October we caught Janacek's Osud and Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges, both directed by Annabel Arden and conducted by Martin Andre, sets by Charles Edwards and costumes by Hannah Clark.

Janacek's Osud featured John Graham Hall as Zivny, Giselle Allen as Mila, Rosalind Plowright as Mila's mother, Peter Auty as Dr Suda, Richard Burkhard as Konecny, Ann Taylor as Miss Stuhla, Bryn Mashburn or Rafi Sherman as Doubek as a boy, and Warren Gillespie as Doubek as an adult.


Opera North’s production of Janáček’s Osud, Autumn 2017 John Graham-Hall as Živný and Giselle Allen as Míla Valková (Photo Alastair Muir)
Janáček’s Osud, John Graham-Hall as Živný, Giselle Allen as Míla
(Photo Alastair Muir)
Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges featured Wallis Giunta as the child, Ann Taylor as his mother, the Chinese cup & the squirrel, Fflur Wyn as fire, the nightingale & the princess, Quirijn de Lang as the grandfather clock and the tom cat, John Savournin as the armchair and the tree, John Graham Hall as the tea pot, the tree frog, and arithmetic, Katie Bray as the Louis XIV chair, female cat and the owl, Lorna James as the shepherd girl, Kathryn Walker as the shepherd boy, Victoria Sharp as the bat and Rachel J Mosley as the dragonfly.

Janacek's Osud comes between the premiere of Jenufa in Brno in 1904 and the opera's first Prague performance in 1916, so Osud is hardly an early work but it is highly experimental and strangely uneven. Based on a real life incident it is about a composer, Zivny (John Graham-Hall) who is writing an opera about an incident in his own life, and Osud is as much about Zivny, his opera, and the idea of opera, as about relationships between the characters. In fact, Osud's leading lady, Mila (Giselle Allen) dies at the end of Act Two, leaving the final act to Zivny and his opera. The style is very much the collage technique that Janacek would used in operas like From the house of the dead. The result is very filmic and though Osud runs headlong it never quite coalesces.
Annabel Arden's production was somewhat abstract, understandably so as Janacek crams so much incident into the opening act in the spa town. She concentrated on details, providing a collage of short scenes inter-cutting each other and flowing nicely. The opera has a large cast, over 24 named roles. Osud and L'enfant et les sortileges had a lot of smaller roles which enabled Opera North to showcase soloists from the chorus. The result was an engaging directness which swept you along, for all the dramaturgical faults.

Opera North’s production of Ravel’s L'enfant et les sortilèges, Autumn 2017 Katie Bray as Louis XV Chair, John Savournin as the Armchair and Wallis Giunta as the Child (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Ravel’s L'enfant et les sortilèges,  Katie Bray as Louis XV Chair,
John Savournin as the Armchair and Wallis Giunta as the Child
(Photo Tristram Kenton)
The central role of Zivny took sometime to get going, for much of the first act John Graham-Hall was an observer. But central to the opera was a pair of monologues and Graham-Hall delivered a towering performance. Perhaps he seemed to tire at one point, and his tone was characterful rather than lovely. But this hardly mattered, faced with such intensity and commitment.

The role of Zivny's on-off-on lover Mila is a bit strange, the cynosure of all eyes in Act One, after marriage to Zivny she seemed to diminish, becoming more down at heel in Act two, not coping with life with a mad mother and and itinerant musician. Giselle Allen made it work, charming in the first act and matching Graham-Hall's intensity in Act Two.

Mila's mother is a small but important role. Rosalind Plowright made her rigid and elegant in Act one, so the collapse when she learned of Zivny and Mila's marriage, was believable. And the madness in Act Two was striking. Peter Auty, Richard Burkhard and Dean Robinson formed the trio of men floating round Mila in Act One, popping up repeatedly, always charmingly characterful, with Ann Taylor in the small but important role of the schoolmistress.

Warren Gillespie had the short but important role of the adult Doubek (Mila and Zivny's son) in Act Three, but Bryn Mashburn or Rafi Sherman was really impressive in the role of the child Doubek, singing with complete aplomb.

Osud is a problem work, but the music is stunning and Martin Andre and the Orchestra of Opera North gave it real heart.

Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges is a problem in a different way. A great opera, yet a challenge how to incorporate the singers into the action. Annabel Arden took a psychological approach. We first saw the child (Wallis Giunta) with his family, misbehaving and the family then metamorphosed into the furniture, the fire etc. There is a theory that the opera is about the child's development so we had sexual references, the clock's (Quirijn de Lang) broken pendulum, the teapot's (John Graham-Hall) phallic spout and the Chinese cup's (Ann Taylor) breast-like use of her cups; romantic love with the princess (Fllur Wyn); and a Christ-like wounding of the tree (John Savournin). Finally, at the end the squirrel (Ann Taylor), which the child heals, turned back into mother.

All this could have been a bit heavy, but Annabel Arden and her cast made it real fun. Each short scene had great character, you felt the cast's enjoyment. The psychological element became simply part of a whole.

Opera North’s production of Janáček’s Osud, Autumn 2017 Peter Auty as Dr. Suda and members of the Chorus of Opera North (Photo Alastair Muir)
Opera North’s production of Janáček’s Osud, Autumn 2017
Peter Auty as Dr. Suda and members of the Chorus of Opera North (Photo Alastair Muir)
It is difficult to pick out highlights, all the singers seemed well matched to their roles, but Fflur Wyn's lovely combination of sparkly coloratura and Vicky Pollard-like persona as the fire was most notable. Rightly dominating everything, yet fully integrated into the ensemble, was Wallis Giunta in the title role. She brought physical acrobatics, a Just William-like persona and strong technical poise to bear. If the opera is about the child's psychological development then Giunta really took is on a journey.


Again, members of the chorus provided smaller roles and contributed to the whole. I loved the way the chorus was faceless in the garden scene, dramatically coherent and rather scary. Martin Andre and the orchestra contributed the colours and sophistication of the score to make up the whole.

This production of L'enfant et les sortileges deserves to come back, perhaps Annabel Arden could be invited to direct Ravel's L'heure Espagnole as a companion.

Opera North The Little Greats season, my reviews:
Leoncavallo & Mascagni, Bernstein, Gilbert & Sullivan, Janacek & Ravel

Elsewhere on this blog:

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