Wednesday 1 August 2018

SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park

SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
SWAP'ra gala; Opera Holland Park  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 31 July 2018
A glorious musical celebration of women in opera

SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park - Richar Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Janis Kelly, Diana Montague, Sophie Bevan - (Photo Robert Workman)
Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Janis Kelly, Diana Montague, Sophie Bevan
(Photo Robert Workman)
I am not sure whether anyone has considered applying the Bechdel Test to opera, but last night's SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park gave plenty of pause for thought in this area as we had 17 operatic scenes, all but two involving only female characters (the two exceptions being Nerone and Octavian, both played by women). I didn't keep count, but some at least passed the Bechdel Test [a requirement that a film has at least two women in it, who talk to each other about something other than a man].

In fact, the gala was about much more than just a celebration of female characters in opera, the cast consisted of 43 female singers, with nine female directors, four female conductors, a 47-strong female chorus, a 37-strong female orchestra, an all-women backstage crew in a programme which included music by four female composers. It was a celebration of the important role that women play in opera, and a testament to the support which SWAP'ra has garnered since its founding, nine months ago. It was of course, a fund raising gala [you can support here], with a raffle and a silent auction, but it was the music that held the attention.

SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park - Mark Adamo: Little Women - Lucy Schaufer, Rebecca Caine, Jennifer France, Beth Moxon - (Photo Robert Workman)
Mark Adamo: Little Women - Lucy Schaufer, Rebecca Caine,
Jennifer France, Beth Moxon - (Photo Robert Workman)
Eighteen scenes, each with a different cast, all but the last fully staged (with the performers off the book, in evening dress). The simple organisation was superb, as each scene flowed on from another, a great testament to the back-stage crew. And we saw a series of striking and remarkable performances, from a cast which ranged from talented young artists to distinguished older singers. Presiding over the whole was actress Fiona Shaw, who introduced each item. (the full list of cast, conductor and director is at the end of this article).

We opened with the three ladies from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, Katie Bird, Catherine Hopper and Rosie Aldridge, triumphing in strong and characterful fashion over the prone body of Tamino, this was followed by the spinning quartet from Britten's Rape of Lucretia, a wonderfully concentrated performance with Jennifer Johnston as a moving Lucretia, Lee Bissett as a powerful female chorus, Nazan Fikret and Rhonda Browne. Each scene was fully staged, so that for Lucretia we even had a spinning wheel for Rhonda Browne's Bianca.

Helen Sherman appeared with the chorus in a powerful scene from Roxanna Panufnik's  Silver Birch (premiered at Garsington Opera last year), whilst Rhian Lois and Gaynor Keeble brought a strong sense of characterful comedy to Susanna and Marcellina's duet from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro.

SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park - Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Katharine Broderick, Angela Simkin, Amanda Roocroft, Fiona Kimm - (Photo Robert Workman)
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Katharine Broderick, Angela Simkin,
Amanda Roocroft, Fiona Kimm - (Photo Robert Workman)
Galas often give you the chance to catch performances that you have not managed to hear. I missed Silver Birch last year (and certainly want to hear it in full), and I have not, so far been able to catch Meeta Raval in the title role of Puccini's Madama Butterfly and hearing her and Carolyn Dobbin in the flower duet made me want to hear more. Raval created a sense of real youthful enthusiasm, and Dobbin made a strikingly young Suzuki, the two vibrant voices combining together.

There was more Mozart with an extended scene from Cosi fan tutte. It was lovely to re-encounter Sarah Tynan's delightfully sly and witty Despina, familiar from the Opera Holland Park production this year [see my review] and this was followed by a duet for the two sisters with Jeni Bern and Katie Bray providing delightfully contrasting characters. I particularly loved the way Jeni Bern's Fiordiligi spent the whole scene never quite putting both shoes on!

One of the fascinations with galas is the chance to hear singers in roles that they do not perform on stage. For the Act One quartet from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Katharine Broderick (who has now taken Wagner's Brunnhilde into her repertoire and is singing Isolde next season) returned to the role of Tatyana, with Amanda Roocroft as her mother, Fiona Kimm as Filippyevna and Angela Simkin as Olga. Roocroft and Kimm, who were sitting processing fruit for jam making, created a beautifully intimate scene, with Broderick as a strikingly vibrant Tatyana (Brunnhilde was far away) and Simkin a dark-voiced Olga.

SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park - Puccini: Suor Angelica - Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Anne Sophie Duprels - (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: Suor Angelica - Catherine Wyn-Rogers,
Anne Sophie Duprels - (Photo Robert Workman)
Another highlight of the evening was the UK premiere of a scene from Mark Adamo's opera Little Women. Written 20 years ago, the opera still has not been performed in the UK in full. We heard the final quartet with Lucy Schaufer as a strong Jo and Rebecca Caine, Jennifer France and Beth Moxon (replacing Karen Cargill) as her sisters, in an intriguing and moving scene which made you want to see the whole opera.

More Britten next, with the quartet 'From the gutter' from Peter Grimes, another quietly concentrated moment with powerful performances from Giselle Allen (Ellen Orford), Yvonne Howard (Auntie), Rebecca Bottone and Gillian Ramm (as the nieces). The first half finished in a striking manner with the duet 'Mira O Norma' from Bellini's Norma with Madeleine Pierard as Norma and Catherine Carby as Adalgisa, a pairing whose strong performance made me hope someone quickly casts the pair of them in a full staging of the opera.

After the interval Anna Patalong was a delightful Giannetta in a scene from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, imaginatively staged with a chorus of seven. A scene from Rossini's La cenerentola, had Fleur de Bray and Samantha Price as a lively pair of modern sisters, with Sarah Castle as a quiet and serious Cenerentola. Anne Sophie Duprels sang the role of Angelica in Puccini's Suor Angelica at Opera Holland Park a couple of seasons ago, and it was a pleasure to re-encounter her moving performance here with Catherine Wyn-Rogers as a strong and implacable Principessa.

Emma Carrington gave us a quietly thoughtful moment in the title role of Elena Langer's Rhondda Rips it up! which was premiered by Welsh National Opera earlier this year [see my review]. In complete contrast, we went back to the early beginnings of opera for the closing duet from Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea with Anna Devin and Kitty Whately in spine-tingling form as Poppea and Nerone.

SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park - Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Anna Patalong & chorus - (Photo Robert Workman)
SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park - Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Anna Patalong & chorus - (Photo Robert Workman)
We returned to contemporary opera for an intriguing scene from Josephine Stephenson's Les Constellations - Une Theorie with Caroline McPhie and Gillian Keith. And then it was time for the final operatic item, perhaps the ultimate operatic ensemble for female voices (discuss!), the Act Three trio from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier with Janis Kelly, Diana Montague and Mary Bevan all in fine form.

The last item was not operatic, the entire cast gathered on stage to perform Lucy Pankhurst's The Pankhurst Anthem which was commissioned by the BBC for the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the first Women's Suffrage act

Mozart, Die Zauberflöte
Conductor: Jessica Cottis
Director: Francesa Gilpin
1st Lady: Katie Bird
2nd Lady: Catherine Hopper
3rd Lady: Rosie Aldridge

Britten, The Rape of Lucretia
Conductor: Jessica Cottis
Director: Ruth Mariner
Lucretia: Jennifer Johnston
Female Chorus: Lee Bisset
Lucia: Nazan Fikret
Bianca: Rhonda Browne

Roxanna Panufnik, Silver Birch
Conductor: Jessica Cottis
Director: Karen Gillingham
Anna: Helen Sherman

Mozart, La nozze di Figaro
Conductor: Sonia Ben-Santamaria
Director: Genevieve Raghu
Susanna: Rhian Lois
Marcellina: Gaynor Keeble

Puccini, Madama Butterfly
Conductor: Sonia Ben-Santamaria
Director: Sophie Gilpin
Cio-Cio San: Meeta Raval
Suzuki: Carolyn Dobbin

Mozart, Cosi fan tutte
Conductor: Susannah Wapshott
Director: Poppy Burton-Morgan
Despina: Sarah Tynan
Fiordiligi: Jeni Bern
Dorabella: Katie Bray

Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin
Conductor: Susannah Wapshott
Director: Francesca Gilpin
Tatyana: Katherine Broderick
Mme Larina: Amanda Roocroft
Olga: Angela Simkin
Filippyevna: Fiona Kimm

Mark Adamo, Little Women
Conductor: Jessica Cottis
Director: Fiona Williams
Jo: Lucy Schaufer
Beth: Rebecca Caine
Amy: Jennifer France
Meg: Karen Cargill

Britten, Peter Grimes
Conductor: Jessica Cottis
Director: Poppy Burton-Morgan
Ellen: Giselle Allen
Auntie: Yvonne Howard
First Niece: Rebecca Bottone
Second Niece: Gillian Ramm

Bellini, Norma
Conductor: Alice Farnham
Director: Lucy Bradley
Norma: Madeleine Pierard
Adalgisa: Catherine Carby

Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore
Conductor: Alice Farnham
Director: Fiona Williams
Gianetta: Anna Patalong

Rossini, La Cenerentola
Conductor: Alice Farnham
Director: Genevieve Raghu
Angelina: Sarah Castle
Clorinda: Fleur de Bray
Tisbe: Samantha Price

Puccini, Suor Angelica
Conductor: Alice Farnham
Director: Sophie Gilpin
Angelica: Anne Sophie Duprels
Principessa: Catherine Wyn-Rogers

Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea
Conductor: Susannah Wapshott
Director: Robin Norton-Hale
Poppea: Anna Devin
Nerone: Kitty Whately

Josephine Stephenson, Les Constellations
Conductor: Jessica Cottis
Director: Robin Norton-Hale
Marianne: Caroline MacPhie
Marie: Gillian Keith

Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier
Conductor: Jessica Cottis
Director: Lucy Bradley
Marschallin: Janis Kelly
Octavian: Diana Montague
Sophie: Mary Bevan

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