Sunday 20 January 2019

Everybody Can! Nadine Benjamin in Tosca

Nadine Benjamin
Nadine Benjamin
Puccini Tosca; Nadine Benjamin, Borja Gomez-Ferrer, David Durham, dir: Rebecca Louse Dale, cond: William Conway; Everybody Can! Opera at St James's Church, Piccadilly  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 January 2019 
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An impressive assumption of the title role by Nadine Benjamin, in a small-scale performance which packed a punch

Nadine Benjamin's Everybody Can! Opera took over St James's Church, Piccadilly last night (18 January 2019) for a staging of Puccini's Tosca, directed by Rebecca Louise Dale, conducted by William Conway with Nadine Benjamin as Tosca, Borja Gomez-Ferrer as Cavaradossi, David Durham as Scarpia, Nico Laruina as Angelotti, Simon Butteriss as the Sacristan and Jonathan Cooke as Spoletta, Nicholas George as Sciarrone.
Creating a production of an opera, albeit one billed as semi-staged, is a huge undertaking and all concerned must be complimented for the skill and bravura with which they brought it off, showcasing some very striking performances indeed, with Nadine Benjamin making a compelling debut in the title role and the Spanish tenor Borja Gomes-Ferrer revealing lyric-dramatic voice indeed. The production itself was small-scale, but hardly semi at all and made highly effective drama.

Unfortunately, churches are rather intractable spaces in which to present opera, and not all the problems inherent in St James's were completely solved. The orchestra of 14 was placed in front of the altar with a platform for the performers behind the orchestra. So the soloists needed to work hard to dominate, thus negating the benefits of using a smaller orchestra, and it seemed a shame that solution could not have been found by having the orchestra to the side (or rear) with the acting platform to the front. This was had also helped alleviate that fact that the conductor effectively blocked the view of part of the stage for a number in the audience.

Rebecca Louise Dale's production was full of detail and the only semi-staged elements were the small scale of the acting area and the fact that the chorus remained off-stage. Dale had re-set the piece in modern times, which just about works, but she seemed a little to fond of fiddly details with modern tropes like mobile phones and laptops. Also, her re-staging of the ends of Acts Two and Three did not quite come off, demonstrating yet again that you mess with Puccini's stage directions at your peril. At the end of Act Two, lacking the candles and crucifix, Tosca laid out the body with two goblets and half-drunk bottle of wine, which hardly made sense. At the end of Act Three, as the guards approached from the centre of the nave, Tosca did not run but removed her coat to reveal a white gown, and then had her body laid to the ground by women from the chorus, also dressed in white. Which did not give the cathartic end which Puccini wanted.

Nadine Benjamin is still a lyric soprano, but clearly moving towards more dramatic roles and this assumption of the title role of Tosca marks an important step. Despite the rear placement of the singers she soared effortlessly over the orchestra, with only some passages in the middle register not always carrying as well as they should. She sang with clear, bright, forward tone and you can imagine her tonal palate darkening and enrichening as she develops the role. Dramatically she made a credible and creditable Tosca, by turns jealous, passionate, devout and engaging. Yet there were moments in Act One when she did not quite disguise her real, practical nature so that this Tosca seemed too down to earth to make such foolish decisions in such an oppressive political climate. The great moments were all beautifully sung, with 'Vissi d'arte' being rather moving, yet well integrated into the overall whole.

 Borja Gomez-Ferrer was quite a find as Cavaradossi and he and Benjamin made a fine team, creating a believable relationship full of neat details. Like Benjamin, Gomez-Ferrer is on a journey with his voice and has only recently started singing roles like Cavaradossi and Pollione (Norma). He brought a nice sense realism to his acting overall, and made a believable Cavaradossi though he does need to find a sympathetic director to help cure him of his tendency to fall into standard tenor operatic acting when singing his arias. These latter were done with a wonderfully bright, forward voice matching Benjamin's finely, and creating a stylish and engaging sound.

Baritone David Durham has performed extensively as an actor in plays and musicals as well as singing in opera. The result was a beautifully realised dramatic account of Scarpia, with a characterisation that might be described as positively gleeful. If this was a play, then I would have had no doubts about lauding Durham's performance and he certainly held his own dramatically against Benjamin and Gomez-Ferrer. But Durham's voice did not quite have the essential dark core that this role needs, and at times of high drama, such as the conclusion to Act One, Durham just did not quite dominate the way he should. That said, he has an interesting soft-grained voice and would be a great find in a more lyric role.

The smaller roles were all well taken. Simon Butteriss effortlessly held the stage as the Sacristan, creating a delightful character and easily taking over more of the action with the absence of the chorus in Act One. Jonathan Cooke and Nicholas George made a finely surly pairing as Spoleta and Sciarrone. Nico Laruina was characterful Angelotti, and Danae Eleni impressed greatly as the shepherd girl (here a down and out).

The chorus, placed up on the balcony, made up for their lack of physical presence by a characterful delivery under chorus  director Elizabeth Franklin-Kitchen. The hardworking players of the orchestra made the reduced orchestration work. With just 14 players, (using a reduced orchestration by Frances Griffin) we never felt the sound was underpowered or undernourished and just needed that bit of extra rehearsal to solve the balance issues inherent in this orchestration, as with just five strings and five woodwind plus two horns and trumpet, the sound from the orchestra rather too much favoured the wind.

Conductor William Conway did far more than just keep his forces together (which he did admirably), and created a dramatic and dynamic account of the opera.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Perhaps a film manqué: Stefan Herheim's Queen of Spades at Covent Garden (★★½) - opera review
  • Lux: A trio of striking works to celebrate the Norwegian girls' choir's 25th anniversary (★★★★) - CD review
  • Early and late: Schumann from Robin Tritschler & Graham Johnson at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Stories in music: Roses, Lilies & Other Flowers from The Telling (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bach in Cologne: Christmas Oratorio performed in the Kölner Philharmonie (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Finding an identity in classical music: composer Shirley Thompson on her career and recent projects - interview
  • Unwrapping Venus: the music of Barbara Strozzi at Kings Place (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Oper Köln delivers a colourful account of Ralph Benatsky? & Robert Stolz’ The White Horse Inn (★★★★) - operetta review 
  • A year at Lincoln: Aric Prentice and the choir of Lincoln Cathedral on Regent Records (★★★) - Cd review
  • Handel at Cannons: Chandos Te Deum and Chandos Anthem No. 8 from Adrian Butterfield, London Handel Orchestra and soloists (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Seeing out the old year and seeing in the new: Tony Cooper at the Tiroler Festspiele, Erl (★★★★) - concert review
  • Ancient and modern: Liam Byrne, a viola da gamba and a laptop at Baroque at the Edge (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Diverse tapestry: Clare Norburn's Burying the Dead at Baroque at the Edge (★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Rediscovering her Polish musical roots: violinist Jennifer Pike on the personal connections in her latest disc, The Polish Violin - interview 
  • Home

1 comment:

  1. Excellent performance and playing and terrific singing by the principals, but as Robert Hugill suggests, the decision to place the conductor so that he obscured the view of a large number of the audience members was not a sensible one. Vital action on the 'stage' area was invisible to us and to quite a few people around us. Frustrating. It would be good also if the system for issuing tickets could be improved by the opera company - it was cumbersome and chaotic...


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