Thursday 16 June 2022

Rising to the challenge: the Young Artists of the National Opera Studio in Sondheim: Before & After

Sondheim: Before & After

Sondheim: Before & After
: Sondheim, Ravel, Britten, Berg, Heggie, Mazzoli, Muhly, Tesori; Alexandra Chernenko, Ffion Edwards, Inna Husieva, Laura Lolita Peresivana, Sian Griffiths, Joanna Harries, Shakira Tsindos, Logan Lopez Gonzalez, Philip Clieve, Monwabisi Lindi, Josef Ahn, Kamohelo Tsotetsi, Chloe Kim, Nadia Kisseleva, Alexsander Ribeiro de Lara, Elli Welsh, director: Keith Warner, conductor: Andrew Griffiths; National Opera Studio at Hoxton Hall
Reviewed 14 June 2022

The Young Artists of the National Opera Studio rise to the challenge of singing Sondheim's brand of music-theatre, alongside composers he admired and composers he influenced

Some of Stephen Sondheim's songs are a big stretch for music theatre voices and his works are increasingly staged by opera companies. But equally, Sondheim's style of text-based music theatre can be a different sort of challenge for opera singers; most companies, like Opera North's recent production of A Little Night Music [see my review], use a mix of classically trained and music theatre. For the National Opera Studio's latest challenge for its current cohort of singers, it set them to presenting a programme based around Stephen Sondheim's songs.

The result was Sondheim: Before & After, where Keith Warner directed the Young Artists of the National Opera Studio, with conductor Andrew Griffiths, at Hoxton Hall in a programme that mixed Sondheim's songs with music by Ravel, Britten, Berg, Jake Heggie, Missie Mazzoli, Nico Muhly, and Jeanine Tesori. The idea behind the programme was to mix Sondheim with excerpts from composers that he admired, and composers that he has influenced.

We heard a nice range of Sondheim's work, with solos and ensembles from Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Follies, Company, and A Little Night Music. And what the young opera singers achieved in the Sondheim was impressive, with performances that ranged from the creditable to the stunning.

It needs to be borne in mind that in this cohort, there are singers from Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Belgium, South Africa, and Korea, alongside those for whom English is a first language. Everyone made a creditable attempt at the words, not only concentrating on diction but making them central to the music, sometimes singing on the edge of the voice allowing the words to come through. What was impressive wasn't so much the Anglophone singers who managed strong performances, but the non-Anglophone ones who made the English texts work.

We began with 'Finishing the Hat' from Sunday in the Park with George, done by the full company and forming a fine introduction to their performing style. 'Kiss me / Ladies in their Sensitivities' from Sweeney Todd demonstrated some of the challenges; the initial patter performance style did not come naturally and it was only as the music blossomed into ensemble that the performance drew real strength. Yet in some numbers, such as 'Epiphany' from Sweeney Todd, there was drama despite an opaqueness to some of the diction, whilst the four singers in 'Gun Song' from Assassins, brought out a real sense of character.

'Too many mornings', perhaps more operatically inclined, from Follies came over strongly from Shakira Tsindos and Josef Ahn, whilst counter-tenor Logan Lopez Gonzalez was simply mesmerising in 'Being Alive' from Company. Having cast Bobbie as a woman in the most recent West End revival, there is no reason why the role should not be sung by a counter-tenor, though the use of this voice type in musical theatre is still somewhat surprising, yet Lopez Gonzalez' musicality, charisma and sense of the words impressed.

Ukrainian soprano Inna Husieva very much created the aura of the Viennese grande dame in 'One more kiss' from Follies, complemented by Ffion Edwards as the young version, a fabulous sense of channelling operatic glamour into something more music theatre. Laura Lolita Peresivana's performance of 'The Glamorous Life' from Follies was a brilliant tour de force of acting, whilst the 'Now/Later/Soon' from A Little Night Music, an ensemble that can be musically challenging for music theatre voices, proved very well done indeed, with Phil Clieve really singing on the words, Monwabisi Lindi making Henrik intense indeed and Alexandra Chernenko charming. We ended the show with the full company in 'Sunday' from Sunday in the Park with George, a glorious climax.

In between we heard a mix of more regular far and works less common, at least in the UK. The Princess scene from Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges was stylishly performed by Shakira Tsindos and Ffion Edwards, and Ukrainian soprano Inna Husieva proved a touching Ellen Orford, a vein of steel running through her lyricism, in the Embroidery Aria from Britten's Peter Grimes, with Kamohelo Tsotetsi as a very upright Bulstrode. Laura Lolita Peresivana was terrific as Marie in Act 2, Scene 2 of Berg's Wozzeck, giving us a fully rounded character with Josef Ahn as a strong Wozzeck.

Act 1, Scene 4 of Jake Heggie's Graham Green-inspired 2004 opera The End of the Affair, featured Josef Ahn and Alexandra Chernenko as the lovers, moving from jazz-inspired music to something more developed, yet always with approachable lyricism. Missy Mazzoli's 2013 micro-opera A Flourish of Green is based on Boccaccio's Decameron (best known from Keats' version as Isabella, or the Pot of Basil). Inna Husieva and Philip Clieve played the lovers combining Mazzoli's quite dark sound world with a nice element of wit.

Act 1, Scene 7 of Nico Muhy's 2017 opera Marnie was harder to bring off, plunging us mid-plot but Logan Lopez Gonzalez and Laura Lolita Peresivana as Terry and Laura managed to make the mind games rather disturbing. The opening scene of Jeanine Tesori's 2011 one-act opera A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck was wonderfully inventive, against a background of a broken record playing Carlotta and Gene argue. What makes for a distinctive atmosphere is the way Tesori writes the music for the record, featuring four female singers in delightful close harmony against which Joanna Harries vicious Carlotta railed against the failures of Gene (Josef Ahn). The opera is based on a real-life event with playwright Eugene O'Neill and his second wife.    

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