Friday 5 May 2023

Cautionary Tales: the current cohort of Young Artists from the National Opera Studio in an evening of contemporary opera

Cautionary Tales - National Opera Studio with Opera North at Wilton's Music Hall
Cautionary Tales - National Opera Studio with Opera North at Wilton's Music Hall (Photo Malcolm I Johnson)

Cautionary Tales: Judith Weir, Tom Coult, Tansy Davies, Steven Mackey, Elena Kats-Chernin, Soren Nils Eichberg, Jonathan Dove, Errollyn Wallen; National Opera Studio with Opera North; Wilton's Music Hall
Reviewed 3 May 2023 by Florence Anna Maunders

Dramatic contemporary operatic excerpts from a cohort of exceptional young voices in Whitechapel's historic Wilton's Music Hall

Whitechapel's battered monument to a theatrical past, the crumbing and wonderful Wilton's Music Hall, was the setting for Cautionary Tales, this fascinating partnership between the fresh enthusiasm of the National Opera Studio's Young Artists, and the brilliantly responsive and highly experienced Orchestra of Opera North, conductor Gary Walker. Over the course of eight 'bleeding chunks' of contemporary (mostly British) opera, by Judith WeirTom CoultTansy DaviesSteven MackeyElena Kats-CherninSoren Nils EichbergJonathan DoveErrollyn Wallen, the eleven vocalists demonstrated their abilities across an enormous range of emotions, musical styles and narrative approaches. The performers were sopranos Sarah Seunghwa Chae, Beren Kader Fidan, Hasmik Harutyunyan and Samantha Quillish, mezzo-sopranos Laura Fleur and Emma Roberts, tenors Phillip Costovski, Rhydian Jenkins and Felix Gygli, basses Jack Holton and Smelo Mahlangu, directed by Olivia Fuchs.

Cautionary Tales - National Opera Studio with Opera North at Wilton's Music Hall
Cautionary Tales - National Opera Studio with Opera North at Wilton's Music Hall (Photo Malcolm I Johnson)

The evening started with an excerpt from the oldest work on the programme, Judith Weir's 1990 symbolic parable of The Vanishing Bridegroom. Including theatrical and vocal contributions from the whole company, there was a particularly persuasive performance by bass Smelo Mahlangu in the role of the Doctor, lending his melodramatic presence across Weir's intense orchestrations. In the central role of the Bride, soprano Beren Kader Fidan was compellingly fierce and intensely focused throughout, inhabiting her character fully and convincingly, and delivering Weir's scorching lines with laser-like precision, clarity and diction.

The ecstatic, restrained, almost Mahlerian intensity of Tom Coult's Violet featured the luxurious legato phrasing and lyrical beauty of Sarah Seunghwa Chae in the title role. Coult requires a voice for this character which can soar and float with effortless, confident and ethereal lines, something which Chae delivered beautifully. Her counterpart, Laura, sung by Laura Fleur, is given music entirely different – hesitant, staccato and poised on the edge of nervousness, requiring a distinct set of theatrical skills as well as the ability to be rhythmically precise. Fleur navigated this tricky balancing act with skill and charm.

The almost ritualistic repetitions and responses sung by Emma Roberts in a scene from Cave by Tansy Davies demonstrated her clear projection and diction, as she combined movement with her vocal precision to deliver this strange and haunting lullaby. With its echoes of Celtic song this was moving, poetic and direct music-making. Tenor Rhydian Jenkins provided generous support and partnership, blending cleanly with Roberts without any attempt to steal the theatrical spotlight from her central role in this scene.

The first half concluded with an excerpt from the hilariously surreal Moon Tea by Steven Mackey. Samantha Quillish showed that she can not only carry a line beautifully but also demonstrated a subtle and amusing sense of timing in her role as the Queen, welcoming the 1969 Moon landing astronauts to tea. The quirky fugato texture which builds in these scenes, with each character clearly defined, is a real test of ensemble balance, very much in the spirit and structure of a Mozartian finale. With the busy antics of the on-stage orchestra to contend with too, this provided a good work out for the singers and kept them on their toes right to the end.

Iphis, a retelling of the Iphigenia story by Elena Kats-Chernin, presents a chaotically enjoyable atmosphere. Alternately silent film melodrama or the soundtrack to a Tom & Jerry cartoon, the music is as witty and tongue-in-cheek as the libretto by Richard Toop. This scene was a hyper-dramatic duet between the velvety tones of Hasmik Harutyunyan, both hectoring and voluptuous as the pregnant Telethusa, and her harassed and stuttering husband, Ligdus, characterised with increasingly angry impotency by Phillip Costovski. The intervention of two gods concluded this scene. Rhydian Jenkin & Jack Holton presenting a well-paired couple, both camp and louche simultaneously, and sung with real attention to phrasing, however somewhat in competition with the orchestrations and not always clearly heard.

In Eichberg's science-fiction psychodrama Glare, the stage was dominated once more by the immensely powerful voice of Beren Kader Fidan. Inhabiting eerily the role of Lea – an artificial humanoid – she was physically just as cold and robotic as the part requires, while singing with enormous maturity and projection. The rest of the cast, Laura Fleur, Rhydian Jenkins and Felix Gygli rose admirably to the gauntlet she threw down, particularly so in the case of Gygil, who's terrifyingly violent performance matched the dubstep-influenced brass and electronica of Eichberg's sound-palette. Fortunately the acoustic of the venue is very singer-friendly, as the cast were often in danger of being submerged by these rhythmical barrages of orchestral anger.

Pig, Jonathan Dove's mini-opera from 1992 is a wonderful three-hander. Jack Holton was both hilarious and terrified in the title role, and augmented his lyrical and anguished vocal lines with some nimble stage movement, characterful facial expressions and delightful snorts, grunts and snores. Samantha Quillish was exultantly sadistic with every note she sang and movement she made, as if she was an avatar of fiendish hunger, while Sarah Seunghwa Chae's desperate attempts to bargain with her for the life of Holton's Pig were heartfelt and believable. The overwhelming repeated choral refrains were perfectly balanced, poised on a knife edge between insanity and order.

This treat of operatic tit-bits concluded with Matilda from Errollyn Wallen's hilarious and chaotic Cautionary Tales. Laura Fleur presenting a totally different side of herself in the role of the terrible liar Matilda, with the rest of the company spinning kaleidoscopically through a rapid-fire range of roles, one moment a Greek chorus, the next frustrated firefighters, pantomime dame aunts or godlike narrators. This was a high-energy, full-throttle performance, totally camp, with an overabundance of overacting.

Through all the changes of role and composer on the stage, the presence of the vastly experienced Gary Walker and the Orchestra of Opera North kept the helm steady. It was fascinating to see how Walker and his team tackled (with great gusto and aplomb) such a wide variety of music in the space of two short hours, and his great passion for working with living composers was very clearly evident across the entire programme, as was the clear influence, mentoring and guidance from the ever-generous director Olivia Fuchs, who was the artistic eminence behind this whole project. 

Cautionary Tales - National Opera Studio with Opera North at Wilton's Music Hall
Cautionary Tales - National Opera Studio with Opera North at Wilton's Music Hall (Photo Malcolm I Johnson)

The National Opera Studio is doing enormously valuable work in supporting young singers as they make the difficult transition from conservatoire to the professional operatic stage. Based in the UK, but pulling in singers with origins from across the world, the Young Artists include not only fantastically promising vocalists, but also, as heard this evening, a number of talented emerging repetiteurs – Max Bilbe, Emma Cayeux, Adrian Salinero and Alex Norton, who were not only instrumental in rehearsing and preparing for this event, but who also performed on piano, organ and electronic keyboards alongside the musicians of Orchestra Opera North. 

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