WNO Tour: Bellini, I Puritani; Handel, Orlando; Sondheim, Sweeney Todd

Reviewer's Rating

I caught up with the current Welsh National Opera season on tour in Oxford and must begin by reporting that musically every single work – Bellini’s I Puritani, Handel’s Orlando and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – was well cast and very worth attending. The musical direction for all three works was idiomatic and beautifully controlled by the conductors; and the casting in most cases was impeccable, both vocally and dramatically. Former WNO music director Carlo Rizzi had the measure of the difficult and exceptionally beautiful Bellini score and a sure sense of its lilt and magic. Andrew Griffith was so clearly in love with Handel’s score for Orlando that it was almost as much fun watching him dance and sing his way through the show as it was watching the stage; and the orchestra responded to him with clear pleasure and baroque energy that invigorated the music even further. Once has to say the same for James Holmes and the way he led Sweeney Todd. And great praise should be lavished on both the orchestra and the chorus for their wonderful contributions.

In Puritani, Linda Richardson conveyed the various emotions and madnesses of Elvira through her acting and her controlled coloratura; and David Kempster and Wojtek Gierlach were particularly strong, putting across their famous duet with enormous energy and martial vigour. The cast of Orlando worked as a true team; the acting was utterly convincing and the pacing was perfect, both dramatically and musically. Lawrence Zazzo and Robin Blaze both justified the use of counter-tenors and not mezzo-sopranos as Orlando and Medoro, making some of the most beautiful music of the evening; and Rebecca Evans and Fflur Wyn were simply stunning in their roles. The production’s concept of updating the story about knights in the First Crusade suffering from post-traumatic stress and injuries to a hospital during World War II actually made sense of the basic story and worked extremely well dramatically for the audience. Not a word of the libretto had to be changed; and one felt that various emotions of the characters at different times. Sweeney Todd’s upate to a fish and chip-style shop of the 1950s also worked; the arrival of Paul Charles Clarke’s outrageous con man, Pirelli, in his van was witty; and the rest of the cast was superb. I have never heard Pirelli better sung! I would love to see more of David Arnsperger, the Sweeney Todd, who was apparently splitting his week between the WNO and a company in Germany where he is the Phantom of the Opera. He was both menacing and charming; he was extremely attractive in every way and aroused remarkable sympathy for Sweeney; and he was well paired with tiny Janis Kelly as a Mrs Lovett with a very dark, menacing and sexually ravenous approach to life under a very convincing pleasant exterior. Both parts were extremely well sung, which was a great pleasure; and Jamie Muscato’s Anthony and Sonya Mafi’s Johanna, were utterly charming, captivating and a pleasure to listen to also. I was struck again and again by the quality of the actual music and the brilliant orchestrations. The casting was strong throughout and the cast worked together as a real ensemble. I wasn’t entirely certain that the ballad of Sweeney Todd has to be sung, the tale had to be told, in a 1950s mad house with the curtain up on it and its activities as you enter the auditorium; but once the show got going with the actual ballad it did not make a lot of difference.

So the update of Orlando by director Harry Fehr worked especially well, I thought; and the update of Sweeney Todd didn’t entirely matter one way or the other, in my opinion. It did no harm; the story and its points came through fine. I also liked the set and movement in Sweeney Todd, which seemed me to be positively and intelligently influenced by the original production of Harold Prince. I also liked the more explicit focus on the sexuality of the characters and their obsessions. After all, this season of the WNO is centred on Madness!

But for me, at least, director Annilese Miskimmon’s updating of I Puritani not only did not work but was a total mess. She seems to have based her concept on the lines in Act III where Arturo says he has been gone three weeks and Elvira says no, it has been three hundred years. Since the action actually takes place in 1649 or 1650 just after the execution of Charles I by the Puritans, this version of the story starts in 1950 – but in Ireland, where the Catholics and Protestants stand in for the Royalists and Puritans. Then there are all the silent Elvira clones running around miming being mad alongside the one who actually does the singing. Then everyone suddenly switches into the garb of 1650 and we are in the original time as required by the libretto. Whereas the other two operas in the season seemed to me to be directed by people responding to the actual original work and drawing their interpretations out of them, this Puritani seemed to me another case of a wilful director imposing a vision on the work. For me, and for lots of people in the audience, that vision was not only muddled and wrong-headed, but also subverted the actual intentions of the creators of the piece. At the end of this one, be warned, while the pardon arrives and Elvira rejoices, the IRA (?) cuts the throat of Arturo. I understand the point of the production, but that is not the point of either the original libretto or the sublime music. Nevertheless, the point of Puritani is its music , for me one of the most beautiful and moving scores ever created for music theatre, and so in the end I give four stars to the entire season, taking one away only because of the time travel confusion and uncalled for “tragic” ending of I Puritani. If Annilese Miskimmon is that exercised by the politics of Ireland post World War II, let her write her own libretto!