It’s always great when theatres such as the Liverpool Empire to be able to still host one the UK’s oldest and best-respected opera companies, the Welsh National Opera (aka Cenedlaethol Cymru). In a culture which seems saturated with reality TV vacuousness, it’s vital that theatres still offer people an opportunity to access live opera.
The WNO took a bold step in choosing Mozart’s classic opera Cosi Fan Tutte (1790) and Handel’s oratorio Jephtha (1752) – as well as a production of La Boheme. Eschewing the easier route of presenting them in original form with traditional costumes and scenery, they instead presented Cosi Fan Tutte in a 1960’s seaside setting and Jephtha against a 1940’s office backdrop.
There seemed to be a mixed reaction from whispers amongst the aisles as to whether people approved of the modern take, but keeping the pieces relevant and contemporary can entice new audiences to what is perceived to be something of a dying art form. Do we really want to see Mozart’s operas performed in powder-puff wigs and corsetry, again? On this score, the WNO must be commended.
Jephtha takes its lead from the biblical story from the Book Of Judges concerning a conflict Israelites and Ammonites. It was the last oratorio that Handel composed: finished despite the composer losing his sight during this period. Jephtha, the main character, leads the Israelites into war against the Ammonities but vows to God that if he wins the war, he will sacrifice the first living creature that he sees upon his return. Unfortunately, that happens to be his only daughter Iphis.
The WNO chose a stark, almost cold 40’s working-man’s office to be the back drop for the singers; it allowed the audience enjoy the real beauty of this oratorio; Handel’s music. Although the libretto is not particularly strong – written by Reverend Thomas Morell – the true power lies within the music; delivered to the beautiful orchestral accompaniment of strings, harpsichord and basso continue, conducted by Paul Goodwin. And what a treat it was to hear some of these instruments played in a small orchestral setting.
Highlights included the aria Scenes Of Horror, Scenes Of Woe sung by Storge (Diana Montague) and a sumptuous duet between Iphis and her lover Hamor, These Labours Past, How Happy We!. Iphis (Fflur Wyn) had a really charming soprano tone which sounded delightful alongside counter-tenor Robin Blaze (Hamor). The WNO treated Handel’s oratorio with utmost respect & tonight they pulled off a honest, moving account of a biblical story with a 1940’s twist. It shouldn’t work, but it does!
Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte – which translates as That’s How All Women Behave – was originally banned and somewhat shunned by audiences when it first opened due to the story’s supposed misogyny. However, in the cynical gaze of the 21st century, it is a fun little story of two friends, Ferrando & Fiordiligi, who are persuaded by Don Alfonso to think that their girlfriends may not be the worthy, noble women they present themselves to be.
Don Alfonso believes that female fidelity is rare as the “Arabian Phoenix”: everyone has heard of it, but no one has ever seen it. The rest of the plot that follows is a topsy turvy rollercoaster of disguises, fibbing, infidelity, fake deaths and even a touch of raunchiness – something for everyone!
The backdrop of the 60’s seaside works well in bringing out the fun and flirty nature of this comical opera. We see the female characters Dorabella and Guglielmo supposedly waving goodbye to their lovers in Act I; but they’re actually waving goodbye to their moral fibres – a point emphasised onstage by the constant murmur of the sea, inspiring the characters to break free of their moral concerns.
The chorus and the principal singers really do pull off the quirky, comical libretto with highly stylised performances, led again by a fantastic small chamber orchestra conducted by Mark Wigglesworth.
It is saddening that the theatre was barely full downstairs for both of these operas, and it was also noticeable that most of the audience was over 50. It begs the question as to why more – particularly younger – people don’t visit the opera.
Is it too high brow? Are they too long? Do people feel there’s nothing to relate to? Have musical theatre productions shoved opera out of the way? With these shows in Liverpool the Welsh National Opera proved that – more than ever – we must cherish these classic operas. Sometimes they just need a makeover.