Welsh National Opera, spring tour at Bristol Hippodrome

ALL three of the Operas WNO has chosen for its Spring tour have strong-willed women at the heart of their stories.

Amelia whose love for her country’s political  leader Riccardo leads to his downfall, was brought vividly to life by Mary Elizabeth Williams in David Pountney’s production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. After a fairly pedantic first act, more memorable for some unusual settings, four rows of plush cinema seats at odds with the story featuring in some scenes,  Mary Elizabeth Williams opened Act 2 with a breathtaking rendition of Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa, lifting the whole production onto a higher level. As though waiting for this cue Gwyn Hughes Jones and Philip Rhodes as her lover Riccardo and husband Renato lifted their game as well bringing greater energy and excitement to their fine vocal contributions.

Following Un Ballo in Maschera came Dominic Cooke’s ever-popular quirky production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Giant prawns and lobsters still leap out of the scenery to attack  Papageno and our hero Tamino and Sarastro’s followers. Orange bowler hats and umbrellas can still be seen popping out of holes in the ground to very efficiently deliver their opinions, as they have since this production first joined the repertoire in 2005, on how the lovers and intruders should be dealt with.

Not surprisingly there are more opportunities for comedy than drama in this presentation and taking advantage of the opera being sung and spoken in English, Mark Stone, with some lovely pieces of comic mime thrown in for good luck, makes you regret that comic and light opera has, with its many wonderful comedy characters, gone so completely out of fashion.

Into this setting Samantha Hay had the unenviable task of introducing the mysterious magnetism that should surround The Queen of the Night. Somehow she managed to cocoon herself away from the more earthy goings on around her and and rising beautifully to the many difficult vocal challenges set for her by the composer, she ensured that the nocturnal queen left far deeper memories in the audiences’ minds than a pantomime wicked witch like Snow Whites evil step-mother.

There was no question of any other character forcing Queen Elizabeth I from the centre of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. The libretto may play fast and loose with historical facts surrounding the love affair between Elizabeth and Robert Earl of Essex, but the power and passion within the Virgin Queen, her anger and jealousy at Essex’s rejection of her is written loud and clear in Donizetti’s brooding score.

Mounted often on a large skeletal metal spider, symbolic of her extensive often abused power, Joyce El-Khoury did not flinch for a moment, piling tension upon tension as she moved the ageing Queen from someone lost in the joy of love through doubts and fears to an uncontrolled rage and jealousy – a rage that will lead her into the fatal action of condemning her lover to death,  and in turn bring about her own mental and physical downfall.

To have to start your final passionate aria on top of a metal spider the heavy makeup and elaborate wig now replaced by stark white makeup and a completely bald shining head, (symbols of the Queen’s fall into the abyss of despair) requires a big personality fully in control of the vocal challenges set  before her. It was a fearsome challenge to which El-Khoury rose in flamboyant style, as, in the far more understated role of Sara Duchess of Nottingham, Robert’s mistress, did Justina Gringyte.
The WNO orchestra and chorus were in splendid form throughout the week, responding to every request and demand from three very different, but equally committed conductors, Gareth Jones,  Un Ballo in Maschera, Damian Iorio, The Magic Flute, and James Southall, Roberto Devereux.


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