WNO Barber and Butterfly reviews


Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
It was just like the pre-Covid days, cosying up to Welsh National Opera in their comfortable Cardiff home. Front-of-house staff smiled us welcomingly to our seats, and here we were at the beginning of a season reaching towards the excitement of those before lockdown.
Truth to tell, the first offering I saw, Rossini's Barber of Seville was no more than routine. Russell Craig's multi-tiered box set design is fascinating visually, allowing all the comings and goings from the lively chorus under Giles Havergal's detailed, almost Brechtian stage-direction to increase the spirit of community within which the imbroglios of the Bartolo household machinate.
But, though decent enough, the singers rarely thrill, though among them Andrew Shore is a busily outraged Doctor Bartolo. Keel Watson a bumbling Don Basilio, and Heather Lowe a Rosina appealing both vocally and in her stage-presence. Frederick Brown conducted, but I know the WNO Orchestra can play with far more personality than they were persuaded to here.
And the players were on fire next evening, galvanised by conductor Carlo Rizzi to deliver a seamless, well-paced, texturally-clear and glowing account of Puccini's Madam Butterfly. This is score in which Puccini confronts Wagner, and the results produce the Italian composer's strongest and most objective opera.
After so many decades of WNO's previous well-known production, all sliding screens and flower-bestrewn gardens, this new conception by director Lindy Hume combines with designer Isabella Bywater to set the action into a functional cuboid house, revolving almost a la Rubik, with staircases and entrances into which the busy characters come and go.
Here we heard a tremendous cast, performing with such dignity of movement, and with such obvious support for every one of its members. Butterfly, such a strenuous, taxing role, was performed with spectacular success by Alexia Voulgariduo, moving from exploited geisha (all her colleagues dolly-birded in kinky white boots) to bobby-soxing young American wife, her singing encompassing all Puccini's demands of register, tone and dynamic.
She was matched in the heavenly length of the Love Duet by Peter Auty's well-paced, warm-toned Pinkerton (who can then have a good long rest before reappearing as the loathsome creep he is as the very end approaches). Mark Stone was a gratifyingly angry Consul Sharpless, pinning Pinkerton against the wall for the shame he was bringing upon the great US of A, and Kezia Bienek was so sympathetic as Butterfly's maid and companion Suzuki, such a difficult role which consists mainly of lamenting body-language – but who also is the nursemaid of Sorrow, son of Butterfly's and Pinkerton's brief union.
And this Sorrow stole the show, whether raiding the depleted kitchen-cupboards, painting flowers on the walls to greet the father of whom he has no knowledge, or just climbing the stairs to be with his grieving mother. As well as the curtain-calls, bowing repeatedly, jumping up and down, and waving to Mum in this huge cheering audience.
Christopher Morley

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