10/09/01 and 12 October
Ludwig van Beethoven: Leonore
Natalie Christie (Marzelline), Wynne Evans (Jaquino), Donald MacIntyre (Rocco), Franzita Whelan (Leonore), Robert Hayward (Don Pizarro), Michael Clifton-Thomas (First prisoner), Owen Webb (Second prisoner), Pär Lindskog (Florestan), Timothy Mirfin (Don Fernando)
Welsh National Opera orchestra and chorus
Yves Abel (conductor), Patrice Caurier, Moshe Leiser (directors)
10/11/01 and 13 October
Hector Berlioz: Beatrice and Benedict
Ralph Mason (Leonato), Rebecca Evans (Hero), Ann Murray (Beatrice), Michael Clifton-Thomas (Messenger), Timothy Mirfin (Don Pedro), Ivan Ludlow (Claudio), Paul Nilon (Benedict), Donald Maxwell (Somarone), Anna Burford (Ursula), Mary Davies (Maid)
Welsh National Opera orchestra and chorus
Jean-Yves Ossonce (conductor), Elijah Moshinsky (director), Robin Tebbutt (revival director)
In his schtick as Somarone, the inserted comic musician in Beatrice and Benedict, Donald Maxwell mentioned that he'd better hurry up and get his chapter on the operas of Beethoven out before they discover a third one. While recordings of Leonore, the first version of Fidelio, are obviously of musicological interest, it's difficult to see what the point of a production is for most audiences. For all practical purposes, the Welsh National Opera's Leonore (seen 12 October) is yet another Fidelio, with a different overture, some variant arias, and a grimmer overall tone. It's in competition (to some extent) with the Glyndebourne Touring Fidelio -- a side event to all the battling Bohèmes -- and, while certainly not bad in itself, it risks creating a sense of déjà vu all over again.
The singers are all quite young, except for the veteran Donald MacIntyre, Wotan in the centenary Ring in 1975, as Rocco. His vocal and theatrical experience showed, but everyone was well cast and committed. Robert Hayward's coldly nasty Don Pizarro, sung with controlled aggression, was the other most striking performance. Natalie Christie as Marzelline (whose first aria now opens the opera) was sweet and a little fragile, though she stood up remarkably well in the ensembles, including her duet with Wynne Evans' thuggish Jaquino. Pär Lindskog as Florestan had more anguish than heroism. This was partly determined by the production, but his singing, though dramatic, didn't come over as that of the Heldentenor usual in the role. Franzita Whelan was an attractive Amazon Leonore, giving the more florid version of Ich wanke nicht plenty of welly.
The production and sets were straightforward, and quite effective. Christian Fenouillat's set was a pair of converging walls, a bit similar to Philipp Schlössman's for the Covent Garden Jenufa, embodying the physical and spiritual constraints of the prison. Events tended to fall in on themselves, from Marzelline's nervous hope at the start through to an anxious ending, where Florestan and Leonore are apparently destroyed in spite of the resolution of the plot, and no-one is really happy with Don Fernando's decision to let the king decide what to do with Don Pizarro. The point that exposing injustice also causes pain in complex ways is an important one, and more obvious in Leonore than in Fidelio, so this production has its point.
There is no identifiable politics in Beatrice and Benedict, Berlioz's autumnal answer to Falstaff. Elijah Moshinsky's production (seen 13 October), here revived by Robin Tebbutt as an impressive short-notice replacement, sets the action during the Napoleonic war, with a suggestion of Jane Austen in the courtship rounds and glorious Italian atmospherics in an open courtyard. It's a bit Masterpiece Theater, but the spoken wit (in Shakespeare's own words as much as possible) transfers well, the music fits seamlessly and the singers, including the diversely characterised chorus, seem to have fun.
Ann Murray as Beatrice gave every impression that she could perform the role in a straight production, but you wouldn't want to lose her singing. Her voice isn't beautiful, but her singing is amazing, and she is full of character. She also looks terrific in the period costume, though you have the impression that if she noticed you looking you'd get a withering glare over the spectacles. Rebecca Evans as Hero was suitably short and sweet, and Anna Burford as Ursula added a rich tone to the gorgeous female ensembles. Paul Nilon as Benedict was a touch blusterous in the spoken parts, though always comprehensible, but his singing was superb. Timothy Mirfin as Don Pedro and Ivan Ludlow as Claudio were suitably butch as his fellow soldiers, and were amusingly abetted by Ralph Mason in the speaking role of Leonato.
Donald Maxwell was inevitably in a different production as Somarone, but he and the chorus were very funny in the dreadful but entirely plausible choir rehearsal. The orchestra under Jean-Yves Ossonce played delightfully.