Weir A Night at the Chinese Opera
Musical Pointers has long been concerned for audibility and intelligibility of libretti in live opera. The situtations are very different for these two.
The Bartered Bride, a comedy about love and money, is generally familiar, and the texts of Kit Hesketh-Harvey's clunky translation came across well, thanks to admirable care by the cast.
The excellent Marenka, Katherine Crompton [above with parents and marriage broker] was conspicuous from the beginning.
The over-confident matchmaker, Matthew Stiff, deflated with comeuppance at the end, and Marenka's lover Jenik (pictured with Stiff and the locals) were first class; there seem to be no published press pictures of the lovers together nor of Marenka's intended husband...
The resolution of the family's cross purposes was rather perfunctory.
Several aspects jarred.
The directorial translation of the opera to USA and to a circus at "Oklahoma", was uncomfortable and the third act didn't work well; there was more whooping of joy at the circus on stage than amongst the audience.
So very soon after the ParaOlympics, the naivety of the "simple" son Vasek, who suffers from what seems to be a type of cerebral palsy (portrayed admirably by by Samuel Furness) was more than usually distasteful - as was the match-broker's wink wink sotto voce collusion with the audience not amusing. With Vasek's painful stammer exactly scored by Smetana, Vasek's struggles are now no longer funny. [A tip: his medical characterisation might be improved if his legs sometimes twitched and jerked too.]
The opera is meant to be a comedy but ...
Peter Grahame Woolf
[q.v. The Observer: - - - some say this long opera is best abandoned after the glorious overture - - there's no point attempting political correctness - - -]
A Night at the Chinese Opera
British Youth Opera 12 & 15 September 2012
Less intelligible than Bartered Bride was Judith Weir's own libretto for her great, first opera, which really needs sur-titles for intelligent listening in the theatre, contrary to the fixed policy of B Y O.
Their director told me that the performances are for "them" - i.e. the company trainees - rather than for the audience. They have rigorous vocal coaching for six weeks and the company did not want to risk compromising its effect.
It seems to us implausible that singers who had worked hard on the words in rehearsal (for some, English being not their native languages) would get slack if they knew that the audiences could see the texts?
But it is not just about individual words which could mostly be heard. It is the sense of whole phrases and sentences, many of them complicated, and not in straightforward linear sequence; some get lost because of the high tessitura. Some phrases can't be grasped and a frequent difficulty is the alternation of different parallel thoughts by characters on stage, some of them subtly poetic.
I attended another performance and created my own 'subtitles' by bringing the perfectly printed NMC A Night at the Chinese Opera libretto and a small discreet torch, and found that, with the pacing mostly slow*, following it did not distract from the stage doings which were stylish throughout, with some brilliant puppetry.
Several reviewers have complained, with monotonous regularity as we do, about difficulty in following English opera libretti at other college opera performances (most recently Trinity Laban at Blackheath).
The battle for Opera in English surtitles at ENO was long fought and eventually won; its abandonment for ENO's last new offering Dr Dee was deplored by everyone.
For the best of all worlds, Weir's unique masterpiece A Night at the Chinese Opera - the first of her six operas - deserves a good DVD with the usual language choices - including the option of none ! (I am told it was being videoed at the Peacock).
The performance was more than creditable and was wonderfully staged, with great puppetry and particular praise for Simon Bejer's sets and David Howe's atmospheric lighting of them; enchanting.
The first two acts proved too long without a break; I tried to applaud at the end of the first, but this was not taken up...
If there has to be only one interval (common in recent times, partly because of transport difficulties) a break after the second scene of Act 2 - the first of the spoken play within the opera The Orphan of Chao - could have been managed easily (c.f. commercial breaks we have to accept during TV arts programmes).
Peter Grahame Woolf
* "- - cautiously conducted by Lionel Friend - - ": Independent on Sunday