Welsh National Opera & BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Il Prigioniero (The Prisoner) & Fidelio Act II
Wales Millennium Centre
Welsh National Opera’s Freedom season has been going from strength to strength. This has proven a highly stimulating time with the company, with the boldest choice of material they may have ever done, all packed within a week of each other. It’s all very impressive.
At first glance, the paring of these pieces might appear odd, with a one acter, then the concluding act from another opera to wrap up the night. After seeing both together, one can digest the parallel themes of imprisonment, yearning and liberation. Raging at the tyranny of the fascists (though at first, he supported Mussolini), Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola created politically charged music theatre for its time. In his Il Prigioniero (The Prisoner), his centrepiece of work grabbling with unjust incarceration, we confront a blast of misery, brief elation and then dogged disappointment. All this in the space of an hour. Originally a radio opera for RAI, its staging followed in 1950 (just two months after The Consul’s premiere across the pond) and proves the impact of his compositional style.
The 12 tone techniques that were all the rage at the time, are here blended with lyrical vocals, a surprising mix, which does work in adding extra dimensions to the theatricality of the score. There are chilling, shimmering textures within the brittle orchestration as this brief episode unfolds. Extra delights include saxophones, harps, piano, celesta and an off-stage organ. The invisible chorus whose brief role was unclear due to no surtitles when they sang, still held a clenching force upon the drama. Perhaps they were fellow prisoners or the psychological demons within?
After his powerhouse portrayal of Shylock in WNO’s Merchant of Venice, Lester Lynch is back as The Prisoner. This is a gusty performance, Lynch being the driving force of the whole enterprise. His character’s exhausted, yet flustered nature and ecstatic joy upon escaping his cell are the two phases here that define the character. Upon releasing he has been tricked the claim that hope is the worst feeling, is a sad way to wrap things up. This poor man appears to go off stage to be burned at the stake. Sara Fulgoni as The Mother, gets an impassioned scene of mania, visiting her son in the prison. Fulgoni makes this opening moment, with her blockbuster high register, petrified by a vision of King Phillip of Spain, transforming into a symbol of death.
Straight back from The Consul, Peter Hoare dabbled in two brief roles: The Goaler and The Grand Inquisitor. The first offering the prisoner hope and courage, the latter declaring the grim fate that awaits him. This clever pairing of polar opposite parts, Hoare getting some fine vocals with detailed stature within these sobering words. The fact he plays both characters adds to the cruel joke in tricking the poor man into thinking he is free. Hoare is as much an actor as is he is a singer, but the sight of him in Pope like red robes, with tea cosy style fabric, was a swift and surreal image to be a witness.
Beethoven supplied the perfect cleanser of pallets after Dallapiccolo’s spicy entrée. The second act of Fidelio plods along swimmingly and you quickly realise that the original flop of its premiere (thanks to rowdy Napoleonic soldiers in Vienna) was unjust. The brilliance of the German composer lives in a piece like this, at least the version he revised a few years later. This classic ‘rescue opera’ is easily put in a feminist vein by today’s perception, as Léonore (disguised as the young gent Fidelio) saves her husband Florestan from prison. The cruel hand of Don Pizarro, results in this unjust jail sentence, though wrongs are made right thanks to the arrival of Don Fernando (here a white-suited, confident Daniel Grace) and the reveal of Fidelio being Léonore all along.
There is some ravishing singing here, truly some of the finest I’ve heard for a while. Welshman Gwen Hughes Jones as Florestan makes a musical marvel out of the opening aria, stuck in his cell with all hope lost. We have all fallen in love this this rugged tenor who has frequented WNO for multiple stagings the past few years. One savoured this performance and can only dream about Jones in a full performance of Beethoven’s only opera. Emma Bell is Léonore, with superbly dramatic voice. The role is the centre of the opera and Bell owns it, in both guises. Lester Lynch reappears in a role reversal as Don Pizzarro wreaking of corruption, filled with a menace and a look that could kill. He returns to the cell he frequented at the start of the evening, a nice arch for him, over both stagings. Carly Owen as Marzelline (who unknowingly lusts after Fidelio, unaware of any mischief in the first act) has some brief moments to shine, though this being a supporting role, she has a few passages to glow in. Wojtek Gierlach is Rocco, the jailor who unknowingly aids in the prison break. The role is quite deadpan, stern though Gierlach builds some tension in the opening scenes of the second act, as he and Léonore prepare for Florestan’s execution.
You can truly appreciate just how large the stage in the Donald Gordon Theatre is thanks to the openness of this set for this Freedom season. Some productions appear to have work with it better then others, though it really depended on what was done on the balcony and how the orchestra pit was used as well. David Pountney, whose productions can be highly hit and miss, seemed to used little to great effect here. Keeping the dramatic tension defined in mostly one side of the stage, as the musicians played on the other. Video work again by Hayley Egan mostly worked well, though the giant scribbles in Fidelio felt like Brechtian moments not always needed. BBC National Orchestra of Wales shone brightly during this two hander, a special vision. The mass forces of the chorus of WNO and their community choir, gave a finale that truly defined the glory of singing.
The Freedom season has had some well-picked material for the opera stage, with multiple talks and VR exhibitions experiences on offer as well (go check it out whilst it’s still here). It could have easily been Tosca, From the House of Dead and even Madam Butterfly, but the venture into lesser known 20th Century work and some more recent pieces have proven highly engrossing and also inspired. By far, my favourite season perhaps ever. Though things aren’t over quite yet, as the Western Studio will feature Brundibár (Bumblebee), also directed by David Pountney, a Czech, children’s opera that was performed in a concentration camp…
‘A stirring double bill. Perfectly matched’.
Welsh National Opera’s Freedom season concludes with Brundibár on 22nd June 2019 at Wales Millennium Centre. WNO’s Don Pasquale continues on tour till 13th July 2019.
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith