Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Façade / The Bear @ Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London

14, 16, 17 October 2008


Façade (Photo: Richard H Smith)

The Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists have been greatly enjoyable to watch in the past, but this double bill of works by William Walton failed to excite and tended to frustrate. The operatic offering, the one-act opera The Bear, which followed the interval, suffered from a flawed staging, with the text rendered incomprehensible by the singers’ poor diction.

Walton’s spoken-song cycle, Façade, played first, was a bewildering choice as a vehicle for displaying the talent of these young musicians. The roles of the two narrators would preferably be taken by actors; no singing is required, but greatly expressive vocal delivery and variety of character interpretation are needed to prevent the vocal lines from appearing monotonous.

Indeed, if one is not careful, the rhythmically spoken dialogue can appear to have a deadening effect on Walton’s imaginative and colourful orchestral writing, making one wish that the words, too, had been set to music.

Thomas Guthrie and Hilary Brennan tried commendably hard to enunciate clearly and characterise convincingly, but ultimately neither succeeded. Too many words were garbled, and the personae inhabited were barely differentiated. That the voices were amplified did not help. Amplification tends to rob voices of clarity anyway, and here the speakers were positioned midway back in the stalls, at either side.

This would surely have been problematic for those sitting near the front of the auditorium, but it also meant that, from further back, the voice did not come from the direction of the singer. Though this is a position generally tolerated by lovers of amplified ‘popular’ music, I found it unnatural and unsettling. Dominic Grier conducted sharply and maintained a crisp ensemble.

After the interval came The Bear. As previously mentioned, both diction and direction were problematic. The production, directed by Thomas Guthrie, was unfocused and visually uninspiring. Symbolically ambiguous picture-frames lined the walls and floor of Yelina Popova’s residence, and actors couldn’t walk from A to B without tripping on them, or at least treading gingerly.

Furniture piano, table, chairs stood around the set, distractingly, covered by veils (suggesting repression?) that tended to slip when singers walked past them. The stage was cluttered, while the overly zealous lighting also distracted.

The voices of Monika-Evelin Liiv, Kostas Smoriginas and Vuyani Mlinde were strong, but each artist possessed a distinctive foreign accent, resulting in the text lacking clarity; and far too little of the libretto being audible. With a dramatically flawed staging and incomprehensible dialogue, one had to look to the pit (again) for inspiration, and there Steven Moore drew a taut, colourful orchestral performance from the Southbank Sinfonia.

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