Creating touring opera productions that can adapt to vastly varying spaces while retaining commitment to both drama and musical quality is a gargantuan task. Add to that the desire – or requirement – to bring in audiences in places opera does not usually reach, despite having a national opera company, then the challenge is all the greater.
However, while this is their working environment, it is pointless approaching work by Mid Wales Opera with anything but high expectations and, in the main, the company does not disappoint. This funny and charming production of Ravel’s Spanish-themed and flavoured work was well received by the Pontardawe audience on a cold November night, thanks to the enthusiasm of the small cast and musicians led by music director Jonathan Lyness, leading from the keyboard.
Director Richard Studer has created an “opened up” clock shop, with simple but effective backdrops of the inner workings of timepieces, a two-ended ramp at the centre of the back of the space, and two large clock faces (thick Hamster Wheels with Roman numerals around their edges). These large clocks are at varying stages in the daft story occupied by the would-be lovers of the clockmaker’s wife conception (see pic below) and are lugged up to her bedroom by thick (or at least innocent) but strong muleteer Ramiro. The constraints of the space were overcome by Ramiro actually just rolling the clock faces up and down the sloped ramp, rather than physically carrying them on and off stage (let alone up and down any staircases). So, while there are times in the tale when characters are “off stage” they are actually still there in the background.
Peter Van Hulle
The characters are presented with painted white faces with ludicrous costumes that communicate their professions/ tales directly with the audience so the muleteer has carrots in his hat and his clothing, the clockmaker has little timepieces on his hat, the banker is covered in money while the poet has words all over his waistcoat…..I couldn’t quite work Concepcion’s costumes apart from perhaps smart car logos?
A robust Peter Van Hulle plays clockmaker Torquemada as seemingly a gullible fool who is duped by wife and customers alike, but he does get two good sales out of his wife’s shenanigans.
That pantomime, mime, commedie dell’arte approach is continued in the exaggerated gesture and facial expressions of the characters as they react to situations. This can be sadness, frustration, disappointment surprise and, which is totally in keeping with the feel of this approach, sexual desire and mischief – so we have grinding and thrusting hips from ridiculous frustrated men, coquettish and frustrated behaviour from Catherine Backhouse’s pivotal performance as Concepcion and the boyish yearnings from the muleteer of young singer Nicholas Morton. This is also seen in the fun translation of the libretto with even a reference to stroking the muleteer’s ass. This is a singer already a delight to listen to and watch and so another benefit for opera audiences in seeing developing artists early in their careers. There are hearty character performances from Matthew Buswell as Gomez, the deluded love (or sex) struck banker, who gets stick inside one of those clocks, and lots of fun and good singing from Antony Flaum as the away with faeries poet Gonzalve.
The second half of the evening followed the style set with the company’s presentation of Walton’s The Bear last season, when the Russia-themed opera was followed with Russia-themed musical offerings. So here we had a Spanish cabaret). Black suits, red frilly shirts for the men and black and red also for Catherine Backhouse) starting with a tour de force in facial expressions from Peter Van Hulle recounting the tale of Ferdinand the Bull accompanied or perhaps led by Naomi Rump on violin, as part of a programme (or tapas we are told) ranging from Carmen favourites through to Agustín Lara’s Granada, to, yes, that’s right, Y Viva Espana.
To be honest, I could have done without being told they were “off to sunny Spain” and wish that wasn’t the sound that resounded in my brain after the show, but the audience seemed to love it and clapped and sang along enthusiastically.
Our players similarly entered into the Spanish spirit with gusto and played along with the nonsense elements. There was so much enjoyment shown in young Morton’s strutting Toreador from the fan-waving chaps on stage that I don’t think Torquemade needed to worry about his wife’s wooers too much!
Elfair Grup, harp and Alexandra Callanan, bassoon, joined Naomi Rump and Jonathan Lyness in bringing some of Ravel’s distinctive musical colours and style to life and then the paella of flavours in the zany second of the evening.
Next year the company will present Puccini’s Tosca
22nd November St Mary’s Church, Hay-on-Wye
23rd November Theatr Gwaun, Fishguard
29thNovember, SpArC, Bishop’s Castle
30th November, Emlyn Williams Theatre, Theatr Clwyd
1st December, Criccieth Memorial Hall 01766 523672
5th December, Theatr Colwyn, Colwyn Bay
6th December, Abermule Community Centre (in partnership with Hafren)
7th December, St Laurence’s Church, Ludlow
Main image: Nicholas Morton as Ramiro
This review is supported by the Wales Critic Fund.