follies opera

Opera Blog: Follies(2012), Cirencester

Show review by Anthony Brown

Cirencester Operatic Society perform Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies”

Sondheim is often compared to Marmite, you either love it or you hate it and as a huge fan of Sweeney Todd I sat in the very warm auditorium and waited with much excitement.

Having been to the Barn Theatre many times before I expected the Operatic Society to undertake this production in the same way as many previous productions but I was immediately struck by the extension to the stage and the unusually small band. The introduction of new blood “Bob Hills” as Director and “Jessie Thompson” as Musical Director have obviously made their mark and the opening of this production does not disappoint.

Not knowing the story of Follies one could spend a long time reading the programme between numbers or you could enjoy the music of Sondheim filling the hall so beautifully. The characters of this work return to a rundown theatre just as the it is about to be bulldozed into a parking lot, we hear the mature actors of today sing the songs of their yesteryear with the actors on stage playing both young and old – the way this was done was excellent.

It can be easy in Amateur Theatre to use the chorus as spare bodies to boost the sound but here was a production where neither was required, every member of the cast had a character with well thought out movement and choreographed dancing. I particularly liked the “Waiting for the Girl Upstairs” number where the four main characters were joined by their four younger counterparts and the harmonies this made was superb. One of the few criticisms I have of this production is using the auditorium as an exit for the actors, unfortunately with a wooden floor and noisy feet it sometimes spoils the start of the next number and you lose the element of surprise as you can hear the next actor arriving.

Both principal ladies deserve special praise “Alison Canning” sang and acted exceptionally well throughout and she tackled the well-known song “Losing My Mind” very well indeed, Elizabeth Gravestock looked stunning and sang her difficult and wordy songs with precision and finesse. Complementing the ladies was “Robert Desmond” and “Paul Skidmore” both skilful actors who helped the audience keep up with the twists and turns of the plot and added lots of humour.

For me it was a show of two halves – the second half didn’t quite feel like it was the same show, maybe it was the plot or maybe it was just Sondheim but the music and the energy of the cast shone through. All told it was a very enjoyable night so hats off to all of the cast, who were accompanied by talented musicians and supported very well by the technical team all of whom were under the leadership of Bob.

Long may Cirencester Operatic Society put on productions such as this and if you missed it you missed out so see them again next time.

NODA Review

FOLLIES. The Barn Theatre, Cirencester. May 23rd

Director: Bob Hills

MD: Jessie Thompson

Choreographers: Beth Cox and Rachel Wright

This was not a show I was familiar with, although as the show progressed I realised I recognised some of the musical numbers. As is often the case with Sondheim this was a very complex show, with difficult music and although the basic story is fairly simple, the way he tells it, interspersing the present day characters with their younger selves, was at times confusing; I think I got there in the end. As you entered the Theatre the open set with dramatic lighting created the atmosphere of the soon-to-be-demolished Theatre of the story.

The opening was effective with the ‘ghosts’ of the showgirls assuming lovely poses during the overture. They were lit in such a way that you knew they were not real; and when they mingled with the guests you knew the guests were unaware of them. The set was simple but well designed, providing a variety of entrances, exits and levels; it had been well dressed with old lamps and distressed furniture. Using the auditorium for many of the entrances and exits helped to keep the pace moving on this small stage and drew the audience more into the show. However I do wish it had been done quietly, as the noisy clumping of shoes, as the cast passed was very distracting and I missed bits of dialogue. The costumes were a major contribution to the show with the glitzy outfits of the showgirls and the glamorous gowns of the former showgirls all trying to outdo each other, providing a stark contrast to the Theatre where they once performed. On the whole makeup was appropriate but I think some of the former showgirls could have been aged a little, as they all looked far too youthful! The sound was mostly good although there were one or two gremlins in the system. The lighting had been designed and operated really well and enhanced the production. A point I would make is that the actors and the moving lights were not always co-ordinated and so the lights were a little late, leaving the actor in darkness until the light caught up. The choreography was interesting and within the ability of the company, I think it stretched some of the cast but they rose to the challenge.

The routine, ‘Who’s That Woman?’ where the ex-showgirls join in was very well executed by everyone, but I wondered if it should have been so polished for the ‘oldies’. Musical Director Jessie Thompson had made a good decision to use a reduced orchestration, as there was a good balance between music and voices. She had obviously worked hard with the cast and instrumentalists to deliver this complex music in a meaningful way. There were some lovely musical moments both from the company and individuals. The diction was excellent throughout, which is essential to any musical, but especially to this with its complex story.

The Principles brought a wealth of emotion to their songs and the harmony singing was strong. The prospect of performing a Sondheim Musical had obviously generated much interest and attracted new members. The show has a large number of principles, with twelve of the characters also having a younger version. Roles had been well cast with some excellent performances. The most challenging roles were those of young Sally, Phyllis, Buddy and Ben, as they required discipline in many aspect of theatrical performance. Director Bob Hills is to be congratulated on making sure his cast used the small stage to the maximum effect, creating interesting pictures and encouraging everyone to develop well rounded, individual characters, who all worked well together. Whether or not your audiences followed and understood the action they certainly enjoyed the music. What an anti-climax the ending is, no fault of the production just the way it is written. I found it a difficult show to take in in one viewing and would like to see it again to fill in the gaps! Congratulations to everyone in producing a most enjoyable Show.

Opera uk

Opera Blog: A Few of Smorg’s Favorite Male Opera Singers

If you’ve read a few or more of my reviews and essays on various opera performances over the years, then you already know that I harbor a decidedly favorable bias toward the lower female voices… The chestier and more expressive a mezzo, the more fervor my admiration for them. So I freely admit to having been neglecting the soprani and the operatic men in the past (and I’m not promising to get better either). For the curious, though, here are a few of my favorite operatic leading men performing on the stage today:

  • Jonas Kaufmann: This German singer is one of the most versatile operatic tenors in living memory. His sizable, dark, colorful, ringing, and expressive voice matches perfectly with his ruggedly handsome look… That he also has a brain that defies the old trade’s favorite dumb tenor stereotyping jokes simply makes this talented theatrical cake too well-iced to ignore! There aren’t many singers around who can boast of having had success in as wide ranging a repertoire as Kaufmann’s: from the Mozart light tenor roles all the way to Forestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio and the Puccini heroes. All the while managing to draw attention away from even the shirtless baritone he’s sharing the stage with… (ladies beware, though, Herr Kaufmann is happily married with many cute kids).
  • Ramon Vargas: Many gorgeous-voiced singers are content to savor the glory of their own sound and the high notes it can produce – Ramon Vargas, happily, is not one of them even though he is in possession of one of the noblest tenor voices in the business. Vargas hit stardom in the 90’s, establishing himself as his generation’s premier Mozart and bel canto tenor… one who can almost make you sympathize with his Tebaldo rather than with Romeo whenever he sang in Bellini’s I Capulet e i Montecchi, and who blew everyone up to and including Neptune away singing the dastardly difficult Munich version of Mozart’s Idomeneo at the Salzburg Festival () in the early 2000’s. With more heft to the voice now, though, he is gravitating more toward Verdi’s late operas and Puccini.
  • Dmitry Korchak: This young Russian tenor is one of the upcoming bel canto specialists to watch. His career got off to a good start winning the Francisco Vinas International Competition in 2004 and is now busily engaged at premier opera houses and festivals all over the world especially in the Mozart and bel canto leading roles. I first encountered the lad in November 2006 when I attended the OONY concert performance of Donizetti’s Dom Sebastien at Carnegie Hall where he sang the title role with such panache that many in the audience were severely tempted to demand an encore of his high-flying aria even though we were all anxious to go home to find out about that night’s election result!
  • Torsten Kerl: In the era in short supply of ringing Heldentenor voices, there is Torsten Kerl around to keep the operas of Wagner and Korngold in business. This young German has been lending his nobly bright tenor to critically acclaimed assumption of Paul (in die tote Stadt), Siegmund, Lohengrin, and Tannhäusser at various operatic stages around the globe. His performance along with Angela Denoke’s make the Arthaus Musik DVD of Die tote Stadt from Opera Strasbourg a mandatory buy for lovers of German opera. He also appears in the concert portion (Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde) on the DVD portrait of the great German soprano Waltraud Meier.
  • Octavio Arevalo: This not so well known Mexican tenor is one of the best bel canto singers in the business. Not only does he possess an impressively agile and refined masculine voice, but he is also a splendid voice actor who can make whatever operatic character he is impersonating jump right out of the radio at you.
  • Dmitri Hvorostovsky: Affectionately known as Hvoro by his fans, this Russian baritone is the operatic equivalent of Richard Gere, completed with man a golden throat. A wild man in his youth, Hvorostovsky has now mellowed into opera’s suave baritone with enough animal magnetism to cause collective swooning among the female audience just by his presence on the stage.
  • Bryn Terfel: At 6’3″, big Bryn Terfel towers over just about everyone he ever shares the stage with, but he is such a natural actor that he can be as convincing as an adorable pudgy boy as he can menace your worst nightmare as a villain of demonic proportion. His is a irresistibly handsome dark bass-baritone voice is as agile as it can be ringing (he sings anything from Mozart to Wagner). Terfel has curtailed his performances somewhat to spend more time with his young family, but whenever he shows up to sing, the man is as dependable as WD24.
  • Simon Keenlyside: This English baritone is one of the most acrobatic Papageno I’ve ever witness. How in the world does he manage to still sing brilliantly while diving headlong across the stage in his vain pursuit of the rubber white chicken is beyond my comprehension… Comedic flare is just one of his many assets, though. His devastatingly manly Abalyados in Donizetti’s Dom Sebastien () has me root for his bad guy rather than the opera’s hero… And then there is his Billy Budd…. If a straight man can ever turn gay from exposure to an operatic performance, an auditorium-ful of women would find themselves putting their husbands on a leash by the end of that show!
  • Ferruccio Furlanetto: Here in San Diego we call him the Ace of Bass… and whenever he is in town (which is almost a yearly event here. He’s like our operatic hometown hero now!) he is to be found either at the Civic Theater or on one of the area’s many beautiful golf courses. And, as hard to beat on the golf course as he is, on the stage he is even more imposing. It isn’t so much his voice as his overall package… And it also doesn’t hurt that the signor has this confounding lovable quality that makes it easy to sympathize with his character even when he’s playing a meanie!
  • Luca Pisaroni: Aside from keeping lovers of Italian food well supplied with the savory parmesan cheese, Parma, Italy also seems bent on keeping up well stocked with awesome musicians. Opera lovers hold a special place in our heart for Parma for having given us Giuseppe Verdi, and now Luca Pisaroni, a young bass-baritone who is rocking the leading opera houses around the world as the lyric bass to fetch for Mozart and Handel operas. He is an involved actor and a splendid singer who makes everything he sings sounds deceptively easy to hum… even when sprinting up and down flights of stairs!