My personal highlight was Lesley Garrett’s return to the operatic stage after over a decade in Poulenc’s take on Jean Cocteau’s one woman drama. She apparently proposed the project to Opera North and in many ways the subject matter of the piece seems to resonate with Garrett’s career and life trajectory, she is like Elle a performer past her prime and at 57 not an artist most critics would take seriously. Especially after having spent the last fifteen years singing amplified musicals and appearing in TV reality shows. She committed the cardinal sin in opera circles, she dared to be a popular entertainer when her ENO soubrette parts starting to dry out. Many called her career moves desperate and blamed her for disgracing her operatic training and the genre. Even very recently she sang a dreadfully mannered God Save the Queen for the award ceremony of the Tour de France to Bradley Wiggins.
But have to give her full credit for the performance and for the choice of work. Voix is an unflinching monologue and in Aletta Collins’ direction she appears facing the audience for the first ten minutes through what appears to be a dressing room mirror, lined with lit up bulbs. Her anguished expression the only introduction to the piece till the chilling opening chords, quickly followed by the humorous xylophone produced telephone ring tone. When the stage front disappeared we were left with a mirror image of her dressing room with the mirror and objects behind her. From my box I could constantly see the reflection of the conductor in the mirror, adding an extra dimension to the piece…at least till her lover appeared at the back of the two-way mirror a few minutes later. The faded dressing room had a folding bed on the left and a shower cubicle on the right. Garrett moved between the two during the phone conversation with her unfaithful lover in a state of rising hysteria. The emotional development through the 45 minutes of its duration was masterful and with crystal clear diction she sold every word. She avoided the usual pitfall of over-sentimentalising or over-dramatising the finale. Her sense of anguish and imminent loss were communicated with subtle hushed lines addressed to herself while the receiver lied on the bed or her chest. Collins’ direction had her most of the duration of the piece in a black negligee with a plunging neckline giving Garrett literally no place to hide. Her voice and projection were more than adequate for the part which has few sustained sections but no one can accuse of lacking stage presence. She owned the part of the terrified scorned lover with such authority that it was deeply impressive.
The performance by the orchestra under Wyn Davies was exemplary, bringing the mid-century sound of the piece alive and with an unmistakable Gallic tartness. Many feminist writers find La Voix indefensible and a sure sign of commodification of female grief, presented as an entertainment vehicle put together by two gay men. But having Aletta Collins and Garrett work on it, they added their own distinctive take on the work. It did not make us all feel voyeuristic in the slightest, it was more a confession by a dear friend of their innermost feelings. We watched on as she fell apart and contemplated suicide. The great concluding touch was to have a double for the dishevelled Garrett in front of the mirror (and her back to the audience) while she showed up behind the mirror wearing the red sequined dress that was still hanging from one of the dressing room lights.
The work is also an interesting comment on the nature of performance and the attitude of an ageing performer to the knocks along the way. That very allusion to her own career path and its twists and turns made for a fascinating reading of the piece. Cocteau’s play is all about imperfect technology (the still unreliable telephone service heavily reliant on operators and compromised by crossed lines) and how it mirrors the imperfection of human relationships. Like a cruel phone calls stops Elle on her tracks, so we were left to mull over Garrett’s life and career in the public eye.
Unfortunately the productions of Otello and Dido and Aeneas did not grip me in the same way. Otello being transferred by Tim Albery to an american military base did not really offer much. Despite the beautifully functional set and costumes by Leslie Travers the staging did not really speak to me. The terribly old fashioned and heavily upholstered take by Moshinsky at Covent Garden packs, to my great surprise, more of an emotional punch. The orchestra sounded much rougher with Verdi’s frequent use of grand gestures punctuated by brass. The rather open orchestra pit of the Grand Theatre possibly amplified the musical issues, making me wish for more fire and direction.
But the excellence of the cast cannot be under estimated, Ronald Samm was uneven (it seems he was suffering with a persistent cold) but sang with great affinity with the material and especially in his duets with Desdemona he was rather affecting, just a shame that their seminal duet in Act Two took place between two reversed pieces of set that had all the refined look of a public toilet, killing the dramatic impact of their confrontation.
David Kempster’s Iago was a rather cunning, calculating human being. His Era la notte, Cassio dormia was beautifully coloured with a sense of underlying malice. He was the one singer that was vocally constant and brought depth to the production.
The Desdemona of Elena Kelessidi was on the lighter side but brought beautifully spun phrases and was very focused in Act Four. I just did not believe much of the characterisation and that would be the fault of the director not finding a true personality for his main female protagonist. Usually like a much more dramatic soprano singing the part but Kelessidi delivered some gorgeous singing making the best of her resources. The extended chorus was near deafening in the opening scene and continued with much punch and bounce.
Dido and Aeneas was an over produced and under thought mess. When one is reduced to counting how many Didos are on stage (final count was 9)…you know you have a problem. My main issue for being rather bored with this bedroom set performance was how short it was on magic. The dancing itself was very beautiful and nuanced but once all the secondary characters (the witches, the spirit etc) started arriving as doppelgänger of Dido my heart started to sink. I am sorry to report that despite some excellent singing (with just enough vibrato to annoy the period performance sticklers) from Pamela Helen Stephen who gave a rather heart wrenching finale the evening failed to be truly engaging. Notable also were Phillip Rhodes and Jake Arditti who made their Opera North debut in sparkling fashion. The beautifully bright timbre of Nicholas Watts was a glimmer of light in an already sunk production.
Try to catch them while they are touring, forget what you’ve read in the papers about Garrett and book to see Voix it really is very, very good!