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Opera Warwick

Warwick Arts Centre


Opera Warwick is the indefatigable, and generally inspired, student company based at the University of Warwick, in Coventry. Most creditably, it is managed entirely by undergraduates, and sometimes postgraduates, who are studying a wide range of subjects.

But not music: Warwick is one of those major locations that has dispensed with, or does not have a traditional Classical Music course - like Exeter (now), or Lancaster, or De Montfort, Leicester, which had one of the most innovative, forward-looking Music Courses in the country; the very opposite of York, Leeds and Huddersfield, which do have courses – all superb.

Music Technology, or Production, or popular music performance, have usurped its place. All of these, of course, are desirable, indeed invaluable skills. But not, perhaps, as an intensive study of Beethoven. That has been left, it might be claimed, to the Music Colleges. And perhaps there is some justification for that, as it has swelled their numbers and perhaps opened the door to a career more than these universities have or can.

What is always impressive about Warwick – outstanding indeed - is the amazing quality produced by students from wholly different faculties. Just now they gave a magnificent concert – choral and orchestral: Wagner’s Prelude and Isolde’s Liebestod  from Tristan – what an undertaking for Lorna James (till recently of Leeds-based Opera North, and apparently a Warwick alumna); Sir Arnold Bax’s staggeringly beautiful Tintagel (like all his symphonic poems, he was much influenced by Celtic folklore); and to cap it all, the Mass in Blue which did so much to launch composer Will Todd’s fame at the start of this new century. And just two days later, Durufle’s Requiem. Awe-inspiring.

So, was Opera Warwick’s staging of Jules Massenet’s Manon (in English translation, George and Phyllis Mead) up to that standard this year? Or their own standards? They have produced some wonders: Rossini’s Cinderella the first I saw, brilliant); Don Giovanni (amazing thanks not least to the Leporello, Samuel Lom); a sensitive and touching, beautifully calibrated Coronation of Poppea (Monteverdi). And a clutch of other deserved successes.

Up to those standards? Well, partly; but not entirely. The first one to praise has to be this year’s conductor, Han Zhao. He had his finger on the pulse (and pulse is important) through every sequence, from start to finish. His drive, perceptiveness and yes, wisdom, had a marvellous effect on these orchestral players, who rose to the summit at every turn. Some wonderfully finessed, exciting and never overdone brass from the start (and throughout, with the horns yielding some delicate results later on; one horn solo accompanying des Grieux’s father was stunning). Ruilang Qin (Economics) and Bert Jim Chang (Mathematics) - trombone and trumpet - showing what a gigantic asset our far eastern-derived (sometimes American) students are bringing to British music.

So here there was excellence at every turn. I heard only two tiny moments when the splendid string section fractionally mislaid its tuning. Just twice. The cello solos (Edward Neo) were wondrous to hear. Ditto more than one violin solo (an exquisite one in Act 3) from the very competent Leader, Anna Faram.


The double bassists worked marvels, both doubling the cellos or supporting the entire band. The paired flutes (actually three are credited) were enchanting, and shone, at every turn. Chuntering bassoons (especially when pizzicato, forming a kind of beguiling ostinato) – brilliant: tip-top. Oboe and clarinet solos (and duetting, and whenever matched with other wind) – perfect.

I could go on, for everyone deserved bouquets and accolades (‘all shall have prizes’). I wish I could say something about the violas, who so often inject key detail into the harmony. But they slave away uncomplimented. Was one of the cello solos actually viola? I doubt it. But Elgar (or Britten) wouldn’t have missed the chance.

Now to the production. And here the issues begin to arise. The set and décor (Emily Napier, Sofia Kolb) was frankly exiguous - although to be fair, the simple attempt at evoking Des Grieux’s church, Saint-Sulpice (incidentally the church of Widor) was better. But in the main, there was no feeling of location, or ambience, or indeed France at all.  ‘Le Cours’, ‘L’apartement’, ‘Sur la chemin a Le Havre’: where were they? Any of them? Just a rather pointless slight raised platform at the back. This put the whole onus on to the cast, to generate atmosphere and any kind of visual treat.

The only ones to do so, apart from the three wizards, were the chorus, a mass of non-music students, who had great fun, and shared it with us, most tellingly in the market scene – amazing what you can do with a long table - where a great deal of invention was put in either by Director Noga Levy-Rapoport (History & Politics, and to her immense credit a forceful climate activist), or by members of the cast themselves. This would have enlivened any opera, Bohème or otherwise.

‘From start to finish, the Director writes, ‘Manon is a breathtaking production'. Yet the direction, and I hate to say it, is where the biggest problems lay. Not one of the characters, with a major exception, seemed to deploy much acting skill. There was a dearth of input from the direction department – in showing cast how to move, how to gesture, how to vary, how to make their actions relevant, or perceptive, or vivid. There were exceptions, of course: possibly by everyone at some stage. But these were modest.

The most obvious exceptions? The multicoloured, mischievous trio of Poussette, Javotte and Rosette. They shone, both vocally and visually. Unremittingly they were great fun, and their cheeky demeanour and impudent moves may well be one of the credits to Levy-Rapoport as Director. Bizarrely they were all set by Massenet as mezzo-sopranos, but in fact while all three excelled, the top one was the one singer to rival – and perhaps to understudy – the title role. One laughed every time they stole the stage. A bit like the two girls in Carmen. Talent indeed.  

second set

Of the solos – and there some very good or very acceptable singers in the cast – the star was, inevitably and as it has to be, Manon herself. Katie Gibson could walk on to and star in one of the Music Colleges (London, Manchester, Glasgow) productions tomorrow. But more than that. She deserves to walk on to the professional stage. Her singing was absolutely sensational. Her top notes – coloratura if one could call it that – amazing. Her precision miraculous, her poignancy obvious.

She too could apparently scarcely act (hands by her sides most of the time; perhaps believably aged 15; and her anxiety on the prospect of meeting Des Grieux’s father was well done). Most especially, what charm and Mimi-like innocence she unveiled at every turn. This is a soloist one could take very seriously indeed.

One special delight – credit to Massenet – is the way she revealed (often) how the composer folds recitative, or a kind of 19th century quasi-recit., into arias: it feels amazingly natural, and avoids the stop-start of many operas of that and earlier composers. Puccini or Leoncavallo would be obvious near-equivalents.

The male roles have a lot to do, quite a hive of activity, and of course the besotted des Grieux (no Christian name, even in the original) matters the most. A jolly good, indeed (as in Puccini’s) a beautiful, tenor is called for. And Ferdinand Clarke really nearly achieved that. The voice, one felt, was not yet completely developed. Yet its potential was impressive. Only in the church scene did he slightly waver – fractionally above, marginally below, the note: nothing seriously to worry about. It happens. In Manon his high notes especially managed to hit the spot virtually every time. Almost as if falsettoing once or twice, yet pretty clearly he was carrying off every bit of high tessitura as a tenor. An enjoyable, warm sound, pleasant delivery, and a considerable ability to show the pain and pathos of obsession.

Both the instant falling in love and the death at the end seemed fairly ludicrous.  Not the fault of anyone here, of course, but entirely that of Massenet, and the more sentimental bits of the Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille libretto (Meilhac’s more successful achievements were with Ludovit Halévy for Offenbach). Yet if Manon falls into any category, it is of course the love affair of a woman doomed (Mimi, Violetta Valéry = La Traviata). It offers little scope for evolution or elaboration, to either a performer or a Director. Perhaps the Abbé (Antoine-François) Prévost’s novel (1731) does have that leisure and space. The opera scenes – five Acts, there’s room enough - badly need stretching out; the emerging of any kind of seriously explored passion was given short shrift. Infatuation, yes. Exploration, intuition, consideration, was scant.

Clarke is not yet a great actor, either. Given little to do that might differentiate him, few original gestures, no alteration in the moves, no facial tics, he was left more or less to his own. He was not alone. The same disadvantage and absence was visible in almost all the other principal roles – Lescaut, Morfontaine, Brétigny. Yet that’s not the whole story. At the outset, one found Noah Jones’ Morfontaine alive and believably manipulative. Things looked good. Even more so with the first scene where Manon’s cousin, Lescaut (Brendan Bennett) advises, and all but confronts the confused girl. He’s got it, one thought. And at several stages Bennett proved he did have it in him to impress (vocally, too). But then the non-development cited above took over. Do the characters evolve? Maybe not. But it behoves the team to find a way to make them do so. Just as Manon was static – not that it mattered too much, she’s trapped, and bewildered – the others became proved emotionally static. Anger and resentment - yes that was rather well done.

The one who succeeded in rising above this morasse (‘the libretto is by no means unflawed’: Grove Opera) – one might say the best depicted by the text - is that of de Brétigny. Ashley Sterland seemed to introduce some character into his role. Attentive, considerate, sympathetic, fatherly, even wise. Here at least was some sanity. And almost by chance, Massenet does indeed somehow reduce the pacing in his scenes. It was a performance, if not of greatness, of stature. Lascaut Senior (Josh Schrijnen, Philosophy student) made a very acceptable paterfamilias, nominally a bass, and a voice I rather took to - although I enjoyed his activity as the Amiens Innkeeper, and sundry other well-contrived vignettes, even more.

One of the scintillating things about Han Zhao’s conducting – and frankly there were many – was his inspired ability, from very early on, to drop the orchestra to piano (even pianissimo) from almost frenetic activity. It’s something very difficult to pull off, even with a professional orchestra: it requires a lot of shrewd controlling of, and indeed empathy with, one’s players. Of course sometimes the reverse applied, but it was these breathtaking descents into almost whispering that were especially magical. So not just a tribute to Zhao, but to his orchestral performers – every one of them – as well. And talk about a safe pair of hands. The best at Warwick, possibly, since Christian Blex (Don Giovanni, Kurt Well, Léhar and Cole Porter), who has gone on assist at the Berlin Philharmonic, no less, and its Karajan-Akademie (with Kirill Petrenko, Sakari Oramo, Christian Thielemann and Kent Nagano). As a young conductor you couldn’t go much higher than that.

I took extensive notes during the performance, and I haven’t even referred to them till now. But perhaps I’ll try adding in a few points, even if in a slightly haphazard way.

last set

Some of the small ensembles were charming: the quintet early on in the bar; a quartet whose attractive singing deserved more than the feebly static stances with which it was delivered.

Massenet’s music itself is intriguing, and as usual slightly difficult to place. In several sections (this premiere was Paris, 1884) - we could actually be IN Puccini’s version (Manon Lescaut, 1893); at others, harking back to Auber’s opera on the same subject (1856). The most obvious musical parallels might be Offenbach, 20 years older but already dead by 1884, or Fledermaus (Strauss, 1874); or hints of Carmen (just a year later, 1875). Two or three times I found myself amid harmonies and progressions that might well have been, of all people, Massenet’s near-exact contemporary, Dvořák. The dances, for example. A coincidence of course, but rather a nice feeling.

Two other items were splendid. Above all, the lighting and sound control. The lights credit shared across a trio of Saskia Jessop, Rowan Mather and Ruby Howard. Above all the technician(s) handling both. The use of the cyclorama could have been wearisome; but quite the opposite. Each of the intelligently shifting, pastel colours (beige pink, bluish, lilac, grey etc.) was hugely improved by a lower semicircle (half moon, rainbow) which seemed always apt while entirely independent. What was going on upon the back wall at least helped make up for the desultory set.  Plus, the costumes for the market scene were also great fun – possibly dug out by the cast themselves. We certainly got a glimpse of some kind of fin-de-siècle (or somewhat earlier) Paris here. The audience adored (as I did) the rather sensational, risqué yet pure navy blue dress by which Manon revealed her left shoulder. Sweet; and charming.

If one of Ferdinand Clarke’s remarkable assets was his ability to stretch up to and sustain top notes – and there were not a few – it has to be said that the baritones lacked that same facility. All the voices had that school sixth former feel: very promising, in need of close coaching at a Conservatoire, good attempts but not really arriving. The top notes unprepared, a matter of coaching. One had sympathy – they clearly did their best, and with each there were moments when a depth of voice production began to shine through. As I’ve said, their utterances, including speaking, were first class. That was the principal success of their delivery, and they each certainly helped the plot flow.

The Meads’ translation was not just excellently put across by everyone, but – as it needs – fun too. Bits of rhyming verse, some outrageously obvious (‘thinking… drinking’, etc.) were enhanced by enlivened touches, such as Noah Jones’ (Morfontaine’s) irritable impatience at the start. Tip-top enunciation all round. High praise.  

‘Come to Paris with me, you and I’ feels as drippy as the most trite of Musicals, almost a doppelgänger for the intendedly ludicrous boys’ end of term duet in Michael Campbell’s public school novel Lord Dismiss us’.    

There was one small moment which gave a hint of what should have gone into this production. Quite early on, on a bench I think, Lascaut – Manon’s rather bossy cousin (a norm in those days) – eats an apple. He ate it rather well. It gave him something to DO. If one views the apple as a prop, then what we needed was more props, or diversions.

I don’t think any of the boys, or Manon herself, ever scratched their nose, or picked up any other objet, or dandled something from their fingers. No one switched on a standard lamp, or lit a gaslight (or its equivalent those days – church candles, possibly – unless Des Grieux’s prêtre did). If there was a chapeau, I don’t recall anything being done with it. One should mention the card table, and game: that was quite finely enacted.

Nobody stumbled, farted, used a stick convincingly, or leapt for joy (except that Morfontaine’s excitability did of itself (all credit) add something to the visual pacing). Entries were feeble, or basic (even the father’s). The best, actually, were two momentary appearances by a white-aproned maid. Surely this won’t do. On the whole, there was a breathtaking lack of invention. Verging on dullness.

There was one signal exception: Manon’s death, across des Grieux’s knee, was incredibly original. The body went limp, the life simply left her. Almost a dead ringer for Henry Wallis’s stupendous painting ‘The Death of Chatterton’. If this was a collusion of actress and Director, but essentially the latter’s creation, it was a massive success. Brilliant.

I should have mentioned the outwardly entrancing brown-clad dancers – from a course at Warwick, so specialists. The friend I was with, maybe a better judge than I, thought the dance element rather good, so I should record her reaction here. Another moan, I’m afraid. I thought it was dull, repetitive, so lacking creativity one might have thought them actresses trying, not wholly adequately, to dance. Even when they supplied, supposedly, an uplift to a few sections of orchestral interlude, I found them intrusive. It may have been there, but I couldn’t descry any relevance at all to any specific place in the story. Bringing in dance was not a bad, even a brave, idea. But oh dear, it only made a plodding story more plodding. It added – nothing. 

I never understand why Opera Warwick, who year on year make such an impact with opera in English (often a headache for an audience, but never here at Warwick), use microphones. Strangely, there seemed an imbalance, as (I may be wrong) it sounded very much as if frontstage was miked, but not further back. You can tell, of course, because unamplified singing comes clearly from the stage, while that with microphones comes from speakers high up at front left and front right of the audience. In a way Musical-like, it seems to me to be almost patronising the audience. The three girls didn’t need it, front or backstage. But how are other young Warwick Opera singers supposed to develop their projection if they don’t need to?

Roderic Dunnett


Opera Warwick

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