Industrial strength opera

cast of Ice Break

Cast and audience mingle - but which is which?

The Ice Break

Birmingham Opera

B12 Warehouse

*****

(A live webcast (free live stream) of Birmingham Opera’s The Ice Break can be seen online at 8.00 p.m. on Thursday 9 April – stream opens 7.30 pm - at https://ice.eventapp.eu/ )

 

IT’S easy to imagine that Sir Michael Tippett would have loved this production of one of his least-known operas.

Graham Vick has made it his speciality to present opera in extraordinary, cavernous venues across Birmingham – disused warehouses, studios, factories – where the very ambience suggests failing fortunes, a sense of uselessness, darkened corners – where there is ample room for ladders and long raised slopes and claustrophic stages dotted around to suggest the hopes and desolation of central characters.

So it was with the so-called B12 Warehouse here. The Ice Break is Tippett’s shortest opera, and perhaps the least performed. What the power of this production, played from the fabulous, explosive introduction by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under the skilfully understated conducting of Andrew Gourlay, revealed is just what a superbly crafted score it is, and how well the disparate characters are painted.

A large yellow imitation Airport flight timetable, and other airport advertising (plane images, ‘Welcome to Birmingham’) greets the eye as you enter. A conversation is going on between mother (Nadia) and son (Yuri) who are awaiting the return of the long-imprisoned father, just released from a prison camp.

It is during this first scene that two or three things become obvious: the singing, not just of these two (Nadine Benjamin, the Royal Academy’s Ross Ramgobin) but of the entire brilliantly chosen cast proved top-notch.

The characterisation was vital and believable. And the enunciation was such that – remarkable in so large a venue, but crucial for such a wordy opera (the composer’s own libretto) – levit was easily superior to many leading permanent companies.

The absorbing intensity continues when Yuri’s girlfriend, Gayle (Stephanie Corley) arrives: strong, vigorous, lucid singing, before an unfortunate new arrival, Olympion, the athletic ‘champion of the world’ turns up (a highly effective, outrageously drawn-out, gradual entry devised by Graham Vick to match Tippett’s spaciousness) and lures Gayle away – pronouncing confidently his black credentials (most of this immensely strong cast is ethnic origin), bigoted and self-satisfied; a sort of modern Escamillo.

They will both come croppers: for now a fight breaks out amongst the magnificently and carefully-marshalled chorus, supported by a smaller high-quality vocal chorus, trained by Jonathan Laird: the latter utterly professional in sound and delivery, its proclamations always one of the high points.

Andrew Slater as the disillusioned Lev, released from the Gulag

During these outbursts and marches and banner-waving and all-out fighting, with police and yellow-clad minders and paramedics, one might argue that from opera to opera the Vick treatment gets a little repetitive; rather like a parody of himself. Yet the impact is always terrific: somehow they nearly always work. Some of the chorus were black (or black and yellow) masked, as Tippett specifies. You never quite know what they’re complaining about; but you always sort of know, and invariably they win your interest and sympathy.

We are awaiting the arrival of the released Lev (Andrew Slater) and he does not disappoint. Slater is one of the most congenial figures on the UK opera stage; he deploys not a domineering voice, but one of the most pleasant baritone sounds to be heard in especially provincial companies England-wide. He also, always, brings an attractive personality to bear. Vick varies the repertoire from classical (Idomeneo, Don Giovanni, Fidelio, Il ritorno d’Ulysse) to imaginative modern repertoire; one of those (along with Britten’s Curlew River, or Stephen Oliver’s Beauty and the Beast) was Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, in which Slater’s appearance as the tutor, Dr. Pangloss, was one of the highlights.

Lev’s long delayed reconciliation with Nadia is tender, warm and moving, especially Nadine Benjamin’s rapturous response and welcome: you sense she really has not seen him for the 20 years he’s been cooped up in the gulag - a prison camp. Just as mesmerising is Nadia’s later solo piece – aching, yearning and intensely beautiful

No less impressive is Chrystal E. Williams, who sings Gayle’s friend, the empathetic nurse, Hannah. An essential feature of The Ice Break is that Tippett provides almost each singer with at least one soliloquy; possibly more: a long, expressive aria in which their personal anxieties or hopes are allowed to unfold, or their particular dilemma is explored.

Williams’s Hannah, prised away from her fondness for boisterous Olympion by the hyperactive and judgmental chorus, treats us to some of the most tender and touching moments, not least in her profound yearnings before tragedy strikes. The sound is wonderful. It’s a lovely, deep, resonant mezzo voice to listen to; she was certainly one of the highlights of the evening.

But if Williams’s gorgeous, beguiling virtual contralto timbres move one to the core, the two tenors were a revelation too. Ta’u Pupu’a, a Polynesian from Tonga, was heard in the United States by Kiri te Kanawa, who was the driving force behind him earning a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York.

His career has blossomed since that lucky chance. He’s a big presence, muscular, strong, dominant, a driving personality that proved just perfect for this strutting peacock of a character, showing off his wares in a fiery-coloured cloak like a Shakespeare comedian, as the amorous Olympion.

The sound is a Nadiabig one too, a big, meaty voice that would cope comfortably with Wagner or Verdi. And he is so in control of the tenor range – high, low, medium – that one gets a thrill from hearing him in full flow. It’s not just a weighty sound; it’s an alluring one.

The other tenor, a really appealing one, is Luke, a doctor whose medical contribution comes late on. John-Colyn Gyeantey is a British tenor with an especially gorgeous high tessitura. At the opposite end of the scale, he exudes lyricism, and produces a sound that is both natural and hugely expressive. He has a handsome portfolio of roles in Italian opera behind him, and has understudied for ENO and WNO and taken leads for ENO and ETO.

Nadine Benjamin as Lev's delightful wife, Nadia, remembers the past

Gyeantey acts attractively and empathetically, so the expressive nature of the medic and his attentiveness were beautifully characterised. From one of the smaller parts, amiably directed by Vick, he generates one of the most sympathetic characters of all. He too was also a pleasure every time he sang: a beautiful sound.

It’s in the nature of a Tippett opera (New Year or The Knot Garden, for instance) that the plot may appear complex and elusive, the changing situation testing or problematic, and the characters’ thoughts and elusive reflections difficult to follow. It’s a credit to this well-managed production – and the quality of delivery - that as much, with certain meandering exceptions, came across lucidly. Partly the soliloquies contributed here – by definition an aria or solo recitative is more followable, the narrative clearer: you got the gist and could trace quite easily the doubts and the Angsts of the cast, just as you could, last year, with the vigorously declaimed politicised characters of BOC’s Mussorgsky opera, Khovanshchina.

That that should be true of the big ensembles – lead roles intermingled with chorus, or chorus alone – speaks reams for Vick’s team management, and to that of his (and Laird’s) hardworking charges. There is always something traditionally frenetic about a Vick staging, which makes them huge fun, often cascading across wide spaces, yet also, catching you unexpectedly, sometimes the reverse – intimate and compacted in some secreted corner - with non-singing chorus hurtling here and there, in one session fleeing armed with a welter of suitcases, and inevitably gathering up the audience in its wake.

It happens when Ramgobin’s Yuri, magnificently, incites them to riot. The result is that if you’re observing, you are thoroughly wrapped up and involved: the action, or some of it, is going on all around you; a wonderful, full-scale Bacchanale, at one point; but as important, the atmosphere is impinging too; the desperation, the anxiety, the rebelliousness imprint themselves and gather you in their wake. The effort this drum beat-driven chorus puts into following instructions and getting it just right is, invariably, a marvel to behold.

It doesn’t take long in a Tippett opera – or any Tippett work - for the spirit of the dance to make itself felt. This explodes around us after Nadia’s splendid first aria: there is a kind of electricity unique to Tippett, fired up in orchestral works or string quartets by his additive rhythms; here in Ice Break not quite so much, yet it here still achieves that quality of ‘swing’ he was so keen (along with blues) to express himself by. There are also delicious hints, here and there, of orientalism in the orchestra.

The orchestral detail of a Tippett score always induces wonder; and with a full-sized CBSO here it - 40 strings, plus 34 other players, a complement of 74 - all comes through. An extraordinary wafting of bass clarinet, peering through the entire vocal chorus; some spectacular use of low utterance in all departments – strings, woodwind and latterly brass, yet carefully restrained by Gourlay, and so beautifully subtle and haunting. The brass in full flair is indeed almost Wagnerian; but often used unexpectedly. There are several interludes, some of them brief: one for violin solo and oboe, for instance, strikingly plaintive.

The low strings are especially expressive, including one scintillating passage for the four double basses, ushering in Nadia, again hugely expressive; and a cello solo from leader Eduardo Vassallo spoke reams. The tuned percussion worked overtime, bringing insistent, proclamatory (rather than subliminal) sounds to bear, endlessly varied, perfectly calibrated. At one particular surge the entire orchestra captured the flavour of a Bach-like chorus, quite distinct from the choral passages that surround it, an element of parody Tippett can kind of switch on benignly at will.

The closing stages were particularly good: the harp-accompanied sad lament of Slater’s Lev; his appeal to Nadia to ‘wait for me in Paradise’, which forms a separate section of the opera; the ministrations of the doctor and of Hannah, now clearly a nurse; the self-stripping and cleansing of Yuri, Ross Ramgobin here superbly passionate in the role. Why we are faced with three orange-clad figures awaiting Isis-type beheadings at the end is a bit baffling; it felt fractionally gratuitous.

The whole opera was played out on a typical Vick-type set of blazoned adverts, movable platforms with a team of efficient attendants, and precariously ascendable slopes. One result is that parts of the opera is sung roughly at an angle, creating a kind of surreal effect. Stuart Nunn, the designer, not only caught the dramatic flavour and impact of all this, but served up some finely judged costumes – the grey attire for Nadia being one of the most effective, and those for Yuri and Olympion especially fertile in catching the imagination. The younger girls’ outfits were more plain: perhaps they needed more flair – though Hannah could scarcely be dressed in anything other than nurses’ ward green.

What makes Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company productions so vital, almost exhaustingly explosive, and different, apart from the quality of every department – direction, orchestra, performers – is the venue itself.

Performing in a vast, gaping industrial space with a cast of hundreds and every aspect of the narrative blown up by extras to a breathtakingly vast scale, yet preserving elements of intimacy, is a bracingly exciting experience in itself. So great is the achievement, professionals and hyperactive amateurs alike, that one can only gasp in admiration. The electricity generated is massive. Every production one has seen in these bizarre capacious locations has been charged with excitement, with orchestra, cast and chorus generating vast electricity. ‘One of the best three things I’ve seen in the last year’ I heard one knowledgeable punter. Some compliment. Long may it continue! To 09-14-15

Roderic Dunnett 

http://www.birminghamopera.org.uk/

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