This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
In staging an operatic showcase where the chorus is the star, Welsh National Opera is surely playing to its strengths. Coupled with a fluidly dramatic set design, thrilling costumes and a guest soloist in the form of soprano Lesley Garrett, WNO’s chorus shows why it has so often been the highlight of previous productions.
What at first appears to be a diverse selection of pieces – ranging from Wagner to Weill – at second glance has more coherence. Themes emerge as Prokofiev’s celebration of patriotic identity crystallises into the murderous lynch mob of Peter Grimes, intent on destruction at all costs. In the late Johan Engels’ stunning design, black costumes are gashed with red scarves, the blood of the dying in Verdi’s Macbeth Murderers’ Chorus dissolving into the Communist red of the workers in his Anvil Chorus. Following this is the cumulative power of massed voices heard quietly in the enchanting Hush, No More from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and the Humming Chorus of Madama Butterfly.
Some of the pieces, by contrast, are less successful. Verdi’s Rataplan from La Forza del Destino (which also introduces Garrett to the audience) strikes a jarring, comedically strained note, while the sequence encompassing the vices of the night (The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky and Weill’s Alabama Song) is uneasily centred on a boxing match. Elvis, played by dancer Chris Tudor, makes an appearance at a wedding. Yes, it is very much tongue-in-cheek, but it also feels under-powered with some of Garrett’s lower register being drowned by the orchestra.
Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of a squad of policemen seduced in their locker room by Carmen’s cigarette smoking factory girls. This delicious scene is a feast for both eyes and ears, as a languid hand emerges from behind the locker room door to plant a cigarette in a dazed policeman’s mouth. This time the comedic note is exactly right in A Policeman’s Lot from The Pirates of Penzance, followed by the vision of Garrett, languishing on a sofa resembling a pair of red velvet lips suspended from the ceiling, in Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann.
This resurgence continues after the interval. A surreal staging of Les Voici from Carmen which includes The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, Andy Warhol and a teasing striptease by Tudor gives way to Garrett emerging in a nun’s habit in Verdi’s La Vergine Degli Angeli. Wrapped in a blue sheet, Tudor transforms into an angel with a cheeky nod to the audience, who are fully aware that only seconds before he was cavorting around devil-may-care in only his scarlet underpants.
The WNO orchestra, conducted by Alexander Martin, is as faultless as ever throughout and the chorus prove their versatility – if it were in any doubt – with a rendition of Handel’s Messiah, followed by Musorgsky’s Wailing Chorus from Khovanshchina. After Garrett’s tour de force, The Impossible Dream, the conclusion is a rousing finale of Candide’s Make Our Garden Grow.
For all the fluidity of the choreography, there is a slight feeling by the end of having overdosed on a feast of fine snacks rather than a truly substantial three course meal. Yet Chorus! is a great taster menu of operatic possibilities and there is also the refreshing satisfaction of the chorus being placed centre stage. This last currently scheduled performance of this production, which combines with The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel to form WNO’s Spellbound programme, undoubtedly provides an entertaining evening for opera lovers and newcomers alike.
Reviewed on 8th April 2015. Picture courtesy of WNO.