L’arlesiana ~ Opera Holland Park

Star rating: ****

Francesco Cilea’s L’arlesiana is an Opera I wasn’t at all familiar with prior to my glorious trip to Opera Holland Park at the weekend. However, the cast de force had put it on my radar and the performances given in the intense, powerful three act Opera have cemented it as one of my favourite Operatic experiences to date.

Sung in Italian with English surtitles, it wasn’t initially easy to follow, however once the tale took off and the intricacy of the relationships between the central characters unfolded, I was hooked. The story revolves around Federico (Samuel Sakker) and indeed his mother’s world centres around him too, that’s Rosa Mamai (Yvonne Howard), she’s obsessed with her eldest son and his happiness. She has a younger Son too, L’innocente (Samantha Price) and he is dismissed as a simpleton, even though he’s usually hovering on the edge of the action – listening and learning. Baldassare (Keel Watson) is the wise friend everyone seeks out for advice, akin to Old Deuteronomy from Cats, he’s always there to help and has the respect of his friends. Federico is in love with a girl from Arles, she has bewitched him and even his Uncle Marco (James Cleverton) approves of his choice. However, all is not as it seems, it takes a visit from jealous love rival, Metifio (Simon Wilding) to bring Federico to the realisation that his love from Arles is not true to him. Meanwhile, Vivetta (Fflur Wyn), whom Federico has known for years, really is in love with him and Rosa Mamai is keen that she be the distraction her son needs in his hour of anguish.

It’s a rollercoaster, the build up and pace occasionally slow – however the good, bad and ugly elements of love are dealt with in detail. The tale cleverly lulls the watcher into a false sense of security as it appears that Federico’s head has been turned, Metifio is off the scene and Rosa Mamai believes her pride and joy is happy…

The set instantly transported me to a quaint farmyard, it was such a simple design yet provided maximum effect and fit the period superbly. The Opera Holland Park Chorus were a tight ensemble adding an extra dimension to the seven-strong cast. Samuel Sakker has an extraordinary voice, he gave a passionate, pained and well-balanced performance as the love-torn, pampered son. Samantha Price gave a beautifully engaging and nuanced performance as his young brother, I saw her play Iolanthe for English National Opera and she never fails to impress me. Keel Watson was a strong and confident presence in the role of Baldassare and James Cleverton was suave with an instantaneous air of confidence as Marco. Fflur Wyn wowed as Vivetta – such powerfully stunning vocals and the acting ability to match. Simon Wilding is a performer whom I am familiar with and he cut a menacing figure as Metifio. Stealing the production as the doting, obsessive mother – Yvonne Howard as Rosa Mamai. Not only did her vocals match the splendour of her heart-wrenching performance, the raw emotion she delivered in every nuance resonated. You could hear a pin drop during her act three aria.

Towards the close of the second act I found myself so entranced by the action on stage that my glance left the English surtitles while I got caught up in the emotion. It’s an Opera I’d be happy to watch again, however I will always remember my first viewing in such amazing surroundings. If you want to book your tickets to see it for yourself, follow the link: operahollandpark.com/productions/larlesiana/

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Beecham House ~ Feature Article

The ‘Delhi Downton’ has closed its doors, which means that Sunday nights will be a little dull now that Beecham House is no longer filling a prime time spot. However, the good news is that its available to purchase on DVD. Did you watch the series? What were your thoughts? Were you as gripped as I was? Here’s my review of what became a must-watch for me:

Photo Credits ITV

Gurinder Chadha’s Beecham House grabbed my attention from the opening scene, it was fairly obvious that one of the main actors in the show was not going to die – however the fact that John Beecham (Tom Bateman) was shot in opening scenes had me on the edge of my seat from the outset. Three years later and we see that Mr Beecham has not succumbed to his wound and arrives at a spectacular Delhi Mansion with a half-cast baby in tow whom he appears paternal towards. In India in the late 18th century, the period in which the series is set, France and England were battling it out to reign supreme. This historical undercurrent runs through the whole series.

Beecham certainly appears to have an eye for the ladies, and he’s already been established as a heroic figure having saved a group of rich Indians from bandits in the opening sequence. His past career involves working for the East India Company where his brother Daniel (Leo Suter) is still a Soldier – however what he’s looking for now is to trade.

Beecham is also keenly aware of his mother’s imminent arrival, the bold and forthright Henrietta Beecham who has travelled all the way from England to stay at Beecham House having not seen her son for years. Lesley Nicol plays her and is predictably superb as the meddling matchmaker. Bessie Carter (daughter of Jim Carter (yes that’s Mr Carson from Downton Abbey) and the multi-talented Imedla Staunton) plays Henrietta’s companion, Violet and she’s got her heart set on a proposal of marriage from Beecham – although that does not appear to be forthcoming. Especially as he also has another beautiful lady on his radar, Governess, Margaret Osbourne (Dakota Blue Richards).

The scenery is breath-taking, the costumes are eye-catchingly spectacular and the casting is on point. Twists, turns and all the ingredients for a watchable period drama and its easy to see why the Downton reference is made. Enjoy it, it’s a treat indeed.

Here are a few words from cast members Tom Bateman and Lesley Nicol:

Tom Bateman

What attracted you to the role?

For me it always comes down to script and characters. I was sent the first three scripts and I really wanted to know what happened next. I got very invested in all the characters. There’s a great line that John says which is, ‘I’m not here to build walls’ and I thought the idea of working with two very different cultures would be very interesting.

Why is John Beecham so appealing to play?

I’ve never played a character with so much weight to him, and that appealed to me straight away. My characters are normally quite energetic, but John is very strong, quite hard and you don’t really know who he is at first. He internalises, he’s a man of mystery. He’s got a baby but there’s no mother and he doesn’t tell anybody anything about that, which instantly makes you think something’s going on because otherwise why wouldn’t he just tell people who the baby’s mother is? He’s inherently a very good man who’s trying to do the right thing, but he’s been through the wars. He’s also very forward-thinking. He left the East India Company because he didn’t agree with the way they did things which, at the time, was very bold. A lot of people just went along with it and didn’t question it but he refused to be part of it. For someone to stand up against the norm makes them very intriguing to me.

Is the series an ensemble piece?

It’s called Beecham House and there are quite a few Beechams – me, my mum, my brother, plus the wonderful Bessie [Carter] who plays a family friend, [Violet Woodhouse]. There are lots of other characters associated with the house, who are inspiring to work alongside. What I loved about it was that we all had great stories. Even characters who have slightly smaller roles in terms of being on screen, they have a falling-in-love story or a political story. Every moment they appear is very rich. Nobody was sitting there going, ‘I wish I was in it a bit more’. It was wonderful.

What’s John’s relationship like with his family?

He’s being pulled in lots of different directions by lots of different people: his mum, his brother, a love interest or two! Just give the guy a break! He starts the series on his own, and by the end things have changed a lot. He thought he’d lost his brother forever, he hadn’t seen his mother for years, he was very independent, then they all come together again.

What do you think viewers like about period drama?

They look beautiful, they’re very rich in composition. You’re instantly in another world. And horses! You don’t get to see horses that often. But for me, the reason I love filming period dramas, is that they instantly make you act differently. People don’t talk about their feelings as much. They don’t say, ‘Oh, I really fancy you’. And you don’t touch each other. So you have to find another way of expressing those feelings which is really fun. There was a scene in Vanity Fair in which Olivia [Cooke] and I can’t say how we feel, because it wasn’t done, but my character is going to [the Battle of] Waterloo and it was so rich and dramatic. You’re torn between what you want to say and what you’re allowed to say. And it oozes sexiness because you’re watching and going, ‘God, just kiss her!’ It’s like Mr Darcy and Lizzy Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. You know they’re going to get together but it takes six hours of anticipation to get there.

Lesley Nicol

What was it about the character of Henrietta that attracted you to the role?

It was a number of things, actually. I was very attracted to the fact it was a different kind of role for me. This character gave me something meaty and very different from what I’ve been doing. I absolutely love India. I did a movie there ten years ago called West is West, so to go back was a huge draw. Gurinder was another big draw and I knew they were getting top people on board for cast and crew, and it’s ITV primetime, so what’s not to like! It was a lovely thing to land on the doorstep.

Who is Henrietta?

She’s John’s mother. On the face of it she’s a very respectable, god-fearing, upper middle class woman, very conservative. She comes over to India on a very long boat trip with her companion Violet who’s played by Bessie Carter. They have this hideous journey and when they arrive they’re completely poleaxed because everything is so foreign to them.

What’s Henrietta’s relationship like with Violet?

Well Violet is unmarried and desperate to find a husband. She’s the daughter of a dear friend and so Henrietta asked her to come along as her companion and Violet does that very well. They play cards together and have a very good relationship. But the bottom line is that Violet does want a husband and as far as Henrietta is concerned, John is a very good-looking and a kind man with a certain amount of wealth with an amazing house, so she’s very much hoping to position John and Violet together so that they eventually get married and come back to England.

It appears that John has secrets at Beecham House?

When they arrive they’re introduced to Margaret Osborne [played by Dakota Blue Richards]. They don’t know who Margaret is but she looks very settled in his company and they think, ‘hang on a minute!’ So they’re not very nice to Margaret. Then other women turn up and there’s a baby and they’re very confused about who’s who and what’s what.


Is John pleased to be reunited with his mother?

They haven’t seen each other for 12 years so he’s totally different from last time she saw him. He’s older, wiser. She has two sons and they’re both in India. There’s definitely a base love that they all have for each other. But Henrietta is challenging, there’s no doubt about it, and he’s not been quite ready to tell her everything that’s going on in his life when she turns up. She has to try and deal with all of this information and she’s not easy to be around because the whole experience has thrown her so much.

What’s happened to John’s father?

He was a bad’un and got taken to Australia. He was a gambler and a drinker. He gets mentioned occasionally but he’s absent so there’s a sadness there because she was left on her own which was awful in those days. Her brother took her in, then he died. So that’s one of the reasons for coming to India, as she’s all alone.

What are Henrietta’s character traits?

She is tough, but she’s from a very narrow world. And suddenly she’s in a household with dozens of servants, the food’s all wrong, she gets bitten by mosquitos, she will not wear anything cooler even though it’s baking hot. It’s a different religion, it’s all completely foreign to her. But what’s nice about this character and the arc of her journey is that she does learn and adjust.

Did you do any research into the politics of the time?

I did actually because I didn’t know this period. It’s earlier than I’m used to. I read quite a lot, I did a bit of digging because I wanted to know what it would have been like for her. There weren’t many white women in India at that time. The white men often formed liaisons with Indian women so Henrietta was the outsider in every sense really. I found the political element quite fascinating. About the East India Company and the corruption and the bad behaviour of that time. John Beecham is trying to form a business, but he finds it hard because everyone is terribly suspicious and there are people trying to derail him. But what I like about this series is that all the characters are on a journey. Henrietta and Violet are. The staff in the house are because they have this man turn up who they don’t know and it changes their household completely. Everybody is having a major shift, whoever they are.

Beecham House is drawing comparisons with Downton Abbey, partly because it’s about the servants as much as the landlord of the house. What do you think about that?

People are comparing it but I don’t think it’s any more comparable than that really. It’s a different period, a different country. It’s a house with servants and people upstairs but it’s a whole different tone, a whole different feel to it.

Make sure you get your hands on a copy of Beecham House on DVD, it’s gripping viewing and was released on 22nd July.

Annie ~ Birmingham Hippodrome

Star rating: *****

I’ve seen Annie many times, I first fell in love with the movie when I was 6 years old so I know the show inside out. This was the first time my little boy (aged 5) had been introduced to it and it has certainly left an impression on him for all the right reasons.

The show follows a straight forward story of an orphanage, badly run and homing little orphan Annie who is convinced that she is special because she isn’t an orphan and her folks are still alive, due to come for her at any time. That’s due to the broken locket she wears around her neck and a note that states they will be back for her and they have kept the other half of the locket. The fortunes of the spunky little girl are set to take a turn for the better when she coerces Billionaire, Oliver Warbucks’ secretary, Grace into choosing her to be taken under their roof for the festive season. This big adventure occurs despite the meddling of Orphanage Manager, Miss Hannigan – she’s rotten through and through but perhaps not so clever and conniving as her brother Rooster and his latest ‘moll’ Lily St Regis (named after the hotel!). It’s a race against time with the help of President Roosevelt no less, to stop the wicked trio from scuppering Annie’s chances of adoption.

The songs from the musical score are superb and timeless, from ‘It’s the Hard-Knock Life’ to ‘Easy Street’ to ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile’ – they’re toe-tapping numbers you can’t help singing along to.

This particular production is spectacular, the set is stunning and fits the era beautifully. Scene changes are seamless and the ensemble are a well-oiled machine in their timings. The orphans are a delight, all with belting voices and surely big careers ahead of them in years to come.

Freya Yates is a perfect choice for the title role, she brought heart, soul and oomph to the part of Annie. She had lovely chemistry with Alex Bourne who cut a dashing figure as Oliver Warbucks. Carolyn Maitland was gentility itself as the secretary who steals Warbucks’ heart, Grace Farrell. Richard Meek gives an energetic, sly and slippery performance as Rooster, Miss Hannigan’s jailbird brother – he simpers and plots with Jenny Gayner as Lily St Regis. Gayner is a terrific choice for the role, I’d seen her step into the spotlight as Annie in the Calendar Girls musical in the West End and she was a sensation then – she is exceptional as Lily. Stealing the show just ever so slightly though, is the fantastic Jodie Prenger as Miss Hannigan. I’ve seen many actors play the role and no-one is a patch on her. From the comic timing, the facial expressions and interaction with the juvenile performers, to the show-stopping performance of ‘Little Girls’ and ‘Easy Street’. Prenger has to be seen to be believed, she is flawless – the best Hannigan ever.

With three weeks to catch this fabulous production at Birmingham Hippodrome, I whole-heartedly suggest you beg, borrow or steal a ticket (Rooster will help you out!). With all of the uncertainty in the world we live in, a show full of hope is just what’s needed.

Book your tickets here: Birmingham_Hippodrome

Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom Live ~ The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

Star rating ****

Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom has long been a television favourite of my 5 year old son’s so the opportunity to see the characters brought to life on stage was too good to miss.

With a set which was instantly recognisable as the famous Little Kingdom and most of the popular characters acting out engaging stories for the small audience members – it is a great introduction to theatre for young ones. All of the characters are played by actors which was a big draw for my little boy, although he did enjoy the transition to puppets later on in the story. Gaston the ladybird was quite realistic too as he was ably manoeuvred around the stage by his cast-mates!

Ben, Holly, Nanny Plum, King Thistle, The Wise Old Elf and Lucy are all at the heart of the tales. There’s a story about Gaston’s cave and Nanny Plum’s on her tooth fairy mission, meanwhile there’s King Thistle’s birthday party to plan! There’s plenty of audience participation and we’re still singing some of the songs at home now.

One criticism would be that the characters are not voiced by the original actors, and this was spotted by several audience members including my son. Nanny Plum is usually voiced by the same actress as voices Miss Rabbit in Peppa Pig, so her voice is distinctive.

However, if your child loves the show on TV then make sure you book your tickets to see Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom open up before your eyes, it’s a treat! Ben & Holly Live

The Turn of the Screw ~ Garsington Opera

Star rating: *****

An astoundingly, intense, powerful and thought-provoking piece – The Turn of the Screw (music by Benjamin Britten, Libretto by Myfanwy Piper, after the story by Henry James) is making its presence known at Garsington this season and it’s a glory to behold. Conducted by Richards Farnes, the Garsington Opera Orchestra accompany the dark, twisting mystery, shrouded by the spectacular natural light that filters in through the spacious auditorium.

The story, directed meticulously by Louisa Muller, is based around the new Governess entrusted with the care of two children by their guardian and uncle. The uncle, by all accounts would like nothing more to do with his young charges and therefore passes all responsibility to the rather ‘green’ young lady. However, despite first impressions indicating that the young ones are enjoying a normal childhood, playing with toys and going to school – it soon becomes clear that there are dark forces at play. It’s a race against time for the poor young Governess and the bewildered Mrs Grose as the children’s innocence is gradually stolen before their eyes.

From the costumes, to the lighting design (kudos to Malcolm Rippeth), the atmosphere is overt from the outset with an eerie sense of foreboding underpinning the tale as it unfolds. Ed Lyon articulately conveys the prologue before deftly transforming into the devil of the piece, Peter Quint. His vocal ability is remarkable and lends itself to such a strong, assured character as the late Peter Quint. Likewise Sophie Bevan is in splendid voice as The Governess whose innocence will be tainted and whose mission is thwarted from the start. Kathleen Wilkinson gives a steady, measured performance as the mithering housekeeper, Mrs Grose. As the lately departed Miss Jessel, Katherine Broderick makes a subtle entrance through the lake – almost fading into insignificance which seemingly reflects the way that Peter Quint eventually made her feel. However, when Broderick starts to sing it’s quite a moment, her connection with the character was beautifully formed. Adrianna Forbes-Dorant as Flora and Leo Jemison as Miles should both be congratulated on flawless performances as the disturbed children at the heart of the tale. Most certainly two names to watch out for in the future.

The set is magnificent, offering plenty of doors for deeds of darkness and shadows as well as the previously mentioned lake which takes more of a central place in act two. The silence of the surrounding grounds added to the building tension and intensity – Garsington is the perfect place for such a piece.

I would liken the experience of watching this Opera for the first time, to sitting before a brilliant thriller at the cinema, such is the draw and grip of the story and the resplendent music. The notes written within the score could tell a story of their own, they are so much more than incidental. Britten is a genius and has created a musical masterpiece which the whole creative team and cast at Garsington in turn have down proud. Don’t miss it, book now before it finishes on 19th July! Garsingtonopera.org

Charlie Carter ~ Every Ounce of Love (Album Review)

Charlie Carter has released another Jazz album – it’s called ‘Every Ounce of Love’ and in my humble opinion it’s another triumph from the man with a unique sound that’s a must-listen! Released digitally on 27 June 2019 download it now Every Ounce Of Love

In the meantime, here’s my thoughts on a few of the tracks from this musical masterpiece:

‘Every Ounce of Love’ – the title track packs a punch and sets the tone for the tracks that follow. ‘Wedding Bells Are Gonna Chime’ makes me smile and has a feel-good factor to it. ‘Decide’ is one of my favourites, the melody and musicality appeal to me. ‘Turn Off The News’ feels very current and relevant and the beat is catchy and easy to get along with. Those Three Little Words stands out lyrically and has a familiarity to it.

There are collaborations with other artists too, notably Siubhan Harrison and Odette Adams who are a joy to hear. Frances Eva Lea features on a track called ‘Something Changed’ and her vocals lend an extra dimension of sound to an already engaging piece.

All the tracks tell a story and there’s a defined linear throughout the whole album. It’s one of the best compilations of original music I’ve listened to this year.

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