What do you do with a work that is almost universally adored? Leave well alone is always the sensible answer and Sir Thomas Allen brings his traditional, no-nonsense 2010 production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro to the stage again for Scottish Opera.
Anna Devin and Ben McAteer as Susanna and Figaro
If this were a beauty contest, then Simon Higlett’s 18th Century, pastel-hued, chocolate box design and Mark Jonathan’s atmospheric lighting would together make it a hands-down winner, however, looks alone don’t make for a successful production. At three hours fifteen minutes, the audience needs more than a pretty set to occupy it.
Hanna Hipp as Cherubino, Eleanor Dennis as Countess Almaviva and Anna Devin as Susanna
While there are more than a few standout moments there are as many lulls. The comedy largely falls flat, except when the laughs are wrung out of the audience through some broad comic acting and some of the directorial/design choices lend little to the storytelling – why, for example, was the Countess’ closet door (pivotal to the plot) hidden from sight?
Eleanor Dennis as Countess Almaviva
That said there are notable highlights, Eleanor Dennis’ Countess is beautifully measured, both vocally and in dramatic delivery, Hanna Hipp, no stranger to trouser roles, is utterly convincing as randy youth Cherubino, as is Lucy Hall as the lively Barbarina. The usually reliable Ben McAteer is vocally sound as Figaro but a trifle lacklustre and Samuel Dale Johnson (Count Almaviva), while setting hearts a-flutter with his good looks, needs time for his voice to mature to fully fulfil this role. Conducted with vigour (at times, too much vigour) by Tobias Ringborg, the orchestra is in fine form throughout.
A solid, sound production, beautiful to look at with some glorious moments but not without its faults.
Runs until 22 October at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow then touring.
Born in Aberdeenshire, soprano Eleanor Dennis is a rising star in the opera world, inspiring Fiona Maddocks in The Observer to write: ‘I’m not sure if I can recall one who so obviously deserves to be a star.’ Recent appearances have included critically acclaimed portrayals of the title role in Rodelinda and Costanza Riccardo Primo (London Handel Festival), Romilda Xerxes (English Touring Opera), Contessa Le nozze di Figaro (British Youth Opera) and Fiordiligi Così fan tutte (RCM). She has also sung the title role in Francisco António de Almeida’s Ippolito at the Festival de Sablé with the Orquestra Barroca Casa da Música and Laurence Cummings and Lucio Cinna in Mozart’s Lucio Silla at Cadogan Hall with the Classical Opera Company (of which she is an Associate Artist) and Ian Page. Eleanor also recently made her debut at the English National Opera in a new production of Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress. Glasgow Theatre Blog was delighted to have the chance to ask Eleanor some questions about her career.
Can we start back at your beginnings? Tell us a bit about your background and what inspired you to become a classical singer?
Well, my mother is a professional musician – she is musical director of the Haddo House Choral & Operatic Society based in Aberdeenshire – and my household has always been very musical. I started singing in her junior choirs at the age of three, and soon graduated to being involved in their bigger scale operas as a chorus member. I just loved being a part of these productions – I used to stand in the wings and watch these amazing performers singing so beautifully, and powerfully. I definitely caught the bug then!
I’m interested to know how your talent was recognised; how does a young girl with a talent for singing take that and turn it into pursuing a career in Opera?
When I turned 15, my mum thought it would be a good idea to have some more serious lessons, so I went to the North-East of Scotland Music School in Aberdeen, and started seeing a wonderful teacher called Raimund Herincx. He soon convinced me to audition for conservatoires in London, with a view to doing an undergraduate degree – I had no idea whether I would gain a place or not, but decided to go for it anyway! My mum and I travelled down to London, I auditioned at the Royal College of Music, and was lucky enough to be offered a place on the spot. I moved to London aged 18, and haven’t looked back since.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience in training?
I had a brilliant seven years at the RCM in total – four undergraduate years, one year on the Postgraduate course, and two years in the prestigious Opera School there. I began working with an amazing teacher called Eiddwen Harrhy (who I still see regularly), and learning with her gave me the confidence and musicality I needed. I got the opportunity to play some great roles and sing with some incredibly talented people, and basically had a wonderful time.
The Pilgrim’s Process
You made your professional debut with the ENO in Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress; how did it feel to be performing in such a beautiful (and vast) venue like The Coliseum?
At first, it was a daunting prospect – but once I got settled in, it was just the best experience. It had always been a dream of mine to perform on that stage, and to get the chance was almost unbelievable!
The work of Handel seems to feature heavily on your CV; is his work a particular favourite or does it especially suit your voice?
I absolutely love singing Handel – the creativity and beauty of tone it encourages really helped me in my development as a singer. Some of the best heroines in opera appear in Handel’s works – Rodelinda, Cleopatra, Alcina – and it’s a real joy taking on a character like those. There’s an exceptional tradition for Handel in this country, and I’m very lucky to have benefitted from that. Conductor Laurence Cummings has been a tremendous support for me here.
Who are your favourite composers or what pieces do you particularly enjoy singing?
Handel! Mozart (especially Cosi fan Tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Don Giovanni), and Britten are my favourite composers – but I love singing French art song and German Lieder too.
Opera Highlights 2013
You recently completed a national tour with Scottish Opera in their 50th anniversary highlights programme. It was certainly fun to watch, was it as fun touring Scotland spreading the word about opera?
It was a brilliant two months, especially working with such talented people. It was intense, but there was non-stop laughing all the way, and we got the opportunity to see some beautiful places far off the beaten track.
What roles would you love to sing in future?
I would love to have a go at some of Richard Strauss’ prima donnas – the Marschallin, Salome – and Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Maybe one day!
What advice would you give to any young person thinking of pursuing a career in opera?
If people are encouraging you to pursue a career, listen to the advice, trust in your talent, and go for it. It’s a long process, and often difficult, but when you start reaping the rewards for all your hard work, it is more than worth it.
Finally – and don’t be modest, how would you describe your voice in three words?
Reliable, flexible and fun (sounds like a lonely hearts ad!)
“Full of energy, versatility and plenty of humour, a cast of four young singers and a pianist introduce a line-up of excerpts from well-known operas along with some surprises from lesser-known works. A favourite with audiences across Scotland, this gem of an evening has something for everyone, from seasoned fans to opera first-timers.” Scottish Opera
The programme for this year’s Opera Highlights is inspired by 50 years of Scottish Opera, featuring a winning formula of musical highlights from favourite productions over the years woven together with stories and anecdotes from the Company’s history. The cast of up-and-coming artists features Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Katie Grosset, Scottish soprano Eleanor Dennis (finalist in 2012’s Kathleen Ferrier Competition), baritone Gary Griffiths (an Associate Artist at Welsh National Opera) and Scottish tenor Nicky Spence, who is also appearing in The Magic Flute and The Flying Dutchman this season.
The talent, carefully chosen programme and staging make for a highly entertaining and engaging evening. The personalities of the singers (in particular Nicky Spence a man with a personality as big as his voice) as well as the undoubted talent, meant that the evening flew by.
There were many highlights in particular: Dennis’s affecting rendition of Oh Pale Blue Dawn from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel; Spence’s beautifully heart-rending take on Kurt Weill’s Lonely House from Street Scene and a fabulously comic rendition of Offenbach’s The Typsy Waltz from La Périchole by Grosset, which also highlighted her fine acting skills.
Included in the programme was the world premiere of Hand by Gareth Williams (Scottish Opera’s composer in residence) with text by the highly talented Johnny McKnight. Beautifully sung it promises much as a piece of modern opera if developed into a full-length work.
The evening is, as always, a combination of the familiar and the challenging. A fine introduction to opera which will inspire new fans and delight afficionados equally.