Less Is More

By Tanner, Michael | The Spectator, March 6, 1999 | Go to article overview

Less Is More


Tanner, Michael, The Spectator


English Touring Opera began their spring tour as usual at the Cambridge Arts Theatre last week, and showed themselves to be in vigorous, committed and uninhibited form. If they manage to keep the two productions that they mounted as fresh as this, then 14 other venues are in for highly enjoyable times. Wisely, they mainly refrain from revisionary productions, their only failure that I remember being a contemporary Figaro. That means that their audiences are more likely to see performances of non-travesties of repertoire operas than people who live in cities where opera is regularly mounted, so that jaded tastes need to be catered for by impertinent directorial intrusions.

ETO has also, for several reasons, to work with a minimum of scenery, but that is usually all to the good, encouraging intelligent use of stage space and rapid transitions between scenes. If there is one invaluable lesson that has been learned from post-realist productions, it is that elaborate scenery is not needed for the suspension of disbelief, indeed is a hindrance to it. Peter Stein's production of Peter Grimes, thought to be strikingly realistic, is actually reliant on three boats and a wellpainted sea and sky on the backcloth.

Verdi's Macbeth turned out to be ideal for the talents that ETO field. If the blasted heath of the opening was on the compressed side, and Birnam Wood remained stationary and kids' book cut-out, the claustrophobia of this drama was powerfully conveyed. Sarah Rhodes, who is something of a fire-eater, as those who saw her Opera Factory Queen of Night will remember, combines a menacing presence with a voice that coped readily with the coloratura of the role, but made certain that it was always functional and not decorative. She read Macbeth's letter in a mercifully untheatrical way, and hurled herself into her first aria with a grave relish which avoided the almost caricatural 'evil' that is a danger at that point.

Andrew Greenwood offered the same kind of support that he did in Fidelio last year, giving the orchestra its head but enabling his singers, especially the Lady, to develop their interpretation of their roles. He must be inspiring to work with. Macbeth's is a thankless role; Verdi deprives him of most of the magnificent opportunities that Shakespeare's anti-hero has, and he is hardly established as a figure at all by the time he murders Duncan. His most effective music, apart from his too-late aria of regret, is in his duets, so he tends to be defined by the stronger characters with whom he is singing. Anthony Marber doesn't have a strong stage presence in any case, but he made something semi-sympathetic of the role, if only because the two actors of Banquo and Macduff are such huge figures of horror, Banquo's ghost trailing clouds of blood, that one was left feeling `Better the devil you know'. Marber's voice is a warm, slightly unfocused instrument, and used most convincingly in the banquet scene, where Rhodes's Lady led the second verse of the brindisi with grandly tragic determination. Most impressive of all were the finales, built with a sure hand by Greenwood into bodies of tone which belied, and were a credit to, the small chorus and orchestra. …

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