Chorus!

Welsh National Opera
Grand Theatre, Swansea, and touring
(2004)

Chorus! logo

This is an event when the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus are given centre stage to provide us with a lollipop selection from operas from Bizet to Bernstein.

The idea is to give us all a taste of the wide variety of music that is contained within the repertoire. It's hoped that strangers to opera will be attracted to main performances by this and in the process break down the barriers that have held certain sectors of the theatre going public at bay.

No easy task when a night at the opera is still seen by many to be an elitist pastime, particularly when high seat prices knock the ordinary family out of the equation.

There is also the problem of theatrical style which can appear dated when compared to the modern musical which contains a strong element of choreography and hence more physical and dynamic movement which has major audience appeal.

The opera audiences of tomorrow must come from the youngsters of today and there is a danger that the repertoire is slow changing and is too held back by the masters of yesteryear. Good though they are, and timeless in quality, there need to be some new voices that can approach ideas and themes to capture the imagination of the young.

This production was beautifully put together by the combined talents of David Pountney, Director, and Donald Nally, Chorus Master, who, between them, have an extensive knowledge of opera worldwide.

The excerpts moved seamlessly one to the other with subtle changes of set and costume to enhance the various scenes. The first act saw some stirring performances moving from the electric chorus from Prokofiev's War and Peace, "Armies from twelve European lands" to Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

This, mainly elderly audience, remained politely silent throughout most of the first act, seemingly afraid to break with custom. However, the solo performance by Philip Lloyd-Evans as the sad Pierrot from Korngold's Die tote Stadt shook them into action and suddenly applause became socially acceptable.

The second act began most pleasantly with the chorus frozen to represent that evocative painting by George Seurat of Parisians in the park. This worked well with Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park" and was one of my favourite pieces of the evening.

Some of the scenes were enhanced by back projected slides of photographs and paintings which certainly gave the scenes an attractive dimension and added to the interest.

Again we had the scrolling display of text above the stage, which again was attacked by the gremlins causing the audience to believe that a romantic couple were repeating "NO ERROR DETECTED" to one another over and over again. We thought it was admirable that they were so persistent.. These gremlins have a fine sense of timing!!

I admit there were moments when I felt a scene was calling out for some choreography by trained dancers. The nature of opera choruses is that singers they are, dancers they are not. The philosophy is, concentrate on the sound and keep movement to a basic minimum. Perhaps trained dancers could be brought in, but then that would be breaking with tradition.

For me, I find the ClassicFM approach slightly irritating. This programme is fodder for a CD compilation, that bane of serious lovers of music who are force-fed on a diet of sweet highlights and who are kept in complete ignorance of the context of the piece. An excerpt can provide you with the flavour of an opera but the feast of a full production is much more satisfying. Maybe the hope is that this approach will help to prise the doubters away from their television sets when the full productions eventually come around.

All in all the various selections helped to demonstrate the wide diversity of talent that this chorus possesses from the sweet, gentle control of the "Humming Chorus" from Madam Butterfly to the strong , energetic vibrancy of Bernstein's "Make our garden grow" from Candide.

The Bernstein was a perfect item on which to end. Let us hope that the WNO's initiative to widen an interest in opera will bear fruit.

Reviewer: Tony Layton