Cumbria Opera Festival – Roderick Williams, Trouble in Tahiti, A Hand of Bridge, and Così fan tutte

Written by: Jane Bagot & Colin Marston

Here are three reviews (the first two from Jane Bagot, the last from Colin Marston) of concerts that took place as part of Cumbria Opera Group’s first ever Cumbria Opera Festival.

Roderick Williams & Christopher Glynn at Penrith Wordsworth Street Church, Saturday 4th September 2021

An enthralling and spellbinding concert of song opened the Cumbria Opera Festival, much to the delight of the audience. What could be a better way of showcasing live music? The baritone Roderick Williams performing such a vibrant and imaginatively constructed programme proved the point. The theme of the wanderer or vagabond threaded its way through a range of English and German song repertoire. Williams’s velvety tones and razor-sharp diction communicated perfectly. Spearheading the concert was Schubert’s Der Wanderer, deftly accompanied by pianist Christopher Glynn. Throughout the evening his nuanced playing and measured timings between songs allowed for the drama of the poems to unfold.

Nostalgia for the English countryside underpins the delicate songs of Ivor Gurney, who composed them whilst in the trenches in World War One. Then came a set of four songs by John Ireland delivered with a powerful explosion of emotion by singer and pianist alike. Angst and joy were the overriding emotions in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayferer). After the interval, nowhere was the rich versatility of Williams’s voice more apparent than in an excerpt from Wagner’s Siegfried which segued subtly into Vaughan Williams’s ‘The Bird’s Song’ from The Pilgrim’s Progress. This composer’s Songs of Travel concluded an uplifting and magical concert.

Jazz Opera Double Bill at Kendal Town Hall, Sunday 5th September 2021

Cumbria Opera Group gave sparkling performances of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti (1951) and Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge (1958). Both jazz operas were strongly supported by the orchestra, led by its inspiring artistic director, Joe Davies.

The cast for Trouble in Tahiti had the vocal trio, Kerran Cotterell, Alexander Joseph and Jemimah Taylor, functioning as a contemporary Greek chorus. Dinah and Sam were played fantastically by Helsa Townsend and Chris Murphy, respectively. The trio blended the close harmonies  beautifully as they evoked radio commercials of the era. The slick choreography, spot-on jazz rhythms, and spirited acting were the perfect foil to the uneasy realism of Sam and Dinah’s troubled marriage. The two protagonists delivered their melodic lines with clarity and emotion. Sam’s rich baritone voice was perfect for the part. Dinah’s aria ‘There is a Garden’ was heartfelt, melodic and colourful.

A Hand of Bridge, another jazz influenced, nine-minute, opera, was equally entertaining as it explored the four card players’ deepest and darkest emotions in individual monologues. Helsa Townsend (Geraldine), Jack Dolan (Bill), Holly Teague (Geraldine) and Chris Murphy (David) gave convincing performances. The sets in both operas worked superbly. The former evoking the perfect picture of 1950s suburbia; the latter reflecting the dark emotions of each card player. The authentic costumes gave a 1950s flavour, and the lighting effects were excellent. Director Jonny Danciger created a special production.

Così fan tutte at St Andrew’s Church, Penrith, Friday 10th September 2021

The inaugural Cumbria Opera Festival came to an exhilarating conclusion with this superb performance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte in St. Andrew’s Church, Penrith. In its previous incarnation as Eden Valley Opera, Joe Davies’s gifted band of young musicians had brought us operas from the baroque period by Purcell, John Blow and Handel.

In many ways Così fan tutte is an ideal choice for a small company. At the centre of the plot are six singers: four young lovers; a maid (with quite a number of strings to her bow); and a scheming manipulator, intent on proving that women will always betray their lovers.

Ross Cumming (Guglielmo). Jack Dolan (Ferrando), Myrna Tennant (Fiordiligi) and Samantha Lewis (Dorabella) were excellent in their role as the four young lovers, whose paths, in true operatic manner, become entangled by intrigue and seduction before reaching a successful outcome. Both in solo arias and in the numerous ensemble passages in the work, all four succeeded with the challenges of Mozart’s elaborate Italian style.

Helen Teague added many comic touches to the role of Despina, and Jonathan Hill was equally fine as the manipulative Don Alfonso, singing with the great authority and clear diction that this key role needs. The orchestra, seated in the church’s side chapel, began with an uplifting account of the Overture, and offered assured support throughout. The chorus is used little compared with other Mozart operas but, seated high in the gallery, it gave an effective contribution.

Persia Babayan-Taylor’s production was full of imaginative and comic touches, but the greatest credit must go the musical director, Joe Davies, not only for his confident control of the many diverse musical elements of the work, but also for bringing together such a fine team of young musicians. Those who have attended the workshops, recitals and operas of the Festival week will look forward immensely to further delights in the years ahead.

Image: Cumbria Opera Festival’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte; photographer Christopher Tribble

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content