Feature Review: Great Female Roles

Written by: Michael Darvell

Great female roles: Norma, Carmen and Butterfly
An illustrated talk by Jeanne Henny
Introduced by Valerie Leon

Illustrated by recordings by Maria Callas, Rosa Ponselle, Victoria de los Angeles, Conchita Supervia, Toti Dal Monte & Anna Moffo

Milestone Hotel, Kensington, London
Monday 29 October 2007


Opera productions are becoming increasingly unsatisfactory at a time when the director rules the roost. It appears that neither the singers nor even the conductor has any say in what happens and the music itself takes increasingly less importance in a production while design, movement and choreography take precedence. How can this be? Well, you only have to look at English National Opera’s first two new productions of the current season to find proof of that. Sally Potter’s staging of Bizet’s “Carmen” concentrates more on the appearance of the cast and the sets, cuts the dialogue, changes the location from cigarette factory to whorehouse and introduces a dance element that obfuscates what Bizet originally intended. If you don’t know the plot of “Carmen”, you wouldn’t find it in this production. Similarly with Chen Shi-Zheng’s staging of Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” which seems entirely obsessed with the look of the thing to the detriment of anything else. It’s pretty but what does it all mean?

Jeanne Henny feels we should get back to basics by listening to the singers. She argues that the quality of their voices should determine the direction of the production, and the direction should be done not by a theatre director or a film director or a choreographer but by an opera director, someone who knows and appreciates the music and its composer’s intentions.

The genre of opera started as a reaction to the big choral works. It was Monteverdi who began what we know as opera, a vehicle for displaying and showing off the human voice in all its glory. Special effects and scenery and all the stage machinery that goes into a production can hide the real point of any opera, which is to convey emotion through the music. Handel further developed the idea with the lengthy solo aria, and later Verdi and Wagner refined and developed it even further so that it wasn’t only the voice and the music but the whole concept that involved the singers themselves. It also needs, however, someone with experience of the stage and musical performance to consolidate every aspect of the production.

Early on in opera production the singers provided their own costumes, and the stage direction was merely perfunctory – something that is unthinkable in today’s opera world. Other art forms also influenced opera production in the twentieth-century. The cinema changed acting styles and made it less declamatory and more realistic. Gramophone recordings of operas broadened popular appeal for the medium and the music season was extended so that nowadays we have opera virtually all the year round and not confined only to short seasons.

Jeanne Henny reckons there can always be room for improvement in a great play or a great opera, which is why we can see the same classic play or opera over and over again and never tire of it, provided it can still be true to its creators’ wishes.

As her subjects for showing how interpretations can vary but still be valid, Henny contrasts early and later performances of Butterfly by Toti Dal Monte and Anna Moffo, Carmen by Conchita Supervia and Victoria de los Angeles, and Norma as sung by Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas.

These are all very different interpretations. Puccini wrote for voices that soared and Dal Monte’s voice was very much in that vein. Moffo’s voice is different but more acceptable to a modern interpretation. In “Carmen” Bizet wanted to show real people in real situations. Supervia has an earthy sound, a gypsy’s voice from Andalucia, whereas de los Angeles’s was more sensuous and seductive. Bellini allowed his singers to show their vocal techniques and dexterity through the emotions of the music. Ponselle was both gentle and commanding in her reading of Norma, whereas Callas’s voice lacked purity but was eminently dramatic: both interpretations are equally valid.

Jeanne Henny has had a career as a performer (singer and actress), director (she has mounted over thirty operas as artistic director of the Mayer-Lismann Opera Centre) and lecturer for Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House. She puts across her ideas with great passion and in the most inspiring way, as a born teacher but also as an eminent performer. These are not dry lectures on music but informative and entertaining sessions with an artist of distinction.

Her next talk is on the Great Male Roles in opera, namely Don Giovanni, Rigoletto and Peter Grimes, and it will be at Gravetye Manor in East Grinstead, West Sussex at 11 a.m. on November 10. The cost is £60 per person including coffee, lecture, lunch and champagne in the Michelin starred restaurant Relais Chateau.



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