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La traviata Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, September 30 The dark blue, smoky half-light with which David McVicar conjures the demi-monde of Violetta Valéry still casts a subtle spell on this production, which originated at Scottish Opera in 2009. Luxury and stark reality are far closer than the eye is first led to perceive; but, whatever the atmosphere conjured, the work continues to require that all-too-elusive soprano who can appear a plausible consumptive and also do justice to the passion of Verdi’s musical characterization. On this occasion, Anush Hovhannisyan’s voice was lacking in body, and neither pyrotechnics nor intonation was entirely secure. Glimpses of her obvious talent were only intermittent. Hovhannisyan represented Armenia in last summer’s BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition and, in casting her along with the Chinese-Australian tenor Kang Wang as Alfredo, WNO was keeping faith with one of the first principles of its joint involvement with the BBC, namely to give a platform to the most promising of the competitors. Of these two company debutants, Kang fared better: his singing was gutsy and fervent; sometimes rather too fervent. Roland Wood was curiously cold as Germont père, not quite eliciting the sympathy needed to set up the complex web of emotions in the final scene. In her ultimate decline, Hovhannisyan hinted at some of the vocal colour one might have hoped from her earlier on. The conductor James Southall did well to shepherd his charge carefully through her anxious moments, and the orchestra’s ability to adjust instinctively to each singer showed their long experience in such situations. It almost goes without saying that the chorus, resplendent in Tanya McCallin’s costumes, were in fine fettle, and, along with Kang, delivered their ‘Libiamo’ like a punch of high fives.  rian evans

Dido and Aeneas: a Funeral for the Queen of Carthage Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall, London, October 2 More mask than masque, this Dido and Aeneas was skilfully conceived for the Barbican, not the most obvious venue for an intimate Baroque opera. The spacious disposition of the Academy of Ancient Music, occupying much of the stage, was reflected in its expansive, blended sonorities, though there was no lack of immediacy in the players’ responses to Richard Egarr’s energizing and theatrically acute direction.

No doubt with long-distance visual impact in mind, the director Thomas Guthrie and the designer Ruth Paton dressed the entire cast in black and doubled Dido and Aeneas with white-faced bunraku-style puppets, each operated by the singer and a puppeteer; Belinda and the chorus members manoeuvred small white masks in the manner of glove puppets. The Dido effigy had been introduced in the first half of the evening, lying ‘dead’ on a bier as a sequence of vocal and instrumental numbers (also by Purcell) was performed. The opera itself thus became a kind of flashback. Guthrie opened up the action through using the entire stage and encouraging incursions into the auditorium by the chorus, who assumed their different roles (especially as witches and sailors) with athletic, sometimes noisy relish.

In the central role Caitlin Hulcup replaced Christine Rice at short notice. If her timbre seemed to carry less of the gunmetal sheen that had proved so striking in her Garsington Idamante and Calbo (Maometto II), her assumption of Dido was movingly spontaneous and sincere—a tragic everywoman rather than a tragedy queen—and,

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Opera, December 2018

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