Chorus!

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Nick Hammond takes on Welsh National Opera’s latest offering at Milton Keynes Theatre – and wills on an ailing Lesley Garrett…

Let’s face it – they are normally somewhere in the background, often for hours at a time, waiting for a power scene or tour de force finale to do their stuff. They’re usually sobrely dressed too and don’t often do any more moving than turning the pages of their music sheets. Not this production. Welsh National Opera’s Chorus! is front and centre for once – in an extraordinary production with Welsh favourite Lesley Garrett.

In a week-long stay at Milton Keynes Theatre (it must be nice for the company to have a base for a few days instead of having to rush off to the next venue) featuring no less than three different productions, WNO kicked off with the appropriately titled Chorus! directed by David Pountney.

Featuring well-known and more obscure choral works from a score of operas spanning 300 years, the music is interwoven with unique and compelling dance and drama. While some ‘sketches’ worked better than others – the heavy Prokofiev beginning and cavorting of the red-clad dancer Chris Tudor with the early appearances of Lesley Garrett had me fearing for the worst – by the end of an hour, the audience were hooked.

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It was difficult not to be when pieces included Carmen’s Cigarette Chorus, Il Trovatore’s Anvil Chorus, Butterfly’s Humming Chorus, Hush No More from Purcell’s Fairy Queen and even a gloriously tongue in cheek rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s A Policeman’s Lot.

But the fun really takes hold in Part Two when the aforementioned Chris Tudor is alternatively paraded as Elvis and a red-sequinned diva, among others (Chris – you were way too convincing in drag by the way).

Before the performance we’re told that Garrett has a dodgy throat but that she’ll soldier on anyway. And soldier on she does, with her voice noticeably below par. She can’t ‘turn it up to eleven’ when needed and at times is lost in the swell of the orchestra conducted by Alexander Martin.

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A particularly moving take on Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco sees a barbed wire fence drop in front of desolate prisoners and Franck’s Panis Angelicus and the glorious Messiah by Handel are uplifting.

By the time we’re nearing the end, Garrett is tiring and working hard to make it through. The audience collectively crosses fingers for her as we enter the treacherous terrain of The Impossible Dream from Leigh’s The Man from La Mancha. Pausing to clear her throat once, twice, three times she forces herself to hit the high finale and we can all breathe again. Cue rapturous applause.

The last music of the night is another Bernstein; Make Our Garden Grow from Candide, and it’s a lovely finish to a creative blend of popular and ‘hardcore’ music. Kudos ENO for a brilliantly inventive show. Fetch Ms Garrett a lemsip.

Welsh National Opera is currently on tour with productions of Hansel and Gretel, The Magic Flute and Chorus! For venues and tickets, visit the website.

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