If you enjoyed the ITV Sound of Music ‘live’ – or even if like me you thought Kara Tointon wasn’t really up to it and the whole production felt a bit clunky – you may have been struck by how both literally and metaphorically Alexander Armstrong as Max stood head and shoulders above the rest of the cast and therefore what a wonderful Professor Higgins he might make.
This certainly coloured my thinking at Cologne Opera’s Christmas production of My Fair Lady, in English. You would think that temporary relocation during refurbishment of the opera house to a four acre exhibition hall adjacent to the Köln-Messe trade fair complex would give them an opportunity to mount MFL on an excitingly vast scale and with radical staging: you could have had a life-size Royal Enclosure for the Ascot scene. When the cast mingled with the audience just before curtain up it seemed this might be a more interactive and experiential production, but with a forty foot wide proscenium director Dietrich Hilsdorf instead confined most group action to a narrow strip of forestage with an awkward step in it.
This means an awful lot of sideways shuffling for the hardworking and generally splendid Oper Köln chorus many of whom struggled manfully with cockeyed cockney accents for their individual lines – and some oddly lateral cartwheeling by the acrobatic dancers, including half a dozen willowy men so cartoon-slender they might have been pencilled by Lowry.
Ulster-born soprano Aoife Miskelly is deservedly a local favourite in Cologne, and while she sailed perfectly though Eliza’s scenes as a ‘lydy’, especially elegant in the ball scene and when glacial towards Higgins, she’s less convincing as a cockney guttersnipe or in her clinch with Wolfgang Schwaiger‘s curious Freddy who has a beautiful high baritone but limited acting skills, and for whom for some reason half the lyrics of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ were cut – evidently you can’t hear a lark in any part of this town.
It’s refreshing to have a leading man in My Fair Lady who can actually sing the score, but it was only ten minutes in to Stephen Chaundy‘s tuneful but under-rehearsed Higgins that I began to yearn for the fluent wit and comic timing of Alexander Armstrong, or at least for a singer who could also act up to the technical brilliance of his sidekick Simon Butteriss whose sly combination of stylish grandee and roguish camp is so perfect for Colonel Pickering.
Katherine Marriott looks and sounds the part of Mrs Pearce, Higgins’ doughty housekeeper but her fumbling over the lines brought Act I to a standstill in a scene with the Professor and Pickering – chatting to the (German) prompter during the intermission we asked why she didn’t offer her help but she said ‘for all three of them, it’s their mother tongue so it’s better they should improvise’. Just what Mrs. Merkel would have done.
If this were staged in the UK, despite the elaborate sets by Dieter Richter and frankly gorgeous costumes by Renate Schmitzer it wouldn’t rate as more than a capable provincial production – for a company of the fine reputation of Oper Köln much better should also be demanded from director and from the pit: although there was good work in the 30-strong orchestra, particularly in the strings and the second act was taken at a slightly faster clip, tempi were slack and the production throughout lacks energy and drive.
The Chorus deserves high praise for coping with the alien lyrics and a requirement to provide a cockney knees-up at regular intervals, but maintained massive musical dignity in both the Ascot Gavotte and the men in a glorious backing to Phillip Joll’s resonantly-voiced Doolittle in ‘I’m Getting Married in the Morning’.
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