This summer Adele Thomas gets the chance to show the world that she belongs in the opera house. Linda Christmas spoke to her about her forthcoming work as director for Il Trovatore and Semele.
It took a while: around 10 years. During those ten years acclaimed theatre director, Adele Thomas, made several approaches to opera houses, including WNO, declaring her desire to direct opera. The door remained closed.
Then Oliver Mears, Artistic Director of Northern Ireland Opera, saw Thomas’s work at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London. Wales Arts Review noted her work too in an article published in 2015. Mears could do more than write an article: he invited her to Belfast to direct Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte in 2017. She arrived with a talented duo, Emma Woods, choreographer and Hannah Clark, designer, and the result was a hit: a 1920s setting displaying all the imagination, exuberance and sauciness that was evident at The Globe. When Mears became Head of Opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, he invited Thomas once again. This time Mears selected a rare Handel work, Berenice to be performed in the small, Linbury Theatre, 2019. The music press responded with a slew of four -and five -star reviews for a stylish, irreverent, witty production. I vividly recall the only prop, an emerald green sofa over which the singers clowned and climbed: the performance was full of movement. That’s Thomas’ trademark: intensely physical, visually striking and pared back to emphasise story telling.
“After the success of Berenice, Ollie sat me down and he said how do you fancy doing a main stage opera with mega stars and I went NO WAY. [peals of laughter: there was much laughter throughout our conversation]. As soon as I started making opera, I felt I had come home to where I needed to be as an artist. But I’d only produced two operas, so I didn’t want to take on big project and run before I could walk. Working with starry singers, is not always the dream you think it is going to be. They have complex lives and needs. So, I said NO, I’d rather do some smaller things first.” And she turned her thoughts to Vivaldi’s Bajazet. Then the pandemic happened.
“I felt my career was over. I was literally weighing up alternative options, when I got a call from Zurich Opera House, where the intendant had seen Berenice. He had just fired the director of Il trovatore and wanted me to step in. I thought, what have I got to lose, why not! We had four months from me not even knowing the score, to presenting our model and that usually takes two years, but luckily, by a miracle, the designer I wanted was free [award -winning, Annemarie Woods], so we got together on Zoom. Seven months from that phone call we were in rehearsal. It was a whirlwind process and a total joy. I mentioned this project to Ollie Mears and he said: “Great. The Royal Opera House will co- produce that.” It all came together magically.”
The Zurich production of Il Trovatore, labelled “a resounding success,” arrives at Covent Garden on June 2 (for ten performances). It will be streamed throughout the world from June 13, including Port Talbot, where Thomas was born, and Cardiff where she now lives. It has taken a mere handful of productions to recognise a major talent. After Il Trovatore opens, Thomas moves to Glyndebourne to direct Handel’s Semele and after that her website announces Rigoletto for WNO and a return to Zurich for A Masked Ball.
“I’ve been so lucky that people have brought me these amazing offers. It’s odd, both Handel and Verdi are known to be challenging for directors, but if you do a good job your career will end up full of Handel and Verdi. It’s a fantastic combination because both composers are men of the theatre.” Many directors grimace at the thought of Il Trovatore. The story defies description in two sentences, but it involves a gypsy being burned alive, wrongly accused of bewitching a count’s youngest son. The gypsy’s daughter, Azucena, determined to avenge her mother’s death, abducts the child intending to burn him too, but, confused, she burns her own son instead. So, her so-called “son” is not her son but the Count’s youngest son. That’s just one strand.
“If you peel away the layers and get rid of assumptions, you’ll find an exciting and engaging work. The military setting, for example, is not particularly important to the true centre of the piece, it’s a red herring. You need to focus on the relationships. Another red herring is the ridiculous quote by the famous singer, Caruso, who said all you need is the four best singers in the world. That undermined the piece, because the opera needs brilliant acting to tell the complex story. We found a way in by going back to the source material. I read the play it is based on and realised how incredibly medieval it is. That intrigued me. It’s set in a period beset with superstition – a period before the Renaissance brought rationality, taste, elegance and refinement into art and life. We’ve used Hieronymus Bosch as a big influence. We have monsters and weird creatures and a staircase – all very Bosch! I love his work: there’s something beautiful happening with angels in one corner and then in another there’s a man taking a poo! Il Trovatore also works through colliding opposing moods; the Anvil chorus is wild, noisy, low- brow and this is followed by Azucena going through an emotional, soul searching, heart-rending story. Then in Act 2 The Count sings of his love and you realise that he is singing in front of his soldiers! He is supposed to be going to war with these men and he stops everything to sing an embarrassingly raw aria. It’s crazy!”
Once again, there is much physicality, especially with the chorus: “In Zurich we were lucky. We were the first show back after the second wave of the pandemic and the chorus were raring to go. They are a total performance company, really special, so we were able to push the level of choreography and physicality.”
Two days after the opening of Il trovatore, Adele Thomas heads to Glyndebourne to produce Semele. In the last 25 years, Glyndebourne has had much success mounting a handful of Handel works, all by different directors. Stephen Langridge, the artistic director, believes that there are at least three reasons for this success.
“Handel was writing for the Haymarket theatre which has similar proportions to our house and these allow for both epic scenes and scenes of intimacy. Also, Handel was not in a hurry! His arias are long and so are his operas. Glyndebourne is not in a hurry either. You need to right-off much of the day to visit and an audience that does that is relaxed and in a better place to experience Handel that someone who has piled out of a tube train at the end of working day. Furthermore, our detailed ensemble work takes weeks and weeks of rehearsal leaving nothing to chance. This attracts the top flight directors who come here to do their best work. I saw Adele Thomas’s Berenice and thought that she was the perfect person to do our next big Handel, Semele. She has two things: one is a strong intellectual line from bar one to the end, and the other is a real ability to do the on the floor directing and working with people towards phenomenal performances.
That’s high praise given that Langridge has directed Semele himself (Buxton some years ago) and that Thomas follows a line-up of internationally renowned directors, including Peter Sellars, Sir David McVicar, Robert Carsen and Barrie Kosky.
Adele Thomas is unfazed. “Um, well, it doesn’t worry me. It shows me that they really know what they are doing, and that makes me feel more confident. I feel honoured that Stephen knows the piece so well and still he asked me to do it! There’s a lot of the reasons for Glyndebourne’s run of successes: we benefit from the amazing rehearsal time but we also have the OAE (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) and Handel has to be done with a period orchestra and then we are really lucky that the singers are all top performers. Joelle Harvey is an amazing physical actress. Handel uses a lot of dance form in his music and we lean into that particularly in the first act. There’s quite a bit of dancing. Emma Woods is doing the choreography; she makes everything with me. In fact, I’ve got the whole gang! Hannah Clark doing the costumes and Annmarie Woods is doing set [all three did Il Trovatore). At the moment, I am inundated with work, and if I didn’t have the whole gang working on everything, I don’t know how I would cope. We are a team but we are not complacent. We don’t rest on past success and we don’t try to repeat anything and we challenge each other in a really good productive way.”
Semele plot centres on the mortal Princess Semele having an affair with Jupiter, King of the Gods. Jupiter’s wife is none too happy and tricks Semele into begging Jupiter to appear in divine form –perhaps hinting that this might make Semele immortal, a Goddess. Jupiter reluctantly agrees even though he know this will destroy Semele, rather than make her divine. The opera, as the story suggests, is lusty with several lascivious arias, including With fond desiring, With bliss expiring, Panting, Fainting. “Showing a woman having a great sexual relationship is GREAT. I hope this pleases the women in the audience! Semele is not a bimbo who gets what she deserves. We are not portraying her as an over-reaching tart! Semele is merely seeking something new and better. Why not? When I was growing up in Port Talbot, I was always looking for a way out! Why are we so obsessed with trying to curtail people who are perceived as over-reaching? Handel is a poet of the human soul and he is incapable of writing a bland character. His females are full of complexity and depth.
“He is sympathetic towards all his characters that’s what makes him a supreme dramatist. All the characters are in impossible, unresolvable situations. Juno is the goddess of hearth and marriage. How can you be the goddess of marriage and have your husband run away with endless mortal girls? It humiliates her. Handel has a long-running theme – which we loved exploring in Berenice – showing how female leaders’ dignity is in constant peril. Juno has a constant battle to maintain her dignity and that’s what makes her so heart- breaking. Does she make the right decisions – No! Does she make emotion- driven decisions – Yes, but there is so much depth of feeling there for her.”
Handel wrote Semele as an oratorio, meaning that it was not conceived to be staged. That’s obvious once you see the locations demanded: heaven and temples, earth and palaces, the land of sleep and Jupiter’s habit of wandering between them in a chariot drawn by peacocks. How do you marshal that? “You’d need a million quid per scene to do it. Which we don’t have! The designer, Annemarie Woods, has found a simple and beautiful way of evolving one set so that it can represent earth, heaven, the land of sleep. I don’t want to give anything away, but it was a real collaborative effort between us, the brilliant and ingenious lighting designer Peter Mumford (who was actually based in Cardiff himself for many years) and the technical team at Glyndebourne and draws heavily on the elemental and the seam of the strange that seems to ripple through Lewes and the surrounding area.”
When I first met Adele Thomas eight years ago, we discussed politics, left-wing politics and she said that she’d be a politician if she wasn’t a director. So how do her political views align with appearing at two opera houses perceived as “elite”? “Opera is far less class-obsessed than the theatre. So much theatre is set in a middle-class world, but opera is set in bonkers, extreme, crazy worlds. It is so far removed from reality that it can be universal. The medium is class-less, but the structure it inhabits is not! Yes, it does bother me. Why am I making work for organisations that are too expensive for most people? Well, Il Trovatore will be screened all over the world, so that gets rid from the “elitist” charge. Opera is successful on film; it transfers better than the theatre. As for Glyndebourne: I am not a massive fan of country house opera. But the tricky thing about Glyndebourne is that its artistic standards are so high, it is a world leading organisation. I realise the value of this. We were supposed to be taking Semele on tour where more people could have seen the work at affordable seat prices, but the Arts Council has withheld 50 per cent of the grant, so it won’t be happening this year. That’s such a pity. I can’t stop feeling uncomfortable about barriers to ticket buying.”
This tinge of discomfort is not her biggest worry. “I have only two days off between the opening of Il Trovatore and the start of rehearsals at Glyndebourne. That is worrying me more than anything! I usually allow time off between shows, so I can re-set myself.” A mere cloud over what could be sunny professional summer!
Semele opens at Glyndebourne on July 23 for 11 performances. There are no plans for the production to be beamed into cinemas.
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