Evita as presented by Ulster Operatic Company
EVITA as presented by Ulster Operatic Company
Date of Performance Adjudicated: Friday 22nd September, 2023
My love of the Grand Opera House, Belfast goes back some 52 years to when I first saw my father perform there in My Fair Lady as Col Pickering. A year later, I played Kurt on that stage in The Sound of Music, and for me, at that time, I know I must have felt as overwhelmed as many of the Ulster Operatic’s current young members felt taking to that immense stage for the first time. It really is an awesome venue, and it demands a high standard of theatrical presentation. I’m delighted to report that is exactly what was provided by the very talented cast and production team of this year’s UOC show, Evita.
This production had the tidiness, efficiency and discipline that one associates with Director, Tony Finnegan, particularly the emphasis on staying in character, being visually well-turned out, and the natural and inclusive use of children in the crowd scenes.
Visually, the set for the show was a mix of well employed drapes and a triple balcony structure that looked elegant, luxurious and aesthetically pleasing, even if it didn’t, functionally, give much variety of location to the action. The main balcony was very well used throughout, while perhaps the side balconies needed to be slightly better lit. Magaldi’s opening solo drifted in and out of shadow. The dressing of the stage was excellent, with very good and well-sourced props and furniture, including a superb bed that may have come straight from a palace. In keeping with the stage dressing, the costumes were always appropriate and well-selected, from elegant day wear to military uniforms, and particularly, given her passion for fashion, Eva Perón was always perfectly attired.
Under the very capable Musical Direction of Wilson Shields, the vocal quality of the show was exceptionally good, with both chorus and principals thoroughly rehearsed and disciplined in the execution of their music. There was also a most pleasing accompaniment throughout from a finely tuned 8-piece orchestra. Tempi were always accurate and with the exception of a few occasions when the musicians, particularly the keyboards, slightly overwhelmed some solo voices, the quality of the music was excellent.
It was the balance between well-orchestrated crowd control and top-notch choreography that impressed most about choreographer, Ann Marie Morgan’s contribution to the show. It was just perfect. The right opportunities were taken to showcase the casts’ dancing abilities, but we also saw them engaged in disciplined acting and movement at the appropriate times, contributing to the ambiance of their scenes without overwhelming the action with their presence. Buenos Aires and The Money Kept Rolling In were the terpsichorean high points of the night. The “fighting” sequence for Art of the Possible was unexpected, but it was original and very tidily executed.
From their presence, pre-curtain, as cinema-goers, to their solemnity during the final scenes, an excellent Chorus were the very backbone of this production, appropriate in their manner,
and in executing their dance movements with accuracy and efficiency. They were disciplined, enthusiastic, energetic, always in character and extremely vocally capable and secure. There were positives and negatives in Director Tony Finnegan’s decision to have Eva Duarte and Eva Peron played by different actresses. He was blessed to have two extremely accomplished actresses and singers to fill the roles, and what worked beautifully were the moments when the two appeared together in some cleverly designed cross-overs from one to the other.
But if I’m honest, the doubling of the role diminished the depth of the character for me. It’s the journey from the young, striving Duarte to the manipulative diva of Peron that is the focus of the story, and it’s the capturing of that journey that makes Eva such a compelling and demanding role. Even with the creative and artistically appealing paralleling of the two actresses, I felt that the development of the individual character was weakened by being shared. That being said, I have no question marks whatsoever about the talent and the contribution made by the two performers.
Karen Hawthorn, as Eva Perón, played her role with unbridled self-assurance and a deliciously “soy lo mas” narcissism. Very much capturing the true essence of Eva’s personality, her self-righteousness went hand in hand with her forthright repudiation of high society standards, creating a character who was engagingly likeable, yet somewhat loathsome. As an audience, we saw her as Everyman saw her, flaws and all. This really was an intense and well-measured performance, bolstered by a highly commendable vocal performance. My only regret was that I wanted to see her play the role from start to finish, and despite her claim in the programme that she couldn’t have done it alone, her performance, and her abundant talent, suggested otherwise.
Caroline McMichael, as Eva Duarte, gave a truly delightful performance of the coquettish, impetuous younger Eva, establishing the character as driven and dedicated to her goal. Caroline had strong vocal quality, and will, doubtless, relish taking on the full role in the future. Buenos Aires was extremely well-delivered. She and Karen played their cross-over scenes very well, transitioning from the younger to the older.
In the role of Everyman, David McCrossan should have captured the quintessential paradox of an Argentina that both loved and loathed Eva Peron, but perhaps his loathing of her narcissism outweighed the love for her that was abundant from so many of the working classes. He seemed to sneer a lot at her sincerity, and even in her demise, he showed little affection. I’m not saying that his character was wrong, but his interpretation, for me, made “Everyman” something of a misnomer. That said, he performed with conviction of character, a rock solid and commanding stage presence and an astoundingly strong and secure vocal interpretation.
Matthew Watson, as Juan Perón, cut a fine figure on the stage, if perhaps a little too willingly upstaged by the strength of his seductress and eventual wife. This was a more-gentle interpretation of his character than usual, but it made him rather likeable, and in terms of vocal accomplishment, it was rock solid. I felt much sincerity in his cry of despair when Evita eventually died. Very nicely played.
Sean Harkin gave a sturdy and pleasing rendition of On This Night of A Thousand Stars in the role of Magaldi, and displayed righteous indignation at being so easily dismissed by Evita. Sean, more at home in comedic roles, kept good control of his character, never allowing it to slip into caricature. He also showed skill in his movement.
In the thankless role of the Mistress, a delightfully talented Sofia Delgado looked great, displayed suitable emotion and, most importantly, delivered Another Suitcase in Another Hall with a beautiful tone and quality.
The young lady, uncredited in the programme, who sang the Santa Evita solo, did so with assurance and a most pleasant tone. Well done, young lady. There was a plethora of smaller roles, generals, the Duarte family, lovers, etc., all of whom were well-realized.
Lighting throughout the show was atmospheric and made good use of back and side lights and colours appropriate to each scene. The side balconies were slightly under-lit, but generally, the standard of lighting contributed to the look and atmosphere of the show. Principals, whether stationary or in motion, were consistently and effectively well highlighted. The sound quality was generally very good, with the exception of those few moments when the band slightly overwhelmed individual vocalists. The sound effects and the use of the cinema screen and footage were excellent. Scene changes, under the guidance of Stage Manager, Andy McKnight, were slick and efficient. Congratulations to the props, the wardrobe and hair and make-up teams for ensuring that the high standard of presentation was consistent throughout the show.
It delights me when I hear, as I so often do, members of the audience exclaim, “You wouldn’t see better than that in the West End”, and then it annoys me in equal measure when they say, “They aren’t even a professional company!” If only they knew how professional in talent, attitude, dedication and commitment every member of the ‘amateur’ movement, from production staff to performers and providers, actually are, they would be enlightened. And with the Ulster Operatic Company’s Evita, my belief in AIMS and its dedicated membership continues to flourish. Congratulations to all concerned on a wonderful evening of high quality entertainment.
Peter Kennedy, Gilbert Adjudicator.
Some photos kindly shared by the society to accompany the review:
Photos attributed to: Aaron Butler