The high standards were maintained in Ariadne auf Naxos… Richard Studer, both director and designer, kept the action fluid – the Prologue was notably slick and snappy – and the stage simple, with an angled raised platform set against panelled walls in Hockneyesque colours… the comedians were a tight team of distinctive vocal personalities: the tenors Anthony Flaum and Nicholas Sharratt, baritone Damian Thantrey and bass Sion Goronwy. Rosie Aldridge staked a triumphant claim on the new Fach as a passionate Composer, producing streams of trenchant, smoky-tinged tone and articulating her words with old-school precision. Rebecca Nash as Ariadne, with a richly-grained voice that rose excitingly to a steely top, was particularly fine in ‘Es gibt ein Reich’, perceptively and movingly shaped. The aria exemplified the benefits that singers and score derived from the litheness of Jonathan Lyness’s conducting and the transparent sonorities of the festival orchestra. Bacchus was Jonathan Stoughton […], full-voiced, focussed and fearless… Nicola Said looked perfect as Zerbinetta and she brought warmth – not just glitter – to all the notes that Strauss lavished on the role.


The prima donna heroine of Tosca demands a special kind of soprano to convince us of her qualities: stately, courageous, amorous and with enough vulnerability to explain her devotion to Cavaradossi. And it was fortunate for Longborough that a singer of high distinction, Lee Bisset, who has previously sung a memorable Katya Kabanova and a widely-acclaimed Sieglinde for this company, was available for this role. Not only does she act well, she sings with a passionate radiance of tone that is as thrilling as one could wish, and she knows how to make her soft singing just as seductive, without losing any clarity of diction. Her Vissi d’arte showed rare control, and the dramatic tensions that inspire it were starkly outlined by the director-designer Richard Studer. But this was not a one-person show, and Adriano Graziani’s singing as Cavaradossi was notable for its sustained lyricism and a respect for the notes as Puccini wrote them. Tony Burke’s reduced orchestration lost nothing in expressiveness in this small theatre, thanks also to the musicianship of the conductor Jonathan Lyness, to whom the orchestra responded alertly.


After scaling the peaks of the Ring cycle last year in celebration of Wagner’s bicentenary, Longborough essays a less onerous ascent for its 2014 opener. But Puccini’s Tosca is still a major challenge for a company of famously modest dimension, and one must applaud all involved for delivering a production so thrilling and — under the sure control of conductor Jonathan Lyness — so musically accomplished.


Puccini demands three big voices and personalities for the major roles, the staging presents quandaries to the director and designer, while the conductor has to make some thunderously banal orchestral writing sound sharply dramatic. Longborough has assigned the core challenge to its regular house team of Jonathan Lyness and Richard Studer, and they have met it honourably…. Adriano Graziani’s sterling Cavaradossi, sung with genuine ardour rather than tenorial preening: “E lucevan le stelle” was unusually haunting – the melancholy lucubration of a man who knows he has only an hour of life left to him…. The performance clearly pleased its audience, and its intimacy of scale offered a chance to appreciate in close-up the opera’s brilliant dramaturgy and exemplary libretto.


There were details in their new production of Puccini’s Tosca which struck me as totally well-found, not least the hint of a relationship between the actress Floria Tosca (at once pious and voluptuous) and chief of police Scarpia (torn between religious zeal and manipulatory lust) which might easily have flowered. And the other one was the thought that Tosca might stab herself to death before realising she could kill the Scarpia about to rape her.

And these details in Richard Studer’s always astute direction came through in an extraordinarily sensitive performance from Lee Bisset as Tosca, her body-language so subtle (anyone not concentrating on her face will have missed so much), her vocal delivery rich, confiding, cajoling, and magisterial right to its splendour at her eventual suicide… The set-design was stark and resourceful, one of Longborough’s trademarks, the orchestra under Jonathan Lyness was tremendous.

The Guardian, 17 Oct 2012 (Eugene Onegin, The Tobacco Factory)

A pretty iron bedstead, a pair of guns, a handful of chairs and some chandeliers were the only props used for an opera that usually calls for an extravaganza, not least for the final act’s St Petersburg ball. But the Opera Project’s small-scale productions are approached with an open mind, characters and relationships thrust into the foreground, the action unfolding on a circular wooden dais. Watching up close, it was possible to feel the hope and pain of love in all its rawness. The singers’ every note made you marvel anew at Tchaikovsky’s score, even if you left the theatre reeling from the experience.
It was all realised with the highest musical values; conductor Jonathan Lyness has assembled a remarkably strong cast, with Lee Bisset as Tatyana. Bisset’s voice has a rich, velvety sound throughout its range and seems so effortlessly supple… her explosion of passion was entirely credible as she first admitted her love for Onegin. Catherine King’s eloquently sung Filipevna revealed the understanding the old nurse has for her charge, strengthening the emotional tenor of the letter scene. In the title role, Grant Doyle… had the allure and hauteur of Onegin, and conveyed the desperate realisation, too late, of his love for Tatyana, with Bisset now at her expressive peak. This was strong stuff, with Stephanie Lewis as Olga, and Michael Bracegirdle’s Lensky also vividly portrayed under Richard Studer’s direction.

BBC Music Magazine, 30 Oct 2012 (Eugene Onegin, The Tobacco Factory)

Richard Studer’s production at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol is on an intimate scale: a spotlight has been focussed on the story’s bleak heart and conductor Jonathan Lyness’s reduced score works well. The reduced cast and orchestra (12 musicians), combined with the in-the-round staging create a real sense of the claustrophobia of rural life. Soprano Lee Bisset as Tatyana is earnest and bookish and her duets with sister Olga (mezzo Stephanie Lewis) are guilelessly disarming. In the famous letter scene… she grips the audience… Baritone Grant Doyle in the title role is every inch the heart-breaker, but this Onegin is more victim of fate than amoral malignancy. The story is all the more captivating as a result. Tenor Michael Bracegirdle is a moving Lensky, fiancé to the wide-eyed Olga, whose finest hour was also his last – in the aria immediately before the fateful duel with Onegin. Without exception, the cast’s enunciation is immaculate. Another of the production’s highlights is the singing of the female chorus. Despite only consisting of a handful of singers, the group’s sound is lush and it’s a real treat to hear so close-up. This is a production which uses the bare minimum in staging, performers and even space, to tell a story with huge emotional impact – and pulls it off with apparent ease. A treat.

Venue, 27 Oct 2012 (Eugene Onegin, The Tobacco Factory)

…simplicity and sincerity were the two virtues Tchaikovsky believed his Pushkin opera embodied above all, and Opera Project’s new production delivers both in spades… Gaynor Keeble’s warm and commanding Madam Larina and Catherine King’s dignified nanny… Lee Bisset’s smouldering Tatyana… packs an unforgettable punch in the great letter scene… Of course it helps to have a credible Onegin, and Grant Doyle bags the double. He’s got a voice as deep and insinuating as the Volga, and making his entrance looking decidedly vulpine, dangerous and enigmatic… He isn’t the only authentically ‘Russian-sounding’ bass Opera Project has managed to track down either. Julian Close’s Prince Gremin would make Vladimir Putin sound like Eva Cassidy… As with Richard Studer’s set, so with his production. Trusting in Tchaikovsky’s operatic acuity, he lets the piece unfold without any tricksy interference… And above all he carefully elucidates the small ensembles that can so often fail to register as powerfully in bigger houses… under Jonathan Lyness’s cogent musical direction… Opera Project’s Tobacco Factory Onegin has kick-started the season with an emotional bang – and then some.

Opera Now, Nov 2012 (La Serva Padrona, Gianni Schicchi, West Green House)

… A satisfying double-bill… Opera Project’s artistic director Richard Studer made a fine job of Puccini’s black comedy Gianni Schicchi. Even without surtitles, the jokes all registered beautifully thanks to the slick characterisations of the ensemble who performed the Italian histrionics to a tee. Simon Thorpe was tremendous as the wily Schicchi…

Opera, Sep 2012 (Katya Kabanova, Longborough Festival Opera)

Seeing this Katya Kabanova, sung in Norman Tucker’s English translation and using Tony Burke’s skilfully reduced orchestration, two days after attending Glyndebourne’s new Vixen, I could not help thinking that, for all its technical wizardry, the Sussex festival’s Janacek was outclassed in every department by Longborough’s. The sets and costumes were by Richard Studer, sparse and simple and completely conjuring up the village dominated by the Volga, whose hypnotic theme permeates the opera from the start. Jonathan Lyness, who had conducted a fine Vixen at Longborough in 2008, drew superb and idiomatic playing from the orchestra, powerful, seductive and with a spine-tingling cutting edge from the upper strings. Lee Bisset’s wonderful portrayal of Katya, meanwhile, should ensure her entrée into any opera house in the world where this work is being performed. Not since Elena Prokina in 1994 have I experienced the role performed with such overwhelming erotic ecstasy in the singing combined with dramatic intensity. Bisset’s tone is thrilling, accurate and colourfully varied in all registers. She brought tears to the eyes with her childhood remembrances and confession… Louise Winter was a chilling Kabanicha and Jane Harrington was refreshingly delightful as the Kabanov foster-child Varvara…

Oxford Times, 27 June 2012 (Katya Kabanova, Longborough Festival Opera)

Longborough this week offers a thrilling, sometimes emotionally draining production of Leos Janacek’s Katya Kabanova… The dilemma is perfectly caught in the superb performance by soprano Lee Bisset… Confidently conducted by Jonathan Lyness, the production (directed and designed by Richard Studer) continues until Saturday.

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