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Monday 23 December 2013

Roberto Devereux with WNO

Bristol Hippodrome

The three Donizetti queens were never intended as a cycle, but the fact that they represent a historical succession and contain four of Donizetti's most vocally and dramatically formidable female roles gives them a peculiar fascination, and their subjects are of course currently particularly fashionable in this age of Philippa Gregory fever*. The part of Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux is considered by many voice mavens to be the most challenging Bel Canto assoluta role, which is to say nothing less than the most demanding role ever composed for a woman's voice. Every voice will find different things more or less difficult, but in many ways it's hard to disagree with this assessment - the part is a virtual catalogue vocal techniques, requiring a very wide range, the most intricate fioratura, all dispatched with a dramatic vocal weight, and all this for great stretches of time. Most importantly, it goes to greater extremes than any of the contemporaneous bel canto roles in these things. It's the rarest done of the three Queens, so there's a certain morbid fascination and thrill in seeing someone tackle it.

It's very interesting to have a principal female character in an opera who is an older woman. Though a fictionalised piece of history, the action of this opera takes place 1598-160, when Elizabeth would have been between the ages of 65-68. As is to be expected in a role this challenging, it really needs a singer in their prime, and Alexandra Deshortie is not even nearly Elizabeth's true age. To age herself she adopts a very unusual physicality in which her movements are very angular and powerful, her posture stooped, and she has a limp that comes and goes. I found it all a little artificial and couldn't quite buy into it, and I did wonder what inspired it. After seeing the opera I looked for eyewitness reports of the older Queen - contemporary descriptions of her countenance and bearing are surprisingly and brutally honest, but notably comment on her grace and statelyness into her last years, so it's difficult to know where this idea came from.

Allesandro Talevi's production is rather arch, both revelling in and satirizing the gothic melodrama of Donizetti's opera. Madeleine Boyd's sets present an abstracted, quasi-modernised Tudor style, rich in deliberate anachronisms to create a "stylised historical" aesthetic just as Donizetti's libretto and music is. Matthew Haskins' lighting designs create a gloomy atmosphere, but Talevi's physical direction can't quite match the steampunk design for moody, referential, knowing grimness. The costumes, also by Boyd, are a mish-mash of styles, periods and fabrics and there are obvious references to Vivienne Westwood in the drooping grandeur of Elizabeth's dresses. The informative preconcert talk given by Sophie Rashbrook pointed out further similarities to the fashion designer in the person of Elizabeth herself - both are eccentric, powerful, ginger, matriarchal doyennes. There are strong visual elements in the production - one example that sticks in the mind is a nice piece of shadow play where the gigantic figure of Elizabeth is contrasted with her tiny ladies in waiting. In Act I Robert has brought Elizabeth a tarantula from his travels, which crawls around its cage; in Act II Elizabeth takes her revenge in a giant mechanical spider which is almost the definition of badass, even if it is also puerile, camp and silly. The opera is tricky, because so much of the action has already occurred when the curtain is raised, and much of the drama is psychological - sadly there's not that much insight offered into any of the characters in this production.

The central performances were quite strong. Alexandra Deshorties is in the rare position of having the right sort of voice for the role and basically sings the notes with expression, even if it's not the most ingratiating or flexible voice you've ever heard. The role doesn't call particularly for a beautiful sound it has to be said, and Deshorties certainly has her moments of acid and steel, but largely she does a good job musically in an impossible role. Leah-Marian Jones also has a very large voice, and again though it is not timbrally beautiful, she provides a musically very satisfying portrayal of Sarah because she has such an excellent legato and can effect beautiful nuances in the vocal line while maintaining full vocal support - the voice becomes beautiful through her musicianship - something not altogether common. Leonardo Capalbo's vibrato is a little wide at all times for my tastes, but he's definitely a tenor of some vocal accomplishment. I found his portrayal of Roberto hammy and self involved, but that might have been the production. As the Duke of Nottingham David Kempster has one of those rock solid voices where you just know that every single note in the entire opera will be hit without any risk. Some will like unfussy, solid singing like this, and again it's no mean feat to sing this consistently, but I found the timbral palette very narrow and as a result was not that interested in the characterisation. Daniele Rustioni's conducting throughout the evening was decent, certainly better than most of the ROH's recent bel canto offerings, though dramatic tension is never raised above "moderate" and it's difficult to transcend the score's tootling dum-de-dum sections without more urgency.

I'm glad I saw it and enjoyed what I could take from the production, but this was a decidedly odd evening of opera that didn't quite hang together well enough. In other news, the Bristol Hippodrome, just like the Birmingham Hippodrome where I saw the superb Lohengrin last season with the WNO, is an excellent venue for opera with very good acoustics and great sightlines. If only London had venues like this!

*this didn't seem to convert to there being a younger audience on the night I went.

The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne on Tour


The Rape of Lucretia makes a return to Glyndebourne after a hiatus of 67 years, and for me it wasn't quite the triumphant revival that others have found it. The opera has never held its place in the repertoire despite the fact that it comes from Britten's most musically fertile decade; the score has many beauties, but the central problem is all too obvious - the fanciful, wanky libretto by Ronald Duncan which Britten has to work around, rather than with to make this a viable drama. (Britten cannot be excused in this - after Auden he was too proud and insecure to work collaboratively with creative artists of his own level, and his work suffered as a result*.) Lucretia represents a retreat from the splendid grandeur of Peter Grimes, a stripping down and thinning out in the post war years. These tendencies are of course essential to the character of all of Britten's work, so it's not a break with the expected, and the fundamental themes - loss of innocence, and society against the individual and the same as in all his other operas, though very unusually we're dealing with a woman protagonist and there's not a prepubescent boy in sight.

Fiona Shaw's production uses a single set which is suggestive of several layers of reality all lying on top of one other. The two narrators (the Male and Female Chorus) are archaeologists, themselves romantically involved, poring over the ancient walls of their dig. (Hmm... archaeologist narrators who become involved in the action - sounds a lot like Katie Mitchell's production of Written on Skin...). But as much as a historical excavation, Michael Levine's set also suggests a crime scene investigation. Shaw attempts to salvage the libretto by making the "historical" Greek characters earthy, gritty and human, bypassing entirely Duncan's florid language and purple prose by focussing on its content over its style. But this creates its own problems - part of the strange aesthetic of this piece is its dissociation and classical distancing of the characters and subject matter, which should grant the dramatic rupture of the crucial rape scene its shocking power. Again and again in this production the action we also see on stage directly contradicts what the libretto and music is telling us is happening. I couldn't figure out why this was, but the thwarting of the textual narrative is so overt that it can't have been due to carelessness - is Shaw showing us that the history that the archaeologists are piecing together is wrong in some important details? And simply ignoring the far-fetched words (e.g. the soldiers' egregious exchanges in the first scene) doesn't make them go away. Shaw makes it hard to take Lucretia's rape seriously because the characters aren't even addressing each other in the crucial scene, and there no sense of genuine threat from Duncan Rock's Tarquinius. Weirdly the rape makes the male archaeologist horny - even normal, healthy relationships are poisoned by this rape. There are other dramatic misfires - when Lucretia then tells her servants what to, the singers are singing but not communicating, and it's not obvious why the servants aren't getting what's going on. When David Soar's Collatinus finds out that his wife has killed herself there is absolutely no physical or aural reaction to be discerned in his character. All very strange - was this just the evening I went?

Claudia Huckle is a vocally pleasing Lucretia, possessing a genuine contralto voice of impressive colour. Unfortunately in the lower half of her voice she is repeatedly covered by the chamber orchestra - it's not the largest voice, but conductor Nicholas Collon could have done a lot more to help her out. Kate Valentine is vocally strong as the Female Chorus and an engaging stage presence. She is matched by Allan Clayton's Male Chorus who also sings admirably. Soprano Ellie Laugharne is one to watch in the small role of Lucia - singing as limpid, sweet and pure as this is always welcome; Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Bianca is also very good. The other men are more problematic. Duncan Rock's Tarquinius is acceptably sung, but as mentioned is totally without threat despite his powerful physicality. David Soar's Collatinus is also OK musically, but again there are dramatic issues. I have to say my suspicion is that the direction is off here - when lots of singers exhibit the same sort of problems, you have to assume the director is culpable. Oliver Dunn didn't on this occasion seem quite comfortable singing Junius. Britten's score seems translucent, brittle and thin in Nicholas Collon's hands. The direction is similar in feel, so it's not an unreasonable approach to take, but it's an evening light on lyricism, instrumental colour, and energy, and so doesn't make the case that this is one of Britten's forgotten masterpieces.

*he wasn't nearly so threatened by top level performers, hence the work with Rostropovich, Baker et al.

Photos (c) Richard Hubert-Smith/Glyndebourne

Sunday 1 December 2013

Parsifal at ROH (New Langridge Production)

photo copyright ROH/Telegraph

Parsifal is a tricky work. No one I know claims to fully understand it, and of Wagner's mature opus it's the one that gives me most trouble. The work is obviously exceptionally far-reaching intellectually, musically, emotionally, spiritually, but at times it also veers extremely close to utter absurdity. Seen in one light it is a clear summation of Wagner's lifelong intellectual/spiritual/musical concerns, but seen in another it repudiates the message of most of his previous work. All of Wagner's oeuvre is sex obsessed, but before Parsifal erotic love, however anguished, has been a source of salvation and redemption. The character of Parsifal shares many of the same characteristics as Siegmund and Siegfried, but finds himself most fully by rejecting sex, whereas for the previous heroes the opposite was true. That sex causes problems is nothing new in Wagner, but in Parsifal, without exception, sex leads only to anguish and bad consequences, and more than this, is the only source of evil that we witness. Before Parsifal, women have held an exalted position in Wagner's work, but in Parsifal they are figures of fear, temptation and evil. The opera is a comedy in the Christian sense (as in Grimald's Christus Redivivus, a "comoedia tragica", or slightly more tangentially Dante's The Divine Comedy) in that there is a happy ending after all the suffering - but it's the only Wagner opera where this happy ending is a return to society's status quo, a resounding affirmation of the going social order. By the end of the story (the opera starts in the middle of the story of the complete story in its fullest sense), fundamentally nothing has changed: it is implied that we have returned to the state of the good old days of Titurel's reign.

Wagner's musical material is the most fully integrated and closeknit in construction of any of his operas, every leitmotif simply derived from the unaccompanied melody that opens the work, and so by extension related to every other leitmotif. But in performance the themes are so entirely distinct in colour and shape, so characteristic of themselves, that we are aware every time we hear the Kundry motif say, or the Parsifal motif, or the Dresden Amen, to name but three - the result is anything but seamless and calls to mind Debussy's complaint of leitmotifs as "calling cards", though of course their working out is much more far reaching than this glib comparison suggests. Compare the similar usage of leitmotifs in Tristan (i.e. that every one derives from the opening phrase) and notice the very different aural effect that the earlier work has as each leitmotif blends and blurs into the indistinction of the compositional melos.*

This rambling prelude is another way of saying that I'm still trying to make sense of where all of these concerns fit in, and whether they are in fact worthy of consideration at all! And by extension I suppose, that though I enjoyed this ROH production, I'm still waiting for the the production of this opera that opens the gate to the work for me.** I like Parsifal, but I don't yet love it like I do Wagner's other mature operas. I understand some of what the piece is trying to say, but I certainly haven't reached that level of understanding that we reach with works that we really love where finally we discover ourselves within them, and the truth of the work becomes a truth in our own lives. 

Stephen Langridge's production is basically quite plain, though has enough novel touches to raise eyebrows of pleasant surprise or grumpy disapproval. It's updated certainly, but remains ahistorical and allegorical in feel. In Act I the Knights' sacred realm is represented by a clean square of consecrated ground on which a large cube rests, containing Amfortas's sick bed. This cube is lit so that sometimes we can see in, and sometimes not. This is used to reveal some shocking scenes: the moment of Amfortas's lovemaking with Kundry, occuring already in the sick bed he is later to occupy; later, at the mention of Klingor, we see the poor young man hunched on his infirmary bed, looking at his mutilated genitals with horror and loathing. During the prelude, flower maidens are seen watching Amfortas sleep, though they are soon chased away by suited guards.

The grail when it is revealed is not a chalice, but a young boy. I wondered whether this linked in with the modern idea of the grail as the genetic lineage of Christ, rather than the cup used at the last supper. During the grail ritual the child gets an incision in his side where Christ and Amfortas have previously been gored. I'm not sure what this substitution meant or added to the story - it was a strong image, but the symbolism of Parsifal needs clarification if anything, not further obfuscation! Maybe others got more out of this, but I felt like Gurnamenz's admonition of Parsifal when the latter fails to comprehend what he has seen was a bit unfair. I did like that Parsifal runs over to the boy after ritual, and clearly just feels sorry for the child, rather than seeing him as this mystic symbol - but he almost learns compassion too early for the plot, so the child is promptly whisked away. The ritual culminates in Gurnamenz's four young acolytes being armed for a religious war - they are given revolvers and dark clothing and seem to be part of a guerilla group.

Klingsor's realm in Act II is very similar to the Knights' realm - it also comprises a cube structure surrounded by very large trees. This time Klingor himself remembers his self castration as we once more witness the image I mentioned above. The lighting changes to a lurid magenta for the garden scene, the gaggle of flower maidens in tacky cocktail dresses. For me there wasn't enough contrast in the design between the glowing purity and sterile grandeur of the outer acts and voluptuary seductiveness of the garden, but the change is obvious at least, and we get the gist. There's a tiny moment of levity when the captivated Parsifal asks whether the girls are flowers, which here becomes another touchingly innocent moment for the character in the context of the modern dress. During Parsifal's moment of realisation after Kundry's kiss, we see Amfortas in his hospital bed, suddenly illuminated at a distance. Kundry's curse on Parsifal blinds him. When Parsifal reclaims the spear, Klingsor dies as his power is vanquished, but disappointingly his realm remains fully intact. Parsifal shuffles slowly offstage, unable to see his way back to the grail.

Parsifal's blindness is cured in Act III only after he is crowned by Gurnamenz and Kundry has washed his feet. Where the swan was buried in Act I, new shoots are growing. The Christ-child-grail has grown up, though is not here literally reunited with the spear. The temple has fallen into disrepair and the Grail Knights now dress slobbishly where they were previously in suits. After Amfortas is healed by Parsifal, the flowermaidens make a return, now dressed as respectable, dowdy frumps - maybe they'll start their own order, because the abstinent Knights show absolutely no interest. Finally a surprising moment: the healed and absolved Amfortas and Kundry leave hand in hand for pastures new. No death and no dove.

When this cast was announced I was worried because it sounded half excellent and half bad, but everyone proved much better than expected.

First and foremost Gerald Finley as Amfortas. This was simply one of the finest assumptions of any role I've ever seen. I can't imagine this beautiful, tortured music being more expressively sung, Finley's diction crystal clear, his legato flawless, the range of vocal colours enormous and subtle. He is a very fine actor too, and after his superlative Sachs at Glyndebourne, this great Mozartian seems to have joined the select group of great Wagnerians almost in one stride. A triumph and a privilege to hear.

René Pape makes an exceptionally fine voiced Gurnamenz - like Finley, he is capable of enormous dynamic and colouristic range, though this time the voice is a category or two larger. He must be the the most vocally accomplished Wagnerian bass working today. If I was quibbling I would say that he doesn't have the charisma or acting ability of a John Tomlinson, but perhaps his heart was not in this production - there have been rumours of tensions with Pappano during rehearsals. I also find his diction muzzy. 

Now onto the two singers that had been cause for concern based on their recent performance history. Simon O'Neill's voice has been pinched and nasal (though always rock solid) in every performance I've seen him in from the last two years, but this represents a real return to form for him. The sound is heroic again, it has more colour, and he's as secure as ever. Still not the most luscious tenor, but this was very decent indeed. Even better was Angela Denoke as Kundry, whose well acted 2012 ROH Salome had been vocally close to disastrous; here she sounds like she has a new set of vocal chords, and does a very fine job overall in this exceptionally difficult role. In the first act, she brought a gruff, mezzo like darkness to her racked vocal lines, the voice never pushing or wobbly, and the chest voice satisfyingly present. In Act II, she manages to sound very seductive, the sound burnished, large and liquid - the transformation from Act I is remarkable and again the wobble of old excised. Only in the final stretches of the act, some of the most extreme vocal writing in all of Wagner, did she come to occasional grief on the high notes. It's unfortunate that this is the last significant stretch of music that the character sings (In Act III she has just two words) because it's also what one inevitably remembers, and though this passage was basically fine here, before it she had been quite excellent. A delightful surprise to find both in such good form.

It seems that bad guy roles in Wagner attract two sorts of interpretations - bellowing, and whining. Willard White tends strongly towards the former as Klingsor, but his voice is holding up very well for a singer of his age, and though the fundamental sound of his voice is now hard and loud, he actually does far more with the role than bellow. He makes an effort with the diction, but it never sounds truly idiomatic, and like Papé he remains difficult to understand. Robert Lloyd is impressive and orotund as Titurel, a pleasure to hear him sounding so good. The smaller roles are all well taken. The ROH chorus are uncharacteristically wobbly in places, but generally make an impressive sound.

Antonio Pappano is perfectly fine in the pit, holds everything together, and the orchestra make a lovely sound throughout. The singers are always extremely audible and well supported. But that's it. The moments of true wonder just never seem to arrive. Considering the level of the artists on stage, and that the ROH is meant to be one of the greatest houses in the world, this doesn't feel like enough. Pappano was better in the earthier realm of the Ring last season, but Wagner is not his natural territory.

Recommended for an excellent cast and a decent, if not opinion changing production. Amazingly, it's the only Wagner at the major British houses this season so get your fill.

*It should also be noted that the leitmotifs in Tristan mostly refer to abstract nouns rather than characters.
**I've yet to see Herheim's...

Satyagraha at ENO


Of the American minimalists, Glass is the composer with the least native talent perhaps, but he is the one with the most unmistakable musical profile. Where Reich and Riley have continued to explore and develop their particular musical interests over the past half century, each producing a varied and wide ranging oeuvre, Glass has stuck steadfastly and virtually exclusively to his energetic yet static arpeggiated diatonic chords. Glass's music inspires bafflement, tedium and disgust in many listeners, and is with some regularity (and not unfairly) accused of mindlessness, banality and extreme poverty of invention. But to do this is to miss the point and ask of the music something which it is patently not trying to achieve. He is not interested in refining, or improving, or developing - either within each piece, or within his oeuvre as a whole. Unconcerned also with technical felicity, his orchestration is just as clumsy now as it was in the beginning of his career, his ear for instrumental colour crude and unnuanced. Similar things could be said for his harmony, melodic invention and rhythmic sense. This is all moot. His music cannot be adequately criticised in conventional terms because it is manifestly not playing the same game as most classical music. An interesting case.

The minimalist composer Tom Johnson said that his composition teacher Morton Feldman had encouraged him in the late 60s to "start with notes". This idea, expressed as it was during/after the avant guard of the 1950s and 60s, was first an encouragement to make "notes" rather than "sounds" the foundation of music (as Johnson fascinatingly goes on to explain, notes are precise and objective entities, while sounds are entirely subjective and unrepeatable phenomena). But Feldman's exhortation is also an encouragement to make aural phenomena rather than ideas the starting point of musical composition. In contrast to this view, Feldman's closest composer friend, John Cage, represents the extreme aesthetic stand point of music being the expression or working out of an intellectual idea. In many instances, the entire content, meaning, form and interest of a piece by Cage is the intellectual idea and the subsequent aural events of the piece are almost incidental and uninteresting by comparison. Glass is the opposite end of this spectrum. This is not to say that Glass's music is totally abstract, without influence from the world of ideas - the influences and musical concerns, however simple, are obvious, unconcealed and undigested. But these never become the point of music, never affect its fundamental style, are never inherent in the intrinsic "meaning" of the notes, and by extension of the total work. For all its unmistakable character and single minded hammering, his music is astonishingly bland and unsuggestive psychologically and intellectually - there's no sense of him ever trying to depict striving, seduction, sorrowing, or any other abstract noun that music has the power to so strongly suggest in us.

Rather than intellectual ideas then, his music comes at us as an exploration and celebration of the most fundamental aspects of music. Chief amongst these is the diatonic chord. Harmonic tension and therefore progression exists only as an insubstantial ghost in the background of this music, as does tonal development and therefore traditional structure. Diatonic (usually triadic) chords become abstracted entities, entirely non functional as harmony, repeated and expanded to such lengths as to allow us to fully hear every aspect of them. There is no rhythmic interest in the sense that rhythm might be explored as an expressive parameter (as it is by say Stravinsky, Messiaen or Reich), but the music's pulsating, throbbing repetition is celebrated for its particular feeling, the pleasure of it simple yet powerful. Pop music in all its guises and varieties represents a superb vindication of the power and overwhelming popularity of the physical and sexual power of strong regular pulse.

Part of the problem of Glass's oeuvre is that his music is performed in the context of classical music venues, when in actual fact its aesthetic is closer in technique, intent and effect to club music than it is to anything in the canon of classical music (Western Art music, call it what you will). If it doesn't on its own induce a mind transcendent ecstasy in every listener, then it might be heard to best effect, or "make most sense" as it were, in the context of taking ecstasy, MDMA or a favourite mind altering narcotic. This is not a glib suggestion, nor a slight on the music, merely a statement of fact deriving from the aspects discussed above as well as from the music's origins in non western trance music, its similarity to western "trance" music (not just the specific genre that that implies), and the cultural context of 60s/70s liberal America in which his style crystallised.

Onto the opera at hand. It's a bit of a misnomer to call Satyagraha an opera. There's an orchestra, choir and soloists in costume surrounded by a set, but other than the physical facts of what lies in front of the audience, there are few things that link the experience of seeing it to what we expect from standard operatic fair. There is no plot as such, no dialogue, no characterisation. One would be hard pressed to tell that the singer who portrays Ghandi was Ghandi were it not for the trademark glasses and skimpy white get up. Instead the work proceeds as a series of tableaux each based around a single intellectual and musical idea. The audience is invited to fill these vast, empty spaces with what they want or need from the music - listening becomes an act of collaboration. In a Wagner opera, everything is given to us - plot, character, subject are all embodied in the music, a meaning attached to and inherent in every musical phrase - to large extent his operas come pre-interpreted for us. The audience must submit themselves to it and accept what they are presented with if they are to experience the work in the fullest way possible. Debussy, the reluctant Wagnerian, in Pelléas et Mélisande produced an opera that is a distillation of etiolation, thinness, emptiness, which requires the exact opposite of its audience. We need to be fully engaged with ourselves when we watch his opera and fill in the blanks with our own meanings, psychology, in a word, ourselves. According to Robin Holloway, it is this that gives this frigid work its elusive but strangely moving character. Perhaps surprisingly, the Dionysian Glass is an ally of Debussy in this moving a step further along this road towards poverty of material, by providing only a title and vaguest of subject matters - there is no dramatic situation, character - and almost no musical content*. Glass does not even provide a language we can hold onto. The libretto is in Sanskrit, and as it was composed in 1980, before the age of surtitles, we can safely assume that Glass isn't particularly concerned about whether we understand the words or not, since Sanskrit is hardly common currency in the venues the opera is likely to be performed in.** Effectively, the listener is given carte blanche to imagine anything they like whilst watching the opera, and since the music is almost devoid of surface interest we are given the space and time to reflect on the images we are presented with, and the broad subject matter at hand.

All this makes the opera either a gift or a real challenge for a director, depending on one's point of view. The director becomes as much a collaborator as an interpreter. Director Phelim McDermott has worked with Designer Julian Crouch to create a compelling version of the piece, visually strong yet ambiguous enough, and never pushing the music to do something which it can't support. Costumes are Edwardian and so of the "correct" period for the opera, but sets and action remain steadfastly symbolic, everyone moving in slow motion. There is no psychological action, and the text, projected into the set, is all aphoristic in character. Deriving from the Baghavad Gita, the text is sometimes put by Glass to embarrassingly jejune political use - the capitalists of Act II are a ludicrous caricature. Similarly the morality that the text espouses is all part of the horrendously repressive, socially controlling nature of the caste system that was a necessary principle for the founding of Hinduism. Abstract battle scenes are presented on stage with huge puppets, but the idea of non violent protest (which is part of the meaning of the word Satyagraha) isn't clearly presented. Figures emerge from sellotape and newspaper, the latter a recurrent motif of the show. One particularly memorable image is a recycling waterfall of newspaper (see top image above). The point is, none of these things have fixed meanings, but merely produce suggestions, things to contemplate as visual or symbolic phenomena. The final tableau is quite beautiful - a clouded sky, video projected, with a black man preaching from a great height to an imagined crowd with his back to us (presumably Martin Luther King rather than Malcolm X in the context of the word Satyagraha). The rising scalic figure that Ghandi sings is perhaps the work's most beautiful and hopeful musical idea. In a work of this size and sort, one can't avoid being bored occasionally, but it should be much more boring than it is here. I personally don't respond to Glass's music or ideas very strongly, so I didn't much enjoy the experience as a whole, but this is a very decent production of this piece.

The musical performance is basically good. For all its simplicity, this music is deceptively challenging to sing and play - the stamina required to execute identical music figures again and again (each iteration of course constantly inviting direct comparison to the last) and the presence of mind to count huge numbers of bars are challenges taken to excruciating extremes here. Alan Oke is mixed as Ghandi, clearly committed, but he took too long to warm up during his first scene, singing out of tune in both of his extended monologues. Intonation is even dicier for one of the sopranos, painfully flat in each successive repetition, ruining a couple of sequences, the singer apparently unable to hear or correct the problem***. Most of the cast sing accurately however, which is the most that can be asked of this music, eschewing as it does opportunities for expressive affekt. Conductor Stuart Stratford keeps things under control most of the time, and doesn't try to make the music more interesting via dynamic contrast or sharpening the aural surface - which is either a good or a bad thing depending on what you want! The orchestra do an astonishing job stamina wise, showing no evidence of tiring at all throughout the evening.

Photos (c) Tristram Kenton, Clive Barda, Alastair Muir

*Of course in aural effect, music more different than Debussy's fragrant, subtle, shimmering evanescence, and Glass's propulsive, vulgar, primary colour solidity is hard to imagine.
**Further evidence of this attitude: Ghandi in fact spoke English in South Africa where the "action" of the opera is "set" - Glass is not interested in representing history or characters here).
***cf. Michael Jackson in Santa Claus is Coming to Town or Anita Ward in Ring My Bell.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

The Magic Flute at ENO (new McBurney production)


When I saw Hytner's "classic" production of The Magic Flute last season, I was mystified as to its popularity - a straighter, less probing staging it would be hard to imagine, and the set literally creaked and groaned. This new McBurney production is a real step up in terms of theatricality, interpretation, and crucially for this opera, sense of fun. The music of The Magic Flute is of course glorious, but the story has rarely made as much sense as here - this is a major addition to the ENO's roster of productions, and I look forward to seeing it again in coming seasons.

Die Zauberflöte is a far more problematic piece than its popularity suggests. The main issues lie in the libretto. Tamino, the "hero" of the piece, has essentially no autonomy and so in most productions doesn't have an engaging dramatic arc. He faithfully carries out every order he gets from the authority figures in the piece - first from the Queen of the Night, then from the Speaker, then from Sarastro. Every problem in the opera is solved by Deus ex Machina devices (the magic flute and the magic bells) rather than by the characters' ingenuity, moral fortitude or bravery - the fact that each object is used so often means that the moral message of the piece is progressively weakened and undermined. Pamina does slightly more in the way of decision making and action, but her choices are also very prescribed. Even Papageno, the linchpin (and real protagonist) of the opera, doesn't get many choices, but he at least goes on a clear moral and spiritual journey. I like the moral flip that we are supposed to make midway - we make an assumption about the forces of good and bad during the first few scenes which is subsequently subverted and then inverted as the opera progresses. But I've never really bought the idea of Die Zauberflöte as being a monument to glorify Freemasonry. The plot is so abstruse in the second act and Sarastro's shadowy cadre so morally ambiguous, that it's hard to imagine that Mozart seriously intended this opera as an affirmation of the Enlightenment values which the Freemasons claim to embody. Sarastro's music may be noble and clearheaded, but I wonder how many people really feel that the ending is a moral victory, or that it's obvious that Tamino has achieved something worthwhile.

In Simon McBurney's production, the overture starts before the lights have dimmed. The pit is partially raised so that we see all the orchestral musicians - it feels ramshackle and intimate and signals a sincere interest to marry not just stage and pit, but musicians and audience also. At the side of a stage is a puppet theatre with a film camera that projects the live puppetry onto the stage, expanded to fantastic size. A gaggle of performers sit at the side of the pit and it's not initially clear what they're for. At the appearance of Papageno, they transform into a flock of birds in the most simple and therefore wondrous manner possible. Every time Papageno plays his pipes there's a lovely cascade of tweets and cuckoos, nature exploding into song at the enchanting sound of this instrument. Sound effects abound throughout the spoken dialogue which, with the moody, stark lighting, engender a much darker atmosphere than is usually imagined in this opera. There's almost too much to mention on the design side, and it's wonderful to see direction, set designs (Michael Levine), lighting designs (Jean Kalman) and video designs (Finn Ross) all working so closely together - the whole conception has a satisfying unity. The production doesn't quite sustain the sheer density of beautiful ideas that are packed into the first 20 minutes, and not everything works perfectly - often the delay on the camera relay was too great for instance and the sequences that were timed to the music just didn't come off. But remarkably, this very strong visual aesthetic never once overpowers the story telling and drama, and in fact helps make it one of the clearest production of The Magic Flute I've ever seen. Part of this is also in the English translation - there are a lot of very helpful additions that flesh out the story, update the comedy, and try to make more sense of the undertones in the opera. It's a risk, but it pays off.

The Queen of The Night is depicted as an old lady, rapidly decaying with age throughout her three scenes - first brandishing a walking stick during her opening aria, then pushed in on a wheelchair for "Der Hölle Rache", and finally she appears as a dessicated, decrepit shadow, just as she is vanquished. Pamina is not the meek vision of innocent youth and radiant femininity that we often see her portrayed as - she has more temperament here and there are moments when she is almost as commanding as her mother. Tamino is his usual bland self unfortunately, and a weak point is his first vision of Pamina from the Three Ladies (a tricky point in the drama to be sure) - he barely looks at the portrait and his rapturous overtures seem jarringly sudden. The actual staging of this part is exceptionally beautiful however - Pamina's subtly moving (video) portrait is projected onto a gently waving sheet held out by one of the Ladies - another really magical moment. The Three Boys here already look ancient, their wisdom eerily advanced for beings who are meant to be children. Sarastro's organisation is appealingly sinister but never cartoonish or sober to the point of dullness. Roland Wood's Papageno is the clear emotional and comedic centre of the show, holding the story together and providing some much needed earthiness to the exalted machinations of the rest of the plot. I loved that his hair was matted with flecks of bird shit - little details like this make a production live. The final trials for Tamino and Pamina, traditionally another place where the drama of this opera falters, actually seem like trials here - huge projections with thunderous sound are used to create the perils that the power of the magic flute then overcomes - this simple delay in when the music starts makes this piece of the narrative so much clearer and more effective.

The cast are all decent, and there are a couple of exceptional performances. Roland Wood has already been mentioned as Papageno - his grimly comic attitude, and excellent singing make him a pleasure to watch. James Creswell is in luxuriantly rounded voice as Sarastro, the timbre even right to the bottom of the range. The night I went, as the Queen of the Night Cornelia Götz sang the most accurately tuned staccati in alt I've ever heard, but the middle voice where the role mainly sits is extremely underpowered by comparison. She has the smallest voice of all the cast members which never quite seems right in this fire spitting role. Devon Guthrie's Pamina has endearing moments and is basically good, but some smudgey legato lines fail to make her character's crystalline music reverberate with the poignance that it can. Ben Johnson's Tamino is musically also fine, but physically and dramatically clumsy. The Three Ladies of Eleanor Dennis, Clare Presland and Rosie Aldridge make a beautifully coordinated team. Conductor Gergely Madaras is this production's weakest link - nothing he does is bad exactly, but this is a bland, undifferentiated view of this most colourful of scores. One laments again the recent passing of Mackerras and Davis who still had so much to say in this music, always with such singular character.

All in all this is a most recommendable production of this opera - traditionalists and progressives will both find much to enjoy here.

Saturday 9 November 2013

L'enfant prodigue and Francesca di Foix at Guildhall

(second night casts)

Debussy was just 21 when he wrote L'enfant prodigue, but already we sense the makings of a very individual composer. Though the inspiration is patchy, the scoring is gorgeous, and there are moments everywhere that remind of the mature Debussy. Massenet is felt as a strong presence - the suave, luxuriant beauty of the writing make this influence unmistakable. Also present are the orientalisms of Rimsky Korsakov's Sheherazade, and Ravel's soft porn Shéhérazade also, until you remember that this score predates both. Also eerily presaged is Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne - a backward looking opus to be sure, but Debussy's woodwind arabesques are uncannily familiar if one knows the later work. This nexus of intoxicating musical associations paints the right picture of ripe sensuality and fantasist nostalgia: beautiful yet slightly lymphatic.

The foundations of Pelléas et Mélisande are here already then, and even the vocal lines point the way towards the fractured calm of that masterpiece. This piece however is a sort of lyric scene or cantata, and was quite obviously never meant to be staged - very little happens, and it's not the fascinating "nothing" of Pelléas - the story is just thin on the ground and lacks conflict. There are large orchestral interludes too which need to be imaginatively dealt with if staged. Three characters hardly get any lines at all, though are touchingly acted by Robin Bailey, Alison Rose and Frazer B. Scott.

Yannis Thavoris's sets and David Howe's lighting designs are clean, airy and quite beautiful but director Stephen Barlow has not managed to make the piece live as a drama. Acting from all is physically unconvincing - it all feels choreographed rather than motivated by psychology or inner necessity - lots of vague drifting about which just seems like an excuse to make use of the whole stage. One bit that particularly jarred: why on earth would a well to do 19th century society lady go straight down to embrace an apparently dead tramp, before she realises that it's her son? The prodigal son in question is suspiciously Jesus-ey looking, and after his reconciliation with his father, he in fact walks on water at the end, before we see a sort of Last Supper scene as a final tableau. Not really sure if anything really specific was meant by these allusions, but the music by this stage has descended into maudlin Victorian clap-trap, so it's hard to take seriously. Still, the best bits of the score are really worth hearing, so it's nice for the piece to get an airing.

Lauren Fagan is in lush voice in the role of mother, Lia. She is very controlled, possessing a wide dynamic range, excellent intonation, and is able to admirably mould the voice to the dramatic situation, though at this stage, in French at least, there's almost no legato line to speak of. Still, a very promising voice. Piran Leg as the father is able to sing a longer line, and has an attractive tone, but there's a risk of singing everything loudly. Gérard Schneider is quite impressive as the Prodigal son, Azael, with an expansive, manful, lyric tenor voice which will surely develop into something bigger with time.

Just as silly, but now deliberately so, is Donizetti's knightly comedy Francesca di Foix, a clichéd story centered around teaching a jealous husband a lesson. Francesca di Foix has been locked up in the Count's castle for too long, and so a plot is hatched to rescue her (naturally involving poor disguises). Then there's a largely unrelated tournament, and of course the Count is forced by his pride to out his wife, thereby hoisting himself on his own petard. He then apologises and it's a happy ending.

Barlow is much more sure footed in his direction of this opera. The King is the leader of "the house of Valois", here a fashion house displaying its 1525 Spring-Summer season. The Count is the shop manager, the page and Duke shop assistants. Thavoris's costumes are a mixture of 16th century garb and contemporary high fashion which works with the set to give the whole a funny and very distinctive aesthetic. Francesca has been trapped in her home by the Count, and when she enters she is wearing an Abaya and Niqab - that is her clothes and face (excluding her eyes) are covered with fabric. When she realises that the Count has been saying that the reason for her incarceration is her hideous looks she becomes enraged, pulls off the veil, and is totally sold on the revenge plot idea. (It's weird that the Count doesn't show any signs of being Islamic, and actually this Islamic oppression side of the story is quickly forgotten after this scene. In fact, when Francesca casts off her trappings, that her liberation is provided by the vacuous world of consumerism is surely a wry dig at the whole idea of women's liberation.) The Tournament is made into a tennis tournament, replete with ultra camp dance routines. The choreography throughout is maybe the funniest part of the show - this time it is actually intended as choreography, and adds nicely to the characterisation. The attention to detail in how the chorus members dress and act is extremely nice also, as we follow and recognise background characters through the story - the hipster, the "rich bitch", the model, the young fashionistas etc. etc. A fun show.

The best of the cast was Szymon Wach's Count, who doesn't get an aria, but manages to draw the most detailed and funny character, and is able to act with the voice just as ably as he can physically. As Francesca Lauren Zolezzi has a very light coloratura voice, extremely agile, apparently untaxed by Donizetti's high flying fioritura, but intonation is very often not quite centred. Acting wise she convinces as a woman who knows what she wants, though her transformation from meek bride to no nonsense game player is a bit of a stretch. As Edmondo (the Page), Marta Fontanals-Simmons manages almost to outdo Zolezzi with her high coloratura gymnastics in her dance routine scene with the male chorus, but in general the role seemed to lie a bit lower than was ideal. Joseph Padfield is charming as the King, and has a very pingy Italianate bass, well suited to this repertoire. Tenor Samuel Smith shows similar vocal promise in the small role of the Duke.

Both pieces are worth seeing for different reasons. This cast has a show on Monday 11th remaining.

photo (c) Clive Barda/Guildhall

Saturday 2 November 2013

Wozzeck at the ROH


Keith Warner's production of Wozzeck reminds me somewhat of his production of The Ring. There are lots of ideas, many of them quirky and thought provoking, but he seems so intent on them sometimes that he loses sight of the bigger picture. The libretto of Wozzeck, like the play on which it is based, has an unconventional narrative structure and Warner does at least provide a clear line through the action by reducing the number of settings and using repeating motifs which bind the whole to some extent. Wozzeck's house is suggested by three pieces of shabby furniture, and a screen slides across to demarcate the space, producing a forbidding "black box" environment. The silent child hardly leaves the stage and becomes a real focus, though we don't much see how this abuse is affecting him. The rest of the opera's world seems to be the domain of the doctor, who is the architect of Wozzeck's madness, and the manipulator in charge of Wozzeck's other oppressors. Every surface of the doctor's room is covered with oversized ceramic tiles, miniaturising Wozzeck, and suggesting less a laboratory than an abattoir. The greatest beauty of this production is the back wall: a huge angled mirror which reflects an invisible scene behind the stage. It gives the simple yet startling illusion of people being able to walk, dance and lie on a vertical wall, the effect is sometimes magic and dreamlike, and sometimes deeply disorienting. An additional point on the design: it was amazing how much covering the ROH's fussy, gold proscenium arch with black panels transforms the space - suddenly it feels much more modern and serious. An object lesson in psychological framing.

For Warner, Wozzeck's story doesn't represent a progression from sanity to madness, and neither do we see Marie's descent from fidelity to adultery - we enter into both of these stories fully formed, and then just also happen to witness the murder that results of them. It's not clear what, if any, point is trying to be made by this. In reducing the number of locations, Warner also strips the work of some important social contexts - the party scene takes place in Wozzeck and Marie's house, and Marie barely notices it going on - it could almost be her hallucination. The drum major and Captain hardly seem to be militaristically involved - again a thread of social complexity is undernourished.

Wozzeck's death is weirdly mishandled - he dies in a tank of water, but it neither seems like an accidental drowning nor desperate suicide - when he Keenleyside finished singing he just ducked under the water and without struggle became still. Hard to make sense of. Despite all these niggles, the show as a whole isn't at all bad, I just felt that Wozzeck, infinitely rich as it is, could be much more than this. I still enjoyed it very much, but then I am a Wozzeck superfan.

Simon Keenleyside's Wozzeck has moments of real inspiration in the physical characterisation, but the voice sounds very hard, and he bellows his way through a lot of this score. Karita Matilla's Marie is much better sung than I expected based on her recent Salome final scene - the voice is more stable than then, though the slight hoarseness and lost of lustre is hard to ignore. Still, she is as physically committed as Keenleyside, and so is a compelling presence. Their relationship is hard to credit though. John Tomlinson makes a highly energetic doctor, one so sensually involved with his experiments that his reminder to himself about quelling his passions (lest he be unscientific) might well be a common self admonition for him. Vocally the role still sits entirely within his means, and the German diction remains as peerless as ever. Gerhard Siegel is an exceptionally loud Captain, though has to look at the conductor very often, and ends up shouting quite a lot. Endrik Wottrich is luxury casting as the Drum Major, as impressively heroic and powerful vocally as he looks physically. Robin Tritschler reveals a lovely voice as the Half-wit, consolidating my admiration for this young tenor after a recent Wigmore Hall recital.

Possibly the best part of this revival is Mark Elder's wonderful contribution from the pit - the ROH orchestra sound like a million dollars and play with a dazzling precision and range of colour. Elder brings extraordinary beauty and sensuality to Berg's writing when it calls for it; in other places the orchestra hums, shrieks and wails with terrifying force. So often I wished I could just hear the orchestra without the voices. Is Elder in the running for the ROH principal conductor position? He should be.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Christian Gerhaher at the Wigmore Hall


I have already been twice humbled by too high expectations for Wigmore hall recitals this season. After the wondrous Anne Schwanewilms lunch time recital I attended and gushingly reviewed in September, I greatly looked forward to her recital a couple of weeks later where she stood in last minute for an indisposed Angelika Kirchschlager. Though Schwanewilms did some gorgeous things that evening, including a beautiful performance of the Wesendonck Lieder, she didn't overall live up to my own hype - this time the same Debussy set felt blanker, her Strauss op.69 were inconsistent, and some of those mannerisms had crept back. My disappointment was my own doing entirely - having such high expectations going into a concert is rarely conducive to having an enjoyable evening.
Unfortunately I repeated my mistake with this Christian Gerhaher recital. (My lesson is now fully learned). I really admired Gerhaher's wonderful Olivier at the ROH's Capriccio in concert last season, and have also enjoyed many of his CDs - the unpressured naturalness of the tone, and the sensitive expression have made a strong impression in the past. But this recital was a hard slog.

The recital comprised almost 30 Schumann songs, 6 by Fauré and then 5 contemporary songs by Jorg Widmann excerpted from a cycle of six entitled "Das heisse Herz". I yield to few in my admiration of late Schumann, and cringe when his late music is dismissed off hand as it so often still is. The op.107 songs are not easy going fare, depressive, introverted miniatures that they are, but they were bizarrely approached by Gerhaher, who in his incisive, clipped delivery seemed keen to impress upon us the precise rhythmic values of every note, as if rhythm was the most interesting and important aspect of this music. The word in string playing would be "portato", and the effect here was of very self consciously metric speech. A sfz on every high note began to disconcert also - I think I simply couldn't understand the interpretive choices he was making, and found the eschewal of legato difficult to countenance.

The dour mood of these was continued into the Dichterliebe, which had none of the humour, youthful schmerz and ardour that many artists have traditionally imbued them with, and instead were dispatched as if they were Mahler or Wolf at their most dejected and hollow. The fast songs became bristling and irate, the slower ones grimly pained and often on the verge of speech rather than melody. A unique take, but there was just not enough variety of approach for me, either emotionally or technically in terms of vocal colours. The vocal apparatus is very polished indeed, but it becomes very predictable also (every "o" for instance sounds absolutely identical, as the mouth snaps forward into a tight ring so that the vowel can be perfectly separated from the other vowels) and there's no enjoyment of the immense expressive or colouristic potential of the German language. Above all everything is just so serious, so stolidly lacking in charm - Heine's irony emerges here embittered rather than laughingly parodic, and Schumann's vocal lines languish undernourished and uncared for. It's not bad singing, but it's not enjoyable singing either.

Another set of Schumann songs in the second half unfortunately brought to mind the thought that however wonderful the songs might be, Schumann's range is so narrow when compared to Schubert's. My personal favourites are the op.39 Eichendorff Liederkreis, whose fresh vernality seems inexhaustible, but though I do admire most of the rest of Schumann's song oeuvre very much indeed, a recital this length of Schubert would be hard to make so dutiful and stern.

The Fauré set contained in the second half should have been an opportunity for lightness, contrast, grace, fluidity, and certainly Gerold Huber's piano playing lifted here, but neither artist gave into the smiling sensuality of these songs, and again, Gerhaher seemed embarrassed to truly enjoy the text and beauty of the words. More successful were Jorg Widmann's songs, a heavily Ivesian homage to the entire German Lied tradition, mocking sobreity interspersed with gawky jokes, and moments of real lovelyness.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Madama Butterfly at ENO


Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly is very popular on both sides of the pond (the Met uses it too), and it's easy to see why. It's an opera production that feels modern in its bright, bold design, balancing spareness and lushness with simple elegance, whilst not messing with the opera's central story at all, or questioning Puccini's taste in tackling this subject matter (or indeed the audience's enjoyment of it). What it doesn't do is try to negotiate the very uncomfortable cultural problems at the work's heart, nor make sense of the work's bizarre psychology and dramatic foundations. Instead it delivers everything that a traditionalist might ask of the experience of a Madama Butterfly.

First then, the design. Michael Levine's set is in essence rather sparse - the black raked floor, slightly mirrored ceiling, and sliding screens offer a neutral backdrop for the extremely colourful items of set dressing, lighting and costumes that fill it. It's obvious that all these elements have been worked on very closely together by the team - the lighting particularly by Peter Mumford makes sophisticated use of the set to create some often extraordinary effects. Hang Feng's costumes can be more problematic, but also raise more questions - some look quite realistic/historical, with their artful prints and elegant cuts. Butterfly's followers on the other hand wear the gaudiest colours and designs imaginable, and with their card board cut out wigs, the inspiration can only have come from Japanese anime cartoons, which had reached a fever pitch in Western popularity when the production premièred. Although the result of the anime influence is jarring and ugly, this cartoonish design matches the cartoony music that Puccini composes in the first scene for the Japanese characters - so obviously trying to capture some surface exoticisms, but wholly failing to grasp the aesthetic or feel of the alien culture. Somehow it works. Pinkerton's Japanese looking costume in the opening scene is a nice touch, especially when contrasted with Sharpless' stolidly European attire - Pinkerton is really getting into playing with this culture, "trying it on", without ever trying to properly integrate trying to understand it. The metaphor is clear.

paper wigs and anime costumes on kneeling followers,
visible lighting (see below)

click on the images for a closer look at what I mean.

The lighting can get very sugary indeed, the stage drowned in a welter of pinks and lilacs, as cherry blossoms, lanterns and paper cranes litter the stage. Whether deliberately or not, the divide between genuine beauty and gaudy kitsch is continually probed, broken and remade in this production, and though the middle act tends strongly towards the latter, I did wonder whether this was a comment on the music and whether we were being subtly played with by Minghella here. There are clues - the lighting from the side of the stage is clearly visible throughout and constantly on the move, so our attention is drawn to it: we always see the means of construction of this luxuriant fantasy land, which in turn invites us to do the same with the score and opera as a whole. Those not inclined to this sort of probing need not pursue this course of reflection, and again, it's difficult to tell whether it's intentional, but I appreciated the fact that it made me think this way - not every directorial choice must be conscious for it to be enjoyed!

Also problematic, but yet again revealing, is the use of traditional Japanese puppets. As well as their use for some minor characters, Butterfly's son is presented to us as a very mobile, semi realistic Bunraku puppet, dressed as an American sailor and waving an American flag. When wrenched from his original cultural/artistic context, Cio Cio San's puppet offspring seems freakish and alien, especially when placed in such close proximity to living, breathing people: the little Homunculus occupies an uncanny valley, where cuteness is mingled with an innate feeling of disgust and revulsion at the human simulacrum. The unnerving effect of this is a psychological rather than a cultural one, but the message becomes confused on the way - is this mild discomfort we feel intentional or not? Exactly how we are meant to relate to this purported piece of Japanese culture is ambiguous and troubling.

Overall, I often wished that the design had been simpler and bolder - the most visually effective and beautiful moments occur when the characters are highlighted onstage against a dark background, and the strong colours aren't washed in a sea of saccharine pastels. The dance scene which opens the production (photos of which are very often used to advertise it) is almost the best part of the show for this reason - the four red ribbons that emanate from the dancer's torso are predictably (but very effectively) mirrored at the end, during Cio Cio San's final scene - in each case the intense focus on the artist creates a spellbinding effect of concentration and attention, something which certainly does seem to be a feature of the genuine Japanese culture that I have encountered.

So it's often beautiful, and as viewers we aren't made to feel guilty about it. Sighs of relief. The story is told well by Minghella, and revival director Sarah Tipple has both the soprano who premièred the production and a fine Suzuki to build her production around. Not all the singers can be coaxed into good acting, but Tipple makes sure that the important emotional scenes hit home.

But what about what this staging ignores? Pinkerton is painted in a bad light, as is surely the intention of the libretto - he's a Western voyeur, and worse than that a flagrant exploiter. But wait, aren't we also Western voyeurs? And, we are dealing with Geishas here, the marriage contracts are being handed out by the Japanese; no one ought to be under any false pretences about what is going on here. The opera revolves around sex tourism - this was known then, and it's known now. (Whether you want to add paedophilia into the mix or not is up to you). Given that everyone else in Cio-Cio San's society seems to understand this situation, and Cio Cio San doesn't appear to be in a state of madness, isn't there an interesting psychology to be explored here? The story very obviously centres around the conflict between eternal devotional love (Cio Cio San) and fleeting sexual desire (Pinkerton), but wouldn't it be interesting to probe why this conflict has arisen? Is Pinkerton really the party that's in the wrong? I think he is partly, as he's a pure hedonist and should surely realise that Cio Cio San thinks this is something that it isn't, and he certainly also enjoys the power he has over her to a sinister degree. But on the other hand maybe he thinks that she's just acting the part well, and he's just doing what all his friends are no doubt doing too. This is a widespread cultural phenomenon we're dealing with here, not a one off: she is being sold to him, legally, as a temporary wife. No one else misunderstands this but Cio Cio. Why? Her mania of devotion is fascinating, and it's frustrating that so many productions just take this at face value, while so few seem to be interested in the roots of this phenomenon. How does Cio Cio use her experience to serve herself? She constructs a huge edifice of victimhood around which to centre her life; whether she does this consciously or not is a further matter for fruitful exploration. When people question her she either ignores them or threatens them with death. She is a fantasist with an extremely unhealthy attachment to her dreams who uses her fanatical devotion as a crutch against her family, and fall from society (a double fall - it happens both pre and during the opera). Her story is heart rending, but it is also self inflicted. This is key. If we don't own up to this, it seems to me that the desecration of her innocence and suicide are entirely without logic or meaning.

To come to Puccini's music - regular readers will know the difficulties I have with it, but don't worry, I'm not going to bash it again. I actually found occasion to accept and enjoy what I could this time. The strange conceit of opening the opera with a fugal idea, that most Western of formal devices, presumably is an attempt to depict the extraordinary formal control that Japanese culture exhibits, though the fugue soon breaks down into familiar Puccinian strains. A metaphor for the entire work perhaps - and though it should be extremely obvious from the music, it bears saying again - this is not a portrait of Japan; as always with imitation, it tells us more about the imitator than the imitated. This music tells us about a Westerner of the fin-de-siecle's view of the East. To go to the other end of the work, there was a moment which I thought showed surprising restraint (in a weird sense of the word) from Puccini. Following Butterfly's death, the spectacular crudity of the music that closes the opera is a brilliant stroke from Puccini - for once there's no syrupy sentimentality or mock tragedy and the spare, unemotional, unimpressive, entirely ungratifying, and above all, hideous uglyness of the blaring orchestra, decries the squalid meaninglessness of Butterfly's sacrifice. There is far more subtlety to be drawn out of this piece than traditional productions let on.

Mary Plazas makes an excellent Madama Butterfly. Her diminutive stature, and convincingly girlish acting make her believably youthful. It shows that she was the production's original Butterfly - her acting is detailed and nuanced. Vocally she is fine too. In the first scene, when Butterfly needs to sound most youthful, the vibrato felt a bit wide, and there is weakness in the low register, but actually overall this performance is a vocal success, and she gets better as the evening progresses. The problem of balancing in the voice the psychological and physical fragility of Butterfly, against the sheer vocal heft required to ride Puccini's orchestration is probably the role's biggest challenge, and this is Plazas' trump card.

Timothy Richards is often a little underpowered as Pinkerton, but he's very solid vocally and he doesn't at all make an unattractive sound. He is however very blank acting wise in the present company and doesn't really cut a rounded character on stage. One thing in particular jarred, though it was no fault of his own. With Puccini's repeated references to the fact that Pinkerton is not just Western, but American (by the fifth direct quotation of The Star Spangled Banner we rather get the point), and the fact that the ENO singers are singing in English, it's really jarring to hear that sort of RPish generic singers' English coming from both Pinkerton and Sharpless. Once again, on one of those rare occasions where the ENO's language policy could be used to a production's advantage, it is not capitalised on. Whose job is it to notice these things? (As an aside: it also raises the interesting question of what language the characters in the opera are "really" speaking - presumably the answer is English.)

Pamela Helen Stephen is a consummate actor-musician, making the absolute most of the famously thankless role of Suzuki. I recently asked on twitter whether mezzos actually enjoyed playing this part, and it seems that many do. In the 90's Helen Stephen was a pristine Mozartian (see her wonderful Cherubino on youtube [how could the Countess resist?]), and if the voice has lost its former purity, it maintains its attractive basic timbre and is now capable of a much wider palette of colours and can tackle more dramatic writing without strain. If all operatic acting were as committed and simple as this, the artform would be unstoppable.

George von Bergen's Sharpless is a bit of a caricature dramatically, all awkward moustache twitches and concerned glances into the middle distance. Vocally he is powerful and accurate, but the voice can become uncomfortably hard when put under pressure. Gianluca Marciano doesn't do anything particularly out of the ordinary in the pit, but he doesn't do anything wrong either: balance is good, and the stage and pit are well synched. The ENO orchestra sound well focussed and big boned.

Certain productions and certain operas seem to find "fetish" words attached to them, usually derived from an early review, then endlessly repeated in the press and marketing for the production, and eventually leaking into all subsequent reviews. This production's fetish word is "sumptuous". It occasionally is, but for me the "sumpture" becomes plain "sump" often enough that I wouldn't say that it is the production's main attraction. The biggest boon of this revival is the excellent singing and acting of the two females at the centre of this story.

Photos (c) ENO/Clive Barda/Thomas Bowles

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Greek at ROH with Music Theatre Wales

Linbury Theatre

What an explosively fun evening! Turnage's 1988 opera Greek is a retelling of the story of Oedipus, updated to modern Britain. There's a real venom and young man's anger in it that places it squarely between punk and britpop, without pretension or populist posing - how often is a contemporary opera so genuinely vital and thrilling whilst really capturing something of the Zeitgeist? There are no direct references to the Thatcher era, so the humour hasn't dated, but the righteous anger and passion of that time cuts through every bar. As always with Turnage, Stravinsky is the touchstone in terms of compositional ancestry - the focus on rhythm, the secco orchestration and eschewal of sentimental content. There are virtually direct quotes from the Rite of Spring here too, and I also spotted Turnage's technique of using the rhythmic/gestural structure of another piece (as in his infamous "Single Ladies" Proms piece). The other comparison to be made is perhaps with Birtwistle - the furious violence and primitive energy that seems to appeal particularly in this country can usually be traced back to him in some way (again with its roots in Stravinsky and Varese). Ultimately this is very much Turnage's own piece though, consistently inventive and exciting, possibly the best I've heard of his. The vocal writing contains surprising moments of sustained lyrical beauty, particularly from Louise Winter's roles - she got several chances to sing a legato line, and revealed a very controlled voice, with particularly fine use of dynamics. Marcus Farnsworth was ill, so a singer was flown in from Berlin to sing the role (I missed the name), whilst the director Michael McCarthy acted the part and delivered all the spoken dialogue - an impressive feat from all that hardly detracted from the evening. The production is clearly done on a shoestring, but no less effective for that - it's a concert staging but is very immediate like the piece. I loved the punky start, opening with a scuffle with the ushers, and the way McCarthy ran offstage into the audience at the end, the piece having driven him mad. The final scene is shocking in the way the music all but stops as Eddy gouges his eyes own eyes out - extremely dramatic and tense theatre, and so simply achieved. As Eddy's parents (amongst other roles), Gwion Thomas and Sally Silver also sing very well and are clearly as dramatically committed to the whole enterprise as the others are. Conductor Michael Rafferty and Music Theatre Wales Ensemble do great things with the score, maintaining the brutal intensity throughout, with many moments of superb solo playing.

There's lots of bad language in the libretto, but unlike Turnage's more recent Anna Nicole, the point is never to shock or titillate: it's just the right language for the humour and the musical language. It did make me reflect for a moment on why this opera is so successful, when Anna Nicole is so limp and bloated - perhaps when he got to the big ROH stage and all the pomp that accompanied it, all he could do was take the piss? The later opera is of course the work of an artist a quarter of a century older; it seems that the reckless energy and wit that this early work exhibits was simply not maintainable across the decades. The key thing though is that the drama of Greek is driven by the music, which means it delivers precisely the thing that opera does best. I found myself constantly grinning at the humour, audacity and skill of it.

If you have any interest in modern opera, do yourself a favour and see this.

Les vêpres siciliennes at ROH


This production marks the first time that the ROH has ever staged Les vêpres siciliennes, but perhaps more excitingly, it is also the house début of opera director du jour, Stefan Herheim. It's a surprising choice for him in some ways as he has tended to stick to German repertoire and Italian warhorses, but he clearly had a reason for doing this one. One of the central concerns of Herheim's work is the operatic artform itself, and there is hardly a production that he has done that does not make a comment on some aspect of opera and how we relate to it. This it turns out is his reason for taking on Les vêpres siciliennes - the opera charts the course of Sicilian rebellion against a French invasion, and Herheim seems to see this as parallel to what Verdi was doing in this very opera - wrestling French grand opera back into the hands of the Italians. But Herheim is nothing if not complex - he's tackling a lot of other issues here as well as telling the story of Verdi's opera. Here's what I got from the experience.

Herheim's concept naturally lends itself very easily to the now tired "stage within a stage" motif that has been done so often in opera productions over the last five years (read this post by the always amusing and insightful Zerbinettas blog for a partial list). Herheim is particularly interested in making us question why we go to the opera and what we use the experience for, so this can be a useful device for him. He also more literally shines a light on the audience a couple of times, whilst the entire cast address us directly - once at the end of Act I's call to action, and then at the very end of the show when a huge lighting array descends, blinding the entire audience. It wasn't at all clear why this was happening in light of what we'd just seen, and though I'm sure there was a reason, if there is to be some moralising light shone on us, the impact is lost if it's unclear what we're meant to be feeling so desperately guilty about. Really can't think what he was trying to say here I'm afraid, presumably because I'm so stuck in my own paradigm.

The stage that is depicted within the ROH stage is the Paris opera house of the mid 19th century - we get to see French high society ladies and gents in their boxes watching Sicilian peasants on stage. Backstage, the foppish Jean Procida (played by Erwin Schrott) martials his ballet dancers, and we are of course reminded of Degas and his subject matter - the relationship between working women and society gentlemen. The overture is brilliantly choreographed, as Herheim sets the scene and provides the entire background to the opera with dazzling precision and synchronicity to the score. Procida's rehearsal is interrupted, as Guy de Montfort (played by Michael Volle) and his French soldiers burst in with guns, before forcing themselves on the screaming ballet dancers. Before anyone objects to this "gross thwarting of Verdi's noble humanity" or whatever the objection normally is, De Montfort's abduction and rape of the nameless woman is not merely Herheim's interpolation. In Act III, eighteen years after this opening scene, De Montfort admits to regretting the rape (though then says that withholding a child from a rapist father is a worse action!). The scene is also entirely apt to the situation that most Parisian ballet dancers found themselves in Verdi's time - i.e. sexual prey for rich French men.

We see the result of this rape, the child Henri's development from gestation, to infant, to boy, to young man in a matter of seconds - he symbolises (and is) the bastard offspring of a forced union between French and Italian art, but already the ghosts that haunt de Montfort have appeared. In the opening chorus, the French troops prepare to sing, but the Sicilian peasants on stage usurp their moment and start singing their own song - they are the stage performers in this after all. The occupied Sicilians are lead by Hélène (played by Marina Poplavskaya), who comes on garbed in black, clutching the decaying head of her murdered brother - a literal token of her grief and vendetta against her captors. She calls on them to rise up. In Act II we see a wedding interrupted by more French brutality and abduction (the scene presages the Act V wedding scene which is thwarted by a mirrored act of violence, this time the Sicilians acting against the French). Again Hélène calls the Sicilian men into action against their oppressors, and a plot is hatched with Procida to murder de Montfort at the masked ball. The plot is foiled by Henri's attachment to his father and the plotters are condemned to death, though Henri is spared because de Montfort wants him as an heir.

The executioner is the same little boy that de Montfort sentimentally imagines during his Act III reflection/regret aria. Again the boy symbolises the cause of the conflict and murders - the unnatural offspring of separate cultures. The execution is of course stayed by de Montfort when the adult Henri's love for Hélène means that he's willing to die for her. De Montfort then gives his blessing to the wedding of Henri and Hélène. It seems the nations are united peacefully, with the French men now amorously courting the Italian women, French patrons and Italian artists reconciled. The French operatic audience applaud appreciatively at this happy ending and enjoy the wedding scene divertimento that follows. But there is one plot yet to unfold: Procida plans to use the wedding to signal a massacre of the French, and warns Hélène of this. She realises that she cannot go through with the wedding during a dream sequence in which Procida, now wearing a black and red ball gown that both mirrors Hélène's wedding dress and recalls her Act I mourning regalia, murders Sicilians and French alike at the wedding party. He cannot and will not let go of the past. Despite Hélène's protestations, de Montfort abruptly pronounces the young couple married, and the opera ends. Then we, the real audience, get the search light treatment which I have already admitted to finding perplexing. A strange ending.

Anyone who knows the story of Les vêpres siciliennes will see then that this is not a particularly interventionist staging, and it actually tells the story more grippingly than many will expect. The "concept" gets less relevant throughout the evening, and in the end doesn't add much that is profoundly illuminating, but the whole is consistently very engaging. In Herheim stagings one always suspects that one is missing layers of meaning, especially not having read the program, but having just this second scanned some other reviews, it seems that no one else is currently the wiser in terms of offering interpretations.

The greatest strength of Herheim's direction it seems to me is that he so obviously reads the score and follows its clues. There is hardly ever a jarring mismatch of image and sound, and if there is, it will be for some very obvious dramatic effect. The risk is that it turns into the "Herheim show" and we lose the original work beneath the multi layered coups de theatres, but that doesn't happen here, and he transforms Verdi's problematic, transitional opera into a very entertaining and imaginative evening.

Philip Furhofer's set must be the most complex I've ever seen. The number of degrees of freedom that it presents is almost unimaginably complex - the same basic elements are used to construct probably a dozen different stage pictures, all by sliding, shifting and adjusting the pieces. The pivoting walls at one point get converted into wings for the onstage "stage", which we then get to see from all angles. There were a few technical glitches on the second evening I went, but it's an amazing piece of design. Costumes, Lighting Design and choreography (by Gesine Vollm, Anders Poll and André de Jon respectively) all work seamlessly with the rest to create a real sense of grand opera, even as the production comments on the genre.

Musically this is a decent evening. First let's talk about our divas. Marina Poplavskaya had pulled out of the first three evenings due to being ill during the final few days of rehearsal, and Lianna Haroutounian had already stepped in as a cover for the opening night performance. But for whatever reason Poplavskaya was back for this evening (the second performance of the run). The first night I only managed to attend Acts IV and V, and so only got to hear Haroutounian in that last portion of the opera. Based on that, she seemed vocally wholly incommensurate to the requirements of the role of Hélène, one of the most demanding that Verdi ever wrote. The coloratura was extremely approximate, both in pitch and in rhythm - she was so consistently a half beat late in the bolero that I wondered whether she was singing another version of the aria. Above the stave the sound is very large, but also extremely unfocussed, but the middle voice is wispy, poorly supported and badly connected to the present but weak chest register. Many people were impressed by her in last season's Don Carlo, but reading back on my impression of her then, I find my impression is largely unchanged. Perhaps she was already ill on the first night?

Poplavskaya by comparison has a much more focussed timbre, and the three registers are each powerful and full. She has real trouble connecting the registers however, and her top is unstable at every volume, painfully so when singing quietly. This is the best I've ever seen her perform though - there was a real commitment to characterisation, both dramatically and musically, and rhythmically she can't be faulted (important in Verdi). What I liked about this performance is that she endeavoured to use the voice colouristically, and although she forced too much in the chest register, almost shouting at times, better too much than too little in my book. Vocal imperfections notwithstanding, she was a really great presence in Acts I and II, spitting out her lines with abandon and sulking with her decapitated head. As expected, her coloratura went awry in the bolero, but at least she was in time and the bottoms of those runs were fully supported. Though far from perfect, overall I would say it was the more successful performance of the showpiece of the two, despite two severe vocal mishaps (an unintended glissando and some clucked/squealed high notes). The previous aria, with its famous descent from a high C# to the F# below middle C was predictably dodged by both sopranos, but neither could sing what they'd altered the line to either, which was disappointing. All in all, really strange casting choices. Maybe it's as simple as both being cheap to hire and willing to work with an out there director?

Bryan Hymel was his old (young) dependable self as Henri, dispatching phrase after rock solid phrase as if dramatic Verdian Tenor roles are nothing to stress over. I'm not averse to the timbre, as I know many others are, so I find his performances enjoyable, though they do err on the side of the generic. He's young still for this repertoire (he's 34 and has sung four huge tenor roles at the ROH in the last year and a half) so has time to develop as an artist - his Rusalka Prince is still the finest I've seen him, and perhaps the Czech repertoire might be a fertile avenue of exploration for him. And one day a Tannhauser? The combination of high centre of the voice, real control and heroic weight is very uncommon.

Daddy issues.

Michael Volle is also tireless in the role of Guy de Montfort, though I question whether the voice is ideally suited to this repertoire - like his recent ROH Scarpia, though there's no question that he can sing this part excellently, there's the feeling that his central talent might be for sculpting words rather than a limpid Italianate phrase. Still, this was pretty great singing, and I liked his acting of this none too subtle part too - he and Herheim have managed to make quite a lot of the character. Erwin Schrott takes on the Bass role of Procida and acquits himself admirably in a fach that is probably a vocal category lower than what he usually sings. With its slight hardness, the timbre is not as attractive as Volle's, but I had him down as a bit of a bellower and he proved me wrong here - there was quiet, sensitive singing a plenty here. He does very well in the camp drag-act massacre of Act V too, and throughout in fact as the powerless, embittered dance master. Smaller roles are all well taken. The chorus sound great in the big choral climaxes, though are not perfectly coordinated in a few of the trickier quiet portions. Largely though, Antonio Pappano has everything firmly in hand in the pit, making the very most that he can of this score.

A fun evening, with a few thought provoking moments. Mileage will vary based on one's liking of lesser Verdi, and how far one can forgive a diva's vocal shortcomings. It's mainly a pleasure to see a director so well attuned to a score, whatever the score's ultimate merits may be.

All photos copyright ROH/Bill Cooper