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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

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Hänsel und Gretel at Glyndebourne on Tour


I adore this score. Its sonic opulence is obvious, and entirely fitting with the subject matter, but the manner in which Humperdinck manages to weave a Wagnerian tapestry out of German folk tunes (both borrowed and invented) is miraculously skillful, and in sheer lyrical juissance he surely outdoes his master. I also love the way Humperdinck manages to reduce to an essence the orchestral sound of entire scenes in Wagner into a few bars. Without this opera, Strauss' oeuvre would be very different indeed: Rosenkavalier is the clearest beneficiary, but even Salome takes so much from Humperdinck's wonderful score - in the case of the trills that presage Jochanaan's murder, there's an almost direct quotation, not just musically, but in dramatic effect too. It's two hours of aural delight, and though it is performed in Britain quite often, I always feel like there's a reticence by British audiences to take it seriously as the masterpiece that it so clearly is.

Laurent Pelly's production is an assualt on consumerism, albeit a smiling one. Hansel and Gretel are modern children, living way below the poverty line somewhere in Western Europe. Their house is a cardboard box which is falling apart. (The opening curtain is also a box - the show itself, a packaged commodity.) In this context their excitement at something as simple as milk gives the opening scene an unexpected poignance, as does the reverence they have for, and trust that they place in, their neglectful, alcoholic parents. That these children are so resilient and remain unscarred by their surroundings is the only hope that the piece offers - by retreating into fantasy, and teaming up against their uncaring world, they are able deal with their awful situation.

The forest in Act II is a bleak desert of dying trees, stripped of bark and leaves, the floor littered with waste - the effects of consumerism on our environment. Gretel's garland is made of shiny crisp packets. God knows where the kids find the berries in this desecrated wasteland - presumably they were dumped somewhere amongst all the other litter. Still the children's disposition is cheery - they know nothing else - though they still get scared of the dark. The sand man, covered head to toe in silver glitter, and saves them from their fears. After the children's evening prayer, in the pantomime dream sequence we see the 14 angels - they are model children, dressed in clean white. They gather round the sleeping Hansel and Gretel, and then get out Big Macs, chomping on them vigorously before strewing the styrofoam packaging on the floor with the rest of the rubbish. That fast food is seen by Hansel and Gretel as salvation is understandable, simultaneously funny and sad.

In Act III, having seen the effects of social and environmental effects of consumerism, we are finally confronted with the Witch's house, a veritable temple of consumerism of the most disposable, empty, meretricious variety. Barbara de Limburg's set is absolutely gorgeous here, dramatically exactly what is required by both Humperdinck and Pelly: the glitter, neon and sheer frabjous vulgarity of it does actually conspire to make something more beautiful than the sum of its parts, and virtually appears as a miracle for us and the children in light of the drabness and dilapidation we have been presented with up until this point. The Witch is rendered with horrid aplomb - initially in a plasticy pink wig and matching hot pink dress, but soon revealing the decaying body beneath - balding and morbidly obese. Once she is dispatched, the children who are saved emerge obese and barely able to move - the Witch's presence is still felt and it can't be an unreservedly happy ending. The final hymn to God feels pat and as empty as the Witch's consumerist paradise. That this is lead by the parents is ironic, as their trust in God seems as misplaced as Hansel and Gretel's trust in their parents - it was in fact the children's agile minds that saved the day, not supernatural forces.

On previous outings the simultaneous comedy and darkness of Laurent Pelly's production has made this a sinister yet magical evening, but this revival with the present cast, with direction by James Bonas, lacks Pelly's eye for comedy and truth in tiny details. The result is a slightly lacklustre affair. There's nothing wrong per se, but something didn't fully catch light, at least the evening I went, and there were a few moments of tedium where the action didn't sustain enough interest.

The singing is largely very good. Most remarkable perhaps in Victoria Yarovaya's Hansel whose physical performance is uncannily boyish, and whose voice glides beautifully through the vocal writing with real character. Andriana Chuchman is up to this standard too, blending wonderfully with Yarovaya and is cheekily charming as Gretel. Anne Mason is a let down as the depressed mother - she doesn't seem very committed on the acting side of things, and the voice is betrays a similar lack of dramatic involvement. Stephen Gadd is much better as the father, his large voice ringing out with brilliance during his drunken antics. Colin Judson was variable as the witch - there were moments of great vocal characterisation, but he took a while to warm up vocally (not ideal in a 20 minute role), and acting wise he seemed in limbo between panto dame and truly sinister child-cannibalist, and one willed him to be directed more along one way direction or the other. The Sand man is vocally strangely undercharacterised by Lauren Easton who seems embarrassed by the "st" sound effect moments that Humperdinck writes between phrases, rather than relishing the possibilities they might present.

The orchestral playing under Ilyich Rivas was wonderful - gorgeous details constantly emerged from the pit, the music's honeyed glow flowing out like spun sugar. There were occasional pacing issues in the first act - a few passages were rather speedily dispatched, which robbed a couple of climaxes of their full impact - but largely this was a very lovely effort from conductor and players.

For those who have never seen the production or opera, there may be enough here with the lovely music making and interesting interpretation to allow you to leave satisfied, but that small but vital spark of stage magic was missing on this occasion for me.

All photos (c) Glyndebourne/Robbie Jack

Thursday 17 October 2013

El gato con botas at ROH

Linbury Young Artists Programme

Xavier Montsalvatge's opera El gato con botas (1947) is an odd piece - musically it sounds like offcuts of Puccini's La Rondine, stitched together in a typically '40s, darkly parodic neoclassical style which touches on surreal elements (compare it for instance to Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis of 1943). It's often referred to as a chamber opera, but the original orchestration is not small - perhaps Albert Guinovart's 1996 chamber reorchestration that was utilized here has become standard? It's not a great piece of music, but it's surely meant to be more fun and engaging than in this gimmick ridden and deathly dull production by director Pedro Ribeiro and designer Simon Becher.

The set consists of a sinuous chequered path that extends across the stage like a concertinaed highway. Puss in boots is represented both by mezzo soprano Rachel Kelly dressed in a sort of androgynous cabaret costume, and as a puppet, handled by separate puppeteers. Our attention is constantly divided - Kelly is given little to do but is naturally more interesting as she is the source of the sound and can move her face; the hyperactive puppet is in constant motion, moving like no cat or animal I've ever seen, or even any person. Cat behaviour is surely one of the easiest things to imitate, even if only in a basic way, but that aside, if a puppet is meant to be one of the characters, it surely has to act like it has a mind and agency. But here it never appeared engaged in conversation for longer than a second before moving away again, either by turning its head away with bizarre frequency in an extreme figure of eight, or inexplicably swooping off upstage. Comedy moments of head shaking during high notes were frequent and frequently mistimed. Characterisation in the other roles, (already not exactly richly detailed in text or score) is reduced to costume and cliché, Ribeiro either not trusting or not interested in what a performer might be able to bring to a role. There is a nice piece of visual design in that the Princess' dress is a picture of the court, and she carries around her ladies in waiting which are at the right scale for the image on the dress. But it's a disaster for the actress because it means her hands are never free, and so all she can do is ditzy blinking. The level of the puppetry is similarly low in the ogre scene, presumably intended as the dramatic climax of the opera, but here rendered maybe the most boring portion of the evening by the tensionless dance/fight sequences.

The hyperactivity of the presentation and design constantly gives the feeling of a director trying to show everything that he can do with scale, space, and visual effects, whilst forgetting what it is that makes opera the greatest art form. I found the humour tepid and laboured, though some found the show hilariously funny. The cast do fine with what they're given, but are rarely called upon to act or interact meaningfully. All give perfectly acceptable vocal performances in a language which most of them are unlikely to sing in often.

One of the dullest evening's I've had in a while, and just the kind of fussy, emotionless, unreflective, design-led production that is the antithesis of why I go to opera. Obviously, this aesthetic has an audience or it wouldn't exist, but it's simply not for me.

Monday 14 October 2013

Agrippina at ETO

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

Though both were composed for the Venetian stage, the musical differences between Giasone and Agrippina are immense. This is perhaps understandable as they are separated by a span of 60 years, but it feels like a greater divide is represented here. Giasone (1649) comes at the end of the early Italian Baroque, derived as it is mostly from Monteverdi's innovations of the early 1600s. Agrippina (1709) on the other hand is the work of a young man of the high baroque - it is very close in style and essence to the latest German Baroque of the 1730's-50's, that is Bach and Handel in grandest, fullest maturity.

Handel represents the greatest flowering of the move in the late Baroque towards "number opera" - that is the ever clearer separation of the music into recitatives (musically negligible moments of action) and "numbers" (musically fecund reflection). From Monteverdi (where it could be argued that the text/dramatic situation is more important than displaying the singer's vocal talents), the pendulum has now swung entirely in favour of the singer - the words are commonly repeated to the point of abstraction, and are often only peripherally matched to the musical phrasing. Displays of vocal prowess and coloratura are the order of the day.

As Stravinsky so insightfully observed, Handel never surprises (as opposed to Bach, who always surprises) and the reason must surely be that his harmony is so fundamentally plain. This is not to slight Handel, indeed this is a part of his huge popular appeal, and also a large part of the effectiveness of the oratorios in the context of the cathedral acoustics they were composed for. He actually can occasionally surprise, but he does so via texture and orchestration, and his range in this increases in later years - the arias in the supreme late operatic masterpieces like Alcina have a real individuality and variety. Handel is difficult to stage, partly because of the balance between action and emotion, and partly because the pacing is driven by musical, rather than textual considerations. To put it another way, there's a hell of a lot of time that the characters have to be on stage for the quantity of text that they have to declaim, and to fill the time meaningfully without resorting to mere "stage business" requires real ingenuity and imagination from the director and performer.

Agrippina is a splendid score, absolutely within the mould of everything else you know by Handel, and though early Handel is often a bit of a blind spot for me, I found this to be a very satisfying evening musically. I was not so enamoured with James Conway's production. Though in his programme note he professes to be a "Handel fanatic" and steadfastly believes in Handel's dramatic sense, he determinedly keeps the characters at arms length throughout this production by directing it as a comedy. The whole thing flirts with a panto like atmosphere; we are never encouraged to take the characters seriously as people and instead are encouraged to simply laugh at their vanities, pains and plots. This directorial approach is common with a lot of Baroque opera, because the stories and psychology often strain credulity. But for me ironic distancing is too glib and post modern a reaction to these problematic pieces - it's a camp avoidance of the issues an opera is trying to address, and undermines our ability to take the piece seriously as drama, or to connect with its emotional content (for a discussion of a rather more extreme case of this, see this review that I wrote about a production of Rameau's Les Indes galantes). The opera is almost reduced into an excuse for vocal fireworks - a series of "isn't this fabulous" moments. One understands the desire to avoid boredom and alienation of another sort, which is the risk of taking the opera too seriously, but the bottom line is that the direction served to distance us from the work as drama on this occasion.

Samal Blak mirrors the deliberate artificiality of the direction with an appealingly stylish set and cartoonish costumes. Despite my reservations about the direction, the piece at least doesn't bore, which is actually no mean achievement if my previous experience with early Handel are anything to go by. We are mercifully freed of surtitles - instead we are given a short, often comedic, synopsis for each aria. There are a few moments of unexpectedly genuine emotion too - for instance Ottone's aria which has been chosen to close the first half of the show, and then at sporadic intervals in Act II also, but the winking, too knowing approach is underlined by having the evening close on a dance that redolent of the waving goodbye during sitcom credits. The modest orchestra did occasionally sound a little underpowered and edgy at times, but this is generally a fluent and charming showing from conductor Jonathan Peter and his players.

The cast is fantastic. Gillian Webster is in fairly dazzling voice as Agrippina, totally in control and fully up to the fearsome technical demands of the role. The top in particular glistens with a luscious fullness, and her unaspirated coloratura is a joy. The chest register that Handel demands of the character, as he also does with the later sorceress role of Alcina, is firmly in place, though one occasionally desires a little more bite down there, which one senses is in the voice. Paula Sides is impressive in the second soprano role of Poppea, Agrippina's schemer in training (of course ironically involved in the eponymous character's downfall), with a very attractive light lyric voice that is perfect for these girlish Handel parts. During a cadenza she delivered a quite stunning diminuendo from a full voiced forte to the tiniest pianissimo, as well as a huge descending scale, impressive in its evenness. The cast also features three counter tenors, all fascinatingly different. At first I thought that Nerone, with his androgenous costuming, was being sung by a woman, so unusual was the timbre of Jake Arditti's voice. Ironically it was the lack of chest register that told me that this was in fact a counter tenor! Generally the sound is that of a very steely mezzo (Susan Bickley comes to mind), with a large top that can turn slightly strident, and impressively powerful coloratura - all excellent for this role. A fascinating voice from a young singer whom I look forward to hearing more from. Russell Harcourt also possesses an arrestingly feminine sound as Narciso, though this time we get a slightly pinched and much gentler lyric mezzo timbre - again very unusual and great in his role. Clint van der Linde, who I had been so impressed with as Jason, was good here too, though didn't quite seem to effortlessly as ease with the music on this occasion. This is the most conventional sounding counter tenor voice of the three, possessing that clarinet like purity and hollowness that is usually so characteristic of this fach. Andrew Slater's drunken Claudio, with his at times almost spoken vocal delivery, was a nice foil in his funny casualness to the high strung antics of the others.

A musical treat.

Photos copyright Robert Workman/ETO

Saturday 12 October 2013

Jason (Giasone) at ETO


Thank the opera gods for English Touring Opera: no other full time UK company gives us as many baroque operas with such high quality singers, or takes as many risks with rarities - long may it continue! Cavalli's Giasone (1949) was one of the most successful operas of the 17th century, and it's easy to hear why based on this outing. The influence of Monteverdi is clearly felt in the pacy action as well as the lush, erotically charged score - in both these things it almost rivals L'incoronazione di Poppea. Like the more familiar masterpiece, the norm of the work is a very attractive recitative style that blends into ariosos and arias in a far more fluid way than does the late baroque. Already the separation of aria and recitative is more decisive than in Monteverdi though, so we're already on the road to the late baroque when the action can't move for arias. This music in this ETO production is extensively cut and reordered but the piece remains convincing as drama, and the action is fleet of foot. The tiny orchestra of eight, nine including conductor Joseph McHardy at the harpsichord, do ravishing work in the pit, matching the action sensitively and beautifully. One could scarcely hope for better - certainly better than any recording I have heard of the piece.

The opera's story, like so many Baroque opera librettos, relies on endless twistings of the course of erotic and romantic love, the painful emotional journey being infinitely more important than the destination. We are introduced to Jason and Medea on their wedding day, but already Hercules is calling Jason fulfil his duty and join him for heroic deeds. The fact that Jason is already married with children isn't even mentioned at first, so we are invited to buy in totally to the new couple, especially with music as sensuous as Cavalli composes for them. Soon though Medea's discarded lover Egeus appears, as well as a spy from Jason's wife Isiphile (who is still waiting for him on nearby Lemnos) - we cannot escape our past. A storm conjured by Cupid shipwrecks characters on, you guessed it, Lemnos, where Isiphile soon discovers Jason's treachery. He heinously tries to get the horrified Hercules to kill Isiphile by throwing her in the sea, but the plan fails, and it is Medea who almost drowns. Naturally the love sick Egeus now has a chance to prove himself and saves her from drowning - Medea, returns to his arms as a result. Jason's scheming is discovered, but amazingly he is forgiven by all, and he goes back to his wife Isiphile and his children. In the sense that there is a happy ending, the whole thing is a comedy, but one senses from this description the endless opportunities that Cavalli and Cicognini had to wring painful emotional situations out of the scenario, and they succeed admirably. There are also wonderful set pieces - At the end of Act I there is an exceptionally beautiful and convincing incantation from Medea with offstage chorus ("Dell'antro magico"), and there is a duet for the two wronged women, as well as several conventional love duets. What's so pleasurable is that the drama and music are rarely at odds.

One constant irritation in both the score and libretto is the light relief character of Demus. His comedy is solely based on the fact that he stutters and has a hunch back - far be it from me to say that laughing at disabilities isn't funny (lots of people loved it) - the problem for me was that it was the same joke every single time and you knew exactly what was going to happen as soon as he made another entry. This aside I was gripped by Ted Huffman's production, which tells the story simply with the focus squarely on the acting and musical expression - and amazingly nothing feels far fetched or over done, however extreme the situation. Judicious use is made of the two levels of the set, though the scene change to Act II, showing the same interior, now semi destroyed and invaded by nature, is perhaps too slight to make sense of the supposed change in location. Samal Blak's designs this Autumn season are more interesting and successful than they were in the ETO's spring repertoire - here the period is timeless, with elements of classical, neoclassical and modern design used side by side, though the issue of style is elegantly bypassed rather than made a feature of the production. Ace McCarron's lighting designs support the set excellently and help tell the story very well. The translation by Ronald Eyre is good, focussing on poetic sense and clear story telling above rhyme - the exact opposite of the Pountney translation for recent ENO Fidelio which so vitiated that show.

It was wonderful to hear full sounding voices in an early Baroque opera, surprising even, when we're implicitly told by current performance practice that voices of that era were thin, reedy affairs. Hannah Pedley was glorious as Medea, with her strong sense of line, rich, firm middle voice, and very beautiful lower register. An understated, natural actress too. As Jason, Clint Van der Linde's beautiful counter tenor was also a real find - he possesses a hypnotically fluid legato that makes the character's cruelty all the more sinister. Andrew Slater's appropriately heroic and manful sounding Hercules was as convincing dramatically as these too. Catrine Kirkman's revealed a girlish soprano as Isiphile, and seemed almost too young for the role - she is after all meant to be a mother of two. As Egeus, John-Colyn Gyeantey's timbre was occasionally a little harsh, but his singing has a firm sense of bel canto, and he was very touching in his aria. Michał Czerniawski was announced as recovering from illness and though he sang perfectly well, his very understated vocal delivery in the role of Delfa was perhaps attributable to this. RCM student Peter Aisher was standing in for an indisposed Stuart Haycock as Demus, and brought an attractive youthful lyric tenor voice to an irritating role.

All in all, a lovely evening. The Britten theatre at the Royal College of Music was the perfect venue for this intimate music, showing off the voices and music to maximum effect. Do catch this rarity on the ETO tour.

Photos copyright Richard Hubert Smith/ETO

Thursday 3 October 2013

The Wasp Factory at ROH

UK Premiere

Already premièred at the Bregenz Festival, Ben Frost's new opera is an ROH co-commission with a libretto by David Pountney based on Iain Banks' first novel The Wasp Factory. First things first: though we're meant to believe in our post modern age that the boundaries between musical genres are being eroded daily, this opera does not belong to the genre of classical music. The miked singers sing in a pop style reminiscent of Björk and nu-folk - if they are operatically trained, they are able to hide it totally. Frost's score too is redolent of Björk, various contemporary film composers, and more generally that subgenre of electronic music that draws heavily on classical influences. The clue is that the music deals almost exclusively in rhythm and texture, the live string quintet playing repetitive cells, blending with ambient electronic sounds pumped into the auditorium as the three women sing their close harmony cantilenas above it all.

As a result, the core classical audience of the ROH will probably find the music inoffensively pleasant at best and deathly dull at worst. It's perfectly valid in my opinion to do an opera in the music of another style, and this joins Eric Whitacre's electronic opera as a foray into this particular genre (though is a classier venture than Whitacre's catchy kitsch fest), but it's strange that the ROH commissioned it. Having been part of the organisation that commissioned it, and it being very much a known quantity since it has already been premiered, The ROH marketing department will no doubt have been advertising this in electronic music magazines and far away from their usual audience, to people who will actually enjoy this - so many of my friends who don't really "do" classical music would love this. 

Banks' novel is in some ways a strange one to adapt given that it's all narrated by one character, and contains a twist which would be all but impossible to achieve in an opera house. But George Benjamin's operas, particularly his first one Into the Little Hill, have set a precedent for unconventional opera narration, and The Wasp Factory continues this experimental presentation of narrative, by having the text sung jointly by three women singing in harmony, interspersed with solos vocal sections. It generally works fine, and all three women (Lieselot De Wilde, Jördis Richter, Mariam Wallentin) sing very well within their vocal genre, though they are occasionally hard to understand over the electronic enhancement. Eventually the lack of dynamic and expressive range, and impersonal delivery, made losing concentration an easy thing to do.

Frost's production (he is the director as well as the composer) is very non literal - the three women start the opera buried in earth, which extends to cover a large, dark platform, framed with a strip of light. Things are discovered, buried and rediscovered in the earth, and over the course of the evening, as the women creep around it, the whole edifice begins to tilt, gradually shedding its loamy load. Simple but strong. Lucy Carter's lighting design supports the action admirably, adding hugely to the atmosphere of Mirella Weingarten's fine set.

Overall, the music doesn't convince me, and so I was a little bored, but for those more predisposed to the pop/electronic aesthetic, there is probably enough interesting stuff here to warrant a visit. I do actually like the best electronic music, but valiant effort though this is, in my opinion it remains to be seen whether the genre can sustain a musical-dramatic narrative over an entire evening.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

American Lulu at the Young Vic

The Opera Group/The Young Vic

It's very unusual for the Young Vic to do an opera, and as such when it does happen it is a real opportunity to bring the art form to an audience that wouldn't otherwise think of attending. I love Lulu (see here for some reasons) and I entered open minded, not having read any of the reviews; having seen it I don't really get the line of reasoning that led to this show being created and staged, and then in such high profile venues. The original Lulu is still shocking and strange enough dramatically that it doesn't seem like it's crying out for radical reinterpretation yet, in a way that say La Boheme might be. Much less recomposition - Berg's opera is one of the most immaculately worked out scores ever created in terms of formal construction, timbre and orchestration - there had better be some major gains for the inevitable losses that come with any rearrangement. Or if the answer to the question of "why?" is "why not?", then "why" at least remains an equally plausible question if the quality is found wanting. Lulu is also already very hard work musically for a large proportion of serious opera goers and for most casual listeners it will probably just sound like noise. And so it proved here - I've never seen so many people walk out of a theatre before - by the end fully a third of the audience had crept out of the show while it was going on. Perhaps it wasn't the music that was making people leave though: there was little dramatically to keep them there either.

As an aside: Curious that the play Woyzeck on which Berg's other opera is based simultaneously also received an Americanising treatment in Punchdrunk's superb current production entitled The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. American Lulu updates Berg's opera to 60's/70's America, with Lulu now haunted by the moralising messages of Martin Luther King and other famous civil rights speakers of the era. But it's totally unclear how this affects the narrative or drama, or what conclusions we're meant to draw from this - that black people can be selfish too? That white oppression has desocialised Lulu? That her hedonism and carelessness is a revenge on her white admirers? No insights as to meaning are proffered or even invited.

The changes made to the central character, or at least how she was portrayed in this production by John Fulljames, are however radical and certainly do effect our experience of the piece. One of the interesting things about Wedekind/Berg's Lulu is that she is both so sexually fascinating to all who surround her and simultaneously so elusively blank and vacant. This not only allows/encourages the other characters to project their fantasies onto her, it also means that character, score and situation are in total alignment - the strange floating dislocation of the score mirrors Lulu's drifting relationship with her surroundings and orbiting admirers. She never plays a role or tries to please. In American Lulu, the character of Lulu is quite different - she's much more down to earth and genuinely enjoys herself during her manipulations and seductions. She's not the soulless husk of Berg's Lulu and so is far less convincingly in her sociopathy: rather than being some fickle random force, she seems to actually have motives, while somehow never crystallising into a believable character. So she's stuck between both camps and not effective as either.

The opera is shortened, the plot is simplified, the third act rewritten and recomposed, but little is radically different from the opera we know. Lulu still becomes a prostitute and still dies at the end, though we don't get the symmetry of Berg's/Cerha's ending. The playing space is very narrow which may limit things, and there are few props with the set is limited to some low quality projections, the worst and most laughably embarrassing of which tells the story of the Countess Geschwitz's abuse at the hands of a prison guard. In minimalist productions such as this, the focus and attention naturally goes even more towards the characterisation and a desire for nuanced interaction. Sadly though the male characters all lack definition and are hard to believe in physically or emotionally. Berg's vocal writing is hard in virtually every parameter, and much of the time the cast seem to be struggling just to sing the notes and stay with the conductor. The result is very boring and uninvolving, the already surreal plot devolving into a seemingly endless parade of stagey interactions and hammy deaths. Angel Blue, in the title role, at least seems vocally secure and occasionally turns a beautiful phrase, but the character is so uninteresting that the singing almost doesn't seem important.

Berg is one of the great orchestrators, so to hear the lush tapestry of this score rearranged for chamber orchestra was continually disappointing - much of the flickering detail and many of glowing sonorities had been stripped away, leaving a rather harsh remnant. Olga Neuwirth's loose knit musical contribution frames and outlines the score with jazzband stylings that sound like a mishmash of Reichian minimalism meets jazz meets Feldman. There's little that's arresting. The London Sinfonietta under Gerry Cornelius are workmanlike and go no further than accuracy (in its way an achievement). A disappointing evening.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Die Fledermaus at ENO


This genuinely unsettling production of Die Fledermaus presented a quite unexpected take on a piece that is often regarded as a guiltless piece of confection. I don't think I've ever seen a review of any production of this piece that doesn't contain the word "fizz"*; I can already see many London reviewers bemoaning the lack of it in this ENO production. But this production attempts a lot more than mere hedonism and is in its way far more unnerving than the recently opened Bieito Fidelio, also at ENO.

Director Christopher Alden maintains the Viennese setting of the original but attempts an updating of the piece to a non specific time - Act I might be Freud's Vienna (introspection, sexual obsession), the second act the roaring 20's meets the Rocky Horror Picture Show (freedom, transgression of boundaries, sexual frivolity), Act III reactionary subjugation of this libertine enjoyment (in fascist oppression, and an accompanying repression of sexuality into fetish).

Dr Falke, the Operetta's central manipulator, is here presented as a Freud figure, the others his patients. A huge pocket watch swings over the stage - a symbol of Eisenstein's infidelity, but also Dr Falke's mesmeric treatments for his patients and his hypnotic influence on all the events in the operetta. He tries to keep an objective distance, but he also dehumanises his patients - his bell ringing hypnotism is more redolent of Pavlov's experiments than the actions a compassionate therapist. His own insecurities are revealed in his humiliation of Eisenstein - we are meant to believe that his plans are all designed to make his patients confront their sexual excesses, but it is soon revealed that public ridicule is (perhaps strangely in this context) what Freud/Falke most fears and that at least part of his motive is simple revenge.

Rosalinde's neuroses offer the most clichéed picture of "Freud with patient", but this idea provides striking departures for other characters, most notably Prince Orlofsky, who here totally the lacks the swagger that he is often played with. Instead his boredom is taken as evidence of a profound depression and alienation - he has lost his sense of humour and libido, and initially can't even leave his bed. His aria "Chacun a son gout", with its unquestioning surrender to the vagaries of taste ("it's just my inclination") reflects the bleak thought of a soul that is directionless and dispassionate. A very interesting and wholly valid reinterpretation of this character. In the final act, Adele provides a sexual salvation and connection to the real world for him.

As to Rosalinde, the opera opens on the vast grey interior of her immaculate bedroom - she first dreams of her therapist, and we soon realise that she is fantasising also about sexual escape: her old flame Alfred steps out from behind her bed (in dashing "romantic" 16th century dress, redolent of Don Carlo and Il Trovatore) as if from her dream. Eisenstein's rapacious lawyer Dr Blind is a goulish abberation - scuttling around like a beetle, molesting Eisenstein, then crawling under the marital bed for his exit. When Eisenstein's infidelity is secured with the introduction of the party idea, the rift in the marriage is very literally depicted onstage as the bedroom splits in two, allowing garish colour and gender-bending revellers to pour in. Tellingly this rift is never repaired, even after the final reconciliation. Often Alden lifts the lid on the titillation and innuendo of this sex obsessed operetta and just lets happen on stage exactly what is being suggested by the words and music - the bed is the location of almost too many infidelities to count.

The action flags slightly towards the end of Act II, as the production's wide ranging ideas fail to cohere, and the surreal, abstracted take on the events of the party means it doesn't really ignite as a convincing piece of revelry. Act III comes as a shock. Frosch (the jailor) it turns out is a psychotic nazi like character, determined to put an end to the fun and transgression - he locks all the party guests in prison, and begins burning their transvestite garments. Actor Jan Pohl is genuinely very scary in the role, dominating the stage and putting the often exaggerated comic acting of the others into stark relief.

As its adherents well know, opera as an art form is obsessed with sex and death. In operetta the almost exclusive focus on the former can seem like a frantic escape from the latter, but here Alden grants levity a more serious purpose than escapism. The production ends in dreamy escape, the comedy of which feels a welcome relief and relaxation, though the bitter taste of what we have witnessed remains. After the brutality and terrifying capriciousness of the fascist prison, Rosalinde's and Eisenstein's laughing acceptance of each other's infidelities and human imperfections seems not just the humane thing to do, but obligatory for survival. In light of fascism, infidelity is as nothing - the threat of the latter is rendered meaningless by the horror of the former.

Musically this production is consistently good, without ever being truly exceptional. Julia Sporsén's voice is fundamentally a very luscious full lyric instrument, and her care for line is admirable, but the extensive coloratura demands of the role of Rosalinde are rarely convincingly in place. Rhian Lois' Adele has no troubles in this regard, navigating the music as she does with such ease, but her characterisation relies a little too much on cliché to be as funny as she needs to be. Jennifer Holloway's Orlofsky is fascinating and commanding, and the physical illusion of masculinity is complete. She is an excellent singer also - if she can develop the chest tones that give the female voice an appealingly masculine edge, she will be perfect in that role. Tom Randle sometimes sounded a little stressed vocally as Eisenstein, but generally manages the part fine. Richard Burkhard's conversational style as Dr. Falke seems appropriate and certainly makes him easy to understand. More specificity in his acting might have been welcome as he is such a linchpin of this production, though he still manages to charm.

Eun Sun Kim makes her ENO début in the pit, and was immediately impressive with her sprightly, energetic conducting in the overture, inspiring the ENO orchestra to produce excellent playing throughout the evening. Her beat is precise and clear, and has an easy flexibility which meant that this deceptively challenging to conduct music never felt laboured and nor were there ensemble problems. Slightly lacking was a sense of variety which might have allowed the climaxes to thrill more, but this was a very promising début.

This is well worth seeing. It's an ambitious staging, and as such doesn't always cohere ideally or avoid moments of clumsiness, but it's a thoughtful piece of regie and certainly provides insights into the darker undertones of this "fizzing" operetta.

*why do people love this pun so much? I do realise that by commenting on it, this review now also has the word fizz in it. Never mind - next time I see this piece, I will endeavour not to include it.