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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.