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Friday 31 January 2014

Peter Grimes at ENO


An odd production this. It isn't boring, but it flattens Britten's drama into a piece of caricature and grotesque theatre. Paul Steinberg's sets are semi abstracted with their cubist angles and lack of detail, but are traditional in their pictorial rather than symbolic intention. Director David Alden confusingly pitches this against psychologically abstracted physical direction. By "psychologically abstract" I mean that the physical characterisation and movement of the chorus and principals can't be consistently attributed to psychologically motivated people - instead we see the "sorts of things" these people might do, often in alienated, abstracted ways. Thus there's mass choreography ("old Joe has gone fishing" is a dance sequence), slow motion walking, stormy arm swaying and silly walks. The Borough doesn't seem like it is comprised of individuals, but instead is an abstract "wave" of hatred and mistrust. The social situations aren't intended to be literal depictions of events which can be confusing, and the lack of clarity is compounded in Act I by the lack of certainty about where the sea actually is. Eventually we work out that the crowd's gormless stares at the audience are meant to be seaward glances. The "characters" that the principals play (except for Peter and Ellen), fit in with this directorial style, but feel reductive and one dimensional to me, and the less scary for it. Auntie is the most interesting perhaps with her masculine pinstriped suits, cropped hair and cabaret manner, and the absurdist action in her brothel at the beginning of Act III comes as a surprise. Her 'nieces', often portrayed as loose women, are here cartoonish twin school girls, certainly mentally ill, who are fondled by the apothecary to no one's particular concern. A grim picture of the sexualisation of girls that the Daily Mail reading borough don't mind (and further, don't even see), whilst simultaneously screaming about the rumours of boys being abused.

Ellen is not the brave, healing, mother figure that we have come to expect, nor is she Grimes's bridge to society. In fact she's almost the most solipsistic of the lot, responding fully only to invisible internal stimulus, which makes her repeated lapses into hopeless inaction seem nihilistic and selfish. In Act II she seems unperturbed by (the child) John's very obvious extreme psychological anguish. She is very moving as she enjoys the sunlight in the harbour, but then is coldly distant when she points out John's ripped shirt, which elicits from him a disturbingly protracted bout of demented scrabbling at his own neck and back. When she sees the bruise, instead of comfort she offers only a chilly lesson in the painful ways of the world. When Grimes appears she seems hopeful though soon lapses into despair, not unreasonably of course, but at an arbitrary moment, which again makes it about her. In Act III, her embroidery aria is delivered looking directly into the audience, another opportunity to drift into her own isolated thoughts. Balstrode attempts to make contact here, but he is well and truly ignored. Again, the apparently arbitrary moment of depressive doubt, once again in response to internal stimulus rather than an outside event, makes her quite unsympathetic. It's a take on the character that I haven't seen before, reinterpreting the dreamy warmth and nobility of Ellen's music as an alienated and egoistic escape from life. It didn't do it for me, because I like watching relationships on stage rather than alienated drifting around, and Ellen is sort of the linchpin of the piece in terms of the relationships contained in it, but it's an interesting critique of a character commonly seen as "good".

Grimes's misanthropy seems reasonably argued and comes from a place of surprisingly acute social sensitivity in the Prologue - he wants to silence rumours with a proper trial, because otherwise the fearsome Borough will not only continue to tell the stories, but elaborate on them, and the rumours will linger. His subsequent plans to escape his situation become ever more erratic and fantastical as he is increasingly ostracised from society. This production's picture of Grimes is closer to a traditional view of the character than is Ellen's, but the lack of social reality to his situation makes him a less interesting and complex figure than he usually is. Stuart Skelton is very impressive vocally in the role. His general bruskness fits the character well, but the spellbinding pianissimo that he started his great visionary aria "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades", held the otherwise noisy audience absolutely rapt for its entire duration. This happened again in the extraordinary mad scene, where Grimes's mind  thoughts flits and plays over the music of the entire opera, though now made uncanny by the lack of harmonic context. Occasionally, slight instability in the vibrato produced a few tense vocal moments, but perhaps this was first night nerves. Acting wise he did fine, but the direction provided scant opportunity for building a dramatic arc with his colleagues.

Elsa van den Heever's Ellen was unusual dramatically in the ways already mentioned, but vocally she provided a convincing portrait. Here voice in the upper register is shiningly full and very beautiful, but falls away in vibrancy of tone in the lower half of the voice. Rebecca de Pont Davies's rich voiced Auntie gets ever better as the evening goes on, and when she is joined by Heever, Mary Bevan, and Rhian Lois for the quartet "From the gutter" we get one of the highlights of the evening. Matthew Best's Mr. Swallow is vocally imposing of tone and character, though I couldn't fathom why his character had a lisp. Felicity Palmer is a delight as the steely voiced Mrs. Sedley, reacting with believable irritation at Ned Keene's piss staking sexual advances. Leigh Melrose and Timothy Robinson provide worst of the "character acting" as Ned and the reverend Horace Adams respectively, though I don't blame them for this, and both are vocally right for their parts. Iain Paterson's finely sung Balstrode rounds a vocally accomplished cast.

Edward Gardner draws some lovely playing from the ENO orchestra, and the score's softer beauties are his forte. He doesn't manage to inspire the energy and aggression of the faster, louder sections nearly so convincingly, the act II interlude for instance seeming wan and undernourished. There's a spot of wonderfully beautiful viola playing in Act II from the section principal, Amelie Roussel. The ENO chorus are on thrilling form.

The central theme of Peter Grimes, that of society against the individual, is terrifyingly presented by Britten because the victory of the Borough is so complete. The social glue, the thing that pulls this society of preening misfits together, is not a genuine belief in conservative values, but rather the hatred of and then destruction of a vulnerable and isolated individual. This is chilling. Grimes is a threat not because he is odd or violent (in actual fact all of the members of the society that we witness are extremely odd - threateningly eccentric, immoral, hypocritical, prurient, or drug addled, and we can only surmise that each of the members of the chorus are the same), but because he is unconcerned with and possibly simply unable to "keep up appearances". Something about him makes it impossible for people to feel neutral towards him. In some ways we know, by the rules of tragedy, that Grimes is doomed from the beginning. But Ellen's resistance, whether powerfully, or (as here) weakly presented, is also crushed, and her future seems pretty bleak. Is she next for this treatment from the Borough? One feels that this society will continue to prey on its weakest members until it has destroyed itself. An apocalyptic vision.

Photos (c) ENO/Tristran Kenton

Thursday 16 January 2014

Manon at ROH


Few operas are so obviously relevant to our own times than Massenet's Manon. The story is not dissimilar from Mark-Anthony Turnage's recent Anna Nicole which tackles the same spiritual/psychological themes but fails to address them with any depth or warmth. Massenet is not a composer we turn to to plumb the depths and scale the heights of the human condition, but he was the ideal composer to tackle a story centred on greed, fame for fame's sake, and the power of sensuality, lust and sexuality over morality and religion.* The other two 19th century "bad women" blockbusters, Carmen and La Traviata, have similar plot elements, though the moral message and approach of each is very different (and audiences of the time would have reacted very differently to the various characters).

I have never been comfortable with the idea that Manon is a simple ingénue - the complexity and unremitting sensuality of her music just doesn't support this for me. Massenet builds his acts to reflect his leading lady. The first act is almost irritatingly light (certainly too long), but Manon seems to me to have more self knowledge than she is usually given credit for - after all, in her own words she's being sent to the convent by her family because she is "too fond of pleasure"! The second act is musically richer, more beautiful and morally interesting, the third goes further still in all these regards. Only Massenet could have a scene in a church where the society ladies are attending services because of their arousal over the attractive young priest, without judgement or bitterness, whatever the wry moralising of the libretto was meant to be. Massenet empathises and just shows us with a smile that these things happen in the world. In the event, the image approaches the Proustian.

Act V can feel like it is the ending of another opera. During the first four acts good deeds and good people have been universally punished, and bad deeds and bad people have been rewarded, and there's been no hint of remorse, guilt, or pity. Suddenly, in Act V Manon is in her death throws, which feels pat and like it's merely a nod to weepy 19th century operatic convention and bourgeois morality, the latter of which has been so gloriously ignored (indeed inverted) up until this point in the opera. Everything we have just witnessed is guiltily rescinded, and then everything is instantly forgiven and forgotten. I find it unsatisfying and unbelievable in the context of the world that Massenet has created, and ultimately a cop out.

Laurent Pelly's production has plenty of interesting ideas, and is not awful, but is not well designed and so is not amongst his better shows. Chantal Thomas' set designs are abstracted but clearly reflective of fin de siecle Paris. The small Belle Époque details (e.g. strings of spherical lanterns) can't disguise the acres of gray concrete, crude railings, and ugly buildings, and Joel Adam's unromantic lighting adds to the cold sterility of Manon's drab world. Everything is a bit off kilter - pillars lean, floors are haphazardly ramped, all presumably to reflect a world gone awry. It could surely be less clumsily achieved. (And where did the electric lights and Manon's modern ball gown come from in Act IV?). The lush (one time epically horrible) costume designs are Pelly's own, which feed the eye and raise further questions about the role of image and image cultivation in women of the 19th century. He can't disguise the languors of Act I and II: the comedy scenes feel very long, and there's far too much business regarding running up stairs only to hesitate, descend, then decide to run up again, but then hesitate, etc. etc. etc. Women are endlessly running across the stage shrieking and giggling without obvious motive. Various Pelly clichés arise - the choreographed crowd scenes with freeze frames and audience facing narrations feel tired and lazy here. An example of the awkwardness of certain staging decisions: During the famous Gavotte of Act III many of crowd movements are aesthetically motivated whilst being totally inexplicable psychologically, and Manon often addresses and seduces her admirers facing away from them and with stock poses. The haunting skeletal accompaniment of the quiet second verse, and Manon's unexpectedly insightful words, go for nothing.

The central theme of Pelly's production is the male gaze and how sex is used as a bartering tool in a society in which women have no power. By no means is Pelly suggesting that women are all just innocent victims - like the men they are greedy and ambitious, it's just that sexual politics is their only tool for getting their way. There are a few moments that made a big impression - Guillot is brutally kicked by Lescaut after the otherwise jolly comic lechery of Act I, which is quite jarring and plunges us back into the cold waters of morality. Even more shocking and telling is the close of Act III. The ballet dancers, who look like they have walked out of a Degas canvas, are carried back onstage after their show, screaming and struggling against their male clients. Manon's ever watchful entourage are the shadowy gents that populate Degas' paintings. We are reminded that Degas' ballet dancers were prostitutes after hours, and were often in a lot of danger as a result: although life is good for Manon (at least for time being), many working women suffered terribly. It felt doubly weird when so many applauded this curtain.

A similar example of degradation in the last act is much less convincing - the soldiers escorting Manon limply prod and kick her as punishment, which just makes one think of the far more likely and obvious way that gangs of men have traditionally chosen to degrade hated women. All in all a mixed production that one feels has a good central idea that the director hasn't quite delivered on.

An aside: not for nothing did Beverly Sills describe the role of Manon as "the French Isolde" - it is extremely long, sits a lot in the middle voice, has frequent excursions below the stave, calls for great flexibility and line and requires ample support and resonance in every register. The rewards to the singer and audience are obvious however. Although a true Isolde voice would be quite unsuited to the part, as with Thais and Esclarmonde it's absolutely obvious from the vocal writing that Massenet did not write this for the light lyric voice that it is seems to be the opera world's current casting preference.

Ermonela Jaho was mixed in the title role. The big Act III arias and duets suited her best vocally, the high lying writing sitting exactly in her best range, and she seemed to have warmed up after a very shaky first two acts. In Act I and II the bright top gave way to an unstable lower middle voice and absolutely no support below the staff. The vibrato was very wide and fast, and the lack of core to the sound added uncertainty to an already unsteady sense of pitch. Feebly floated pianissimos arrived unexpectedly every two bars with no obvious musical logic. Thankfully the middle voice stabilised and the mannered vocal tricks diminished after the first interval and the fourth act was more convincing too. Acting wise, she was very convincingly girlish in the early part of the opera, Manon's wilful nature still charmingly unbridled and compulsive. Unfortunately her transformation to the vampish "princess" persona of Act III and IV was less successful - a very presentational acting style was adopted, that is "showing" the audience feelings and actions rather than them arising from and appearing motivated by concrete desires/objectives. Tellingly, the only time when there was real physical urgency in her interpretation was when she was engaged in a concrete activity which had a very strict time limit and clear standard of success - when she struggles to gather and hide the money in the gambling scene when she thinks the police are arriving. Most of the time it seemed that Jaho was doing an impression of someone who was sexually self confident and demanding - the hammy acting in the amazing seduction scene in the church at Saint-Sulpice a case in point, so too the Gavotte. While this could in itself be a valid acting choice for the character of Manon (that is, that she is merely putting on the sex kitten act and the airs and graces) we would need then to see the vulnerability when the mask is off. The transformation into goodly penitence of Act V was also not convincing, because Manon had been so unabashedly unapologetic before then, but as I have noted, this is a real difficulty of the opera, and so not a major failing of this assumption. I only go into so much detail here because I feel like this vision of the character contains many good things and is exciting, and that it is merely acting technique that is letting it down.

Matthew Polenzani's Chevalier Des Grieux is a simpler case. His singing is tireless and quite beautiful and he has a real sense of French style. It's not the most characterful voice, and there were croony moments during piano singing, but it's largely a very convincing vocal assumption of a challenging role. The physical characterisation is more straight forward and less interesting than Jaho's, but the role itself is less dramatically interesting and has less unusual tasks to do, so registers less as an acting challenge - he's always the manipulated party and so is mostly reacting to situations rather than . The rest of the cast are all quite acceptable though none stand out. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume inspired some good noises from the pit, but there was a lot that was scrappy too, and the music rarely glowed and coursed in the way that Massenet can.

Despite my complaints above, this looks good doesn't it, even if it
inexplicably modern. Perhaps the designs looked better from the stalls?

*His opera Thais has a similar but reversed journey for its leads - the man, Athaniel starts off being religious and because of Thais he discovers his sexuality and gives up religion. Thais starts off being a courtesan and through her meeting with Athaniel becomes a nun. It seems there's no hope for women though, as even although her journey is a path towards purity it's still her that dies and the man that survives.

All photos (c) Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House.

Saturday 11 January 2014

Ravel Double Bill at RCM


Ravel's operas are an odd choice in some ways for a student showcase production because they rely so little on vocal display and contain few roles that could be considered foundational for operatic careers. On the other hand the situation comedy L'heure espagnol provides an immense textual and dramatic challenge in the realm of rapid fire Gallic farce, and the fairy tale parable L'enfant et les Sortileges an object lesson in precise physical and vocal characterisation in each of the tiny roles that comprise the opera's mosaic structure.

Unfortunately James Bonas's double bill production did these young singers few favours. L'heure espagnole is a 'bubble of fancy' to steal Oscar Wilde's phrase, but as with any piece of theatre, we have to believe in the characters and situation and be moved by this set up before they can be truly funny to us. Here each character was instead reduced to a bland caricature floating around in an awkward, spacey set (by Ruari Murchison) which proved unhelpfully restrictive to the action. Containing nothing but a table and the two clocks in question as well as a clock face floor and spiral stair case, this set gave the whole thing the feel of an abstracted psychological setting, which might have made sense had the physical action hadn't been directed as a slap stick pantomime. The singers continually addressed the audience, always a difficult line to walk, and here it wasn't at all clear what the audience's function was within the opera/drama, as in who were we meant to be? What grated most on a purely practical level was that the clocks in which the characters are continually hiding in had open bottoms which were shown to the audience every time they were lifted, instantly destroying the illusion that the person was still inside. Of course we all know that they are not in there, but when we watch a show we buy into the make believe reality in front of us; carelessness like this interrupts and shatters our fragile illusions and unceremoniously ejects us back to our critical minds. Hard to think how something this basic was missed. 

L'heure was however saved by the high musical values of the show. Under Michael Rosewell, the RCM opera orchestra made a truly ravishing sound, warm waves of glitter and gold, with the effect that Ravel's masterpiece sounded something like the most luxuriantly gorgeous film music you've ever heard, even though composed a quarter of a century before Hollywood's golden age. The fact that everyone on stage overacted to such a great degree cannot be blamed on these young artists - if it applies to the entire cast we can usually safely blame the director. Musically all were good, but Kezia Bienek stood out as Concepsión - this is a voice of considerable power, incisive beauty, and is strong in every register. One senses that there is yet more to be unlocked and I look forward to seeing her sing again.

L'enfant et les Sortileges proved slightly more successful staging wise, Ravel's cascading sequence of images registering clearly in the first half, each character obviously making its mark on the child. Then in the transition to the garden scene, instead of a forest we got a return to the clocks of L'heure, via hanging chains and cogs - a curious way of binding the two shows together because its expressive function wasn't at all obvious. There was such chaos at the work's climax that in the fracas I and my companion totally missed the child's moment of contrition and reparation. As I said in the opening paragraph, the fragmentary, non showy nature of the piece makes it hard to single out young singers for special praise, but again all were up to the challenge vocally and Rose Setten's Enfent was great fun to watch, especially in the tantrums of the opening section. The orchestra again made a very fine sound.

A mixed bag then, more engaging musically than dramatically, but the RCM's upcoming Arianna in Creta will surely provide a more obvious platform to display the talents of their singing students.