Monday, 10 November 2008

Boris Godunov at ENO

I've just returned from the first performance of English National Opera's new production of Boris Godunov, the political psychodrama by Mussorgsky. ENO have decided on performing the work without a break. That means 2¼ hours of peroration-led drama, which could be rather testing for the audience.

It's not at all bad. Peter Rose's Boris sings with beautiful diction and he's a substantial figure on stage too - his dialogue with John Graham-Hall's Mandelsonian Shuisky is a complex study of the crippling forces of power, paranoia and genuine mental imbalance. Arguably the best singing comes from Brindley Sherratt's Pimen, totemic and clear. Very moving. I'd also want to commend Robert Murray's Simpleton, beautifully sung whenever he's not having to dash about.

The big achievement of the evening though (and, frankly, it's colossal) is the conducting of ENO Music Director Edward Gardner. Cav & Pag hadn't prepared me for this. He doesn't so much nail the score as build an entire Dacha from scratch. This is world-class conducting, organic and assured, dredging great pathos and narrative lyricism from the pit alone. The orchestra play very well for him (I'm not sure that the bells, whilst affecting, are particularly convincing - there's a mixture of recorded sounds and foundry-slapping up near the balcony. But this is a typical issue with this opera and not of particularly great importance).

The production is an unfussy, period affair, a single set with large doors creating their own vistas and prosceniums. Similarly with the dramatic but discreet lighting. The stage floor looks rather like a freshly ploughed field but dessicated; a Godforsaken plot in which no crops can grow and whence there is no food for the fickle, whining masses. It hadn't occurred to me how Oedipal (as in Sophocles, not Freud) Boris Godunov is, with it's chorus moving between pleading and indignation but always with judicious self-possession.

So, 2¼ hours later... It's a little bare to be overwhelming really (although Jonathan Veira's spirited Varlaam does make a good fist of re-energising the fourth scene) but Edward Gardner's beautifully calibrated lyricism is enough to carry the piece through this considerable span.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Elektra at the Royal Opera House



I managed to land a ticket for the General Rehearsal for this run of Strauss' one act masterpiece (the run proper began an hour and a half ago), although whether anyone should really be watching, let alone performing Grade A self-immolatingly romantic psychodrama like this before lunch on a weekday is a moot point. I can point you in its direction whole-heartedly: even if this was an underpowered, rehearsal-tethered outing of the opera it was pretty dangerous. Susan Bullock promises to sing the title role out of the ball park and she's joined with a first-class Klytemnestra in Jane Henschel, and Johan Reuter as Orestes, obviously the knight-in-shining armour du jour at Covent Garden. Anne Schwanewilms will never quite dislodge the experience of seeing Karita Mattila as Chrysothemis in this house from my mind but - again, even if she was only operating at 70% - her singing is pretty glorious. Nice to see Alfie Boe, slumming it with other regular opera stars. I liked his contribution as I did those of Miriam Murphy and the short-strawed Eri Nakamura, required to spend most of the opera lying bloodied on the stage.

If I've got one reservation with the piece, it's the late appearance of Aegisthus who has to be charmed into the slaughter that Orestes has already started. It threatens to hold the drama up, as much in the score as on the stage, although I feel that director Charles Edwards manages it effectively. His fixed-set production is set loosely in the 1930s. I'm always a little wary of Weimar to Third Reich period affectation in productions whose associations have a tendency to swamp any other intentions of the actual pieces adopting them. However, Edwards manages to be sufficiently indeterminate and discreet in his use of symbols, costuming and set, as well as using Sophoclean elements, to reposition the story at the top of the experience.

This performance was a dress rehearsal, which comes with all the attendant caveats about performances being undercooked. Where that's not applicable to the hellfire blazing on stage on Tuesday, things were different in the pit. However, my experience of the music at Covent Garden is one which is notable for its consistency and I'm sure that the orchestra will be galvanised by the first night. If Mark Elder's exhausted curtain call is anything to go by the first night will be triumphant.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

The Rape of Lucretia - Aldeburgh @ King's Place

King's Place, the shiny new performing and gallery space, a stone's throw from King's Cross and St Pancras Stations, has been open for a month. Consequently performers are still grappling with its benefits and drawbacks - and those attending concerts are doing the same. This evening's concert performance of The Rape of Lucretia, whilst musically and dramatically manicured, was sonically distended in the hall. The soloists, singing in front of the chamber orchestra, were often charged down by the present orchestral sound - or rather charged up, as one could clearly hear the voices balanced up towards the capacious ceiling.

This is a marginal, if consistent grumble and not enough to change the character or experience of this performance. David Parry gave us a brisk Lucretia, in keeping with it's formal, perhaps monumental character (of which more later). The orchestra play with precision and vigour. The cast, in concert dress, are split across the stage, James Greer and Robyn Driedger-Klassen's chorus on one and the named characters on the other. I disagree with The Guardian's Rian Evans about the nature of the staging, albeit in a subtle way. I don't think that the chorus become involved in the drama, but rather that the entire cast, whilst acting the drama, are closer to declaiming it. There is no division between cast and commentary.

Stephen Mumbert is an insipid Junius, all (scheming) talk and no trousers; Allen Boxer a noble Collatinus. Benedict Nelson's Tarquinius is quite a treat, vocally, with pride and sonic power signposting the disaster ahead (from my position his lust often boiled over into insanity though, which might not be what he was aiming for).

Jillian Yemen and Eve-Lyn de la Haye are comparable counterparts to Blythe Gaissert's absolutely ideal Lucretia. By the end of the evening I found that I had little sympathy for anyone, despite the clear injustices - I don't know whether Gaissert's intention was to invoke enough hubris in her Lucretia and her relationship with Collatinus to allow tempering schadenfreude to enter the audience's mind but it happened with me. As I've pointed out, the chorus simply repeat, or perhaps translate the emotional content of the cast - James Geer was most affecting and Robyn Driedger-Klassen's singing was fine.

Lucretia's a difficult opera though. A 'Greek' tale of political struggle, it cannot fail to be a vehicle for Britten's own reflection's on the recent World War. Indeed, throughout its robust formality there are snatches of pathos and satire - Bach in chorales and an oboe de caccia threnody, and pastiche dances and marches - which also appear in the later, more considered War Requiem. The opera, a stark fable, finishes with an almost schizophrenic wailing at the metaphysical: the female chorus begs the audience to decide if it 'is all', which it clearly has been on the basis of what we have seen; only for the male chorus to suddenly bring the gospel to the show and promise Christian salvation. But evangelising hope after the fact, especially in this Looney Tunes, 'that's not all folks!' tacked-on manner does nothing to alleviate the misery of the present company - neither is it sufficiently explicit in linking of the tale to modern armed conflict.

The rape of Europe, of innocence by the overcranked, baited cockfighter is lost. All this company could do was to try and present the score well and in this they succeeded.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

La Boheme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

La Boheme - and this John Copley production of it - benefits from youthful casting. The lightly-worn cares, impecuniousness and impetuousness of the first two acts are borne out in a busy staging. Last night's cast worked hard. Christopher Maltman's Marcello is a substantial presence; in an ensemble piece where everyone is always on Marcello is always at the front of both music and staging. Wookyung Kim rolled out a beautiful, consistent lyric sound as Rodolfo.

Alexia Voulgaridou's Mimi was most affecting. Despite the great tumescent blooms of love-music that both must ride and carry in the first act, Mimi's is a part of considerable delicacy. Voulgaridou's greatest achievement was in summoning a fine pianissimo at crucial moments. Her expiration in Act 4 drew an attention that no other set piece achieved to that point.

As is often the way, the greatest performance was from the orchestra who managed a more superior flexibility, tone and ensemble than their colleagues at the Coliseum had managed at the weekend. But then I'd imagine that there are probably some in the pit who have been playing this piece with one another since Copley first introduced this delightful staging when most of the cast were still children.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Cav & Pag at English National Opera

That's Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci to you and me. Which is my first gripe. Cavalleria rusticana doesn't mean anything in English - it's Italian and translates as Rustic Chivalry ('Country Manners' in the Chandos Opera in English series!). Pagliacci is a proper name so doesn't need translating but the character gets it anyway, becoming 'Mr Paxo' for reasons of both concept and scansion. We'll revisit this inconsistency-in-English business at the end.

Confrontation, contradiction and downright perversity - you can take it to the bank when two of the more familiar repertory operas get staged by Richard Jones. A director who likes to tip opera on its head to really get at it's heart, he's a bit like the playground bully who holds the small boy by his ankles until the dinner money falls out of his pockets - only to pick up the cash and give it back to him: 'See, look how much you had all along!'.

The Cav labours under some strange stage direction that has the chorus alternately embracing (it's Easter) and ignoring one another. There's no rhyme or reason for that but I did like the minor updating, setting the opera in a rough village hall in the 1930s. The romanticism of rural Italy is effectively supplanted by the kitchen-sink drama at its heart and the stage-in-the-stage lends itself to a trademark-Jonesian on-off stage inversion at the denoument. Powerful stuff.

Pag is a more energetic affair, largely as it has been saturated with ideas. There are four scene changes (not including superfluous dummy curtain call from the previous opera and the Prologue) all working an exploded-perspective view of 'the theatre'. It's not consistent enough to really roll the drama out - it's a bit choppy - but it is engrossing and subversive. You catch yourself laughing at the wrong moments and on the night I went a staged walkout by a chorus-parent concerned at Mr Paxo's lapse into obscenity was mirrored by someone stalking out of the Coliseum stalls in a huff.

In order to relocate or accommodate this opera in the 1970s variety circuit the text not only gets translated but transformed to fit the concept: 'Mr Paxo' is a case in point, a witty, inspired substitution for the eponymous principal character but bearing absolutely no resemblance to the clown of the original title or the ambiguous Harlequin lineage of the character. I think this approach is valid. The opera isn't about a clown per se. As I say, Jones is prepared to do rather alarming things in order to get at something fundamental.

Great ideas, competently dispatched - musically a little thin perhaps, across the board. Singing in English doesn't help this most intrinsically Italian of all opera but in addition to the worn arguments over accessibility and poetry - the literal vs the lyric - Jones has driven in this alternative wedge, the demands of the drama. As in all meta-operatic disputes it's the most important and the easiest to overlook. I missed a fair bit of what I might reasonably have expected from THE operatic repertory double bill on Saturday night - what I got was a fresh, thoughtful dramatic experience.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Peter Eötvös at Glyndebourne

"It's like a very posh refugee camp":


That was the verdict of a fellow lawn picnicker on the penultimate evening of the 2008 Glyndebourne Festival Opera season. It was the last night of Love and Other Demons, a new opera by Peter Eötvös after the novel by Gabriel García Márquez. You can read more here.

My experience was similar to that which I had at the Royal Opera House in May, when I went to see Sir Harrison Birtwistle's new opera The Minotaur. Awe at the commitment and accomplishment of the cast and production team; bafflement at what they had to contend with perform.

Actually, I found the dramatic experience of Love and Other Demons a more coherent, well paced and so satisfying piece, eventually. I think the opera suffers from its libretto which often abandons dialogue and direction for poetry. By poetry I mean both evocative language and rhyme, respectively well suited and irrelevant for Eötvös broad, melismatic approach to his singing lines.

The cast was rather, um, asymmetric. Huge (ridiculously huge) vocal demands were made of those who were either good, like Nathan Gunn and Marietta Simpson, or brilliant - Alison Bell, John Graham-Hall and Felicity Palmer . Whilst I was principally in awe of Alison Bell's Lulu-plugged-into-the-national-grid lead role the biggest cheer of the evening was for Vladimir Jurowski which continued when he brought the LPO to their feet.

As for the music, well: inbetween the EKG-twitches of extreme tessitura in the score there's lyricism aplenty; there's a constant gravitational pull to harmonic centres, if not outright diatonicism (which makes listening easier, it helps to hold one's attention); the orchestration starts off with a distracting raft of novelties but calms down. In general, in fact, the opera seemed to acquire more formal delineation as it went on - there are unequivocal arias for the abbess, Sierva, bishop and Sierva's father Ygnacio to close the piece. A clearer sense of the transition from one scene to another earlier on would have helped crystallise the organic progression of the score. Otherwise the staging was fairly clear - imaginatively designed, populated and lit.