Friday, 29 May 2009

Falstaff at Glyndebourne

A new production of Verdi's final opera for the famous Sussex opera season company, directed by Richard Jones. Jones' reputation goes before him as something of a pop-art enfant terrible using unlikely designs and associations in order to access the heart of the drama. This blogger has already responded positively to the 'Cav & Pag' he mounted for ENO earlier in the season and (consequently) I was looking forward to seeing how he'd handle a bona fide comedy.

It's mostly good news. Jones parachutes the opera into post war, Dig For Victory mentality Britain, a land of old institutions and new faith in their benefits and solidity. Most solid and most sure among them is Sir John Falstaff, Chris Purves in a customary but not notably excessive fatsuit. He holds court at the sort of pub that one recognises even today upon visiting Windsor: the set design for this, as for all the scenes of the opera bar (the final Herne's Wood anomaly) push the stage area right up to the footlights, creating a present 2-dimensionality that is prefigured by the tapestry safety curtain.

If there's a noticeable manner of staging then its in the grouping of units of characters. Verdi's opera is an unrepentantly ensemble work and it is from this that Jones takes his most noteworthy directorial cue. The singers all stick together in pockets, chattering, purposeful, amiable groups where even the scheming seems well-intentioned. On top of this there are plenty of non-singing extras - brownie groups, a rowing eight, friends in a pub or shopping - who move through the piece as like-minded units. Against this Falstaff, though not played as a buffoon and not rejected as some sort of social anomaly does have an air of isolation: the eccentric, rather than the pariah.

Indeed, at the end of the opera the entire company join him in a drink despite the mad shenanigans of Herne's Wood. This is the weak point of the show for me. The entire stage is suddenly put to use, dominated by a huge tree, into which space pour the whole company in every Halloween costume ever invented. The blocking is a bit rough, certainly compared to the purposeful regimentation of what had gone before; as to the drama that had gone before, well this scene seems interpolated from a completely different show (A Midsummer Night's Dream, methought). I was left feeling utterly bewildered at the curtain.

'Luckily' the music's good - 'luckily', as I still haven't managed to get my head around the opera itself. After a lifetime of sculpting perfect lyric masterpieces, Verdi dived off into this contiguous, stream-of-consciousness epilogue to his career, full of energy and humour but without the formal corners that might help better define the drama. As an unbroken fabric (tapestry, again) of sound though it's difficult to beat the performance of the LPO on the shiniest of form, Jurowski procuring a punchy and plangent sound from the pit on the twist of a stick. Fantastic.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Peter Grimes at ENO

A new David Alden production. I expected no stone (pebble?) to be left unturned in his stage-search for the heart of the drama and I was not 'disappointed'. There's a meticulous details in the characters, who wear themselves and their back stories in their costumes, most notably the wonderful double act of the nieces Gillian Ramm and Mairéad Buick, skittering all over the stage as glazed, maturity-stunted products of years of causal abuse. Britten's idea was fairly clear - no-one's perfect, but the 'outsider' is the one that gets picked on - and Alden simply runs riot with it. Paul Steinberg's set design is fine, a shifting mix of the abstract, realist and inspired (I didn't get on with the Starbucks-a-like for Auntie's inner sanctum of the Boar but I thought that the reproduction of John Piper's designs for Death in Venice as the outside of the same in the anti-penultimate party scene where a show highlight).

Stuart Skelton's singing of Grimes is all about beauty, exemplified in an ethereal Great Bear aria but with power to spare all over the score. His acting is not quite in the same league (you can tell when he's been well-directed or not) but this is a fine Grimes altogether, a career-marker. The other principals, in rather more lurid colours of music and staging crowd this Grimes through sheer quality: Felicity Palmer's Mrs Sedley is an hilarious force of nature; Leigh Melrose's Ned Keene a spiv as high on his own product as she is; and Gerald Finely's Balstrode is the most beautifully sung characterisation I can remember on stage or on record. Amanda Roocroft is a remarkable Ellen, at once girlish and flighty, taking years off the typical characterisation of the more measured widower one might be used to, although I wanted more beauty in the sound, more of the 'silken thread' of her own set-piece Embroidery aria.

In support, the augmented chorus are on great form, a real purple patch of output, with heft and precision. There's a fair bit of abandon in the acting too, as opposed to the usual back-of-the-stage ennui that this lot can specialise in. Once again though, it's all about what's going on in the pit and what is going on in the pit is Edward Gardner. I feel that's it's still a work in progress. The real bite, purchase and ribbon in the sound that one is familiar from seasoned pit ensembles (LPO at Glyndebourne, Covent Garden Orchestra) cannot be too far away and will come with time and trust. There's no doubt however that Gardner knows exactly what he wants and how do it - when band and conductor meet in the middle it's really super.