Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Turandot at ENO

ENO have already got their new season off to a terrific start with a raucous but well-performed Grand Macabre. The first big new production of standard repertoire followed with Rupert Goold's Turandot, currently half way through its run. It's a gaudy, black-humoured updating of the opera, semi-abstracted by setting the whole thing in a Chinese restaurant. Goold has also grafted on an entire strata of story by casting an actor to wander the set as the composer, complete with an unfortunate end at the appropriate moment in the score (ENO are using Alfano's completion).

You probably getting a sniff of how I feel about this entirely superfluous and distracting addition already, so let me get that out of the way. I will say that the actor saddled with inhabiting a role which is not in the piece does a perfectly reasonable job.

The rest of the production is a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, Turandot is nothing if not a klaxon of fin de siècle razzmatazz, as well as a strange but surprisingly effective hybrid of Straussian harmonic coal-hopping and Puccini's more familiar lush Italian melody. Consequently it feels right that the cast should be a wildly diverse, brash assemblage of social tropes and pop-culture figures. They enjoy their evening out at the restaurant in one passage and cower at the unsettling dominatrix-waitresses the next. Come the end of the riddle scene they even swap clothing, props and gestures as the melange of style really gets mixed up (maybe it's a symbol of the rise of the meritocrat, the victor correctly answering the riddles rather than buying his way into the court? I do the production to much justice).

Too much is lost in the execution of this idea though. The subjugation of a people toiling under a static, introverted regime and the consequent police state is simply lost: the chorus, cast as clients at a restaurant automatically have a different social standing to that proscribed by the opera. The final act, set in the kitchen, works better. The chorus, now out of an associative environment, become simply what they sing about.

The principals fare better in the manner in which they are used, with the possible exception of Liu. In Goold's conception, she is overtly tragic rather than the lodestone of purity and goodness that would be better to offset the cruelty of Turandot (and Calaf) and the horror of the abuse which Turandot is intimated to have suffered in the past. Amanda Echalaz fulfils this role admirably but is not the still, gleaming counterweight to the red-eyed frenzy that goes beside her.

The (eventual) lovers are a fine couple of singers in this production. The Austrian soprano Kirsten Blanck has power and timbre to spare, even in the barn of the Coliseum. Gwyn Hughes Jones' Calaf can't compete by weight or gauge but his voice is a delight, clear, easy and with the dramatic attack from top to bottom that marks him out as the hero without any acting necessary (he does that as well). James Creswell is a generous, sonorous-toned Timur inspiring genuine pathos and Stuart Kale's Emporer is a real rather than a glace cherry atop the rich vocal cake.

In addition to my general misgivings about the production there were a number of bizarre additions. The ENOs (often productive) obsession with dancers and actors continues. Spectacle, as I have suggested, is important to this opera but that was largely all that was added from a cast of pig-headed extras (i.e. they wore pigs heads. They came from the kitchen, where there was butchery going on, see). We also had some moppet in a white party dress appear every so often presumably as a symbol or perhaps ghost of Turandot's forgone purity, crassly papering over the neglect of Liu in this production. Finally I didn't realise that the (rather English!) character who turns out to be Puccini was the composer until someone told me - I just assumed he was some sort of journalist-trope, and that the red book in which he noted these historical Chinese events was in some way linked to the rise of Chinese communism via Mao's own Little Red Book.

Despite these manifold distractions, there's enough of the original piece being performed with sufficient vigour and quality to make it a worthwhile evening. The chorus have never sounded better - currently at the peak of a very long ascent in quality - and Edward Gardner takes his chance to open up the throttle in the pit. And for all my criticism of Goold I thought he handled that peculiar second act Pi/a/ong sequence well (set on a fire escape outside the restaurant).

Friday, 9 October 2009

Wozzeck Salonen/Philharmonia

'Like a blade running through the world' is how the contemptible Captain describes Wozzeck. This phrase that pops out of the middle of Berg's opera really stuck with me: it occurs to me that this particular blade is very sharp, making a clean incision - no sooner has the violent cut been made than it closes again, rather like the waters quietly closing over his head as he drowns in the penultimate scene.


That's the pathos at the centre of Wozzeck, bullied into hallucinatory possession under the burden of which he slays his woman and then, by accident, himself. Simon Keenlyside's immersive performance had this absolutely nailed down. His Wozzeck has little grace, void of self-esteem in his gait and posture. He's not distracted, he just lacks any self-regard. Like the music though Keenlyside can move (and sing) with great explosive energy. One imagines it must have been terrifying for Katarina Dalayman to rehearse Marie's murder over and over, given how shockingly real it seems.

Keenlyside's Wozzeck is, like the music, a curious, self-effacing hybrid of protagonist and dramatic subordinate so one ocassionally lapses into 'noticing' the more conventional dramatic characterisations. Dalayman sings a powerful, sympathetic Marie but the stand-out role of the evening was the grotesque, snide Captain of Peter Hoare, a comic, loathsome and pathetic figure whose every word and gesture Hoare was determined should be heard right at the back of the hall. David Soar's fine cameo as the Branntewein-soaked First Apprentice was of this stable. I also have to mention the final scene's appearance of a select group of children. Coming on in all black like a premonitory column of corpses they were outstanding, even more so for their brevity of appearance.

No less a character, especially in this concert staging was the Philharmonia Orchestra, expanded to meet the scoring and firing into the red to meet its virtuosic demands. The Philharmonia's strength, control, found perfume in the dust kicked up by the periodic and fierce expressionist raging - their celebrated string ensemble was particularly effective (and the section principals were particularly fine, with James Clark leading). I felt that Esa-Pekka Salonen's handling was a curious mix, with a typically tight grip on the score but, strangely, only so that he could pursue its Romanticism. We heard Mahler flooding out between the music-as-woodcut smears of sound but I didn't always hear the real modernism in the score. This wasn't the most lean, diaphanous of readings.

An interesting addition to this production was that of a video installation. Relayed on a huge screen behind the orchestra, Jean-Baptiste Barrière's visual production 'projects the opera in vivid colours, inspired by expressionist paintings' (in Barrière's own words). The expressionism he refers to here is more to do with the swirling distortions of Munch or Schoenberg perhaps rather than, as he says, the quasi-satirical angularities of Grosz or Beckmann. Consequently the kaleidoscopic palette of the video swirled throughout the opera, incorporating real-time images of the performers in a datamoshed, Schnitzler-like Traum. Most of the time this worked as a visual adjunct (although, screen-wise, I was more interested in the surtitles) although the clip-arty shattering of an image of the boy at the moment of Marie's murder was a strangely crass anomaly.

A fine Wozzeck then, perhaps crowning the piece's incipient past rather than pitching it as the overseer of 20th century modernism but then, as such, it was a fitting conclusion to the Philharmonia's City Of Dreams season.