Thursday, 23 December 2010

Cinderella - Opera Up Close, King's Head Theatre

If you're looking for a (fairly) clean alternative seasonal show Opera Up Close's Cinderella is as good a proxy panto as any. This third production from the company that struck fringe gold with La Boheme repeats the magic formula of a vernacular translation and a scene set in the front-of-house bar.

My enthusiasm is qualified though. Whilst the theatre is a good venue for theatrics, it might not be such a good space in which to stage opera. There's no acoustic at all, which may have its advantages in the high-speed, text-intensive 'patter' stretches of Rossini's concoction but denies the sound itself any room in which to breathe. Given the theatre's trumpeted re-branding as London's Little Opera House this may suggest a hazardous settling period ahead.

However, it's nice to be able to say that on this occasion (and with the cast that I saw) hazards were circumvented and demands largely met. Christopher Diffey's Prince took some warming up but by the time we hit the first dedicated recitative the voice was operating at a premium, easy and (rather like his character's namesake) charming. Because of the nature of the space this is the hardest role of the event, with fearsome high notes popping out. Diffey undertook them with a base-jumper's courage, missing not a single top C. The stepsisters also run about these oxygen-starved peaks of the score. Emily Ward and Sian Cameron were exemplarly in dovetailing their singing with strikingly characterised roles (the second time I've seen Cameron do this in as many months).

For all that Cinderella is, particularly in this production, an ensemble piece, it still requires a titular heroine to lead from the front. Rowan Hellier's was the only voice to truly defy the flat acoustic, flooding the back of the room like a sparkling wine. For all that she sounded (and, transforming into a credible princess, looked) the part, by the end I found myself admiring Tom Bullard's Dandini above all. Dandini is a classic baritone-compere role, teasing the wit out of each situation, cueing up the drama and the jokes, and directing the laughter. Bullard's leavened his tone to accommodate the text, never fighting the room but working within it. With its clean attack his singing was also the fairy dust that brought the male ensemble together, along with Tom Kennedy's Alidoro and the hugely enjoyable buffo-bass of Gerard Delrez's tax-dodging father Don Magnifico. The most stoic performer was, naturally, the piano-as-orchestra of Andrew Macmillan.

If the idea of Opera Up Close is to find the irreducible heart of lyric theatre and re-package it for an unassuming modern audience then this is probably the way to do it. There are collateral losses though. Not only is the acoustic unforgiving, it also inhibits pursuance of the style which is also an irreducible component of early-to-mid 19th century dramma giocoso. This is a issue for the singers to confront alongside the company that casts them. I do look forward to the future of music theatre in this venue though, as the companies that use it grasp the nettle of its shortcomings as equally as its opportunities.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Maw, McNeff and Debussy, Crush Room, ROH

I attended a lunchtime recital at the Royal Opera's Crush Bar yesterday. I'd like to tell you about Nicholas Maw's seductive setting of Robert Browning's Two in the Campagna, with it's latter-half unendlische melodie like the contours of a Tuscan hillside. Or Suzanne Wilson-Kawalec's delicate but highly controlled reading of Debussy's Arabesque No.1 in a room of volatile acoustic attributes.

Above all I'd like to be able to tell you more about Stephen McNeff's A Voice Of One Delight, a spare, Romantic setting of narrative by Percy Shelley (and interpolated spoken verses) which played to the strengths of the assembled voices, and operated with a lyric cleanliness and rhetoric that Maw's lush orchestration could not. I suppose I just did tell you that.

Alas, I found myself corralled in a corner next to a latecoming family who created low-level distraction throughout the concert and, simply, came between me and a direct experience of the performance.

I'm not going to moan about what was going on. Grounds for complaint are equivocal anyway; the family were clearly trying to engage with the performance themselves. The girl immediately to my right was even taking notes on the music.

In fact, I found the episode interesting in the light of the failed but worthy campaign to get John Cage's 4'33" to the top of the British singles chart last week.

The family demonstrated that the state of the culture is one in which the mediated appreciation of a performance is the norm. In a world in which we listen to the radio whilst driving, watch concerts on television or attend gigs amplified to high volume, then fiddling with a mobile phone, the pages of a programme or simply discussing the performance is natural. Mediated appreciation = the practical application of the fourth wall.

4'33" is not a piece that works as a mediated performance, the unremarked upon but principal irony of recording the work for the Cage Against The Machine campaign. Performance of the work incorporates the ambient acoustic sound in the performance space. It demands that the audience recognise the acoustic worth of the performers by their abstinence and the no less important, contiguous acoustic properties of the space and their co-existence in it. There is no distinction, no cut-off. No fourth wall. The performance and the experience of that performance is unmediated.

My experience of this lunchtime recital was essentially rather frustrating - the acoustic equivalent of trying to trying to look at a view in an auto-focus camera whose resolution persistently defaults to a foreground figure just in the corner of the frame (a bad analogy given my point about unmediated experience, but it makes the point). However, I cannot feel too badly about the children brought to the concert whose understanding of the possibilities of experience is clearly still narrow.

The fact remains that my experience was mediated by the benighted actions of the family. At a stretch I can pass comment on the bloom and flare of Clare McCaldin's opulent mezzo-soprano and the fine-tuned ensemble of the disparate chamber instruments but not on my experience of the music, because I didn't.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Opera-Cinema Relay

This afternoon I've been listening to the Christmas Picturehouses Podcast. The most startlingly thing to hear (apart from a presenter-exchange of Christmas presents mainly featuring Sellotape) was that the best performing film at the Picturehouses chain wasn't a film at all, but an opera.

The opera-in-cinema phenomenon, as The Guardian's Charlotte Higgins calls it, is an interesting development. Why has it happened? Well, no doubt people want to see operatic productions from New York's Metropolitan Opera House (Picturehouses were showing a relay of Verdi's Don Carlo) without the inconvenience of having to travel to and from America. Equally, watching the production on a big screen means that one can actually see clearly what's happening on stage. There's no need to fiddle with opera glasses or compete with view-obstructive large people with coughs at the back of the amphitheatre. Above all of course, one can get the experience live and with high quality digital surround-sound.

Given that BBC Radio 3 has been relaying Met productions for a long time now it would seem that the convenience of live, high audio-visual quality streaming is the principal reason for the current explosion of interest. Principal but not exclusive. Aware of the need to develop audiences, not only the Met but also the National Theatre and Glyndebourne have been using the relay development. London's Royal Opera have an ambitious 3D project in the pipeline for next year, to follow their own not-so-much-in-as-out-of house big screen event relays.

Of course, the technology is there to allow people to watch opera productions at home - I did last week, watching a webcast of Parsifal from the Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. However, the quality of connection, picture and sound are all dependant on domestic equipment and settings and the production (Radio 4 for Dutch Radio Orchestra and Chorus) take no revenue away from such an event. This is another reason why opera companies both here and abroad are making their productions available for remote auditoria consumption (if you like), as a way of increasing revenue. As David Pickard also notes to Charlotte Higgins, "This is partly about taking artistic control of our own material", companies doing with video recording what is already being done very successfully in audio recording. Dedicated third party distributors with paywalls already operate in the midst of this, such as Opus Arte and Medici TV (in exactly the same way as MUBI.com or Curzon Cinemas On Demand do for film).

The downside, apart from this not being in the audience attending a live, i.e. acoustic performance is that the independent cinemas that have undertaken to show such relays will often have to use two slots to accommodate an opera (Don Carlo was advertised as 300 mins long). Prices reflect this so revenue is not the principal issue. Rather, the space to accommodate other independent film which may rely on the independent chains for a public screening becomes limited. I don't see this as a drastic problem though, given that the relays are a unique simulcast, a one off.

The rise of opera in the cinema is a largely happy coincidence of audience development and technology. It's worth noting that there's a third issue, the middle ground of experience: wanting to get out of the living room to be part of a modest, dedicated audience in a modern auditorium, rather than the great barns of theatres that the full-time professional companies are obliged to perform in.

I think I may give La Fanciulla del West a go at my local in a few weeks to see if it's worth it. In the meantime I'm ever-more eagerly awaiting this opera-as-film.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Tannhäuser, ROH

Tannhäuser's a really dull opera. So very little happens, one can only ascribe its existence in the repertoire to its far superior siblings. There's some interesting music and some impressive melody but, dramatically, the whole thing is so tepid and waffly that I really didn't know where to begin to try and engage with it.

In fact, perhaps the chorus is as good a place as any, for a change. The opera's about the masses actually. Tannhäuser and his perfectly ordinary story (by operatic standards) is just an individual through whom the composer and the social revolution he believed in can find focus. From ethereal voices backstage to the wearied resolve of the pilgrims returning from Rome, the Chorus of the Royal Opera were on stoic form - never a molten core of operatic fervour but always in character and musical without noticeably choral affectation. They were joined by the boys of Tiffin's School who were also impressive - drilled but fresh.

As I've suggested Tannhäuser's a character in search of spiritual redemption. He doesn't try all that hard and what little peace he's accorded comes about by an ill-explained transaction concerning the equally dull Elisabeth. Luckily John Botha's not a dull singer, presenting a genuine manliness with his Heldentenor that's entirely in keeping with the muscular orgy-ballet of the Overture. Eva-Maria Westbroek's Elisabeth is also a more substantial voice than the character. Elisabeth becomes persuasive when her piety isn't presented as the disguise of a timid or naively faithful girl - Westbroek's Elisabeth does not cower but reaches out. Impossible to compare but equally good was the Venus of Michaela Schuster, daring to give more characterisation and colour to her tempting goddess than the top of her voice sometimes allowed.

Vocally the voice of the staging is, by quite some distance, the Wolfram of Christian Gerhaher. Wolfram's a sort of neglected narrator-everyman, a kind of bloodless Leporello, keen for the charismatic Tannhäuser to return and sticking with the love-zombied Elisabeth at her protracted fade-out. There is of course the famous Oh! Du Mein Holder Abendstern as a set piece for the baritone but as early as his first arioso Gerhaher's unsullied, liquid lieder-line was a thing of gawp-inducing beauty. I haven't heard singing like this since Gerald Finley's over-lovely Balstrode or Roderick William's lyric defence of the otherwise indefensible L'Amour de Loin, both at ENO last year. Gerhaher sings easily, within himself, a fine, Viennese-coffee baritone with a perfect cream-whorl of pathos slowly rotating in its midst. This is the reason to buy the ticket; he has fine support in the third act from Christoff Fischesser's 'Landgrave', Herrmann.

On refelection a reason not to buy a ticket is the production which should carry the disclaimer 'Post-Modern! Watch with care irony!' I tried to work with the set, a reproduction of the Royal Opera's own proscenium, but it sat up like the symbol it's meant to be, without any real attempt to incorporate it with the drama at hand. The second Act rectified this belatedly though I found myself thinking about how a court of militia holding a singing competition in the ruins of a temple of lyric drama was more of a statement about arts funding cuts than tied to the Romantic narrative.

Semyon Bychkov conducts with possibly a little too much restraint (nothing really catches fire) but the house orchestra play with the finesse that one now comes to expect.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Claire Booth at King's Place

Poulenc's La Voix Humane is essentially a solo opera, Poulenc setting of Cocteau's one-sided telephone conversation in which a woman talks with a former lover. In this technically impeccable performance, soprano Claire Booth was the desperate woman who, over the course of the call, disintegrates through anxiety, paranoia and the affirmation of her isolation.

Helpfully, King's Place produce a monthly podcast of their events including artist interviews. Booth refers to some source material used in preparation of this performance, including the 1966 film starring Ingrid Bergman (excerpt):



I found Poulenc's setting of the peroration rather unconvincing. Clearly the dialogue (this isn't a monologue or soliloquy) is a simple metaphor for the woman confronting herself at a psychological level. In this the music is functional, mono-dimensional. It neither suggests the man's ripostes nor elucidates her state of mind. There is no concession to the soloist. The piano's only role is mimicking the occasional ring or cut-off tone.

In a curious half-production for the King's Place stage, video artist Netia Jones attempted to address this with a sophisticated video installation, including both pre-recorded and real-time images of Booth. This certainly opened up some alternative visuals to feed the imagination. At the same time however, Booth performed the entire cantata sitting not only in the same place but also the same position, despite having a mobile phone as one of two handsets.

All this is a bit of a pity. The video itself was reminiscent of the Saul Bass title graphic to Hitchcock's Psycho (a 1960 film contemporaneous with Poulenc's opera, 1959). Negative images of overburdened urban telephone poles not only complemented this design but seemed to fit the jazz inflections of Poulenc's music, like shots of New Orleans street corners. The music itself takes flight in the latter half of the cantata and Booth takes the opportunity to sing with a generous line. Chris Glynn was the admirable pianist for this performance.

If I equivocate about the Poulenc it may be to do with the unquestionably brilliant opening to the recital, a performance of Berio's Sequenza No.3. Booth tore through the piece with a technical fire and finesse that left me gawping - it also seemed to work happily with Jones' video which moved at a contrasting breadth of intent than Berio's hysterical montage. On reflection, it also seemed a witty act of programming, as it has the same lurching inventory of sound as an old-fashioned dial-up modem. Inbetween the two vocal works Alasdair Beatson played Berio's Petite Suite, a singing performance that complemented the curiously techincal exporation of rhetoric that was the most rewarding part of the evening.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

A Dog's Heart, ENO

The first night of Complicite/ENO's A Dog's Heart was well-received. This short video (from the original production at De Nederlanse Opera earlier in the year) gives you a flavour of what it's about:



Alexander Raskatov's opera is based on a 1925 novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. ENO describe it as 'absurdist', Simon McBurney (dirctor of Complicite) as a 'satire'. It's both these things. Imagine a political version of Frankenstein played for laughs and you're basically there. The story is classically bleak. The dog is taken in by a politically connected professor who likes to stitch bits of different species together. The dog, Sharik, gets the testes and pituitary of a man; this transplant causes a basic metamorphosis into a coarse, needy human, Sharikov. Eventually the Professor can suffer no longer the trouble that Sharikov is causing, through a mixture of bestial impulse and self-pitying, and replaces his original organs. This tale doesn't pan out like David Cronenberg's The Fly, but rather with a more claustrophobic sense of inescapable social oppression.

McBurney uses the puppetry company Blind Summit to give life to a textile dog in a manner that may be familiar to those who have seen the National Theatre's Warhorse. It's a complicated but nonetheless convincing stage presence alongside its two voices. Yes, two - I initially thought internal and external but the programme suggests pleasant and unpleasant (which strikes me as closer to Family Guy's Brian on one of his drinking binges). Pleasant is the countertenor Andrew Watts (manifestly on a long run of good form) and unpleasant Elena Vassilieva, contorted with a megaphone (as in the clip). I liked this device very much (not least the idea that a megaphone, rather than amplifying, distorts - shouting becoming uglier not louder).

The manipulative doctor is played by Stephen Page, a singing actor of high all-round calibre. His is a commanding presence, a charismatic, iron centre to the production, entirely in keeping with the supremely self-confident but slightly unhinged professor. Around him revolve a small group of lackeys, either servants or nurses depending on his whim. Most notable is the maid Zina (Nancy Allen Lundy), who rushes about, twitching and singing in squeaky, pontillist music, as if having had some sort of transplant herself, perhaps from a mouse. Sharikov himself is sung by Peter Hoare who has impressed me no end in the last year (Wozzeck's Hauptmann* for Esa-Pekka Salonen, Albert Gregor for ENO) and really owns the show in this production, charging about the stage like a Chekovian buffoon with a hard-on.

Raskatov's music is functionally modernist. Rather than being an entity in itself, it provides a clear support for the play. There's a bit of speaking (Graeme Danby as the Grand Inquisitor-a-like Big Boss) and, as mentioned, id-coloratura for the semi-bestial objects of Shakirov's affection Zina and a wonderful cameo from Sophie Desmars, who ill-advisedly takes Sharikov up on an engagment proposal. Garry Walker conducts with clarity, although the orchestration doesn't need internal direction, being a spare affair (oddly there are a couple of moments in which snatches of melody bloom from the pit including one that sounds as if it's straight out of Star Wars. I wouldn't have mentioned it, only it seems too incongruous to have been unintentional, given the lyric desert of the rest of the music). I particularly liked the use of an amplified guitar, a liquid yet mechanical colour which fitted perfectly with the Eadward Muybridge (? I assume) Animal Locomotion films of dog and man.

McBurney has preserved the political allegory in the play. The chorus' demand for parity, largely in trying to occupy the professor's excessive domicile, end abruptly in an exchange of high-level phone calls. By the end everyone winds up behaving like the poor beasts that have been the centre of the show. What's interesting though is that, for all its counter-revolutionary, samizdat scorn, this plays equally well as a critique of our current political situation. At the close of the opera, the dog talks to itself (in its pleasant voice) telling itself it's been 'lucky'. It might as well be telling itself that it's 'never had it so good'.

*Indeed the Wozzeck reference is particularly pertinent; the professor begins his first domestic overtures towards his subject, Sharik(ov) with vocalising that includes humming, like the Doktor in Berg. Later in the scene we are met by someone else with designs on Sharikov, the communist apparatchik Shvonder, who has the same, high tessitura music as Berg's Hauptmann (and who is also in thrall the the professor's greater charisma, as the Hauptmann is to the Doktor).

UPDATE: At the centre of A Dog's Heart is a puppet dog. A wretched, mangy, skeleton of an animal, it really reminded me of something... and as one or two more on-the-ball reviewers have now pointed out, director Simon McBurney has based it on a Giacometti sculpture:

Friday, 12 November 2010

Without Warning, Trinity Laban College

This original performance piece, devised and executed by Trinity Laban alumni, Without Warning was a rather daring, abstracted affair. The seed idea for this heavily workshopped but essentially improvised work was An Evil Cradling, Brian Keenan's account of years spent in captivity in Beirut. It was performed in the backstage area of Trinity Laban's Bonny Bird theatre, an appropriate space for its bare, industrial appearance and stark lighting. We (the audience) found ourselves moving around like flocking starlings, either crowding to see performers on the floor or stepping back to let them through.

I'm unfamiliar with the content of An Evil Cradling, although I'd imagine it covers the pain and paranoia of brutalised captivity as well as the unique friendship that Keenan struck up with Brian McCarthy, his fellow cell-mate. Consequently, there was a great deal of interaction - largely dance - in pairs. Often strained, even mutedly aggressive, the movement was occasionally accompanied by music generated both diegetically (if you like) by the performers, or electronically by a sound designer in the flies. Much of this seemed pertinent to the basic idea of Keenan's incarceration.

More interestingly - and, dare I say it, importantly - is how the piece worked on its own terms. For me this meant the experience of being inamongst the performers. This isn't a situation I enjoy as there's the ever-present threat of 'audience participation'. It became apparent though that this was simply a conceit to encourage the sense of claustrophobia that is an important component of the drama.

Particularly intriguing about the experience was the proximity of the performers at given moments. There are some speedy and even violent manoeuvres at times and, given the clear sense of improvising, there's always the potential for collision, if not with the performers then with fellow audience members when trying to move out of the performers' way. My own experience was very instructive. I quickly found that I didn't want to move. I felt that I wanted to trust the performers to move around me if necessary and that I didn't want to move in the way of other audience members.

Above all, I felt a peculiar belligerence about being in 'the audience'. I felt that, in view of a lack of clear instruction of how I should be moving and the flexibility of the performers, that I would simply stay where I was and let the performers find their own way around me. I found this strangely empowering (especially on one occasion in which a flying toe tapped my chin) but this drew me towards the tension of the drama. It's as if I were no longer simply observing but adopting a role - not a premeditated role in the sense of 'oh, I must be one of the captors then' but a role defined by my own physical sensation in being in close proximity to the physicality of the performers in conjunction with the particular emotional content of that physicality.

Other thoughts revolved around the use of instruments in the performance. I didn't connect with the idea of An Evil Cradling until I read more about it after the show. Instead, I found that I was making connections with the idea of Tamino struggling with one of the trials of The Magic Flute or Orpheus attempting to rescue Eurydice. The music was entirely integrated into the performance though. Laura Moody's uncompromising approach to her cello and extended vocal technique was frighteningly unhinged; Peter Willcock's flute playing and humming (not to mention deeply expressive face) seemed rather more compos mentis, though consequently pitiable. As I suggest Lizzi Kew-Ross' choreography incorporated all of this, making it impossible to isolate, let alone commend individual performances of this intense, unusual and eventually rewarding project.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Performing Arts Colleges 100% Funding Cut

from today's Telegraph

Universities losing all government funding (include):

Central School of Speech and Drama
Rose Bruford College
Royal Academy of Music
Royal College of Music
Royal Northern College of Music
Trinity Laban
Goldsmiths College
Conservatoire for Dance and Drama
Leeds College of Music
Guildhall School of Music and Drama

a little staggered for now, so more later.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Singin' In The Rain, John Wilson & Philharmonia

I was at the Festival Hall this afternoon for another MGM score reconstruction from John Wilson. This time he had the Philharmonia Orchestra & Voices in tow to perform the much loved Singin' In The Rain with a cast of top-notch principals.
This rather blurry image serves to illustrate little more than my first observation, that the stage was packed to bursting, with added woodwind and brass, on top of the rhythm trappings of a big band score - a guitar, kit drum and piano. The performance was staged concert and so a strip of the available room was given over to the principals, who recreated the film by reading from a script prepared by director-narrator Kim Criswell.

The principal appeal of the event was the opportunity of hearing the music played live. This was an unequivocal success, the Philharmonia bringing a stock-in-trade virtuosic ensemble to the music. Though some moments lacked the froth and excess that seems characteristic of the film, the score was presented with great beauty and a stirring, authentic romance. The additional brass really came into their own in the swagger and drive of dance numbers and interludes. The programmatic Broadway Ballet that accompanies the solipsistic dance interlude of the film was a particularly well-rendered suite.

Of course, it would be too difficult to recreate the action exactly as in the film on stage (rain?!), just as it would be impossible for the principals to 'be' Gene Kelly or Debbie Reynolds (or Donald O'Connor). Consequently, the drama was played out with a mixture of reproduction, re-appropriation or, occasionally, allowing the music to take over.

Josh Prince's Cosmo lead the way in this respect with an economical version of the Make 'Em Laugh slapstick routine, which also made use of a game Wilson (not for the first time in the afternoon ahead). His tap dancing in Moses Supposes was also impressive, but he was chiefly an asset for his sure comic timing.

This really allowed Julian Ovenden, as Don, and Annalene Beechey, playing Kathy, to free themselves of the comic burden of the drama, and play - and sing - the romance. There's great ardour in the music, enough to prevent the caramelising of the melody in the theatrical coulis, and it had first class advocates in these two young performers.

Ovenden is not only strikingly handsome, his easy charm simply flows off the front of the stage (and he's likely to become even more widely known because of an upcoming film). The spirit of Gene Kelly was alive and well in him, although he chose not to dance during the Puddle de deux of the title song (the only questionable decision of the evening: a tribute to the indelible magic of the screen routine? The music cried out for a theatrical counterpart). Beechey's Kathy was a pitch-perfect foil for Ovenden's Don and commanded, arguably, the loveliest voice. Their falling in love at the end of the first half was entirely convincing, and even better than the experience of the film for not having its visual paraphernalia.

The slack of an orbiting company of smaller roles and extras was taken up by the uncredited big band frontman Matthew Ford and individuals popping out of the all-singing, some-dancing chorus to swing a racket or take a twirl in the 'rain'. Everyone on stage got involved in the splashes of hubbub as the history of the motion picture (literally) flashed in front of our eyes. This was a most lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon and made me wish that the rush of seasonal panto just around the corner might be so meticulously prepared and so ardently performed.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Magic Flute, Hampstead Garden Opera

Mozart's loopy-but-indestructible masterpiece The Magic Flute is a mixed blessing for a director. It's a piece that one can bend to almost any sort of concept but which has a very rigid internal centre to it. I'm not talking about black human certainties Mozart confronts, like suicide or rape. Rather, I mean the po-faced social constructs like Sarastro's gentlemen's club, assumed by most to be a Masonic tribute, which has the potential to occupy more than its fair share of the latter half of the opera.

It's an equivocal issue in James Hurley's production for Hampstead Garden Opera's current production at the Gatehouse Theatre. Hurley introduces a clever concept from the start. Possibly borrowing from Bergman (child-centric productions in both The Magic Flute and the child's doll-house-proportioned toy theatre from Fanny and Alexander) he has the unequivocal children of the three boys, or girls in this production, play with dolls that turn out to represent Tamino and Pamina. The parental figures of Sarastro and The Queen of the Night get involved in a rather more seedy game of their own before the Queen takes over, manipulating the doll of Tamino like a voodoo doll. This all happens during the overture: charm, sexual intent, vindictiveness and dark magic. It's a good start.

Whether or not Hurley has managed to explain himself to his cast, or indeed give them sufficient direction though is a different issue. From the outset the acting had patches of glazed functionality - entrances and exits particularly were often not dramatically causal, just the next thing to happen in the score.

This didn't become a problem because there was some pretty good singing going on. William Balkwill's Tamino really got into his stride in the long, high lyric music with solid support from a disparately-voiced but well-blended trio of ladies in Helen Bailey, Siân Cameron and Charlotte King. The first of my favourite three performers of the evening was Viki Hart's Queen of the Night, secure in sound but above all committed in character. This really helped carry Hurley's concept some distance - that the central Tamino-Pamina rescue drama might be a psychological construct of a woman at the sharp end of a warped and possibly failed marital relationship.

The next mature performance was that of the Papageno. Like Leporello, it is a gift of a role and baritone Daniel Roddick really fulfilled its potential. He was joined at the height of what the afternoon had to offer by a most remarkable Pamina. Raphaela Papadakis' greatest achievement might have been to have not overbalanced the production. Convincing onstage and with clear, measured diction in dialogue, her singing was a gulfstream of fine technique and emotional connection. Ach, ich fühl's (or, rather, Let me die in this translation by Stephen Fry, originally for Kenneth Branagh's 2007 film) was a rare, transporting, genuinely operatic peroration. For that and other vocal and dramatic commitment she should be commended.

Alongside this melodramatic perspective of the opera is cast the patriarchal ensmble of Sarastro, his followers and people. Chris Borrett's Sarastro is a young but hearty instrument. I would also have liked to have heard much more of the sound Alexandre Garziglia brought to a thoroughly satisfying Speaker. Benjie del Rosario's Monostatos was suitably comic-oily.

I still felt ill at ease though. The end of Act 1 brought us into Sarastro's home, which, with the women in frocks and masks could have started some interesting Eyes Wide Shut reference to the subjugation of women in closed male-run societies. Yet the opportunity lapsed through a general indifference. Conversely, though I enjoyed the pert, lively charm of Ri McDaid-Wren, Pippa Woodrow and Fiona James as the three girls, the dramatically important chastity of the trio was simply discounted with the first of a number of pubescently winsome smirks at the handsome Prince Tamino.

Musically this was a robust performance. The Dionysus Ensemble belied its skeletal corps with dependable playing of the score. All were conducted by an unflappable Oliver Ruthven, despite being necessarily tucked in a corner. The theatrical presentation of the opera did suffer from its shortcomings though. I imagine it is likely that the ensemble were saving a little for the later evening performance, happening as I type this up here.

Monday, 1 November 2010

First Night - an Opera Movie

There's a report today on a new movie that doubles as a vehicle for Cosi fan Tutte. At least I think I've got that right. It looks like this.



Now, first of all, having read the words Branagh and Mozart by the end of the second paragraph, I immediately thought of the fun, well-intentioned but flat 2007 film of The Magic Flute that Branagh directed. Yet producer Stephen Evans says that the film is "specifically not a movie of an opera. It's a movie set against a backdrop of putting on an opera".

Evans is a successful figure in the industry and he seems to think that the climate is right too:
The decision to make First Night was also prompted by opera's rising popularity. [Evans] was struck by the huge number of young people at a recent open-air screening at Somerset House of The Rake's Progress from Glyndebourne. "I was amazed by the youth there. It's Stravinsky. Not the most melodic of people," he said.
Indeed there's also a reference to the increasing interest in live relays of opera productions in cinemas, not to mention the popularity of large scale, one-off 'event screenings' of Royal Opera Productions.

The fact remains though that an opera is already a self-contained artwork. Making a film of it requires a meta-approach - just like the high concept inventively applied by Branagh to The Magic Flute, or indeed in this idea (which itself is rather like Michael Winterbottom's film of Tristram Shandy, for example). This is half the reason why Evans found that
People who didn't know opera were more excited than the people who did. The music is so wonderful, so lyrical. People uninterested in opera found themselves loving the music.
The music is undeniably wonderful, irrespective of the context of opera (and this is probably true of any good opera, not just those by Mozart). Lifted out of the socially-claustrophobic implications of this is an opera! it's easy to experience the music's charm.

I suspect that Evans is ingenuous about wanting people to experience Mozart - though his first priority, as a producer, will be to make a profitable film. Consequently, there is the ever present but entirely irrelevant 'don't worry, you're watching a populist approximation of opera' meme built into (not only) the film (but also the all-important trailer) with Julian Ovenden singing O Sole Mio.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Tristan und Isolde, Philharmonia/Salonen, RFH

This multi-media production of Tristan und Isolde, the Tristan Project is a collaboration between conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, director Peter Sellars and the video artist Bill Viola. The video below gives you an idea of what it's about; part of the senior admin team kept a diary while it was on tour in mainland Europe which was published in The Guardian last week.



It's a strong evening, an all-immersing experience. In addition to a large screen above the orchestra onto which video pertaining to the action is projected, the entire hall was used with the singers appearing in aisles and boxes. The arrival in Cornwall at the end of act one had the chorus appearing in the balcony with the brass fanfare coming from the very back of the hall, as if the audience were being smothered in a great big (and very loud!) Cornish-cable-knit-jumper manhug. It was very involving and only heightened the impact of the stormy, narcotic Acts that followed.

Viola's tantric-slow video montage has a number of oddities which can jar - there's a certain amount of ritual à la Jodorowsky here. However, at crucial moments there are some wonderful images which do resonate with the story and its music. Principally perhaps is the echt-Viola image of lovers falling through water.

This picture corresponds to the most important single dramatic event of the opera, when the lovers have drunk the love-death potion. Like a number of images - or, I should say, sequences of images - it reminds me of similar sequences in other film. In this case, I can't shake the impertinent thought of Ewan McGregor's junkie searching for lost drugs in a Glaswegian toilet in Trainspotting:

Of course, this seems absurd but for two things. First Danny Boyle uses this comic surrealism in order to try and illustrate the edge-of-madness desperation that comes with drug dependency and the oblivion that its users are after (including one that suggests death itself). Secondly Bill Viola himself is working not to illustrate the action but to catalyse the expericence of it:
I knew from the start that I did not want the images to illustrate or represent the story directly. Instead I wanted to create an image world that existed in parallel to the action on the stage...
(from the programme notes)

The images of transformation or purging take in fire as well as water. Tristan's response to the extinguished beacon in act 2 is to march towards us heedless of a pyre in front of him. This is like the closing sequence of the Daft Punk-sponsored feature Electroma, in which the protagonist, bereft of his companion and denied wider social assimilation strides on defiantly in self-immolation:



In the love duet the video shows lovers casting themselves into the sea in a further attempt at oblivion. The closing scene of Jonathan Glazer's modern romantic mystery Birth comes to mind, in which a love-dazed Nicole Kidman searches for oblivion in the univiting waters off the American East Coast:


(incidentally, it's worth noting that the film has a memorable central sequence in which Kidman's character sits in a theatre listening to another piece by Wagner, the prelude to Act 1 of Die Walküre.)

Viola's particular stamp is really to do with the opulent time-frame in which he posits his ideas, rather than the images themselves. The breadth of this video work is what is so consonant with Wagner's opera. I felt the performance and the installation mutually benefitted one another.

Not that any performance of Tristan und Isolde at this level really needs embellishment. As the lovers, Violetta Urmana and Gary Lehmann are well matched but, crucially, also on the same page dramatically. They are enitrely convincing as the supernaturally enamoured couple. Brangäne and Kurwenal are taken by Scandinavian singers, Anne-Sofie von Otter and Jukka Rasilainen, both in highly polished performances. Of this second tier of casting though one watches slack-jawed at the artistry of our own Matthew Best. A cavernous, infinitely sagacious sound actually made something stirring from the Act 2 peroration of King Mark, which I often find ponderous.

Above all I really enjoyed the work of the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen. There's an urgency to get stuck into the detail of the music. Though the story arcs are vast and the (realist) action often static, musical argument and beauty is compressed into each phrase. The Philharmonia's touch is forensic but caressing, never clinical.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Makropulos Case, ENO

I don't think it works and yet, I find myself deeply stirred. It's a bit like knowing you're walking up to the edge of one of those Escher staircases that don't make sense but stepping onto it anyway to find that it does. English National Opera's Makropulous Case revival seems occasionally either baffling or perverse but as it's never short of conviction - or, this time around, some pretty impressive singing - it somehow finds its mark.

Alden has a number of ideas but the principal one seems to be of text. The men populating the stage often step out of character to write on a blackboard - a historic timeline, a formula, the name 'Μακροπουλος'. Indeed at such moments the men often become ciphers, moving through the space with anonymity, as in Magritte

or, as it struck me, like hieroglyphs. This act of record and the intermittent transformation of characters to tableau (which, as hieroglyph, might be regarded as text) ties in with the profligate documents which, tumbling from the ceiling during the overture are never fully ordered and removed.

Elina Makropulos has initiated this paper trail not only by writing (and forging) documents but by her sexual acts, leaving a trail of lovers and children, or 'bastards', her words in Norman Tucker's translation. Witness of this wake is ever present. In the same way that the men fighting over the estate in Kolenatý's office will step out of character to represent something else so the waiting public at Makropulos' stage door might also be the ghosts of her past encounters. I liked the fluency with which Alden moves between the two, encouraging the audience to see these people from Makropulos' perspective; it's a chill view when a figure is easily interchangeable between person and mere trope.

Of course, this puts a lot of pressure on the role of Makropulos herself who can never become two dimensional, fixed in space and time. In purely charatcerisation terms Amanda Roocroft is all over this idea. She's far less reserved than, say, Anja Silja for Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Glyndebourne production but her impertinence and disdain serve Alden well. Additionally Roocroft is clearly singing very well, back to her formidable best after a previously equivocal Ellen Orford in this house.

The men are strong, with Andrew Shore and Ashley Holland completely solid. Notable though is Peter Hoare's Albert Gregor. Albert's a classic Janacek tenor role, unforgiving, without even the consolation of heroism to go with the helden-Fach that it often requires. Hoare manages a beauty in the sound that I wasn't expecting (although I've heard it before), which has the curious side-effect of making me wish he didn't have to undertake the same functional role as others in the cast.

Indeed the music - glorious music - is kept simmering but never boils under Richard Armstrong. This is another reason I found the whole thing puzzling. There are small balancing issues in the Coliseum which I suspect, given the extreme and tourettish nature of Janacek's music, are virtually impossible to resolve. However Alden's production does meet the erratic nature of the score as the action often has very sudden movements. Occasionally these were either not perfectly dovetailed or a certain caginess in the music meant that they were left exposed.

This is a nit-picking observation though, especially as I found myself hearing some wonderful things for the first time, perhaps as a result. The pianissimo secco percussion and harmonic strings to accompanying Makropulos dismissing the appeal of sexual intercourse is utterly chilling (there was laughter from the core of ENO's audience at the line - this is fair but there's more to be had from this opera).

Indeed this is a very adult opera, prepared to incorporate the sexual impulse into its very fabric but at the same time give the characters great lyrical scope to argue against it. An evening to reflect on and maybe encounter more than once.

Niobe, Regina di Tebe, ROH

The Royal Opera have done well with this production of an obscure, 3½-hour long opera by Agostino Steffani (1654–1728). There must be quite a temptation to throw everything at it, investing in the ongoing vogue for adding dancers, or dazzling with costume, set design or direction to distract from that dreaded da capo (or aria-as-original-cast-mollifying-folly).

At least that was my worry before I saw this production. Its obscurity is no indication of its worth - no charge of 'justly neglected' here. It's inventive, with both unusual instrumentation and trying all sorts of barmy things with the conventional orchestra. Conventional recapitulations in the arias seem to be discreet or to be written out. My da capo fears never ripened - the music seemed to develop rather than repeat itself.

In this the score is helped by a super staging. Lukas Hemleb does employ moments of opulence, often as wonderful coups (invariably involving large balls, that's all I'm saying). Yet he's clearly aware that the story, and the music that tells it, have their own weight so we get an unfussy space in which to hear it. The cast are similarly costumed in striking but not over-detailed designs, a mentality also applied to props and lighting. Economy is the highly effective watchword of this production.

Economy, expedience but not 'budget'. There's no paucity of imagination. Hemleb uses the auditorium space around the pit for surprise entries and has a particularly simple-but-cunning use for a modest dancing troupe as an underhand plot makes its demonic passage through the story. This got many a laugh - but like a lot of the humour that Hemleb sets free from the work it's a joke shared with the audience, never cheap irony at the work's expense.

The singing is good. Véronique Gens has a gilded way of understating her singing which makes a great dramatic impact - I really felt the hubris of her character and position. Opposite her is the remarkable sound of Polish countertenor-soprano Jacek Laszczkowski as king Anfione. Early concerns that this was a some miscast hooty falsettist evaporate during a handful of central arias in which a strong command of line and beautifully worked super-high tessitura make for special moments. The undulating aria he sings in the aptly named Palace Of Harmony is particularly fine.

There are two more (perhaps) conventional falsettists in the cast. Tim Mead's consistent, present Clearte is also nicely worked on stage, agitated but not over-sympathetic. In this production, I was afraid that Iestyn Davies' Creonte was destined to be an amusing cameo. He certainly came close to scene stealing his way through his parodic entrances through the first half of the opera but then takes his opportunities in the increasingly serious second to sing with supple coloratura and a silken top. Alastair Miles and Delphine Galou proved luxurious casting for the manipulative functionaries the former gamely wearing a London Marathon novelty outfit as the demonic Poliferno.

The Tiberno-Manto-Tiresia trio (of Lothar Ordinus, Amanda Forsythe and Bruno Taddia) occupy an odd position in the opera, a foil for the supernatural events in which they are caught up. This along with Nerea's affected limp, an anomaly in being superfluously invented for a later aria, and the modernist forecurtain with TEBE cut into it were my only reservations. Thomas Henglebrock and the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble are indefatigable.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Francesca da Rimini, Opera Holland Park

Hmm, Zandonai. Imagine the opulence and heft of Strauss strung out with some Korngold-like muscular perkiness and one is in the right ball park. Francesca da Rimini is quite a sing for the small cast of principals, and frankly, all the others besides.

I found it all a bit full-on and over-earnest to be honest. This is despite the best efforts of a wonderful quartet of women , a sort of medieval clique of high school girls getting over-excited... and then over-emotional about the fate of the titular Francesca. Madeleine Shaw, Emma Carrington, Anna Leese and Gail Pearson were well-matched and worked well onstage too.

Still one cannot begrudge the great effort and undeniable passion generated by Cheryl Barker as Francesca and her unfortunate lover Paolo, sung by Julian Gavin. Their brief is to power from one teutonic set-piece to the next without much of a pit stop, and all the while scaling a large pair of dodgem cars, the free-standing set (a design I rather admired, actually). Jeffries Black and Lloyd Roberts brought a grainy, charcoal bass-baritone to the sound and indeed stage; the chorus were substantial, if not always making a breath-catching impact, but their management of the originally-crafted battle sequence was fluent and impressive in its way. Philip Thomas and his band did a solid job but one which epitomised the evening: blustery.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Sir Charles Mackerras 1935 - 2010

Naturally, news of the death of Sir Charles Mackerras just before the weekend has prompted a glut of tributes, prima inter pares of which will be a tribute Prom this coming Sunday.

Monday, 3 May 2010

La Boheme, the Cock Tavern Theatre, Kilburn

Most are familiar with the idea from the press - La Boheme staged both in the tiny theatre above a Kilburn pub and downstairs in the bar itself, doubling as Café Momus, for Act 2. This involving situationalism combined with a modern-vernacular English translation of the text (by director Robin Norton-Hale) has been a hit, running for the best part of six months now. Last night's was the 100th performance. The show will transfer to the West End in the summer until September.



Last night I saw Gareth Morris as Rodolfo, Elly Moran as Mimi... but precious little information about the rest of the cast (more about that later). Part of the wonder of this production is that they're doing this opera under these circumstances at all (the only orchestra is a keyboard, played last night - as notices did announce - by David Gostick). Morris and Moran overcame the limitations of singing big roles in a cramped non-acoustic by simply singing well. Morris - a big, physical man whose MacBook looks like a Nintendo DS in his hands (Rodolfo's a writer don't forget) - threw out a muscular sound, ardent and consistent throughout the evening. Mimi is a nymph where Rodolfo is a hero and Moran's beautifully produced voice seduced where Morris' thrilled. These aren't easy roles for any singer but both had all the resources to not only sing the notes but make something of the music too.

It's at this point I simply run out of names, I'm sorry to say. I tend not to buy a programme out of habit, assuming I can read a cast list either at the venue or, later, online. Amazingly there is nothing about this cast to be found, only a secondhand list of the original double cast performers cached in an Evening Standard page from December last year. The production, we are told, has been the longest ever running continuous production of La Boheme ever but we have no way of referring back to the most valuable commodity in this success, the performers. There's not even an Opera Up Close website.

Still, this is nothing a phone call can't rectify. Annabel Mountford (she's the one on the poster, right) sang Musetta with the requisite sexual allure, i.e. as coarse as she is tempting. Indeed Nick Dyer as Marcello calls her a 'chav' during their Act 3 row. Marcin Kopeć and Alistair Sutherland were the Schaunard and Colline respectively, and all three were solid in their supporting roles.

The conceit works because it's a young person's drama, fast, extreme and full of fun. Whilst there are local gags to laugh about (the delights of Kilburn High Road's various fast food outlets, for example) Robin Norton-Hale sensibly doesn't get too carried away, so the language isn't shackled to fads or potential anachronisms come the bittersweet, timeless third Act (although there is a joke about Gordon Brown in the first which may have expired by this time next week). Of course the best bit is probably the Act 2 circus in the pub proper where a table of willing extras masquerading as punters fill in the chorus parts - and there's even a counterfeit DVD hawker working the tables just as there are street vendors in the original... and, of course, the ever present danger of all this happening right next to the front door, which the cast also use for their entrances and exits. I can't see this verisimilitude being replicated come the West End transfer, so I should try and see it while you can.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Aida at the Royal Opera House

David McVicar's new production of Aida for the Royal Opera is a visceral affair. The costuming has a Pharaonic opulence but could be interchangeable with the designs for Mel Gibson's Inca epic Apocalypto, not least because of the semi-nudity and blood that goes with the ritual and pageantry of Verdi's opera. Quite apart from being an echt McVicarism, having a handsome corps de ballet inbetween the cast & chorus and the formalities of the score is now a familiar sight on the London opera stage. I have to say that on this occasion I found it rather superfluous, if anything isolating the music as having nothing to add to the drama (of course the singing cast on stage just stand to one side and watch until they're required to sing again). The second appearance of the dancers at Amneris' baths simply reminded me of the TittyBangBang Italian Lady sketch in which a cleaner rushes about shouting "don't look at me, I'm shy" in an impertinent bid for attention:



I admit that unifying the drama in the score, the forces involved and the necessarily stylised circumstances of the staging is a very difficult proposition. I liked the set and costume design in general, more credible than the garish fantasy of Zandra Rhodes' designs for ENO. Yet we still had this divide, first clearly demarcated in the poorly blocked & integrated I Capuleti e i Montecchi at this same house last year.

The singing was good, although not always to my taste. The voices are big and Nicola Luisotti governs his tempi with an iron baton, as it were, so they don't always get the best space in which to operate. Álvarez's Radames has metal - virility - but not a ready lyricism. Carosi tried to work some of this into her Aida but, again, space for her wide dynamic range to breathe was denied her. Most irritatingly, the ensemble was dangerously rocky. Not even Robert Lloyd's totemic King of Egypt managed to adhere to a truly consistent tactus. I was unequivocally impressed though by Ji-Min Park's cameo as The Messenger though, well-acted as well as sung.

A strange evening in the theatre. Well-designed but ultimately self-conscious the production seemed under-realised. It was peculiar being in the audience, where tsunamis of crescendi and dynamic peaks seemed emotionally empty. We applauded on cue but often only by virtue of a cue rather than in response to or release from the drama.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Farnsworth/Lepper at the National Portrait Gallery

Room 12 of the National Portrait Gallery is a pleasant but potentially inhibiting place for a recital; full of portraits of 18th century artists, fine likenesses of Handel and both JC & JS Bach stare down impassively, self-absorbed. Still, it's neatly tucked away at the heart of the Gallery, minimising distractions, and, being an open-ended atrium is, practically, a bigger space than reporting an audience of 60 or so might make it seem.

This first of two recitals devised by the pianist Simon Lepper featured a cycle of Schumann songs, the 12 Gedachte, Op.35 on poems by Kerner. Before this, baritone Marcus Farnsworth opened the programme with three fine songs by Brahms, Wie bist du, meine Königin, Lerchengesang and Von Ewiger Liebe. His quiet, confiding singing of the second song intimated the quality of his sound and the dry-but-not-dead quality of the room, with Lepper notable for his discretion. Farnsworth's German is also carefully honed and benefits from well prepared vowels which give his legato singing good line (maybe the singer was on best behaviour having clocked the German lieder expert Richard Stokes in the audience).

The Schumann is not a cycle with which I'm familiar but it's full of good music and fine settings. It's also got a few hazards, which Farnsworth negotiated rather well, making music out of them rather than simply coping. A case in point would be the opening, lower register-heavy Lust der Sturmnacht followed straightaway by the devotional Stirb, Lieb und Freud in which the words of the Virgin Mary are set in extraordinary, pop-out tessitura at the upper limits of the baritone range. And as quietly as possible, naturally. Farnsworth's head voice emerged as cultured in such moments. There are such gear changes within songs as well - Auf das Trinkglas sets off in a graduate vein, ebulliently praising the now-empty glass that has been an evening's companion, only for night's canopy to overwhelm the imagery of the scene. Kerner is at his best here and Schumann responds with perfumed music, nicely evoked by Lepper, and with Farnsworth discreetly turning the focus inward.

The Schumann of more celebrated songs is in evidence here and there, most notably perhaps in the overt love songs (a classically Romantic cycle, there's as much here about nature, far off lands and ageing monuments as the missing sweetheart). Stille Tränen toys with the idea of the extended piano postlude, as familiar from Dichterliebe, settling for an elaborate coda after a reprise of the final verse. It's interesting that this most stirring song starts in the same key and manner as the act 2 love duet from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, yet 16 years from being written, but takes in the same ur-Romantic themes of assumption of paradise through sleep, waking from night etc. (albeit inverted by Wagner to coincide with his own philosophy).

The duo ended with an encore of Ivor Gurney's Sleep ('we thought you'd had enough depressing German music, so here's some depressing English music' Farnsworth offered), a welcome constitutional before heading out into the weekend West End.

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Need for Professional Criticism

Eighteen months ago I had a think about the state of film criticism following an editorial in Sight & Sound magazine. Again I find myself reflecting on the role of the amateur (in both sense) critic and what effect this has on the professional in the light of a really rather good - and, characteristically, robustly objective - piece by Norman Lebrecht for the New Statesman. I urge you to read it and to visit the critics nu-media collective theartsdesk.com, also at twitter.com/theartsdesk to which he refers in his essay.

Happy Birthday Stephen Sondheim

In celebration of the master lyric dramatist on his birthday, here's a remarkable clip: Take Me To The World from Evening Primrose (my favourite Sondheim number, I think), sung in a 1966 made-for-TV broadcast starring Anthony Perkins (yes, that Anthony Perkins!).

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Cunning Little Vixen, Royal Opera


There's a pleasant irony in Rob Bryden's production (that's not it above!!) of Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen being twenty years old, in that half the (prepubescent) cast won't have been alive. The piece is all about marrying the long, rose-tinted view backwards with the zest and restless wonder of youth. That is what this production manages with its big top staging effects and entertaining costuming, and helmed by the undisputed magus of this music, 84-year-old Sir Charles Mackerras.

It is a remarkably tricky piece to pull off though. There are a number of children's roles, which are indeed assigned to children. This has its own charm but presents balancing issues. Added to this, the score is an etiolated affair, delicate and skittish. The effect of full orchestral bloom can be, consequently, overwhelming - the first act dream, the second act love duet and the glorious, life-affirming close to all three - but there's a lack of argument which I'd find frustrating were I not simply flushed with a genuine joie de vivre at the onwards rush of melody and the proto-hippie nature-wonder.

In this run of performances, the Vixen is sung by Australian Emma Matthews, with whom I was unfamiliar. She's everything Janácek's Vixen should be, singing and acting hand-in-glove, a golden, present tone never obviously having to fight for space with all manner of on-stage shenanigans. Above all, she makes it sound easy, which it is not.

With its lifecycle-of-fox foretext, this piece is about the Vixen but I often wonder if the Forester is the key principal. Christopher Maltman performed this role quite beautifully, treating the stretches of arioso as if the whole opera were yet another of Janácek's dramatised song cycles. There was such comfort in his voice - to those of use of a certain age in the audience - as he puts the Forester about his business, managing his work, friends and domesticity with equanimity and great warmth. Just so, very touching (and good, unobtrusive support from Robin Leggate & Jeremy White in this too).

Perhaps the most startling drama of the evening was off-stage, as it was announced that Emma Bell, due to play the Fox had been taken ill (she has had an emergency operation to remove her appendix). This is a shame as Bell is a thrilling singer-actress. However, with commendable resolve the Royal Opera went to Bell's cover, the Jette Parker Young Artist Elisabeth Meister, to take over. This was a remarkable debut under the circumstances. More than just secure, Meister is charismatic, entertaining and a natural fit with Matthews, singing freely and with considerable dynamic control into the bargain. The inevitably rowdy curtain call was well-deserved. I also enjoyed Matthew Rose's poacher, perfectly cast.

A delightful production of a delightful but - and this is a caveat to meet head-on - tricky opera. The pit is a petri-dish of treachery in this respect. Naturally, with the man one might consider the greatest living interpreter of Janácek there was no bother... though I felt that there were strange, temporary bald patches. Mackerras is not a young man any more (indeed, he took his fulsome curtain call from the podium). Whilst the music that irradiated from the stage and pit was halcyon, unfettered by artifice, I also felt its wit was a mite blunt.

Altogether a special evening to be in the Covent Garden auditorium. As if to make the point, a howl of horror from a toddler as the Vixen is shot in act 3 was greeted with a titter of compassion from the audience, a sure sign that the opera had hit its mark well before the curtain.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Katya Kabanova, English National Opera

With English National Opera's new Katya Kabanova, we get the next instalment of David Alden's striking, realist Janáček productions. The bar had been set high by his previous ENO staging, a strong Jenůfa. I remember then, as now, an unusually steep rake to the stage. Indeed Patricia Racette's intensely characterised Katya is required to walk along the edge of it, which, along with placing an icon on her drawing room wall, exposes Alden's tendency to over-egg.

Generally allergic to being patronised in a theatre, I'm happy to recall that this didn't bother me too much. Janáček in general - Katya in particular - is powerful, compressed opera, made up of of pulsing (aching) units of music that seems to burst from one another. The music tends to the extreme and demands action of the same heightened realism. The 'walking a tightrope' analogy may be trite in itself but the rather uncomfortable sensation I had watching Racette undertake her direction* is entirely in keeping with the score. There's plenty more where that came from, too.

It's a staging of mixed fortunes though. I loved the simplicity of moving the diagonal backdrop to the opposite diagonal for the exterior-to-interior change of Act 1 but I didn't buy the highly stylised staging of the Act 3 storm. In general though, I think the uncluttered set design works in the piece's favour. Neither does Alden try to do too much fill it.

The singing is very strong, Racette well-cast on vocal grip alone. She's partnered with Stuart Skelton who I found a good but not overwhelming Grimes. His Boris may be summed up in the same manner. The less hysterical parts of Vanya and Varvara were quite beautifully sung and acted by Alfie Boe and Anna Grevelius, whose contrivance of honest, youthful love overcame both the metaphor and impracticality of the hard stage rake.

Susan Bickley knocked me out in The Gambler last month and I was salivating at the prospect of her Kabanicha, which didn't disappoint. I also really liked John Graham-Hall's Tichon, although I always see Graham-Hall rather than his character on stage. It's a personal thing.

Above all, I really loved Mark Wigglesworth's sculpting (a carefully chosen word here, as he kept a tight gesture-to-sound/phrase ratio on the go) of the score. The music's a slippery beast, loving but tourettish and yet it always rang out with purpose. The company orchestra were above averagely good. A satisfying evening in the Coliseum.

*Of course, I might not have been quite so flustered had not a soprano managed to fall off the front of the stage (also in a Czech opera) at Glyndebourne last year.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Oscars 2010

More or less as expected then. The Oscars, subjective nonsense but essential industry focal event gave us some quality awards for women (Bigelow, Bullock, Mo'Nique), although missing a trick for not garlanding Carey Mulligan. Well done everyone. Now go back to work.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Philip Langridge, 1939-2010

News arrived yesterday of the death of the English tenor Philip Langridge. Like all that leave us abruptly, this has been a shock. I never saw Langridge live in a staged principal role but I heard him on record and in broadcast on a number of occasions. I remember a radio broadcast of a visceral, taut Winterreise (with David Owen Norris) which stopped me from getting on a train once, caught as I was in its spell. Many talk of the metaphysical assumption of Grimes for Tim Albery at ENO. I find his Captain Vere (Billy Budd) also for Tim Albery at ENO just as affecting, even via DVD. Clearly Langridge was not only a fine singer but also a convincing actor.

Above all I understand that he was a colleague of good humour, warmth and generosity to peers and impressionable students alike, belying the frostily nominal 'industry' in which he excelled. To engender admiration from both sides of the proscenium arch is notoriously difficult. It is because Langridge achieved this that his loss will be all the more keenly felt.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

La Clemeza di Tito, Quintessential Opera

Another off-the beaten track performance of intermittently dusty operatic repertoire, another cast of good, young workaday singers. In fact this cast proved to fulfil the really rather impressive claims of the programme: the majority seem to be working hard in the mezzanine of singing work where covering roles in the top tier of companies is the next step after considerable experience as provincial principals and major house choruses (Glyndebourne seems to be their common experience).

La Clemenza is a difficult opera. It's a pageantry drama - roughly equivalent to latterday courtroom drama - there's not a lot one can stage, semi- or otherwise. The cast performed in modern-but-appropriate dress (Verena Gunz' Sesto and Ciara Hendrick's Annio literally in trousered role) with a chorus (uncredited, but one assumes the Unitarian Chapel's resident choir) on the opposite side of the stage to Edmund Connolly, directing the music from the piano.

Clearly this was a performance that would rely very heavily on a uniformly high level of singing and indeed, this is what made the evening successful. Leading from the front was Paul Hopwood's eponymous Cesare Tito, consistent, warm and ringing in a well-blended, well projected manner, dismissing the abject acoustics of the chapel with an imperiousness equal to his character. Strident or soft, his singing exhibited confidence and consistency that encouraged and was met with the same throughout the cast.

That's not to say that the other five singers simply gave us more of the same. Part of the pleasure of pared down performances such as this is being able to concentrate on the particularities that allow each to create their own character-space. Lisa Wilson had Vitellia's coloratura under such control that she could manipulate it from scheming to seductive, coyly blowing Sesto's fringe with a well-placed consonant ('aletta') at will. Verena Gunz's golden mezzo-soprano is a strong, plangent instrument, affectingly used. Equally luxuriant, Ciara Hendrick's Annio was a study in deceptive ease, in a discreet performance of lovely, quiet, present singing. Torna di Tito was worth waiting for. Stephanie Bodsworth's gilded her Servilia with generous tone to a particularly pleasing top - again, the shortcomings of the building were exposed. Publio is a more functional role, although consequently oft-used in what I think of as the best music in this opera, the ensembles. Paul Sheehan made more of Publio's sole aria than the score deserves, demonstrating that his rigour wasn't simply channelling itself into highly professional diction and acting.

The music was given a good outing here, with the chorus well-drilled (by Duncan Aspden) and Edmund Connolly making all the right decisions in tempi and pacing at the keyboard. Whilst the basic staging worked perfectly well I felt that this group might have benefitted from a dedicated director just to tease out the drama to stand alongside the singing. Still this was a good way to hear the opera and profoundly encouraging indication of the state of domestic operatic performance.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Eva Yerbabuena at Sadler's Wells


Lluvia is Eva Yerbabuena's nominally solo show as part of the Sadler's Wells flamenco festival. In fact, as I'd imagine is often the case (I did a lot of imagining last night, by the way, so excuse pockets of over-excited ignorance), whilst she is clearly the star of Lluvia, she works with four other dancers, three musicians (two indefatigable guitarists and a percussionist) and a quartet of singers for the full 90-minute stretch.

Lluvia couches various episodes of flamenco in a vague theatrical framework (Lluvia - or 'Rain' - we are told, concerns "melancholy, desamor – lack of love – and their seemingly endless moments in our lives"). I have a natural distrust of trying to impose theatrics on spectacles that are inherently dramatic - staging song cycles & oratorios, films of sporting events, etc. - but I was quickly won over for two reasons.

Firstly, the dance is probably out of its own generic home anyway, being performed here on a stage in front of a couple of thousand rather than in a bar in Seville. Second, the performers played fast and loose with the 'walls' of theatre, not least as this seems to be the nature of flamenco itself. It quickly becomes apparent that the dancing is profoundly serious. There is no suspicion of a performer (dancer or singer) 'playing a character' but consequently the performance moves in a tidal fashion between such moments of personal expression and moments of respite in which everyone seems to ignore not only their involvment in the moment but also the need to cater for an audience. Such moments of informality sit oddly with this fairly seasoned theatre-goer used to a fourth wall being up most of the time. However, the authenticity of the experience is unimpeachable and I was swept along by it without qualification.



What's to like? The dancing is 'sexual but not sexy' (to quote my companion for the evening), and consequently has a narrative that is not only inextricable from its physicality but also impossible to transliterate. I imagine this is what good dancing consists in, generally. The uninitiated probably associates flamenco with stamping a fair bit (guilty) and there are episodes of thrilling, aggressive footwork. There is a complementary world of stylised dancing too though, upper-body gestures or great flexibility which have the same closed vernacular as the singing - they are performed as statements, rather than the flowing dialectic physical drama of classical ballet for example (again from my limited experience). This pride-in-poise recalls the belligerence in the face of fate attitude of the Torero facing down the bull, legs locked.

Alongside the dancing is a world of musical complexity that I'd never registered before. It is quite impossible to talk about the metre of the rhythms, flying weightlessly across the insistent pulse of the percussion and clapping singers. My only previous experience of this has been the comparatively simplistic hemiola-redefining baroque music of South America and Mexico. Tethered to the virtuosic guitar playing - not only the run-picking but also the foundationless layered chords - this makes for a deeply satisfying musical event on its own. What I couldn't fail to notice here was the relationship between the manner in which such music is performed and the devotional Islamic music of Qawwali; sung in a baroque, extemporised belt fashion the vocal lines are highly melismatic, effect-peppered and fly over a tabla (yes, La Yerbabuena's troupe percussionist was using a tabla). Indeed as I write this I'm listening to Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.

Indeed, similarly to my understanding of Qawwali, Lluvia solicited increaing outbursts from the audience, responding to or encouraging the musicians. It was impossible not to be strongly affected by this show and its attendant performances, a terrific evening in the theatre.