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.