Friday, 15 April 2011

The Tsar's Bride, Royal Opera House


(animation by Si Clark)

With this production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride, the Royal Opera shows commendable nerve. The show is a sumptuous, four set, present-day updating which draws the autocratic rule of the Tsar full circle with the current oligarchy. A mob in designer black parade their entitlement ostentatiously and often with a gun in hand - the people are hassled into complaint groups, sandwiched fiscally as much as physically between sale notices and mobile phones. Their Western clothes, collectively, look peasant-grey. Even the final wedding scene looks tacky, new money managing a uniform colour but no sense of class.

The effect of all this is to magnify the pity one feels for the genuine human dramas that constitute the opera. Those characters that do connect find expression in the folk-inflected sections, like Lyubasha's unaccompanied song directed at Grigory, or Marfa and Ivan's duet - music that reaches past the strutting surface to grasp at something more substantial. The ephemeral is rendered as just that, superfluous and cheap.

The aforementioned trio have the burden of the drama to bear and require singers who are anything but cheap. Ekaterina Gubanova's Lyubasha is a deeply proud woman, a rich, strident mezzo-soprano with just enough insecurity in the sound to correctly play the character. A young Borodina, dare I suggest? Dmitry Popov's Ivan is her tenor counterpart, supple and open-throated, the clean, fresh sound of the idealist lover. Marina Poplavskaya is more familiar to Covent Garden and by the mad scene-Liebestod of the final act she was into her stride (although the road to this point was rocky). Making all the problems is Johan Reuter's Grigory, also a familiar face confidently nailing his opening aria before almost anyone else has had a chance to get onto the stage alongside him. Other roles are well taken - I particulalry liked the bass Alexander Vinogradov (Malyuta-Skuratov), a young singer we will hear plenty more of in the future. At the other end of the food chain, I might also mention Andrew O'Connor's 'Young Lad' cameo in the second act. These three-line roles are tricky enough at the best of times but one could discern every word of the text. Not bad when on stage with high calibre, native Russian singers.

Under Mark Elder the Covent Garden Orchestra play with a tight, light ensemble touch, serving the music, supporting the singers. It does seem a little inconsequential at times. For all that Rimsky-Korsakov claimed to be reacting against the suffocating influence of Wagner in this work, there are passages that can't detach themselves from harmonic and orchestral gravitation in that direction. Certainly the piece comes into its own when it gives the singers a platform for voiced melodrama, rather than trying to force the issue directly from the pit. Following the curio of The Gambler this is a more worthwhile forré into less familiar Russian repertory.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Opera Shots, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

Here's the Royal Opera's trailer:



This evening's double-feature in the Royal Opera's Opera Shots series was a Stewart Copeland adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale-Heart followed by A Doctor's Tale, composed by Anne Dudley to a text by Terry Jones, also directing.

The cramped musical hall-style set and lighting design (including projections) for Tell-Tale-Heart really intensifies the gothic melodrama. Copeland has a postmodern eye on the staging though and often has the narrator, Edgar, stepping out past the footlights of a fourth wall, using doors in the wings or sitting behind the pit. Jonathan Moore's action is very prescriptive with a fair bit of choreography, which makes the jokes funnier and the silent movie jerkiness all the more apparent.

Copeland's music is rather more four-square than a silent movie score, playing with the rhythms of his own adaptation but largely sticking to a tessellation of regular phrases. Syncopation abounds in the second section as a crime is investigated. This was the most successful stretch for me, everything working nicely in synch, although I struggled to pick out all the text here, as elsewhere. There's a fair bit of physical theatre involved, the characters constantly on the move, which may have contributed to this. Richard Suart plays Edgar, the only character and voice of note.

The Jones/Dudley A Doctor's Tale is a more relaxed piece in as much as the music follows the text (rather than the characters trying to cram it into predetermined parameters). Dudley's scoring is more adventurous than Copeland's, doubling the personnel of the excellent Chroma Ensemble and with a large percussion unit. The sung phrases (if not the harmony) reminded me of music by Jonathan Dove, expansive and expressive where necessary without getting sidetracked with melismatic wandering.

The production, on a (pragmatically) simpler stage involves a great deal of scene and costume changing, with each scene pertaining to the length of a comedy sketch. The story is totally cogent though and the production serves rather than chops up the wit. Darren Abrahams' Dr Scout is a terrific piece of casting, the Doctor needing to be charismatic, upbeat and with a Janacek-high tessitura. The music theatre-rounded corners to some of Abrahams' inflexion were entirely in keeping with the sentiment of the work; the sound was invariably open and the text always clear. This was the case for much of the cast as well, particularly the excellent Peter Willcock (last seen by this blog doing something far more esoteric, but no less demanding) and the charmingly optimistic Carolyn Dobbin. No mistaking the sung text of these artists.

As I've already suggested, I really enjoyed the playing of the visiting Chroma Ensemble and I should go further in mentioning the strings, particularly of Copeland's work, whose intonation was impeccable. In that piece, Robert Ziegler's conducting dealt with rubato spoken stretches without fuss; Tim Murray's stewardship of Anne Dudley's score was equally secure, delivered with an almost permanent grin, as well it might. A nice night out.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The Coronation Of Poppea, King's Head Theatre

With this new production of The Coronation Of Poppea, OperaUpClose have rediscovered their mojo. All the inventive intent sidetracked by the success of Boheme has once again found the right vehicle. It's really pleasing to know that the Spreadbury-Maher/Norton-Hale enthusiasm for opera wasn't just because of an idea for the one work.

Part of this reinvigoration comes with a fresh team. Mark Ravenhill directs the production based on his own adaptation of the libretto which, some early sabre-rattling apart, is not simply a showcase for flush-busting profanity. Indeed, Ravenhill introduced the evening with quotes from Seneca and Ru Paul, the latter's 'You're born naked - the rest is just drag' reflecting the benign, postmodern decadence of this intriguing production. Those expecting some sort of "scandalous" Calligulean orgy-opera can be assured it's more thoughtful than that.

The real subversion, the soul-twin of the Boheme's vernacular translation, comes with the music. Writing for a jazz trio (with Jonny Gee on bass and Chez Taylor on saxophones) pianist Alex Silverman realises Monteverdi's score as if it's a sequence of overlapping standards from the Real Book. Jazz extemporisation of baroque music isn't exactly new - Jacques Loussier and The Swingle Singers have been doing it to Bach for years - but there's something about this arrangement that keeps the music within Monteverdi's bounds, serving the drama, keeping the text pertinent. Monteverdi's suspensions, tart twists of musica ficta and strange harmonic visions find new life in the added chords, bitonality and blue notes of Silverman's re-working. Here's their production trailer:



As Ravenhill and Silverman suggest, the cabaret scale and style of the music is just right for the Opera Up Close project. Moreover, Monteverdi's idea of opera, which places the responsibility on the voices to tell the story, create the drama and all the while seduce the ear is the natural territory of the company. There is some really super singing in this production. Rebecca Caine's cuckolded Ottavia is the exemplar, allowing her voice free reign without having to battle music that's pushing to fill a far bigger space. This is proper operatic singing, projected and communicative, always beautiful and character-assimilated.

The inevitable operatic chicanery of love kindled, love thwarted and vengeance plotted is played out by two couples. As Ottone David Sheppard's nimble countertenor comes into its own in the hysteria of a murderer's troubled conscience. Jassy Husk is his bittersweet lover Drusilla and the two make a convincing pair, cornered by circumstance. More strident in tone and stage presence, Jessica Walker's Nero is what you'd expect a borderline maniac despot to be, playing the trouser role complete with a jazzdrogynous Stacey Kent crop.

Zoë Bonner as Poppea (thisislondon.co.uk)
As for the eponymous Poppea, well OperaUpClose have a brilliant advocate for this hybrid version of the opera in Zoë Bonner. Showing no technical hiatus between realising Monteverdi's exploratory baroque blueprint and incorporating twentieth century jazz inflection she makes the mongrel idiom appear organic. Melismas uncoil in the same way in which she slinks around the stage and microtonal cadences are treated with a club singer's artful nonchalance.

Proving there's not a weak link in the cast, Martin Nelson's Seneca is a fine study in noble equanimity. The authenticity of his connection was evinced when an audience member stifled a shriek as he takes his own life. Finally, Adam Kowalczyk dealt with some early tuning issues and sniggering at his appearance in drag to perform Liberto's lullaby of beautifully quiet, sustained lines that had even Silverman beaming with joy at the piano. For me this single aria validated not only the jazz arrangement but also the UpClose project, a precious moment.

Delivery aside, the drama of Poppea is problematic. The immoral couple at its centre finish the opera not with comeuppance but its most touching, loving duet. Ravenhill attempts two things to address this. The first is the pool in the centre of the stage: turned red with the blood of Seneca's suicide, each character eventually succumbs to wading into it, marking themselves with a communal stain of moral weakness or complicity. Neither Nero nor Poppea are exempt, symbolically completing the coronation in the pool.

Ravenhill's second and most radical idea is the commissioning and interpolation of a new aria from Michael Nyman. Ottavia sings from an inverted-lit exile, predicting the couple's violent future. It's a bold move. Nyman's music is good, integrated but alien. The peculiarly immoral denouement seems to need a counterweight. Nonetheless I felt cheated. In Monteverdi's world the sensory provides its own moral absolutes and I had been captivated by this point. But then, perhaps I didn't want to hear the message any more than I wanted any interruption, in the same way that Nero doesn't want to hear Seneca's sage words on the pitfalls of a ruler eschewing reason.

In short, by the end I was enjoying myself to the point where I didn't want to let failing to understand the show get in the way of enjoying it. I'm sure that's one reasonable basis for calling an evening a success. In fact, being told that some material was being held back during this preview performance might just prove to be the incentive to return.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Semele, Hampstead Garden Opera

An unexpectedly hot evening at the Hampstead Gatehouse Theatre, and not only because of the premature arrival of summer. Handel's late opera has the familiar operatic issues of romantic entanglements and Olympian meddling, but with the politics of the bedroom rather than the boardroom. Aside from a youthful willingness to engage with the work's explicit nymphomania, it's a good opera for the company to undertake, having a large principal ensemble, some hit tunes and scope for all manner of comedy and frolicking on stage.

James Hurley's production, necessarily played out on a single set, deals ingeniously with the im/mortal divide. Jupiter's household kick their heels around a central dais, which, during the overture, they actively reveal to be a suburban living room. Semele's petitioning of Jupiter to save her from an arranged marriage and his intervention happen in this space with the characterisations played bold, as if revisiting Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party or a Pinter drama. The chorus appear as a spectral entity off the dais, veiled both in costume and vitality. It's a slow-burning conceit that ties in with Rachel Szumkler's dust-sheet/Elysian cloud design and makes for a festive if equivocal denouement to the opera, emphasising its vague rescue-drama DNA.

Other ideas abound, and though these are often rather clever they can congest not only the drama but also the space, a very real concern in this paraphernalia-heavy production. For example, I liked the Truman Show styling of the deus ex machina business but its consequences were headphones, step ladders and gestures that crowd a space that I might have preferred the characters to fill.

This didn't seem to bother the cast unduly, working situations exhaustively during Handel's arias. John Lattimore's pomade-slicked Athamus is clearly at home on the stage and gets Elaine Tate's Semele squirming nicely. Ultimately, the kitchen-sink dramatics of the first scene gravitate towards the pitiful Ino. At first hiding her simmering passion for Athamus inside a cereal box, the disappearance of Semele prompts her to open herself (Turn, hopeless lover). Melanie Sanders has the vocal-dramatic balance exactly right, integrating her performance and keeping her acting simple and focused. It makes for a very affecting stretch.

The best arias - and much of the best singing - is to be found in the second act. The space has been converted to the carefully preserved playground of Elysium with the chorus and Semele dressed in sci-fi couture bubble wrap (suggesting, amongst other things, the vaguest hint of Barbarella-fetishism). Juno and Jupiter, silent manipulators of the first, mortal act now find their voices. Kathryn Walker is a fearsome wife, singing with a fire to match her livid face. Zachary Devin's Jupiter is worth waiting for, a nicely produced, generous sound, totally secure in the oxymoronic I must with speed amuse her, sung under petulant pillow fire from Semele. The reunion of the sisters to close the first half is touchingly well-played.

Finally it's an exchange of coloratura in the final act that really shows both Tate and Devin at their best, culminating in Semele's ferocious, danger-blind No, no, I'll take no less. Performing physically throughout, Elaine Tate finds both the glitter in Endless pleasure and the warmth in O sleep, why do'st thou leave me and this final burst of lustful delirium is quite a thrill. The truly terrifying consequences of her demands (Ah me, too late I now repent) are in the spirit of this energy quenched, rather than pity sought.

Smaller roles and cameos are taken well enough, Daisy Brown's puckish Iris and Andrew Tipple's laconic Somnus being of particular note. As in much Handel opera this has a significant chorus part as well, a tricky sequence of numbers securely performed by a small corps - so small in fact that they rely on a single bass, for which Martin Musgrave's contribution is noteworthy.

Unfortunately, on this occasion the heat conspired against Oliver-John Ruthven's Musica Poetica. His safe tempi and direction from the keyboard anchored the music although the temperature absorbed some of its energy. This florid, busy production of Semele runs for a single week during the opening of that other, more high-profile production featuring a feckless young woman, The Coronation Of Poppea, happening just down the road in Highbury. Semele generates wit and zest on its own terms though and is well worth trying to get to see.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Spring Opera Blossoming

As March becomes April the opportunity to see opera has exploded across London like some sort of daffodil flashmobbing. Indeed, with the festival season just on the horizon there's a great deal of rehearsing going on across the country in addition to the regional companies that continue to provide high-quality operatic experiences (by all accounts). Moreover, the majority of the operatic activity happening right now in the capital is bound by the vogue for small scale, for being 'intimate'. Perhaps the 'flashmob' sobriquet, with its connotations of verisimilitude, spontaneity and invisible barriers is actually rather appropriate.

The Return Of Ulysses, ENO at The Young Vic
This weekend gone by has seen new operas by Robert Hugill (When A Man Knows) and Will Gregory (Piccard In Space, this latter artist being of the pop outfit Goldfrapp). English Touring Opera are also well through a tour of a new work by Tobias Picker, Fantastic Mr Fox. Those lucky enough to have secured a ticket will have seen the similar-in-spirit small-scale production of Return Of Ulysses staged by English National Opera at The Young Vic (if reports of the production in a transparent-walled set are to be believed then this is the most 'intimate' of all current shows).

Indeed, Monteverdi seems a no-brainer choice for the small-venue production vogue and this week Mark Ravenhill stages The Coronation Of Poppea at The King's Head Theatre (for the same company, one assumes, that recently beat the Royal Opera and ENO to an Olivier for their production of La Boheme). Also this week Hampstead Garden Opera are putting on a new, double-cast Semele. This is an interesting company who operate in a similar space to the King's Head Theatre, also performing in a small space annexed to a pub.

Like OperaUpClose, Hampstead Garden Opera use current or recently graduated students in their productions and it's been great to see that the feeder conservatoires have been staging their own productions at the front of this spring glut: The Carmelites at the Guildhall and Rodelinda at the Royal College were strong showings but arguably trumped by the Royal Academy's new commission Kommilitonen! by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. It's worth mentioning that the Royal Northern College's Vanessa is still on its run. Sadly we have not heard much of the Royal Welsh College's Die Fledermaus of last week, having no doubt overpowered the good people of Cardiff who had only just digested WNO's run of performances of the same work.

Above all, I've been very interested to look at the relative profile that these shows have in the press. Generally it's heartening to see that, despite the high celebrity currency of some of those involved with putting on opera in London, the roughly established social network that helps to promote and discuss the work is a far more level-headed, content-aware platform for approaching and consuming opera. Today the Daily Telegraph has published an interview with Stewart Copeland, formerly drummer with The Police and now helping to put together an opera, in the same modest vein as those listed above, for the Royal Opera's Opera Shots series at the Linbury Studio. In addition to Copeland's adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe, the hugely successful pop arranger and composer Anne Dudley is also teaming up with ex-Python Terry Jones to produce a work. Clearly this is a significant event yet, this article aside (incidentally, redundantly titled 'Can pop stars write opera?' as it can't answer the question, posed as a pseud-intellectual hook to a promotional feature) is creating no more stir than Twitter chatter concerning the change of conductor for the Royal Opera Fidelio, the poor reviews for Piccard (perhaps pop stars can't write opera?!) or the democratised rush of genuine acclaim for everything from Anna Nicole to the Riverside Studio/Tete A Tete Opera hit production of Salad Days.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Robert Hugill's When A Man Knows, Bridewell Theatre

Based on a modestly successful contemporary play by Alan Richardson, Robert Hugill's When A Man Knows is a two-handed incarceration thriller. A man in a suit (Eddie) finds himself shackled and hooded in a disused factory. His incomprehension and outrage becomes belligerence as a woman (Pamela) arrives. Proud but defensive she weathers his sarcasm, pleading and bargaining, to reveal the reason for his situation and its possible outcome.

Despite its grisly narrative the opera has a regular tide of black humour. It's clear that there is a relationship between the two principal characters. The set-up echoes Stephen King's Misery and there's credibility in Eddie's early taunts referring to the 'kinky' element to his bondage. In fact, credibility is the principal characteristic of Dario Dugandzic's performance as the captive protagonist. He manages an abrasive self-interest in both his limber, consistent baritone and his body language. Above all he is always acting, using the score to maintain the character rather than to take a break from it. His part in the title of the opera may refer to two things. Not only is it the revelation at the centre of the drama but also the late epiphany of a fate sealed. For me the chill of the denouement is all the more effective for Dugandzic's absorption of his role.

With the man in chains and apparently ignorant there's a heightened dramatic burden on the captor. Hugill's broad, lyrical strokes are well-served by Zoe South. Her expansive soprano is capable of both the plangent and the napalm-dramatic ('No negotiation!'). The highlight of the evening's singing was her central 'When my husband died...' aria, a peroration of partial catharsis in the style of Puccini.

Hugill's score reflects not only Puccini but also Britten. The Lucretia-like chorus duet of tenor (John Beaumont) and mezzo-soprano (Sarah Barham), often a semitone apart, recalls the Abraham and Isaac Church Parable, and operates as a further texture to the four-piece orchestration.Yet the musical language is basically original and pleasantly lyric, creating the line and space in which the drama can be properly sung. David Roblou conducts with vigilance. On stage, Ian Caddy's direction is tied, literally, to the limitations of the action so he doesn't attempt anything too ambitious, using the quirks of the space and trusting in Mark Haskins' economical and responsive lighting.

One footnote of misgiving though - and read on with care as this reveals part of the plot. Pamela's revelation of her own death sentence, knowingly conferred by Eddie, is an awkwardly handled sequence. To many, the very word AIDS has its own dreadful and indeed dramatic connotation. However, as with all terms of connotation, this wears with time, not to mention the ironic deconstruction of pop culture. It's dramatic impact was for me equivocal - but worse than that, the chorus then go on to repeat the expanded acronym as a mantra ('Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome...') which has all the pathos of a loss-adjuster's inventory, i.e. none. The dramatic nexus of the opera and the delivery of the text on which it was being communicated for me were clearly out of synch at this point.

When A Man Knows is a carefully assembled opera full of good music well-sung. It clearly works as I found myself recharged rather than depressed after leaving the theatre. I would recommend a visit to the staged production but, remarkably, there is also the opportunity to watch a concert performance online (largely the same cast under the auspices of Tête à Tête opera).