Monday, 30 April 2012

The Flying Dutchman, ENO

With the Royal Opera's static but imposing production design still occupying my memory of Wagner's opera, I was rather keen that Jonathan Kent's new Flying Dutchman for ENO shouldn't take itself too seriously. By the end like everyone else I'd thoroughly enjoyed myself, if not totally understood everything that I'd seen.

An interestingly staged prologue during the overture, culminating in a brilliant coup of video projection* suggests the overt psychodrama that Kent is looking to stage. The only hitch with this otherwise carefully followed-through conceit is with the Dutchman himself, a Byronically hirsute James Creswell, whom all the cast beside Senta ignore as if transparent - a phantasm, a genuine invention of her imagination. Despite this, it's impossible for Clive Bayley's comically venal Daland to ignore the man, given his dealings with him. For all the meticulously indicated relationship between Daland and Senta its difficult to see how this commuted act of imagination is explained.

The idea's good though and certainly substantiates the rest of the staging. The chorus men look more like miners than sailors, engine room stokers perhaps (the point is that their working class is preserved in the updating) and the women make souvenirs, sewing sails for toys rather than the real things. This works terrifically right up to and including the extended final, hilario-horrorshow party scene, like a cheap hen & stag collision on Friday night in a parochial town. The chorus are magnificent in this production, completely committed to the staging and singing mightily. The first shanty-chorus for the men goes for broke with the tenors lined up front downstage, like a big gun on a destroyer. The sound alone removes all worry I'd brought about the memory of a fine Royal Opera chorus fogging my experience. Chorus mistress Francine Merry should be pleased. My one caveat would be the amplified off-stage chorus. An aesthetic decision, surely, but nonetheless I can't help hearing 'unexpected item in bagging area' when the sound is not acoustic.

The principal singing is uniformly good too. I acclimatised to Clive Bayley with the recent Hoffmann and one can luxuriate in not only the sound but the articulation of the delivery. ENO continue to do fine basses, sympathetic to text and staging alike. Orla Boylan and Creswell both took on the considerable - and increasing - Atlantic swell of the music with ease but I like the fact that Stuart Skelton's equally robust Erik was somehow more landlocked, ardent in love but confused by his imagination's inability to follow Senta's fantasy either in narrative or compassion. Robert Murray's beautiful Steerman gave way to some raucous partying later on and one must also mention the sure contribution of Susanna Tudor-Thomas stitching together the nicely judged women's chorus (lots of extra vocal interjections) prior to Senta's dream. The orchestra are present, punchy and alert for Edward Gardner. A successful evening and a worthwhile outing for a slippery opera.

*Designer = Nina Dunn for Knifedge - sorry to not credit in the first draft of this blog post

Friday, 27 April 2012

Amplification/Implication

Recently I went to an evening of new operatic projects at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre. Part of the Operashots series, the pieces are written by composers new to opera, not only in the tradition of the repertory or canon but also new to the resources and the space that opera offers.

Naturally, the idea is that a composer should write an operatic work, a drama to be staged and sung by the characters populating it. This is at once a superb opportunity for a composer who might not otherwise be commissioned by a regular opera company. It is also, potentially, a burden of perceived obligation or a hazardous area for the novice. Faced with using a theatre space with lighting and video effects, and a chamber orchestra, and the main house's props, costuming and stage construction resources, the possibilities can prove either overwhleming or simply confusing. Worse, it can be both.

In the main the Royal Opera deals with this issue well. The composers that are invited to step outside their familiar operational areas, or genres, are chosen because their work demonstrates an aptitude for dealing with either the drama or the multidisciplinary nature of opera. In other words the capabilities or interests of the composers are relevant to the potential offered by opera as an art form and the Royal Opera as a resource.

Nonetheless, I found myself rather frustrated by the amplification of the singers in the first piece by Graham Fitkin. I should say to begin with that the music was rather brilliant, rhythmically insistent, jazz-inflected and energised in a manner after John Adams. However, whether it was a decision necessitated by having the instrumental musicians on stage, whether it was because those musicians were themselves using instruments that required amplification or whether the composer had decided that amplifying the voices was an aesthetic preference, the two female singers were amplified using head microphones.

I have written elsewhere about two reasons why this works adversely with opera. Briefly, 1) the microphone picks up the voice too close to its source, denying the upper and lower resonances and partials which are also produced and which combine to give the voice its colour, character and body as they blend in the space of the theatre. The acoustic process of singing is negated. 2) The physical connection between performer and audience, being synthesised is also negated; the direct physical connection with the sound and therefore the method of its production means that the audience is denied this intimate and exclusive component of the drama-through-sound.

On this occasion, I recognised a third reason why I find that amplifying interferes with the experience. An extension of my second caveat, I found myself enduring (rather than thrilled by) the loud volume of the music as it pressed on me in a monodimensional wall of sound, even high up in the penultimate row of the studio. Consequently, I felt that the sense of three dimensions not only of performers in a space but also in the nature of the work - an opera called Home, concerning a pair of protagonists inside a room and with outside/offstage interference with with room - was annulled. In short, I felt pinned to the back wall by a heavy flat-screen reproduction rather than drawn forward and surrounded by a vivid hologram.

This may have been an aesthetic decision, not only because the composer wanted the sound of amplified voices but also through a desire to have greater control over the balance (which he necessarily cedes to a single person, the sound engineer, who is was a third party on this occasion, the composer conducting the ensemble from the keyboard). It might also be an aesthetic decision about the staging which is considered more pressing than the requirements of the music.

Either way the use of intermediary media does not enhance but compromises the aesthetic. I must stress that my negative opinion of the outcome has nothing to do with the quality of the music or the performances of the music. Indeed, the greatest pity is that it is not possible to tell with absolute authority just how good the music and its performance really is.

The Importance Of Being Earnest, Gerald Barry, BCMG, Ades



I often find that one can judge the impression of a particularly impressive concert, play or film by the language that critics use in their subsequent reviews (irrespective of the content of what they have to say). It's great to read good prose appraising a noteworthy performance, writers trying to do justice to the show with uncommonly well-tooled English.

Now this isn't to say that I found myself in the interval of last night's performance of Gerald Barry's The Importance Of Being Earnest holding high-falutin conversations about the opera in exotic vocabulary. Rather, and largely because of the boomy atrium of the Barbican centre, I found myself talking much faster than usual and at a consistent volume.

Before you imagine this is going to be a criticism veiled in a backhanded compliment, let me say that, irrespective of the quality of either piece and performance - and both piece and performance are tours de force - this is simply a handy example of just what frenetic fun Berry's operatic treatment of Wilde's most famous play turns out to be. The text has been tailor-fitted with an appropriate selection of 20th century modernist to avant-garde compositional techniques and buzzes with comedy, danger and tremendous energy as a result.

If I can continue this couturier's analogy for a moment (Wilde might have approved) it's the tailoring that's the thing. Barry hasn't simply decided on imposing a serial row or a neoclassically translucent version of Auld Lang Syne, like an off-the-peg musical robe. Neither is the music trying to ape the source author's wit with intermittent pastiche. The furious tempi, devilish demands on both the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and, moreover, on the singers are all of a part with the characters of the play and its subcutaneous but nonetheless uncomfortably close-to-the-bone social satire. I, like the rest of the audience, laughed a great deal and was never really sure whether I was laughing at a line of text or the hyper-awareness of the music complicit in it. I was reminded of the pompous, convoluted leave-taking towards the end of Act 2 of Der Rosenkavalier as Strauss' own hyper-romantic score spills over into expressionism as the characters struggle to conceal their impulse to fight behind bowing and scraping.

Like a moth drawn to a strobe light it was unsurprising to see Thomas Ades conducting this performance. The music is a relentless demand of precision and rhythmic dynamism. This means that the singing has little time to breathe in a classic bel canto fashion (although the clarity of neoclassicism is certainly to be heard in the harmony and orchestration). Indeed, many parts demand singing outside the range and temporary excursions into falsetto which, though camply entertaining, can seem a little odd. In this the Lady Bracknell of Alan Ewing (yes, a bass cast as Lady Bracknell) and Joshua Bloom's Algenon excelled. One might equally mention Hilary Summers' Miss Prism in this bracket for, though the gear changes were not as apparent in her remarkable contralto, the character demands on her range were pungently coloured. Cecily and Gwendolin were sung by Katalin Karolyi and Barbara Hannigan respectively, and though the former's phrases often started near her killer heels both managed the coloratura of oxygen-starved tessitura with real musicality. Peter Tantsits' danger-tenor John was an exemplar of all these styles and approaches, taking the the stage briskly and without fuss but still with a nonchalance that was immediately at odds with alarming music that he is required to sing - and which he really does sing.

As much a part of the opera are the orchestra, whose lines have character in themselves, not least in the prologue to Act 3 which fizzes with virtuosity. They are also required to shout and stamp... though that's not to detract from the foley-style boot percussion of the game-for-anything percussion section which includes a pair of wind machines a preposterously large hammer and, show-stealingly, the violent destruction of a couple of dozen plates.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Operashots, Royal Opera - Fitkin and Hannon

A delay in setting up the stage for Graham Fitkin's Home, the first of last night's two Operashots is understandable. I'm not going to reveal how it unfolds but suffice to say that the piece reflects the nature of home - the place, it's fabric and the people that constitute a home. Here's the trailer:


Clearly this is opera in one of the recognised sense of the term, a melange of lyric-theatricality, with dancers as the protagonists, singers articulating the narrative of the staging. Even the band gets involved.

Which was where he first obstacle was to be found. The decision was taken to amplify both the band and the singers (head mics) and consequently the performance was too loud, unsatisfactorily balanced and veiled the quality of Victoria Cooper and Melanie Pappenheim's singing. I also struggled to make out a single word of text and, with no supertitles, this was a serious privation. Luckily the quality of the dancing (and director Jasmin Vardimon's choreography) meant that the warp and weft of the narrative was easy to follow. I must also commend Jesse Collett's video animation for the same reason.

Graham Fitkin's music is a vibrant, light-filled continuum of rhythmic sound in a post John Adams-by-way-of-Jonathan Dove manner (to use a facile analogy). The voices are grafted over the top, also in the manner of Dove and the drama comes in the tonal shifts which are analogous to shifts of light, so the bright-tungsten palette used by Chahine Yavroyan in an autumnal situation was appropriate. I enjoyed this first theatre piece by letting it was over me and trying not to worry about the marginalisation of the singing.

Rather like a previous visit to the Operashots project, I had been drawn to hearing a successful musician in another sphere having a go a writing for the stage. Neil Hannon is an intelligent songwriter, notable for hand-in-glove music and lyrics all dispatched with a generous wit. Certainly his version of Tolstoy's account of the conflict at Sevastopol had concise segments of song, whose interesting harmony was well-reflected in a pit band of about a dozen (including musicians that Hannon has worked with in the past). Here's his trailer:


As individual meditations on the situations in which Richard Burkhard's Tolstoy found himself, I think Hannon's invention worked well enough, although the eight-scene conceit seemed more like a staged song-cycle than an opera. Transitions were perfunctory, usually marked with a pre-recorded voice-over whilst a scene change was going on. The rhetoric of the piece was also marked out in much the same way as Stewart Copeland's effort in a previous project, whereby the characters exist  largely exclusively in a relationship with the audience. There was very little genuine dialogue in this piece (and none in Home), interactions between characters being prompts for more information rather than genuine, drama-building exchanges.

Still Burkhard sang very well (though, again, text was a bit of an issue) and conductor Gerry Cornelius' straightforward handling of the material was entirely in keeping with Hannon's own notes on writing the piece in the programme - 'to stop thinking and make something human and, if you're lucky, moving.'

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Don Giovanni, Heaven Nightclub

via londonist.com
Shakespeare's finest vehicle roles, Hamlet or Richard III have both been undertaken by women actors. So, given the calibre of the precedent, why not Mozart's Don Giovanni? Of course, the issue which sets Giovanni apart from Shakespeare's lead roles is the sex. Existential hand-wringing and political intrigue are easily transferable but the idea of a same-sex philanderer is a more tricky conceit. Sensibly, the company mounting this production (which comes on the back* of a trial run in Trafalgar Square three years ago) have not hedged their bets. Instead they have left Giovanni as a man and reversed the sex of the rest of the cast. Additionally, the opera is set in 1987, when homosexuality broke out into overt social consciousness.

This spirited and ambitious production half pulls it off*. Staged in a promenade style in Heaven nightclub - arguably the country's most high-profile gay nightspot - the singers perform acoustically with a live chamber orchestra conducted by Collin Pettet. A gantry and a stage are more advantageous than daises in the centre or to the side, certainly in terms of sightline, but it is the re-allocation of the sung roles that presents the greatest obstacle. All three soprano roles become tenors. Mark Dugdale's Zach (for Zerlina) is the most successful by virtue of his clear annunciation (Mark Cunningham's raucously bitter banker-for-Elvira, Eddie also makes himself heard). Like the libretto adaptations in the OperaUpClose project, the text is key to the scrambled conceit gaining credence and so traction. No doubt this is also the reason that soprano Zoë Bonner was cast as the Leporello - now Leo, PA to Giovanni (himself simply called Don). Her stage presence and delivery of text make weight where singing an improperly low tessitura couldn't carry. The male lovers became two sopranos and the Commendatore is cast as a mezzo-soprano (Petra) providing the one low voice other than Don's.

More than a juggling of tessitura, the roles are written with characteristics of the sex of voice in mind. But then, this is where the strange alchemy of performing this piece begins to work where one least expects it. Clearly, the sex-reversal is meant ingenuously, unlike the allocation of women's voice for men's parts* in so-called trouser roles elsewhere in the repertory. Part of the intrigue, it would seem, is in playing with the sex-gender assumptions that is a cultural preserve of gay recreation. This is certainly apparent in the re-translation and demonstrably in this most gay space, where throwaway jokes about women's perfume or menstruation get particularly knowing laughs, as if they have an extra facet of significance. Indeed I have footnoted a number of innocent lines in this blogpost thus*, which might otherwise go unheeded but here acquire an extra entendre.

There'a also an issue with the doppelgänger pairing of the original. Equally voiced men Giovanni and Leporello become the unequally voiced (once again, in both sounding tessitura and how that affects performance) Don and Leo as well as consigning that doppelgänger-interchangeability to redundancy. The identity-switch re-seduction of Elvira plot thread is shelved in its entirety, no huge loss in a necessarily truncated adaptation - although it must be said that Don's crowing at having seduced one of Leo's lovers in the graveyard/park bench scene takes on an increased tartness.

Mozart's Don Giovanni, along with as this hybrid updating is meant to be fun. It's also meant to be extremely serious. Again it's to the credit of those adapting the original that the moral centre of the work gets skewed away from the ethics of sex; the jokes and fun depend on the in-jokiness of the sex too much for it to have traction as a moral issue. Instead, the subject issues of chastity and supernatural damnation become socio-political issues of coming out and the bland, municipal loneliness of ageing, especially in socially privatised Britain, a high concept bookending the show as Thatcherite appearances.

On balance for me this show doesn't quite work. The opera is too scrambled (aesthetically), the staging not sufficiently sympathetic an advocate of performance of the music. It also doesn't help that no-one really decided what to call it: Don Giovanni 1987 on the programme, @DonGio2012 on Twitter and (most dizzyingly) Don Giovanni the opera for a website! However, it leaves plenty to talk about. One of the most important things to discuss is the suitability of Duncan Rock as the eponymous Don. He may get a head start as the only character singing the role in the voice for which it is written but sing it he does, mightily and with all the confidence the character demands. He's also a fine looking lead man, especially with his shirt off, which is above averagely important; it's a rare role for a genuine barihunk. I was also left impressed by Petra, the Commendatore-like mother of the Donna Anna substitute. This is a tricky role given that it is necessarily re-written with different motives. Tamsin Dalley is a considerable, thoughtful presence from the shocked mother of a closeted affianced boy, to the socially marginalised bag lady (in place of the Commendatore's memorial statue) and finally simply absorbing all the twittering delight at a camp-coup entry for the finale, bringing the gravitas that the conclusion must have to invest the rest of the piece with value.

Additionally, the costuming is nicely put together, especially for the women. Helen Winter (Masetto/Marina)'s Desperately Seeking Susan ensemble as she waits Zach's return in the club or Zoë Bonner's Human League-a-like Leo accessorised with tombstone Filofax are winners, as is the uptight Sloane Ranger collection for the Ottavio/Olivia of (sadly underused) Stephanie Edwards. The lighting is also appropriately precise, given that Don's villa has conveniently become a nightclub; consequently I was delighted by the classy Act 1 closing disco arrangement of Mozart's party music and not at all surprised to see that it had been arranged by that genuine Renaissance man of 1980s electropop, Depeche Mode & Erasure's Vince Clarke.

*pun not intended on this occasion