Thursday, 1 June 2017
A hot Saturday in June with the bars of West Hampstead overflowing with Arsenal supporters watching the FA Cup Final playing out just up the road was perhaps a tricky backdrop for English National Opera to offer a new platform for their work. More than this, the piece with which ENO Studio Live (that's #ENOStudioLive for the connected) has opened is a little known opera by Jonathan Dove concerning some sort of apocalypse.
The Day After was originally written as a five hander with scoring to be performed en plein air. Jonathan Dove has adapted it for chorus and it is difficult to imagine how it might have been otherwise. The story is that of Greek myth, as the impetuous Phaeton takes advantage of his father Phoebus' largesse and demands that he ride the sun chariot, which he does to a disastrous end. The full ENO chorus are simply marvellous as a classic Greek chorus, both a contemporary population of characters and the implacably-faced corporate narrator. Rachael Lloyd and William Morgan join soloists from the chorus Robert Winslade Anderson, Claire Mitcher and Susanna Tudor-Thomas as the characters. James Henshaw conducts from behind the stage in Lillian Baylis House Studio 1. It's vocally & musically excellent across the board, the company managing - or relishing? - the new demands of a different acoustic (a little dry with, sotto voce air conditioning) without any dramatic reserve.
Above all, I was very struck with things I might not otherwise have noticed, i.e. in the Coliseum. The attention to detail of the stage preparation left one convinced that the company was walking on ash. I assumed that the three choristers directly in front of me had colds until it became clear that 'ill health' was the intent of a meticulous make-up team. So often in London one attends small-scale, alternative venue close-proximity operatic productions in which the costuming, design and make-up have been left to chance or the whim of the performers. it becomes clear at moments like this that a company such as ENO really does believe the Gesamtkunsterk ('total art work') creed of opera and moreover, makes it work.
Saturday, 4 March 2017
|Image: The Daily Telegraph|
Clearly, performing live is both perilous and thrilling for performer and audience alike. I'm focused here on well-worn work, repertory pieces of music or theatre. The appeal of (re-)creating drama or music in front of other people is amplified by these poles. It's thrilling to hear an alternative interpretation of how the music show 'go', how the sound of a different voice and collection of instruments brings its own character to bear on even the most familiar works. It's also thrilling to see how artists negotiate difficult music or multitask the demands of behaving and moving in peroration. Sometimes the music is simply incredibly difficult and seeing an artist overcome the pitfalls of producing a coherent performance is exciting enough. The real thrill is experiencing that in service of the piece rather than in service of the artist.
Things can go wrong, however. One of the important ways in which artists contribute to the audience's experience is how they, the artists, deal with mishap. This is connected to the overlooked connection not only empathetically but also physically between performer and audience, the key component of the value in the acoustic experience in music. Deal honestly with the stumble or the hindrance and an audience appreciates it; deal with it in good grace and with humour and the audience feel a strengthening of their connection and the value of the subsequent performance can improve. The opposite can poison the experience, though in unique circumstances great artistry might overcome it.
This all occurred to me in a week in which social media passed on tales of mishaps in central London performances. This time it had been a page turner falling foul of a pianist's temper in a song recital and the audience's gleeful reaction to a stage gag during an opera production so drowning the orchestra that the conductor had to re-start an aria. The abiding memory of these events is less what went wrong than how it was dealt with. I recall a couple of extreme examples in which opera performers have suffered injury during a performance or run of performances but, with voice intact and untouched, have gone on to perform making the unwarranted impediment into a virtue (I'm thinking of Robert Burt snapping a ligament during the Glyndebourne Fairy Queen or Joyce DiDonato (+ rest of cast, by default) performing in the Royal Opera's Barber of Seville in a wheelchair.
In such circumstances, the music - the work at hand - becomes less resonant than the manner of its delivery. This is a valuable thing to recognise as it reminds performer and audience alike that the re-creation of even the most familiar of repertory pieces is at the heart of the valued performance. It also signposts the way for the performer to deal with it: to acknowledge the peril and thrill of the situation on behalf of everyone in the room and yet, I suggest, to offer the composure and reassurance from the stage that brings an audience back to their experience through the work at hand.