November 2005


Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

The first thing I liked about this production was the elegant semi-abstract staging. I’m not a particular fan of minimalist staging, so I think maybe I’ve just seen too many cluttered and cramped stages recently. Anyway, there was an impression of airy space, with a large globe and spiral staircase the only objects on view. There was also the distinct impression that this was going to be an opera laying on the symbolism pretty thickly. Midsummer Marriage has been described as ‘a modern Magic Flute’, and there are certainly some obvious similarities, the obvious ones being the two young couples (one posh – at least, she is; one common), the powerful father figure attempting to control his daughter, the ancient pagan religious order, etc. along with the theme of passing through various trials and ordeals to return changed (hopefully for the better).

Amanda Roocroft and Will Hartmann were in good voice, although not entirely convincing in the lead roles of Jenifer and Mark; to be fair, this may have been more to do with the direction, or in fact the libretto itself, than their acting. It is probably quite difficult to show the sadness, conflict and yearning present in Jenifer at the start while wearing a wedding dress with a bright orange fleece hoodie over the top. The ‘working class’ couple, Bella and Jack, have more comedy-orientated scenes, and lighter music; however, to me they actually came over the stronger of the two pairs. Cora Burggraaf’s performance as Bella the secretary was to me the highlight of the performance. This was Burggraaf’s Covent Garden debut; hopefully the first of many, as her voice had flexibility and crystal clarity, floating over the orchestra in an apparently effortless manner. I was really not swept away by John Tomlinson’s performance as King Fisher, although he did make some pleasant sounds in the quieter passages. Elena Manistina was a commanding Sosostris, giving a real feeling of unearthliness in her long soliloquy. This role is sometimes listed as mezzo, sometimes contralto, but certainly requires a great deal of strength and sonority in the lower register; this Manistina definitely has, on occasions sounding quite baritonal (although with a bit too heavy vibrato for my taste.) In the smaller roles, I was very pleased to see Brindley Sherratt turn up as the He-Ancient, having heard him last month in Maskarade, and he was well supported by Diana Montague as the She-Ancient. They managed to bring a feeling of dignity and a certain ‘spiritual depth’ to the stage merely by appearing – and this despite the fact that they were stepping out of a rotating globe, accompanied by the entire office staff of the Ministry of Funny Walks.

Ah yes, the dancers. And the famous Dances of the Ancients, which take up the majority of the second act. I have to admit first that I’m not a massive fan of big dance sections in the middle of operas (if that hasn’t become clear from previous reviews). In this case, the music was strong enough to carry it off, but I’m afraid I found the actual dances that were going on really quite offputting. I am told that the Ancients were originally supposed to be naked, but as with Salome, this appears to be another perverse example of having lots of naked or semi-naked people on stage when the story doesn’t require it, yet to keep them well covered when it does. So, we were presented with the Ancients in black suits and vaguely bowler-style hats, all doing their funny walk on and then treating us to a kind of flamenco-morris crossover, with piggybacks, falling over, and the men pretending to hang themselves with their ties. Hum. Lovely woodwind melodies or no, this was a section of the opera that could have done with some trimming, particularly with the opera running at near to 4 hours. While on the subject of editing, another section that should probably have been trimmed was Bella’s narration of putting her make-up on. However, in this case I can forgive it (even with its unpleasant caricaturing of women) because Burggraaf’s lovely voice.

The orchestra played very well, with precision and balance, with the woodwind sounding excellent, particularly in the solo passages which Tippett scored so masterfully. I disagreed with my companion on the topic of the chorus. He thought there were far too many of them, unnecessarily squeezed into all spare corners of the stage; although I can see his point, I really liked the power and sheer knock-you-back-in-your-seat quality of a huge chorus. However, we were both agreed that when they all got a bit lustful and started undressing eachother and canoodling, it was just a bit embarrassing. There was the distinct impression that the men felt uncomfortable standing at the front of the stage undoing their shirts, and the women didn’t really want to stroke their exposed tummies.

I tend to avoid reading reviews of things before going to see them. I am unlikely to be swayed into going to see something (or not) on the recommendation of someone I don’t know, and I also like surprises. However, getting offered massively discounted tickets for a show is something of an indication that it’s not selling too well. This can partly be put down simply to it being ‘modern’, but not completely. I actually enjoyed it very much, overall, but I can also see why it might irritate some people. In fact, a fairly succinct opinion poll can be derived from the audience on the night I was there: a considerable number didn’t return after the intervals; however, the applause at the end from those who remained (including ourselves) was pretty ecstatic.

Image borrowed from www.operajaponica.org

Oh no - I don't remember where I borrowed this image from - sorry!

The fact is, I’ve never particularly liked Strauss. I don’t mean I dislike it, just that I haven’t yet heard any that really grabbed me, and as there is so much great music out there and so little time, I’ve never made a great effort to work through more of it than happened to come my way through orchestral playing. So, why did I decide to go and see Salome? Firstly, my friend Heather is a great Strauss fan, and has been insisting I can learn to love him; she also pointed out that he can sound quite Wagnerian, which appeals to me. Secondly, my friend Faye made me watch part of her Salome DVD (although she is not particularly a Strauss fan, she is however a great Terfel fan), and I did quite enjoy the big John the Baptist scene, although this may have something to do with the excellent Mr Terfel’s performance.

So, the ENO version. I enjoyed it very much and, having not twigged that it was so short, was really quite disappointed with how soon it was all over. Salome was played by Cheryl Barker, who appears to have been spending her spare time hanging round Camden Market, so convincing was her portrayal of a stroppy goth teenager. At the start I wasn’t entirely convinced by her singing, but the performance did not have to continue long before she increased in strength, clarity and expressivity – with the finale totally gripping. I very much enjoyed John Graham-Hall’s performance; he sang superbly and characterised the mixed emotions of Herod to perfection, ably assisted by Sally Burgess as Herodias. The supporting cast was also strong, even in the smallest of roles. In case it hasn’t become clear from my previous comments in reviews, bass/baritone voices have a particular appeal for me, and so I was particularly interested in the role of Jokanaan (John the Baptist). In the past I haven’t been quite able to decide what I thought of Robert Hayward; I have to confess I was somewhat underwhelmed by his Wotan last year, and didn’t feel much better able to comment after seeing him in Berg’s Lulu some months later. However, it was clear from his first notes (delivered from underneath the stage) that this was going to be a performance of a different calibre. When he finally emerged, his voice seemed absolutely huge, not to mention rich in tone and commanding in presence. I have definitely been forced to re-evaluate my opinion of him (not to mention Strauss!)

I am a fan of the ENO orchestra, and there was certainly some very high quality playing going on. However, although they generally played very well together as a unit, I felt there was some misjudgment of dynamics, in particular the balance between different instruments or sections. As I said at the beginning, I don’t know the score well, and perhaps Strauss intended the startlingly loud random bits of glockenspiel, trombone, etc., and for the orchestra to sometimes drown out the singers, but I somehow doubt it was supposed to be like that. (Experts, do correct me if I’m wrong here!)

Lastly, the visual aspect of the production. The set was fairly basic, but looked good and felt appropriate, as did the costumes. But how were they going to stage Salome’s dance? Given that in recent years there seems to have been something of a fixation with nudity, surely this was one of the few times when stripping off would be genuinely justified, indeed, required in the story? I can’t remember the last opera I saw either at Covent Garden or The Coliseum that didn’t have at least partial nudity in it (springing to mind are gold-painted dancing guy in sparkly G-string in Maskarade, naked Rheinmaidens in the ROH Ring, Hagen changing into his nightwear on stage in the ENO Ring, all the way back to the entirely random stark naked woman running around in the trenches in Freischutz in 1999). But does Salome take her clothes off? Oh no – no flesh on display now. Ankle length dress on the whole time, and all poor Herod gets to see is when she decides to climb up a ladder and let him have a quick peek up her skirt. No offence to Ms Barker, but the dance was not remotely sexy. Oh well. Can’t have everything.