March 2007


Image borrowed from www.thisislondon.co.uk

Image borrowed from http://www.thisislondon.co.uk

I generally have a preference for tragedy, drama, gloom and doom in opera, so when I was offered a ticket for this light comedy double bill, I thought it would be educational for me. The fact that it had Bryn Terfel in it may also have had something to do with it, as I’ll watch or listen to him in pretty much anything*. I should also perhaps remark that my enjoyment of the two pieces may have been affected by the fact that for the first half I had a standing ticket, and my knees were bloody hurting, whereas for the second half I dived for an empty seat I’d spotted, and could watch in great comfort (from the stalls circle, no less).

So, L’Heure Espagnol. The gauze curtain set the tone, being painted with an enormous pair of boobs (in polka-dot dress), Ã la seaside postcard. The sets and costumes, when revealed, were unremittingly ugly, consisting of as many garish colours and clashing patterns as it is possible to fit in a small box-shaped room. (Yes, the return of the Covent Garden famous wonky box staging – although actually it wasn’t wonky this time.) Around the edge of the box, there was more hideous wallpaper, patterned with chillies; I think these may have been intended either as phallic symbols, or to represent Concepcion being ‘hot’. Or both. Very naff, but I assume intentionally so. The story centres around Concepcion (Christine Rice), a housewife desperate for an extramarital shag while her clockmaker husband (Bonaventura Bottone) is out for the day. A great deal of silly farce ensues, with two potential (but ultimately unsatisfactory) lovers hiding in large clocks, which a third potential (and ultimately successful) lover lugs up and down the stairs to her bedroom for her. Sophisticated humour it wasn’t. However, the nicely-judged acting and characterisation of all cast members managed to make it genuinely funny. Yann Beuron, in particular, had a brilliant sense of comic timing as the daft poet Gonzalve, and Christopher Maltman was perfect as the intellectually-challenged hunk Ramiro, effectively doing an hour-long striptease as he removed an item of clothing every time he had to carry another grandfather clock up the stairs.

Despite the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer story, Ravel’s music was inventive and cleverly nuanced, managing to constantly reference both the actual onstage clocks and the general oppressive feeling of time ticking away without ever becoming tedious. It was performed with liveliness and precision by both the orchestra and singers, but doesn’t really do an awful lot for me. I’d rather hear Andrew Shore sing Wagner (well, duh), and I’ll be looking out for Maltman in future, preferably in a role with a bit more to sing.

Some Moulin Rouge-style dancing girls randomly appeared at the end. I couldn’t quite see the point of this; however, it was one of the funnier moments when one of them produced a lasso and tried to catch Ramiro with it, but instead got it stuck in her own headdress.

Gianni Schicchi began with a big picture of some spaghetti, thus replacing the sin of lust with that of greed, perhaps**. The bad-taste 60s-ish visual theme was continued in the beehive hairdos and ugly dresses of the younger female cast members, but less prominently than earlier. The story centres around a bunch of stuck-up relatives bickering over the will of the universally disliked Uncle Buoso (a silent role, who dies as the opera starts). The comedy was obviously rather darker than in the first half, particularly the frequent manhandling of poor old Buoso’s corpse, including shoving him under the floorboards at one point. The acting was generally decent, but often OTT, and not very consistent. However, the exception was Terfel as Schicchi, who was absolutely hilarious. From the moment he slouched onto stage, dressed as a scruffy car mechanic, complete with cloth cap and fag in his mouth, the opera took a turn for the better. Having (personally) come to identify him with roles like Wotan and the Dutchman, it was also highly entertaining to see him on stage doing a funny dance in his boxers.

Puccini’s music was pleasant, and again, well-played/sung, but didn’t do an awful lot for me. There were some very nice voices in the cast with not an awful lot to do; apart from Terfel, obviously, there was Gwynne Howell (Simone), Elena Zilio (Zita) and Henry Waddington (criminally under-used as Spinelloccio). The cheese-feast O Mio Babbino Caro is the most well-known ‘hit’ from this opera, and was actually sung really beautifully by Dina Kuznetsova – possibly the only genuinely moving moment of the evening. All voices on stage sounded pleasant, in fact, apart from the horrid little brat that turned up to irritate now and then.

Overall, yes, I did enjoy the performances. However, that should be taken in context, as I’ve yet to go to an opera and not enjoy it. And no, I’m not a convert to musical comedy. Yet.

* Except that ghastly crossover drivel he sometimes sings.

** I didn’t think of that myself; Simon T said it first.

Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

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

As soon as the overture started, I decided I was probably in for a very entertaining evening. Not because I particularly liked the overture, but because there were interesting lighting effects, glowing abstract shapes on the stage, Simon Keenlyside floating through the air (presumably on wires, unless he has mastered the art of levitation – which I wouldn’t put past him as he is brilliant) twirling his magic staff like Wotan crossed with a drum majorette, and a glowing lime green lady wearing what appeared to be bondage gear also floating around on wires, and doing somersaults to boot. When the gauze curtain rose, it was to reveal a set which mostly consisted of a giant model of my current laptop (white iBook) with a hole in it, a glowing lime green rock, and a glowing blue, er, tubey thing. The big laptop could open, close, and rotate, and sometimes had a bit of shipwreck stuck to it. Later there was a glowing red box (in which Toby Spence was stuck for the majority of the time), and in Act 3 there was the addition of some plastic dinosaurs. And very attractive the whole thing was, too. Regarding costumes, the chorus and minor characters had fairly normal-looking clothes, but Prospero, Caliban and Ariel (and spirit chums) had a half-and-half * thing going on, with different costumes for their right and left arms. Prospero (Keenlyside) looked rather attractive in half a tailcoat, thick specs and sprayed-upright grey hair; Caliban (Ian Bostridge) looked like (half) a punk rocker with a dodgy peroxide mullet and big feathery trousers stolen from Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake; Ariel & co looked genuinely non-human.

What’s that? I’m talking about the look of the performance before getting on to the music? Well, yes. While I certainly didn’t find any of the music unpleasant, it did take some time to grow on me. I don’t think I’ve heard any of Adès’ music before, and while I would be quite interested to hear some more, I don’t think I’d go too far out of my way to do so. The louder, more chaotic bits didn’t do a lot for me, but what I did like more and more as the opera progressed were the slower, more sparsely-textured, reflective passages. It was also very effective when, after comparatively atonal sections, there were brief forays into ‘conventional’ harmony, almost resolving before slipping back out again. It also helped that the majority of the singing was of an excellent standard. Apart from Keenlyside, of course, I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Bostridge’s bits, having in my (admittedly very limited) previous experience found him to be somewhat drippy. Toby Spence (Ferdinand) also made a very pleasant sound, even when stuck in a box. As did Philip Langridge (King of Naples) and Kate Royal (Miranda).

I have read somewhere or other that the role of Ariel has the highest tessitura of, well, any operatic role, and that Cyndia Sieden had to do a massive amount of extra training to be able to sustain in long lines the sort of notes that the Queen of the Night briefly squeaks. As a lover of all things bass-y, it seemed likely I would appreciate this about as much as I appreciate countertenors (i.e. not a lot), but actually I thought she/it was brilliant. The acrobatic leaping around up and down the octaves was impressive, but the quiet sustained lines were haunting and lovely. She was like the vocal equivalent of a piccolo (a very well-played one, obviously), which appealed to me. Talking of well-played piccolos, Philip Rowson and the flute section were on excellent form, and Mr Adès had thoughtfully given them plenty to do, including many nicely bittersweet dissonant but melodic bits. In fact, the combination of Ariel’s stratospheric voice accompanied by flute section was particularly effective.

There was one thing which I did find a bit irritating throughout the opera, and that was the words. Only personal opinion, of course, but I found Meredith Oakes’ libretto (“after Shakespeare”) easily the weakest point of the work, and the constant rhyming couplets particularly naff. It seems somewhat odd to me to base an opera on a work by Shakespeare, and then discard Shakespeare’s words in favour of a not-so-good poet, but I’m sure there was a sound reason. Besides, the lady sitting in front of me said she liked the rhymes, so it’s not a consensus.

On the whole, definitely to be recommended, but firstly for the cool visuals and secondly for the music. I’d listen to it if it came on the radio, but wouldn’t buy the CD.

* Can anyone explain to me the relevance of the half-clothes?

Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

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

I had a very entertaining time at the opera last night. I have to say, my expectations were not the highest, given that (a) they were flogging off 600 unsold (expensive) seats as £10 Student Standbys (standbies?) and (b) a friend who had been the previous week told me that it would cure my insomnia. Fortunately my expectations were proved wrong, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

All musicians involved were of an excellent standard. Although I’m no great lover of period instruments, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were spot on, and directed with almost unbelievable precision and general all-round perfection by Mackerras. Even less than period instruments do I like countertenors, and despite the efforts of acquaintances to convince me of their worth, I find the sound, to be honest, unpleasant. Nevertheless, Bejun Mehta (Orlando) exhibited some cracking coluratura in the fast sections and delicately expressive phrasing in the slow ones, which impressed me even though, when it comes down to it, I dislike the timbre of his voice. Being more a fan of the deeper male voices (as anyone who knows me will be aware), I much preferred listening to Kyle Ketelsen’s Zoroastro, and just wished he had more to sing. Although Ketelsen’s tone is gorgeous and technique impressive, I found him a little quiet for my taste at the start; fortunately ‘Sorge infausta’ was delivered at full belt. (I realised at the end of it that I’d been sitting with an idiot grin on my face for the last 5 mins.) Of the other singers, Camilla Tilling (Dorinda) was a show-stealer, Anna Bonitatibus (Medoro) had a lovely voice, and their trio with Rosemary Joshua (Angelica) blended beautifully. (‘Consolati, o bella’ is the best and most memorable bit of music in the whole opera, IMO. Why on earth didn’t Handel include more bits with more than one person singing at a time?)

The production was not brilliant. Most of the set involved a frequently-rotating big merry-go-round split up into several ‘rooms’ with doors in between, for the characters to slam as they constantly chased each other round in circles. Green room, blue room, mirrored room, greenroomblueroommirroredroom… aarghh, making me dizzy. There were also some big spears. And a stuffed sheep. And a pile of books, which, like a well-meaning adult literacy tutor, or perhaps a publisher of self-help books, Zoroastro kept presenting to the other characters at times of emotional crisis. However, I don’t mind abstract sets, and these ones were reasonably pleasant, when not spinning. Costumes were a bit dodgy. The two female characters got off lightly, but Zoroastro had a particularly stupid wig (think mutant Princess Leia look, in frizzy grey), and Orlando wouldn’t have looked out of place sitting on the pavement with a pint of snakebite & black, outside a scuzzy Camden goth club (think black velvet trousers, long black boots, a Matrix-style leather coat and a stringy ponytail). Medoro actually looked rather nice – if you find curvy, pretty women dressed up as men attractive. I was wondering about that, actually, as the costumiers were definitely not trying to make her actually look like a man; if anything, making her female-ness obvious. Maybe it’s like in Tipping the Velvet, where Nan is getting fitted up for her male impersonator’s suit, and she looks too convincing in it, so they have to make it a bit more girly to provoke the appropriate sexually-ambiguous frisson for the audience?

Anyway, in case anyone was getting bored with the main characters running around in circles, throwing plates and books on the floor, and doing a bit of pantomime-style acting once in a while, we were also provided with 3 non-singing dancers who turned up every now and then to mess around with the main characters while they were singing. One was Venus, who was portrayed as a zombie prostitute, I think – deathly white skin with too much dark eye make-up and lipstick, and her boobs hanging out. Her sidekick Cupid looked even more like the walking undead, also deathly pale and with the remnants of his winding-sheet tied round his groin. He didn’t have a bow for his arrows, so went and stuck them in people by hand, twisting them maliciously. Lastly, Mars was poncing around in half a suit of armour over the top of a long red dress.

Funniest moment: Dorinda grabbing Cupid’s last arrow off him and sticking it in his bollocks, while singing about how rubbish love is.