June 2012


Photo from Dr Dee opera

Image © Richard Hubert Smith, borrowed from http://www.guardian.co.uk

During the introduction to Dr Dee, a series of English stereotypes parade along a balcony, including bowler-hatted banker, impressively-coiffed punk rocker, and Morris dancers. Oh no – was it going to be the worst kind of twee celebration of ‘Englishness’ dredged up in honour of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad? Fortunately, it was nothing of the kind. Structured in the form of an Elizabethan masque, the opera consists of a series of formalised tableaux based on incidents and themes from the life of Dr John Dee (probably best known as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I), and can be thought of in the tradition of the Portrait Opera, a visual and musical representation of one charismatic character – the closest ancestor perhaps being Satyagraha (Gandhi). Returning for a moment to the parade of Englishness, unless I somehow missed him, James Bond wasn’t in the team, which is a shame, as John Dee was actually the first spy to use the moniker 007. The scenes of Act 1 are based on key meetings with the people who influenced the giddy academic and social ascent of Dee’s early life: Tudor spymaster Walsingham, Elizabeth I, wife Jane, and self-proclaimed ‘skryer’ (or medium) and angel-whisperer Kelley. In Act 2, there is symmetry as these relationships all fall apart, and Dee descends again to ignominy and despair.

Damon Albarn’s collaborator for 2009’s Monkey: Journey to the East, Jamie Hewlett, was originally set to work on the visual side of Dr Dee, and I was disappointed to hear that he had pulled out – his designs for Monkey were absolutely stunning. However, this disappointment was misplaced, as the visual design elements (set designer Paul Atkinson and video designer Lysander Ashton)  here were superb. I have commented before on the brilliant use of light and projection for which ENO productions are becoming well-known, and lighting designer Paule Constable’s sterling work here was another example. While the sets were minimal and mostly monochrome, with little more than books, sheaves of paper, cloths and a few balloons (oh, and Albarn’s collective of musicians suspended in a familiar-looking wonky rectangular box, viewing all the action from above), the ingenious choreography of animated projections onto moving scenery turned this performance (directed by Rufus Norris) into something quite special. It’s something of a trope in TV dramas at the moment to superimpose scrolling symbols, diagrams, calculations and the like onto video, to represent the inner workings of a character’s thought processes (think Sherlock, for example), but I’m a sucker for multimodal visual representation of data, and it’s a trope I adore. How much, then, did I like seeing a live John Dee in the centre of the stage, pondering mathematics, code-breaking, navigation or astronomy, while calculations, Euclidean proofs, maps and cipher iterations radiated out from him to fill the whole proscenium? (What I could read of the maths and science even seemed to make actual sense, and the sly inclusion of a DNA molecule, electromagnetic fields and the London Tube map raised a few smiles.)

There was a dazzling variety in the styles of musicianship displayed on stage and in the pit, with a well-balanced mix of acoustic and amplified instruments and voices. Everything I heard gave the impression of intelligent, thoughtful musicians, fluent in multiple genres and comfortable blending their different aspects, admirably held together by conductor Stephen Higgins. Snatches of Coltrane-style riffs, for example, turn out to sound rather good on tenor recorder, with Ghanaian drums and the ENO’s string section accompanying. In this context the contrasting vocal characterisations of certain more traditionally operatic roles (e.g. Walsingham – gravitas-wielding baritone Steven Page and Kelley – charismatic countertenor Christopher Robson, both ENO regulars) with Dee’s incantatory Sprechstimme and Albarn’s own distinctive folk-pop narrative interludes simply added to the rich mix. Regarding the operatic voices, anyone singing with full vibrato on every note would have sounded completely out of place, but not a single singer did so (rare!), with Melanie Pappenheim (Elizabeth/Spirit) standing out particularly in her expressive phrasing and sensitive use of cold and warm tones. I’ve always found Albarn’s voice a pleasant one, and fortunately he made no ill-advised attempts to sing with historical pretensions, but, happily, did do that most un-rock’n’roll of things – sing in tune.

As is probably already clear, the music showed an extremely wide range of influences and stylistic elements, both historically and geographically – cross-genre in the very best sense of the term. It is not a new phenomenon for the songwriting members of successful pop or rock groups, once past the first flush of youth, to set their ambition to larger-scale, more complex works – operas, ballets, oratorios, film scores, or the good old concept album. Many of these are not very good, as the composers’ swollen heads contain insufficient respect for the unfamiliar genre or inclination for the necessary study to learn the craft; others are not very good due to an over-deference to the pop musician’s perception of the classical tradition that results merely in weak pastiche. (I don’t think I need to mention names.) This was neither; it was imaginative, intelligent, and clearly written by a composer who has taken his forays into ethnomusicology seriously (which reflects even better when one considers, for example, the cringe-making orientalisms shoehorned in by certain historical composing greats after encountering non-European music). I’ve admired Albarn’s songwriting for many years, particularly his knack of combining simple melodies with non-obvious chord changes to produce songs that sound both distinctive and instantly familiar. However, while his song interludes in Dr Dee were pleasant, it was the more experimental sections that I enjoyed the most. At the risk of sounding like a pontificating wine buff, along with the obvious drawings from Tudor, plainchant, Malian, English folk and indie traditions, I also got hints of John Coltrane, Kate Bush, Bulgarian chanting, and probably a hundred other things that have filtered through Albarn’s brain over the years. Some reviewers of the first run of this show, in Manchester earlier this year, complained about its work-in-progress state. Having not heard the earlier version, I would say that Act 1 was taut, fluent, and now polished to a shine, while Act 2 still retains some meandering lengthy passages where momentum is lost.

I dislike giving star ratings to performances, especially non-traditional ones, but it’s an Opera Britannia requirement to do so, and to compare it against other operas. My grade of 3 stars may seem stingy, given that I have said how very interesting I found the music and how inspired the visual design, but in a good opera performance I expect emotional engagement with the characters (probably involving tears at some point) and there to be times at which I am so engrossed in the scene that I forget where I am – and neither of these things happened. Of course, I felt disgust at the idea of Jane’s being coerced into sex with the creepy countertenor, and sadness at the thought of the vandalisation of England’s then-greatest scientific library; however, in the end, my connection to the events was an intellectual and sensory one, but not an emotional one. I may well still buy the album, though.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]

Image of Trojan horse

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

Not a review but an informal report from the dress rehearsal, only for those that don’t mind *SPOILERS*…

HORSEY HORSEY HORSEY HORSEY

MASSIVE KICKASS STEAMPUNK* HORSE. WITH FLAMES.

That thing on the right – it’s big. And it rocks. Literally, back and forth. And fire comes out of its actual nose!

Ok, got that out of my system now. In a calmer vein, Covent Garden’s new production of Les Troyens is a superb visual spectacle, with consistently high-quality singing, acting, and pit playing, which I recommend heartily, whether or not you are familiar with the piece. Good news: I believe there are plenty of returned tickets available, thanks to all the people who apparently booked a 5.5 hour opera purely based on the presence of Jonas Kaufman in the cast (now replaced by Brian Hymel). Bad news: seriously inflated prices, even in what are usually pretty cheap seats. Good news: It’ll be in cinemas then on DVD at some point.

Acts 1 + 2 were set in Troy, which was dark, metallic and industrial, and peopled by what looked to me like the cast of Faust or Les Mis. Anna Caterina Antonacci was an anguished and impassioned Cassandra, all flapping black sleeves, heaving bosom and floor-rolling. It was very unfortunate that nobody cared about her prophesies, but to be honest, giving them while crawling around scraping your nose along the floor is not likely to get one taken seriously. Especially if the people aren’t interested in thinking logically about why the Greeks might suddenly have fallen back, preferring to dance around doing handstands and singing Yay, Look at our Lovely Horse! But then, these are Trojans who find it cute when small children play with real swords and rifles…

For those audience members playing McVicar Bingo, an early tick for the random troupe of acrobats in the crowd.

For those hoping for big fight scenes and bloodshed, while the libretto contains a lot of references to battles and fighting, most of this takes place offstage (Trojans vs Greeks between Acts 1 and 2, Carthaginians/Trojans vs Numidians between Acts 3 and 4). The high on-stage body count comes from a lot of women stabbing themselves, Cassandra & co because they’re about to be enslaved, then Dido later when she gets ditched by Aeneas.

I don’t critique voices at a rehearsal, but I will say that I really enjoyed Eva-Maria Westbroek as Dido, showing off her wonderful versatility as both singer and actor, and particularly enjoyed her scene and duet with sister Anna (proper contralto Hanna Hipp). As this was a very short-notice opera trip, I hadn’t checked out the full cast in advance, and so having Brindley Sherratt turn up as Narbal was like unexpectedly finding some delicious dark chocolate in one’s bag. (However, while one bass aria, like one square of quality chocolate, is enjoyable, it just tends to leave me wanting more of the stuff, and unfortunately Narbal is not a whole-bar or even half-a-bar-of-chocolate bass role.) And the same goes for Robert Lloyd’s lovely cameo as King Priam.

I wouldn’t have mentioned it if I’d noticed anything amiss in the orchestra, but as it happens, I didn’t, at all. Admittedly I’m not familiar with the score, but I thought the heavyweight-size orchestra were on excellent form throughout. Pappano’s tempi and dynamics all seemed to work well, and the music had flow, whether in chamber ensembles or tutti. Berlioz exposes the upper woodwinds quite a bit, and their finely-poised ensemble was as good as I’ve heard, with the clarinet demonstrating particularly pleasing clarity of line. On this occasion I was also especially impressed by the lower brass, who hammered it home in style.

As I’ve bitched about in previous posts, I don’t believe in making noise while there is music being performed. I want to listen to every single note with as little disturbance as possible. Thus, I was unimpressed at the considerable portion of the audience who seem to have caught Met-disease and clapped the scenery in Act 3; I was, however, impressed by the scenery itself, which was, like Troy, multi-level and stage-filling, but sandy and North African-looking, full of people in gorgeous brightly-coloured clothes. The Carthaginians seemed a cheerful lot, and really fond of their Queen, who seemed to genuinely enjoy the company of her subjects and showed lots of appreciation for their hard work, via personal thanks, letting them hoist her around, and free booze.

Being a 5-act French opera, it wasn’t the greatest of surprises when the plot came to a sudden halt and Dido & Aeneas did the ancient equivalent of slobbing out on the sofa in front of the TV for pretty much the entire of Act 4, half-watching an athletic but not particularly inspired dance show. I was definitely ready for a change of channel by the time Dido called “Enough!” and shooed them off, but as for her suggested alternative, “Hey, poet, sing us one of your simple shepherd songs from the fields” – no, please don’t do that. (He did, though.) In the first interval, one of the McVicar-Bingo-players had commented on the surprising lack of shirtless dancing men in Troy. I, however, was quite confident that in Carthage there would be not just men dancing without shirts, but at some point that great staple of the London opera stage, a man randomly running around the stage in his pants. Two more ticks on the card, then. (However, what I didn’t spot was a Gay Subtext anywhere – did you?)

So some ghosts turned up, Aeneas legged it, and Dido prayed for him to fall ingloriously off his horse and be eaten by vultures, before stabbing herself on top of a pyre (Westbroek carrying it all off with great style). As the Carthaginians sang their last rousing chorus ‘We bloody hate that Aeneas – what a total twat, him and all his kind’, there was a final awesome surprise appearance on stage. It was a figure which one person I talked to reckoned was Hannibal while another opined it to be a reproduction of a famous Roman statue, but which I prefer to describe as a

MASSIVE STEAMPUNK CYBERMAN. ALSO WITH FLAMES.

YEAH.

* Apparently some of the ROH staff have a sweepstake on how many of the newspaper reviews of this use the term ‘steampunk’. I’m not press (this time) and definitely not newspaper, but thought I’d get in early and kick off the count anyway.