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ROH Don Giovanni image

Image borrowed from

Oo, a new production of Don Giovanni at Covent Garden! And a kind friend acquired me a ticket to the dress rehearsal. Who wants to know what it looks like? (Plot and production *SPOILERS*, obviously, along with some armchair psychiatry.)

It looks like the design team have been watching Complicité productions, Sherlock, and pop music videos. Not that I disapprove – I like to watch these things myself.

I like things with interesting visual presentation, stylish imagery, maybe a bit deconstructed in their recurring themes, and yes, I’m a complete sucker for multimodal effects, so I was charmed by the overture, which opened on what appeared to be the outside of a building, on different sections of which lists of names (grouped by nationality) began to appear, first slowly, then faster, until it was covered in tiny scrawlings. This theme of obsessive listing appeared at intervals in the production, with the visualised notebook pages descending progressively into disarray, with scribbles, underlinings, angrily scratched-out names, and doodles of ladies’ eyes, bottoms, etc. This was good. Sometimes individual characters had their name projected onto one of the (bedroom?) doors of the building – and I kind of wanted there to be a few text observations floating in the air around freeze-framed characters (Elvira: romantic, delusional, stalks her exes, 3 pet cats? Ottavio: romantic, loyal, crippling anxiety attacks, smokes French tobacco? Etc.) I suppose that would have been too gimmicky…

In terms of physical set, the centre building rotated, and the four orientations provided various doors, windows, rooms and balconies with which to set the many scenes. And a set of stairs, the frequent running up and down of which will have kept the cast well-exercised. Variety was provided by projecting different video graphics onto the flat surfaces – as well as the writing, there were different colours and patterns, rain effects, and an eye-watering geometric vortex that should probably have carried a Health&SafetyWarning for migraine sufferers. The projections worked best when they highlighted different characters active in different areas (e.g. downstairs someone singing an aria, upstairs, the person they were singing about), and there were some very appealing chiaroscuro effects. However, the novelty wore off, or perhaps the effects in Act 2 just weren’t as appealing; I just wished the damn house would stop spinning and sit still, and wondered if there’d be some computer-generated hellfire effects at the end. (There weren’t.)

Director Kaspar Holten sees Don Giovanni as “an artist” whose “catalogue of sexual conquests is a vain attempt to escape his own mortality” , while Mariusz Kwiecien (title role) describes him as feeling his age, melancholy, and with ebbing energy. This didn’t really come across to me – perhaps because Kwiecien naturally has more physical energy on stage than, er, some opera singers – or perhaps because I came in, as most of us do, with a preconceived view: I think of him as a superficially charming psychopath*, sex addict, and compulsive collector (of certain experiences). On the subject of which, I was also interested to read that Kwiecien imagines Giovanni as (maybe) bisexual (“He’s tried all sorts of women, maybe men too” – Telegraph) – and to be honest, I’m surprised I’ve never seen that portrayed on stage. He (character, not singer) seems equal-opportunities enough with regard to age, size, and plenty of other personal attributes in his partners, so why not gender? I expect that the society of the time/place would have been even less approving of a little black book of Antonios and Elvises (or maybe not – historians, feel free to correct me), so Leporello might have to keep that one out of sight rather than showing it around.

* Casual armchair diagnosis of fictional characters’ psychological disorders doesn’t have to be DSM5-compliant.

One can’t help rating various DGs on how credible they are as master seducers (and unlike the route taken by some other productions, it was very clear that this one’s conquests were consensual). ‘Barihunk’ Kwiecien was stalking around the stage in his flapping designer coat, doing the posh moody arrogant thing (complete with put-upon sidekick) that ladies are supposed to go for, but the attraction wasn’t quite making it back as far as us in amphi row N. Until Deh vieni alla finestra, that is, which sounded so lovely that one member of the cast literally walked up to him and took all her clothes off. I don’t like to say too much about the singing at rehearsals, but while this aria was a highlight (as was my favourite bit, where the Commendatore returns), all the cast were solid, particularly Véronique Gens’s Elvira and Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s Commendatore). The orchestra were spot-on throughout, although some of Nicola Luisotti’s tempi were too slow for my taste. I’m not a connoisseur of continuo parts, but Luisotti (fortepiano), Paul Wingfield (harpsichord) and George Ives (cello) really breathed life and interest into their moments in the spotlight. Ottavio fans (are there any?) will be pleased that he got two arias; purists (of which there are many) will be annoyed by the chunk lopped out of the final scene (post-death, pre-chorus).

Those Covent Garden patrons familiar with the somewhat unsubtle but satisfying Zambello production might also be disappointed by the lack of Actual Stuff On Fire at the end. This version seemed to be placing the Descent to Hell, along with the ambulant Statue of Murder Victim, in the realm of Giovanni’s hallucinating imagination, and Leporello’s fear seemed to be not of the haunting, but of seeing his master lose his grip on sanity. At the end he is broken and isolated from other humans. Fair enough. Although I do slightly miss the adrenaline rush of wondering if I’d die fried by an out-of-control operatic flaming dinner sauna.

Stray observations:

Anna was definitely keen on Giovanni at the beginning, but confusingly, seemed to know perfectly well who he was, and appeared to go back for a second shag even after discussing him being her father’s murderer. Maybe she’s a psychopath too? She didn’t seem that upset by dad’s death, and manipulated and lied to Ottavio without batting an eyelid.

As an unexpected take on the problematic Batti, batti, Zerlina seemed to be proposing a BDSM session with her betrothed.


Photo from Dr Dee opera

Image © Richard Hubert Smith, borrowed from

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 borrowed from

One of the ENO’s great strengths is its willingness to experiment with new works, and another is its collaborations, both with other opera companies and other artistic disciplines. A Dog’s Heart fits into all these categories, being the UK premiere of a new work, the production involving collaborations with De Nederlandse Opera, theatre company Complicite and puppeteers Blind Summit ; an exciting prospect, indeed.

Director Simon McBurney described himself as having no konzept for his first foray into opera, but worked on it “by listening to the music and reading the story over and over again”, which proved an excellent decision, in this case. The story is Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 surreal satire of the Soviet regime, banned until 1987, and, nearly a century later, startlingly relevant, containing as it does themes of class distrust, media distortions, bureaucratic officiousness, and vanity-fuelled experimental surgery. It is also quite ridiculous, centring on a stray dog who, when his testicles are replaced with those of a human, becomes human in various other ways (such as growing a human face, walking upright, and developing a taste for vodka, tobacco, the works of Engels, and balalaika music). Transformed into operatic form, the tale thus deserves inclusion in the fine tradition of Russian absurdist satirical opera, alongside Shostakovich’s The Nose and Schnittke’s Life with an Idiot.

Although a well-established composer in other forms (though not yet very well-known in the UK, apart, perhaps, from some of his chamber music), A Dog’s Heart is Alexander Raskatov’s first full opera. As a woodwind geek, I confess my eyes lit up before a note had even been played, on spying in the pit an expanded section including alto flute, contrabassoon, saxophones, and that rare beast, the contrabass clarinet. Throughout the work, Raskatov makes great use of extremes of register, contrasting the growling contras with piccolos and violin harmonics, and also makes wonderful use of the full diversity of timbres available. The tonal palette is also varied, sometimes atonal, sometimes polytonal, and now and then dipping very effectively into traditional harmony with fragments of Russian folk song, Soviet march, or Orthodox church music (with hints of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and even Mussorgsky). However, I nevertheless found the music quite difficult to engage with. This had nothing to do with the dissonance, but with the long periods of very irregular, spikily strident rhythms and pointillist note patterns; despite, or perhaps because of, the pinpoint-accurate bite of Garry Walker’s orchestra, it made everything seem unnecessarily agitated and over-dramatic, which was fine for scenes such as the bloody operations, but less so for accompanying a convivial glass of vodka between friends. It may well have been Raskatov’s aim to suggest the unease and agitation constantly present just outside the walls of Professor Preobrazhensky’s comfortable flat, but a constant high state of tension cannot be sustained indefinitely; it loses its power. I found myself longing for a change: some legato, longer melodic lines given to an instrument, or even some longer-sustained notes. This wish was answered immediately in Act 2, particularly in the lovely but brief duets between the Professor and devoted assistant Bormenthal (baritones Steven Page and Leigh Melrose), and I enjoyed the music of the second half significantly more than the first. However, I ended the opera with my fingers literally stuck in my ears, due to the unbearable volume of sound generated by giving an opera chorus megaphones!

With nothing resembling traditional arias, the majority of the singers were restricted to natural speech-patterned recitative – essentially, pitched conversation – which, while allowing them to demonstrate technical dexterity in navigating Raskatov’s gymnastic leaps, left little opportunity for expressiveness of phrasing or even, really, much of their tone quality to come through. The women in particular suffered in this way, with, for example, Elena Vassilieva producing a clever amalgam of speech and canine growling (as pre-op dog Sharik’s ‘unpleasant voice’),  Sophie Desmars’s role (as dog-man Sharikov’s short-lived fiancée) consisting of a series of (very well-executed) skittering squeaks, and Nancy Allen Lundy (as hysterical maid Zina) leaping around both vocally and physically – hammy mugging which many of the audience seemed to find hilarious, but which I found as irritating as trying to listen to a symphony with a hyperactive toddler running in and out shrieking for attention. Countertenor Andrew Watts (last seen being savaged by werewolves in The Duchess of Malfi) appeared here as, variously, man, woman and dog – as Sharik’s ‘pleasant voice’ providing rare moments of expressively eloquent longing (usually directed to a sausage).

While the various humans have supporting roles, the dog/man Sharik(ov) succeeds in being the most convincing and fully-realised character, in all his forms. Thanks to outstanding design (inspired by a Giacometti sculpture – see the original here) and deft puppetry skills, a half-formed skeleton dog is perfectly brought to life, and when reborn in the form of a gleefully repellent Peter Hoare, yaps, whines, scratches, swears, and makes a virtuoso performance of behaving in exactly the way one might imagine a dog in human form to do.

Complicite are particularly admired for the visual aspects of their productions, and, my reservations about the score aside, for this reason alone I would recommend this show to anyone who enjoyed their recent A Disappearing Number, or who has an appreciation for innovative staging. I myself particularly enjoy the recent trend for multimodal mixing of text with set (as in Satyagraha) and the incorporation of pre-recorded or live video projection effects (as in Le Grand Macabre), and all of these were imaginatively and wittily used throughout, to create a succession of incredibly striking images interacting in real time with the characters’ actions. There are too many of these to list, and in any case, I am disinclined to give out ‘spoilers’ which might lessen the effect – the gasps of surprised delight and smatterings of spontaneous applause were too clearly in evidence.

During A Dog’s Heart I was variously amused, appalled, irritated, touched with joy and sadness, and eventually left the theatre pondering the nature and meaning of humanity. And if that is not the mark of a successful piece of theatre, what is?

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