my reviews


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

I gave up opera and concert reviewing a couple of years ago, but then this came along. Having written on Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, it would be wrong not to complete Part 3…

The house was packed and excitement palpable on opening night of Phelim McDermott’s new production of Philip Glass’s iconic Akhnaten – the first fully-staged UK performance since the eighties, when the work was new. The two previous instalments of the Portrait Trilogy to be staged in London, Satyagraha in 2007 (then 2010) and Einstein on the Beach in 2012, opened to rave reviews (including mine) and wide artistic acclaim, not to mention record-breaking commercial success for modern opera. (I refuse to describe music composed over 30 years ago as ‘contemporary’!)

The Improbable theatre company are known for the wildly complex creativity of their visual presentation, and have set themselves high standards to live up to in previous productions; nevertheless, they continue to meet them. Akhnaten utilises a compartmentalised staging on three vertical tiers, with various movable subdivisions in the horizontal and foreground/background planes, giving a three-dimensional array of stage space in which to play. Frequently, several scenes occur concurrently, for example, in Act I, fast repetitive movement on the top layer (a troupe of jugglers styled on Ancient Egyptian deities), glacially slow movement in the lower foreground (the funeral rites of Pharaoh Amenhotep III), and the mid-speed shufflings and shuntings of the unquiet common people in between. This is, in fact, a perfect visual analogue for Glass’s classical minimalist compositional style, with its monolithic layered structure of fast repetition of arpeggios and scale patterns with glacially slow harmonic or timbral change beneath. It also made it impossible to keep track of everything that was going on: you focus on one interesting part for a while, then suddenly realise a whole new set of characters have entered, possibly clambering around on a large rolling wheel in marbled leotards. Somewhat overwhelming (in a good way) in Act I, the simple lines and colours of Act II (again, corresponding to changes in the musical structure) allowed a period of calm before the destabilisations of Act III.

14th century BCE Pharaoh Akhnaten (née Amenhotep IV) seems to have been an interesting character, considered strange in his own time, and the victim of both posthumous smear campaigns and attempts at expungement from history. While little hard evidence is available, he is thought by some Egyptologists to have been female and disguised as a male in order to take the throne (not unknown in that period), or possibly intersex, as well as probably bisexual, and reputedly engaged in an incestuous relationship with his mother. This telling of the story was not going for the actually-a-woman interpretation, as Anthony Roth Costanza (Akhnaten) emerged naked and clearly externally male, although later costumes were designed as deliberately gender-ambiguous. The coronation robe, for example, brought to mind Elizabeth I – if she had worn it open down the front and accessorised with a double crown topped with a giant jellybean, that is. (Aside: I would be considerably more positively-disposed toward contemporary royalty if they were all bald genderqueer alien-looking beauties with more than a little of the David Bowie about them, and all coronation ceremonies included appearing naked then being flipped upside down by a cadre of shiny ambulant mummies into a large pair of pants.) Less positively, Akhnaten was also a religious zealot who, on ascending the throne, demanded all his people immediately switch to his new religion. The story (and yes, this opera does actually have a linear narrative) centres on this religious reformation to monotheistic sun-god worship. I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to let on that the people of Egypt were not entirely impressed at the destruction of their temples and banning of their favoured polytheistic traditions, and it did not end well for Akhnaten.

It is apt that so far I have not mentioned the singing, as the title role neither sings nor speaks until some way into Act I, floating silently through his father’s funeral and his own coronation. When Costanzafinally opens his mouth, it is with a visceral, flexible countertenor that I initially thought too vibrato-laden and lacking the timbral stability I considered necessary for the music, but which subsequently settled (particularly in terms of blending with the always-accompanying trumpet) and grew on me swiftly to the point where I have difficulty imagining anyone better inhabiting the role. Two women form with him the central trio of characters. Mother Queen Tye was a soaring yet crisply-controlled Rebecca Bottone, while wife Nefertiti was sung with warm vibrancy by Emma Carrington, both of them with concentrated levels of intensity. The intermingling lines of Akhnaten and Nefertiti’s Act II love duet were a particular musical highlight, as was their final trio. The secondary trio of male voices were also highly effective, and their sections provided a welcome change of sound whenever the physical, political world (in the form of James Cleverton’s military Horemhab,Clive Bayley’s adviser Aye, and Colin Judson’s priest of the old religion) intrudes on Akhnaten and family’s increasingly-insular spirituality. With most of the libretto in Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew, it fell to the Scribe (Zachary James) to narrate the events, spoken over musical underlay (a similar effect to the texts in Einstein). He did this in a declamatory, actorly manner, at the end rather impressively while carrying the dead Akhnaten cradled in his arms. (I am imagining a casting call specifying “must be able to deadlift countertenor and sustain for duration of monologue”.)

For an orchestra playing this type of score, the technical demands are considerable, and musically somewhat contradictory. Navigated and driven flawlessly by Karen Kamensek (currently MD of Hannover Staatstheater, and in her ENO debut), the musicians managed laser-cut robotic precision, yet with the necessary human warmth injected via timbre and sensitivity of dynamic phrasing. I was thinking of picking out individual wind soloists for compliment, but in fact they were all deserving. The ENO chorus were also on excellent vocal form, whether delivering polyrhythmic choral chanting while ominously hand-jiving with juggling balls and glowering at the out-of-touch royal family, or ethereal offstage harmonies floating up from the orchestra pit. They received one of the loudest rounds of applause of the night.

Lastly, of course, I must mention the balls. Balls, balls, flying everywhere (and I’m not referring to the Pharaoh’s). Not only is the preponderance of round objects appropriate for a piece of theatre on the subject of all-consuming worship of a spherical sky-god, but the earliest known archaeological records of ball juggling are from an 11th Dynasty Egyptian tomb painting. Normal-sized juggling balls were flung in delightfully precisely-patterned choreography by Sean Gandini’s company of dancing jugglers, larger bubble-like balls bounced around as the Atenist religion develops, and a huge glowing globe swelled to take up most of the stage for the stunning Hymn to the Sun. This was all highly entertaining, and worked well as an alternative visual iconography for the construction and deconstruction of the City of the Horizon of Aten.

What would I like to see in the future from ENO? I’d like to see the Portrait Trilogy of Einstein, Satyagraha and Akhnaten presented in London as a cycle on three consecutive nights (as the State Opera of South Australia did in 2014). Improbable? Twenty years ago we would have said that about a staged performance of any of the three individually (and particularly Einstein), but have been proved wrong with aplomb. Please make it happen.

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

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ROH Don Giovanni image

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

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.

 

Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

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

In brief: Berg’s Wozzeck – what a piece! How has it taken me so long to get around to hearing it? The ROH Orchestra – fab! Warner’s staging – meh. Keenlyside – yep, still has it.

In long:

Sometimes I think my reactions to music are not, well, normal*. I was thinking this the other night while watching a grim post-apocalyptic drama on TV, during a scene which the composer had scored with a delightful 1960s-analogue-style microtonal electroacoustic soundscape. It had interesting textures and shapes, a pleasing scrunch to the pitch combinations, and a nostalgic touch of BBC Radiophonic Workshop about it. Then I looked at the protagonists on screen, creeping around some creepy dilapidated post-apocalyptic building, probably about to be jumped on by a creepy post-apocalyptic monster, and realised that the composer had probably intended the soundtrack to create an unsettling effect in me, rather than a pleasing and nostalgic one. And that a well-respected professional composer has probably achieved their standing by pushing the correct contextual feelings-buttons for the majority of people. (Having said that, a lot of Rachmaninov makes me feel queasy, and I don’t suppose he intended that.)

* Like I care.

Anyway, that TV show was not particularly compelling drama for me, however much I liked the music, and I’m afraid to say, the same goes for this Wozzeck. Similarly, for large stretches, the happenings on stage did not seem to gel with, or be particularly connected to, the score. What a score, though! I loved the richness of colour and texture (in huge contrast to the dull, dirty, white-tiled, mostly monochrome staging), he imaginative instrumentation, and the well-balanced architectural structure of the work (extremely well-paced and balanced by conductor Mark Elder). To me, a major part of the genius of composers like Berg is their ability to balance on a knife-edge between atonalism and (tonal) chromaticism. (Yes, there are no macro-scale key centres, but there are temporary ones, creating harmonic flow and tension, and leitmotifs for continuity.) I find this a particularly beautiful thing when done right. It was also wrenchingly tragic at times, particularly the orchestral interlude before the final scene, which, while obviously stylistically different, functioned similarly to Siegfried’s Funeral March.

Of course, having not heard the piece before, there might have been hundreds of wrong notes for all I know; I doubt it, though. I hesitate to pick out any individuals from an orchestra sounding so good, but there were some stand-outs – the tuba, for example! All the bassy things had sublime moments, in fact – double bass and bassoon sections, especially contra. Listening out for the flute section, as I always do, there was a lovely languid sensuality to be heard in the 1st flute solos, and a fun bit of whirling offstage piccolo caught my ear. Also, full props to the clarinettist in the onstage tavern band for his excellent warped, drunken, jazz-Mahler sleaziness.

Oh, did you want something about the singers?

I’m a fairly long-term fan of Simon Keenlyside, and it’s been too damn long since I last caught him doing his thing. Said ‘thing’ being singing beautifully and emotively while also throwing himself bodily, to an extent not matched by anyone else I can think of, into whatever the plot, staging and direction demand of him (which is usually quite a lot). Sometimes it’s fun athletic stuff like swinging from scaffolding, jumping over furniture, or scaling high walls with a rope (Billy Budd, James Bond Don Giovanni), sometimes rolling around on the floor in physical expression of emotional torment (Hamlet, Posa in Don Carlo, Oreste in Iphigenie, Winston in 1984). And that’s just off the top of my head – if you think of more, please do add them in the comments. Anyway, this production required him to be given an enema by John Tomlinson (ok, it’s pretend, but still, ick), and then to spend the last 20 minutes or so of the performance underwater (not pretend as far as I could tell – it was a glass tank full of liquid, in the middle of the stage, and he was definitely in it). Commitment.

Karita Mattila was a strong, full-bodied Marie, doing what she had to do to keep her kid fed, and occasionally managing to squeeze a little enjoyment out of life, despite the crushing weight of societal expectation and religious guilt. She also managed to make Sprechstimme a lot less annoying than I usually find it, which is an achievement. John Tomlinson was doing his usual (late-career) Bad Santa thing, which I thought was a little too much with the buffoonishness and not enough with the nastiness for the Doctor role.

Like I said, the set was mostly a large, dull whitish laboratory, in which poor soldier Wozzeck is poked, prodded, constantly insulted, and given beans to eat for extra pay. (NB If anyone wants to pay me to eat my beans, that could be a nice little earner. I like beans.) Taking one of Marie’s lines literally  – something like “we poor people only have a tiny corner of the world”, a small corner of the stage was painted black and designated her home (thus ensuring that people in the Left Slips seats would risk !Health & Safety! by standing up and leaning over the railing to see, every time a key interaction was set there). Marie also commented that she only had a tiny mirror, whereas the stage had a huge tilted mirror at the back, allowing them occasionally to do visually effective set-pieces with reflections of beds, peasants and bloodstains. I’m an opera fan, so I don’t mind if characters are singing about throwing/retrieving their knife in a lake, but actually drop it on the floor then jump in a fishtank; there was some water – close enough. Likewise, characters singing about hearing a voice in the darkness, when the person in question is quite silent and spotlighted right in front of them; I’m just happy the red blood-effect gave me some colour to look at, at last.

I can’t quite put my finger on why this production worked so well for me musically but not dramatically, despite the excellent leads – I think overall, it was the sense of disconnectedness between stage and pit. The last time this happened so severely was Pierrot-pants Pelleas. Anyway, I look forward to hearing the music again, and perhaps comparing different productions in the future…

PROM 15: Wagner (Die Walküre)

If there is going to be a particularly hot spell in the London summertime, tradition dictates that it will coincide with the Proms season’s most popular concerts. And thus it was this year, with heatwave peaking for the Proms’ first (and entirely sold-out) full Ring Cycle, under Daniel Barenboim. I know a few hardy types who not only did the whole cycle, but with standing tickets, but I’m afraid I just went to one of the four, and got a seat for it. (I did consider doing the lot, but I’m a bit Siegfrieded-out this year, and  Götterdämmerung clashed with another event.) Now, the Albert Hall’s air conditioning has improved considerably in the time I’ve been going there, and the place was pleasantly cool at the start, but over the next few hours it proved no match for the combined heat of a few thousand Wagner fans.

I didn’t care. The performance was fantastic, rising far above any superficial bodily discomfort, and I was so glad I’d gone to hear it in person. I’ve commented before on the special nature of being in the same physical space as live acoustic music, with nothing but vibrating air between the instruments and your ears, and this was a prime example. In some other people’s reviews I’ve read a few negative comments about Barenboim’s extremes of tempo and dynamics, and apparently some kind of intra-orchestral disagreement going on at one point, but no untoward incidents were visible from Row T of the amphi (the area where I’m usually to be found – back centre), and I can report that the dynamics were so perfectly judged – the pps as soft as they could be without ever slipping into inaudibility – that they must have had somebody in the back row for the soundcheck. As for the tempi, well, with such beautifully-realised orchestral colours and textures, who wouldn’t want to luxuriate a little? I didn’t mind.

I won’t go into great detail about individuals, but can report that (IMO) Bryn Terfel still owns Wotan, Nina Stemme is a totally kickass Brunnhilde, Eric Halfvarson continues to do a good line in Nasty Bass roles, and Ekaterina Gubanova’s lovely tone and expressive, musical phrasing almost won me over to the frequently-dislikeable Fricka. Anja Kampe and Simon O’Neill were solid as the star-crossed twincest couple.

Orchestra prize of the night is for the delicious solos of the Staatskapelle Berlin’s cor anglais player (NB: Anyone know the name, so I can include it? I didn’t have a programme), with bass clarinet and oboe as runners up. Piccolos – very nice, but I wanted to hear MORE of you in the mix. Anyway, big hugs to all.

PSM 2: Britten, Tippett, Holst and Berkeley

I’m not the biggest fan of strings-only music, but if I’m going to listen to the stuff, I think I want it played by the Britten Sinfonia. Let me clarify that. Listening to consort music, where you have a bunch of basically the same instrument in different sizes, whether it’s strings, recorders, saxophones, or whatever, is like watching black and white films. Yes, it can be very beautiful, and there have certainly been some masterworks created in that medium… but colour is important to me, and after a while I find myself yearning for a splash of red, or an instrument from a different family. Does that make sense?

Nevertheless, the BS strings (under Sian Edwards) combined careful attention to detail with such vibrancy, and precision with verve, that I didn’t mind at all that they’d left the other half of the orchestra at home. First up was Britten’s Prelude and Fugue – a new piece to me, but an instant hit. (In fact, weirdly, it sounded almost exactly the kind of music I was unsuccessfully attempting to compose while at university, until the composition tutor told me not to bother.) Holst’s St Paul’s Suite – ach, they really did their best to give the thing life, but it’s just dull music. I do not like a folksy jig (well, unless I’m one of the ones playing it, and it’s being taken insanely fast – at which point they can become quite fun). The last string piece, Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli was a bit clever-clever, but did contain some lovely bits, particularly in the duets between leader and principal 2nd (I think – again, no programme, no names).

And the vocal works, where I got my wish of something non-stringed thrown into the mix. Lennox Berkeley’s Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila really do deserve to be played more often, and what a great piece is Britten’s Phaedra! Sarah Connolly, whom regular readers will know I like quite a lot, really has become Queen of psychologically-troubled classical anti-heroines. Taking a day out in between her Glyndebourne performances as Rameau’s version of the role (Phèdre, in Hippolyte et Aricie) (read her talking about it here), in 15 brief minutes, she nailed the character in all her splendidly violent emotions. It’s not often I leave a concert and can’t wait to hear a piece all over again, but thanks to the magic of BBC iPlayer, on this occasion I can do so. And suggest you do the same, while it’s still up.

PROM 34: Vivaldi (The Four Seasons)

This. Yes.

All of the good things about Nigel Kennedy concerts, and none of the bad. Spirited iconoclastic solo and orchestral playing, a fresh and unique twist on a long-beloved piece (with lots of additional material, but – importantly – no movements left out), proof of the existence of that rare thing: Good Crossover music, no bloody electric violin in earshot, and minimal talking. Loved it.

My full review is here.

* There was a bit of talking, but it was right at the end. And some guy in the audience shouted “bollocks” loudly in the middle. Did you hear that on the radio, or did they do a quick edit? (I don’t know if he objected to the vague political sentiment being expressed, had Tourette’s, or was just worried it was going to turn into a 20-minute monologue and wanted to hear more music.)

Prom 55: Lutosławski, Shostakovich & Panufnik

Surprisingly, this was the Warsaw Philharmonic’s first visit to the Proms, invited as part of this year’s focus on Polish music. About time too, one might say, and particularly so with it being both Lutosławski’s centenary year (and almost Panufnik’s too, shy by a year), and this the farewell concert of outgoing Artistic Director of twelve years, Antoni Wit. It was also only right that they should debut with Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed specially for this orchestra – well, an earlier generation – in the 1950s, and they brought a proprietary authority to the work, from the driving timpani thumps of the opening. Lutosławski here uses melodic material from the Polish folk music tradition, but within the context of a highly-structured compositional form, with more than a nod to Bartók and Stravinsky. This was a high-definition performance which paid great attention to all the fine details of phrasing, dynamics, colour combinations and textural contrast, without ever compromising on overall shape or momentum… [read more here]

Prom 67: Pärt, Britten, Berlioz & Saint-Saëns

Tonight’s Orchestre de Paris Prom was very much a concert of two halves, in the first of which they got to show their sensitive, introspective side, reflecting on the nature of life and lamenting too-early death, then becoming considerably more extrovert in the second for some free-spirited buccaneering, and what the programme notes describe as “vivid, prolonged and grand noise”. It was, in fact, rather like attending two short concerts back-to-back – and both equally good, in their different ways.

The first half consisted of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and a work by Britten himself, the Violin Concerto – a perfect pairing…   [read more here]

Pic by © Clive Barda, reproduced from programme

Pic by © Clive Barda, borrowed from programme

Because the obvious choice for a school trip is an opera musically poised between traditional and contemporary, about the problems a tired, irritable, elderly Elizabeth I has with her over-energetic, irritating young courtiers, juxtaposing subtle in-jokes about 1590s and 1950s society, no? Or is it? Let me share what I inferred about the mostly tween/teenage audience’s thoughts on the performance along with my own…

First, I should make clear I was not in teacher mode* and had no professional responsibility for any of the younglings present. The ROH released some seats under their Student Standby scheme. While the thought of Britten enhanced by additional chorus of hordes of probably chattering, crisp-munching, blackberry-messaging, gum-flicking kids did not appeal, I figured, well, £7.50 for a lower amphi seat, worth a go…

* Ok, I did curtly shush the adult couple chattering behind me.

Long-term readers may remember that appreciating Britten’s music has been something of a late, slow progress for me – although I am very definitely getting there. Gloriana was a completely new one for me; all I knew was that it was about the first Queen Elizabeth, and written to commemorate the coronation of the second Queen Elizabeth. And Tudor history is not my forte (deriving mostly from TV’s The Tudors and Blackadder). Before it began, I glanced briefly at an already-discarded programme, just to remind myself who was actually in the cast.

Wrong move. Contained unannounced SPOILERS. Massive ones. Here:

Gloriana plot spoilers ahoy

Bad ROH. Even a brief glance told me how it all ends for main character Robert of Essex (badly). I prefer not to be told the ends of stories beforehand, I preferred this when I was a schoolkid, and I bet many current schoolkids prefer it too. Obviously audiences are very able to appreciate dramatic tension and a well-turned plot even when they know the story inside out, but on the occasions when one gets a chance, not knowing what is going to happen does, you know, add extra excitement.

Oh, and it doesn’t actually even have the damn cast list in. If I was a schoolkid and heard a singer I liked the sound of (or for that matter, the look of – and yes, I can see Toby Spence appealing to a few) I might just want to know what their name was.

Anyway, the opera. Elizabeth is trying to continue successfully running her country, despite an assortment of courtiers either nagging and fighting for mummy’s attention, giving patronising advice, harbouring poorly-concealed patriarchal resentment at having a female leader, or just eyeing the throne covetously. I thought Susan Bullock made an superb queen – while this particular performance may not have been quite the best I’ve ever heard her sing, she combined all the imperious command and lonely-at-the-top sadness one could wish for. Also, sternly self-controlled frustrated lust for a handsome, hot-headed, shapely-legged young flatterer (Earl of Essex, played, sung and danced energetically by the aforementioned Mr Spence), and the odd bit of spiteful humour (which couldn’t help but make me imagine a Miranda Richardson version: “Ha! Your dress is nasty! And are you trying to look richer and prettier than Queenie? I’m going to nick it and make you go to the party in your underwear! Now, everybody laugh at her or I’ll cut your noses off.”)

Happy to report young audience did not find an innocent woman’s public humiliation very funny.

Attending court were also wife Lady Essex (a luxurious Patricia Bardon), sister Lady Rich (Kate Royal), and several gentlemen of the lower-voice varieties, all of whom I particularly enjoyed: the equally ill-governed Lord Mountjoy (Mark Stone), slimy Sir Cecil (Jeremy Carpenter) and a somewhat camp Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Bayley). I believe the moments of somewhat hammy acting were a deliberate part of Richard Jones’s production, which was a play-within-a-play concept of a 1950s amateur/school production. A shrunk stage area was surrounded by institutional painted walls, town/school hall style, with radiators, etc., visible pulleys and modern-dress stagehands for scenery-shifting, and visible ‘offstage’ musicians. There was a second level, with people up in some kind of viewing gallery, but it wasn’t possible to see what was going on up there from amphi row G. This concept was not at all objectionable, but for the most part it didn’t really add anything to my enjoyment of what was happening on the inner stage – I expect there were some clever references and in-jokes intended for those that remember the 1950s/coronation that passed me by.

In fact, it was really a play-within-play-within-play structure, as Act II Sc 1 involved the court going on a trip to Norwich, and being ‘entertained’ by a masque, involving dull songs, dancers in odd tights, some cheerful 1950s  racism (blackface and ‘comic’ cannibals) *, and much displaying of vegetables – although unfortunately not humorous genitalia-shaped ones. (I lived in Norwich for a year, and can attest that this is an accurate portrayal of local culture.) The Earl of Essex was visibly unimpressed, the schoolkids and students in the amphitheatre were audibly unimpressed, and as for me, I would have benefited from an interval between Acts I and II. Still, Britten had a keen ear for Tudor music, and swung wittily between pastiche and parody in both the Masque scene and the palace party in Scene 3. While this is not a musical genre I personally get a lot from, who cares when being entertained by Toby Spence prancing around in yellow tights and puffy pants? (Top Tips for impressing at palace parties: Do not go to a black-and-white-themed event dressed as a lemon sorbet. Do not fail to learn the latest dance routines.)

* Happy to report the gasps of horror and awkward embarrassed giggles from the young audience. They definitely know this kind of depiction of ethnic minority groups is Not Ok.

During the interval, considerable time passes. Both in the story and literally, as herding teenagers is akin to herding cats. Audience behaviour, surprisingly good at the start, had deteriorated once into the second hour of the first half, and was not improved by the break – although their moods were clearly improved by the addition of refreshments. My mood was not improved by a significant increase in rustling of crisps and sweet wrappers and chattering. However, showing remarkably good taste, they all quietened down for Brindley Sherratt’s cameo as the Blind Ballad Singer. That’s authority. As bass roles go, it’s not exactly one of the greats – one intentionally disjointed and somewhat humorous Beckmesser-esque number – but nevertheless always a pleasure to hear his voice.

Anyway, Essex has buggered up the military campaign he was hustling for earlier, some politicking goes on, and he ends up with a death sentence for treason, despite (and partly because of) his friends and family’s various pleading, crawling and complaining. The Queen is left alone to lament the sacrifices of a monarch, with sections of quiet, still, and very beautiful music, which were ruined by the school in the front right part of the amphi (red jumpers), who kept clapping during it, then laughing, because either they (a) couldn’t wait for the music to finish to start applauding. Several times. (b) had all gone deaf from turning their headphones up too loud, and genuinely thought the music had stopped, or (c) were bored now and thought it was amusing to drown out the string section. (ROH, if you’re reading this: I don’t know how you pick which schools come to these things, but suggest you don’t invite that lot back. The rest were pretty reasonable.)

Although I’ve said above that the singing was generally very good indeed, in this work I found – as I often seem to do with Britten – that the instrumental parts held more interest for me than the vocal lines. I wonder if this is one of the reasons some opera fans dislike him? There’s a certain kind of fan who is ONLY interested in singing, and prefers orchestras to stick firmly in subservient accompaniment mode, and either become jealous whenever the composer’s focus is on giving beauty and complexity to the non-vocal instruments, or get bored because they don’t listen to individual instruments. (Just a hypothesis – please disagree in the comments if you wish!) Anyway, I was listening to the orchestra, and upper strings, your pianissimi were spine-tingling; trumpets, you were fiery; flutes and oboes, you know I love you, and yes, I did notice and appreciate the contrabassoon solo. All round, the orchestra (MD’d by Paul Daniel) were excellent, but I thought most effective of all during the final scenes (when not disrupted by brats), and during Mountjoy and Penelope’s tryst scene, beautifully evoking the rippling river, in contrast to the (deliberately) clumsy boat-on-a-rope on stage. Britten really does do wonderful water writing – any scenes involving seas or rivers.

One more thing about the educational aspect. This was also in the programme:

Worksheet, ugh

No, no, no. Read questions before the show starts, and then look out for the answers during the show? I thought the intention was to give young people the opportunity to experience opera, in the hope that they will enjoy it, and maybe become interested in the art form, perhaps even future paying audience members? How can you possibly immerse yourself in a performance and be moved by the music and drama if you’re thinking about finding out and remembering the answers to a load of annoying questions on a worksheet? I sincerely hope all the teachers chose to ignore this, or at least used the questions only as potential discussion points in a subsequent lesson, rather than a competition to find out which of their pupils found playing remember-the-objects-on-the-table, identifying vegetables from a distance, or keeping a close watch on the flowerpots, more engaging than the performance.

Image borrowed from http://www.eno.org

Image borrowed from http://www.eno.org

I’m writing this, unfortunately, a couple of weeks after seeing it, which means (a) everyone who was considering going already either did or didn’t, (b) my memory is more suspect than usual, and (c) I’ve looked at other people’s reviews before writing my own, which I normally avoid.

The reviews I read were mixed, in the sense that I saw one giving it one star, one giving it five, and a few in between. This is not a surprise, for a contemporary opera by one of those composers where you (ok, I) think, hmm, recognise the name – Michel van der Aa – but can’t recall hearing anything by him, and which is described in the blurb as a “multimedia ‘occult mystery’, combining live performance, music, 2D and 3D film”. Here I am free from having to give things star ratings, so can simply say that overall, I had a very enjoyable evening, but there were some aspects of both the work and the production that left me a little cold.

There’s been a lot made of the 3D thing. I find the opera I’ve seen generally tends to be in 3D, in fact more so, because it doesn’t usually involve any characters who never physically set foot on the stage and only appear as moving images projected onto screens. Not exactly a new trick – kind of a modern version of having your Shakespearean ghosts appear and disappear through nifty deployment of smoke, mirrors, and a hidden actor in the wings – but very effectively done, nevertheless. The Sunken Garden of the title turns out to be a holographic simulation of the Eden Project, with slow-mo water droplets that spray attractively out into the stalls, and giant foliage that sticks out as if to poke the front row in the eye. Taken as a stage set, that just happened to be created with modern technology rather than in more traditional ways, I found it very visually attractive and dramatically effective. And with the bonus of being transportable on a hard drive rather than a fleet of lorries! (I know, it’s not that simple…)

So, Simon (pre-recorded video projection of Jonathan McGovern) and Amber (likewise video Kate Miller-Heidke) have gone missing, and film-maker Toby (your actual real life Roderick Williams) is making a documentary about their disappearance, while searching for them in an increasingly obsessive manner, his auteur/detective efforts sponsored by rich patron of the arts Zenna (real Katherine Manley). One name keeps cropping up in his investigations, the sinister-seeming Dr Marinus, who turns out to be Claron McFadden, in the third and final live acting/singing role. The vocal writing utilises generally disjoint melodies, highly chromatic and with many wide leaps up and down between registers (although rather soprano/falsetto-heavy, unfortunately for this bass lover), and reminding me somewhat of Adès. It wasn’t at all unpleasant, but I can’t say most of it, particularly in the first half, had much of an effect on me. This is not to be blamed on the singing – Manley, McFadden and McGovern did their best with the material. Roderick Williams is always a pleasure to hear, and seeing him in this straight after his excellent Orontes in Medea confirmed his musical versatility (not to mention his visual switch from dashing, handsome fighter pilot to slouching, scruffy screen-potato*). The Amber sections were some of the most interesting, because her music blended contemporary classical styles with elements of electronic/dance genres, and this kind of material was handled by van der Aa very well indeed. Miller-Heidke’s clever vocal stying gave Amber a vibrato-free air of innocence, without compromising pitch or tone, and the sound was digitally treated in post-production, or sometimes multitracked. The vocal highlights were the ensemble pieces, when live singers were combined with pre-recorded video.

A live orchestra (MD’d by André de Ridder) was also combined with electronically-generated and pre-recorded sounds, and while I couldn’t quite get a handle on the music harmonically and structurally, I very much enjoyed the varied textures, and the way relevant snippets of audio (e.g. one of the characters’ compulsive finger-tapping) were incorporated elsewhere. The brass had some funk-infused rhythmic stuff to do, which they very much strutted, and while in this case I obviously wouldn’t notice any wrong notes, the whole ensemble gave every impression of pinpoint accuracy.

At one point, Toby makes a meta little snipe about the current fashion for filming in 3D, which wasn’t as funny or clever as van der Aa and librettist David Mitchell (the Cloud Atlas novelist, not the quippy panel show fixture – although if he did write one, I expect it would be funny and clever) thought it was. However, there were many examples where text and visuals played with audience expectations and theatrical tradition. I’ve forgotten most of them, though I recall remarking them at the time, but one example was the way Dr Marinus was introduced. She’s a psychiatrist (which fiction tells us are probably not to be trusted), who runs a mental hospital where people vanish (so definitely probably an evil scientist, then), and then she turns up with a gender-neutral haircut and a Red Suit (ok, make that demonic). Nope, she turns out to be the (super-)heroic one who battles the evil monster to rescue the lost souls. Note: it’s also comparatively rare to see two supernatural, powerful forces battling it out (not quite something as simple as Good and Evil, or Life and Death, but along those lines), watched by a weak bystander helpless to intervene (Toby), where the two former are female and the latter male.

Life and Death? Evil? Monsters? Yes, a step up to some Big Themes. After a first hour(-ish) set firmly in the real world of missing persons, video cameras and money hassles, Toby stepped through a mysterious door, we, as instructed, put on our 3D goggles, and things went – where did they go? I’m not quite sure – which would be fine, except that I’m not sure if it was supposed to be left ambiguous, or whether it was all in the libretto, but I just missed it. Not for the first time I realised I’ve become rather spoonfed by the prevalence of surtitles and find it rather difficult to cope without them. (The fact that I followed as much of the libretto as I did, and have any clue about what was going on at all, is surely down to the singers’ excellent diction – well, that and the miking). It makes me wonder, though, about the effect on the brains those of us who do a lot of listening to singing, in languages we don’t speak and/or with the lyrics stretched and distorted into incomprehensibility by the demands of melody and counterpoint. It may not be a neurocognitively accurate description, but I feel as though the ‘visual bit’ of my brain gets happily on with processing the text content, while allowing the ‘auditory bit’ to focus purely on musical appreciation. This is an enjoyable experience, but possibly not a helpful habit to form.

Where was I? Yes, Monsters! Dr Marinus isn’t one, but Zenna is, sort of. She is no dippy philanthropist of the arts, but a powerful alien(?) being that kidnaps humans to feed on their souls/memories/emotions/life-essence/etc., while imprisoning their deteriorating consciousnesses in her private alternate-dimension/holodeck/demonic-realm/hypnotic-state/etc. Are they dead or alive? Somewhere in between the two, we are told, and she put them there. But is the VR Eden Project simulation like a Star Trek holodeck that Toby physically visits? Or is it a shared dream where their minds are, while their bodies are lying inertly somewhere else? If so, where are the bodies, and how are they being kept alive all these months? (Or aren’t they being kept alive at all, like in Planet B?) Perhaps their bodies are in comas at the mental hospital, which would explain why Dr Marinus is involved (although not why their families think they’ve vanished). Am I being too literal and analytical about this, when I ought to be satisfied with metaphysical vagueness? That’s the conclusion I came to at the time, and made a conscious decision to stop trying to Work It Out, to accept Marinus and Zenna as manifestations of elemental opposing forces, the garden as symbolic, and just sit back and enjoy the pretty spectacle and bleepy orchestra noises.

I was still hoping Mitchell would provide some kind of reveal/explanation, though, as he does in Ghostwritten, and some things are tied up. It seems Simon and Amber are both suffering severe depression, and ambivalent about life, so have chosen to inhabit Zenna’s mind-numbing alternate reality. However, Toby tries to persuade them to Choose Life, while Marinus breaks the Garden simulation, making it go all swooshy and pixelly. Then Zenna appeared at the end in Toby’s clothes. Rather than just stealing his clothes, I think this means she has the power to jump her consciousness into other people’s bodies and take them over (a good old trope, I think best done by Octavia Butler in the Patternist series). And why not? This is all great subject matter for an opera, and I’d be happy to see more of this kind of thing. And some space operas that are actually operas, while you’re at it.

* The computer equivalent of couch potato. Is there a better term for this?

ENO Medea

Image borrowed from http://www.eno.org

In brief: Connolly spurned in love; goes on murderous rampage with carving knife. And poison, phantoms, hell-fiends and mind-control.

I.e. all good stuff (for an opera).

There’s clearly trouble in Corinth, because the war council are meeting, political alliances are forming and fraying, and the top brass are scared stiff, much as they try and hide it behind epaulettes and swagger. In David McVicar’s 1940s-styled production, the three factions are represented with Creon and the Corinthians as the Army, Jason (and his group, presumably also from Thessaly) the Navy, and Orontes (Team Argos) as the Air Force – all of them gathered in an elegant mansion with a mirror-silvered floor that I should like to copy, should I even own a ballroom, and lighting perfectly judged for a period feel (Paule Constable). Political mixes with personal when Creon realises both Jason and Orontes are sniffing round his daughter Creusa, that if she were married to one of them, the new husband would be forced to stay in Corinth and help defend the place, and that actually, having reviewed their CVs, Jason would be a more useful son-in-law than Orontes. (Unfortunate that he’d already more or less promised the job/wife to Orontes, then.)

The libretto seems to imply that Creusa and Jason’s love is not only genuine but mutual; I found this love entirely unconvincing, and hope that this was intentional. If so, Katherine Manley did a very good job of acting Creusa acting being in love/lust with Jason, while actually caring for nobody but herself and her father. (The libretto did not imply an incestuous relationship between Creon and Creusa, but the direction certainly did. What is it with opera and incest? I blame Wagner.) Jeffrey Francis, I’m sorry to say, mostly seemed, from my point of view, to be acting a stuffed shirt. A friend in Row B of the stalls reckons his characterisation was ‘subtle’, but I’m afraid that from further back, this did not come across. While I can’t pick a fault in his singing – it seemed very correct and competent – his lack of charisma meant that the only way to accept the main plot point of Creusa and Medea fighting over this portly, stuffy, middle-aged, Golden-Fleece-days-long-past (but still a useful battle strategist) version of Jason  was to presume Creusa being manipulative (and manipulated), and Medea gripped by the kind of obsessive fixation that looks upon the beloved object and sees something very different than others do.

This opera is one that stands or falls, in large part, on its Medea, and this production, therefore, could not possibly fall with the superb Sarah Connolly in the title role. I was surprised, on looking back, to realise how little I’ve actually seen of her in live, staged opera (the last apparently being Rosenkavalier), given that I rate her as one of the best mezzos around, not to mention the definitive Giulio Cesare. I’m not alone in my high opinion; having arrived early for the opera, I struck up a conversation with a fashionably-dressed Young Person who – stereotyping ahoy! – didn’t look like the expected audience for obscure French baroque. Wondering if he’d been wooed in by the ENO’s Yeah, Wear Jeans – Groovy! policy, I asked what had brought him along to this, and he looked at me like I was an idiot, saying “Duh, Sarah Connolly is amazing??”. Anyway, yes she was, miserable and downtrodden at the start, then an ominously overheating pressure-cooker of warped emotion, going to full demon-summoning, wrist-slashing homicidal mania in Act 3, then moving finally to chilly disdain for the lives of the pathetic humans surrounding her – and all the time, singing with a depth of expression and intensity that somehow kept the audience on her side even as the bodies piled up. (Well, the adult bodies, anyway. I expect she lost a few people’s sympathy when it came to the children.) Of the other singers, regular readers will not be surprised to find me once more declaiming the brilliance of favourite bass Brindley Sherratt. Creon only gets the one decent aria, but, damn, if it wasn’t stunning stuff – and not in the least diminished in tragic intensity by the fact that he had to deliver it with his trousers round his ankles. This takes talent. Third star of the show was bronze-timbred baritone Roderick Williams as Squadron Commander Orontes Flashheart, having to cope, for probably the first time in his life, with not Getting the Girl – and the only source of humour, warmth and likeability on stage.

It is perhaps unfair to call Williams the only source of humour, as there was a highly entertaining moment of  unexpected camp in Act 1, where the troops first enter, and Team Thessaly (the Navy) – minus Jason, of course – suddenly break into an anachronistic high-kicking dance routine, to the bemusement and suspicion of Corinth and Argos alike. I also found Creusa’s final scene to have some amusement value – although, to be fair, she gave a pathetic and affecting death aria once the poison dress was activated. However, to dip into the inaccurate stereotype pool again, it did strike me as such a blonde soprano thing, to go and ask a favour of the homicidal sorceress whose husband you’ve just stolen, while wearing her best dress (that you’ve more or less just stolen). That’s not going to wind her up even more, no. There were further dance scenes, as being French opera, there has to be half an hour where the action stops, the main characters plonk themselves down (in this case in a pink glittery aeroplane) and watch some random filler dance acts – but these weren’t particularly funny, just some slack-jawed, splay-legged sleaziness in suspenders, performed to music that (sorry, M. Charpentier) shouldn’t have survived the editing process, if there was such a thing.

In addition to something of a fixation on deep-pitched voices, this blog takes particular notice of outsize instruments. So, in the pit, one bass recorder (Catherine Fleming) spotted beforehand, listened out for, and very much enjoyed. The other two recorders (Ian Wilson, Merlin Harrison) were inferior only in terms of size,  and with no disrespect to the rest of the excellent ensemble, of the instrumental component of the score it was the recorder section that stood out – they were exquisite. French baroque opera is not a genre of music I am particularly familiar with (in some part due to being put off, as an undergraduate,  by an interminably dull – afternoon? day? week? Might have only been an hour or so, but felt like 10 years? – spent studying Lully), and I admit it did take me a while to settle into the groove. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had my head mostly in Wagner mode recently, where EXTREME is the thing, restraint not so much, but at first I found Charpentier’s composition somewhat samey, with little stylistic differentiation based on which character was singing, their mood, what they were singing about, and to whom. However, as I became more used to the genre, the more subtle differences of tempo, timbre, melody and harmony came fully into focus. Nevertheless, I suggest that without expert direction, the music would fall down flat in a ditch, and its success here is due to the combination of enthusiasm, knowledge, and minute attention to detail of MD Christian Curnyn.

Stray observation:

As well as added incest, there seemed to be a bit of a shoe theme going on. Medea kicks off her shoes to denote entering hellfire mode (as well as losing her prim suit, and chucking a chair) – quite right: one can’t be a-revenging in court shoes. The two fiends she summons from the depths are, as well as being flayed and bloody, tormented further by being forced to squish their toes into uncomfortable high heels for eternity. And Creusa, rather distractingly, spends one scene lurching irritatingly around the stage with one shoe (high heeled, of course) off and one shoe on. I should like to know what this represents.

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