for Opera Britannia


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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]

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.]

Photo of Antoine Silverman as Einstein

Image © Lucie Jansch, from http://www.barbican.org.uk

Two women sit at a desk, staring at us, motionless apart from their hands tracing quick rhythmic movements in the air. One is reciting poetry, the other interjecting a string of numbers, above a low-pitched organ hum. The woman reciting poetry is doing so in the pleasant but emotionally neutral tone of modern speech-synthesising software; the woman reciting numbers does so with humanity and expression in every one. Something is wrong: poetry woman starts to stutter – not a human stutter, but an android showing the first signs of malfunction. I don’t know what it means, but I’m gripped. And the performance proper hasn’t even begun yet.

Louise Jeffreys, Director of Programming at the Barbican, has commented that she had been waiting ten years to put on this work. Well, I’ve been waiting twenty to see it. I discovered Einstein on the Beach as an undergraduate, and immediately fell in love with it. I loved its emphasis on temporal structure, its almost-fractal patterns, its non-linear symbolism, and its utterly uncompromising nature – and all this just from the single (at the time) available audio recording. Being an undergraduate, the fact that most of my friends, and a large proportion of the music department, found it completely impenetrable and/or highly annoying could only add to the appeal. The first production was in 1976, and now, 36 years later, it has finally received its long-overdue UK premiere. Thank you to all concerned for making it happen!

Waiting expectantly outside the theatre, there was concern among us that it wouldn’t happen, as the start time was pushed back 15 minutes, then another 15. Seeing a new production, of course, one doesn’t know exactly what is missing or malfunctioning, but I gather there were various technical problems with aspects of the set and staging. These resulted in some odd gaps between scenes and an unscheduled interval after Act 1 – which, despite it going against the creators’ wishes, I didn’t mind, as it meant I didn’t have to miss a single note! (The whole thing is around five hours long, and there are no intervals, audience members being expected to quietly shuffle in and out as and when they require refreshment, etc.) On the subject of missing notes, there were just enough miniscule glitches – a finger slip here, an extra breath there, a tuning issue on flute (swiftly fixed, of course!) – to remind one that in contrast to today’s auditory world of hyper-produced sound and digitally-looped high-definition samples, here was pure live musicianship of astonishing virtuosity. As one would expect from a decades-long collaborator of Glass’s, conductor Michael Riesman’s control of the music was superb. Unfortunately he had no control over the lights on the music stands, and in the final scene (as far as I could tell) had to play for some time in the dark, while simultaneously yelling at the crew to sort it out.

With a lesser show, or lesser performers, these technical hitches could have significantly marred the performance. In this case, they were a small fly in a very large pot of ointment. In the Barbican’s Q&A event earlier in the week, Glass spoke of the musical demands this work makes on performers, and how some of the singers cast in the original production had considerable difficulty learning it, whereas today’s performers are expected to take such challenges within their stride. Indeed, contemporary groups like Synergy Vocals (regular collaborators with Steve Reich) have set the bar very high, but the Einstein chorus fulfilled and exceeded expectations, demonstrated most clearly in their flawless delivery of the fiendishly fast additive rhythms of the a capella Knee Play 3. Bed, the section of music most closely resembling a traditional operatic aria, was sung by American mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn; she seemed somewhat hesitant at first – a little unsteady, or perhaps just feeling the effects of an extremely long evening – but nevertheless showing real understanding and feel for the music (something missing, for example, in several of the soloists in the ENO’s 2010 Satyagraha). On the other hand, the jazz-influenced Building, previously always one of my least favourite scenes, was immeasurably lifted by Andrew Sterman’s gloriously raspy, soaring tenor saxophone solo.

Another interesting comment from Glass during the Q&A was that in previous runs of the show, he had found that – unlike in operas with linear plots – the emotional high points were in different places on different nights. For me, on this occasion, while the Spaceship scene was undoubtedly the most intense assault on the senses (and wonderful it was, too, even with incomplete staging), the emotional centres of the work were Night Train, featuring a silent, glacially-measured Helga Davis, followed by Trial/Prison, where Kate Moran repeated a short text over and over, with slightly different – and increasingly unhinged – expression every time. The last few words of this banal fragment, seemingly innocuous, are quite chilling in their sudden invoked subtext of nuclear war (the link being with Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel On The Beach). As the two Characters, Davis and Moran were masterpieces of non-narrative spoken and physical expression throughout, and violinist Antoine Silverman was believable as the scientist worrying about the implications of atomic physics while obsessively spiralling up and down scales. Trial One used the alternate (1984) speech – Charles Williams’ misogynist Old Judge viciously parodying the feminists who dared to demand equality for women, as opposed to the more benevolent sexism of the original text.

As someone familiar only with the music and libretto, seeing the work staged for the first time was an amazing experience. Having heard Wilson describe his preoccupation with structuring time and space through different kinds of light, the results of his creative vision and fine attention to detail were clear to see in a luminous palette and surreal edge that made me think of Dalí, particularly in Train One. The music occasionally contains sudden discrete changes of direction, but most progression is in almost imperceptible increments; these same structures applied throughout to the lighting, and to the movement of characters and objects. Particularly effective was the use of multiple concurrent speeds of movement between different individuals or groups; this also lead to brilliant visual diversions that made it possible suddenly to realise that while you were busy watching the Boy on Tower, or the Woman with Newspaper, a huge steam train had quietly crept onto stage. The one visual aspect which was significantly less engaging was the dance element. It is true I am no dance aficionado, but I do have an interest in the visual representation of numeric structures, and while the dancers’ steps and jumps corresponded neatly to micro changes in rhythm and harmony, I got no sense of the macro structure evident in all other aspects of the work.

Philip Glass’s style has been so frequently pastiched (or, shall we say, shamelessly ripped off?) for use with video, that – taken with the fact that he has been rather prolific in this field himself – it has become something of a little game, when watching TV science documentaries or psychological dramas, to bet on whether the score is Real or Fake Glass. The one thing that nobody has dared rip off, though, is the Einstein Chord Sequence – as immediately identifiable as the Tristan Chord. Flinging one back and forth between F minor and E major, courtesy of enharmonic pivot B♭♭ = A, the momentary emotional solidity of a IV – V – I cadence is repeatedly destroyed by the semitone shift up of the temporary tonic, creating a profoundly unsettling effect on the listener. The first occurrence (in the closing section of Train One), had such a hair-raising effect on me that it is only thanks to modern haircare products that I didn’t resemble an Einstein-style fright wig myself, and every single further occurrence was goosebump-inducing, including the eight-minute-long version at the end of Act 4.

Is it an opera? Not if you require your operas to have a coherent linear story, a title role who actually sings something, and more than one vocal aria. Otherwise, I don’t see why not. Robert Wilson has always described it as an opera, despite contentiously claiming in the (1985) film how he once “went to the opera – hated it!” (Interestingly, older Wilson, speaking earlier this week, was happy to reference Wagner on more than one occasion, in regard to temporal structuring in The Ring…)

Should you go? All the diehard Glass/Wilson fans dived for their tickets the minute booking opened last year, but at time of writing there are still some seats left for most performances. If you’re short of attention span, or have set ideas about how an opera should and should not be (see above), probably not. Otherwise, give it a try – it could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this seminal work. And it’s even acceptable to wander out of the auditorium for a drink and chat whenever you feel like a break.

At what point should you take your caffeine-and-comfort break? I’d suggest during Dance 1 or 2. Under no circumstances be away during Train One or Spaceship, and do also try to avoid missing any of the abstract but lovely Knee Plays.

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

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

First impressions are important. As the first few seconds – or so we are informed – of a job interview are vital, despite the main body of questioning occurring later, vital also are the first few minutes of an opera’s overture in setting the tone for the drama to come. Unfortunately the people sitting behind me considered their conversation more important than Mozart’s quietly brilliant shifting of harmonies and timbres around traditionally melancholic D minor, already prefiguring themes of death and social destabilisation. There being no time to point out what they were missing, a sharp instruction to desist had to suffice. I hope they then turned their attention to the music and were able to gain some enjoyment from the superb and perfectly controlled dynamic contrasts, almost dizzying in the passage of climbing scales, and the machine-level precision of ensemble playing in terms of timing, intonation and balancing of chords. Clarity and precision are an absolute must for Mozart, and throughout the performance the orchestra’s level was consistently very high indeed; however, conductor Constantinos Carydis carried machinelike precision to the extent of being somewhat robotic in his tempi, with little sense of long-line continuity, and unwilling to accommodate rubato from the singers. Still, perhaps this was a first-night effect and subsequent performances will have greater flow and flexibility.

Francesca Zambello’s 2002 production has been wheeled out regularly at Covent Garden over the last 10 years, and is for many now as familiar as a friend’s house: here is Donna Anna’s window with the attractive verdigris tiles and handy rungs for baritones to climb up and down; there is the window to the graveyard where people have constructed for the Commendatore a giant wicker man rather than the more traditional statue; and there is Don Giovanni’s villa, with its novel contracting ballroom and Turkish-bath-cum-dining room. Maria Björnson’s rusting dark green colour scheme is attractive, and the large multi-tasking wall with exposed staircase serves its purpose well in dividing scenes and assisting the simple but effective Personenregie. The first time I saw this production I was amused by the Don having dinner in a steam room, in his underpants, and thought it a gimmick. However, on reflection, I think it a brilliant idea to have the character (almost) naked for his final scene, as all his layers of artifice and subterfuge are finally stripped away and he is left looking death in the face without the protective armour of social class that comes with a nobleman’s dress.

Gerald Finley inhabits the title role with complete ease and confidence, vocally and dramatically. A dab hand at charm and sleaze, his Giovanni is astutely observant of other people’s human weaknesses (and his own), fully enjoying playing them off against one another. This makes an interesting change from the characterisations of the famous sex addict provided by the two previous incumbents – Erwin Schrott’s feral, amoral libido-on-legs, and Simon Keenlyside’s superficially-civilised psychopath bubbling with barely-concealed violence. I have yet to hear a single unpleasant note escape Finley’s mouth, and this performance was no exception, with “Là ci darem la mano” and “Deh vieni alla finestra” able to melt the steeliest of chastity belts. As his accomplice Leporello, Lorenzo Regazzo possessed a fine and, may I say, seductive voice of his own, particularly rich in the lower register. The catalogue aria was rather on the ponderous side, but made up for by pleasing tone quality.

On which subject, the Ottavio issue: always an unappealing character, ineffectual and impotent, Matthew Polenzani’s Don Ottavio was as wet and hopeless as any I’ve seen; however, his “Dalla sua pace” was quite beautiful, with richness of tone colouring, delicacy of phrasing, and very impressively projected pianissimi. “Il mio tesoro” is very far from being a favourite aria of mine, but on this occasion I was very glad that it wasn’t cut (as in the Vienna version of the opera). The blend of Polenzani’s voice and Hibla Gerzmava’s (Donna Anna) worked particularly well, and her performance was also a fine one, notable particularly for clarity at the top and emotional shading, turning in the space of a second between tender vulnerability and vengeful anger.

I was intrigued by the unconvincing nature of Zerlina and Masetto’s relationship (Irini Kyriakidou and Adam Plachetka): she with the air of having settled for the best peasant available but very ready to upgrade; he giving the impression of seriously considering whether to take “Batti, batti” literally. With no intention of criticising Kyriakidou’s instrument itself, I found her voice wrong for the role, with the wide vibrato obscuring what should be the clean lines of Zerlina’s simple melodies. Katarina Karnéus, on the other hand, turned out to be a very sympathetic Donna Elvira, strugging against both herself and the societal expectations of women’s behaviour. A little stiff in her opening aria, she warmed up in Act 2 and sang with confidence and feeling. As a generalisation, all of the younger cast members were convincing in their arias, but tended towards a rather mugging style of acting in between them.

As mentioned above, I like the steamy setting of the final scene, and dramatically the Commendatore’s return really did come off very well. It appears that the Royal Opera are not allowed to fling on all their Bunsen burners together any more, having to carefully turn up a couple at a time, but they got some impressive flames going, as the dead Commendatore did his impersonation of the God of Hellfire. Perhaps they might consider giving him a flaming hat too – although that might have diminished the gravitas so ably conveyed by Marco Spotti’s dark and ringing pronouncements. Given that the giant wicker hand was also set alight, I wonder if at any point the production team considered making a whole Wicker Man, and sticking a dummy Don Giovanni in the middle of it to burn? Anyway, if one wants to end an opera in spectacular fashion, make up for any earlier patchiness, and leave the audience with big smiles on their faces, filling the stage with huge flames and smoke is a jolly fine way to do it. Bravi, technical crew.

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

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

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.]

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

Philip Glass’s best-known operatic works – the ‘Portrait Trilogy’ of Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten – focus on iconic figures driven by inner vision and conviction to change the world for the better. Einstein, Gandhi and Akhnaten – though overcoming strife and difficulty on the way – achieve their destinies, and their music, while containing periods of tension and aggression, is ultimately uplifting. The making of the representative for Planet 8 (from Doris Lessing’s novel), which followed these, showed a darker side, dealing as it does with the extinction of an entire human(-oid) species, but still ended in transfiguration and hope. At first glance, Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony appears to inhabit a very different kind of world, the central construct being a gruesome machine for the torture and execution of transgressing prisoners, the central character being an officer devoted to its maintenance and operation. However, from the grotesque context emerge not only themes of violence, degradation and obsession, but also of epiphany, transfiguration and redemption. The formal structure of the drama is also, clearly, something that was likely to appeal to the composer’s classicist sensibilities. Rudolph Wurlitzer’s libretto and stage directions follow Kafka’s original story closely, with the dialogue between the Officer and the Visitor (Explorer or Traveller in some translations) which makes up the majority of the text faithfully preserved, and the Visitor’s private thoughts becoming short soliloquies. The music, while consisting of recognisable Glass-isms from the start (minor triad-based oscillations, superimposition of simple and compound quaver rhythms, etc), keeps the main repetitive structures within the strings (reminiscent most of his Dracula quartet), allowing the voices freer and longer melodic lines than in much of the music mentioned above.

Glass describes In the Penal Colony, along with his other smaller-scale stage works (including Orphée, performed at the Linbury five years ago) as “pocket operas”, requiring only a few performers and “sets you could put in a couple of suitcases”. In director Michael McCarthy’s production with Music Theatre Wales, the four nameless characters (Visitor, Officer, Soldier and Condemned Man – of which only the first two are singing roles) are shrunk to three with the removal of the Soldier role, an excision which in fact makes very little difference. Also on stage and visible throughout, positioned behind the dramatic arena, are the six musicians – string quintet and conductor Michael Rafferty. Simon Banham’s set, while not quite fitting in a suitcase, is spare in the extreme, consisting of table, chair and ladder, plus a few small props. This may be disappointing for those hoping to see a full physical recreation of the magnificent flaying machine, but the aim is (as I understand it) to provoke the audience to exercise their own imaginations and picture the horrors so vividly described by the Officer. In Joanne Akalaitis’s 2001 New York production, the emphasis on the fictional nature of the events portrayed was enhanced by the addition of Kafka himself (or rather, an actor playing Kafka) scribbling in notebooks and reading journal fragments; not having been present for that performance I cannot make a fully informed judgment on the idea, but am, on the whole, glad that this was not the case here. Perhaps surprisingly, the visible string players did not ground one in the reality of sitting in a theatre, watching the telling of a story, but rather had something of a Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps feel, musicians imprisoned in a concentration camp, playing to the end.

Omar Ebrahim brought a hysterical, flashing-eyed zeal to the role of the Officer, first lovingly describing his machine and his idolised Old Commander who created it, declaiming with missionary fervour its power to bring enlightenment to criminals and the community, desperately begging the Visitor to help save it (and him), and, on realising his era was ending, seeking his own redemption – unsuccessfully – by offering himself as the machine’s final victim. Ebrahim’s secure, full-throated baritone rang out powerfully, but he also produced a gentle, lyrical tone in both upper and lower registers during certain more contemplative moments. Particularly interesting was the way he and the strings shifted between more vigorously rhythmic and more romantically legato versions of the same melodic figures. The machine, of course, is horrible, and its creator sadistic, but for a while we see/hear them via the Officer’s loving eye.

Michael Bennett had perhaps the more difficult character in which to convince, the sociologist Visitor being a fine example of Kafkaian moral ambiguity: first bored and disdainful, perpetually uncomfortable, and while he eventually takes a stand against the execution of the Condemned Man (although approving that of the Officer), seems to do so more in distaste and embarrassment than ethical imperative. In the early scenes, there were distinct balance issues between Bennett and the gorgeously rich and full-toned lower strings, with him appearing and disappearing in the ‘mix’ while singing, but this acoustic problem did not persist (and I gather was not a problem at all from other parts of the auditorium). At the start he was also a somewhat uneven in tone, but this may have been a function of the dynamics, as his sound became fuller, smoother and with a particularly pleasing purity in the higher-lying passages. The opera does not contain arias in the traditional sense, but the moments in which the Visitor reflects by himself – with growing intensity of feeling – were very fine. I often find it difficult to make out singers’ words, so the fact that both Bennett and Ebrahim were so clear in their enunciation was a definite bonus.

The Condemned Man, a dumb presence throughout, was inhabited with unnerving intensity by Gerald Tyler. Like an abused dog, he cringed when struck, beamed with thankfulness at being given a scrap of food, gazed at the two men in hopeless desperation to understand, and, grotesquely, sometimes copied the Officer’s gestures in a pathetic attempt to please.

After so much abstract or indirect portrayal, it was quite a shock, when the Officer finally sets the (invisible) machine upon himself, to suddenly have very visible blood spraying and splashing on his back. Although the denouement is certainly shocking, and intentionally so, I found this sudden leap into realism rather jarring. Also, while I liked Sound Intermedia’s threatening industrial hum in the background, the explicit grinding and dripping noises seemed somewhat bolted-on. However, these are small points. Overall, the production was visually effective and musically interesting throughout. While I have difficulty seeing it winning over new fans to Philip Glass or contemporary chamber opera, those familiar with the genre should definitely take advantage of the rare opportunity to hear this work.

Music Theatre Wales’s production of In the Penal Colony will be touring until 17 November.

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

In E16, near one of the outer ends of the Docklands Light Railway, is Great Eastern Quay, and a disused office block, where you are given an appointment card for a vaccination programme, a murky-looking drink, a white mask to cover most of your face (which must be worn At All Times), and a brief health-and-safety spiel. You are then left to your own devices. Welcome to the new collaboration piece between the ENO and Punchdrunk!

From this point, any two accounts of the evening will diverge. More of an art installation incorporating elements of live music and action than a traditional performance, audience members walk at their own pace and in their own route around very dimly-lit multiple spaces spread over three floors of the building, encountering musicians, dancers, and actors at various points. Performers — recognisable by their lack of masks — are constantly on the move, appearing in different places for different scenes, with little or no indication of what might happen when or where. The basic elements of Webster’s 1614 play are present: the young widowed Duchess, her secret lover, her corrupt brothers and their spy/assassin; however, any sense of narrative is fractured and distorted both temporally and spatially, and — crucially — incomplete, as it is, effectively, impossible for an individual audience member to see and hear everything. Rather unfortunately, given that this article is written by an opera fan for an opera publication, this particular audience member’s choice of route did not lead to very many of the main operatic scenes, and I missed some singers entirely!

My ‘prologue’ consisted of a series of small rooms to walk through, prepared with an extreme level of detail as the offices, labs and store rooms of a 20th century research facility. Focusing on the theme of lycanthropy (from which the historical Duchess’s brother, Duke Ferdinand, is thought to have suffered), neat desks with annotated psychological research papers gave way to test tubes, blood samples and patient charts for experimental medical treatments, and a cell with bloodied, heavily-scratched walls. Combined with a pre-recorded electro-industrial soundscape (like the live music, by Torsten Rasch), the overall effect was an increasingly sinister mood of unease, and a highlighting of key themes of madness, disturbed identity and sexuality, and imprisonment.

I quite literally stumbled into my first main scene, having been grabbed from behind and then shoved out of the way by an incoming Ferdinand (counter-tenor Andrew Watts), followed by his lascivious gaggle of courtiers (which might have been more surprising and/or alarming had my last Punchdrunk experience not involved my being chased around by a madman with a chainsaw). The scene also involved the Duchess (contralto Claudia Huckle), her dictatorial older brother the Cardinal (bass-baritone Freddie Tong), spy Daniel de Bosola (baritone Richard Burkhard), and around 20 musicians playing highly chromatic and rhythmically complex music which, nevertheless, had more than a tinge of the Jacobean court about it. As with the majority of the performance, I found the words almost completely unintelligible, but the characters and relationships were nevertheless clearly introduced and defined through the physical and vocal acting of the leads. An unusual choice to make the Duchess and twin brother Ferdinand a contralto and counter-tenor, it was particularly effective when they sang together, and when Watts was pitched high and Huckle low.

On the first floor, I found a church scene with a conductor in the pulpit and singers and woodwind players in the pews, with plenty of room to wander around or sit amongst them – in my case, placing myself admiringly between the flute and oboe, where I could soak up their beautiful tones while taking the opportunity to take a good look at their scores. I did, admittedly, wonder whether the many empty places and music stands were intended to be empty, or whether some of the musicians had just got lost in the dark when moving between scenes. In another area, the Duchess and her lover made stylised acrobatic love, accompanied by a large string section playing Berg-like harmonies from music which appeared to be floating in space. One particularly effective aspect of the music was the way the live acoustic sections merged in and out of the pre-recorded electronic soundscape at the beginning and end of scenes; another was the incorporation of Huckle’s voice in the recordings, deep, deliberately breathy and slightly distorted, inhabiting the rooms of her castle even when she herself was absent.

In addition to the main scenes, various other themes of power, imprisonment, and bestiality were played out in small integrative dramatic or danced scenes of varying relation to the central story. In a wire forest on the second floor, a solitary clarinettist played to a growling wolf-man, he running on all fours around and through the crowd (and at one point unwisely attempting to bite the ankle of an audience member who promptly hit him with her handbag). Elsewhere, a psychiatric nurse battled to restrain and medicate her violent patients, at least one of whom also seemed to think she was a wolf. At one point, three of the wolf-people appeared from the trees, and set upon a stark naked Ferdinand, although I couldn’t see quite what they were doing to him, or whether he was supposed to be enjoying it or not.

Very little of what I had seen and heard up to this point could really be traditionally described as opera. However, for the finale, the audience members were herded from wherever they had ended up into a large area with a raised platform in the centre and the whole orchestra assembling at one end. This final scene was, at least, of those that I saw, by far the most effective dramatically and musically. This was partly because of the glorious Wagnerian textures emerging in the vocal and orchestral writing, partly because the length of the scene and the fact that one heard it from start to finish allowed time to absorb more of the musical qualities, and partly because of simply being close to the wonderful, rich, vibrant singing of Richard Burkhard and Claudia Huckle in the heart-wrenching ending, where she accepts her death with dignity and earns the assassin’s respect.

I can in all honestly say that during the evening I was never bored for a second, which is not necessarily always the case in conventional theatrical performances. However, unlike in the more structured route through Punchdrunk’s 2009 production It Felt Like A Kiss, the knowledge that somewhere in the building there was potentially-wonderful live music happening, but that one was missing out on it (albeit while watching a naked counter-tenor being pursued by wolves) made for a rather frustrating game of operatic hide-and-seek. If there were any tickets left, I’d definitely go back and have another go, though.

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

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