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.

Image of Trojan horse

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Rufus Norris’s new production for the ENO began with what looked like a gang of hooded teenagers in black, with matching T-shirts and sinister masks, messing around with a large coil of electrical wiring. Were they perhaps leftovers from last week’s Halloween revels? That would be contemporary indeed. The ‘hoodies’, when not whirling the blocks of scenery around, appeared to be under the command of Don Giovanni, although quite why Halloween Gang would be doing the bidding of a slobbish 1980s-styled Jonathan Ross lookalike was unclear – the uneradicated power of money, privilege and fame, perhaps. Leporello, in turn, appeared to have stepped out of a time capsule from the 1970s, the epitomy of Northern working class cliché, while Masetto was a 1950s teddy boy. Updated, then, but somewhat inconsistently so. That description could also cover Jeremy Sams’s new ‘translation’ of the libretto, which was, for the most part, strenuously updated to the late 20th century (e.g. Masetto being speared in the “arse” with a toasting fork he’d “nicked” from “bloody bastard” Don Giovanni’s “disco”), but now and then slipping back into the more traditional territory of “wooing” and “ruing”… [read more here]


Iain Paterson (Don Giovanni), Sarah Redgwick (Donna Elvira), Katherine Broderick (Donna Anna), Brindley Sherratt (Leporello), Robert Murray (Don Ottavio), Sarah Tynan (Zerlina), Matthew Best (Commendatore), John Molloy (Masetto)
English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Kirill Karabits (conductor)

Production team

Rufus Norris (director), Ian MacNeil (set designer), Nicky Gillibrand (costume designer), Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting designer), Finn Ross (projections designer), Jonathan Lunn (movement director), Jeremy Sams (translator)

My Proms visits this year – some formal reviews (links), some informal thoughts and observations.

PROM 2: Wagner (Die Meistersinger)

To tell the truth, I was unconvinced of the wisdom of spending 6+ hours in a hot tin can, listening to an unstaged concert performance of my least favourite* Wagner opera. However, it was really very enjoyable indeed. Yes, even Act 1, which has the potential to be deathly dull, but was in this case brightened immeasurably by Pogner, or rather by Brindley Sherratt’s special ability in making the most undramatic, static characters’ narratives implausibly gripping.

My other main reason attending this concert was, of course, to hear Bryn Terfel. I’ve enjoyed him in every opera I’ve heard him sing, but particularly in Wagner, and his Hans Sachs was really something special. In addition to some gorgeous singing, his inhabitation of the character brought out the humorous, mournful and contemplative aspects to perfection. Christopher Purves’s Beckmesser was also genuinely funny — a silly and pompous man but without the nastiness he is sometimes given.

The vocal (and physical) acting of the cast made this so much more than a standard declamatory concert performance, and in fact better to watch than at least one staged performance I’ve seen. Dare I say that I also found it helpful not to have surtitles? Knowing roughly what the characters are wittering on about but being spared the exact words left me free to give my full attention to the music; attention which it very much deserved.

(* Least favourite of the 8 I actually know – also including Ring, Tristan, Parsifal and Dutchman. Haven’t got to grips with Tannhäuser or Lohengrin yet.)

PROM 18: Dean, Mahler, Shostakovich

I found Brett Dean’s ‘Amphitheatre’ pleasant on the ear and atmospheric, but I have to say, I am having some trouble remembering any details about it afterwards. As for the selection from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, while Mahler’s music has been steadily growing on me since university, it’s a slow process, and I’ve made a lot more progress with the symphonies that I have with the songs. Some of them are quite definitely beautiful, but others are somewhat irritating, and those in between I find too short for me to really get a grip on. Nevertheless, Ekaterina Gubanova’s voice sounded gorgeous (right from the back of the circle), and she performed them with such charm and affinity for the music that it would have been impossible not to enjoy.

I have mixed feelings about the second half. Shostakovich 10 is one of my all-time favourites, and I know it very very well. On the positive side, I think this is such a wonderful symphony that it would have to be a poor performance indeed (which this obviously wasn’t) for me not to be moved; on the negative, I couldn’t help picking up various tiny errors that in most pieces I would probably miss. Also, as a result of having performed it a few times, I found myself unintentionally focusing even more attention than usual on the woodwind section, and in particular the piccolo. All clearly excellent players, the micro-section ensemble playing (e.g. the three flutes) was very good indeed, but the and gelling within and between the orchestral sections perhaps less so. In general, the faster, louder passages worked the best — for example, the frenzied second movement was stunning — whereas the sparser passages sometimes could have done with a little more nuance of colour and dynamic, in particular, daring to drop down to a real pianissimo (which only the clarinets really did).

In an aside note, this was a particularly bad concert for selfish, arrogant audience behaviour. There have been various debates in various forums on the old clapping-between-movements chestnut, and although I’m firmly on the side of showing appreciation at the end of a piece of music rather than in the middle of it, I can see why sometimes, after a brilliant cadenza or particularly exciting movement, applause might be spontaneous, and on rare occasions, even welcome. But how can anyone listen to the magical time-stopping piccolo solo that ends the first movement and hangs in the air, and then want to break up the brief pregnant silence before the second movement launches, by slapping their hands together? And if only the clapping was all… While I’m very much in favour of letting children experience orchestral music from an early age, for the sake of other audience members who have parted with their hard-earned cash to hear some music, it might be worth waiting until said child is capable of sitting quietly for more than five minutes at a time. And if Shostakovich had wished the quiet, contemplative moments of his symphony to include the chattering of some teenage girls, he probably would have written it into the score. Yes, I’m touchy about this. But I do think it’s both disrespectful to the musicians pouring their hearts out on stage, and selfish to assume that your conversation is important enough to be worth disturbing the listening experience of the people around you. Anyway, in this case the talkers were sitting right in front of me, so it was not difficult to lean over and politely request they keep their voices down during the music. And then tell them again, less politely. And then administer a quick kick to the seat when they started up yet again.

Rant over 🙂

PROM 21: Berlioz, Wagner

A bit of a mixture, this one. At some points it sounded sublime, at others, frankly, a bit ropey. Simon Rattle’s interpretation of the score and shaping of the music was superb, and there were a lot of lovely sounds coming from the OAE, particularly the warm, rounded    tone of the strings. However, Wagner’s woodwind writing can be tricky in terms of intonation, and unfortunately there were moments where this showed; in the brass, there was great enthusiasm, which sometimes incurred the sacrifice of accuracy. (These issues, interestingly, did not show up in the Berlioz at all.)

Of the singers, Franz-Josef Selig was a wonderful rich, dark King Mark, and the other highlight was Sarah Connolly’s Brangäne, with a particularly wonderful moment being her voice echoing down from the castle tower (i.e. Gallery). Violeta Urmana’s Isolde sometimes seemed underpowered — although I’m quite prepared to believe this was due to the vagaries of the Albert Hall acoustic — and unfortunately, Ben Heppner appeared to be in some vocal distress at the upper end of the vocal range; however, they both pulled out all the stops for So sturben wir, the heart of the act, to great emotional effect.

PROM 35: Ligeti, Tchaikovsky, Langgaard, Sibelius

“Countless thorns: silence. My silence: the beating of my heart … Night.” So began tonight’s concert, with Ligeti’s setting of Sándor Weöres’s poem Ejszaka (Night). Introspective in feel, and with every word of the text described in the harmony and texture, it set the scene for what at times was quite an other-wordly evening of music. While this short piece and its companion, Reggel (Morning) show the young Ligeti exploring tone clusters and harmonic layering, they provided opportunity for the double choir to display a variety of tone colours, dynamic changes and rhythmic vocal effects.

As Night segued smoothly into Morning, so did Ligeti into Tchaikovsky. With only the tiniest of pauses, Thomas Dausgaard directed his attention from choir to orchestra, Henning Kraggerud appeared as if from nowhere, and before anyone had had time to even think of coughing, shuffling or clapping their hands, the concerto had started. This was more musically effective than one might have expected, perhaps due to the Ligeti ending on the notes D and A, and the violin concerto being in D major… [read more here]

PROM 41: Scriabin, Stravinsky

I nearly didn’t go to this concert. And that would have been a mistake, because it was absolutely wonderful. However, at some point during the afternoon it occurred to me: LSO – Gergiev – Firebird – er, what were you thinking? So after my meeting I jumped on the tube, legged it down to South Ken, and totally prommed it like it was the 1980s. By that I mean, up in the Gallery (with a cooling breeze and loads of personal space), lying down on the floor with my eyes shut (because I have no need to look at another orchestra – I see orchestras all the time and they usually look much the same), alone (because when I was a teen I knew even less people who shared my taste for 20th century orchestral music than I do now), and even with some chocolate and a detective novel for the interval. Great stuff.

And brilliant music, yes. I didn’t know a note of the Scriabin, so think perhaps I won’t even try to go into any descriptive detail – I just allowed myself to be swept away by it. Firebird, though, I know well – it was probably the first piece that really turned me on to Stravinsky, but also it’s one of the orchestral flute parts* I’ve spent the most hours practising, as it is bloody difficult. (Well, it was difficult for me – daresay it’s a piece of cake for Gareth Davies!) Anyway, this was a well-nigh perfect performance of it: that so-important precision of rhythm and ensemble, coupled with equally-important fire, energy and fluidity. Also, while it can be impressive when sections blend smoothly (e.g. at last week’s DNSO concert), for this kind of music, each of the instruments must have its own character that stands out from the rest, and this was very much the case here – and throughout the orchestra from top to bottom, too. However, deserving special mention… some absolutely stunning oboe playing from  Emanuel Abbühl** (and I’ve heard a lot of very good oboing in my time) and gorgeous molten lava firebird-ing from Gareth Davies, particularly in their Pas de Deux (ok, technically Ivan and the Firebird’s P de D). Sparks flying from Sharon Williams on pic,  contrabassoons like a bad tempered lion waking up after a heavy night at the oasis***, and if I go on I’ll end up listing the whole orchestra. LSO are ace, and so is Gergiev, and so is Stravinsky. And all for £5! It’s times like these I love London.

* Suite (1945 version) in a 2008 Whitehall concert

** Couldn’t see a damn thing from where I was, so assuming all woodwind soloists were as indicated in programme. Please let me know if inaccurate.

*** From the LSO’s entertaining and informative blog

PROM 43: Pärt (St John Passion)

Arvo Pärt began work on his setting of the St John Passion in 1980, the point at which, frustrated by the demands of Soviet officialdom, he finally left his native Estonia and moved his family to Austria. His original and distinctive mature compositional style, known as tintinnabuli, however, was by this time well established, and of which this piece is a prime example. Pärt said “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.” Passio, of course, is not entirely monophonic, but the musical forces and their deployment are comparatively spare, with nothing extraneous.

Large portions of the text – those narrating the unfolding events – rested on the shoulders of the quartet of voices who together represented the Evangelist. Micaela Haslam (soprano) is familiar from her group Synergy Vocals (regular collaborators with Steve Reich), has an impeccable record in performing and directing the work of contemporary composers, and her performance of Pärt was as perfectly-judged an interpretation as one would expect from an expert in the field… [read more here]

PROM 46: Mosolov, Pärt, Ravel, Scriabin

This concert was a little different from the others in that I didn’t know any of the pieces well, and the composers are not favourites of mine, but all in the I-should-probably-listen-to-more-of-their-stuff-as-I-might-quite-like-it category.

If you want to get an audience’s attention right from the start, Mosolov’s The Foundry is a good way to go about it. Great fun. My companion’s comment was “This piece should be played at every concert – it’s brilliant.” Me, I’m wondering about hire costs, and if I can get it onto the programme for one of the orchestras I play with?

Pärt is definitely a composer I’ve been meaning for a long time to investigate further, but although I very much enjoyed his St John Passion on Tuesday night, his 4th Symphony left me a little cold, although it had some lovely passages, and it seemed most of the audience were in raptures. Will give it another go on iPlayer, but I expect I’ll like it better when it’s complete, and he’s added all the brass and woodwind parts. Or perhaps he wrote them, but the printer ran out of ink halfway, and they thought because it was the UK premiere, nobody would know any better.*

I expect Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is one of the pieces familiar to everyone but me. Frankly, half the notes in the fast passages could have been wrong and I wouldn’t have known (although I’m assuming they weren’t), but it was, again, a lot of fun, and performed with great energy and a fair dollop of showmanship by Bavouzet. From our East Choir seats we had an excellent view of his left hand flying up and down, which was very entertaining, although perhaps made me listen to the music in quite a different way than I would have with no view. Thinking about it, I probably even listen differently to musicians if I’m watching them from the front or back: sitting behind an orchestra makes me feel like I’m a part of it, and with a conductor face-on I watch him or her too closely, catching myself filling my lungs on upbeats, etc., so it’s not unreasonable to suppose different parts of the brain might be activated by the different views. I also noticed for the first time how intricate Salonen’s hand and finger movements are when conducting – interesting, but I don’t necessarily want to be observing and analysing in this way at concerts.

My only prior relationship with Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy was that I once had to sight-read the 1st flute part, and was concentrating too hard on the rather black pages to be thinking about whether I actually liked the work or not. Fortunately, it turns out I do like it. And despite my reservations about watching music being played rather than devoting myself entirely to the auditory experience,  it did also benefit from the visual spectacle of all the speed-blurred fingers and bows, a conductor practically dancing on the podium, and the will-they-won’t-they precarious wobbling of the giant tubular bells whenever the percussion chap gave them a wallop with the hammers (which was frequently and energetically). In fact, the Philharmonia percussion section were particularly impressive throughout the concert, with other stand-outs being the trumpet(s), horns, and cor anglais.

* I feel the need to point out that this is not meant seriously. In the interval, we were making tongue-in-cheek comments about members of the percussion section having an easy job, just hitting a big drum with a stick now and then while the string players had lots of different notes, and got a telling off from a nearby audience member who happened to be a percussionist, righteously indignant about any perceived dissing of his section.

image borrowed from www.independent.co.uk

image borrowed from http://www.independent.co.uk

So there I sat as the theatre filled up, in a decidedly unappreciative frame of mind thanks to a middle-ear infection – ibuprofen’d to the eyeballs, deaf on one side apart from a constant whistling noise, and distracting myself by trying to work out which elements were missing from the large periodic table which was printed on the stage scrim. And there 3 hours later, enthusiastically applauding performers, production team and composer for an evening which I enjoyed a great deal, despite myself.

The opera opens with two large sets of stacked cubicles, each one containing a chorus member, seat, bit of blackboard and a screen which could be pulled down over the front of the cubicle and have stuff projected onto it. This device was used many times throughout the production and was visually effective in conveying all the different ‘normal’ people each working on their own little bit of research for the Manhattan project, coming together only later as the bomb took shape. I do like the multimedia experience of using projection screens on stage, although in this case the images used were mostly monochrome and pretty literal – scientists’ ID cards, maps of Japan, rainstorms, etc. There wasn’t much to the rest of the set – a desk for Teller, a bed for Kitty Oppenheimer to languish on, and some scaffolding for the bomb tower – but one’s attention was all on the characters singing, anyway.

Adams was never my favourite minimalist, but I have always found his music listenable. I’m not familiar with most of his more recent work, so was interested to hear this one. It surprised me by the number of different styles that were mixed up together – rich Wagnerian textures here, jazzy Sondheim-esque stabbing rhythms there, along with passages of traditional minimalist bubbling woodwind accompaniments or Shaker Loops strings. Under a less experienced composer this mixture would probably have not held together, but in this case it did. The harmony was tonal but chromatic, sometimes straying far from a sense of home key. I found it best when the vocal lines were more lyrical and sustained (although often with spiky dissonant orchestral accompaniment), compared to the staccato fast-talking sections.

The libretto didn’t do an awful lot for me, but lyrics rarely do. The tension of the scientific and political context was quite dramatic enough by itself, but those who can’t bear a romance-free story will be glad to hear there was the ‘subplot’ of the Oppenheimers’ marriage, which actually did not feel shoehorned in at all.

Of the performers, Gerald Finley (Oppenheimer), Brindley Sherratt (Teller) stood out as excellent. Finley is becoming one of my favourite singers, and was a charisma machine in complete command of his role, showing a three-dimensional character conflicted about his success in developing a world-changing engine of destruction. ‘Batter my heart’ was probably the highlight of the evening. Sherratt, an old favourite of mine, sang his part very well, although he didn’t get as much to do as I would have liked. He injected Teller with a fantastic deadpan black humour.

I also particularly enjoyed Sasha Cooke’s Kitty Oppenheimer. Her voice was lovely, with a tone well-balanced between clarity and richness, and the flexibility to comfortably slur jumps of over an octave as if they were a semitone. ‘Am I in your light?’ was another highlight of the evening. Meredith Arwady (as Pasqualita, the Oppenheimer’s Tewa Indian maid, complete with buckskin outfit and pigtails) hit some amazing resonant low notes, but was less convincing when switching to higher-pitches passages – although this may well be the fault of the writing rather than her voice.

The orchestra sounded good, although not knowing the music I can’t comment on accuracy. The piccolo was featured quite a lot, and was played very well (Regular readers will know that I always notice what the piccolo is doing!), and other stand-outs were the principal horn, Eb clarinet and low brass. The sparing use of electronic sound blended well into the overall soundscape, and the only bit that jarred for me was the tacked-on recording at the end of a woman (presumably future bomb victim) speaking in Japanese.

As for once I’m writing this right at the start of the run, I can advise any waverers that Dr Atomic is definitely worth an evening of your time!

Image by C Barda, borrowed from www.musicomh.com

Image by C Barda, borrowed from http://www.musicomh.com

This was the second time I’ve seen Boris live, the last being when the Bolshoi were visiting London in 2006. I have some basic level of familiarity with the score(s), but don’t actually own a full recording yet. [Suggestions welcome!] The Bolshoi used the Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration, whereas the ENO chose the original Mussorgsky, so I was interested to compare. The ENO version was also an awful lot shorter – by about half! – which, I have to say, didn’t seem like a particularly brilliant idea to me. I like huge operas that take up half the day, but I also like them to have intervals, which this didn’t. I read somewhere that this current trend for no-interval performances is “to make it more like the experience of going to see a film”. If this is true, it is patronising as well as irritating. And apparently very confusing for members of the audience who did not already know the opera. My companion had no idea what was going on for a lot of the time (as, for example, there was no actual indication that the Dmitri everyone is talking about at the end is the same person as the Grigory from earlier), and because of the lack of interval, had to wait until the whole thing had finished before asking me about it! Admittedly I think he did doze off for a bit, which can’t have helped.

So, no Poland scene, for a start. I could never really see the point of shoehorning in a romantic subplot anyway, but it did have some nice music in. No stupid gnat song for the nurse, but we were still treated to the bartender’s stupid duck song. I don’t know the score well enough to say exactly what else was missing, but whatever it was, surely it would have been better to include than 10 minutes of nasty little brats tormenting a poor learning disabled bloke, while making an irritating noise with their squeaky little voices.

I realise I am sounding somewhat negative about this production. Take it within the context that going to the opera is a treat for me, and I almost always find it enjoyable overall, or can at least find many things to enjoy in any performance. The thing I enjoyed most about this performance was Brindley Sherratt’s Pimen. It’s such an unforgiving role! No action, not much in the way of acting (other than looking old and venerable), and great long rambling monologues to narrate while sitting at a desk. However, Sherratt made such a lovely sound that I could quite happily have sat and listened to Pimen rambling on for three times as long. I haven’t heard him sing for some time, and it made me very happy to do so again. One of the things I like about this opera (and Russian vocal music in general) is the preponderance of bass voices, and we also had Jonathan Veira as Varlaam and Peter Rose as Boris himself. Veira was capable and entertaining in the sort of drunk fat old lech role that John Tomlinson excels at. Rose, unfortunately, was very unsatisfactory IMO; his voice was pleasant enough, and I’m sure in other roles he might be very good; however, the Tsar should be a tragic, tormented, but still powerful character, and his scenes should be gripping. I mean, he gets to do Madness and Death, for goodness sake! Rose was none of these things, and Pimen’s history book was more gripping. Of the other roles, Gregory Turay (as Grigory/pretend Dmitri) was very good, and David Stephenson (Shuisky) and Robert Murray (simpleton, I mean, man with learning disability) both pleasant to hear. Anna Grevelius was charming in her tiny role as Boris’s younger, cross-dressing daughter whom (presumably because her dad is Tsar) everyone plays along with and pretends is a boy.

One other high point of the performance was the chorus, who made a fantastic sound. This, and the fact that their words were clearly audible, managed to distract from the fact that there was not much to look at, with them all in grubby grey, shuffling around in a wonky wooden box of a set. Yes, Covent Garden’s wonky box predilection has clearly spread to the Coliseum. It was pretty dull and drab, which I assume was the idea, but it would have been nice to see more of a difference in the royal palace scenes than just wonky wooden box With Chair. Some very nice atmospheric lighting effects on the large screen which was sometimes exposed at the back, though.

Throughout, the orchestra sounded great. Gardner directed them with great confidence and energy, and there was strong solo and ensemble playing. I could really do with listening to (and reading) the Mussorgsky and Rimsky versions to do a proper comparison, but I think the Mussorgsky has more character and spikiness, using less obvious aural textures and combinations. I certainly found the orchestra particularly enjoyable to listen to this time, which was not so much the case previously. Whoever would have thought it? A composer who knew how he wanted his own music to sound!

Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

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

The first thing I liked about this production was the elegant semi-abstract staging. I’m not a particular fan of minimalist staging, so I think maybe I’ve just seen too many cluttered and cramped stages recently. Anyway, there was an impression of airy space, with a large globe and spiral staircase the only objects on view. There was also the distinct impression that this was going to be an opera laying on the symbolism pretty thickly. Midsummer Marriage has been described as ‘a modern Magic Flute’, and there are certainly some obvious similarities, the obvious ones being the two young couples (one posh – at least, she is; one common), the powerful father figure attempting to control his daughter, the ancient pagan religious order, etc. along with the theme of passing through various trials and ordeals to return changed (hopefully for the better).

Amanda Roocroft and Will Hartmann were in good voice, although not entirely convincing in the lead roles of Jenifer and Mark; to be fair, this may have been more to do with the direction, or in fact the libretto itself, than their acting. It is probably quite difficult to show the sadness, conflict and yearning present in Jenifer at the start while wearing a wedding dress with a bright orange fleece hoodie over the top. The ‘working class’ couple, Bella and Jack, have more comedy-orientated scenes, and lighter music; however, to me they actually came over the stronger of the two pairs. Cora Burggraaf’s performance as Bella the secretary was to me the highlight of the performance. This was Burggraaf’s Covent Garden debut; hopefully the first of many, as her voice had flexibility and crystal clarity, floating over the orchestra in an apparently effortless manner. I was really not swept away by John Tomlinson’s performance as King Fisher, although he did make some pleasant sounds in the quieter passages. Elena Manistina was a commanding Sosostris, giving a real feeling of unearthliness in her long soliloquy. This role is sometimes listed as mezzo, sometimes contralto, but certainly requires a great deal of strength and sonority in the lower register; this Manistina definitely has, on occasions sounding quite baritonal (although with a bit too heavy vibrato for my taste.) In the smaller roles, I was very pleased to see Brindley Sherratt turn up as the He-Ancient, having heard him last month in Maskarade, and he was well supported by Diana Montague as the She-Ancient. They managed to bring a feeling of dignity and a certain ‘spiritual depth’ to the stage merely by appearing – and this despite the fact that they were stepping out of a rotating globe, accompanied by the entire office staff of the Ministry of Funny Walks.

Ah yes, the dancers. And the famous Dances of the Ancients, which take up the majority of the second act. I have to admit first that I’m not a massive fan of big dance sections in the middle of operas (if that hasn’t become clear from previous reviews). In this case, the music was strong enough to carry it off, but I’m afraid I found the actual dances that were going on really quite offputting. I am told that the Ancients were originally supposed to be naked, but as with Salome, this appears to be another perverse example of having lots of naked or semi-naked people on stage when the story doesn’t require it, yet to keep them well covered when it does. So, we were presented with the Ancients in black suits and vaguely bowler-style hats, all doing their funny walk on and then treating us to a kind of flamenco-morris crossover, with piggybacks, falling over, and the men pretending to hang themselves with their ties. Hum. Lovely woodwind melodies or no, this was a section of the opera that could have done with some trimming, particularly with the opera running at near to 4 hours. While on the subject of editing, another section that should probably have been trimmed was Bella’s narration of putting her make-up on. However, in this case I can forgive it (even with its unpleasant caricaturing of women) because Burggraaf’s lovely voice.

The orchestra played very well, with precision and balance, with the woodwind sounding excellent, particularly in the solo passages which Tippett scored so masterfully. I disagreed with my companion on the topic of the chorus. He thought there were far too many of them, unnecessarily squeezed into all spare corners of the stage; although I can see his point, I really liked the power and sheer knock-you-back-in-your-seat quality of a huge chorus. However, we were both agreed that when they all got a bit lustful and started undressing eachother and canoodling, it was just a bit embarrassing. There was the distinct impression that the men felt uncomfortable standing at the front of the stage undoing their shirts, and the women didn’t really want to stroke their exposed tummies.

I tend to avoid reading reviews of things before going to see them. I am unlikely to be swayed into going to see something (or not) on the recommendation of someone I don’t know, and I also like surprises. However, getting offered massively discounted tickets for a show is something of an indication that it’s not selling too well. This can partly be put down simply to it being ‘modern’, but not completely. I actually enjoyed it very much, overall, but I can also see why it might irritate some people. In fact, a fairly succinct opinion poll can be derived from the audience on the night I was there: a considerable number didn’t return after the intervals; however, the applause at the end from those who remained (including ourselves) was pretty ecstatic.