Pic by © Clive Barda, reproduced from programme

Pic by © Clive Barda, borrowed from programme

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

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

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

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

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

Gloriana plot spoilers ahoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worksheet, ugh

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


Time 7.30pm, Saturday 19-Feb-11

Place St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London W1J 9LL

The Sea
A series of evocative and contrasting pieces all inspired by the sea. From the swirling sounds of Ravel to the poignant poetry set to music by Elgar and the powerful sea interludes from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. Combined with evocative sea-themed readings.

Mendelssohn Overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op.27
Elgar Sea Pictures -song cycle for contralto and orchestra, Op.37
Ravel Miroirs: Une barque sur l’océan
Britten Peter Grimes, Op.33: Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia

Lilly Papaioannou, Mezzo-soprano
Peter Fender, Conductor
Philharmonia Britannica

Whitehall Orchestra summer concert

Copland: Appalachian Spring
Britten: Violin Concerto (with Nathaniel Vallois)
Dvorak: Symphony No. 6

7:30pm, Thu 1 July at St Gabriel’s, Pimlico

Pimlico or Victoria tubes

Further info:

Copland: Appalachian Spring
Britten: Violin Concerto (with Nathaniel Vallois)
Dvorak: Symphony No. 6

Pimlico or Victoria tubes

Further info:

Image by C Barda, borrowed from www.musicalpointers.co.uk

Image by C Barda, borrowed from http://www.musicalpointers.co.uk

It would seem reasonable to expect a company called the English National Opera to be particularly good when it comes to English opera, and fortunate that this seems to be the case. Musically, this production of Peter Grimes was excellent, pretty much without a weak link. The company, both principals and chorus, were not only in fine voice, but gelled to an unusual degree, and really gave the impression of a tightly-knit community supportive of those who embraced convention and punishing to those who challenged it. However, perhaps it was my close view from the front of the dress circle, but many of those on stage seemed to me to be overacting to the point of pantomime (again). For example, I have no problem with Ned Keene (Leigh Melrose) being portrayed as a nasty, lecherous sleazebag, but did he really need to spend so much time gyrating his hips and groping his own groin area (or other people’s)?

Gerald Finley also spent the entire performance with one hand down his trousers, but this was for an entirely different reason; because the character of Captain Balstrode apparently has only one arm, whereas Mr Finley is blessed with two. As has been the case on most occasions I have seen him perform, he sang beautifully, acted compellingly, looked handsome, and didn’t get to sing half as much as I would have liked him to.

I was very impressed by Stuart Skelton in the title role. He created a truly complex character from Grimes, conflicted and disturbed, neither wholly innocent nor guilty, well-meaning in intention but brutish in action. He was able to make the audience feel his frustration at needing help with his work, but having acquired an apprentice who refused to work, speak, or even put on wellies. (Of course, this is not particularly surprising behaviour in a traumatised orphan child, and most certainly does not deseve beating, but the fact that we can sympathise at all with Grimes does Skelton credit.) His singing was highly expressive, using a great variety of tone colours and dynamics, which were particularly effective towards the top of the tessitura. Amanda Roocroft was also in fine form as Ellen, throwing herself into another troubled ‘heroine’, with a few moments of shriekiness at the top, but otherwise singing with clarity and control. For some reason, I did not find the blend of their two voices worked well at all, but this was not a big issue, as Peter and Ellen do not actually sing together that much.

The overall look of the production was drab, plain and grey-toned, with a very attractive luminescent (but still mostly grey) clouded skyscape as backdrop. The cast were mostly also drably dressed, although some of them did put on mildly ridiculous fancy dress for the party in Act 3. They were generally menacing, full of repressed violence and herd mentality, occasionally all brandishing bibles or Union flags in a kind of fascistic salute. However, there were other exceptions to the ‘herd’ other than Peter and Ellen. ‘Auntie’ (Rebecca de Pont Davies) was a natty sharp-suited transvestite, for example. Her nieces (Gillian Ramm and Mairead Buicke) were simply weird; mostly sporting school uniforms, they jerked and flopped around the stage like a pair of zombie Lolitas, playing hopscotch, putting on a dead-eyed faux-lesbian show, or doing strage synchronised robotic dance moves. They made a pleasant noise when singing, but when not singing I wished they’d just piss off. Of the other roles, I liked Matthew Best’s ringing bass voice (as Swallow), and Felicity Palmer’s take on Mrs Sedley – as a bitter and vitriolic, drugged-up Miss Marple.

When it came to curtain calls, there was, rightly, enthusiastic applause for all performers, but the loudest, and I believe rightly, was reserved for the orchestra and Edward Gardner. With the extended instrumental passages provided by Britten, they really had a chance to show what they could do, and it was superb. At the risk of descending into pretentious cliche, I could practically smell the salt spray, and at the first stirrings of the storm it felt like the ambient temperature dropped by a few degrees. Naturally I take special notice of the flute section, and Britten was a gifted composer for the flute. Jaime Martin on principal was particularly brilliant , varying his tone from liquid silk to serrated steel, with Alan Baker spiky or gossamer on piccolo. I was also particularly impressed with the viola section and the upper brass, but in truth all sections, without exception, were excellent. I hope the ENO do more Britten soon; I’ll go and hear them play it.

For some years I had thought that I didn’t like Britten. However, I did realise that, to be fair, I hadn’t either heard or performed very much of his music, and that perhaps if I heard more, or spent some time studying or immersing myself in it, I might learn to better appreciate it. Well, I did and I have. Last month I was performing in an (amateur) production of two of Britten’s Church Parables; the music is difficult both technically and as an ensemble, so I had to spend quite a lot of time both practicing my part and listening to a recording to see how the parts all fitted together. Throughout this period, the music really grew on me and I came to love it.

The only whole Britten opera I had heard prior to this, Death in Venice, I found pleasant enough, musically, but it didn’t really grab me. Neither did the short excerpts that I had heard from Peter Grimes and Billy Budd (although, as a rule, I tend to dislike short excerpts of things anyway). This performance of The Turn of the Screw was entirely different, though. I don’t know how much of this to attribute to having performed some Britten works which were not dissimilar in style, to the fact that I just liked the compositional style of this work better than the later Death in Venice, or to the fact that it was a particularly good production. Not that it matters…

Anyway, having rambled blog-style for a minute or so, I’ll actually describe the performance. The set was quite simple in style, but atmospheric and elegant. There was a dark wooden floor strewn with dead leaves at the front, and tall translucent screens which slid in and out for scene changes, which consisted of the rearrangement of some changing items of dark Victorian-style furniture (iron bedsteads, chairs, desks, piano, paraffin lamps, etc.). This worked well for all indoor scenes, and for outdoors, a glassy black lake was visible at the back. All members of the cast were dressed in dour black and white, looking superficially quite uniform, but very different in attitude and movement. The real people were full of nervous energy, bursting onto stage and often running off, while lighting and the screens were used very effectively to help the ghosts appear first as silhouettes, then gliding in and out from the shadows, becoming more corporeal as the story progressed.

Britten’s use of chamber orchestra is particularly effective. Despite so few players in such a large venue, the sound was powerful, even the many times when only one or two instruments were playing. Some of the most lovely music, in fact, is the set of instrumental variational interludes that separate the acted scenes. The writing for woodwind and for percussion is particularly inspired, and although all musicians were excellent (members of the ENO orchestra under Garry Walker), William Lockhart (timpani / percussion), Andrew Caulthery (oboe / cor anglais), and Jaime Martin (flute / piccolo / alto flute) deserve special mention. Martin was quite capable of filling the theatre with sound all by himself in the many solo flute passages, employed a wide palette of tone colours and note attacks on all three instruments, and made very effective use of varied vibrato, on occasions cutting down it down to a completely cold sound.

Both singing and acting were uniformly excellent. Timothy Robinson delivered the opening prologue as well as playing Peter Quint, and did so with a warm, flexible, seemingly-effortless sound. Although his character was the most straightforwardly malevolent, the part allowed him the scope to sound sometimes vitriolic, other times sinuously seductive. Cheryl Barker (Miss Jessel) I have heard several times at the ENO; this was a smaller role, but one requiring great judgment to bring off with the right mixture of pathos and vindictiveness. The others I do not think I have heard before, but hope to in the future. Rebecca Evans was a completely gripping Governess, with a pure, clear voice with floating high notes, and managing to make sense of a conflicted character, particularly in her confused reactions to some of the boy Miles’ unnervingly adult behaviour. Ann Murray, as Mrs Grose, was in some ways the central pillar of the piece, doing her best to remain steady and hold the household together, despite her feelings of guilt about past inaction and impotence. Murray and Evans sounded particularly good when singing together.

Although the history of abuse that Miles and Flora have suffered is barely mentioned explicitly in the text, it is made clear through their uneasy relationships with the adults and to some extent, with eachother. I do not remember the last time I had a good word to say about children on stage – in general they are irritating and distracting to see and unpleasant to hear – but Jacob Moriarty was excellent as Miles, unnerving from the start but truly chilling as Quint starts to control him, and his manner towards the Governess changes. I don’t know how old Nazan Murray is, but she was certainly able to hold her own as Flora, with a strong and accurate, yet still convincingly child-like tone. Flora is a particularly interesting character, with her inner conflict of fearing the Jessel spirit, yet being so desperate for some attention (which she missing, while the other adults all dote on Miles) that she almost welcomes her advances. Being confronted with these thoughts is shocking disturbing for the audience, as it should be. The slowly-revealed horror and mounting tension were very effective; however, I can’t help thinking that it should be performed as a one-acter. It seemed inappropriate, halfway through the story, to have the lights go on, clap clap clap, jolly good aren’t they, off to the bar for a nice glass of wine. On the other hand, perhaps the work would be too tense without the break?