Tag: Eva-Maria Westbroek

LES TROYENS dress rehearsal (ROH, 2012-06-22)

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*…

HORSEY HORSEY HORSEY HORSEY

MASSIVE KICKASS STEAMPUNK* HORSE. WITH FLAMES.

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

MASSIVE STEAMPUNK CYBERMAN. ALSO WITH FLAMES.

YEAH.

* 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.

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ANNA NICOLE student preview (ROH, 2011-02-12)

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

Recently there seems to have been even more discussion than usual in the media about the role of bloggers, journalists, reviews and previews. Thus, as clarification:

  • This was not a performance, but a dress rehearsal to which students were invited. I bought my own ticket for £10.
  • It was a separate occasion to the main dress rehearsal, to which ROH paying members were invited.
  • Judging by the effort the ROH went to in publicising this special student event by email, twitter, facebook, etc. one can only assume they want to create a buzz about the show, i.e. engagement with the performance and subsequent responses to and discussions of it are welcome.
  • This is not a review, it’s a personal aide-memoire which I’m sharing on my blog.

Initial reactions to the announcement of a new ROH-commissioned opera based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith often seemed to run along the lines of whether it was a fitting subject for opera or not. I found the arguments (for ‘not’) based on the luridness and amorality of her lifestyle and life choices rather odd, from an art form celebrating Carmen, Tosca, Salome, and Lulu. A better argument might come from the fact that many of the characters involved are still alive (although sadly not Anna or her son), and portrayed in a very unappealing light. I say ‘unappealing’ rather than ‘unflattering’ as, not being much of a sleb-watcher, I have no idea how accurately-presented the people and events are – although, for that matter, how much can the public ever know of the inward life and relationships of individuals? I assume, however, that everything’s been checked for sue-ability.

So, being barely aware of the real Anna Nicole’s existence, apart from a dim idea of some tarty blonde who’d married a doddery old rich guy (and even then, getting her confused with Lolo Ferrari), I was impressed by the character created by librettist Richard Thomas, director Richard Jones, and soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek. While being vain, ignorant, greedy, irresponsible, and half a page full of other dislikeable traits, Westbroek’s Anna was still, somehow, likeable; she brought across both huge self-belief and fragility to create a surprisingly complex and completely believable character – more so, perhaps, than the Duchess from Powder Her Face, with which the work has certain similarities of form. I’ve seen Westbroek twice (I think) before, recently as Elisabeth (Tannhauser) and previously in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and am of the opinion she just gets better and better as a singer, and is also a superb actor – especially given the range required for just the three roles I’ve seen her in. Also somewhat transformed from when I last saw him (as Gandhi in Satyagraha) was an unrecognisably geriatrified Alan Oke as J Howard Marshall II, descending to the stage in his chairlift, and later getting dolled up in gold shellsuit for party time. Being a rehearsal, it’s not appropriate to discuss all the individual voices, but I can’t miss an opportunity to mention Gerald Finley (Stern – Anna’s lawyer/lover and all-round slimy villain of the piece), from whose mouth Never Comes An Unlovely Sound.

It’s not unusual to see an opera production full of contemporary sets and costumes, or hear a libretto full of 20th/21st century cultural references (and Swear Words to snigger at); however, it did strike me that given how common it is to see updated Handel or Mozart characters in jeans, snorting coke and telling eachother to fuck off (extra obscenities interpolated into recapitulation sections), I had to remind myself now and then that this was not a trendy updating of anything, but a tale of people who wore jeans, snorted coke and told eachother to fuck off. When Anna is shown working in a fast food stall near the start, it actually means she fried chickens for a living, rather than, say,  a commentary on social underclasses through the ages; when she is shown going to a strip club, the pole-dancers aren’t jazzed-up Rheinmaidens, they are literally pole-dancers that she met; this literalism took some getting used to. Unfortunately, this also means that a rousing chorus of “boobies, titties, funbags, dingdongs” (or something along those lines) isn’t a bad translation of an old text but actually the words the librettist chose. To be fair, the libretto is witty in parts, appropriately idiomatic, and contains what are some very funny lines, when well-delivered. Those who saw Jerry Springer: The Opera will know the kind of thing to expect.

I don’t actually know any of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s music, although the name is familiar enough that I feel I really ought to. I read that he has eclectic musical tastes, including a particular fondness for jazz, and the genre-blending in this work was certainly done more smoothly and skilfully than many composers manage. I got something of a Sondheim vibe from it; although tbh I don’t know much of Sondheim’s oeuvre either, the varying of discordant rhythmic sections with periods of laid-back lyricism reminded me a few times, musically, of Sweeney Todd. The standard orchestra is bumped up with saxes, electrics, kit, and a generous visit to the percussion cupboard; none of these things appear intrusive or unexpected, in context. There are recurrent melodic motifs which add continuity, and even some tunes one might leave humming (not that I particularly require hummable tunes in a piece of music, but there are those who do).

One thing, I felt, was missing. Early info about Anna Nicole implied there would be a ‘blowjob aria’, and I was rather looking forward to doing the first musicological comparison of this particular microgenre (i.e., with the one in Powder Her Face), but it wasn’t what you’d call an aria at all. Marshall just emits a couple of (musical) groans, from where he is hidden behind a crowd of chorus, then Anna wanders out, wiping her mouth. Oh well.

All in all, the story succeeds to some extent in both tragic and comic aspects (and there are death scenes of both kinds), has pleasant and intelligent, if not boundary-pushing, music, delightfully gaudy and tasteless sets, and performers who throw themselves into their roles with gay abandon. It also makes its (one) point as a critique of the shallowness of celebrity culture: when one of the cast members, early on, wandered on in a black bodysuit with a camera on her head, I thought it was silly, but as the story continued, increasing numbers of individuals in the crowd scenes were replaced by anonymous black-camera-people, until at her death, they are all that is left – this proved an arresting and poignant image on which to end.