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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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.

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

A new Wagner opera – how exciting is that? Well, obviously it’s not new, but it’s one of the steadily diminishing group that I’ve neither played nor heard before (apart from the overture and the Holder Abendstern aria). Although a friend kindly lent me her CDs of it (virtuously legal, pleasingly retro, and an excuse to meet up in person for some boozes), I decided not to familiarise with the music in advance, but just read a brief synopsis to have some idea of what the thing was about, and let the music work its magic on ears clean of prior expectations. This was a good thing, I think, as when the overture started, my second thought (after ‘aah, what a great tune that is’) was ‘ooh, that’s a slow tempo to take it – but I like it’. One doesn’t always want one’s brain to be running comparisons, which can be a tendency for those of an analytic bent. It’s quite enough that I literally cannot hear orchestral music without a part of my brain monitoring what the flute section is doing, and my ears pricking up in particular at the sound of a piccolo (which in this case – unsurprisingly, it being Wagner – was not very often, but nevertheless very nicely played, Mr Rowson).

So, entirely sans comparisons, I enjoyed the musical side of the performance immensely. The tempi may or may not have continued on the slow side, but never lacked energy or intensity, with particular credit going to the cello section for warmth and roundness of tone, and the horn section for impressively accurate articulation in faster rhythmic sections; there was also excellent balance and synchronisation between pit and offstage groups. The singing was also generally of a very high standard. Johan Botha displayed a glorious ringing heldentenor, which almost made it plausible that both human women and goddesses might fall in love with him on the strength of his singing alone, despite his lack of any other charms whatsoever. Eva Maria Westbroek’s voice has grown still more in strength and richness of tone since I last heard her, and she sounded superb, if a little deranged even before she decides to spend every day lying in the mud until dying of Being Very Sad disease (or possibly hypothermia). The one voice on stage that really hit my resonant frequencies, however, was Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram – a wonderful sound every time he opened his mouth. Of the other voices, all were decent except one – the awful shepherd boy. What with it being a child, I won’t include his name, but unless this scene is an example of Wagner’s experimentation with microtonality (of which I was not aware), the tuning was way off, and not helped by an unpleasant whiny tone. It’s true, there’s very few boys’ voices I find pleasant, but they do exist – such as the kids in Turn of the Screw and Pelleas. And if a competent brat can’t be found, why not just use a small boyish-looking soprano in the Anna Grevelius mould?

Now, the production. Tannhäuser kicks off with a ballet set in the domain of Venus, the goddess of Sex and Pies. Rather than depict this through something obvious like an orgy, Venus’s nymphs change into a sensible sports kit of vest and little black shorts, to do a strenuous exercise routine involving a lot of running circuits, lifting chairs and jumping over the dinner table, although they do keep getting distracted and start jumping on their buff personal trainers instead. It’s probably a good alternative way (other than all the sex) to work off the calories from Venus’s divine pies. Tannhäuser apparently likes the pies a great deal, but less so the exercise regime, as he just sits and watches them at it. Obviously Venus (Michaela Schuster, not in sports kit, but looking elegant in a black sparkly evening gown – although not as sexy as Bryn Terfel did when he wore the same one in Faust) doesn’t want to lose her favourite singer, but off he stomps. The entrance/exit to the Venusberg (which could be translated as ‘mound of Venus’) is, appropriately, depicted by two large red velvet curtains, which open and close when she chooses to admit someone to enter her realm. They hang between a vajazzled gold arch, in a perfect replica of the proscenium arch and curtains just in front, making me now associate the ROH stage with a huge set of ladyparts.

So, the Real World is derelict and filthy, but everyone welcomes Tannhäuser back home and seems really pleased to see him, presumably because the town is all out of quality heldentenors (as it’s hardly going to be for his personality). In Act 2, Christianity seems to have taken a lead over Paganism, Venus is out of favour and her velvet curtains have been tipped (Sorry.) and are looking all old and raggedy on the floor, where everyone treads them underfoot – a metaphor for this culture’s attitude to sexual womanhood? The people decide to have a song competition to cheer everyone up (and to be fair to the Wartburgers’ gender politics, the young soprano is only required to present the prize to the winning man, whereas if they were Nuremburgers she’d be the prize). Unfortunately the menfolk all get over-aggressive about it and start fighting. Tannhäuser starts the trouble, but they way they react, you’d think he’d suggested pissing in their sparkling spring water rather than just having a drink from it. He is, though, at his most unpleasant, disdaining the community’s sincerely-held moral views and, essentially baiting them with  ‘I’ve done it with Venus, ner ner, you haven’t, so what do you know?’ Sadly the townsmen are equally intolerant of his more liberated attitude to human sexuality, and are not helped in their argument by appearing confused about various aspects of it: Is Venus an actual properly-existing rival goddess or is she a demon pretending to be one? Is the Venusberg equivalent to the Christian Hell? (It certainly doesn’t seem like it, what with the endless delightful sex with immortal nymphs.) Is this so-called Hell full of pleasures or full of horrors? (They describe it both ways.) This could be read in the context of the misogynistic patriarchal culture of the time and place: Women’s genitalia are a matter for disgust and no respectable person would have anything to do with the mound of Venus, let alone enjoy it; any free expression and enjoyment of sexuality among consenting adults is to be feared; and Hell is any domain where a powerful female is boss.

All that said, at the time, the music was really all that mattered, and Act 3 in particular was utterly exhilarating. I may not have found everyone convincing in their roles, wasn’t particularly taken with the visuals, and didn’t have a brilliant view of them anyway from the Upper Slips (although of course, the acoustic was perfect), but at the end I could have happily shut my eyes and listened to it all over again.

Two last points, coming from subsequent discussions with others about this opera:

1) It’s interesting that Venus has greater capacity for forgiveness than the Pope (and Popes forgive all sorts of unpleasant crimes, which I don’t think I need to go into here).

2) Wolfram sings the beautiful ode ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’. Abendstern = Evening Star, i.e., the planet Venus. Why is he singing about her?

Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

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

Unfortunately I left it a bit long to get around to writing about this, and most of the detail has vanished from my memory (which was the main reason I started writing reviews in the first place). Nevertheless, I try…

As with Maskarade last year, this was a case of first experience with the opera of a composer whose orchestral works I have loved for a long time. I was listening to Shostakovich’s symphonies long before I took any interest in opera, and in a way it’s quite odd that I hadn’t got around to exploring this work yet. I’m glad I did, as I enjoyed the performance very much, but musically it didn’t move me as much as many of his other works. The elements were there: long twisting melodic lines, big scrunchy discords, dark tonality (no, I’m not entirely sure this attempt at description makes any sense) and of course his fabulous woodwind writing – and yet, something not quite there. Perhaps it was the lack of structure – or rather, the more free-form structure of theatrical music as opposed to concert works?

Pappano did an excellent job with the orchestra; I’m never quite sure what to expect with him, as I’ve heard him direct some absolutely wonderful performances, but also some slightly ropey ones. This was a good one. The whole orchestra were on good form, although I have to note that the stand-out performance from the pit was, for me, the piccolo (now there’s a shock). Seriously though, it was so good at times that I forgot to listen to the singers.

The production was set at some point in the 20th century, which worked. I overheard someone from the audience talking about inconsistencies, but I didn’t notice at the time and have now forgotten what they were anyway. Katerina (Eva-Maria Westbroek) was rather sexy, despite being frumpy and sulky – at least, in Act 1. Full, dark-toned voice that I liked too, although maybe a little strident at the top? The tenors were perfectly decent, but the voices of neither John Daszak (a suitbaly useless Zinovy), Christopher Ventris ( a brutish Sergey) or Peter Bronder (a highly entertaining ‘Shabby Peasant’) made much of an impression. I was offered a cheap ticket for this and booked before looking at the cast list, and was not enthralled to see John Tomlinson down as Boris. I have tried on several occasions to enjoy his singing, as so many people seem to rate him, and particularly as I he seems to be in every other opera I want to see; unfortunately I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t like his voice or acting. Having said that, he did make a very convincing job of playing a disgusting old pervert whose bullying drives his daughter-in-law to murder him with rat poison.

I really didn’t expect there to be so much comedy in the show, although admittedly it was of the blackest variety. I remember there were moments when the audience laughed aloud – unfortunately because I didn’t write this straight away I now can’t remember what they were. (I think maybe the policemen were funny?) It wasn’t overly played for laughs though, and the scenes intended to be tragic, anguished or horrific were indeed so. Katerina and Sergey’s sex scene is always going to be ridiculous – with that music it could hardly be anything else – but this time was particularly daft as they decided to (romantically) shag up against a wardrobe, which proceeded to slide along the stage a bit with each bump.

When I was picking up my ticket and having a brief chat with the woman at the desk, she said “Watch out for the wallpaper”. This seemed an odd comment, but actually the wallpaper scene was brilliant. In the long prelude to Act 2 (I think), workmen come on stage to do up Katerina’s house for her, replacing her skinny little bed with a huge shiny pink one, her old lampshade with a sparkly chandelier, and, yes, getting up on a scaff and re-wallpapering the whole set, all in a few minutes. Wasn’t impressed with Katerina’s glamorous new look, though – voluminous satin dressing-gown thing and a bright yellow wig, neither with her wedding outfit in Act 3. She looked more attractive in Act 1 with her frumpy cardie, pigtail and funny blue stockings.

Act 3 was generally played for laughs, although not at all in a bad way, with a sardonic police chief and drunken peasants rolling around on the floor. Even Boris’s ghost was hammy. It did, however, provide an excellent contrast for the grimness and despair of Act 4, with a set consisting of two large trucks (used for transporting the prisoners) against an oppressive black background. Sonyetka (a brief but brilliant turn from Christine Rice) was really asking for it, and despite everything that had gone before (the murders, for example), to the end Katerina still commanded the audience’s pity, empathy, and even, to some extent, admiration.