Tag: opera

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*…



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.

EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH (Barbican Theatre, 2012-05-04)

Photo of Antoine Silverman as Einstein
Image © Lucie Jansch, from http://www.barbican.org.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RUSALKA (ROH, 2012-03-06)

Pic of Rusalka and Vodnik
Image © Clive Barda, borrowed from http://www.opera-britannia.com

Despite being into opera for some years now, and Dvořák for much longer, to my knowledge I’ve never heard a note of Rusalka before. Quite how this is the case I’m not sure, but I thought that since I wasn’t on formal reviewing duties, it would be a good opportunity to go to an opera completely cold – no listening to recordings beforehand for comparison, no reading of other people’s reviews of this or past productions, no composition history; I didn’t even read a synopsis. I will be doing all of these things, but not until I’ve finished writing. That would be cheating.

Within minutes, if not seconds, of the overture starting, it was clear that this would be a piece of music I would love. Not exactly surprising: I love the vast majority of the Dvořák that I’ve heard and/or played, the only exceptions that I can think of being his Slavonic Dances (I’m lukewarm about orchestral folk dances in general) and the Serenade for Winds (my 1st-year roommate used the piece to teach herself conducting, namely by putting it on the stereo over and over again while waving her arms and smirking at herself in the mirror). The ROH orchestra promised to be on stunning form under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, whom I remember liking very much at the 2009 Proms.

And on stage? A pleasant-looking wood-panelled sauna (although without any steam). The original fairy tale may have featured water- and wood-nymphs in a river, but I can happily go with bath-house-nymphs instead. Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte had the opening number, singing prettily and comporting themselves indecently (i.e., appropriately) as the RheinVltavamaidens to tease Alan Held’s AlberichVodnik. Throughout the evening, it was Held’s singing that I enjoyed the most, having rich tone matched with delicate musical sensitivity, and by some way the most convincing emotional expression – and all this despite spending most of his time lolling around on the floor, sporting a pair of flippers (and particularly skanky hair). Rusalka herself (Camilla Nylund) was similarly afflicted with ridiculousness, being required to flop around the stage with her legs tied together in a blue bag, for all the world like a 5-year old child going “Look at MEEEEEEEE – I’m the Little MERMAAAAAAIIIID!” while executing pretend-swimming motions. Her solo numbers were pleasant on the ear, although the eye was distracted by the three nymphs variously attempting to jam themselves under the coffee table, wedge themselves head-first between the sofa cushions, and generally twat around in the background. There was some video projection going on, but apart from having a huge white jellyfish representing the moon – which I liked – the effects really were light years behind what the ENO would have done with it.

So, Rusalka leaves her family to persuade Ježibaba the witch (whom I believe also runs the supernatural bath-house in Spirited Away?) to turn her human, so she can pursue some bloke she’s clapped eyes on and fancies (or, in a more Freudian vein, the bloke who’s recently been diving naked into her river and penetrating her watery depths). While proactive, this seems less of a good idea when it appears that to become human she must first be struck mute, and then threatened with eternal damnation if catching him doesn’t all go to plan. [Spoiler: it doesn’t all go to plan.] Apparently during the transformation scene, Ježibaba’s pantomime cat assaults Rusalka, but like many of us with seats on the right hand side of the amphi I couldn’t see it. While I don’t feel I’ve missed out on this occasion – tending, as I do, to fail to see the comedic side of rape – I do think it is a particularly shitty thing for directors to place key scenes (first kisses, death scenes, Big Arias, supernatural transformations, etc.) where they know a fair proportion of the audience won’t be able to see them.  Unlike newspaper journalists would have you believe, opera does not have to be an expensive hobby, and the ROH is very good for having a number of seats in the £10-£20 range. From those, I expect to have part of the stage cut off in return for the budget price, but to choose to stage scenes so that many people in the amphi have no idea what everyone else is laughing at (or otherwise responding to) is a bit of a Fuck You.

Anyway, the Prince (Bryan Hymel) is out hunting in the forest, because tenors do love their hunting. Rusalka teeters in, having decided on trackie bottoms to encase her brand new legs, and stilettos for her brand new feet, simpering blondely in a rather good imitation of Katherine Jenkins – although, of course, La Jenkins wouldn’t be seen dead in anything so figure-unhugging. This made me pause for thought: Might Rusalka be the perfect role for Jenkins’ long-hinted opera debut? One not particularly technically challenging aria, and then hanging around looking pretty without making a sound for the rest of the show? (Of course, at that point I didn’t know that Rusalka gets her voice back later on.) Anyway, she seems to be exactly what the Prince likes, and he sweeps her off to his house and plans to marry her, before being distracted from this purpose by imperious luxury-cast Wagnerian Princess Petra Lang. Maybe, after all, he likes a woman he can have a conversation with, and who doesn’t randomly start rolling around on the floor at parties?

Now, a lot of the singing during all this was probably very fine indeed, but there’s a problem. Or rather, not a problem for me, but a problem some readers may have with my reporting. To them, the human voice is the pinnacle of all music, and is always the Most Important Thing happening musically at any given time, with everything else just a backing track. I appreciate music made by (some) human voices very much indeed, but I don’t appreciate it to a greater degree than I do music made by instruments. And Dvořák uses orchestral instruments so very beautifully, both soloistically and blended from a complex palette of colours and textures that you could almost sink your teeth into. Sure, the vocal lines were great, but so were, say, the interlocking clarinet and bassoon lines going on at the same time; a character may have been emoting away on stage, but even more so was the cello section in the pit; the individual singers were all deserving of their applause, but this is a strange world where the brilliant flute and cor anglais soloists don’t get their own clap. (I suppose this is partly what blogging is for. In case you’re reading, ROH woodwind section: you were superb and inspirational. Although I won’t say I didn’t miss Philip Rowson’s piccolo.) Essentially, a lot of the time, without intending to criticise the singers, there was more interesting stuff going on underneath.

Back to the story. Rusalka gives up and goes home in disgrace, gets her voice back, but unexpectedly it is now the voice of Celine Byrne (thanks to Nylund suffering an allergic reaction – presumably not to the cat). The bath-house of the spirits seems to have gone down-market, with the Vltavamaidens now prostitutes (well, either that or they were off to a Camden nightclub after the show, and had got changed early). Ježibaba offers Rusalka a get-out from her curse if she kills Prince to death with a big stabby knife, but she stabs herself instead. Vodnik is very sad. The Vltavamaidens aren’t, and prance around near the corpse, anointing themselves liberally with a can of Impulse. Ježibaba sexually harasses Kitchen Boy/Girl Ilse Eerens (I also have a soft spot for crop-haired androgynous redheads – blame Annie Lennox). Meanwhile, everyone in the audience wonders how you train a cat (a real live one this time) to come and go when you want it to. I start to ponder if any of these people (Mr Held aside) could actually engage me emotionally, perhaps in a different production. And then, to my surprise, they do. Byrne and Hymel pull it out of the hat and completely grab me with their final scene. The fact that they are presented as blood-dribbling semi-corpses notwithstanding, they grip me completely and finally make me care about their doomed love. Beautiful. Then she tips his death-rattling ass down the prompt hatch.

DON GIOVANNI (ROH, 2012-01-21)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A DOG’S HEART (ENO/Complicite, 2010-11-20)

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

One of the ENO’s great strengths is its willingness to experiment with new works, and another is its collaborations, both with other opera companies and other artistic disciplines. A Dog’s Heart fits into all these categories, being the UK premiere of a new work, the production involving collaborations with De Nederlandse Opera, theatre company Complicite and puppeteers Blind Summit ; an exciting prospect, indeed.

Director Simon McBurney described himself as having no konzept for his first foray into opera, but worked on it “by listening to the music and reading the story over and over again”, which proved an excellent decision, in this case. The story is Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 surreal satire of the Soviet regime, banned until 1987, and, nearly a century later, startlingly relevant, containing as it does themes of class distrust, media distortions, bureaucratic officiousness, and vanity-fuelled experimental surgery. It is also quite ridiculous, centring on a stray dog who, when his testicles are replaced with those of a human, becomes human in various other ways (such as growing a human face, walking upright, and developing a taste for vodka, tobacco, the works of Engels, and balalaika music). Transformed into operatic form, the tale thus deserves inclusion in the fine tradition of Russian absurdist satirical opera, alongside Shostakovich’s The Nose and Schnittke’s Life with an Idiot.

Although a well-established composer in other forms (though not yet very well-known in the UK, apart, perhaps, from some of his chamber music), A Dog’s Heart is Alexander Raskatov’s first full opera. As a woodwind geek, I confess my eyes lit up before a note had even been played, on spying in the pit an expanded section including alto flute, contrabassoon, saxophones, and that rare beast, the contrabass clarinet. Throughout the work, Raskatov makes great use of extremes of register, contrasting the growling contras with piccolos and violin harmonics, and also makes wonderful use of the full diversity of timbres available. The tonal palette is also varied, sometimes atonal, sometimes polytonal, and now and then dipping very effectively into traditional harmony with fragments of Russian folk song, Soviet march, or Orthodox church music (with hints of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and even Mussorgsky). However, I nevertheless found the music quite difficult to engage with. This had nothing to do with the dissonance, but with the long periods of very irregular, spikily strident rhythms and pointillist note patterns; despite, or perhaps because of, the pinpoint-accurate bite of Garry Walker’s orchestra, it made everything seem unnecessarily agitated and over-dramatic, which was fine for scenes such as the bloody operations, but less so for accompanying a convivial glass of vodka between friends. It may well have been Raskatov’s aim to suggest the unease and agitation constantly present just outside the walls of Professor Preobrazhensky’s comfortable flat, but a constant high state of tension cannot be sustained indefinitely; it loses its power. I found myself longing for a change: some legato, longer melodic lines given to an instrument, or even some longer-sustained notes. This wish was answered immediately in Act 2, particularly in the lovely but brief duets between the Professor and devoted assistant Bormenthal (baritones Steven Page and Leigh Melrose), and I enjoyed the music of the second half significantly more than the first. However, I ended the opera with my fingers literally stuck in my ears, due to the unbearable volume of sound generated by giving an opera chorus megaphones!

With nothing resembling traditional arias, the majority of the singers were restricted to natural speech-patterned recitative – essentially, pitched conversation – which, while allowing them to demonstrate technical dexterity in navigating Raskatov’s gymnastic leaps, left little opportunity for expressiveness of phrasing or even, really, much of their tone quality to come through. The women in particular suffered in this way, with, for example, Elena Vassilieva producing a clever amalgam of speech and canine growling (as pre-op dog Sharik’s ‘unpleasant voice’),  Sophie Desmars’s role (as dog-man Sharikov’s short-lived fiancée) consisting of a series of (very well-executed) skittering squeaks, and Nancy Allen Lundy (as hysterical maid Zina) leaping around both vocally and physically – hammy mugging which many of the audience seemed to find hilarious, but which I found as irritating as trying to listen to a symphony with a hyperactive toddler running in and out shrieking for attention. Countertenor Andrew Watts (last seen being savaged by werewolves in The Duchess of Malfi) appeared here as, variously, man, woman and dog – as Sharik’s ‘pleasant voice’ providing rare moments of expressively eloquent longing (usually directed to a sausage).

While the various humans have supporting roles, the dog/man Sharik(ov) succeeds in being the most convincing and fully-realised character, in all his forms. Thanks to outstanding design (inspired by a Giacometti sculpture – see the original here) and deft puppetry skills, a half-formed skeleton dog is perfectly brought to life, and when reborn in the form of a gleefully repellent Peter Hoare, yaps, whines, scratches, swears, and makes a virtuoso performance of behaving in exactly the way one might imagine a dog in human form to do.

Complicite are particularly admired for the visual aspects of their productions, and, my reservations about the score aside, for this reason alone I would recommend this show to anyone who enjoyed their recent A Disappearing Number, or who has an appreciation for innovative staging. I myself particularly enjoy the recent trend for multimodal mixing of text with set (as in Satyagraha) and the incorporation of pre-recorded or live video projection effects (as in Le Grand Macabre), and all of these were imaginatively and wittily used throughout, to create a succession of incredibly striking images interacting in real time with the characters’ actions. There are too many of these to list, and in any case, I am disinclined to give out ‘spoilers’ which might lessen the effect – the gasps of surprised delight and smatterings of spontaneous applause were too clearly in evidence.

During A Dog’s Heart I was variously amused, appalled, irritated, touched with joy and sadness, and eventually left the theatre pondering the nature and meaning of humanity. And if that is not the mark of a successful piece of theatre, what is?

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

DON GIOVANNI (ENO, 2010-11-06)

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)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI (ENO/Punchdrunk, 2010-07-13)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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