Lack of ambition never saved anyone in trouble

3 Mar

ENO CPThe rigmarole about English National Opera’s finances continues. The board seems to be incapable to bring anything of value to the table since their only solution to the brutal fiscal realities is to scale down ambition and erode standards of performance.

The stories of the folding of New York City Opera and the current slow death of Scottish Opera teach us one main lesson. If you scale back activity you become so irrelevant that nobody cares if you survive or not.

ENO needs people in charge that have imagination for programming and a flair for fundraising. Yesterday’s update from Cressida Pollock the CEO of the company. In response to the current troubles and the all out assault her management has received in the press and social media was like a speech by Margaret Thatcher when she was selling off the family silver in the 80s. She presents her position as if the whim of the gormless Arts Council England is the word of God and must be adhered to. This slavish reliance to ACE is part of the historic issues they have to deal with.

How about ENO grows a pair and instead of trying to whore itself to a cretinous ACE they do all they can to prove them wrong. The only way out of trouble is to remind everyone what a vital service the company offers when at its best and to properly fight for survival. But reading between the lines of Pollock’s carefully worded statement she doesn’t believe in her own product very much. Her tone verging on the utterly defeated and going through the motions.

They could try to perform more alongside with cutting production costs with reviving many classic productions that haven’t been staged since John Berry took over. But the implication is that the Board don’t believe that they will take enough at the box office to make it worth a try. And of course with that lack of faith in their own product they will find it much more difficult to attract funding from benefactors as they wouldn’t want to be associated with a sinking ship.

Instead they ruin their permanent Chorus by making their jobs essentially freelance. If they want to call themselves a national opera company they should shout out loud and clear why they are different and worth surviving. Not just retreat into a cave and await slow death. Nobody in the arts is having a great time right now but we all start from one basic tenet we believe in our product and advocate with the loudest voice why the arts are important to the UK. Being visible in that live discourse is important and opera companies seem all too happy to live in their parochial bubble. Be part of the wider conversation on the vital contribution ENO makes or can make to British life not just cling to the purse strings of ACE. The breast feeding phase has passed it’s time to start walking.

Let’s all support the Chorus of ENO in their struggle against this myopic management and hope there is a way out of the current mess. We do need this ensemble to survive and to offer hours of joy to anyone willing to listen.

Fat gate mark 2

10 Feb

Being a performer is tough. You are exposed to criticism at every turn and it is expected. But it was horrendous that the Evening Standard would go on to body shame Allan Clayton less than two years since the uproar at Glyndebourne. Whilst it is fine to criticise all aspects of a live performance in a professional manner to make disparaging remarks on the bodily appearance of the performers most certainly isn’t.

Barry Millington wrote in his review of the Magic Flute last night 

Not least that of Tamino, sung by Allan Clayton, who is vocally in excellent trim but needs to spend more time at the gym if he is to be stripped regularly to his boxers.

It had never occurred to me that Tamino was meant to be a male model type and it seems absurd why bad looking critics in their 60s obsess what an extraordinarily talented singer like Allan Clayton looks like in his pants on stage.

As long as a singer’s physical state doesn’t affect their performance it is nasty to body shame the person in the spotlight, particularly when they have sung excellently. As Richard Morrison’s and Rupert Christiansen’s comments about the looks of opera singers were brushed away with merely a flutter of an apology I think venues should go nuclear on reviewers that keep on making such needless comments.

After all the opera companies have a duty of care to their performers and should do something about rogue reviewers that use their press ticket privilege to offend.

Reading Clayton’s tweet this morning brought a lump in my throat…we have all been there, on the receiving end of a bully at some point in our lives. We also probably told them to fuck off too…but it should not be left unchallenged.

Bullies like Millington should be stripped (pun intended, dear Barry, boy) of free access to performances if only to make them realise that it is not a valid line of enquiry in a review to suggest a singer visits the gym more frequently. Our society is obsessed enough with looks as it is, we should not be giving a free pass to critics to add another burden on the already pressurised life of opera singers.

The whole point of beautiful singing is its transformative quality, if a 50 year old soprano can convince me she is a 15 year old geisha then I have no problem with a Tamino having a bit more meat on the bone. Actually the whole insidious barihunk lark is acting as an acceptable form of body shaming apartheid that has been trickling like poison in operatic circles. The very idea that an exceptional singer won’t get cast because of the lack of musculature should be an alien concept but sadly it isn’t.  

Yes, I’m a gay man…I enjoy the nude male form but I’ll be damned if I enjoyed more a singer’s performance because they have a six pack. Singers have enough issues to obsess about as it is. Critics, back off and can we all please stop and think how normalising fat shaming on stage is bad for the art itself. 

2015, my operatic year

31 Dec

2015 reviewDear readers…I have been a bad boy this year and my blogging was rather infrequent. Mind you, if you follow me on any social media you probably have heard more from me than you’d like to…but thanks for persevering.

2015 has been an unremarkable year for opera in Britain, mainly due to companies feeling the squeeze on budgets which for most meant a retreat to standard rep and taking few chances. The much derided Royal Opera diet of Traviatas, Bohèmes and Toscas has become a joke that keeps on giving over the last three seasons. Thankfully smaller companies have emerged as the places to find more challenging material and more imaginative interpretations. The largest cloud cast has been again the pitiful state of Scottish Opera and the continuing upheaval at English National Opera. The year’s major highlights were provided by Glyndebourne, Opera Holland Park and Welsh National Opera.

The ups

Glyndebourne + On Tour / Saul
Barry Kosky’s exuberant production displayed a sure hand in blending the drama of Handel’s music a bleak dark grey stage and mountains of props. Never wavering from the emotional heart of the piece he put unremitting focus on the acting and how the high emotions were projected to the auditorium. It was impressive to listen, a sleek spectacle and an imaginative retelling that left no doubt in my head that he just gets it. A great moment for Glyndebourne and a production to be remembered for a very long time.

OHP / Flight
Holland Park did Jonathan Dove proud for staging his cheeky little opera in a straight but not boring way. It was not the hottest ticket of their season, but the young cast brought tones of brio to this tightly woven tale of human relationships.

SO / Inés de Castro
Scottish Opera brought out the baroque aesthetic of the work in a very simple staging by Olivia Fuchs that afforded ample opportunities to show off the singers. Stephanie Corley was a force to be reckoned with as Inés. Just wish SO spent more time sorting its administrative and financial side and championing more Scottish composers and their output. This was a gory triumph.

ENO / The Indian Queen
Peter Sellars is the proverbial mad man of the operatic village. This production of this work by Purcell was exhausting to watch but the sheer maximalism of the additions to the score and text made it one of those memorable failures that one tries to unpick in their memory months later. It was baffling and extraordinary, sublime and odd. Lucy Crowe in glowing voice under the baton of Laurence Cummings was superb. And was allowed mercifully the stage to herself to show everyone how it is possible to fill the expanse of the Coliseum with her voice that fills one’s heart with content.

Birmingham Opera / The Ice Break
My third opera excursion to Birmingham and another unqualified success. Tippett is criminally neglected these days and this production set in an airport resonated with the migrant crisis unfolding across Europe and has worsened since this productions saw the light of day. It crackled with energy and presented opera making as collaborative activity. Requiring active involvement by the cast, community chorus and all of us watching.

ENO / Queen of Spades
David Alden’s production had a lot of holes in the narrative continuity but it was worth the price of admission for the extraordinary conducting by Ed Gardner and the magisterial, otherworldly Countess  of Felicity Palmer. Who still has incredible reserves of voice and a stage presence to obliterate anyone else. Pure magic at work. 

OHP / Il Trittico
Holland Park was very ambitious to present Puccini’s triptych and it was a spectacular success. Most memorable the shattering interpretation of Suor Angelica by Anne Sophie Duprels who distilled the dramatic potential to unbearable intensity. Incredible to think this was her debut of the role…hope she gets to sing it many more times.

Glyndebourne / Poliuto
The return of Michael Fabiano to Glyndebourne with this infrequently performed tenor vehicle. He was eminently watchable and sang with great clarity and passion. The conducting of Enrique Mazzola brought restless energy to Donizetti’s score and softened the blow of a rather pedestrian production by Mariame Clément. 

Blackheath Opera / Idomeneo
A bracing community opera that brought the work to its basics. It had all the fizz the recent Covent Garden outing lacked. Kirstin Sharpin was spectacular in her description of the turmoil of Elettra, white hot intensity at its very best. 

SWP / Arcangelo: Lacrimae with Anna Prohaska
Not strictly an opera performance but worth mentioning for the sheer delicacy and charisma of Prohaska. Myriads of colours engulfed us. Her Purcell arias were particularly impressive each one a small acted drama. She is definitely one of the most compelling musicians working today. 

Wigmore Hall / Anna Caterina Antonacci + Donald Sulzen / La voix humaine
A sublime afternoon and if strictly speaking it was a concert. Antonacci is a dab hand in breathing life into the damaged woman of Poulenc’s work. Every word mattered, every gesture, every look. We have to be thankful that Radio 3 relayed it live so we have for posterity a document of this great artist at work. 

WNO / I Puritani
Welsh National Opera has been a great company to follow for all lovers of bel canto. After presenting Donizetti’s three queens last year they offered a rather beautifully stark production by Annilese Miskimmon of Bellini’s masterpiece. Carlo Rizzi conducted with true flair and Rosa Feola’s Elvira was a stunning stage creation. Balancing this figment of the gothic imagination perfectly. She displayed great taste and all the coloratura became a descriptive part of the heroine’s disturbed mind and mood changes. Bringing to Bellini’s score the depth of insight it deserves. Not a performance for the canary fanciers of old, but a romantic personage of true richness. 

ENO / The Force of Destiny
The production by  Calixto Bieito was probably too subdued for some, but made excellent use of the limited stage resources of ENO and endowed us with a stunning debut of the year, Tamara Wilson. Her opulent Leonora was stunning. A big voice with a warm enveloping sound and enough agility to overcome Verdi’s many hurdles. 

ROH / Andrea Chénier 
Was disappointing in the production value stakes. A dull “period” production by McVicar was cumbersome but at least it didn’t ruffle many feathers. But it remains memorable for the truly brilliant singing of Jonas Kaufmann this was probably the first time I enjoyed his singing so much. Up to now I was one of the doubters finding his sound not Italianate enough but he was exceptional as Chenier and was ably supported by Željko Lučić and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Tony Pappano’s conducting was too episodic and frankly lumpy to make sense of the whole instead giving us disconnected arias making the evening feel unusually long.  

ROH / The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
That was one production that was roundly unloved by the press but was definitely sleek and particularly its integration of projections was very accomplished. And let’s be frank any production that gives me the chance to see Anne Sofie von Otter on stage is worth seeing no matter what. Above all Weill is worth a resurgence Mahagonny is so much more than just the famous tunes. 

ROH / Madama Butterfly
Everyone was predicting doom (aka a cancellation by our diva), as I was scheduled to attend the final performance of the run with Kristīne Opolais. This was the performance that totally changed my mind about her. She sang with such great warmth and attention never wavering on her interpretation of Cio Cio San portraying her naivety in a subtle way that we could all empathise. This was the opposite of the maudlin mess that this opera can be, it was a glorious evocation of a broken life. Simply superb. 

ROH / Król Roger
And when we thought we’d never see a good production by Kasper Holten at Covent Garden, this production happened. Very rarely has set gigantism been deployed to such remarkably subtle effect. The spectacular performance by Mariusz Kwiecień was the corner stone of this sophisticated production. 

ROH / La Bohème
My main reason for bothering to book for that rusty old Copley production was Anna Netrebko and Jennifer Rowley. Thank heavens they were both superb the former a surprisingly subtle Mimi and the latter an all out sass pot as Musetta. The same can’t be said for our Rodolfo who bleated his way through the part in his usual unattractive manner.   

The downs

ENO / Pirates of Penzance
It was rather stodgy for my taste even if it was not short on spectacle. The humour somehow didn’t work for me. A shame as it was my first G&S work. 

SWP / Farinelli and the King
This amalgam of stage play and recital wrapped up in one was unsatisfying in both counts. Iestyn Davies was wonderful as usual filling the Wannamaker Playhouse with his lustrous voice. The play itself was totally innocuous. At no point cared very much for the King and his mental instability. 

ENO / Between Worlds
A confusing mangle of many good ideas topped with a counter tenor shaman figure presiding. Making an opera about the attack on the Twin Towers was always going to be a polarising enterprise and the resulting piece was sensitive and at times touching. If it had stayed naturalistic it could have been an altogether more welcome addition to 2015. But it felt overworked and overstretched, no amounts of commitment by its music staff could redeem it into a satisfying well balanced piece. 

 

 

Just don’t mention Rieu

30 Jul

Not fucking Rieu

Another week another fawning article about André Rieu and what we can learn from him to spice up our boring conventional concert experience. His form of entertainment is a very old type of  frothy intellectually disengaged affair. It is a sort of idolatry, a cult of forced entertainment. Somehow the only way to enjoy it seems to be by suspending critical faculties and giving in to the kitsch.

I rather like Viennese polkas and waltzes as background music, but with the visual arts background I have, I cannot possibly ignore the awful presentation of his orchestra. His female players enrobed in acres of cheap looking taffeta in colours that would make Walt Disney go blind. Whipped up in a meringue consistency its stiffness would make Yotam Ottolenghi scream with joy. The whole spectacle, a tasteless, sexless environment for him to preside over , curiously dressed in fitted black tails. I find the whole aesthetic repulsive, and I would really love to read an article with a feminist angle on the outfitting of his orchestra and making adult musicians look like followers of the cult of My Little Pony.

So please stop patronising us that Rieu’s way is the only way to populist relevance. As most orchestras have great community and outreach programmes and diversify in more imaginative ways already. The main difference being that the programming by professional orchestras has an intellectual and aesthetic motivation, it doesn’t just operate on the currency of popular fads and easy listening radio station playlists.

Rieu’s anti-intellectual mush programming of popular tunes and advert-worthy bleeding operatic chunks indulges the lowest common denominator of performance as empty spectacle. That he is phenomenally successful at selling his brand doesn’t automatically make him the shining light everyone should emulate. His abysmal, retrograde presentation is decades behind current norms but rides on that saccharine nostalgia vehicle his public personal depends on to sell tickets in droves.

So give me a world class orchestra dressed in black, making the music they perform the main reason to be there. Instead of the sweet shop horror of Rieu’s crew, resembling a megalomaniac’s idea of a golden past that never existed.

My radio début…

15 Jul

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Worth warning you that tomorrow afternoon I will be a guest on The Opera Hour hosted by Richard Scott.

In a previous life I had appeared as a TV interviewee but never on radio. So tomorrow will be at my best behaviour chatting all things opera and playing some favourite arias…no panic it’s just live radio! Hopefully I will make some sort of sense…but certainly fun will be had.

So tune in online on Resonance FM at 16.30 BST or if in London on your FM radio. The programme is also repeated on Monday at 10.00 or listen on demand right here.

Have a listen ENO

14 Jul

I do hate to add to the mass of frenzied and at times uncalled for attacks on ENO. But as a follow-up from their new season launch in April I decided to upload my recording of the press conference. Especially in light of John Berry’s , the artistic director’s, announcement four days ago that he is stepping down.

What made it remarkable was his rather dampened mood at the presentation and the obvious defeated attitude. Didn’t want to comment at that point as it was obvious, with their run-in with Arts Council England and the placement of the Company in special measures that more changes were upcoming. As the current state of ENO is rather pitiful and its future beyond 2016 is seriously in question I think it is in the public interest to have access to the full statements by the people at the top.

It is notable the usual unwillingness of the top brass of the company to answer questions in the open and instead urging those present to have an informal (and off the record presumably) chat over a cup of tea. It almost backfired on them as a number of journalists and arts correspondents made their displeasure heard loudly at the end of the presentation. The shrinking audiences and terrible turn of their finances would have made us believe a more humble approach was needed but somehow they still foolishly did not take open questions.

Now that John Berry has gone and with him a certain misguided obsession with international co-productions and to be the thermometer for Peter Gelb’s new production endeavours, surely is the time to open the conversation on who ENO is for and what work they are producing. London has a world class opera company down the road and a huge number of smaller and much more flexible outfits who are encroaching the contemporary commissioning landscape that ENO used to dominate.

They are reaching the point that they look rather aimless and more of a House that is rather in love with its stylistic tropes and self-image. When compared to Opera North and Welsh National Opera their quality, value for money and breadth of reach in programming is pitiful. I have enjoyed many productions at ENO over the years and am rather in awe of the Chorus and Orchestra but the management has let down all those hard working people and played with their livelihoods and the Company’s reputation.

The sound quality is not crystal clear, but it is good enough to have a listen through and make your own judgement. I sincerely hope the underlying arrogance displayed on the day has crumbled alongside the outgoing Berry regime.

ENO season launch 2015/2016 live tweeting extravaganza

21 Apr

ENO Season Launch 1516Tomorrow morning between 10.00 and 11.00 the English National Opera will hold its annual season launch. Like the last three years I am present and will relay the news as it breaks. Below you will see a live stream of my tweets and even further down will be tracking the official hashtag used by ENO for reactions by other twitterati. Join in the fun!

My tweets

 

 

My blog posts on the previous three launches

2012/13:  https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/eno-201213-season-and-the-broader-london-context/

2013/14:  https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/season-launch-by-an-eye-witness/

2014/15:  https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/eno-season-launch-20142015/

Michael Tippett’s The Ice Break some video excerpts from the premiere on 3 April 2015

8 Apr

This was my third production by Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera company who always surprises and is built of the foundation of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and a community chorus that tends to be the vibrating, galvanising factor of the whole experience. On Friday night a bleak warehouse in the industrial area of Birmingham was transformed into an airport arrivals lounge. As with Vick’s BO productions, the name of the game is immersion. The audience and the chorus and all the extras become one, being cleverly manipulated around and in the midst of the action. Their productions take on an experiential character far and beyond what the traditional opera house setting is capable.

A wonderful ancient Greek was circling my head on Friday when I tried to find a way to describe cogently the feeling of being there. Δρώμενον, which translates rather badly into ‘happening’ in Greek having a much more nuanced and deep resonance of lived experience through performance. This is not just a live experience but more like a living experience. One’s senses accentuated in near self-preservation mode, on the lookout for the next abrupt interruption and surge by the chorus or sudden appearance of soloists.

It is a heady mix in which to experience Michael Tippett’s angular and episodic score. The star of the night was Chrystal E. Williams and her obscenely luxurious mezzo and fierce presence. Her night time soliloquy a triumph of intense characterisation and impressive ease around Tippett’s fidgety coloratura. That sometimes can make singers sound laboured and mechanical, she imbued it with raw, bloody passion.

If you have the time watch my 17mins worth of excerpts which should give you an insight on the production and the overall feel, even if no recording will ever transmit the emotional live experience of being there. I will pretend that the silly portrait filming was an intentional aesthetic choice, if asked (no, not really…just sheer stupidity).

Enjoy

Visit to Kilve beach, Somerset

3 Nov

Kilve beachSpent a week in Somerset and despite staying very near the well known fossil laden beach at Kilve. As usual in my disorganised state went there at the end of a long day and didn’t take my proper camera with me.

The fading light and the rugged beauty of the cliffs and the beach itself was a huge temptation so took some shots on my phone. They hopefully relay the warmth of the fading sun and the Jurassic wilderness that meets the eye from all directions. We were totally unprepared for the terrain we climbed from slippery rock to slippery rock avoiding the puddles of water left behind from the receded sea water.

Enjoy the shots and if you ever go near that part of the world do have a look around.

My Flick photo set, can be viewed on this link, as the code I used for an embedded slideshow was broken by WordPress (cheers): https://www.flickr.com/photos/georgios1978/sets/72157648516530622/

Ruxandra Donose + Roger Vignoles / Rosenblatt Recitals / Wigmore Hall – 6 October 2014

9 Oct

Donose RosenblattSecond time unlucky for the Rosenblatt recitals as the second one of the new season also had an indisposed singer programmed, so instead of Carmen Giannattasio we had Ruxandra Donose performing, fresh from her triumphant return to the Royal Opera as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos and her recent Carmen in Calixto Bieto’s celebrated production at English National Opera.
She explained at the start of the recital that she put together arias and songs she loves despite of any strange leaps in mood. Clearly a deft decision being asked to fill in for another artist at such a short notice and also a great chance to show her taste in repertoire and to display her versatility.


Her two Carmen arias (second as encore) were predictably beautifully executed with impressive ease and sparkle. Hinting at a naughtiness inside but never becoming base and cheap. What was immediately noticeable was her easy going stage manner and personable character. All too frequently singers look so ill at ease on the concert platform without being able to hide behind make up and costume.
Her Offenbach aria was coquettish, sassy she had great fun playing with the text. The letter aria from Werther was a solid attempt at transmitting the sense of sadness and the world closing in. Her dark hued voice used with artistry to convey the mood. 

The three songs by Fauré were a good display of her ability to restrain her exuberance and not smother the material under artifice. So effective she was in evoking the dreamy mood that her Eboli was like a thunderbolt. Her rendition of this old warhorse was captivating, her dark chest voice reflecting the troubled state of mind of the heroine. Despite a certain shortness of breath at the finale she pulled off an impressive end to the first half.

After the interval the programme took a more romantic turn with Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix which was seductive and with a hint of calculation behind the pleasantry. Her use of her dynamic range to colour the aria and its different moods was very effective. A sign of how committed her signing was throughout the evening.

Donose Rosenblatt list

The sets of songs by Enescu and Bretan were beautiful and unfussy. The second set in Romanian was particularly notable for the sheer joy and abandon she invested each one of them. I always relish an artist inserting songs in their native language in a recital as it removes any residual language barrier and allows for direct a communication. Particularly the wistful last two songs were a great display of sensitivity and piano singing. The final Rossini aria showed her agility and her adept coloratura technique. What we maybe lost in not being as quick firing as some was a more rounded sound that caressed the ear at every turn. Humanising what can seem like empty fireworks in the hands of other singers.

The accompaniment by Roger Vignoles was as sprightly and joyful as Donose’s stage presence. Particularly impressive at such short notice and with presumably limited rehearsal time

As you can tell I really enjoyed her performance I was rather excited to see her after her excellent Composer at Covent Garden and she did not disappoint. Her unwavering intensity paired with her musicality were wonderful to see.

Some tweets from the evening

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