Archive | September, 2012

An English journey / Frank Bridge songs recital / Wigmore Hall – 26 September 2012

27 Sep

This recital was my baptism of fire as far as the work of Frank Bridge is concerned. Iain Burnside has been championing him in the last few years and somehow had managed to miss attending any of them.

This recital with songs hand-picked by Burnside was a true indulgence and showed the two soloists in the best light. Their passion for the material was evident and it displayed a unique emotional arc from a frivolous and happy lost world before the first world war to the immense sadness soon after. Genteel romantic poetry contrasted with bleak, muscular prose relating to loss and warfare. This recital also included a song by his teacher (Stanford) and two by his most famous pupil (Britten). This historical revision of Bridge’s output is timely with the Britten centenary in 2013 and also because it brings a large swathe of English art songs to a much wider audience. The Wigmore Hall has to be congratulated for its current Bridge series which is both an education for all of us and great nights out.

The two hurt, ghoulish songs by Britten were the most poignant and heart stopping performances of the evening. Tynan offered her voluptuous voice unconditionally to the composer’s trademark biting setting of the text. For the a capella beginning of The trees they grow so high she shared the piano stool with Burnside. It was serene and eased us all in a world of loss and inevitability. The disarming confidence the song was delivered with was absolutely stunning. Despite Tynan’s sparkling stage presence she can deliver pain and suffering with as much ease as she can radiate happiness and bounce. The final lines of this Somerset folk song concludes  in a repetitive woven together growing, growing which was spellbinding. ‘Tis the last rose of summer was equally gorgeous and she delivered some very high lying passages in the second and third verse with stunning clarity.

Her delivery of  Stanford’s La belle dame sans merci was beautifully evocative with lively narration setting the woodland scene. It culminated in an intense nightmarish vision that she expressed in a paroxysm, fitting a romantic poem by Keats. Bridge it seems was not a stranger to high campery as So early in the morning proves, peppered with chromatic bird and water effects concluding what was a mini operetta based on a poem that tellingly came from a collection titled ‘Adventures of Seumas Beg and the rocky road to Dublin’ published in 1915.

One of the most gorgeously simple pieces by Bridge was The violets blue that Tynan sang with a melancholic resignation that was beautifully touching.

Robert Murray’s voice is a text book English tenor sound with a very sophisticated edge (I admired his contribution at a recent Gerontius when he stepped in for an indisposed singer). His I hear the dear song sounding was like a miniature Winterreise, pain and longing encapsulated in four minutes with youthful ardour . He managed a very soft and sensitive middle voice  for Where she lies asleep which was dreamy and beguiling. When singing the more bravado laden songs in the second half he displayed a much more dark temperament and sense of gravitas. The dead/Blow out you bugles was proclamatory and sang against a heavy piano accompaniment creating battle sounds and noble military sacrifice.

As you can tell it was a wonderful evening that makes me looking forward to another Bridge evening next month. Who said art song has to be German to be moving, deep and entertaining?

Some tweets from the evening

Agony in the kitchen extension / Mademoiselle Julie / Barbican Theatre – 24 September 2012

25 Sep

Went with great expectations, despite what a lot of British critics thought was an “unbearably French” production.

The set looks like a rather glamorous all white kitchen extension, so beloved of the bourgeoisie living in the suburbia of North London. What looked like a blank empty space is an expression of the contemporary obsession with sleek kitchens and minimalist extensions straight out of Channel 4’s Grand Designs. Strindberg’s drama may be seen as a realistic play of its time. But in my view the updating worked on many levels. The glass compartments made out of the two parallel layers of glass doors allowed for an interesting contrast in aural and spatial terms. The opening scene acted behind closed doors, the actors sealed away from the audience, their voices transferred by microphones. The party happening on the large space behind the kitchen area, divided by another expanse of glazed doors.  Julie is peeped through transparent curtains dancing in the background, like a vision. When she slides the door to enter the kitchen she brings in the loud music of the party.  A very effective use of the party music, made tangible by the set.
Critics complained that the faces of the three protagonists were not fully visible at the start of the play. Which made me wonder when did that become a pre-requisite of theatre? The layer of glazed separation was intriguing and added frisson. Once the glass partition opened up the rising tension in the box escaped in the auditorium.

Binoche gave a much more histrionic Julie, that usual, in a beautiful (slightly dishevelled) gold lame dress that was attention seeking like her persona. She managed to create the necessary friction and an underlying erotic pulse. The little girl who was left motherless and was brought up largely as a boy was there, on display, and finally free for all to see. Her deep anxiety and impossibility to be fully grown up came through in the shattering confrontation near the end. Her chilling cries over the dead bird and the threats for Jean were heart stopping and strangely juvenile (helped by having to reflect on Bouchaud’s dry witted delivery).

Nicolas Bouchaud was an interesting Jean and despite his lustily sexy advances at Binoche’s Julie he did not convince as a young man with a dream. Dare I wonder why a younger actor was not cast to be the object of her affection/mire?

Bénédicte Cerutti was the balancing force in the first half of the play and suddenly trapped herself in her religiosity avoiding the painful reality surrounding her. Her Kristin was warm to start with and graduated to a much more agitated and impactful final transformation.

Miss Julie does depend on the pent-up frustration and the bringing to the fore of sexual politics and the warring relationship between the two sexes.  Fisbach’s direction did create enough of the otherness of each sex to make it come together and the minimalism of the set did concentrate the mind on the busy text. I do wonder if the sleekness of the treatment was seen by the critics as the main Gallic over-indulgence. After all this play is all about the absent Count being the regulatory premise. The threat of his arrival, the sight of his boots, the memory of his bell ringing. All amounts to three characters that are shadowed by his presence, a benign dictator that has the ultimate say. The escape to Switzerland or to death makes sense under the claustrophobic constraints of this large white box, a metaphor for our lust for the latest thing in life which usually ends up in killing what’s really inside us.

This may not be the quintessential production for all time, but it surely had something interesting to say about our times and Strindberg’s own motives.

Some tweets from the evening

The dreamworld of Mr Jones / Julietta / English National Opera / Opening night – 17 September 2012

20 Sep

I have been hosting the blog posts of Claire Pendleton from the ENO chorus  for the last month and I had a good idea about the set up and direction of Julietta and even had a sneak peek view of the set during rehearsals. But the great unknown was always the work itself. Martinů takes the dreamworld of the original play into an extreme, his composing becoming fragmented and episodic, very few of the narrative threads are followed through and much of the singing is a recitativo accompanied by pillowy (at time wondrous) music. It makes for an unsatisfactory night at the theatre if the audience is not prepared to take it at face value and allow itself to be seduced by the spare but oddly voluptuous soundworld of Julietta.

The heroine is a dream and it seems so is the possibility of a coherent narrative. This production was immaculate and the orchestral playing was tremendous. Particularly how it was customised to the sometimes too hot acoustic of the coliseum was an impressive feat. The music sounded distant and echoing at times and others the fortissimi braced the material into shape. Edward Gardner as an astute and highly theatrical conductor managed to bring out a wealth of beauty and lyricism. The woodwind passages in Act Two were truly delicious and worthy of the concert hall let alone the opera house. The singing was mostly exceptional, Peter Hoare was tremendous as the dream swept Michel and managed to take us all on a journey as he gradually starting losing himself and his own memories and retreating from reality to the uncertain world of dreams. His singing was always assured and full of spark. His Julietta was as ethereal and edgy one would wish Julia Sporsén (who was unfortunately let down by the orchestral balance on appearance in Act One) sang with an airy confidence and strong stage presence. We could surely see why she made such and impression on Michel. She made a great case for ENO’s frequent casting of singers from its own young artist programme for major parts. If she was that wonderful on opening night imagine how much she will grow through the run.

The chorus who mainly creates a reflective echoing sound through the first two acts was a great asset and established the mood set by the orchestra.  And also supported Michel in his attempt to find his way through the provincial town he found himself stuck in.  Also Claire did do a magisterial dash across the stage in Act Two, as mentioned in a previous blog!  From the smaller parts Susan Bickley was a tremendous presence and the source of much hilarity either as the fortune-teller that talks about the past or as the old woman coming out to admonish Michel. Henry Waddington made an assured man at the window plus a dry witted waiter in the Second Act. One singer that made a distinctly bad impression on me was Emile Renard who maybe too carried away by the little arab character just oozed arrogance throughout the evening. Especially when she was out-sang as one of the three men by Clare Presland and  Samantha Price. She has a lovely lyric voice but her stage presence could use a little bit of toning down.

The production by Richard Jones was well honed (after all this is the third incarnation of this production since 2002) the three differently orientated accordions created a suitably surreal and evocative setting. One slight annoyance was the flimsy construction of the instrument in Act One with the doors almost prematurely flung open on impact. I can imagine Julietta with its sparse orchestration can be a victim to a director’s whim to add extra clutter to make up for it. Jones went against the grain and allowed the music and signing ample space to breathe. His attention to physical acting paid dividends, both Hoare and Sporsén gave us a fully lived performance of great distinction.
The addition of the custom curtain design made up of white drawn sleepers in pyjamas spelling out Julietta, with Michel being the last one on the lower right was a nice touch and when it re-appeared in the end it brought the story to a circular conclusion. Another beautiful touch was the wandering french horn player in the wood of Act Two adding another surreal touch in addition to the wine waiter and a piano being “played” by Julietta on a moving platform towards the back of the stage.

Jones’ touch was light and this production deserves to be seen for its sheer ebullience and wit. Unfortunately what let it down was Martinů and his fragmented, sometimes prescriptive music that especially in Act Three felt overtly laboured. Overall I am delighted that ENO exposed us to such a repertoire rarity especially when staged with such conviction and good taste but two days later not much of the music has stayed with me.  It surely was surreal and witty and a wonderful night out, but as an opera it seemed to lack that extra hook that makes it unforgettable. I may have to return to see if I will allow myself to be won over by the music 😉

Some tweets from the evening

Dress rehearsal / ENO Julietta blog

17 Sep

Last week we talked about the stage rehearsals, tonight is the opening night and all the hard work will be up for the critics’ and the public’s scrutiny! Claire tells us how the dress rehearsal went and we can agree the culmination of six weeks of preparation has reached its final stretch.

So, we finally reach the dress rehearsal. It’s been a busy week but we’ve made it. Such an early start too, on Saturday morning. Some of the singers and actors have been in make-up & wigs since 8am! There’s a nervous but excited buzz around the theatre.

The opera starts and Peter Hoare, singing the role of Michel starts his mammoth journey through the Martinů score.

Michel is dreaming…who will he meet in his dreams? Where will his thoughts take him? To a strange town where everyone suffers from chronic amnesia.

The villagers try to feed off Michel’s memories. The orchestra has a rich texture and depth, almost cartoon-like at times. The quirky set design compliments Richard Jones’ production, which is slick and stylish.
The stage is one enormous piano accordion, which has doors and windows. Characters appear inside and pop out of the vast, concertinaed instrument throughout the opera.
Everyone on the stage is an individual character and hunt in a pack-like group, to drain Michel of his memories in order to feed their minds, albeit for a few minutes before amnesia sets in and all is lost.

There’s a lot of running, dancing, jumping from those on-stage. It’s a fast moving production, full of life and energy.
I have to run right across the front of the stage near the start of act two, with the rest of the chorus and actors sprinting in different directions at break-neck speed too which is frightening. There have been a few bumps and bruises in rehearsal but nothing too bad!

The costumes are shades of green silk based loosely on the 1950’s style. The colours blend in with the set & lighting. The wigs are quirky styles also loosely based on 1950’s styles.

Julietta meets Michel and they immediately fall in love. She has shining red hair and her dress is pattered with miniature piano accordions but I don’t think the audience will be able to see that (you can surely spot them in the shot in the slideshow below).
She has some beautiful musical passages with Michel. They promise to meet again and throughout the opera Michel searches for her. No-one else can see her or knows her. Julia Sporsén sings the role so well. Her unique soprano voice suits the role perfectly. She has a folk-like unaccompanied verse off-stage which bewitches Michel and I’m sure the audience.

Ed Gardner steers the orchestra and singers through the lush, textures of Martinů. Richard Jones directs specific moves and noises during particular musical sections, which add to the drama and gels the characters to the score.
It has been a tough but enjoyable experience, creating such a masterpiece. This could be a ‘marmite’ opera but my guess is that the majority will come out with nothing but positive comments. Hoorah for Martinů! Hoorah for ENO!

You can follow Claire on Twitter, her handle is @ClaraButt .

Dress rehearsal shots in ENO’s Flickr account


Stage rehearsals / ENO Julietta blog

10 Sep

Last week we talked about the sitzprobe, this week we are getting closer to the opening night by another week! Claire tells us how it went.

So, here we are on stage, rehearsing with full set, props, costumes & lighting. I was very excited, walking on set and being bowled over by the enormous accordion which dominates the stage. It moves open & shut during the opera, sometimes on its side and for one section it splits in half to reveal a dark, star-lit forest. The rest of the stage is black with open wings. This is a problem for singers as the voices get lost as soon as you turn facing across the stage. We’ve had to resolve balance problems with the rich texture of the orchestra against the singers being heard. The Coliseum stage is very deep so we have to ‘cheat’ and sing out sometimes. We’ve such a great team working on the show. Martin Fitzpatrick, Head of Music has been up in the dress circle, listening for the difficult sections to get across to the audience and then relays it to Ed Gardner in the pit. Ed works hard to correct the colour and balance of the orchestra, to fit the staging and voices.

The chorus have some off-stage sections in which we’ve worked hard to get the right balance. Some sections are just echos of Julietta‘s voice. Others are the thoughts of Michel.

The costumes are a mix of cute and quirky. We have villagers, young and old, a blind beggar, bell-boy, man in pith helmet, a horn player, commissar and commander of the city, amongst other characters. Each has an individual personality which Richard Jones; the director is very good at creating.

The direction and choreography is very specific, with soloists, chorus and actors moving, freezing, glancing, running etc. at key points in the music. It makes for a typical Richard Jones quirky trade mark in my opinion and brings the opera alive. Never will you find characters just standing and singing to each other. There’s always movement. The direction has great pulse, which complements the score.

The lighting is still being worked on and will put the finishing touches to creating the right ambience during the scenes. This is a unique production, which will have the audience laughing and sighing with great pleasure.

Richard Jones and Ed Gardner are a great team. I feel lucky to be part of it.

You can follow Claire on Twitter, her handle is @ClaraButt .

The trailer for the production

Sitzprobe / ENO Julietta blog

3 Sep

Last week we talked about the start of rehearsals, this week we are getting closer to the opening night by a week! Claire tells us how it went.

The sitzprobe took place at LSO St.Luke’s (the London Symphony Orchestra’s rehearsal and education space) which is a fabulous venue (a converted church with a great acoustic and space to fit the chorus, singers and orchestra). The orchestra and singers were on fine form. The score is such fun. There are some gorgeous, romantic passages interspersed with what I would call filmic/cartoony writing. There’s real humour in the music. It’s the type to make everyone smile at some point. There’s something for everyone to enjoy.

Ed wanted a specific colour from the orchestra. Sometimes needing a dry sound from percussion, rather than that of a bierkellar. Also the strings needed to find a smoky, sensual sound to aid the storytelling. The piano accordion passages are a fun and unusual addition, it’s such a distinct sound. It also links the score to the on stage action, by having a set that is a huge accordion. Ed was great at conveying the story to the orchestra, giving them an idea of emotion in which to find the right colour. This is the time when the balance between the voices and the orchestral playing starts to getting calibrated making sure the final sound at the Coliseum is as tight woven as possible.

In Julietta, the soloists and chorus need to spit the words out in the fast sections. Diction is key in this piece as it’s such a strange and sometimes confusing story. Peter Hoare sings the role of Michel and has some stunning music to sing.

I’m always excited to hear the orchestra at a sitzprobe. Rehearsing with piano accompaniment in this particular piece has been alien to what the score really sounds like. You can’t get the mood and colour of the score without having the orchestra to bring it to life. Martinů’s character music is expressive, humorous and quirky. There’s lots of fun, percussive sections that were lost with solo piano.

The opera has now come alive for me and we start to rehearse on stage in the actual space, with the set, costumes and props. This is the point where Martinů’s imagination, the beautiful orchestral sound under Ed Gardner and Richard Jones’ direction will become one and take us to the final straight to the stage and dress rehearsals.

You can also follow Claire on Twitter, her handle is @ClaraButt .

Claire’s shots from the rehearsals

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