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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.

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.

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.

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

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

Otello, grey and unresolved / ENO – 13 September 2014 Opening Night

25 Sep

ENO OtelloThis season it is the 30th anniversary of David Alden’s association with English National Opera the products of his labour have been enjoyed in London for so long and with mixed reactions to make him always a safe bet for a thought provoking take on the old classics. His hand seems more sure and definitive when it tackles less mainstream repertoire and judging from this Otello that still holds true. The new staging in a multi-purpose single set has the usual signature grey tonalities and sparing use of colour, rusty cinnamon and greens deep browns.

Otello is one of Verdi’s works that demands an uninhibited touch with spectacle, like Aida, it is a game of big choral forces and unsubtle arias and the tragic demise of the heroine. Alden’s directorial concept seems to gravitate into making the story of the wrongly blamed and killed Desdemona into a very public drama. Her arena of suffering being a Cypriot town square of the inter war period. His societal approach is a strong suit and very well done when Verdi’s libretto requires it, but this production totally falls flat and stops being engaging when the more domestic parts of the story unfold.

Iago’s Credo is the only intimate part of the evening that truly comes alive. Jonathan Summers steps down from the stage and sits with legs over the pit as he spits out every words as if it soils his mouth one at a time. The intensity of his acting prowess creates a domestic setting out of this Byzantine ruin of a civic square.

For the crucial final scene the lack of a proper domestic setting and the very disappearance of the prerequisite bed are puzzling. Desdemona’s whole frame of mind is informed by her enclosed environment of her bedroom, here a wonderful Leah Crocetto is left running about aimlessly covering the vast empty space Alden has cursed her with. To her immense credit it is very difficult to take one’s eyes off her, despite her young age she holds the audience’s attention with skill and with her exemplary light touch. Even if it is obvious she lacks the stage experience of other singers in the role, she makes up in freshness, gloriously spun phrases and charm.

Alden’s bigger credit is the extremely detailed for Iago, he clearly gave Jonathan Summers a lot of material to chew over and it shows, his presence is not just menacing but radiates self pity and misanthropy. His singing was probably on par with his excellent acting that underpinned the whole production. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the rudimentary, bouncer like heaviness of Stuart Skelton. Pouncing on everyone and everything. A particularly ridiculous moment comes when he lifts a leather armchair and stops only short of hurling it into the pit. A ludicrous, monstrous, misjudged personification of Otello that gives him a superficial varnish of thuggery. What is the point of having the vocal goods to sing this part when he lacks the required elegance and acting ability? I am not expecting Shakespearean prowess but do not expect a Jon Vickers tribute act, either. Hope during the run he will loosen up and bounce off more against the more nuanced colleagues on stage and mellow his performance.

ENO Otello ListThe ENO chorus and orchestra had a more mixed night with ensemble problems especially in the first Act. To make the thundering opening of the opera go past in a near whimper was disappointing, but in reality not helped by the way Alden directs it. The Act Three parade of Venetian dignitaries is much more effective by adding more movement and spectacle.  And for once the chorus is allowed to be deployed across the stage and widen the sound stage.

If a new production can’t match the impact of Elijah Moshinsky’s ancient Covent Garden show you know you have an issue. Allan Clayton was an exceptional Cassio with wonderful diction and his sweet lyrical tone adding much interest in a character that Verdi spends very little time developing. Not sure why he was portrayed as a drunk, but the sacrilegious fun of using a Madonna and child Byzantine icon as a dart board in a competition with Iago was stroke of genius, as a symbolic finger to the church.

Also the Emilia of Pamela Helen Stephen was exemplary in her personification of the innocent bystander watching in horror of the tragedy unfolding. The angular lighting of Adam Silverman was rather stunning to look at despite only having the one vast set to work with, not exactly giving him much to play with.

No matter how great or not the individual performances were, this production just felt short on emotion and empathy. Totally missing the great opportunity to depict the light and shade world of Verdi’s (maybe) simplistic universe with nuance and variety. Apart from the revelatory Iago the rest of Alden’s ideas felt distinctly uninteresting. Do go and see if you prize spotting young talent at the start of an international career. Leah Crocetto has such immense promise.

 Some tweets from the night

 

Rosenblatt Recitals 15th season, an overview

4 Sep

Rosenblatt Recitals 15th SeasonIf you have been reading my blog for sometime or follow me on Twitter (there are such masochists out there, I’m told) you will know how much I like attending as many recitals of the Rosenblatt series as possible. For a privately organised, and increasingly high profile, series it is extraordinary that it has reached its fifteenth year. A testament to the dedication of the organisers and now even with a record label to release the recordings. With the relocation a couple of years ago to the Wigmore Hall, they are going from strength to strength and in a venue that is ideal for singers giving, frequently, their first London recitals.

Here’s the run down of all recitalists in the coming season, the prices are very reasonable with a top price of £30, they would make a good starting point for anyone interested in opera and song and haven’t dipped their toe in live performances.

The opening recital by Stephen Costello marks his solo return to this recital series after his UK debut with the Rosenblatts in 2006. He did sing for them in 2008 when he was paired with his wife Ailyn Pérez.

23 September

Stephen Costello + Danielle Orlando

As Stephen Costello was indisposed Javier Camarena has stepped in, for what will be a rather exciting occasion as it marks his UK debut.

Javier Camarena + Enrico Cacciari


6 October

Carmen Giannattasio + Jonathan Papp


6 November

Belén Elvira + Jorge de León + Juan Antonio Lavarez Parejo


3 December

Aida Garifullina + Iain Burnisde


10 February

Saimir Pirgu + Simon Lepper


4 March

Simone Piazzola + Vincenzo Scalera


8 April

Ben Johnson + James Bailleu


19 May

Jessica Pratt + Vincenzo Scalera


8 June

Marcello Giordani + Macri Simone

 

For detailed information check the dedicated page on the Rosenblatt Recitals website

You can read all my previous blog posts on Rosenblatt recitalists if you so fancy:

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/nino-surguladze-gianluca-marciano/

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/celso-albelo-rosenblatt-recital/

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/enigma-or-blankness/

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/sylvia-schwartz/

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/the-caruso-complex/

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/brute-force/

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/ailyn-perez/

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/artur-rucinski-18-january-2012/

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/ciciban-meets-suor-angelica/

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2011/04/14/elizabeth-llewellyn-some-impressions/

 

 

 

 

Candlelit Beauty / Bristol Old Vic / Dido and Aeneas – 2 August 2014

4 Aug

Dido and AeneasHaving read a few articles about the Bristol Proms and how it encourages a non traditional concert going etiquette. Their great innovation being the use of big screen projections, allowance to take photographs throughout, encouragement of spontaneous clapping and allowance of drinks in the auditorium.  A list of things that the absence of have never stopped me from enjoying any performance to date…being odd as we demand discipline and study from the performers why can’t demand the same from the audience?

The programme was prefaced with a foreword by Tom Morris and Max Hole (the frankly clueless boss of Universal Music) which dampened much of the enthusiasm of being in that beautiful and historic theatre. I don’t want lectures about inaccessibility and unfriendliness of concert venues and how we can improve the experience by adopting the tropes of pop concerts. It is a naive reaction to the failure of the recording industry to engage audiences and thus failing to make money in the process. While I applaud the wonderful atmosphere at the Old Vic I am growing very tired of this reverse snobbery. On an average concert can’t imagine more than 10% is a brand new audience who we seen to pander to with all these ideas about being “welcoming”. I’d rather the venues trying equally hard to please the remaining 90% of their audience. Most of us don’t need large screens and gimmicks to convince us that orchestral concerts and opera are both enjoyable and a treat for the mind and heart. As much as Mr Hole seems to be circumspect of current concert etiquette we can be harsh enough to mention that most of the performers at the Bristol Proms were artists signed to his label. The Old Vic may want to be seen to be accessible but it fails on the simple fact that this week of music is fuelled by Universal’s roster of artists…a pretty exclusive bunch. 

When Tom Morris (the director of the Old Vic) came on stage to explain the principles of their Promming concept it came through as a well-meaning idea and it was a relief to know that this performance was using technology from the mid 18th century for its visual trickery and lighting. It also meant that due to the candle light it would make it impossible to take photos with mobile phones, he did offer, conveniently, to email the official photos. Of course that didn’t stop an iPhone boob in front of me trying to film and in the process activated the very bright autofocus light and took her some time to figure out how to switch it off. And that is the problem with allowing people to use electronic devices during concerts…they don’t know how to use them, causing annoyance and discomfort to everyone nearby.  It was also a nice touch to be given a potted history of the theatre as a music venue…knowing that Paganini played there is rather fun.

The first half was occupied with an introduction by Robert Howarth on Purcell, taking us from his musical interludes for The Fairy Queen to his final piece of sacred music (Hear My Prayer) which was gorgeously sung by The Erebus Ensemble and his bawdy lute songs about melons and arses (Young Tom the Gardener) that spread a contagious giggle on stage and the audience. We also got a reading by John Retallack of excerpts from an 18th century translation of Virgil’s epic poem that was probably known to Purcell and his librettist Nahum Tate. It was fun, it was informative and in the best possible taste. The choice to split the band across the proscenium in the manner used at the time when playing incidental music was a great idea. Having woodwind on the right and harpsichord and strings on the left worked in the detailed, warm and slightly reflective acoustic of the Old Vic. The quality of the sound was truly exceptional and was definitely aided by the intimate size of the auditorium. Within the first 15 minutes I was mentally booking tickets for next year’s ENO staging of Orfeo next April.

Dido and Aeneas listAfter the interval Dido commenced, the action taking place in a white  square central space backed with a cloth that was back projected by flames at pivotal moments of the action and the singers illuminated by two suspended candle holders either side and an array of candle footlights. It felt as intimate as it was low-tech. The directorial concept was light on “cleverness” but definitely attuned to the music and an eye for using the chorus in effective formations around and on the square performance area. The casting was well matched with smoky, full-voiced Pumeza Matshikiza who sang with great feeling and gave a shatteringly moving final scene in her lament as she nears death. David Stout made the best of the few show off opportunities for Aeneas, their duet before his departure was tender as it was electric, one of the finest moments of a great night. The Belinda of Clare Presland was delicate and compassionate and sung with great care.  Hilary Summers’ Sorceress was straight out of a pantomime which is not as bad as it sounds…she was full of character and even elicited some jokey hisses from the audience at every appearance. A comedy villain in Purcell’s masterpiece was a fun addition and her full contralto sound made an equally strong impression.

The playing by the English Concert was attentive and very lively. The nascent Erebus Ensemble made a spirited and notable fresh contribution throughout. Animating every scene with their virile and yet soft sound.  Howarth clearly inspired the band and the singers to create a special evening for everyone present. It was a night full of heart that presented Purcell’s score in a ravishing light literally and metaphorically. This was baroque opera presented with such simplicity, confidence and clarity of purpose that moves the heart and pleased the mind without any unwanted distractions. Intimate and direct.

Curtain call video

Some Tweets from the evening

 

Classic FM posted a picture gallery from this performance on their website

The serious business of being Richard Jones / Der Rosenkavalier / Glyndebourne – 8 June 2014

11 Jun

Glyntz RosenkavalierThis production of Rosenkavalier became a media sensation a few weeks back on the back of a bunch of jaded bores that focused on why a woman who is dressed as man and pretends to be a woman didn’t look manly enough. A truly burning non problem. What they seem to have skirted around was the elephant in the room…the oversupply of stock Richard Jones and not nearly enough Richard Strauss.
All the clichés are there for the count…comedic furniture, ugly wallpaper, pointless zombie crowd scene, early 20th century update and list goes on and on. Jones treating the work as an opera buffa with a disregard for the central question on aging and loneliness. The Marshallin seen as a clothes horse that has little emotional depth and just likes to flaunt her beauty in empty gestures and exhibitionism. This central betrayal of the opera is an impossible fact to ignore. At least most of his well-drilled visual jokes fell fairly flat on Sunday with the only true laughs for a sofa in Act Three which proves how his slapstick doesn’t quite work in practice anymore. And renders many of the set pieces predictable and meaningless.

His only real engagement with a character’s deeper implications was the one of Sophie’s. Her presentation at the Faninal palace on top of an oversized board room table did spell out her status as a tradable good. As always with Strauss his women are multilayered human beings with interesting stories to tell. Sophie’s love at first time moment with Octavian was exaggerated with a side to side synchronised sway that one would expect on a Disney cartoon. It may have been endearing at first but eventually made the characters look incapable of true feelings. For all his directorial skill at stage pictures he seemed lost at sea at engaging with the emotional worlds that Hofmannsthal and Strauss worked so hard at. Taking a multilayered social drama of the souls and turning it into a parody.
The musical standards were equally patchy with Kate Royal being obviously cast for her gorgeous looks but not for her voice, who became barely audible at any orchestral surges and in duets with Tara Erraught. It is a role that has some of the most thoughtful and introspective music in Strauss’ output and yet Kate Royal preened and stared with little pathos and with a matching bland and underpowered vocal performance. Having seen both Soile Isokoski and Anne Schwanewilms in the last month sing the part I was disappointed. The magic of the score evaporated into a forced battle for survival. The effortless grandeur required turned into a whimper.

Tara Erraught’s Octavian may not have displayed the eloquence that comes with experience with the likes of Sarah Connolly and Alice Coote but she displayed a vivid engagement with the horny, red-headed side of the character and truly let her hair down as Mariandel layering the slapstick thickly, very much in style with the direction.  Her singing assured and her projection loud and clear.

The Baron Ochs of Lars Woldt was an extraordinary find, a role that in recent years had become the preserve of end of career baritones, using humour to hide huge vocal deficiencies, it became a star vehicle. He sang with great warmth and the attention to the language only a native German speaker can give. His take on the role less sarcastic than most, made me for the first time feel compassionate and maybe even protective of him.

Also very strong contributions by Michael Kraus as Faninal that countered Ochs with the superficial seriousness new money brings. The Marianne of Miranda Keys made a big impression in her description of the arrival of Baron Ochs’ entourage mixing her sweet toned voice with her over-excited persona.

The overall musical direction of Robin Ticciati was lithe and swift but quite frequently at the expense of the more lush string sound one would expect in this opera. It was a display of promise for the future seasons than the finished article of a performance. Maybe having heard the LSO and the CBSO play the score in the past weeks spoilt me.

For all the uproar and the body shaming, it is terribly ironic how very few people focused on the flip side of the coin. The casting of a wonderful singer that is totally inappropriate for the role. The final trio is one of the most sublime pieces written for female voices and yet on Sunday I could not wait for it to end. It had none of the magical, superlative beauty.

Glyntz Rosenkavalier List

The Curtain Call 

Some Tweets from the day

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