Tag Archives: Alan Oke

Chilling in more than one way / Grimes on the Beach / Aldeburgh Beach – 17 June 2013

24 Jun

Grimes on the beachAll classical music and opera fans are used to showing up to concert halls and opera houses all year round to enjoy their favourite art form. Once in a while an unusual venue comes along to spice things up, whether it’s Daniel Barenboim at Tate Modern or Stockhausen’s Mittwoch in a factory in Birmingham the match of programme and overall concept to the space take precedent. In order to be meaningful it has  to facilitate an experience not replicable in a standard venue.

Using the beach at Aldeburgh to present Peter Grimes was a risky as it was a natural fit. Britten was convinced that his music came from Suffolk, famously in his Aspen Award Speech in 1964 he uttered:

‘I belong at home-there-in Aldeburgh. I have tried to bring music to it in the shape of our local Festival; and all the music I write comes from it. I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships. I want my music to be of use to people, to please them, to ‘enhance their lives’ (to use Berenson’s phrase).’

Performing Grimes 20 minutes walk from Britten’s home and his grave surely has symbolism on its side. And few scores have such a sea filled sound world than this. The orchestra was crisply conducted by Steuart Bedford, pre-recorded a week earlier during two indoor concerts and relayed beautifully through speakers built into the set and also on scaffold towers all around. The conductor was in a specially buried box conducting the vocal performances. It surely wasn’t as immediate as having the players there live but the magical experience of having the magnificent interludes played while gazing at the very seascape that inspired them, with the wind harshly blowing, was unforgettable. Leslie Travers’ set was a horizontal structure that had turned its back to the sea, resembling a crumbling provincial quayside with boats being used to divide the space. A couple of raised platforms standing in for interiors. It was as simple as it was effective and evocative.

The singing was amplified and despite the, at times fierce, wind everyone was audible and we surely appreciated the extra effort put into performing in such inhospitable conditions. Incredibly this was Alan Oke’s first assumption of the title part. His beautifully lyrical delivery had all the beauty of Peter Pears and when needed he could command a much darker chest voice to communicate his sense of isolation and otherness. Lots of people like a heldentenor singing the part…virtually overplaying the character and barking their way to edge of civilization. Oke kept his interpretation in line with Britten’s ethereal writing and rode the bigger melodies with great flexibility and sense of ownership.

The rest of the cast offered some characterful singing, particularly Giselle Allen and David Kempster were the perfect companions for Oke. Allen was beautifully expressive and her acting was strong enough to read clearly from a large distance. Kempster’s Captain Balstrode was robustly voiced and with a great deal of humanity. He was the first person to walk on stage before a surprising coupe de theatre took place. A Spitfire flew exactly across the beach twice and then got lost in the depths of the sea horizon before the rumble of the woodwind paced through and replaced the engine noise. Now that was definitely a start to proceedings that cannot be replicated in any other venue.
Tim Albery definitely used the location and the seaside setting as a great asset. One interesting aural aspect was that members of the large chorus were partially amplified, allowing for an interesting variation in the sound for all of us sitting on the shingle at the front of the stage. And they definitely took their task seriously, being the nearest to an ancient Greek chorus that I have ever seen in an opera. A total treat.

Due credit has to be given to the wonderful ushers that were unfailingly charming and smiley despite dealing with some very insistent grumpy old folks that were trying to use beach chairs that were expressly not allowed. An evening that none of us will easily forget. A night that justified the hype and all our expectations, despite the fact we all were covered in five layers of clothing and winter blankets we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. The great British summer found its soundtrack.

A few tweets from the evening

Curtain Call Video

Slideshow of shots on Flickr

Storify by Aldeburgh Music Festival


Grimes on the beach list

From darkness to light / Lulu + The Cunning Little Vixen / Welsh National Opera, Cardiff – 23+24 February 2013

2 Mar

WNO Lulu+VixenLast weekend had my first live experience of Welsh National Opera and I am delighted to report back I was left with the impression that this may be the finest regional company in the UK. Their programming under the directorship of David Pountney has been inspired and was intrigued by the pairing of his brand new staging for Lulu and his 1980 production for the Cunning Little Vixen. His style has evolved over the years but there is the unmistakable stamp of his touch and the total focus on the singers.

On the Saturday night seeing my first live Lulu was all too exciting and being at front row and getting the full blast of this truly outstanding orchestra it was a treat for the senses. The conducting of Lothar Koenigs was confident and brought out the underlying lyricism of the score without losing the steely edge that Berg imparted on it. The staging has a paired down freshness that makes a problematic work like Lulu look effortless. The use of colour for each of the scenes was distinctive and very conspicuous adding a layer of warmth but also a sense of separation between scenes .

The set is made up of a central round enclosure in untreated, gleaming metal sections that opens up for Act Two to make space for the wonderfully fleshy bed that Lulu and Alwa make love before they flee to Paris. For the other two Acts the enclosure remains closed and flanked by movable platforms that add entrances for the singers and multiple levels. The central core of the enclosure remains initially empty till a spiral staircase descends creating a new stage dynamic. Possibly the most effective use of it, is when the frosted tube enclosing the lower part of the metal cylinder reaches the floor and becomes the room that Lulu’s final killing by Jack the Ripper takes place. With Marie Arnet screaming a haunted nein before her blood splattered naked body rests again the semi transparent wall. A finale chilling and gruesome enough to make one take notice. All of this is overseen by a disturbing Hans Bellmer inspired sculpture made out of just legs featuring as the stand in for Lulu’s portrait and contributed to the overall surreal look. The industrial look of the set makes overt reference to the aesthetic of Oskar Schlemmer and his designs for the Bauhaus, a contemporary of Berg and a hugely influential figure in the world of avant-garde theatre. If ever there was a production that felt that it evokes Berg’s own times this is the one.

The performances overall were excellent, with a towering interpretation by Marie Arnet who acted the sexy siren and downtrodden prostitute with equal conviction. Her singing remaining exemplary throughout, without any sign of stress or discomfort. There are not many singers that can make Lulu resonate with humanity and retain that demimonde edge like Arnet and this being her role debut (at fairly short notice since she replaced the previously advertised Olga Pasichnyk) it was a complete triumph. From the rest of the cast Patricia Orr, Alan Oke, Natascha Petrinsky and Peter Hoare were the stand outs. All vocally assured and totally inhabiting the characters the detailed direction bestowed upon them. Particularly Natascha Petrinsky’s Duchess Geschwitz nearly stole the show with her alluring lesbianism and dominating stage presence. Pountney’s direction created a deeply hedonistic staging making this Lulu of international importance. He added a carnivalesque atmosphere (with some extraordinary animal heads ) and also some dark theatricality (with each dead protagonist having a dummy double that gets hoisted up the set using meat hooks) but above all he stresses the interaction between characters making this a very well resolved example of this unfinished modernist masterpiece.

Pountney’s direction for the Cunning Little Vixen is equally compelling, with much bouncy fun to be had and a truly adorable set, shaped like rolling hills, allowing for much slapstick comedy to take place. The excellent use of the suspended tree branches and three secondary characters added a touch of dynamism that made it feel very fresh (considering it was premiered in 1980!). The costumes by Maria Bjørnson were good enough to allude to the different animals (the mosquito, chickens and cockerel being particularly fine examples) but without making the production look excessively cartoony and contrived. The projection of anthropomorphism by Janacek on the Vixen and the animals around her is usually undermined by overt mimicking of the animals’ appearance at the expense of the expression and the tension between singer and costume. The production is sang in a rather entertaining English translation making the jokes flow and the audience reaction more immediate. The Vixen of Sophie Bevan was the most enchantingly glorious creature on stage, beaming personality and displaying a great sense of comic timing. Julian Boyce’s scruffy, predatory dog was the funniest thing on stage. Sarah Castle’s Fox was perky and despite a couple of times sounding shrill, a great addition with her outgoing enthusiasm. From the “grown up roles” Alan Oke was a bravura schoolmaster with a deliciously sharp temper.
The orchestra played a majestic account of the score finding a mid-point between glorious romantic tutti and much more incisive and playful incidental material. The glistening strings added sunshine to a windswept day in Cardiff, which is no mean feat. After seeing this production I can now agree to the classic status of the staging, it both draws from all our childhoods and it also beguiles with its lightness and unapologetically fun outlook. Lets hope that it will continue to live on and to entertain many more people.

On the surface it may seem an odd accident of programming to have these two operas performed in the same themed season (with addition of Madama Butterfly) but it was very useful to read David Pountney’s essay in the programme and I am delighted that the WNO has shared it on their website, go on have a read. If the above is not too obvious already, I was thoroughly impressed by the WNO and already started making plans to visit in the winter for their three Donizetti queens which should be a supreme, unmissable, operatic over-indulgence. If you are in the route of their extensive tour do not hesitate to book, both Lulu and Vixen are two productions that any of the London Houses would be delighted to claim as their own. They are imaginative, intelligent and above all serve the work they present with respect and have something to say.

The performance of Lulu from the 23rd of February I’m waxing lyrical about will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 25th of May at 6pm, tune in!

Curtain Call Video

WNO’s Guide to Lulu

WNO Lulu+Vixen list

Conrad at the opera / Heart of Darkness / Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House – 5 November 2011

8 Nov

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has been the source of many dramaturgical treatments through the years, from radio to tv to film. Hearing that it has been adapted into a chamber opera may have scared a lot of people but in the hands of Tarik O’Regan and Tom Phillips it was an intriguing endeavour.

For me the stand out feature of this collaboration is the long gestation period, it all started with an email from Phillips to O’Regan to suggest he takes on a serious subject and write his first opera in 2002. This was not an overnight slapdash operation, both collaborators clearly did their homework at great length. Phillips went over every word by Conrad in order to put together the libretto and he had the prudence to only use words from the book. A deliberate and very clever choice that stuck to his Victorian language without much modernisation. O’Regan listened to 1950s ethnographic recordings of Congolese music (frequently recorded with percussion and acoustic guitar) by Hugh Tracey and worked them into the texture of the piece. Clearly having someone with so much experience in the field was very useful, as O’Regan put it on a Tweet: ‘(having Tom Phillips on board) was like a lighthouse when the artistic fog crept in (no dry ice)!’*

To describe the soundworld of the work, one would have to point to a dual character, one more abstracted atmospheric music for the less narrative parts and a more synthetic, recitative heavy part with the work through structures and resonances of the recorded music from Belgian Congo.

This duality of soundworlds reflects both the dual perspective of the narration (young man at the River Congo vs old man at the River Thames) and also the much troubled and contested dual nature of Conrad’s novella. It has been claimed to be a narrative that took away the voice of the native African population and on the other hand it has been claimed to be an anti imperialist manifesto of sorts. The fact that this chamber opera reflects this confusing and still in flux reputation of the original and its author is a very clever move and one that makes the whole experience maybe a less satisfying theatrical experience but it creates the underpinnings of a true psychodrama. My first reaction after the end was how strong the emotional core of the work was. It is in turns moving and disturbing but it navigates the territory with dignity and with respect for the source material and for its troubled history. As O’Regan said at the preceding talk, he was well aware of the lack of action sequences from the book and that made it more of a challenge. Another intriguing and actually common sense approach to the endeavour was the 75 min length, which was likened to how long it would take Marlow to narrate the story. A simple idea but an indication of lack of a huge ego that dictates everything (very much a tactic that could have saved Nico Muhly’s Two Boys from it’s ponderous and saggy 2 hour+ slog).

The libretto and the composition gave emphasis to two key words that express the character of the book, remarkable man which is used to describe Kurtz and is reflecting the ambivalence of him as dual hero/anti-hero personality that runs through the story. Also the emphasis on the arrival of the rivets to fix the steamer and navigate the river with is adding a more comedic feel, a much needed relief from the darker mood up to that point.

The orchestra (CHROMA) played beautifully throughout the piece ably conducted by Oliver Gooch. Apart from the excellent performance by Alan Oke, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers was a creepy River Woman and a demure Fiancee with a wonderful smoky delivery. Morten Lassenius Kramp was a believable, delirious Kurtz with looks out of Baywatch 😉

The set was a wood plank platform hovering over a reflective pool of water and suspended ropes creating a suitable flexible environment that was morphing from Thames to Congo River with the use of lighting and some smoke. A suitably sleek but not overwrought environment to show off the material but not to overwhelm it. Both Opera East Production and ROH2 should be very proud of how it turned out. And hope they can fulfil their ambition to tour the work next year. 

Heart of Darkness managed what a lot of contemporary opera does not care about, emotion. The woven textures of the score and the beautiful singing by the dedicated cast was a joy to listen to, but more importantly an emotional experience, like the best of opera it touched the audience. 

Tweets from the night:


Anna Nicole

2 Mar

I’m putting out there a few of my thoughts after seeing the opera this evening, feel free to comment and share your views on it.

Why I went
When I booked my tickets back in October 2010 I did on the strength of my fantastic experience with Niobe Regina di Tebe which was brilliant and totally out of the usual fare at Covent Garden. A new commission was carrying the promise of something interesting and a possibility to see a work outside the usual canonical programming choices. Another important motivation was the cast, having Eva-Maria Westbroek and Gerald Finley committing themselves to the project left very little doubt in my mind that it would be worthwhile.
Let’s fast forward a few months and March 1st arrives and my turn has come! Today was the fifth performance of the work and my chance to experience it. Read a number of reviews in the last week and a half since the premiere and had seen far too many production shots to have a good idea what the opera was like!
The music writing
The friend that accompanied me found it accomplished but cold and superficial. Which got us talking on what avenue Turnage took with Anna Nicole. He went for a (well reported by this stage) bluesy, US jazz sound with echoes of Stravinsky in his US retirement. In many ways that could be seen as a safe choice verging on the superficial route. In my mind he could have gone a much more melodramatic route and give us a Traviata for the 21st century and I’m glad he didn’t do that. The writing is fairly small-scale in most passages with more focused crescendi around pivotal points in the plot. It allows the singing to shine through and in my mind the two absolute stars with the best material were Anna Nicole (Eva-Maria Westbroek) and old man Marshall (Alan Oke). They were given enough interaction with other characters and they both managed to create warm stage personas that could communicate to the audience the heart of the story.
I thought it was very effective and actually it felt less glitzy than the publicity shots, which was a very positive surprise. One major failure was the way they portrayed Wal-Mart (as the archetypal evil empire…all very original, I know), with the same old faceless workers trying to make ends meet with the minimum wage. The supposed ironic use of the uniform to show their unhappiness just felt too cliché and surely needed a lighter hand…maybe Richard Jones got carried away by the really didactic bit of libretto that accompanied the scene?

Westbroek, gave us an Anna Nicole that is playful, vulnerable, ignorant, dependant, questioning, loving, fun, compassionate. She had also captured some of Smith’s physical expressions and body characteristics that gave her a theatrical completeness. The way she carried herself in the Larry King interview scene was masterful, she was a lovable rogue, at once a junkie and at the same time a girl with dreams and an acute love of dogs *giggle*. All very Anna Nicole and surely a great shorthand for Smith’s public persona. The way she was personified I felt compassion and even protective of her and never thought she was becoming a monstrous caricature, which in my eyes is a major achievement.

The od(bv)ious elephant in the room
The Libretto, Richard Thomas came up with a million and one descriptions of breasts which it momentarily amused but quickly seemed overwrought and silly. Another major misstep were the ariettas written for Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mother (Susan Bickley), a lot of the reviews I have read praise her as the moral centre to this tale of celebrity excess. I have to disagree, most of the lines she was given were just preachy and trite. Especially at the close of Act One her description of the relationship of men and women was going to such an extreme to make it plain show-offish gibberish, was Thomas just trying too hard to shock with adding cum bucket in the libretto? It did not shock me, it just made me question his motives and the more I think the less I trust his heart, with this character, was in the right place. Also another mention that was really pointless and just there for effect was in Finlay’s “Hollywood” moment in the Second Act where he mentions her lesbian PA and how Anna Nicole was riding her…it just seemed such an easy way to a gag that made it pointless and with an unwelcome hint of misogyny. Another issue for me was in the,otherwise, truly effective finale when he made Anna Nicole utter America you whore, which was just a horribly predictable and cliché response to the shuttering of the American dream. For me it ruined a couple of minutes of her monologue before the end which was a true shame, as Eva-Maria was truly remarkable as she is dying in a maelstrom of cameras recording her last moments.

In Conclusion
Anna Nicole may not be revolutionary theatrically or musically but is an interesting addition to the annals of contemporary opera. It was thrilling to watch, despite it’s -mainly- textual failings. The story is coming through loud and clear and the space for character development is there and all it needs is a really good cast to sympathise with the material and bring it to life. The Royal Opera has indeed endowed it’s first outing with a wonderful cast that is both inspirational and starry. For me the greatest achievement of the night was Eva-Maria giving a heart-felt performance with true empathy and understanding. I really hope that we will see her more and more in London in the coming years as she is a truly interesting singer with a great voice and magnetic presence. Of course the big overall question is how much will the work suffer in the hands of a less charismatic lead? I do think a less engaging soprano will expose the numerous shortcomings of the libretto. Let’s hope that if the production is sold to another company or when it returns to the Royal Opera they will iron out some of the clunky dialogue and crass references that have no place in it and do actually jar with the music.

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