Tag Archives: Allan Clayton

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

 

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Lucretia at the gravel pit / The Rape of Lucretia / Glyndebourne – 19 October 2013

28 Oct

Rape of LucretiaWho doesn’t love going to Glyndebourne…especially with decent weather. The second visit of the year (trying not to bankrupt myself) was an equally exciting one. Watching Britten’s Lucretia in the house it was written for (OK not quite the same building, the 1946 theatre had only 300 seats and the shape of a local gym, but the intimacy of the scale is near enough the same) was hugely exciting. It is sobering to think that Britten managed to compose Lucretia in four months, the length of time being disproportionate to the level of invention, effectiveness of the orchestration and depth of expression.

Fiona Shaw tackled the awkward ambivalence of the Christian chorus and the idolatrous Roman protagonists with a flattening of the environment to what amounted to an archeological dig.

The curtain opened before the overture to the Male Chorus face down in the black gravel with a spade nearby with only a yellow construction/archaeological dig light on the side. Shaw proposes that the Romans and their sordid tales are excavated from the darkness of this pit and brought to light. An interesting idea that given the touring nature of the production was realised very satisfactorily by Michael Levine. The black cloth covering most of the stage gets propped to create a giant tent for Tarquinius and his soldiers to rest under. A simple but very functional use of stage and minimal props. After the first scene the cloth gets removed revealing the rest of the gravel expanse that is quickly dug up by the two Chorus singers to reveal the footings of a Roman villa. A shorthand way to draw space without the use of a heavy set. The sparseness surely directed our attention to the singers. In a piece of such spare scoring and naked emotion it was a great match. My only qualm would be whether the iconography of an excavation (aside from any ridiculous Time Team analogies) has much currency for a general audience. But overall the bleak blackness of the set in contrast with the backdrop being illuminated to give an impression of the time of day was a moody environment to present one of Britten’s most paired down and darkly beguiling scores. This first chamber opera was the opening salvo for him that possibly culminated in his most beautiful score, The Turn of the Screw another small ensemble piece that packs a big punch.

Early on the conversation between Junius and Tarquinius about virtue and women raised a few eyebrows and knowing little chirps of giggles in the audience

JUNIUS: Virtue in women is a lack of opportunity

TARQUINIUS: Lucretia’s chaste as she is beautiful

JUNIUS: Women are chaste when they are not tempted.

In Shaw’s world of unshaken domesticity it is the libidinous Tarquinius (all muscle and swagger as portrayed by Duncan Rock) that transforms Lucretia from the chaste mother (she added a fictional daughter in the cast to elicit extra sympathy for the heroine) and wife to an equally disgraced Roman, her life destroyed by a sexual act. Britten’s work never quite clarifies the rights and wrongs of Lucretia’s rape. The contemporary viewer aided by the Chorus look in but the work fails to show a lack of attraction on her part. What seems equivocal in its title becomes murky. That moral ambivalence when put through as clearly is a numbing conclusion.

Shaw also concentrated on the ritualistic element of the piece adding symbolist touches to amplify inherent meaning, the Roman head rested in the finale on the outline of the house made to resemble a cross symbolising the dawn of Christianity, the faith of the Male and Female Chorus…with Valentine throwing her bible across the set moments earlier added a menacing touch maybe pointing to the helplessness of faith.

The rape scene was disturbing and captivating in Tarquinius’ near cinematic slow movement across Lucretia’s house to her bed chamber. Duncan Rock’s muscular physique played to the raffish nature of the character and his brutal sense of ownership and entitlement. Now why did the two Chorus singers continue to dig during the shameful conclusion of the scene in the black rubble is an awkward moment in the direction that while it solidifies the movement to a sculptural stillness it also takes away the muscularity of the struggle. I can imagine how this excavation-chic konzept can suggest that conclusion and being chosen purely for its visual impact. But if you add the famously anti-climactic and wet Christianity of the final dialogue by the Chorus I would have preferred a more dynamic, brutal final struggle.

The singing by the whole cast was excellent and extremely moving. Both Kate Valentine and Allan Clayton were spectacular in their articulation of the text with clear as glass diction and a melancholic sweetness. I have seen them both sing many times before and this is a definite career highlight. They embodied the moral voice of the work with such authority even a few unconvincing directorial flourishes in the form of an awkward sexual scene (in matching powder blue underwear, nonetheless) could not spoil the sturdy framework they offered for all the other performances to hang from.

Our Lucretia did make a great entrance almost like the raising of Lazarus, her long white scarf dragging her out of the ubiquitous gravel pit at stage left…the location of the rape an hour later. The aesthetic choice of her white outfit that keeps getting slowly tarnished by contact to a smeared tar-like dishevelment was a brilliant choice. Claudia Huckle used her velvety contralto and lithe physique for a devastating portrayal of the central heroine. A mother but above all a universal woman who takes her destiny in her own hands trying to protect her family and posthumous reputation.

Oliver Dunn and David Soar offered very strong supporting performances and Catherine Wyn-Rogers (unbelievably in her house debut) showered the stage with charisma and deep empathy for her mistress. The glassy coloratura of Ellie Laungharne in the spinning and flower arranging scene was a vivid image of sensitivity and quiet horror.

The playing by the orchestra under Nicholas Collon was exemplary and embraced the angularity of line with the near pastoral woodwind solos. Britten’s addition of a piano creates a continuo kind of richness but with a disturbing clang that underlines the cruelty of the story.

If you are not convinced by all the above to go and see it, I’ll urge you anyway. Even if Britten doesn’t quite move you enough, this production in all its stark splendour makes a great advocate for this jewel of a score accompanied by an immaculate cast.

Rape of Lucretia list

A production video courtesy of Glyndebourne

Some tweets from the evening

George Benjamin: Written on Skin / Aix-en-Provence Festival – Live relay at Ciné Lumière – 14 July 2012

17 Jul

There has been a lot of commenting and high hopes for  George Benjamin’s new opera (co-produced by Festival d’Aix-en-Provence with the Nederlandse Opera, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino) and I was compelled to pop into the Institut Français to check out the live broadcast from Aix.

The story is based on a medieval Occitan legend from the 12th century. It encompasses the arrival of a manuscript illuminator and how the domestic balance gets upturned via amorous approaches and finally murder. Structured in three parts, it lasts around 100 minutes without interval.

The cast have taken on a mammoth challenge, especially Barbara Hannigan who has the very physical and vocally demanding role of Agnès.  She is matched by Christopher Purves’ macho presence and rock solid singing. Bejun Mehta’s presence and singing did not excite me as much . The work has a series of duets amongst the three main protagonists which become the central spine of the dramatic development. The all pervading darkness in both subject matter, interpretation and musical language may put off some people, but it is ultimately a very challenging, accomplished piece of work. The writing is very singer friendly and there are some stunning final tutti where the soloist and the orchestra become one. Part of the excitement of the piece is the sheer physical nature of the singing required and the amount of committed acting. The directing by Katie Mitchell may not be to everyone’s taste, as the ambiguities of flashbacks and past/present interrelationships become too frequently blurred, and also requiring a lot of awkward on stage costume swaps.  The boy may be the pivotal character, but Hannigan is the centre of attention, with her fragile appearance she seems to live in this world of feudal power and intense, internalised passion that looks for an outlet. Her frequent outbursts are powerful and affecting.

The three central characters are ushered/attended by Marie and John who take on a role of the peripheral action that adds more depth/detail and help with the scene transitions. Sang with great gusto by Rebecca Jo Loeb and  Allan Clayton.

Overall it is an intense, dystopian world full of anxieties and co-dependencies. An intriguing mix of the medieval and the contemporary. Potentially some of the most darkly sexy opera this side of Lulu. Do go and see it at any of the touring venues or watch the archived stream on Medici.tv  (annoyingly not available in the UK). I will most definitely book for it’s Royal Opera staging on 8 | 11 | 16 | 18 | 22 Mar 2013.

My top 11 discoveries / realisations of 2011

19 Dec

This was a pretty intense year and thought it would be good to make a list of inspirational mainly operatic highs of 2011

1 Twitter

It was the first full year that I’ve used the network as a great resource for news and also as direct communication on matters operatic and not. Met some great people through it and started some very interesting conversations.

2 Beverly Sills

This year I immersed myself in the recorded output of the diva from Brooklyn. A great artist with an intriguing personality to boot. Surely one of the finest coloratura sopranos of the 20th century and worth going back to her for renewal and inspiration.

3 Veronique Gens

The year (almost) started with her magisterial Niobe at Covent Garden and finished with her fantastic  recital at Wigmore Hall. A diva cut off the old cloth of greatness.

4 Allan Clayton

First noticed him this year in a small part in Britten’s Dream, then I saw him triumph in Castor and Pollux and L’Enfance du Christ. A loud voice for the future, hope ENO and RO will give him more substantial roles to sink his teeth into.

5 Iestyn Davis

Never one for countertenors, but his performance in Britten’s Dream was magnetic and his Niobe contribution very substantial. A young British voice to shake up the world of opera and early music.

6 LSO

Have always loved the London Symphony Orchestra but this year they have been stunning. Also one of the most adept to Twitter orchestras on the planet. A band all Londoners should be proud of and should patronise with frequency.

7 Anne Sophie von Otter

Like a well aged Claret, ASvO is a European treasure. Her captivating Wigmore Hall recital was intoxicating to the max. Greatness without the hollow diva attitude. Looking forward to her LSO collaboration early in  February 2012.

8 Alice Coote

Listened to her sing Les nuits d’été years ago at the Proms and was terribly impressed, her triumphantly sulky Prince Charmant in Cendrillon was breathtaking. Her upcoming Winterreise  at Wigmore Hall will be an early highlight of 2012 (there are still a few tickets left, grab them quickly!)

9 Joyce DiDonato

The Yankeediva is a charismatic performer that elevated Cendrillon to stratospheric heights, her Ariodante was to die for, despite the awful orchestra and still a fun Twitter person to have disagreements and banter with.

10 Mark-Anthony Turnage

He gave us Anna Nicole, which was plethoric in its gay abandon and a great showcase for the considerable gifts of Eva Maria Westbroek, the darkness of Twice Through the Heart with the excellent Sarah Connolly and his remarkable music for Undance.

11 Sylvie Guillem

Managed to see her new mixed bill evening at Sadler’s Wells in its two outings back in early July and late September. She was absolutely wonderful both times. A rare dance treat. She continues to be the measure of all dancers, a standard for excellence.

If you had an epiphany of an artistic nature in 2011, feel free to add your top whatever in the comment section and Merry Xmas 😉

The holy conversion of George / Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ / Britten Sinfonia / Sir Mark Elder / Brighton Dome – 10 December 2011

17 Dec

Dear reader, this has been a long time coming, but it has been a very busy week! I almost managed not to see this Enfance due to my stupidity at copying the wrong details in my cloud residing diary. So instead of the front row of the Queen Elizabeth Hall I daytripped down to Brighton for the third and last performance by this distinguished ensemble.

The singers were hand picked and Mark Elder has a unique gift and insight with Berlioz, I was expecting to be impressed but what I experienced was nearing to a cheesy holy conversion. No denying the fact this was one of the most glorious evenings of live music making of 2011.

Having Alan Clayton as the narrator was a brilliant move. He has such an extraordinary instrument (that truly shone in the recent Castor & Pollux at English National Opera) a beautiful sweet middle tone with a ringing Italian sounding bright top. A wonderful combination that elevates what he sings into another level. His narration was full of empathy and wonderfully subtle French, with true chemistry with the orchestra and the exemplary direction by Mark Elder.

Neal Davis, offered an impassioned Herod in the first half and a much more dramatically attuned Ishmaelite in the second. He surely had the power and expressive detailing right, but somehow his instrument does not possess the required darkness to add a more sinister tone to Herod’s outpouring of despair and resolve to order the death of the newborn Jesus. In Scene 4: Chaque nuit, Le même songe m’épouvante/Every night,The same dream terrifies me; where he retells his dream was beautifully realised but lacked the edge a darker timbre could bring. He is a wonderful singer but I can’t stop thinking he was miscast as Herod, his Ishmaelite was full of empathy and kindness.

Sarah Connolly was frankly a luxury in the small part of the Virgin Mary. She was excellent, as usual, giving a very simple but heartfelt portrayal and surely making a beautiful partner to Roderick Williams’ warm and softly sang Joseph.

Britten Sinfonia produced a very even, forward sound, with a rich tone, very appropriate to the piece. When it had to sound more saccharine in the end of part one for the Virgin Mary’s first appearance : Ô mon cher fils/O my dear son, they lived up to it, creating a velvety carpet for the sweet delivery by Sarah Connolly and the first duet with Roderick Williams. That was the first chance to hear the choir of angels which was off stage, sounding weightless and all round pure.

The recently founded Britten Sinfonia Voices first made a strong impression on the second intervention as the Soothsayers: La voix dit vrai, seigneur/The voice is right, Sire with their unwavering keeping up with Elder’s vivid tempo and alertness.

The opening of the second half was where the most rich demonstration of how amazing this ensemble was, came through. The opening Overture was a delight, a rich oriental clarinet infused eastern fantasy. Elder shaping the music into a voluptuous romantic essay in orientalism. The confident delivery by the male choristers representing the shepherds was a great intro to the most turbulent section of the piece, Allan Clayton’s narration of the flight from Egypt was full of colour and dramatic tension. Especially when he was quoting the Virgin Mary in the desert, against a rich carpet of violins underlying every word, he reached for his ringing upper register and then plunged to his chest voice for the finale, at that dramatic point a fly flew itself straight into the face of our tenor, which lightened ever so slightly the scene 😉 With the fly attack successfully averted the choir of angels exalted hallelujah!

With the fly still buzzing in the air, Clayton continued into part three, The arrival at Saïs. Where with great tenderness he described the hardships of the Holy Family in the desert and their arrival in Saïs. His tone was wonderfully soft and the emphasis on every word brought the story to life. The concluding:  Pleine de gens cruels, au visage hautain. Oyez combien dura la navrante agonie Des pélerins cherchant un asile et du pain! / Full of cruel, haughty-looking people.Hear how the distressing agony was to continue. For these pilgrims seeking shelter and bread! was possibly some of the most accomplished singing I’ve heard all year. The upcoming section by Connolly was equally dreamy, almost a mirage of a Virgin Mary at the edge of death. A desperate plea for Joseph to knock on a door was more dramatic than the text would suggest. Williams gave an impassioned good boy impression of Joseph that made the aggressive chorus sound even more hostile. The interwoven texture of the music with the two suffering characters and a forceful chorus, reminded me of a lot of French baroque opera with a begging scene where the hero and heroine ask for mercy. Here the balance between orchestra chorus and soloists was perfect, it was alive, dynamically propelled but unified. A great moment of the evening where the luxury casting bore unexpected fruit.

The next section was a triumph for Davies, who found a resonant bass sound for the Ishmaelite father showing compassion and understanding for the plight of the Holy Family. The culmination came with a brief trio, where Connolly gave a perfect example of a more introverted, classy dramatic power befitting the character. Plus d’alarmes/And my worries was sang out with conviction and true relief, a finale that is dramatic and a wonderful conclusion to the story.

The trio for two flutes and harp made Elder move to stage left to conduct at arms length the soloists, with a delicacy and luscious sound that brought to mind early music. Another great idea by Berlioz that was brought to life in the most captivating fashion. This part of L’Enfance is possibly where the dramatic arc can seriously sag but not under the baton of Sir Mark, this was truly lovely and got a very loud applause by the audience.

The Epilogue with its long string intro reminding me oddly of boats gliding in the night to port, created the perfect opening for an imposing closing section. Clayton clearly relishing every minute of it, singing in a light and reflective timbre, laced with soft vibrato. Even Neal Davies was enjoying the concluding moments, listening with his eyes shut, who can really blame him! The verve of the conducting and the attention to detail introduced once more the choir with breathtaking results, I can vouch at feeling my heart racing through the last ten minutes, reaching the culmination of such an extraordinary ride was both cathartic and truly glorious. Berlioz’s genius shone through. Britten Sinfonia put its heart into the music and the soloists added the splendid final flourish to an unforgettable evening. For me possibly one of the best live performances this year. As the gentleman in the front row (that disrupted Sir Mark’s long pause after the finale) with his enthusiastic applause and jump from his seat, felt too!

Some tweets from the night

Fight Club at the Opera / Castor and Pollux / English National Opera – 28 October 2011

31 Oct

It comes one of those nights where you really expect to hate the performance as on paper all odds are against it. On Friday I was expecting to hate the translation, the staging, the very idea of having baroque opera at the Coliseum. That was not a very promising start to it!

The performance was of the revised version of the opera from 1754 with some additions from the earlier 1737 version. The orchestra was made up of modern instruments with baroque bows and wooden flutes. conducted by Christian Curnyn (quite frequently aided by a black pencil in place of a baton) raised above the deep orchestra pit and almost meeting the front of the stage.

The set can only be described as a cross of a Finnish sauna with a garage made out of birch panelling from Ikea. As you can see from the photo above, a large box with a number of full length screens that create compartments in three different zones. For the final act the back panel disappears for Jupiter to arrive. Having a box containing the action and also helping to amplify the voices in the large space has become a convention for modern directed early operas. A similar construction was used at the Royal Opera House last year for Niobe Regina di Tebe. The set design is by Katrin Lea Tag.

Barrie Kosky made his London directorial debut with this production and from the very first minutes it became clear his direction was very physical. There are a number of macho fighting scenes between the two brothers and the eventual murderer of the mortal Castor. With blooded fists and abundant kicking and bashes against the side of the box. After the killing of Castor, Pollux in turn avenges the death by killing the perpetrator, with the choir dragging the bloodied body around the stage reminiscent of the recent footage of the capture and execution of  Gadaffi in Libya. A truly chilling image not expected in the quaint world of the baroque.

Due to that hardcore ultra violent base framework it will not come as a surprise to mention that the dances provided by Rameau are not interpreted on stage by ballet dancers. The first couple become almost party pieces for the choir and later on the singers are acting and even running around the stage to fill the emptiness. In some cases is more successful than others and since the ballets contain some of his most beautiful melodies I am grateful that so many of them have been included.

The main feature of the stage for a large part of the evening is a humongous mount of slate coloured sand. Creating a hill for the singers to run up to and a portal between hell and earth. On first appearance the screen lifts and the mount shows up shrouded in smoke, not sure if they were going for a Mount Olympus like look, but in reality it looked more like a steaming compost head (a rather unfortunate image to have in one’s head for the duration of the evening). Knowing how tight the budgets are at ENO I can understand how this solution was chosen for its flexibility and visual impact. The first proper use for the heap of sand is the mourning by Telaire (Sophie Bevan) of the bloodied body of Castor (Allan Clayton), who she buries during her powerful aria that expresses her love and sadness. The very burial of the body in such an exposed fashion does have an overtly emotional impact on the proceedings and for me gave added depth and humanity. Much has been written about the nudity and the two maidens of the many panties that accost Pollux. They were not really necessary to the action but added a wry interest in a couple of pretty innocuous moments in the score. Watching a programme with Katie Price is bound to be more shocking than some of those unclothed moments. Most notoriously the mount becomes the site for a masturbation scene with Phebe lying with legs spread and a disembodied arm projecting from the sand, pleasuring her. A slightly puzzling moment before she meets her maker!

The performance of the orchestra was very satisfying and the conducting was clearly supportive of the singers. The three out of the four protagonists were absolutely excellent. Roderick Williams and his velvety baritonal timbre gave us a humble, selfless but grand Pollux who managed to look great singing for 20 minutes in his underwear 😉 Allan Clayton’s Castor was tragic and brave with raw physicality and a voice full of emotional charge and ebullient spark. Sophie Bevan gave us two spectacular arias that truly embraced the rawness of the material and was not scared to show total commitment and fluency. For me the character of Phebe (Laura Tatulescu) was not fleshed appropriately for us to care. The singing was good enough (with the odd sharp vowel) but she seemed to have to reach the end of her range to hit a few of the high notes, looking a touch uncomfortable. Entrusting the central characters to an excellent young team was a fantastic move. The stage is buzzing with energy the total opposite of the static stagings of old.

The translation was much better flowing than expected but sometimes did create obstacles e.g. when Bevan was trying to trill while uttering the word weeping…it just looked unnecessarily difficult. But the performances by the cast made any translation issues fade into insignificance.

Despite a few flow glitches and some oddities with the direction. This presentation of Castor and Pollux is a wonderful night out, filled with excellent singing and a plethora of quirky little details, like the finale where the two brothers depart after they become stars by Jupiter, leaving behind their shoes. Which they get covered in silver dust that falls from the ceiling in two infinite streams sparkling like thousands of stars. A coup de théâtre that closes the evening with a hint of magic.

It is running till 1 December, if you are in London and have a passing interest or curiosity for French baroque opera, give it a try, surely you are bound to be impressed by the singing if not the production as a whole. We should be celebrating and supporting new singers of this calibre, it’s all good and well to pop in to see the swan song of Placido Domingo at Covent Garden but the young artists that are getting their big break with great repertoire are at the ENO, indeed they create the future of opera as their PR suggests.

If you can’t make it, there will be a broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 26 November, tune in. (Edit: It was only actually broadcast on 14 January 2012)

Tweets from the night:

Comment on The Observer website: 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/discussion/comment-permalink/13068075

Castor and Pollux in Rehearsal video

Handbags at dawn or protecting the family silver / Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream / ENO – 21 May 2011

22 May

I have to confess at being a total Britten virgin and this time round I went to see the new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the English National Opera on a whim (only bought the tickets the day before the opening). While following all the reactions of bloggers and critics on Twitter I was fascinated by the genuine dialogue it was creating. Lets say there was a buzz in the air. It was a shame to hear that Iestyn Davies was vocally indisposed and he was only acting the part while a stand in was singing from the side of the stage (he was absolutely fantastic as Creonte in Steffani’s Niobe Regina di Tebe which was on last year at Covent Garden) but the other main reason for seeing it was my total inexperience with Britten’s operatic output. I systematically had avoided his work as it seemed to lack passion and any compositional radicalism.

Reading numerous reviews the day after the first performance I was intrigued by the division between the reviewers into the offended old crowd that thought the family silver had been pilfered and a much younger group that thought it was as exciting, if not even more, than Faust that preceded the production at the Coliseum. A particular example that created an avalanche of Tweets was Stephen Jay-Taylor’s “review” that had all the qualities of a gossip session over the garden fence. He has been writing for aeons but that fact does not give him a carte blanche to insult performers in order to please his enlarged sense of self.

Having seen the production this evening I can say that I am terribly surprised that such irresponsible rubbish has been written about it. Why is Britten’s work seen as the sacred cow of British operatic tradition? Himself partially used Shakespeare’s play and wasn’t too bothered with authenticity, why does a change of context create such an amount of discomfort and apparent sense of threat? Christopher Alden did give us a very uneasy ride by siting the action in front of a forbidding Victorian school all painted grey(a nice touch was that the right hand side part of the set was jutting beyond the proscenium, agitating the space in the process). Surely we did not get the fantastical wood that Britten’s own provincial first production in 1960 has had. But Alden does make an interesting allusion to the composer’s personal life and his perception by the people around him. He creates an uncomfortable story of child abuse that is insinuated through the relationship of teacher Oberon and his chosen student. A clever reference to Britten’s obvious fascination with boys throughout his life and operatic career. Even though there is no evidence of any impropriety Alden is inviting us to look through the eyes of Britten’s contemporaries in 1960, while he was rehearsing the piece it must have seemed to a lot of people totally unnatural a mature man to cast a cornucopia of young boys in his latest opera and to have them rehearse in a barn in the middle of nowhere. That very core of his idea about the composer is what can be seen as gratuitous and an easy shot. But I can vouch that it actually works on stage. It brings Britten’s own demons to the fore with the cruel reality of school thrown in for good measure.

The set is providing for hidden looks and touching between Oberon and his Changeling Boy, creating an intriguing mix of psychological terror and a tableaux of shadows that gets exploited in numerous ways. A very telling scene is in the second act when Oberon leaves behind Tytania who is smoking in a depressed state while he walks off stage with the boy. Till he reappears in 15-20 mins all sorts of ideas circle in the minds of the audience. Another creepy detail is when Oberon stops singing his aria out of the window of the classroom his “best boy” is helping him put his jacket on. And that is the way Alden’s sub plot is working, by suggestion. He has not gone for any coarse means but by association he leads his audiences mind to wonder into some very dark recesses. Now that is the kind of thinking process that would never take place had we had a pretty wood on stage. This kind of total rethink of the plot may seem an anathema to some purists but as a newcomer to Britten found it meaningful and an interesting diversion from a well trodden path, where staging an opera amounts to performance archaeology and nothing more. This darkness in setting and intentions has also another effect, it amplifies that almost film noir elements of the score. All the slightly dissonant keyboard playing and the haunting long phrasing of the strings seems dark and airless on top of a gleaming, textural couverture of pizzicati strings and bells.

The third act brings a hilarious staging of the play within a play (Thisbe and Pyramus), the audience tonight found it very funny and there was a lot of laughing echoing in the auditorium, in contrast it seems to what a couple of spiteful reviewers were reporting from the première. Willard White was really going for broke and delivered some very funny moments and also an emotionally charged moment when he almost directed the school children / fairies to use the whole of the building as a giant drum kit in order to accompany their singing. Michael Colvin’s Flute (Thisbe) was really funny in pink tights and sang very well his “heroine’s” last moments.

Anna Christy sang her torturous high coloratura with the frivolous outlook of a leggera soprano. Her singing was beautiful and being made to parade the stage in your bra while singing some killer aria is not an easy task. She gave us the frumpiest Tytania in the history of the stage but she had the stage presence to be a fantastic companion to Oberon.

Iestyn Davies did actually sing tonight, his voice was as beautiful as ever but in the first couple of scenes he sounded guarded and seemed not to push too hard, his subdued instrument making his presence feel weak. But it’s totally understandable when he is not very well. After the interval he sounded much more comfortable and the volume increased too. Even for people that find counter tenors tedious I can imagine finding his attractive silver tinged delivery appealing.

Two other definite stand outs where Allan Clayton (Lysander) and Kate Valentine (Helena), their duets where beautiful and with a very confident and assertive vocal positioning.

All in all I am relieved to report that there was not a hint of boo from the audience. Everyone was appreciative of the great efforts from the choir, orchestra (under the vibrant baton of Leo Hussain) and soloists. Britten’s crystalline structures came through and the clarity of the playing was just a joy. I don’t think he will ever be my favourite composer but tonight was a great start of looking into more of his works in the coming seasons. One criticism I would have of this first outing of the production (as referred to by Alexandra Coghlan) was the profusion of wall touching…most of the characters spend inordinate amounts of time feeling the grey walls. An exaggeration that sometimes took us away from the moment. But that hopefully can be looked at and corrected and not seen as an Alden signature.

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