Tag Archives: Barnaby Rea

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

 

Advertisements

One week, two Flutes, two productions, two cities / The Magic Flute / English National Opera + Scottish Opera / 15 + 21 October 2012

3 Nov

Oh how funny the repertoire planning of opera houses can be…you wait for one Magic Flute  and two show up concurrently. With a third one to be added early 2013 by the Royal Opera.

Had the chance to watch two very different productions of The Magic Flute in one week. The 1986 effort by Nicholas Hytner for English National Opera, a breakthrough and much revived production and the brand new production by Thomas Allen for Scottish Opera. In many ways they both had a traditional outlook but it was fascinating seeing the ways two directors resolved the same problems.

Hytner’s production was justifiably famous and much loved. This was the final run of performance before retiring it. The white semi circular set opening to more colourful stage pictures still looks modern and verging on a historicising minimalism. His witty touches such as the coup de theatre when Papagena appears in a bird nest being lowered to the stage was a ingenious mix of imagination and pertinent visual humour. The appearance of Papageno complete with trained doves that come from backstage and land on his cage every time he uses his pipe is an enchanting piece of stagecraft that is simple as it is effective.

After all the Magic Flute is a magical singspiel that has more than a passing reference to the child in all of us and most notably Mozart himself. Its pretty ridiculous story trajectory can only convince as the story telling of a grown up child being mystified by what the proper adults are up to. The secret society behind Sarastro becomes unexplained and hazy with most of the storytelling effort put into the primary characters and their quest for love. The sparse white set becomes the confusing world Tamino explores with a sense of wonder and trepidation. The lack of stage clutter afforded the singers the time to establish a relationship with the audience.
Hytner’s take is very formal, his Flute has no camp jollity but in this last revival it had space for the brilliantly zany Papageno of Duncan Rock, a handsome über-Australian interpretation with idiomatic banter and a spontaneous sense of fun. His Papagena was also a very geographically specific creature. Rhian Lois was a totally camp Welsh caricature appearing as a hunchbacked tea lady pushing a trolley. This in keeping with the singers’ specific attributes took the 18th century inspired costumes to a different place, bringing the narrative stagecraft in touch with reality but not a current, stand up comedy sensibility. Rock calling the last two doves to enter the cage Kylie and Jason was hilarious and played on his on-stage persona. The Masonic scenes where staged in front of a gilded full height hieroglyph punched screen with Sarastro and his circle in white robes, again adorned with hieroglyphs. The break in the action was decisive and clear cut. Also the creation of the bedroom where Pamina is kept captive was set up with an impressive length of red fabric being released and draped on a mattress in the middle of the stage. A graphic, bold look that was very memorable. This revival had the good fortune to have Elena Xanthoudakis in great form, singing her heart out and acting with total conviction. The second act was a tour de force and it was very difficult to take our eyes off her.

Tom Allen’s take was on a more Bacchanalian scale. His set and characters are more the ones of a variety show than an opera and in many ways all the better for it. Plucking a deferential Nicky Spence from a side of the stage box and thrown to the stage complete with a libretto was a good laugh out idea. But it also saddled our leading man with a gormless naivete for the length of the performance. His direction was miles away from Hytner’s respectful and much more cool-headed approach.
The production has a very local feel, Allen mined the steam punk iconography and the bric-a-brac of the Hunterian Museum into a volatile mix of dry ice overload and sexiness. The set was an amalgam of Jules Verne and shiny matt gold automaton. The central aperture at the centre back of the stage configured in different shapes and sizes was the main entry for new characters creating a dramatic focus on the singers. While the sets and costumes are busy the production doesn’t feel cluttered. It is essentially a production by a singer for the singers. Some visual touches that make it memorable has to be the three boys that seem to float at the back of the stage with their propeller parasols adding a picture book panache.

To call the overall look 19th century industrial pornography would be very accurate and in most aspects it works. The only major failing was how Sarastro was presented (in trendy fitted coat with flashes of black leather) his religious/masonic function totally eradicated as he presides over this industrial music hall, as the curtain adornment betrays (a proscenium like add on to the curtain with lights and ‘the secret of life’ and ‘Sarastro’ scribbled on it. But overall the clever characterisation and the hilarious dialogue made up for any directorial shortcomings. Our Papageno, Richard Burkhard, was refreshingly different to the suave and luminous Rock. He played it for laughs…hilariously when imploring for a girlfriend he refers in desperation suggesting that a boy would rather have him instead. We didn’t get the Great British Bake Off (as on the opening couple of performances) joke this time but just a reference to Mr Kipling’s cakes. As it tours around Scotland I can only imagine how much fun he will have with the topical references.
Nicky Spence sang with great assurance for most of the night and looked surely the part in the beautiful costumes by Simon Higlett, like the rest of the cast. His recent Novice for the new ENO Billy Dudd was costumed so abysmally everyone on stage apart from the high ranking seamen looked like they wore potato sacks. The costumes for the Queen of the Night and the Three Ladies were a particular highlight, all fibre optic lighting and glitter. Morriya’s singing was spectacular, with beautiful runs and pin point coloratura it was a shame that her Pamina was a rather pale creature in the hands of Laura Mitchell but the humorous banter and  innuendo ridden sexiness of the Ladies made up for any characterisation shortcomings.

On the orchestral side of things, ENO’s orchestra had a much more idiomatic, sweetly chromatic sound under the baton of Nicholas Collon who gave a solid and dreamy reading. Reflecting largely the more romantic staging. While the Scottish Opera Orchestra sounded much better than the last time I heard them live. But there was a bit too much steam and not enough dream in the heavily propelled reading by Ekhart Wycik. But then it is worth noting that Scottish Opera is the only major UK company to not have any artistic staff on its permanent roster, on the aftermath of a well publicised financial fall out. The orchestra has just been declared a co-operative which hopefully will help them settle into a more stable pattern of working and achieve a more unified sound. But overall the singers seemed very well drilled and the chorus offered some memorable singing.

Overall this Scottish Opera Flute has the stamp of a very happy production, with a particular Scottish slant. Comparing these two memorable productions, it seems the new one is ideal for our times. It is faster, meaner, funnier and definitely a great night out. If you live in Scotland or if you plan a holiday north of the borders this one is worth catching and I can imagine it would be a great introduction to opera neophytes. 

Onegin in the park / Yevgeny Onegin / Opera Holland Park – 17 July 2012

21 Jul

This was my second experience with Opera Holland Park. The set up is a big tented stage with about 500 seats facing the remains of Holland House which was destroyed during the second world war. Like any other temporary/seasonal venue it has a number of obstacles to overcome, but here the biggest is how to incorporate the entrance portico of the ruin into every stage set. Previously the design for Lucia di Lammermoor tried to hide it. For Onegin Leslie Travers incorporated it as a vital part of the set, with its own lighting and used for the most dramatic entrances to the stage.

The production directed by Daniel Slater has a very strong concept which adds depth and drama. The production starts with Yevgeny standing on the stage holding Tatyana’s letter while she drifts in from the opposite side both dressed in long black coats. Those appearances by Onegin become the leitmotif of this production and the set of what seems to be a large house after it has been ransacked is an effective if not quite a traditional setting. The different set components seem to allude to each character, the bookcase to Tatyana, the mirror to Olga the crashed to the floor chandelier to Yevgeny’s life and Lensky. Maybe that’s a too fanciful a reading, lets just say the set for the First Act works admirably well, suggesting a feeling of calm desolation. The ramp like long table and the piano having the appearance of their legs being sank in the snow. The very whiteness of the set may seem a contrived wintry Russian setting but it most importantly creates a neutral space for the interpretative gifts of the singers and the nuances of the directing to start emerging.

The young cast is a refreshing change from having 55 year old Tatyanas and equally grown up Olgas that tend to grace the main stages. The true star turn was from Anna Leese who in her third assumption of the role of Tatyana inhabits it with a rare sense of style and a remarkably detailed acting and singing. In the first Act she embodies the bookworm Tatyana, a shy and quiet girl being taken over by love and in total disbelief. Her letter scene was truly wonderful, full of warmth and not given to over sentimentalism and dreariness that can so easily turn this opera into an over-romanticised nightmare. She was helped by the subtle and well paced playing of the City of London Symphonia, which in all honestly could use a few more violins and cellos for extra heft. Onegin is seen as a free spirit that doesn’t want to settle, the flashbacks show his remorse and loneliness.  A slightly surreal touch is when the ladies of the chorus surround and taunt him with a letter each, dressed as Tatyana, while he reads her letter. Their duet is intense but importantly it does not involve any physical contact, just at the very end he holds her hand, that sense of distance and unrequited desire is exactly at the very heart of the score and libretto and here they prepare the ground for the meeting in Act Three.  Lensky is played for laughs in this act and it adds to another comedic element, Filippyevna who in the capable hands of Sikora becomes the comedy granny that sees everything but pretends to not hear it. Her short flippant conversation with Tatyana while being asked to deliver the letter roused a few giggles in the audience with the telling look she gave Leese.

After the interval the Second Act the chandelier (which is lying prone on the ground previously) was lifted off the ground and is full of lit candles, a lovely touch by Leslie Travers adding life and colour to the otherwise  stark palette. The dance takes place and gradual inflammation of the atmosphere between Lensky and Onegin. Auty’s singing of his aria before the duel was full of passion and even if he doesn’t maybe have the fullness of voice one would want, he surely had the eagerness.

One aspect of the staging that did not work for me was the duel, having the characters at opposite ends of the stage takes the tension off the process. Had they been back to back in the more conventional fashion it would have made it more dramatic. The addition of an extra insinuated lover for Olga adds another layers to the plot which makes more sense of her sudden disinterest in Lensky.

The opening of the Third Act is possibly the largest coup de theatre in this production, the polonaise used to create a Soviet Russian setting with choristers dressed in factory worker uniforms, setting up the stage for a visit by a high-ranking official, thus turning Prince Gremin into a communist party big wig. A truly inspired idea as it allows for stunning iconography (including a huge Lenin portrait in the wardrobe and a red carpet spanning the width of the stage) and making Tatyana’s obedience/loyalty to her husband even more convincing.

Anna Leese maybe was denied a beautiful dress for the finale but we gained a wonderfully cold confrontation scene with Onegin. Her refusal to consider him is out of self-preservation and the wisdom of the intervening years. I would challenge anyone not to find this older Tatyana moving and theatrically exciting. Mark Stone was at his best when interacting with Leese and their final scene was truly exceptional.

Despite the intervention with the flow of the plot line and the extensive use of flashback, the production succeeds in creating a taut, flowing drama that intensifies as we reach closer to the climactic finale. The integration of the ruins of Holland House and the use of such an expressive and enthusiastic cast makes for a memorable evening and Opera Holland Park should be congratulated on staging it in Russian unlike a lot of UK opera companies that opt for translations. The sound of the original language really adds depth and grounds the lyricism of the score. Adds a certain earthiness to the most passionate exchanges making them more believable and far away from the niceties of the English language.

%d bloggers like this: