Tag Archives: Benjamin Britten

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

Tudorama / Gloriana / Royal Opera House – 20 June 2013

29 Jun

GlorianaIf Britten’s posthumous reputation was judged solely on Gloriana, history would have been much harsher on him.

Richard Jones turned out another hilarious evocation of a school gym/church hall where Gloriana takes place as a Tudor play. This device clearly makes a tongue in cheek commentary on the advance of the “second Elizabethan age” with the coronation of ERII and Britten’s commission tied up to a royal gala. Ingeniously his proscenium is raised and in front of the stage a nervous mayor , officials and the technical staff of the church hall are waiting for the arrival of the young Queen Elizabeth II who duly shows up at both start and end of the show.

The sets and props by Ultz are beautifully conceptualised and executed within the framework of an amateur dramatics performance. Highlights include the hilarious Tudor huts on wheels representing the medieval City of London. In the Norwich section the big display of vegetables spelling out ER is hilarious as it is quintessentially English (something about marrows and giant veg in the countryside). And of course of all the oversized furniture, King Edward’s Chair on wheels  and Elizabeth’s wreath topped dressing table should have their own postcode.
As usual with Jones consistency is underpinning everything, the bystanders on the side of the stage within a stage are looking bored stiff, a surly looking school mistress type giving joylessly cues, foley artists playing the lute for Essex’s two songs and also toll the bell for town crier.
Unfortunately the masque is terminally dull and marks a major sag in the flow of the evening. The choreography and the music are not of a very high standard (just think that John Cranko choreographed the première) also the strange decision by the Opera House to not allow an interval between Act One and Two making the audience sit through over 100 minutes tested our patience and the end of Act Two couldn’t come quickly enough.
Act Three contains Britten’s most accomplished dramatically music, with gorgeous writing for the strings and a much more elegiac attitude. The confrontation scene between her and Essex as well as the lonely finale has more than a passing resemblance to Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. The writing as it becomes more introspective it also gains dramatic weight making for a very strong second half.
One niggle with Jones’ direction would be that he denied the work the sombre conclusion Britten clearly wanted, by adding the reappearance of the royal party and a little girl to give them flowers. An odd choice since even the programme mentions repeatedly how Britten steered his librettist to this dark and sadness filled finale underlining the fragile mental state of the queen in the prospect of her own mortality. Was he maybe intending us to read it as a reference to our current queen facing the same dilemma as Elizabeth I?

The question of how to stage a Tudor themed opera remains, Jones makes a great case for a more comedic approach but it seems to also rob the work of its solemnity. But the sleekness and imagination are admirable and the execution is beyond reproach.

Amanda Roocroft sang the part in Hamburg and can imagine was a more compelling actress on stage than Susan Bullock. Who was very dramatically involved but any high-lying passages exposed the vocal problems she has with a broad vibrato that detracted from the otherwise very sharp delivery. Her pivotal prayer in Act One was suffused with great beauty, sculpting carefully phrases, but sometimes let down by her upper register. Overall it was more of an acting triumph and a less riveting vocal performance. The tessitura is fairly low for the role but when she verged high it seemed like a struggle on opening night. There have been reports that her production has been more even in subsequent shows which is good to know.

The welcome return of Toby Spence on the Royal Opera House stage was an unqualified success after his recent treatment for thyroid cancer. His Essex was a fully formed human being with flashes of brilliance thought the evening. His two lute songs were as lyrical as they were beautifully projected and loaded with meaning. He also danced away in the ball scene with endearing ebullience.
Patricia Bardon gave such a spirited performance and her smooth comforting contralto sound was so luxurious to almost verge on the obscene. Her plea to the Queen to save Essex from execution was intense and gorgeous, her horror at seeing the Queen wearing her dress suffused with the crushed anguish of a coquette.

Kate Royal unfortunately was underpowered with a voice I have always found fairly colourless and verging on the generic. It was a cruel casting decision as she had no chance opposite Bardon. Looking pretty in a dress in not what makes an opera singer.

Brindley Sherrat was a fantastic bard managing to be intense and in as great a voice as his Creon for ENO’s Medea. Now when will the RO cast him in big roles…sick of seeing him sidetracked for dubious imports. He is the whole package and deserves to be recognised more.

Ben Bevan gave a wonderful debut performance and thus another member of the very talented Bevan opera clan has adorned Covent Garden’s stage.

The chorus and the orchestra made a passionate contribution and made as good a case for Gloriana as a musical and choral work of substance. Paul Daniel conducted the last revival for Opera North so was a very safe pair of hands and did a splendid job with good pacing and a clear sense of dramatic progression.

In the libretto Essex calls Elizabeth ‘Queen of my life’ a few times…I wonder if it was a little gay household colloquialism that crept in as a naughty addition. I couldn’t stop thinking that Britten and Pears would have been hilarious calling each other Queen on my life at home…but that’s just me and my rampant and unfounded ideas. In any case, this was a very entertaining evening despite any shortcomings that could be easily attributed to Britten being on auto pilot rushing to complete the work for its 1953 première. It was definitely worth reviving for a new generation.

A few tweets from the evening

Curtain call video

Production shots on the ROH Flickr

Gloriana list

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

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

27 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some tweets from the evening

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.

Midsummer Nightmare?

20 May

Reading through a number of Tweets reporting booing after the première of the new production of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream by David Alden for  the English National Opera. That made me feel annoyed, once more, how London’s opera audiences are too keen lately to boo. It’s a violent, unsophisticated reaction. Why do those people show up to the opening night anyway? Just to take part in a blood sport? It’s a truly sad reflection on an audience not rising to the heights of this sophisticated art form, a glib reflection of our society that is too keen to rise against a group of defendless artists after a hard two and a half hours on stage. It saddens me that those people do not just withhold their applause, silence is much more powerful and sends a much more deafening signal to the people in charge. It takes away the connotations of blood sport that mainly Italian opera houses made part of the scene.

I’m seeing the production on Saturday night and hope that those scenes will not be repeated. Hope people will be a bit more grown up about it and just give it a fair chance without lowering themselves to the levels of a football hooligan.

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