Tag Archives: Brindley Sherratt

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

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The shine of the blade / Medea / English National Opera – 13 February 2013 (dress rehearsal)

15 Feb

ENO MedeaSeeing David McVicar slowly metamorphosing into the new Zeffirelli at the Met Opera in the last couple of years, I was a little bit weary about how idea rich his take on Charpentier’s Medea could be.  French Baroque thrives on dance and spectacle and a director that comes up short can sink a production. I was hoping for some of  the verve and invention from his Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto than the stale Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda of late. But one thing I was sure about was the excellent fit of Sarah Connolly for the title role, last November she gave a captivating rendition of Quel Prix in concert but nothing could have prepared me for the outstanding quality of this production.

I know a lot of people don’t like reports based on the dress rehearsal but as I am seeing it twice more later in the run I promise to update if any other observations creep in that make revision imperative.

The performance lasts near 3 hours and 20 minutes, as McVicar and Curnyn decided (wisely in my view) to cut the half hour prelude in praise of the Sun King. After the short and punchy overture we are thrown straight into the torments of (the newly arrived in Corinth) Medea. The setting is a wartime 1940s panelled interior, the set slightly angled at 70 degrees with a raked mirrored floor. Three tall grazed French doors (oh the English terminology comes handy in context) are leading into a peripheral corridor that is used for myriad entries and exits throughout the evening. A simple unfussy but sophisticated backdrop, its faded neoclassicism a subtle allusion to the original period of the work. Straight from the start the smooth changeover from waiting room to an officer’s mess room (complete with uniformed cocktail waiter) is handled with great care, with stage hands dressed in tuxedos befitting the stately setting of the work. With the restrictions that an Edwardian theatre like the Coliseum imposes on each director McVicar showed his class as a world renowned specialist in the field. The set even though static till the last few minutes of this production, constantly changes with subtle cues, the spotlights in the corners of the room move in to make a more intimate atmosphere or to spotlight the King while lying on the floor beaten by Medea’s magical powers in Act Four. The large glazed doors acquire opaque panes and the wall sconces acquire lit candles in the last Act. By extinguishing them before the final scene the smell of wax travels across the auditorium adding an olfactory element to this production.

The costumes are exquisite with great attention to detail. The 1940s atmosphere staying strong with the tailored nature of all the womenswear and the officers’ uniforms. The glamour of the robe (here changing into a rather eye-catching gold lamé evening dress) as Connolly reveals it in her travelling trunk in the first few minutes on stage, also closes the opera three hours later having been poisoned by her and worn by Creuse who dies a painful (if beautifully sung) death. This being baroque opera, amongst all the tragedy we get a lot of dancing. And I am delighted to report that McVicar’s mix of romp and camp works so well it truly adds interest and makes the dances feel more integrated than during ENO’s last foray with Castor and Pollux where the dances seemed disconnected and throwaway. As originally planned for the French court the dances add amusement and atmosphere and slight relief from the tragedy at the centre of the work. The very first example is with the dancers donning RAF uniforms in a dark blue colour, their vibrant routine surely caused a raucous applause and added some light relief to a very sombre beginning. The six male and six female dancers appear in many guises, zombie-like denizens of the underworld (following the cross dressing personifications of Vengeance and Jealousy) to spirits of beautiful women. The biggest tableaux using the dancers is the “party scene” with the appearance of Aoife O’Sullivan as Cupid with black glittery wings aboard a Spitfire covered in pink glitter (standing in for Cupid’s chariot), surely the campest prop to grace a stage for some time! On the side of the pink plane there’s  a large stylised fan on a podium with a period microphone awaiting in a jazz siren style for an Italian captive of love (Sophie Junker) to sing Chi teme d’amore Il grato martire (left in the original Italian here).

It would be impossible to overstate how towering Sarah Connolly’s performance was. She dispatched this difficult role with such elegance and stamina. I was totally blown away. Her unwavering intensity while singing in the original soprano key was spectacular. A few times she sacrificed the beauty of the line for the sake of expression, especially when addressing Creon and Jason but it added such variety and pathos I don’t think even the most narrow-minded critic will find fault. When William Christie gave her the CD set of his recording and told Connolly this was the role for her, he was absolutely right. Once she hits the floor in Act Three and sings her pivotal aria Quel Prix de mon Amour the transformation from wronged wife to a woman driven by pain looking for revenge  is unavoidable. Soon after she discards both her jacket and skirt to continue the scene in a black negligee and evoke the spirits of hades to help her. McVicar uses the stage lift as the pit where smoke and her demonic assistants come through. It was a huge relief that he chose such a standard way to introduce them instead of trying to reinvent the wheel needlessly. At this point she is armed with a large kitchen knife that is her companion for the rest of the production as she closes in to her final act of vengeance against Jason. Fittingly the last coup de théâtre belongs to Medea, when the corner of the set comes apart and she sings her final words to Jason and then she is elevated and flies away. This was another example of the Director not trying to re-invent the action but followed on the steps of both Charpentier and Euripides in the Greek original. Also another telling approach that looks back at the performance practises of ancient Greek drama, was how the dead bodies of Creon and Orontes are presented. They appear on trolleys under the cover of blood splattered sheets. A very similar device to how the dead would be wheeled on an Ekkyklema a practise maybe not that familiar to British audiences but anyone with any background in the Classics would instantly recognise it.

As you can tell by now, I am very happy with the staging and it all came together so beautifully to make up one of the best opera evenings I’ve ever attended. Connolly gives a definitive interpretation, surely a highlight of her illustrious career so far. The rest of the cast get somewhat overshadowed by her presence but some great singing comes from Katherine Manley especially in her duets with Jason and Medea revealing a voice of great flexibility and a characterful actress. Jeffrey Francis give a very potent performance with voice to spare. The slightly goofy personenregie for Orontes does benefit by the lightness of touch that Roderick Williams brings to it. Brindley Sherratt brought gravitas and made for a great opponent to Medea, but crucially relaxed when left with Creusa away from his public function. Aoife O’Sullivan, Oliver Dunn and Rhian Lois give performances full of gusto and promise.

The orchestra gave a vibrant reading of the score with a few raw edges that will disappear before the first night. Like with Castor and Pollux Christian Curnyn manages to coax some idiomatic playing from the players while taking them out of their comfort zone.  The chorus sings beautifully through the evening, sometimes in military uniform and others in evening dress from stage and pit. Navigates Charpentier’s deceptively subtle but fiendishly difficult melodies with skill and obvious affection.

If you’ve read this far, I congratulate you and also implore you to go and see this truly wonderful production, do not be put off by the translation or the lack of “period instruments” this is an occasion to treasure and an all too rare chance to see this masterpiece of the French Baroque in London. This is one of those performances you will be telling friends about twenty years from now…GO!

ENO Medea list

Some Tweets from the evening

Twitter - OperaCreep- Woa McVicar #ENOmedea

Twitter - OperaCreep- Oh dress rehearsal audience ...

Twitter - OperaCreep- If this is not a career highlight ...

Twitter - OperaCreep- To the people that don't get ...

Twitter - OperaCreep- It was lovely having the chance ...

Courses for horses / Les Troyens / Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – 5 + 11 July 2012

14 Jul

The most anticipated opera production of this summer in London (aside tenuous connections to the dreadful 2012 Festival) a new production of this operatic behemoth. The signs were bad when the stalwart tenor Jonas Kaufmann had to withdraw and Brian Hymel took on the role of Enée. A lot of concerns were voiced and predictions of doom and gloom. Of course what opera fans should have worried about was the dead hand of David McVicar who proved once more to lack both a revelatory insight or even an unshakable overarching vision. The production is patchy and doesn’t really serve the material well.

In a work with considerable longueurs courtesy of Berlioz a bad production can make it from uncomfortable in length to unbearable. McVicar seems to only care for the first two Acts who were crowd managed to perfection and the set by Devlin was handsome and sleek. The problem of course is why would anyone think moving the action to the 1850s was a good idea. This looks more like a bourgeois gathering at the Cafe Royal than the desperate inhabitants of Troy under a ten-year siege. Why the mechanistic look dripping with rusty metal? Why the by the meter long flowing dresses and lace and trims everywhere one looks? Making Anna Caterina Antonacci look like the mad woman on the scrapheap of twisted metal is such a mindless degradation of the intentions of Berlioz and the gravitas of the persona, making the viewer instantly weary of what’s up next. The arrival of the horse is indeed impressive and its movement as sleek  as we would demand. The vivid image of its fiery presence dominating the floored Cassandre is a wonderful moment of almost cinematic power. Of course one has to wonder why did the horse need to go up in flames? It seems pyrotechnics are the last refuge of desperate directors trying to capture the attention of indifferent audiences…ahem let’s not recall the disastrous Don Giovanni (that has thankfully been scrapped for ever).

Unfortunately his Carthage Acts look so disconnected and romanticised, there is no obvious timeline connection to Troy. The stepped “apartment block made of mud” set attracted applause on the first night I saw it, which made a lot of us present cringe.  More obvious this failing is when Enée and his soldiers walk in, disrupting the entertainment and love in of Didon and her subjects. Eva-Maria Westbroek is dressed in full on odalisque costume, matt gold dress and a relaxed off white robe, a Bedouin meets Parisian fashion look in total contrast to the 1850s military uniform of the Troyans. Their appearance makes both Didon and her setting look even more shabby.  She also sits on a model of the town which later on becomes airborne in the manner more appropriate to Star Wars: A New Hope than a Berlioz opera. If McVicar wanted to say anything through the set costumes and the truly dreadful dancing is beyond me. The programme may dismissively informing us that audiences can’t accept men in skirts any more but somehow ignores that a more classical approach serves the material better, but of course is less of an ego boost for the director.

This production managed to go through the motions professionally and kept stage interest active but lost on the way to crowd pleasing the dramatic core of Berlioz’s complicated and multifaceted epic. It is a tragédie lyrique after all and any flippant choices for relocation of the action to another time period take a toll on the effective staging of the work. The current cult of the director being imposed on a tricky work like Les Troyens creates a hollow construct that does much of the sublime music and singing no justice. A particularly ridiculous example was Ed Lyon being pulled up in the flytower like a housewife would collect her washing in Napoli…dragged up on a rope, after singing a most sublime aria of longing. Why not go for a more conventional rope ladder to come down from the mast? It was just complication for the sake of complication with no apparent thinking behind it.

Had the chance to see it twice and the most diametrically opposite parts of the auditorium, a third row Orchestra Stalls seat at a cost of £183 and an Upper Slips bench seat for £15. The experience was thoroughly illuminating and very, very different. At Stalls one can be tantalizingly close to the singers and orchestra but the sound can suffer at times, while at the extremities of the gods the sound is surprisingly warm and immediate but a pair of binoculars comes handy!

The cast was uneven but with some great rewards to be had.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was a resplendent Didon, solemn sexuality paired with self-confidence, sense of purpose and demure deportment. Her singing started a big unsteady on the 5th but grew in confidence and dramatic power through the evening. Her final aria was truly fantastic, her Ah! Je vais mourir was so committed and forceful creating a compulsive atmosphere of empathy for the character. She sang the middle part of it straight at me, it was one of those unforgettable moments looking eye to eye with such a wonderful performer while she is on the final strait of the tragic trajectory of this most demanding role. The only constraint through the performance was the fairly stiff direction of McVicar who had her sitting a lot on top of toytown Carthage and on random cushions, creating a look of a dull odalisque in the Ingres mould. Westbroek is a physical performer that thrives in being able to engage more with the set and colleagues. So it was a relief to have her final scene played out against an off-black curtain instead of the set, thus liberated and being able to focus on the drama.

Brian Hymel may have lacked the stage charisma and the variety of colouring in his voice to be an ideal Enée but he surely made up in enthusiasm and eagerness to please with his technically accomplished and very well projected voice. On the two performances you could see him growing in confidence and the chemistry between him and Westbroek was there. Especially during the dire dancing in Act Four where she was getting very friendly with Aenee on a large pile of floor cushions (sounds downright dirty but wasn’t really). His stronger showing was during Act Five where he sang with great propulsion if not Gallic flair. He surely offered an impressive C at the conclusion of his Inutiles regrets which made for an exciting addition to the night.

The stand out performance of both evenings was Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandre, she was both stylistically appropriate with an intense stage presence and a vivid embodiment of the character. Also the only cast member that looked totally independent of the particular holds of this production, almost a mini production inside McVicar’s simplistic mush. Her very entrance on both nights sent shivers down my spine. Her total conviction and stylised acting may looked out of date to many, but had that been replaced with what nowadays? She deeply felt the drama and relayed it in her great dark voice and charismatic presence, isn’t that what opera is all about? She brought a touch of the golden age to this production that was worth the price of admission alone, she was exceptional in all her perturbed glory and archetypal painted eyes in her palms. Cassandre has some of the most individualistic music in Troyens and Antonacci managed to not just fulfill the requirements but to go far and beyond and make us all drank with her charisma and dramatic personification of a vibrant figure from Greek mythology. Her two big arias in Act One were such intense theatre and her attention to every word gave depth and stripped back all the clutter and junk this production acquired courtesy of director and set designer. A triumph by a great singer/actress.

Unfortunately she had to duet with Fabio Capitanucci, who just belted out his part clearly not being told this was Berlioz he was singing and not some verismo shocker. I am afraid his gifts were wasted on a bad fit with the material.

Brintley Sherratt offered a vocally solid Narbal with impeccable taste and good sense for the rest of the ensemble.

Hanna Hipp one of the young artists of the Royal Opera was a wonderful sister to Westbroek’s Didon, sang with power and conviction, one can imagine what a great experience it must have been partnering one of the greatest singers of our times. Looking forward in seeing her in the revived Otello in a week’s time.

Ji-min Park as Iopas was a lovely light presence in the middle of the Carthaginian section, he sang his song of the fields with laser like projection, if a bit too sharp on the first night I saw him.

Ed Lyon sang Hylas’ aria that kicks off Act Five with such great beauty, gleam, wistfulness and melancholy. He surely made a big impression on both nights adding a much needed and thoroughly enjoyable punctuation to a long evening at the opera. He did caress the words with such flair and understanding for the style that won us over near instantly.

The chorus of the Royal Opera was in good form on both nights and worked exemplary well with the soloists and orchestra, which played with verve on both nights, despite the too quick tempi adopted by Pappano for the first two Acts. On the last night the balance between speed and dramatic development was much more settled and particularly the hunt and storm scenes at the beginning of Act Four seemed much speedier and alive.

The performance of the Thurs 5 July was relayed live and available to view on demand for the coming months at The Space, they also recorded the performances on 1st and 8th of July, so expect a full blown Blu-Ray and DVD release come 2013 with all the best bits of the three nights spliced together. Lets hope some of the silly extravagances indulged in this outing will be more subdued/rethought for the upcoming presentations in Vienna, Milan and San Francisco before it returns to the stage at Covent Garden in the future.

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