Tag Archives: Christian Curnyn

Branded by Jones / Rodelinda / English National Opera – 2 March 2014

10 Mar

ENO RodelindaLove him or hate him Richard Jones is a meticulous and provocative director. He surely thinks through his productions and tends to vehemently stick to the ideas that underpin them. Saw his Rodelinda for ENO  a week ago (his first Handel opera in 18 years) and still swirls around my head. His take on Handel is full of contradictions and theatricality, full of poetic moments and uncomfortable silliness.

For all his splashy visuals this production come through as thoughtful and wanting to pick an intellectual argument with its audience. Rodelinda’s role in this opera is thoroughly dissected. She becomes the object of fascination that is spied on by CCTV cameras. The play thing of destiny that threatens to crush her. But also the strong, virtuous mother that will fight to her last breath for her son and her social position.  Despite the busy production, including some unnecessary projections in between scenes that are meant to introduce us to the next locale accompanied by very loud pre-recorded soundtrack and the three damned treadmills . The centre of the action never wavers far away from Rebecca Evans. She brings unique dignity and vigour to the part with spectacular singing.

Jones’ central visual motif is the presence of tattoos, to denote relationships and changes to the state of mind of the characters. Grimoaldo initially sports one with the name of Eduige and as he starts falling for Rodelinda he quickly gets it covered up and a huge new one across his back spells the name of his captive and under surveillance prey. The exploration of the use of body marking to express love, being a great match for the production’s setting in Italy in the 1950s. The time when tattooing started to break free from the confines of prisons and the navy and started to denote a fashionable tribe badge. This aesthetic choice even adorns the artwork on the programme cover.

In this opera people that are brought together by circumstances and breeding are brutally separated by politics and animosity. The indelible mark on one’s skin becomes an act of emotional engagement and an attempt to brand one’s feeling for all to see. That mix of public display and vying for attention is at the heart of this work.  As the central power triangle of Rodelinda, Bertatido and Grimoaldo is motivated by a potent mix of sex and political power. The impressive sets by Jeremy Herbert (especially the impossibly phallic monument to Bertarido) convey a polished, design conscious Italy of the  post Musolini era, a perfect setting for a work that is so enamoured with the surface of power and the nature of love.

The only seriously problematic choices  were the use of slapstick  particularly in the last Act, turning violent confrontations into a Tom and Jerry cartoon fight, getting hold of progressively bigger weapons until the ultimate cartoon weapon shows up to the chagrin of the audience…the oversized dynamite roll that is used to explode Bertarido’s monument. A diversion into farce that undid many poignant moments of the previous two hours.  The other issue was the presence of the three treadmills at the front of the stage used most of the time as a cliche to animate when the different characters chased one another and seemed to not be that integrated in the overall design by being obstructive and at times becoming just immobile pedestals creating an obstacle course for the singers. Maybe an aspect to re-think before the staging moves on to The Bolshoi in the near future.

The two moments of absolute beauty that will remain indelible in my memory is Rodelinda’s mourning aria  Ombre, piante, urne funeste, staged in the simplest fashion possible putting the focus on Evans and her hear wrenching, achingly gorgeous singing. As she laments the supposed loss of her husband at the base of his monument. One of those very special moments that make the world feel immobile, the ultimate declaration of sadness and loss.

But the greatest moment of this production came at the end of Act Two with Io t’abbraccio man and wife have finally come together once more but the world around them has irrevocably changed. Jones’ had the ingenious idea to use the separated three part set as the material manifestation of the mind of the two singing characters and the mute presence of the crushed Grimoaldo in the centre. As the two lovers sing their rooms move apart to the side of the stage until they disappear into the grey walls leaving the pathetic figure of the fallen dictator isolated and broken.  An image so potent and when accompanied by such wonderful, passionate singing and Handel’s ethereal music became a great example of how opera above most art forms can express emotion in the most direct way possible, devastating in its potency and yet life affirming.

The two tremendous vocal triumphs by Evans and Davies were underpinned by the light voiced purity of Christopher Ainslie who created a notable contrast to the more muscular sound of Davies, relieving any possibility of counter-tenor fatigue. Despite all the involved acting by John Mark Ainsley sounded uncomfortable on the higher lying parts of his role, making some of his arias feel like hard work. Susan Bickley acquitted herself nicely with her usual colourful, characterful singing.

The conducting by Christian Curnyn was of the high standard, we have come to expect from him. Well judged tempi and a definite rapport with the cast. It was a shame the pit wasn’t raised slightly as it was done for Castor and Pollux but I’d think it has to do with sharing the venue with Rigoletto on alternate nights. But it was a delight to have Handel’s glorious score being played with such fluency and love. And in a production that despite any farcical diversions was emotionally potent and a great exponent of what the ENO does best, though-provoking director’s opera. If you can make it, well worth catching the handful of performances left or pop over to Radio 3 and listen to the live broadcast from last Saturday. 

ENO Rodelinda List

The ENO Podcast

Some tweets from the evening

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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 ...

Fabulous by name diabolical by nature / Giulio Cesare / English National Opera – 16 October 2012

18 Oct

To call the latest ENO production of Giulio Cesare vacant, wilfully ugly and spectacularly miscalculated would give you an idea of how bad it really is. Director/Choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan took the gem of Handel’s opera seria output and tarnished it with a jumble of unrelated directorial flourishes, most notably the silly interpretative dance that is both relentless and particularly offensive.
Getting non opera specialist directors in the House, ENO has created a few unexpected hits but mainly it has resulted in unqualified monstrosities. The set was a featureless concave wall made of chipboard that was only used effectively in the final act when covered in a cloth patterned with a wild seascape while Cleopatra sings her dramatic Piangerò la sorte mia shame that it had to be accompanied by an ugly filament bulb but that is a small detail in a production that gave us, unforgivably anonymous costuming and hideous wigs (my heart goes out to Tim Mead for that red octopus on his head) a giraffe and crocodile littering pointlessly the stage, some foldable chairs from a local authority gym, noisy metal buckets filled with ridiculous amounts of fake blood and in one case sand.
When the props start causing the audience to laugh you know you have messed up the production. Had anyone been standing in the corridors of the Coliseum at the start of Act One, and while the obviously immobile/dead crocodile was shot and then doused with a bucket of blood while most of the audience laughed in disbelief, one would think a comedy was on, not one of Handel’s most beautiful, tragedy infused works.
Most of the singers were used as lifeless props while the dancers pranced about. Obviously Keegan-Dolan had very little time for the singers as actors and too much time for his own dance troupe (Fabulous Beast)…a hierarchy that should have rang bells early on with the artistic management of the Company.  This production is an equally miserable night in the theatre for both cast and audience, robbing the singers of the elegant simplicity of embodying a character without the superfluous addition of stage clutter and empty gestures.
The only two singers that managed to cut through the idiocy were Patricia Bardon and Daniela Mack who gave us raw emotion and human warmth in a sea of blandness. They both sang beautifully and created their own microcosm despite the director’s awful idea to make Sesto into a daughter, thus removing the central reference to gender politics that is the moving force of the story.
Tim Mead’s Tolomeo was beautifully voiced but totally lost his way in a slapstick, non-threatening cartoonish approximation of villainy. The audience laughed out loud as he dragged in the head of the giraffe and proceeded to remove the tongue with his bare hands and threaten Cornelia with it. It was not dramatic or engaging, just a ridiculous waste of time.
I will say it once and for all, that I’d rather have a mezzo sing the eponymous role as having three counter-tenors in one opera becomes tiresome. Lawrence Zazzo is undeniably a star but was too trapped by the direction to create a believable character. He became another prop laden, dancer suffocated casualty. His Aure, deh per pietà was the absolute highlight of his performance when he was allowed to be alone on stage and his characterisation took flight. But it was too little too late for us to believe in his Cesare, after having laughed out loud far too many times but that point.

This production also had the dubious honour to offer us the least sexy Cleopatra imaginable, Anna Christy is a striking singer but who has a very particular glassy lyric coloratura voice not really up to the voluptuous/lascivious requirements of the heroine Handel depicts in his opera. We found it very difficult to believe she could seduce anyone but a man with a serious fetish for awful wedding dresses, judging on her terrible white number she wore after the second interval. Also singing V’adoro, pupille on top of a table and to a microphone like a cheap cabaret act was just silly and inconsistent with the rest of the production. She also had to sing Piangero while she is surrounded by dancers complete with wings taking again the focus off the singer at such a pivotal moment. At least she was left alone during Se Pietà di me non senti and she gave us a rendition of utter delicacy and undeniable sadness.

What makes this production even more depressing is that back in March I was lucky enough to attend a sparkling production by Tim Albery for Opera North with Sarah Tynan, Helen Pamela Stephen and Kathryn Rudge. The gorgeously utilitarian but with a hint of luxury production by Leslie Travers was a triumph. It is unbelievable that a company with fewer resources at their disposal can create a sublime experience when the ENO created a complete mess that I very much doubt will ever be revived.

To close on a positive note, Christian Curnyn’s conducting was vibrant and attentive. He clearly is a singer’s conductor and it shows. His period instrument background comes handy when it comes to coaxing a very special lustrous sound from ENO’s ensemble. He tirelessly shaped every single nuance in the score and created meaning in a staging that had such an embarrassing paucity of ideas and insight. He also conducted the exquisite Castor and Pollux last year and is also back to conduct Charpentier’s Medea with Sarah Connolly in early 2013 with David McVicar directing.

This performance was recorded for BBC Radio 3 and is scheduled for broadcast on November 3rd, listen in and make your own mind up!

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

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