Tag Archives: Christopher Alden

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

 

One for the ladies / Rigoletto / English National Opera – 13 February 2014

15 Feb

ENO RigolettoRigoletto has to be one of Verdi’s most nocturnal and dependent on scene changes operas to have its effect on the audience. The transition from palace to house to garden and Sparafucile’s Inn has been a brief that directors over the years have followed with variable degrees of success. A chance to shift from interior opulence to outdoorsy moodiness and moonlight to oppressive interior. Christopher Alden being his usual interventionist self opts for a one set solution. The characters and action never leave the game room of a gentlemen’s club the air of luxurious leather, panelling brass oil lamps, oriental carpets and parquet flooring is the arena where the lives of the small people and the great,  take place. A drama about human relationships and the blindness of revenge takes centre stage and is made social commentary.

While we may lose a lot of the specificity of mise en scene as Verdi intended what we gain is an intriguing focus on the female characters. In an opera dominated by a large male chorus Gilda, Maddalena and Giovanna (who closes and opens the semi-translucent curtain at every scene change) come to the fore in this male dominated environment and tell their own story of oppression, duty, sexual conquest, seduction and sacrifice. The men are largely treated in a less flattering than usual fashion, the Duke is not seen as the great seducer jeune premier, more of slightly deluded caricature of Victor Hugo himself who when delivering his cliché La donna e mobile everyone around gives a slow-motion silent clap, as if to burst the bubble of the male ego, usually exemplified to its most macho mindlessness by a tenor. A sent up for the character of the Duke but also for the audience’s received knowledge of what an Italian tenor does…the very stuff that Richard Strauss pokes fun at Rosenkavalier and Capriccio…a figure of audience adoration and the archetypal opera biz laughing stock.

Rigoletto is treated as more than just the usual courtly fool and secretive plotter. He dominates the action as he sits before curtain up on a leather chair on stage right and pretty much remains visible between scene changes, contributing silent acting or a struggle with Gilda after he discovers her love for the mysterious stranger. Quinn Kelsey’s portrayal brings a potent mix of feral aggression and beaten down lower class depression to a psychologically complex man with many stories to tell. Michael Levine’s set is dominated in the scenes taking place in Rigoletto’s home with a life size portrait of Gilda’s mother, adding to focusing the action on the women. Her haunting presence seems to has taken over Gilda’s domestic life, she appears for the first time sat contemplating the portrait. As the drama progresses the portrait gets ripped and tumbled. The mix of naturalism and heavy dependence on symbolism is Alden’s way to tell the story by transporting the viewer to a journey of the mind. Sometimes the metaphors are not working as well, for instance Gilda’s abduction taking place as she scales a shaky ladder that drops down from the ceiling, I was frankly more concerned that Anna Christy would fall off it than about the imminent abduction of the heroine.
But the coups de théâtre moments like the red petals falling down from the ceiling and shed by the choreographed male chorus while Gilda  and the Duke declare their love for each other work very powerfully.  It adds a lightness similar to American Beauty, but in context of the mood, music and lighting it makes for an emotional flourish. The visual motif returns for the very powerful finale, where Gilda is lying under a white sheet, when Rigoletto pulls it back he animates all the petals that fly away an apparent metaphor of her life ending and her undying love for the Duke. The decision to have Christy walk to the brightly lit, centre back of stage, door after she expires is maybe indulgent but gives a suitable end to this Verdian tragedy that is never too light-handed.

The casting is a mixed bag in my view, the main problem being that the Duke is not as sexy as he is usually expected to be, Gilda is not as plush voiced as usual and Rigoletto is far too young to be convincing as the father. Bur if you can brush aside those expectations in a standard rep piece like Rigoletto, Anna Christy may be very pale voiced to be considered a Verdian soprano, but her fragile, doll-like features give her stage presence a fascinating appropriateness. Barry Banks will never be the kind of seducer usually portrayed by hairy chested Italian stallion tenors but his total conviction in the direction, focused singing and some nifty cushion kicking make him a great trooper within Alden’s vision. Quinn Kelsey possesses a tremendous voice, with the proper amplitude one can expect for a Verdi baritone, his sweet tone, sharp diction, unforced volume and explosive stage presence make him one of the hottest new talents around and he is already booked by many major opera houses in the US and Europe. At only 35 to have such gravitas and charisma is extremely impressive, just wish they made more of an effort to age him a bit more so his relationship with Gilda was instantly obvious.
The supporting cast headed by the spectacular, as usual, Diana Montague,  was very effective if at times too young for the respective parts (a constant ENO casting problem) but this must be the first time you will notice Marullo…as George Humphreys exposes his rather beautiful torso in a mass washing scene in the gentlemen’s club. The chorus is deployed in Alden’s usual fashion as one en masse character, at times adding comedic lightness or a lynching mob intensity. The gentlemen of the ENO chorus delivered in spades in both character and staying still for inordinate amounts of times, as directed.

The conducting of Graeme Jenkins was right on the money, it was not subtle but it shaped Verdi’s moody score to an atmospheric and at times suggestive sound world. On opening night the volume did overpower the singers on a couple of occasions but with another 10 performances there’s plenty of time to modulate the balance between pit and stage.

As you can tell from all the above I really enjoyed Christopher Alden’s take and his theatricality and intriguing suggestions on gender politics and balances of power make it compulsive viewing. The lavish set and costumes will hopefully lure in the people who shy away from productions with a strong directorial vision. It looks conventional on the surface but the direction highlights a world of claustrophobia, class prejudice and sexual politics.  Certainly there are more straight productions out there that tell the story in a much more conventional / linear manner but if you appreciate a thought provoking and materially luxurious production this Rigoletto is really worth seeing. The sensational, haunting singing and acting by Kelsey is worth the price of admission alone.

ENO Rigoletto list

Some tweets from the evening

ENO 2013/2014 Season launch by an eye witness

10 May

ENO 2013-14The English National Opera seems to be a uniquely polarising company when it comes to critical opinion and bloggers in the UK. Most are very happy to point out its faults (most of the criticisms if inverted could be used against the Royal Opera rather easily, when it comes to programming) and all its missteps. I was invited to the launch for a second year and it was interesting to mark the change in atmosphere. Lots of vocal critics of the company are too happy to castigate the inadequacies of the arts journalists and their apparent failure to address burning questions on the financials and the artistic decisions there. What of course they make no allowance for is for all the things that ENO does very well and in some cases is a leader in the field. Frequently the feelings of overwhelming hurt uttered by some people online  make me wondering what their true motives are.

A press conference is not the place to ask probing questions on the financial state of the company but surely a good place to try to discern what the atmosphere is like and to try to see beneath the veneer of rehearsed confidence.  This time the managing trio of Gardner/Berry and Tomasi were surely much more subdued overall but clearly wanted to give an upbeat flavour to the announcements.

ENO has been a director led house since the 1980s with a more edgy outlook. If that is not what you want out of opera then maybe don’t waste your breath on complaining like a demented person. I am sure hearing Christopher Alden and Calixto Bieito call ENO an institution that understands their needs and becomes a base of sorts for them, must be like a red rag for the pithily referred to “regietheatre”. Like it or not, directors like Pierre Audi, Bieito, Richard Jones, David McVicar and the two Aldens have made an indelible mark in the operatic world of the last twenty years and no amount of circle jerking over tired productions by Zeffirelli and Ponelle will change that. Move on with the times or move along.

It is well known that John Berry likes to draw theatre, film and artists to collaborate into their first operatic directions. Some of them have been very successful, like the Anthony Minghella Madama Butterfly and Terry Gilliam’s staging of  Le Damnation de Faust and some have bombed like last year’s Giulio Cesare by Michael Keegan-Dolan. It seems like a luxury for many but it seems also intricately linked to the current artistic outlook of the company. This season he has invited Joe Hill-Gibbons, a theatre director by trade to try his hand at opera with Powder her Face.

The vehement anti-ENO brigade seems to be too unwilling to acknowledge that they have artist development schemes for conducting, instrumental playing, libretto writing, singing and a newly announced young house composers scheme. They seem serious about opening the doors to more creatives into the world of opera and that can surely be a positive development for the future of the art form.

The financial state of ENO is apparently improving with the deficit down by two thirds (£800.000) and box office intake rising to £1.3m.  The somber tone of their CEO Loretta Tomasi was indicative of taking seriously the situation and explained that they were successful into applying for a £3m fund (Catalyst Arts) from the Arts Council that hey have to match with a fundraising drive of £6m, which it stands currently at 85%. This expendable endowment will be used to fund production costs, which seems like a sound way to use it. The only alarming aspect was her emphasis not to be too over-optimistic if there is another funding cut by the government this June (it seems likely to be another 10% cut in tune with current government policy). Of course what is worrying is that the current losses are essentially wiping out their reserves. And while the Catalyst programme is a great idea it will not pay the staff or any other day to day costs of the operation.

Unfortunately they did not announce any changes to the core ticket prices just the continuation of the (rather naff) Opera Undressed scheme and the increase of ticket allocation from 100 to 200 per eligible performance. They seemed happy that 26% of participants in the scheme returned for more ENO shows.  Also they announced the launch of Secret Seats (£20 paid and a seat allocated two days before the performance with a value of £27 or more, with Stalls and Dress Circle seats also part of it). That pushes the overall seats available for under £40 by 40% but of course it doesn’t address the constant discounts of top price seats and the all too infrequent sell outs.

The programme they announced is a mix of some reliable revivals, like David Alden’s Peter Grimes (with a starry cast) Penny Woolcock’s Pearl Fishers (with an enticing cast) Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly and their much lauded Phelim McDermott production of Satyagraha which will shift a lot of tickets. The more searching and artistically dangerous/ambitious productions may come to grief ENO’s management in the coming months. but personally I am looking forward to the following:

Terry Gilliam’s take on Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. Gilliam will come up with some odd ball ideas and the accomplished cast with Edward Gardner conducting should make it an enticing evening.

Calixto Bieito’s Fidelio will be an interesting proposition, especially the nights when Stuart Skelton is singing the lead.

Richard Jones’ take on Rodelinda, remarkably, only his second Handel direction to date, will surely be memorable and with a great cast. ENO’s time to prove that they can live up to their reputation for being the London House for Handel. And make us forget of that awful Cesare.

Julian Anderson’s Thebans directed by Pierre Audi will be an interesting new work. Gardner said at the press conference that it has some remarkable writing for the chorus, which is frankly a good omen for a work based on Greek drama.

Thomas Adès’ Powder her Face in a new production by opera first timer Joe Hill-Gibbins in a site specific staging away from the confines of the Coliseum is an intriguing prospect.
In the least desirable corner, my pick is the new Cosi fan Tutte (who knew we needed another new staging in London) especially when it’s libretto will be tortured by Martin Crimp.
Overall the programming is giving me a lot of fascinating productions to look forward to and many hours of Twitter fun while I’m trying to have a reasonable conversation why the company has something interesting to say aside for the odd turkey here and there. At least they have the balls to take artistic risks, just wish their financial standing was much more solid.
The season trailer
A few tweets from the launch

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

22 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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