Tag Archives: Christopher Purves

Charm and intelligence goes a very long way / The Perfect American / English National Opera – 6 June 2013

10 Jun

ENO AmericanIf you asked me to encapsulate my impressions after seeing Philip Glass’s latest opera I would say CHARMING. It may sound like a horribly twee response to a new work but it is exactly what I was thinking during most of it. The work is not scruff of the neck exciting or particularly fast paced. But the way it unfolds Walt Disney’s last months of his life is an intriguing work that Phelim McDermott treats with respect and assisted by Improbable’s skilled artistes and Dan Potra give a rich visual manifestation.

The mood of the piece is rather sepulchral as it opens with the terminally ill Disney sleeping and having a nightmare about an owl he saw as a child. Surrounded by animated (the Improbable crew springing out of them) drawing portfolios that get raised to the ceiling and eventually unfold to become screens for the projections creating a sense of enclosure. The set adopts shorthand references to his studio life, two cinematography cranes tower above with two cameras. The aesthetic is undeniably industrial conveying a sense of Mad Men sleekness with great use of animated drawings as backdrops bringing the story to life. His bed is on an animator’s drawing board, the bed given the prominence one would expect from a work that deals with the threat of imminent death. Glass’s music is dominated by five or six melodic ideas that recur and are woven in a rich textual tapestry adorned with prominent parts for cello and flute. It sounds like Glass and it works its insidious magic like most of his music. It takes over one’s thoughts and is deeply immersive. Even obvious failings in the unnecessary showy, wordy and at times crass libretto (one phrase comes to mind ‘I’m like a bee collecting pollen from desk to desk‘ on illustrating his studio working practise) by Rudy Wurlitzer are not making too much of a negative impact as the cast and director are giving the material flight.

Using animated drawings to tell Disney’s story is an obvious way to make it happen. The sheer beauty of the projections by 59 Productions and their integration with the set design is astounding. Unlike many opera productions they do not feel like an unnecessary add-on that all too frequently annoys. Here it creates his hometown in a double projection on the cloth suspended from the crane above and a back projection that harmonise to give wonderful depth while the chorus praises the generic looking “midtown USA” nature of Marceline, the silly apple pie references in the libretto is forgettable but the setting adds considerable magic to some evocative choral writing.

The staging is inferring the very nature of Peter Stephan Jungk’s book which could be called a fable biography. A composited life story that relates to Disney’s life  but instead of taking a realistic root it uses the absurd as a device to explore concerns that a straight biography couldn’t. In that context an animatronic Abe Lincoln and a fan visit by Andy Warhol are becoming an expose of controversial aspects of his character (totalitarianism, dubious racial beliefs, political conservatism) and a mirror of how other artists saw his work is revealing. Those two encounters are a welcome break from the linearity of the narrative and provide some welcome light relief. Overall the staging successfully fuses aspects of biographical detail with coup de théâtre moments of physical theatre. Like when the family are travelling back to LA from Missouri the projection on the semi transparent cloth is of a miniature railway (like the one in Disney’s garden in LA) overlayed with the performers behind it. An imaginative depiction of the journey sequence but also a time for the silly antics of adults riding a miniature railway.

Equally the way Marceline’s high street, Kansas Avenue is treated visually as a template for the Main Street in Disney resorts the world over. The inextricable fusion of reality and fantasy is a fundamental aspect of Disney’s output and one of the main reasons for his cultural omnipresence. This production manages to allude to so much while using subtle but beautifully realised metaphors. Near the end his diagnosis of advancing cancer is made by a doctor standing in front of a screen projecting a chest x ray with as his description of the seriousness progresses we see the tumours grow and multiply, suggesting in shape Mickey’s head, as used by the company in many forms of merchandising and branding. His lungs been literally taking over by a drawing Mickey Mouse is a good way to describe the overall effect of the animation. Disney’s boss like the thousands of staff he employed was taken over and consumed by this cannibalistic corporation. The animations are directly linked to the narration but make much bigger suggestions of underlying motives and his complex psyche.As such what Improbable have done is remarkable and deliciously vibrant. The many references to stop frame animation and the overall filmic character is something I imagine it would enthrall most people in the audience admiring the sleek presentation and how it gently fuses text, visuals and music.

The singing by the cast was excellent. Most of the writing is heavy in recitativi with the more lyrical passages adding variety. The writing for the chorus is a very strong component that adds urgency and a quasi-Disneyland celebratory mood, one is never able to discern where the servile cheering stops and the irony starts. Christopher Purves gives a bravura performance, reprising his role from Madrid’s world première showing. He is authoritative and can dominate the stage for the duration despite being the unflinching focus of the work. Tellingly the most tender and most horrid parts are when he is faced with children. His interactions with the adults are based on rank and dominance but he is either terrified of the children (like Lucy that shows up on the night of his birthday party and puzzlingly for him she doesn’t have any knowledge of his work) or comes to terms with mortality when he meets a child cancer patient called Josh (performed like Lucy by Rosie Lomas) in a series of tender exchanges the world of his creations blends into the reality of a fading patient in hospital.
The character of Dantine is a little too knowing and mugging for its own good but Donald Kaasch puts in a polished performance that brings to life what is the least subtle character in this opera. The ladies of the Disney clan and Janis Kelly as his personal nurse and confidante are wonderfully camp and mere suggestions of real characters but they add to the dream-like atmosphere that make this work what it is, a meditation on an enigma.

This opera does what a fair few have failed, it is filled with ideas that are expressed with simplicity and clarity. The sense of a journey through the story is eloquent and told with sensational gusto. The PR waffle of a great american composer taking on an american legend maybe a too simplistic an observation but there is a sense of purpose and it definitely is a work that feels mature and quietly thrilling. Go and see it if you are in London over the next weeks.

It is also coming out in September on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte (they STILL don’t have a functioning website) from its Teatro Real outing, I would urge anyone with an interest in Glass’s work to give it a try, hoping that the staging will translate equally well in a recording.

Trailers from Madrid and London

Curtain call video

Some tweets from the evening

ENO American List

Medieval Noir / Written on Skin / Royal Opera House – 11 March 2013

14 Mar

Written on SkinBy now you must have all heard the noises by the critics and any other blogging source about Written on Skin. Having watched the cinema broadcast from Aix-en-Provence last July. I was well primed for the live performance and I have to admit I was annoyed by a totally different aspect than the cinema experience.

The work is based on a 12th century Occitan legend telling a story of the Protector commissioning an illustrated manuscript to memorialise his magnificence and wealth. The illustrator (the Boy) is involved in a sexual relationship with the bright, repressed and illiterate Agnès, the wife of his client. The opera explores that journey of self discovery through sexual liberation. Add a sprinkling of angels and her sister and you have the makings of a medieval themed noir film.

George Benjamin’s music is clothed in transparent veils full of subtlety and in many ways a little bit too polite. Like many composers of his generation the shadow of Benjamin Britten still looms large. He doesn’t go for the all out confrontation with the audience’s ears as so many of his contemporaries. This soft and friendly sound must be part of the work’s success and spread across Europe over 2012 and 2013. It won’t scare anyone with its avant-gardist indulgence. Within its politeness it miraculously manages to deliver 95 minutes of gripping drama.  His vocal writing fluctuates from a pedestrian parlando style for the Protector and the Angels to the much more ornamented lines for Agnès and the Boy. Especially their love making duet in Scene Two builds sexual tension with a raw visceral power. Just don’t ask me what the homoerotic attraction between the Protector and the Boy was all about.

Katie Michell’s direction seemed terribly stiff and hell-bent on adding modish touches to the piece. The many close ups of the cinema broadcast amplified this stylistic mishmash. Live it does work much better with the split level boxed set creating a suitably claustrophobic setting for this domestic drama. There is an irritating insistence on slo mo pacing by the actors in the lab/archive section of the set. In a couple of instances it adds a filmic texture but it wears very thin by overuse. As long as the presentation does not remind you of a mashup of the Medieval and High Tech zones of the Crystal Maze you are in a good place. One decision that appears dictated by the starchy libretto was the singers in scenes being physically manipulated and moved by the two angels. It just seems genuinely awkward and an unimaginative way to show a heavenly intervention . Also having the singers announcing their entrances and the profuse mentions in the third person are irritating and create gaps in the storytelling that appear capricious and anti-theatrical.

The stellar performances by the cast and orchestra elevated the evening to a memorable occasion. Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves (save for a couple of rough times in two short sotto voce passages) and Bejun Mehta gave their all with smooth vocal delivery and total immersion in their characters. The tension between sex and violence pents up to the inevitable conclusion when the powerful Protector, after losing his control to jealousy, killing the Boy and serving his heart to his unfaithful wife. Instead of being melodramatic, the atmosphere is dark and agitated. But of course the main question for me was how relevant the piece is to the 21st century audience. Dressing the angels in lab coats and putting them in a sterile set does not make for innovation or modernity, the final result has a rather dusty feel.

The achievement of the work and its overall musical beauty is undeniable but colour me unimpressed overall by the moddish staging, the stunted libretto with its profusion of personal pronouns. Benjamin does write a great vocal line but somehow I was left wondering what impact a much more flowing libretto or an altogether more recent source would have had. Trying to bridge the gap of 9 centuries makes for an unconvincing offering that can only stand if we abstract the story away from its specifics to relate to our universal experiences. Of course I am not asking for ludicrous set ups like Judith Weir’s kebab van ladden Miss Fortune but still waiting for the day when a contemporary composer will not seek refuge in the comfort of the past and create something new and about our own times. Metaphors and allusions are useful and stimulating but this avoidance to engage with contemporaneous subjects makes a lot of contemporary opera seem as old as the 19th century standard rep.

Curtain call video from a jaunty angle!

Written on Skin list

George Benjamin: Written on Skin / Aix-en-Provence Festival – Live relay at Ciné Lumière – 14 July 2012

17 Jul

There has been a lot of commenting and high hopes for  George Benjamin’s new opera (co-produced by Festival d’Aix-en-Provence with the Nederlandse Opera, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino) and I was compelled to pop into the Institut Français to check out the live broadcast from Aix.

The story is based on a medieval Occitan legend from the 12th century. It encompasses the arrival of a manuscript illuminator and how the domestic balance gets upturned via amorous approaches and finally murder. Structured in three parts, it lasts around 100 minutes without interval.

The cast have taken on a mammoth challenge, especially Barbara Hannigan who has the very physical and vocally demanding role of Agnès.  She is matched by Christopher Purves’ macho presence and rock solid singing. Bejun Mehta’s presence and singing did not excite me as much . The work has a series of duets amongst the three main protagonists which become the central spine of the dramatic development. The all pervading darkness in both subject matter, interpretation and musical language may put off some people, but it is ultimately a very challenging, accomplished piece of work. The writing is very singer friendly and there are some stunning final tutti where the soloist and the orchestra become one. Part of the excitement of the piece is the sheer physical nature of the singing required and the amount of committed acting. The directing by Katie Mitchell may not be to everyone’s taste, as the ambiguities of flashbacks and past/present interrelationships become too frequently blurred, and also requiring a lot of awkward on stage costume swaps.  The boy may be the pivotal character, but Hannigan is the centre of attention, with her fragile appearance she seems to live in this world of feudal power and intense, internalised passion that looks for an outlet. Her frequent outbursts are powerful and affecting.

The three central characters are ushered/attended by Marie and John who take on a role of the peripheral action that adds more depth/detail and help with the scene transitions. Sang with great gusto by Rebecca Jo Loeb and  Allan Clayton.

Overall it is an intense, dystopian world full of anxieties and co-dependencies. An intriguing mix of the medieval and the contemporary. Potentially some of the most darkly sexy opera this side of Lulu. Do go and see it at any of the touring venues or watch the archived stream on Medici.tv  (annoyingly not available in the UK). I will most definitely book for it’s Royal Opera staging on 8 | 11 | 16 | 18 | 22 Mar 2013.

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