Tag Archives: Clare Presland

Candlelit Beauty / Bristol Old Vic / Dido and Aeneas – 2 August 2014

4 Aug

Dido and AeneasHaving read a few articles about the Bristol Proms and how it encourages a non traditional concert going etiquette. Their great innovation being the use of big screen projections, allowance to take photographs throughout, encouragement of spontaneous clapping and allowance of drinks in the auditorium.  A list of things that the absence of have never stopped me from enjoying any performance to date…being odd as we demand discipline and study from the performers why can’t demand the same from the audience?

The programme was prefaced with a foreword by Tom Morris and Max Hole (the frankly clueless boss of Universal Music) which dampened much of the enthusiasm of being in that beautiful and historic theatre. I don’t want lectures about inaccessibility and unfriendliness of concert venues and how we can improve the experience by adopting the tropes of pop concerts. It is a naive reaction to the failure of the recording industry to engage audiences and thus failing to make money in the process. While I applaud the wonderful atmosphere at the Old Vic I am growing very tired of this reverse snobbery. On an average concert can’t imagine more than 10% is a brand new audience who we seen to pander to with all these ideas about being “welcoming”. I’d rather the venues trying equally hard to please the remaining 90% of their audience. Most of us don’t need large screens and gimmicks to convince us that orchestral concerts and opera are both enjoyable and a treat for the mind and heart. As much as Mr Hole seems to be circumspect of current concert etiquette we can be harsh enough to mention that most of the performers at the Bristol Proms were artists signed to his label. The Old Vic may want to be seen to be accessible but it fails on the simple fact that this week of music is fuelled by Universal’s roster of artists…a pretty exclusive bunch. 

When Tom Morris (the director of the Old Vic) came on stage to explain the principles of their Promming concept it came through as a well-meaning idea and it was a relief to know that this performance was using technology from the mid 18th century for its visual trickery and lighting. It also meant that due to the candle light it would make it impossible to take photos with mobile phones, he did offer, conveniently, to email the official photos. Of course that didn’t stop an iPhone boob in front of me trying to film and in the process activated the very bright autofocus light and took her some time to figure out how to switch it off. And that is the problem with allowing people to use electronic devices during concerts…they don’t know how to use them, causing annoyance and discomfort to everyone nearby.  It was also a nice touch to be given a potted history of the theatre as a music venue…knowing that Paganini played there is rather fun.

The first half was occupied with an introduction by Robert Howarth on Purcell, taking us from his musical interludes for The Fairy Queen to his final piece of sacred music (Hear My Prayer) which was gorgeously sung by The Erebus Ensemble and his bawdy lute songs about melons and arses (Young Tom the Gardener) that spread a contagious giggle on stage and the audience. We also got a reading by John Retallack of excerpts from an 18th century translation of Virgil’s epic poem that was probably known to Purcell and his librettist Nahum Tate. It was fun, it was informative and in the best possible taste. The choice to split the band across the proscenium in the manner used at the time when playing incidental music was a great idea. Having woodwind on the right and harpsichord and strings on the left worked in the detailed, warm and slightly reflective acoustic of the Old Vic. The quality of the sound was truly exceptional and was definitely aided by the intimate size of the auditorium. Within the first 15 minutes I was mentally booking tickets for next year’s ENO staging of Orfeo next April.

Dido and Aeneas listAfter the interval Dido commenced, the action taking place in a white  square central space backed with a cloth that was back projected by flames at pivotal moments of the action and the singers illuminated by two suspended candle holders either side and an array of candle footlights. It felt as intimate as it was low-tech. The directorial concept was light on “cleverness” but definitely attuned to the music and an eye for using the chorus in effective formations around and on the square performance area. The casting was well matched with smoky, full-voiced Pumeza Matshikiza who sang with great feeling and gave a shatteringly moving final scene in her lament as she nears death. David Stout made the best of the few show off opportunities for Aeneas, their duet before his departure was tender as it was electric, one of the finest moments of a great night. The Belinda of Clare Presland was delicate and compassionate and sung with great care.  Hilary Summers’ Sorceress was straight out of a pantomime which is not as bad as it sounds…she was full of character and even elicited some jokey hisses from the audience at every appearance. A comedy villain in Purcell’s masterpiece was a fun addition and her full contralto sound made an equally strong impression.

The playing by the English Concert was attentive and very lively. The nascent Erebus Ensemble made a spirited and notable fresh contribution throughout. Animating every scene with their virile and yet soft sound.  Howarth clearly inspired the band and the singers to create a special evening for everyone present. It was a night full of heart that presented Purcell’s score in a ravishing light literally and metaphorically. This was baroque opera presented with such simplicity, confidence and clarity of purpose that moves the heart and pleased the mind without any unwanted distractions. Intimate and direct.

Curtain call video

Some Tweets from the evening


Classic FM posted a picture gallery from this performance on their website

The dreamworld of Mr Jones / Julietta / English National Opera / Opening night – 17 September 2012

20 Sep

I have been hosting the blog posts of Claire Pendleton from the ENO chorus  for the last month and I had a good idea about the set up and direction of Julietta and even had a sneak peek view of the set during rehearsals. But the great unknown was always the work itself. Martinů takes the dreamworld of the original play into an extreme, his composing becoming fragmented and episodic, very few of the narrative threads are followed through and much of the singing is a recitativo accompanied by pillowy (at time wondrous) music. It makes for an unsatisfactory night at the theatre if the audience is not prepared to take it at face value and allow itself to be seduced by the spare but oddly voluptuous soundworld of Julietta.

The heroine is a dream and it seems so is the possibility of a coherent narrative. This production was immaculate and the orchestral playing was tremendous. Particularly how it was customised to the sometimes too hot acoustic of the coliseum was an impressive feat. The music sounded distant and echoing at times and others the fortissimi braced the material into shape. Edward Gardner as an astute and highly theatrical conductor managed to bring out a wealth of beauty and lyricism. The woodwind passages in Act Two were truly delicious and worthy of the concert hall let alone the opera house. The singing was mostly exceptional, Peter Hoare was tremendous as the dream swept Michel and managed to take us all on a journey as he gradually starting losing himself and his own memories and retreating from reality to the uncertain world of dreams. His singing was always assured and full of spark. His Julietta was as ethereal and edgy one would wish Julia Sporsén (who was unfortunately let down by the orchestral balance on appearance in Act One) sang with an airy confidence and strong stage presence. We could surely see why she made such and impression on Michel. She made a great case for ENO’s frequent casting of singers from its own young artist programme for major parts. If she was that wonderful on opening night imagine how much she will grow through the run.

The chorus who mainly creates a reflective echoing sound through the first two acts was a great asset and established the mood set by the orchestra.  And also supported Michel in his attempt to find his way through the provincial town he found himself stuck in.  Also Claire did do a magisterial dash across the stage in Act Two, as mentioned in a previous blog!  From the smaller parts Susan Bickley was a tremendous presence and the source of much hilarity either as the fortune-teller that talks about the past or as the old woman coming out to admonish Michel. Henry Waddington made an assured man at the window plus a dry witted waiter in the Second Act. One singer that made a distinctly bad impression on me was Emile Renard who maybe too carried away by the little arab character just oozed arrogance throughout the evening. Especially when she was out-sang as one of the three men by Clare Presland and  Samantha Price. She has a lovely lyric voice but her stage presence could use a little bit of toning down.

The production by Richard Jones was well honed (after all this is the third incarnation of this production since 2002) the three differently orientated accordions created a suitably surreal and evocative setting. One slight annoyance was the flimsy construction of the instrument in Act One with the doors almost prematurely flung open on impact. I can imagine Julietta with its sparse orchestration can be a victim to a director’s whim to add extra clutter to make up for it. Jones went against the grain and allowed the music and signing ample space to breathe. His attention to physical acting paid dividends, both Hoare and Sporsén gave us a fully lived performance of great distinction.
The addition of the custom curtain design made up of white drawn sleepers in pyjamas spelling out Julietta, with Michel being the last one on the lower right was a nice touch and when it re-appeared in the end it brought the story to a circular conclusion. Another beautiful touch was the wandering french horn player in the wood of Act Two adding another surreal touch in addition to the wine waiter and a piano being “played” by Julietta on a moving platform towards the back of the stage.

Jones’ touch was light and this production deserves to be seen for its sheer ebullience and wit. Unfortunately what let it down was Martinů and his fragmented, sometimes prescriptive music that especially in Act Three felt overtly laboured. Overall I am delighted that ENO exposed us to such a repertoire rarity especially when staged with such conviction and good taste but two days later not much of the music has stayed with me.  It surely was surreal and witty and a wonderful night out, but as an opera it seemed to lack that extra hook that makes it unforgettable. I may have to return to see if I will allow myself to be won over by the music 😉

Some tweets from the evening

The Death of Klinghoffer / English National Opera – Dress rehearsal 23 February 2012

25 Feb

Was very fortunate to have been at the dress rehearsal for the new staging of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer that is opening this evening at English National Opera. Was anticipating it for weeks and I can honestly say I was not disappointed in the slightest.  Hot off the heels of Dr Atomic and Nixon in China, this co-production (again) with the Metropolitan Opera, ENO is becoming the London house to see John Adams’ operas.

The staging by Tom Morris largely literal and that may be a disappointment for anyone expecting a more abstract canvas illustrating the story, but due to the nature of the work I think his point of view is very valid. Any regie flourishes are kept to a bare minimum, Palestine is Palestine, the Achile Lauro is still a cruise ship, 1980s fashions are all the craze. John Adams’ opera is a work of beauty and deep contemplation. After emerging from the Coliseum into a sunny London lunchtime I was emotionally drained and moved to the core. The very vivid staging certainly helped.

The opening section is two choral pieces one for Palestinian and one for Jewish people. Morris opted for a set that is comprised of a floor surface resembling arid Middle Eastern land with seven (for this section) movable quasi walls in a textured look that are used for extensive projections throughout. They essentially bring in a naturalistic landscape as the horizon of the stage framing the action. The members of the choir are creating the olive grove described in the libretto by opening suitcases and revealing olive trees which they continue to plant in the ground. The green flag waving at this section may be the only indulgence to cliché and it is a very small and easily forgivable lapse.

Another set of identical panels lowers to create the press conference where the freed hostages are talking about their experience. This is the big moment for the Swiss Grandmother to deliver the first emotional hook. Lucy Schaufer’s delivery complete with 80s hairdo and lilac two piece outfit was wonderful; just wish she had more material to sing.

The quasi wall opens to the first of the night’s gunshots from the terrorists in the environs of the cruise ship’s restaurant, the projections on the back panels that made the landscape now have the large portholes of the restaurant with the blue sea beyond. In this production the sea becomes another character imbuing with its presence every mise en scene till the very end with its blue glow and twinkling distant lights from the shore.

The evening conversation between captain and Mamoud (one of the captors) is held at the deck which takes the form of a vaguely art deco movable prop thankfully the only presence of the mentioned birds are in the projections. This part of the first act is the most atmospheric with Adams embellishing it with Middle Eastern references as Mamoud tunes the radio to stations of his homeland.

A moment of lightness amongst the darkness is the brief aria (back in full press conference mode once more) of the Austrian Woman, expertly portrayed by Kathryn Harries, narrating how she survived the siege locked up in her cabin with just the contents of her fruit basket and a chocolate bar she bought in Greece. Adding much needed variety in both score and character development. Which concluded with the following dark hued words: Even if one were going to die. One would avoid the company of idiots. During the war I felt the same. I have no fear Of death. I’d rather die alone, If I must, though I’d hate to drown.

After this largely flippant episode we return to the deck for the conclusion of  Mamoud’s aria ‘Those birds flying above us’ a moment of lucidity and a revelation of Adams’ true intentions. The terrorists are not portrayed as faceless monsters but as human beings with longing and sensitivities that somehow have faltered, looking for a way of life that only exists in their imaginations. As Alice Goodman (the librettist) put it ‘the piece is about the destructive effects of romantic nationalism’ and the longing he describes with ‘The sun will rise, I would like to see the dawn from my window’ is a universal feeling that everyone in the audience can understand but are in conflict with the heinous methods of the terrorists. A feeling of ambivalence, unease and doubt that veils the whole work. A master stroke that makes the work an emotional journey to the dark recesses of our minds.

The night chorus closes the first act with very effective projections on the back wall surface making it look like a live graffiti wall, increasing in speed of the appearance of the drawings as the piece culminates with a crescendo.

At the interval I was feeling numb at the intensity of both the staging and the music. The full weight of the production and the subject matter is undeniable. So much so, I find it impossible anyone would think the work flippant or disrespectful. The grave situation is communicated with utmost sincerity and urgency. This is not middle class entertainment, it’s a visceral experience, a tide of emotion.

The second act opens straight in the action (with the Hagar Chorus having been cut from this staging…despite what my hive mind thought at the time, fusing the recording and the rehearsal).  The aria for Molqui and the one for Rambo (the two of the three captors) are flanking the first aria for Klinghoffer ‘I’m not a violent man’ which establishes him as a feisty man with dignity that stands up to the invaders exclaiming twice ‘You don’t give a shit you want to see people die’  against almost a triumphalist backdrop of brass. It is a chilling moment of defiance that we know too well will end up in tragedy.

Then Rambo’s aria takes on an absurd character as an anti-American rant in the shape of an incoherent speech by a religious fundamentalist. Which is swiftly followed (in press conference mode) of the British Dancing Girl, performed with exceptional gusto by Kate Miller-Heidke, describing life on board with all the prerequisite banal details such as the sandwiches served, against a backdrop of quick paced rhythmic music not unlike some intros by Queen (the band, that is). This is another expansion of the human canvas in the work and the last attempt at air-headed lightness.

The next fifteen minutes where the culmination of the on stage action, with Omar essentially being convinced to kill Klinghoffer, he grabs his gun and moves towards the wheelchair as the aria reaches its climax he points the gun and the lights go, the Desert Chorus starts, leaving the scene unresolved. A very effective, if simple ploy by Morris reverses the stage set on its head. So as, while Marilyn Klinghoffer declares her love for her husband and a typical inane pensioner rant on hip replacements and research, her husband is facing the audience with Omar holding the gun is re-enacting the scene and eventually shooting him in that position. A shocking and inevitable conclusion that makes dramatic sense despite its cruelty and immediacy. Especially accentuated by the score’s silence at the moment of his death, here being punctured by the gunshot.

The surreal aria of the falling body sang by the dead Klinghoffer is a very difficult scene to stage when one opts for naturalism. Morris’ solution was to choreograph a dancer to take the place of the body while Alan Opie sings beautifully the aria and the projected sea takes over all the projection walls right and left of the stage. For me this choreographed dismantling of the chair and body double solution seemed to jar. But thankfully the gorgeous music and singing make one forget too easily what takes place at the depths of the set.

After this dark interlude, the choir returns on stage bringing the day after the murder of Klinghoffer and the set becomes the exit point of all the passengers and terrorists, bar Mrs Klinghoffer, who has a conversation with the captain, where he reveals that her husband is dead. The libretto and elliptical music motifs are bringing this scene to life while the two characters inhabit what looks like an empty cabin. Adams allows the captain to do his exposition while allowing for Mrs Klinghoffer to gather her thoughts. Michaela Martens and Christopher Magiera were truly exceptional, the nervous energy between the characters obvious and all too painful. Her concluding aria ‘You embraced them’ is so extraordinary and powerful that it made me well up. Martens sang it with so much feeling and simplicity it was stunning an amazing actress and an impeccable vocalist.

The subject matter and the staging are bound to be challenging for many people. But we cannot forget how art is not meant to just depict fluffy subjects that do not touch our everyday lives. It is also meant to illuminate the dark recesses of the wretched intentions and perversion of the human mind. This opera does makes us question the very reason one human would maltreat another in that way, informed by doctrine and hatred. Good and evil are slippery to define in this work as they are in reality. You will not find cartoonish baddies and totally innocent victims. What is on stage is an exposition of a slice of human life not idealised, not made rounded for public consumption. The flaws of the characters are the main focus of this work and that is the reason why it is such compelling viewing. It is about humanity and humanism not politics. The cast and orchestra under the energetic direction of Baldur Brönnimann offered their all, they deserve to play to a full house for every one of the seven performances.

Read more

Article on the history of Achille Lauro and its eventual sinking in 1994

Interview with the librettist Alice Goodman in The Guardian

Jessica Duchen’s piece on the work in The Independent

Tom Service’s blog on Klinghoffer in The Guardian

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