Tag Archives: David Kempster

Two Manons in MK / Boulevard Solitude + Manon Lescaut / Welsh National Opera / Milton Keynes Theatre – 13+14 March 2014

24 Mar

WNO Boulevard + ManonThe programming of the Welsh National Opera under David Pountney’s leadership is continuing to explore themed seasons that make an intellectual argument in addition to adding to the repertoire mix of what must be Britain’s most ambitious regional opera company. Currently it looks at fallen women, a subject that fascinated composers and librettists and created some of the most frequently performed works, like La Traviata and Madama Butterfly.

The particular pairing of the story of Manon and how it was treated by Henze and Puccini is one of those rare opportunities to look anew at those two works and to uncover the common threads that run across them, especially with one director working on both works. Trelinski brought across his Manon Lescaut production as seen at La Monnaie  two years ago and intriguingly he built his new production of Boulevard Solitude as a development of the same ideas. A very suitable way of working when one deals with the same story despite the diversity of treatment by the two composers.

Boulevard Solitude was for me the great winner of this gamble by WNO. The fragmented reality modernism of the set and direction. Heavily dependent of imaginative use of body doubles of Manon to display her states of being was a great match for the Henze’s rather playful jazzy score that fizzes and pops with the use of vibraphone, glockenspiel and an assortment of xylophones and moving mandolin cadenzas. In lesser hands this score could have been a souped up mess but Henze adds nuance and feeling in the sheer variety of his vocal writing, particularly apparent in his treatment of the male and female singers.  He is obviously regaling in bringing the nocturnal, sleazy jazziness into the heart of the score.

Boulevard Solitude was clearly the stand out production where Trelinski and Henze truly had a meaningful meeting of intellects. His treatment of the story puts a visual emphasis on the one true sypher of the work, Manon herself. Sarah Tynan becomes the available femme fatale in her underwear and suspenders wandering across the three part set (railway station / bar / apartment) in a vicious cycle of destruction and the one that gets split in three personalities by the use of two actresses/body doubles. The overall effect is a surreal dream of Manon through the eyes of Des Grieux but without any of the implied misogyny of the her downfall being a payback for her immoral actions. This Manon is as fragmented and as complex as the score and libretto imply. Her singing as strong as one would hope and filled with a particularly appropriate frosty sexuality.

The telling casting of Des Grieux with a young all american singer is a clever choice, as Jason Bridges offered the wide-eyed simplicity and the unshakable belief in true love. The Lescaut of Benjamin Bevan was a solid attempt at an utter sleazeball, a man only ruled by the morality of money and pimping his own sister. The Lilaque of Adrian Thompson sounded a little bit pinched at times but delivered a spirited performance that underpins most of the director’s concept. The common thread of all seven scenes is the gradual lead to Lilaque’s shooting by Manon. In the first scene two police officers put numbers on the floor and take photographs of the supposed crime scene, later on the bloodless body of Lilaque will lie there in position to be drawn around with chalk. By the time he is shot in the final scene we are all complicit to the conclusion of this human drama. We expect it and yet we are gripped by Manon lifting her gun and shooting the old man. Tellingly Lilaque, a creature of luxury and excess, smears his own blood all over his face after being shot, as if to enjoy the taste of his own blood before he dies. An image both repugnant and yet in character for a man who consumption is the core of his being. He goes full circle and consumes his own blood.

Manon Lescaut was much less successful as Trelinski diverts too much from Puccini’s ideas and gets fascinated by the psychology of the characters. The overall darkness and sense of isolation and misanthropy that emanates from the direction is a very intriguing mix and it does concentrate the ear to Puccini’s more modernist stylings that usually get lost in period productions and their decorative sets. But the main failing is the lack of a sense of place. The faceless railway station set and how it metamorphoses into a high society salon and a train carriage is very well done but it lacks any individuality. The fast paced action with many actors, the half naked prostitutes and the impotent Geronte who takes off his oxygen mask and uses it to smell the genitals of one of the dancers adds to the dystopian feel and look. Manon again becomes the great unknown with body doubles that show up and create cinematic tableaux.

His great idea is for Act Four to be a post-death meeting for the two lovers in the purgatory of the railway station. They connect and disconnect in an endless parade of different facets of their lives up to that point. A great intellectual idea that adds much needed emotional weight to a production that stuns by its coldness and meat market treatment of the human body. At least Manon’s final scene is left without any clever interventions and Chiara Taigi is left to weave her dark hued voice into a spine tingling finale. The video projection of hills and wilderness, making the only reference to Puccini’s Louisiana desert setting. The deportation scene earlier on was turned into a cruel freak show with bystanders lifting cards to mark each prisoner as they cat walked their degraded self down this path of scorn. A horrid depiction of Manon’s downfall and a time when the sleek surface of the direction shows this self-satisfied crowd as the main villain of the work. Manon is being judged by society and cast aside.

A night at the opera should not always be a comfortable night of entertainment and after leaving this Manon I was left with many questions and thinking about the nature of the work but ultimately felt that it was a let down at an emotional level. The singing by Gwyn Hughes Jones, (who started in an underwhelming fashion) and David Kempster (in full on 1980s pimp mode in white suit and silver chain)  was ideal in creating the two opposites male characters that dominate Manon’s life and add further contrast.

Both productions benefited by the excellent conducting of Lothar Koenigs and the clearly well rehearsed orchestra and chorus. The multifaceted nature of Henze’s writing was brought in vibrant, quivering life by the alertness of the instrumental solos. Puccini’s score was also rendered with great vibrancy and made me notice the lurking modernism under the 18th century gloss. Also worth mentioning the stage management team of WNO who have to tour those busy productions around England and Wales while keeping continuity despite the different capabilities of each venue.

WNO Boulevard + Manon List

Curtain Calls

Some tweets from the two evenings

Click here to read the very interesting Trelinski interview on the two productions 

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Chilling in more than one way / Grimes on the Beach / Aldeburgh Beach – 17 June 2013

24 Jun

Grimes on the beachAll classical music and opera fans are used to showing up to concert halls and opera houses all year round to enjoy their favourite art form. Once in a while an unusual venue comes along to spice things up, whether it’s Daniel Barenboim at Tate Modern or Stockhausen’s Mittwoch in a factory in Birmingham the match of programme and overall concept to the space take precedent. In order to be meaningful it has  to facilitate an experience not replicable in a standard venue.

Using the beach at Aldeburgh to present Peter Grimes was a risky as it was a natural fit. Britten was convinced that his music came from Suffolk, famously in his Aspen Award Speech in 1964 he uttered:

‘I belong at home-there-in Aldeburgh. I have tried to bring music to it in the shape of our local Festival; and all the music I write comes from it. I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships. I want my music to be of use to people, to please them, to ‘enhance their lives’ (to use Berenson’s phrase).’

Performing Grimes 20 minutes walk from Britten’s home and his grave surely has symbolism on its side. And few scores have such a sea filled sound world than this. The orchestra was crisply conducted by Steuart Bedford, pre-recorded a week earlier during two indoor concerts and relayed beautifully through speakers built into the set and also on scaffold towers all around. The conductor was in a specially buried box conducting the vocal performances. It surely wasn’t as immediate as having the players there live but the magical experience of having the magnificent interludes played while gazing at the very seascape that inspired them, with the wind harshly blowing, was unforgettable. Leslie Travers’ set was a horizontal structure that had turned its back to the sea, resembling a crumbling provincial quayside with boats being used to divide the space. A couple of raised platforms standing in for interiors. It was as simple as it was effective and evocative.

The singing was amplified and despite the, at times fierce, wind everyone was audible and we surely appreciated the extra effort put into performing in such inhospitable conditions. Incredibly this was Alan Oke’s first assumption of the title part. His beautifully lyrical delivery had all the beauty of Peter Pears and when needed he could command a much darker chest voice to communicate his sense of isolation and otherness. Lots of people like a heldentenor singing the part…virtually overplaying the character and barking their way to edge of civilization. Oke kept his interpretation in line with Britten’s ethereal writing and rode the bigger melodies with great flexibility and sense of ownership.

The rest of the cast offered some characterful singing, particularly Giselle Allen and David Kempster were the perfect companions for Oke. Allen was beautifully expressive and her acting was strong enough to read clearly from a large distance. Kempster’s Captain Balstrode was robustly voiced and with a great deal of humanity. He was the first person to walk on stage before a surprising coupe de theatre took place. A Spitfire flew exactly across the beach twice and then got lost in the depths of the sea horizon before the rumble of the woodwind paced through and replaced the engine noise. Now that was definitely a start to proceedings that cannot be replicated in any other venue.
Tim Albery definitely used the location and the seaside setting as a great asset. One interesting aural aspect was that members of the large chorus were partially amplified, allowing for an interesting variation in the sound for all of us sitting on the shingle at the front of the stage. And they definitely took their task seriously, being the nearest to an ancient Greek chorus that I have ever seen in an opera. A total treat.

Due credit has to be given to the wonderful ushers that were unfailingly charming and smiley despite dealing with some very insistent grumpy old folks that were trying to use beach chairs that were expressly not allowed. An evening that none of us will easily forget. A night that justified the hype and all our expectations, despite the fact we all were covered in five layers of clothing and winter blankets we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. The great British summer found its soundtrack.

A few tweets from the evening

Curtain Call Video

Slideshow of shots on Flickr

Storify by Aldeburgh Music Festival

http://storify.com/aldeburghmusic/grimes-on-the-beach-reactions

Grimes on the beach list

Northern triple / Otello + La Voix Humaine + Dido and Aeneas / Opera North / Leeds Grand Theatre – 16 + 17 February 2013

21 Feb

Opera North tripleThis was my second long weekend away to attend some performances by Opera North. This time the overall quality and breadth of repertoire was a mix of the accomplished, the dull and the dubious.

My personal highlight was Lesley Garrett’s return to the operatic stage after over a decade in Poulenc’s take on Jean Cocteau’s one woman drama. She apparently proposed the project to Opera North and in many ways the subject matter of the piece seems to resonate with Garrett’s career and life trajectory, she is like Elle a performer past her prime and at 57 not an artist most critics would take seriously. Especially after having spent the last fifteen years singing amplified musicals and appearing in TV reality shows. She committed the cardinal sin in opera circles, she dared to be a popular entertainer when her ENO soubrette parts starting to dry out. Many called her career moves desperate and blamed her for disgracing her operatic training and the genre. Even very recently she sang a dreadfully mannered God Save the Queen for the award ceremony of the Tour de France to Bradley Wiggins.

But have to give her full credit for the performance and for the choice of work. Voix is an unflinching monologue and in Aletta Collins’ direction she appears facing the audience for the first ten minutes through what appears to be a dressing room mirror, lined with lit up bulbs. Her anguished expression the only introduction to the piece till the chilling opening chords, quickly followed by the humorous xylophone produced telephone ring tone. When the stage front disappeared we were left with a mirror image of her dressing room with the mirror and objects behind her. From my box I could constantly see the reflection of the conductor in the mirror, adding an extra dimension to the piece…at least till her lover appeared at the back of the two-way mirror a few minutes later. The faded dressing room had a folding bed on the left and a shower cubicle on the right. Garrett moved between the two during the phone conversation with her unfaithful lover in a state of rising hysteria. The emotional development through the 45 minutes of its duration was masterful and with crystal clear diction she sold every word. She avoided the usual pitfall of over-sentimentalising or over-dramatising the finale. Her sense of anguish and imminent loss were communicated with subtle hushed lines addressed to herself while the receiver lied on the bed or her chest. Collins’ direction had her most of the duration of the piece in a black negligee with a plunging neckline giving Garrett literally no place to hide. Her voice and projection were more than adequate for the part which has few sustained sections but no one can accuse of lacking stage presence. She owned the part of the terrified scorned lover with such authority that it was deeply impressive.

The performance by the orchestra under Wyn Davies was exemplary, bringing the mid-century sound of the piece alive and with an unmistakable Gallic tartness. Many feminist writers find La Voix indefensible and a sure sign of commodification of female grief, presented as an entertainment vehicle put together by two gay men. But having Aletta Collins and Garrett work on it, they added their own distinctive  take on the work. It did not make us all feel voyeuristic in the slightest, it was more a confession by a dear friend of their innermost feelings. We watched on as she fell apart and contemplated suicide. The great concluding touch was to have a double for the dishevelled Garrett in front of the mirror (and her back to the audience) while she showed up behind the mirror wearing the red sequined dress that was still hanging from one of the dressing room lights.

The work is also an interesting comment on the nature of performance and the attitude of an ageing performer to the knocks along the way. That very allusion to her own career path and its twists and turns made for a fascinating reading of the piece. Cocteau’s play is all about imperfect technology (the still unreliable telephone service heavily reliant on operators and compromised by crossed lines) and how it mirrors the imperfection of human relationships. Like a cruel phone calls stops Elle on her tracks, so we were left to mull over Garrett’s life and career in the public eye.

Unfortunately the productions of Otello and Dido and Aeneas did not grip me in the same way. Otello being transferred by Tim Albery to an american military base did not really offer much. Despite the beautifully functional set and costumes by Leslie Travers the staging did not really speak to me. The terribly old fashioned and heavily upholstered take by Moshinsky at Covent Garden packs,  to my great surprise, more of an emotional punch. The orchestra sounded much rougher with Verdi’s frequent use of grand gestures punctuated by brass. The rather open orchestra pit of the Grand Theatre possibly amplified the musical issues, making me wish for more fire and direction.

But the excellence of the cast cannot be under estimated, Ronald Samm was uneven (it seems he was suffering with a persistent cold) but sang with great affinity with the material and especially in his duets with Desdemona he was rather affecting, just a shame that their seminal duet in Act Two took place between two reversed pieces of set that had all the refined look of a public toilet, killing the dramatic impact of their confrontation.

David Kempster’s Iago was a rather cunning, calculating human being. His Era la notte, Cassio dormia was beautifully coloured with a sense of underlying malice. He was the one singer that was vocally constant and brought depth to the production.

The Desdemona of Elena Kelessidi was on the lighter side but brought beautifully spun phrases and was very focused in Act Four. I just did not believe much of the characterisation and that would be the fault of the director not finding a true personality for his main female protagonist. Usually like a much more dramatic soprano singing the part but Kelessidi delivered some gorgeous singing making the best of her resources. The extended chorus was near deafening in the opening scene and continued with much punch and bounce.

Dido and Aeneas was an over produced and under thought mess. When one is reduced to counting how many Didos are on stage (final count was 9)…you know you have a problem. My main issue for being rather bored with this bedroom set performance was how short it was on magic. The dancing itself was very beautiful and nuanced but once all the secondary characters (the witches, the spirit etc) started arriving as doppelgänger of Dido my heart started to sink. I am sorry to report that despite some excellent singing (with just enough vibrato to annoy the period performance sticklers) from Pamela Helen Stephen who gave a rather heart wrenching finale the evening failed to be truly engaging. Notable also were Phillip Rhodes and Jake Arditti who made their Opera North debut in sparkling fashion. The beautifully bright timbre of Nicholas Watts was a glimmer of light in an already sunk production.

Try to catch them while they are touring, forget what you’ve read in the papers about Garrett and book to see Voix it really is very, very good!

Opera North triple list

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