Tag Archives: David Pountney

2017, my musical year in review

31 Dec

2017 reviewThe last time I wrote a blog post, Donald Trump had just become President of the USA, which pretty much prefigured the chaos and confusion of the last twelve months. But being on the door step of a possible nuclear obliteration is a good time to look back to all the joyful artistic experiences that made it from bearable to outright gorgeous.  Since I lazily put together a short list of favourites from the last twelve months in response to Fiona Maddocks’ review, thought I’d publish them here with a few additions. In many ways it has been a remarkable year and have been very lucky to have been to so many stimulating performances.

The programming of the Royal Opera left quite a lot to be desired for half of the year which brought down the number of performances attended considerably. Also managed to be at Semiramide on the night that Joyce DiDonato was unwell, which made it a rather staid evening. Sadly with the crazy prices I didn’t manage to see it another time. 

Also promised myself not to darken the doorstep on ENO until the utterly useless leadership steps down, I’m getting my wish next year so will be keeping an eye their way and hopefully see them make progress and who knows maybe one day they will manage to perform a bit more frequently as the current status quo is a long term road to oblivion.

The smaller companies made quite an impact, Welsh National Opera was programming a lot of crowd-pleasers aside to more esoteric repertoire showing David Pountney’s capability in keeping a company in the black but also making sure it offers something for the neophyte but also adventure to the seasoned punter.

Scottish Opera seem to be out of the woods artistically after a couple of challenging years. The two performances I attended were absolutely gripping, the appointment of Stuart Stratford is clearly making a difference. 

Grange Park semi-built a new opera house in the enchanted surroundings of a 17th century manor house, even if the dreadful Joanna Lumley was needed to cajole more money for their new toilets. Based on the description by Wasfi Kani I’m expecting a miniature Roman Coliseum with urinals.

Over at Glyndebourne I managed to compress my three customary visits to a long weekend but was rewarded by some exceptional performances that even made me ignore the absolutely pointless staging of Ariadne auf Naxos that despite prior announcements, not many changes happened and we ended up with the most glorious singing in the service of a production that is both obvious and totally missing the dramatic arc of Strauss’ masterpiece.

Holland Park Opera put another strong season with very well cast younger singers making their stage bubble with enthusiasm. 

•Le Grand Macabre with the LSO and Rattle in January was a fantastic way to blow away the cobwebs with Simon Rattle conducting a blistering account of this demanding score with a London Symphony Orchestra rewarding him with pinpoint accuracy and crystalline clarity. 

Bryan Hymel’s blistering Turiddu and Canio on the opening night of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at Covent Garden. When I saw him two weeks later he was even better!

•Elīna Garanča‘s very intense and in many ways against the grain Santuzza was a revelation in Cavalleria Rusticana who added much needed nuance to this fantastic production.

Lisette Oropesa’s turn as Lucia bettered what can be done with Katie Mitchell’s production bringing clarity and vocal prowess. Her Lucia was young, but deep, and as far removed from pointless vocal pyrotechnics and “identikit madness” acting as possible. 

The spectacular young cast including Natalya Romaniw, Jason Bridges and Nicholas Lester for Welsh National Opera’s Onegin was a joy, bringing back that most important ingredient of Tchaikovsky’s immense achievement, youth, to the foreground. 

Lise Davidsen’s dark hued Ariadne at Glyndebourne was definitely a confirmation of great promise and an unforgettable evening. Her magical performance made us forget about the truly pointless production which deserves to be shelved without trace. 

The unbrittled orientalism with a side of contemporary criticism for Cavalli’s Hipermestra at Glyndebourne made the unfamiliar accessible and gave a great vehicle for with many young singers, including Emőke Baráth, Benjamin Hulett, Anthony Gregory and David Webb making their mark.

The luxurious Magda of Elizabeth Llewellyn at Opera Holland Park’s La Rondine was balm for the soul on a warm summer’s evening. A tremendous singer that gives insightful readings of roles wrapped up with her sparkling personality.  

The brutal Jenůfa at Grange Park was a great achievement, a true psychological thriller from start to finish. The intensity of Natalya Romaniw and the set chewing vim of Susan Bullock made this a true highlight of the year.

Another Holland Park triumph for the great singing actress Anne Sophie Duprels in Zazà. She is truly the house diva and she delivers in spades every time. Have never walked away from one of her shows less than shaken. Make sure you catch her when she returns in Mascagni’s Isabeau

Brett Dean’s Hamlet at Glyndebourne was blessed with an amazing cast including Allan Clayton, Sarah Connolly and Barbara Hannigan. I was not quite as enamoured with the ridiculous writing for the Counter-tenors but the overall effect was one of a major new work that would benefit from some small revisions to make it dramatically even tighter.

•Joyce DiDonato’s intimate concert at the Wigmore Hall with the Brentano Quartet was a suitably magical end to the year. A programme that included Strauss and Debussy was crowned by Jake Heggie’s song cycle based on the life story of sculptor Camille Claudel written for her in 2012. It was musical communication of the highest order, every breath mattered and it added meaning to every word. Have a listen to the two encores I recorded on the night to have an idea of the level of engagement and togetherness of audience and performer. 

 

Thanks for reading and I will wish you all a tremendous year ahead, even if we have to make even more concerted effort to make it so.

 

From darkness to light / Lulu + The Cunning Little Vixen / Welsh National Opera, Cardiff – 23+24 February 2013

2 Mar

WNO Lulu+VixenLast weekend had my first live experience of Welsh National Opera and I am delighted to report back I was left with the impression that this may be the finest regional company in the UK. Their programming under the directorship of David Pountney has been inspired and was intrigued by the pairing of his brand new staging for Lulu and his 1980 production for the Cunning Little Vixen. His style has evolved over the years but there is the unmistakable stamp of his touch and the total focus on the singers.

On the Saturday night seeing my first live Lulu was all too exciting and being at front row and getting the full blast of this truly outstanding orchestra it was a treat for the senses. The conducting of Lothar Koenigs was confident and brought out the underlying lyricism of the score without losing the steely edge that Berg imparted on it. The staging has a paired down freshness that makes a problematic work like Lulu look effortless. The use of colour for each of the scenes was distinctive and very conspicuous adding a layer of warmth but also a sense of separation between scenes .

The set is made up of a central round enclosure in untreated, gleaming metal sections that opens up for Act Two to make space for the wonderfully fleshy bed that Lulu and Alwa make love before they flee to Paris. For the other two Acts the enclosure remains closed and flanked by movable platforms that add entrances for the singers and multiple levels. The central core of the enclosure remains initially empty till a spiral staircase descends creating a new stage dynamic. Possibly the most effective use of it, is when the frosted tube enclosing the lower part of the metal cylinder reaches the floor and becomes the room that Lulu’s final killing by Jack the Ripper takes place. With Marie Arnet screaming a haunted nein before her blood splattered naked body rests again the semi transparent wall. A finale chilling and gruesome enough to make one take notice. All of this is overseen by a disturbing Hans Bellmer inspired sculpture made out of just legs featuring as the stand in for Lulu’s portrait and contributed to the overall surreal look. The industrial look of the set makes overt reference to the aesthetic of Oskar Schlemmer and his designs for the Bauhaus, a contemporary of Berg and a hugely influential figure in the world of avant-garde theatre. If ever there was a production that felt that it evokes Berg’s own times this is the one.

The performances overall were excellent, with a towering interpretation by Marie Arnet who acted the sexy siren and downtrodden prostitute with equal conviction. Her singing remaining exemplary throughout, without any sign of stress or discomfort. There are not many singers that can make Lulu resonate with humanity and retain that demimonde edge like Arnet and this being her role debut (at fairly short notice since she replaced the previously advertised Olga Pasichnyk) it was a complete triumph. From the rest of the cast Patricia Orr, Alan Oke, Natascha Petrinsky and Peter Hoare were the stand outs. All vocally assured and totally inhabiting the characters the detailed direction bestowed upon them. Particularly Natascha Petrinsky’s Duchess Geschwitz nearly stole the show with her alluring lesbianism and dominating stage presence. Pountney’s direction created a deeply hedonistic staging making this Lulu of international importance. He added a carnivalesque atmosphere (with some extraordinary animal heads ) and also some dark theatricality (with each dead protagonist having a dummy double that gets hoisted up the set using meat hooks) but above all he stresses the interaction between characters making this a very well resolved example of this unfinished modernist masterpiece.

Pountney’s direction for the Cunning Little Vixen is equally compelling, with much bouncy fun to be had and a truly adorable set, shaped like rolling hills, allowing for much slapstick comedy to take place. The excellent use of the suspended tree branches and three secondary characters added a touch of dynamism that made it feel very fresh (considering it was premiered in 1980!). The costumes by Maria Bjørnson were good enough to allude to the different animals (the mosquito, chickens and cockerel being particularly fine examples) but without making the production look excessively cartoony and contrived. The projection of anthropomorphism by Janacek on the Vixen and the animals around her is usually undermined by overt mimicking of the animals’ appearance at the expense of the expression and the tension between singer and costume. The production is sang in a rather entertaining English translation making the jokes flow and the audience reaction more immediate. The Vixen of Sophie Bevan was the most enchantingly glorious creature on stage, beaming personality and displaying a great sense of comic timing. Julian Boyce’s scruffy, predatory dog was the funniest thing on stage. Sarah Castle’s Fox was perky and despite a couple of times sounding shrill, a great addition with her outgoing enthusiasm. From the “grown up roles” Alan Oke was a bravura schoolmaster with a deliciously sharp temper.
The orchestra played a majestic account of the score finding a mid-point between glorious romantic tutti and much more incisive and playful incidental material. The glistening strings added sunshine to a windswept day in Cardiff, which is no mean feat. After seeing this production I can now agree to the classic status of the staging, it both draws from all our childhoods and it also beguiles with its lightness and unapologetically fun outlook. Lets hope that it will continue to live on and to entertain many more people.

On the surface it may seem an odd accident of programming to have these two operas performed in the same themed season (with addition of Madama Butterfly) but it was very useful to read David Pountney’s essay in the programme and I am delighted that the WNO has shared it on their website, go on have a read. If the above is not too obvious already, I was thoroughly impressed by the WNO and already started making plans to visit in the winter for their three Donizetti queens which should be a supreme, unmissable, operatic over-indulgence. If you are in the route of their extensive tour do not hesitate to book, both Lulu and Vixen are two productions that any of the London Houses would be delighted to claim as their own. They are imaginative, intelligent and above all serve the work they present with respect and have something to say.

The performance of Lulu from the 23rd of February I’m waxing lyrical about will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 25th of May at 6pm, tune in!

Curtain Call Video

WNO’s Guide to Lulu

WNO Lulu+Vixen list

David Pountney 1 – Norman Lebrecht 0

17 Jan

This morning a link to a blog post by David Pountney, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera as a response to as usual baseless and naive article by Norman Lebrecht in Standpoint Magazine (who buys it, I wonder), grabbed my attention.

Any classical/opera world followers on Twitter are too well versed in Mr Lebrecht’s attention seeking, ambulance chasing ways. I am truly grateful that someone of Pountney’s stature took a stand and publicly denounced his lazy assumptions about funding. He makes a number of great points about the nature of the opera business and of art in general. I totally agree with all his points. Additionally, pure commercial enterprises have very rarely produced good quality opera programming. Utter the name Raymond Gubbay (a favourite of the Royal Albert Hall, old Norman, isn’t he?) to any opera lover and you will see 😉

Bravo to DP and hope all the readers of my blog will read his post.

David Pountney’s Adventures of the Spirit blog post

Norman Lebrecht’s Just say no to State Funding article (watch out for the tulip metaphor!)

Read More

The new season announcement by the WNO

Follow the hilarious Fake Norman Lebrecht, much better than the real thing!

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