Tag Archives: English National Opera

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

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Top 5 most read posts of 2013

31 Dec

Most read of 2013The end of the year makes us all look back at statistics and moments of the previous twelve months.

Here is the top 5 blog posts of the year

1 Why I don’t like Sinfini

The quasi free-spirited website, that is meant to be run by passionate music lovers, but is indeed a property of Universal Music, who owns over 70% of the classical recording labels output

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/why-i-dont-like-sinfini/

2 Kicking the Prommers to the ground is poor form

The rather unnecessary attack on prommers by Christopher Gillett…a blatant attempt at click baiting by Sinfini?

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/ah-mr-gillett/

3 Gergiev gets a London welcome

A post on the rather blasé  approach by maestro Gergiev on the goings on back in Russia. It seems the campaigning has had limited success as he still seems to be largely unwilling to make any definitive statements. We will be happy to see his departure from the LSO by the end of 2015.

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/gergiev-gets-a-london-welcome/

4 The shine of the blade / English National Opera’s Medea

The post on a glorious dress rehearsal that blew my socks off. Sarah Connolly in blazing form taking on and conquering one of the gems of the French baroque repertoire. I was floored by the intensity and would count it among the most memorable performances of my opera going life to date.

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/eno-medea/

5 Wimsy and gorgeousness / Sophie Bevan and Sebastian Wybrew recital at Wigmore Hall

A gorgeous recital by two very accomplished young stars that was instantly charming and affecting. The rendition of Barber’s Hermit Songs was so fresh and beautifully realised it put a spring on my step.

https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/sophie-bevan-sebastian-wybrew-recital-wigmore-hall-17-march-2013/

A mixed bag but shows how topical subjects tend to be read more.

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

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

The shine of the blade / Medea / English National Opera – 13 February 2013 (dress rehearsal)

15 Feb

ENO MedeaSeeing David McVicar slowly metamorphosing into the new Zeffirelli at the Met Opera in the last couple of years, I was a little bit weary about how idea rich his take on Charpentier’s Medea could be.  French Baroque thrives on dance and spectacle and a director that comes up short can sink a production. I was hoping for some of  the verve and invention from his Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto than the stale Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda of late. But one thing I was sure about was the excellent fit of Sarah Connolly for the title role, last November she gave a captivating rendition of Quel Prix in concert but nothing could have prepared me for the outstanding quality of this production.

I know a lot of people don’t like reports based on the dress rehearsal but as I am seeing it twice more later in the run I promise to update if any other observations creep in that make revision imperative.

The performance lasts near 3 hours and 20 minutes, as McVicar and Curnyn decided (wisely in my view) to cut the half hour prelude in praise of the Sun King. After the short and punchy overture we are thrown straight into the torments of (the newly arrived in Corinth) Medea. The setting is a wartime 1940s panelled interior, the set slightly angled at 70 degrees with a raked mirrored floor. Three tall grazed French doors (oh the English terminology comes handy in context) are leading into a peripheral corridor that is used for myriad entries and exits throughout the evening. A simple unfussy but sophisticated backdrop, its faded neoclassicism a subtle allusion to the original period of the work. Straight from the start the smooth changeover from waiting room to an officer’s mess room (complete with uniformed cocktail waiter) is handled with great care, with stage hands dressed in tuxedos befitting the stately setting of the work. With the restrictions that an Edwardian theatre like the Coliseum imposes on each director McVicar showed his class as a world renowned specialist in the field. The set even though static till the last few minutes of this production, constantly changes with subtle cues, the spotlights in the corners of the room move in to make a more intimate atmosphere or to spotlight the King while lying on the floor beaten by Medea’s magical powers in Act Four. The large glazed doors acquire opaque panes and the wall sconces acquire lit candles in the last Act. By extinguishing them before the final scene the smell of wax travels across the auditorium adding an olfactory element to this production.

The costumes are exquisite with great attention to detail. The 1940s atmosphere staying strong with the tailored nature of all the womenswear and the officers’ uniforms. The glamour of the robe (here changing into a rather eye-catching gold lamé evening dress) as Connolly reveals it in her travelling trunk in the first few minutes on stage, also closes the opera three hours later having been poisoned by her and worn by Creuse who dies a painful (if beautifully sung) death. This being baroque opera, amongst all the tragedy we get a lot of dancing. And I am delighted to report that McVicar’s mix of romp and camp works so well it truly adds interest and makes the dances feel more integrated than during ENO’s last foray with Castor and Pollux where the dances seemed disconnected and throwaway. As originally planned for the French court the dances add amusement and atmosphere and slight relief from the tragedy at the centre of the work. The very first example is with the dancers donning RAF uniforms in a dark blue colour, their vibrant routine surely caused a raucous applause and added some light relief to a very sombre beginning. The six male and six female dancers appear in many guises, zombie-like denizens of the underworld (following the cross dressing personifications of Vengeance and Jealousy) to spirits of beautiful women. The biggest tableaux using the dancers is the “party scene” with the appearance of Aoife O’Sullivan as Cupid with black glittery wings aboard a Spitfire covered in pink glitter (standing in for Cupid’s chariot), surely the campest prop to grace a stage for some time! On the side of the pink plane there’s  a large stylised fan on a podium with a period microphone awaiting in a jazz siren style for an Italian captive of love (Sophie Junker) to sing Chi teme d’amore Il grato martire (left in the original Italian here).

It would be impossible to overstate how towering Sarah Connolly’s performance was. She dispatched this difficult role with such elegance and stamina. I was totally blown away. Her unwavering intensity while singing in the original soprano key was spectacular. A few times she sacrificed the beauty of the line for the sake of expression, especially when addressing Creon and Jason but it added such variety and pathos I don’t think even the most narrow-minded critic will find fault. When William Christie gave her the CD set of his recording and told Connolly this was the role for her, he was absolutely right. Once she hits the floor in Act Three and sings her pivotal aria Quel Prix de mon Amour the transformation from wronged wife to a woman driven by pain looking for revenge  is unavoidable. Soon after she discards both her jacket and skirt to continue the scene in a black negligee and evoke the spirits of hades to help her. McVicar uses the stage lift as the pit where smoke and her demonic assistants come through. It was a huge relief that he chose such a standard way to introduce them instead of trying to reinvent the wheel needlessly. At this point she is armed with a large kitchen knife that is her companion for the rest of the production as she closes in to her final act of vengeance against Jason. Fittingly the last coup de théâtre belongs to Medea, when the corner of the set comes apart and she sings her final words to Jason and then she is elevated and flies away. This was another example of the Director not trying to re-invent the action but followed on the steps of both Charpentier and Euripides in the Greek original. Also another telling approach that looks back at the performance practises of ancient Greek drama, was how the dead bodies of Creon and Orontes are presented. They appear on trolleys under the cover of blood splattered sheets. A very similar device to how the dead would be wheeled on an Ekkyklema a practise maybe not that familiar to British audiences but anyone with any background in the Classics would instantly recognise it.

As you can tell by now, I am very happy with the staging and it all came together so beautifully to make up one of the best opera evenings I’ve ever attended. Connolly gives a definitive interpretation, surely a highlight of her illustrious career so far. The rest of the cast get somewhat overshadowed by her presence but some great singing comes from Katherine Manley especially in her duets with Jason and Medea revealing a voice of great flexibility and a characterful actress. Jeffrey Francis give a very potent performance with voice to spare. The slightly goofy personenregie for Orontes does benefit by the lightness of touch that Roderick Williams brings to it. Brindley Sherratt brought gravitas and made for a great opponent to Medea, but crucially relaxed when left with Creusa away from his public function. Aoife O’Sullivan, Oliver Dunn and Rhian Lois give performances full of gusto and promise.

The orchestra gave a vibrant reading of the score with a few raw edges that will disappear before the first night. Like with Castor and Pollux Christian Curnyn manages to coax some idiomatic playing from the players while taking them out of their comfort zone.  The chorus sings beautifully through the evening, sometimes in military uniform and others in evening dress from stage and pit. Navigates Charpentier’s deceptively subtle but fiendishly difficult melodies with skill and obvious affection.

If you’ve read this far, I congratulate you and also implore you to go and see this truly wonderful production, do not be put off by the translation or the lack of “period instruments” this is an occasion to treasure and an all too rare chance to see this masterpiece of the French Baroque in London. This is one of those performances you will be telling friends about twenty years from now…GO!

ENO Medea list

Some Tweets from the evening

Twitter - OperaCreep- Woa McVicar #ENOmedea

Twitter - OperaCreep- Oh dress rehearsal audience ...

Twitter - OperaCreep- If this is not a career highlight ...

Twitter - OperaCreep- To the people that don't get ...

Twitter - OperaCreep- It was lovely having the chance ...

Arrrrrrrrrrgh ENO!

26 Jan

ENO BerryThis morning while reading an interview of John Berry (artistic director of English National Opera) in The Independent. I was left underwhelmed and with a strong sense that the directorate of the company do not grasp what the public perception is and how they can improve and work with it.

He seems to find very PR unfriendly ways to disseminate his thoughts through the papers. A few months back  he was quoted in having total indifference to cinema/big screen broadcasts with a dismissive:  “of no interest to me”. Which make him look petulant and the ENO laughing stock within the media, for its apparent reluctance to not embrace the brave new world of digital distribution. Especially when ironically promotes itself as the forward thinking opera house in London, putting more challenging work. That made a disappointing read and another PR fudge to put on the pile.

Today’s article by Jessica Duchen (a writer who I enjoy reading and is a passionate promoter of orchestral music and opera) served a jumble of ENO press release waffle interspersed with Mr Berry’s jilted lover act. He seems to not want to acknowledge the fact they brought to life productions that were unnecessary and even damaging to their core brand. They used to be the house in London to see Handel, but after the disastrous attempt at Giulio Cesare last season, everyone present, would think twice before spending money there again. The fatuity and pointlessness of bringing a choreographer to direct baroque opera seemed improbable at season launch and it was certainly foolish in retrospect. They have to be more brave in admitting failure and move on. Covent Garden had a catastrophic failure with Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune, a feeble score accompanied by an expensive, largely irrelevant production. But they heavily discounted it and even added kebabs to the deal to make it more palatable (as if). Let’s call that the ROH’s ENO moment. The problem obviously is that the ENO does this kind of discounting and fire selling season after season. Which dents confidence in long-term fans of the company and surely has a box office impact when everyone waits for the inevitable ticket price drop.

ENO’s management should be more humble, even grateful and accept that they attract very important established artists not because they can match their pay scales but because the artists feel indebted to the company for either giving them a break early on or allowed them to perform repertoire that Covent Garden would never stage. Having this February Sarah Connolly perform Charpentier in the West End under the direction of David McVicar deserves to be a hot ticket (I got my top price seats back in October) but it has been very slow and they had to discount by 50%. The willingness by world-class artists to appear at The Coliseum despite the pay cut will be undermined in the long run by poor attendance. Such artists are accustomed and deserve sell out houses, which the current management can not provide.

Staff morale is low and the disastrous PR attempts are not helping. Tellingly, their posters for the last two years have featured silly designs (vaguely referencing the productions they are trying to sell)  instead of the singers. Members of the company were exclaiming on Twitter that the  Spring 2013 posters are all featuring singers, underlying how undervalued they feel and demonstrating a sense of isolation from the top brass. Let’s hope their design department will not change their mind and keep featuring the artists that make most people buy tickets.

They have to be more flexible with pricing, a flat rate for all productions is financial suicide. If Covent Garden can sell top price seats that cost £225 (if you want to see Nabucco with Placido Domingo) for £65 for both Minotaur and Written on Skin surely then can too. Obviously the ROH do get a much larger subsidy but they seem to reflect on the nature of the audience for new music, which is not as affluent and surely not as plentiful as the old crusties that book for -that- ancient Bohème (still sold at top dollar despite the underwhelming casting).  ENO have lowered prices for a couple of new operas mid-season, so there’s hope someone is starting to understand how fundamental pricing is.

Fewer new productions is a must. ENO has the annoying tendency to create exciting productions and then confine them to the dustbin. How about Messrs Berry and Gardner looked back at the last twenty years and hand-pick revivals that were breakthrough productions for the directors or/and commercial successes. There is no point wasting the scant cash they have on putting so many new productions as they did last year.

Finally they have to find a way to distribute their product digitally.
He rightfully says:

 “but it’s nice to reflect that our work is absolutely everywhere: Munich, Berlin, New York, Brussels, Madrid. If I’d said five years ago that we were going to do that, no one would have believed me.”

The obvious problem is that for the world to know what is happening night after night in The Coliseum, they can only rely on transfers of the productions to other venues. It is a shame that a fantastic chorus and orchestra have as their only mass media outlet the broadcasts on BBC Radio 3, making very little of its relationship with SkyArts. Since their programming is varied and frequently innovative, they have to stop being stuck in the 1940s and show they believe in it and care to promote the great work they do. The bloggosphere and reviewers are happy to promote how good they can be only to look on in bemusement when the management cannot find a way to promote their own product effectively. Hopefully the new Chairman will restore some semblance of order and make sure that the PR side of things improves hugely, they can’t afford to have Mr Berry giving disastrous interviews every few weeks shattering the public’s confidence in the management of the company.

Hold on tight Medea is coming

16 Jan

Sarah Connolly sings ‘Such is the price of love’ / Quel prix de mon amour

You all know with how much excitement I’ve been waiting for this production to finally arrive. Since the launch of the season last April I have been intrigued what David McVicar will do with Charpentier’s glorious baroque confection.
With Covent Garden pretty much ignoring baroque, relegating it downstairs, claiming audiences would not be interested in sufficient numbers and without a period instrument orchestra. It is the turn of opera loving audiences to prove them wrong.

According to the press release: ENO’s new production of Medea relocates the famous Greek tragedy to the 1940s, setting it against a decadent, hyper-stylised 1940s backdrop which McVicar describes as “styled to within an inch of its life”

If you have the slightest interest in baroque opera or want to see one of the greatest British singers, don’t miss this opportunity.  The last foray into this era by ENO with Castor and Pollux was a sparkling triumph of young talent.

———————Ticket Offer alert

50% off certain seats for the following dates: 
Friday 15  + Wednesday 20  + Friday 22  + Thursday 28 February + Wednesday 6 + Friday 8 March

Promo code: GUARDEXMED

More details here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/extra/members/2013/jan/23/extra-medea-offer

My Top 12 of 2012

20 Dec

2012 graphicThe end of the year and we all give in to the convention of going through the draws of our minds and paying tribute to the most entertaining and uplifting events of the year. I published a top 11 list last year and thought I’d avoid innovation and go for a top 12 for this year. I am only hoping I will not be blogging in the year 2040 as the list will become too long.

Mittwoch aus Licht

Was a cross-disciplinary spectacular. Thought as unstagable but somehow Graham Vick managed to take us all on a journey. It was cooky, it was extravagant and above all a memory to last a lifetime. Cue in helicopters, cosmic camels and a trombonist in a paddling pool. Here’s my post on the experience.
Click here to read the post.

Alice Coote

Her interpretation of Winterreise was one of the most moving performances of the year. Her programme in honour of  Kathleen Ferrier was a joy to listen to. Her concentrated deeply tragic version of Britten’s cantata Phaedra was also wonderful. We are very lucky to have her and delighted the Wigmore Hall thinks so too.
The CD and download of her Wigmore Hall Winterreise is available to buy from 8 April 2013, here’s the link to the Amazon UK page.

Click here to read the post.

Calixto Bieito’s Carmen

English National Opera were so right to bring to London this extraordinary directorial tour de force. One of the few times when a very strong directorial concept marries with an opera so deeply they become one. The production was an earthy manifestation of Bizet’s masterpiece with such assurance and self-containment that enthralled.
Click here to read the post.

Anja Harteros in Otello

That was a night of wonderment and astounding depth. Even the creaky fusty old production didn’t matter. It was impossible to avert one’s eyes from the purposeful, intense Desdemona underpinned by a complexity so inspiring. Harteros may have a lot of detractors and her record at showing up for shows may not be the most consistent. This performance left me tingling and wanting to see her again soon.
Click here to read the post.

McVicar’s Rosenkavalier at ENO

What a beautiful, non-fussy production with a great cast that understood what Strauss is all about. John Tomlison, Sarah Connolly, Sophie Bevan and Amanda Roocroft had a wonderful chemistry on stage with Edward Gardner creating a most dense gold coloured sound from the pit that made it a very special evening.
Click here to read the post.

Scottish Opera’s Magic Flute

A beautiful steam punk inspired production by Thomas Allen made by a singer for the singers. Showed Scottish Opera in a great light despite the recent financial and organisational ups and downs. It was well cast and the sure-fire hit they need to help them stay relevant and afloat.
Click here to read the post.

Opera North’s Giulio Cesare

With the great sets of Leslie Travers and pacey direction of Tim Albery. The performance was built around the radiant and alert performance of Sarah Tynan who was an ideal Cleopatra and Pamela Helen Stephen’s earthy Caesar was the compete opposite all battlefield mud and conflict. The production was tightly knit and beautifully sung throughout. The Royal Opera may stay away from any baroque opera but thank heavens that regional companies are not as apathetic towards the interpretation possibilities of it. And are willing to tour it across the country to thousands of people in the regions.

Ailyn Pérez

I still remember the buzz before her unexpected recital in March (she took over for an indisposed Giuseppe Filianoti) rushed to grab some tickets to see her and was not disappointed. Her creamy delivery and melting honesty was such a potent blend. She is an artist to watch and can’t wait to see her return to London very soon.
Click here to read the post.

Véronique Gens

She is  firm favourite of mine and had the chance to see her in action twice in the last few months at the Wigmore Hall. Her delivery of mélodies was exemplary, fusing a breezy natural style with a warm stage presence. Her singing manages to look effortless and yet is full of innate good taste and finesse. 
Click here to read the post.

Royal Opera’s Les Troyens

The production was overall hit and miss, but the incredibly vibrant,  Cassandre of a real tragedienne like Anna Caterina Antonacci the butch Enee of Bryan Hymel,  the variable but very regal Eva-Maria Westbroek and the sparkling tenor of  Ed Lyon made for a very memorable musical evening. So much so, that I snapped up another ticket and made my way to the very gods of the lower slips of the Amphitheatre not phased by the uncomfortable sitting arrangements over the over five hours duration. 
Click here to read the post.

Magical Ravel double bill at Glyndebourne

It was my first visit to Glyndebourne and it was everything I hope for and even more. Both productions were simply magical. Especially the brand new L’enfant et les sortilèges was as joyful to watch as it was to listen. The London Philharmonic played with such distinction and style that left us buzzing. Also the long interval was very welcome and our restaurant meal was expensive but also utterly delicious. Laurent Pelly was clearly at home in the whimsical and magical worlds of the two jewel like operas.
Click here to read the post.

Sarah Connolly

Another firm favourite and one singer I can not have enough of. Saw her sing Elgar, French baroque and Strauss. All of them distinctive all of them spectacular in their own right. Her upcoming Charpentier Medea with McVicar directing for ENO will be a great start for 2013 and her appearance as Phèdre in Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne will have me booking for a return trip to East Sussex in August. 
Click here to read the posts.

So many more entries could have made it here but the above are a quick distillation of some great evenings out and being present for some music making of great quality and variety. 2013 will hopefully be as full and interesting, maybe even bringing with it some surprises and new discoveries. A big thanks is owed to all my readers for putting up with my meandering blog posts. Have written this blog based on my belief that opera is alive and constantly changing and as a way to inspire others to give it a go. If just a single reader was inspired or intrigued to go to an opera or classical performance in the last year, it would make writing this blog all the more enjoyable and purposeful. 

Edgy perfection / Carmen / English National Opera – 19+27 November + 6 December 2012

13 Dec

ENO CarmenAnyone that follows me on Twitter will know my feelings about Calixto Beito’s production of Carmen too well. It is a triumph of modernism over the flouncy overwrought productions of old and also a fresh, visceral theatrical experience.

Attending in two extra occasions it exposed what can go wrong with live performance though…more of that in a minute.

The production has been very well documented with its European and South American versions moving from opera house to opera house since 1999. It seems many companies want Bieito’s touch in a staple of the operatic repertoire that rarely works so well as a complete experience. Bieito’s transfer of the action to the last few months of Franco’s suppression of Spain is a stroke of genius, taking to heart Bizet’s political ideas in Carmen and amplifying them. Far too many productions get too much stuck in the love triangle to care and unnecessary details to care for much else. Bieito’s concept is a holistic treatment of the work, so much so any minor mishaps can be easily forgiven. The very simple conceit of Carmen singing the start of her famous entrance down the phone to an ex lover is clever as it is an instant atmosphere generator. His Carmen seems more sophisticated and cool headed than most and to a huge benefit in believability.

Ruxandra Donose gave a wonderfully committed and subtle performance never edging on smuttiness but giving an intelligent and forthright person on stage. Her vocal performance may not have been the loudest in the world but sang with the necessary glamour and style. Her darker timbre adding weight and an edge of fatalism. Unfortunately both our Jose and Escamillo were miscast but performed admirably well in context of that.

Adam Diegel surely looked rather butch and easy on the eye when he was taking his shirt off but somehow the middle of his voice was not as strong as his abs. At times he was lacking the spark and seemed fatigued by the softer passages. His chemistry with Donose and Llewellyn was undeniable and the production overall carried him through. He was extremely effective in the chilling finale and added his manly fragility to this beautifully choreographed exchange of passion, pity and defiance.

Leigh Melrose was again gorgeous in costume but somehow lacked the vocal bloom and the on stage arrogance to make his character truly resonate. But that is more the fault again of the casting and not his. In all three performances I watched he was clearly giving all he had, it just seemed to be short of what Bizet and Bieito demanded.

But what can I say about Elizabeth Llewellyn that hasn’t been said many times before? She was getting better and better through the run, her much more assertive than usual Michaela seemed a tiny bit tentative at dress rehearsal but had bloomed into a ballsy, strong-minded woman by the second performance  that concentrated the glances of the whole auditorium on her. Her appearance in the training camp setting of Act One added a dose of female sexuality in Bieito’s intensely manly world. Many a singer could have been swallowed by the garish sequinned blouse but Llewellyn made it vibrate with personality and her velvety tone offered depth and purpose to every appearance.
The direction allowed her to steal the limelight in crucial junctures in the story telling, such as in Act Three where she is left alone on stage, bar for a battered old Mercedes car and a crucifix she carries with her. And yet her charisma lit up the stage with pathos and gorgeousness. Just think how many forgettable Michaelas you have listened and watched in the past, this was not one of them. Her bras d’honneur at the  floor bound Carmen at the end of Act Three was a great touch that made everyone in the audience chuckle (at dress rehearsal the students at the Upper Circle made their allegiance with Michaela all too clear) and instantly side with the good girl of the story.

From the smaller supporting roles, Duncan Rock’s narcissistic Morales was a great addition to Act One that provided a focus and some strong singing. The glorious card scene in Act Three was lit up by the Frasquita of Rhian Lois and the Mercedes of Madeleine Shaw, giving an over the top performance with a rather tart edge that made a great counterfoil to Donose’s much darker, more composed character.

The chorus were tremendous once more,  investing their performance all three times with vibrancy and the boorishness that Bieito demanded in Act Four where they jumped and screamed like a real audience to a bull fight, facing the audience and only separated with a tensed rope from the orchestra pit. And then dramatically parting to reveal Escamillo in his bright yellow toreador outfit. Especially when one puts into account they were alternating their Carmen performances with the chorus heavy The Pilgrim’s Progress it is even more impressive how they managed to retain the level of vibrancy required by the direction.

The orchestra was a sad shadow of its usual self on the 27 November performance when Martin Fitzpatrick was conducting. And it seems it was not even his fault, as on the night there were a large number of substitutions in the pit, making the sound sounding unbalanced and at times too predictable.
On the other hand the other two performances under Ryan Wigglesworth were wonderfully paced readings of the score with an innate sense of structure and avoiding the clichés that most conductors seems to impose on this overall lyrical and gripping score. He did not force the dynamics and over-emphasise the “ethnographic” content but instead opted for a singer friendly pace that allowed the story to be engaging and at the same time allowing some much needed pauses. Proving ENO’s  investment in him truly worthwhile (he is the composer in residence) and a vindication of this young and fast rising talent that he will make his conducting début with the Royal Opera, replacing Antonio Pappano at Covent Garden by conducting the upcoming revival of Birtwistle’s Minotaur.

I could spend another 1000 words describing this truly wonderful staging by Bieito but what you can do is go and get the DVD/Blu Ray and see for yourselves. It is a production that deserves the cult status it has acquired over the years and hope that it will be revived by ENO very soon. At least I’ll allow myself the mention of how great the lighting design was by Bruno Poet, being both naturalistic and reactive to the on stage action.
As for all the people I know that were put off by the fact it was staged in an English translation at the Coliseum. They sadly missed a great production with two extraordinary ladies on stage and a wonderful orchestra and chorus. Looking forward to the day that superiority complex of the usual Covent Garden offenders will allow them to go to ENO and enjoy it for what it is…London’s second and mainly much edgier opera house.

ENO Carmen list

Production shots by ENO

Related Podcasts

Edward Seckerson interviewing Calixto Bieito.

Christopher Cook was in conversation with Ryan Wigglesworth.

Curtain call video

[youtube http://youtu.be/_3DSBJ56T6I]

Static does it / The Pilgrim’s Progress / ENO – 20 November 2012

24 Nov

It would be fair to say that this is what the English National Opera exists for, putting on works written in English and which would never grace the stage of the Royal Opera House in normal circumstances. Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress has not fared well since the 1951 ROH première, timed to coincide with the Festival of Britain. Seeing this slick production makes one see why it has fallen into neglect. The work is far too static dramatically to make itself good source material for staging.
Oida used a simple but configurable set that owed much to a robust prison aesthetic. The monotonous palette of rusted iron and grey costumes was not original but thankfully was relieved by the orgiastic colour in Vanity Fair. Overall the staging felt well-considered but curiously limp, the overall discipline being at odd with Williams’ chromatic, warm soundworld.
On the night ENO’s orchestra was wonderful under the energetic conducting of Martyn Brabbins. We all know the signature sound of Williams, Brabbins brought all the brightness and golden colour without shlock ruralism (unlike ENO’s fairly twee marketing materials) which tends to be his fate in the wrong hands.
Roland Wood gave a monumental performance, displaying incredible stamina despite the vocal writing not being incredibly beautiful or that varied and weighted down by the archaic libretto. Most of the most characterful writing was saved for the female singers and the chorus and they also delivered in spades. The opening contribution by the chorus was a dreamlike reverie leading to a gorgeous nocturne introducing Act Two. The contributions of the chorus became the backbone of the performance and shaped the action that at times is missing focus due to the plethora of on stage characters. Also Williams’ imagination shines through when writing for cameo appearances such as Lord Lechery, Mister and Madam By-Ends and Lord Hate-Good. Vanity Fair closed the first half of the performance and was exuberant enough musically, despite the obligatory caricatured mammaries and genitals foisted on the singers.

The second half was a much more meditative, spiritual part of the evening. The musical values definitely went higher and the staging had some interesting moments. The subtle use of a square projection screen that was showing footage of WWI trenches that in the end lifted to reveal an array of floodlights that illuminated the auditorium as the Pilgrim crosses the water (in this staging reaching the electric chair on top of a flight of steps) was very effective. I found the metaphor of the chair heavy-handed and not particularly necessary in the context of the work but it did not distract from the luminous score. The finale featuring bells and chorus on and off stage is a thing of visceral beauty, exciting and imposing with a gorgeous eerie presence. Giving the work a metaphysical aftertaste.

Worth noting the beautiful contributions by Benedict Nelson as the Evangelist who added gravitas and suavity, George von Bergen who added a quirky sense of humour. The three ladies: Eleanor Dennis, Aoife O’Sullivan and Kitty Whately who offered delectable singing in a variety of unconventional roles. Also having the opportunity to see Ann Murray in an outfit I could only describe as ‘Carmen Miranda in space’ has to be something to remember!

Overall I could not imagine Vaughan Williams’, almost half a century in the making,  Morality, being better served elsewhere and as I left the auditorium realising that he would never be a favourite composer of mine. I knew that this was an evening of music making of the highest calibre. The vivid choral writing and the imaginative orchestration were wonderfully satisfying even if the work itself is a very static piece of theatre. Despite Oida’s attempts to inject movement and drama it strikes me as a truly delectable oratorio. 

Find out more

Listen to an introductory talk chaired by Christopher Cook with conductor Martyn Brabbins, baritone Adam Green and ENO repetiteur Richard Peirson.

Production photos on ENO’s Flickr

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