Tag Archives: ENO Chorus

Otello, grey and unresolved / ENO – 13 September 2014 Opening Night

25 Sep

ENO OtelloThis season it is the 30th anniversary of David Alden’s association with English National Opera the products of his labour have been enjoyed in London for so long and with mixed reactions to make him always a safe bet for a thought provoking take on the old classics. His hand seems more sure and definitive when it tackles less mainstream repertoire and judging from this Otello that still holds true. The new staging in a multi-purpose single set has the usual signature grey tonalities and sparing use of colour, rusty cinnamon and greens deep browns.

Otello is one of Verdi’s works that demands an uninhibited touch with spectacle, like Aida, it is a game of big choral forces and unsubtle arias and the tragic demise of the heroine. Alden’s directorial concept seems to gravitate into making the story of the wrongly blamed and killed Desdemona into a very public drama. Her arena of suffering being a Cypriot town square of the inter war period. His societal approach is a strong suit and very well done when Verdi’s libretto requires it, but this production totally falls flat and stops being engaging when the more domestic parts of the story unfold.

Iago’s Credo is the only intimate part of the evening that truly comes alive. Jonathan Summers steps down from the stage and sits with legs over the pit as he spits out every words as if it soils his mouth one at a time. The intensity of his acting prowess creates a domestic setting out of this Byzantine ruin of a civic square.

For the crucial final scene the lack of a proper domestic setting and the very disappearance of the prerequisite bed are puzzling. Desdemona’s whole frame of mind is informed by her enclosed environment of her bedroom, here a wonderful Leah Crocetto is left running about aimlessly covering the vast empty space Alden has cursed her with. To her immense credit it is very difficult to take one’s eyes off her, despite her young age she holds the audience’s attention with skill and with her exemplary light touch. Even if it is obvious she lacks the stage experience of other singers in the role, she makes up in freshness, gloriously spun phrases and charm.

Alden’s bigger credit is the extremely detailed for Iago, he clearly gave Jonathan Summers a lot of material to chew over and it shows, his presence is not just menacing but radiates self pity and misanthropy. His singing was probably on par with his excellent acting that underpinned the whole production. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the rudimentary, bouncer like heaviness of Stuart Skelton. Pouncing on everyone and everything. A particularly ridiculous moment comes when he lifts a leather armchair and stops only short of hurling it into the pit. A ludicrous, monstrous, misjudged personification of Otello that gives him a superficial varnish of thuggery. What is the point of having the vocal goods to sing this part when he lacks the required elegance and acting ability? I am not expecting Shakespearean prowess but do not expect a Jon Vickers tribute act, either. Hope during the run he will loosen up and bounce off more against the more nuanced colleagues on stage and mellow his performance.

ENO Otello ListThe ENO chorus and orchestra had a more mixed night with ensemble problems especially in the first Act. To make the thundering opening of the opera go past in a near whimper was disappointing, but in reality not helped by the way Alden directs it. The Act Three parade of Venetian dignitaries is much more effective by adding more movement and spectacle.  And for once the chorus is allowed to be deployed across the stage and widen the sound stage.

If a new production can’t match the impact of Elijah Moshinsky’s ancient Covent Garden show you know you have an issue. Allan Clayton was an exceptional Cassio with wonderful diction and his sweet lyrical tone adding much interest in a character that Verdi spends very little time developing. Not sure why he was portrayed as a drunk, but the sacrilegious fun of using a Madonna and child Byzantine icon as a dart board in a competition with Iago was stroke of genius, as a symbolic finger to the church.

Also the Emilia of Pamela Helen Stephen was exemplary in her personification of the innocent bystander watching in horror of the tragedy unfolding. The angular lighting of Adam Silverman was rather stunning to look at despite only having the one vast set to work with, not exactly giving him much to play with.

No matter how great or not the individual performances were, this production just felt short on emotion and empathy. Totally missing the great opportunity to depict the light and shade world of Verdi’s (maybe) simplistic universe with nuance and variety. Apart from the revelatory Iago the rest of Alden’s ideas felt distinctly uninteresting. Do go and see if you prize spotting young talent at the start of an international career. Leah Crocetto has such immense promise.

 Some tweets from the night

 

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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

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

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 ...

The drapes of Paris / La Traviata / English National Opera – 9 February 2013

13 Feb

ENO TraviataThis production of Traviata is definitely a rather unique proposition. The set is reduced to the absolutely minimum, the three acts get compressed into one long stretch with cuts. On paper it seems like a hard sell but after seeing it, I am happy to report that  Konwitschny’s take opens up some new avenues for interpretation (not all of them happily realised) and tightens the drama.

The set is a series of red velvet curtains further accentuated by bright red lighting. They become less opaque the further upstage one looks. With opening and closing to reveal less and more depth they seem to become a symbol for society. A force that smothers the love of Alfredo and Violetta.
The only piece of furniture present is one bentwood chair and as an alias of a seat a pile of oversized books for bookish Alfredo to rest and think of his beloved.
Traviata being a bona fide melodrama at its very heart helps suspend disbelief and to not miss too much any naturalistic sets or more descriptive environments. The main framework for the storytelling, in contrast to much more upholstered and glitzy versions, are the characters. The singers come to the fore framed by a predatory chorus that encircles them like vultures. The party scenes are particularly well done with the chorus singing with great force (if not perfect diction) their aggressive attitude scraping away the veneers of respectability. This crowd is not made out of friends of Violetta’s they use her as their plaything, a distraction  Their enquiries in Act Two about the split up of the pair is coloured by envy. This almost Brechtian focusing on the drama away from any distractions

The Violetta of Corinne Winters (making her European debut) was endowed with a dark hued voice that was instantly charming and direct. She sang with great passion and dedication, hitting notes head on and being very physical. The fall off the chair while singing Sempre libera is a bit of an unconvincing oddity, accompanied by Alfredo singing from the front row of the Stalls. But overall the emotional journey was unwavering and not having the benefit of an interval and being almost constantly on stage, a tour de force. An interesting addition was that she wore a different wig for every Act but as a final gesture she took it off and died with her much longer hair actually on view. A moving gesture as a reference to the workings of theatrical artifice and a final dose of realism.

The Alfredo of Ben Johnson was enveloped in gold vowels but unfortunately also the most hideous stage wardrobe ever imagined. Somehow I will never agree with the director that Alfredo is just a bookish outsider in a doomed relationship from the very start. This costuming and his sheepish attitude detracted from a more balanced conjunction between score and stage action. But his singing was beyond reproach and full of ardour.

Germont pere was performed with disarming darkness by Anthony Michaels-Moore and even managed to make a phantom daughter (Konwitschny’s addition) work in his confrontation scene with Violetta. Making the implied reason for asking Violetta to leave Alfredo (bringing disrepute to his family and thus making difficult for his daughter to marry) added a motive for the early surrender by our leading lady. I can imagine some people would find it unnecessary but with the way Michaels-Moore interacts with her it did work and took the heat off the sometimes too brutal interaction between him and Violetta.

The chorus wearing evening dress are a wonderfully overwhelming presence and even their exist after the curtain comes down (here literally the sets of curtains used to delineate space fall down) they are left to rhythmically scale across the stage as the foreboding overture for Act Three begins. A few people found it amateurish and not well thought out. but it does work signifying the fall of the predators in Violetta’s life and especially with the Giorgio left in the distance to survey the ruins of his son’s life. The orchestra’s playing was exceptionally dramatic in the hands of Michael Hofstetter who added even more energy from the pit serving admirably well the production.

The final scene where Violetta fades away is very intelligent in its simplicity. She is left alone on the empty stage to live her last moments. She is happily back together with Alfredo but her illness separates them. In a coup de théâtre Annina, Doctor Grenvil (a great in-joke to have him appear for the last visit to Violetta still covered in streamers and a shiny party hat, after all he has always been a joke of a doctor for the duration of the work) and Alfredo are by standers to her drama from the side of the audience. The orchestra pit becoming the chasm between life and death. Also instead of collapsing on a big plump bed, Winters walks to the blacked out back of stage after the remaining set of black curtains has parted. A simple but satisfying way to bring this austere production to a close.
Konwitschny’s vision can only rise to a satisfying evening on the back of  an exceptional cast as they are the unwavering focus of the direction. It seems that ENO managed to bring a trio of singers that work beautifully together and bring heart to this domestic melodrama. By not having an interval between Acts One and Two it does compromise the flow by not allowing for proper distance but the tautness we gain adds such a punch. The direction like the opera itself is unashamedly emotional and the cuts to the score paired with the sparse set creates a sense of isolation from the wider world, a reflection on the bubble of true love or maybe terminal illness.  One can get carried away looking for symbols and metaphors in every turn of this production, but that is the ultimate triumph of it, being a tabula rasa for the audience.  Making the story of loving the wrong person and being punished for it even more contemporary we could ever think it is. Go and see it even if you never been to ENO, it will surely make you think and hopefully move you!

ENO Traviata list

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

Dress rehearsal / ENO Julietta blog

17 Sep

Last week we talked about the stage rehearsals, tonight is the opening night and all the hard work will be up for the critics’ and the public’s scrutiny! Claire tells us how the dress rehearsal went and we can agree the culmination of six weeks of preparation has reached its final stretch.

So, we finally reach the dress rehearsal. It’s been a busy week but we’ve made it. Such an early start too, on Saturday morning. Some of the singers and actors have been in make-up & wigs since 8am! There’s a nervous but excited buzz around the theatre.

The opera starts and Peter Hoare, singing the role of Michel starts his mammoth journey through the Martinů score.

Michel is dreaming…who will he meet in his dreams? Where will his thoughts take him? To a strange town where everyone suffers from chronic amnesia.

The villagers try to feed off Michel’s memories. The orchestra has a rich texture and depth, almost cartoon-like at times. The quirky set design compliments Richard Jones’ production, which is slick and stylish.
The stage is one enormous piano accordion, which has doors and windows. Characters appear inside and pop out of the vast, concertinaed instrument throughout the opera.
Everyone on the stage is an individual character and hunt in a pack-like group, to drain Michel of his memories in order to feed their minds, albeit for a few minutes before amnesia sets in and all is lost.

There’s a lot of running, dancing, jumping from those on-stage. It’s a fast moving production, full of life and energy.
I have to run right across the front of the stage near the start of act two, with the rest of the chorus and actors sprinting in different directions at break-neck speed too which is frightening. There have been a few bumps and bruises in rehearsal but nothing too bad!

The costumes are shades of green silk based loosely on the 1950’s style. The colours blend in with the set & lighting. The wigs are quirky styles also loosely based on 1950’s styles.

Julietta meets Michel and they immediately fall in love. She has shining red hair and her dress is pattered with miniature piano accordions but I don’t think the audience will be able to see that (you can surely spot them in the shot in the slideshow below).
She has some beautiful musical passages with Michel. They promise to meet again and throughout the opera Michel searches for her. No-one else can see her or knows her. Julia Sporsén sings the role so well. Her unique soprano voice suits the role perfectly. She has a folk-like unaccompanied verse off-stage which bewitches Michel and I’m sure the audience.

Ed Gardner steers the orchestra and singers through the lush, textures of Martinů. Richard Jones directs specific moves and noises during particular musical sections, which add to the drama and gels the characters to the score.
It has been a tough but enjoyable experience, creating such a masterpiece. This could be a ‘marmite’ opera but my guess is that the majority will come out with nothing but positive comments. Hoorah for Martinů! Hoorah for ENO!

You can follow Claire on Twitter, her handle is @ClaraButt .

Dress rehearsal shots in ENO’s Flickr account


Stage rehearsals / ENO Julietta blog

10 Sep

Last week we talked about the sitzprobe, this week we are getting closer to the opening night by another week! Claire tells us how it went.

So, here we are on stage, rehearsing with full set, props, costumes & lighting. I was very excited, walking on set and being bowled over by the enormous accordion which dominates the stage. It moves open & shut during the opera, sometimes on its side and for one section it splits in half to reveal a dark, star-lit forest. The rest of the stage is black with open wings. This is a problem for singers as the voices get lost as soon as you turn facing across the stage. We’ve had to resolve balance problems with the rich texture of the orchestra against the singers being heard. The Coliseum stage is very deep so we have to ‘cheat’ and sing out sometimes. We’ve such a great team working on the show. Martin Fitzpatrick, Head of Music has been up in the dress circle, listening for the difficult sections to get across to the audience and then relays it to Ed Gardner in the pit. Ed works hard to correct the colour and balance of the orchestra, to fit the staging and voices.

The chorus have some off-stage sections in which we’ve worked hard to get the right balance. Some sections are just echos of Julietta‘s voice. Others are the thoughts of Michel.

The costumes are a mix of cute and quirky. We have villagers, young and old, a blind beggar, bell-boy, man in pith helmet, a horn player, commissar and commander of the city, amongst other characters. Each has an individual personality which Richard Jones; the director is very good at creating.

The direction and choreography is very specific, with soloists, chorus and actors moving, freezing, glancing, running etc. at key points in the music. It makes for a typical Richard Jones quirky trade mark in my opinion and brings the opera alive. Never will you find characters just standing and singing to each other. There’s always movement. The direction has great pulse, which complements the score.

The lighting is still being worked on and will put the finishing touches to creating the right ambience during the scenes. This is a unique production, which will have the audience laughing and sighing with great pleasure.

Richard Jones and Ed Gardner are a great team. I feel lucky to be part of it.

You can follow Claire on Twitter, her handle is @ClaraButt .

The trailer for the production

Sitzprobe / ENO Julietta blog

3 Sep

Last week we talked about the start of rehearsals, this week we are getting closer to the opening night by a week! Claire tells us how it went.

The sitzprobe took place at LSO St.Luke’s (the London Symphony Orchestra’s rehearsal and education space) which is a fabulous venue (a converted church with a great acoustic and space to fit the chorus, singers and orchestra). The orchestra and singers were on fine form. The score is such fun. There are some gorgeous, romantic passages interspersed with what I would call filmic/cartoony writing. There’s real humour in the music. It’s the type to make everyone smile at some point. There’s something for everyone to enjoy.

Ed wanted a specific colour from the orchestra. Sometimes needing a dry sound from percussion, rather than that of a bierkellar. Also the strings needed to find a smoky, sensual sound to aid the storytelling. The piano accordion passages are a fun and unusual addition, it’s such a distinct sound. It also links the score to the on stage action, by having a set that is a huge accordion. Ed was great at conveying the story to the orchestra, giving them an idea of emotion in which to find the right colour. This is the time when the balance between the voices and the orchestral playing starts to getting calibrated making sure the final sound at the Coliseum is as tight woven as possible.

In Julietta, the soloists and chorus need to spit the words out in the fast sections. Diction is key in this piece as it’s such a strange and sometimes confusing story. Peter Hoare sings the role of Michel and has some stunning music to sing.

I’m always excited to hear the orchestra at a sitzprobe. Rehearsing with piano accompaniment in this particular piece has been alien to what the score really sounds like. You can’t get the mood and colour of the score without having the orchestra to bring it to life. Martinů’s character music is expressive, humorous and quirky. There’s lots of fun, percussive sections that were lost with solo piano.

The opera has now come alive for me and we start to rehearse on stage in the actual space, with the set, costumes and props. This is the point where Martinů’s imagination, the beautiful orchestral sound under Ed Gardner and Richard Jones’ direction will become one and take us to the final straight to the stage and dress rehearsals.

You can also follow Claire on Twitter, her handle is @ClaraButt .

Claire’s shots from the rehearsals

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