Tag Archives: ENO

Lack of ambition never saved anyone in trouble

3 Mar

ENO CPThe rigmarole about English National Opera’s finances continues. The board seems to be incapable to bring anything of value to the table since their only solution to the brutal fiscal realities is to scale down ambition and erode standards of performance.

The stories of the folding of New York City Opera and the current slow death of Scottish Opera teach us one main lesson. If you scale back activity you become so irrelevant that nobody cares if you survive or not.

ENO needs people in charge that have imagination for programming and a flair for fundraising. Yesterday’s update from Cressida Pollock the CEO of the company. In response to the current troubles and the all out assault her management has received in the press and social media was like a speech by Margaret Thatcher when she was selling off the family silver in the 80s. She presents her position as if the whim of the gormless Arts Council England is the word of God and must be adhered to. This slavish reliance to ACE is part of the historic issues they have to deal with.

How about ENO grows a pair and instead of trying to whore itself to a cretinous ACE they do all they can to prove them wrong. The only way out of trouble is to remind everyone what a vital service the company offers when at its best and to properly fight for survival. But reading between the lines of Pollock’s carefully worded statement she doesn’t believe in her own product very much. Her tone verging on the utterly defeated and going through the motions.

They could try to perform more alongside with cutting production costs with reviving many classic productions that haven’t been staged since John Berry took over. But the implication is that the Board don’t believe that they will take enough at the box office to make it worth a try. And of course with that lack of faith in their own product they will find it much more difficult to attract funding from benefactors as they wouldn’t want to be associated with a sinking ship.

Instead they ruin their permanent Chorus by making their jobs essentially freelance. If they want to call themselves a national opera company they should shout out loud and clear why they are different and worth surviving. Not just retreat into a cave and await slow death. Nobody in the arts is having a great time right now but we all start from one basic tenet we believe in our product and advocate with the loudest voice why the arts are important to the UK. Being visible in that live discourse is important and opera companies seem all too happy to live in their parochial bubble. Be part of the wider conversation on the vital contribution ENO makes or can make to British life not just cling to the purse strings of ACE. The breast feeding phase has passed it’s time to start walking.

Let’s all support the Chorus of ENO in their struggle against this myopic management and hope there is a way out of the current mess. We do need this ensemble to survive and to offer hours of joy to anyone willing to listen.

Fat gate mark 2

10 Feb

Being a performer is tough. You are exposed to criticism at every turn and it is expected. But it was horrendous that the Evening Standard would go on to body shame Allan Clayton less than two years since the uproar at Glyndebourne. Whilst it is fine to criticise all aspects of a live performance in a professional manner to make disparaging remarks on the bodily appearance of the performers most certainly isn’t.

Barry Millington wrote in his review of the Magic Flute last night 

Not least that of Tamino, sung by Allan Clayton, who is vocally in excellent trim but needs to spend more time at the gym if he is to be stripped regularly to his boxers.

It had never occurred to me that Tamino was meant to be a male model type and it seems absurd why bad looking critics in their 60s obsess what an extraordinarily talented singer like Allan Clayton looks like in his pants on stage.

As long as a singer’s physical state doesn’t affect their performance it is nasty to body shame the person in the spotlight, particularly when they have sung excellently. As Richard Morrison’s and Rupert Christiansen’s comments about the looks of opera singers were brushed away with merely a flutter of an apology I think venues should go nuclear on reviewers that keep on making such needless comments.

After all the opera companies have a duty of care to their performers and should do something about rogue reviewers that use their press ticket privilege to offend.

Reading Clayton’s tweet this morning brought a lump in my throat…we have all been there, on the receiving end of a bully at some point in our lives. We also probably told them to fuck off too…but it should not be left unchallenged.

Bullies like Millington should be stripped (pun intended, dear Barry, boy) of free access to performances if only to make them realise that it is not a valid line of enquiry in a review to suggest a singer visits the gym more frequently. Our society is obsessed enough with looks as it is, we should not be giving a free pass to critics to add another burden on the already pressurised life of opera singers.

The whole point of beautiful singing is its transformative quality, if a 50 year old soprano can convince me she is a 15 year old geisha then I have no problem with a Tamino having a bit more meat on the bone. Actually the whole insidious barihunk lark is acting as an acceptable form of body shaming apartheid that has been trickling like poison in operatic circles. The very idea that an exceptional singer won’t get cast because of the lack of musculature should be an alien concept but sadly it isn’t.  

Yes, I’m a gay man…I enjoy the nude male form but I’ll be damned if I enjoyed more a singer’s performance because they have a six pack. Singers have enough issues to obsess about as it is. Critics, back off and can we all please stop and think how normalising fat shaming on stage is bad for the art itself. 

2015, my operatic year

31 Dec

2015 reviewDear readers…I have been a bad boy this year and my blogging was rather infrequent. Mind you, if you follow me on any social media you probably have heard more from me than you’d like to…but thanks for persevering.

2015 has been an unremarkable year for opera in Britain, mainly due to companies feeling the squeeze on budgets which for most meant a retreat to standard rep and taking few chances. The much derided Royal Opera diet of Traviatas, Bohèmes and Toscas has become a joke that keeps on giving over the last three seasons. Thankfully smaller companies have emerged as the places to find more challenging material and more imaginative interpretations. The largest cloud cast has been again the pitiful state of Scottish Opera and the continuing upheaval at English National Opera. The year’s major highlights were provided by Glyndebourne, Opera Holland Park and Welsh National Opera.

The ups

Glyndebourne + On Tour / Saul
Barry Kosky’s exuberant production displayed a sure hand in blending the drama of Handel’s music a bleak dark grey stage and mountains of props. Never wavering from the emotional heart of the piece he put unremitting focus on the acting and how the high emotions were projected to the auditorium. It was impressive to listen, a sleek spectacle and an imaginative retelling that left no doubt in my head that he just gets it. A great moment for Glyndebourne and a production to be remembered for a very long time.

OHP / Flight
Holland Park did Jonathan Dove proud for staging his cheeky little opera in a straight but not boring way. It was not the hottest ticket of their season, but the young cast brought tones of brio to this tightly woven tale of human relationships.

SO / Inés de Castro
Scottish Opera brought out the baroque aesthetic of the work in a very simple staging by Olivia Fuchs that afforded ample opportunities to show off the singers. Stephanie Corley was a force to be reckoned with as Inés. Just wish SO spent more time sorting its administrative and financial side and championing more Scottish composers and their output. This was a gory triumph.

ENO / The Indian Queen
Peter Sellars is the proverbial mad man of the operatic village. This production of this work by Purcell was exhausting to watch but the sheer maximalism of the additions to the score and text made it one of those memorable failures that one tries to unpick in their memory months later. It was baffling and extraordinary, sublime and odd. Lucy Crowe in glowing voice under the baton of Laurence Cummings was superb. And was allowed mercifully the stage to herself to show everyone how it is possible to fill the expanse of the Coliseum with her voice that fills one’s heart with content.

Birmingham Opera / The Ice Break
My third opera excursion to Birmingham and another unqualified success. Tippett is criminally neglected these days and this production set in an airport resonated with the migrant crisis unfolding across Europe and has worsened since this productions saw the light of day. It crackled with energy and presented opera making as collaborative activity. Requiring active involvement by the cast, community chorus and all of us watching.

ENO / Queen of Spades
David Alden’s production had a lot of holes in the narrative continuity but it was worth the price of admission for the extraordinary conducting by Ed Gardner and the magisterial, otherworldly Countess  of Felicity Palmer. Who still has incredible reserves of voice and a stage presence to obliterate anyone else. Pure magic at work. 

OHP / Il Trittico
Holland Park was very ambitious to present Puccini’s triptych and it was a spectacular success. Most memorable the shattering interpretation of Suor Angelica by Anne Sophie Duprels who distilled the dramatic potential to unbearable intensity. Incredible to think this was her debut of the role…hope she gets to sing it many more times.

Glyndebourne / Poliuto
The return of Michael Fabiano to Glyndebourne with this infrequently performed tenor vehicle. He was eminently watchable and sang with great clarity and passion. The conducting of Enrique Mazzola brought restless energy to Donizetti’s score and softened the blow of a rather pedestrian production by Mariame Clément. 

Blackheath Opera / Idomeneo
A bracing community opera that brought the work to its basics. It had all the fizz the recent Covent Garden outing lacked. Kirstin Sharpin was spectacular in her description of the turmoil of Elettra, white hot intensity at its very best. 

SWP / Arcangelo: Lacrimae with Anna Prohaska
Not strictly an opera performance but worth mentioning for the sheer delicacy and charisma of Prohaska. Myriads of colours engulfed us. Her Purcell arias were particularly impressive each one a small acted drama. She is definitely one of the most compelling musicians working today. 

Wigmore Hall / Anna Caterina Antonacci + Donald Sulzen / La voix humaine
A sublime afternoon and if strictly speaking it was a concert. Antonacci is a dab hand in breathing life into the damaged woman of Poulenc’s work. Every word mattered, every gesture, every look. We have to be thankful that Radio 3 relayed it live so we have for posterity a document of this great artist at work. 

WNO / I Puritani
Welsh National Opera has been a great company to follow for all lovers of bel canto. After presenting Donizetti’s three queens last year they offered a rather beautifully stark production by Annilese Miskimmon of Bellini’s masterpiece. Carlo Rizzi conducted with true flair and Rosa Feola’s Elvira was a stunning stage creation. Balancing this figment of the gothic imagination perfectly. She displayed great taste and all the coloratura became a descriptive part of the heroine’s disturbed mind and mood changes. Bringing to Bellini’s score the depth of insight it deserves. Not a performance for the canary fanciers of old, but a romantic personage of true richness. 

ENO / The Force of Destiny
The production by  Calixto Bieito was probably too subdued for some, but made excellent use of the limited stage resources of ENO and endowed us with a stunning debut of the year, Tamara Wilson. Her opulent Leonora was stunning. A big voice with a warm enveloping sound and enough agility to overcome Verdi’s many hurdles. 

ROH / Andrea Chénier 
Was disappointing in the production value stakes. A dull “period” production by McVicar was cumbersome but at least it didn’t ruffle many feathers. But it remains memorable for the truly brilliant singing of Jonas Kaufmann this was probably the first time I enjoyed his singing so much. Up to now I was one of the doubters finding his sound not Italianate enough but he was exceptional as Chenier and was ably supported by Željko Lučić and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Tony Pappano’s conducting was too episodic and frankly lumpy to make sense of the whole instead giving us disconnected arias making the evening feel unusually long.  

ROH / The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
That was one production that was roundly unloved by the press but was definitely sleek and particularly its integration of projections was very accomplished. And let’s be frank any production that gives me the chance to see Anne Sofie von Otter on stage is worth seeing no matter what. Above all Weill is worth a resurgence Mahagonny is so much more than just the famous tunes. 

ROH / Madama Butterfly
Everyone was predicting doom (aka a cancellation by our diva), as I was scheduled to attend the final performance of the run with Kristīne Opolais. This was the performance that totally changed my mind about her. She sang with such great warmth and attention never wavering on her interpretation of Cio Cio San portraying her naivety in a subtle way that we could all empathise. This was the opposite of the maudlin mess that this opera can be, it was a glorious evocation of a broken life. Simply superb. 

ROH / Król Roger
And when we thought we’d never see a good production by Kasper Holten at Covent Garden, this production happened. Very rarely has set gigantism been deployed to such remarkably subtle effect. The spectacular performance by Mariusz Kwiecień was the corner stone of this sophisticated production. 

ROH / La Bohème
My main reason for bothering to book for that rusty old Copley production was Anna Netrebko and Jennifer Rowley. Thank heavens they were both superb the former a surprisingly subtle Mimi and the latter an all out sass pot as Musetta. The same can’t be said for our Rodolfo who bleated his way through the part in his usual unattractive manner.   

The downs

ENO / Pirates of Penzance
It was rather stodgy for my taste even if it was not short on spectacle. The humour somehow didn’t work for me. A shame as it was my first G&S work. 

SWP / Farinelli and the King
This amalgam of stage play and recital wrapped up in one was unsatisfying in both counts. Iestyn Davies was wonderful as usual filling the Wannamaker Playhouse with his lustrous voice. The play itself was totally innocuous. At no point cared very much for the King and his mental instability. 

ENO / Between Worlds
A confusing mangle of many good ideas topped with a counter tenor shaman figure presiding. Making an opera about the attack on the Twin Towers was always going to be a polarising enterprise and the resulting piece was sensitive and at times touching. If it had stayed naturalistic it could have been an altogether more welcome addition to 2015. But it felt overworked and overstretched, no amounts of commitment by its music staff could redeem it into a satisfying well balanced piece. 

 

 

Have a listen ENO

14 Jul

I do hate to add to the mass of frenzied and at times uncalled for attacks on ENO. But as a follow-up from their new season launch in April I decided to upload my recording of the press conference. Especially in light of John Berry’s , the artistic director’s, announcement four days ago that he is stepping down.

What made it remarkable was his rather dampened mood at the presentation and the obvious defeated attitude. Didn’t want to comment at that point as it was obvious, with their run-in with Arts Council England and the placement of the Company in special measures that more changes were upcoming. As the current state of ENO is rather pitiful and its future beyond 2016 is seriously in question I think it is in the public interest to have access to the full statements by the people at the top.

It is notable the usual unwillingness of the top brass of the company to answer questions in the open and instead urging those present to have an informal (and off the record presumably) chat over a cup of tea. It almost backfired on them as a number of journalists and arts correspondents made their displeasure heard loudly at the end of the presentation. The shrinking audiences and terrible turn of their finances would have made us believe a more humble approach was needed but somehow they still foolishly did not take open questions.

Now that John Berry has gone and with him a certain misguided obsession with international co-productions and to be the thermometer for Peter Gelb’s new production endeavours, surely is the time to open the conversation on who ENO is for and what work they are producing. London has a world class opera company down the road and a huge number of smaller and much more flexible outfits who are encroaching the contemporary commissioning landscape that ENO used to dominate.

They are reaching the point that they look rather aimless and more of a House that is rather in love with its stylistic tropes and self-image. When compared to Opera North and Welsh National Opera their quality, value for money and breadth of reach in programming is pitiful. I have enjoyed many productions at ENO over the years and am rather in awe of the Chorus and Orchestra but the management has let down all those hard working people and played with their livelihoods and the Company’s reputation.

The sound quality is not crystal clear, but it is good enough to have a listen through and make your own judgement. I sincerely hope the underlying arrogance displayed on the day has crumbled alongside the outgoing Berry regime.

ENO season launch 2015/2016 live tweeting extravaganza

21 Apr

ENO Season Launch 1516Tomorrow morning between 10.00 and 11.00 the English National Opera will hold its annual season launch. Like the last three years I am present and will relay the news as it breaks. Below you will see a live stream of my tweets and even further down will be tracking the official hashtag used by ENO for reactions by other twitterati. Join in the fun!

My tweets

 

 

My blog posts on the previous three launches

2012/13:  https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/eno-201213-season-and-the-broader-london-context/

2013/14:  https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/season-launch-by-an-eye-witness/

2014/15:  https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/eno-season-launch-20142015/

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

 

ENO Season Launch 2014/2015

30 Apr

ENO new season 1415Yesterday morning the English National Opera launched their new season as the last two years I popped in to see what the company has in store for the next year. The usual pitch by John Berry surely felt more confident but it was definitely missing the customary report on finances, which was relegated to a page in the press pack. But at least we had the chance to meet the new Chief Executive that was only appointed a few weeks back.

The overall artistic decisions are what seems a fight back on the criticism the company has received over the last few years. The performances at this season will increase to 170 from a measly 123 the past season. Which is clearly making the public subsidy seem better value than usual. For the first time in years the company will venture out of London (they do tour abroad individual productions from time to time, like Death in Venice to Dutch National Opera) but the presentation of Orfeo at Bristol’s Old Vic is a great idea and maybe opening the opportunity for more flexibility in future seasons.

The programming is a better mix, acknowledging the continuum of the medium and integrating baroque into the main offering, unlike the Royal Opera who farms out baroque like an embarrassment. In addition two new operas have been commissioned by two young female composers (Tansy Davies and Joanna Lee) which can only be a good thing after most prominent commissions going to the old boys network as a matter of cause. The season is also notable for the UK conducting debuts of Keri-Lynn Wilson (The Girl OF the Golden West) and Joana Carneiro (The Gospel According to the Other Mary) which again gives a glimmer of hope more women will be conducting in our opera houses and orchestras in the near future. So much so to make the news of such debuts non newsworthy.

The directing gene pool at ENO hasn’t been replenished this time round with many of the usual suspects showing up once more and even  two productions each for David Alden and Richard Jones. But the return of Peter Sellars as the Director-in-residence is great news and will hopefully help sell tickets for his two productions. But getting Mike Leigh to direct The Pirates of Penzance is a much safer choice than many previous rookie opera director appointments. He has a well known love of Gilbert and Sullivan and it is very strongly cast.

The John Berry 360 degree policy change on broadcasting opera from the Coliseum that became ENO Screen continues with five productions this season (Otello/The Way Back Home/La Traviata/The Pirates of Penzance/Carmen). Apparently they are putting £1m to support that programme.

There was bemusement at the mention of Secret Seat and Opera Undressed initiatives. Which have not convinced most bystanders and commentators, including myself, that they are good value for money and that they increase new audiences. The 28% of ex Opera Undressed ticket buyers getting full price (I wonder) tickets is fairly negligible when you think of the damage of the ever-increasing prices, particularly for the cheaper seats at Balcony and Upper Circle levels. ENO does cover a niche for London operavores that will not be too willing to pay £155 for a Stalls seat. The management has to acknowledge that fact and find a better way to deploy their subsidy. So instead of making it into a lottery like those aforementioned schemes if the prices at Balcony were halved then more people who would think twice before buying tickets would give them a chance.

At least it was good that they managed to balance the books (with a large donation by a member of the board and another bail our by the Arts Council) and reported and increase of paid audience capacity from 62% in 2012/13 to %69 in 2013/14. The steady income from co-productions was also mentioned to be healthy which is great news.

Overall I think the ENO is turning a corner and despite the fact in the new leadership reshuffle John Berry is left as the sole despot of the company, at least he has reversed on some of his most silly ideas around cinema broadcasts and started to revive productions from before his tenure. Such as Nicholas Hytner’s outstanding Xerxes. Hope next season they can dig a bit more in the archive and try to revive more past successful productions and be as measured with new productions as they seem to have been this time.

A lot of online gossip centred on their announced venture into commercial co-productions with Michael Grade and Michael Linnit (who were also present at the launch) I think we’d better stay calm and see what their first collaboration will be and then we can see more clearly what they are trying to do with musical theatre. After all the Coliseum originated as a variety theatre and the black line between opera and musical theatre is still some strange apartheid that needs to be abolished.

You will find the full season listings on the following page: http://www.eno.org/news/listing-14-15

The season trailer

 

Some tweets from the launch

Branded by Jones / Rodelinda / English National Opera – 2 March 2014

10 Mar

ENO RodelindaLove him or hate him Richard Jones is a meticulous and provocative director. He surely thinks through his productions and tends to vehemently stick to the ideas that underpin them. Saw his Rodelinda for ENO  a week ago (his first Handel opera in 18 years) and still swirls around my head. His take on Handel is full of contradictions and theatricality, full of poetic moments and uncomfortable silliness.

For all his splashy visuals this production come through as thoughtful and wanting to pick an intellectual argument with its audience. Rodelinda’s role in this opera is thoroughly dissected. She becomes the object of fascination that is spied on by CCTV cameras. The play thing of destiny that threatens to crush her. But also the strong, virtuous mother that will fight to her last breath for her son and her social position.  Despite the busy production, including some unnecessary projections in between scenes that are meant to introduce us to the next locale accompanied by very loud pre-recorded soundtrack and the three damned treadmills . The centre of the action never wavers far away from Rebecca Evans. She brings unique dignity and vigour to the part with spectacular singing.

Jones’ central visual motif is the presence of tattoos, to denote relationships and changes to the state of mind of the characters. Grimoaldo initially sports one with the name of Eduige and as he starts falling for Rodelinda he quickly gets it covered up and a huge new one across his back spells the name of his captive and under surveillance prey. The exploration of the use of body marking to express love, being a great match for the production’s setting in Italy in the 1950s. The time when tattooing started to break free from the confines of prisons and the navy and started to denote a fashionable tribe badge. This aesthetic choice even adorns the artwork on the programme cover.

In this opera people that are brought together by circumstances and breeding are brutally separated by politics and animosity. The indelible mark on one’s skin becomes an act of emotional engagement and an attempt to brand one’s feeling for all to see. That mix of public display and vying for attention is at the heart of this work.  As the central power triangle of Rodelinda, Bertatido and Grimoaldo is motivated by a potent mix of sex and political power. The impressive sets by Jeremy Herbert (especially the impossibly phallic monument to Bertarido) convey a polished, design conscious Italy of the  post Musolini era, a perfect setting for a work that is so enamoured with the surface of power and the nature of love.

The only seriously problematic choices  were the use of slapstick  particularly in the last Act, turning violent confrontations into a Tom and Jerry cartoon fight, getting hold of progressively bigger weapons until the ultimate cartoon weapon shows up to the chagrin of the audience…the oversized dynamite roll that is used to explode Bertarido’s monument. A diversion into farce that undid many poignant moments of the previous two hours.  The other issue was the presence of the three treadmills at the front of the stage used most of the time as a cliche to animate when the different characters chased one another and seemed to not be that integrated in the overall design by being obstructive and at times becoming just immobile pedestals creating an obstacle course for the singers. Maybe an aspect to re-think before the staging moves on to The Bolshoi in the near future.

The two moments of absolute beauty that will remain indelible in my memory is Rodelinda’s mourning aria  Ombre, piante, urne funeste, staged in the simplest fashion possible putting the focus on Evans and her hear wrenching, achingly gorgeous singing. As she laments the supposed loss of her husband at the base of his monument. One of those very special moments that make the world feel immobile, the ultimate declaration of sadness and loss.

But the greatest moment of this production came at the end of Act Two with Io t’abbraccio man and wife have finally come together once more but the world around them has irrevocably changed. Jones’ had the ingenious idea to use the separated three part set as the material manifestation of the mind of the two singing characters and the mute presence of the crushed Grimoaldo in the centre. As the two lovers sing their rooms move apart to the side of the stage until they disappear into the grey walls leaving the pathetic figure of the fallen dictator isolated and broken.  An image so potent and when accompanied by such wonderful, passionate singing and Handel’s ethereal music became a great example of how opera above most art forms can express emotion in the most direct way possible, devastating in its potency and yet life affirming.

The two tremendous vocal triumphs by Evans and Davies were underpinned by the light voiced purity of Christopher Ainslie who created a notable contrast to the more muscular sound of Davies, relieving any possibility of counter-tenor fatigue. Despite all the involved acting by John Mark Ainsley sounded uncomfortable on the higher lying parts of his role, making some of his arias feel like hard work. Susan Bickley acquitted herself nicely with her usual colourful, characterful singing.

The conducting by Christian Curnyn was of the high standard, we have come to expect from him. Well judged tempi and a definite rapport with the cast. It was a shame the pit wasn’t raised slightly as it was done for Castor and Pollux but I’d think it has to do with sharing the venue with Rigoletto on alternate nights. But it was a delight to have Handel’s glorious score being played with such fluency and love. And in a production that despite any farcical diversions was emotionally potent and a great exponent of what the ENO does best, though-provoking director’s opera. If you can make it, well worth catching the handful of performances left or pop over to Radio 3 and listen to the live broadcast from last Saturday. 

ENO Rodelinda List

The ENO Podcast

Some tweets from the evening

Radio broadcast promotion on a different level

8 Mar

wig-red.pngThis morning on Twitter was notable for the tragicomic tweets of Iestyn Davies, trying to bring to his followers’ attention that tonight’s performance of Rodelinda is live on Radio 3.

Clearly informed by all the reviews and a few sour blogs written about the production he probably made a much better promotional effort than any official opera house twitter account could have ever hope to.

As a tribute to the hilarity and oddball passion here are some of those tweets 😉

I saw the production last Sunday and has been swirling around my head ever since. My thoughts will settle in the form of a blog post…soon. In the meantime listen to the radio this evening, it was musically very rewarding.

While ENO’s promo was a bit more…sedate

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

%d bloggers like this: