Tag Archives: George Frideric Handel

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

Baroque Nymph / Anna Prohaska + Richard Egarr + Academy of Ancient Music / Milton Court – 21 November 2013

22 Nov

Anna Prohaska and AAMMy first experience of Anna Prohaska live was a revelation. She has a reputation forged on her precocity (at 17 making her professional debut) and quirky videos filmed in hospitals and train platforms. The impression one gets from the promotional materials would be of seeing the Björk of classical performance and I would tend to agree. She presented a stage presence of great maturity for an artist who is only 30 years old. Her voice is such an exciting mix of sensuality and piercing intensity being instantly enchanting. Her elfin looks underline her interpretations with a full body connection to the text. The music she sang was from the late 17th and mid 18th centuries and yet her presentation was as connected and immediate as if she was interpreting a piece written just for her and having had the benefit of a long chat with the composer. A great example of when historically informed performance (not always a fan) doesn’t have to be characterless and academic.

The orchestra’s vibrant playing of the very merry and weather-beaten Locke incidental music was a great way to open the concert. In the simplest moments of the 3rd Purcell song caressing the text and breathing a sensual warmth to every phrase.

The suite of dances and arias from The Fairy Queen were absolutely evocative of the magic of Purcell’s grand Entertainment. The evident comradeship among the players was too evident and a month long tour of Australia must have made the bond stronger. The particular delicacy of The Plaint and See, See, Even the night herself is here capitalised on Prohaska’s silken delivery backed by an emotional investment and bright projection. It was both deeply sensual and individual…all too frequently the eloquence and simple beauty gets marred by disinterested performers that seem to add very little of themselves to the material. Our leading lady with some great viola playing by Jane Rogers wove her magic in the most quiet and intimate way imaginable.

The second half started with the harpsichord tuner leaving his phone on the instrument and Richard Egarr urgently returning it backstage…which made for a fun and giggly start.

The Arne overture was a reference to the first recording of the orchestra forty years ago and we were zipped through the many mood swings and tempi in record time, to be delivered in the capable hands of the young Handel and his fiery Italianate arias from Rinaldo and Amadigi di Gaula. Prohaska surely used the bright top of her voice to great effect. Those two arias made evident that her voice may not have a rather large size but she makes up in agility and fire. The way she transmitted vulnerability in her Ah! Spietato was breathtaking, not a contrived version of pain, much loved by transatlantic divas,  but a genuine sorrow that filled the air with gorgeous sound and emotion. A superlative example of when period instruments allow for such simplicity and immediate, emotional, responses.

The sinfonia from Saul was like a mini symphony wedged into the an oratorio in the usual Handel way. An ear pinning orgiastic concoction of seductive flute patterns overlaid with sweeping strings and punctuated by sharp attacks on the harpsichord.

The rendition of Farewell and Let the bright Seraphim were a glorious end to the evening with some immaculate coloratura passages. The trumpet playing by David Blackadder was attention grabbing but also a great match for the jollity emanating from the opposite end of the stage and Prohaska’s delightful swaying presence. We were also treated to the most spectacular encore of Dido’s lament for Dido and Aeneas. Every phrase had its logical place as it brought the character to life, eery remember me uttered with perfect simplicity and deep urge. A glorious end to a tremendous evening and a singer that will have to follow much closer from now on!

Also worth mentioning how wonderful Milton Court is, with a resonant warm acoustic and clean design. Well worth returning to listen to smaller ensembles, making future visits to the Barbican complex much more interesting. And their bar was also very well priced…if you need a drink while there.

Anna Prohaska and AAM list

Some tweets from the evening

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