Tag Archives: Graham Vick

Michael Tippett’s The Ice Break some video excerpts from the premiere on 3 April 2015

8 Apr

This was my third production by Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera company who always surprises and is built of the foundation of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and a community chorus that tends to be the vibrating, galvanising factor of the whole experience. On Friday night a bleak warehouse in the industrial area of Birmingham was transformed into an airport arrivals lounge. As with Vick’s BO productions, the name of the game is immersion. The audience and the chorus and all the extras become one, being cleverly manipulated around and in the midst of the action. Their productions take on an experiential character far and beyond what the traditional opera house setting is capable.

A wonderful ancient Greek was circling my head on Friday when I tried to find a way to describe cogently the feeling of being there. Δρώμενον, which translates rather badly into ‘happening’ in Greek having a much more nuanced and deep resonance of lived experience through performance. This is not just a live experience but more like a living experience. One’s senses accentuated in near self-preservation mode, on the lookout for the next abrupt interruption and surge by the chorus or sudden appearance of soloists.

It is a heady mix in which to experience Michael Tippett’s angular and episodic score. The star of the night was Chrystal E. Williams and her obscenely luxurious mezzo and fierce presence. Her night time soliloquy a triumph of intense characterisation and impressive ease around Tippett’s fidgety coloratura. That sometimes can make singers sound laboured and mechanical, she imbued it with raw, bloody passion.

If you have the time watch my 17mins worth of excerpts which should give you an insight on the production and the overall feel, even if no recording will ever transmit the emotional live experience of being there. I will pretend that the silly portrait filming was an intentional aesthetic choice, if asked (no, not really…just sheer stupidity).


Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry clips

2 May

A nine minute edited selection of clips to convey the electric atmosphere during the latest production by Birmingham Opera Company. Community opera at a grand scale.

My Top 12 of 2012

20 Dec

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

Mittwoch aus Licht

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

Alice Coote

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

Click here to read the post.

Calixto Bieito’s Carmen

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

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

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

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

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

Ailyn Pérez

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

Véronique Gens

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

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

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

Sarah Connolly

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

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

The Stockhausen blast / Mittwoch aus Licht / Birmingham Opera Company / World Premiere – 22 August 2012

24 Aug

A lot of words circulate in my mind relating to attending the world premiere of Mittwoth aus Licht on Wednesday night…much like Stockhausen’s fabled dreams, here’s a random selection: Unique, Audacious, Excessive, Spiritual, Trekkie Convention, Extraordinary, Capricious, Daring, Ridiculous, Unfathomable, Sleek, Mesmerizing, Technical, Polyphonic Marvel, Unnerving, Contradictory, Illuminating, Mystical, Terrifying, Atmospheric, Ludicrous, Humorous, Complex, Long, Rich, Gesamtkunstwerk, Brave, Showy, Intoxicating, Great Face Painting, Vast Empty Space, Surprising. They would possibly make a good start for a word association game…but I’ll leave that to the readers.

I’ve always found Stockhausen’s work taxing and many times it has defeated me. Additionally his mature work is impossible to experience fully in recorded form, as his Quadrophonic and Octophonic sound installations with meticulous attention to detail create the environment that presents the work in the best possible light. Experiencing such a complex piece in person it feels more like encountering the most ambitious art installation than a purely musical/theatrical event. The sheer scale and wealth of detail makes up for a bewildering, overstimulating evening. One has to come into such a multi layered event with the intention to go along with the, at times outlandish,  subject matter and be immersed in the ambience. It seems to me the more the listener puts in the more he takes away, surely not a composer to encourage lazy listening and the whole set up by Birmingham Opera underlined that beautifully. His work is demanding but when staged with such conviction as Graham Vick did, makes for a spectacularly unmissable night out.

Walking through a rough area of Birmingham going past industrial units and factories was unappealing enough and then the skies opened for a shower on Wednesday…it made for an inauspicious start to a long evening. Mind you, being greeted by two camels on entering was an equally baffling and charming start. Argyle Works seems to be the venue of choice for Birmingham Opera and it surely works for Vick’s rough and ready stagings. The industrial, almost untouched look of the factory spaces create a distinctive feel that was greatly in tune with Stockhausen’s aesthetic, they created neutral backdrops for the theatre of the mind, something a gilded opera house could and would not do for Mittwoch.

When the heavy industrial shutter closed behind us and the space plunged in darkness it was an assault on our senses, as if going into self-preservation mode, trying to detect motion in the dark, to smell the air and to look out for performers passing by. The electronic music playing a humming backdrop to the darkness felt like an initiation ceremony into the mind of Stockhausen the lighting concentrating on groups of dancers, two of them scaling the walls and seemingly having a quarrel, a long platform arrives with a distinctive thump giving us a courtly mise-en-scene, dancers crowded on a doorway with one of them climbing on top of them and walking through. The iconography is distinctly opaque but one has to make a leap of faith and go along with Stockhausen and Vick on this journey as after all this is the Greeting. The constant searching for the action becomes a cat and mouse game between audience and cast it remains exciting through the near six-hour duration. The action/stage is alternating through two almost identical spaces with a small passage lit up with yellow neon to continue the theme of hope and love.

The World Parliament section was possibly the most traditionally written (of course sang in imaginary languages and with amplified sound and a long wave receiver) where over 70 singers surrounded us on what looked like umpire’s chairs in signature Wittwoch yellow. Their faces painted in different world flags. The polyphonic writing is truly exceptional and with the added on subtle amplification and use of the complex sound set up it made it an all enveloping experience, after all Stockhausen was after an otherworldly experience over the clouds, this production made him proud. The colourings and provocative stylings, particularly for the soprano, were magnificent displays of the human voice in a most unleashed state. The members of Ex Cathedra gave their all in this very tricky piece and made the room reverberate with the most extraordinary sounds. In the end he smeared their face paint and came down to give a handshake to the audience.

Putting up Mittwoch is a logistical nightmare and it is most obvious during the notorious Helicopter String Quartet. It is impossible to under-estimate how cool it is to have the players showing up and then to watch them on a video link for half an hour as they embark disembark and play each in their own helicopter. Written as the outcome of a dream it makes for a thrilling spectacle. The technical requirements are dazzling on both broadcasting it live and the actual technical side of co-ordinating the four players with a click track and instructions to the pilots. As usual with Stockhausen the work only exists in the live mix in the room as balanced by the engineer in charge (there is a famous CD recording of the piece but it can never replicate the live sound). Unfortunately one let down was the presenter from Radio 1 (DJ Nihal) who was more of an animateur than explaining the process, as the composer specified. It is strange why didn’t they ask the sound projectionist (Ian Dearden) to host this part (as the performance instructions clearly state). His jokes really fell on deaf ears (tiresome mentions of the Stockhausen massive and a reference to mini-bus fetish gives you an idea) as a large proportion of the audience was German, they were more than happy to ignore his parochial humour. But the sheer grandeur and excitement of watching it happen live was uniquely memorable. The Elysian Quartet have to be congratulated for taking it on and bringing their youthful vibrancy against the potentially scary and unpredictable conditions. Also love this picture of the pilots “playing” which they posted on their Facebook account! I wonder if anyone in Birmingham got really angry not being able to watch the awful One Show on BBC One while the helicopters where flying overhead 😉

The Orchestra Finalists section with the suspended musicians was beautifully staged to bring out the humour and playfulness of the ensemble. It’s not every day you get to see a trombonist splashing about in a paddling pool while being carried around on a raised platform while the audience is lying on their back below. Or having wooden birds mounted on long canes dangling centimetres above our heads. The dancers trying to kill a swarm of imaginary flies (clearly audible through the speakers) on members of the audience.  It is a pretty nutty way to present this segment! Which was also padded up with paper planes being thrown around (only to end up being eaten by the performers/dancers), two chaps with top hats emitting smoke, a mummy playing a small gong… you get the idea. It was like a fun day for a group of schoolchildren playing the most eccentric musical snippets while yo-yoing from the ceiling. That sense of fun is the saving grace for much of the piece, Stockhausen has an eye for mischief and as realised in Birmingham we all felt part of it (including getting splashed as the paddling pool was going past overhead).

The fifth section was Michaelion heavy with symbolism and a camel that gives birth to the chosen Operator and his short-wave receiver and also shits celestial objects from distant solar systems…yep it’s the most intricate and less lucid part of the work and the final sung section even adorns his tombstone in the cemetery of Kürten. Composed as most of the 29 hours of the whole Light/Licht opera cycle on the formula that Stockhausen devised, a compositional strategy very much in tune with other electronic music composers from IRCAM and elsewhere. Dispersed amongst us where actors splattered in signature yellow paint who contributed ritualistic dancing at the election of the new leader and also helped sing the beautiful staccati notes written for them and expected to be performed en parade. Ah yes, there was also a shoe-shine serenade for the camel and also a huge inflatable bottle of champagne! This section was possibly the only one that felt too long, to the point when the singers came near us carrying, what seemed like, giant pretzels on sticks I couldn’t help but feel slightly hungry 😉

The Farewell was another downbeat segment like the Greeting allowing all of us to wind down, while surrounded by the performers holding up signs with mottos relating to the composer’s ideas throughout the opera and were led next doors for drinks and conversation…

The biggest credit has to be given to Kathinka Pasveer who was a long-term collaborator of the composer and the Director of the Stockhausen Foundation. She was mixing the live sound throughout the evening with great care and created an impeccably well crafted soundscape befitting such an ambitious work. Made even more special being staged on a Wednesday and on the anniversary of Stockhausen’s birth…you can imagine him smiling down from whichever planet he’s moved onto 😉

My photos from the evening

Read more

Graham Vick interview in the Telegraph 

A piece by Alex Petridis for The Guardian

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