Tag Archives: Iestyn Davies

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

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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 ūüėČ

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

The dreadful moment when you’re caught red handed

17 Nov

I was perusing Intermezzo’s blog and happen to see a picture posted by Iestyn Davies a few weeks back (12 October to be precise). It was presented as a story of sorts without the nous to credit where it came from. In my eyes it looked like blatant theft and done so casually.

When I alerted him to it, he gracefully laughed it off and offered a picture of the¬†chocolate¬†bar in his fridge. Of course the arrogance of Intermezzo did not allow for a proper correction…all the readers got was some fudged excuse about the Met’s publicity department and that the image was emailed in. Hmmm good try old lady but sometimes owning up to stealing content from Twitter should be more clear. Especially when my sources point to other examples when she appropriated similar content and presented them without credit as blog posts.

It may all sound rather dull of me to point the obvious, but going against blatant theft passed on as self-produced blogging content with very little fact checking  is important. Blogging may not aspire to be journalism but it still has to aspire to a certain moral standard. I would never even dream of using a third-party picture and not credit them directly, especially when the image becomes the main thrust for a bullshity article like the one by IM.

I am sorry to admit that when she was in trouble with Covent Garden’s management I did email their press office to defend her. A couple of years later I am disappointed to see such lack of decency and humility by a blogger I used to admire.

My top 11 discoveries / realisations of 2011

19 Dec

This was a pretty intense year and thought it would be good to make a list of inspirational mainly operatic highs of 2011

1 Twitter

It was the first full year that I’ve used the network as a great resource for news and also as direct communication on matters operatic and not. Met some great people through it and started some very¬†interesting¬†conversations.

2 Beverly Sills

This year I immersed myself in the recorded output of the diva from Brooklyn. A great artist with an intriguing personality to boot. Surely one of the finest coloratura sopranos of the 20th century and worth going back to her for renewal and inspiration.

3 Veronique Gens

The year (almost) started with her magisterial Niobe at Covent Garden and finished with her fantastic  recital at Wigmore Hall. A diva cut off the old cloth of greatness.

4 Allan Clayton

First noticed him¬†this year in a small part in Britten’s Dream, then I saw him triumph in Castor and Pollux and L’Enfance du Christ. A loud voice for the future, hope ENO and RO will give him more¬†substantial roles to sink his teeth into.

5 Iestyn Davis

Never one for countertenors, but his¬†performance¬†in Britten’s Dream was magnetic and his Niobe contribution very substantial. A young British voice to shake up the world of opera and early music.

6 LSO

Have always loved the London Symphony Orchestra but this year they have been stunning. Also one of the most adept to Twitter orchestras on the planet. A band all Londoners should be proud of and should patronise with frequency.

7 Anne Sophie von Otter

Like a well aged Claret, ASvO is a European treasure. Her captivating Wigmore Hall recital was intoxicating to the max. Greatness without the hollow diva attitude. Looking forward to her LSO collaboration early in  February 2012.

8 Alice Coote

Listened to her sing¬†Les nuits d’√©t√© years ago at the Proms and was terribly impressed, her triumphantly sulky Prince Charmant in Cendrillon was breathtaking. Her upcoming¬†Winterreise ¬†at Wigmore Hall will be an early highlight of 2012 (there are still a few tickets left, grab them quickly!)

9 Joyce DiDonato

The Yankeediva is a charismatic performer that elevated Cendrillon to stratospheric heights, her Ariodante was to die for, despite the awful orchestra and still a fun Twitter person to have disagreements and banter with.

10 Mark-Anthony Turnage

He gave us Anna Nicole, which was plethoric in its gay abandon and a great showcase for the considerable gifts of Eva Maria Westbroek, the darkness of Twice Through the Heart with the excellent Sarah Connolly and his remarkable music for Undance.

11 Sylvie Guillem

Managed to see her new mixed bill evening at Sadler’s Wells in its two outings back in early July and late September. She was absolutely wonderful both times. A rare dance treat. She continues to be the measure of all dancers, a standard for excellence.

If you had an epiphany of an artistic nature in 2011, feel free to add your top whatever in the comment section and Merry Xmas ūüėČ

Handbags at dawn or protecting the family silver / Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream / ENO – 21 May 2011

22 May

I have to confess at being a total Britten virgin and this time round I went to see the new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the English National Opera on a whim (only bought the tickets the day before the opening). While following all the reactions of bloggers and critics on Twitter I was fascinated by the genuine dialogue it was creating. Lets say there was a buzz in the air. It was a shame to hear that Iestyn Davies was vocally indisposed and he was only acting the part while a stand in was singing from the side of the stage (he was absolutely fantastic as Creonte in Steffani’s Niobe Regina di Tebe which was on last year at Covent Garden) but the other main reason for seeing it was my total inexperience with Britten’s operatic output. I systematically had avoided his work as it seemed to lack passion and any compositional radicalism.

Reading numerous reviews the day after the first performance I was intrigued by the division between the reviewers into the offended old crowd that thought the family silver had been pilfered and a much younger group that thought it was as exciting, if not even more, than Faust that preceded the production at the Coliseum. A particular example that created an avalanche of Tweets was Stephen Jay-Taylor’s “review” that had all the qualities of a gossip session over the garden fence. He has been writing for aeons but that fact does not give him a carte blanche to insult performers in order to please his enlarged sense of self.

Having seen the production this evening I can say that I am terribly surprised that such irresponsible rubbish has been written about it. Why is Britten’s work seen as the sacred cow of British operatic tradition? Himself partially used Shakespeare’s play and wasn’t too bothered with authenticity, why does a change of context create such an amount of discomfort and apparent sense of threat? Christopher Alden did give us a very uneasy ride by siting the action in front of a forbidding Victorian school all painted grey(a nice touch was that the right hand side part of the set was jutting beyond the proscenium, agitating the space in the process). Surely we did not get the fantastical wood that Britten’s own provincial first production in 1960 has had. But Alden does make an interesting allusion to the composer’s personal life and his perception by the people around him. He creates an uncomfortable story of child abuse that is insinuated through the relationship of teacher Oberon and his chosen student. A clever reference to Britten’s obvious fascination with boys throughout his life and operatic career. Even though there is no evidence of any impropriety Alden is inviting us to look through the eyes of Britten’s contemporaries in 1960, while he was rehearsing the piece it must have seemed to a lot of people totally unnatural a mature man to cast a cornucopia of young boys in his latest opera and to have them rehearse in a barn in the middle of nowhere. That very core of his idea about the composer is what can be seen as gratuitous and an easy shot. But I can vouch that it actually works on stage. It brings Britten’s own demons to the fore with the cruel reality of school thrown in for good measure.

The set is providing for hidden looks and touching between Oberon and his Changeling Boy, creating an intriguing mix of psychological terror and a tableaux of shadows that gets exploited in numerous ways. A very telling scene is in the second act when Oberon leaves behind Tytania who is smoking in a depressed state while he walks off stage with the boy. Till he reappears in 15-20 mins all sorts of ideas circle in the minds of the audience. Another creepy detail is when Oberon stops singing his aria out of the window of the classroom his “best boy” is helping him put his jacket on. And that is the way Alden’s sub plot is working, by suggestion. He has not gone for any coarse means but by association he leads his audiences mind to wonder into some very dark recesses. Now that is the kind of thinking process that would never take place had we had a pretty wood on stage. This kind of total rethink of the plot may seem an anathema to some purists but as a newcomer to Britten found it meaningful and an interesting diversion from a well trodden path, where staging an opera amounts to performance archaeology and nothing more. This darkness in setting and intentions has also another effect, it amplifies that almost film noir elements of the score. All the slightly dissonant keyboard playing and the haunting long phrasing of the strings seems dark and airless on top of a gleaming, textural couverture of pizzicati strings and bells.

The third act brings a hilarious staging of the play within a play (Thisbe and Pyramus), the audience tonight found it very funny and there was a lot of laughing echoing in the auditorium, in contrast it seems to what a couple of spiteful reviewers were reporting from the premi√®re. Willard White was really going for broke and delivered some very funny moments and also an emotionally charged moment when he almost directed the school children / fairies to use the whole of the building as a giant drum kit in order to accompany their singing. Michael Colvin’s Flute (Thisbe) was really funny in pink tights and sang very well his “heroine’s” last moments.

Anna Christy sang her torturous high coloratura with the frivolous outlook of a leggera soprano. Her singing was beautiful and being made to parade the stage in your bra while singing some killer aria is not an easy task. She gave us the frumpiest Tytania in the history of the stage but she had the stage presence to be a fantastic companion to Oberon.

Iestyn Davies did actually sing tonight, his voice was as beautiful as ever but in the first couple of scenes he sounded guarded and seemed not to push too hard, his subdued instrument making his presence feel weak. But it’s totally understandable when he is not very well. After the interval he sounded much more comfortable and the volume increased too. Even for people that find counter tenors tedious I can imagine finding his attractive silver tinged delivery appealing.

Two other definite stand outs where Allan Clayton (Lysander) and Kate Valentine (Helena), their duets where beautiful and with a very confident and assertive vocal positioning.

All in all I am relieved to report that there was not a hint of boo from the audience. Everyone was appreciative of the great efforts from the choir, orchestra (under the vibrant baton of Leo Hussain) and soloists. Britten’s crystalline structures came through and the clarity of the playing was just a joy. I don’t think he will ever be my favourite composer but tonight was a great start of looking into more of his works in the coming seasons. One criticism I would have of this first outing of the production (as referred to by Alexandra Coghlan) was the profusion of wall touching…most of the characters spend inordinate amounts of time feeling the grey walls. An exaggeration that sometimes took us away from the moment. But that hopefully can be looked at and corrected and not seen as an Alden signature.

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