Tag Archives: Leslie Travers

Chilling in more than one way / Grimes on the Beach / Aldeburgh Beach – 17 June 2013

24 Jun

Grimes on the beachAll classical music and opera fans are used to showing up to concert halls and opera houses all year round to enjoy their favourite art form. Once in a while an unusual venue comes along to spice things up, whether it’s Daniel Barenboim at Tate Modern or Stockhausen’s Mittwoch in a factory in Birmingham the match of programme and overall concept to the space take precedent. In order to be meaningful it has ¬†to facilitate an experience not replicable in a standard venue.

Using the beach at Aldeburgh to present Peter Grimes was a risky as it was a natural fit. Britten was convinced that his music came from Suffolk, famously in his Aspen Award Speech in 1964 he uttered:

‘I belong at home-there-in Aldeburgh. I have tried to bring music to it in the shape of our local Festival; and all the music I write comes from it. I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships. I want my music to be of use to people, to please them, to ‘enhance their lives’ (to use Berenson’s phrase).’

Performing Grimes 20 minutes walk from Britten’s home and his grave surely has symbolism on its side. And few scores have such a sea filled sound world than this. The orchestra was crisply conducted by Steuart Bedford, pre-recorded a week earlier during two indoor concerts and relayed beautifully through speakers built into the set and also on scaffold towers all around. The conductor was in a specially buried box conducting the vocal performances. It surely wasn’t as immediate as having the players there live but the magical experience of having the magnificent interludes played while gazing at the very seascape that inspired them, with the wind harshly blowing, was unforgettable. Leslie Travers’ set was a horizontal structure that had turned its back to the sea, resembling a crumbling provincial quayside with boats being used to divide the space. A couple of raised platforms standing in for interiors. It was as simple as it was effective and evocative.

The singing was amplified and despite the, at times fierce, wind everyone was audible and we surely appreciated the extra effort put into performing in such inhospitable conditions. Incredibly this was Alan Oke’s first assumption of the title part. His beautifully lyrical delivery had all the beauty of Peter Pears and when needed he could command a much darker chest voice to communicate his sense of isolation and otherness. Lots of people like a heldentenor singing the part…virtually overplaying the character and barking their way to edge of civilization. Oke kept his interpretation in line with Britten’s ethereal writing and rode the bigger melodies with great flexibility and sense of ownership.

The rest of the cast offered some characterful singing, particularly Giselle Allen and David Kempster were the perfect companions for Oke. Allen was beautifully expressive and her acting was strong enough to read clearly from a large distance. Kempster’s¬†Captain Balstrode was robustly voiced and with a great deal of humanity. He was the first person to walk on stage before a surprising coupe de theatre took place. A Spitfire flew exactly across the beach twice and then got lost in the depths of the sea horizon before the rumble of the woodwind paced through and replaced the engine noise. Now that was definitely a start to proceedings that cannot be replicated in any other venue.
Tim Albery definitely used the location and the seaside setting as a great asset. One interesting aural aspect was that members of the large chorus were partially amplified, allowing for an interesting variation in the sound for all of us sitting on the shingle at the front of the stage. And they definitely took their task seriously, being the nearest to an ancient Greek chorus that I have ever seen in an opera. A total treat.

Due credit has to be given to the wonderful ushers that were unfailingly charming and smiley despite dealing with some very insistent grumpy old folks that were trying to use beach chairs that were expressly not allowed. An evening that none of us will easily forget. A night that justified the hype and all our expectations, despite the fact we all were covered in five layers of clothing and winter blankets we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. The great British summer found its soundtrack.

A few tweets from the evening

Curtain Call Video

Slideshow of shots on Flickr

Storify by Aldeburgh Music Festival

http://storify.com/aldeburghmusic/grimes-on-the-beach-reactions

Grimes on the beach list

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Northern triple / Otello + La Voix Humaine + Dido and Aeneas / Opera North / Leeds Grand Theatre – 16 + 17 February 2013

21 Feb

Opera North tripleThis was my second long weekend away to attend some performances by Opera North. This time the overall quality and breadth of repertoire was a mix of the accomplished, the dull and the dubious.

My personal highlight was Lesley Garrett’s return to the operatic stage after over a decade in Poulenc’s take on Jean Cocteau’s one woman drama. She apparently proposed the project to Opera North and in many ways the subject matter of the piece seems to resonate with Garrett’s career and life trajectory, she is like Elle a performer past her prime and at 57 not an artist most critics would take seriously. Especially after having spent the last fifteen years singing¬†amplified musicals and appearing in TV reality shows. She committed the cardinal sin in opera circles, she dared to be a popular¬†entertainer when her ENO soubrette parts starting to dry out. Many called her career moves desperate and blamed her for disgracing her operatic training and the genre. Even very recently she sang a dreadfully mannered God Save the Queen for the award ceremony of the Tour de France to Bradley Wiggins.

But have to give her full credit for the performance and for the choice of work. Voix is an¬†unflinching monologue and in Aletta Collins’ direction she appears facing the audience for the first ten minutes through what appears to be a dressing room mirror, lined with lit up bulbs. Her anguished expression the only introduction to the piece till the chilling opening chords, quickly followed by the humorous xylophone produced telephone ring tone. When the stage front¬†disappeared¬†we were left with a mirror image of her dressing room with the mirror and objects behind her. From my box I could constantly see the reflection of the conductor in the mirror, adding an extra dimension to the piece…at least till her lover appeared at the back of the two-way mirror a few minutes later. The faded dressing room had a folding bed on the left and a shower cubicle on the right. Garrett moved between the two during the phone conversation with her unfaithful lover in a state of rising hysteria. The emotional development through the 45 minutes of its duration was masterful and with crystal clear diction she sold every word. She avoided the usual pitfall of¬†over-sentimentalising¬†or¬†over-dramatising the finale. Her sense of anguish and imminent loss were communicated with subtle hushed lines addressed to herself while the receiver lied on the bed or her chest. Collins’ direction had her most of the duration of¬†the¬†piece in a black negligee with a plunging neckline giving Garrett¬†literally¬†no place to hide. Her voice and projection were more than adequate for the part which has few sustained sections but no one can accuse of lacking stage presence. She owned the part of the terrified scorned lover with such authority that it was deeply impressive.

The performance by the orchestra under Wyn Davies was exemplary, bringing the mid-century sound of the piece alive and with an unmistakable Gallic tartness. Many feminist writers find La Voix indefensible and a sure sign of commodification of female grief, presented as an entertainment vehicle put together by two gay men. But having Aletta Collins and Garrett work on it, they added their own distinctive  take on the work. It did not make us all feel voyeuristic in the slightest, it was more a confession by a dear friend of their innermost feelings. We watched on as she fell apart and contemplated suicide. The great concluding touch was to have a double for the dishevelled Garrett in front of the mirror (and her back to the audience) while she showed up behind the mirror wearing the red sequined dress that was still hanging from one of the dressing room lights.

The work is also an interesting¬†comment on the nature of performance and the attitude of an¬†ageing¬†performer¬†to the knocks¬†along¬†the way. That very allusion to her own career path and its twists and turns made for a¬†fascinating¬†reading of the piece. Cocteau’s play is all about imperfect technology (the still unreliable telephone service heavily reliant on operators and compromised by crossed lines) and how it mirrors the imperfection of human relationships. Like a cruel phone calls stops Elle on her tracks, so we were left to mull over Garrett’s life and career in¬†the¬†public eye.

Unfortunately the productions of Otello and Dido and Aeneas did not grip me in the same way. Otello being¬†transferred by Tim Albery to an american military base did not really offer much. Despite the beautifully functional set and costumes by Leslie Travers the staging did not really speak to me. The terribly old fashioned and heavily upholstered take by Moshinsky at Covent Garden packs, ¬†to my great surprise,¬†more of an emotional punch. The orchestra sounded much rougher with Verdi’s frequent use of grand gestures punctuated by brass. The rather open orchestra pit of the Grand Theatre possibly amplified the musical issues, making me wish for more fire and direction.

But the excellence of the cast cannot be under estimated, Ronald Samm was uneven (it seems he was suffering with a persistent cold) but sang with great affinity with the material and especially in his duets with Desdemona he was rather affecting, just a shame that their seminal duet in Act Two took place between two reversed pieces of set that had all the refined look of a public toilet, killing the dramatic impact of their confrontation.

David Kempster’s Iago was a rather cunning, calculating human being. His¬†Era la notte, Cassio dormia was beautifully coloured with a sense of underlying malice. He was the one singer that was vocally constant and brought depth to the production.

The Desdemona of Elena Kelessidi was on the lighter side but brought beautifully spun phrases and was very focused in Act Four. I just did not believe much of the characterisation and that would be the fault of the director not finding a true personality for his main female protagonist. Usually like a much more dramatic soprano singing the part but Kelessidi delivered some gorgeous singing making the best of her resources. The extended chorus was near deafening in the opening scene and continued with much punch and bounce.

Dido and Aeneas was an over produced and under thought mess. When one is reduced to counting how many Didos are on stage (final count was 9)…you know you have a problem. My main issue for being rather bored with this bedroom set¬†performance¬†was how short it was on magic. The dancing itself was very beautiful and nuanced but once all the secondary characters (the witches, the spirit etc) started arriving as doppelg√§nger¬†of Dido my heart started to sink. I am sorry to report that despite some excellent singing (with just enough vibrato to annoy the period performance sticklers) from¬†Pamela Helen Stephen who gave a rather heart wrenching finale the evening failed to be truly engaging. Notable also were¬†Phillip Rhodes and Jake Arditti who made their Opera North debut in sparkling fashion. The beautifully bright timbre of¬†Nicholas Watts was a glimmer of light in an already sunk production.

Try to catch them while they are touring, forget what you’ve read in the papers about Garrett and book to see Voix it really is very, very good!

Opera North triple list

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.
Click here to read the post.

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.
Click here to read the post.

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.
Click here to read the post.

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.
Click here to read the post.

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 m√©lodies 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 sortil√®ges 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 Ph√®dre 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. 

Onegin in the park / Yevgeny Onegin / Opera Holland Park – 17 July 2012

21 Jul

This was my second experience with Opera Holland Park. The set up is a big tented stage with about 500 seats facing the remains of Holland House which was destroyed during the second world war. Like any other temporary/seasonal venue it has a number of obstacles to overcome, but here the biggest is how to incorporate the entrance portico of the ruin into every stage set. Previously the design for Lucia di Lammermoor tried to hide it. For Onegin Leslie Travers incorporated it as a vital part of the set, with its own lighting and used for the most dramatic entrances to the stage.

The production directed by Daniel Slater¬†has a very strong concept which adds depth and drama. The production starts with Yevgeny standing on the stage holding Tatyana’s letter while she drifts in from the opposite side both dressed in long black coats. Those appearances by Onegin become the leitmotif of this production and the set of what seems to be a large house after it has been ransacked is an effective if not quite a traditional setting. The different set components seem to allude to each¬†character, the bookcase to Tatyana, the mirror to Olga the crashed to the floor chandelier to Yevgeny’s life and Lensky. Maybe that’s a too fanciful a reading, lets just say the set for the First Act works admirably well, suggesting a feeling of calm desolation. The ramp like long table and the piano having the appearance of their legs being sank in the snow. The very whiteness of the set may seem a contrived wintry Russian setting but it most importantly creates a neutral space for the interpretative gifts of the singers and the nuances of¬†the¬†directing to start¬†emerging.

The young cast is a refreshing change from having 55 year old Tatyanas and equally grown up Olgas that tend to grace the main stages. The true star turn was from Anna Leese who in her third assumption of the role of Tatyana inhabits it with a rare sense of style and a remarkably detailed acting and singing. In the first Act she embodies the bookworm Tatyana, a shy and quiet girl being taken over by love and in total disbelief. Her letter scene was truly wonderful, full of¬†warmth¬†and not given to over sentimentalism and dreariness that can so easily turn this opera into an over-romanticised nightmare. She was helped by the¬†subtle¬†and well paced playing of the City of London Symphonia, which in all honestly could use a few more violins and cellos for extra heft. Onegin is seen as a free spirit that doesn’t want to settle, the flashbacks show his remorse and loneliness. ¬†A slightly surreal touch is when the ladies of the chorus surround and taunt him with a letter each, dressed as Tatyana, while he reads her letter. Their duet is intense but importantly it does not involve any physical contact, just at the very end he holds her hand, that sense of distance and unrequited desire is¬†exactly¬†at the very heart of the score and libretto and here they prepare the ground for the meeting in Act Three. ¬†Lensky is played for laughs in this act and it adds to another comedic element,¬†Filippyevna who in the capable hands of Sikora becomes the comedy granny that sees everything but pretends to not hear it. Her short¬†flippant¬†conversation with Tatyana while being asked to deliver the letter roused a few giggles in the audience with the¬†telling¬†look she gave Leese.

After the interval the Second Act the chandelier (which is lying prone on the ground previously) was lifted off the ground and is full of lit candles, a lovely touch by Leslie Travers adding life and colour to the otherwise ¬†stark¬†palette. The dance takes place and gradual¬†inflammation¬†of the atmosphere between Lensky and Onegin. Auty’s singing of his aria before the duel was full of passion and even if he doesn’t maybe have the fullness of voice one would want, he surely had the eagerness.

One aspect of the staging that did not work for me was the duel, having the characters at opposite ends of the stage takes the tension off the process. Had they been back to back in the more conventional fashion it would have made it more dramatic. The addition of an extra insinuated lover for Olga adds another layers to the plot which makes more sense of her sudden disinterest in Lensky.

The opening of the Third Act is possibly the largest coup de theatre in this production, the polonaise used to create a Soviet Russian setting with¬†choristers¬†dressed in factory worker uniforms, setting up the stage for a visit by a high-ranking official, thus turning Prince Gremin into a communist party big wig. A truly inspired idea as it allows for stunning iconography (including a huge Lenin portrait in the wardrobe and a red carpet spanning the width of the stage) and making Tatyana’s obedience/loyalty to her husband even more convincing.

Anna Leese maybe was denied a beautiful dress for the finale but we gained a wonderfully cold confrontation scene with Onegin. Her refusal to consider him is out of self-preservation and the wisdom of the intervening years. I would challenge anyone not to find this older Tatyana moving and theatrically exciting. Mark Stone was at his best when interacting with Leese and their final scene was truly exceptional.

Despite the intervention with the flow of the plot line and the extensive use of flashback, the production succeeds in creating a taut, flowing drama that intensifies as we reach closer to the climactic finale. The integration of the ruins of Holland House and the use of such an expressive and enthusiastic cast makes for a memorable evening and Opera Holland Park should be congratulated on staging it in Russian unlike a lot of UK opera companies that opt for translations. The sound of the original language really adds depth and grounds the lyricism of the score. Adds a certain earthiness to the most passionate exchanges making them more believable and far away from the niceties of the English language.

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