Tag Archives: London Coliseum

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

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

The shine of the blade / Medea / English National Opera – 13 February 2013 (dress rehearsal)

15 Feb

ENO MedeaSeeing David McVicar slowly metamorphosing into the new Zeffirelli at the Met Opera in the last couple of years, I was a little bit weary about how idea rich his take on Charpentier’s Medea could be.  French Baroque thrives on dance and spectacle and a director that comes up short can sink a production. I was hoping for some of  the verve and invention from his Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto than the stale Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda of late. But one thing I was sure about was the excellent fit of Sarah Connolly for the title role, last November she gave a captivating rendition of Quel Prix in concert but nothing could have prepared me for the outstanding quality of this production.

I know a lot of people don’t like reports based on the dress rehearsal but as I am seeing it twice more later in the run I promise to update if any other observations creep in that make revision imperative.

The performance lasts near 3 hours and 20 minutes, as McVicar and Curnyn decided (wisely in my view) to cut the half hour prelude in praise of the Sun King. After the short and punchy overture we are thrown straight into the torments of (the newly arrived in Corinth) Medea. The setting is a wartime 1940s panelled interior, the set slightly angled at 70 degrees with a raked mirrored floor. Three tall grazed French doors (oh the English terminology comes handy in context) are leading into a peripheral corridor that is used for myriad entries and exits throughout the evening. A simple unfussy but sophisticated backdrop, its faded neoclassicism a subtle allusion to the original period of the work. Straight from the start the smooth changeover from waiting room to an officer’s mess room (complete with uniformed cocktail waiter) is handled with great care, with stage hands dressed in tuxedos befitting the stately setting of the work. With the restrictions that an Edwardian theatre like the Coliseum imposes on each director McVicar showed his class as a world renowned specialist in the field. The set even though static till the last few minutes of this production, constantly changes with subtle cues, the spotlights in the corners of the room move in to make a more intimate atmosphere or to spotlight the King while lying on the floor beaten by Medea’s magical powers in Act Four. The large glazed doors acquire opaque panes and the wall sconces acquire lit candles in the last Act. By extinguishing them before the final scene the smell of wax travels across the auditorium adding an olfactory element to this production.

The costumes are exquisite with great attention to detail. The 1940s atmosphere staying strong with the tailored nature of all the womenswear and the officers’ uniforms. The glamour of the robe (here changing into a rather eye-catching gold lamé evening dress) as Connolly reveals it in her travelling trunk in the first few minutes on stage, also closes the opera three hours later having been poisoned by her and worn by Creuse who dies a painful (if beautifully sung) death. This being baroque opera, amongst all the tragedy we get a lot of dancing. And I am delighted to report that McVicar’s mix of romp and camp works so well it truly adds interest and makes the dances feel more integrated than during ENO’s last foray with Castor and Pollux where the dances seemed disconnected and throwaway. As originally planned for the French court the dances add amusement and atmosphere and slight relief from the tragedy at the centre of the work. The very first example is with the dancers donning RAF uniforms in a dark blue colour, their vibrant routine surely caused a raucous applause and added some light relief to a very sombre beginning. The six male and six female dancers appear in many guises, zombie-like denizens of the underworld (following the cross dressing personifications of Vengeance and Jealousy) to spirits of beautiful women. The biggest tableaux using the dancers is the “party scene” with the appearance of Aoife O’Sullivan as Cupid with black glittery wings aboard a Spitfire covered in pink glitter (standing in for Cupid’s chariot), surely the campest prop to grace a stage for some time! On the side of the pink plane there’s  a large stylised fan on a podium with a period microphone awaiting in a jazz siren style for an Italian captive of love (Sophie Junker) to sing Chi teme d’amore Il grato martire (left in the original Italian here).

It would be impossible to overstate how towering Sarah Connolly’s performance was. She dispatched this difficult role with such elegance and stamina. I was totally blown away. Her unwavering intensity while singing in the original soprano key was spectacular. A few times she sacrificed the beauty of the line for the sake of expression, especially when addressing Creon and Jason but it added such variety and pathos I don’t think even the most narrow-minded critic will find fault. When William Christie gave her the CD set of his recording and told Connolly this was the role for her, he was absolutely right. Once she hits the floor in Act Three and sings her pivotal aria Quel Prix de mon Amour the transformation from wronged wife to a woman driven by pain looking for revenge  is unavoidable. Soon after she discards both her jacket and skirt to continue the scene in a black negligee and evoke the spirits of hades to help her. McVicar uses the stage lift as the pit where smoke and her demonic assistants come through. It was a huge relief that he chose such a standard way to introduce them instead of trying to reinvent the wheel needlessly. At this point she is armed with a large kitchen knife that is her companion for the rest of the production as she closes in to her final act of vengeance against Jason. Fittingly the last coup de théâtre belongs to Medea, when the corner of the set comes apart and she sings her final words to Jason and then she is elevated and flies away. This was another example of the Director not trying to re-invent the action but followed on the steps of both Charpentier and Euripides in the Greek original. Also another telling approach that looks back at the performance practises of ancient Greek drama, was how the dead bodies of Creon and Orontes are presented. They appear on trolleys under the cover of blood splattered sheets. A very similar device to how the dead would be wheeled on an Ekkyklema a practise maybe not that familiar to British audiences but anyone with any background in the Classics would instantly recognise it.

As you can tell by now, I am very happy with the staging and it all came together so beautifully to make up one of the best opera evenings I’ve ever attended. Connolly gives a definitive interpretation, surely a highlight of her illustrious career so far. The rest of the cast get somewhat overshadowed by her presence but some great singing comes from Katherine Manley especially in her duets with Jason and Medea revealing a voice of great flexibility and a characterful actress. Jeffrey Francis give a very potent performance with voice to spare. The slightly goofy personenregie for Orontes does benefit by the lightness of touch that Roderick Williams brings to it. Brindley Sherratt brought gravitas and made for a great opponent to Medea, but crucially relaxed when left with Creusa away from his public function. Aoife O’Sullivan, Oliver Dunn and Rhian Lois give performances full of gusto and promise.

The orchestra gave a vibrant reading of the score with a few raw edges that will disappear before the first night. Like with Castor and Pollux Christian Curnyn manages to coax some idiomatic playing from the players while taking them out of their comfort zone.  The chorus sings beautifully through the evening, sometimes in military uniform and others in evening dress from stage and pit. Navigates Charpentier’s deceptively subtle but fiendishly difficult melodies with skill and obvious affection.

If you’ve read this far, I congratulate you and also implore you to go and see this truly wonderful production, do not be put off by the translation or the lack of “period instruments” this is an occasion to treasure and an all too rare chance to see this masterpiece of the French Baroque in London. This is one of those performances you will be telling friends about twenty years from now…GO!

ENO Medea list

Some Tweets from the evening

Twitter - OperaCreep- Woa McVicar #ENOmedea

Twitter - OperaCreep- Oh dress rehearsal audience ...

Twitter - OperaCreep- If this is not a career highlight ...

Twitter - OperaCreep- To the people that don't get ...

Twitter - OperaCreep- It was lovely having the chance ...

The drapes of Paris / La Traviata / English National Opera – 9 February 2013

13 Feb

ENO TraviataThis production of Traviata is definitely a rather unique proposition. The set is reduced to the absolutely minimum, the three acts get compressed into one long stretch with cuts. On paper it seems like a hard sell but after seeing it, I am happy to report that  Konwitschny’s take opens up some new avenues for interpretation (not all of them happily realised) and tightens the drama.

The set is a series of red velvet curtains further accentuated by bright red lighting. They become less opaque the further upstage one looks. With opening and closing to reveal less and more depth they seem to become a symbol for society. A force that smothers the love of Alfredo and Violetta.
The only piece of furniture present is one bentwood chair and as an alias of a seat a pile of oversized books for bookish Alfredo to rest and think of his beloved.
Traviata being a bona fide melodrama at its very heart helps suspend disbelief and to not miss too much any naturalistic sets or more descriptive environments. The main framework for the storytelling, in contrast to much more upholstered and glitzy versions, are the characters. The singers come to the fore framed by a predatory chorus that encircles them like vultures. The party scenes are particularly well done with the chorus singing with great force (if not perfect diction) their aggressive attitude scraping away the veneers of respectability. This crowd is not made out of friends of Violetta’s they use her as their plaything, a distraction  Their enquiries in Act Two about the split up of the pair is coloured by envy. This almost Brechtian focusing on the drama away from any distractions

The Violetta of Corinne Winters (making her European debut) was endowed with a dark hued voice that was instantly charming and direct. She sang with great passion and dedication, hitting notes head on and being very physical. The fall off the chair while singing Sempre libera is a bit of an unconvincing oddity, accompanied by Alfredo singing from the front row of the Stalls. But overall the emotional journey was unwavering and not having the benefit of an interval and being almost constantly on stage, a tour de force. An interesting addition was that she wore a different wig for every Act but as a final gesture she took it off and died with her much longer hair actually on view. A moving gesture as a reference to the workings of theatrical artifice and a final dose of realism.

The Alfredo of Ben Johnson was enveloped in gold vowels but unfortunately also the most hideous stage wardrobe ever imagined. Somehow I will never agree with the director that Alfredo is just a bookish outsider in a doomed relationship from the very start. This costuming and his sheepish attitude detracted from a more balanced conjunction between score and stage action. But his singing was beyond reproach and full of ardour.

Germont pere was performed with disarming darkness by Anthony Michaels-Moore and even managed to make a phantom daughter (Konwitschny’s addition) work in his confrontation scene with Violetta. Making the implied reason for asking Violetta to leave Alfredo (bringing disrepute to his family and thus making difficult for his daughter to marry) added a motive for the early surrender by our leading lady. I can imagine some people would find it unnecessary but with the way Michaels-Moore interacts with her it did work and took the heat off the sometimes too brutal interaction between him and Violetta.

The chorus wearing evening dress are a wonderfully overwhelming presence and even their exist after the curtain comes down (here literally the sets of curtains used to delineate space fall down) they are left to rhythmically scale across the stage as the foreboding overture for Act Three begins. A few people found it amateurish and not well thought out. but it does work signifying the fall of the predators in Violetta’s life and especially with the Giorgio left in the distance to survey the ruins of his son’s life. The orchestra’s playing was exceptionally dramatic in the hands of Michael Hofstetter who added even more energy from the pit serving admirably well the production.

The final scene where Violetta fades away is very intelligent in its simplicity. She is left alone on the empty stage to live her last moments. She is happily back together with Alfredo but her illness separates them. In a coup de théâtre Annina, Doctor Grenvil (a great in-joke to have him appear for the last visit to Violetta still covered in streamers and a shiny party hat, after all he has always been a joke of a doctor for the duration of the work) and Alfredo are by standers to her drama from the side of the audience. The orchestra pit becoming the chasm between life and death. Also instead of collapsing on a big plump bed, Winters walks to the blacked out back of stage after the remaining set of black curtains has parted. A simple but satisfying way to bring this austere production to a close.
Konwitschny’s vision can only rise to a satisfying evening on the back of  an exceptional cast as they are the unwavering focus of the direction. It seems that ENO managed to bring a trio of singers that work beautifully together and bring heart to this domestic melodrama. By not having an interval between Acts One and Two it does compromise the flow by not allowing for proper distance but the tautness we gain adds such a punch. The direction like the opera itself is unashamedly emotional and the cuts to the score paired with the sparse set creates a sense of isolation from the wider world, a reflection on the bubble of true love or maybe terminal illness.  One can get carried away looking for symbols and metaphors in every turn of this production, but that is the ultimate triumph of it, being a tabula rasa for the audience.  Making the story of loving the wrong person and being punished for it even more contemporary we could ever think it is. Go and see it even if you never been to ENO, it will surely make you think and hopefully move you!

ENO Traviata list

Edgy perfection / Carmen / English National Opera – 19+27 November + 6 December 2012

13 Dec

ENO CarmenAnyone that follows me on Twitter will know my feelings about Calixto Beito’s production of Carmen too well. It is a triumph of modernism over the flouncy overwrought productions of old and also a fresh, visceral theatrical experience.

Attending in two extra occasions it exposed what can go wrong with live performance though…more of that in a minute.

The production has been very well documented with its European and South American versions moving from opera house to opera house since 1999. It seems many companies want Bieito’s touch in a staple of the operatic repertoire that rarely works so well as a complete experience. Bieito’s transfer of the action to the last few months of Franco’s suppression of Spain is a stroke of genius, taking to heart Bizet’s political ideas in Carmen and amplifying them. Far too many productions get too much stuck in the love triangle to care and unnecessary details to care for much else. Bieito’s concept is a holistic treatment of the work, so much so any minor mishaps can be easily forgiven. The very simple conceit of Carmen singing the start of her famous entrance down the phone to an ex lover is clever as it is an instant atmosphere generator. His Carmen seems more sophisticated and cool headed than most and to a huge benefit in believability.

Ruxandra Donose gave a wonderfully committed and subtle performance never edging on smuttiness but giving an intelligent and forthright person on stage. Her vocal performance may not have been the loudest in the world but sang with the necessary glamour and style. Her darker timbre adding weight and an edge of fatalism. Unfortunately both our Jose and Escamillo were miscast but performed admirably well in context of that.

Adam Diegel surely looked rather butch and easy on the eye when he was taking his shirt off but somehow the middle of his voice was not as strong as his abs. At times he was lacking the spark and seemed fatigued by the softer passages. His chemistry with Donose and Llewellyn was undeniable and the production overall carried him through. He was extremely effective in the chilling finale and added his manly fragility to this beautifully choreographed exchange of passion, pity and defiance.

Leigh Melrose was again gorgeous in costume but somehow lacked the vocal bloom and the on stage arrogance to make his character truly resonate. But that is more the fault again of the casting and not his. In all three performances I watched he was clearly giving all he had, it just seemed to be short of what Bizet and Bieito demanded.

But what can I say about Elizabeth Llewellyn that hasn’t been said many times before? She was getting better and better through the run, her much more assertive than usual Michaela seemed a tiny bit tentative at dress rehearsal but had bloomed into a ballsy, strong-minded woman by the second performance  that concentrated the glances of the whole auditorium on her. Her appearance in the training camp setting of Act One added a dose of female sexuality in Bieito’s intensely manly world. Many a singer could have been swallowed by the garish sequinned blouse but Llewellyn made it vibrate with personality and her velvety tone offered depth and purpose to every appearance.
The direction allowed her to steal the limelight in crucial junctures in the story telling, such as in Act Three where she is left alone on stage, bar for a battered old Mercedes car and a crucifix she carries with her. And yet her charisma lit up the stage with pathos and gorgeousness. Just think how many forgettable Michaelas you have listened and watched in the past, this was not one of them. Her bras d’honneur at the  floor bound Carmen at the end of Act Three was a great touch that made everyone in the audience chuckle (at dress rehearsal the students at the Upper Circle made their allegiance with Michaela all too clear) and instantly side with the good girl of the story.

From the smaller supporting roles, Duncan Rock’s narcissistic Morales was a great addition to Act One that provided a focus and some strong singing. The glorious card scene in Act Three was lit up by the Frasquita of Rhian Lois and the Mercedes of Madeleine Shaw, giving an over the top performance with a rather tart edge that made a great counterfoil to Donose’s much darker, more composed character.

The chorus were tremendous once more,  investing their performance all three times with vibrancy and the boorishness that Bieito demanded in Act Four where they jumped and screamed like a real audience to a bull fight, facing the audience and only separated with a tensed rope from the orchestra pit. And then dramatically parting to reveal Escamillo in his bright yellow toreador outfit. Especially when one puts into account they were alternating their Carmen performances with the chorus heavy The Pilgrim’s Progress it is even more impressive how they managed to retain the level of vibrancy required by the direction.

The orchestra was a sad shadow of its usual self on the 27 November performance when Martin Fitzpatrick was conducting. And it seems it was not even his fault, as on the night there were a large number of substitutions in the pit, making the sound sounding unbalanced and at times too predictable.
On the other hand the other two performances under Ryan Wigglesworth were wonderfully paced readings of the score with an innate sense of structure and avoiding the clichés that most conductors seems to impose on this overall lyrical and gripping score. He did not force the dynamics and over-emphasise the “ethnographic” content but instead opted for a singer friendly pace that allowed the story to be engaging and at the same time allowing some much needed pauses. Proving ENO’s  investment in him truly worthwhile (he is the composer in residence) and a vindication of this young and fast rising talent that he will make his conducting début with the Royal Opera, replacing Antonio Pappano at Covent Garden by conducting the upcoming revival of Birtwistle’s Minotaur.

I could spend another 1000 words describing this truly wonderful staging by Bieito but what you can do is go and get the DVD/Blu Ray and see for yourselves. It is a production that deserves the cult status it has acquired over the years and hope that it will be revived by ENO very soon. At least I’ll allow myself the mention of how great the lighting design was by Bruno Poet, being both naturalistic and reactive to the on stage action.
As for all the people I know that were put off by the fact it was staged in an English translation at the Coliseum. They sadly missed a great production with two extraordinary ladies on stage and a wonderful orchestra and chorus. Looking forward to the day that superiority complex of the usual Covent Garden offenders will allow them to go to ENO and enjoy it for what it is…London’s second and mainly much edgier opera house.

ENO Carmen list

Production shots by ENO

Related Podcasts

Edward Seckerson interviewing Calixto Bieito.

Christopher Cook was in conversation with Ryan Wigglesworth.

Curtain call video

[youtube http://youtu.be/_3DSBJ56T6I]

Static does it / The Pilgrim’s Progress / ENO – 20 November 2012

24 Nov

It would be fair to say that this is what the English National Opera exists for, putting on works written in English and which would never grace the stage of the Royal Opera House in normal circumstances. Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress has not fared well since the 1951 ROH première, timed to coincide with the Festival of Britain. Seeing this slick production makes one see why it has fallen into neglect. The work is far too static dramatically to make itself good source material for staging.
Oida used a simple but configurable set that owed much to a robust prison aesthetic. The monotonous palette of rusted iron and grey costumes was not original but thankfully was relieved by the orgiastic colour in Vanity Fair. Overall the staging felt well-considered but curiously limp, the overall discipline being at odd with Williams’ chromatic, warm soundworld.
On the night ENO’s orchestra was wonderful under the energetic conducting of Martyn Brabbins. We all know the signature sound of Williams, Brabbins brought all the brightness and golden colour without shlock ruralism (unlike ENO’s fairly twee marketing materials) which tends to be his fate in the wrong hands.
Roland Wood gave a monumental performance, displaying incredible stamina despite the vocal writing not being incredibly beautiful or that varied and weighted down by the archaic libretto. Most of the most characterful writing was saved for the female singers and the chorus and they also delivered in spades. The opening contribution by the chorus was a dreamlike reverie leading to a gorgeous nocturne introducing Act Two. The contributions of the chorus became the backbone of the performance and shaped the action that at times is missing focus due to the plethora of on stage characters. Also Williams’ imagination shines through when writing for cameo appearances such as Lord Lechery, Mister and Madam By-Ends and Lord Hate-Good. Vanity Fair closed the first half of the performance and was exuberant enough musically, despite the obligatory caricatured mammaries and genitals foisted on the singers.

The second half was a much more meditative, spiritual part of the evening. The musical values definitely went higher and the staging had some interesting moments. The subtle use of a square projection screen that was showing footage of WWI trenches that in the end lifted to reveal an array of floodlights that illuminated the auditorium as the Pilgrim crosses the water (in this staging reaching the electric chair on top of a flight of steps) was very effective. I found the metaphor of the chair heavy-handed and not particularly necessary in the context of the work but it did not distract from the luminous score. The finale featuring bells and chorus on and off stage is a thing of visceral beauty, exciting and imposing with a gorgeous eerie presence. Giving the work a metaphysical aftertaste.

Worth noting the beautiful contributions by Benedict Nelson as the Evangelist who added gravitas and suavity, George von Bergen who added a quirky sense of humour. The three ladies: Eleanor Dennis, Aoife O’Sullivan and Kitty Whately who offered delectable singing in a variety of unconventional roles. Also having the opportunity to see Ann Murray in an outfit I could only describe as ‘Carmen Miranda in space’ has to be something to remember!

Overall I could not imagine Vaughan Williams’, almost half a century in the making,  Morality, being better served elsewhere and as I left the auditorium realising that he would never be a favourite composer of mine. I knew that this was an evening of music making of the highest calibre. The vivid choral writing and the imaginative orchestration were wonderfully satisfying even if the work itself is a very static piece of theatre. Despite Oida’s attempts to inject movement and drama it strikes me as a truly delectable oratorio. 

Find out more

Listen to an introductory talk chaired by Christopher Cook with conductor Martyn Brabbins, baritone Adam Green and ENO repetiteur Richard Peirson.

Production photos on ENO’s Flickr

The dreamworld of Mr Jones / Julietta / English National Opera / Opening night – 17 September 2012

20 Sep

I have been hosting the blog posts of Claire Pendleton from the ENO chorus  for the last month and I had a good idea about the set up and direction of Julietta and even had a sneak peek view of the set during rehearsals. But the great unknown was always the work itself. Martinů takes the dreamworld of the original play into an extreme, his composing becoming fragmented and episodic, very few of the narrative threads are followed through and much of the singing is a recitativo accompanied by pillowy (at time wondrous) music. It makes for an unsatisfactory night at the theatre if the audience is not prepared to take it at face value and allow itself to be seduced by the spare but oddly voluptuous soundworld of Julietta.

The heroine is a dream and it seems so is the possibility of a coherent narrative. This production was immaculate and the orchestral playing was tremendous. Particularly how it was customised to the sometimes too hot acoustic of the coliseum was an impressive feat. The music sounded distant and echoing at times and others the fortissimi braced the material into shape. Edward Gardner as an astute and highly theatrical conductor managed to bring out a wealth of beauty and lyricism. The woodwind passages in Act Two were truly delicious and worthy of the concert hall let alone the opera house. The singing was mostly exceptional, Peter Hoare was tremendous as the dream swept Michel and managed to take us all on a journey as he gradually starting losing himself and his own memories and retreating from reality to the uncertain world of dreams. His singing was always assured and full of spark. His Julietta was as ethereal and edgy one would wish Julia Sporsén (who was unfortunately let down by the orchestral balance on appearance in Act One) sang with an airy confidence and strong stage presence. We could surely see why she made such and impression on Michel. She made a great case for ENO’s frequent casting of singers from its own young artist programme for major parts. If she was that wonderful on opening night imagine how much she will grow through the run.

The chorus who mainly creates a reflective echoing sound through the first two acts was a great asset and established the mood set by the orchestra.  And also supported Michel in his attempt to find his way through the provincial town he found himself stuck in.  Also Claire did do a magisterial dash across the stage in Act Two, as mentioned in a previous blog!  From the smaller parts Susan Bickley was a tremendous presence and the source of much hilarity either as the fortune-teller that talks about the past or as the old woman coming out to admonish Michel. Henry Waddington made an assured man at the window plus a dry witted waiter in the Second Act. One singer that made a distinctly bad impression on me was Emile Renard who maybe too carried away by the little arab character just oozed arrogance throughout the evening. Especially when she was out-sang as one of the three men by Clare Presland and  Samantha Price. She has a lovely lyric voice but her stage presence could use a little bit of toning down.

The production by Richard Jones was well honed (after all this is the third incarnation of this production since 2002) the three differently orientated accordions created a suitably surreal and evocative setting. One slight annoyance was the flimsy construction of the instrument in Act One with the doors almost prematurely flung open on impact. I can imagine Julietta with its sparse orchestration can be a victim to a director’s whim to add extra clutter to make up for it. Jones went against the grain and allowed the music and signing ample space to breathe. His attention to physical acting paid dividends, both Hoare and Sporsén gave us a fully lived performance of great distinction.
The addition of the custom curtain design made up of white drawn sleepers in pyjamas spelling out Julietta, with Michel being the last one on the lower right was a nice touch and when it re-appeared in the end it brought the story to a circular conclusion. Another beautiful touch was the wandering french horn player in the wood of Act Two adding another surreal touch in addition to the wine waiter and a piano being “played” by Julietta on a moving platform towards the back of the stage.

Jones’ touch was light and this production deserves to be seen for its sheer ebullience and wit. Unfortunately what let it down was Martinů and his fragmented, sometimes prescriptive music that especially in Act Three felt overtly laboured. Overall I am delighted that ENO exposed us to such a repertoire rarity especially when staged with such conviction and good taste but two days later not much of the music has stayed with me.  It surely was surreal and witty and a wonderful night out, but as an opera it seemed to lack that extra hook that makes it unforgettable. I may have to return to see if I will allow myself to be won over by the music 😉

Some tweets from the evening

Paranoia at the terraces / Detlev Glanert’s Caligula / English National Opera – 07 June 2012

12 Jun

Another opera at ENO, another contemporary opera gamble to be precise. It seems that they have cornered the niche for new opera in London and they pull it off with much more brio and commitment than what Royal Opera can ever muster as a token gesture twice a year. Glanert’s work is based on a celebrated 1944 (started in 1938) play by Albert Camus. It seems the main impetus behind the expressionist colour of the music idiom and much of the staging was Camus’ language.

As the composer stated in the trailer  ‘it all starts with a scream’. Indeed Caligula’s hand parted the curtain and stood in front of it and raised it as if at a camp pantomime but with an echoing pre-recorded scream. The live music was indispersed with recorded fragments of organ, breathing and other antiphonal offerings. It seems the staging of the piece on a football terrace was what annoyed a lot of reviewers but I thought it possibly the most successful part of the night. What other public arena could be in direct parallel with the Roman world’s love of spectacle and en masse entertainment than the world of football today? Also the direction was making a nod to Camus’ timing for writing the original play, as a reflection on Hitler and Stalin. The concrete, yellow chaired terrace immediately was a dead ringer for the 1936 Olympics, under the auspices of the Nazi regime. In contemporary life a football stadium is an interesting unifying space for the different classes, a place for convivial banter and darker exchanges of fury and violence. Benedict Andrews was on to something with placing the action in front or on the terrace for the whole production. It also had a unique resonance on the back of the four days of state sponsored jubilation for the Queen the past weekend before I saw Caligula. The British public had pretty much the place of the chorus who is the rent a crowd for Caligula for most of the opera. Waving flags despite the ridiculous nature of the leader. Even the translation by Amanda Holden was making allusions to the current political climate with a reference to being in this together by Caligula in Act One…the most famous and empty statement by the current UK coalition government.

Of course the obligatory nudity rule was observed, but this being Caligula one has to expect it even more. For most of the opera when the dead lover and sister of the hero, Drusilla is mentioned a naked Zoe Hunn walks about in a transparent veil and in the second half almost Bond Film like coated in a thick layer of sparkle. The ghostly presence worked and actually saved us from any awkward video projections of said ghost for which I was grateful. Also a naked male with a slit throat (sacrificial victim to Venus?) was in Venus’ sparkly enclosure.

It has to be said that one aspect of the production that was puzzling was the far too camp direction of the protagonist and Helicon. Sometimes making some very intimidating lines lose their potency, but if the goal was to project Caligula’s paranoia then we can make a leap of faith to that direction, but prima facie it was an odd choice of interpretation. Peter Coleman-Wright does not possess a unique or very beautiful voice but his interpretation was strong and surely ruled the circus on stage. The banquet in Act Two was very well judged and he was indeed as evil as he had to be in order to be both the musical and dramatic focus via the rape of Livia over the dinner table and the poisoning of Mereia. In Act Three he shows up as Venus who is about to wed the moon, complete in sparkly silver dress and blonde wig emerging from an enclosure on the upper terrace not unlike a set for a drag queen. After he fills the stadium with body bags of all his Roman victims he is murdered by a football hooligan mob and he emerges bloodied to declare he is still alive. Unfortunately the second half and the conclusion were well staged but the actual work goes a bit flat on ideas and menace. So the final proclamation by Caligula comes as a relief on what seemed a 20 minute too long second part.

The stand out protagonist of the piece was the chorus who reflects and eggs on Caligula throughout, dressed rather smartly in vintage fur coats and at times sports jerseys. They make up some of the most powerful  stage pictures. For instance in the opening of Act Three they bring floral tributes to Caligula (dressed as Venus). As this is post the mass slaughter of numerous Romans their bunches of flowers that cover the seats of the lower terrace reminds us of the scenes in football stadiums after disasters when they are covered in offerings in the memory of the victims of violence. That was both poignant and also tied again the iconography of the football stadium with the undercurrent of public ritualistic expression of grief.

Yvonne Howard was a graceful Caesonia with a tough veneer of power for the crowds but with a much more vulnerable side to her interpretation when confronted with Caligula in private. She acted with elegance and sang with warmth and conviction. As did Julia Sporsen who showed silent power, sinuous singing and became the opposite of Howard for most of the opera. The overall star of the night was Ryan Wigglesworth who conducted with simple immediacy and with an unfailing focus on the singers. The orchestra sounded totally idiomatic under him and his sense of propulsion and rhythm underpinned the whole evening.

Overall I would say that Glanert’s musical idiom is not too extreme and actually very singer friendly but I would have liked a bit more danger in Act Four which was the least edgy sounding. Having the protagonist meet a grizzly end in the hands of the mob has to be a dramatic gift for any stage director and composer and it seems this time round it was far too normalised to make for great impact. But respect to ENO and the cast for giving a very good performance of a demanding piece of work and creating some interesting parallels with concurrent events that affect our everyday lives. Mary Beard must be proud that they made the Romans seem relevant in all their excesses and struggles.

The performance on Saturday 9 June was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 7 July 2012

English National Ballet dress rehearsal

3 Mar

It was wonderful watching about 30 mins of the dress rehearsal of the English National Ballet on Friday 2 March. Thought I’d share a few minutes of their rehearsal of the world premiere piece The Death of Carlos and Ramon by Stina Quagebeur. Danced by Nathan Young, Max Westwell and Tamarin Stott. Set to Stravinsky’s Psalm 39. It was performed for the first time on Friday evening as part of the ENB’s residency at Tate Britain. All three newly commissioned works (inspired by Picasso’s paintings) will be also performed at their upcoming Beyond Ballet Russes season at the London Coliseum.

PS If you buy a top price ticket (£67) for any of the shows, use the code Picasso to get a second ticket free of charge.

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