Tag Archives: London

Ruxandra Donose + Roger Vignoles / Rosenblatt Recitals / Wigmore Hall – 6 October 2014

9 Oct

Donose RosenblattSecond time unlucky for the Rosenblatt recitals as the second one of the new season also had an indisposed singer programmed, so instead of Carmen Giannattasio we had Ruxandra Donose performing, fresh from her triumphant return to the Royal Opera as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos and her recent Carmen in Calixto Bieto’s celebrated production at English National Opera.
She explained at the start of the recital that she put together arias and songs she loves despite of any strange leaps in mood. Clearly a deft decision being asked to fill in for another artist at such a short notice and also a great chance to show her taste in repertoire and to display her versatility.

Her two Carmen arias (second as encore) were predictably beautifully executed with impressive ease and sparkle. Hinting at a naughtiness inside but never becoming base and cheap. What was immediately noticeable was her easy going stage manner and personable character. All too frequently singers look so ill at ease on the concert platform without being able to hide behind make up and costume.
Her Offenbach aria was coquettish, sassy she had great fun playing with the text. The letter aria from Werther was a solid attempt at transmitting the sense of sadness and the world closing in. Her dark hued voice used with artistry to convey the mood. 

The three songs by Fauré were a good display of her ability to restrain her exuberance and not smother the material under artifice. So effective she was in evoking the dreamy mood that her Eboli was like a thunderbolt. Her rendition of this old warhorse was captivating, her dark chest voice reflecting the troubled state of mind of the heroine. Despite a certain shortness of breath at the finale she pulled off an impressive end to the first half.

After the interval the programme took a more romantic turn with Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix which was seductive and with a hint of calculation behind the pleasantry. Her use of her dynamic range to colour the aria and its different moods was very effective. A sign of how committed her signing was throughout the evening.

Donose Rosenblatt list

The sets of songs by Enescu and Bretan were beautiful and unfussy. The second set in Romanian was particularly notable for the sheer joy and abandon she invested each one of them. I always relish an artist inserting songs in their native language in a recital as it removes any residual language barrier and allows for direct a communication. Particularly the wistful last two songs were a great display of sensitivity and piano singing. The final Rossini aria showed her agility and her adept coloratura technique. What we maybe lost in not being as quick firing as some was a more rounded sound that caressed the ear at every turn. Humanising what can seem like empty fireworks in the hands of other singers.

The accompaniment by Roger Vignoles was as sprightly and joyful as Donose’s stage presence. Particularly impressive at such short notice and with presumably limited rehearsal time

As you can tell I really enjoyed her performance I was rather excited to see her after her excellent Composer at Covent Garden and she did not disappoint. Her unwavering intensity paired with her musicality were wonderful to see.

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

Nino Surguladze + Gianluca Marcianò / Rosenblatt Recitals / Wigmore Hall – 10 February 2014

11 Feb

Surguladze Marciano Feb 2014It is sometimes an unpredictable ride when attending a recital. What seemed like a straightforward programme of opera arias in the first half and lieder in the second became a very mixed up affair last night.

What made the biggest impression was Surguladze’s unfussy and confident platform manner. Not the one for too many ridiculous mannerisms or unnecessary overacting. Her presentation was simple and wide open eyed. Unfortunately what let her down was not getting used to the intimate acoustic of the Wigmore Hall. She spent a large part of the first half singing far too loudly and in the process compromising her technique, diction and colouring. The opening Mozart aria was rendered irritating with the excessive vibrato and the forced volume. Thankfully things started to settle mid way and led to two beautiful final arias. It was disappointing that her French was cloudy and a memory lapse mid aria did disturb what was otherwise a gorgeously sung Delila with all the sultry charms, chest voice and warm tone to die for. Her Acerba voluttà was exactly the kind of singing that excites me, full bloodied, open and dramatically involved. What was all too obvious was what a wonderful actress she must be in a fully staged opera.

The second half brought both a music stand on stage and a much more quiet delivery and appropriate interpretation. Her Schubert songs were lovingly delivered but not in the class we are used to at this particular Hall, with Alice Coote being the resident lieder deity. They need a quiet dignity and internalised emotion than only years of stage experience can bring. Given time she could be a compelling lieder interpreter in the future.

The most surprisingly satisfying songs were the three Brahms numbers where she brought glowing girlishness and attentive subtlety that presented her warm voice in the best possible light. Her Georgian encore was also a great showpiece for her glowing dark timbre and flowing legato.

She was accompanied rather beautifully by Gianluca Marcianò taking the night off from conducting an orchestra and playing for his leading lady. He showed to be a natural accompanist displaying  textural variety and rapport. Having seen him conduct beautifully Bellini and Verdi last year I had high expectations and was not disappointed in the slightest. Makes me wish more conductors would accompany singers on the concert platform. As he brought a different sensibility than most professional accompanists which added to a pleasurable evening.

Once more a very enjoyable evening if a bit more mixed in results but this is the drama and excitement of live performance with many variables that can alter its course.

Surguladze Marciano Feb 2014 List

Some tweets from the evening

Mrs Carter and her dearest friends / Beyoncé at the O2 Arena, London – 3 May 2013

5 May

Any long-term readers will not quite expect a piece on Beyoncé by me…but somehow managed to see her newest, shiniest world tour on Friday night and thought it worth documenting here.

We tend to think of the tribes of people who attend classical and opera evenings, a largely middle class, middle-aged crowd that veers on the reverential and the more reserved side of human nature. If going out to see the London Symphony Orchestra is a visit to the nearest font of greatness for many of us, seeing Beyoncé is the equivalent of breathing the same air as a yogi. Her audience was a uniform mix of 20something girls that seemed to conform to about four types of pre-packaged ideal form. Most of it found in celebrity magazines, with bright fake tans, rampant hair extensions and fashion out of the third aisle left of Primark. As we sat down drinking some wine we looked on as hordes of fans arrived, resembling a self-replicating mass dedicated to having fun and waving their arms in the air to the tune of Single Ladies repeating in their heads for the next three hours. We may want to make assumptions on the looks and submission to the power of marketing and the desperate need to belong to a tribe. But mainly what was in evidence in spades was the undeniable magnetism and brilliant shine of popular culture at its most fundamental.

You will see the opening sequence in my embedded video, a failsafe mix of bright lights, abundant decibels, LED screens giving us an 18th century out of rococo paintings most of this audience never seen in the flesh, dancers and of course the appearance on a stage lift of the poster girl and the centre of attention. It is catchy, it is exciting and it was lapped up with genuine, moving  abandon. Interestingly the fans even found enough benevolence to not boo the turgid Pepsi advert that prefaces the opening of the show in an act of solidarity to the starring lady. Beyoncé like any pop act at the top of their game has the unbeatable mix of inoffensive blandness and a cunning ability to validate their existence in the zeitgeist by infuriating select audiences that would never see her live or download her music anyway.

Her brand of female empowerment may be full of contradictions and moves writers to want to write an open letter to Michelle Obama. But her nearly 80% female audience and all female stage band are serving a menu of inclusive entertainment. Between segments and costume changes we are served a diet of platitudes that would happily rest in the pages of a self-help book on how to attract men without looking desperate, we are told memorably that seduction is intelligent. Not miles away from the last Madonna show I experienced which featured prominently  a video mash-up of dictators intercut with images of genocide and George W Bush.
The pronouncements may be very different but the claim to gravitas in the context of all the hip thrusting and the hair flicking is the same. The appearance of a piano signifies a surface for our heroine to lie on in a fabulous midnight blue sparkly playsuit. What pop chanteuse doesn’t fall for the allure of adding a classical element into the presentation as a coded message for the fans to take away?  She also had a ballerina sequence at a transitional point in the middle of the show, making the point of how the inverted snobbery against ballet when used in a popular context. Carrying its sense of cultural elevation for her show with a subtle hint of high art that contrasts sharply with the immaculate renditions of radio wave fillers.

It would be very easy to turn all sneery and to not understand the point and the mechanics of a pop concert. This is shiny, showbiz glitter (and yes this show came complete with a glitter cannon) that bypasses reason and reaches cult levels. The sea of people around us were believing in her as a chief representative of their tribe, Beyoncé as head priestess of contemporary womanhood. She danced herself into a sweat and all the ladies nearby cheered her on and offered their love and approval at every turn. I felt like a heretic in the middle of it all, trying to judge for myself the source of this love and trying to not lose my hearing to the outrageous over-amplification.

One undeniable observation is the sense of total abandon to a hedonistic escapism for the three hours of the show. The relationship of total trust between the performer and the audience, being built on years of exposure via celeb magazines, TV appearances and being the soundtrack of people’s lives. The catchy tunes are just one part of the story, she manages to sell self confidence and a lifestyle by virtually bypassing the critical faculties of the audience and aiming straight for their emotions. I was moved to tears by Véronique Gens’ rendition of Les chemins de l’amour a few weeks back in a way that pop music will never reach deep inside me. My innate cynicism doesn’t allow for the guard to go down and permit myself to be manipulated by the artifice. The simplicity of the set up (one woman a pianist and a piano) is for me the ultimate way to communicate what it means to be human and to have a connection with one’s interior world. Allows for reflection and appreciation of great artistry without the need for spectacle and lights.

But damn me classical and opera audiences need to be taught a lesson on how to not be so buttoned up and to have a sense of occasion when attending, how to give themselves over to the musical experience and have a notch less reverence and a whole load more interaction. Why is it turning round and telling a fellow concert goer that the performance is incredible such a taboo? Why can’t the classical tribe try to be slightly less “respectable and bookish” and let its hair down. We need to celebrate all music as a genuine form of escapism that gives us safe hiding places from our everyday lives but also a source of essential, unadulterated FUN. So big thanks to Mrs Carter and her ladies in the audience for a giggle of a night out.  I wish I could transfer some of the unstuffy enjoyment and all round Joie de vivre…also hoping the next time I go to the Wigmore Hall it will smell a little less of mothballs.

Some Tweets from the evening

What did Kasper say? / In Conversation / Clore Studio, Royal Opera House – 12 October 2012

13 Oct

Usually I couldn’t care for the over-priced insight events at the Royal Opera but this time having the chance to see what the fairly interview shy new Director of Opera had to say about his first year at Covent Garden was alluring. I can happily report that it was worth it, read on if you want to know what was said.

From the outset his enthusiasm for opera and directing was evident. He talked about his childhood and how initially he got hooked on it by going to a visit with a tutor at age 9 to see Carmen. He recalled how he was blown away by the experience. A particularly funny episode was his retelling of organising a Ring cycle from the age of 13-16 in a LEGO constructed theatre, making the whole family watch it. He even managed to write a letter to the director of the opera house and the minister of culture to ask why one had to be 18 in order to take advantage of the young people discount scheme. They changed the policy so the precocious 13 year old Kasper could buy cheaper tickets with his pocket money.

The talk was indispersed with three excerpts from his productions in Copenhagen of The Ring, Nielsen’s Maskarade and Die tote Stadt.

Edward Seckerson asked him about the tension between being a creative force and having to do a lot of admin as part of his job at Covent Garden. Holten mused that his life has possibly come full circle as he comes from a family of financiers (his mother having been the Governor of the Bank of Denmark) he was expecting to go into banking but instead chose the life in the theatre. He seemed to be very pragmatic that the two productions a year that he is allowed by his contract to direct have an impact on his deputy and PA but it seems he would not want a job that would not allow him to direct in House and out.

He was asked whether he would compromise rehearsal time in order to accommodate big stars like Kaufmann.  His response was a bit roundabout, bordering on the meandering but he seemed unhappy to create a precedent by allowing big names to show up a couple of weeks before a show starts. He did make the distinction between singers that grow in rehearsal and others who do not find it as stimulating. But he mentioned that the camaraderie that develops during a full rehearsal period is an essential part of the mix for an as good a performance as possible. But he concluded that some smart administrative decisions could see them programme big names for productions that don’t need a lengthy period of rehearsals.

On the subject of commissioning new work and allowing the national composers emerge, in the mould of Poul Ruders in Copenhagen where three operas where staged (most notably A Handmaid’s Tale). He went to great lengths to point out that for him Covent Garden is not a national opera house but an international one and even though Thomas Adès is writing a new work for the main stage he wants composers from all over the world to have an equal chance to stage a major project with the Royal Opera. He did mention the great work ENO does with new music and commissions. He went to lengths to point out that the House would not be the right place for a young composer to write their first opera (he quipped that the first one is usually not very good) he wanted composers with a developed voice and some stage experience.

On the subject of modern/traditional productions he thought the distinction was redundant and that he had directed in both idioms, led by the work itself. He was warned that London audiences are too conservative and would not accept modern productions and he responded that in his experience the audience is discerning but expects good storytelling/a clear narrative. As he exclaimed this is after all the country of Shakespeare and BBC drama. He wants opera to be relevant (not in a jeans and trainers way) but to talk about life as it is. Emphasising that the companies have to believe in the greatness of the material and the extraordinary nature of the artistry required to promote the art form.  He contemned Regietheater as a creative dead and ridden with clichés (to the chagrin of the rather elderly audience). The conversation wandered to Stefan Herheim and he confirmed that his predecessor had engaged him for the 2013 season for a Verdi opera (the rumours suggest Les Vespres Siciliennes), he expressed his admiration for him and his very physical, dramatic productions. He also made a point about La Donna del Lago that he scrapped the Lluis Pasqual directed co-produced production with La Scala and the Opéra when he realised that it was not a good one. And he said that such a great cast (Didonato/Flórez/Barcellona) deserved a new production and he’d rather spend the small budget on it than spend it on promoting a production that was fundamentally unsuitable for the piece (we all remember the ludicrous chain mail costumes). Boasting that his upcoming Onegin and DDL had the smaller budgets in Royal Opera’s history but hoping they would not seem cheap to the audiences.

On the subject of the cinema broadcasts and live online relays (prompted by two audience members questions) he mentioned how he originally (when the Met HD series started) did not believe that opera in the cinema would work but was happy to be proven wrong. He said that it was imperative for the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet to have a worldwide presence in cinemas and that wherever possible they would like to challenge the exclusivity on venues by the Met. As for online streaming he thought the costs involved are prohibitive due to the low levels of public subsidy (in comparison to Central Europe), but he’s hoping to work more with The Space like they did for Les Troyens.

He mentioned that a major part of his decision to move to Covent Garden was working with maestro Pappano, who he thought had the most incredible curiosity and musicality, making him possibly the best musical director in any of the major opera houses. He also made clear that for him a sense of personality in the programming was important despite the fact that is not always possible due to casting restrictions. Exclaimed how courage was very important and not playing it safe all the time, offering as an example his work on staging Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger in the coming seasons. Also defended the long runs of “classics” like Traviata, Tosca and Bohème as a good way to bring new audiences in. Quoting that 30% of the audience for La Traviata were new to the House.

He kept on repeating how important it was for him to have more affordable tickets and how aware he was that the audience in the House is not as representative of London’s overall diversity and vitality. Also seemed to be keenly aware that the online presence and booking system of the ROH still needs work but he was confident the investment would pay off.

The Baroque question

Unfortunately I did not get the chance to ask my main question of their deplorable use of their young artists or about the significant lack of British talent for the juiciest parts, but instead managed to approach him after the talk to enquire about the lack of baroque opera from the main stage.

His response was that he was aware of that gap and he had conversations with the rest of the management but was worried that maybe the auditorium is too big for a satisfactory experience. Mentioning  that ENO and Glyndebourne having a great record at presenting this repertoire in the UK. When I responded with how extraordinary was Niobe Regina di Tebe and if he had the chance to see it. He responded that he hadn’t experienced it for himself but was aware it had troubles selling tickets and that any such projects will need a period instrument specialist orchestra. So in other ways it means that Covent Garden in its current state will not produce any more baroque opera for the Main Stage, which is deeply regrettable in my view. Had I  had the time I would have mentioned the obvious flaws of his thinking around baroque, as the ENO has a larger auditorium than the ROH and also they use their in house orchestra with mainly modern instruments as do the other regional companies.

Overall what came through from the talk was his vibrancy and will to succeed in the role but also a keen sense to be realistic about what can be achieved at the Royal Opera. Left me feeling positive about the future of the House and its programming despite its obvious lack of will to stage baroque, the very starting point of the illustrious art it promotes.

Some excerpts from the talk will be circulated by the Royal Opera in the coming weeks will try to link to them here so you get a more direct sense of the talk.

Mr Fate and his amazing thunder coat / Miss Fortune / Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – 28 March 2012

31 Mar

You have by now read the numerous reviews and unsurprisingly 99% of critics and bloggers had been to put it politely, underwhelmed by what was on offer by Miss Fortune.

I had no intention of seeing it after being burned last year by Nico Muhly’s Two Boys and especially after reading the wall to wall bad reviews. But getting an Orchestra Stalls ticket for £15 was an opportunity I couldn’t pass by.

The overwhelming feeling is of a work that did not come together, an inherent disparity between, word, music, movement, direction and stage design. As if Judith Weir was trying to tick too many boxes and failed to make them work as a whole.The camp utterances of a counter-tenor portraying Fate (dressed in the equivalent of a house coat covered in a thunderbolt print) varied from the annoying to the surplus to requirement. If she was really attempting humour or satire it clearly did not come through.

The staging was a faceless mush of an aerofoil trapezoid shape that was moving to different positions for scene changes (being projected on to add texture), another (red slatted this time) hinged  trapezoid  containing LED lighting within. The most extravagant prop, the exploding kebab van for Hassan was a pure folly that got used for around 10 minutes of stage time, only to be fire-bombed in the end…it’s typical of the flat nature of the work that I was more fascinated, by how the van was lowered down from the fly tower and the cables disengaged from it after landing, than Hassan’s singing about his love for the van and leaving Miss Fortune behind while he went supply shopping.  This was supposed to be set in the 21st century and when I explained the plot to a colleague, she exclaimed how old-fashioned was the choice of Miss Fortune being surrounded by machinists in a textile factory. How about a more contemporary occupation in the service section, a fast food restaurant or something a bit more recognisable for the audience? Those kind of simplistic misfires are indicative of the unfortunate (what a pun, hey?) dramatically inert staging that added very little contemporary flavour than a regie director could muster with *cough* Rusalka. Maybe Weir and Shi-Zheng should have hooked up with Mary Portas’ Kinky Knickers and add a bit more pizzaz!

An inexplicable choice was why did Miss Fortune herself sing all the way from a forte to a near fortissimo throughout the piece. Emma Bell was just made to scream her way through the part with very little chance for articulation and allowance for feeling to penetrate the strident melodic line. The dance troupe (Soul Mavericks) were entertaining through out…but at the same time nothing like a touch of racial stereotyping by appointing black dancers as the source of menace to the urban environment that Miss Fortune was thrown into. Their performance was dedicated but somehow can’t see where in the grand scheme of things they were supposed to belong. The feeling that this was a very late addition came to mind at their every appearance.

This opera unfortunately was a total, if inoffensive, snooze to watch all the way through. If it wasn’t for the beautifully crisp playing by the orchestra (which actually sounded like a different orchestra since the recent dull performance of Don Giovanni). A huge thank you to all the orchestral players and the beaming Jacques Imbrailo who lit up the auditorium with his beautiful bright voice, much more than the preceding exploding kebab van.

I really can not understand how this lukewarm, pretty flat piece made it to the main stage of the Royal Opera House, it would have benefited by a new staging, some work on the libretto and the more intimate surroundings of the Linbury Studio (or the unthinkable…an industrial space in East London) with its smaller scale it would have been a better receptacle for Weir’s fluent and frequently beautiful score. Good luck to St Louis and their new staging of the work in 2013.

Below is a video of some of the stage action by the video designers, it will give you a taste for the look and movement of the staging and one of Kasper Holten introducing it to the unsuspecting punters.

Read more

Jessica Duchen’s post on Miss Fortune

Mark Berry’s blog post on Miss Fortune

John Allison’s review published by The Telegraph

Fiona Maddocks’ review for The Observer

The Death of Klinghoffer / English National Opera – Dress rehearsal 23 February 2012

25 Feb

Was very fortunate to have been at the dress rehearsal for the new staging of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer that is opening this evening at English National Opera. Was anticipating it for weeks and I can honestly say I was not disappointed in the slightest.  Hot off the heels of Dr Atomic and Nixon in China, this co-production (again) with the Metropolitan Opera, ENO is becoming the London house to see John Adams’ operas.

The staging by Tom Morris largely literal and that may be a disappointment for anyone expecting a more abstract canvas illustrating the story, but due to the nature of the work I think his point of view is very valid. Any regie flourishes are kept to a bare minimum, Palestine is Palestine, the Achile Lauro is still a cruise ship, 1980s fashions are all the craze. John Adams’ opera is a work of beauty and deep contemplation. After emerging from the Coliseum into a sunny London lunchtime I was emotionally drained and moved to the core. The very vivid staging certainly helped.

The opening section is two choral pieces one for Palestinian and one for Jewish people. Morris opted for a set that is comprised of a floor surface resembling arid Middle Eastern land with seven (for this section) movable quasi walls in a textured look that are used for extensive projections throughout. They essentially bring in a naturalistic landscape as the horizon of the stage framing the action. The members of the choir are creating the olive grove described in the libretto by opening suitcases and revealing olive trees which they continue to plant in the ground. The green flag waving at this section may be the only indulgence to cliché and it is a very small and easily forgivable lapse.

Another set of identical panels lowers to create the press conference where the freed hostages are talking about their experience. This is the big moment for the Swiss Grandmother to deliver the first emotional hook. Lucy Schaufer’s delivery complete with 80s hairdo and lilac two piece outfit was wonderful; just wish she had more material to sing.

The quasi wall opens to the first of the night’s gunshots from the terrorists in the environs of the cruise ship’s restaurant, the projections on the back panels that made the landscape now have the large portholes of the restaurant with the blue sea beyond. In this production the sea becomes another character imbuing with its presence every mise en scene till the very end with its blue glow and twinkling distant lights from the shore.

The evening conversation between captain and Mamoud (one of the captors) is held at the deck which takes the form of a vaguely art deco movable prop thankfully the only presence of the mentioned birds are in the projections. This part of the first act is the most atmospheric with Adams embellishing it with Middle Eastern references as Mamoud tunes the radio to stations of his homeland.

A moment of lightness amongst the darkness is the brief aria (back in full press conference mode once more) of the Austrian Woman, expertly portrayed by Kathryn Harries, narrating how she survived the siege locked up in her cabin with just the contents of her fruit basket and a chocolate bar she bought in Greece. Adding much needed variety in both score and character development. Which concluded with the following dark hued words: Even if one were going to die. One would avoid the company of idiots. During the war I felt the same. I have no fear Of death. I’d rather die alone, If I must, though I’d hate to drown.

After this largely flippant episode we return to the deck for the conclusion of  Mamoud’s aria ‘Those birds flying above us’ a moment of lucidity and a revelation of Adams’ true intentions. The terrorists are not portrayed as faceless monsters but as human beings with longing and sensitivities that somehow have faltered, looking for a way of life that only exists in their imaginations. As Alice Goodman (the librettist) put it ‘the piece is about the destructive effects of romantic nationalism’ and the longing he describes with ‘The sun will rise, I would like to see the dawn from my window’ is a universal feeling that everyone in the audience can understand but are in conflict with the heinous methods of the terrorists. A feeling of ambivalence, unease and doubt that veils the whole work. A master stroke that makes the work an emotional journey to the dark recesses of our minds.

The night chorus closes the first act with very effective projections on the back wall surface making it look like a live graffiti wall, increasing in speed of the appearance of the drawings as the piece culminates with a crescendo.

At the interval I was feeling numb at the intensity of both the staging and the music. The full weight of the production and the subject matter is undeniable. So much so, I find it impossible anyone would think the work flippant or disrespectful. The grave situation is communicated with utmost sincerity and urgency. This is not middle class entertainment, it’s a visceral experience, a tide of emotion.

The second act opens straight in the action (with the Hagar Chorus having been cut from this staging…despite what my hive mind thought at the time, fusing the recording and the rehearsal).  The aria for Molqui and the one for Rambo (the two of the three captors) are flanking the first aria for Klinghoffer ‘I’m not a violent man’ which establishes him as a feisty man with dignity that stands up to the invaders exclaiming twice ‘You don’t give a shit you want to see people die’  against almost a triumphalist backdrop of brass. It is a chilling moment of defiance that we know too well will end up in tragedy.

Then Rambo’s aria takes on an absurd character as an anti-American rant in the shape of an incoherent speech by a religious fundamentalist. Which is swiftly followed (in press conference mode) of the British Dancing Girl, performed with exceptional gusto by Kate Miller-Heidke, describing life on board with all the prerequisite banal details such as the sandwiches served, against a backdrop of quick paced rhythmic music not unlike some intros by Queen (the band, that is). This is another expansion of the human canvas in the work and the last attempt at air-headed lightness.

The next fifteen minutes where the culmination of the on stage action, with Omar essentially being convinced to kill Klinghoffer, he grabs his gun and moves towards the wheelchair as the aria reaches its climax he points the gun and the lights go, the Desert Chorus starts, leaving the scene unresolved. A very effective, if simple ploy by Morris reverses the stage set on its head. So as, while Marilyn Klinghoffer declares her love for her husband and a typical inane pensioner rant on hip replacements and research, her husband is facing the audience with Omar holding the gun is re-enacting the scene and eventually shooting him in that position. A shocking and inevitable conclusion that makes dramatic sense despite its cruelty and immediacy. Especially accentuated by the score’s silence at the moment of his death, here being punctured by the gunshot.

The surreal aria of the falling body sang by the dead Klinghoffer is a very difficult scene to stage when one opts for naturalism. Morris’ solution was to choreograph a dancer to take the place of the body while Alan Opie sings beautifully the aria and the projected sea takes over all the projection walls right and left of the stage. For me this choreographed dismantling of the chair and body double solution seemed to jar. But thankfully the gorgeous music and singing make one forget too easily what takes place at the depths of the set.

After this dark interlude, the choir returns on stage bringing the day after the murder of Klinghoffer and the set becomes the exit point of all the passengers and terrorists, bar Mrs Klinghoffer, who has a conversation with the captain, where he reveals that her husband is dead. The libretto and elliptical music motifs are bringing this scene to life while the two characters inhabit what looks like an empty cabin. Adams allows the captain to do his exposition while allowing for Mrs Klinghoffer to gather her thoughts. Michaela Martens and Christopher Magiera were truly exceptional, the nervous energy between the characters obvious and all too painful. Her concluding aria ‘You embraced them’ is so extraordinary and powerful that it made me well up. Martens sang it with so much feeling and simplicity it was stunning an amazing actress and an impeccable vocalist.

The subject matter and the staging are bound to be challenging for many people. But we cannot forget how art is not meant to just depict fluffy subjects that do not touch our everyday lives. It is also meant to illuminate the dark recesses of the wretched intentions and perversion of the human mind. This opera does makes us question the very reason one human would maltreat another in that way, informed by doctrine and hatred. Good and evil are slippery to define in this work as they are in reality. You will not find cartoonish baddies and totally innocent victims. What is on stage is an exposition of a slice of human life not idealised, not made rounded for public consumption. The flaws of the characters are the main focus of this work and that is the reason why it is such compelling viewing. It is about humanity and humanism not politics. The cast and orchestra under the energetic direction of Baldur Brönnimann offered their all, they deserve to play to a full house for every one of the seven performances.

Read more

Article on the history of Achille Lauro and its eventual sinking in 1994

Interview with the librettist Alice Goodman in The Guardian

Jessica Duchen’s piece on the work in The Independent

Tom Service’s blog on Klinghoffer in The Guardian

Mezzogasm / Winterreise / Alice Coote + Julius Drake / Wigmore Hall – 26 January 2012

27 Jan

Winterreise is such a canon and a true challenge for vocal recitalists interested in German Lied. This return to it by Alice Coote after her 2008 first attempt at the same venue was an evening of deep intellectual engagement and a journey of the heart. Surely a cycle that benefits from a woman’s warm touch.

Her appearance on stage with eyes as moist as the poet Wilhelm Muller describes, was a perfect match for Elena Gerhardt’s famous quote on the work ‘You have to be haunted by this cycle to be able to sing it’. The first bleak introduction into Gute Nacht/Good night to the departure of the man from the house of his beloved was played with butch conviction by Drake and a thin thread of voice by Coote that snarled the last Schnee/snow of the first verse in a piercing cry, pre-figuring what was to come next.

Her visceral turn of phrase chasing the piano throughout the circle created a sense of tension which paired with her unwavering, sustained emotional engagement was a perfect amalgamation of text, music and subject matter. She sang Wenn meine Schmerzen schweigen, Wer sagt mir damn von ihr? / Who, when my grief is silent, will speak to me of her?  in Erstarrung/Numbness with a devastated search for life amongst the snow on a background of rapidly played triplets was a marvel.

Her rendition of Der Lindenbaum/The linden tree was one of such simplicity and softness that was winning and intensifying the emotional core of the work. Ich träumt in seinem Schatten. So manchen süßen Traum/I used to dream in its shade, so many a sweet dream ,was lustful with her production of glorious round tone. Her deep breaths before the last verse brought us further in this world of romantic suffering. The repetition of the last line was as hushed as a lullaby contrasting with the high dramatic delivery of the next song Wasserflut/Flood which was much more imposing in character and darker in delivery.

For Auf dem Flusse/On the river we were treated to a description of the scene painted with beautiful colours Coote’s voice finishing with a fierce Ob’s unter seiner Rinde.Wohl auch so reißend schwillt?/Is there such a raging torrent beneath its surface too? The fast-moving Rückblick/A backward glance added urgency and spring to the step.

She concluded Irrlicht/Will-o’-the-wisp with a simple and serious repeat of Wind’ ich ruhig mich hinab,Jeder Strom wird’s Meer gewinnen,Jedes Leiden auch sein Grab./I calmly make my way down – every river will reach the sea, every sorrow find its grave. She then gave a relieved and at the same time restless delivery of Rast/Rest.

Frühlingstraum/Dream of spring was a captivating interplay of steely vocal delivery for all the morbid thoughts at the start that turned in to a feeling of wistful remembrance and helplessness. She followed in the same mood with Einsamkeit/Loneliness culminating in her projection of the word licht/light straight upwards to the ceiling of the Hall almost physically going against that natural tormentor of the hero. A subtle but telling way of all the small details that she brought to the evening and made this song cycle a lived experience that was narrated back with those world-weary limps and eyes welling up.

Die Post/The mail-coach was a wonderful merge of piano and voice, Drake created the intricate, playful  backdrop for Coote’s heart-broken delivery. That led to Der greise Kopf/The hoary head where she used her warm chest voice to describe the wish to find succour in death. The plucked motifs of Die Krähe/The crow ended with a fierce, bitter wish to come closer to death. That gave way to the contained, quiet reverie of Letzte Hoffnung/Last hope with her voice describing the trembling leaf with a fluctuating middle register.

Her steely gliding tone in Im Dorfe/In the village gave an interesting textural richness that prepared us for the quick-moving, almost breathless Der stürmische Morgen/The stormy morning which she navigated with urgency.

Täuschung/Delusion took us back to the heart of the character, a desperate description of unattainable happiness. The dynamic shaping of the phrases was soft and effortless.

Der Wegweiser/The signpost was a combination of silky delivery in the first half and crushing grief and a sense of inevitability in the last few lines. Das Wirtshaus/The inn opened with lustful, lush piano and Coote moving from weariness to an accusing frenzy. Almost a condensed mad scene in four minutes, a stunning moment where she took a risk and added visceral engagement and dramatic vigour that thankfully did not make the scene seem ridiculously soppy. Her Nun weiter denn, nur weiter, mein treuer Wanderstab!/On,then.ever onwards, my trusty staff! was an impassioned conclusion.

The last three songs allowed her to conclude in the most fierce manner possible. Mut!/Courage! was a last rallying cry of the inner voice of the hero with the proclamation Will kein Gott auf Erden sein, Sind wir selber Götter!/If there’s no god on earth, then we ourselves are gods. Her intoxicating delivery of Die Nebensonnen/Phantom suns was the personification of disillusionment in a dream-like scenario. The concluding Der Leiermann/The organ-grinder was dramatic and still subtle. She looked out in search for that other wretched soul that would accompany the hero into the underworld. After the final  Willst zu meinen Liedern deine Leier drehn?/Will you grind your hurdy-gurdy to my songs? ,almost a minute of silence followed as she stood immobile in suspended animation. Alike a figurehead in the bow of this Schubertian ship.

It was this rare beast of a recital when venue, work and performers created a unified whole that was stunning. The performance tugged at the heart-strings like nothing else I’ve seen in months. A master-class in marriage of stage magnetism, great singing and truth. Alice Coote and Julius Drake should be truly proud on delving deep and offering us an insight into this song cycle that very few artists can do. We were all very lucky tonight and the memory of it will be with me for a very long time.

The performance was recorded for future release on cd…so look out for it!

2013 Update

The CD and download is available from 8 April 2013, here’s the link to the Amazon UK page.

Some tweets from the evening

How much?

25 Jan

Having had a look through the new season listings by the major London-based orchestras. Somehow happened upon the amazingly high prices of visiting orchestras, (Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra / Staatskapelle Berlin) particularly at the Royal Festival Hall…top price seems to be a consistent £85, which seems very steep and even the back of the Stalls is priced at £70! At the same venue the Philharmonia’s top price is £35 with some premium seats at £45. The LPO charge £39, with premium seats at a considerable £65.

Compare that with the top price for many Barbican concerts by the LSO  of £35 and decent seats at Circle for £19.50 .  At the same venue the New York Phil is playing with a top price of £45!

The Wigmore Hall is charging an average top price of £30-35 with some very decent seats for £15-20.

Clearly the subsidy from the Corporation of London is helping to keep Barbican prices on the low-end, but am very surprised by the prices at the South Bank Centre. Paying £85-70 in order to listen to music at the very hollow acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall is not exactly the most tempting proposition. This season except for a rare London appearance by Jessye Norman I will stay away from the RFH due to their prices, regrettably as I do love the Philharmonia.

The SBC is pricing themselves out of my concert going budget and make themselves look terrible value even in comparison to the Royal Opera House and English National Opera.

Has anyone else noticed the climb in prices?

Pall Mall Farnese / Visit to the Reform Club / Open House, London – 18 September 2011

21 Sep

This year I managed to not be at work during both days of Open House. So instead of opting for the queuing option we booked a guided tour around The Reform Club on Pall Mall. The reputation of the architectural quality and attention to detail by Charles Barry was a huge draw. It has to be noted the efficiency of the secretary who sent me the application form in 5 minutes after my email inquiry.

We arrived outside this handsome English version of the Palazzo Farnese with it’s wonderful grey honed stone facade adorned by neoclassical torchiere lamps in a dark racing green colour and matching glazed lanterns. A most refined and quiet appearance, yet imposing and characterful.

On arrival the shimmering light from the chandelier at the entrance hall and the natural light from the glazed roof of the Saloon gives a feeling of quiet reflection and yet airiness. The red colour of the walls with Barry’s simulated marble columns creates an interior in the Roman villa idiom but with a coffered bevelled glazed ceiling that glints at the bystander and refracts autumnal sunshine to all corners of this magnificent space.

We were asked to join the rest of our tour group (around twenty people in all) in the Morning Room, a book lined room at the western part of the building, all crimson walls and oxblood club leather chairs and sofas. A bust of Winston Churchill (repatriated from its long loan in the White House’s Oval Office) with in mouth cigar looks on at the proceedings. Here again a main brass light provides the ambient light with the addition of beige velvet shaded reading wall lights adorning every corner around the room and with a signature trio of mirrors at one end reflecting the glamorous surroundings and adding a hint of glamour.

Two members met us and gave us a potted history of the Whig party who built this splendid club house as its HQ. We proceeded to the Saloon with it’s magnificent glazed ceiling still covered with a very fine veil of scaffolding fabric and of course the obligatory full height access scaffold towers and strip lights, there to assist the conservators in their work in renovating the paintwork in this Grade I listed building. This is the beating heart of the Club, in the early days it would have been the location of most fervent debates and discussions, an ancient agora in the middle of the scheme. The mosaic floor, affectionately know as the pavement is featuring a horticulture inspired motif on a white background…surely the findings in Pompei and ancient Crete and Thera must have informed the choice of floor covering.

The most impressive part of the tour was the ascend of the main staircase to the Gallery overlooking the Saloon. The clever use of the mirrors gives the limited amount of light place to bounce and creates a sense of compression, much needed after the openness of the Saloon. The gold light catching all the gilded moldings and the read leather covered handrail adds a sense of occasion and luxury. It may sound silly but staircases for me is where the real genius of architects is evident. This main staircase is stunning and contains the right volume to give one a sense of thrill while walking through but on the other hand in the right scale to not feel vast. After all, good neo-classical architecture is one with human proportions, not the sterile reproduction of Greek temples.

The Gallery is furnished with cabinets for different displays of artifacts from the archive and also tables for reading materials alongside the tables and the obligatory oxblood leather chairs for the serving of afternoon tea (as it was suggested by the member that guided us). That close to the luminous ceiling that Barry provided is a joy in a sunny day as the beveled edges of each rhomboid piece of glass disperses the light to all directions. The beautiful brass table lights with their deep yellow opaque shades add to the luminosity of the space and create a great foil for the abundant guilded details on the ceiling and picture frames.

From there we had a walkabout of the Library with it’s wonderfully in relief gilded ceiling. The whole room painted a very dark ochre with a considerable patina that made it look comfortable and brought out any gilding to more prominence. Again the accent colour of the scheme was red velvet for the furniture and some of Barry’s mahogany side tables scattered across the room. This is used for the special events and when we visited was set up for a Jazz concert the following day. I’d call the atmosphere of the room as comfortable luxury.

We had a look at the Committee Room which is again lined with maple bookcases and a blue colour palette. We also had a peek at the tiny Museum Room that had a white and gold colour scheme and sports a gorgeous flattened domed ceiling almost reminiscent of Soane’s signature motif. Another fun room was the strikingly intimate Writing Room, a smallish room with one end covered in bookcases and four desks for members to correspond from. Painted a bright blue with lovely views of the garden. Apparently a number of authors have used the room as a quiet haven to write and think, amongst them Thackeray.

For me the most beautiful room on the upper floor was the Smoking Room, which had electrical work done, so we only had a quick peek. It looks like an amalgamation of the Morning Room and the Library. Dark brown leather furniture creating striking silhouettes against the dark grey/blue walls. Three brass lights were cascading from the ceiling, those were possibly the most intricate of any fittings in the Club. Barry designed all fixtures and when the Club opened it was lit by oil and then it moved on to gas and finally electrified at the turn of the century. Some of them resemble ancient Greek oil lamps (reflecting their original function) an interesting touch by Barry and a knowing wink at the past and his educated patrons.

The tour concluded with returning to the main floor and visiting the Strangers Dining Room which was originally used as the room for receiving non members and dining with them. As times have changed now is the cheaper, buffet based restaurant for the members. The room is decorated in a bright almost velvety red with wonderful crystal and brass lights, featuring a backlit cut crystal bowl shaped end piece, illuminating the table below with a defused warm glow. One of the notable portraits in this room is of Alexis Soyer the original cook of the Club and the man who co-designed the famous and much imitated kitchens in the basement. He was in a way the original celebrity chef that innovated in techniques and came up with ingenious contraptions to help improve the food offered by soup kitchens for the poor. His ‘magic stove’ was taken up by the army and used for over a century. A posh chef with social conscience, how contemporary to our times and the cult of Jamie Oliver!

It was a shame that we did not have the chance to see the famous kitchens by Soyer, but the tour was wonderful and thanks to the funny, off the cuff delivery of the tour by the two members was hugely enjoyable.  That was my first ever visit to a gentlemen’s club and was terribly impressed by the staff (they greeted me on the way out by name) and the members we met. Everyone surely had a great deal of warmth for the building and its history. The high quality of the architecture and coherence more than justified its reputation as Charles Barry’s masterpiece. If you have the chance do go on a tour (or of course know a member that can invite you) or next year’s Open House go for it!

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