Tag Archives: Martin Fitzpatrick

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]
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Beginning of rehearsals / ENO Julietta blog

27 Aug

Last week I introduced you to Claire Pendleton a soprano with the English National Opera Chorus, who will take us through the rehearsal process for  Bohuslav Martinů‘s Julietta which is opening on 17 September 2012. This week she looks into the musical preparation before the first week of rehearsals and the first contact with the director of the production and the chorus master.

This is a little insight on how we start rehearsing for an opera – specifically, Julietta.

The chorus started looking at the score during the last couple of weeks of season 2011/12, in July. We do not have a chorus master/mistress at the moment so Martin Fitzpatrick (known to all as Fitz); the Head of Music has taken over the hard task of preparing us for all operas until a suitable candidate has been found.

Fitz is very knowledgeable and well-regarded by all at ENO. It is such a privilege to have him putting us through our paces for each opera. He is very specific in what he wants to hear and how we should sing it, this is invaluable with an opera like Julietta as the chorus sections are small and sporadic, so detail is important. There are no long, legato lines. It’s all punchy, little lines interspersed with the soloists.

Only six female chorus members are on stage in act one and act three. Act two has eight female choristers and during the rest of the opera, the chorus sing off-stage.

As we sing every opera in English, the diction is very important but it mustn’t get in the way of the musical line. We spend rehearsals working through the score, marking up difficult rhythms, tempi and key changes. We continue to repeat sections in order to memorize chunks of the opera, and then we can put them all together and get ready for the first production call. Hopefully by that time we have managed to memorize the whole opera.

We have had costume fittings which for some of us have been made by external seamstresses. They bring half-made creations in for the first fitting and make adjustments whilst we wear them, other times they adapt existing costumes. This method helps produce a fabulous tailor-made costume that fits perfectly and is very comfortable to perform in. I will take pictures of my costume once it’s finished and we’re rehearsing at the Coliseum. I have long hair so it will probably be styles rather than wearing a wig. I’ll know more once we get into the theatre and everything is ready!

We’ve started production rehearsals with the director, Richard Jones. The venue for the rehearsals is the Lilian Baylis Studio inside Sadler’s Wells Theatre. We have a wooden mock-up of the different parts of the set, which is helping us to get used to the exact space that we’ll get on stage. Richard is a man of great detail, he is also very easy to work with and is one of the favourite directors of the chorus. He has specific moves, gestures, noises for us on certain parts of the music and scene. It is so helpful to work with a director that knows the score so well. In my opinion Richard’s operas have lots of mad-cap ideas. Always exceptionable, a little dark and totally off the wall. I love working with him. He has a great sense of humour too. We always laugh at something he says every rehearsal, which is fun and lightens the atmosphere during the long days in the studio. During the rehearsal we get to run through chorus sections with the music director. Our esteemed leader, Ed Gardner is conducting Julietta.

We’re coming up to the sitzprobe* this week (Wednesday 29th), which will be the first time the singers get to work with the orchestra. This is always a magical experience for me, the opera really comes alive then. I am looking forward to it so much! Watch out for the blog next week to see how did it go and what comes up next.

You can also follow Claire on Twitter, her handle is @ClaraButt .

*Sitzprobe (German) is a term used in opera and musical theatre to describe a seated rehearsal – which is the literal translation of Sitzprobe – where the singers sing with the orchestra, focusing attention on integrating the two groups. It is often the first rehearsal where the orchestra and singers rehearse together. The equivalent Italian term is prova all’italiana.

The trailer for the production

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