Tag Archives: Michael Keegan-Dolan

ENO 2013/2014 Season launch by an eye witness

10 May

ENO 2013-14The English National Opera seems to be a uniquely polarising company when it comes to critical opinion and bloggers in the UK. Most are very happy to point out its faults (most of the criticisms if inverted could be used against the Royal Opera rather easily, when it comes to programming) and all its missteps. I was invited to the launch for a second year and it was interesting to mark the change in atmosphere. Lots of vocal critics of the company are too happy to castigate the inadequacies of the arts journalists and their apparent failure to address burning questions on the financials and the artistic decisions there. What of course they make no allowance for is for all the things that ENO does very well and in some cases is a leader in the field. Frequently the feelings of overwhelming hurt uttered by some people online  make me wondering what their true motives are.

A press conference is not the place to ask probing questions on the financial state of the company but surely a good place to try to discern what the atmosphere is like and to try to see beneath the veneer of rehearsed confidence.  This time the managing trio of Gardner/Berry and Tomasi were surely much more subdued overall but clearly wanted to give an upbeat flavour to the announcements.

ENO has been a director led house since the 1980s with a more edgy outlook. If that is not what you want out of opera then maybe don’t waste your breath on complaining like a demented person. I am sure hearing Christopher Alden and Calixto Bieito call ENO an institution that understands their needs and becomes a base of sorts for them, must be like a red rag for the pithily referred to “regietheatre”. Like it or not, directors like Pierre Audi, Bieito, Richard Jones, David McVicar and the two Aldens have made an indelible mark in the operatic world of the last twenty years and no amount of circle jerking over tired productions by Zeffirelli and Ponelle will change that. Move on with the times or move along.

It is well known that John Berry likes to draw theatre, film and artists to collaborate into their first operatic directions. Some of them have been very successful, like the Anthony Minghella Madama Butterfly and Terry Gilliam’s staging of  Le Damnation de Faust and some have bombed like last year’s Giulio Cesare by Michael Keegan-Dolan. It seems like a luxury for many but it seems also intricately linked to the current artistic outlook of the company. This season he has invited Joe Hill-Gibbons, a theatre director by trade to try his hand at opera with Powder her Face.

The vehement anti-ENO brigade seems to be too unwilling to acknowledge that they have artist development schemes for conducting, instrumental playing, libretto writing, singing and a newly announced young house composers scheme. They seem serious about opening the doors to more creatives into the world of opera and that can surely be a positive development for the future of the art form.

The financial state of ENO is apparently improving with the deficit down by two thirds (£800.000) and box office intake rising to £1.3m.  The somber tone of their CEO Loretta Tomasi was indicative of taking seriously the situation and explained that they were successful into applying for a £3m fund (Catalyst Arts) from the Arts Council that hey have to match with a fundraising drive of £6m, which it stands currently at 85%. This expendable endowment will be used to fund production costs, which seems like a sound way to use it. The only alarming aspect was her emphasis not to be too over-optimistic if there is another funding cut by the government this June (it seems likely to be another 10% cut in tune with current government policy). Of course what is worrying is that the current losses are essentially wiping out their reserves. And while the Catalyst programme is a great idea it will not pay the staff or any other day to day costs of the operation.

Unfortunately they did not announce any changes to the core ticket prices just the continuation of the (rather naff) Opera Undressed scheme and the increase of ticket allocation from 100 to 200 per eligible performance. They seemed happy that 26% of participants in the scheme returned for more ENO shows.  Also they announced the launch of Secret Seats (£20 paid and a seat allocated two days before the performance with a value of £27 or more, with Stalls and Dress Circle seats also part of it). That pushes the overall seats available for under £40 by 40% but of course it doesn’t address the constant discounts of top price seats and the all too infrequent sell outs.

The programme they announced is a mix of some reliable revivals, like David Alden’s Peter Grimes (with a starry cast) Penny Woolcock’s Pearl Fishers (with an enticing cast) Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly and their much lauded Phelim McDermott production of Satyagraha which will shift a lot of tickets. The more searching and artistically dangerous/ambitious productions may come to grief ENO’s management in the coming months. but personally I am looking forward to the following:

Terry Gilliam’s take on Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. Gilliam will come up with some odd ball ideas and the accomplished cast with Edward Gardner conducting should make it an enticing evening.

Calixto Bieito’s Fidelio will be an interesting proposition, especially the nights when Stuart Skelton is singing the lead.

Richard Jones’ take on Rodelinda, remarkably, only his second Handel direction to date, will surely be memorable and with a great cast. ENO’s time to prove that they can live up to their reputation for being the London House for Handel. And make us forget of that awful Cesare.

Julian Anderson’s Thebans directed by Pierre Audi will be an interesting new work. Gardner said at the press conference that it has some remarkable writing for the chorus, which is frankly a good omen for a work based on Greek drama.

Thomas Adès’ Powder her Face in a new production by opera first timer Joe Hill-Gibbins in a site specific staging away from the confines of the Coliseum is an intriguing prospect.
In the least desirable corner, my pick is the new Cosi fan Tutte (who knew we needed another new staging in London) especially when it’s libretto will be tortured by Martin Crimp.
Overall the programming is giving me a lot of fascinating productions to look forward to and many hours of Twitter fun while I’m trying to have a reasonable conversation why the company has something interesting to say aside for the odd turkey here and there. At least they have the balls to take artistic risks, just wish their financial standing was much more solid.
The season trailer
A few tweets from the launch

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Fabulous by name diabolical by nature / Giulio Cesare / English National Opera – 16 October 2012

18 Oct

To call the latest ENO production of Giulio Cesare vacant, wilfully ugly and spectacularly miscalculated would give you an idea of how bad it really is. Director/Choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan took the gem of Handel’s opera seria output and tarnished it with a jumble of unrelated directorial flourishes, most notably the silly interpretative dance that is both relentless and particularly offensive.
Getting non opera specialist directors in the House, ENO has created a few unexpected hits but mainly it has resulted in unqualified monstrosities. The set was a featureless concave wall made of chipboard that was only used effectively in the final act when covered in a cloth patterned with a wild seascape while Cleopatra sings her dramatic Piangerò la sorte mia shame that it had to be accompanied by an ugly filament bulb but that is a small detail in a production that gave us, unforgivably anonymous costuming and hideous wigs (my heart goes out to Tim Mead for that red octopus on his head) a giraffe and crocodile littering pointlessly the stage, some foldable chairs from a local authority gym, noisy metal buckets filled with ridiculous amounts of fake blood and in one case sand.
When the props start causing the audience to laugh you know you have messed up the production. Had anyone been standing in the corridors of the Coliseum at the start of Act One, and while the obviously immobile/dead crocodile was shot and then doused with a bucket of blood while most of the audience laughed in disbelief, one would think a comedy was on, not one of Handel’s most beautiful, tragedy infused works.
Most of the singers were used as lifeless props while the dancers pranced about. Obviously Keegan-Dolan had very little time for the singers as actors and too much time for his own dance troupe (Fabulous Beast)…a hierarchy that should have rang bells early on with the artistic management of the Company.  This production is an equally miserable night in the theatre for both cast and audience, robbing the singers of the elegant simplicity of embodying a character without the superfluous addition of stage clutter and empty gestures.
The only two singers that managed to cut through the idiocy were Patricia Bardon and Daniela Mack who gave us raw emotion and human warmth in a sea of blandness. They both sang beautifully and created their own microcosm despite the director’s awful idea to make Sesto into a daughter, thus removing the central reference to gender politics that is the moving force of the story.
Tim Mead’s Tolomeo was beautifully voiced but totally lost his way in a slapstick, non-threatening cartoonish approximation of villainy. The audience laughed out loud as he dragged in the head of the giraffe and proceeded to remove the tongue with his bare hands and threaten Cornelia with it. It was not dramatic or engaging, just a ridiculous waste of time.
I will say it once and for all, that I’d rather have a mezzo sing the eponymous role as having three counter-tenors in one opera becomes tiresome. Lawrence Zazzo is undeniably a star but was too trapped by the direction to create a believable character. He became another prop laden, dancer suffocated casualty. His Aure, deh per pietà was the absolute highlight of his performance when he was allowed to be alone on stage and his characterisation took flight. But it was too little too late for us to believe in his Cesare, after having laughed out loud far too many times but that point.

This production also had the dubious honour to offer us the least sexy Cleopatra imaginable, Anna Christy is a striking singer but who has a very particular glassy lyric coloratura voice not really up to the voluptuous/lascivious requirements of the heroine Handel depicts in his opera. We found it very difficult to believe she could seduce anyone but a man with a serious fetish for awful wedding dresses, judging on her terrible white number she wore after the second interval. Also singing V’adoro, pupille on top of a table and to a microphone like a cheap cabaret act was just silly and inconsistent with the rest of the production. She also had to sing Piangero while she is surrounded by dancers complete with wings taking again the focus off the singer at such a pivotal moment. At least she was left alone during Se Pietà di me non senti and she gave us a rendition of utter delicacy and undeniable sadness.

What makes this production even more depressing is that back in March I was lucky enough to attend a sparkling production by Tim Albery for Opera North with Sarah Tynan, Helen Pamela Stephen and Kathryn Rudge. The gorgeously utilitarian but with a hint of luxury production by Leslie Travers was a triumph. It is unbelievable that a company with fewer resources at their disposal can create a sublime experience when the ENO created a complete mess that I very much doubt will ever be revived.

To close on a positive note, Christian Curnyn’s conducting was vibrant and attentive. He clearly is a singer’s conductor and it shows. His period instrument background comes handy when it comes to coaxing a very special lustrous sound from ENO’s ensemble. He tirelessly shaped every single nuance in the score and created meaning in a staging that had such an embarrassing paucity of ideas and insight. He also conducted the exquisite Castor and Pollux last year and is also back to conduct Charpentier’s Medea with Sarah Connolly in early 2013 with David McVicar directing.

This performance was recorded for BBC Radio 3 and is scheduled for broadcast on November 3rd, listen in and make your own mind up!

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