Tag Archives: new music

Fashionability and utter hollowness / Two Boys / English National Opera – 08 July 2011

10 Jul

Last Friday’s experience at ENO was a reaffirmation to always trust my instinct. Had I listened to it this time I wouldn’t be subjected to the most mind numbing evening I bare to remember. It made the recent Pelleas seem like a walk in the park!

Muhly’s music was a droll long piece of music with little variation, think Debussy but only less interesting.

Having read a number of reviews I was not too alarmed by what I read about the darling of the Upper East Side. The opening cords as the work started where marked by a mock symphonic grandeur that was rather pleasing and then when we starting to encounter the different cardboard thin characters it all disintegrates to a flatulent exchange of banal phrases. Lots of reviewers where clearly been fed the line that Susan Bickley was some latter day operatic version of Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect character…guess what dear readers that was total tosh. The forced mannerisms of a quasi policewoman, with the accompanying frumpiness do not make a Jane Tennison. Possibly the worst part of Anne Dawson (Bickley’s character) was that she was cursed with some truly atrocious lines that only made some clueless Americans and some middle-Englanders in the auditorium chuckle. Choice lines like: What’s a server? / Bloody Christ!  sank me deeper and deeper in despair. Some obvious clunkers in the plot-line such as Brian’s (the accused teenager) mother that apparently had never met any of his friends.The truly awful church scene and the superfluous  scenes with Dawson’s mother that added nothing of substance, were brushed aside as we were supposed to be witnessing a gesamtkunstwer apparently!

We have all been living with internet access for over 15 years and as such we expect a certain level of sophistication within a work that uses online exchanges as it’s main plot driver. Especially when it’s written by a 29 year old ardent social networker composer. But unfortunately this was anything but, the en masse chorus ensemble pieces were just scripted silly cliches repeated ad nauseum. Supported by feeble music that it had borrowed more from Philip Glass and John Adams than any discernible originality of its own creator. If people came to listen to a curated two hour mixtape, this was the right gig. Most of the woodwinds where straight out of mid career Glass (think Qatsi trilogy and you’re there) while the use of  drums and assorted bells created a soundworld that Adams would feel straight at home with. You may think I am being terribly harsh on Muhly on this count, but unfortunately the score had very few points where it lifted off the mundane droll that it too clearly was pleased to occupy. At the end of the first act I wondered that this feeling of acute boredom would be whisked away in the second half…but that wasn’t to be. The paper thin story really did not provide enough interest through another 45 mins of the same post-minimalist muzak.

Another much lauded feature of the production were the video projections by 59 Productions. Apparently they added freshness and vitality and they were clearly the needed accessory for our fashionable composer’s grand manifestation of his art. As I Tweeted from the Coliseum, your copy of iTunes can do a better job with its visualiser. The projections were too obvious (schematic diagrams creating a starry sky like internet representation / floating photographs straight out of OSx) and actually I wouldn’t be surprised if the choral pieces backdrops were inspired while they were using the backup utility on their Macs (Time Machine, have a look here). Sylvie Guillem single handedly had a much better use of video for a humble dance show than this much lauded, ENO impoverishing multinational production. The only positive use of the projections where when the Inspector played back the CCTV tape, that had a much better relationship with the actions on stage and not the awkward filler that it was for pretty much the rest of the performance.

The overall direction by Bartlett Sher was subdued and actually not bad…it just had the feel of a furniture warehouse with the incessant moving and dragging of tables, chairs, armoires and assorted pine bedroom sets. I wish they had just used a revolving stage or some stage lifts to move the different sets around. Also maybe the cartoonish whisky swigging by Bickley was another one for the not a good idea list.

There were some positive aspects to this unqualified shit storm that the English National Opera served us.

• The duet between between Brian and Rebecca in Act I was fervent and very well sang, a rare lift for the deeply mundane score

• The character of Jake was beautifully sang by Jonathan McGovern and really wished he had more material to sing.

•The final choral piece was indeed beautifully written and well conceived despite the fact we had to endure two hours of really average saggy narration to get to that point.

All of the above may sound like an all out attack on Nico Muhly and his music, but that is not true. I do think he has huge potential and the blame would possibly more lie on his backers and the Metropolitan Opera commissioning him such a major piece. They threw him in the lion’s mouth just in the name of some skewed idea that they were rejuvenating the genre or that they were bringing in new audiences. The fact that he’s only 29 years old is clearly a big marketing advantage and his fashionable status was  used to death. But any opera house lives and dies on the box office returns and judging from reports, frequent looks at the ENO website and also my experience on Friday, the auditorium was half empty.

It’s all nice and well to promote a fancy new piece by a young composer with a cringe-worthy “viral” campaign but it has to backed by true substance and a killer (terrible pun) subject. Two boys failed on both counts, adding references to blow jobs, online grooming and pornography does not add any edge to an already caricatured world where the main protagonist is clothed in a hoodie, the secret police looks like cast offs from a rap video casting call and even the token spy is wearing a wearisome camel burbery raincoat. It was the first time in about 5 years that I withheld my applause and I am truly happy to have spent only £20 on a front row Dress Circle ticket. If it ever makes it on the Met stage I’d hope it will have a serious revision to improve the material, if a revision was not beneath Verdi, than Muhly should follow suit.

Anna Nicole

2 Mar

I’m putting out there a few of my thoughts after seeing the opera this evening, feel free to comment and share your views on it.

Why I went
When I booked my tickets back in October 2010 I did on the strength of my fantastic experience with Niobe Regina di Tebe which was brilliant and totally out of the usual fare at Covent Garden. A new commission was carrying the promise of something interesting and a possibility to see a work outside the usual canonical programming choices. Another important motivation was the cast, having Eva-Maria Westbroek and Gerald Finley committing themselves to the project left very little doubt in my mind that it would be worthwhile.
Let’s fast forward a few months and March 1st arrives and my turn has come! Today was the fifth performance of the work and my chance to experience it. Read a number of reviews in the last week and a half since the premiere and had seen far too many production shots to have a good idea what the opera was like!
The music writing
The friend that accompanied me found it accomplished but cold and superficial. Which got us talking on what avenue Turnage took with Anna Nicole. He went for a (well reported by this stage) bluesy, US jazz sound with echoes of Stravinsky in his US retirement. In many ways that could be seen as a safe choice verging on the superficial route. In my mind he could have gone a much more melodramatic route and give us a Traviata for the 21st century and I’m glad he didn’t do that. The writing is fairly small-scale in most passages with more focused crescendi around pivotal points in the plot. It allows the singing to shine through and in my mind the two absolute stars with the best material were Anna Nicole (Eva-Maria Westbroek) and old man Marshall (Alan Oke). They were given enough interaction with other characters and they both managed to create warm stage personas that could communicate to the audience the heart of the story.
I thought it was very effective and actually it felt less glitzy than the publicity shots, which was a very positive surprise. One major failure was the way they portrayed Wal-Mart (as the archetypal evil empire…all very original, I know), with the same old faceless workers trying to make ends meet with the minimum wage. The supposed ironic use of the uniform to show their unhappiness just felt too cliché and surely needed a lighter hand…maybe Richard Jones got carried away by the really didactic bit of libretto that accompanied the scene?

Westbroek, gave us an Anna Nicole that is playful, vulnerable, ignorant, dependant, questioning, loving, fun, compassionate. She had also captured some of Smith’s physical expressions and body characteristics that gave her a theatrical completeness. The way she carried herself in the Larry King interview scene was masterful, she was a lovable rogue, at once a junkie and at the same time a girl with dreams and an acute love of dogs *giggle*. All very Anna Nicole and surely a great shorthand for Smith’s public persona. The way she was personified I felt compassion and even protective of her and never thought she was becoming a monstrous caricature, which in my eyes is a major achievement.

The od(bv)ious elephant in the room
The Libretto, Richard Thomas came up with a million and one descriptions of breasts which it momentarily amused but quickly seemed overwrought and silly. Another major misstep were the ariettas written for Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mother (Susan Bickley), a lot of the reviews I have read praise her as the moral centre to this tale of celebrity excess. I have to disagree, most of the lines she was given were just preachy and trite. Especially at the close of Act One her description of the relationship of men and women was going to such an extreme to make it plain show-offish gibberish, was Thomas just trying too hard to shock with adding cum bucket in the libretto? It did not shock me, it just made me question his motives and the more I think the less I trust his heart, with this character, was in the right place. Also another mention that was really pointless and just there for effect was in Finlay’s “Hollywood” moment in the Second Act where he mentions her lesbian PA and how Anna Nicole was riding her…it just seemed such an easy way to a gag that made it pointless and with an unwelcome hint of misogyny. Another issue for me was in the,otherwise, truly effective finale when he made Anna Nicole utter America you whore, which was just a horribly predictable and cliché response to the shuttering of the American dream. For me it ruined a couple of minutes of her monologue before the end which was a true shame, as Eva-Maria was truly remarkable as she is dying in a maelstrom of cameras recording her last moments.

In Conclusion
Anna Nicole may not be revolutionary theatrically or musically but is an interesting addition to the annals of contemporary opera. It was thrilling to watch, despite it’s -mainly- textual failings. The story is coming through loud and clear and the space for character development is there and all it needs is a really good cast to sympathise with the material and bring it to life. The Royal Opera has indeed endowed it’s first outing with a wonderful cast that is both inspirational and starry. For me the greatest achievement of the night was Eva-Maria giving a heart-felt performance with true empathy and understanding. I really hope that we will see her more and more in London in the coming years as she is a truly interesting singer with a great voice and magnetic presence. Of course the big overall question is how much will the work suffer in the hands of a less charismatic lead? I do think a less engaging soprano will expose the numerous shortcomings of the libretto. Let’s hope that if the production is sold to another company or when it returns to the Royal Opera they will iron out some of the clunky dialogue and crass references that have no place in it and do actually jar with the music.

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