Tag Archives: Nicholas Lester

2017, my musical year in review

31 Dec

2017 reviewThe last time I wrote a blog post, Donald Trump had just become President of the USA, which pretty much prefigured the chaos and confusion of the last twelve months. But being on the door step of a possible nuclear obliteration is a good time to look back to all the joyful artistic experiences that made it from bearable to outright gorgeous.  Since I lazily put together a short list of favourites from the last twelve months in response to Fiona Maddocks’ review, thought I’d publish them here with a few additions. In many ways it has been a remarkable year and have been very lucky to have been to so many stimulating performances.

The programming of the Royal Opera left quite a lot to be desired for half of the year which brought down the number of performances attended considerably. Also managed to be at Semiramide on the night that Joyce DiDonato was unwell, which made it a rather staid evening. Sadly with the crazy prices I didn’t manage to see it another time. 

Also promised myself not to darken the doorstep on ENO until the utterly useless leadership steps down, I’m getting my wish next year so will be keeping an eye their way and hopefully see them make progress and who knows maybe one day they will manage to perform a bit more frequently as the current status quo is a long term road to oblivion.

The smaller companies made quite an impact, Welsh National Opera was programming a lot of crowd-pleasers aside to more esoteric repertoire showing David Pountney’s capability in keeping a company in the black but also making sure it offers something for the neophyte but also adventure to the seasoned punter.

Scottish Opera seem to be out of the woods artistically after a couple of challenging years. The two performances I attended were absolutely gripping, the appointment of Stuart Stratford is clearly making a difference. 

Grange Park semi-built a new opera house in the enchanted surroundings of a 17th century manor house, even if the dreadful Joanna Lumley was needed to cajole more money for their new toilets. Based on the description by Wasfi Kani I’m expecting a miniature Roman Coliseum with urinals.

Over at Glyndebourne I managed to compress my three customary visits to a long weekend but was rewarded by some exceptional performances that even made me ignore the absolutely pointless staging of Ariadne auf Naxos that despite prior announcements, not many changes happened and we ended up with the most glorious singing in the service of a production that is both obvious and totally missing the dramatic arc of Strauss’ masterpiece.

Holland Park Opera put another strong season with very well cast younger singers making their stage bubble with enthusiasm. 

•Le Grand Macabre with the LSO and Rattle in January was a fantastic way to blow away the cobwebs with Simon Rattle conducting a blistering account of this demanding score with a London Symphony Orchestra rewarding him with pinpoint accuracy and crystalline clarity. 

Bryan Hymel’s blistering Turiddu and Canio on the opening night of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at Covent Garden. When I saw him two weeks later he was even better!

•Elīna Garanča‘s very intense and in many ways against the grain Santuzza was a revelation in Cavalleria Rusticana who added much needed nuance to this fantastic production.

Lisette Oropesa’s turn as Lucia bettered what can be done with Katie Mitchell’s production bringing clarity and vocal prowess. Her Lucia was young, but deep, and as far removed from pointless vocal pyrotechnics and “identikit madness” acting as possible. 

The spectacular young cast including Natalya Romaniw, Jason Bridges and Nicholas Lester for Welsh National Opera’s Onegin was a joy, bringing back that most important ingredient of Tchaikovsky’s immense achievement, youth, to the foreground. 

Lise Davidsen’s dark hued Ariadne at Glyndebourne was definitely a confirmation of great promise and an unforgettable evening. Her magical performance made us forget about the truly pointless production which deserves to be shelved without trace. 

The unbrittled orientalism with a side of contemporary criticism for Cavalli’s Hipermestra at Glyndebourne made the unfamiliar accessible and gave a great vehicle for with many young singers, including Emőke Baráth, Benjamin Hulett, Anthony Gregory and David Webb making their mark.

The luxurious Magda of Elizabeth Llewellyn at Opera Holland Park’s La Rondine was balm for the soul on a warm summer’s evening. A tremendous singer that gives insightful readings of roles wrapped up with her sparkling personality.  

The brutal Jenůfa at Grange Park was a great achievement, a true psychological thriller from start to finish. The intensity of Natalya Romaniw and the set chewing vim of Susan Bullock made this a true highlight of the year.

Another Holland Park triumph for the great singing actress Anne Sophie Duprels in Zazà. She is truly the house diva and she delivers in spades every time. Have never walked away from one of her shows less than shaken. Make sure you catch her when she returns in Mascagni’s Isabeau

Brett Dean’s Hamlet at Glyndebourne was blessed with an amazing cast including Allan Clayton, Sarah Connolly and Barbara Hannigan. I was not quite as enamoured with the ridiculous writing for the Counter-tenors but the overall effect was one of a major new work that would benefit from some small revisions to make it dramatically even tighter.

•Joyce DiDonato’s intimate concert at the Wigmore Hall with the Brentano Quartet was a suitably magical end to the year. A programme that included Strauss and Debussy was crowned by Jake Heggie’s song cycle based on the life story of sculptor Camille Claudel written for her in 2012. It was musical communication of the highest order, every breath mattered and it added meaning to every word. Have a listen to the two encores I recorded on the night to have an idea of the level of engagement and togetherness of audience and performer. 

 

Thanks for reading and I will wish you all a tremendous year ahead, even if we have to make even more concerted effort to make it so.

 

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One week, two Flutes, two productions, two cities / The Magic Flute / English National Opera + Scottish Opera / 15 + 21 October 2012

3 Nov

Oh how funny the repertoire planning of opera houses can be…you wait for one Magic Flute  and two show up concurrently. With a third one to be added early 2013 by the Royal Opera.

Had the chance to watch two very different productions of The Magic Flute in one week. The 1986 effort by Nicholas Hytner for English National Opera, a breakthrough and much revived production and the brand new production by Thomas Allen for Scottish Opera. In many ways they both had a traditional outlook but it was fascinating seeing the ways two directors resolved the same problems.

Hytner’s production was justifiably famous and much loved. This was the final run of performance before retiring it. The white semi circular set opening to more colourful stage pictures still looks modern and verging on a historicising minimalism. His witty touches such as the coup de theatre when Papagena appears in a bird nest being lowered to the stage was a ingenious mix of imagination and pertinent visual humour. The appearance of Papageno complete with trained doves that come from backstage and land on his cage every time he uses his pipe is an enchanting piece of stagecraft that is simple as it is effective.

After all the Magic Flute is a magical singspiel that has more than a passing reference to the child in all of us and most notably Mozart himself. Its pretty ridiculous story trajectory can only convince as the story telling of a grown up child being mystified by what the proper adults are up to. The secret society behind Sarastro becomes unexplained and hazy with most of the storytelling effort put into the primary characters and their quest for love. The sparse white set becomes the confusing world Tamino explores with a sense of wonder and trepidation. The lack of stage clutter afforded the singers the time to establish a relationship with the audience.
Hytner’s take is very formal, his Flute has no camp jollity but in this last revival it had space for the brilliantly zany Papageno of Duncan Rock, a handsome über-Australian interpretation with idiomatic banter and a spontaneous sense of fun. His Papagena was also a very geographically specific creature. Rhian Lois was a totally camp Welsh caricature appearing as a hunchbacked tea lady pushing a trolley. This in keeping with the singers’ specific attributes took the 18th century inspired costumes to a different place, bringing the narrative stagecraft in touch with reality but not a current, stand up comedy sensibility. Rock calling the last two doves to enter the cage Kylie and Jason was hilarious and played on his on-stage persona. The Masonic scenes where staged in front of a gilded full height hieroglyph punched screen with Sarastro and his circle in white robes, again adorned with hieroglyphs. The break in the action was decisive and clear cut. Also the creation of the bedroom where Pamina is kept captive was set up with an impressive length of red fabric being released and draped on a mattress in the middle of the stage. A graphic, bold look that was very memorable. This revival had the good fortune to have Elena Xanthoudakis in great form, singing her heart out and acting with total conviction. The second act was a tour de force and it was very difficult to take our eyes off her.

Tom Allen’s take was on a more Bacchanalian scale. His set and characters are more the ones of a variety show than an opera and in many ways all the better for it. Plucking a deferential Nicky Spence from a side of the stage box and thrown to the stage complete with a libretto was a good laugh out idea. But it also saddled our leading man with a gormless naivete for the length of the performance. His direction was miles away from Hytner’s respectful and much more cool-headed approach.
The production has a very local feel, Allen mined the steam punk iconography and the bric-a-brac of the Hunterian Museum into a volatile mix of dry ice overload and sexiness. The set was an amalgam of Jules Verne and shiny matt gold automaton. The central aperture at the centre back of the stage configured in different shapes and sizes was the main entry for new characters creating a dramatic focus on the singers. While the sets and costumes are busy the production doesn’t feel cluttered. It is essentially a production by a singer for the singers. Some visual touches that make it memorable has to be the three boys that seem to float at the back of the stage with their propeller parasols adding a picture book panache.

To call the overall look 19th century industrial pornography would be very accurate and in most aspects it works. The only major failing was how Sarastro was presented (in trendy fitted coat with flashes of black leather) his religious/masonic function totally eradicated as he presides over this industrial music hall, as the curtain adornment betrays (a proscenium like add on to the curtain with lights and ‘the secret of life’ and ‘Sarastro’ scribbled on it. But overall the clever characterisation and the hilarious dialogue made up for any directorial shortcomings. Our Papageno, Richard Burkhard, was refreshingly different to the suave and luminous Rock. He played it for laughs…hilariously when imploring for a girlfriend he refers in desperation suggesting that a boy would rather have him instead. We didn’t get the Great British Bake Off (as on the opening couple of performances) joke this time but just a reference to Mr Kipling’s cakes. As it tours around Scotland I can only imagine how much fun he will have with the topical references.
Nicky Spence sang with great assurance for most of the night and looked surely the part in the beautiful costumes by Simon Higlett, like the rest of the cast. His recent Novice for the new ENO Billy Dudd was costumed so abysmally everyone on stage apart from the high ranking seamen looked like they wore potato sacks. The costumes for the Queen of the Night and the Three Ladies were a particular highlight, all fibre optic lighting and glitter. Morriya’s singing was spectacular, with beautiful runs and pin point coloratura it was a shame that her Pamina was a rather pale creature in the hands of Laura Mitchell but the humorous banter and  innuendo ridden sexiness of the Ladies made up for any characterisation shortcomings.

On the orchestral side of things, ENO’s orchestra had a much more idiomatic, sweetly chromatic sound under the baton of Nicholas Collon who gave a solid and dreamy reading. Reflecting largely the more romantic staging. While the Scottish Opera Orchestra sounded much better than the last time I heard them live. But there was a bit too much steam and not enough dream in the heavily propelled reading by Ekhart Wycik. But then it is worth noting that Scottish Opera is the only major UK company to not have any artistic staff on its permanent roster, on the aftermath of a well publicised financial fall out. The orchestra has just been declared a co-operative which hopefully will help them settle into a more stable pattern of working and achieve a more unified sound. But overall the singers seemed very well drilled and the chorus offered some memorable singing.

Overall this Scottish Opera Flute has the stamp of a very happy production, with a particular Scottish slant. Comparing these two memorable productions, it seems the new one is ideal for our times. It is faster, meaner, funnier and definitely a great night out. If you live in Scotland or if you plan a holiday north of the borders this one is worth catching and I can imagine it would be a great introduction to opera neophytes. 

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