Tag Archives: Nicky Spence

Country house with a working guillotine / Dialogues des Carmélites / Grange Park Opera – 14 June 2013

19 Jun

GP CarmelitesThis was a truly thrilling night with Poulenc being the overall winner. John Doyle came up with a refreshingly straightforward narration of the story. No silly gimmicks no transpositions of location or time. His assured hand gives the impression of a director that respects and trusts the material. Poulenc’s bleak and outrageously involving world comes to life in all its gritty detail, a grand guignol spectacle in all but name. The development of characters through the duration and the single very versatile set was a stroke of genius.
He effectively used the narrative and musical structure of the piece to divide the action. Every break between scenes was cherished, every prelude used to reset the stage without dropping the curtain and fragmenting the narrative.  The set even remained visible during the long interval and before the start of Act Three.

The setting is a non descript buff rough plastered space with built-in seating on the left and a deeply-set and lit passageway on the right. Above a slash across the wall, seems to reference Le Corbusier’s window designs for the couple of notable churches he built. Large scale, single colour projections create the effect of windows for the jail scene and in the monastic surroundings cropped close ups of the crucified Christ. It is simple and very effective in suggesting the atmosphere.
The only props used are four candlesticks, a wooden plank, two chairs, fabric matching the beige/white colour of the nuns habits, two bunches of artificial lilies, a cooking pot (for Blanche’s stew in Act Three) and a cross. Out of those limited in number objects he managed to concoct beds, armchairs, altars and even kitchen units.

The ritualistic nature of the making up of each prop was a great foil for an opera that is all about belief. We had to believe a plank of wood resting on two chairs and some draped cloth was an altar. The leap was not that great and eased us all in a word of spartan existence and meditation.

Some of the directorial choices made for very moving stage pictures, like when Blanche is undressed stage right  surrounded by the nuns. It created a sense of disquiet and emphasised that Blanche’s life was now in the control of her faith and the convent.
Above all what Doyle clearly instilled in his singers was a sense of place and the importance of eye contact. Particularly during duets, the stunning one between the (about to leave for abroad) Chevalier de la Force and his sister Blanche in the last act was made truly riveting by the slightly uneasy body language as they both sat at the back of the set and how they exchanged glances throughout. The direction favouring formed characters was most obvious on how the chirpy Sœur Constance is introduced as a slightly naughty, bright-eyed novice and becomes a grown person that would happily give her life to save the Prioress. In the finale her tenderness colours this most tragic scene.

The performances by the cast were from wonderful to spectacular, Hye-Youn Lee created a Blanche de la Force that wakes up from her spoilt life and wants to find peace away from the world, to a disturbed young woman who is traumatised by the killing of her father and the guilt of leaving him and the nuns in jail. When she finally arrived in the last tableaux she was shuttering in her simplicity. Vocally she was a good match for the part and did sing with great energy and heart melting beauty especially in her final duet with her brother.

Nicky Spence was a revelation, his Chevalier de la Force begins as the intermediary between the stolid father and his withdrawn sister. His affecting duet with Hye-Youn Lee was not just beautifully sang but also lived through by the singers. Every word mattered. This fairly small part does pack some great music for a young tenor and he seemed to be stretched to match the composer’s requirements in the most healthy way. It is wonderful to see a young singer develop and over the last three years he has come very far. The fairly pallid creature in Two Boys and a charming Billy Budd Novice has turned into a confident Tamino. And now a shining Chevalier in this most women dominated of all operas. 

Anne-Marie Owens  gave us a wonderful Madame de Croissy. Angry about her health failing her but also still capable of heart wrenching tenderness towards the younger nuns. The death scene is such a spectacular opportunity for a singer to shine and she definitely grasped the chance with both hands, it was very moving, realistic and accompanied by some great singing.

Fiona Murphy’s Madame Lidoine started off as a cautionary new entrant to the convent that grew in confidence and humanity till her final sacrifice under the guillotine with some seriously forceful singing making her mark in a rapidly changing environment where she is both the centre of reference for the other nuns and also a centre of doubting instability. All carried through with a facade of dignity and genuine stage charisma.

The Sœur Constance of Soraya Mafi (impressively still a masters student at the RCM) was a ball of energy with a fresh voice that created the necessary counterweight to the other singers with a disruptive but ultimately humanising effect. The emotional journey of the character and the maturation through the work is made evident without for a minute leaving behind the bright-eyed enthusiasm that made her so noticeable.

The singers with the smaller parts gave adequate support and a sense of coherence, menace and structure.

The greatest achievement of this production was the unwavering sense of seriousness and menacing threat throughout the duration. Even the pesky long interval did not come to shatter the atmosphere. Doyle and his cast supported by a very forceful reading by Stephen Barlow and the English Chamber Orchestra gave a devastating and thoughtfully grim reading, as it should be. The obviously felt discomfort in the auditorium and the final mix of disgust at the unfairness and seduction by the luminous beauty of the Salve Regina was as powerful an emotional a knock as in any opera. Poulenc’s quirky masterpiece should not make for an easy evening out at a country house opera and this was a thought-provoking presentation getting to the very musical and intellectual core of it. We were all haunted by the church bell motif that keeps being repeated like an otherworldly loop, mesmerising and disquieting.

It will be interesting to compare next year the luxuriously cast, Robert Carsen directed and Simon Rattle conducted version that hits the Royal Opera in late May 2014. The memory of this performance will linger in the memory for a very long while as a great example of imaginative staging and a substantial realisation of the composer’s heavy demands.

Curtain call video

Some tweets from the evening

Production shots

GP Carmelites List

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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