Tag Archives: Pamela Helen Stephen

Otello, grey and unresolved / ENO – 13 September 2014 Opening Night

25 Sep

ENO OtelloThis season it is the 30th anniversary of David Alden’s association with English National Opera the products of his labour have been enjoyed in London for so long and with mixed reactions to make him always a safe bet for a thought provoking take on the old classics. His hand seems more sure and definitive when it tackles less mainstream repertoire and judging from this Otello that still holds true. The new staging in a multi-purpose single set has the usual signature grey tonalities and sparing use of colour, rusty cinnamon and greens deep browns.

Otello is one of Verdi’s works that demands an uninhibited touch with spectacle, like Aida, it is a game of big choral forces and unsubtle arias and the tragic demise of the heroine. Alden’s directorial concept seems to gravitate into making the story of the wrongly blamed and killed Desdemona into a very public drama. Her arena of suffering being a Cypriot town square of the inter war period. His societal approach is a strong suit and very well done when Verdi’s libretto requires it, but this production totally falls flat and stops being engaging when the more domestic parts of the story unfold.

Iago’s Credo is the only intimate part of the evening that truly comes alive. Jonathan Summers steps down from the stage and sits with legs over the pit as he spits out every words as if it soils his mouth one at a time. The intensity of his acting prowess creates a domestic setting out of this Byzantine ruin of a civic square.

For the crucial final scene the lack of a proper domestic setting and the very disappearance of the prerequisite bed are puzzling. Desdemona’s whole frame of mind is informed by her enclosed environment of her bedroom, here a wonderful Leah Crocetto is left running about aimlessly covering the vast empty space Alden has cursed her with. To her immense credit it is very difficult to take one’s eyes off her, despite her young age she holds the audience’s attention with skill and with her exemplary light touch. Even if it is obvious she lacks the stage experience of other singers in the role, she makes up in freshness, gloriously spun phrases and charm.

Alden’s bigger credit is the extremely detailed for Iago, he clearly gave Jonathan Summers a lot of material to chew over and it shows, his presence is not just menacing but radiates self pity and misanthropy. His singing was probably on par with his excellent acting that underpinned the whole production. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the rudimentary, bouncer like heaviness of Stuart Skelton. Pouncing on everyone and everything. A particularly ridiculous moment comes when he lifts a leather armchair and stops only short of hurling it into the pit. A ludicrous, monstrous, misjudged personification of Otello that gives him a superficial varnish of thuggery. What is the point of having the vocal goods to sing this part when he lacks the required elegance and acting ability? I am not expecting Shakespearean prowess but do not expect a Jon Vickers tribute act, either. Hope during the run he will loosen up and bounce off more against the more nuanced colleagues on stage and mellow his performance.

ENO Otello ListThe ENO chorus and orchestra had a more mixed night with ensemble problems especially in the first Act. To make the thundering opening of the opera go past in a near whimper was disappointing, but in reality not helped by the way Alden directs it. The Act Three parade of Venetian dignitaries is much more effective by adding more movement and spectacle.  And for once the chorus is allowed to be deployed across the stage and widen the sound stage.

If a new production can’t match the impact of Elijah Moshinsky’s ancient Covent Garden show you know you have an issue. Allan Clayton was an exceptional Cassio with wonderful diction and his sweet lyrical tone adding much interest in a character that Verdi spends very little time developing. Not sure why he was portrayed as a drunk, but the sacrilegious fun of using a Madonna and child Byzantine icon as a dart board in a competition with Iago was stroke of genius, as a symbolic finger to the church.

Also the Emilia of Pamela Helen Stephen was exemplary in her personification of the innocent bystander watching in horror of the tragedy unfolding. The angular lighting of Adam Silverman was rather stunning to look at despite only having the one vast set to work with, not exactly giving him much to play with.

No matter how great or not the individual performances were, this production just felt short on emotion and empathy. Totally missing the great opportunity to depict the light and shade world of Verdi’s (maybe) simplistic universe with nuance and variety. Apart from the revelatory Iago the rest of Alden’s ideas felt distinctly uninteresting. Do go and see if you prize spotting young talent at the start of an international career. Leah Crocetto has such immense promise.

 Some tweets from the night

 

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Northern triple / Otello + La Voix Humaine + Dido and Aeneas / Opera North / Leeds Grand Theatre – 16 + 17 February 2013

21 Feb

Opera North tripleThis was my second long weekend away to attend some performances by Opera North. This time the overall quality and breadth of repertoire was a mix of the accomplished, the dull and the dubious.

My personal highlight was Lesley Garrett’s return to the operatic stage after over a decade in Poulenc’s take on Jean Cocteau’s one woman drama. She apparently proposed the project to Opera North and in many ways the subject matter of the piece seems to resonate with Garrett’s career and life trajectory, she is like Elle a performer past her prime and at 57 not an artist most critics would take seriously. Especially after having spent the last fifteen years singing amplified musicals and appearing in TV reality shows. She committed the cardinal sin in opera circles, she dared to be a popular entertainer when her ENO soubrette parts starting to dry out. Many called her career moves desperate and blamed her for disgracing her operatic training and the genre. Even very recently she sang a dreadfully mannered God Save the Queen for the award ceremony of the Tour de France to Bradley Wiggins.

But have to give her full credit for the performance and for the choice of work. Voix is an unflinching monologue and in Aletta Collins’ direction she appears facing the audience for the first ten minutes through what appears to be a dressing room mirror, lined with lit up bulbs. Her anguished expression the only introduction to the piece till the chilling opening chords, quickly followed by the humorous xylophone produced telephone ring tone. When the stage front disappeared we were left with a mirror image of her dressing room with the mirror and objects behind her. From my box I could constantly see the reflection of the conductor in the mirror, adding an extra dimension to the piece…at least till her lover appeared at the back of the two-way mirror a few minutes later. The faded dressing room had a folding bed on the left and a shower cubicle on the right. Garrett moved between the two during the phone conversation with her unfaithful lover in a state of rising hysteria. The emotional development through the 45 minutes of its duration was masterful and with crystal clear diction she sold every word. She avoided the usual pitfall of over-sentimentalising or over-dramatising the finale. Her sense of anguish and imminent loss were communicated with subtle hushed lines addressed to herself while the receiver lied on the bed or her chest. Collins’ direction had her most of the duration of the piece in a black negligee with a plunging neckline giving Garrett literally no place to hide. Her voice and projection were more than adequate for the part which has few sustained sections but no one can accuse of lacking stage presence. She owned the part of the terrified scorned lover with such authority that it was deeply impressive.

The performance by the orchestra under Wyn Davies was exemplary, bringing the mid-century sound of the piece alive and with an unmistakable Gallic tartness. Many feminist writers find La Voix indefensible and a sure sign of commodification of female grief, presented as an entertainment vehicle put together by two gay men. But having Aletta Collins and Garrett work on it, they added their own distinctive  take on the work. It did not make us all feel voyeuristic in the slightest, it was more a confession by a dear friend of their innermost feelings. We watched on as she fell apart and contemplated suicide. The great concluding touch was to have a double for the dishevelled Garrett in front of the mirror (and her back to the audience) while she showed up behind the mirror wearing the red sequined dress that was still hanging from one of the dressing room lights.

The work is also an interesting comment on the nature of performance and the attitude of an ageing performer to the knocks along the way. That very allusion to her own career path and its twists and turns made for a fascinating reading of the piece. Cocteau’s play is all about imperfect technology (the still unreliable telephone service heavily reliant on operators and compromised by crossed lines) and how it mirrors the imperfection of human relationships. Like a cruel phone calls stops Elle on her tracks, so we were left to mull over Garrett’s life and career in the public eye.

Unfortunately the productions of Otello and Dido and Aeneas did not grip me in the same way. Otello being transferred by Tim Albery to an american military base did not really offer much. Despite the beautifully functional set and costumes by Leslie Travers the staging did not really speak to me. The terribly old fashioned and heavily upholstered take by Moshinsky at Covent Garden packs,  to my great surprise, more of an emotional punch. The orchestra sounded much rougher with Verdi’s frequent use of grand gestures punctuated by brass. The rather open orchestra pit of the Grand Theatre possibly amplified the musical issues, making me wish for more fire and direction.

But the excellence of the cast cannot be under estimated, Ronald Samm was uneven (it seems he was suffering with a persistent cold) but sang with great affinity with the material and especially in his duets with Desdemona he was rather affecting, just a shame that their seminal duet in Act Two took place between two reversed pieces of set that had all the refined look of a public toilet, killing the dramatic impact of their confrontation.

David Kempster’s Iago was a rather cunning, calculating human being. His Era la notte, Cassio dormia was beautifully coloured with a sense of underlying malice. He was the one singer that was vocally constant and brought depth to the production.

The Desdemona of Elena Kelessidi was on the lighter side but brought beautifully spun phrases and was very focused in Act Four. I just did not believe much of the characterisation and that would be the fault of the director not finding a true personality for his main female protagonist. Usually like a much more dramatic soprano singing the part but Kelessidi delivered some gorgeous singing making the best of her resources. The extended chorus was near deafening in the opening scene and continued with much punch and bounce.

Dido and Aeneas was an over produced and under thought mess. When one is reduced to counting how many Didos are on stage (final count was 9)…you know you have a problem. My main issue for being rather bored with this bedroom set performance was how short it was on magic. The dancing itself was very beautiful and nuanced but once all the secondary characters (the witches, the spirit etc) started arriving as doppelgänger of Dido my heart started to sink. I am sorry to report that despite some excellent singing (with just enough vibrato to annoy the period performance sticklers) from Pamela Helen Stephen who gave a rather heart wrenching finale the evening failed to be truly engaging. Notable also were Phillip Rhodes and Jake Arditti who made their Opera North debut in sparkling fashion. The beautifully bright timbre of Nicholas Watts was a glimmer of light in an already sunk production.

Try to catch them while they are touring, forget what you’ve read in the papers about Garrett and book to see Voix it really is very, very good!

Opera North triple list

My Top 12 of 2012

20 Dec

2012 graphicThe end of the year and we all give in to the convention of going through the draws of our minds and paying tribute to the most entertaining and uplifting events of the year. I published a top 11 list last year and thought I’d avoid innovation and go for a top 12 for this year. I am only hoping I will not be blogging in the year 2040 as the list will become too long.

Mittwoch aus Licht

Was a cross-disciplinary spectacular. Thought as unstagable but somehow Graham Vick managed to take us all on a journey. It was cooky, it was extravagant and above all a memory to last a lifetime. Cue in helicopters, cosmic camels and a trombonist in a paddling pool. Here’s my post on the experience.
Click here to read the post.

Alice Coote

Her interpretation of Winterreise was one of the most moving performances of the year. Her programme in honour of  Kathleen Ferrier was a joy to listen to. Her concentrated deeply tragic version of Britten’s cantata Phaedra was also wonderful. We are very lucky to have her and delighted the Wigmore Hall thinks so too.
The CD and download of her Wigmore Hall Winterreise is available to buy from 8 April 2013, here’s the link to the Amazon UK page.

Click here to read the post.

Calixto Bieito’s Carmen

English National Opera were so right to bring to London this extraordinary directorial tour de force. One of the few times when a very strong directorial concept marries with an opera so deeply they become one. The production was an earthy manifestation of Bizet’s masterpiece with such assurance and self-containment that enthralled.
Click here to read the post.

Anja Harteros in Otello

That was a night of wonderment and astounding depth. Even the creaky fusty old production didn’t matter. It was impossible to avert one’s eyes from the purposeful, intense Desdemona underpinned by a complexity so inspiring. Harteros may have a lot of detractors and her record at showing up for shows may not be the most consistent. This performance left me tingling and wanting to see her again soon.
Click here to read the post.

McVicar’s Rosenkavalier at ENO

What a beautiful, non-fussy production with a great cast that understood what Strauss is all about. John Tomlison, Sarah Connolly, Sophie Bevan and Amanda Roocroft had a wonderful chemistry on stage with Edward Gardner creating a most dense gold coloured sound from the pit that made it a very special evening.
Click here to read the post.

Scottish Opera’s Magic Flute

A beautiful steam punk inspired production by Thomas Allen made by a singer for the singers. Showed Scottish Opera in a great light despite the recent financial and organisational ups and downs. It was well cast and the sure-fire hit they need to help them stay relevant and afloat.
Click here to read the post.

Opera North’s Giulio Cesare

With the great sets of Leslie Travers and pacey direction of Tim Albery. The performance was built around the radiant and alert performance of Sarah Tynan who was an ideal Cleopatra and Pamela Helen Stephen’s earthy Caesar was the compete opposite all battlefield mud and conflict. The production was tightly knit and beautifully sung throughout. The Royal Opera may stay away from any baroque opera but thank heavens that regional companies are not as apathetic towards the interpretation possibilities of it. And are willing to tour it across the country to thousands of people in the regions.

Ailyn Pérez

I still remember the buzz before her unexpected recital in March (she took over for an indisposed Giuseppe Filianoti) rushed to grab some tickets to see her and was not disappointed. Her creamy delivery and melting honesty was such a potent blend. She is an artist to watch and can’t wait to see her return to London very soon.
Click here to read the post.

Véronique Gens

She is  firm favourite of mine and had the chance to see her in action twice in the last few months at the Wigmore Hall. Her delivery of mélodies was exemplary, fusing a breezy natural style with a warm stage presence. Her singing manages to look effortless and yet is full of innate good taste and finesse. 
Click here to read the post.

Royal Opera’s Les Troyens

The production was overall hit and miss, but the incredibly vibrant,  Cassandre of a real tragedienne like Anna Caterina Antonacci the butch Enee of Bryan Hymel,  the variable but very regal Eva-Maria Westbroek and the sparkling tenor of  Ed Lyon made for a very memorable musical evening. So much so, that I snapped up another ticket and made my way to the very gods of the lower slips of the Amphitheatre not phased by the uncomfortable sitting arrangements over the over five hours duration. 
Click here to read the post.

Magical Ravel double bill at Glyndebourne

It was my first visit to Glyndebourne and it was everything I hope for and even more. Both productions were simply magical. Especially the brand new L’enfant et les sortilèges was as joyful to watch as it was to listen. The London Philharmonic played with such distinction and style that left us buzzing. Also the long interval was very welcome and our restaurant meal was expensive but also utterly delicious. Laurent Pelly was clearly at home in the whimsical and magical worlds of the two jewel like operas.
Click here to read the post.

Sarah Connolly

Another firm favourite and one singer I can not have enough of. Saw her sing Elgar, French baroque and Strauss. All of them distinctive all of them spectacular in their own right. Her upcoming Charpentier Medea with McVicar directing for ENO will be a great start for 2013 and her appearance as Phèdre in Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne will have me booking for a return trip to East Sussex in August. 
Click here to read the posts.

So many more entries could have made it here but the above are a quick distillation of some great evenings out and being present for some music making of great quality and variety. 2013 will hopefully be as full and interesting, maybe even bringing with it some surprises and new discoveries. A big thanks is owed to all my readers for putting up with my meandering blog posts. Have written this blog based on my belief that opera is alive and constantly changing and as a way to inspire others to give it a go. If just a single reader was inspired or intrigued to go to an opera or classical performance in the last year, it would make writing this blog all the more enjoyable and purposeful. 

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