Tag Archives: Patricia Orr

Dull fabulosity / Madama Butterfly / Opera Holland Park – 29 June 2013

3 Jul

OHP ButterflyThe prospect of sitting through a performance of Butterfly is not something I tend to anticipate with relish. Returning to it after a near five year hiatus it proved to me that it is a score I cannot stand. Full of rather out of date ideas of “the orient” and with paper thin characters that do not excite me very much. It would be foolish not to acknowledge Puccini’s skill into interweaving melodies throughout the score in a very sophisticated manner, for instance the crescendo of the love duet from Act One gets recalled many times while Butterfly reminisces while everyone around her do not believe that Pinkerton will return.  But my main objection about the work as a whole is the obvious, blatant emotional manipulation he attempts, the crude black and white world of good and evil, Butterfly vs Pinkerton.

For an opera of the verismo persuasion it is lacking the very fundamental trait, of having a more realistic outlook. The opposite ends of morality collide in the most simplistic manner. Are we to believe that she is an innocent victim to the predatory hands of an American? It all just feels sordid and unsophisticated. A story that is underlined by a misogynistic, patriarchal culture clash fails to create ripples of excitement.

This production is also very static and with the least interesting set I have seen in a while. A long winding promenade lined with semi transparent fabric replicating the aesthetic of a traditional Japanese house and with only one set of doors in the centre (which curiously, when closed, locked into a popped up position attracting unwanted attention and adding a bit of unintended hilarity) didn’t quite help set the stage for the tragic story. This opera gives the possibility to explore the indoor/outdoor connection and to take advantage more of transparency as a story telling tool. But here the set was stolid and passive and while the body movement side of the personenregie was an interesting aspect (by Namiko Gahier-Ogawa) but the direction overall seemed lost and indistinct.
Some may interpret it as a production that doesn’t meddle with Puccini’s drama but to me it just seemed to under-sell it due to the lack of spectacle. The costuming was equally dull, redolent with the usual east/west clichés. Pinkerton in navy uniform and profusion of gold buttons, Butterfly and Suzuki in wigs looking as soft as crude stone carvings and kimonos. Also the make up let Yamadori down, his baldness looking shiny and latex laden in contrast to the clear naturalistic streak through the show.
The iconic use of the American flag, brought on stage by Pinkerton in Act One to cover his case of bourbon, later becoming the symbol of his absence as she places it on his empty arts and crafts chair. In the devastating finale she tears a piece of it and covers her son’s eyes as he sits on his father’s chair his back turned to his mother committing Jigai. A very powerful last tableaux that made it obvious what Durpels can do if given a convincing situation to act out.

The singing was of very high standard. Particularly Anne Sophie Duprels and Patricia Orr had a wonderful stage chemistry each sang with deep conviction and emotional sincerity. Cannot think of a more suited voice for Butterfly than our leading lady, she has a timbre made for Puccini with a gorgeous plush sound accompanied by a clipped sharpness that enunciates every word to its best advantage her Che tua madre dovrà was chilling with a fine balance between dignity and deep desperation. Many singers will go on a barrage of histrionics erring on the side of vulgarity but Duprels was perfectly judged and made the night into a most memorable one. Shame that Joseph Wolverton despite his beautifully bright timbre, the delivery in his upper register was a bit pinched and his acting a little too plain, in total contrast to Duprels. We were not shown much behind the arrogant, unsophisticated façade. But the casting of a more mature Pinkerton made him more of the revolting sex tourist Illica and Giacosa are describing and insinuating in the libretto.

The Sharpless of David Stephenson was strongly voiced even though he gave more the impression of an English baritone trying too hard to sound more Italianate. Sometimes pushing too hard and sounding blustery. But his involvement with the character at an emotional level was evident. Looking forward to seeing him sing Macbeth for Scottish Opera next March, can imagine him a much better match for Verdi’s denser writing.

The supporting roles were performed to a high standard, with the standouts being the pantomime pimp of a Goro by Robert Burt and the alluringly voiced and apologetically distant Kate Pinkerton of  Chloe Hinton. Manlio Benzi’s conducting was swift and forceful moving along the action to its crushing conclusion.

But the evening had one towering performance, that one of Duprels. Who despite my misgivings on Puccini’s musical language and subject matter gave a stunningly believable Cio-Cio San, lithe in body, economical in gestures and overall movement but with luscious vocal supplies that lifted this production to a much higher level. Her good taste and decorum made a character that is pathetic as it is loving and betrayed. Selfish in her lack of acceptance of change and yet shame claiming her life. A level of complexity that interweave drama, poetry and music to a seductive mix, only possible through the alchemic power of opera.

Some tweets from the evening

Curtain Call Video

OHP Butterfly List

From darkness to light / Lulu + The Cunning Little Vixen / Welsh National Opera, Cardiff – 23+24 February 2013

2 Mar

WNO Lulu+VixenLast weekend had my first live experience of Welsh National Opera and I am delighted to report back I was left with the impression that this may be the finest regional company in the UK. Their programming under the directorship of David Pountney has been inspired and was intrigued by the pairing of his brand new staging for Lulu and his 1980 production for the Cunning Little Vixen. His style has evolved over the years but there is the unmistakable stamp of his touch and the total focus on the singers.

On the Saturday night seeing my first live Lulu was all too exciting and being at front row and getting the full blast of this truly outstanding orchestra it was a treat for the senses. The conducting of Lothar Koenigs was confident and brought out the underlying lyricism of the score without losing the steely edge that Berg imparted on it. The staging has a paired down freshness that makes a problematic work like Lulu look effortless. The use of colour for each of the scenes was distinctive and very conspicuous adding a layer of warmth but also a sense of separation between scenes .

The set is made up of a central round enclosure in untreated, gleaming metal sections that opens up for Act Two to make space for the wonderfully fleshy bed that Lulu and Alwa make love before they flee to Paris. For the other two Acts the enclosure remains closed and flanked by movable platforms that add entrances for the singers and multiple levels. The central core of the enclosure remains initially empty till a spiral staircase descends creating a new stage dynamic. Possibly the most effective use of it, is when the frosted tube enclosing the lower part of the metal cylinder reaches the floor and becomes the room that Lulu’s final killing by Jack the Ripper takes place. With Marie Arnet screaming a haunted nein before her blood splattered naked body rests again the semi transparent wall. A finale chilling and gruesome enough to make one take notice. All of this is overseen by a disturbing Hans Bellmer inspired sculpture made out of just legs featuring as the stand in for Lulu’s portrait and contributed to the overall surreal look. The industrial look of the set makes overt reference to the aesthetic of Oskar Schlemmer and his designs for the Bauhaus, a contemporary of Berg and a hugely influential figure in the world of avant-garde theatre. If ever there was a production that felt that it evokes Berg’s own times this is the one.

The performances overall were excellent, with a towering interpretation by Marie Arnet who acted the sexy siren and downtrodden prostitute with equal conviction. Her singing remaining exemplary throughout, without any sign of stress or discomfort. There are not many singers that can make Lulu resonate with humanity and retain that demimonde edge like Arnet and this being her role debut (at fairly short notice since she replaced the previously advertised Olga Pasichnyk) it was a complete triumph. From the rest of the cast Patricia Orr, Alan Oke, Natascha Petrinsky and Peter Hoare were the stand outs. All vocally assured and totally inhabiting the characters the detailed direction bestowed upon them. Particularly Natascha Petrinsky’s Duchess Geschwitz nearly stole the show with her alluring lesbianism and dominating stage presence. Pountney’s direction created a deeply hedonistic staging making this Lulu of international importance. He added a carnivalesque atmosphere (with some extraordinary animal heads ) and also some dark theatricality (with each dead protagonist having a dummy double that gets hoisted up the set using meat hooks) but above all he stresses the interaction between characters making this a very well resolved example of this unfinished modernist masterpiece.

Pountney’s direction for the Cunning Little Vixen is equally compelling, with much bouncy fun to be had and a truly adorable set, shaped like rolling hills, allowing for much slapstick comedy to take place. The excellent use of the suspended tree branches and three secondary characters added a touch of dynamism that made it feel very fresh (considering it was premiered in 1980!). The costumes by Maria Bjørnson were good enough to allude to the different animals (the mosquito, chickens and cockerel being particularly fine examples) but without making the production look excessively cartoony and contrived. The projection of anthropomorphism by Janacek on the Vixen and the animals around her is usually undermined by overt mimicking of the animals’ appearance at the expense of the expression and the tension between singer and costume. The production is sang in a rather entertaining English translation making the jokes flow and the audience reaction more immediate. The Vixen of Sophie Bevan was the most enchantingly glorious creature on stage, beaming personality and displaying a great sense of comic timing. Julian Boyce’s scruffy, predatory dog was the funniest thing on stage. Sarah Castle’s Fox was perky and despite a couple of times sounding shrill, a great addition with her outgoing enthusiasm. From the “grown up roles” Alan Oke was a bravura schoolmaster with a deliciously sharp temper.
The orchestra played a majestic account of the score finding a mid-point between glorious romantic tutti and much more incisive and playful incidental material. The glistening strings added sunshine to a windswept day in Cardiff, which is no mean feat. After seeing this production I can now agree to the classic status of the staging, it both draws from all our childhoods and it also beguiles with its lightness and unapologetically fun outlook. Lets hope that it will continue to live on and to entertain many more people.

On the surface it may seem an odd accident of programming to have these two operas performed in the same themed season (with addition of Madama Butterfly) but it was very useful to read David Pountney’s essay in the programme and I am delighted that the WNO has shared it on their website, go on have a read. If the above is not too obvious already, I was thoroughly impressed by the WNO and already started making plans to visit in the winter for their three Donizetti queens which should be a supreme, unmissable, operatic over-indulgence. If you are in the route of their extensive tour do not hesitate to book, both Lulu and Vixen are two productions that any of the London Houses would be delighted to claim as their own. They are imaginative, intelligent and above all serve the work they present with respect and have something to say.

The performance of Lulu from the 23rd of February I’m waxing lyrical about will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 25th of May at 6pm, tune in!

Curtain Call Video

WNO’s Guide to Lulu

WNO Lulu+Vixen list

%d bloggers like this: