Tag Archives: Roderick Williams

The shine of the blade / Medea / English National Opera – 13 February 2013 (dress rehearsal)

15 Feb

ENO MedeaSeeing David McVicar slowly metamorphosing into the new Zeffirelli at the Met Opera in the last couple of years, I was a little bit weary about how idea rich his take on Charpentier’s Medea could be.  French Baroque thrives on dance and spectacle and a director that comes up short can sink a production. I was hoping for some of  the verve and invention from his Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto than the stale Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda of late. But one thing I was sure about was the excellent fit of Sarah Connolly for the title role, last November she gave a captivating rendition of Quel Prix in concert but nothing could have prepared me for the outstanding quality of this production.

I know a lot of people don’t like reports based on the dress rehearsal but as I am seeing it twice more later in the run I promise to update if any other observations creep in that make revision imperative.

The performance lasts near 3 hours and 20 minutes, as McVicar and Curnyn decided (wisely in my view) to cut the half hour prelude in praise of the Sun King. After the short and punchy overture we are thrown straight into the torments of (the newly arrived in Corinth) Medea. The setting is a wartime 1940s panelled interior, the set slightly angled at 70 degrees with a raked mirrored floor. Three tall grazed French doors (oh the English terminology comes handy in context) are leading into a peripheral corridor that is used for myriad entries and exits throughout the evening. A simple unfussy but sophisticated backdrop, its faded neoclassicism a subtle allusion to the original period of the work. Straight from the start the smooth changeover from waiting room to an officer’s mess room (complete with uniformed cocktail waiter) is handled with great care, with stage hands dressed in tuxedos befitting the stately setting of the work. With the restrictions that an Edwardian theatre like the Coliseum imposes on each director McVicar showed his class as a world renowned specialist in the field. The set even though static till the last few minutes of this production, constantly changes with subtle cues, the spotlights in the corners of the room move in to make a more intimate atmosphere or to spotlight the King while lying on the floor beaten by Medea’s magical powers in Act Four. The large glazed doors acquire opaque panes and the wall sconces acquire lit candles in the last Act. By extinguishing them before the final scene the smell of wax travels across the auditorium adding an olfactory element to this production.

The costumes are exquisite with great attention to detail. The 1940s atmosphere staying strong with the tailored nature of all the womenswear and the officers’ uniforms. The glamour of the robe (here changing into a rather eye-catching gold lamé evening dress) as Connolly reveals it in her travelling trunk in the first few minutes on stage, also closes the opera three hours later having been poisoned by her and worn by Creuse who dies a painful (if beautifully sung) death. This being baroque opera, amongst all the tragedy we get a lot of dancing. And I am delighted to report that McVicar’s mix of romp and camp works so well it truly adds interest and makes the dances feel more integrated than during ENO’s last foray with Castor and Pollux where the dances seemed disconnected and throwaway. As originally planned for the French court the dances add amusement and atmosphere and slight relief from the tragedy at the centre of the work. The very first example is with the dancers donning RAF uniforms in a dark blue colour, their vibrant routine surely caused a raucous applause and added some light relief to a very sombre beginning. The six male and six female dancers appear in many guises, zombie-like denizens of the underworld (following the cross dressing personifications of Vengeance and Jealousy) to spirits of beautiful women. The biggest tableaux using the dancers is the “party scene” with the appearance of Aoife O’Sullivan as Cupid with black glittery wings aboard a Spitfire covered in pink glitter (standing in for Cupid’s chariot), surely the campest prop to grace a stage for some time! On the side of the pink plane there’s  a large stylised fan on a podium with a period microphone awaiting in a jazz siren style for an Italian captive of love (Sophie Junker) to sing Chi teme d’amore Il grato martire (left in the original Italian here).

It would be impossible to overstate how towering Sarah Connolly’s performance was. She dispatched this difficult role with such elegance and stamina. I was totally blown away. Her unwavering intensity while singing in the original soprano key was spectacular. A few times she sacrificed the beauty of the line for the sake of expression, especially when addressing Creon and Jason but it added such variety and pathos I don’t think even the most narrow-minded critic will find fault. When William Christie gave her the CD set of his recording and told Connolly this was the role for her, he was absolutely right. Once she hits the floor in Act Three and sings her pivotal aria Quel Prix de mon Amour the transformation from wronged wife to a woman driven by pain looking for revenge  is unavoidable. Soon after she discards both her jacket and skirt to continue the scene in a black negligee and evoke the spirits of hades to help her. McVicar uses the stage lift as the pit where smoke and her demonic assistants come through. It was a huge relief that he chose such a standard way to introduce them instead of trying to reinvent the wheel needlessly. At this point she is armed with a large kitchen knife that is her companion for the rest of the production as she closes in to her final act of vengeance against Jason. Fittingly the last coup de théâtre belongs to Medea, when the corner of the set comes apart and she sings her final words to Jason and then she is elevated and flies away. This was another example of the Director not trying to re-invent the action but followed on the steps of both Charpentier and Euripides in the Greek original. Also another telling approach that looks back at the performance practises of ancient Greek drama, was how the dead bodies of Creon and Orontes are presented. They appear on trolleys under the cover of blood splattered sheets. A very similar device to how the dead would be wheeled on an Ekkyklema a practise maybe not that familiar to British audiences but anyone with any background in the Classics would instantly recognise it.

As you can tell by now, I am very happy with the staging and it all came together so beautifully to make up one of the best opera evenings I’ve ever attended. Connolly gives a definitive interpretation, surely a highlight of her illustrious career so far. The rest of the cast get somewhat overshadowed by her presence but some great singing comes from Katherine Manley especially in her duets with Jason and Medea revealing a voice of great flexibility and a characterful actress. Jeffrey Francis give a very potent performance with voice to spare. The slightly goofy personenregie for Orontes does benefit by the lightness of touch that Roderick Williams brings to it. Brindley Sherratt brought gravitas and made for a great opponent to Medea, but crucially relaxed when left with Creusa away from his public function. Aoife O’Sullivan, Oliver Dunn and Rhian Lois give performances full of gusto and promise.

The orchestra gave a vibrant reading of the score with a few raw edges that will disappear before the first night. Like with Castor and Pollux Christian Curnyn manages to coax some idiomatic playing from the players while taking them out of their comfort zone.  The chorus sings beautifully through the evening, sometimes in military uniform and others in evening dress from stage and pit. Navigates Charpentier’s deceptively subtle but fiendishly difficult melodies with skill and obvious affection.

If you’ve read this far, I congratulate you and also implore you to go and see this truly wonderful production, do not be put off by the translation or the lack of “period instruments” this is an occasion to treasure and an all too rare chance to see this masterpiece of the French Baroque in London. This is one of those performances you will be telling friends about twenty years from now…GO!

ENO Medea list

Some Tweets from the evening

Twitter - OperaCreep- Woa McVicar #ENOmedea

Twitter - OperaCreep- Oh dress rehearsal audience ...

Twitter - OperaCreep- If this is not a career highlight ...

Twitter - OperaCreep- To the people that don't get ...

Twitter - OperaCreep- It was lovely having the chance ...

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The holy conversion of George / Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ / Britten Sinfonia / Sir Mark Elder / Brighton Dome – 10 December 2011

17 Dec

Dear reader, this has been a long time coming, but it has been a very busy week! I almost managed not to see this Enfance due to my stupidity at copying the wrong details in my cloud residing diary. So instead of the front row of the Queen Elizabeth Hall I daytripped down to Brighton for the third and last performance by this distinguished ensemble.

The singers were hand picked and Mark Elder has a unique gift and insight with Berlioz, I was expecting to be impressed but what I experienced was nearing to a cheesy holy conversion. No denying the fact this was one of the most glorious evenings of live music making of 2011.

Having Alan Clayton as the narrator was a brilliant move. He has such an extraordinary instrument (that truly shone in the recent Castor & Pollux at English National Opera) a beautiful sweet middle tone with a ringing Italian sounding bright top. A wonderful combination that elevates what he sings into another level. His narration was full of empathy and wonderfully subtle French, with true chemistry with the orchestra and the exemplary direction by Mark Elder.

Neal Davis, offered an impassioned Herod in the first half and a much more dramatically attuned Ishmaelite in the second. He surely had the power and expressive detailing right, but somehow his instrument does not possess the required darkness to add a more sinister tone to Herod’s outpouring of despair and resolve to order the death of the newborn Jesus. In Scene 4: Chaque nuit, Le même songe m’épouvante/Every night,The same dream terrifies me; where he retells his dream was beautifully realised but lacked the edge a darker timbre could bring. He is a wonderful singer but I can’t stop thinking he was miscast as Herod, his Ishmaelite was full of empathy and kindness.

Sarah Connolly was frankly a luxury in the small part of the Virgin Mary. She was excellent, as usual, giving a very simple but heartfelt portrayal and surely making a beautiful partner to Roderick Williams’ warm and softly sang Joseph.

Britten Sinfonia produced a very even, forward sound, with a rich tone, very appropriate to the piece. When it had to sound more saccharine in the end of part one for the Virgin Mary’s first appearance : Ô mon cher fils/O my dear son, they lived up to it, creating a velvety carpet for the sweet delivery by Sarah Connolly and the first duet with Roderick Williams. That was the first chance to hear the choir of angels which was off stage, sounding weightless and all round pure.

The recently founded Britten Sinfonia Voices first made a strong impression on the second intervention as the Soothsayers: La voix dit vrai, seigneur/The voice is right, Sire with their unwavering keeping up with Elder’s vivid tempo and alertness.

The opening of the second half was where the most rich demonstration of how amazing this ensemble was, came through. The opening Overture was a delight, a rich oriental clarinet infused eastern fantasy. Elder shaping the music into a voluptuous romantic essay in orientalism. The confident delivery by the male choristers representing the shepherds was a great intro to the most turbulent section of the piece, Allan Clayton’s narration of the flight from Egypt was full of colour and dramatic tension. Especially when he was quoting the Virgin Mary in the desert, against a rich carpet of violins underlying every word, he reached for his ringing upper register and then plunged to his chest voice for the finale, at that dramatic point a fly flew itself straight into the face of our tenor, which lightened ever so slightly the scene 😉 With the fly attack successfully averted the choir of angels exalted hallelujah!

With the fly still buzzing in the air, Clayton continued into part three, The arrival at Saïs. Where with great tenderness he described the hardships of the Holy Family in the desert and their arrival in Saïs. His tone was wonderfully soft and the emphasis on every word brought the story to life. The concluding:  Pleine de gens cruels, au visage hautain. Oyez combien dura la navrante agonie Des pélerins cherchant un asile et du pain! / Full of cruel, haughty-looking people.Hear how the distressing agony was to continue. For these pilgrims seeking shelter and bread! was possibly some of the most accomplished singing I’ve heard all year. The upcoming section by Connolly was equally dreamy, almost a mirage of a Virgin Mary at the edge of death. A desperate plea for Joseph to knock on a door was more dramatic than the text would suggest. Williams gave an impassioned good boy impression of Joseph that made the aggressive chorus sound even more hostile. The interwoven texture of the music with the two suffering characters and a forceful chorus, reminded me of a lot of French baroque opera with a begging scene where the hero and heroine ask for mercy. Here the balance between orchestra chorus and soloists was perfect, it was alive, dynamically propelled but unified. A great moment of the evening where the luxury casting bore unexpected fruit.

The next section was a triumph for Davies, who found a resonant bass sound for the Ishmaelite father showing compassion and understanding for the plight of the Holy Family. The culmination came with a brief trio, where Connolly gave a perfect example of a more introverted, classy dramatic power befitting the character. Plus d’alarmes/And my worries was sang out with conviction and true relief, a finale that is dramatic and a wonderful conclusion to the story.

The trio for two flutes and harp made Elder move to stage left to conduct at arms length the soloists, with a delicacy and luscious sound that brought to mind early music. Another great idea by Berlioz that was brought to life in the most captivating fashion. This part of L’Enfance is possibly where the dramatic arc can seriously sag but not under the baton of Sir Mark, this was truly lovely and got a very loud applause by the audience.

The Epilogue with its long string intro reminding me oddly of boats gliding in the night to port, created the perfect opening for an imposing closing section. Clayton clearly relishing every minute of it, singing in a light and reflective timbre, laced with soft vibrato. Even Neal Davies was enjoying the concluding moments, listening with his eyes shut, who can really blame him! The verve of the conducting and the attention to detail introduced once more the choir with breathtaking results, I can vouch at feeling my heart racing through the last ten minutes, reaching the culmination of such an extraordinary ride was both cathartic and truly glorious. Berlioz’s genius shone through. Britten Sinfonia put its heart into the music and the soloists added the splendid final flourish to an unforgettable evening. For me possibly one of the best live performances this year. As the gentleman in the front row (that disrupted Sir Mark’s long pause after the finale) with his enthusiastic applause and jump from his seat, felt too!

Some tweets from the night

Fight Club at the Opera / Castor and Pollux / English National Opera – 28 October 2011

31 Oct

It comes one of those nights where you really expect to hate the performance as on paper all odds are against it. On Friday I was expecting to hate the translation, the staging, the very idea of having baroque opera at the Coliseum. That was not a very promising start to it!

The performance was of the revised version of the opera from 1754 with some additions from the earlier 1737 version. The orchestra was made up of modern instruments with baroque bows and wooden flutes. conducted by Christian Curnyn (quite frequently aided by a black pencil in place of a baton) raised above the deep orchestra pit and almost meeting the front of the stage.

The set can only be described as a cross of a Finnish sauna with a garage made out of birch panelling from Ikea. As you can see from the photo above, a large box with a number of full length screens that create compartments in three different zones. For the final act the back panel disappears for Jupiter to arrive. Having a box containing the action and also helping to amplify the voices in the large space has become a convention for modern directed early operas. A similar construction was used at the Royal Opera House last year for Niobe Regina di Tebe. The set design is by Katrin Lea Tag.

Barrie Kosky made his London directorial debut with this production and from the very first minutes it became clear his direction was very physical. There are a number of macho fighting scenes between the two brothers and the eventual murderer of the mortal Castor. With blooded fists and abundant kicking and bashes against the side of the box. After the killing of Castor, Pollux in turn avenges the death by killing the perpetrator, with the choir dragging the bloodied body around the stage reminiscent of the recent footage of the capture and execution of  Gadaffi in Libya. A truly chilling image not expected in the quaint world of the baroque.

Due to that hardcore ultra violent base framework it will not come as a surprise to mention that the dances provided by Rameau are not interpreted on stage by ballet dancers. The first couple become almost party pieces for the choir and later on the singers are acting and even running around the stage to fill the emptiness. In some cases is more successful than others and since the ballets contain some of his most beautiful melodies I am grateful that so many of them have been included.

The main feature of the stage for a large part of the evening is a humongous mount of slate coloured sand. Creating a hill for the singers to run up to and a portal between hell and earth. On first appearance the screen lifts and the mount shows up shrouded in smoke, not sure if they were going for a Mount Olympus like look, but in reality it looked more like a steaming compost head (a rather unfortunate image to have in one’s head for the duration of the evening). Knowing how tight the budgets are at ENO I can understand how this solution was chosen for its flexibility and visual impact. The first proper use for the heap of sand is the mourning by Telaire (Sophie Bevan) of the bloodied body of Castor (Allan Clayton), who she buries during her powerful aria that expresses her love and sadness. The very burial of the body in such an exposed fashion does have an overtly emotional impact on the proceedings and for me gave added depth and humanity. Much has been written about the nudity and the two maidens of the many panties that accost Pollux. They were not really necessary to the action but added a wry interest in a couple of pretty innocuous moments in the score. Watching a programme with Katie Price is bound to be more shocking than some of those unclothed moments. Most notoriously the mount becomes the site for a masturbation scene with Phebe lying with legs spread and a disembodied arm projecting from the sand, pleasuring her. A slightly puzzling moment before she meets her maker!

The performance of the orchestra was very satisfying and the conducting was clearly supportive of the singers. The three out of the four protagonists were absolutely excellent. Roderick Williams and his velvety baritonal timbre gave us a humble, selfless but grand Pollux who managed to look great singing for 20 minutes in his underwear 😉 Allan Clayton’s Castor was tragic and brave with raw physicality and a voice full of emotional charge and ebullient spark. Sophie Bevan gave us two spectacular arias that truly embraced the rawness of the material and was not scared to show total commitment and fluency. For me the character of Phebe (Laura Tatulescu) was not fleshed appropriately for us to care. The singing was good enough (with the odd sharp vowel) but she seemed to have to reach the end of her range to hit a few of the high notes, looking a touch uncomfortable. Entrusting the central characters to an excellent young team was a fantastic move. The stage is buzzing with energy the total opposite of the static stagings of old.

The translation was much better flowing than expected but sometimes did create obstacles e.g. when Bevan was trying to trill while uttering the word weeping…it just looked unnecessarily difficult. But the performances by the cast made any translation issues fade into insignificance.

Despite a few flow glitches and some oddities with the direction. This presentation of Castor and Pollux is a wonderful night out, filled with excellent singing and a plethora of quirky little details, like the finale where the two brothers depart after they become stars by Jupiter, leaving behind their shoes. Which they get covered in silver dust that falls from the ceiling in two infinite streams sparkling like thousands of stars. A coup de théâtre that closes the evening with a hint of magic.

It is running till 1 December, if you are in London and have a passing interest or curiosity for French baroque opera, give it a try, surely you are bound to be impressed by the singing if not the production as a whole. We should be celebrating and supporting new singers of this calibre, it’s all good and well to pop in to see the swan song of Placido Domingo at Covent Garden but the young artists that are getting their big break with great repertoire are at the ENO, indeed they create the future of opera as their PR suggests.

If you can’t make it, there will be a broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 26 November, tune in. (Edit: It was only actually broadcast on 14 January 2012)

Tweets from the night:

Comment on The Observer website: 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/discussion/comment-permalink/13068075

Castor and Pollux in Rehearsal video

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