Tag Archives: Simon Higlett

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. 

Almaviva croakes / The Barber of Seville / Scottish Opera / Edinburgh Festival Theatre – 19 November 2011

24 Nov

Had planned a trip to Edinburgh about four months ago, a city I particularly love. And looking through listings I realised that Scottish Opera were in town, with their Barber. So I thought it was a good reason to attend my first production by the company. This was a revival of the 2007 Tom Allen production and considering the complicated, roaming nature of the company it is very well done overall. Have to admit to having a bias against singers directing opera as they tend to either lack ideas or to just mush into a pulp elements of the different productions they have been in and trying to pass it off as something new.

Allen’s Seville is thoroughly traditional in look, down to the last window shatter. The set is essentially a street frontage with a removable section that gives access to Dr Bartolo’s house. It is well done if slightly unimaginative. One major plus for lots of viewers will be the hugely cluttered set, lots of net curtains, tables, a framed reproduction of Goya’s La maja desnuda resting against the wall upright, birdcages hanging from the ceiling etc etc etc. Personally I find too much clutter restricts what the singers can do on stage and for an opera buffa like the Barber it can create over reliance to nick nacks to arouse amusement. Which brings it too close to panto. No, don’t think for a minute I’m encouraging bare sets with a huge incline, as the current fashion. But we have to question how wise it is to have traditional productions that degrade the content to repetitive slapstick. Any production of the Barber has to be entertaining but that has to come from the performances as the moving force n0t the silly addition of false teeth or cubic meters of talcum powder.

Knowing of the recent troubles of the orchestra of Scottish Opera, I was most apprehensive about their performance. They seemed to respond well to the energetic conducting of Francesco Conti, despite the odd mishap here and there, they gave a lively if a bit underpowered in volume, reading (I’d attribute that to the acoustic of the theatre making the orchestra sound too small). It’s such a familiar score most of us become over-critical to the point of being unfair. An older gentleman seating in front of me spent most of the evening looking totally transfixed by the sight of the conductor, a rather amusing distraction from the awfully uncomfortable seating! How can they possibly be using this theatre alongside the Usher Hall as the main venue for the Festival every year? After the First Act my back was aching like hell!

The cast overall gave a spirited and committed performance, but have to single out Thomas Walker whose assumption of Count Almaviva was terribly worrisome during the First Act. While his tone is warm and has the handsome looks, he seemed to be very uncomfortable with any sections that drove him above forte. His upper register had a shrillness and coarse texture, that combined with the veiled quality of the voice made it a struggle to sit through the Act. Was he unwell, we were not informed but really felt for him as he surely must have being uncomfortable. I can though happily mention that his Second Act was a huge improvement, the veiled sound had disappeared and his singing became much more even and handsome throughout his range. A recovery of such extent I’ve never witnessed before!

One aspect that is the most difficult to deliver in any production of the Barber is comic timing. This cast surely gelled well together and particularly Figaro, Don Basilio and Dr Bartolo seemed to have a whale of a time. The Rosina of Claire Booth was a sweet creature with intelligence and cheek. Her Una voce was well detailed but lacked the liquidity in the upper register that makes it seem effortless. But her stage presence and charm made up for that. Her music lesson scene was a true star turn. In turns smitten and resolute. I’m sure it must be a lovely time to spend away from all the contemporary roles she has been taking on in the last few years.

Ville Rusanen’s Figaro was effervescent, with a true weasely look to him and a voice that tackled the runs and high notes with agility and gleam. Maybe not a truly Italianate voice with a more resonant chest voice, but a sensation on the night and rightfully so. My only criticism would be that he broke out of character after his Largo al Factorum, but that’s a touch mean spirited of me to mention.

Tiziano Bracci’s Dr Bartolo, a role so central to the story and a true Basso Buffo was another true star turn. He was lovably odd and calculating. His stage charisma is undeniable and aroused some loud belly laughs from the audience. Especially his singing during the music lesson was exemplary and a comedic master class. An excellent casting choice by Scottish Opera.

All in all a wonderfully entertaining evening out, despite the shortcomings of the staging. Next time I see a Scottish Opera production though, I’ll make sure it’s not at the same venue, those seats can leave me paralysed next time (OK that’s a Mediterranean exaggeration, but you get the point). Also I’m hoping to hear them reverse the current arrangements for their orchestral players that have essentially become part time contractors. An opera company lives and dies on a good quality orchestra that is dedicated and well rehearsed, the current situation at SO seems like the wrong way to go to bring costs down and bridge any budgetary shortcomings. I should not forget to mention the three ladies on my left who brought out a box of Lindor (very appropriate in a way with “Lindoro” on stage) early in Act One and loudly shook it and started eating the contents…I looked on with resentment and then Una Voce came up. Never mind!

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