Tag Archives: Susan Bickley

Branded by Jones / Rodelinda / English National Opera – 2 March 2014

10 Mar

ENO RodelindaLove him or hate him Richard Jones is a meticulous and provocative director. He surely thinks through his productions and tends to vehemently stick to the ideas that underpin them. Saw his Rodelinda for ENO  a week ago (his first Handel opera in 18 years) and still swirls around my head. His take on Handel is full of contradictions and theatricality, full of poetic moments and uncomfortable silliness.

For all his splashy visuals this production come through as thoughtful and wanting to pick an intellectual argument with its audience. Rodelinda’s role in this opera is thoroughly dissected. She becomes the object of fascination that is spied on by CCTV cameras. The play thing of destiny that threatens to crush her. But also the strong, virtuous mother that will fight to her last breath for her son and her social position.  Despite the busy production, including some unnecessary projections in between scenes that are meant to introduce us to the next locale accompanied by very loud pre-recorded soundtrack and the three damned treadmills . The centre of the action never wavers far away from Rebecca Evans. She brings unique dignity and vigour to the part with spectacular singing.

Jones’ central visual motif is the presence of tattoos, to denote relationships and changes to the state of mind of the characters. Grimoaldo initially sports one with the name of Eduige and as he starts falling for Rodelinda he quickly gets it covered up and a huge new one across his back spells the name of his captive and under surveillance prey. The exploration of the use of body marking to express love, being a great match for the production’s setting in Italy in the 1950s. The time when tattooing started to break free from the confines of prisons and the navy and started to denote a fashionable tribe badge. This aesthetic choice even adorns the artwork on the programme cover.

In this opera people that are brought together by circumstances and breeding are brutally separated by politics and animosity. The indelible mark on one’s skin becomes an act of emotional engagement and an attempt to brand one’s feeling for all to see. That mix of public display and vying for attention is at the heart of this work.  As the central power triangle of Rodelinda, Bertatido and Grimoaldo is motivated by a potent mix of sex and political power. The impressive sets by Jeremy Herbert (especially the impossibly phallic monument to Bertarido) convey a polished, design conscious Italy of the  post Musolini era, a perfect setting for a work that is so enamoured with the surface of power and the nature of love.

The only seriously problematic choices  were the use of slapstick  particularly in the last Act, turning violent confrontations into a Tom and Jerry cartoon fight, getting hold of progressively bigger weapons until the ultimate cartoon weapon shows up to the chagrin of the audience…the oversized dynamite roll that is used to explode Bertarido’s monument. A diversion into farce that undid many poignant moments of the previous two hours.  The other issue was the presence of the three treadmills at the front of the stage used most of the time as a cliche to animate when the different characters chased one another and seemed to not be that integrated in the overall design by being obstructive and at times becoming just immobile pedestals creating an obstacle course for the singers. Maybe an aspect to re-think before the staging moves on to The Bolshoi in the near future.

The two moments of absolute beauty that will remain indelible in my memory is Rodelinda’s mourning aria  Ombre, piante, urne funeste, staged in the simplest fashion possible putting the focus on Evans and her hear wrenching, achingly gorgeous singing. As she laments the supposed loss of her husband at the base of his monument. One of those very special moments that make the world feel immobile, the ultimate declaration of sadness and loss.

But the greatest moment of this production came at the end of Act Two with Io t’abbraccio man and wife have finally come together once more but the world around them has irrevocably changed. Jones’ had the ingenious idea to use the separated three part set as the material manifestation of the mind of the two singing characters and the mute presence of the crushed Grimoaldo in the centre. As the two lovers sing their rooms move apart to the side of the stage until they disappear into the grey walls leaving the pathetic figure of the fallen dictator isolated and broken.  An image so potent and when accompanied by such wonderful, passionate singing and Handel’s ethereal music became a great example of how opera above most art forms can express emotion in the most direct way possible, devastating in its potency and yet life affirming.

The two tremendous vocal triumphs by Evans and Davies were underpinned by the light voiced purity of Christopher Ainslie who created a notable contrast to the more muscular sound of Davies, relieving any possibility of counter-tenor fatigue. Despite all the involved acting by John Mark Ainsley sounded uncomfortable on the higher lying parts of his role, making some of his arias feel like hard work. Susan Bickley acquitted herself nicely with her usual colourful, characterful singing.

The conducting by Christian Curnyn was of the high standard, we have come to expect from him. Well judged tempi and a definite rapport with the cast. It was a shame the pit wasn’t raised slightly as it was done for Castor and Pollux but I’d think it has to do with sharing the venue with Rigoletto on alternate nights. But it was a delight to have Handel’s glorious score being played with such fluency and love. And in a production that despite any farcical diversions was emotionally potent and a great exponent of what the ENO does best, though-provoking director’s opera. If you can make it, well worth catching the handful of performances left or pop over to Radio 3 and listen to the live broadcast from last Saturday. 

ENO Rodelinda List

The ENO Podcast

Some tweets from the evening

The dreamworld of Mr Jones / Julietta / English National Opera / Opening night – 17 September 2012

20 Sep

I have been hosting the blog posts of Claire Pendleton from the ENO chorus  for the last month and I had a good idea about the set up and direction of Julietta and even had a sneak peek view of the set during rehearsals. But the great unknown was always the work itself. Martinů takes the dreamworld of the original play into an extreme, his composing becoming fragmented and episodic, very few of the narrative threads are followed through and much of the singing is a recitativo accompanied by pillowy (at time wondrous) music. It makes for an unsatisfactory night at the theatre if the audience is not prepared to take it at face value and allow itself to be seduced by the spare but oddly voluptuous soundworld of Julietta.

The heroine is a dream and it seems so is the possibility of a coherent narrative. This production was immaculate and the orchestral playing was tremendous. Particularly how it was customised to the sometimes too hot acoustic of the coliseum was an impressive feat. The music sounded distant and echoing at times and others the fortissimi braced the material into shape. Edward Gardner as an astute and highly theatrical conductor managed to bring out a wealth of beauty and lyricism. The woodwind passages in Act Two were truly delicious and worthy of the concert hall let alone the opera house. The singing was mostly exceptional, Peter Hoare was tremendous as the dream swept Michel and managed to take us all on a journey as he gradually starting losing himself and his own memories and retreating from reality to the uncertain world of dreams. His singing was always assured and full of spark. His Julietta was as ethereal and edgy one would wish Julia Sporsén (who was unfortunately let down by the orchestral balance on appearance in Act One) sang with an airy confidence and strong stage presence. We could surely see why she made such and impression on Michel. She made a great case for ENO’s frequent casting of singers from its own young artist programme for major parts. If she was that wonderful on opening night imagine how much she will grow through the run.

The chorus who mainly creates a reflective echoing sound through the first two acts was a great asset and established the mood set by the orchestra.  And also supported Michel in his attempt to find his way through the provincial town he found himself stuck in.  Also Claire did do a magisterial dash across the stage in Act Two, as mentioned in a previous blog!  From the smaller parts Susan Bickley was a tremendous presence and the source of much hilarity either as the fortune-teller that talks about the past or as the old woman coming out to admonish Michel. Henry Waddington made an assured man at the window plus a dry witted waiter in the Second Act. One singer that made a distinctly bad impression on me was Emile Renard who maybe too carried away by the little arab character just oozed arrogance throughout the evening. Especially when she was out-sang as one of the three men by Clare Presland and  Samantha Price. She has a lovely lyric voice but her stage presence could use a little bit of toning down.

The production by Richard Jones was well honed (after all this is the third incarnation of this production since 2002) the three differently orientated accordions created a suitably surreal and evocative setting. One slight annoyance was the flimsy construction of the instrument in Act One with the doors almost prematurely flung open on impact. I can imagine Julietta with its sparse orchestration can be a victim to a director’s whim to add extra clutter to make up for it. Jones went against the grain and allowed the music and signing ample space to breathe. His attention to physical acting paid dividends, both Hoare and Sporsén gave us a fully lived performance of great distinction.
The addition of the custom curtain design made up of white drawn sleepers in pyjamas spelling out Julietta, with Michel being the last one on the lower right was a nice touch and when it re-appeared in the end it brought the story to a circular conclusion. Another beautiful touch was the wandering french horn player in the wood of Act Two adding another surreal touch in addition to the wine waiter and a piano being “played” by Julietta on a moving platform towards the back of the stage.

Jones’ touch was light and this production deserves to be seen for its sheer ebullience and wit. Unfortunately what let it down was Martinů and his fragmented, sometimes prescriptive music that especially in Act Three felt overtly laboured. Overall I am delighted that ENO exposed us to such a repertoire rarity especially when staged with such conviction and good taste but two days later not much of the music has stayed with me.  It surely was surreal and witty and a wonderful night out, but as an opera it seemed to lack that extra hook that makes it unforgettable. I may have to return to see if I will allow myself to be won over by the music 😉

Some tweets from the evening

Fashionability and utter hollowness / Two Boys / English National Opera – 08 July 2011

10 Jul

Last Friday’s experience at ENO was a reaffirmation to always trust my instinct. Had I listened to it this time I wouldn’t be subjected to the most mind numbing evening I bare to remember. It made the recent Pelleas seem like a walk in the park!

Muhly’s music was a droll long piece of music with little variation, think Debussy but only less interesting.

Having read a number of reviews I was not too alarmed by what I read about the darling of the Upper East Side. The opening cords as the work started where marked by a mock symphonic grandeur that was rather pleasing and then when we starting to encounter the different cardboard thin characters it all disintegrates to a flatulent exchange of banal phrases. Lots of reviewers where clearly been fed the line that Susan Bickley was some latter day operatic version of Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect character…guess what dear readers that was total tosh. The forced mannerisms of a quasi policewoman, with the accompanying frumpiness do not make a Jane Tennison. Possibly the worst part of Anne Dawson (Bickley’s character) was that she was cursed with some truly atrocious lines that only made some clueless Americans and some middle-Englanders in the auditorium chuckle. Choice lines like: What’s a server? / Bloody Christ!  sank me deeper and deeper in despair. Some obvious clunkers in the plot-line such as Brian’s (the accused teenager) mother that apparently had never met any of his friends.The truly awful church scene and the superfluous  scenes with Dawson’s mother that added nothing of substance, were brushed aside as we were supposed to be witnessing a gesamtkunstwer apparently!

We have all been living with internet access for over 15 years and as such we expect a certain level of sophistication within a work that uses online exchanges as it’s main plot driver. Especially when it’s written by a 29 year old ardent social networker composer. But unfortunately this was anything but, the en masse chorus ensemble pieces were just scripted silly cliches repeated ad nauseum. Supported by feeble music that it had borrowed more from Philip Glass and John Adams than any discernible originality of its own creator. If people came to listen to a curated two hour mixtape, this was the right gig. Most of the woodwinds where straight out of mid career Glass (think Qatsi trilogy and you’re there) while the use of  drums and assorted bells created a soundworld that Adams would feel straight at home with. You may think I am being terribly harsh on Muhly on this count, but unfortunately the score had very few points where it lifted off the mundane droll that it too clearly was pleased to occupy. At the end of the first act I wondered that this feeling of acute boredom would be whisked away in the second half…but that wasn’t to be. The paper thin story really did not provide enough interest through another 45 mins of the same post-minimalist muzak.

Another much lauded feature of the production were the video projections by 59 Productions. Apparently they added freshness and vitality and they were clearly the needed accessory for our fashionable composer’s grand manifestation of his art. As I Tweeted from the Coliseum, your copy of iTunes can do a better job with its visualiser. The projections were too obvious (schematic diagrams creating a starry sky like internet representation / floating photographs straight out of OSx) and actually I wouldn’t be surprised if the choral pieces backdrops were inspired while they were using the backup utility on their Macs (Time Machine, have a look here). Sylvie Guillem single handedly had a much better use of video for a humble dance show than this much lauded, ENO impoverishing multinational production. The only positive use of the projections where when the Inspector played back the CCTV tape, that had a much better relationship with the actions on stage and not the awkward filler that it was for pretty much the rest of the performance.

The overall direction by Bartlett Sher was subdued and actually not bad…it just had the feel of a furniture warehouse with the incessant moving and dragging of tables, chairs, armoires and assorted pine bedroom sets. I wish they had just used a revolving stage or some stage lifts to move the different sets around. Also maybe the cartoonish whisky swigging by Bickley was another one for the not a good idea list.

There were some positive aspects to this unqualified shit storm that the English National Opera served us.

• The duet between between Brian and Rebecca in Act I was fervent and very well sang, a rare lift for the deeply mundane score

• The character of Jake was beautifully sang by Jonathan McGovern and really wished he had more material to sing.

•The final choral piece was indeed beautifully written and well conceived despite the fact we had to endure two hours of really average saggy narration to get to that point.

All of the above may sound like an all out attack on Nico Muhly and his music, but that is not true. I do think he has huge potential and the blame would possibly more lie on his backers and the Metropolitan Opera commissioning him such a major piece. They threw him in the lion’s mouth just in the name of some skewed idea that they were rejuvenating the genre or that they were bringing in new audiences. The fact that he’s only 29 years old is clearly a big marketing advantage and his fashionable status was  used to death. But any opera house lives and dies on the box office returns and judging from reports, frequent looks at the ENO website and also my experience on Friday, the auditorium was half empty.

It’s all nice and well to promote a fancy new piece by a young composer with a cringe-worthy “viral” campaign but it has to backed by true substance and a killer (terrible pun) subject. Two boys failed on both counts, adding references to blow jobs, online grooming and pornography does not add any edge to an already caricatured world where the main protagonist is clothed in a hoodie, the secret police looks like cast offs from a rap video casting call and even the token spy is wearing a wearisome camel burbery raincoat. It was the first time in about 5 years that I withheld my applause and I am truly happy to have spent only £20 on a front row Dress Circle ticket. If it ever makes it on the Met stage I’d hope it will have a serious revision to improve the material, if a revision was not beneath Verdi, than Muhly should follow suit.

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