Tag Archives: Susan Bullock

2017, my musical year in review

31 Dec

2017 reviewThe last time I wrote a blog post, Donald Trump had just become President of the USA, which pretty much prefigured the chaos and confusion of the last twelve months. But being on the door step of a possible nuclear obliteration is a good time to look back to all the joyful artistic experiences that made it from bearable to outright gorgeous.  Since I lazily put together a short list of favourites from the last twelve months in response to Fiona Maddocks’ review, thought I’d publish them here with a few additions. In many ways it has been a remarkable year and have been very lucky to have been to so many stimulating performances.

The programming of the Royal Opera left quite a lot to be desired for half of the year which brought down the number of performances attended considerably. Also managed to be at Semiramide on the night that Joyce DiDonato was unwell, which made it a rather staid evening. Sadly with the crazy prices I didn’t manage to see it another time. 

Also promised myself not to darken the doorstep on ENO until the utterly useless leadership steps down, I’m getting my wish next year so will be keeping an eye their way and hopefully see them make progress and who knows maybe one day they will manage to perform a bit more frequently as the current status quo is a long term road to oblivion.

The smaller companies made quite an impact, Welsh National Opera was programming a lot of crowd-pleasers aside to more esoteric repertoire showing David Pountney’s capability in keeping a company in the black but also making sure it offers something for the neophyte but also adventure to the seasoned punter.

Scottish Opera seem to be out of the woods artistically after a couple of challenging years. The two performances I attended were absolutely gripping, the appointment of Stuart Stratford is clearly making a difference. 

Grange Park semi-built a new opera house in the enchanted surroundings of a 17th century manor house, even if the dreadful Joanna Lumley was needed to cajole more money for their new toilets. Based on the description by Wasfi Kani I’m expecting a miniature Roman Coliseum with urinals.

Over at Glyndebourne I managed to compress my three customary visits to a long weekend but was rewarded by some exceptional performances that even made me ignore the absolutely pointless staging of Ariadne auf Naxos that despite prior announcements, not many changes happened and we ended up with the most glorious singing in the service of a production that is both obvious and totally missing the dramatic arc of Strauss’ masterpiece.

Holland Park Opera put another strong season with very well cast younger singers making their stage bubble with enthusiasm. 

•Le Grand Macabre with the LSO and Rattle in January was a fantastic way to blow away the cobwebs with Simon Rattle conducting a blistering account of this demanding score with a London Symphony Orchestra rewarding him with pinpoint accuracy and crystalline clarity. 

Bryan Hymel’s blistering Turiddu and Canio on the opening night of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at Covent Garden. When I saw him two weeks later he was even better!

•Elīna Garanča‘s very intense and in many ways against the grain Santuzza was a revelation in Cavalleria Rusticana who added much needed nuance to this fantastic production.

Lisette Oropesa’s turn as Lucia bettered what can be done with Katie Mitchell’s production bringing clarity and vocal prowess. Her Lucia was young, but deep, and as far removed from pointless vocal pyrotechnics and “identikit madness” acting as possible. 

The spectacular young cast including Natalya Romaniw, Jason Bridges and Nicholas Lester for Welsh National Opera’s Onegin was a joy, bringing back that most important ingredient of Tchaikovsky’s immense achievement, youth, to the foreground. 

Lise Davidsen’s dark hued Ariadne at Glyndebourne was definitely a confirmation of great promise and an unforgettable evening. Her magical performance made us forget about the truly pointless production which deserves to be shelved without trace. 

The unbrittled orientalism with a side of contemporary criticism for Cavalli’s Hipermestra at Glyndebourne made the unfamiliar accessible and gave a great vehicle for with many young singers, including Emőke Baráth, Benjamin Hulett, Anthony Gregory and David Webb making their mark.

The luxurious Magda of Elizabeth Llewellyn at Opera Holland Park’s La Rondine was balm for the soul on a warm summer’s evening. A tremendous singer that gives insightful readings of roles wrapped up with her sparkling personality.  

The brutal Jenůfa at Grange Park was a great achievement, a true psychological thriller from start to finish. The intensity of Natalya Romaniw and the set chewing vim of Susan Bullock made this a true highlight of the year.

Another Holland Park triumph for the great singing actress Anne Sophie Duprels in Zazà. She is truly the house diva and she delivers in spades every time. Have never walked away from one of her shows less than shaken. Make sure you catch her when she returns in Mascagni’s Isabeau

Brett Dean’s Hamlet at Glyndebourne was blessed with an amazing cast including Allan Clayton, Sarah Connolly and Barbara Hannigan. I was not quite as enamoured with the ridiculous writing for the Counter-tenors but the overall effect was one of a major new work that would benefit from some small revisions to make it dramatically even tighter.

•Joyce DiDonato’s intimate concert at the Wigmore Hall with the Brentano Quartet was a suitably magical end to the year. A programme that included Strauss and Debussy was crowned by Jake Heggie’s song cycle based on the life story of sculptor Camille Claudel written for her in 2012. It was musical communication of the highest order, every breath mattered and it added meaning to every word. Have a listen to the two encores I recorded on the night to have an idea of the level of engagement and togetherness of audience and performer. 

 

Thanks for reading and I will wish you all a tremendous year ahead, even if we have to make even more concerted effort to make it so.

 

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Tudorama / Gloriana / Royal Opera House – 20 June 2013

29 Jun

GlorianaIf Britten’s posthumous reputation was judged solely on Gloriana, history would have been much harsher on him.

Richard Jones turned out another hilarious evocation of a school gym/church hall where Gloriana takes place as a Tudor play. This device clearly makes a tongue in cheek commentary on the advance of the “second Elizabethan age” with the coronation of ERII and Britten’s commission tied up to a royal gala. Ingeniously his proscenium is raised and in front of the stage a nervous mayor , officials and the technical staff of the church hall are waiting for the arrival of the young Queen Elizabeth II who duly shows up at both start and end of the show.

The sets and props by Ultz are beautifully conceptualised and executed within the framework of an amateur dramatics performance. Highlights include the hilarious Tudor huts on wheels representing the medieval City of London. In the Norwich section the big display of vegetables spelling out ER is hilarious as it is quintessentially English (something about marrows and giant veg in the countryside). And of course of all the oversized furniture, King Edward’s Chair on wheels  and Elizabeth’s wreath topped dressing table should have their own postcode.
As usual with Jones consistency is underpinning everything, the bystanders on the side of the stage within a stage are looking bored stiff, a surly looking school mistress type giving joylessly cues, foley artists playing the lute for Essex’s two songs and also toll the bell for town crier.
Unfortunately the masque is terminally dull and marks a major sag in the flow of the evening. The choreography and the music are not of a very high standard (just think that John Cranko choreographed the première) also the strange decision by the Opera House to not allow an interval between Act One and Two making the audience sit through over 100 minutes tested our patience and the end of Act Two couldn’t come quickly enough.
Act Three contains Britten’s most accomplished dramatically music, with gorgeous writing for the strings and a much more elegiac attitude. The confrontation scene between her and Essex as well as the lonely finale has more than a passing resemblance to Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. The writing as it becomes more introspective it also gains dramatic weight making for a very strong second half.
One niggle with Jones’ direction would be that he denied the work the sombre conclusion Britten clearly wanted, by adding the reappearance of the royal party and a little girl to give them flowers. An odd choice since even the programme mentions repeatedly how Britten steered his librettist to this dark and sadness filled finale underlining the fragile mental state of the queen in the prospect of her own mortality. Was he maybe intending us to read it as a reference to our current queen facing the same dilemma as Elizabeth I?

The question of how to stage a Tudor themed opera remains, Jones makes a great case for a more comedic approach but it seems to also rob the work of its solemnity. But the sleekness and imagination are admirable and the execution is beyond reproach.

Amanda Roocroft sang the part in Hamburg and can imagine was a more compelling actress on stage than Susan Bullock. Who was very dramatically involved but any high-lying passages exposed the vocal problems she has with a broad vibrato that detracted from the otherwise very sharp delivery. Her pivotal prayer in Act One was suffused with great beauty, sculpting carefully phrases, but sometimes let down by her upper register. Overall it was more of an acting triumph and a less riveting vocal performance. The tessitura is fairly low for the role but when she verged high it seemed like a struggle on opening night. There have been reports that her production has been more even in subsequent shows which is good to know.

The welcome return of Toby Spence on the Royal Opera House stage was an unqualified success after his recent treatment for thyroid cancer. His Essex was a fully formed human being with flashes of brilliance thought the evening. His two lute songs were as lyrical as they were beautifully projected and loaded with meaning. He also danced away in the ball scene with endearing ebullience.
Patricia Bardon gave such a spirited performance and her smooth comforting contralto sound was so luxurious to almost verge on the obscene. Her plea to the Queen to save Essex from execution was intense and gorgeous, her horror at seeing the Queen wearing her dress suffused with the crushed anguish of a coquette.

Kate Royal unfortunately was underpowered with a voice I have always found fairly colourless and verging on the generic. It was a cruel casting decision as she had no chance opposite Bardon. Looking pretty in a dress in not what makes an opera singer.

Brindley Sherrat was a fantastic bard managing to be intense and in as great a voice as his Creon for ENO’s Medea. Now when will the RO cast him in big roles…sick of seeing him sidetracked for dubious imports. He is the whole package and deserves to be recognised more.

Ben Bevan gave a wonderful debut performance and thus another member of the very talented Bevan opera clan has adorned Covent Garden’s stage.

The chorus and the orchestra made a passionate contribution and made as good a case for Gloriana as a musical and choral work of substance. Paul Daniel conducted the last revival for Opera North so was a very safe pair of hands and did a splendid job with good pacing and a clear sense of dramatic progression.

In the libretto Essex calls Elizabeth ‘Queen of my life’ a few times…I wonder if it was a little gay household colloquialism that crept in as a naughty addition. I couldn’t stop thinking that Britten and Pears would have been hilarious calling each other Queen on my life at home…but that’s just me and my rampant and unfounded ideas. In any case, this was a very entertaining evening despite any shortcomings that could be easily attributed to Britten being on auto pilot rushing to complete the work for its 1953 première. It was definitely worth reviving for a new generation.

A few tweets from the evening

Curtain call video

Production shots on the ROH Flickr

Gloriana list

Abysmal 1960s vision of opera makes the Olympics Closing Ceremony

13 Aug

I am not delusional to expect unadulterated opera or classical music in a mass entertainment event like the Closing Ceremony, but seeing an artist of the stature of Susan Bullock as a ridiculous be-feathered “Brunhilda” next to Eric Idle was edging on the insulting. It was near an admission that opera is this desperately irrelevant, form of music that is only good for visual jokes that involve shields and a plumed helmet. Many of Bullock’s colleagues on Twitter thought it was “cool” and “fun” but what image of the opera world did this appearance dissipate?
Being able to laugh with the art form and all its impressively out of date attributes is a healthy reaction to a fast, digital world that doesn’t feel it has enough attention span to sit through a whole Ring.
But when that one appearance in a three hour ceremony is the only presence of opera as a genre it becomes more problematic. Bullock was embodying the popular cliché of the trident armed high singing soprano additionally surrounded by roller skating nuns and traditional Indian dancers.

The whole ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ segment can be discarded as a bit of throwaway comedy that Britain is so great at producing but it should also be seen as a projection of the lack of self-assurance in the part of the opera world to allow its very credibility to be trashed in front of a billion TV viewers. It made for depressing viewing and made me seriously uncomfortable that this was seen as entertainment in 2012. A missed opportunity to show any other genre except for pop/rock that is disproportionately monopolising those type of events.

The 1992 Olympics managed to have Montserrat Caballé sing the barnstorming Barcelona with Freddie Mercury which presented an operatic voice as an awesome instrument, measuring against a great rock vocalist. It may have been light on concept but it surely was presenting a more cultured face for Spain than the cheap joke route Britain took last night. Unlike with Caballé’s performance I can’t imagine anyone this morning looking up what opera is on Google.
The other two chances for less mainstream culture to feature prominently were also missed, the LSO were not even credited in the broadcast, while the Royal Ballet danced as a circus troupe with a long retired head that was there on the back of some reality TV few years back (sorry Darcey, a decade ago you were great).

It could have been uplifting and inspirational but I am afraid I was left disappointed that some of my favourite art forms ended up a cheap backdrop to a painfully nasal Liam Gallagher and his multi-millionaire friends. Ironically enough Norman Lebrecht was much more interested in the leggy string quartet…I rest my case 😉

Here’s the link to the tracklist of the Closing Ceremony

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