Tag Archives: Welsh National Opera

Two Manons in MK / Boulevard Solitude + Manon Lescaut / Welsh National Opera / Milton Keynes Theatre – 13+14 March 2014

24 Mar

WNO Boulevard + ManonThe programming of the Welsh National Opera under David Pountney’s leadership is continuing to explore themed seasons that make an intellectual argument in addition to adding to the repertoire mix of what must be Britain’s most ambitious regional opera company. Currently it looks at fallen women, a subject that fascinated composers and librettists and created some of the most frequently performed works, like La Traviata and Madama Butterfly.

The particular pairing of the story of Manon and how it was treated by Henze and Puccini is one of those rare opportunities to look anew at those two works and to uncover the common threads that run across them, especially with one director working on both works. Trelinski brought across his Manon Lescaut production as seen at La Monnaie  two years ago and intriguingly he built his new production of Boulevard Solitude as a development of the same ideas. A very suitable way of working when one deals with the same story despite the diversity of treatment by the two composers.

Boulevard Solitude was for me the great winner of this gamble by WNO. The fragmented reality modernism of the set and direction. Heavily dependent of imaginative use of body doubles of Manon to display her states of being was a great match for the Henze’s rather playful jazzy score that fizzes and pops with the use of vibraphone, glockenspiel and an assortment of xylophones and moving mandolin cadenzas. In lesser hands this score could have been a souped up mess but Henze adds nuance and feeling in the sheer variety of his vocal writing, particularly apparent in his treatment of the male and female singers.  He is obviously regaling in bringing the nocturnal, sleazy jazziness into the heart of the score.

Boulevard Solitude was clearly the stand out production where Trelinski and Henze truly had a meaningful meeting of intellects. His treatment of the story puts a visual emphasis on the one true sypher of the work, Manon herself. Sarah Tynan becomes the available femme fatale in her underwear and suspenders wandering across the three part set (railway station / bar / apartment) in a vicious cycle of destruction and the one that gets split in three personalities by the use of two actresses/body doubles. The overall effect is a surreal dream of Manon through the eyes of Des Grieux but without any of the implied misogyny of the her downfall being a payback for her immoral actions. This Manon is as fragmented and as complex as the score and libretto imply. Her singing as strong as one would hope and filled with a particularly appropriate frosty sexuality.

The telling casting of Des Grieux with a young all american singer is a clever choice, as Jason Bridges offered the wide-eyed simplicity and the unshakable belief in true love. The Lescaut of Benjamin Bevan was a solid attempt at an utter sleazeball, a man only ruled by the morality of money and pimping his own sister. The Lilaque of Adrian Thompson sounded a little bit pinched at times but delivered a spirited performance that underpins most of the director’s concept. The common thread of all seven scenes is the gradual lead to Lilaque’s shooting by Manon. In the first scene two police officers put numbers on the floor and take photographs of the supposed crime scene, later on the bloodless body of Lilaque will lie there in position to be drawn around with chalk. By the time he is shot in the final scene we are all complicit to the conclusion of this human drama. We expect it and yet we are gripped by Manon lifting her gun and shooting the old man. Tellingly Lilaque, a creature of luxury and excess, smears his own blood all over his face after being shot, as if to enjoy the taste of his own blood before he dies. An image both repugnant and yet in character for a man who consumption is the core of his being. He goes full circle and consumes his own blood.

Manon Lescaut was much less successful as Trelinski diverts too much from Puccini’s ideas and gets fascinated by the psychology of the characters. The overall darkness and sense of isolation and misanthropy that emanates from the direction is a very intriguing mix and it does concentrate the ear to Puccini’s more modernist stylings that usually get lost in period productions and their decorative sets. But the main failing is the lack of a sense of place. The faceless railway station set and how it metamorphoses into a high society salon and a train carriage is very well done but it lacks any individuality. The fast paced action with many actors, the half naked prostitutes and the impotent Geronte who takes off his oxygen mask and uses it to smell the genitals of one of the dancers adds to the dystopian feel and look. Manon again becomes the great unknown with body doubles that show up and create cinematic tableaux.

His great idea is for Act Four to be a post-death meeting for the two lovers in the purgatory of the railway station. They connect and disconnect in an endless parade of different facets of their lives up to that point. A great intellectual idea that adds much needed emotional weight to a production that stuns by its coldness and meat market treatment of the human body. At least Manon’s final scene is left without any clever interventions and Chiara Taigi is left to weave her dark hued voice into a spine tingling finale. The video projection of hills and wilderness, making the only reference to Puccini’s Louisiana desert setting. The deportation scene earlier on was turned into a cruel freak show with bystanders lifting cards to mark each prisoner as they cat walked their degraded self down this path of scorn. A horrid depiction of Manon’s downfall and a time when the sleek surface of the direction shows this self-satisfied crowd as the main villain of the work. Manon is being judged by society and cast aside.

A night at the opera should not always be a comfortable night of entertainment and after leaving this Manon I was left with many questions and thinking about the nature of the work but ultimately felt that it was a let down at an emotional level. The singing by Gwyn Hughes Jones, (who started in an underwhelming fashion) and David Kempster (in full on 1980s pimp mode in white suit and silver chain)  was ideal in creating the two opposites male characters that dominate Manon’s life and add further contrast.

Both productions benefited by the excellent conducting of Lothar Koenigs and the clearly well rehearsed orchestra and chorus. The multifaceted nature of Henze’s writing was brought in vibrant, quivering life by the alertness of the instrumental solos. Puccini’s score was also rendered with great vibrancy and made me notice the lurking modernism under the 18th century gloss. Also worth mentioning the stage management team of WNO who have to tour those busy productions around England and Wales while keeping continuity despite the different capabilities of each venue.

WNO Boulevard + Manon List

Curtain Calls

Some tweets from the two evenings

Click here to read the very interesting Trelinski interview on the two productions 

Wimsy and gorgeousness / Sophie Bevan + Sebastian Wybrew recital / Wigmore Hall – 17 March 2013

18 Mar

Sophie Bevan WH RecitalA short form hour-long Wigmore Hall recital is a great way to see new artists taking their first steps on the platform. Sophie Bevan has graced that very stage as a solo artist, soloist in a couple of operas and oratorios and with her vocal group The Myrthen Ensemble. She is currently touring with the Welsh National Opera’s absolutely fantastic Cunning Little Vixen and this recital was an absolute joy and seeing the Hall sold out was a very good signifier of her power to attract, retain and grow her audience. Her stage presence had a suavity and natural charm that was totally disarming. Little cheeky glances at Sebastian Wybrew, her pianist, were a clear indication of how much in cahoots they were in this programme.

The recital was centered around Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs the sparkly set of songs based on poetry by Irish monks and religious scholars from the 8th to the 13th century.  The cycle was famously written for Leontyne Price and was premiered and recorded in 1953. The ebb and flow of mood from the whimsical to the demonstrative is a reflection on Price’s personality and one way to deliver them in the most natural, unforced way is to share a fun loving personality and a natural ease on stage. Sophie Bevan showed true class, singing with riveting intensity and full throated staccato passages. The change of atmosphere between The Heavenly Banquet and The Crucifixion was negotiated with a charming little glint in the eye when the audience laughed at the end of the first song and a swift withdrawing into herself for the esoteric nature of the second. In Promiscuity her expressive use of gesture and sharp, playful sideways looks to the audience added to the menacing effect of her crisp delivery, but with her underlying charm adding a sweet addendum. In The Monk and his Cat she displayed plush phrasing and natural warmth. A song that can seem silly they managed to give it a heartwarming, deliciously wholesome colour on par with the recording by Price and Barber. The play on dynamics and a sense of wistfulness when coupled with such playful piano playing realises the full potential of the composition.

The rest of the programme was a great display of beautiful and amply powered singing. The opening Purcell was enchanting, full of colours and delivered with incredible assurance and self-contained melancholy. It felt like a private moment of reflection with the leisurely tempo allowing for this complete unfolding of this exquisite song. A fiendishly difficult opener but a towering achievement of honesty and inner life.

The following numbers by Schubert, Wolf and Berkeley were very powerfully sang despite the fact I wish they allowed for more temperamental variation in reflection of the variety of moods in Hermit Songs. Any singer that can pull off such a powerful, glistening Purcell and then move on to a dark and brooding Herr, was trägt der Boden hier is surely a very special artist.

I will not harp on any longer, but hopefully you get my drift that Sophie Bevan is the real thing. A very intelligent, versatile performer that brings beauty and theatricality to everything she does. I would urge everyone that can make her Vixen performances or her upcoming Royal Opera Pamina to not miss out. This is a special voice that is growing in both breadth of repertoire and flourishing in terms of technique and presentation. It gives me immense pleasure to get out there and support great talent of my own generation. Especially when the rest of the audience is as enthusiastic and loud in its approval as yesterday.

Sophie Bevan WH Recital 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

David Pountney 1 – Norman Lebrecht 0

17 Jan

This morning a link to a blog post by David Pountney, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera as a response to as usual baseless and naive article by Norman Lebrecht in Standpoint Magazine (who buys it, I wonder), grabbed my attention.

Any classical/opera world followers on Twitter are too well versed in Mr Lebrecht’s attention seeking, ambulance chasing ways. I am truly grateful that someone of Pountney’s stature took a stand and publicly denounced his lazy assumptions about funding. He makes a number of great points about the nature of the opera business and of art in general. I totally agree with all his points. Additionally, pure commercial enterprises have very rarely produced good quality opera programming. Utter the name Raymond Gubbay (a favourite of the Royal Albert Hall, old Norman, isn’t he?) to any opera lover and you will see 😉

Bravo to DP and hope all the readers of my blog will read his post.

David Pountney’s Adventures of the Spirit blog post

Norman Lebrecht’s Just say no to State Funding article (watch out for the tulip metaphor!)

Read More

The new season announcement by the WNO

Follow the hilarious Fake Norman Lebrecht, much better than the real thing!

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