Tag Archives: WNO

2015, my operatic year

31 Dec

2015 reviewDear readers…I have been a bad boy this year and my blogging was rather infrequent. Mind you, if you follow me on any social media you probably have heard more from me than you’d like to…but thanks for persevering.

2015 has been an unremarkable year for opera in Britain, mainly due to companies feeling the squeeze on budgets which for most meant a retreat to standard rep and taking few chances. The much derided Royal Opera diet of Traviatas, Bohèmes and Toscas has become a joke that keeps on giving over the last three seasons. Thankfully smaller companies have emerged as the places to find more challenging material and more imaginative interpretations. The largest cloud cast has been again the pitiful state of Scottish Opera and the continuing upheaval at English National Opera. The year’s major highlights were provided by Glyndebourne, Opera Holland Park and Welsh National Opera.

The ups

Glyndebourne + On Tour / Saul
Barry Kosky’s exuberant production displayed a sure hand in blending the drama of Handel’s music a bleak dark grey stage and mountains of props. Never wavering from the emotional heart of the piece he put unremitting focus on the acting and how the high emotions were projected to the auditorium. It was impressive to listen, a sleek spectacle and an imaginative retelling that left no doubt in my head that he just gets it. A great moment for Glyndebourne and a production to be remembered for a very long time.

OHP / Flight
Holland Park did Jonathan Dove proud for staging his cheeky little opera in a straight but not boring way. It was not the hottest ticket of their season, but the young cast brought tones of brio to this tightly woven tale of human relationships.

SO / Inés de Castro
Scottish Opera brought out the baroque aesthetic of the work in a very simple staging by Olivia Fuchs that afforded ample opportunities to show off the singers. Stephanie Corley was a force to be reckoned with as Inés. Just wish SO spent more time sorting its administrative and financial side and championing more Scottish composers and their output. This was a gory triumph.

ENO / The Indian Queen
Peter Sellars is the proverbial mad man of the operatic village. This production of this work by Purcell was exhausting to watch but the sheer maximalism of the additions to the score and text made it one of those memorable failures that one tries to unpick in their memory months later. It was baffling and extraordinary, sublime and odd. Lucy Crowe in glowing voice under the baton of Laurence Cummings was superb. And was allowed mercifully the stage to herself to show everyone how it is possible to fill the expanse of the Coliseum with her voice that fills one’s heart with content.

Birmingham Opera / The Ice Break
My third opera excursion to Birmingham and another unqualified success. Tippett is criminally neglected these days and this production set in an airport resonated with the migrant crisis unfolding across Europe and has worsened since this productions saw the light of day. It crackled with energy and presented opera making as collaborative activity. Requiring active involvement by the cast, community chorus and all of us watching.

ENO / Queen of Spades
David Alden’s production had a lot of holes in the narrative continuity but it was worth the price of admission for the extraordinary conducting by Ed Gardner and the magisterial, otherworldly Countess  of Felicity Palmer. Who still has incredible reserves of voice and a stage presence to obliterate anyone else. Pure magic at work. 

OHP / Il Trittico
Holland Park was very ambitious to present Puccini’s triptych and it was a spectacular success. Most memorable the shattering interpretation of Suor Angelica by Anne Sophie Duprels who distilled the dramatic potential to unbearable intensity. Incredible to think this was her debut of the role…hope she gets to sing it many more times.

Glyndebourne / Poliuto
The return of Michael Fabiano to Glyndebourne with this infrequently performed tenor vehicle. He was eminently watchable and sang with great clarity and passion. The conducting of Enrique Mazzola brought restless energy to Donizetti’s score and softened the blow of a rather pedestrian production by Mariame Clément. 

Blackheath Opera / Idomeneo
A bracing community opera that brought the work to its basics. It had all the fizz the recent Covent Garden outing lacked. Kirstin Sharpin was spectacular in her description of the turmoil of Elettra, white hot intensity at its very best. 

SWP / Arcangelo: Lacrimae with Anna Prohaska
Not strictly an opera performance but worth mentioning for the sheer delicacy and charisma of Prohaska. Myriads of colours engulfed us. Her Purcell arias were particularly impressive each one a small acted drama. She is definitely one of the most compelling musicians working today. 

Wigmore Hall / Anna Caterina Antonacci + Donald Sulzen / La voix humaine
A sublime afternoon and if strictly speaking it was a concert. Antonacci is a dab hand in breathing life into the damaged woman of Poulenc’s work. Every word mattered, every gesture, every look. We have to be thankful that Radio 3 relayed it live so we have for posterity a document of this great artist at work. 

WNO / I Puritani
Welsh National Opera has been a great company to follow for all lovers of bel canto. After presenting Donizetti’s three queens last year they offered a rather beautifully stark production by Annilese Miskimmon of Bellini’s masterpiece. Carlo Rizzi conducted with true flair and Rosa Feola’s Elvira was a stunning stage creation. Balancing this figment of the gothic imagination perfectly. She displayed great taste and all the coloratura became a descriptive part of the heroine’s disturbed mind and mood changes. Bringing to Bellini’s score the depth of insight it deserves. Not a performance for the canary fanciers of old, but a romantic personage of true richness. 

ENO / The Force of Destiny
The production by  Calixto Bieito was probably too subdued for some, but made excellent use of the limited stage resources of ENO and endowed us with a stunning debut of the year, Tamara Wilson. Her opulent Leonora was stunning. A big voice with a warm enveloping sound and enough agility to overcome Verdi’s many hurdles. 

ROH / Andrea Chénier 
Was disappointing in the production value stakes. A dull “period” production by McVicar was cumbersome but at least it didn’t ruffle many feathers. But it remains memorable for the truly brilliant singing of Jonas Kaufmann this was probably the first time I enjoyed his singing so much. Up to now I was one of the doubters finding his sound not Italianate enough but he was exceptional as Chenier and was ably supported by Željko Lučić and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Tony Pappano’s conducting was too episodic and frankly lumpy to make sense of the whole instead giving us disconnected arias making the evening feel unusually long.  

ROH / The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
That was one production that was roundly unloved by the press but was definitely sleek and particularly its integration of projections was very accomplished. And let’s be frank any production that gives me the chance to see Anne Sofie von Otter on stage is worth seeing no matter what. Above all Weill is worth a resurgence Mahagonny is so much more than just the famous tunes. 

ROH / Madama Butterfly
Everyone was predicting doom (aka a cancellation by our diva), as I was scheduled to attend the final performance of the run with Kristīne Opolais. This was the performance that totally changed my mind about her. She sang with such great warmth and attention never wavering on her interpretation of Cio Cio San portraying her naivety in a subtle way that we could all empathise. This was the opposite of the maudlin mess that this opera can be, it was a glorious evocation of a broken life. Simply superb. 

ROH / Król Roger
And when we thought we’d never see a good production by Kasper Holten at Covent Garden, this production happened. Very rarely has set gigantism been deployed to such remarkably subtle effect. The spectacular performance by Mariusz Kwiecień was the corner stone of this sophisticated production. 

ROH / La Bohème
My main reason for bothering to book for that rusty old Copley production was Anna Netrebko and Jennifer Rowley. Thank heavens they were both superb the former a surprisingly subtle Mimi and the latter an all out sass pot as Musetta. The same can’t be said for our Rodolfo who bleated his way through the part in his usual unattractive manner.   

The downs

ENO / Pirates of Penzance
It was rather stodgy for my taste even if it was not short on spectacle. The humour somehow didn’t work for me. A shame as it was my first G&S work. 

SWP / Farinelli and the King
This amalgam of stage play and recital wrapped up in one was unsatisfying in both counts. Iestyn Davies was wonderful as usual filling the Wannamaker Playhouse with his lustrous voice. The play itself was totally innocuous. At no point cared very much for the King and his mental instability. 

ENO / Between Worlds
A confusing mangle of many good ideas topped with a counter tenor shaman figure presiding. Making an opera about the attack on the Twin Towers was always going to be a polarising enterprise and the resulting piece was sensitive and at times touching. If it had stayed naturalistic it could have been an altogether more welcome addition to 2015. But it felt overworked and overstretched, no amounts of commitment by its music staff could redeem it into a satisfying well balanced piece. 

 

 

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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 

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

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