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Perfection’s Veneer

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 15, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Review – The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Royal Opera House, Thursday 12 March 2015)

Leocadia Begbick – Anne Sofie von Otter
Fatty – Peter Hoare
Trinity Moses – Willard W. White
Jenny – Christine Rice
Jimmy McIntyre – Kurt Streit
Jack O’Brien – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Bank-Account Bill – Darren Jeffrey
Alaska Wolf Joe – Neal Davies
Toby Higgins – Hubert Francis
Six Girls – Anna Burford, Lauren Fagan, Anush Hovhannisyan, Stephanie Marshall, Meeta Raval & Harriet Williams
Voice – Paterson Joseph

Director – John Fulljames
Set Designs – Es Devlin
Costume Designs – Christina Cunningham
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet
Video Designs – Finn Ross

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera

Mark Wigglesworth (Conductor)

I ate and was never full, I drank and was always still thirsty. Somebody give me a glass of water!”

Jimmy McIntyre’s last words just before his execution could also be a fitting epitaph for the Royal Opera House’s first ever production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

It was a smart and – on the whole – well-performed and executed production. But there was a gloss to it that meant that ultimately it failed to convince.

In the programme, Kasper Holten identified the contradictions of this work – a full-blown opera with ‘anti-opera’ elements, but ultimately what we got was just opera. There was no sense of the radicalism – musically or otherwise – that made Brecht and Weill’s collaboration so controversial when it was first performed.

It was – in it’s search for perfection – all too polite. There was no sense of corruption and decadence – of seediness – required by Brecht and Weill’s words and music to make this production of Mahagonny really work.

In the pit Mark Wigglesworth – soon to be Music Director at ENO – conducted without any sense of verve interpretation or attention to the score. And he didn’t draw from the orchestra a palette of sound that was anything but operatic. That lack of colour so required for Weill’s music ultimately meant that for the most part the orchestra sounded bland. Ironically it seemed that the only louche-ness in the pit came from the lazy attention to rhythm that again undermined the composer’s music.

The singing – while on the whole strong – also came a cropper. Christine Rice – for example – sounded glorious but glorious wasn’t what was needed. She didn’t capture the emotional ennui of Jenny, nor her coldness. It’s rare to hear Anne Sofie von Otter on stage at Covent Garden, and this was a wasted opportunity. She is a singer I admire, not only for her Baroque performances, but a repertoire that also includes chansons as well as a notable album with Elvis Costello. But here, she was lost and seemed more caricature that characterful. And this was true of Peter Hoare, Willard White, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Darren Jeffrey and Neal Davies. In any opera they would have been superb, but here vocally they were unconvincing and dramatically, ciphers.

And personally, Kurt Streit was simply miscast as Jimmy. He lacked both the flexibility and vocal amplitude that the music required, often sounding uncomfortably strained and like the others dramatically unconvincing. In the final scene – when John Fulljames seemed to finally find a dramatic rhythm – it was too late for Streit to redeem the production despite being offered so overtly to the audience as the ultimate Redeemer.

However plaudits must go to the Royal Opera Chorus that was impressive especially in the Second and Third Acts.

The production, like the performances, lacked punch although Es Devlin ensured that visually it was smart. She made clever use of shipping containers and projections and the set for the second act was very impressive. In some ways, Fulljames’ grandiose – and again overly operatic – approach to the story was ultimately the production. Feeling for the most part overblown, as if trying too hard to fit the stage, the director distracted from the simplicity of the story itself. And at times I did wonder why Mahagonny – and not Orfeo – was scheduled for The Roundhouse or a similar venue. I thought the attempt to tie Brecht’s tornado to global warming was clumsy at best, and ultimately never felt that Fulljames’ attempt to “modernise’ the author’s critique of capitalism was convincing.

As I have already mentioned, the “Jesus” moment at the end was effective but mainly because it stood in stark relief to the general weakness of the production overall and wasn’t enough to rescue the evening.

The Rise and fall of the City of Mahagonny is a story of the power, corruption, desire and ultimately the failure of immorality. It’s in the words. It’s in the music. It should permeate and soak into both the production and the audience should leave at the end of the evening feeling ever so slightly sullied.

Sadly Covent Garden’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny only felt ike a night at the opera. Nothing more.

Seme(le)freddo

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 13, 2015 at 9:02 am

Review – Semele (London Handel Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Tuesday 10 March 2015)

Semele – Anna Devin
Athamas – Robin Blaze
Cadmus – George Humphreys
Ino – Ewa Gubanska
Jupiter (and Apollo) – Rupert Charlesworth
Juno – Louise Innes
Iris – Maria Valdmaa

London Handel Singers
London Handel Orchestra

Laurence Cummings (Conductor)

I admit that Semele is one of Handel’s more curious works, but one rich in invention.

And this performance of Semele was an auspicious start to the London Handel Festival this year. I’ve always enjoyed this festival and realised as I sat down in the QEH, that I had missed last year’s festival completely. Fortunately, this year I am definitely seeing Giove in Argo and might just squeeze in a few other performances.

The cast overall was incredibly strong, but it did take a while for the individual performances to both settle down and warm up. However I must start with the London Handel Singers. Handel’s choruses in any of his oratorios are integral to the plot, but in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Cummings managed to take it to an even higher dramatic level – excellent singing, clarity of line and excellent diction were combined with a rich palette of colours which made each and every chorus magnificent, not least the final chorus, a resounding Happy, Happy shall we be. The last time I heard choral singing of this quality was in ENO Thebans, sadly a production since overshadowed by the latest management fracas on St Martin’s Lane.

Of the soloists I must start with Louise Innes’ excellent Juno. She was alone in bringing a real sense of dramatic characterisation to the stage. Combine this with her rich and at times almost fruity mezzo and hers was a Juno not to be crossed. Both Hence, Iris hence away and Above Measure were delivered with vocal and regal authority combined with elegant ornamentation on both returning da capo sections.

I’ve seen Anna Devin a few times over the last few months, and clearly her star is in the rapid ascendant. But in truth, it took her a while to settle. Her normally bright and splendid soprano was often slightly harsh at the top of her range and her first aria, The morning lark to mine accords his note – a fiendishly difficult aria at the best of times – often slipped from her control. But as this Semele trod the path to her own fiery demise Ms Devin gripped the music more effectively. Both Endless Pleasure and Myself I shall adore – with the flighty coloratura – were delivered with more confidence and authority as was the arioso I am ever granting. However as the evening progressed I did think that perhaps less ambitious ornamentation in the returning da capos may have helped a little. Personally the highlight for me was her liquid and limpid Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me, which she sung with effortless grace and delicacy. However her performance was slightly let down by a lack of dramatic impetus. The bite that she found for I am ever granting was not then translated in her final demise. A lack – on this occasion – of a breadth of vocal colour meant that it limped slightly awkwardly to its end.

As her beau, Rupert Charlesworth was very impressive. His technique came to the fore in arias such as Lay your doubts and fears aside, where even at Cummings’ speeds, he delivered spontaneous and seemingly effortless coloratura. His vocal timbre is perfectly suited to Handel’s music – Where e’er you walk was an object lesson in both technique and interpretation as was Come to my arms, my lovely fair.

Ewa Gubanska’s Ino was slightly hampered by unclear diction but there as no questioning her complete commitment. Turn, hopeless lover, with its cello obbligato spun out so exquisitely by Katherine Sharman, was one of the highlights of the evening and demonstrated why Ms Gubanska won last year’s singing competition. Her lunchtime recital is one I am definitely going to try and make. Maria Valdmaa’s Iris was brightly and elegantly sung and clearly these two artists have promising careers ahead of them in this repertoire.

The Athamas and Camus of Robin Blaze and George Humphreys completed the septet of singers. I have long been an admirer of Blaze – is recording of duets with Carolyn Sampson is excellent and his performance as Katie Mitchell in ENO’s Jephtha many years ago will stay with me for a long time. While his voice may have lost some of its sheen and flexibility, his performance was incredibly strong and accomplished and he made much of music that – admittedly – is a little less than typically inspired for Handel. And George Humphreys wonderfully resonant bass – impressively hued but clear – ensured that his presence was felt both as Cadmus and Somnus.

The London Handel Players performed with both gusto and accuracy – responding to Cummings direction superbly, even at his fastest of tempi – and considering the simplicity of the orchestration, the players uncovered a wealth of colour and dynamic range.

Despite an uncertain start, this Semele shone a light on this not-often performed work that is full of inventiveness with soloists, chorus and orchestra delivering strong performances. And while it was sad to hear of the passing of founder Denys Darlow before the performance started, this was a fitting tribute to the man who has made the London Handel Festival such a success.

A crueler month for ENO

In Classical Music, Opera on March 10, 2015 at 10:45 am

If ever the history of ENO is written again then the last decade or more will be one of tumult as well as artistic endeavor and in some cases, daring.

But even after the self-inflicted drama of the last few weeks, next month, in the words of TS Elliott could prove to be ENO’s ‘cruelest month’. Less than a month after Cressida Pollock will have formally walked into the foyer at the London Coliseum, together with John Berry, the company will unveil its 2015/2016 season.

Her start has been less than auspicious. Hours before her appointment was announced under the auspices of Arts Council England, a open letter was published signed by a number of artistic directors and big wigs of major opera houses from the US and Europe.

Fortuitous? No. An amateur Machiavellian tactic? Most decidedly. Open letters of that ilk take time – to persuade the signatories as well as agree the wording.

It’s hard not to see the hand of John Berry – or more likely John-Berry-cum-Borkowski – in this less than veiled shot across Pollock’s bows.

When Arts Council England reduced its commitment to fund ENO from three to two years is also stipulated that the company must do two things. First, recruit a suitably qualified chief executive able to develop and deliver a new business model for the company and secondly strengthen the company’s financial operations.

Berry clearly thought – or was led to believe – that a pre-emptive strike to establish his authority sine qua non was necessary so that he could put Pollock in place before she has started.

Sadly all it has done is reinforce the management malaise at St Martin’s Lane with Berry leading from the front. From within the company itself, I hear that only Berry benefits from having the company spread across a handful of properties with divide and conquer being his modus operandi. He is able to isolate and sideline; cajole and coerce and more alarming find numerous places to bury his head in the sand.

And what of Cressida Pollock? On paper she seems very capable and fulfills the condition of ACE to appoint a chief executive who could potentially deliver a new business model and successful operational framework.

But is she a leader? As well as John Berry she must stand firm against a Board that has a history of rudely stepping beyond its governance and interfering. As a management consultant she knows that she must be quick to set up a team that not only looks after business as usual, but also stands above and apart from the day to day and looks doggedly at what future ENO can have.

No doubt some people will question whether she is an opera lover. Does she need to be? The CEO of Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t need to eat his wares, he just needs to know how to sell them.

For Pollock to do her job effectively, John Berry can be left as ENO’s Master Baker but she must have full executive authority. Allow him to create confections of varying quality and substance, but give her absolute power to review, reform and redefine the company.

I am not saying that Pollock and Berry might not be in sync in their thinking but Berry’s role must be to work within the constraints that the business model will dictate. Hard choices need to be faced and solutions, however unpalatable, need to be found because ENO must operate like a business. If the company is to survive in the long-term and not stumble forever on, then bold leadership needs to take rein of St Martin’s Lane so that creative genius can still flourish.

This isn’t a case of future-proofing English National Opera – what artistic organisation can be future-proofed in the current economic climate? – but rather tackling long-established and deeply rooted fault lines to give the company at least a fighting chance.

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