Posts Tagged ‘Allan Clayton’

Seared On The Soul

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 18, 2013 at 8:26 am

Review – Written on Skin (Royal Opera House, Saturday 16 March 2013)

The Protector – Christopher Purves
Agnès – Barbara Hannigan
Angel 1/The Boy – Bejun Mehta
Angel 2/Marie – Victoria Simmonds
Angel 3/John – Allan Clayton

Director – Katie Mitchell
Designs – Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Design – Jon Clark

Composer/Conductor – George Benjamin

It isn’t very often that a performance is so brilliant – the music, the singing and the production – that it feels like a privilege to have been present.

Written On Skin by George Benjamin at the Royal Opera House felt precisely like that.

A privilege.

I am often wary of going to see new opera, as often they are a miserable marriage of indistinct music and uninspired production. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole was as brash musically as it was directorially and didn’t leave any impression except of being pummeled in your seat. ENO’s production of Gerald Barry’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was – and I probably think this is heresy to say so – the last new opera that I enjoyed. Barry has an interesting musical language and the production by Richard Jones and Ultz was both visually smart and emotionally intelligent.

Written on Skin, from the opening bars to the drop of the final curtain, was simply gripping and packed an emotional punch that has stayed with me and I would guess quite a few others who attended.

George Benjamin studied with Olivier Messiaen and his influence is keenly felt as the basis of the timbre and sound world that Benjamin creates. But at the same time, in the vocal writing is very much heard the influence of his other teacher, Alexander Goehr. At times there were distinct echoes of Arianna and Promised End, not only in the crafting of the vocal lines but also in the use of rhythm and the structure of the vocal lines.

But Benjamin’s musical language has taken these influences and melded them with his own style. Written on Skin represents a direct evolution from his chamber opera Into The Little Hill in the finesse of the vocal writing, the orchestration and the relationship between the two. And Benjamin is a skillful orchestrator, at times almost Dutilleaux-esque in his delicacy but capable being unleashed in a frenzy when required. Indeed those moments were all the more effective for the suddenness of their arrival and his ability to retreat from them as suddenly.

And the collage of sound created by Benjamin propels the music forward through every scene. From The Protector’s opening boastful scene, as lyrical as his wealth is bountiful to the acceleration from sensuality to sexual release in the music between Agnès and The Boy to the suffocating tension of the closing scene, Benjamin’s tight control of orchestral timbre and the mesh of rhythm is incredible.

And his sensitivity in terms of the vocal lines is brilliant. Each phrase is so carefully crafted to ensure that the words are clear with the alternation from almost Sprechstimme to lyricism seamlessly effective.

And if the music is remarkable then Benjamin was fortunate enough to be able to write for a highly distinguished cast of singers.

I cannot believe that this is Barbara Hannigan’s debut at Covent Garden. A leading interpreter of contemporary classical music – listen for example to her performance of De Vincent à Theo – it was a surprise to read that she had not performed on stage before. I hope that this is the start of a long and successful relationship with the company. As Agnès her bright soprano glided through the music effortlessly – not only rapt and ethereal but also dark and sonorous, capturing the wife’s need for freedom from a lifeless and loveless marriage. I don’t think it was love that she wanted – as witnessed by the brutal nature of her sexual clinch with The Boy – but rather escape. The scene with The Protector at the beginning of the Part Two when she attempted to seduce him demonstrated the wide range of colours that Hannigan could bring to her singing. From the almost ‘dead’ timbre as The Protector awakes to her increasing attempts to provoke a reaction from him was exhilarating. And her final scene was simply incredible.

And as The Protector, Christopher Purves was superb. I have already noted his vocal lyricism but it was also his ability to cast his voice from whisper to full-throated bellowing that was amazing and indeed it was with a whisper that he was most threatening. His diction was – as with the rest of the ensemble – crystal clear and again he was able to bend and colour his voice with great skill.

I haven’t seen Bejun Mehta sing live since Orlando at Covent Garden a good many years ago and I hope to rectify that when he tours shortly. Casting The Angel as a countertenor was inspired. The other-worldly, crystalline timbre of his voice was in sharp relief to the other main protagonists, creating a real sense of tension in the vocal colouring and timbre of the music.

And both Victoria Simmonds and Allan Clayton – the latter an excellent Castor in ENO’s production last year – were outstanding throughout.

The orchestra, conducted by George Benjamin himself, acquitted themselves with great distinction. Unusually for a new opera, there was no sense at any time that they were not completely and confidently immersed in the music written by Benjamin.

Martin Crimp’s libretto was eloquent with no word extraneous to plot or music. The language was taut yet had a musicality to it that rendered it perfectly to the music.

And if the standard of the music making was incredibly high, the direction and production itself was its match.

I admire Katie Mitchell’s work – her Jephtha is one of the strongest interpretations of any Handel that I have seen – but I was not convinced by her After Dido for ENO. That production was a distraction from the music and the twentieth century reinterpretation added a layer upon Purcell’s music that was not needed.

But for Written on Skin – again working with Vicki Mortimer – Mitchell developed the same idea but with greater clarity and narrative intent. The interaction between past and present was so fluidly done that it was never distracting except when it needed to be an intervention as part of the unfolding drama. The upper laboratory, for example – where the assistants unwrapped the items from the past for use in the story – was gracefully done and at no point was there any sense that something was being done for the sake of it. Considering the amount of activity and movement in the opera, there was an incredible sense of stillness and simplicity about the entire production. Again the closing scene’s use of slow motion – so often a miscalculation in stage productions – was achingly tense in its delivery.

It’s rare to leave a performance and not think of something that didn’t quite gel. But on this occasion, even sleeping on it, hasn’t changed my initial impression.

Benjamin’s Written on Skin and this production is one of the best productions – modern or otherwise – that I have seen in a long time. This production is part of Covent Garden’s ambitious plans to stage fifteen new works between now and 2020 and it bodes well for the future.

The music, the singing and the production came together like a veritable medieval (holy) trinity. Indeed I didn’t have the appetite to listen to anything upon leaving the performance. A rare occurrence for me.

It might now be sold out for the final two performances but BBC Four and Opus Arté were in on Saturday night to film it.

Written on Skin is not something to be missed.

French Opera. English Translation. German Design.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 26, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Review – Castor & Pollux (English National Opera, Monday 24 October 2011)

Telaïre – Sophie Bevan

Phébé – Laura Tatulescu
Castor – Allan Clayton
Pollux – Roderick Williams
Jupiter – Henry Waddington
High Priest of Jupiter – Andrew Rupp
Mercury/Athlete – Ed Lyon

Director – Barrie Kosky

Designer – Katrin Lea Tag

Lighting Designer – Franck Evin

Translator – Amanda Holden
Conductor – Christian Curnyn

Rameau was a renowned innovator and at the opening night of Castor et Pollux, ENO’s first foray into French Baroque opera, the theme of and commitment to innovation continued and produced a wonderful evening.

ENO and Komische Oper Berlin decided to use the second – 1754 – version by Rameau. They argued that dramatically this was the most coherent as it included the death of Castor rather than opening once the deed had been done.

The challenge for any director of Baroque opera is how “true” should they be? Of course there is the ultra traditionalist approach and particularly in the field of French Baroque opera this has yielded incredible performances and spectacles. Think of Lully’s Atys or even more recently Psyché for example.

However, and not only because of the cost inherent in such productions, these are few and far between. While the authentic approach is valuable and fulfilling – Atys is possibly one of the few productions that I will always remember – they do, by their very nature, seclude themselves from the audience in terms of emotional reaction although their musical standard is well-nigh unimpeachable.

The other option is to remove all the self-imposed restrictions of French Baroque opera and go to the other extreme. A complete reinvention of the drama without, of course, undermining the narrative.

This production of Castor et Pollux (pace I have to use the original French henceforward) went to this extreme, and bar a few misguided moments which can be ironed out, it was an extremely strong and intelligent production. Indeed it could become one of ENO’s seminal productions – alongside Minghella’s Madam Butterfly, Christopher Alden’s Makropulos Case and many of the Handel operas in their repertoire.

Over the past few years and led by John Berry (who ever doubted that he was the ideal Artistic Director for ENO?), the Company has embarked on a series of co-productions with other opera houses across Europe, as well as the Met in New York.

This is a co-production with Komische Oper Berlin and the Northern European influences were clear. Kosky – who makes his debut with ENO with this production – resides in the German capital and is clearly steeped in their modern opera tradition. In 2012 he will take up the post of Intendant of the Komische Oper Berlin.

The standard of the production was not only very high, but from the moment the doors to the auditorium opened, it was clear that this was going to be a very European – in fact – very ‘German’ production. It was almost as if – for one night only – a slice of Berlin had landed in central London.

In the programme, Kosky said that his intention was to strip away anything that might distract from the drama as it unfolded onstage. Therefore Katrin Lea Tag presented us with an empty wooden box. Devoid of any distraction. Literally beyond minimalist. The whole of the drama played out between its four walls and Kosky used a series of screens to vary the depth of the stage and to provide a sense of ‘reveal’ as the action unfolded.

This was an incredibly daring approach. For an audience – I would contend – unaccustomed to French baroque opera let alone Rameau, this meant that all action had to be focused on the protagonists on the stage. There was literally no escape for them. Or for the audience.

The use of a mound of mud after Castor’s death was the only relief from the four stark walls. And it worked emotionally as well as visually. It was incredibly moving to watch Telaïre bury her own lover to the haunting strains of Rameau’s music. And reducing it in the second half while cleverly keeping it as an entry point was a nice touch. Death never seemed far away.

However, empty wooden boxed stage sets are not new in opera productions. And while was the first arresting visual upon entry in to the auditorium, the most notable difference was that Curnyn and Kosky had decided to raise the orchestra in the pit. Again they made their intention clear in the pre-publicity as well as in the programme. Rameau was an incredible orchestrator, and the timbre and orchestration was critical to any performance of his stage works. Raising the players so that they were visible not only created a connection with the singers and chorus on stage but also created the right balance and sound world that Rameau intended.

In terms of the production itself, it was Regietheater at its best. But also its weakest. As I said from the beginning total focus was on the four main characters – the brothers Castor and Pollux and the two sisters Telaïre and Phébé as well as the chorus and dancers.

Kosky’s method is to develop the characters and their interaction during rehearsals and while this might be the case there is clearly – and there has to be – a framework in which the performers operate and which provides boundaries in terms of behaviours to a certain extent.

Kosky also uses some recognizable – and if truth be told almost over-used – modern directorial devices. In this production, some naturally worked better than others.

For example in the opening scene, we had Phébé – and subsequent characters in the opera – face the walls when they were contemplating charged emotion. This was then followed by reckless running from stage left, to stage right, to stage back and then to stage front. Exhausting. And at the end, as Telaïre dashed needlessly around the stage, almost distracted from the emotional impact.

However there is no denying that the physicality of Kosky’s direction did reap dividends on the whole. The sheer raw power of the love between Telaïre and Castor was not the refined love that would have been originally envisaged by Rameau and his Eighteenth Century audience with their scratching at doors and fan-codes. It was a love almost born almost of force. Brute force. In fact there seemed nothing redeeming about their love at all. This contrasted strongly with the emotional reticence of his immortal half brother, Pollux, who only expressed emotion when killing Lynceus, or when facing his father Apollo. There was no love for Telaïre and it wasn’t love for his brother but rather a sense of competition and duty that required him to enter the Underworld

And the brutality of the fight scenes – brilliantly handled I must add – literally resulted in sharp intakes of breath from the audience.

Similarly the use of implicit sexual imagery and a general theme of sexuality abounded. Clearly when the use is intelligent and clearly linked to the narrative then the imagery and effect is powerful. For example, as Apollo called on his brethren to dissuade Pollux from entering Hades, the nymphs that appeared – and in a very nice touch they were Telaïre And Phébé in disguise – were dressed as schoolgirls, or perhaps baby dolls. The imagery was disturbing, all the more so because of the strong acting by both protagonists. Their giggling was effectively uncomfortable. And developing this theme, Kosky then had the duo remove their multiple pairs of underwear while straddling the immortal brother. Again a powerful image due to the inferences but to repeat it later on was a mistake.

As Pollux then attempted to enter Hades, Kosky misguidedly chose to use more flagrant sexual imagery as Phébé called upon demons to stop him. Pinned to the wall of mud a single hand breaks through and proceeds to – and there is no other way of saying this – masturbate the sorceress. It seemed needlessly provocative and didn’t add to the drama.

While simple blocking of the chorus might not have been wholly-appropriate for the ENO chorus, more than once the hurdles that they had to negotiate either detracted from the drama or led to inaccurate singing. But hats off to those members of the chorus who performed in their underwear and were still convincing protagonists. Again perhaps this will be refined in later performances or for Berlin.

Needless to say there were some Regietheater elements that didn’t work. That isn’t to say that these devices don’t work in other productions but here there didn’t seem to be any sense of logic.

For example in the second half there were the requisite ‘clowns’ for no apparent reason and of course, nudity. The nudity was clearly selective – I can imagine the kind of conversation that would have ensued if the chorus had been asked to go beyond underwear – and therefore it didn’t seem clearly thought through. The titters I heard in the audience weren’t from a general sense of discomfort but rather at the absurdity of it all.

Another device that seemed misplaced was to dress Castor as his former prospective bride in the Underworld and before his confrontation with Pollux. A clever inference but Kosky did not develop it and therefore at the close of the first act it was simple Castor-Dressed-As-Telaïre-Kissing-His-Brother-Pollux-But-Why?

It will be interesting to see how Kosky takes the production here in London and tweaks or develops it more fully for the premiere in Berlin next year.

But these were minor distractions in what was a strong production and where the level of music making was incredibly high. Curnyn and the orchestra clearly reveled in Rameau’s music and there were moments of great beauty. When Castor returned to earth the playing from the pit was ravishing. If I have one incredibly small gripe it was that Curnyn didn’t do enough to elicit a broader range of orchestral colour but I think that this has more to do with playing ‘authentically’ on modern instruments.

All this discussion of the production is not to forget or detract from the incredible quality of the singing.

All the soloists were incredibly strong and without exception their diction was excellent. Amanda Holden’s translation was excellent and carefully took into account the vagaries of French Baroque phrasing and cadences.

As I said all the singers were outstanding yet especial praise must go to the leading pair of Castor and Telaïre – Allan Clayton and Sophie Bevan. Clayton’s was an incredibly bright, precise tenor voice and a delight to listen to. He more than met the demands of the role and sang Rameau’s lines with great elegance and fluidity. Similarly, Bevan’s bell like soprano was beautifully nuanced and her ability to mould the vocal line was at times breathtaking. I look forward to her Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier.

Roderick Williams’ Pollux and Laura Tatulescu’s Phébé were equally strong and clearly some time had been spent in casting singers whose very individual timbres would meld so beautiful in the rare instances of ensemble singing.

And finally special mention of Ed Lyon’s Mercury. Not only was his acting superb but he sung what was possibly the most demanding aria of the evening with enthusiastic yet precise gusto and with a clarity of voice and tone that was exceptional.

So all in all an incredibly strong production. And who will ever forget the closing scene of Castor and Pollux’s shoes abandoned centre stage and two identical showers of silver representing their ascent into the sky as stars.

Truly memorable and worth seeing. Even if you have seen it already.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

Good Music Speaks

A music blog written by Rich Brown

Kurt Nemes' Classical Music Almanac

(A love affair with music)

Gareth's Culture and Travel Blog

Sharing my cultural and travel experiences

The Oxford Culture Review

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it" - John Cage

The Passacaglia Test

The provision and purview of classical music

Peter Hoesing

...a musicologist examining diverse artistic media in critical perspective


Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera