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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Ainslie’

A Greek Chorus of Approval

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 4, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Review – Thebans (English National Opera, Saturday 3 May 2014)

The Chorus of English National Opera
Oedipus – Roland Wood
Creon – Peter Hoare
Tiresias – Matthew Best
Jocasta – Susan Bickley
Stranger from Corinth & Haemon – Anthony Gregory
Shepherd – Paul Sheehan
Messenger & Theseus – Christopher Ainslie
Antigone – Julia Sporsén
Polynices – Jonathan McGovern
Eteocles – Matt Casey

Director- Pierre Audi
Set Designer – Tom Pye
Costume Designer – Christof Hetzer
Lighting Designer – Jean Kalman

The Orchestra of English National Opera

Frank McGuinness (Libretto)
Julian Anderson (Composer)

Edward Gardner (Conductor)

English National Opera is to be congratulated for their commitment to new works. They don’t always get it right – Nico Muhly’s Two Boys being a case in point – and they have yet to commission an opera that will stand the test of time.

And this is also true of Julian Anderson’s new opera, Thebans. Will it survive beyond a revival that ENO is almost beholden to schedule in the 2016/17 Season?

It’s not that Anderson’s opera isn’t impressive on many levels, gut-wrenching on at least one occasion or watchable throughout. It’s the fact that it ultimately lacks emotional substance or weight.

It’s difficult not to compare new works – even when they resemble each other so little. But compared to Written on Skin and even Anna Nicole, Anderson’s opera doesn’t ultimately leave me many questions except it is really an opera?

Anderson is an incredibly talented composer. Works such as his Alhambra Fantasy and The Discovery of Heaven – and more significantly – his Book of Hours demonstrate a lively and inquisitive use of rhythm and timbre.

But where I think Thebans falls short – as in some of his other works – is Anderson’s avoidance for the most part of motivic development. In smaller scale pieces that may work, but in the broader architecture of a three(ish) act opera it makes it more difficult to sustain any sense of architecture.

Ultimately therefore, Anderson’s Thebans isn’t an opera but rather a three movement tableaux – almost a vocal symphony – where only the narrative of the libretto binds it together.

And I say ‘three(ish)’ because three acts feels like an artistic indulgence when the second act is so short – yet so emotionally direct – and the final act lingers slightly too long.

I am also not convinced that basing the story on the chronology of when Sophocles wrote the plays – rather than when the events contained therein happened – works. There is some evidence that Antigone was written first – before even Oedipus the King – and he returned to the Oedipus legend at the end of his life not as an adieu to his ‘career’. Rather he wrote the episode at Colonus as a savage indictment of contemporary Athens and a warning of the political and artistic disaster that was about to engulf the city.

But there is no denying the power both of some of the music and the performances themselves. When I listen to Anderson I hear hints of Honegger, Britten, Bartok and even Stravinsky. And the same is true of Thebans.

Cleverly – or coincidentally – both McGuinness and Anderson recognized that as in Greek drama, the chorus is integral to the plot – commenting not only on the action but on the emotions as well.

So central to the success of this opera is the music that Anderson writes for the chorus. And he delivers music of magnificence and emotional weight that is the cornerstone of this work.

And as ever the chorus of English National Opera surpassed themselves, not only with the sheer power and beauty of the sound they produce, but also how they effortlessly intuit the emotional temperature on stage. From their opening chorus – beseeching Oedipus their King – to their condemnation of Creon, Thebans was their opera.

It is why I have listed the Chorus of English National Opera at the top of the characters. If this opera succeeds, it will do so for the strength of the choral writing and the chorus who perform it.

The chorus is almost certainly the main attraction. And the chorus’ ‘invisibility’ in the final act is this opera’s greatest flaw.

The music written for the main characters underlines how difficult it can be in modern opera to write vocal lines that convey any sense of emotion. But it is possible – Written on Skin for example. Even moments in Anna Nicole.

Here I picked up few moments when Anderson really got to the emotional heart of the characters through his vocal writing. For me there was the moment in the Third Act when Antigone and her brother Polynices sang “We are lost” and briefly in her ‘death song’ in the preceding act.

But it was the magnificent Susan Bickley who truly revealed the emotional content of her character, reveling not only in the music but finding a connection between what Anderson had written and who Jocasta was.

Roland Wood – despite illness – was very strong as Oedipus although his music failed to give him the traction he needed to develop his character. Similarly Peter Hoare’s Creon was too-often a character singing loudest although the unaccompanied opening of the Second Act was marvelous. Almost Britten-esque, in that moment Anderson’s writing exposed Creon’s character and isolation so simply.

Tiresias – resonantly sung by Matthew Best – was for me and after Jocasta, the most rounded character. I am not quite sure why he was dressed like Nina Simone – perhaps a reference to the Oracle in some oblique way – but the stentorian vocal line convinced of the character’s tragic gravitas.

Anthony Gregory and Christopher Ainslie both performed their dual roles eloquently. Gregory was particularly effective as Haemon and Ainslie’s countertenor was particularly suited to the off-worldly voice of Theseus.

For me, Antigone rather felt like a half-finished character. I wonted for more in Julia Sporsén’s ‘death song’ that was marred by a distracting vibrato and her singing in the final act – particularly as mentioned earlier – was precise rather than emotional. In fact in the closing moments I felt like I was watching a truncated characterisation of Strauss’ Salome/Elektra.

In terms of direction, Pierre Audi and his team supplied what was ultimately a ‘pack and go’ production destined as this is for Bonn.

While it didn’t lack a sense of scale, in many ways it was a very traditional vision of the tragedy.

There were no distracting gimmicks and no unpleasant surprises. In the first act I liked the way the lighting at the back of the stage was used when the gates were opened, and in the second the use of computer imagery to reveal Oedipus’ face was also smart without being intrusive. Perhaps in the final act, with its war-blasted trees, Audi could have been a little more audacious rather than having Oedipus just walk off stage considering the emotional coup Anderson and McGuiness were clearly aiming for.

And a word on the libretto. Frank McGuinness should write more of them. Not a word was wasted. Genius.

And in the pit, Gardner demonstrated that he is as comfortable in new music as he is in old. Under his baton the orchestra negotiated Anderson’s score with both enthusiasm and complete proficiency and there was never any loss of balance between the players and the singers.

So what next for Thebans?

A revival without a doubt. There’s no denying that it’s a bold and interesting work.

But it doesn’t feel like it has longevity. Not as an opera. But I have to admit that as I left the London Coliseum last night I did wonder if it would be more effective without staging – as an oratorio.

Tattoo’ll Do Quite Nicely

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 5, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Review – Rodelinda (English National Opera, Sunday 2 March 2014)

Bertarido – Iestyn Davies
Rodelinda – Rebecca Evans
Grimoaldo – John Mark Ainsley
Eduige – Susan Bickley
Garibaldo – Richard Burkhard
Unulfo – Christopher Ainslie
Flavio – Matt Casey (Actor)

Director – Richard Curtis
Set Designer – Jeremy Herbert
Costume Designer – Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherrin
Video Design – Steven Williams

Members of English National Opera Orchestra

Christian Curnyn (Conductor)

I think that English National Opera has a way to go before it can claim back it’s self-professed title of being the ‘House of Handel’. But Richard Jones’ production of Rodelinda has salvaged the indignity that Giulio Cesare suffered at the hands of Michael Keegan-Dolan.

However it has to be said that musically speaking, Christian Curnyn has pulled together an excellent cast for this production and displayed once again his innate sense of style and verve in terms of his interpretation of one Handel’s’ greatest operas.

Leading the cast was the excellent Iestyn Davies as Bertarido. I don’t think that I have ever heard Dove Sei? sang with such authority, musical intelligence or emotional eloquence. Pure of tone and displaying incredible vocal technique and control, he delivered one of the vocal highlights of the evening. Indeed Davies is a naturally innate Handelian in terms of performance style and coupled to his portrayal of Bertarido made his the strongest performance of the evening. His confident and flawless delivery of Vivi, tiranno provided the perfect book-end to his opening aria.

Similarly Rebecca Evans’ Rodelinda was a tour de force. Written for Francesca Cuzzoni for whom Handel also wrote Cleopatra and Lisaura (Alessandro) this is a formidable role with some incredibly challenging music right from the start. Ms Evans carried off the role with both vocal aplomb and again an innate sense of Handelian style. From the incredibly exposed Ho perduto il caro sposo and Ombre, piante, urne funeste through such coloratura-ladened arias as L’empio rigor del fato, Morai, si; l’empia tua testa and a fiery Spietati, io vi giurati Rebecca Evans demonstrated a sure-footed technique and bright, agile soprano. However it was her rendition of what is for me one of Handel’s greatest arias – Se ‘l mio duol non è si forte which was the second highlight of the evening, coupled with sensitive playing by orchestra and Curnyn finding the right colours in Handel’s delicate scoring.

But it was their Act II duet, the beautiful Io t’abbraccio which was the single highlight of the evening. Richard Jones’ simple yet devastatingly effective staging at this moment made for an almost perfect moment. ‘Almost’ but for the audience clapping before the return of the da capo sadly.

Around these two singers Curnyn had assembled an equally strong cast. John Mark Ainsley, most recently seen in L’Issipile, and Richard Burkhard as Grimoaldo and Garibaldo provided the perfect counterbalance to the hero and heroine. Grimoaldo’s Se per te giungo a godere and Prigioniera ho l’alma in pena not only displayed Ainsley’s talents and ability to manage Handel’s challenging vocal writing for the tenor voice but why he is one of the leading Baroque tenors on stage today. Burkhard similarly reveled in the music that Handel wrote for what was effectively a secondary character. I defy anyone not to be drawn in by arias such as Di Cupido imiego i vanni and Tirannia gli diede il regno when sung with such gusto by Burkhard. Christopher Ainslie demonstrated that he had the technique for Unulfo’s music but despite his smooth lucid tone, he was underpowered throughout.

And finally plaudits to Susan Bickley. Her Storgè (Jephtha) and Sidonie (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) remain two of her most memorable ENO performances for me and her Eduige has made it a tryptich. While her voice took a while to settle down she delivered a performance with both style and substance.

So why wasn’t it a return to the ‘House of Handel’?

I enjoy Richard Jones’ productions – they are smart, intelligent and often reveal interesting perspectives in terms of the characters themselves. I refer again to his Petra von Kant for ENO and before that his Love For Three Oranges as well as his Macbeth for Glyndebourne and WNO’s disturbing Wozzeck.

His Rodelinda clearly demonstrated that he had spent time with the performers. In his short interview on the ENO website he talks of Rodelinda being a “forensic” examination of people in extreme situations and it is clear that this formed the basis of creating characters who evolved during the course of the opera.

I am not sure that I agree that it was set in ‘post-war’ Italy as some have commented. To me, it smacked more of Fascist Italy with motifs such as the monument to Bertarido, the use of spy cameras, the sense of claustrophobia – heightened in the final act by smaller rooms – and the ever increasing paranoia and spying. Even the costumes were more reminiscent to me of photos that my mother showed me of her youth in Italy. Sadly the Argentinian-inspired tango didn’t quite work nor did that final image – of Bertarido’s wife and son exacting ‘la vendetta’ against their enemies. It unbalanced the sense of justice that the hero had only just magnanimously delivered

The use of tattoos however was inspired. Particularly touching was the moment when Bertarido unexpectedly revealed his own name on Unulfo’s back. Loyalty and ‘unspeakable’ love in that single moment. Although I did think that Garibaldo should have revealed a tattoo – of his own name to underline his own selfishness.

In the same interview Jones stated that Rodelinda was an opera about faithfulness and constancy, and then taking it one step further than perhaps the audience of the Eighteenth Century would have, of erotic obsession, sadism and masochism.

If that was the case then why did some moments seem to court laughter? Was the slapstick deliberate? Was it because ratcheting up the emotional intensity would be too much to ask of the audience? I have no trouble with humour if it doesn’t feel contrived. And sadly there were moments when it did.

The use of oversized swords for example was oddly juxtaposed with the image – with its contemporary associations – of Bertarido blindfolded and tied to a chair.

Or the fact that a laugh was raised when Bertarido accidentally knifes Unulfo when in fact the subtext there is that even when tested, the latter’s loyalty remains steadfast. And while I think the use of treadmills was rather smart it was slightly overdone. For instance, when during one of his arias, the audience was more impressed by Unulfo’s fancy footwork than the delivery of the music.

Handel’s operas do contain humour. Look at Agrippina, or Partenope for example. But I am not sure that Rodelinda does to the same extent.

But there’s no denying that Richard Jones can pack a punch. It wasn’t just the beauty of the music that made Io t’abraccio so poignant. It was the beautifully judged staging – literally pulling the lovers apart – that made that moment incredibly special.

Ultimately this was a Rodelinda of exceptional musicianship but out-of-kilter stagecraft.

If the ‘kinks’ can be ironed out and as long as John Berry doesn’t make the same mistake with his next Handel production as he did with Giulio Cesare, perhaps finally English National Opera can reclaim its own lost throne.

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