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Posts Tagged ‘Ed Gardner’

Kunst & Company First.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on February 9, 2015 at 8:15 am

Review – The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (English National Opera, Saturday 7 February 2015)

Hans Sachs – Iain Paterson
Walther von Stolzing – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Sixtus Beckmesser – Andrew Shore
Veit Pogner – James Cresswell
Eva Pogner – Rachel Nicholls
Magdalena – Madeleine Shaw
David – Nicky Spence

Fritz Kothner – David Stout
Kunz Vogelgesang – Peter Van Hulle
Konrad Nachtigall – Quentin Hayes
Ulrich Eisslinger – Timothy Robinson
Herman Ortell – Nicholas Folwell
Balthasar Zorn – Richard Roberts
Augustin Moser – Stephen Rooke
Hans Folz – Roderick Earle
Han Schwarz – Jonathan Lemalu
Nightwatchman – Nicholas Crawley

Director – Richard Jones
Set Designer – Paul Steinberg
Costume Designer – Buki Shiff
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherrin
Choreographer – Lucy Burge

The Chorus of English National Opera
The Orchestra of English National Opera
Edward Gardner (Conductor)

It’s me, I know, but Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is possibly the only opera by Wagner that I truly struggle with. Even more so than with Parsifal.

I am beginning to have a sneaking suspicion that it’s because it is slightly too “home and hearth” for me. I have a similar problem with Strauss’ Intermezzo. Maybe I just like dragons, magic potions and gods too much.

But don’t get me wrong, this is a magnificent production in spite of the broo-ha-ha currently taking the headlines over the (mis)management at English National Opera. I was afforded quite a good ringside seat during the last management meltdown at St Martin’s Lane, and then as now, despite what is happening two doors down in the management office, the company rises above it all to produce music making of brilliance. When Sean Doran and Martin Smith exited stage left, the company pulled together for an utterly sublime Billy Budd. And last night they did they same for Wagner.

Perhaps ENO should become a commune and dismiss all the management as well as the constantly interfering board. Perhaps democracy might be a better way forward?

ENO’s “Mastersinger” is in fact the WNO production that Richard Jones created in 2010. It’s a shame that – celebrating his quarter century with the Coliseum – it wasn’t a completely new production. But considering this is an opera of epic, almost Cecil B De Mille proportions, and ENO’s financial straits, this was probably the best option.

The production itself was replete with Jones’ usual vocabulary and visual style but that is not to say that it felt tired. Rather, as ever his attention to detail, the careful attention paid to each and every characterisation, made this a very rich and satisfying evening. As he made clear in the programme, his was not a Mastersinger set in the Sixteenth Century but rather in a period inspired by the year of the opera’s first performance – 1868. While I didn’t quite get the sense of ennui he mentioned, his approach did capture a sense of immured traditionalism, and indeed at the end I wasn’t so sure that von Stolzing wasn’t going to find himself – rather like the Emperor in FroSch – turned to stone rather than leading a revolution.

Gwyn Hughes Jones made an impressive Walther von Stolzing. His singing conveyed a real sense of the character’s impetuosity married to some marvelously lyrical singing and real attention to the dynamics. Rachel Nicholls, replacing (sadly for me) Wendy Bryn Harmer, also proved very able as Eva Pogner although her voice did, on occasion, sound slightly pushed. In contrast, Madeleine Shaw’s Magdalena was delightful, possessing a bright and focused soprano and real acting ability. I last heard James Cresswell in ENO’s Dutchman at which time I had some misgivings about his performance. But of his Pogner I had no reservations whatsoever with a performance that was vocally mellifluent, pleasingly resonant and beautifully articulated. Both Andrew Shore’s Beckmesser and Nicky Spence’s David turned in performances of credibility – even if at times both sounded slightly challenged by the music – to complete an able ensemble of key characters.

But of course, the main focus was for most people the debut of Iain Paterson as Hans Sachs. Having greatly enjoyed his Kurwenal at the end of last year as well as his Wotan for Barenboim at the Proms, his first Sachs was equally impressive. He is an intuitive Wagnerian and this shone through in this debut. Vocally assured – although there were some occasions when I felt we lost him in his lower register – there was a depth and intelligence to both his singing and his portrayal of the cobbler that bodes well for Paterson becoming much in demand in this role in future.

From the pit, the soon-to-depart Edward Gardner once again inspired some splendidly rich and eloquent playing from the orchestra and hearty singing from the chorus. While there were some slight glitches in negotiating the various gear changes in the overture, the panache of Gardner’s approach suited the grandeur of Wagner’s music. Indeed, it is sad to think that this is Gardner’s final season as Music Director at the Coliseum and it will be sad to see him depart.

So, no denying that ENO’s Mastersinger was a triumph and proof that when a crisis hits – as it so often seems to at this venue – the company itself can rise above the back-biting of the senior management and boardroom and produce great art.

A true company effort.

He Didn’t Drink The Poison

In Classical Music, Opera, Verdi on June 12, 2011 at 3:57 am

Siimon Boccanegra, English National Opera, June 10 2011

Simon Boccanegra – Bruno Caproni
Paolo Albiani – Roland Wood
Jacapo Fiesco – Brindley Sherratt
Amelia – Rena Harms
Gabriele Adorno – Peter Auty

Director/Set Designer – Dmitri Tcherniakov
Conductor- Edward Gardner

After the recent disappointments on the stage of English National Opera, it was good to see something resembling a return to creative form with Simon Boccanegra. Overall the production was good, and I can only hope that when it reaches the even higher standards of their co-production partner, the Bayerische Oper in Munich, it will lift itself even further artistically.

As I said, I have been disappointed with recent productions at the London Coliseum, so much so that I have yet to renew my ENO Friends’ membership. And while this production has gone some way to restoring my confidence it doesn’t quite counterbalance the recent rash of ill-conceived endeavours.

Figgis’ simply ridiculous Lucrezia Borgia, where it seemed that the entire stage budget had been spent on a handful of badly made, ‘let’s-play-the-opera-for-titillation’ episodic films. At the expense of any drama on the actual stage. The whole evening was short on quality on the stage and in the pit and this was exacerbated by the disastrous decision – backed by conductor and former house Music Director, Paul Daniel – of cutting some of the music as well.

Their complete gutting of Monteverdi’s masterpiece, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse was even worse. If the opening S&M prologue was an early low point, nothing prepared me for the smearing of greasy fried chicken on the walls and a lazy execution of Personregie. After that nothing could save the evening for me, especially not the majority of miscast singers. And despite a hope that Gilliam’s debut with The Damnation of Faust might be a turning point with subtle observation and some wit judging from the massive PR campaign behind the production, it proved hollow and desperately crammed full of clichés. Even the singing was only passable.

Thank God, therefore, for Tcherniakov.

Simon Boccanegra is a difficult opera in many ways. First, let’s face it, the story is convoluted to say the least. But Tcherniakov’s simple way of keeping the audience up to speed was effective.

Secondly, setting the opera itself. There is, naturally, the option to set it as originally intended in Renaissance Genoa. This was, of course, what Covent Garden did, scoring some success with a very traditional production by ????. But I also remember the more anonymous production that preceded the current attempt at ENO itself.

Tcherniakov is clearly a director cast in a more modern mould and overall – with some nice touches – the production generally works well. The pseudo ‘café italia’ of the opening hinted slightly at a Latin setting, as did the hysterical ‘Nona’ as Simon tried to steal Maria’s dead body. But I particularly liked Amelia’s opening scene. Here the director shrunk the tableau of the previous Prologue into a frame. A neat visual trick. The emptiness of the space – a single arm chair, the aforementioned picture and a large opaque window, seemed indicative of her state of mind.

His interpretation of the subsequent Council Chamber – a faceless office with theatre style seating which then dominated the rest of the opera – worked less well. A quick glance at the programme inferred that Tcherniakov had taken some inspiration from the European Commission or some other nameless chamber of deputies. Rows of chairs arranged theatre-style however, gave more of a sense of a corporate meeting room than the seat of government – although it did give an opportunity for some chair slinging.

However – and this was a relief – there was clear attention to detail in the direction of the main protagonists – who played their parts effectively for the most part. From the beginning it was clear that the director had spent some time with the singers, exploring their characters. In particular, I noted how Fiesco literally seemed to shrink, and Bocanegra himself grew more weary as events unfolded. But best of all was the Amelia of Rena Harms. She captured the real sense of an adolescent in rebellion, slightly damaged by her past, and desperate for love and identity. Personally I am surprised that Boccanegra would want to reclaim such a testy teen. Her final transformation, from goth in black leggings and baggy jumper to teenage bride in a suitably ‘off-the-shelf’ wedding dress and veil was another nice touch.

Some critics have made much of the direction of the chorus. While I do think that the ENO chorus is one of the company’s best assets – together with its orchestra and Music Director – I didn’t think that there was anything remarkable or different about their stage management in this production. For example, I think the chorus was far more effective and dramatic in a previous production of Jephtha.

As an ensemble, the cast were strong and melded well and this has always been a strength of ENO. Any weaknesses that individuals might have displayed effectively disappeared in the ensemble.

Bruno Caproni’s Simon Boccanegra was – for me – probably the weakest of the soloists as h3 didn’t project any real presence or dimension on stage. His voice lacked the rich, deep sonority that I think is necessary in this role. Additionally he sometimes lacked the heft to rise the above the orchestra. But his was a musically astute and sensitive performance.

The Albiani of Roland Wood reminded me of former Labour minister Ed Balls. I wonder if that was deliberate. Bar the almost comedic, Basil Fawlty moment when his ambition to marry Amelia is thwarted, it was a finely caricatured performance supported by some very fine singing. Particularly chilling was his reaction during the curse scene. I wouldn’t mind seeing Wood as Iago in the future.

Brindley Sherratt, a regular at ENO, delivered the finest performance of the evening. His rich, sonorous voice, even in tone throughout brought every scene he was in alive with drama. A strong actor, he successfully went from grieving and vengeful father, to a broken and resigned man.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to make of Peter Auty’s outfit. When he first entered, crash helmet in hand, I wondered if Gabriele Adorno was a part-time stunt man. However as the evening progressed I decided that he was, in fact, a pizza delivery boy cum hero. He was in fine voice and had no problems delivering the notes on the page with its often taxing tessitura. However his was not a performance of particular finesse, with no real sense of light and shade, and for the most part, one single volume – loud. This was particularly true when singing with Rena Harms.

And so to the Amelia of Rena Harms. Again I understand that she did not find favour with some critics. I beg to differ. Despite a somewhat shaky start, Harms has an incredibly flexible instrument. It has a rich warm timbre, except perhaps at the very top of her range where it can take on a slightly harsh tone. But she produced a clean vocal line with an real ability to float her highest notes. And she performed the role wonderfully, both as soloist and as a member of the many, beautiful ensemble moments. And her keen acting communicated her truly damaged character. This wasn’t the wooden cipher of the Amelia portrayed by Marina Poplavskaya at Covent Garden, but a real flesh and blood girl verging on womanhood but unable to cope. And Harms delivered the most memorable image of the opera – her breakdown in the closing scene. It will stay with me for some time.

And so to the most puzzling thing for me. The poison and the end of the opera itself. When I say poison, I mean the lack of poison. At the seminal moment of the opera, Simon Boccanegra does not drink from the poisoned glass. Now I realise that sometimes Personregie – and from here on in, I detected it’s particular influence – can result in some strange decisions (bamboo in Cologne’s production of Der Rosenkavalier for example), but for the main character not to drink the poison made no sense at all. Especially as it was constantly referred to in the text. More on the translation later. So having not drunk the poison, the final scene almost stepped from reality. For example, Boccanegra’s fashioning of an admiral’s hat from a piece of newspaper (clearly one he had made earlier) seemed nonsensical as it was the single reference to his nautical past in the whole opera. Indeed, at the beginning he seemed more ageing Fonzie than successful pirate. Then his descent, not into death, but rather into a trance-like state, or breakdown didn’t seem appropriate. His ambling exit stage right – quite literally – detracted from the emotional impact that Ed Gardner had led the audience to at that precise moment. Fortunately the brutal physicality of Harms’ breakdown returned us to the stark reality of the denouement, heightened even more by her inability, moments before, to hug her own father as he implored her to do.

I have always supported ENO’s mission to perform opera in English. But a small plea, and I know that this isn’t always possible, but it seems ludicrous and somewhat distracting, that the libretto can’t be more reflective of the drama onstage. The references to swords for example, seemed ridiculous coming from a man in a motorcycle outfit.

And finally to Ed Gardner and the orchestra. Without doubt the most thrilling part of the evening. A remarkable conductor and Music Director, he clearly has an exceptionally close relationship with the orchestra and they respect him immensely. He drew exceptionally fine playing from them, sympathetic to the singers, and tuned in to the fine detail of Verdi’s score. The sonorous brass at the opening, the wonderful string and wind playing for Amelia’s Come in quest’ora bruna, demonstrate now far the musicianship of the orchestra under Gardner has come,

So, all in all, a good evening and a welcome return to a higher standard for ENO. Hopefully in Munich however, Tcherniakov will allow Simon to drink the poison and die with dignity on stage.

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