lietofinelondon

Posts Tagged ‘English National Opera’

Deathly Hollow

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner, Uncategorized on June 10, 2016 at 4:29 pm

Review – Tristan and Isolde (English National Opera, Thursday 9 June 2016)

Tristan – Stuart Skelton
Isolde – Heidi Melton
Brangäne – Karen Cargill
Kurwenal – Craig Colcough
King Marke – Matthew Rose
Melot – Stephen Rooke
Young Sailor – David Webb
A Shepherd – Peter Van Hulle
A Helmsman – Paul Sheehan

Director – Daniel Kramer
Set Designer – Anish Kapoor
Justin Nardella – Associate Set Designer
Christina Cunningham – Costume Designer
Paul Anderson – Lighting Designer
Freider Weiss – Video Designer

Orchestra of English National Opera
Edward Gardner (Conductor)

It’s hard not to be incredibly disappointed by ENO’s new production of Tristan und Isolde on every front except one – the magnificent playing of the orchestra under the baton of Edward Gardner. His tempos weren’t always convincing but the opening prelude – and the singing of David Webb as the Young Sailor from on high – set up a sense of expectation that was dashed like a ship trying to negotiate entry to Kareol.

Everything else – the confused staging, the poor direction and overall, the quality of the singing, just left a great empty hole which even Wagner’s music couldn’t fill.

Arguably, Tristan and Isolde are two of the biggest roles in opera and ultimately the two leads, Heidi Melton and Stuart Skelton, did not deliver. As Tristan, Skelton sounded mostly vocally under-powered and musically distant in the First Act. While he improved in the Second Act, he was hampered both by lacklustre direction and having to negotiate the set and in the Third Act he sounded vocally strained and at times literally ragged. Ms Melton was sadly wholly unconvincing. Vocally, this was much more than just a stretch and she sounded severely compromised at the higher end of her range. Top notes seemed only to be achieved through sheer physical effort and jarred Wagner’s vocal line. The resultant stress and strain then created a sound that was often harsh and unappealing – the greatest shame being the strangled final notes that sank below the lush, luminous sound of the orchestra’s closing bars. Personally I don’t think that this role is suited to her voice and in the long term could actually do some damage. Her acting was similarly under-developed.

In the supporting roles, Matthew Rose made an uneasy start but steadied quickly. Karen Cargill delivered a rich and mainly nuanced performance although there was at times a worrying amount of vibrato. Colin Colclough’s Kurwenal was also vocally strong but marred but a characterisation that – like the rest of the production – betrayed the opera itself.

And what of the production? Anish Kapoor has clearly researched previous productions of Wagner operas – from Wieland to the present day. Fused with his own previous work it just created a lack of coherence. The set for Act One was visually arresting, smartly creating both the idea of a ship as well as the distance between the two protagonists, but I did wonder about sight lines issues and the clumsy management of the two lovers once the potion had been drunk. The Second Act presented its own problems. Having the singers clamber around destroyed any sense of intimacy or – let’s face it – eroticism, and I would imagine that quite a few in the audience became distracted by the lightshow. And what were they clambering around? The moon? Their imagination? Or did King Marke really have an ugly grotto in his forest? Who knows and by that point did anyone care. The sudden appearance of surgeons and hospital beds upon their discovery by Marke felt contrived – a need to create a sense of sudden and unrelated drama. The final act – again relying on animation as distraction became tiresome and lacked any sense of dramatic impact.

As this production trudged inexorably it wasn’t helped by Kramer’s direction – or general lack of it as evidence by a reliance on stock dramatic gestures. There were some well observed moments in the opening act, but overall Kramer leeched any emotional intensity or electricity from the stage. Isolde’s self-harming was an interesting insight but wasn’t developed except by the two leads smearing themselves in blood and I why Kurwenal’s brutality towards Brangäne? He is a squire if not a knight after all. Neither eroticism nor sensuality stood a chance in the Second Act and the drama of Tristan’s monologue was undermined by Kurwenal’s clowning.

In terms of the costumes the clash of styles was more suggestive of time bandits than timelessness. The Eighteenth Century inspiration for Isolde, Brangäne and Kurwenal – by way of the blockbuster Mockingjay series it seemed – contrasted with the oriental-inspired costuming for King Marke’s court, except for his doctors. Yet by the Third Act, time seemed to have moved on – the characters had been aged with the resultant loss or growth or grey hair. Tristan had the stamina to survive a mortal wound, and Isolde was rowing herself to his rescue.

Ultimately, this Tristan und Isolde failed to convince, impress or excite on any level but one – the orchestra and Edward Gardner. The singers were disadvantaged; the direction was devoid of dramatic intent and Kramer, unwittingly I hope, bleached this great love story of any emotion.

A tragedy? Yes, but in every wrong way.

 

ENO’s New Clothes

In Classical Music, Opera on October 4, 2012 at 9:43 am

As I have said before I fully support and admire any artistic company – and especially opera companies – who do their utmost to attract new audiences. As audiences shrink and budgets are cut I welcome almost anything that will bring classical music and opera to a wider – and yes younger – audience. So it’s rather disappointing to read today about ENO’s latest idea to try and lure new audiences into the Coliseum. It is also a tad worrying off the back of John Berry’s rather strange remarks about broadcasting performances in cinemas. What is their artistic ethos evolving into if it isn’t embracing technology for example to reach wider audiences? I laud ROH’s deal with Apple – a nice little revenue earner that again has passed ENO by.

Recently, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment‘s campaign – Not All Audiences Are The Same – caught my eye. It very smartly points out the different audiences that make up any concert evening without – in my opinion – creating a new divide amongst the audience as the new ENO campaign does.

Undress For Opera – as ENO’s initiative is called – is misguided, patronising and more dangerously threatens to create a new clique in place of the perceived old one. By trying to appeal to a younger audience, ENO are slapping their loyal audience in the face somewhat.

I wonder which operas Gilliam and Albarn attended to refer to the art form as “for the rich and successful and almost dead”? Clearly those who attended Gilliam’s Faust – as I did – may have died of boredom from the wholly unoriginal and crass ideas he bombarded the audience with; and as for Albarn’s Dr Dee, which I sat through in Manchester, it’s quite clear that ‘formal opera education’ has never been a prerequisite for writing music of intelligence, emotion and wit. Albarn’s vanity project only succeeded in being empty and insignificant. And by the way there were many suited people in the audience when I was there.

John Berry should also beware of such throw away comments that opera is “too stuffy, too posh, (and) too expensive”. Never bite the hands of those who pour money into your coffers as donors or more importantly regularly attend your productions and pay the standard prices, never being offered any form of discount or reward for their loyalty.

Of all the opera companies that I attend, ENO has always had – and rightly celebrated – it’s informality. Opera ‘for the people’ I think they used to say. Now they seem to be saying they’ve been as elitist as they perceive other companies to be.

What a shame.

I wear jeans, trainers and – god forbid – even just a t-shirt to the Coliseum and sit in the stalls. As do countless other people. The majority of people who support ENO are the same I would add. They are there for the music and the – hit and miss – productions. People – on the whole – wear to the opera what makes them comfortable. I don’t deny that if you are a corporate donor – or a guest of a corporate donor – you might feel a suit is more appropriate but I have been the guest of many corporate donors and have attended – as I have said – in jeans and trainers.

So what is it all about?

Rather sadly, it’s about ENO’s desire not to so much attract a new, younger audience but rather to be perceived as being “hip”. Attracting a young audience doesn’t mean telling them to “dress down”, or creating a club like atmosphere or offering them cheaper tickets. Believe you me, ‘young people’ enjoy dressing up and don’t mind spending money on tickets – full price tickets – if they think what they are getting is high quality and intelligent. Just look at how much they are willing to spend on seeing their favourite pop artists or football teams for example.

Any attempt to woo a new audience should be about celebrating the art form, not cheapening it.

People who consider – even on a whim – coming to the opera aren’t put off by old preconceptions of who is in the audience or what to wear. They are attracted either by a genuine interest in seeing what it is all about, following a named director or choreographer whom they admire outside the opera house or, let’s face, a bloody clever marketing campaign.

Undress For Opera isn’t a bloody clever marketing campaign. As an idea it’s heart is in the right place in the sense of trying to appeal to a new audience, but its execution smacks of a cheap shot at grabbing a headline. It’s patronizing to any new audience and potentially alienating to its current one. And I do wonder at how sustainable it is as a campaign. I see they are offering La Traviata and Don Giovanni. What incentive are they providing for any of the new audience to come and sample something else?

Perhaps they should consider a loyalty card scheme that all attendees of ENO can benefit from?

I also see this morning that Kasper Holten has tweeted – clearly in response to ENO’s announcement – that forty per cent of Covent Garden’s audience were under the age of 45 last season. No jeans and trainers diktat was imposed there methinks. And I do wonder why John Berry hasn’t embraced social media. Perhaps he has but I couldn’t find him this morning. Although perhaps it is better for ENO that he isn’t expressing himself in 140 characters considering some of his comments recently.

Perhaps a little more thought could have gone into ENO’s idea before they all sat down cross-legged on the stage to announce it? Perhaps a little less condescension and a little more strategy would have made this sound not so desperately hip?

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.

Wagner Finds His Northern Soul

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on September 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Das Rheingold, The Lowry Theatre, September 10 2011

Woglinde – Jeni Bern
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnston
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Wotan – Michael Druiett
Fricka – Yvonne Howard
Freia – Lee Bissett
Loge – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Donner – Derek Welton
Froh – Peter Wedd
Erda – Andrea Baker
Fasolt – Brindley Sherratt
Fafner – Gregory Frank
Mime – Richard Roberts

Artistic Consultant – Dame Anne Evans DBE
Concert Staging – Peter Mumford
Conductor – Richard Farnes

Proof that not every opera performances need staging was more than amply justified by Opera North’s concert performance of Das Rheingold at The Lowry Theatre.

Richard Farnes led an ensemble and orchestra in a performance that – in my opinion – more than rivalled those of any other opera house that I have seen. And in this I include Covent Garden, The Metropolitan and San Francisco. Saturday night was a distinctly “German” performance and almost ‘near perfect’. I am sure that more than some of the naysayers who, when Opera North announced their intention to perform the entire Ring cycle, have been silenced.

And while it may not have been staged in the ‘traditional’ sense, the setting created by Peter Mumford was superb. Of which, more anon.

But first of all to the orchestra and Richard Farnes. From the opening notes it was evident that a great deal of attention had been paid to what was actually written in the score. This might seem like a non sequitur but often – and particularly I think with Das Rheingold which most conductors do not take ‘seriously – more ‘seasoned’ conductors seem to conduct performances of The Ring more with a sense of routine than actual discovery and delight. No so with Richard Farnes and the Opera North Orchestra. Farnes lavished such attention to detail and the orchestra played with such precision and a rich a warm tone – for example, every note was heard as the Rhine swelled and grew in the opening – that the sound was transparent, clean and clear throughout. Notable and exemplary was the brass playing from the very start as was the delicate pointing of the woodwind and never before has the use of anvils sounded so rhythmically alert and not just anvils-for-anvils-sake. Farnes’ obvious love and knowledge of the score also meant that he brought out the chamber music quality in Wagner’s music that is so often missed. Only once did the orchestra rise above one of the singers and inadvertently drown him out. A particular achievement considering this was a concert performance with the orchestra ranged behind the singers.

And in music where it is often unavoidable that there are weak links in the ensemble, there were none in evidence at The Lowry. The Rhinemaidens – so often seen as secondary in importance when casting as was evidenced in Francesca Zambello’s Ring Cycle in San Francisco – were perfectly cast. The greatest challenge in finding the ‘right’ Rhinemaidens is finding three singers who can negotiate the music, immediately project character and, most importantly, meld their voices when singing together, rather than compete. So all laurels must go to the Woglinde of Jeni Bern, the Wellgunde of Jennifer Johnston (Debut with Opera North) and the Flosshilde of Sarah Castle (Debut with Opera North). Three Rhinemaidens I could listen to again and again and again. From their first entrance, through their mockery of Alberich to their final plaintive lament at the end of the opera, here were three singers of great ability and ensemble skill. Despite of a lack of a stage, from their first appearance they created a real sense of the drama unfolding with simple yet effective choreography. Each had a distinct vocal timbre, warm and rich throughout their range – credit particularly to Bern’s well pointed top notes, the rich warmth of Jennifer Castle and Sarah Castle – yet when they sang in ensemble the effect was mesmerising. I look forward to hearing these three sing again in Gotterdammerung as well as in other operas.

The Alberich of Peter Sidhom was impressive. Again it is often to easy to fall into the trap of easy caricature – Alberich as evil, Alberich as bitter even, in some performances, Alberich as buffoon – but Sidhom caught his personality perfectly. His rich deep baritone was even throughout and this was clearly a role that he was accustomed to performing but he gave a real sense of inventing the character afresh for this production. His character transformation from his first appearance through to the end of the opera, leaving the stage as a broken man bent on revenge was utterly compelling. And in particular when I think of previous productions where plastic toy frogs have been used in the Tarnhelm scene, Sidhom’s own acting surpassed any previous attempt to bring this scene to life. Similarly Mime, sung by Richard Roberts, was no cipher. A confident actor, he brought out both pitiful side as well as the humorous side of this harried dwarf, coupled with a clear, rounded voice.

And so to the Gods. First to Donner (Derek Welton) and Froh (Peter Wedd). Once again, Opera North gave clear thought to what are often considered non-important roles. Welton and Wedd were – in comparison to some productions – luxury casting in the roles of Wotan’s brothers-in-law. Welton – another Opera North debut – resonant bass will hopefully one day see him as a Wotan and Wedd’s clarion tenor with its distinct ‘Englishness’ was fresh and unstrained.

Michael Druiett’s Wotan took a moment to warm up but his was a strong performance. While his is not a particularly big voice, he delivered the vocal line with confidence and had an attractive timbre. Not only will it be interesting to see how he develops Wotan in Die Walküre but also to see if he has the heft for that exacting role.

The goddesses were led by the incredibly talented Yvonne Howard, a soprano of great experience Her warm soprano, finely balanced and coupled with her ability for nuance and colouring that is so often missing in today’s singers, created a Fricka of both subtlety and grace – a multi-dimensional wife and sister from the start, rather than the more normally expected ‘single-sided’ goddess. Here was a woman still in love with her husband but more than a little knowledge of his misdemeanours. Never before have I seen such an expression of fear on the face of Fricka when Erda makes her appearance. For Ms Howard the fear was so much born from Mother Earth’s appearance as from the sure knowledge that her husband’s desire to know more would result in infidelity. Hopefully Ms Howard will be cast by Opera North as Fricka for Die Walküre – I look forward to seeing the sparks fly during her Second Act confrontation with Wotan.

I was particularly pleased to be able to see Lee Bissett as Freia. I first saw Ms Bissett perform as a Young Singer at English National Opera and have always considered her as one of the most talented emerging artists. Shame on ENO for not developing her further and I am somewhat surprised to see that this is her debut with this company. Again she brought this small role to life, not only with her strong acting but her wonderful singing, investing each note with real passion. Hers is a voice that is already quite developed in terms of depth and tone, with a great sense of control and beauty of tone. I wonder if perhaps she will be Opera North’s Sieglinde?

Andrea Baker’s Erda completes the trio of excellent goddesses. This is always a tricky role to carry off, appearing ‘cold’ as it were and thrown into the dramatic tension. Again all credit to the stage direction, as I did not notice her arrival until she began to sing, delivering her warning to Wotan with an incredibly controlled and even line, her tone only slightly wavering at the beginning.

A little more characterisation would have been welcomed in the giants of Brindley Sherratt and Gregory Frank but both were superbly sung.

And finally to the absolutely superb Loge of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and as well as another excellent debut, incredible luxury casting. There is always a risk that the character of Loge will be played mainly for laughs and the more Machiavellian aspects of the character are played away. Not so here. From the onset Ablinger-Sperrhacke created a half-god that was so much more clearly focused on his own self-interest than that Wotan and his ilk. His body language, his movements, his delivery of the text and his innate musicality all merged together to create the most convincing character on the stage. Not without reason he received the biggest cheer on the night. His Loge brought to mind the memorable Loge of Philip Langridge in Covent Garden.

And throughout, each and every singer had near perfect diction. When reading the programme it became clear why the ensemble was so strong in terms of their musicality, singing, portrayal and delivery of the text. Dame Anne Evans DBE has acted as Artistic Consultant on the production and will hopefully continue to do so for the whole cycle. What an incredible coup for Opera North to have the support and advice of such an amazing singer and Wagner expert. Her long and successful career – not only in Wagner but in countless other roles – has clearly been brought to bear and again shows with what careful attention and planning Opera North has approached this cycle.

The concert staging by Peter Mumford perfectly supported and highlighted the drama as it unfolded on stage even before he focused the audience’s attention on the three screens. The impressive use of lighting was in evidence from the very beginning. Before Farnes raised his baton to begin, Mumford focused a singled spotlight on the conductor – a simple yet effective lighting effect that had the immediate effect of focusing the audience. Then as the music began to swell from the double basses, he gradually raised the lighting on the music stands themselves, creating a sense that we were really emerging from the depths of the Rhine. The films and animations on the three screens above the orchestra were used effectively – much more effectively in fact than the projections for the San Francisco Ring and probably at a fraction of the price – and even the use of narrative text didn’t distract from the drama on stage. And perhaps the staging highlight of the evening, and a masterstroke – bathing Lee Bisset’s Freia in golden light as the Gods attempted to pay off the giants. A wonderful touch and so much more effective than the piling of sacks – or faux gold – that is often the case in other productions.

Das Rheingold is often the weakest link in any Ring Cycle for whatever reason. However this wasn’t the case for Opera North and the superlative performance they gave not only at the Lowry – but judging from reviews of the performances – across the midlands and North of England. This was an in intelligent, thoughtful and musical performance that stands shoulder to shoulder – if not shoulder above – productions, staged or not, by other major opera houses. Farnes and his ensemble have set an incredibly standard to beat and I have no doubt whatsoever that they will met or perhaps even surpass it in the remaining three operas.

Buy, beg or steal a tickets for Die Walküre in 2012.

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.

Subitolove

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

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

OBERTO

Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera

Opera Teen

It is so important for people at a young age to be invited to embrace classical music and opera. -Luciano Pavarotti