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Posts Tagged ‘ENO’

EN … Oh.

In Classical Music, Opera on March 25, 2016 at 11:49 am

Most people who visit the opera expect to see the drama unfold on stage. Yet English National Opera more consistently creates more interesting drama off-stage than it does for the paying public.

Just when you thought the company and its management might get at least a short period of respite having averted a strike by the chorus, ENO has now lost its Music Director.

It’s an organisation be-devilled by constant crises. Not since Handel’s day, I reckon, has an opera company been more threatened with bankruptcy, failing box office receipts as well as back stage and corridor shenanigans and bad behaviour.

Personally, I think it’s unfair to completely and wholly blame the most recent management teams for the current crisis. There has been financial insecurity at ENO since the so-called ‘powerhouse’ years. There’s no denying that some great and memorable productions were created in that period. But at the same time, the cavalier fashion in which they wielded the finances is at the root of ENO’s current malaise. And if I am honest, it’s a bit disingenuous for those people associated with that period to come out now and be critical of recent attempts to secure a more stable footing.

But it is rather like bemoaning spilt milk. Whether you call it financial naïveté, ignorance or bad decision making over the years,, the result has been a company often forced to accept short-term respite over long-term security. Desperate times always result in desperate reactions and such has been, and remains the case, at the London Coliseum. Indeed occupying the building itself seemed more foolhardy at the time than a wise and calculated decision. Accepting bail-outs from Arts Council England – more about them later – was all well and good, but rather than stabilise the company properly, the money was over-spent on over ambitious plans that couldn’t hope to realise the consistently high box office return required from every single production.

Granted some management choices are questionable – the appointment of Sean Doran and Oleg Caetani for example. Both appointments took longer than they should and ultimately Doran left the company prematurely and Caetani never actually stepped through the door. But I will say that in aftermath of Doran’s departure, the board did the right and proper thing. Yes, they appointed without a proper selection process, but it could be the one and only time that the board acted decisively and with the future of the company first and foremost in their minds.

It created stability for a period. Stability that ENO hadn’t enjoyed in quite a while. However, that temporary stability came to an abrupt end with the departure of Loretta Tomasi. She might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but she was an able, tough yet fair administrator who kept a tight rein in the company’s finances. The company’s error was not to replace her and to allow John Berry – undoubtedly creative but not a man for whom details matter – complete sinecure at St Martin’s Lane.

It’s also too easy the blame the board. It’s unfair to think that they are just a bunch of rich old men and women who convene once a month and criticise management. I won’t say they’re behaviour hasn’t at times seemed churlish, and sometimes they overstepped their duties, but you cannot fault their commitment and passion for both the company and the art form itself. And let’s not forget their own financial contributions in times of need.

Yet I do feel that their recent appointment at a senior level within the company smacks of the “better do something quick” rather than a thought-out plan. I’m sure Cressida Pollock is very able in some environments. I’m just not sure this is one of them. Now confirmed in her tenure, it seems that Pollock seems unwilling or incapable of owning a decision, as the recent conflagration with the chorus shows. Reading the coverage and her own blog – clearly not one media outlet was willing to print her authored piece or was not asked – there is not only a lack of understanding of what ENO stands for.

She seems to have found some more money with regards to the chorus but one has to wonder if this is another reaction rather than a strategic decision. Whether the package helps or hinders is yet to be seen. There will be costs associated with helping the chorus find ‘summer work’ for a workforce already spread thin.

And what of Mark Wigglesworth and his decision to quit a job after just seven months? Surely he knew what he was getting into or did he naively not ask the right questions in his interview? And did no one at St Martin’s Lane take note when he wrote “Cutting the core of the company – musicians and technicians alike – would damage it irreparably”? Did the ENO’s press office not read the draft?

Whatever happens next at ENO, Wigglesworth must accept a share of the reaction for the decision he has made this week.

So, Arts Council England? In turns cast as Mosostratos, Scarpia and Iago. It’s fair to say that no brave decision has ever been made by ACE with regards to ENO. Rather a series of random acts of little coherence. Even Henley’s weak-penned apologia seemed more aimed at the Treasury and Spending Review than in the interests of the company or ‘Culture UK’.

So, what is left to come? And what denouement would either be a fitting tragedy or lieto fine for the audience to witness?

What about total closure? Is it really that unpalatable? London has another opera house and also plays host to other UK opera companies as well as companies from overseas. And, in this multi-cultural, multi-platform, variegated ‘Google-translate’ world we live in, do we really need to hear opera performed in English. Lilian Bayliss’ mission had a purpose when the company was originally founded, but does it have that same purpose today? With soaring ticket prices, ENO can hardly still be seen as providing ‘opera for everyone’ and the released funding could be distributed to other non central London-based opera companies.

But if not closure, then what about a reduced company? Rescued in size and scale but not quality or ambition. A company that finally accepts it must leave the Coliseum to the lions at ACE and seek a home – transient, seasonal but definitely smaller – elsewhere – even occasionally outside London. This could take more than a few years and tears to realise, and will result in short and potentially medium-term hardship. However, a transformed company could emerge triumphant with renewed purpose and an identity still true to its origins but firmly focused on the audience, and potentially more attractive to sponsors and philanthropists with a more sustainable economic model.

Or do we just leave ENO as it is? Stumbling along creatively and artistically. Lurching from one month and year end to the next. Reacting rather than acting. Slowly fading away until it is a company of no consequence. Ultimately a burden, by when the decision will be inevitable.

Surely, as a management consultant, Ms Pollock must consider even the most radical ideas even if this means her footnote in the history of St Martin’s Lane is more Queen of the Night than Tannhauser’s Elizabeth.

Personally not having ENO in my own future would be a disaster. Yes, I don’t like everything they do. Or say. This government is doing it’s damnedest to snuff out culture one candle at a time and while that is not acceptable is it acceptable to spend public money in this way?

But perhaps it is time to ask the last person out the turn off the lights.

 

A crueler month for ENO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Murder Most Magnificent

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on February 23, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Review – Medea (English National Opera, Wednesday 20 February 2013)

Medea – Sarah Connolly
Jason – Jeffrey Francis
Creon – Brindley Sherratt
Creusa/Phantom – Katherine Manley
Orontes – Roderick Williams
Nerina – Rhian Lois
Cleonis/Cupid – Aoife O’Sullivan
Arcas – Oliver Dunn
Corinthian/Jealousy – John McMunn
Italian Woman/Phantom II – Sophie Junker

Director – David McVicar
Designer – Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer – Paule Constable
Choreographer – Lynne Page

Chorus Master – Jörg Andresen
Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera

Conductor – Christian Curnyn

English National Opera is a company that operates at both extremes of the performance spectrum.

To put it bluntly. Their productions are either incredibly good and thought-provoking. Or completely dreadful and ill-conceived. Although in those cases they are saved from complete ignominy from the general quality of the casting.

With their current production of Medea they are off the spectrum of incredibly good. Excellent. Award-winning. And I would even hazard to say a potential long-runner.

ENO would do well to consider building on their French baroque credentials based on this production and their previous production of Castor and Pollux.

David McVicar has matured from being the enfant terrible of opera directors with great ideas with great ideas to a great opera director with a great vision full of sharp ideas.

But first, the cast.

Charpentier’s music moves seamlessly from air to ‘recitatif’ – through composed or not – and therefore has few main numbers as it were. Therefore attention to the detail to the music and a keen eye to the shift between the two is required. And all the singers keenly demonstrated both.

It was a strongly knit cast without a weak link but clearly this is a production that will most be remembered for the tour-de-force of Sarah Connolly as Medea. This role could have been composed for her. I saw her recently perform scenes from French Baroque operas and this is clearly a genre that suits her voice and temperament.

It is clear – as she said in an interview – that completely trusts McVicar but they obviously share common ground when it comes to developing a character. It goes without saying that musically this was an incredibly distinguished and passionate performance. Sarah Connolly is in possession of a lustrous voice that can switch from the lightest, most delicate of tone and colour to an instrument of incredible force and volume and never was a word dropped or muffled. Witness for example her scenes with Nerina and better still the scene when she wrestles with killing her own sons for example. And it was also a subtle yet masterful transition from loving wife to spurned, vengeful woman. Her acting was incredibly convincing not only in the most obvious scenes but for example in her scene with Jason before her descent into revenge and as well as those scenes with Creon and Creusa.

As the King’s daughter-cum-starlet, Katherine Manley’s bright and full soprano was perfect and glittered like her ill-fated gown. Her closing air – as she lay dying – was sung with great poise but each of her scenes was beautifully and eloquently sung even when she had an inadvertent wardrobe malfunction. Katherine Manley is clearly someone to keep an eye on.

Jeffrey Francis as Jason was a pleasant find. His light, crisp yet sweet-toned tenor was a delight and a good fit for Charpentier’s music as well as with the rest of the ensemble. Particularly impressive was his love duet with Creusa.

The remaining warriors – Brindley Sherratt’s Creon and Roderick Williams’ Orontes – completed the very strong ensemble. I particularly enjoyed Roderick Williams as Pollux in Kosky’s production at ENO last year and here he returned with an equally strong portrayal of Orontes, displaying the same strong, darkly hued baritone with excellent diction. And Brindley Sherratt was superb as Creon. His resonant bass dealt comfortably with the delicacy of Charpentier’s writing.

Special mention too of Rhian Lois as Nerina, Aoife O’Sullivan as Cleonis and Cupid, Oliver Dunn’s Arcas and Sophie Junker’s Italian Woman for the strength and intelligence of their performances.

And of course the ENO chorus sang not only with conviction but with passion. The chorus revealing the death of Creon and Orontes was particularly impressive.

Christian Curnyn led the entire ensemble with great verve and attention to the music. There was an equal balance of rhythmic vitality and beautifully phrased suavity combined with a greater attention to the orchestra colour of Charpentier’s score than I found in his Rameau last year.

And so to the production.

The production was built around a combination of McVicar’s motifs but didn’t suffer because of it. The set could have been borrowed from his Covent Garden Figaro for example, and he maximised the size of the Coliseum’s stage – sometimes its own handicap – by focusing some energy on the activity surrounding the main characters without it being distracting.

The setting was – with its Wrens manoeuvring armies around a map and the costumes – reminiscent of the Second World War and there was a general air of decadence to the entire production. Ms Manley may have inadvertently lost her underwear in the second act but it added to the subtle hint of loucheness – almost decadence – at the court of Creon. His own desire for his daughter made clear by the way he touched her early in the opera, was heightened when the Phantoms in the penultimate act are all doppelgangers of Creusa. Similarly Cupid’s night club scene was smart and witty but again managed to deliver and underlying sense of menace.

The scene when Medea calls upon her demons was brilliantly done, and McVicar spared none of the savagery as Connolly cut her own skin and while I was somewhat at a loss with the shaved-headed, red painted male demons in shift dresses and high heels, the dancing in this scene was brutally effective.

Indeed for the most part the choreography – always a difficult thing to integrate into baroque opera and ENO’s dismal Julius Caesar is testimony to – was smart and efficient. When it didn’t add to the narrative, as it did in the aforementioned scene, it was hearty and jovial, which was no bad thing.

Medea shows what ENO is capable of when everything comes together – an excellent cast led by a superb conductor under the auspices of a smart and intelligent director. It’s a shame that John Berry dismisses the idea of cinema broadcasts. This production would – I am sure – be successful on the big screen because it has everything – a great story committed to stage with great singing, marvellous playing and brilliant direction.

Definitely worth seeing if you haven’t already purchased a ticket.

And the second of two very clever and enjoyable French baroque productions by ENO. I do hope that John Berry realises that here is repertoire that is waiting to be explored and will decisively stake a claim to this genre in the capital.

Can we hope for a more new productions? Indeed perhaps some Lully?

Trimming La Traviata

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on February 15, 2013 at 8:15 am

Review – La Traviata (English National Opera, Tuesday 12 February 2013)

Violetta Valery – Corinne Winters
Alfredo Germont – Ben Johnson 

Giorgio Germont – Anthony Michaels-Moore
Flora Bervoix – Clare Presland
Doctor – Grenvil Martin Lamb
Annina – Valerie Reid
Viscount Gaston – Paul Hopwood
Baron Duphol – Matthew Hargreaves 

Marquis – Charles Johnston

Director – Peter Konwitschny
Designer – Johannes Leiacker 

Lighting – Designer Joachim Klein

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Conductor – Michael Hofstetter

It wasn’t only Violetta’s life that was cut short in ENO’s new production of La Traviata.

I have to admit that when I read of the “edited” version being proposed by English National Opera I was, at best, unconvinced. I think there are few justifiable reasons – bar perhaps in some baroque works – to cut actual music from operas, particularly if – as is the case of La Traviata – it was never originally considered by the composer.

And yet all credit to Konwitschny, the singers, chorus and orchestra for creating – bar a few questionable elements – a compelling and thought-provoking interpretation.

I studiously tried to avoid reading any reviews of this production before attending the performance on Tuesday evening.

This was literally a Traviata stripped bare. No gowns. No lace. No frippery. A series of curtains across the stage, a single chair and a pile of books.

Of course this isn’t the first time that a director has pared this opera back to a minimalist setting. I am thinking of the Met’s recent production for example. But here – despite the size of the Coliseum’s stage – it seems starker and more brutal.

There was no escaping from the inevitable tragedy.

Clearly the curtains represented the various layers of Violetta’s own life, peeled away as the story unfolded. But perhaps also they were representative of other things?

For instance, they literally drew a convenient veil over the uglier aspects of Violetta’s life – the cruelty of her society friends, the voyeurism with which they intruded and ultimately as the curtains were ripped down, the fragile balance of her life itself. Also it underlined the emptiness of her life. There was literally nothing in it.

But there seemed something almost Freudian – sexually suggestive if you will, as let’s not forget that Violetta is a courtesan who plied her trade – in the way that the curtains were not only pulled apart but also in the way that the characters wrapped themselves in the folds of the fabric.

And quite movingly at the end the two main protagonists pretended to pull them back to their original positions as they vainly tried to recapture the past and ignore the present.

Yet there were some elements that I think need a bit of fine-tuning.

The brutality of Germont pere, for example, was not totally convincing. Nor was the idea of introducing a daughter into the equation. Dealing with the latter first, it was an interesting theatrical device – but for some reason Konwitschny portrayed her as a schoolgirl which didn’t work for me. The daughter is on the verge of getting engaged, which is the why the father has turned up, so why is she in pigtails? Secondly the sudden and violent outburst from the father was out of kilter with his general character and particularly his subsequent – and touching – scene with his own son. Yes, to the audience he is being a cruel man in persuading Violetta to give up Alfredo, but from his point of view it’s a question not only of his daughter’s future but also of family honour.

And while using the auditorium was effective, particularly in the closing scene, I think they need to rethink Alfredo clambering over the audience in the front row. Not only was it slightly comical but also I can imagine those in the first two or three rows weren’t best amused especially in the closing and emotionally charged scene to be so distracted. But there is not denying the emotional impact of those closing moments – Violetta alone on the stage and suddenly it is the audience who are – uncomfortably – the voyeurs.

Any production that strips away the artifice requires a strong cast. And this production was fortunate as sometimes casting can be a hit and miss affair at ENO.

Corinne Winters made an extraordinary House debut in the role. Her bright, at times glittering soprano could also – when needed – acquire the hard edge of characterization as well as reduce itself to the slightest vocal whisper. And she was a good and credible actress throughout. Her sense of isolation at the end was gripping. But perhaps they could rethink her costume in the second act? While the device was clear – eschewing all glamour for Alfredo – it seemed almost too absurdist.

Ben Johnson was a promising Alfredo but personally his tenor was a tad too light for me. On the other hand Anthony Michaels-Moore as his father had a resonant bass/baritone and delivered some beautifully phrased singing.

And special mention must go to the Annina of Valerie Reid. Often a role that is cast as an after thought she combined a clear soprano with strong acting.

The ENO chorus once again proved to be a strong card in the production, playing to a tee a ground of self-centred, cruel posse of voyeurs. The choreography in what would have been the third act was particularly chilling.

In the pit the ENO orchestra were on top form, with warm string playing and clearly etched support from wind and brass. Michael Hoffstetter – a conductor I more commonly associate with baroque and early classical repertoire – brought a real clarity and chamber quality to much of Verdi’s score. My only wont was for a bit more flexibility – ebb and flow as it were.

This production was undoubtedly thought provoking and strongly directed. There is no denying that Konwitschny’s vision hurtles towards the tragic denouement but I couldn’t help thinking that this Traviata was a creative yet theatrical experiment.

2012: The Good. The Bad. The Stupid.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 4, 2013 at 8:58 am

2012 was meant to be about getting to Leipzig to hear the GewandhausOrchester and Riccardo Chailly. And about trying to listen to more new music, at least one new piece every fortnight.

Sadly, I can’t say that I achieved either.

But it has been a good year in terms of music in my life, a good year for the ‘bad’ music in my life and let’s face it, the classical music world wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for the occasional ‘stupid’ things as well.

But starting with the good. And in most cases the excellent.

Renée Fleming tops the list not only for the performances that I attended but for the CDs that have given me not only hours of pleasure but lifted my spirits on many an occasion.

Her disc of Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleaux is one that I appreciate more each and every time I listen to it. There is a depth and integrity to the performances that is perfectly matched by the more burnished – almost golden – tone of her voice. Of the recital, it is Messaien’s Prière Exaucée that I return to most often.

In terms of live performances, Ms Fleming has delivered three of my most memorable concerts of the year. In February she made her debut as Ariadne/Prima Donna at Baden-Baden, in an intelligent and beautifully nuanced production by Philippe Arlaud. She is today’s Strauss interpreter par excellence, and her Ariadne – warm, dignified and soulful – was truly remarkable. And she was supported by an incredibly strong cast, from The Composer of Sophie Koch and Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta to a particularly strong performance by Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus.

Similarly, her Arabella in Paris in June. While Philippe Jordan was not the most sympathetic conductor, and the set felt somewhat lost on the stage itself, Ms Fleming and Michael Volle in the lead roles were superb.

But most memorably and most recently was Ms Fleming’s performance at the Barbican. In a carefully constructed recital, she took the audience on the most magnificent journey through the closing years of the Habsburg empire to the dawn of fascism. From Mahler to Schoenberg, Ms Fleming once again demonstrated her musical and vocal prowess. And when, in her encores she glitched, she did so with great humour. As I said at the time I hope that in 2013 she will make a recording of this recital. It can only be brilliant.

Staying with Vienna, Robert Carsen’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Wien Staatsoper in March was a homage to the city itself. Compared to the two previous productions I had seen – in Copenhagen and Edinburgh – this was by far the more successful in interpreting the at times dense symbolism of the story. And Carsen was aided and abetted by an incredible cast, led by Adrienne Pieczonka and Evelyn Herlitzius as the Empress and Dyer’s Wife respectively and Robert Dean Smith as the Emperor. And in the pit, Franz Welster Möst drew superlative playing from the orchestra. It’s a shame that this production hasn’t been captured on DVD.

Soprano Sandrine Piau literally wowed the audience of Wigmore Hall with her Mozart recital in October. Combining Mozart’s arrangements of Handel arias with some of his own arias drawn from his youth Ms Piau, ably supported by the Orchestra of Classical Opera conducted by Ian Page gave a performance that was nothing short of brilliant. But to the delight of everyone who attended she saved the best til her final encore – an absolutely heart-rending performance of Verso gia l’alma col sangue from Handel’s Aci. Galatea e Polifemo. Brava.

And finally hats off to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for being – in short – the most cheerful, energetic and enthusiastic performers of 2012. Not only is their music making of the highest standard but they continue to raise the bar when it comes to reaching new audiences and the inventiveness of their programming. Their Nightshift series is brilliant and their most recent event, celebrating the music of Handel with brilliantly amusing anecdotes by John Butt demonstrates that they know how to make classical music seem alive and relevant to the audience. And their first two concerts in the series Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers with superlative performances by Anna Catarina Antonacci and Sarah Connolly bode well for the remaining concerts in 2013. Definitely performances to book if you haven’t done so already.

Other memorable performances were Janowski’s Tannhauser for Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram slightly pipping Nina Stemme’s Elizabeth and a live stream of the final installment of Kriegenberg’s Ring in Munich.

Sadly 2012 wasn’t without its turkeys. Top of the list was ENO’s misjudged choice of director for their new production of Julius Caesar. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s vision was nothing short of facile and shameful as it completely undermined the strong performances overall of the cast. In a similar vein, Nigel Lowery’s production of Il Trionfo di Clelia wasn’t only let down by the pretension and ridiculousness of his ideas but by the ragged, almost poorly rehearsed playing of the City of London Sinfonia.

Sadly Opera North also didn’t quite hit the mark this year. Disappointing productions of Norma and Giulio Cesare – bar a strong performance by Sarah Tynan – were followed by a particularly poor Die Walküre. As well as being poorly cast, Richard Farnes never seemed to grasp the music’s sweep. I am hoping that they recover their mojo for Siegfried.

Robert LePage’s Ring Cycle finally ended with a fatally flawed Götterdämmerung. Not only was the production – symbolized forever by it’s Buckeroo Grane – poorly conceived together with the rest of the cycle, but a hostile reaction from the public and the critics led to both the director and Peter Gelb going on a poorly thought through offensive. LePage’s interview in the New York Times was nothing less than insulting, and Gelb’s attempt at censorship similarly ill-fated. Lepage’s reference to “the Machine” as a ‘poisoned gift’ in Wagner’s Dream, a documentary about the entire production and well worth watching, seems particularly apt.

Staying with bad ideas, the BBC’s Maestro At The Opera proved just how insulting the BBC thinks its audience is. This tick-box-arts-programming featuring a series of has-beens and nobodies not only insulted the intelligence of the wider audience but also ensured that the tired old myths and misconceptions about opera on the whole have been perpetuated. Let’s hope that Lord Hall of Birkenhead sorts it all out.

And John Berry continued his attempts to be hip with his introduction of a “no dress code” dress code at ENO. Stupid man.

But to end on a positive note, this year has seen some fantastic CDs issued. Top of the list and forgive my bias that “all-things-by-Joyce-DiDondato-are-fantastic” is her latest CD, Drama Queens. Not only is each and every track a marvel of musicianship and passion but her concert tour has been a storming success. Personally I cannot wait for her to perform in London this February. Valer Barna-Sabadus rose above the poorly named title of his CD to produce one of the best recital discs of 2012. Not many artists could pull of an entire CD of Hasse’s music, but Barna-Sabadus not only does so with verve but with a series of masterful performances. As I said at the time, Cadrà fra poco in cenere is simply beautiful. Two other discs that remain almost on constant repeat are Iestyn Davies’ Arias for Guadagni accompanied by the excellent ensemble Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen and Anne Schwanewilms’ disc of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder.

And for 2013? Well I have already mentioned Ms DiDonato’s forthcoming concert but there are other things to look forward to and to book. The OAE’s Queens, Heroines & Ladykillers series continues and in this year of Wagner a full Ring cycle is a must. But if not the Met, then perhaps Munich or even Palermo?

And while I have failed to get a ticket to Die Frau ohne Schatten with Anne Schwanewilms in Amsterdam, I have my eyes firmly fixed on a new production of FroSch at the Met this Autumn. And of course I hope to return to Vienna for either Die Walküre or Tristan und Isolde.

And in terms of forthcoming CDs who cannot be excited – or at least intrigued – by Gergiev’s forthcoming Die Walküre, a reissue of Anneliese Rothenberger singing the Vier Letzte Lieder and another instalment of of Janowski’s WagnerZyklus?

So it only leaves me to thank you all for continuing to visit my blog. I know that not all of you agree with my write-ups and I am always honoured when you leave a comment – good or bad they make me think and on occasion change my mind.

So while it’s adieu to an eventful and enjoyable 2012, in terms of 2013 I say “bring it”.

Dancers In The Dark

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on October 6, 2012 at 11:41 am

Review – Julius Caesar, English National Opera (Thursday 4 October 2012)

Julius Caesar – Lawrence Zazzo
Cleopatra – Anna Christy
Cornelia – Patricia Bardon
Sesto – Daniela Mack
Ptolemy -Tim Mead
Achillas – Andrew Craig Brown
Curio – George Humphreys
Nirenus – James Laing

Fabulous Beast Dance Company

Director & Choreographer – Michael Keegan-Dolan
Costume – Doey Lüthi
Lighting – Adam Silverman

Conductor – Christian Curmyn

For the record, I wore jeans and trainers to last night’s performance of Julius Caesar – pace Giulio Cesare – at English National Opera. And I wasn’t alone. Somehow I think ENO’s latest bid to get ‘young people’ through the doors will fall flat. It doesn’t matter what you wear to the opera – one gent was in a track suit – as long as what is happening on stage commands your complete and total attention.

Sadly, ENO’s new production of Giulio Cesare did not.

John Berry continues with his obsession of employing ‘creatives’ who have no or little track record of previously directing opera. I am not saying that on occasion – a rare occasion – he doesn’t score a success. I am thinking in particular of Anthony Minghella’s cinematic production of Madame Butterfly. It may not have plumbed the depths of characterisation but it was certainly memorable.

Others have not been so fortunate. Terry Gilliam’s Faust was – after all the hype – disappointing; Figgis’ Lucia di Lammermoor was nothing less than bel canto cannibalisation and Rufus Norris’ Don Giovanni mistook crass violence for drama.

For this venture at the self-dubbed ‘House of Handel’ Berry selected to work with Michael Keegan-Dolan in a co-production with the latter’s Fabulous Beast Dance Company. Previous credits for Keegan-Dolan include ENO’s production of Alcina, which I remember with some fondness for the elegance of its choreography and their more recent production of The Rite of Spring, which I did not see.

ENO has assembled a pretty strong ensemble of singers for this venture. Led by Lawrence Zazzo it included Anna Christy, Patricia Bardon and Tim Mead whom I have seen before as well as Daniela Mack, Andrew Craig Brown, George Humphreys and James Laing.

And in the pit, Christian Curmyn.

On paper it all looked so promising. And overall musically it was.

Zazzo’s voice may have lost some of its bite and attractive starchiness over the years but he still sounds beautiful. He can still produce a gently honeyed tone although perhaps now there is a little less colour and shade throughout his still considerable range. And he has lost none of the vocal agility for which he is renowned and which was tested to the full in this role. I won’t go so far as to say his Cesare was a tour de force but there were moments of great beauty. In particular in the third act, his Aure, Deh, Pietà was just short of stunning and thankfully devoid of much of the pointless direction that littered the evening.

Before the metaphorical curtain rose, we were informed that Ms Christy was suffering from a severe cold. Apart from a slight hint of tightness at the top of her range and the smallest hint of flagging just before she rallied for the final duet, hers was an accomplished performance as Cleopatra. She handled the florid runs and her da capo ornamentation with gusto and almost pinpoint accuracy. I imagine that when she is fully recovered her voice will have an added softness that was sometimes missing on Thursday evening. Her V’adoro, Pupille – sung rather smartly I admit as a nightclub singer – was suitably graceful and light and her final aria – Piangerò la sorte mia – was heartfelt if lacking in the subtle vocal colouring that would have made it more memorable. However there was no faulting the end of the second act and Che sento? Oh Dio! Se Pietà di me non senti. Here Christy delivered a mesmerising, undistracted performance, emotionally focused and beautiful of tone. It was – for me – the highlight of the evening.

Patricia Bardon got off to a rocky start. Her opening aria Priva son d’ogni conforto – a pitfall for many singers exactly because of its simplicity – was too heavily sung but she got into her stride and by the duet at the end of Act One was in fine voice. She does have a slight tendency to untidiness in her ornamentation in the da capo return but the depth and richness of her voice always makes her a joy to listen to.

Tim Mead as Ptolemy was both vocally secure, with a pleasant bell-like tone sufficiently distinct to his Roman nemesis with confident technique to manage the coloratura. And Daniela Mack – in her Coliseum debut – was a striking Sesto. Played inexplicably as a girl, Mack’s Sesto was the character who most clearly evolved from child to avenger in the course of the opera. However how much this was due to Keegan-Dolan’s direction rather than her interpretation of Handel’s music and her own talent is open to question. Again her bright soprano eased through the music with agility and precise coloratura. I look forward to seeing more of Ms Mack on stage.

Curmyn led the orchestra with finesse. But as I remarked when he conducted Castor et Pollux, there was a lack of orchestral light and dark amongst the players – he didn’t really delve deeply into the sound world that Handel so carefully wove into the score. But his rhythms were sharp and crisp and he maintained a good sense of momentum through the recitatives. My only gripe is that sometimes his tempi erred on the side of haste. In particular in the wonderful duet between mother and daughter/son Son nata a lagrimar and Cleopatra’s Piangerò, where a little more breadth was really needed to do full justice to the music.

Unfortunately the quality and thoughtfulness given over to the casting and music was badly missing from Keegan-Dolan’s directing and choreography.

Bar one single instance of inspiration the entire evening was nothing short than a slow-footed mess. My heart sank when I first entered the auditorium to find the curtain pulled back to reveal the stage. This was a device used most recent at ENO by Barry Kosky in Castor et Pollux. But whereas his stage was empty, Keegan-Dolan’s revealed a suspended stuffed crocodile and a giraffe loitering at the back of the stage like a Toys R Us after a raid by particularly misbehaved children. I would like to think that the director selected the crocodile because of it’s Renaissance symbolism – as suggested in one review – but I think it had more to do with the geographical location of the opera and the allure of a cheap visual gag.

I also cannot fathom the reason why corps de ballet were on stage throughout except that the restrictive set design did not facilitate easy access or exit either stage left or right. When they weren’t dancing they were tidying up, pouring fake blood over the singers or sitting in one of the trenches.

And so to the dancing. I didn’t find it distracting overall but I do question what artistic or narrative value it added. I am not opposed to dance in opera – even when it isn’t implicitly written into the score. I think back to Alcina and the charming way Tornami a vagheggiar closed the first act. By Keegan-Dolan I note.

In this production’s programme the director/choreographer wrote that the dances reflected “the yearning of the characters to connect with the universal and express each characters’ attempt to find resolution and end their suffering.”

Really?

I am not expert in the vocabulary of dance but if the movements of the dancers were meant to express the feelings of the dancers then Keegan-Dolan saw the characters as emotionally bland and simple ciphers. The same flailing movements occurred again and again and again, either in solo or ensemble or, quite tiringly, starting as solos and then gradually more dancers joined one by one.

Indeed the single moment of beauty and insight in this masterpiece of Handel’s was at the end of the Second Act. Cleopatra’s Se pietà was heartrending not only in her performance but in the direction. Why? Because the stage was devoid of any dancing or pointless activity so that everything was focused on Christy. It threw the rest of the Opera’s tediousness direction into sharp relief.

A few years back I saw Piña Bausch’s Iphigénie at Sadler’s Wells. I remember being sceptical as the curtain rose thinking how could anyone merge Gluck’s masterpiece with dance. Well Bausch achieved it, creating a work of infinite beauty and emotional depth, intelligence and impact. All sadly lacking from Keengan-Dolan’s interpretation.

Also in the programme Keegan-Dolan, almost in defence of his production it seems writes – “As a choreographer or director one is vulnerable to making the mistake of adding too many extra elements to what Handel has given us, when in fact all that is necessary is to excavate thoroughly what is already there and simply allow its implicit power to emerge.”

It’s a shame that he didn’t listen to his own advice. Apart from the visual gags, the dancing didn’t add anything and in fact – while not overtly distracting – seemed to afford him with something to hide behind similar to the sheet behind which the onstage orchestra performed for V’adoro pupille. It enabled him to overlook, or more damning, neglect the development of the characters in this, only of Handel’s most carefully written operas in terms of characterisation.

And as for his comment about apple pie – “Adding ice cream to cream already on a slice of apple tart will smother any taste of the apple” – I can only assume that Mr Keegan-Dolan has an over-sweet tooth artistically speaking as he simply cannot leave anything alone. Apart from the crocodile and the giraffe complete with its ripped out tongue, Keegan-Dolan persisted in cramming nonsense into the production. Balloons, Caesar for some unknown reason as cowboy cum big game hunter and out of the blue a single moment of cruelty that was completely out of kilter, unexpected and therefore totally unnecessary. I refer to Ptolemy’s treatment of his sister in the Third Act. The abuse – and there is not other word for it – was more akin to the work of Calixto Bieito but at least in the latter’s productions it is consistently applied. Here it felt simply felt contrived and a desperate attempt to lift the drama through tawdry shock tactics.

And not content with interfering with the narrative thigh his ideas, he messed with the story itself. Why was Sesto a young woman? There was absolutely no dramatic justification for it nor any explanation. Pointless.

As for the lighting and costumes. Bland. Why was Caesar in cowboy boots and vest and why did Cornelia look more like a shop assistant from Estée Lauder than a grieving widow?

But to return one final time to Keegan-Dolan’s own note in the programme he writes – “If you close your eyes and listen to Handel’s music …”.

I am not saying that the Fabulous Beast Dance Company are not talented but by the start of the Second Act it was a very tempting to,take the director up on his offer.

It’s a tragedy, almost of Classic proportions, that singing and musicianship of such a high standard was almost universally marred by a bad original idea and worse than dreadful direction. It’s even sadder that I think that this production of Giulio Cesare will never see the light of day again.

Indeed if this was the Roman Coliseum it would definitely be getting the thumbs down.

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?

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