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Posts Tagged ‘Henry Waddington’

An Inclement Clemenza

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on March 16, 2013 at 10:42 pm

Review – La Clemenza di Tito (Opera North at The Lowry, Thursday 14 March 2013)

Tito -
 Paul Nilon
Vitellia -
Annemarie Kremer
Servilia
 – Fflur Wyn
Sesto – 
Helen Lepalaan
Annio – 
Kathryn Rudge
Publio – 
Henry Waddington

Director 
- John Fulljames
Movement Director – 
Tim Claydon
Set and Costume Designer 
- Conor Murphy
Lighting Designer 
- Bruno Poet
Projection Designer 
- Finn Ross

Orchestra & Chorus Opera North
Conductor
 – Douglas Boyd

Almost but not quite.

Perhaps a motto that Opera North could adopt more often than not based on some of their most recent productions and sadly also true of their new production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

This is often Mozart’s most misjudged opera when in fact it contains music of great depth and emotional intensity and a dramatic sweep that blows cobwebs off what was by then a dying art form. As well as the arias it contains some beautifully crafted duets as well as – in my view – one of Mozart’s most dramatically written trios and act closers.

While Opera North’s production came close so many times, it never seemed to quite get into its stride either musically or dramatically.

The main surprises of the evening were the magnificent Annio of Kathryn Rudge and the promising Servilia of Fflur Wyn. Ms Rudge displayed a full-bodied, warm soprano and some impeccable singing even if at times she didn’t quite seem to have the breath for some of Mozart’s longer phrases. However her arias – and in particular her arias Torna a Tito a lato and Tu Fosti tradito – were beautifully and stylishly sung and the duet with the bright voiced Fflur Wyn was beautifully and sympathetically blended. And the poignancy of Ms Wyn’s S’altro che lagrime was touching. I see that Kathryn Rudge is soon to perform a lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall and if there was any a reason to take a longer break – or to put a fictitious meeting in the diary – hearing her sing again is very tempting.

Henry Waddington’s Publio was also well executed. He sung with confidence and authority and was particularly fine in the ensembles.

Sadly the rest of the cast – the principles – fared less well. Paul Nilon was an incredible Tito in McVicar’s production for ENO but in this production the role always sounded slightly beyond his grasp. But what he lacked in terms of vocal flexibility and colour he made for in terms of dramatic delivery even if reaching for the higher notes seemed more of a physical effort than seemed comfortable.

However both the Vitellia of Annemarie Kremer and Helen Lepalaan’s Sesto were strangely underpowered both vocally and dramatically. Clearly they sung all the notes although Ms Kremer seemed to spend most of the evening either distractingly ahead of or behind the beat but having seen her as Norma and not being convinced I was not totally convinced by her Empress-in-Waiting. Vocally she seemed uncomfortable and stretched, her coloratura often laboured or messy and sometimes both. She also had a distracting dramatic tic of raising her hand to the side of her face almost as if she was attempting to block out the other singers. Non piu di fiori was the closest she came to realizing the dramatic nature of the role but this was marred by Fulljames suddenly decision to ratchet up – for no clear reason – the violence. Similarly Helen Lepalaan never really got into the meat of her character. Vocally bland throughout even the majesty of the closing scenes of the First act and the magnificence of Deh per queste istante solo failed to rouse her from her sleepy performance.

Douglas Boyd conducted the orchestra with confidence and spirit even if the somewhat hurried tempi at time made the players scramble and crash through the notes and the recitatives seemed incredibly leaden.

The production – John Fulljames’ first for Opera North – was focused around a rotating glass wall and computer-generated graphics that seemed to place the drama in and around a corporate boardroom or a future inspired by Kurt Wimmer’s film Equilibrium. Personally I found it an effective compromise between a more traditional approach and the war-zone-cum-bombed-out-building that more often than not seems to be standard fashion for modern productions. Granted it does need some tightening up and could do without the projection of Tito’s face on the back wall. The end of the First Act for example could perhaps do with less or no confetti and Vitellia’s sudden and bloody mental collapse seemed over dramatic. And it’s a shame – although perhaps this was simple a space issue with the Lowry stage – that the chorus were relegated to the pit.

So while the production was not the most disappointing I have seen from Opera North it could do with a rethink. With the right attention to casting and some – but not much – tightening of the narrative, this production could more justly do honour to Mozart’s opera seria swansong.

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.

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