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Posts Tagged ‘John Fulljames’

Perfection’s Veneer

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 15, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Review – The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Royal Opera House, Thursday 12 March 2015)

Leocadia Begbick – Anne Sofie von Otter
Fatty – Peter Hoare
Trinity Moses – Willard W. White
Jenny – Christine Rice
Jimmy McIntyre – Kurt Streit
Jack O’Brien – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Bank-Account Bill – Darren Jeffrey
Alaska Wolf Joe – Neal Davies
Toby Higgins – Hubert Francis
Six Girls – Anna Burford, Lauren Fagan, Anush Hovhannisyan, Stephanie Marshall, Meeta Raval & Harriet Williams
Voice – Paterson Joseph

Director – John Fulljames
Set Designs – Es Devlin
Costume Designs – Christina Cunningham
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet
Video Designs – Finn Ross

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera

Mark Wigglesworth (Conductor)

I ate and was never full, I drank and was always still thirsty. Somebody give me a glass of water!”

Jimmy McIntyre’s last words just before his execution could also be a fitting epitaph for the Royal Opera House’s first ever production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

It was a smart and – on the whole – well-performed and executed production. But there was a gloss to it that meant that ultimately it failed to convince.

In the programme, Kasper Holten identified the contradictions of this work – a full-blown opera with ‘anti-opera’ elements, but ultimately what we got was just opera. There was no sense of the radicalism – musically or otherwise – that made Brecht and Weill’s collaboration so controversial when it was first performed.

It was – in it’s search for perfection – all too polite. There was no sense of corruption and decadence – of seediness – required by Brecht and Weill’s words and music to make this production of Mahagonny really work.

In the pit Mark Wigglesworth – soon to be Music Director at ENO – conducted without any sense of verve interpretation or attention to the score. And he didn’t draw from the orchestra a palette of sound that was anything but operatic. That lack of colour so required for Weill’s music ultimately meant that for the most part the orchestra sounded bland. Ironically it seemed that the only louche-ness in the pit came from the lazy attention to rhythm that again undermined the composer’s music.

The singing – while on the whole strong – also came a cropper. Christine Rice – for example – sounded glorious but glorious wasn’t what was needed. She didn’t capture the emotional ennui of Jenny, nor her coldness. It’s rare to hear Anne Sofie von Otter on stage at Covent Garden, and this was a wasted opportunity. She is a singer I admire, not only for her Baroque performances, but a repertoire that also includes chansons as well as a notable album with Elvis Costello. But here, she was lost and seemed more caricature that characterful. And this was true of Peter Hoare, Willard White, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Darren Jeffrey and Neal Davies. In any opera they would have been superb, but here vocally they were unconvincing and dramatically, ciphers.

And personally, Kurt Streit was simply miscast as Jimmy. He lacked both the flexibility and vocal amplitude that the music required, often sounding uncomfortably strained and like the others dramatically unconvincing. In the final scene – when John Fulljames seemed to finally find a dramatic rhythm – it was too late for Streit to redeem the production despite being offered so overtly to the audience as the ultimate Redeemer.

However plaudits must go to the Royal Opera Chorus that was impressive especially in the Second and Third Acts.

The production, like the performances, lacked punch although Es Devlin ensured that visually it was smart. She made clever use of shipping containers and projections and the set for the second act was very impressive. In some ways, Fulljames’ grandiose – and again overly operatic – approach to the story was ultimately the production. Feeling for the most part overblown, as if trying too hard to fit the stage, the director distracted from the simplicity of the story itself. And at times I did wonder why Mahagonny – and not Orfeo – was scheduled for The Roundhouse or a similar venue. I thought the attempt to tie Brecht’s tornado to global warming was clumsy at best, and ultimately never felt that Fulljames’ attempt to “modernise’ the author’s critique of capitalism was convincing.

As I have already mentioned, the “Jesus” moment at the end was effective but mainly because it stood in stark relief to the general weakness of the production overall and wasn’t enough to rescue the evening.

The Rise and fall of the City of Mahagonny is a story of the power, corruption, desire and ultimately the failure of immorality. It’s in the words. It’s in the music. It should permeate and soak into both the production and the audience should leave at the end of the evening feeling ever so slightly sullied.

Sadly Covent Garden’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny only felt ike a night at the opera. Nothing more.

An Aural-Oral Assault

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on June 22, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Review – Quartett (Linbury Theatre, Saturday 21 June 2014)

Marquise de Merteuil – Angelica Voje
Marquis de Valmont – Mark Stone

Director – John Fulljames
Set & Costume Designs – Soutra Gilmour
Film Designs – Ravi Deepres
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet
Sound Design – Sound Intermedia
Computer Music Design – Serge le Mouton

London Sinfonietta

Andrew Gourlay (Conductor)

There is no denying that Luca Francesconi’s Quartett is a remarkable work.

Perhaps inadvertently, the Royal Opera House has created a French Revolutionary parallel with their recent and most excellent Carmélites.

And while both operas make an impact in very different ways, personally whether the impact of Quartett is as noteworthy or long lasting as that of Carmelites is debatable.

In the programme, the composer wrote that the music is “consistent” and that he used “expressive tensions” rather than styles. There was no denying that the music was never anything but tense – almost unbearably so and all the time. However the reliance on these tensions rather than a sense of structure (or form) doe question whether Francesconi could write anything longer than a single act opera.

In Quartett, Franesconi combined live music expertly played it must be said by the London Sinfonietta under the skillful baton of Andrew Gourlay, with both pre-recorded sounds and music. The players in the pit displayed a virtuosity that underlines why it is the leading contemporary music ensemble in Europe today.

The singers, Angelica Voje and Mark Stone also acquitted themselves brilliantly. Neither gave any sense that they were anything else but comfortable and confident in this music. Ms Voje however had the slight edge, finding a level of emotional delivery of words and music that sometimes eluded Stone. Halfway through the performance I did suddenly think how I would want to see Ms Voje in Handel. She has a bright, gleaming and flexible soprano of impressive range, and I was pleasantly surprised to then see has in fact sung Handel with ETO. I shall be looking out for her in future.

Perhaps unwisely, Francesconi also wrote the libretto. Taking as his starting point Heiner Müller’s play of the same title which was in turn ‘freely inspired’ by de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it didn’t work. He had removed any sense of humanity from the two protagonists. Without it, it becomes difficult – if not impossible – to understand why they are as they are. And while the language used was simple, it felt unwieldy – almost like an unfinished draft.

It might have been intentional, but with both words and music equally relentless and brutal all the time, it felt that Francesconi hadn’t written so much an opera than a complete assault on the senses.

On stage itself, James Fulljames’ vision was simple yet compelling. I didn’t realize that the Linbury had the facility to split the audience on either side of the stage and here it worked. More than feeling like the voyeurs that the composer intended, it was more like watching a gladiatorial fight of some kind.

I am not sure that Deepres’ video projections added anything. Projected as they were on lengths of hanging fabric, they were unclear and only offered the slightest respite from what was happening on the gangway cum stage.

By the end, Francesconi’s Quartett had delivered – hammer blow by hammer blow -an emotional numbness rather than anything else. Any emotional colour – as found in de Laclos original work – had been shorn from the retelling of a classical tale of love and revenge and the music bludgeoned rather than heightened the senses.

But in a perverse way, despite all of this, it made for a compelling evening.

New operas are vital if the art form is to survive. Most recently we had Julian Anderson’s flawed The Thebans, and before that Benjamin’s Written on Skin and Anna Nicole by Turnage.

Francesconi’s overtly intellectual approach is to be lauded. Francesconi is quoted as saying “It is not easy to compose an opera today. It is an incredibly rich form, but we have to completely change our definition. When we say ‘opera’ we normally think of the 19th century. For me … it is a fantastic multimedia machine.”

H has been commissioned by the Royal Opera House to write a new work for 2020. It will be interesting to see what comes of this because at the end I did wonder if his approach was at the expense of a truly musical and emotional experience.

Scotch Missed – Tartan With Everything.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 28, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Review – La Donna del Lago (Covent Garden, Monday 27 May 2013)

Elena – Joyce DiDonato
Uberto – Juan Diego Flórez
Malcolm – Daniela Barcellona
Rodrigo – Colin Lee
Douglas – Simon Orfila
Albina – Justina Gringyte
Serano – Robin Leggate

Director – John Fulljames
Set Designs – Dick Bird
Costume Designs – Yannis Thavoris
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet
Choreographer – Arthur Pita

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Conductor – Michele Mariotti

There is no doubt that the Royal Opera House has a hit on its hands. But I do think it would have been just as much of a success if it had been performed in concert and the production itself had been shelved.

I read somewhere that this was a brand new production as the original production was not considered strong enough. Did it have fried mars bars being dispensed before battle or something? Or something else suitably stereotypical of an Englishman’s interpretation of what Scotland is like north of the Border?

But first, the singing.

It was first rate. Mostly. It was definitely built around its two main singers – Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez.

Fan warning.

Without a doubt Ms DiDonato is the leading mezzo soprano performing today. She invests so much energy, enthusiasm, musicianship and credibility into every appearance that at times the intensity can almost be too much but not quite. She wraps herself into character completely.

Her Elena was everything it should be – passionate, devoted, defiant. The music itself held no terrors for her as she sailed through the coloratura and spun out perfectly even legato lines. It was interesting to hear a snippet of her recent masterclass at the Linbury. In a short five-minute excerpt she all but defined the basis of her own performance ethos when coaching a young singer – how an entire role informs her approach to the music as the narrative of the opera develops.

She really needs to write a book.

But it wasn’t only in her arias that she excelled but in the ensembles she demonstrated an innate sensitivity with the other singers. The trio and quartet that close the First Act for example and her duet with Daniele Barcellona were simply brilliant.

But it has to be said Oh mattutini arbori and Fra il padre, e fra l’amante were worth the price of the tickets alone. DiDonato really can switch from the smoothest legato singing – always beautifully and tastefully embellished – and the most ferocious coloratura with pinpoint accuracy. And it seems with incredible ease.

Outstanding.

As Malcolm, Daniele Barcellona was superb as well. Her dark, dusky voice was a perfect foil for DiDonato. She literally spat out her coloratura in her solo numbers in both acts but when required, melded her voice with her onstage partners.

Colin Lee was an unexpected pleasure. It’s a shame that Fulljames wrapped him in a character of such ungainly barbarity as his was an elegant, flexible and bright tenor voice, full of character and depth. And he was able to shade his voice most elegantly, with an acute sense of dynamic control. I understand in the past he has covered for Florez. I can understand why.

And on Juan Diego Flórez this may be unpopular but he was a disappointment. For the overwhelming majority of the time, he seemed to have one volume no matter what he was singing – loud. There is no doubt that he still has the technique and can hit all the notes but it seems to be at the price of finesse. Indeed, in the trio just after the start of the Second Act he seemed involved in a singing competition not only with Colin Lee but also with himself. And compared to DiDonato and Lee, his stand-and-deliver method of acting was decidedly wooden. A shame as I have heard him sing before and always been impressed by his performances which have been more nuanced and – well – musical.

But the audience was having none of it. Technique won out over a truly ensemble performance.

Simon Orfila’s Malcolm was suitably solid and special mention must go to the Scott of Robin Leggate. Justina Gringyte’s Albina was a little too harsh for me.

Michele Mariotti conducted a brisk but meticulous performance. The chorus has rarely sounded better and Mariotti pulled out the delicacy of Rossini’s orchestral writing from the orchestra who are on top form at the moment. And with all the tempos well judged, the music was given real space and opportunity to breathe.

Having seen John Fulljames’ La Clemenza di Tito I was interested to see what he would do with Rossini. His approach was an interesting one and on paper, and no doubt when the model was first presented for approval, showed promise.

However his Scottish Highlands lacked the finesse of his interpretation of Ancient Rome as corporate boardroom.

There are times when a traditional approach definitely works better. And this should have been one of those times.

The sets themselves not so subtly hinted at Scotland with their granite overtones and – in the second act – a hint of Highland trees. The stairwell cleverly suggested the sweeping staircase of a Scottish castle and the use of a painted screen to separate one world from another was a smart device.

The conceit however of bringing together the world of Rossini and Scott with a ‘real-time’ setting showed a director trying too hard. Reminiscent of A Night In the Museum without the slapstick, it led to a congested stage at times. For example the English soldiers’ chorus at the start had something of the Gilbert & Sullivan about it. Unintended I am sure.

However it was Fulljames’ general characterization that let the production down. Portraying the Highlanders as savages – complete with sexual assault and a general disdain of women – was simply ugly. It was clumsy and jarred dramatically. And it seems the idea of a hanging dead animal has migrated from the Coliseum to Covent Garden with the inevitable entrails and blood smearing oath sworn at the end of Act One.

And the ending – the stage sprayed in tartan with the onstage musicians clothed in what looked like dressing gowns – was similarly gauche.

Less Braveheart and more Bland-heart.

However the production couldn’t undermine the overall quality of the singing on stage.

I have another ticket. If Covent Garden can be persuaded to dispense with the staging and if Juan Diego Flórez can find his volume button then it will be a perfect evening.

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.

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