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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Kent’

The Cinematic Contradictions of ENO

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner, Uncategorized on May 21, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Reviews – The Flying Dutchman & Madam Butterfly

ENO is currently an artistic contradiction. On the one hand, and bar the occasional directorial and artistic misjudgment, the music making has never been of a higher standard.

Take the current productions on stage. Without a doubt Madam Butterfly, directed by Anthony Minghella, is a masterpiece of music theatre. It is visually cinematic and opulent – opera interpreted through the lens of a tasteful Hollywood camera lens. And while the individual production elements – the shoji screens, the masked and black-robed stagehands and the puppetry – could have threatened to distract, in fact they enhance the unfolding drama and work in perfect sync with the Puccini’s music itself. In an original interview at the time of the production’s debut, Minghella said that he had more than a few recordings of the opera on his iPod. And it shows. The directing and the production underline the nuances of the opera perfectly.

And the cast too is incredibly strong. The original ENO Cio Cio San, Mary Plazas, returns in fantastic voice and is ably supported by Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki, John Fanning as Sharpless and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton. And in the pit Oleg Caetani, once Music Director Designate before the fall of Sean Doran. He drew wondrously warm and fluid playing from the orchestra and demonstrated that this is an opera he has a deep love for.

On the other hand there is The Flying Dutchman, a new production by Jonathan Kent. This production first and foremost is a triumph for Ed Gardner, the orchestra and the chorus. Never have they sounded so superb. The strings are warm with added bite, the wind are translucent and sonorous and the brass bright and clear. Gardner shows that at least in ‘Romantic’ Wagner he knows how to handle the ebb and flow of the music, picking out the orchestral detail and finely balancing the pit and the singers. I wonder how long he will remain at ENO? And the chorus too is as superb as ever. But the singers underline that there is still some way to go with casting sympathetic Wagner performers. The Dutchman of James Creswell may have the volume and heft for the role but there was a distinct lack of finesse throughout. His was a one dimensional Dutchman. Stuart Skelton’s Erik was finely sung and well acted but again – and because I think of the production and his last-minute appearance – a cipher. Of the male roles it was the Daland of Clive Bayley that drew the strongest performance and characterization.

But the greatest disappoint was the Senta of Orla Boylan. She does indeed have the notes and the heft but – and this may be isolated to this run of performances – her voice has a singularly unattractive edge to it which distracts from the music itself. Throughout the performance she was shrill to the point of discomfort.

Yet it was Jonathan Kent’s production that ultimately failed to knit everything together in a coherent manner. A series of clever ideas – like his ultimately flawed Die Frau ohne Schatten for the Marriinsky – Kent’s premise from what I could gather, that childhood influences were at the crux of this drama, didn’t quite gel. The First Act opened with Child Senta reading The Dutchman as fairytale while her father left her to go to sea. Clearly the love between the two was deeply founded and from the body language it was clear that Daland loved his daughter very much. This made his agreement to barter her for gold to The Dutchman more bewildering. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to portray Daland as cold and greedy from the start? That would have made Child Senta’s retreat into the land of make-believe more credible. Instead we are then suddenly presented with Adult Senta who, and one can’t fault Boylan’s acting ability, is clearly a woman on the edge and living within the confines of the book given to her by her father. There is no evolution from the child to the demented woman we are suddenly presented with.

And sadly it seems whenever the ENO is in production-drought in terms of ideas it falls back on the failsafe – a violent crowd scene complete with drunkenness, sex and rape. Granted sometimes these directorial motifs are relevant if overdone – I refer to Castor and Pollux – but at ENO they seem to happen rather a lot and for now apparent reason at all.

In this production, rather than blurring the lines between the reality of the factory floor and the crazed world in Senta’s mind we are instead provided with a scene replete with a square-dancing chicken, a cross-dressing sailor and – naturally – a muscled dancer who can’t wait to get his kit off after performing various sexual positions with members of the cast astride one of the conveyor belts. None of these motifs was ever suggested in previous scenes (I would loved to have seen Kent try and get in the comedy chicken suit) and therefore it was as visually and unnecessarily brutal as it was physically violent. But all credit to ENO’s wonderful chorus for making it as believable as it was.

And sadly for me, it dampened the denouement as Senta, realizing that in realty her life is stifled and ugly, kills herself with a broken bottle.

And this sense of confusion seems to me to be spilling off stage as well. Cue the curious remarks by Artistic Director John Berry a few weeks ago regarding opera at the cinema. In The Stage he commented that “this obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work … It is of no interest to me. It is not our priority. It doesn’t create new audiences either.”

This is an interesting remark from a company that once heavily courted Sky for sponsorship as well as is committed to attracting new and young audiences to their productions. I can’t work out if it is because the internal factions in the Company make it impossible for Berry to consider this as a viable option or whether it is just sour grapes that Covent Garden – and other theatres – have made such a success of it. Looking at the success of The Met’s own HD cinema broadcasts, it seems strange that Berry should condemn one of his long-term bed fellows Peter Gelb.

And clearly Berry spends a great deal of time chasing down those directors who have cinematic or television experience – Mike Figgis and Terry Gilliam to name two. Granted their productions left a great deal to be desired. And Sally Potter and Abbas Kiarostami who faired only slightly better.

Anyway which director envisions his opera as being “made for the screen” rather than for the stage? Well apart from LePage perhaps.

Clearly it is well nigh impossible to determine if people who shell out £25 for a cinema ticket will as readily fork out up to £200 for a ticket at an opera house. But even if it attracts a small number of people to dip their toe in the water then surely that’s a good thing? And also Berry fails to recognize – almost selfishly – that it isn’t only about footfall into his own theatre he should consider, but also the simple fact that it might help the industry as a whole? To raise awareness, interest and expose opera to a potentially new and sympathetic audience.

I wonder if his remarks have more to do with the recent appointment of the new Chairman at ENO, Peter Bazalgette. While some people have been more than a little sniffy at his appointment, I think it is a bold move. Yes this is the man who brought us Big Brother, but he has an innate understanding of audiences and having met him a couple of times myself he has an incredible excitement about opera as an art form. He might not be a dyed-in-the-ink opera fanatic but he does hold incredible respect for what is done on stage. I think ENO is safe from any threat of dumbing down at the London Coliseum, as directors seem more than capable of doing that themselves.

So perhaps Berry’s comments are more of an artistic warning shot across the bow of his own Board? ‘I won’t tell you how to raise money for the company as long as you do not interfere in what’s on stage’.

If so that is a shame. I think that English National Opera has more of a responsibility to promote new ways to reach the audience. Now that they finally have a Chairman who is more than a little skilled in the world of artistic and creative diplomacy they should explore their options.

Surely taking opera to the widest audience possible would be in the spirit of Lilian Baylis?

Vacant Valery & His Kinder-Egg-Emperor

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on September 3, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Die Frau ohne Schatten (Mariinsky Opera, Edinburgh, Friday 2 September 2011)

The Empress – Elena Nebera
The Emperor – Avgust Amonov
Barak – Nikolai Putilin
The Dyer’s Wife – Ekaterina Popova
The Nurse – Elena Vitman
A Spirit Messenger – Evgeny Ulanov
Barak’s Brothers – Andrei Popov/Andrei Spekhov/Nikolai Kamensky
Voice of the Falcon – Tatiana Kravtsova

Original Director – Jonathan Kent
Revival Director – Lloyd Brown
Design – Paul Brown
Video & Projection Design – Sven Ortel, Nina Dunn
Conductor – Valery Gergiev

An overwhelming sense of disappointment. Not the best ending to a night at the opera – particularly after the excitement of the first night – but it’s the only way to describe how the Mariinsky Opera production of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten left me as I walked away from the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. All the more so following the inspired – if sometimes flawed production – I enjoyed in Copenhagen a few months back.

On paper the billing was promising. Having seen Gergiev conduct many times before – including an extraordinary Elektra at the Barbican with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet – and the promise of an intelligent production from Jonathan Kent, the augurs were good. Of course with any Mariinsky production you expect some of the singers to be hit and miss, but nothing can – in my mind – account for last night. The Mariinsky is probably unsurpassed in terms of their Russian repertoire and I’ve only read about their faulty staging of The Ring. But their decision to stage this Strauss opera needs either major improvement or total abandonment.

It’s a shame as the production itself had some interesting features but ultimately they didn’t knit together cohesively, almost ended in farce, and undermined von Hofmannsthal’s original intentions. When I was young I had a book of Russian fairytales – including Baba Yaga and The Frog Princess – illustrated by Ivan Bilibin and it’s clear that Jonathan Kent and Paul Brown were similarly inspired by Russian tales as well as by the chinoiserie movement for the spirit world of the Emperor and Empress with it’s oversized flowers and golden statuesque beasts. However perhaps the fly-eyes on the hapless Falcon would have been better left to Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon. The use of projections – and a general theme of water – implied that this kingdom was underwater. In stark contrast the world of Barak and his wife was as clearly set in modern day – presumably – Russia, with launderette-style washing machines and a suitably grey and crumbling work/home environment.

As I said there were some nice touches. During the first dream sequence in the Dyer’s home, for example, harem handmaidens came out of the washing machines and the use of footage of babies against the wall of the Dyer’s how was effective. On the other hand there was some choreography that was misjudged – in the opening scene the movements of the Emperor’s guardsmen made me think of nothing less than those of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard Of Oz. Perhaps that was the intention.

As in Copenhagen‘s much more effective production, the Mariinsky used projections throughout the operas to effect both scene changes (some of which featured noisy stage hands barking orders at one another) as well as to add to the drama unfolding on the stage. The falcon and flocks of bird featured heavily as did a vocabulary of rolling clouds, waves and water. Apart from a desire to see more variation in the flocks of birds, the projections were generally effectively used – Francesca Zambello take note – and in particular the sunburst reaching down into the water the final scenes was almost – but not quite – breathtaking.

While the setting of the first two acts were traditional almost to the point of predictability, the final act was confused, contrived and ultimately almost farcical. Opening quite literally with the world ‘upside down’ – or indeed underwater although this wasn’t entirely clear – Barak’s car and a tree, both upended, were gradually joined by other ephemera from both the real and spirit world. Against this backdrop the Dyer and his wife wandered aimlessly across an empty set until they eventually disappeared into the background to be replaced by The Empress who took to the stage, amid golden light and glitter and what can only be described as a misshapen plastic ‘egg’. Clearly this was meant to entomb the petrified Emperor, but I don’t think I have ever encountered anything as incongruous, clumsy and so simply badly judged on stage for some time. It reminded me of nothing less than the Kinder Eggs I used to have when I was a child. After it had been subjected to intense heat. No amount of grace could enable any singer to emerge from this deformed Perspex ovoid with any grace and dignity and the moment was only saved by the clever use of lighting to create the Empress’ shadow.

Yet the effect was broken at the end as the back of the stage opened up to enable a crowd of Russians to amble like zombies to face the audience. Clearly they were meant to be Russian as there were men in uniform amongst them – either a clumsy tribute to Gergiev’s protector Putin or a simple reminder of the continued power of Russia’s military state.

It was a relief when the curtain fell.

In terms of the singing, it was almost uniformly bad. Overall not only was their German poor and their diction dire, but the quality of the singing itself left a great deal to be desired. The stand-out performer was Nikolai Putilin’s Barak. His deep and resonant bass, rich and even throughout and coupled with a real sense of musicianship and knowledge of the role, showed little strain even by the end and mostly rose above the clamour Gergiev and the orchestra were making in the pit. Apart from Putilin, the rest of the ensemble struggled both with their roles and against their own limited talents. ‘Next best’ but leagues behind her husband, was the Dyer’s Wife of Ekaterina Popova. While she has a large voice she seemed unable in the first two acts, to control either her intonation or dynamic range. While she fortunately rallied for her short scene at the opening of the Third Act, this is clearly not a role suited to her voice. The same is true of Elena Nebera’s performance as The Empress. Again she has a rich soprano voice but didn’t seem to be in complete control of her own instrument, leading to both intonation problems and an acute inability to sing Strauss’ fluid lines. She also had a troubling habit of stopping for a split second before attempting any note above the stave. Avgust Amonov’s Emperor was poor from the start. Weedy and strained vocally, he cracked from his opening scene and never recovered. Drowned by the orchestra – not completely his own fault – this is not a role he should have in his repertoire and I am equally surprised – or is it horrified? – to see Cavaradossi, Calaf and Siegmund among his other roles. I shudder to think.

In the smaller replies, Evgeny Ulanov was an accomplished Spirit Messenger but Tatiana Kravtsova was simply miscast as The Voice of the Falcon. She failed to annunciate the words, negotiate the vocal line or create any sense of drama. Again she bills herself as a Violetta – not a role I would want to sit through.

But of them all Elena Vitman’s The Nurse was the worse. Over and above the dreadful ham acting – Ms Vitman, there must be more in your acting vocabulary than hand wringing – she simply didn’t have the vocal capabilities for this demanding role which requires an innate sense of musicianship and strong characterisation rather than the vamped up pantomime portrayal she delivered. For a role that is almost excessive in its vocal demands and almost constantly on stage, who at the Mariinsky thought Ms Vitman was a suitable choice? Her voice was ungainly, uncontrolled, out of tune and on more than one occasion when it became too much for her, she resorted to something resembling bad sprechstimme. Appalling.

The various choruses – adult and children alike – were lacklustre and indistinct in their singing and again intonation problems abounded.

So this leaves us with ‘Maestro’ Gergiev and the orchestra. As I said at the beginning I have seen him conduct many times and remember a particularly spectacular Elektra at the Barbican with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet and the LSO. His Die Frau was poor – devoid of the passion and insight for which he is renowned and indeed whenever I looked toward him there was a single look on his face – of vacantcy. There was no sense of finesse in the playing and the orchestra seemed to have one volume – loud – which was coupled with some cloudy brass playing and dodgy intonation from the strings. The opening of the Second Act, where Strauss wrote some particularly ravishing music for solo cello and strings that looks forward to Metamorphosen, was particularly lacklustre and bland and the closing bars of the final act were ragged and messy. It was almost as if Gergiev hadn’t looked at the score since the Mariinsky last toured with it, if in fact he had studied it at all.

One wonders whether Gergiev – already so greedily over-committed for the sole purpose of self-aggrandisement – is a good choice as President of the Festival? Will it mean more mediocre performances from the Mariinsky Opera and other companies that he is associated with? A cultural suffocation of the Festival to appease and satisfy his ego?

Of course, this isn’t the first – and won’t be the last – time that I attend a performance that is disappointing. However, the majority of the time, even the most disappointing productions have redeeming features – a smart director that makes you think, a reasonable cast of singers, an intelligent conductor.

Not on this occasion. Mr Gergiev, can I have a refund please?

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