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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Hoare’

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.

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.

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