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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?

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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