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Posts Tagged ‘Roland Wood’

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.

He Didn’t Drink The Poison

In Classical Music, Opera, Verdi on June 12, 2011 at 3:57 am

Siimon Boccanegra, English National Opera, June 10 2011

Simon Boccanegra – Bruno Caproni
Paolo Albiani – Roland Wood
Jacapo Fiesco – Brindley Sherratt
Amelia – Rena Harms
Gabriele Adorno – Peter Auty

Director/Set Designer – Dmitri Tcherniakov
Conductor- Edward Gardner

After the recent disappointments on the stage of English National Opera, it was good to see something resembling a return to creative form with Simon Boccanegra. Overall the production was good, and I can only hope that when it reaches the even higher standards of their co-production partner, the Bayerische Oper in Munich, it will lift itself even further artistically.

As I said, I have been disappointed with recent productions at the London Coliseum, so much so that I have yet to renew my ENO Friends’ membership. And while this production has gone some way to restoring my confidence it doesn’t quite counterbalance the recent rash of ill-conceived endeavours.

Figgis’ simply ridiculous Lucrezia Borgia, where it seemed that the entire stage budget had been spent on a handful of badly made, ‘let’s-play-the-opera-for-titillation’ episodic films. At the expense of any drama on the actual stage. The whole evening was short on quality on the stage and in the pit and this was exacerbated by the disastrous decision – backed by conductor and former house Music Director, Paul Daniel – of cutting some of the music as well.

Their complete gutting of Monteverdi’s masterpiece, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse was even worse. If the opening S&M prologue was an early low point, nothing prepared me for the smearing of greasy fried chicken on the walls and a lazy execution of Personregie. After that nothing could save the evening for me, especially not the majority of miscast singers. And despite a hope that Gilliam’s debut with The Damnation of Faust might be a turning point with subtle observation and some wit judging from the massive PR campaign behind the production, it proved hollow and desperately crammed full of clichés. Even the singing was only passable.

Thank God, therefore, for Tcherniakov.

Simon Boccanegra is a difficult opera in many ways. First, let’s face it, the story is convoluted to say the least. But Tcherniakov’s simple way of keeping the audience up to speed was effective.

Secondly, setting the opera itself. There is, naturally, the option to set it as originally intended in Renaissance Genoa. This was, of course, what Covent Garden did, scoring some success with a very traditional production by ????. But I also remember the more anonymous production that preceded the current attempt at ENO itself.

Tcherniakov is clearly a director cast in a more modern mould and overall – with some nice touches – the production generally works well. The pseudo ‘café italia’ of the opening hinted slightly at a Latin setting, as did the hysterical ‘Nona’ as Simon tried to steal Maria’s dead body. But I particularly liked Amelia’s opening scene. Here the director shrunk the tableau of the previous Prologue into a frame. A neat visual trick. The emptiness of the space – a single arm chair, the aforementioned picture and a large opaque window, seemed indicative of her state of mind.

His interpretation of the subsequent Council Chamber – a faceless office with theatre style seating which then dominated the rest of the opera – worked less well. A quick glance at the programme inferred that Tcherniakov had taken some inspiration from the European Commission or some other nameless chamber of deputies. Rows of chairs arranged theatre-style however, gave more of a sense of a corporate meeting room than the seat of government – although it did give an opportunity for some chair slinging.

However – and this was a relief – there was clear attention to detail in the direction of the main protagonists – who played their parts effectively for the most part. From the beginning it was clear that the director had spent some time with the singers, exploring their characters. In particular, I noted how Fiesco literally seemed to shrink, and Bocanegra himself grew more weary as events unfolded. But best of all was the Amelia of Rena Harms. She captured the real sense of an adolescent in rebellion, slightly damaged by her past, and desperate for love and identity. Personally I am surprised that Boccanegra would want to reclaim such a testy teen. Her final transformation, from goth in black leggings and baggy jumper to teenage bride in a suitably ‘off-the-shelf’ wedding dress and veil was another nice touch.

Some critics have made much of the direction of the chorus. While I do think that the ENO chorus is one of the company’s best assets – together with its orchestra and Music Director – I didn’t think that there was anything remarkable or different about their stage management in this production. For example, I think the chorus was far more effective and dramatic in a previous production of Jephtha.

As an ensemble, the cast were strong and melded well and this has always been a strength of ENO. Any weaknesses that individuals might have displayed effectively disappeared in the ensemble.

Bruno Caproni’s Simon Boccanegra was – for me – probably the weakest of the soloists as h3 didn’t project any real presence or dimension on stage. His voice lacked the rich, deep sonority that I think is necessary in this role. Additionally he sometimes lacked the heft to rise the above the orchestra. But his was a musically astute and sensitive performance.

The Albiani of Roland Wood reminded me of former Labour minister Ed Balls. I wonder if that was deliberate. Bar the almost comedic, Basil Fawlty moment when his ambition to marry Amelia is thwarted, it was a finely caricatured performance supported by some very fine singing. Particularly chilling was his reaction during the curse scene. I wouldn’t mind seeing Wood as Iago in the future.

Brindley Sherratt, a regular at ENO, delivered the finest performance of the evening. His rich, sonorous voice, even in tone throughout brought every scene he was in alive with drama. A strong actor, he successfully went from grieving and vengeful father, to a broken and resigned man.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to make of Peter Auty’s outfit. When he first entered, crash helmet in hand, I wondered if Gabriele Adorno was a part-time stunt man. However as the evening progressed I decided that he was, in fact, a pizza delivery boy cum hero. He was in fine voice and had no problems delivering the notes on the page with its often taxing tessitura. However his was not a performance of particular finesse, with no real sense of light and shade, and for the most part, one single volume – loud. This was particularly true when singing with Rena Harms.

And so to the Amelia of Rena Harms. Again I understand that she did not find favour with some critics. I beg to differ. Despite a somewhat shaky start, Harms has an incredibly flexible instrument. It has a rich warm timbre, except perhaps at the very top of her range where it can take on a slightly harsh tone. But she produced a clean vocal line with an real ability to float her highest notes. And she performed the role wonderfully, both as soloist and as a member of the many, beautiful ensemble moments. And her keen acting communicated her truly damaged character. This wasn’t the wooden cipher of the Amelia portrayed by Marina Poplavskaya at Covent Garden, but a real flesh and blood girl verging on womanhood but unable to cope. And Harms delivered the most memorable image of the opera – her breakdown in the closing scene. It will stay with me for some time.

And so to the most puzzling thing for me. The poison and the end of the opera itself. When I say poison, I mean the lack of poison. At the seminal moment of the opera, Simon Boccanegra does not drink from the poisoned glass. Now I realise that sometimes Personregie – and from here on in, I detected it’s particular influence – can result in some strange decisions (bamboo in Cologne’s production of Der Rosenkavalier for example), but for the main character not to drink the poison made no sense at all. Especially as it was constantly referred to in the text. More on the translation later. So having not drunk the poison, the final scene almost stepped from reality. For example, Boccanegra’s fashioning of an admiral’s hat from a piece of newspaper (clearly one he had made earlier) seemed nonsensical as it was the single reference to his nautical past in the whole opera. Indeed, at the beginning he seemed more ageing Fonzie than successful pirate. Then his descent, not into death, but rather into a trance-like state, or breakdown didn’t seem appropriate. His ambling exit stage right – quite literally – detracted from the emotional impact that Ed Gardner had led the audience to at that precise moment. Fortunately the brutal physicality of Harms’ breakdown returned us to the stark reality of the denouement, heightened even more by her inability, moments before, to hug her own father as he implored her to do.

I have always supported ENO’s mission to perform opera in English. But a small plea, and I know that this isn’t always possible, but it seems ludicrous and somewhat distracting, that the libretto can’t be more reflective of the drama onstage. The references to swords for example, seemed ridiculous coming from a man in a motorcycle outfit.

And finally to Ed Gardner and the orchestra. Without doubt the most thrilling part of the evening. A remarkable conductor and Music Director, he clearly has an exceptionally close relationship with the orchestra and they respect him immensely. He drew exceptionally fine playing from them, sympathetic to the singers, and tuned in to the fine detail of Verdi’s score. The sonorous brass at the opening, the wonderful string and wind playing for Amelia’s Come in quest’ora bruna, demonstrate now far the musicianship of the orchestra under Gardner has come,

So, all in all, a good evening and a welcome return to a higher standard for ENO. Hopefully in Munich however, Tcherniakov will allow Simon to drink the poison and die with dignity on stage.

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