Posts Tagged ‘Royal Opera House’

Tell-Tale Too Far

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on June 30, 2015 at 6:02 am

At what point does art go too far?

At what point do artists stop and think that perhaps their actions go beyond what is necessary to make a point?

At what point do artists think they should speak up?

I wonder if any of these questions came up during the gestation of the new production of Guillaume Tell at Royal Opera House?

Of course I think that productions – art in general – should be challenging but an advisory that the “production features a scene involving an adult theme and brief nudity” did nothing to prepare me – or quite a lot of the audience – to the escalating and vicious violence inflicted on Schiller’s play and Rossini’s opera by director Damiano Michieletto. I don’t think I’ve attended any performance where booing has actually been heard during the performance itself. But as it became apparent that the rape scene wasn’t going to stop, as it went beyond uncomfortable to disturbing to watch, an isolated boo in the upper reaches of the auditorium gained momentum until quite a large number of the audience were booing.

Normally agnostic about booing, I admit that on this occasion I was on the side of the outraged. If Michieletto thinks it is fine to depict such graphic savagery – completelout of sync with the original libretto – then members of the public can exercise their rights too.

I questioned Covent Garden’s support of Thaddeus Strassberger’s Glare at the end of last year. In my view, the objectification of women and the violence against one of the leading female singers in Strassberger’s production was questionable and the sudden violence at the end was neither smart nor honest to the plot.

With Guillaume Tell, Covent Garden went even further. During rehearsals didn’t anyone step back and think that in the context of the story and of the music, what Michieletto was asking the performers to do was wrong?

If it’s okay to ask performers what their stance is on Putin’s homophobic intent, then one has to ask what the performers in this production thought during rehearsals? And more importantly what they think after the audience’s reaction on the first night?

That single error of judgement sadly marred the entire experience for me. A staid and stodgy first act and a general creative malaise in terms of the production had begun to be redeemed in the Second Act. But despite a general improvement in the singing, and an increased athleticism and drama in the pit, the rape scene could not be erased or swept to one side. The singers, and in particular Gerald Finley, Malin Byström and John Osborn gave some committed if uneven performances.

They were, quite rightly, recognized and cheered by the audience but if opera is the complete experience, then the worm in this apple made the whole thing unpalatable.

It completely destroyed the magic.

A Magnificent Martyrdom

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on June 4, 2014 at 2:27 pm

Review – Dialogues des Carmélites (Royal Opera House, Thursday 29 May 2014)

Blanche de la Force – Sally Matthews
Sister Constance of St Denis – Anna Prohaska
Mother Marie of the Incarnation – Sophie Koch
Madame Lidoine – Emma Bell
Madame de Croissy – Deborah Polaski
Sister Mathilde – Catherine Carnby
Mother Jeanne of the Child Jesus – Elizabeth Sikora
Father Confessor – Alan Oke
Chevalier de la Force – Yann Beuron and Luis Gomes
Marquis de la Force – Thomas Allen
Monsieur Javelinot – John Bernays
First Commissary – David Butt Philip
Second Commissary – Michel de Souza
Thierry – Neil Gillespie
Officer – Ashley Roches
Gaoler – Craig Smith

The Carmelite Nuns – Yvonne Barclay, Katy Batho, Tamsin Coombs,
Eileen Hamilton, Anne Osborne, Deborah Peake Jones, Louise Armit, Andrea Hazell, Elizabeth Key, Kate McCarney & Deborah Pearce.

Royal Opera House Chorus
Royal Opera House Community Ensemble
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Director – Robert Carsen
Set Designs – Michael Levine
Costume Designs – Falk Bauer
Lighting Design – Jean Kalman
Movement – Philippe Giraudeau

Simon Rattle (Conductor)

Never has a martyrdom been so beautiful, heartrending and – in fact – ecstatic as Robert Carsen’s production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.

A production previously seen in Holland and Vienna, it has finally arrived at Covent Garden and hopefully it will become a regular revival.

I admit that it takes a while for my ear to get accustomed to Poulenc, but Covent Garden has assembled a cast that has done justice to Poulenc’s music and Carsen beautifully balances the brutality of the closing moments with moments of simplicity, grace, devotion and, indeed love.

Personally I don’t think that there is a leading role. Almost as if Poulenc himself was reflecting the humility of the Carmelite religious order, each of the main characters has equal musical and emotional importance.

And while the diction – and let’s face it French isn’t the easiest of languages to sing in – wasn’t always perfect, each and every performance was unremittingly committed.

But for me it was Emma Bell’s Madame Lidoine who portrayed the greatest depth of musical intelligence and human emotion. Vocally she was outstanding, eloquently shaping Poulenc’s often-unusual vocal lines without any hint of strain at either ends of her range. And her command of the stage – even when stripped of her habit – was absolute.

The remaining principle characters were just as strong in their musicianship and portrayal. Sophie Koch’s steely tone perfectly matched the religious militancy of Mother Marie of the Incarnation and offered a welcome contrast vocally not only to the warmth of Emma Bell, but also with Anna Prohaska’s Sister Constance of St Denis. In her debut she found the right balance between her character’s sense of youthful exuberance and naive devotion and vocally her bright voice shone over the composer’s delicate orchestral palette.

Similarly, Sally Matthews shone as Blanche. Vocally there was some tightness at the top of her range but this did not detract from a performance of total commitment and passion. It was devastating to see her reduced in her own home, so skillfully acted by the soprano, before the final scene.

And how amazing was Deborah Polaski? This was a Madame de Croissy of both deep conviction and disappointment in God. As with her performance as The Nurse recently in Munich, she exuded musical confidence and experience as she coloured her vocal line with authority, combined with acting that invested her character with dignity til her last breath.

Yann Beuron bravely performed the First Act as the Chevalier de la Force and even though he was clearly vocally indisposed his performance was again both musically intelligent and well shaped. But plaudits must go to Luis Gomes for stepping in for the Second Act. His voice showed vocal promise and he seemed comfortably enough in Poulenc’s idiosyncratic music.

And when I talked of love earlier on, I was suddenly struck on the first night by the fact that this crucial meeting between the Chevalier and Blanche was nothing if it was not a love duet – albeit between siblings – but nonetheless about love.

Of the remaining men, both Thomas Allen and Alan Oke – again slightly indisposed on the first night – gave forthright and confident performances and the ensemble of Nuns gave excellent support to the main characters.

From the podium, Rattle drew some superlative playing from the orchestra and singing from the chorus. As I said, I find it takes my ear time to get accustomed to Poulenc’s music. The opening Act might have taken a while to settle down, but by the Second Act and beyond where clearly Poulenc’s music becomes richer and more supple, Rattle coaxed from the orchestra that delicate, vibrant ‘French’ sound world, reveling in the details of the score, but never losing momentum.

And complementing Poulenc’s music and the strong performances on stage was Carsen’s vision.

And as ever with this director, it was a finely nuanced production where the devil was in the beautifully observed and often stark detail.

The overall austerity of the set heightened the focus on dramatic details too numerous to go into here. But the opening of the Second Act where Madame Croissy’s body was made up of flowers; the ‘human cloister’ created by the Nuns in the Second Act or the menacing use of the crowds to create either virtual walls or a tsunami of across the stage to so effectively change the set demonstrated how thoughtfully Carsen had approached this production.

But if there was one scene above all else that captured the essence of this opera – its humanity, its austerity and its sense of oppression – it was when Madame Lidoine spoke to her sisters before the end. No walls, no distractions, simply a single shaft of light that so effectively created the sense of the Nuns, cramped in a cell, and stoically facing their unavoidable fate.

Indeed, Jean Kalman’s lighting designs were critical to the success of this production. Throughout he masterfully conjured up both a sense of incredible space – during the service in the convent for example – or that sense of suffocation.

But above all, it was the humanity of the characters themselves that made this production stand out. There was an authenticity to the Nuns’ own gestures and movements that showed how carefully Carsen had approached Carmélites and – I think – what impact the opera had on him personally.

At this point I would like to congratulate the Royal Opera for finding such a brilliant solution to that difficult conundrum – finding a way to integrate outreach work with productions. Initiatives are often impactful yet small scale, but with the Community Ensemble they found a way to make an incredible and valuable impact.

I hope it is something they don’t lose sight of.

Of course it is the ending of the opera that is most famous. In previous productions, directors have had the nuns walk off stage to their deaths. But here Carsen not only reinforced the brutality but also heightened the spirituality of their demise. As they walked towards their deaths, it wasn’t only the singing that underlined their faith, but the way that Carsen integrated the mystical, almost sensuous dance movements that some Carmelite orders were known for.

This production of Dialogues des Carmélites was a rare thing – a marriage of the highest standards of musical performance with a production that drew the finest portrait of a human tragedy.

The Art of Cultural Appeasement – The BBC’s Maestro At The Opera

In Classical Music, Danielle de Niese, Opera on April 30, 2012 at 7:16 am

According to a press release from the BBC, four ‘well-known’ personalities will ‘compete to conduct a complete Act of a legendary opera performance on the hallowed main stage of the Royal Opera House’ in the BBC’s Maestro At The Opera which starts on BBC Two on May 4.

The “brave trainees” are Josie Lawrence, Craig Revel Horwood, Professor Marcus du Sautoy and Trevor Nelson. Each will have a mentor in the form of an opera conductor – Sir Mark Elder – and they will “learn about working with orchestras, soloists, choruses and all the complexities of how you stage an opera” as well as experience “all its pitfalls and high drama on and off stage!”.

With the aid of Danielle de Niese and Dominic Seldis as well as Pappano, Kasper Holten and singers such as Lesley Garrett, Alfie Boe and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the series promises to give viewers an insight into “the passion, fun, fear, glamour and glory of the world of professional Opera”.

All in one hundred and eighty minutes.

Stop. Stop right now.

Don’t get me wrong. I will support anything that brings opera – in fact any classical music – to the wider audience. Yes of course it should be entertaining. But it also has to be intelligent. It has to celebrate the art form rather denigrate it. It should have value. And most importantly it shouldn’t patronize. Maestro At The Opera fails on all counts.

Have I seen it? I don’t need to. It is the principle that I object to.

It assumes that by lowering the standards and therefore the expectation of the audience it will achieve something. Clearly not ratings for the BBC as they have marginalized the series onto BBC Two rather like the marginalization of BBC Young Musician on BBC Four. Pace, the Young Musician Final is on BBC Two. But by the evening of the Final does it matter?

But back to Maestro At The Opera. Taking four people who – bar du Sautoy – have never expressed any interest in opera (or even classical music most likely) and hoping that they will ignite the smallest spark of interest in the audience is like asking a cat to sing.

At least when the sycophantic bumbler Alan Yentob ventured behind the scenes with his egotistical programme Imagine he didn’t attempt to glamorize the world of opera. He told the story as it was, even clearly exposing the vanities of the singer. Imagine might create a world that clearly revolves around the “sun that is Yentob” but at least it wasn’t artificial. You didn’t have to like the protagonists but you admired their talent and passion.

And while Tony Hall claims it is a “wonderful way of bringing opera to BBC audiences”, I would argue there is a better and a more reasonable way to spend the Licence Fee. Broadcast actual performances. Package around them, if you will, programmes that excite interest and if the BBC gets it right then people will watch. If it can be done for Shakespeare it can be done for opera.

Furthermore why not actually choose four up-and-coming real-life conductors and follow them? Even if it cannot be of their own careers or in the actual opera houses where they might be currently, but instead in an artificially-created environment on Bow Street, then so be it.

If the BBC can make programmes to find the UK’s best butcher, hairdresser and every other profession for BBC Three, why can’t it have the balls to consider doing something like this properly and with creative integrity?

There are budding maestri both here in the UK and around the world that have spent years training to be conductors. They have studied hard. Sought out every opportunity to gain more experience. And more often than not got paid very little.

To follow four individuals who have devoted their lives to opera and performance, to hear in their own words what they hope for, what they have sacrificed and what they are scared of would – in the hands of a talented television producer – be gripping drama. All the more because the viewer would be watching a true creative experience unfold rather than something that has been scripted.

I am even sure that the opera world could deliver the same ethnic-social mix of the current four contestants so that the BBC could tick that box too.

But no.

Instead we have what amounts to both a vanity project and tickbox-television from the BBC.

For Jan Younghusband it ticks the box that says the BBC must make “the arts” more popular. The BBC is often accused of “dumbing down” television. Often that claim is ridiculous.

But what Younghusband has done here is something much worse. She has prejudged.

For her any audience who might show an interest is already ‘dumb’ and therefore she has created a programme based on the lowest common denominator – celebrity-of-a-sort. Maestro At The Opera isn’t about the art form at all. It’s The Voice without the potential for discovering new talent. It’s about seeing how ridiculous four people can look because that is what Jan Younghusband believes the audience wants to see. In a way it’s almost cruelty-reality TV. Not only for the four protagonists but for the viewers at home as well.

And as for you Ms Hadlow – this new series won’t – however patronisingly you put it – take viewers “right to the heart of one of the world’s greatest opera institutions”. More likely than not those who deliberately tune in will have been to the opera already and won’t recognize the alternate and fictitious reality you have created. And those who accidentally surf across it – if they stay long enough – will wonder why three has-beens and someone they don’t recognize have been given airtime at all. The format of the show will only reinforce their view that opera is elitist and – in their opinion – boring.

But both Jan and Janice will no doubt ensure that Maestro At The Opera looks pretty. A saccharined veneer of pseudo operatic interest. It might even win them some awards for their trophy cabinets.

So why has the BBC done this?

It’s simple. It’s an act of appeasement. Cultural appeasement. In the same way that the BBC has marginalized the arts generally, Maestro At The Opera is the easy way out.

For the BBC the aim is clear – appease those who might have any decision in the future of the corporation and at the same time demonstrate to anyone who will listen how the masses are being kept happy by convincing them that it has been made ‘especially for them’. Don’t for a second dare to hope that by creating a more challenging concept based on real talent and musicianship, people might in fact watch and actually consider seeing an actual opera.

No. The BBC is too scared to consider that option. Cowards.

But the BBC has the Proms on television I hear them cry. They don’t – but could – broadcast every single concert on BBC Four and what they do broadcast cynically helps to pad out the figures published every year in their annual report. If you take out the Proms what else is there? Very little and what there is lacklustre and mediocre.

But I can’t blame the Royal Opera House. Granted they could have stood firm and insisted on actual conductors and real lives but let’s face it, who would turn down three hours of free advertising on the BBC?

Rather smart of Tony, Tony and Kasper if you think about it. Bravo.

Sky Arts anyone?

Further Reading:
More Circus Clown Than Ring Master – An Open Letter To Robert LePage


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