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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Bickley’

Oimè ! Non parlo Italiano

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 25, 2015 at 3:19 pm

Review – Orfeo (Royal Opera House at The Round House, Friday 16 January 2015)

Orfeo – Gyula Orendt
Euridice – Mary Bevan
Sylvia – Susan Bickley
First Pastor – Anthony Gregory
Second Pastor (Apollo) – Alexander Sprague
Third Pastor – Christopher Lowrey
Charon – James Platt
Pluto – Callum Thorpe
Prosperina – Rachel Kelly
Nymph – Susanna Hurrell

Director – Michael Boyd
Designer – Tom Piper
Lighting Design – Jean Kalman
Sound Design – Sound Intermedia
Circus Director – Lina Johansson

Orchestra of Early Opera Company
Christopher Moulds (Conductor)

It seems that following the success of L’Ormindo at the Wanamaker, Covent Garden has once again performed ‘off-site’. But while I applaud the intention I’m not wholly convinced by their approach on this occasion.

But before I go further there was no doubting the commitment of the performers – both the singers and dancers – on stage. While I would personally have preferred a lighter-voiced Orfeo, Gyula Orendt made a vocally impressive and mesmerising Orfeo. His voice is beautifully resonant and darkly-hued and while he might not have as gracefully negotiated the melismas and other vocal decorations of the vocal line, he did bring to it a pathos and depth of feeling that matched his acting. As his tragic spouse, Mary Bevan’s singing was clean, clear and articulate. Her voice made me wont for ‘more’ Euridice and I can only hope that we see her in other Monteverdi and baroque roles with increasing frequency. Despite the diminutive role, Susan Bickley effectively dominated her own scenes as well as many of those where she was simply spectating. Her singing was rich with experience and weight, and Susanna Hurrell brought grace and charm to the role of the Nymph.

As members of a Renaissance-inspired court, the remaining cast provided strong if not strongly characterised support. The trio of pastors – and in particular Alexander Sprague – showed the most sympathy with Monteverdi’s music and the students from Guildhall acquitted themselves well in the choruses.

The dancing – by member of East London Dance – improved as the drama unfolded, moving from simply feeling like movement to fill the stage to some cleverly constructed tableaux for Orfeo’s descent into hell.

Boyd’s production, as I have already mentioned, drew its inspiration from the original courtly performance in Mantua, and considering the challenges of The Roundhouse, it was a well thought out production. I can’t think that there was a ‘good seat’ in the house. Personally I had to crane my neck to watch any action on the ramp and some of the stage was also obscured, but Boyd and his team kept things simple enough to create a sense of intimacy. However, Orfeo’s final ascent to heaven seemed more a theatrical gimmick than coup-de-theatre, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience more worried about the potential for Orendt to plunge headlong onto the stage that the closing moments of the music.

And finally, Christopher Moulds led a sprightly – if slightly colourless – band of musicians from the back of the stage, delicately shaping Monteverdi’s lines.

So why didn’t it work for me?

Well, try as I might, I couldn’t find anywhere in the programme where it said that that Orfeo was to be sung in English. It was on the website I admit but almost unnoticeable. I’ve no problem with opera in English but I think that Covent Garden’s reason is somewhat flawed. As expressed by them on the night I attended it was in English “for an audience unfamiliar with the opera”.

I understand that they are – like every other artistic organisation – desperate to attract new (and younger) audiences but I’m not sure translating Monteverdi was the best way. The words were critical to Monteverdi and his contemporaries – listen to any of his madrigals where word painting and the weight of emotion is wrapped up in the language used.

Translate it into English and invariably some of that – even with the best translation – is lost. For example, when the Messenger arrives to tell Orfeo of Euridice’s demise we get this:

Silvia: La tua diletta sposa è morta
Orfeo: Oimè

A single, crushing word that contains within it the complete tragedy of the opera. In translation we got “Oh, no”. Simply not the same.

If Covent Garden was bent on attracting new audiences, why not opt for Purcell? If they wanted pathos and tragedy then they needed look no further than Dido and Aeneas. And in terms of marketing I reckon “Britain’s First Great Opera” would have worked just as well.

Again, I searched the programme but I couldn’t find a clear explanation of why the singers were wearing microphones. Again, on the night, I was told it was “because of the acoustics of the place”.

So why The Roundhouse?

It’s not the first time – and speaking from personal experience of using this venue as well – this it has been acoustically-challenging. Did no one think of this and perhaps thought of finding a more suitable venue? The Wanamaker is already booked but what about Wilton’s? They would then have got the uber-trendy Shoreditch crowd to boot. Or why not schedule it for the main stage itself which has seen performances of Dido and – many years ago – a wonderful production of Steffani’s Niobe. Or the Linbury. Even ENO managed a very respectable production of Orfeo on their gargantuan stage with much success.

With top price tickets at £75, cynically I must wonder if the profit-per-seat ratio was an overriding factor.

Opera companies must find new ways to attract audiences as well as express themselves creatively, but (ad)ventures like Covent Garden’s Orfeo demonstrate how tricky it truly is. I’ve no doubt that there were many people in the audience who had never been to the opera before, but perhaps they might have enjoyed it more – and be tempted to try opera again – if Covent Garden had held truer to the original?

Northern Twilight

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 13, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Review – Götterdämmerung (Leeds Town Hall, Saturday 12 July 2014)

First Norn – Fiona Kimm
Second Norn – Heather Shipp
Third Norn – Lee Bisset
Brünnhilde – Alwyn Mellor
Siegfried – Mati Turi
Hagen – Mats Almgren
Gunter – Eric Greene
Gutrune – Orla Boylan
Waltraute – Susan Bickley
Alberich – Jo Pohlheim
Woglinde – Katherine Broderick
Wellgunde – Madeline Shaw
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle

Vocal Consultants – Dame Anne Evans & Sir John Tomlinson

Chorus of Opera North
Orchestra of Opera North

Concert Staging & Design Concept – Peter Mumford
Lighting & Projection Designer – Peter Mumford

Richard Farnes (Conductor)

The success of Opera North’s Ring cycle cannot be overestimated either in terms of ambition and vision but also – ultimately – artistic standards.

It’s to the Company’s credit and determination that they’ve delivered this cycle despite the initial media and public reservations and in a tough economic climate. And artistically, overall it has been a success.

What Ring cycle doesn’t have its weak links or moments of disappointment?

An incredible Das Rheingold was followed by a more disappointing Die Walküre and Siegfried but the final performance of Götterdämmerung in Leeds dissipated any previous concerns with playing and singing that was in the main superlative.

And superlative is the adjective best applied to the incredible playing of the Orchestra of Opera North.

Richard Farnes inspired some of the most luminous and rich playing I’ve heard in any Ring cycle. Not only was there a depth and volume to the strings but Farnes marshalled them with utter precision, and they responded accordingly to the ebb and flow of Wagner’s music. Wind and brass – from the opening chords – played with complete confidence, balancing the warmth of the strings with a bloom and – as required – piquancy that reverberated around the hall. And the percussion was every bit as committed. Never have the timpani beats, reminding the audience of Fafner and Fasolt, sounded so forbidding.

And as well as providing incredible support to the singers, the orchestra was very much part of the unfolding drama. From Siegfried’s journey down the Rhine to his devastating Funeral March, the orchestra provided an additional narrative of timbres and colours.

And in the podium, Farnes demonstrated a grip of the music and it’s overall architecture as he had in Siegfried. He had the sweep of the music firmly in his hands but didn’t allow it to swamp the finer details of Wagner’s score. While his departure from Opera North might be a loss to the Company itself, I sincerely hope that he will now be seen in other opera houses – and especially in Germany – where I think his talent and musicianship will be most welcome.

Of the singers, Alwyn Mellor as Brünnhilde was inevitably the focus of everyone’s attention. And rightly so. Following her appearance as Sieglinde in Opera North’s Walküre you have to wonder why Ms Mellor wasn’t cast as Wotan’s daughter for the entire cycle?

It was a very accomplished interpretation and performance. And I separate those two elements deliberately. Technically, apart from the occasional snatched note at the top of her range, Ms Mellor demonstrated that she has the heft and stamina for the role. And by stamina I don’t only mean that she can rise above the orchestra as required, but until the very end she demonstrated the ability to scale her voice right down. I always think it is a test of any Brünnhilde how she sings “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!”. The Immolation scene isn’t only one of volume, and this Brünnhilde showed that as well as providing the sheer volume, in the more reflective moments she could similarly project her vocal authority with eloquence. And in terms of interpretation, Ms Mellor revealed both the daughter of Wotan and betrayed wife of Siegfried. There was a convincing vulnerability to her characterisation, particularly at the beginning of the Second Act. But as a scorned woman she quickly revealed a steely determination before ending the opera once again as the daughter of a God – wise, forgiving and ultimately resolved to her fate.

And while Alwyn Mellor’s Brünnhilde – as with all Brünnhilde’s – will always be an evolving interpretation, her performance in Götterdämmerung suggests that she has it within her grasp to be a leading Brünnhilde.

I shall be looking out for her on stage in the future and I sincerely hope that Opera North have contracted her as all three Brünnhilde’s for their complete cycles in 2016. Indeed I hope one day to hear her as Isolde.

Mati Turi was pronounced slightly indisposed before the performance began. After my concerns about his pacing in Siegfried, clearly a solid technique helped him deliver a convincing performance in this final opera. If his singing felt was slightly ‘covered’ and less than heroic at times, it remained elegantly fluid and his narration in the Third Act was well nuanced and intelligently sung.

As Brünnhilde’s sister, Susan Bickley made for a totally convincing Waltraute. Having seen her most recently as Eduige in Rodelinda and Jocasta in Thebans, she brought her vast experience to bear on this small, yet pivotal, role. For a moment I almost thought she was about to convince Brünnhilde to return to Valhalla and thereby rob us of the rest of the evening. Fortunately they stuck to Wagner’s plan.

The three Rhinemaidens delivered some of the finest ensemble singing in these roles I’ve heard. Their voices remained distinct but melded beautifully, each displaying a keen ear in terms shaping their phrasing. And similarly Lee Bisset – an impressive Freia – returned as a vocally nuanced and confident Third Norn. I do wonder why we don’t hear her more in London?

Of the remaining roles, it was Alberich and his son Hagen who delivered the most convincing performances. In the dream scene, Jo Pohlheim instantly reminded us why he made such an impact in Siegfried. In signature black gloves, his resonant and darkly hued bass was matched by his acting ability. And like father like son in terms of Mats Almgren’s Hagen. The intonation and diction problems that affected his Fafner were nowhere to be seen in his performance as the Gibichung’s half-brother, sung with a malevolent and confident eloquence.

The Chorus of Opera North gave electrifying performances in the Second Act – diction clear, singing forceful yet clean and distinct.

As in her portrayal of Senta for ENO, I found Orla Boylan’s Gutrune rather hard-toned vocally. She has the heft and despite a tendency for her voice to spread at the top of her range, the technique but the edge in her voice diminishes any sense of gleam or warmth. But there was no doubting the passion and musicianship she invested in the role especially after Siegfried’s death. However, as her brother, Eric Greene’s Gunter was disappointing – vocally occluded and at times technically and musically strained.

Yet the sum of this Götterdämmerung’s parts outweighed its small disadvantages, making for a thrilling evening and fitting end to this ambitious project. And it seemed right and proper that Farnes and his incredible players received the loudest cheer and ovation at the end if it all.

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.

Tattoo’ll Do Quite Nicely

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 5, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Review – Rodelinda (English National Opera, Sunday 2 March 2014)

Bertarido – Iestyn Davies
Rodelinda – Rebecca Evans
Grimoaldo – John Mark Ainsley
Eduige – Susan Bickley
Garibaldo – Richard Burkhard
Unulfo – Christopher Ainslie
Flavio – Matt Casey (Actor)

Director – Richard Curtis
Set Designer – Jeremy Herbert
Costume Designer – Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherrin
Video Design – Steven Williams

Members of English National Opera Orchestra

Christian Curnyn (Conductor)

I think that English National Opera has a way to go before it can claim back it’s self-professed title of being the ‘House of Handel’. But Richard Jones’ production of Rodelinda has salvaged the indignity that Giulio Cesare suffered at the hands of Michael Keegan-Dolan.

However it has to be said that musically speaking, Christian Curnyn has pulled together an excellent cast for this production and displayed once again his innate sense of style and verve in terms of his interpretation of one Handel’s’ greatest operas.

Leading the cast was the excellent Iestyn Davies as Bertarido. I don’t think that I have ever heard Dove Sei? sang with such authority, musical intelligence or emotional eloquence. Pure of tone and displaying incredible vocal technique and control, he delivered one of the vocal highlights of the evening. Indeed Davies is a naturally innate Handelian in terms of performance style and coupled to his portrayal of Bertarido made his the strongest performance of the evening. His confident and flawless delivery of Vivi, tiranno provided the perfect book-end to his opening aria.

Similarly Rebecca Evans’ Rodelinda was a tour de force. Written for Francesca Cuzzoni for whom Handel also wrote Cleopatra and Lisaura (Alessandro) this is a formidable role with some incredibly challenging music right from the start. Ms Evans carried off the role with both vocal aplomb and again an innate sense of Handelian style. From the incredibly exposed Ho perduto il caro sposo and Ombre, piante, urne funeste through such coloratura-ladened arias as L’empio rigor del fato, Morai, si; l’empia tua testa and a fiery Spietati, io vi giurati Rebecca Evans demonstrated a sure-footed technique and bright, agile soprano. However it was her rendition of what is for me one of Handel’s greatest arias – Se ‘l mio duol non è si forte which was the second highlight of the evening, coupled with sensitive playing by orchestra and Curnyn finding the right colours in Handel’s delicate scoring.

But it was their Act II duet, the beautiful Io t’abbraccio which was the single highlight of the evening. Richard Jones’ simple yet devastatingly effective staging at this moment made for an almost perfect moment. ‘Almost’ but for the audience clapping before the return of the da capo sadly.

Around these two singers Curnyn had assembled an equally strong cast. John Mark Ainsley, most recently seen in L’Issipile, and Richard Burkhard as Grimoaldo and Garibaldo provided the perfect counterbalance to the hero and heroine. Grimoaldo’s Se per te giungo a godere and Prigioniera ho l’alma in pena not only displayed Ainsley’s talents and ability to manage Handel’s challenging vocal writing for the tenor voice but why he is one of the leading Baroque tenors on stage today. Burkhard similarly reveled in the music that Handel wrote for what was effectively a secondary character. I defy anyone not to be drawn in by arias such as Di Cupido imiego i vanni and Tirannia gli diede il regno when sung with such gusto by Burkhard. Christopher Ainslie demonstrated that he had the technique for Unulfo’s music but despite his smooth lucid tone, he was underpowered throughout.

And finally plaudits to Susan Bickley. Her Storgè (Jephtha) and Sidonie (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) remain two of her most memorable ENO performances for me and her Eduige has made it a tryptich. While her voice took a while to settle down she delivered a performance with both style and substance.

So why wasn’t it a return to the ‘House of Handel’?

I enjoy Richard Jones’ productions – they are smart, intelligent and often reveal interesting perspectives in terms of the characters themselves. I refer again to his Petra von Kant for ENO and before that his Love For Three Oranges as well as his Macbeth for Glyndebourne and WNO’s disturbing Wozzeck.

His Rodelinda clearly demonstrated that he had spent time with the performers. In his short interview on the ENO website he talks of Rodelinda being a “forensic” examination of people in extreme situations and it is clear that this formed the basis of creating characters who evolved during the course of the opera.

I am not sure that I agree that it was set in ‘post-war’ Italy as some have commented. To me, it smacked more of Fascist Italy with motifs such as the monument to Bertarido, the use of spy cameras, the sense of claustrophobia – heightened in the final act by smaller rooms – and the ever increasing paranoia and spying. Even the costumes were more reminiscent to me of photos that my mother showed me of her youth in Italy. Sadly the Argentinian-inspired tango didn’t quite work nor did that final image – of Bertarido’s wife and son exacting ‘la vendetta’ against their enemies. It unbalanced the sense of justice that the hero had only just magnanimously delivered

The use of tattoos however was inspired. Particularly touching was the moment when Bertarido unexpectedly revealed his own name on Unulfo’s back. Loyalty and ‘unspeakable’ love in that single moment. Although I did think that Garibaldo should have revealed a tattoo – of his own name to underline his own selfishness.

In the same interview Jones stated that Rodelinda was an opera about faithfulness and constancy, and then taking it one step further than perhaps the audience of the Eighteenth Century would have, of erotic obsession, sadism and masochism.

If that was the case then why did some moments seem to court laughter? Was the slapstick deliberate? Was it because ratcheting up the emotional intensity would be too much to ask of the audience? I have no trouble with humour if it doesn’t feel contrived. And sadly there were moments when it did.

The use of oversized swords for example was oddly juxtaposed with the image – with its contemporary associations – of Bertarido blindfolded and tied to a chair.

Or the fact that a laugh was raised when Bertarido accidentally knifes Unulfo when in fact the subtext there is that even when tested, the latter’s loyalty remains steadfast. And while I think the use of treadmills was rather smart it was slightly overdone. For instance, when during one of his arias, the audience was more impressed by Unulfo’s fancy footwork than the delivery of the music.

Handel’s operas do contain humour. Look at Agrippina, or Partenope for example. But I am not sure that Rodelinda does to the same extent.

But there’s no denying that Richard Jones can pack a punch. It wasn’t just the beauty of the music that made Io t’abraccio so poignant. It was the beautifully judged staging – literally pulling the lovers apart – that made that moment incredibly special.

Ultimately this was a Rodelinda of exceptional musicianship but out-of-kilter stagecraft.

If the ‘kinks’ can be ironed out and as long as John Berry doesn’t make the same mistake with his next Handel production as he did with Giulio Cesare, perhaps finally English National Opera can reclaim its own lost throne.

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