Archive | September, 2012

Can we cope with operas set in the present?

30 Sep

How many successful operas are set in the time that they were written?  There aren’t many and most of those that are (the Mozart/da Ponte three, Don Pasquale, Fledermaus spring to mind immediately) tend to be comedies. It may not be a coincidence that Traviata, for the first few years of its performances had to be moved back to a generation before.  It’s not an absolute rule – Fidelio is an example – but I wonder if there is something about a very artificial form which makes it difficult for audiences to accept operatic emotions in a contemporary setting: words written in a contemporary idiom sound odd if sung (it always moves more slowly) and words in a heightened language sound silly.  Put the clock back, some different costumes and it all seems a bit easier.

These thoughts were raised when seeing Music Theatre Wales’s latest double bill of new operas at the Linbury on 27th September. Both were strong, intelligent works but neither worked perfectly.  Of course, it isn’t just about the setting: I often think that many contemporary composers aren’t that comfortable with many of the forms that make opera successful – Turnage, Ades and Dove apart, when was the last time you heard a decent ensemble in a modern opera?

For me, the more successful of the two was Huw Watkins’s In the Locked Room. David Harsent has written libretti before and this struck me as a reasonably successful updating of a Hardy short story about a woman who becomes obsessed by a poet who turns up occasionally to stay “in the locked room”  in the house she and her husband are renting. Harsent’s text avoids too much of the “pass the butter” sort of writing that can get tedious, but it does feel odd to have singers singing “okay” and Stephen (the husband)’s description of his deal did not really ring true. The piece was at its strongest in the reflective scenes, particularly where Sue was narrating what she knew of Pascoe, the poet, the very short scene for the two of them together and in portraying the growing obsession Ella, the wife, with the poet.  I admired hugely the way Watkins was able to set t he words and create individual musical personalities, the kindness of his orchestral writing and the way in which he was able to convey atmosphere. I still wondered whether it might not h ave been as well to set this at the time of the Hardy story.  But I’d like to see Watkins do a full length opera and I’ll listen out for his other music.

I was less taken with Stuart MacRae’s The Ghost Patrol. At one level it’s a love triangle reminiscent of Tabarro or Florentine Tragedy as a jealous husband ends up killing his wife’s lover, but it’s also intended to be a commentary on the way in which experiences of war wreck lives. I wasn’t greatly convinced by Denise Walsh’s libretto which struck me as quite repetitive in way that the music couldn’t quite cope with – altogether too much of the girlfriend appealing to them to put the fighting behind them. Similarly the scene between Sam and the girlfriend  had attractive music but the text didn’t go very far.  Nor did I think that Macrae’s music created much in the way of characterisation or the sort of simmering, brooding tension that the piece needs. It felt longer than its 50 minutes though, again, you had to admire the sensitive orchestral writing and the way in which the slightly military, percussion stayed in the background as a reminder of battle.

I couldn’t fault the singers who sang clearly and with commitment.  In the Watkins, Louise Winter was marvellously clear and sensitive as the motherly Susan, Ruby Hughes has a very lovely voice and created the growing alienation and obsession of Ella really well.  Hakan Vramsmo as the eternally present poet, Pascoe, was excellent and Stephen Curiewici was strong as the deal-obsessed Stephen.  In the MacRae, Nicholas Sharratt sang clearly and suggested the love for Jane Harrington’s Vicki.  As her jealous boyfriend, James McOran-Campbell had the physique to withstand the scrutiny of having to play the whole of the first scene in only his underpants and sang well. I just wished that they they had something more meaty to work with.

Michael McCarthy directed the Watkins, perfectly acceptably, but I felt that this was a piece which almost needed a more traditional, concrete setting than it had – essentially a bare stage around a model of the house.  Pascoe picked his way around without every really being clear what his role was.  Nevertheless, he drew good acting performances from the cast.  The MacRae is probably easier to direct and Matthew Richardson did it as well as you could ask.

Michael Rafferty conducted admirably I had much admiration for the orchestra and the preparation.  I very much admire the way MTW gives the opportunity for composers to develop and for new operas to be heard.

I hope what I’ve written isn’t too grudging. This made for an enjoyable and stimulating evening.  I think most opera lovers will find it accessible and I’d urge them to go.  I still felt, however, that here were two talented composers who aren’t yet quite at ease with the form.

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Should opera singers do musicals?

1 Sep

I went to Carousel on 30th August.  The original production is by Opera North and is playing at the Barbican until 15th September with some of the original cast, the Royal Ballet orchestra and, I think, a new chorus.  It’s a co-production with the Chatelet.

I think that, technically at least, Carousel is one of the masterpieces of the Broadway musical and is easily the most interesting of the Rodgers and Hammerstein pieces.  I’ve a particular fondess for the first act where the sheer mastery of the way dialogue and musical numbers intertwine, particularly the duets in the early part, is fluent and works absolutely brilliantly.  I think that the whole soliloquy for Billy including “My Boy Bill” has the range and emotion of the finest operatic arias.  I part company from some of the ideas now and then, particularly the whole heaven business towards the end.  I think the issues around wife beating are more complex than they demonstrate here, but it’s a very good stab for a Broadway musical at the subject.  The text is as interesting and well constructed as the music.  And, of course, there are really good tunes and, at the end, I didn’t bother to try to restrain the tears.  It’s a superb piece of music theatre.

Opera North have a really good record with musicals.  I retain very fond memories of their Showboat, Sweeney Todd (as good a production of the piece as I’ve seen) and One Touch of Venus and I think that it’s good that opera companies should do them: they’re part of the same tradition and they widen a company’s focus and experience.  Here we had a very fine production by Jo Davies, whose Ruddigore last year was as good a production of a Gilbert and Sullivan piece as I’ve seen.  She had the style pretty much pitch perfect, Anthony Ward’s sets looked good, the show danced and sparkled.  There good accompaniment by the orchestra under John Rigby, the choreography by Kim Brandstrup was really good and the show packed a punch.

The main problem was what caused my heading to this post.  The leads were in the hands of people who have successful operatic careers and their voices trained as such.  They have a different method of singing which pays almost too much attention to the notes and the musical phrasing, rather than using the words and their sense as the clue to the way you sing them.  It doesn’t apply to everyone: two of my favourite discs are of Bryn Terfel and Thomas Hampson singing Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter respectively.  Hampson is wonderful in the EMI CD of Kiss Me Kate, but listen to Josephine Barstow murder “I hate men” on that disc and you will see what I mean.  I call it “singing in inverted commas”, exaggeratedly enunciating the words and completely losing the flow and impact of the numbers.  It’s not just musicals – it can be a problem in Gilbert and Sullivan and Offenbach too.

In this production, Eric Greene does not make a bad Billy Bigelow at all – he manages the good-hearted complexity and basic stupidity of the man really well and managed the dialogue well.  But I felt he spoiled “My Boy Bill” by trying to sing it too beautifully, by pausing to enunciate particular words where the sense and impetus of the music required him to move on.  The violence was missing.  A similar problem afflicted Elena Ferrari as Nettie Fowler – “You’ll never walk alone” was done perfectly nicely, but without the directness that musical singers bring – it felt contrived.

It was less of a problem for Claire Boulter who, I thought, was lovely as Carrie Pipperidge or Joseph Shovelton as Enoch Snow (he has done quite a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan) but Gillene Herbert as Julie had that problem, though she acted and did the dialogue with conviction and dignity.  Michael Rouse displayed much more of the style as Jigger Craigin.  The remainder were very strong and John Woodvine did a lovely turn as the Starkeeper.  I thought that the chorus did their turns wonderfully well: here we had the benefits of clear, accurate and very fine ensemble singing while acting convincingly and enjoying themselves: their big numbers came over really well.

So there’s lots going for it and it may be that the other cast has some stronger performances but, on this showing, I wouldn’t particularly class it as a “must see”.

This is the second year the Barbican has used a musical to fill August. For last year’s South Pacific, I was inundated with half price offers for it.  I was reassured by the fact that there were no such offers for this.   This wasn’t borne out.  When I came to pick up my Upper Circle tickets, I was offered an upgrade to some much better seats at the back of the stalls and it was clear that lots of other people were too.  This show was much better than the South Pacific which had obviously lost a lot of its Broadway glamour in the crossing and had received better reviews.  But the seat prices are high, the Barbican isn’t actually known as a musical venue and is a bit off the beaten track of people who might think of going to it.  I wonder if they’ll try to continue the tradition next year.