Archive | April, 2013

Sunken Garden sinks

13 Apr

I had a feeling when I booked that going to the first night on 12th April of the ENO’s lated commission – Michel van der Aa’s Sunken Garden at the Barbican was a mistake. I tend to resist multi-media and 3D.  But I thought I should give it a try.  As I watched this, I felt as though I was watching the emperor’s clothes disappearing one by one.  It is, of course, possible that I’m way out of touch and just don’t “get” these things.

I really can’t be bothered to tell you much about the plot.  Toby, a conceptual artist gets tempted by a patron, Zenna to find two lost people, Simon and Amber and finds himself part of her created garden where images of people remain until they turn into immortal moths.  Or something.  Opera readily copes with the supernatural, but there are two types of such opera: where the supernatural, as in Alcina, say, or Wagner, represents something about power or love; and where, as in Meyerbeer, it is an excuse for a spectacle.  I think Michel van der Aa wanted to have a go at opera in 3D and this farago provided an excuse for it.  In fairness, I should say that I don’t readily respond to science fiction or magic realism and so you may find it a fascinating exploration of something or other.

It had its moments.  David Mitchell’s text struck me as witty with some amusing scenes but the women in particular had huge difficulty projecting the text (no surtitles) even with amplification which caused problem in their long scene in the garden.  But it was hard to be even slightly interested in or to care about the characters or feel that there was some point to the story.  I suppose it might be a parody of post-modern conceptual art, but it wasn’t funny enough for that.

I’ve never really seen the point of 3D, other than as a rather expensive children’s toy that is impressive once but you get tired of after quite a small time.  It looks and feels synthetic and, at times simply didn’t work in a theatre where there are different sight-lines and edges to the stage (and, after all, is already in 3D).  There were some pretty effects but there were also clumsinesses.  There was one point where Roderick Williams as Toby was meant to be talking to Amber, the disappeared girl.  If you had the 3D glasses on, she was in front of him and he was to talking to a tree.  If you took them off, he was talking to her image.  I think he was meant to be talking to her image.  Worse, the fact that it was on the stage meant that you could see the edge of 3D image and, frequently, the actors were outside that edge but still part of the set.  Having the glasses on puts you at one remove from the characters.  The whole reason I love live theatre over cinema is that I want the direct contact with the singers rather than images of them.  Having to wear those wretched specs was the worst of all worlds.  Above all, I felt that this was gimmick.  You could use 3D in opera, but I didn’t feel that there was anything going on here that an imaginative stage director could have managed without employing a massive film crew at Lord knows what cost.

Michel van der Aa’s music struck me as very competent film music.  His lines sounded friendly to the singers and, where you could hear them, they were set idiomatically and intelligently.   There wasn’t a single moment where you felt interested in the music or any point of beauty or horror.  It wasn’t objectionable, had nothing to frighten the horses and nothing to interest them either.

The singers were good.  I thought Katherine Manley, as Zenna, apart from problems getting the words accross was excellent.  Ditto Claron McFadden as her foil, Iris Marinus.   Roderick Williams was, as ever, a comforting presence and it’s always a joy simply to listen to him.  I don’t think he could make any sense of his role but he’s one of those singers (Thomas Allen is another) who seems incapable of putting in a bad or unconvincing performance and you always wake up whenever he is on the stage.

André de Ridder conducted and appeared to hold all the various parts together.  Van der Aa also directed and technically managed the differences between stage and film adeptly without, as I I’ve suggested really managing to solve the technical problems of 3D in the theatre.

The friendly first night audience was enthusiastic but then I had the feeling that it was a very friendly audience.  There seem to be a fair number of seats available if you’re interested.  I can’t imagine it coming back again.

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Drab Nabucco

2 Apr

Was Temistocle Solera the worst librettist Verdi ever worked with?  Having seen I Lombardi recently and now returning to Nabucco (1st April at the Royal Opera House), I’m inclining to that view.  It’s not so much the poetry or the text that’s a problem as the messiness of the dramaturgy.  As with so many early Verdi operas, it begins promisingly with a vast opening ensemble of the sort that Rossini was so good at and a scene that sets up all the characters nicely.  And then it gradually goes off.  The tenor peters out and barely appears after that second Act, Fenena, the good daughter, has a pleasant number in the last Act, but that’s about it.  All Zaccaria seems to do is mourn and urge people to victory – little more than Oroveso in Norma.  Abigaille poisons herself for no apparent reason and it’s all very easy to lose track of the point of the show.

I suspect that, at this stage in his career, Verdi may not have been that concerned about a coherent plot.  He was, I think, more interested in situations and conflicts and in conveying them musically.  Despite what I’ve said above, I like Nabucco very much.  I like the sheer vigour of first Act: the unashamed melodrama throughout and the excitement of the stretta.  I enjoy the characterisation of Abigaille and the scene between her and Nabucco.  I admire Nabucco’s last Act aria and, of course, Va Pensiero.  It’s a piece where you have to go with the flow and not engage brain too much.  It has moments of great beauty, but it’s also flashy and colourful.  It fun and it would be nice to see it a little more regularly than we currently do.

I don’t, however, want to see Daniele Abbado’s production of it again.  The Royal Opera House described it as an “exploration of identity, exile and religion”.  There are elements of those in Nabucco but I’m not convinced that these were Verdi’s main concerns and, in doing so, I think Abbado left us with a drab, dull, irritating evening.

The set is pretty simple: walls and a platform surrounding a large sandy area.  Most of the action takes place round there.  We have animations projected on the back which served only to irritate.  The chorus is in 20th century costume with plenty of Jewish accoutrements.  There are plenty of references to the holocaust and it was in the scenes of loneliness and where the action stopped that Abbado’s production worked best.

But did it have to all so drab?  And why were the chorus wearing exactly the same costumes whether Jews or Assyrians?  Should there not have been a few stormtroopers?  Shouldn’t there be something to suggest the sheer power of Nabucco other than the best tailored suit on stage? Shouldn’t Abigaille look a bit more glamorous than a Russian peasant fallen on hard times?  The big entrances were botched – poor old Leo Nucci needs a bit of help to make an entrance as Nabucco  and the big dramatic moments made no impression at all.  This was a co-production between the Opera House, Milan, Barcelona and Chicago.  Surely they could have afforded a few more costumes and a bit of gold and colour.  There were the sillinesses – a chorus running away at such a slow pace that you really couldn’t take it seriously – and the irritants that made you wonder about the competence of those involved.  Abigaille sang the first part of her Act II aria completely in shadow.  Ismaele had similar problems later on.  The movement of the singers and the direction of the musical numbers would have looked solidly traditional and unimaginative 50 years ago and the updated costumes didn’t change that.  To use the words of my 9 year old niece, it was all a bit rubbish, really.

There were musical compensations.  Nicola Luisotti is always worth hearing in Verdi and I very much enjoyed his vigorous, sensitive conducting.   At times, some of the tempi seemed a bit mannered (did the stretta at the end of Act I have to go quite so quickly?) and I felt he made a huge meal out of Va Pensiero with some exaggerated consonants and jerky changes of direction.  Did Verdi write that the last chorus note should extend beyond the orchestral accompaniment?  Whether he did or not, it was kitsch.  The chorus were on good form, the orchestra even better.

Liudmyla Monastryska sang Abigaille and was fabulously good.  Here is a vast voice with a lovely cutting edge to  it, which is also capable of singing softly and movingly.  This was a huge barnstorming voice and I longed for barnstorming acting performance to go with it.  Any chance of the ROH reviving Attila for her?  She’d be a glorious Odabella.

I went for the Nucci performances rather than the Domingo ones because I’d rather hear a true Verdi baritone in the part (and because it was easier to get the sets).  However, it’s now 35 years since Nucci got his breakthrough here.  I’m afraid it sounds like it.  He simply doesn’t have the power to carry out the big storming passages early on and his voice sounded dry and edgy.  He improved substantially and did his Act IV number very nicely but without you ever forgetting that this man was demonstrating a triumph of technique over declining resources.  His thoughtful use of the language gave a lot of pleasure but I didn’ t feel that Abbado allowed him to be interesting or touching.  Vitalij Kowlaljow was an impressive Zaccaria.  There were times when I felt that I needed a very slightly firmer voice, odd occasions when he sounded like a young man singing an older man’s music.  He’s a very promising singer, though, and he’ll be very welcome back.

Marianna Pizzolato made a strong Fenena and Andrea Caré did what he could as Ishmaele and it was nice to see Robert Lloyd as the High Priest.

This was very typical of a lot of ROH new productions recently.  A good and interesting cast, let down by poor direction and an evening that, overall, wasn’t quite good enough.