Archive | June, 2013

Opera North’s Ring continues

30 Jun

Opera North brought their Siegfried to the Sage in Gateshead on 29th June and I’m still on a glorious Wagner high – that one where the tunes go round and and round and you feel that anything is possible.

I described their approach when I wrote about Die Walküre last year.  It hasn’t changed much and it remains a very strong, simple way of getting the operas across.  The singers know what they’re singing about and act as committedly.  They communicate vividly to the audience.  You’re able to imagine those things that are so difficult in the theatre but so wonderfully managed by Wagner – Siegfried crossing the magic fire, the forging of the sword.  There are also one or two irritations.  The constantly changing images provide a mildly pleasant backdrop but don’t add much.  I also found reading the narrative distracting at times – at the beginning of Act II you want the stage to be as dark and black as the music rather than to read the surtitles.  The surtitles were projected over the images and, particularly, in the last act, really did not contrast well, so you couldn’t follow them as well as you needed.

What I suspect was missing most was the connection with the other operas.  It’s a year since Walküre and two since Rheingold.  It’s easy to forget the images of the previous operas and, in Siegfried, the references to what has gone before, the previous relationships are extremely important.  There’s a rumour that they’ll be doing the full cycle in 2015 and that would help.

The cast is good.  The discovery is Mati Turi as Siegfried.  He has the heft and the youthful ringing quality to the voice that make him sound like a genuine heldentenor.  His last notes sounded as fresh and as ringing as his first.  It’s not perfect – there were some passages which stretched him absolutely to his limits.  I wonder how he would come across in a larger house, with a less considerate conductor than Richard Farnes.   His acting was perfectly adequate for this performance and he created a nice sense of wonder in the forest scene.  He doesn’t look an obvious young hero but, frankly, with this voice, I’m unworried.

Michael Druiett was also stretched absolutely to his vocal limit as Wotan.  He managed to get through it – the voice sounds good and he knows what it’s about, but you good hear the struggle.

Annalena Persson was back as Brünnhilde – her clear, steely voice sounds good for the role and she managed the shifts in Brünnhilde’s emotions beautifully.  You needed to make no allowances in the duet as both singers made it sound joyous and charted the way their attraction goes really intelligently – even though you were aware that Wagner takes a huge amount of time to get it there.

Richard Roberts made a cringing, intelligent Mime – nicely sung and interracting well with Siegfried.  Jo Pohlheim struck me as a major discovery as Alberich – a great, grainy black voice and a lowering presence who made the most of his scene with Wotan.  Mats Almgrem as Fafner was equally good – a superb black voice and he made you sympathise with the dragon.  Ceri Williams was a firm, strong-voiced Erda who made a lot of her scene with Wotan – she struck me as very promising indeed.  Joanne Dexter was the understudy Woodbird and was very good indeed.

The star, of course, is the English Northern Philharmonia and Richard Farnes.  Farnes and the orchestra relish the climaxes and the different colours of the score.  He paces these marvellously and guides you through the themes and the ideas really coherently.  It sounds great in the Sage.  The orchestra is good even if you don’t get the sheer skill and sheen of more expensive ones.  You were aware of exactly how difficult it is – the jaunty end to the second Act needs a bit more precision, the horns at the end of the opera a bit more precision and clarity.  But you have to admire the skill commitment and intensity of this performance.

Roll on Götterdämmerung.



Scottish Opera’ Pirates

29 Jun

If I had to introduce anyone to all the things that make me love Gilbert and Sullivan, playing them the second half of the first act of The Pirates of Penzance would probably be where I’d start.  From the moment when the daughters enter – that excited little string figure leading to one of their most delightful choruses, through to Frederic’s Oh is there not one maiden breast, Poor wand’ring one, the chorus of girls doubling with the Mabel/Frederic duet, the entrance of the Pirates and then the Major General’s patter number.  This seems to me to contain, the innocence, wit, sophistication, parody and sheer pleasure of these works and, if you don’t surrender to them, then probably Gilbert and Sullivan is not for you.  Sullivan manages to parody operatic style, but also catches a seriousness that gives an ambiguity and joy that I love.  Of course, there’s other wonderful stuff in Pirates, particularly in the second act, where the policemen are among their greatest comic creations and the Mabel/Frederic duet is among their most beguilingly lovely, but the earlier section, for me, has the confidence and certainty that sums up their art.

This thought seemed to me to be affirmed by the performance of the opera that I saw at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 28th June.  It’s a joint production by Scottish Opera and the D’Oyly Carte  and is now on an extended tour.   It’s often a problem with G&S that they take time to warm up (though the most successful productions that I’ve seen manage to make it work from the start).  And this performance was no exception.  It began slightly uneasily as if worried that it might seem a bit dull and outdated for modern audiences, trying a bit hard and then, as the girls arrived, it relaxed and we realised that it was good.

Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production was fresh and alert.  It didn’t do anything particularly startling but, within the basically Victorian setting, had fun.  It recognised that dance was a central element and Steve Elias’s routines looked good and were carried out slickly.  The police routine owed a little bit to the West End production in the early 1980s and was all the better for that.  The dialogue was spoken with point, directly, clearly and without the archness that is a temptation here.  And there were some lovely jokes – a chapel that is clearly too small for all the cast to fit into and a nice sense of the ridiculous.  It could have been a bit broader without losing anything but it remained an amiable, happy show.

The cast was very good indeed – a nice mixture of youth and experience.  Rebecca Bottone made a lovely Mabel, singing with real wit, great coloratura and turning Poor Wand’ring one into a real comic hit – I loved Lloyd-Evans’s idea, from Ruddigore, that she and Frederic hadn’t a clue how to deal with each other.  This was probably the best reading of the role that I’ve seen.  Sam Furness, still in the earliest stages of his career, showed bags of charm and a nice, light tenor as Frederic.  He’d be a smashing Albert Herring.  Rosie Aldridge was a beautifully judged Ruth – very funny indeed.

We had experience in the form of Richard Suart’s matchless Major-General.  I first saw him do it in the late 1980s and, while the details have changed, he presented a beautifully understated, very funny and skilful.  There may have been flashier performances but I can’t think of anyone I’d rather see do it.  Stephen Page makes a dashing, funny, ideal Pirate King, while Graeme Broadbent has a high old time as the Sergeant of Police who wants to be a star.

Derek Clark’s conducting was good.  It’s probably too much to ask for the finesse and sheer certainty of Sir Charles Mackerras in this repertory, but he brought out the instrumental details well.  The orchestra played gamely (they must be able to do it in their sleep by now) and the chorus sang similarly even if ensemble wasn’t perfect.

They were performing the show for the whole week and, perhaps surprisingly, the theatre was pretty full and, even better, the audience was really enthusiastic at the end.  Justly so.   Can we please have some more G&S of this calibre?

Imperfect American

29 Jun

The main problem I had with Philip Glass’s The Perfect American, which I saw at ENO on 25th June, was the nagging question, “why?”.  Why turn this into an opera?  And, if so, why in this form?

It’s based on an imagined biography by Peter Stephan Jungk and shows scenes from Disney’s life from the perspective of his dying days.  We see his return to his home town, Marceline, and scenes with his family, his team and his nurses.  There’s a reasonably touching scene in hospital with him and a small child.  One of his former employees, Dantine, keeps turning up to find some sort of redress, and a girl dressed as an owl who has never heard of Disney turns up to a party and is shown out – a memory of a time when Disney killed an owl.  We are told, over and over again, of his debt to Marceline, of his control freakery, of his Republican values.  I can see that it’s a parable about the emptiness and self-deception of the American Dream.

For most of the opera, I felt that what we were seeing was essentially undramatic, telling, not showing.  I felt I’d get more out of it if I were reading the original book.  There isn’t an over-arching plot, relatively few dramatic moments and much of Rudy Wurlitzer’s libretto sounds clunky when sung  – particularly those parts where, inevitably people are talking management speak.  It felt a remote, uninteresting piece.

Philip Glass’s music is substantially less irritatingly repetitive than in other works.  The sounds coming out of the orchestra would frighten no-one and are easy and pleasant to hear.  I wasn’t convinced that they had a lot to do with situations on stage but it was quite enjoyable to listen to what was going on in the pit at those times when attention was wandering from the stage.

I could admire the production by Phelim McDermott, though it probably looked better from the stalls than from the Upper Circle.  Even in the front rows, the vast rotating metallic structure from which projections curtains and other material dropped and from which images were projected onto those curtains, proved distracting and interrupted the view.  The projections were clever and enjoyable and the Improbable Team imaginatively created Disney characters and there was a fair amount of wit in the depiction of the images.  It was slick and busy.  It kept the attention and, unlike Satyagraha, I did not find myself falling into welcome slumber.

The cast was headed by Christopher Purves as Disney.  He was, predictably, excellent.  He created a marvellously detailed acting performance and sang beautifully and caught the arrogance and insecurity of the man.  David Soar as his brother, Donald Kaasch as Dantine, Janis Kelly as the nurse and, particularly, Rosie Lomas as the two children, were excellent in support and it was hard to fault the remainder.  The chorus sang really well and the orchestra under Gareth Jones played clearly and, as I have suggested, made the score enjoyable and interesting.

I’m a Philip Glass-sceptic and I don’t really find myself persuaded by this.  It wasn’t bad, but I rather wondered what the point was and why I might want to see it again.

Not very glorious Gloriana

22 Jun

The Royal Opera House’s performance of Gloriana on 20th June was my third visit to the opera (the others were the old ENO production with Sarah Walker and Opera North’s with Josephine Barstow).  It didn’t disturb my view that the first night audience probably got it about right. There’s an idea that it’s an unjustly neglected masterpiece wrecked by a frosty reception at its opening night by people who didn’t like opera anyway.  Well, lots of operas have survived disastrous first nights but, even though the subsequent performances were allegedly more successful, Gloriana has struggled.  There’ve only been two productions in the UK before this one (only Paul Bunyan and Owen Wingrave have done worse) and, while those were successes, this new production was the first performance here in 20 years and, if the opera is that good, surely it would have happened more often.  And there is only one recording available.  And, after this, I think the reason’s clear: overall and despite some good things, it’s a failure.

The problems were all too apparent in this performance.  William Plomer’s libretto is uneasy in its mock Elizabethan, its silly heroics and a diction that sounds artificial, like some sort 1950s idea of what they would have said.  It struck me that nothing dates more than a previous generation’s view of history.  Then there is the uneasy mixture of styles and locations, giving it almost a pageant or vaudeville feel.  In the Norwich scene absolutely nothing happens.  Lady Essex and Penelope Rich are introduced too late and have little opportunity to make much impression and the ballad singer’s scene just seems to be an odd invention.  Dramatically it doesn’t hold together.

There are, however, two really wonderful scenes – those for Elizabeth and Essex: the first with its eroticism and the second with its regret and bitterness.  The court scene at the end of Act II is enjoyable and, in the right performance, the picture at the end of the Queen left on her own can be striking and moving.  And, there is some glorious music and fine choral opportunities.  But each time that I’ve seen it, I’ve found my mind wandering, wondering when something interesting is actually going to happen.

I felt that Richard Jones’s production actually emphasised these problems while diminishing some of the more interesting parts of the opera.  He sets it in the 1950s with the young Queen Elizabeth II coming to see a performance by what looks like local amateurs.  There was more than a hint of the community of Albert Herring. Schoolchildren come on with cards telling your where each scene is set.  We can see backstage as stage hands change the scene, offstage musicians and prompters play and there is the whole apparatus of a performance.  We aren’t meant to take it too seriously – one of the silly horses from Robert le Diable is clearly performing in the joust.  At the end, Elizabeth II leaves and the curtains open and she and the old Elizabeth I look at each other.  And so this is yet another performance “about” the opera and the time of its performance.  What this says to me is that the director doesn’t feel that there is anything interesting in the opera itself and so he tells you about the making of it.  Didn’t we see this in Donna del Lago and isn’t one production of this sort per season enough?

As ever, it’s a precise piece of work, but also a very cold one.  There wasn’t much tenderness or eroticism in the lute scene and for many of the others it wasn’t easy to tell whether Jones was mocking the characters, the opera or 1950s amateur dramatics.  I felt that the end, which resulted in a gurgle of pleasure from the audience, undercut one of the major premises of the opera – the lonely fading away of the old queen.  It certainly didn’t do anything to rescue the opera.  Indeed, Jones seemed to feel that the opera is simply a mildly interesting celebratory pageant?

At least there was huge pleasure to be got from the musical side.  Paul Daniel conducted the piece for Opera North and obviously knows it well.  He got outstanding playing from the orchestra and superb choral singing.  The cast was great with Toby Spence ideal casting as the impetuous Leicester, Mark Stone great as Mountjoy, Clive Bayley a strong Raleigh, Patricia Bardon committed and intelligent as Lady Essex and Kate Royal very fine indeed as Penelope Rich.  Andrew Tortise as the Spirit of the Masque was also really outstanding and Brindley Sherratt excellent as the Ballad Singer.  And there was a towering performance from Susan Bullock as Elizabeth I – her steely voice with its bright, clear top sounded absolutely right for the role and made an interesting contrast to rather darker tones of Sarah Walker and Josephine Barstow.  Every word was crystal clear.  For much of the time, however, I kept thinking what a wonderful Lady Billows she would make, how there were more than the makings of a fine cast of Albert Herring here, and how I’d much rather be seeing that.

So, for me, a disappointment and an evening that convinced me that I really wouldn’t mind much if I never saw the opera again.  The audience reaction at the end suggested I was in a minority but a number had left at the interval.  I’d love to know if any people who were present at that first run, sixty years ago, came to see it here and what they thought then and think now.

Death in Venice lives

19 Jun

Death in Venice strikes me as unique in Britten’s operatic output.  All his others have plots involving conflict and characters who play off each other.  In Death in Venice you have an evocation of a single man’s internal conflicts.  External characters trouble him but, essentially, the opera is a monologue for Aschenbach and orchestra with interruptions from other characters.  If many of his operas are about the way in which outsiders fit in to their community, this opera takes it to an extreme.  The result is a very different sort of opera which can appear long and slow.  It relies on a strong central performance, virtuoso orchestral playing and direction that keeps the interest alive.

When I saw Deborah Warner’s ENO production six years ago, the opera seemed longer and slower and more tedious than I remembered from other visits.  I wasn’t convinced by Ian Bostridge as Aschenbach and, however, beautifully done the production was, I felt that the opera was a bit of a trial and seemed enormously self-indulgent.

I was in two minds as to whether to attend the revival.  I’m glad I did as the performance on 18th June seemed stronger and more interesting than I had remembered, even if it didn’t completely dispel doubts about the piece.

It helped to have John Graham-Hall as Aschenbach.  It’s 27 years since I saw him as Albert Herring and he’s become a wonderful singing actor and interpreter of Britten.  He is eminently watchable, creating a character that looks like a distinguished German author.  He communicates with absolute honesty with the audience and manages the changes in Aschenbach’s mind wonderfully – you get the gradual awakening of interest up to the climactic “I love you” at the end of the first act, moving into disintegration during the second.  He sang the words with absolute clarity – no need for the absent surtitles – and had you holding on to every word.  He phrased them and coloured them impeccably, creating an entirely convincing character.  Other Aschenbachs have been more melliflous but I don’t think I have found any so convincing or interesting – and I don’t believe that Britten was writing this for beautiful singing.  This was the central performance and held the cast together.

The others were all good.  Andrew Shore is a convincing actor and did the seven baritone roles with aplomb.  His voice is sounding more frayed than it did and I remember Alan Opie making a much more convincing and sinister set of villains.  Tim Mead sang Apollo strongly and all the rest of the huge cast did their roles clearly and well.  Sam Zaldivar looked good as Tadzio and you could understand Aschenbach’s obsession with him.

Deborah Warner’s production now strikes me as a complete masterpiece of direction.  She catches the leisurely, introspective feel of the music to perfection.  Each move is perfectly choreographed and planned.  It moves with the music, never distracting, always in tune with what you’re hearing.  The wide set, the shades of white, grey and black, the gently swaying curtains, all provide the atmosphere that’s needed.  Kim Brandstrup’s choreography is as  good as I’ve seen.

Edward Gardner is back to conduct and seems entirely in tune with his director.  Is his pacing a bit too deliberate?  At times I thought so – it felt like a long opera and there were times in the second act where I found my mind wandering – but he gets wonderful colours out of the orchestra and they play with precision and warmth.

I don’t find this an easy opera to love – there are few heart-stopping moments, none at all where you identify with the characters and I tend to leave thinking “so what”, but there is undoubtedly a fascination about the piece, a strange beauty and certainty about it.  It was unexpectedly good to see it again.

Relentless Earnest – once

16 Jun

Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest has been one of the most hyped new operas.  In his programme notes, Kaspar Holten describes it as the “first great comic opera of the twenty-first century”.  I missed it at the Barbican concert last year so went to see its first staged performance (14th June) at the Linbury studio at the Royal Opera House.

I don’t think anyone can deny that it’s a brilliant piece of work.  Barry’s orchestration is incredibly assured and there are lots of very funny moments – as Gwendolin and Cecily argue, plates are smashed, the instruments scurry and patter and provide a running commentary on the action.  The vocal lines don’t try to set the words – they go at relentless speed or, at tiems, odd emphases are heralded by pauses.  There’s no particular feeling or emotion in the lines – and that rather mimics the play.  It catches the artifice.  Occasionally there are interruptions – both Miss Prism and Lady Bracknell burst into their versions of Schiller’s Ode to Joy – the Worthing/Lady Bracknell scene have a comic duet where they repeat the last lines of their scene.  It’s very precise, very clever.

So why did I find myself resisting it and why did it seem so much more clever in retrospect than when I was actually there?  I think there were a number of reasons.  First, Wilde’s play is wittier – the lines here were cut and it is much, much more open to interpretation.  There was a sense of constant, frenetic haste.  The subtlety and wit of Wilde’s line was permanently being undermined by the music.  I’m sure that it’s very amusing to have Gwendolin and Cecily do their scene through megaphones, but it’s the sort of amusement that you associate with a Sixth Form drama group production – funny once and then you grow out of it.  I’ve been to performances of the Wilde where I’ve found the denouement tender, even moving because you actually believe in the characters and their predicaments – the wit can also be compatible with human emotions.  Barry’s clicking, precise, helter-skelter music doesn’t remotely allow that.  It feels remote and, to be frank, I didn’t laugh much.  I can’t imagine wanting to see it again.

It was very well done.  Tim Murray conducted the Britten Sinfonia in a virtuoso performance.  You couldn’t fault the preparation or the ensemble.  Benedict Nelson gave the best performance that I’ve seen from him as Algernon – catching the insouciance and the ability to push the boundaries.  Paul Curievici, whom I’ve admired before was a young and elegant Worthing.  Stephanie Marshall and Ida Falk Winland were well matched as Cecily and Gwendolin.  Alan Ewing seems to spend much of his time singing Lady Bracknell and, dressed in a man’s business suit, he was about as far away from the convention as you could imagine.  He was fine.  Simon Wilding as the two servants was a faintly menacing presence throughout while Hilary Summers and Geoffrey Dolton gave nice caricatures as Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble.  I don’t think Barry could have asked for a more committed cast.

Ramin Gray directed and decided to set it in contemporary costume.  The orchestra was placed on the stepped stage and there was no set.  A few props – a table, lots of food and different costumes.  It matched the music in its speed and precision.  It missed what the Wilde play is about by a mile, but that probably was the intention.

Am I being mean?  Barry clearly wasn’t wanting to do a conventional setting of the play.  This is, I suppose, a commentary on it, a tribute to it, perhaps.  One composer’s take on it.  Fair enough.  I’m glad to have seen it once but this is a piece about special effects, plate-smashing, megaphones and noise.  Go once and return if you like that sort of thing.


Ariadne in Wartime

16 Jun

The reviews for the latest Glyndebourne Ariadne auf Naxos  (which I saw on 2nd June) were uniformly pretty negative.  Some of this, I could put down to singers having off days, but few people seem to have enjoyed Katherine Thoma’s production.  So my expectations were low and, as often happens, I had rather a good time.

Ariadne seems to suit Glyndebourne – they’ve been doing it since the 1950s, though there’s been a 30 year gap since the last performances here.  I think the trick is that the sheer elegance and wit of the prologue is such that it puts the audience in a good mood for the interval by which time they may feel quite benign towards the more difficult Opera.  The problem directors face is in whether they treat it as a single unified piece or two contrasting halves.  The fashion (insofar as two productions make it that) seems to be to find connections between the two.  In Vienna, Sven-Olaf Bechtholf made most of the characters from the prologue appear in the opera which became about Zerbinetta and the Composer as much as anyone else.

At Glyndebourne, Katherina Thoma decided to set it in the house of a country house looking remarkably like Glyndebourne at the outbreak of the 2nd World War. It ends the house being set on fire in an air raid.  For the opera, the house is a hospital and Ariadne is grieving for her lost lover, having had some sort of breakdown. She is clearly in the psychiatric ward.  Zerbinetta and team are an ENSA party to cheer the patients up.  Echo, Dryad etc are nurses.  At the end, Bacchus returns – the injured pilot for whom Ariadne has been waiting.  Throughout the Opera, the composer has been watching and, at the end, you feel that he has learned something about life and music.

The loss here, I suppose is the artifice of the opera and the contrast between the operatic characters and the low life and the consciously theatrical side of the piece.  The gain, I thought, was a greater sense of immediacy in the picture of a woman suffering a breakdown and the turn around in her state.  It made the opera more human and less artificial.  I can see why some will object to that.

It followed what seemed to me to be a very witty, well-directed prologue where all the points came across well and the elegance, wit and humanity of this gem shone through.  It helped having Thomas Allen as the Music Master.  I can’t imagine anyone doing it better today.  It’s a very different portrayal from his one at Covent Garden but he presented the practical, worried man desperately trying to save a disastrous situation superbly.  His German diction was outstanding.  He was matched by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the Dancing Master in a remarkable shocking pink outfit and quiff.  The two of them played their rivalry marvellously.  Cate Lindsey made a very good composer – full of priggishness and idealism of youth.  She sang her aria beautifully with a glorious rich mezzo tone and got real tenderness in the duet with Zerbinetta at the end.

William Relton made an excellent, understated Major Domo and the smaller parts were all very well in the picture.  The show bustled and you could feel the audience purring with contentment.

In the second Act, we had a really strong trio of Echo, Naiad and Dryad (can anyone tell them apart and, if you can’t does it matter when they sing as gloriously as this?).  And then there was Soile Isokoski who struck me as being in her finest form as Ariadne.  She is one of my favourite singers partly for her voice but also because of the sincerity and seriousness with which she approaches her work.  We haven’t had the opportunity to hear her in nearly enough Strauss here.  Her voice sounded gorgeous in the house – the wonderful, rich lower notes moving effortlessly upper to floating, creamy pianissimi at the top.  I was sitting quite close to the orchestra so I suspect that was why, just occasionally, I wondered if the voice were quite big enough for the role.  I bet she sounded even more fabulous further back.  She put the words across well and even if there might be more emotion to be brought out of the part, the sheer glory of the singing – reminding me of Schwarzkopf in a good way, without the mannerisms – was a joy.

Sergei Shorokhodov  as Bacchus was also in good form -once past a bit of unsteadiness at the opening, I thought he made the part sound as easy as any tenor that I’ve ever heard in the role.  The sound was strong and actually nice to listen to.  He didn’t drown his Ariadne and there was a sense of purpose behind him that I liked.

The Zerbinetta was ill and was replaced by Ulyana Alekshana.  She’s due to sing the role later in the run and had been admirably rehearsed and took the stage with complete confidence.  She looks great and has a nice personality.  Vocally she has the right sort of voice but she sounded pretty stretched at the more fearsome parts of her aria and I wanted a bit more flashiness and swagger.  Her troupe were excellent and I particularly admired Andrew Stemson’s tenor as Brighella and Dmitry Vargin as Harlequin – he has a winning personality.  What I missed was the sense of conflict that you can get between them in rather heavy-footed, witless routines.  You had to look at the programme notes to work out which was which.

Vladimir Jurowski conducted what, for me, was probably his most memorably performance here. I don’t think I’ve heard such alert, sensuous, stylish playing  even in Vienna.  He had the absolute measure of the score and the LPO played outstandingly.

So it wasn’t a completely perfect evening.  You wouldn’t want to see Ariadne done like this all the time and there were bits that you missed. On the other hand, here was an intelligent director engaging with the opera and finding a way of dealing with some of its problems and creating a very enjoyable visual experience.  And with Isokoski on form, Lindsay, Shurokhodov and Jurowski doing fabulous musical things,  there was, in tuth , very little not to like.  The audience was enthusiastic.