Archive | November, 2013

Fresh Magic Flute

9 Nov

I went to the first night of the last two new Magic Flutes at ENO (the Miller production in 1986 and the Hytner in 1988) and so it seemed fitting to go to the first night of their latest one on 7th November.  I enjoyed it enormously.  No Flute is going to be perfect and there were some irritations about this one, but, overall, it made for a very satisfying evening – as interesting and enjoyable in its way as Hytner’s.

The production is by Simon McBurney – a co-production, apparently, his group Complicité, with Amsterdam (which, as usual, got the opportunity to see it before London did) and Aix en Provence.  The first thing you notice is that the orchestra is much higher than usual and that there is an easy link between them and the stage – Tamino can hand his Flute to played by the flautist and, similarly, Papageno’s bells are played by a musician from the orchestra.  On one side of the stage is a box with various small bits of set.  These can be filmed and projected on to cloths.  On the other is a sound box where sound effects can be made.  I didn’t feel either particularly added to the enjoyment of the piece, though they didn’t particularly harm it, and a number of members of the audience found it amusing that, during the overture, someone was being filmed writing “The Magic Flute” and “Act 1” which were then projected.  In the centre is a platform which can be lifted into any number of different angles.  Cloths can be flown in for projections.  That is the set.

This enables a very clear projection of the story and some marvellous effects.  I was taken particularly by sense of distance that could be conveyed: the first couple of apppearances by the three boys had them high up on the platform, seen through a cloth as if giving advice from a different plane.  They looked like Yoda in Star Wars and I rather enjoyed the sense of wisdom this gave them.  There was a splendid star effect for the Queen of the Night.  The temples were books, as if in a library, with the Speaker being shown, distantly   Pamina’s picture is projected on to sheets of paper.  The projections of the fire and water worked very impressively.  Technically it’s slick but with just the right sense of improvisation.  I wanted a cuter group of animals.  Perhaps it looks a bit monochrome – it tends to be in shades in brown and grey – but there’s a unity about it.

It’s in modern dress.  Tamino arrives in a track suit and is rescued by three ladies in fatigues.  Papageno looks like a window cleaner – older than I normally expect.  The Queen of the Night is in a wheelchair (symbolising the power she lost when her husband died?).  Sarastro and the priests are suited – I didn’t particularly feel that I understood who they were – a group of civil servants, a politburo?  There were similarly dressed women, but they were clearly not part of the governing body.  Like most modern productions, I wasn’t sure that it had got Monostatatos right – a fat, sleazy lecher, but not very dangerous.

What I enjoyed was the clarity of the staging, the truthfulness of the acting and the interaction of the characters.  As you would expect from a director best known for his work in the straight theatre, the dialogue was convincingly done and you believed in the emotions.  It was a staging that involved you and engaged you in the piece and let the magic work.

There was a new translation by Stephen Jeffreys – strong on the dialogue and in telling the story, less good in the music.  There were too many half rhymes and, too often, you felt the note values were compromised to assist the translation.  It’s clearly built for this production, but isn’t a patch on Jeremy Sams’s marvellous version.

The cast was good.  I’ve heard stronger musical performances, but there was a sense of ensemble and togetherness about the evening that worked really well.  Ben Johnson sang Tamino really beautifully and was able to make more than the usual cardboard character simply by the care of his acting and his sheer involvement in what was going on.  Devon Guthrie was a nice Pamina.  She doesn’t find as much in the music as other Pamina’s have, but she sang clearly and touchingly.  Roland Wood is an experienced Papageno.  I’ve seen more charming interpretations but he made the touching – a gruff, lonely suspicious man whose attempted suicide and reunion with Papagena had just the righ tension and joy you need.  James Creswell struck me as a rather gruff Sarastro – I like a darker, smoother voice – and I didn’t feel that he really knew what the role was about, the one significant failing of this production.  Cornelia Götz was a very fine Queen of the Night – accurate and fearsome in her arias.  I liked it that she stayed on at the end and you felt there was almost a reconciliation between her and Sarastro.  The three ladies were really excellent and the boys were strong, too.

Gergely Madaras struck me as a hugely promising conductor.  His speeds were brisk and he caught the lightness and airiness of the piece.  You heard the orchestral details and the music was at one with what was going on onstage.  I hope we’ll here more of him.

Overall, I found this an enormously enjoyable, engaging, fresh take on this piece.  It provided its own individual slant that gave insights in one direction, while not answering all the questions.  It held the house.  I’d love to see it again and watch it grow with a different cast, bringing different things.  It has the look, however, of a one-off.

One major gripe: I wish the ENO would take care about its start times and the length of the intervals.  We started five minutes, late, the interval lasted well over the stated twenty minutes and, with the performance lasting a bit longer than expected, we were out a full 25 minutes later than the advertised end and I missed my 22:47 train.  It was worth it, but with a bit more discipline about time, I’d have caught it.

Francesca di Foix delights

5 Nov

Just occasionally, I come across an opera that I want to shout about – inspiring one of those “where have you been all my life” feelings – and in a performance that I found one of the happiest evenings I’ve had for some time.  The latest is Donizetti’s Francesca di Foix, which I saw at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on 4th November.  I have the Opera Rara recording and played it a while ago while doing other things.  It struck as amiable Donizetti without being particularly special.  This performance made me think quite a lot better of it than that.

It has a very diverting plot – one of those rare operas that has absolutely no love interest and centres round a practical joke.  The jealous Count keeps his wife, Francesca, locked up and has given out that she is ugly and deformed to keep her away from the lecherous king.  The King and his friend the Duke plot with the page Edmond to release her.  She arrives in disguise and is then recognised by her husband who, having given out that she is ugly, cannot claim her as his wife.  It is only after a tournament when the King offers to marry her to the Duke that the Count finally admits that Francesca is his wife.  She sings a virtuoso final aria claiming a victory for women everywhere.

So it’s an amiable practical joke which owes quite a lot to Rossini’s one-acters.     It doesn’t have any particularly stand out arias (though one or two pretty attractive ones) but it does have a group of really delightful, witty duets and trios that exploit the comic potential of the plot – that for the Countess, Count and King as the Count recognises his wife is a complete joy.   They’re charming, witty and a delight to listen to.  It’s hard to think of a less sentimental or malicious comedy than this very happy, tolerant piece.  It shows the same sense of timing and joy as the best bits of Pasquale and Elisir (for which Donizetti took a march from here to open Act II).  At 80 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but the slight sadness is that this is a rotten length for an opera, these days and, probably, it’s just a bit slight for any of the major companies to take it on.

So many, many thanks to the Guildhall for staging it and giving us the opportunity to see it in the flesh.  It was given a very busy, pretty well-drilled staging by Stephen Barlow.  He’s updated it and set it in the Valois fashion house where the King is obviously the inspirational designer and the other aristocrats are the managers and salesmen.  Their event, apparently, is taking fashion back to 1523, allowing  some delightfully silly costumes mixing 16th and 21st century fashion.  The tournament is a tennis match.  Barlow peoples this with a chorus of wealthy buyers and design nuts.  The men change into tennis whites for the tournament.  In that guise, they have very silly, very wittily choreographed movements and it was a shame that this chorus couldn’t quite deliver them with the straight-faced precision that they needed.  In the first scene there is a little too much going on, but perhaps this also disguises the fact that the opera takes a little while to get going. Barlow has huge fun with the duets and trios and I found I was spending much of the evening with a broad smile on my face, enjoying the situations, the music and the direction.  Perhaps there is a slightly more sentimental aspect to the piece than he found, but I rather doubt it.

I saw the first of two casts.  It’s probably asking too much for the students at the Guildhall to have the same levels of refinement and artistry of more experienced artists or, indeed to feel completely comfortable with this sort of music.  They had more than a brave stab at it.  As Francesca, Anna Gillingham had all the notes and fearless coloratura.  She struck me as having a strong sense of style as well and a very attractive, witty personality.  All she needs is a little more star quality and charisma.  As the Count, Szymon Wach had a lovely line in bewildered stupidity and displayed a promising young bass even though he has the least interesting music to sing.

I greatly admired Piran Legg’s voice and singing as the King.  He has that rather gentle baritone that works nicely in this sort of work – think Bruscantini and Corbelli – and I think he’s someone to watch.  Joshua Owen Mills sang the Duke – the unattached tenor role.  He has one of the best arias – a lovely cavatina towards the end.  He has a really lovely tenor that has the warmth to make him a lovely Nemorino or Ernesto – he needs greater freedom and the tone sounds constricted under pressure – but there was promise here.  Elizabeth Desbruslais as Edmondo, similarly, displayed a lovely mezzo that, in principle, sounds just right for bel canto but here needed more power and freedom.

Dominic Wheeler conducted stylishly and the chorus sang enthusiastically.

I will treasure happy memories of this piece and will listen to it again more closely.  It would be great if one of the Festivals were to have a go at it – it’s an intimate piece and would well at Glyndebourne or at Opera North.  Now, since the Guildhall has been having a go at rare Donizetti recently, it would be good to have more – what about Campanello or Convenienze e inconvenienze teatrali?

It was preceded by Debussy’s L’enfant prodigue.  It’s not really an opera – rather an oratorio or series of scenes that can’t help being more than a piece of Victorian religiosity, albeit with some attractive music.  Barlow staged it as such – in a 19th century French villa.  It worked, looking good and elegant, but didn’t avoid the sentimentality.  Lauren Fagan sang strongly and idiomatically as Lia, Gerard Schneider showed a strong, virile tenor as the son and Joseph Padfield struck me as needing an ounce or two more weight as the father.
Wheeler’s conducting brought out the beauties of the score and the orchestra sounded a bit more comfortable in this than in the Donizetti.

This was one of the most enjoyable evenings at the opera  that I’ve had in ages.

Visceral Wozzeck

1 Nov

The performance of Wozzeck at the Royal Opera House on 31st October made me wish I knew the opera better.  By that, I mean that, although I have seen it ten times, in lots of places I feel I’m hearing it for the first time.  I don’t have the same memory for the orchestration and the way in which the words and vocal lines go that I have in respect of other operas that I’ve seen thus far.  It’s something I rarely listen to on CD, partly because it’s not exactly grateful listening after a day’s work.  But, in the right performance, it’s easily the most shattering, visceral experience I know (I shook for about 10 minutes after the 1985 Dohnanyi performances) and, one day, I must spend some time getting to know it well.

This may account for the fact that every time I hear and see it, it feels slightly different.  I suspect that the sprechgesang accentuates this – genuinely the singers are not singing the same notes every time you hear them.  But there seems so much more leeway for conductors.  I remember Pappano and Harding- the last two conductors of it at this address – finding a lyricism and beauty about the score that I didn’t get from Mark Elder’s conducting this time.   Instead, we had a jagged spikiness about it that accentuates the horrors of the piece and matched Keith Warner’s production in providing a horribly disturbing evening.  I don’t think I’ve so clearly heard the influence of this piece on Britten, not just structurally, but in the orchestral effects – particularly the harp, but also sounds which recalled Grimes and Lucretia in particular.

Keith Warner was back to rehearse his production, now 11 years old.  It feels like one of the finest productions that the ROH has in its repertory.  The setting is a great laboratory or asylum with a space to the side front for Marie’s house – a tiny space for the real people in the opera.  There are huge glass cases of specimens.  The back of the asylum lifts to let you have marvellous mirror effects of Marie up in the sky, of the soldiers in the barrack, looking almost almost like specimens in the cases, the party and the moon.  It’s very beautiful indeed.  Most of the effects that I remembered are still there but it’s hard,  seven years on since the last revival to tell how much has been changed for this cast.  It doesn’t matter much, because it works so well: it’s a a production that draws you in to the nightmare world, which leaves you with marvellous images – the boy at the end tied to the bed, Wozzeck alone, outside during the pub scene, the sheer madness of the Doctor and Captain.

Simon Keenlyside is Wozzeck – singing with  a mixture of heart-rending beauty, as if it were by Schubert and off the wall violence.  He creates a pigeon-toed, nervy character, desperate to please and aware of his failure – a man on the edge.  He caught the sheer horror when he saw Marie and the Drum Major at the dance.  It’s one of his typically generous performances which gives pretty much everything and the kitchen sink and was also hugely moving.
Karita Mattile sang Marie gorgeously – massive, generous tone and she conveyed an impulsive, opportunistic woman – very early on getting a suitcase to leave.  At times I wondered if she wasn’t a bit stagey – a bit too dramatic.  I’ve got more out of, say Anja Silja’s stillness in the role.

The rest was probably the best Wozzeck  supporting cast that I’ve seen.  John Tomlinson stood out as the Doctor – mad, dangerous and cynical – he got a number of laughs from the audience in an opera which is not particularly associated with them.  His voice sounded in marvellous condition.  Endrick Wottrich was a really good Drum Major conveying just the ghastly virility and violence and singing with huge power.  Gerhard Siegel was a completely dotty Captain.  John Easterlin sounded a very powerful Andres – unusual in this role.  Robin Tritschler was a whey Fool and Allison Cook made an excellent impression as Margret.

The orchestra played wonderfully for Elder – it felt precise and angular and anguished.  Elder almost matched Dohnanyi in the power of the two cresendos after Marie’s death and, I thought, made the interlude after Wozzeck’s death heartbreaking.  He caught the power and menace of the score.

At the end, there was silence.  The boy went up to the case holding Wozzeck’s body.  He turned to look at us.  The lights fell and there was that couple of seconds of silence as the audience absorbed what it had just seen before the applause hesitantly began.  That’s the sort of reaction Wozzeck should get – and it was followed by prolonged, appreciative applause.  Go, if you can.