Archive | December, 2013

Joyous Fantasio

16 Dec

I don’t normally go up to London on a Sunday but the opportunity to hear a new Offenbach, particularly a British premiere was too important to miss.  And so I got on the train at 5.20 on 15th December to see the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Opera Rara present Offenbach’s Fantasio at the Royal Festival Hall.

The opera was a failure in Paris (though it was more of a success in Vienna) and then has been pretty much forgotten, with all its parts pretty much scattered.  Jean-Christophe Keck, as part of his campaign to complete Offenbach’s operas, has had the task of gathering an edition together and what we have is probably about as near as you can get to what was heard on the first night.

It’s based on a play by de Musset from the 1830s.  A marriage has been arranged between the Prince of Mantua and the Princess of Bavaria.  She is sad because her jester has died.  Fantasio, a student, hears her sing and sings back.  He disguises himself as the jester in order to meet her.  They fall in love.  Meanwhile, the Prince of Mantua has decided to swap costumes with his servant to find out whether or not she loves him.  This is a pretty disastrous ploy and Fantasio, to save the Princess, pulls the servant’s wig from his head.  He is imprisoned; the princess releases him and all ends happily.  There’s a strong anti-war sentiment which, from a German composer, might not have gone down that well in Paris in 1872.

Otherwise, it’s a gentle comdey which ought to have appealed to nineteenth century audiences – it could also have made a convincing early 20th century musical comedy.  I was reminded of Chabrier’s L’etoile (though it lacks the sheer surreal lunacy of that opera – and the music isn’t as good) as well as a rather nasty take on the Cinderella story.  It feels rather old-fashioned these days and it’s hard to see how the plot could readily take off, though perhaps Laurent Pelly or Martin Duncan might make something out of it.

The music, however, is rather wonderful.  It doesn’t have the sheer continuous brilliance of the more famous operettas or, indeed, of Hoffmann but it does deserve to be better known.  There is one absolute knock-out tune – a glorious waltz, first heard in the overture and then in the first act duet (and the third) for Fantasio and the Princess.  Beyond that there are attractive ballads, a glorious quintet which, you feel, Bizet must have known for Carmen, a really strong finale to Act II and some fiendish coloratura for the princess.  The music has echoes of Hoffmann and is in the vein of Robinson Crusoe rather than the operettas and is none the worse for that.  It may not be vintage Offenbach but it deserves an occasional outing.

Mark Elder conducted.  Has he done any Offenbach since the 1980s Orpheus at ENO?  I enjoyed the precision of his conducting and the way in which he let the tunes unfold.  Was it a bit too drilled, a bit too cautious?  There were odd times when I felt that, perhaps, a bit more relaxation and a little more speed (particularly in some of the entr’actes) might have helped.  But this was a minor cavil for someone who demonstrated the considerable musical strengths of the work.  He played a small, speaking part as well and had great fun with that, too  – as did we.  You don’t associate the OAE with this sort of music but there was some really lovely playing and intelligent accompaniment of the singers.

He had an excellent cast.  Sarah Connolly was ideal casting as Fantasio.  She doesn’t seem able to do anything wrong at the moment and I loved her stylish, gorgeous singing and witty acting.  She caught the wit and integrity of the character.  Brenda Rae was a late replacement as the Princess but showed no sign of this – her coloratura was outstanding and she worthily partnered Connolly in their duets.

Russell Braun as the Prince and Robert Murray as his servant had lesser roles but gave very strong support, as did Brindley Sherratt, Neal Davies and Victoria Simmonds.  The Opera Rara chorus did very well indeed.

I found myself smiling happily through most of this.  Offenbach fans won’t hesitate to buy the CD and they should be in for a treat. Other admirers of French music should enjoy it too.  A staging would be nice, if unlikely, and it reminded me also of how nice it would be to see decent stagings of Les Brigands, Robinson Crusoe, Bluebeard and Grande Duchesse before too long.

Only one complaint.  The programme and the advance information from the RFH suggested this would be over by 9.15.  We started slightly late and the interval last 10 minutes long than planned, but the performance didn’t end until about 9.50 – surely someone would have noticed this beforehand?

Modified Mikado

7 Dec

Hugh Canning’s review of Co-Opera Company’s Mikado in the October OPERA magazine was so good that I changed a few appointments to get to see it when it reached Hastings on 3rd December.  Maybe a Tuesday night in December at the White Rock in Hastings isn’t the best way to experience the piece.  Or perhaps not in the reduced version put on by Co-Opera.  It didn’t help that we had a small audience that seemed to have been bussed in from the local morgue.

Let’s get the problems out of the way.  Gilbert and Sullivan operas were written  for a company, including a chorus of 32 and a decent opera-sized orchestra.  They had considerable amounts of money spent on them and dance was an important element.  All the most successful post-D’Oyly Carte productions have understood this and given us an element of spectacle.  With the best will in the world, you cannot replicate the excitement and the spectacle that is an integral part of any decent Gilbert and Sullivan opera with a cast of eight, doubling up as the chorurs.  As a result, the finales fell flat and the sheer exhileration you should feel after Act I was missing.

Similarly, does anyone else remember how “here’s a how de do” used to stop the show when the old D’Oyly Carte did, simply through the extravagant silliness of the choreography?  Nobody, not even Jonathan Miller has been able to reproduce anything like that.  Here, the choreography was tame and the show missed the lift that it can get – many of the numbers lost their impact as a result.

Perhaps these were the downsides of what otherwise was a really alert and enjoyable performance of the piece.  What was key was the way in which the excellent cast performed the text as if it was new.  It was beautifully inflected, delivered with panache and you relished the way everything really meant something.  It felt as if the text had been cleaned and spruced up.  Examples?  You actually felt Katisha’s grief when she first thought Nanki Poo was dead.  Martin Nelson’s Mikado made more out of My Object All Sublime than any other Mikado I have heard.  There were countless little touches that made you listen to the words (which I know pretty much by heart) anew.  On that count alone it was worth the visit.

The cast, too, was excellent: mostly young singers, but performing was a real assurance.  Tristan Stocks made a handsome, intelligent Nanki-Poo, stretched slightly by some of the demands of the music, but here is a very pleasing light tenor with a nice quality – he’d be a great Candide.  Llio Evans was a really lovely, alert Yum-Yum who did a charming Sun whose rays, which was gorgeously shaped to the words.  Thomas Asher’s Pish Tush, normally a nothing role, did the best Our great Mikado I have ever heard, simply through his alert use of words and was a constant joy to watch.  I like a rather larger, oilier figure and voice than Owain Browne could provide for Pooh-Bah, but he just about made up for it by the understated wit of his performance.  Susanne Holmes and Pitti Sing and Georgina Stalbow as Peep-Bo worked hard and well.

Of the more experienced singers, Sandra Porter contributed a really moving, well-sung, characterful Katisha who managed to make the figure moving and funny.  Martin Nelson was an admirably cool, impeccably timed Mikado.  David Phipps-Davies was one of the best Ko-Ko’s I’ve seen – turning him into a rather pathetic, grumpy, insecure little man.  I couldn’t help feeling that Grossmith might have been like this.  He contributed a lengthy but very, very funny little list.

John Andrews conducted a rather intelligent performance.  Tempi struck me as a bit on the slow side but it helped with the articulation of the words.  His phrasing, however, was glorious – the oboe playing of The Sun whose rays in the overture was a joy – and he gave as joyous a performance as an orchestra of 13 and a cast of eight allowed.

James Bonas was the director and must obviously take lots of credit for all the good, stylish acting and great dialogue. I wasn’t particularly taken by the idea that it was set in an opium den in 1901 but, to be quite frank, there was nothing beyond the overture to suggest that this was at all relevant.  Above all, he needed a decent choreographer.

So it was nice evening and I enjoyed myself.  At £22, it was a pretty good bargain.  It probably wasn’t worth rearranging the rest of my life for.  The last time I saw something in Hastings, I thought Hastings deserved better.  For all the virtues of the staging  The Mikado deserves more than this.

Anniversary Britten

7 Dec

Sorry for the delay in posting.  It’s been a busy month with non-operatic work and I’ve not had the time to write up everything that I’ve seen – at least in a form that I’m happy to publish here.

I want to use this post to reflect on the four Britten operas that I saw in mid-late November – suitable for the anniversary.   These were the three Opera North productions – Death in Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Peter Grimes – and the concert of Albert Herring at the Barbican.  They all left me with admiration for the last truly assured and successful opera composer.  More recent composers have had odd successes but none, for me, have the sheer flexibility and intutive awareness of what the form can do, or the miraculouss ability to set words so that they sound absolutely right in the context.  All of the evenings were rewarding their own way and all confirmed that this is one composer who does not pall after hearing four of his operas in ten days.

Death in Venice came first (14th November).  For me it’s the one of his mature operas that I find most difficult.  As I remarked when I saw at ENO, I find it cold, difficult to like or engage with.  This performance didn’t change my view and made me feel that this is one of those operas that only bear being seen irregularly.  It feels long and I don’t get any particular feeling of a unity in the piece.  Surely Britten would have revised and cut had he lived.  I was aware of the sillinesses of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto – surely utterly unsuitable for the piece.  In fact, I wonder if, in some ways, this didn’t sum up the whole problem of Britten’s sexuality.  If Death in Venice is intended to be coming out, Piper’s libretto keeps shutting the closet door through its bathetic words and inability to find the language to match the ideas or what is going on in the music.

A number of critics preferred this production to Deborah Warner’s one at ENO.  I didn’t.  Yoshi Oida’s production uses Japanese techniques, a simple set (wooden platforms, projections on a rather small mirror above the stage, props and two sinister stage hands assisting the action).  It concentrates you entirely on the performances of the singers.  I missed the sheer elegance of Warner’s version and the session in which what you saw on stage matched what was going on in the music.  On the stage at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle (not an easy one for companies to tour too) it looked a bit cramped and, by comparison, rather cheap.

The music was good: Richard Farnes conducted with his customary certainty and the orchestra (as on all the evenings) was on fabulous form.  The score sounded good and every word was audible.  I liked Alan Oke’s outstandingly good Aschenbach, as well acted as John Graham-Hall’s even if, vocally, there were moments when he sounded stretched.  Peter Savidge was, predictably excellent in the seven roles and James Laing was excellent as the Voice of Apollo.  The Opera North chorus was did its multiple roles well enough.

It’s not the first time that Newcastle has seen the piece (Scottish brought it with Anthony Rolfe-Johnson in the 1980s) but the audience seemed rather numbed and bemused.  It wasn’t particularly the fault of the performance.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (15th November), by contrast, is a joy.  I saw the Michael Grandage production of the play a couple of weeks before this performance.  That struck me as a fairly ordinary, rather boring production of a fascinating play and, for much of it, I was hearing Britten’s setting of the words.  This performance confirmed what a magicial distillation of the play it is – you miss very, very little from the original.

Martin Duncan’s production was first done in 2008.  It’s one of the company’s economy efforts – little in the way of sets and none of the magic of, say, Peter Hall’s version.  The mortals are in modern dress, Oberon and Titania in silvery gowns, nicely matching their glittering music.  The fairies are in shorts and singlets and Puck a hairy monster in red shorts.  It works, as much as anything because of the excellence and intelligence of the acting and the wit of the mechanicals, but also because of the sheer beauty of Britten’s music.  This was the first Britten that I experienced in the theatre and I still remember the excitement of the opening forest music and the sheer lush, gorgeousness of the end of Act II.

The cast was splendid: Jeni Bern and Christopher Ainslie very fine as Tytania and Oberon – the latter acting really well.  There were four well contrasted lovers, alert, handsome and funny: Sky Ingram (Hermia), Kathryn Rudge (a really very funny Helena making good use of her height), Andrew Glover (Lysander) and Quirijn de Lang (Demetrius).  The mechanicals were led by Darren Jeffrey’s as  a nicely bewildered Bottom, with a superb performance from Nicholas Sharratt as Flute – absolutely hilarious.  Oliver Rundell conduted securely, the orchestra was excellent and you came out of this feeling immensely happy.

Peter Grimes (16th November) was outstanding.  The sheer power of the opera, the sureness of its construction rarely fails for me and there are scenes – the first in Act II and the end that I find hugely moving.  Is there a finer dpiction of the sheer nastiness and power of the mob?

Phyllida Lloyd’s production is one of the finest that Opera North have ever done.  Lloyd, rather like Elijah Moshinsky at Covent Garden, uses a largely bare stage with a few rostra and a net to create a frame for the community.  She gets the sense of community, makes it all seem right and, above all, coaxes outstanding acting from the cast.

The triumph, for me, is Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s Grimes.  There are any number of ways to play this part but what I think Britten wanted was the outsider who did not have a lot going for him, and a knack for making things worse.  Lloyd-Roberts catches that absolutely.  He has the size and physical presence to make him a believable villain, and he has the humanity to convey the sheer anguish of the man.  The agony of him carrying the dead boy round the stage was among the most moving pieces of acting that I’ve seen in opera.  Vocally, he gets it wonderfully.  This is a performance that has matured hugely since 2006 and, for me, is one to rank with Vickers, Langridge and Skelton as among the finest interpretations of the role.

He has admirable support: Giselle Allen’s beautifully sung Ellen is one of her finest roles and Robert Hayward’s strong Balstrode carried the sympathy well.  I thought that Benedict Nelson gave the best performance I’ve seen from him as Keene and Mark LeBrocq sang very strongly as Boles.  The rest created the sort of strong ensemble the piece needs.  The chorus was outstanding.  We left drained, exhilerated and moved – just as you should.

Albert Herring is a favourite of mine.  I love the wit of Eric Crozier’s libretto and as an opera about the difference between what Society wants and what life is really like, it feels terribly prescient.  It’s a happy clever piece that never outstays it’s welcome and the music – clever, fast moving, perfectly timed, is a joy.

The Barbican concert on 23rd November was neatly semi-staged – modern-ish costume,good acting and some witty props.  Steuart Bedford, who probably knows more about conducting Britten than anyone else on the planet, led a joyous, witty, under-stated performance that simply let the piece play itself.  The soloists of the BBC Symphony Orchestra were beyond praise.

There was a really lovely cast, most of whom were new, or newish, to their roles.  Andrew Staples gave a lovely performance of the title role: he caught the rebelliousness and the sheer fear of overturning the apple cart pretty much perfectly.  He sang it well too.  It would be great if Glyndebourne could resurrect the Peter Hall production for him (or if any of the other major companies could give it a go).  We had luxury casting in Roderick Williams as the young, trendy vicar, singing beautifully but also suggesting the ridiculousness of the role, Christine Brewer’s powerful Lady Billows (Ok, she was a bit shrill at the top, but here was a major personality having a lot of fun) and Matthew Rose as Budd – I hope he’ll get to sing this role a lot, it felt like perfect casting.  Gaynor Keeble sang well as Florence though probably needed more direction for the character.  Adrian Thompson is an experienced Mayor and was in excellent, strong, clear voice.  Kitty Whateley was a lovely Nancy, displaying some real star quality.  Catherine Wyn-Rogers gave a performance as Mrs Herring to match her Bianca in Glyndebourne’s Lucretia.  Here she made the character sympathetic as well as domineering and sang it really well.  Only Marcus Farnesworth as Sid disappointed slightly: he didn’t quite catch the rough edge to the role – a sense of him trying to sing beautifully rather than give the character.

It was a lovely way to celebrate Britten’s birthday and the audience enjoyed it.  It epitomised what Britten stood for in British operatic life – an ensemble of great musicians working together.  And I think it’s the absence of that which makes Death in Venice so problematic for me.