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.



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