Archive | April, 2015

Deformed Princess Ida

18 Apr

I went to see Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida at the Finborough Theatre on 15th April. I am angry. I offer apologies in advance for a long post that may not make much sense to those of you who don’t like G&S or don’t know Princess Ida. You don’t have to read it.

Princess Ida is one of the least performed of their operas – it hasn’t been done professionally in London since the ENO asked Ken Russell to do his worst to it in 1992 (he obliged, in spades). It contains some of the very finest music Sullivan ever wrote, including some heart-stoppingly beautiful numbers.. The problems are that it is ambitious, expensive to stage, has a difficult plot and is written in rather poor blank verse – all Gilbert’s fault. The ambition lies in its three act structure, multiple roles for the chorus and among the highest number of named roles in any of their operas. Hence the expense: it’s not designed for a cast of thirteen to put on in a space the size of your living room.

Let me try not to bore you more than necessary. The plot of Ida goes that there are two kingdoms ruled respectively by Hildebrand and Gama. Their children, Hilarion and Ida were betrothed in infancy. Ida, however, has decided to eschew all men and found a women’s. She certainly won’t marry Hilarion. Gama and his three warlike sons are held captive whilst Hilarion and his friends go to find Ida. They arrive, disguise themselves in women’s clothing and are discovered. Hildebrand’s forces arrive to rescue them and Ida hurls defiance. This defiance looks a bit silly as her maidens go all girlish and decide that, actually, they’re not that keen on fighting. Ida’s brothers decide to fight for her and lose. Ida gives herself up to Hilarion who, she decides, she loves anyway. It’s not exactly politically correct and many will find the premise quite offensive.

Philip Willmott has made a new version of the piece and in his introduction he refers to a confusing libretto. Ida actually has one of the simplest plots to follow of the operas and relies less than most on whimsy or topsy turvy. And the dialogue is manageable with a bit of care.

His adaptation is a mish-mash. I wasn’t clear whether his aim was to clarify the plot, to find a way of reducing the cast or whether he wanted to give Simon Butteriss, the most experienced performer of the team by a long way, more to do. He retains the basic premise – of a satire on women’s ambitions and so fails to address the plot problem. He retains many of the best bits of the opera, but he makes some crucial and, frankly, pointless changes. We lose one of the KIngs, Ida’s three brothers and the teachers at the university. The changes to the scenario don’t add anything and crucially change relationships.  You don’t get the power struggle at the university and you don’t really get the sense of bullying by the men that is one of the more interesting things about the original.  If, as here, Gama persuades Ida to found her university (so he can marry her himself) it blunts the sense of this being about Ida herself having to change her ideas. – and she is one of Gilbert’s most human heroines.

The changes necessitate changes to the lyrics some of which were understandable, others pointless and none coming close to Gilbert’s best. Coime Mighty Must, however, is probably Gilbert’s poorest lyric ever and, not unexpectedly, Sullivan’s poorest number. There is nothing wrong with cutting it. Here it was rewritten but in a way that was only marginally better than the original.  The new dialogue mixed uneasily with Gilbert’s and managed to be in even poorer blank verse.  And the need for change wasn’t carried through.  You’d think that a version which eschewed fighting and armour might have re-written  This Helmet, I suppose.  This splendid aria involves one of the characters stripping the various part of his armour in mock Handel. But no, the aria is too good for that, so you have Gama stripping out of his usual clothes while singing about helmets, etc. So much ffor clarifying the plot.

Even worse was the reattribution of the songs.  Is it really acceptable for Gama, the light baritone role to be given pieces written for mezzo, contralto and bass? The world is but a broken toy is proobably Sullivan’s most gorgeous quartet. Here it was, for no obvious reason, turned into a duet for Ida and Hilarion which reduces the musical pleasure.

One of Gilbert’s great strengths is that he doesn’t hang about. The plot gets resolved, there’s a nice reprise of one of the best numbers as a finale and that’s it. Here we had ten minutes at least of padding after Ida had succumbed as the various characters decided that they would marry, there were reprises of a number of earlier pieces (Including the rewritten Come Might Must, for Christ’s sake) and you felt as though you;re being kept in for bad behaviour. I’m not sure why two gay weddings suddenly were thought appropriate particularly since they were sprung on you in that last, interminable ten minutes.

I could go on. However, the fact is that every change detracted from the original without offering any discernible improvement.  It made you realise how skilful Gilbert was and that, even in one of his more problematic works, you meddle with him at your peril.  There must be better ways of doing Ida on a shoestring.  End of rant.  Those in the audience who didn’t know the piece didn’t seem worried.  I expect they thought that Gilbert and Sullivan is silly anyway.

The evening got off to a bad start with the two electric pianos massacring the introduction. It started looking up when the young and very enthusiastic cast arrived. There were no great voices and, in an auditorium seating about 50 you don’t need them. Nor did it particularly worry me that the style was the more short, breathy style that singers use in musicals these days. It took a massive leap when Simon Butteriss arrrived delivering the first unchanged number, If you give me your attention, with aplomb, style and complete success. This was probably the best rendition of the aria I’ve ever heard. Sadly, Butteriss wore off. His rather creepy, mincing interpretation didn’t really convince you that he was that interested in Ida from a sexual point of view. There is no way that he should have been allowed to sing This Helmet – it’s as wrong as Domingo singing Iago. I got very tired of him by the end.

The rest were actually rather good, at least in a space the size of the Finborough – Buttereiss apart, I can’t imagine any of them surviving in a larger space without amplification or being taken seriously as singers.  Bridget Costello.was a fine Ida who had the measure of the numbers and showed a nice personality. Zac Wangke as Hilarion sang his numbers well and had a nicely innocent look. Simeon Oakes was a very randy Cyril, one of the best and funniest of the roles and siezed his opportunities really well even if this version allowed him to duck the high notes.  The rest of the young cast earning, one suspects, almost nothing, put their all into it.

Willmott’s direction had plenty of pace and style and was at its best when dealing with pure Gilbert – the cross-dressing scenes shouldn’t fail and they were funny here.  I liked Ida’s maidens wielding hockey sticks in defence and there were a couple of very nice visual jokes.

If you don’t know the original but quite like G&S, you will have had a pretty good time here.  If you do know it and, particularly, if you love it, you will find the pleasure of seeing the piece done by a talented team wrecked by your sheer fury at the incompetent, tin-eared meddling with the original.

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Yet more J C Bach

18 Apr

Two JC Bach operas in three weeks isn’t bad going. The latest, Adriano in Siria, was done by the Classical Opera Company at the Brtitten Theatre. I saw the performance on 14th April, apparently it’s first performance in over 250 years.  They’re doing as part of their exploration of what was going on at the same time as Mozart.  The opera was being performed at the time the nine year old Mozart was in London and it’s not inconceivable that he might have attended one of the performances.

It;s a setting of a libretto by Metastasio which was set over 40 times in as many years. It’s fairly classic Metastasio stuff – a couple of love triangles and a benign emperor. There are palpable similiarities with La clemenza di Tito. There are one or two amusing moments – as when Adriano’s betrothed arrives just as he;s about to propose to somebody else and there’s a rather clumsy attempt at a misunderstanding between hero and heroine. Dramatically, it’s as interesting as any other Metastasio libretto and, as Ian Page pointed out in his really outstanding programme notes, the interest is in how they are set by the composer.

The first act struck me as pleasant but ordinary: a series of efficiently pleasant entrance arias and quite a good duet. It did strike me, after that Page’s claims of wonderful psychological insight were a bit overdone – none as penetrating as Mozart or Gluck or Handel – just generic 1760s type arias.

Things perked up considerably in Act II when both hero (Farnaspe) and heroine (Emirena) have a couple of heartstoppingly beautiful arias. These struck me as worthy to be ranked with Mozart and Handel both in terms of the sheer aural pleasure of the music but also in the way in which they mirrored the emotions.  There was also that extreme rarity in this sort of opera, a trio – and rather a good one. This continued into the third act when the final aria for Farnaspe was really moving.  Other things that struck was the relative swiftness of the opera.  Page had made a few minor cuts and the three acts moved quickly and we were out in under two and three quarter hours. Hand on heart, I’m not sure that this will ever be a repertory opera but it made a very rewarding evening and I’d like to hear a number of the arias again.

The music was pretty safe in the hands of Ian Page. His conducting was vigorous and kept things moving.  This was the first night and I felt that, early on, there was some nervousness among the singers.  The music was sung efficiently but I felt that it needed more variation, more attention to the words and more individuality if it was to succeed.  As I’ve suggested, this was largely remedied as the evening went on.  However, I couldn’t help wondering what a group of more experienced, virtuosic singers might have made of the piece.

This stricture didn’t apply to Stuart Jackson as Osroa – the Parthian King trying to defeat Adriano.  He radiated anger, gave real attention to the words and sang with an assured style and understanding of the character that promises really well for the future.  He’ll be an outstanding Mozartian.  Erica Eloff grew in stature as Farnaspe and did her final aria very beautifully indeed. Ellie Laugharne as Emirena matched her and, again, got steadily better as the evening went on.  Filipa van Eck was a flashy, glamorous Sabina (Adriano’s betrothed) and sang her arias impressively.  Rowan Hellier struck me as rather an anonymous Adriano – and looked very feminine.  Nick Pritchard, as Aquilio, the notional villain, displayed a nice, clear tenor and sang his single aria well.

The production was by Thomas Guthrie and did the piece few favours.  The set was attractive with some nice silhouettes, but it looked very like those pictures of old Handel Opera Society productions or even stretched student ones.  More seriously, I didn’t feel that he’d really engaged with the singers to help them project and get across the long arias and, particularly, the long orchestral introductions.  At times, I wasn’t sure what we would have lost if this had simply been a concert performance – I think that there’s a lot more you could have done with the piece and a contemporary setting might have helped.  Worst of all was his habit of changing scenes or having people come on with bird puppets during the arias, distracting from the singers and making you feel that he just wasn’t interested in the arias.

This was more than just an interesting piece of archaeology.  There is music of real stature and beauty and it was great to have the opportunity to hear it and see how it worked as a staged piece.  However, I can’t help wondering about the business model of this company: a few weeks ago I received a begging letter from them telling me that even full houses over the four performances would only cover 25% of the costs of staging it.  That’s pretty staggering and raises some questions.  I do hope that they found enough sponsors to cover it.

Finnish Family Opera

10 Apr

I’m a great admirer of Jonathan Dove’s music and his way with opera and I particularly enjoyed his children’s opera The Enchanted Pig as well as both Flight and The Adventures of Pinocchio. He’s someone who enjoys the form, appears to like writing for singers and has a dramatic sense that you don’t often get in composers these days. He’s really grateful to watch and listen to. All of which explains my visit to Swanhunter, his 2009 opera on 9th April at the LInbury.

I left slightly disappointed. It’s billed as a family piece, suitable for anyone aged 8 or over and lasts 70 minutes. It’s based on the Lemminkainen legend from Finland of a young man who goes north to find a wife, has exotic adventures taming the Devil’s Elk and the Devil’s Horse before being killed by a youth that he’s insulted. He’s brought to life by his mother putting his body together again.

In this version it comes across as a rather serious, low key story about the power of singing. The action parts are done wittily and enjoyably and they move quickly. The more serious parts feel slower, the mind wanders and you feel that the level of invention is earthbound. The vocal lines are strange, not beautiful and don’t move or hold the interest.  It’s an opera about the power of music – Lemminkainen sings dogs to sleep, his mother resurrects him with her singing – it’s not dissimilar to the Orpheus legend.  I don’t feel, however, the sense that Dove is trying to evoke beauty when he writes those passages – they go on a bit and sound uninspired.  The opera ends abruptly – shouldn’t there be some sort of celebration here? It lacks the sheer exuberance of The Enchanted Pig. Perhaps it was just me: the audience, made up of a wide variety of ages, was attentive, laughed at the jokes and was very enthusiastic at the end. To me it felt like someone composing in his comfort zone.

It was well done in a co-production between Opera North and The Wrong Sort. Opera North provided singers and orchestra, The Wrong Sort the production and the puppets. Hannah Mulder’s direction was clear, used puppets and costumes nicely – the elk and horse caught just the right level of wit and danger – Death was suitably nasty.  The was a nice sense of improvisation about the staging and it all looked really good.

Justin Doyle conducted the small orchestra with aplomb and the singers were good. Adrian Dwyer as Lemminkainen sang powerfully and had a nice line in innocent heroism.  Ann Taylor as his mother sang committedly and did what she could.  Matthew Hargreaves did a great job as Death and a few other rules and nobody else let the side down.   The believed in the piece and seemed to be having funl.

It’s a pleasant enough piece and it’s short enough for kids to sit through and moves quickly enough.  I did wonder whether it would convert anyone to opera and felt that a really good, funny Barber of Seville might do a better job.  Unlike most of his other work, I didn’t particularly feel the desire to see it again.

Semi-staged Sweeney Todd

10 Apr

My husband loves Sondheim and Sweeney Todd in particular.  I’m more ambivalent.  I recongise the skill, the power of the piece; I just don’t like it that much.  I’ve seen quite a lot of good producitons of it recently and I’ve seen Terfel in the title role.  So, off my own bat I probably wouldn’t have paid premium ENO prices to see a semi-staging.  However, not doing so simply wasn’t compatible with a quiet life and that’s why I was at the performance at the Coliseum on 7th April.  It had lots going for it.

Previous productions by opera companies have tended to use opera singers in the leading roles.  This is understandable. The show is intensely operatic – the huge set pieces, the grand guignol plot and the sheer skill of musical numbers scream that it has a place in the opera house.  It doesn’t follow from that, however, that it’ll work with opera singers.  Individual stars may be able to cope but the style is likely to be alien to the rest of the cast.  Opera North got away with it, thanks to small theatres, great direction and a committed cast, but the Royal Opera House version foundered just because the style doesn’t come naturally to an operatic tradition.  Productions at the National and Chichester, using singers more used to musicals have worked better.  And that was the ENO chose.  Apart from Terfel and the orchestra and David Charles Abell, the conductor, nobody onstage had been in an opera performance before – and what we saw was far more like a musical, as they are performed these days.

The performances were great.  Terfel has been singing Todd for a decade;  He presents the monster, the determination, the panic and the wit really well.  He owns the stage.  Vocally he’s a bit more ragged than he used to be but he can still manage the subtleties as well as the implacability of the role. Thompson makes a very good Mrs Lovett – funnier than many.  Can she sing?  She gets away with the music with huge aplomb and you don’t need any more.  Personally, I preferred Imelda Staunton’s nastier, rather deeper approach but she and Terfel had a good double act going.  Matthew Seadon-Young and Katie Hall did the young couple nicely.  She sang her bits well.  Philip Quast was an expert and very nasty Judge.  Alex Gaumond was memorably reptilian as Beadle Bamford.  John Owen-Jones had the right flamboyance and nastiness for indeed as Pirelli and Rosalie Graig was a strong beggar woman.

David Charles Abell knows how this music should go and conducted a very secure performance.  Ensemble and orchestra gave committed, idiomatic performances.

This was a semi-staging, but it looked pretty comprehensively staged to me..  It began formally, with a twee concert setting – red velvet, flower displays, cast in tails – you get the idea.  Much of the first number, from the moment Terfel and Thompson looked at each other and chucked their scores and stands into the empty pit, was spent destroying the prettiness and creating a much rawer environment.  There was a nice improvisatory feel to it – cymbals stood for plates, Mrs Lovett used a timpani to roll her pastry on; Todd’s barber’s chair was a theatre seat. The multi-levelled set suggested different locations.  This actually works well for a piece that has a strongly Brechtian feel about it.  The plot came across clearly and with considerable wit; the performers acted their hearts out and there was a standing ovation at the end..

So I enjoyed it and these fourteen completely sold out performances can’t have done the ENO’s box office much harm.  But why did I feel slightly dissatisfied at the end of it?  First, the amplification was not well done – or diction wasn’t good.  If you can’t make out what Terfel is singing through the fuzz then something is the matter.  Most of the singers struggled to get the fast passages heard – and, irony of ironies, there were no surtitles.  Secondly, for all its operatic qualities, the show works best for me in a smaller theatre, with a smaller, less operatic orchestra.  Inevitably the tension and horror that you look for gets dispersed in the huge cavern that is the Coliseum.  And I paid considerably more for my seat than I would for a fully staged version with a starry cast in the West End.  Perhaps if I liked the piece a bit better…