Archive | May, 2015

All male Pirates

28 May

Another Pirates of Penzance. This time Sasha Regan’s all male production. This has done the rounds of the fringe venues in London and, fresh from an Australian tour, with a number of awards, is on at the Theatre Royal in Brighton for a week. I saw the performance on 27th May with the theatre, at a guess, less than 30% full but with a really enthusiastic audience.

The show was designed for a small fringe theatre. The cast of 18 isn’t of trained singers and, while many are quite experienced in musicals and in similar productions, that’s as far as it goes. Set and costumes were decent but obviously on the cheap. The accompaniment is on a single piano. Was it wise to do it in a theatre the size of Theatre Royal which, let’s face, is about the size for which the piece was written – with its full orchestra, chorus and star singers – and charging the sorts of prices they’d charge for a West End show on tour? I couldn’t help feeling that I might have enjoyed it more if it had been in smaller auditorium. Perhaps also, it was unfair to see it so soon after Mike Leigh’s production at ENO which had a full chorus and orchestra and people with the right voices singing the parts.

Why do G&S with all male casts? Unlike Shakespeare, there’s no point about authenticity and it’s hard to find any sexual politics in the operas that cross-casting like this will illuminate. I suppose there is the practical reason that men can sing falsetto and so it gives you much more scope for doubling roles. The cast created very capable choruses of girls, pirates and police and it would have been difficult to manage all the numbers on this number of a mixed cast. It emphasises the campness and misogyny of it all and it’s funny in a panto-ish sort of way.

The musical accomplishment of the singers is limited. Men singing falsetto can’t call on the sheer power volume that women can. Alan Richardson’s Mabel did a very strong job at the coloratura and sang his/her Act II aria touchingly but without the ease that a decent soprano would. I was conscious of technical effort going on. This applied less to Alex Weatherhill’s Ruth – an easier role of a battle-axe that is half-way (but only half-way) to pantomime dame – who sang very adequately in a lower register and created a convincing figure. Otherwise, this was men having fun camping it up as demure Victorian maidens and it was done amusingly enough.

Musically, we didn’t have a particularly gifted cast. Most were singing in that breathy, Lloyd-Webber-ish style that doesn’t really suit Sullivan’s melodies – phrases are chopped about and you just miss the sound that trained operatic voices can bring. Those glorious double choruses don’t come across. It was given efficient piano accompaniment so there was no need for amplification (thank goodness) but this was a cast, generally, that no more than got away with the music rather than giving much pleasure.

I felt that Sasha Regan’s production didn’t quite trust the text enough. The pilot/pirate confusion is clear enough from the words and their setting without any further mugging about it being needed. The lyrics weren’t always put across as clearly as they might be: Miles Weston didn’t really sing the Major General’s song as if it were a coherent piece of thought (and Andrew Shore’s performance at ENO demonstrated that, in fact, it is). Perhaps the fact that there’s only a piano accompaniment meant that you miss the wit of Sullivan’s music for the policemen, but Mike Leigh’s deadpan marching was far, far funnier than the Ministry of Silly Walks approach taken here for them and the whole point of “With cat like tread” is that it is meant to be very loud indeed – singing it softly takes away one of the best jokes.

What they had was energy and this was a busy, strongly choreographed production, with some nice jokes (I liked the policemen sneaking off rather than fight the pirates, the shenanigans during Sighing softly to the river were very funny), a very competent cast that was pretty easy on the eye and the huge advantage that Pirates is pretty much unsinkable. It’s a pleasant, enthusiastic enough evening and I’ve seen duller traditional performances.  But don’t let the awards kid you into thinking it’s that outstanding, because it isn’t.

Premiere of Poliuto

21 May

I’m just back from the first night of Glyndebourne’s new production of Donizetti’s Poliuto – the British premiere of the Italian version.  I loved it.

It’s fascinating to compare the piece to Les Martyrs.  It’s more concise, a more human drama – the love triangle is more interesting here and you still get the strong sense of religious conflict.  The French one is longer, has a much greater role for the governor, Felix, than in the Italian version and there is, obviously, a greater sense of the public, though the difference here is not as great as I’d anticipated – there’s a very strong role for the chorus in this piece.  In a less strong performance the weaknesses in Cammarano’s libretto might be more apparent – Poliuto is out of the action for quite a lot of time after the first scene; you never get any sense that the evil high priest Callistene is in love with Paolina until she mentions it in the last scene and so a lot of the motivation for the second Act is a bit unclear.  Maybe Paolina’s conversion could be signaled a bit earlier.  And musically the French version is more ambitious, more spacious.

But there’s lots of glorious music here.  The arias are strong and well placed with great opportunities for all the main singers – Poliuto’s Act II aria is a really strong study of jealousy, and I thought that Severo’s entrance aria was among his most grateful baritone numbers.  The duets, particularly, enable the singers to strike sparks of each other.  I was particularly taken with the duet in Act II for Severo and Paolina and the final one for Poliuto and Paolina.  The finale to the second act is one of Donizetti’s strongest – another glorious sextet followed by a really exciting stretta.  I defy anyone to leave a performance without at least those two ringing in their ears.  This is Donizetti at his best and I felt that the Verdi of Aida and Don Carlos was not that far away.

Mariame Clément’s production struck me as outstandingly good.  She’s set it in a totalitarian state, probably in the 1930s, to judge by the costumes.  The sets are a set of massive blocks, on which videos are delicately projected to suggest location.  It feels like a fascist state and one where people are afraid.  She uses them really well to enable the more intimate scenes to be nicely downstage and to suggest different locations, even images.  There’s a fluidity about it – locations switch easily and she manages to get more out of scenes than you’d think possible.  In Severo’s entrance aria, she uses the silent chorus to suggest how his speech is really going, while he sings privately, to us, about his love for Paolina and it moves effortlessly in the next scene with Felice and Callistene.  In Callistene’s Act III aria about using the people for his ends, we suddenly see his soldiers dancing at a cafe with the unthinking population.  She doesn’t shrink from the viciousness of the state: this is a police state and you’re left in no doubt about the fate of the Christians in this society.  It works with the music and this struck me as a very classy staging indeed.

Provided that you don’t demand Callas and Corelli, this was musically hugely satisfying.  Enrique Mazzola had the piece absolutely under control and the LPO played their socks off for him.  He made you realise how good Donizetti is at suggesting atmosphere and finding the right instrument for the emotions.  He accompanied the singers really sensitively.  This was as fine a reading as Elder’s of the French version last year.

In the title role, Michael Fabbiano was very good indeed.  Perhaps he didn’t need to sing quite as loudly as he did early on but he seized on the anger and intensity of the emotions – a fascinating mixture of human jealousy and religious fervour.  His Act II aria was a highlight, as was the prison duet with Paolina.  Ana Maria Martinez doesn’t strike me as a natural bel canto singer and the voice has lost some of its sweetness since she sang Rusalka here, but there’s an intensity about her acting and a conviction about her singing that made this a really satisfying performance to watch and here.  You believed in the two of them in that final duet.

The discovery of the evening, however, was Igor Golovatenko as Severo.  Here is a really wonderfully schooled baritone who sang with outstanding style.  He has that great legato line that you need for Donizetti baritones and I imagine that he’ll also be a fabulous Luna, Posa and Belcore.  He understood what the role was about and conveyed the intensity of the man’s love for Paolina.  This was one of the most exciting baritone debuts here that I can recall.

At his curtain call, Matthew Rose seemed rather upset – easily the most graceless acknowledgement of applause that I’ve seen.  I thought he sang Callistene really well and suggested aptly the political manouevring.  As Nearco, Emanuele d’Aguanno was impressive.  The chorus sang and acted excellently.

I found this a wholly compelling, fascinating performance that rose above the cliches that people peddle about Donizetti – this was about politics and human emotion and this production conveyed a vision of the opera with absolute clarity and, for me, real success.  I hope Glyndebourne is planning a revival (or how about trying Les Martyrs so we can compare properly?) but, just in case they’re not, there are still tickets left, so I’d snap them up.

If you do, you’ll see that they’ve been playing about with the garden and have put up a rather ugly box of an art gallery.  New bits of garden never look their best in their first year and I’m not convinced that the rather camply baroque topiary yew plants quite fit into a garden that’s built on a grander scale, but the rose garden looks much more promising. Irrespective of that, this seemed to me to be one of the best Glyndebourne new productions for a while

Mike Leigh’s Pirates

20 May

To me, the most remarkable and reassuring thing about the performance of Mike Leigh’s production of Pirates of Penzance at ENO on 19th May was the reaction of the audience. First, I was slightly surprised that the place was packed. Secondly, they were laughing at the jokes, enjoying the music and cheering at the end. This wasn’t a respectful audience sitting through an exhumation but people having a lovely time. It was as if many of them hadn’t seen the piece before, or not for a long time, and were surprised at how good it was.
I think that if I were trying a newcomer out on G&S, Pirates is probably the one I’d take them to. It’s among the most concise and has the freshness and confidence of youth. The situations and dialogue have that deadpan daftness that, as I’ve remarked before, isn’t a million miles from Monty Python or Blackadder and Sullivan’s music is among his most enchanting. There are lovely examples of his ability to set words that are, frankly rude or unpleasant to the most gorgeous melody (Ah is there not one maiden here/whose homely face and bad complexion/has caused all hope to disappear/of ever winning man’s affection) so that his music is undercut by Gilbert’s words. The essence of the operettas is here.

Since Topsy Turvy everyone knows that Mike is a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan.  So what would he make of this? The joy was that he trusted the piece absolutely. He had clearly spent most of the rehearsal period working on getting the lines across and making them work in their own right. There wasn’t a single moment when you felt that the delivery was flat or wrong and many when you heard something fresh. He demonstrated that you didn’t need extravagant routines to make the Paradox trio work. The very simple choreography for the police was funny because of the deadpan simplicity of it. I’ve noted that the opera often feels slightly flat at the beginning. Here, I wasn’t conscious of that. It didn’t appear to try too hard, it simply delivered the work for what it was. Years of routine had been scrubbed away. And it worked.

Alison Chitty’s sets were simple but neatly reduced the size of the Coliseum stage to fit a pretty small chorus. The costumes might have come from the D’Oyly Carte costume box but were none the worse for that and the routines, the gags were notable for their absence. The wit and charm and silliness came across.

It was matched by a very clean musical performance. David Parry conducted clearly, relishing the beauties, considerate to his singers and enjoying the ridiculousness of With cat-like tread and the quiet wit of the Policeman’s song. The orchestra played really well.  Perhaps it was a bit too clean.  I bet that the original orchestra was a bit rougher than this and I bet that they weren’t nearly so restrained when the big tune came in early on in the overture.  On the other hand, you heard the details and the wit and the tempi felt right.

And there was a really nice cast. Joshua Bloom made a superbly confident, jovial Pirate King, Jonathan Lemalu caught the melancholy of the Sergeant of Police, Claudia Boyle was a very witty Mabel, recognising that Poor Wand’ring One is a comedy number but also singing the more serious side very well. Robert Murray was a nicely bewildered Frederic, who sang his arias with great skill. Rebecca du Pont Davies was a less melodramatic Ruth than many but put the role across well. Andrew Shore was an expert Major General and I really liked the idea that I am the very model was a well-rehearsed routine between him and his daughters who were eagerly awaiting the “sat a gee” joke – a nice overturning of years of tradition. This was one of the few occasions when I have seen opera singers doing dialogue in a way that worked.

Having said all that and recorded my immense admiration for the work, it would be dishonest not to note a couple of problems. The first is the size of the Coliseum. Gilbert and Sullivan were writing for much smaller theatres and, if you are stripping away all the routines and taking it as seriously as this, it can’t help feeling slightly lost. There was just a slight sense of artists bellowing to get the dialogue across, of good young singers who were stretched to their limits by the auditorium. I wonder how it all came across at the back of the balcony. It felt a bit small and I wished that it were being done in a smaller theatre.

Secondly, this very clean approach reminded me slightly of Giulini conducting Trovatore or Rigoletto – you wish, just occasionally that he’d let his hair down and stop being so serious and puritanical.Parry’s conducting of the overture was a tad too exact. I also thought that there was more scope for fun. Climbing over rocky mountains is a gem of a number but you can have some nice jokes there, I’ve seen many funnier Tarantara numbers which have not gone over the top but had the audience rolling in the aisles and I think that a director can allow himself this without compromising a serious approach elsewhere. And it was this absence of something visual to match the daftness of the plot and the exuberance of the music that I missed and which just stopped this being a classic Pirates.

Sullivan with and without Gilbert

10 May

Having enjoyed the two previous Charles Court Opera performances, that I’ve seen, it was a no-brainer to make my way up to London on 10th May to see the matinee of the their double bill of Sullivan’s The Zoo and Trial by Jury at the King’s Head.  Trial was the first opera I ever saw, when I was four and I’ve never seen The Zoo before.  It proved a really nice way of spending a Sunday afternoon.

The Zoo was written about the same time as Trial with a libretto by Barton Rowe (a pseudonym).  it’s a very light piece of flummery set, as you might guess, in London Zoo.  It’s a lower middle class comedy: an apothecary loves a grocer’s daughter but her father won’t consent to their marriage so he is suicidal and a duke loves a barmaid.  The lyrics are not quite in Gilbert’s class but they’re enjoyable enough with a nice sense of the ridiculous – the apothecary wants to hurl himself in the bear pit only to find that they’ve moved the bears.  The barmaid is no better than she ought to be and has rather diverting song to a lilting music hall tune telling you all about it.

The joy is Sullivan’s music.  Again, it doesn’t reach the heights of some of his later works, but there’s a freshness about it and it has lots of his hallmarks – some lovely parodies of operatic conventions, a gorgeous double duet and that deadpan sense of the ridiculous that he is so good at.  The word setting is impeccable.  There’s a fine recording of it by the old D’Oyly Carte (currently on Decca’s Sorceror set) and I commend it to anyone interested.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it deserves to be done now and then.

The Charles Court performance cut the chorus but was otherwise complete and very, very good.  David Menezes made a soulful, silly suicidal apothecary, Catrine Kirkman was equally silly as Laetitia and sang it nicely.  Ideally, you need Barbara Windsor for Eliza the Barmaid and Nichola Jolley is not her.  However, she did her “I have so many “cousins” now which one was I going to marry” number very well.  Matthew Kellett was a suitably angry Grinder the grocer and John Savournin, who directed, had fun as Thomas Brown (aka the Duke of Islington).  It was a thoroughly amiable performance and hard to dislike.

Trial by Jury is a complete masterpiece.  Gilbert’s libretto doesn’t put a foot wrong and Sullivan’s score fits it like a glove.  He manages to find music which tells you how ghastly all of these characters are.  He punctures the pomposity of the judge and the system and, in A nice dilemma, he provides a parody of Bellini/Donizetti ensembles that is, actually, as good as them.  It’s 35 minutes of pure pleasure.

So was this performance.  Savournin got over the problem that we don’t have breach of promise actions any more by setting it as Judge Judy sort of TV show.  We have a plaintiff who is clearly in the late stages of pregnancy and from the nastier parts of Essex, a thuggish defendant, ditto and, brilliantly, a lesbian judge (Savournin in drag) with a pronounced American accent and.a randy court clerk.  There’s lots of fighting between Plaintiff and Defendant and lots of perfectly judged business – “What’s Watteau” asked the Plaintiff after her Counsel made her sing about him.  I smiled and giggled throughout.

Savournin was in his element as the Judge – it’s an easy part to ham up and to overdo but I thought that he got the balance spot on.  This man has serious talent and it’s good to know that he’s doing stuff with Holland Park and Opera North in the coming months.  Menezes made a thuggish, rather thick defendant, while Ms Kirkman was completely transformed as Angelina and was very, very funny.  Philip Lee joined the cast as Counsel for the Plaintiff and was brilliantly unctuous in a nicely understated way.  Kellett was very funny indeed as the clerk.

David Eaton played the piano valiantly, setting brisk, intelligent tempi and the musical values were high.  Ideally, I’d like to see both with chorus and with Sullivan’s orchestration, but there’s little prospect of that, and I didn’t feel cheated by this.

The run’s now over but if they do it again, G&S fans shouldn’t hesitate.

Brave King Roger

9 May

King Roger is having its first performances at the Royal Opera House.  I’d seen it before (the Polish National Opera brought it over 10 years ago) but felt I ought to try it again and turned up to the second performance on 6th May.

It’s not a piece that I feel a great affinity with.  I can take or leave Szymanowski’s sound world – a gloop of rather anaemic treacle in the strings overladen with some flashy brass would be one way of characterising it.  That’s certainly unfair but it’s not a sound world that immediately attracts me.  The vocal lines are declamatory and it would be nice to have the occasional tune or even the odd duet or quartet.  It doesn’t draw me in.

Nor does the text, which is an interpretation of Euripides’s Bacchai.  A Shepherd arrives in Roger’s kingdom breaching a doctrine of freedom and converts all the people away from Roger himself.  As the philosphic contents get deeper, so the surtitles become less and less penetrable – making Tippett’s text for A Midsummer Marriage seem like Enid Blyton.  The motivation of characters, their backstory and relationships are underdrawn.  And yet for all that it lasts around an hour and a half (with a rather unnecessary interval taking it up to two hours), it feels longer. So you’ll understand why I wasn’t really best place to enjoy the performance.

For all that, I thought that Kasper Holten did a marvellous job of trying to make the piece accessible.  It’s updated to the time of composition and suggests a political reading of a conventional state having to react to an inspirational outsider and how the decent leader deals with that.  The philosophical side is symbolised by a massive head, which into Roger’s palace and, at the end, the palace is burning rubble and books are burned on it as Roger is beaten up by the Shepherd’s followers.  It looked good and struck me as a really intelligent way of addressing the piece and making it more accessible.  The homosexual subtext is there, but this is seen as a political piece.

The cast was outstanding.  Mariusz Kwiecien is the reigning Roger of the day.  He had evidently recovered from the cold on the first night.  He was in noble, eloquent voice, singing passionately if not, for me, ultimately making the role that interesting.  Georgia Jarman sang glamorously as Roxana, his queen – again, though, what was the relationship between them?  Saimir Pirgu gave the best performance that I have seen from his as the Shepherd.  His voice came across sharply and beautifully.  He sang with brilliance even if I would have liked a slighlty more charismatic figure on the stage.  Kim  Begley was outstanding as Edrisi, the advisor.  He’s a singer who’s been absent for too long and he sang easily and with the assurance you’d expect.

Antonio Pappano conducted.  I was impressed by the orchestral playing – the sound world seemed right, the action progressed fluidly.  I don’t think you could ask for more sympathetic conducting.  The chorus was in strong voice.

So a really strong performance and a fine intelligent production.  I feel bad for finding so little in the work to speak to me and involve my emotions.  For all the skill and commitment, I was left cold.

I

end, the

Revelatory Dalibor

3 May

Where has Dalibor been all my life? One slightly shaming answer is that the CDs have been on my shelves, languishing unplayed for the last 20 years or so. I bought them in Prague in 1994 along with a load of other Czech classics and, what with one thing and another…  Well you know how it goes. So far as I know it’s not been done in London since the ENO had a go at it in the 1970s. So it was high time for the BBCSO’s concert performance at the Barbican on 2nd May.

The plot is interesting. Dalibor is a heroic outsider in medieval Bohemia. He has killed a Duke to avenge the murder of his best friend. The Duke’s sister Milada, demands justice, and Dalibor is condemned to death. At his trial she falls in love with him and determines to save him, disguising herself as a beggar to get into the gaol and, in due course, to Dalibor’s cell. They fall in love. The rescue attempt fails and both die. There’s a Rocco-like gaoler who betrays them to the king and a secondary couple who are loyal supporters of Dalibor. You can see the resonances with Fidelio but with a tragic ending. There’s an element of Don Carlos too – Dalibor is clearly an admirable character but just too dangerous for the regime. There is loads of potential in this plot.

The opera sort of gets some of it. There are problems. The first act takes a bit of time to get going with a lot of ceremonial marching and declamation of the story so far.  The Milada/Dalibor relationship really doesn’t get going until the end of Act II. The second trial scene takes a bit long as well. And often I felt that Smetana is too interested in the music rather than in creating a dramatic event. I felt that it needed an interventionist director – a Jones or Alden to find a way of making it compelling on the stage. I would throw away the Czech medieval flummery and turn it into a political tale set in a totalitarian state and in modern dress.  I’m sure it could work.

The music is mostly fabulous. Smetana’s orchestration conveys atmosphere, particularly for the prison scenes and is gorgeous to listen to. The opening prelude, very short, gives huge promise of the interest to come and the different colours in the score conveying the darkness, the joy and the love that exists in the story. It’s a joy to listen to music of this quality. There are some marvellous arias. For me the greatest was Dalibor’s aria in his prison after his dream: a gloriously intense, wistful aria of love which comes after a gorgeous prelude to the scene as Dalibor dreams of his former friend.  There’s an absolutely gorgeous horn obliggato and, listening to this, I felt the joy you get hearing something a glorious as this for the first time – stout Cortez time. This struck me as one of the great tenor arias that I’d not heard before. The following duet with Milada is equally good – impassioned, tender and very beautiful. I also greatly enjoyed the scenes for the lesser characters, particularly the gaoler, Beneš, and Jitka and Vitek. There are good choruses and I found it an entirely fascinating, very enjoyable evening. Some have suggested that the ending is too abrupt. To me, it felt absolutely right with nothing left to be said after the death of Dalibor. Others have suggested that a libretto translated from the German but deliberately trying to keep the German rhythms plays havoc with Czech: that probably worries Czech speakers more than it does me.

It was given an outstanding performance here. Jiři Bělohlávek conducted with care and passion. He made the best possible case for the music and it all sounded coherent and beautiful with the singers accompanied carefully and sensitively.  He patently loves the opera. He made you realise how much more there is to Smetana that the Bartered Bride. The BBCSO was in fabulous form.

The cast was all Czech and were without a weak link. Richard Samek was Dalbor – displaying a very pleasant lyric tenor. Perhaps he could have done with slightly more heft for the more heroic parts of the role – as I’m writing this, I’m listening to Pribyl which is, perhaps unfair.  He caught the tenderness really well. Dana Berišová as Milada displayed a gleaming lyric soprano capable of tenderness as well as easily surmounting the heroic side of the role – this is the woman who leads the rescue of Dalibor.

In the smaller roles, Jan Stava made an honest, nicely sung Beneš, Alžbĕta Poláchková a very fine Jitka who would have been a convincing Milada too, I think. Aleš Voráček made a strong, likable Vitek. Ivan Kusnjer did his best with the King, probably the least interesting role.

It was sort-of staged. The characters wore approrpriate modern dress and entered andd exited sensibly. The virtues of this were primarily musical and the intensity of the singing and the understanding of the words conveyed by the artists was all you needed.

I’d expected this to be a rather heavy, stodgy evening. It turned out to be hugely enjoyable and worthwhile. Dalibor deserves a staging here that takes it seriously.  It would be ideal for Opera North.  It’s probably too much to hope that the ROH could persuade Kaufmann to give the title role a go.  We can probably whistle for it in this age of austerity.  The audience here was on the thin side, but appreciative.  I’m really enjoying  my CD at last.  I do hope that Bělohlávek could explore some more Smetana in the coming years.