Archive | July, 2015

Peter Pan Flies In

25 Jul

David Pountney has done an outstanding job in reviving the Welsh National Opera’s artistic drive and one of the welcome developments is the short residency at the ROH each summer.  This year they brought their new production of Richard Ayres’s Peter Pan, less than 20 months after the opera’s premiere.  I saw the first performance in London on 24th July.  Judging by the delays in starting and the lengthy intervals, I’d guess there were technical problems around the transfer to the much larger theatre.  I also found it hard to disentangle my aversion to the subject matter of the opera from the quality of the performance.

I’ve never been much taken by Peter Pan. As a child, the whole thing seemed to me to silly, rather patronising and very slightly frightening.  As an adult it feels nauseatingly sentimental, creepy and silly: an arch idea of childhood and I don’t believe a word of it.  I know that others see it as a fascinating pre-Freudian study of oedipal complexes and the death wish, which somehow makes it worse that it’s fed to children.

So there was probably no way that I was really going to enjoy this opera and I wasn’t much looking forward – it might be a half time job, I thought. #

I was pleasantly surprised to start with. The music was accessible, Lavinia Greenlaw’s libretto seemed to have filleted the novel reasonably succinctly and I decided, after the quite short first act, that I was happy to stay on until the end.
That was probably a mistake. The time in Neverland struck me as both compressed and embarrassing. Ayres’s music seemed less interesting and I started to get very bored. The return to London struck me as perfunctory. I liked the piece much less and was irritated that I was wasting my time.

Ayres’s music is indeed accessible and pleasant enough to listen to. It strikes me as not unlike Jonathan Dove’s, though a bit less astringent. It’s influenced by the minimalists, and there are touches of Stravinsky and Janacek in there – in places I was reminded of Cunning Little Vixen – but I found that it didn’t develop much. There are some nice set piece numbers – for Mrs Darling, for Peter and for Wendy – and it’s a proficient piece without exciting or interesting me.  There’s nothing to frighten the horses and the many parents and children in the audience wouldn’t have been disturbed by it at all.  There’s even the odd tune.  Equally, I didn’t find it particularly memorable or haunting.  It felt efficient.  I felt that I’d quite like to hear more of his music

Keith Warner’s production was pretty and inventive enough – the flying was outstandingly well done and there were lots of little jokes around building blocks, toy trains and so forth. I couldn’t help finding some of it a bit busy and clunky – particularly around the scene changes.   The set looked cluttered and I couldn’t help feeling that, perhaps, a bit more space, would have helped.  I don’t think he solved the problem of adults playing children – it all seemed quite embarrassing.

The cast was good: Iestyn Morris was a vigorous, other-worldy Pan and caught about as much of the character as you can expect – rightly the star of the show and suggesting a very promising dramatic future. Hilary Summers was very strong indeed as Mrs Darling, rather moving in a ditty about tidying up chidlren’s mind (what the f… is that all about?) and Ashley Holland doubled Mr Darling and Hook with aplomb. Marie Arnet sang strongly as Wendy and had nice support from Nicholas Sharratt as John and Rebecca Bottone as Michael. They all gave polished, accomplished performances within the limitations of the piece and the fact that I didn’t believe for a moment that any of them were children.#

Erik Nielsen conducted surely.  The music and performances filled the house well.  He made a good case for the piece and the orchestra struck me as being on pretty marvellous form.

Audience reaction struck me as a bit muted, enjoying the staging but maybe less sure about the opera, though, the children around me seemed to like it.  I won’t be going again, myself, but I could easily imagine it, however, taking off as a pleasant family show.

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Opera North’s Dutchman

4 Jul

In the year’s break before their complete Ring, Opera North is continuing its Wagner work with The Flying Dutchman – another of their semi-staged concert versions with the orchestra at the back and projections.  I caught it at the Sage in Gateshead on 3rd July.

Can I begin by lamenting the old days?  My first Dutchman was staged by Opera North in 1979 at the Empire Theatre in Sunderland.  It had Peter Glossop as the Dutchman and Arlene Saunders as a first rate Senta.  It was fully staged in what felt like an excellent, fairly traditional production.  I remember the orchestra and chorus being excellent.  What has changed to  make it so difficult for the regional companies to stage Wagner?  Is it that their house orchestras and chorus are simply smaller?  Is it so much more expensive to stage Dutchman than, say, Grimes or Don Carlos?   Or was this simply a cheap way of getting this opera done?

It’s not that this wasn’t a very good performance but, unlike the Ring which, to an extent, benefited from the simplicity of the semi-staging so that you could concentrate on the words, Dutchman is a much more conventional work and much less interesting musically.  It benefits less from the concert staging and needs more space.  It’s essentially a late romantic opera, building on Freischutz.  It plays on atmosphere and spectacle and, for me, this performance didn’t properly address that.

Musically, it went a long way.  Richard Farnes conducted an outstandingly good orchestral performance.  The performance was clear but also very exciting.  Farnes found terror and melodrama and passion in the score.  The orchestra played with red hot intensity.  The chorus also were excellent – singing the words clearly and precisely. They made a thrilling noise.  The Royal Opera House chorus has been outstanding in this opera but this, far smaller chorus, was just as good. My one regret was that there weren’t enough of them to have a different group sing the ghosts in Act III.  The playing and singing of both was of international class.

The cast was good, but not quite on the same level.  Bela Pererncz sang strongly as the Dutchman but others have given more agony, more sheer emotion.  As Senta, Alwyn Mellor reminded me of what a good singer she is in these roles: gleaming tone, clear words and absolute confidence.  It’s not a big voice and she might not come across so well in a big theatre, but this was very satisfying singing.  Mats Algrem was a fine Daland, though his heavy vibrato will not be to everyone’s taste.  His acting was the most convincing of them all.  Mati Turi was no better or worse than most Erik’s – a big voice, but constricted tone and little by way of acting.  Mark LeBroq was a first rate Steersman.

Peter Mumford’s production didn’t have the same clarity or interest as his versions of the Ring.  This opera is not about conversations or ideas in the same way and the direction of the conventional duets and trios didn’t grip or, particularly, interest.  The background of waves and hands and rigging seemed decorative rather than helpful and you missed the theatrical tricks and sheer space that a good production can give.  It felt cramped.

The single act Dutchman makes for a long evening.  It just worked because of the quality of the orchestral playing and choral singing but you came out having enjoyed the evening, but not elated, and aware that, quite simply, this isn’t as good as the Ring.