Archive | August, 2015

Spoiler Alert – Don’t read if you’re going to see Saul

18 Aug

I’m sorry.  I don’t see how I can write about the performance of Saul that I saw at Glyndebourne on 17th August without describing what I saw.  And half of the joy of it was the sheer exuberance and unexpectedness of the production.  If you’re going to see it or wanting to (and I recommend that you try to snap up whatever returns come up) or seeing it on the Tour, wait until you’ve seen it before reading below.

For those of you who don’t know the piece (and I’d heard it a couple of times on CD only), it begins after David has slain Goliath.  Saul is initially delighted and offers him the hand of his daughter Merab, who is not happy at the prospect.  But when it looks as though David may be more popular than him, Saul turns jealous and demands that his son, Jonathan, kill David.  Jonathan won’t kill his best friend.  Saul appears to relent and offers David the hand of his second daughter, Michal instead – that’s fine, they love each other.  In fact, he’s hoping that David will be killed by the Philistines.  That doesn’t happen and, maddened, he goes to the Witch of Endor who prophesies that Saul and Jonathan will be killed in battle and that David will become king of the Israelites.  That happens and the piece ends with mourning and the coronation of David.  In terms of twists and turns the plot isn’t that unlike many of Handel’s Italian operas.  What is different is the huge role for the chorus, the variety of different types of aria and the sheer lushness of the orchestration.

The first thing that becomes visible in Barry Kosky’s production is the head of Goliath.  Then you see David, exhausted, overwhelmed by what he has done and then, for the opening chorus, you see a vast table, filled with food and elaborately costumed courtiers with Saul at its centre and Abner its  court jester. It looks like a painted late Stuart cornucopia – and, with David in a modern suit, gently makes the political point of an out of date court.  The choreography is witty; the court is caricatured, Merab an ugly sister figure hating the prospect of washing David’s feet as the rest of the court fights to clean his battle-stained body.  Only David and Jonathan appear normal.  Then Saul’s decline begins and Christopher Purves portrays the unhinged king with utter conviction, stumbling round the stage, muttering, shouting, adding bits to the text, slowly disintegrating.  I remember his look of despair to the audience at the end of the first half (the break is about half way through Handel’s second part) and, during the Envy chorus, hands run over his face – an extraordinary depiction of the emotions going through it.

At the start of the second part, the tables have gone and all that you see is a stage filled with flickering candles.  Then, during the sinfonia, the chamber organ rises from the trap door and revolves, at quite a speed, while James McVinnie plays the solo quite extraordinarily.  It’s one of those of astonishing, virtuoso, baroque moments in the production, reminding you of an old cinema organ that played during the intermission, leaving you open-mouthed at the sheer exuberance of it all.

Things get nastier as the evening goes on.  Clothes come off and the scene with the witch is extraordinary – she comes out, bearded, just like Saul.  The witch has huge dugs from which Saul suckles to get the spirit of Samuel and the two of them walk off, in despair, like Lear and Gloucester.  The dead march is simply a picture of the dead Israelites on the battlefield with the heads of Saul and Jonathan.  David and Michal pour soil over them.  At the end David walks slowly downstage dressed as Saul was at the beginning, an outsider to the celebrations.

There are wonderful images – David and Jonathan, back to back, hands entwined. David cradling Saul, the sheer intimacy and intensity of the pictures.  It is astonishingly choreographed, every move and picture clear and certain.  You had the sense of every single person on the stage being absolutely of one mind and completely committed.  The energy was palpable and communicated directly to the audience.  After a Castor and Pollux that I simply didn’t get, this made me understand what the fuss about Kosky is about.  And it probably helped that he had the resources of Glyndebourne to get him there.

Then there was the outstanding musical performance.  Ivor Bolton is a specialist in this area and seemed entirely at one with the production.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was on the same wonderful form that it was for Entfuhrung playing with passion and complete certainty.  I don’t think that Handel’s pure orchestral music has made as much sense to me before. or that I’ve admired the sheer intricacy of his sinfonias.

I’ve mentioned Christopher Purves.  It’s hard to imagine this performance without him (though Henry Waddington has been doing the role at some performances).  Maybe you could imagine the role more perfectly sung but against that there is the sheer intensity that he provides – his mutterings, wanderings and those looks, directly to the audience, where you can see the obsession and madness coming straight at you.

The rest of the cast was superb too.  Iestyn Davies was David and seems to be absolutely in his prime as a Handel counter tenor.  This was good as David Daniels in that first run of Theodora here.  The sheer beauty and firmness of tone, together with the virtuosity of his singing gave constant pleasure.  He acted the role really strongly, catching the integrity but also the sense of him being the outsider.

Paul Appleby made an excellent Jonathan, sincere, pleasing singing and obviously a very promising tenor who I’d very much like to hear in Mozart.  Sophie Bevan was a flashy Merab who managed her change of heart later on really well.  Lucy Crowe was also splendid as Michal.  Benjamin Hulett gave a virtuoso acting performance amalgamating a number of smaller roles into this court jester/chorus figure – sinister, satyr-like and eminently watchable.  He sang very well too – he’s promoted to Jonathan on the Tour which should be worth hearing.  As the witch, John Graham-Hall gave one of the outstanding cameos that you expect from him and made an impression completely out of proportion the size of the part.  It’s one of the great scenes in the piece and he and Purves made it horribly unforgettable – the intimacy of their embrace and staggering off together was mesmerising.

But the real star was the chorus.  It has a huge amount of work to do.  The music isn’t easy but they made it sound so – singing accurately, with perfect ensemble and great diction.  And they were running around, dancing, communicating directly to the audience.  They gave a complete virtuoso performance and, I would guess, had a marvellous time.

One half cavil and one question.  After three shows the summer which appeared to involve vast quantities of mock mud, perhaps it’s time for directors to give this particular trope a rest.  Secondly, I wonder how this will work on the Tour and in subsequent revivals.  This felt like one of those evenings that came as a result of a particular chemistry between director, cast and chorus.  How will it survive cast changes?  Will the incredible visual images all survive to the Tour?

So this was one of those exuberant, off-the-wall evenings that, every now and then, Glyndebourne brings off better than anyone else – in the tradition of the Kent Fairy Queen and Sellars Theodora.  It worked spectacularly well and the audience was caught up and hugely enthusiastic at the end.  After a series of interesting rather than great productions, it’s great to see Glyndebourne hit the jack-pot twice in a row with this and McVicar’s less exuberant, but equally polished and assured Entfuhrung.  It’s a great evening.  It’s now pretty much sold out for the Festival, but I’d strongly recommend trying to get a return and maybe they’ll get a similar magic on the tour.

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Outstanding Glyndebourne Entfuhrung

12 Aug

It’s 25 years since Glyndebourne last did Entfuhrung at the Festival (there was a rather poor revival of the Peter Wood production on the tour in 1997). The reviews for this production had been pretty good, though I was wary of the fact that it was obviously going last half an hour longer than had been planned – the prospect of a slow, dialogue heavy evening didn’t necessarily sound enticing. I needn’t have worried. The performance I saw on 10th August, the last of the run, was probably the finest performance of the piece that I’ve seen.

I remember my first Entfuhrung – the Glyndebourne Tour production of 1972 (Valerie Masterson as Konstanze and Elizabeth Gale as Blondchen) – which I enjoyed enormously. I remember it as a pretty traditional comic opera, Gilbert and Sullivan with long arias. Nobody then was particularly troubled by the overtones and that was a time when it didn’t seem wrong just to have a pretty good, untroubling time. Since then, we’ve come to think of it as a difficult opera – an uneasy combination of a play with elaborate arias and a politically difficult story. We’ve come to half believe in Josef II’s “too many notes” comment and there are times when it can feel like an unhappy compromise between opera seria and singspiel.   Companies have either shied away from it or sought, as in Opera North’s debacle of a production, to retell the story – all I remember from that is the Panda. David McVicar’s production made the piece look like a masterpiece.

They performed the fullest version of the text that I’ve come across and it worked, rather as Jonathan Kent’s Shakespeare-heavy Fairy Queen did. You understood more of the back story, more of the tension between the characters. The Pasha emerged as a central character, rather than as a noble walk-on and there was altogether more about him, about Osmin and about the relationships between the characters than you usually get. And it wasn’t boring because the acting was first rate and you believed in it.

This was helped considerably by David McVicar’s brilliant direction of the characters and outstanding ability to help the music make its mark and to build on the back story. A few random pleasures – the Pasha was besieged by lots of European artists and architects who wanted him to buy their wares; we saw him with his other wives and children (to the music of one of the serenades. We saw the extreme ambiguity of Konstanze’s feelings towards the Pasha – the byplay during Martern aller arten was outstandingly well done with a mixture of her being tempted,  and him almost raping her. As she left at the end you felt that she too hoped that she had not made a mistake. McVicar caught the sexual politics wonderfully.

He also caught the class/social mores. Belmonte is a stiff, unpleasant bully of a snob from the start both in his attitudes to the east and to Pedrillo. It made the confrontation with the Pasha at the end particularly interesting. The interaction between the leading characters and the lesser ones – Klaas and the eunuch particularly – was really well done. He created a world where the fascination and tension between east and west beautifully expressed. Above all, he got fine acting performances out of his cast: the dialogue and movement were absolutely perfectly paced, you watched and believed in these individuals – miraculously, it did not feel a moment too long and certainly not a problematic opera.

It looked wonderful too. Vicki Mortimer’s sets and costumes – explicitly 18th century – catch the mixture of airiness and oppression to perfection and look incredibly pleasing. It feels like a production where no expense has been spared to create beautiful and believable pictures. Paule Constable’s lighting created a believable Eastern look – the quality of the light made you believe in the location.

Doubts? Maybe there was a bit too much slapstick – I wasn’t completely convinced by Blondchen and Osmin wrecking the kitchen and felt that it was a bit too like Pedrillo and Osmin wrecking the garden. Did the quartet need to be interrupted by guards looking through the window? These are details – this was an outstandingly detailed, imaginative and convincing version of the piece, convincing you of McVicar’s sheer genius as a director of Mozart and his intelligence. It’s one of his finest pieces of work.

Musically, it was outstanding also. As something of a Robin Ticciati-sceptic, I was overjoyed by the free, flexible and airy conductive of this piece. The overture was a joy to hear with the details coming out perfectly but with the orchestra really listening, working together. He showed us the joyous details of the score, accompanied considerately and seemed entirely at one with the production. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was on stunningly good form – the sound was warm, dramatic and the dynamics and phrasing absolute perfection. This performance was easily the most satisfying musical performance of a Mozart opera that I’ve heard since Mackerras – there was an ease, a certainty about it and a feeling of “rightness” about tempi, phrasing and texture.

And there was a really good set of soloists. Sally Matthews seemed entirely untroubled by the difficulties of Konstanze’s arias and sang with certainty, accuracy and real emotion. My only criticism was that she seemed to be getting into the Te Kanawa/Fleming habit of swallowing consonants – the words weren’t clear and, for me, this detracted from the pleasure that I got from her gorgeous creamy voice and really intelligent acting. The same problems afflicted Edgaras Montvidas as Belmonte and I wondered if he was in best voice. Mind you, he had all four arias to sing and could, perhaps, be forgiven for odd phrases that seemed to get slightly lost. I thought he was at his best in Ich baue ganz where he provided some really gorgeous pianissimo singing. He phrased elegantly and presented the up-tight European aristocrat to perfection.
I very much enjoyed Brendan Gunnell’s Pedrillo – you felt that his time here had an effect on his view of Belmonte. He did Im Mohrenland really well – turning it into a comedy number whilst also singing it beautifully. He had a very nice double act going with Tobias Kehrer’s Osmin. The latter was credibly young and also uncouth. His low notes were all in place and he managed a dangerous, funny and very credible character. I’ve seen a lot of good Osmins but this as one of the finest.

Mari Eriksmoen was a sparky Blondchen – determined, high notes in place and a complete tomboy, She caught the slight nervousness of the servant among her betters while being well able to hold her own with Osmin and Pedrillo. It was nice that she was introduced in the first act, albeit briefly, rather than waiting for Act II.

Franck Saurel was a handsome, convincing Selim. He caught the tension between the values he espoused and his desires. It wasn’t clear at the end that Konstanze was really better off with Belmonte. It was splendid that he had these opportunities.

This evening struck me as epitomising Glyndebourne’s values at their best and most successful: intelligent, thoughtful direction, really good casting and music and production values that put every other company in the country in the shade. You could imagine more radical and exciting productions, but this was deeply satisfying, intelligent and as good an Entfuhrung as I could hope to see. It’ll be back.

Glyndebourne’s Lucretia returns

4 Aug

I admired Fiona Shaw’s production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia almost two years ago and it was good to revisit the show on 4th August as part of its Festival outing.  Even more strongly cast than the tour version, there had also been time to think further about the piece and develop the ideas.

My frustration with the libretto remains.  Even in the programme the cast were describing it as “of its time”.  I think it’s far worse than that.  It’s not just the frankly offensive Christian message at the end of the piece but the sheer ghastliness of the writing – images that make little sense, convoluted syntax and lines that seem to contradict each other.  The formal structure is quite interesting: the text vile.  As I came away, I decided that the only way to make it work would be for someone to translate it into German and perform it in that language with some hugely simplified surtitles.  I wonder how long opera companies will continue to perform it.

And yet the music is so wonderful.  There are passages where you feel that Britten never surpassed.  At this performance I was particularly struck by the oboe solo following the arrival of Collatinus in Act II.  That was fabulously well played and intensely moving.  Britten gets the atmosphere perfectly – that sultry, over-heated night at the army tents, the glory of the morning and sheer excitement of the ride to Rome.  Simply as a piece of music, this is a gem.

And it was very well performed.  It was a joy to hear the soloists of the LPO play so beautifully – I don’t think I’ve heard the piece played so intelligently and hauntingly.  Leo Hussain conducted it with huge confidence and, I thought, paced it pretty much perfectly.  My one complaint was that I felt that the ensemble before the final commentary of the Choruses could have been bigger – the feeling should be akin to the interlude in Wozzeck after the death of Marie and should leave you feeling drained and shattered.  Here it didn’t quite.  I think that was partly to do with a very quiet chamber-ish approach: soloists rarely forced and created an intimate, conversational atmosphere that felt right – but you have to get the power of that question “is it all?” a bit more strongly, I feel.

Fiona Shaw’s production is intelligent and gets some outstanding performances out of her cast.  At this performance, however, I was left wondering whether she didn’t try a bit too hard, whether the very detailed relationship and involvement of the Choruses wasn’t taken a step too far and whether this didn’t detract from the concentration on Lucretia herself.  Isn’t it slightly more chilling if they aren’t involved?  Either way, it felt like a rather busy production and just missed the cathartic intensity that I still remember from Graham Vick’s ENO production.

The cast had been significantly strengthened.  Retained from the tour welre Allan Clayton’s intelligently sung Male Chorus – I don’t think that he’s done anything better, words were clear and the variation and intensity in his singing was hugely impressive – only Anthony Rolfe-Johnson has bettered him, in my experience – Duncan Rock’s handsome and rather stupid Tarquinius and Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s Bianca.  The latter has been singing this since 1993 and gave one of those lovely performances that seemed absolutely assured and, in its way, perfect.

Christine Rice was a marvelous Lucretia coming into her own after the rape and bringing a quiet desperation that was intensely moving.  I’m not sure that even Jean Rigby managed to plumb the depths of self-disgust that Miss Rice managed: I don’t think I’ve seen a better performance from her.  Kate Royal was luxury casting as the Female Chorus and I loved the sheer ease with which she delivered the music.  This was really intelligent, beautiful singing.  Matthew Rose was an outstanding Collatinus with the right warmth of voice, intelligence and anger and acted perfectly.  I remember him and Lucretia sitting together after the rape, side by side – an unforgettable image of tenderness.  Only Daniel Sumuel struck me as slightly disappointing as Junius – the sound not as powerful as I’d have liked.

So there were wonderful things here – an inquiry, intelligent production that had moved on in the two years and gained depth.  It almost convinced me that this was a great opera – until Duncan’s text ruined it all.