Archive | February, 2016

Substantially better than Nothing!

28 Feb

“What are you seeing tonight?” my partner asked.

“Nothing.” I replied.  I imagine the joke has been made quite a good deal about Glyndebourne’s new community opera, Nothing, by David Bruce and Glyn Maxwell, which I saw at its last performance on 27th February.

The opera’s based on a novel by Janne Teller.  It’s a disturbing, compelling, Lord of the Flies – like tale.  Pierre, a schoolboy, decides that nothing is worth doing.  He sits in a plum tree and his class mates try to show him that things do matter.  It begins with them giving up things that matter to them and ends up with them being forced to get more extreme – it ends horribly.

I haven’t read the book, but the opera charts a pretty gripping story moving from innocence to pretty bitter experience.  It’s about group dynamics, about manipulation and what matters.  Glyn Maxwell’s libretto is taut and sings clearly.  David Bruce has problems setting school slang, but otherwise makes the words sound natural: they sound good.  His soundworld – a conventional orchestra, with harpsichord – is not difficult.  A bit of minimalism, a bit of Britten and Sondheim and some 18th century techniques.  He makes the duets for Pierre and Agnes (the girl who tries to help him) compelling.  His writing for chorus is terrifying.  I felt I’d like to hear it again and, certainly, hear more of his work.

There are five beefy vocal parts which were cast with young professionals.  Four smaller parts for promising teenagers and a large chorus of local school children – at a guess from six forms.  The Southbank Sinfonia is augmented by local young musicians.  It’s been splendidly prepared.

As Pierre, Stuart Jackson confirmed what a promising singer he is.  He sang clearly, menacingly, manipulatively.  He sounds as though he’ll be an outstanding Britten interpreter.  He caught the sense of mental illness, unhappiness and manipulativeness about the role.  As Johan, James Hall, a counter tenor, sounded strong and confident and conveyed the blind thoughtlessness of the young man who thinks he’s a leader.  Trantan Hambleton was suitably sour Karl.  Both women – Marta Fontanale Simmons and Robyn Allegra Parton were committed and moving and sang beautifully.  All fitted in very well as convincing teenagers.

The large chorus, onstage for most of the time was committed, well=prepared and sang clearly, strongly and well.  This didn’t strike me as easy music.  Sian Edwards conducted – good to see her again – with her customary energy and precision.

Bijan Sheibani directed in a simple, revolving set by Giles Cadle.  It looked good.  The cast moved as a single unit, working together with outstanding energy.

This was a lot more than a worthy experiment a community opera.  This was a powerful evening that held a full house engrossed.  This wasn’t your usual Glyndebourne audience: I suspect there were a number of first timers there.  I think that, if it had been mind, I’d have become hooked on opera: it told a compelling story, with a directness and vigour that carried you along.  It’s an outstanding evening.

The shame is that this was only on for four performances and that it’s not the sort of piece that is readily transferable.  I’d go again.

 

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ENO’s first Norma

18 Feb

Given Norma‘s reputation for being a “difficult” opera, perhaps it’s not surprising that ENO seems to have waited so long to produce it. The performance that I saw on 17th February was the company’s first and, also, if I’m not mistaken, it’s first staged Bellini (they did the Capuleti in concert while the Coliseum was being refurbished).

In other ways, it’s quite surprising. If you look back at the people ENO have had on their books over the last 30 years – Hunter, Plowright, Eaglen to name the most obvious – they could have cast the title role from among their own regulars perfectly credibly. It’s a measure of how the company has changed that it needs to important two American singers to sing the leading female roles. Let me hasten to add that both were very good indeed, but is this really what our National company ought to be about? Increasingly, it’s looking like a very able talent-spotting venue for very promising young singers that haven’t yet got to the stage where they’ll be singing at the ROH.

Norma is one of my favourite operas. I respond immediately to Bellini’s intensely dramatic approach to dealing with conflict and his way of developing drama through a few, rather long, musical numbers. I love his ability to find a musical language to express the different emotions and the conflict.  The greatness of Norma is in Bellini’s ability, like Rossini’s, to let the musical numbers take the strain – the situations and the emotions change during the duets which become dialogues as intense as anything that Wagner wrote.   I love the simple intensity of the melodies and the certainty of the effects.  It’s a long piece and there are bits where I could feel the audience getting a bit restive but there’s not a note of it that I would cut.  I’m not sure that anyone wrote a more beautiful finale and moving finale to an opera until the Liebestod or, possibly, Walkure.

It was good to hear it in English.  My seat had no view of the surtitles but I found I understood more of the plot than I have in the past (even with surtitles) and the audeince felt gripped at the big dramatic moments, as when Norma announces that she is the traitress and the silence was palpable. George Hall’s new translation struck me as sensible and intelligible. Diction from the singers was variable: I think I probably heard about 65% of the words, but all of the really important ones.

It’s one of those operas that can only hope to succeed if the musical side works. This means an understanding conductor and a cast that can cope with the demands. ENO had them here. Stephen Lord’s conducting of the first act struck me as masterly. I loved his sense of rubato, his care in shaping the melodies, the dramatic point that he gave them. Like Muti when he conducted Capuleti in 1984, he left you in no doubt that you were hearing a masterpiece. I had a few more reservatons in Act II – there were times when he was just a bit slow, where the performance was coming perilously close to stopping? I’ve heard the last number have greater sweep. The orchestra played pretty marvellously for him; the chorus sang decently.

As Norma, we had Marjorie Owens. She’s got a big voice with a huge range and variety of colours. She reminded you why mezzos occasionally claim Norma for themselves. It’s a big voice, capable of managing the fury and passion, but can the soft, intense singing.  She’s not Callas and I felt that she was stretched in some of the faster sections – particularly the cabaletta to Casta Diva. But this was a seriously, very credible, beautifully sung performance that attained real stature at the end.

She was matched by Jennifer Holloway’s Adalgisa.  Holloway’s voice is recognisably a mezzo but lighter that Owens’s and the two voices had just the right sort of contrast.  She sings this musically really well and the duets with Owens were moments of drama but also gave the sort of sensual pleasure that I remember from Baltsa and Gruberova singing in the Capuleti or Sabbatini doing Credease misera in the last ROH Puritani – that wonderful Bellini technique or making you feel that you are listening to the most purely beautiful thing ever written.

Peter Auty made a fine Pollione.  He’s sounding more and more like Arthur Davies did in his prime – that very English, rather white tone.  It worked well here and I thoroughly enjoyed his very reliable, idiomatic singing and excellent diction.  James Creswell was predictably fine as Pollione.  Very strong performances from Valerie Reid as Clotilde and Adrian Dwyer as Flavio.

I saw Christopher Alden’s production for Opera North when they did it in Newcastle.  I didn’t feel that it transferred well to a larger theatre.  I think he suggested the idea of an oppressive power well – Pollione and Flavio as Victorian capitalists exploiting an agricultural community.  The suppressed violence, predictably, comes across well.  I was much less sure about the long tree trunk as the main religious symbol – it looked clumsy and difficult for people to get on and off.  And there was a vast amount of rolling around that didn’t help much, people placed too far back.  It felt a bit lost in the Coliseum.  And there were moments which raised laughter: the sudden clinch for Norma and Pollione before In mio man is the last place where you want a laugh.  Ditto when Norma hurls an axe into the wall rather than murdering her children – she wakes them up and they dash over to the other side of the stage and you feel the audience having every sympathy with them.  I don’t think that there are many laughs in Norma or that you need to create them.  Still, I suppose this is a one-off series of performances and it provides a showcase for Ms Owens.

So musically, I had a lovely time and I’d recommend anyone who loves this music to go along and enjoy some superb playing and singing.  And Alden’s production is just a bit silly, not actively offensive.  Given that this was the first staging of the opera in London since 1987, it was a welcome evening.

4 Feb

The pleasurable anticipation I felt when the ROH announced that they were doing Chabrier’s L’Etoile, turned to anxiety when they announced the creation of two additional characters and, sadly, the performance of it that I saw on 3rd February left me pretty cross.  I’m sorry about this.  Lots of people in the audience were enjoying it and I don’t want to spoil that.  I also realise that there is nothing worse than the person who say, “ah yes, but you didn’t see…” to explain disappointment.  If you saw and enjoyed it, probably best not to read any further.

Some reviews felt that this was such a silly, trivial piece that the ROH shouldn’t be doing it. I agree that they shouldn’t have done it but for a different reason: the company simply isn’t up to it. I felt about it rather as I did with Cherevichki a few years back that loads of trouble had been taken to get the best ingredients possible but that the cooks simply weren’t happy cooking a piece which is light, funny and, ideally, intimate: as if you asked cooks specialising in barbecues to have a go at some delicate patisserie. The lightness of touch that they found for Turco in Italia and Fille du regiment seemed to have deserted them.

I well remember my first encounter with the piece: the Opera North production, semi staged at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.  I was hooked from the first few bars of the overture.  The love I was nurtured by the Gardiner recording. For me it’s is a joyous, silly, off-the-wall piece with some utterly delightful music that matches the silliness of the plot.

It’s an opera by a novice but it’s hugely assured: Lazuli’s “Etoile” number is one of the most beguiling arias in the whole French repertory while his entrance number, the sneezing number, the anti-husband number provide a fabulous opportunity for a lively mezzo; the Chartreuse Vert duet, with a faux Bellini accompaniment lurching and hiccoughing drunkenly but remaining, just, upright is one of the most hilarious pieces of of music in opera.  There are gorgeous trios and quartets; a finale to the first Act that, to a gloriously beguiling melody, celebrates the joys of impalement; and a second Act finale where some genuinely heartfelt music expressing shock and grief is undercut by the fact that the chorus patently couldn’t care less and, after perfunctory sympathy, move delicately into a joyous can-can (it’s rather like the juxtaposition of Katisha’s aria with “For he’s going to marry Yum-Yum” in The Mikado).  Maybe there are a couple too many fluffy pieces for women’s voices but there is so much else that’s wonderful that, if you like this sort of light silliness, you ought to be sitting there with a permanent smile on your face.

Not here.  Mark Elder’s overture struck me as ponderous: tempi a couple of notches slower than Gardiner and with that slightly careful, almost too loving approach that, for me, hampers his Offenbach.  This proved pretty typical of what follows.  I know that Elder has a sort of National Treasure status and, to most critics, Can Do No Wrong, but I missed the vigour that he brings to his Verdi and Donizetti and the helter-skelter abandonment so much of this piece needs.  It was pretty enough (and the kissing quartet caught the teasing eroticism even better than Gardiner) but too much of it was just too careful.  The fact that the Chartreuse Vert duet got no applause at all must be as much Elder’s fault as anyone else’s.  The orchestra played well enough.

It wasn’t helped by Mariame Clement’s production. A clue to the problem comes in one or two of the programme notes: the suggestion that really this is just a group of sketches rather than a coherent piece and an apologetic essay on the difficulty of enabling humour to cross borders set alarm bells going.  It was as if she didn’t have the confidence that she could make the piece work for English audiences. She and Julia Hansen, her designer, had taken an approach that veered from traditional, sub-D’Oyly Carte costumes (probably among the most old-fashioned and silly that I’ve seen here ever – reminding me of the ENO Kismet) to a significant Monty Python tribute – red elephants, pointed fingers, paintings that do strange things and, for some reason, a cow.  A monk (presumably Carthusian) wandered across the stage now and then; we had the obligatory English bobbies which, apparently, are invariably funny, and we had Sherlock Holmes. Some of these were reasonably witty and raised the occasional smile.  The problem was that they didn’t come often enough.  It all felt leaden.

It would have helped if the singers had been given a bit of help with the characterisation: there’s a ridiculousness about most of them – Lazuli and Laoulla the only sympathetic, sane people in a world of madmen.  Most of them were overshadowed by the sets.  The failure of the Chartreuse Vert duet to raise even a giggle was typical of the failure to make the two characters singing this duet, overshadowed by a vast bottle of Chartreuse, amusing.

Worse was the choreography.  The ROH chorus can move accurately and professionally.  Here they seemed to shuffle on and off as if embarrassed, uncertain or under-rehearsed while the can-can at the end of Act II was embarrassing.  They looked like a group of overweight, three-left-footed, under-rehearsed amateurs.  Since a choreographer was credited, I assume either that this was deliberate or that something had gone very wrong somewhere.

As for the additional characters to the action: an Englishman and a Frenchman who commented on the action and got involved in it. Chris Addison and Jean-Luc Vincent gave professional, well-timed and, on their own terms, witty performances. I have no idea why they needed to be added or what value they provided to the show. On the other hand, I can’t see that it would have been any better without them.

There were pleasures. Chief among them was Kate Lindsey as Lazuli. She looks an astonishingly convincing boy and sang the role captivatingly. She’s on a lot at the beginning of Act II: it was then that I thought the show might be looking up and I actually found myself smiling at sensuous, stylish singing, her gorgeous voice and cheeky, confident personality. This was a winning, starring performance and was responsible for the bulk of what real pleasure I got from this evening.

Helene Guilmette was a lovely Laoulla, her light soprano bang on for the role and she sang with style and conveyed a lot of the bewilderment the role needs. Christophe Mortagne as Ouf bumbled as effectively and stylishly as the production allowed and sang stylishly. There was good singing and alert acting from Francois Piolino as Herisson de Porc-Epic, Aimery Lefevre as Tapioca and Julie Boulianne as Aloes. The chorus sang very well indeed.

But these ultimately couldn’t compensate for the fact that I sat through the show waiting for it to wake up and, for the most part, stony faced, willing an opera that I love to light up the house.

So what went wrong? First, I think that the production team thought that the piece was difficult. If you approach it like that then, probably, you shouldn’t do it. Secondly, it’s an intimate piece and the ROH feels on the large side for it. Finally, it’s a witty piece with a clever libretto and, while the surtitles succeeded in conveying a lot of that, it’s not the same as hearing it. A very, very funny translation by Jeremy Sams exists and it would have been good to hear the audience laughing at the jokes as they heard them rather than respectfully sitting through the elegant French and noting the surtitles. An English cast, a smaller theatre, and a production that didn’t try so hard and this piece could have been the hilarious hit that it was in Paris and in Leeds.

For people who didn’t know the opera, it was probably a pleasant enough evening – probably surprisingly so – and I hope that they feel that they’ve discovered a new and enjoyable opera. For those of us who know what it can be like, it was a serious disappointment.