Video Hansel and Gretel

5 Mar

Opera North’s third fairy tale opera of their spring season is Hansel and Gretel I caught it at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 4th March.

I’m not a great fan of Hansel and Gretel.  The music’s sumptuous but it does feel awfully heavy for the fairy tale and also for the very simple text.  These days, particularly, people tend to impose a layer of social commentary on to it as well and I’m not sure that the piece really bears it.  I’ve never got the idea that it provides a profoundly moving experience.

I had some sympathy with a woman in the audience who complained that she wanted a traditional production.  I have never seen one and it made me think that one of the problems opera faces is the lack of productions like, say, the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker which some audiences want to see because they provide a fantastic entertainment. There’s a place for those heavy with social commentary, but maybe you don’t want to see them that often.

Anyway, Edward Dick’s production set the piece firmly in modern day Britain.  Hansel and Gretel live in a tower block on a council estate. Their parents put together cheap, pound-shop type goods.  They still have a video camera and spend most of the first scene filming each other – projected on the wall at the back.  Instead of dashing out to find strawberries, they sneak off to their bedroom and, once the parents have gone, return and use the plastic Christmas trees and other goods to create a forest, again projected on the wall, looking very convincing.  The Sandman is a Mrs Doubtfire-like woman who brings a huge teddy bear for them to sleep with.  The angel sequence is of her taking them on a trip to the seaside where they guzzle food and do all the things children like to do there.

They wake up to find the fridge full of food – projected onto the walls.  The witch uses an egg whisk to cast her spell.  After the oven explodes, the curtain drops and rises again to the flat decorated for Christmas and the children there.  Apart from the that curtain drop, you couldn’t fault the technical ingenuity and ability to find solutions to the challenges of a single set.

And yet, the more I think about it, the less satisfactory it seems or at least the less clear it was.  Were the children making some sort of video of the story?  How far was it fantasy and how far intended to be reality.  Dick created the poverty and the sheer desperation of the first act really well and then, for me, failed to carry it through.  How did the leap to the Christmas celebrations happen?  The witch’s magic doesn’t sit that well with the modern setting.  What was there to frighten them about in the “forest”.  The very rural fear of the forest doesn’t translate to an inner city – or didn’t here.  I thought there were just too many loose ends.  Maybe he needed a different translation (David Pountney’s very decent one was used).

The cast was good and did the roles so well that they almost hid the problems with the overall conception.  Fflur Wyn was a fine, bossy Gretel.  Katie Bray a really convincing, boyish Hansel – acting absolutely superbly and looking like a ten-year old.  Both sang nicely, though towards the end you realised what a heavy sing these roles are.

Susan Bullock doubled Mother and Witch and was great as both, catching the Mother’s desperation and nailing the mixture of the comic and sinister as the witch to perfection.  Stephen Gadd was Father – strong singing, fine acting.  You believed in this couple.  Sandman and Dew Fairy struck me as both being a bit under-cast.

Justin Doyle conducted at this performance.  He caught the counterpoint, the symphonic structure of the music and, mostly, didn’t drown the singers.  The orchestra played pretty well for him.

So, for me, this was the least satisfactory of the three evenings.  It still showed Opera North’s enquiring ingenuity and there was a lot to enjoy but I’ve still to be convinced that there’s a way of really making this opera work on a higher level than as a simple fairy tale.

Snow Maiden Revival

4 Mar

It was cheering that there was a pretty full house at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal for its performance of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Snow Maiden on 3rd March.  It was even better that the performance was hugely rewarding.  This must have been the first Rimsky work performed outside London since Scottish Opera’s Golden Cockerel in the late 1970s.  It was also my first chance to see this one staged (I caught the Mariinsky concert at the ROH 17 years ago).

It’s a strange piece.  The story feels very much in the tradition of Dvorak’s Rusalka and explores a distinction between an immortal/natural world and that of human beings.  You probably have to be far more steeped in Russian culture to really get it, but there are surely things in this piece that we can relate to: a desire for the unattainable, an outsider at the mercy of others.  It’s a rather horrible story of a maiden who will die if she falls in love – and she makes all the men fall in love with her and causes havoc in the land.  She does fall in love and dies.

I thought John Fulljames’s production made a really good stab at the piece.  The humans work in a sewing factory creating clothes that are suitable for the season.  He aptly shows the chaos that the Snow Maiden causes when she arrives.  He deftly associates the arrival of spring with sex and, for the final chorus after Snow Maiden’s death, the factory starts producing children’s outfits.  It’s rather touching.

His direction of the characters is great: he gets clear, believable acting from his cast.  Giles Cadle’s set does well enough and there are some lovely projected effects.  Maybe there was a bit much clutter on the stage – cardboard boxes, ladders, sewing machines.  I would have liked bit less of this.  But the story was clearly and touchingly told.  There were some lovely, witty touches and I had the sense of someone engaging affectionately with this rather lovely piece. You actually empathised with the characters and their dilemmas.  Alistair Middleton’s clear, sensible translation helped a lot here.

I’d not remembered how glorious Rimsky’s music is, particularly as the piece goes on.  The sheer variety of the textures and rhythmic changes are gorgeous.  The orchestra, conducted by Leo McFall, was on very good form indeed – not quite Gergiev and the Marii.  The horns were rich, the percussion glittered and the woodwind was sinuous and warm.  It worked well with the production.

The cast was very young but really good.  I very much enjoyed Aiofe Miskelly’s clear, pure voice in the title role and she made a very sympathetic figure.  I wonder if there’s a coldness here that she hasn’t quite found (or wasn’t encouraged to find): this is a figure who is, at best, ambivalent. Elin Prichard contrasted nicely with her as Kupava, the human love interest and seized the lively, vigorous aspects of it.  The point where she’s jilted by Mizgir was funny and angry – just right.

As Lel, the boyish singer,Heather Lowe displayed a really lovely mezzo.  She’ll be a lovely Cherubino and, in time, Charlotte.  She sang strongly, intensely, fervently and acted confidently.  I hope that all three of these young singers come back.  They’re hugely promising.

Philip Rhodes as Mizgir has the least grateful role (and had to spend an awful lot of the time bound and gagged) and I’m not sure that his grainy baritone is completely suited to the role, but he sang intensely.  I rather look forward to hearing him as Anckarstrom next season.

Of the more experienced members, Yvonne Howard was a touching, clear Spring who did her Act IV aria very well, James Creswell was reliable as Winter and Bonaventura Bottone was rather fatuous, Prince Charles-ish Tsar.

The reviews have been a bit dim for this opera.  Maybe the show’s coalesced a bit as the run has gone on, but I thought this was a lovely, thoughtful, musically strong production of an opera that deserves to be seen more.

Cenerentola charms

3 Mar

Opera North’s new Cenerentola begins in Don Magnifico’s dancing school.  During the overture, we see him giving a lesson to some ghastly-looking children.  I started giggling happily at Henry Waddington’s preening, not-too corpulent Magnifico going through his paces after about three seconds and the smile remained on my face for the remainder of the evening at the performance I saw that Newcastle’s Theatre Royal on 2nd March.

Aletta Collins’s production manages to be witty and touching in the right places and gets as close to the heart of the piece as any other that I’ve seen.  It would be easy to think that this was just a neatly choreographed romp were it not for the tenderness of the Ramiro/Angelina duet, for the sheer nastiness of the way Magnifico and the sisters treated Angelina and for the happiness of the ending.  Her take on the opera uses Giles Cadle’s unit set really effectively, moving from dancing school to backstage at the ball really cleverly and without making you feel short-changed.  It’s possible to take this opera too seriously and I thought Collins got the balance spot-on.

Just as important, this was a slick, happy show that kept its audience engaged and where the cast was alert and intelligent.  It felt as though they were having a lot of fun.

This went a long way to overcome the fact that, on occasion, the cast was pretty stretched by Rossini’s savage writing.  There were two very good performances from the leads.  Wallis Giunta has a lovely, gentle mezzo and the waif-like figure that the role needs.  She’s an appealing actress.  Her tuning wasn’t always completely spot on, but she managed the bravura finale (together with dance movements) really impressively.  I think we’ll hear more of her.

Sunnyboy Dladla has a light, Florez-ish voice that suits the music well.  The top notes didn’t seem to be a problem and he sang with real taste and expressiveness and acted really intelligently.  I don’t know how far his voice would work in larger houses but here it sounded like an answer to Opera North’s bel canto tenor prayers.  Any chance of some Donizetti/Bellini revivals with him please?

Quirijn de Lang doesn’t strike me as a natural Rossini baritone.  The florid passages made you realise exactly how difficult they are.  But he’s a smashing performer.  He did the entrance number beautifully – very nervous in disguise indeed, hands, shaking with the coloratura and his confidence built up quickly.  His acting was alert and witty.

Henry Waddington made a really good Magnifico, vain, nasty and utterly self centred.  He is a great comedian and was just as monstrous as he ought to be.  He sang it with absolute confidence.  Sky Ingram and Amy J Payne had a lovely time as his daughters – very funny and nasty.

John Savournin was a splendid Alidoro.  He’s a natural stage performer – alert, able to express stuff simply by raising an eyebrow.  The director had him firmly in control of the action.  He also sang pretty well including and made as good a job of La del ciel as you could hope for.

The chorus were on good form and had lots of fun as photographers, make up artists, waiters etc.  The orchestra was less so with some rather lax playing.  Derek Cowan conducted lightly and looked after his singers well.  He caught the wit in the score.  I enjoyed the music.

The score was sensitively cut – quite a lot of recitative was missing, as was one of Magnifico’s arias.  Neither was an unbearable loss and we were out in just over two hours 30 with the show never having felt remotely too long.

I’m not saying that this clever, economical, happy show would necessarily go down well at classier addresses, but it made for a happy, honest, hugely enjoyable evening.  It’s well worth catching.  Not a bad introduction to opera for children either – they’re doing a matinee on Saturday.

A Tale of Januarie: Operatic irrelevance

2 Mar


Julian Philips’s new opera, The Tale of Januarie, which I saw at the Guildhall on 1st March is undoubtedly the first opera with a libretto allegedly in Middle English.  Before getting into the merits of the piece and the performance, I think it’s worth asking some questions about that.

Let me quote from the programme: the opera constitutes the Guildhall School’s contribution to the [Arts & Humanities Research Council funded…] programme’s translingual strand which seeks to promote Opera in a contemporary cultural context, generating dialogue and debate around the form within the school’s existing and well-established audience community.  With its Middle English libretto, the project hopes to heighten audience sensitivity to language in opera, whilst also allowing for a sharing of aesthetic practice both within the context of Guildhall composition programmes but also in its strategic partnership with the Royal Opera House…”  This is the sort of mixture of pretentious pseudo-academic speak and corporate jargon that instantly raises my hackles.  Is that really what opera has descended to these days: a vehicle for academic discussion?

Earlier on, the authors talk as if comprehending the words in opera has always been a problem.  I think that needs to be debunked.  There are some operas which were written for audiences who would not understand the language (Handel’s and some of Mozart’s spring to mind) but most composers wrote operas where the words were meant to be heard and understood.  And listening to recordings, combined with recollection and, indeed, the experience of The Winter’s Tale two days ago, suggests that it is very possible to do so.  While undoubtedly some people think that opera “sounds better” in a language they don’t understand, what are you hoping to achieve, if you think that the story is at all important, by setting the piece explicitly in a language that makes it less comprehensible?

I know that surtitles are universal but doesn’t it admit defeat from the start to write something which is intended to be witty, where the laughs depend on an audience reading the surtitles?

In any case, the experience here was strange.  The Middle English certainly wasn’t pronounced the way I was taught to pronounce it: it sounded like an uneasy mixture of 21st century vowels, with some unfamiliar words and formations.  Middle English-lite, I’d say.  What sort of contribution to the debate do you make if you write in a language and then encourage people to mispronounce it?

Oh dear, maybe I’ve just been contributing to an academic debate.  Better get on with the opera itself.

The plot is a good one about an elderly knight who marries a much younger woman and is cuckolded by his servant: good scope for comic scenes and, as happened, a rather touching ending.   Philips and his librettist Stephen Plaice add bits of local colour, choruses about the seasons and gods (Pluto and Proserpine) commenting on and providing something of a counter-point to the story.  It reminds me slightly of the part played by the chorus in Gloriana or the ballets in an opera by Rameau and it feels consciously archaic.  The episodes also go on far too long: one in particular where Proserpine’s nymphs tease Priapus (a sort of bawdy narrator figure) made me lose the will to live.  It’s not an especially long opera, but I felt that the local colour elements held things up and took time away from greater elaboration on the characters themselves.  The presentation felt about relevant and interesting as Merrie England.

And opportunities seemed to be missed.  Couldn’t you broaden out the opportunities for exploring the Damyan/May relationship?  For saying more about the Damyan/May relationship.  And there’s an episode where Damyan has problems with a key where the poor guy has nothing to sing at all and the mugging has to come entirely from the direction with no musical or verbal assistance at all.

Philips’s music adds to the archaisms by including medieval bagpipes, recorders and nods towards Machaut and other sort-of contemporary composers. Juxtaposed with an orchestra of sixty and a gently late 20th century easy idiom.  It’s all inoffensive and pleasant enough to listen to but with anything that stops you in your tracks or makes you come out with music lodged in your mind.

There are some effective moments: the love making of Januarie and May is quite amusing in a vulgar, carry-on sort of way.  The last scene with the dead Januarie is quite touching and there’s some grateful music to sing.  Philips’s music is confident and accomplished with nothing to stop you in the tracks or lodge in your mind.

It was done outstandingly.  Dominic Wheeler conducted clearly and the orchestra played superbly.  The chorus were excellent and the singing uniformly good.  Everyone has pointed out John Findon’s commanding performance as Januarie – and he’s very good indeed and makes a convincing old man.  His tenor is strong – ideal for Britten, I would say.  There is some lovely singing from Joanna Marie Skillet as May, Elizabeth Skinner as Proserpine (both displaying gorgeous creamy voices), Dominic Sedgwick (a bit wasted) as Damyan, the love interest and Martin Haessler as Pluto.  These were superbly committed performances.

Martin Lloyd Evans’s production was set firmly in a medieval never, never land while Dick Bird’s sets and costumes created a Breughel-ish picture that had been very firmly dry-cleaned.  The direction was sound enough without ever making the work feel exciting or interesting.

So it made a pleasant enough, unchallenging, unmemorable evening.  I don’t think I’ve ever though opera so irrelevant.  This is what happens when academics get hold of it.

Wigglesworth’s Winter’s Tale

28 Feb

I saw the first night of Ryan Wigglesworth’s first opera at ENO on 27th February.  Quite a lot of pressure for a composer and I wonder whether choosing The Winter’s Tale was the right option.

I really question why composers, English composers at any rate, choose to set Shakespeare’s plays as operas.  Unless you are very skilful, like Britten and, to an extent, Ades, it’s hard to make a convincing case that your opera can really co-exist as a viable alternative to the play.  It’s slightly different for foreigners – they can play about with the text and faster and looser with the scenario but, let’s face it, the only really successful operas based on Shakespeare even abroad are by Verdi.

So Ryan Wigglesworth was setting himself a significant challenge in choosing The Winter’s Tale for his first opera.  The scale of it really hit me in the final scene.  How do you set Paulina’s speech in a more memorable way than Judi Dench or Eileen Atkins can speak it?  In Wigglesworth’s case the answer was that you cut the bulk of it.  And also, unless I missed it, Leontes’s “She’s warm” at the end of it.

I don’t mind that.  I think if you’re writing an opera, you have to make it significantly different from the play and use the benefits that the operatic form can bring to telling a story.  The original text shouldn’t be sacred.  What worried me was Wigglesworth didn’t do it enough.  He’s filleted and adapted the text very well.  He sensibly cuts Autolycus and retains much of the flavour of the Bohemia act – indeed I think he improves it: a chorus helps no end at a village feast and I thought that his extended love duet for Florizel and Perdita was really lovely.  But the remainder is almost too faithful.

Let’s take an example in his third act.  Florizel and Perdita arrive, followed by his angry father and all meet in Leontes’s palace.  Doesn’t that cry out for a sextet?  Wigglesworth simply ends the scene.  Having begun the trial scene with a really interesting chorus calling for justice for Hermione (one of the most best parts of the opera), wouldn’t a really good ensemble finale help where you can actually bring in the people and allow conflicting emotions to be heard?  But no, it ends with a bit of a whimper, really.  I got irritated that Wigglesworth seems to be ignoring so much that is special about the form and limiting himself to a post Wagnerian view of opera when Britten has shown that you can do so much more with it.

There are some really good things.  The orchestral accompaniment is strong – I remember a lovely cor anglais solo when Hermione comes to the trial, and you feel a ticking of time going on.  He never drowns the singers and he creates atmosphere.  My main problem was that, for most of the first act, the vocal lines were little more than rather stilted recitative with nothing particularly grateful or interesting to listen to.

ENO did it proud.  Iain Paterson makes an ideally strong, tormented Leontes and I just wish that he had more interesting things to sing.  Sophie Bevan is a sympathetic Hermione and Susan Bickley, predictably, outstanding as Paulina.  Leigh Melrose did what he could with Polixenes and Timothy Robinson did a really beautiful job as Camillo.  Florizel has a much better chance in this opera than in the play and Anthony Gregory sang his music really beautifully.  Samantha Price was a sweet Perdita.  Not a weak link there.

Wigglesworth conducted.  The orchestra played magnificently for him and the chorus was on outstanding form.  Again, it was a committed, passionate performance of the piece.

Rory Kinnear was making his debut as an opera director.  He did a pretty good job in strong sets by Vicki Mortimer.  I wonder how much of the end – leaving Hermione, Leontes and Perdita together was his and how much Wigglesworth’s. Perhaps the continual moving of the sets was a bit fussy but overall it was a clear, strong reading of the piece.

Do I want to see it again?  If I’m honest, not really.  It doesn’t provide a viable alternative to the play, but there’s enough in here to make me want to see another opera by Wigglesworth.

Powerful Opera North Billy Budd

4 Nov

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad performance of Billy Budd.  Rather like Janacek, which is slightly dodgy box office, you have to want to do it.  Opera North’s latest production, which I saw at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal on 3 September is no exception and was, indeed, one of the two or three most shattering that I’ve seen.

The central performance here was Alan Oke’s Vere which, for me, eclipsed Philip Langridge.  I will not forget the sheer agony that he conveyed during and after the trial – something which turned him from the academic, rather remote figure into someone who had to engage in life and death and who got it wrong.  At that moment, you realised that the opera is about Vere and his journey.  The picture of him sitting, awkwardly askew, face line with doubt and sadness is one of the most haunting that I’ve seen.  Oke sang beautifully, the words clear, perfectly weighted, sounding not unlike Pears.  I’m not saying that it would come across so strongly in a larger theatre – it sounded to me as though he was tiring towards the end – but that isn’t the point.  It was a riveting, moving performance that, quite rightly, led to a moment’s silence at the end.

The rest were pretty good too.  The problem with Billy Budd is that people tend to cast it with young singers who aren’t always ready musically for it.  Roderick Williams still has the looks in spades to convey the youth, enthusiasm and charisma of the role combined with the vocal experience to do it musical justice.  I don’t think I’ve heard the role sung more simply before: the scene in the darbies was simply him with the thoughts coming out spontaneously, softly, effortlessly.  It’s an original, un-operatic, absolutely direct approach and I found myself listening and following as rarely before.  Again, the intimate theatre helped.

Alastair Miles was Claggart.  He sang it magnificently: the darkness of the voice is ideal and he sings the words clearly, incisively.  Vocally it’s ideal casting.  Dramatically, I was slightly less certain.  He has a slightly aristocratic figure and I wasn’t quite sure that he got the sheer vicious thuggishness of the role – having said that, the scene with the novice and with Budd himself were terrifying.  At the confrontation, the smirk on his face, as he stepped forward, goading Budd was outstanding.

Orla Phelan’s production begins in a faded 18th century room with the ship becoming part of that set, as if reminding you that this is Vere’s story.  Leslie Travers’s set is strong, though I think it might have looked a bit less cramped on a larger stage.  Within it she does not shirk the sheer brutality of life on the ship, the worry about mutiny and the fact that the officers are only just able to control the men.  She creates the images, the confrontations beautifully and let’s the work speak for itself.

The other roles are all strongly taken – Peter Savidge predictably fine as Redburn with Callum Thorpe and Adrian Clarke as Ratcliffe and Flint adroitly stressing the social differences between them and Vere.  Oliver Johnston was really good as the novice and Gavan Rang as his friend more than made his mark.  Stephen Richardson got all the cynicism and honesty of Dansker.

It’s not the easiest of operas.  I was aware during the first act that it’s long and that, probably, you could knock ten minutes from it.  The text stands up pretty well, though I have huge problems with the redemption piece at the end: it works because Britten’s music is so persuasive and powerful rather than because of the text.  Garry Walker’s conducting demonstrated the full power of it.  There were times when I think slightly faster tempi might have helped, particularly in the first half.  Elsewhere, however, he built up the climaxes and paced the confrontations as well as you could hope.  The orchestra and chorus were on their very best Ring form.

The second act  for me was one of those experiences where you simply had to let the music and production take you forward and slowly coil up to the climax at the end, watching helplessly at the tragedy and the raw honesty of the performances.  At the end, I felt wrung out, shattered as you should after this opera.  It may not quite match my memories of Graham Vick’s Scottish Opera production in the 1980s or the sheer imagination of Alden’s for ENO but this got the power of this marvellous opera and left you shaken, thoughtful and moved.  Please go.

Glyndebourne’s first Butterfly

29 Oct

Madama Butterfly is one of my pet aversions.  I’ve never had much time for the heroine and have never found myself particularly moved by her predicament.  If I’m to have Puccini, I’d rather have the melodrama or Tosca or the relative vivacity and realism or Boheme, as opposed to what I always feel is slushy and patronising in its pseudo-orientalism.  I find the second half, in particular, a bit of a trial.  I haven’t seen it for 24 years so I decided that a new Glyndebourne production might be the time to revisit it and see whether I’ve mellowed.  There’s also an ROH one coming up with Jaho and Pappano and I may have to go along.  Anyway, I saw the Glyndebourne tour production on 26th October.

I didn’t hate it or have that feeling that I recall having once, at the beginning of the second act that there was 80 minutes of wailing women to come and I ought to have left at the interval.  I wasn’t converted either.

Anneliese Miskimmon has updated the opera to the 1950s.  Act I is in Goro’s marriage bureau and he clearly has a roaring trade in child brides.  Alun Rhys-Jenkins’s acting was created a convincing, repulsive businessman even if I found his voice a bit on the dry side and he undercuts the love duet by turning up to count his money as Butterfly and Pinkerton leave.  Otherwise, I couldn’t see that it shed any new light on the opera – personally, I doubt that there is.  What we had was a well-prepared, convincing telling of the story with no particularly striking images or anything to upset anyone.  Glyndebourne well within its comfort zone.

Nicky Shaw’s set works well enough for the tour, but it actually looks rather old-fashioned and almost cheap, particularly in the second act where I wasn’t convinced by the wooden trees.  I wonder how it will look in the context of the Festival, particularly where there isn’t really enough going on inside it to make it interesting.

The cast was very decent.  Karah Sun, a Korean pupil of Mirella Freni’s was a strong Butterfly.  She suggested the strength and integrity of the character.  Her voice is strong, with a slight metallic edge, not unsuitable here.  There’s a lot of intelligence and potential here.  Matteo Lippi has a very warm, grateful Pavarotti-ish tenor and I hugely  enjoyed his vocal contribution, particularly to the love duet and the trio.  He looked good but didn’t really suggest any particular depth to the character.  Probably because there isn’t any.

Claudia Huckle seized Suzuki and made a very fine, concerned, angry, protective character and sang it really strongly.  That is a gift of a role.  Francesco Verna made a a tired, cynical, decent Sharpless and sang it pretty well.  None of the others particularly stood out, but then you don’t expect them to.

John Wilson conducted.  He didn’t resist the temptation to give a very slight sense of Hollywood now and then to the score.  It was a perfectly fine reading but I didn’t feel that he particularly had Puccini in his blood and, for that reason, I probably need to get to hear Pappano do it.  The orchestra was fine.

So this was a perfectly decent, well-prepared Butterfly and it’ll appeal to audiences.  And that’s fair enough.  Glyndebourne may well feel that it does enough interesting and out-of-the way work and that this needs to be balanced with something more conservative to keep the punters coming in.  I just didn’t feel that it had quite the life that David McVicar injected in Boheme or anything that made it particularly unique or provided a visual perspective equivalent to Graham Vick’s 1980s ENO version.