Tag Archives: Iestyn Davies

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looks like a painted late Stuart cornucopia – and, with David in a modern suit, gently makes the political point of an out of date court.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.


Surprisingly enjoyable Rinaldo

10 Aug

It’s funny how shows which I didn’t like much first time round can seem better at the revival.  Glyndebourne’s decision to cast all the castrato roles in Rinaldo with counter tenors and Iestyn Davies in the title role was enough to make me decide to go, despite the fact that I’d really disliked Robert Carsen’s production when it was new in 2011.  At the first night of this revival, very capably rehearsed by Bruno Ravella, on 9th August, with no expectations of enjoyment, it didn’t seem so bad and I even found myself moderately enjoying it.

Rinaldo is an opera about spectacle.  It doesn’t have the same depth of emotion as Handel’s later operas, despite having some of his finest arias.  Most of those, in fact, were recycled (nothing particularly wrong with that, when they are so good) and you sense a plot built around them and around opportunities for dragons, furies, sirens and spectacular sets.  I can sort of see why Robert Carsen liked the idea of it as a schoolboy’s fantasy about the crusades.  And, on its own terms, it’s slick, witty and has some good moments – Rinaldo flying on a bicycle on his rescue mission and the Magus’s mad chemistry laboratory and a very funny football match.  I still think that the opera needs more colour – it looks all a bit beige and cheap.  Perhaps it suffered from being new in the same season that they did Meistersinger.  But, perhaps because I had an idea of what to expect, I found myself enjoying myself without the irritation that I remembered from the first time round.

Perhaps the new cast helped.  Iestyn Davies is on fabulous form at the moment and his performance of Rinaldo was even better than his Bertarido at ENO – singing Venti Turbini from a bike high above the stage can be no fun, but he managed it was aplomb and real excitement.  He was moving in the previous aria lamenting the absence of Almirena and throughout sang with passion, style and fervour.  I’m quite sure I wasn’t the only one buying his latest CD of Handel oratorio arias (it’s excellent).  I very much enjoyed his slightly bemused heroism.  It’s great that he’ll be back here for Saul next year.

The difference in timbres and types of counter tenors was strongly on display here.  Tim Mead was in excellent voice as Goffredo – a strong, virile sound that suggested that he wouldn’t make a bad Rinaldo himself.  Anthony Roth Costanza has a much lighter voice, not unsuitable for Eustazio and sang his arias well.  James Laing was splendid as the Magus.  With singing of this sort, I wonder how far we need to have mezzos in these roles any more.  Mind you, I wouldn’t mind hearing Sarah Connolly do Rinaldo, either…

The women were good too.  Karina Gauven was a fiery, vicious Armida who did her aria at the end of Act II splendidly and was properly villainous.  Christina Landshamer was an attractive Almirena who did her Act II aria, Lascia que piange, really beautifully.  I’m really not sure that giving her pigtails and glasses helps the character or anything else, really.  Joshua Hopkins showed you why singers such as Finley and Pisaroni have been cast as Argante – there are some really splendid arias, far above the quality of most of Handel’s bass arias, and he sang them really well, entering nicely into the production.  I think we’ll be hearing quite a lot more of him.

So there wasn’t a weak link in the cast, Ottavio Dantone’s conducting was vigorous, fleet and stylish and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was on excellent form.  Musically alone this was an evening of huge pleasure and one felt a certain indulgence towards the production.  If you’re a fan of really good Handel singing, it’s well worth trying to get hold of a ticket.






Rodelinda passes the last train test

1 Mar

I’ve mentioned my “last train test” before.  My last train home from London is horrible (well, the people on it usually are) and arrives so that I’m lucky if I’m in bed by 2 am.  In order to get the train before, the opera has to finish by 10.25  – often quite tight. As I get older, shows have to be pretty special for me to stay beyond that hour (and thank goodness for internet booking enabling me to choose seats at the end of a row).  The ENO’s new Rodelinda on 28th February emphatically passed that test and had me ruminating on the opera and the production all the long way home.  Mind you, it shouldn’t have needed to – as seems to be an occupational hazard of ENO first nights the performance started late and intervals dragged on as the criterati rabbited on and seemed unwilling to take their seats.  Had I gone to a later performance I might just have made that earlier train.

Anyway, to the opera.  One of the joys of the Handel revival is that the operas are performed often enough for you to see the links and contrasts between them.  Jonathan Keates’s article in the programme reminded me that this sits with Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano in his output and, having seen all of those at least once in the last five years and listened to them, it’s interesting to plot the similarities and contrasts in structure and plot.  I admire all three hugely and, particularly in Cesare and Rodelinda, the way in which Handel marries wit and comedy with the violent.  In all three, he shows a dangerous world and how people cope with it.  If Cesare is the lightest of the three, Rodelinda strikes me as the most personal and heartfelt.  It also has the weakest plot – the comings and goings seem lengthy and implausible and are a test for directors.

I saw the last major production here (Villegier at Glyndebourne) on each of its outings and it was fascinating to compare it with Richard Jones’s approach here.  There are similarities.  Both had a strong visual setting – Villegier in a 1920s, Mussolini-ish silent film road; Jones in a more realistic totalitarian state, full of surveillance cameras, vicious implements of torture and huge monuments.  Both are stylised and well choreographed – catching the arch, almost camp (not meant derogatively here) air that seems to be an essential part of Handel performance (at least for operas of this time – I’m not convinced you need it for, say, Ariodante).  Both play the early part of the third act for laughs and have lots of business going on during some of the arias.  Where Jones differs and, for me, improves is that he catches the raw emotion and the danger of the opera far, far more than Villegier’s very comfortable never-never-land.  .  He creates a world where Grimoaldo has a hidden camera behind Rodelinda’s mirror so that he can letch over her and where there is a very convincing tyranny indeed.  He seizes on the reality of the threats of death by Grimoaldo and Garibaldo and works out how these affect the characters: instead of the happy ending, you see Unulfo badly wounded and ignored by the rest of the cast and Flavio murdering Grimoaldo watched on video by the exultant Rodelinda. Far from the usual little boy, Flavio is a late teenager and was given a great deal to do – reminding me of the Cornelia/Sesto relationship in Cesare.

Doubts?  Maybe there is a bit too much going on in some arias so that you miss out on the singing – but this certainly doesn’t affect the great serious arias as the show goes on.  More seriously, there is a contrast in the opera between the pastoral and the city – between peace and politics – that Jones’s relentlessly urban setting misses.  This is important for two arias: Bertarido’s marvellous second act aria where the recorders and wind writing create a glorious picture of streams, hills and meadows that having him sat in a smart bar simply does not capture – and it jars – and for Grimoaldo’s final aria – there’s a link there which Jones ignores.  However, these doubts pale beside the sheer inventiveness and clarity of the staging.  For me, it’s a staging of a Handel opera to set beside David Alden’s of Ariodante and Hytner’s Xerxes here as one of the very finest productions of a Handel opera (as opposed to oratorio) that I’ve seen.  It delights and disturbs in equal measure.

I’ve written a lot about Jones’s production, but this was one of those evenings where the musical vision was entirely at one with it and where the singers acted and sang the music so that the emotions felt absolutely true and convinced you that Handel is second to none in creating convincing characters and describing their emotions truly through music.  Christian Curmyn needs to take the credit for a lot of this.  His tempi struck me as a bit on the slow side but this went so completely with the vision of the work that they felt right – he had the orchestra playing stylishly and sympathetically.  I found myself smiling at the witty, joyous arias and following the more serious, heartfelt pieces with baited breath.  The one thing that I missed was the last ounce of bravura and sheer showiness that one or two of the arias call for.

There was some really fine singing that, again, was all at one with the vision.  Rebecca Evans was an almost completely successful Rodelinda.  She conveyed the grief, the anger and the love of the woman and she sang her Act II aria before the return of Bertarido so beautifully and movingly that we didn’t applaud after it.  There were odd moments where I wondered whether she was having some problems – she wasn’t always audible and some lines seemed a bit broken, but that may have been to do with the not-too brilliant acoustics towards the back of the Dress Circle at the Coliseum.  But for most of it, this was assured, daring Handel singing that created a complete character.  She was partnered by Iestyn Davies as Bertarido.  He’s marvellous in the reflective passages and my only complaint is that he can’t quite get the sheer bravura for the last aria – Vivi tiranno – he does it well but there is just a sense of carefulness about it when you want complete abandonment and joy in surmounting this fearsome aria.  This is being hypercritical.  He, Evans and Jones gave me one of the most unforgettable operatic experiences in a long time when they sang their duet at the end of Act II.  It’s one of Handel’s most wonderful creations and they caught the differing emotions, the sheer regret, anger and sadness to perfection as the set inexorably pulled them apart.  That alone made the visit worthwhile and the audience was hanging onto every note.

John Mark Ainsley created a nasty, weak, seedy Grimoaldo and sang his arias predictably marvellously.  Susan Bickley was a lovely, alert Eduige, singing her arias marvellously.  Christopher Ainslie made a really good job of Unulfo: his arias are among the most attractive and optimistic in the piece and they were engagingly staged and joyously sung  – I found myself smiling throughout.  I’m not sure that Richard Burkhard’s future is really in Handel and he sounded tested by the arias but he’s one of our most engaging singing actors and he was an alert, threatening presence.  I think that Matt Casey deserves a mention as well for a very strong, convincing silent performance of Flavio, turned into a key additional character.

Diction was excellent and Amanda Holden’s translation was pretty good – strong, clear and knowing with a wit about it, even though you sensed that some of the note values had been played about this in the recitatives.

I found this a fascinating and very strong evening: not a teacup in sight and the only use of Champagne is decidedly threatening – the normal tropes of Handel staging have gone and in their place was vivid, truthful disturbing evening that I can’t recommend too strongly.  I hope it comes back and I hope that ENO have booked Jones to do a Tamerlano for them.  And stay to the end.