Tag Archives: John Tomlinson

Hamlet collage

11 Jun

There is one unforgettable moment in Brett Dean’s new opera Hamlet, which I saw on its first night at Glyndebourne on 11 June.  This is when Sarah Connolly, as Gertrude, comes to tell Laertes of Ophelia’s death.  She sings a version of “There grows a willow…” with her usual glorious heartfelt emotion and simplicity and, as she does so, you hear Barbara Hannigan singing flashes of her mad scene from the dome.  It’s a gorgeous, moving moment which reminds why opera, as a form, gives you things that the straight theatre can’t.

Otherwise, this struck me as a very clever opera that didn’t quite explain why it needed to be written.  Matthew Jocelyn has taken the text and played about with it and those of who know the play well have a lot of fun working out what bits come from where – so “do not saw your hand in the air” is used for the duelling at the end.  It’s rare, if at all, that you get a single speech set entirely as it was.  I don’t object to that, but it is distracting to have bits of the play that you know coming up in unexpected places.  And there are lots of jokes about the different variant readings which are funny, if you get them.

What worries me more is that there isn’t really an over-arching idea to this opera.  There are a succession of more or less successful scenes and an exhausting role for the protagonist but that feels like it.  They’ve sensibly got rid of Fortinbras and the bulk of the political side of the play, but what I missed was the need for revenge or any sense of Hamlet’s vacillation or the irony associated with that.  If Hamlet isn’t a political play, it’s a revenge tragedy with some really good meditation about life and death.  Here the existential side seemed to take centre stage without the revenge plot.

It was also long and needed cutting- the performance lasted half an hour longer than Glyndebourne thought it would.  I first became aware of this in the scene where Polonius suggests that they put Ophelia in Hamlet’s way.  Aside from the tedium of Polonius (who the music makes a lot less funny than the play) there’s a sextet with comic backing for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  They turn up in the Osric role later on (the whole bit about Hamlet being sent to England is cut) and have a silly duet about the odds.  And the play scene takes forever.  I wasn’t convinced about the need for a gravedigger.  Surely you can cut Yorick?

Dean’s music strikes me as professional.  There’s some smashing word-setting and quite a lot of others where you feel that it all feels a bit leaden.  The orchestration has a semi-chorus, antiphonal percussion and brass up on either side of the Upper Circle.  There are some nice moments, some great climaxes and quite a lot where it sounds as though it’s just grumbling in the background.  It didn’t dislike and there are moments, particularly in the second half where the things sort-of takes off.

Overall, however, this brings me back to the problems of setting the texts of Shakespeare in English.  If you don’t use the original, everyone says that the libretto isn’t as good.  If you do, then there are the problems of setting great lines that actors will generally do better.  It helps if you can condense it in a foreign language and let your version speak for itself.  This seems to me to join the group of honourable failures.  And it’s too long.

It’s pretty brilliantly done.  Neil Armfield’s production moves fluidly and, technically, is a very adept piece of work. Vladimir Jurowski conducts the LPO and the Glyndebourne chorus with huge assurance.  There wasn’t a hint of uncertainty about the performance and you felt that everyone was engaging with and utterly committed to the piece.

Allan Clayton gives a hugely energetic performance as Hamlet and sings the lines clearly, beautifully, intelligently.  What I missed, and I think this is the opera’s fault, not his, was any hint as to why we should care about him at all.  Sarah Connolly was her typically fabulous self as Gertrude.  Barbara Hannigan has a stratospheric (and very successful) mad scene for Ophelia and she pulls it off as a marvellous set-piece.  Rod Gilfry as Claudius sang clearly even if you didn’t quite get what the character was all about.  Kim Begley was a clear Polonius, but I wonder if he didn’t have too much to do.  John Tomlinson had three lovely roles as the Ghost, the First Player and the Gravedigger and was his usual, booming, hugely intelligent, charismatic self.  David Butt Philip (who will be singing Hamlet on the Tour) was excellent as Laertes.  Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey had a fine double act as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Maybe it’s time to give the joke that it’s impossible to tell which is which a rest.

As ever at Glyndebourne you can’t fault the sheer commitment and professionalism of the performance.  It’s given this piece the best possible send-off.  I’m simply not convinced that I really want to see it again.  Sorry.

 

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Enescu’s Oedipe

27 May

Enescu’s Oedipe was written between 1910 and 1936.  It was apparently successful at its first performance but got rather forgotten following the second world war.  The ROH finally got round to it on 23rd May and I was there.  It wasn’t billed as the UK premiere but i certainly can’t recall a staged production here.

The piece strikes me as typical of operas by composers who only wrote one, or possibly two, pieces in the genre – Genoveva, Doktor Faust, King Roger spring to mind – where (a) the musical interest is greater than the dramatic and (b) you have to be interested that sort of musical idiom if you’re going to enjoy it.

Enescu has taken the Oedipus legend, set slimmed down versions of the two Sophocles plays and preceded them with scenes depicting Oedipus’s birth, he decision to return to Thebes, the murder of Laius and the encounter with the sphinx.  It creates a portrait of Oedipus himself with meaty roles for the people he encounters in each scene and one or two very effective scenes: that with the sphinx struck me as particularly fine, as were the last two scenes.  He creates superb atmosphere for the scenes: the opening of the scene for Laius’s murder and that for the sphinx were the ones which had me sitting up.

The idiom owes a lot to Debussy, Chausson, even Sibelius.  It’s perfectly pleasant to listen to and you admire the very vivid, imaginative orchestration and, if this is a period of music that you respond to, you will react like stout Cortez.

You’ll have guessed that I didn’t.  I admired in a rather distant way, but felt no urge to rush to buy a CD.  I missed any sense of dramatic impetus; I missed memorable vocal lines or ones which had me really listening; it feels leisurely – the opening seems to go on for ever and I started wondering whether I would stay for the second half.  I’m glad I did because it gets better even if it never quite makes you feel that Enescu was comfortable with the form.  I’m very glad that I saw an interesting, worthwhile opera but I could happily wait another twenty years before seeing it again.

This was in spite of a really outstanding performance.  The cast must be as good as you can get.  Johann Reuter was, predictably, an intense, clearly sung and very convincing Oedipe, getting almost Lear-like sense of development to the character and aging superbly.  It’s a huge role and he paced it with assurance.

Surrounding him were John Tomlinson as Teiresias, clear, angry and loud; Sarah Connolly who made the most of a relatively small role as Jocasta; Marie-Nicole Lemieux brilliant as the sphinx; Alan Oke as the Shepherd; Samuel Youn as Creon and Stefan Kocan, who did his scene as the Watchman with great authority.  This was great casting: a marvellous ensemble put together with great care.

Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, together with Alfons Flores, the designer, have created a masterpiece of a production: from the opening frieze-like coup to the final shower of silver water as Oedipus died, it was full of memorable scenes and images: the sphinx as a plane with propeller whirring, the shepherds as road workers.  He managed an outstanding response to the piece which looked beautiful and seemed at one with it.  I couldn’t fault it.

I don’t know the piece enough to comment about Leo Hussain’s conducting.  I thought it was authoritative and clear without making a compelling case for the work as anything other than an occasional visitor.  The orchestra and huge chorus seemed outstanding to me – again, not obviously putting a foot wrong.

Oedipe is never going be to a repertory piece but it’s good enough to be done every fifteen years or so and anyone curious about forgotten operas should hurry to this truly superb performance of it.

Marvellous Moses

26 Jul

Not many of my friends seemed that envious of me going to see Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron at the Royal Opera House on July 25th. That puts it mildly. The word Schoenberg seems to be sufficient to cause people to grimace and run a mile even though they have never knowingly heard a note of his music and would be hard pressed to name anything he had written. It’s rather like the effect the name Karl Marx has on people who haven’t seen a copy of the Communist Manifesto, let alone any of his serious work.

I left the evening wishing that people would give it a try. I think that if I were going to suggest somewhere to begin, I’d start with the chorus that begins Act II “Wo ist Moses?” with it’s whispered start, differing dynamics and tempi. It’s hard to think of that as “difficult” music and it’s music that draws you in to the piece. I think I’d then just keep them going and see how far they got. I’m sure they’d make it to the end of Act II and then think about hearing some of Act I. It’s not music that you have to try to understand or need a degree in music to get anything out of: it’s visceral and hugely exciting with real beauty as well. It makes me want to get to know more of his music. This isn’t music that anyone need feel apologetic about.

There are two problems with the opera, however. The first, I think, is the text – which is dense, difficult to follow, even with surtitles and which is intensely cerebral. It’s important but it needs very sensitive staging. You don’t really get much emotion until the end of the second Act and you tend to feel that the conflict between Moses and Aron doesn’t really come across well and this leads to the fact that it’s unfinished. The end of the second act leaves you hungry for more.

Everyone has praised that outstanding musical performance by the WNO chorus and orchestra. I don’t think I’ve heard any chorus, anywhere, sing music of this complexity so well, so accurately and with such intensity. Lothar Koenigs conducted and achieved complete clarity and considerable beauty from the orchestra. It was alert and really beautiful in its own right. We had John Tomlinson, excellent, of course, as Moses and Rainer Trost, a beautiful voice singing easily, fluently and beautifully as Aron. He hadn’t sung at the first night and so reviewers didn’t mention him, but this was a starry, superbly acted and effortlessly sung performance. Nobody seemed aware that this music is difficult and everybody performed it wonderfully.

The problem, for me, lay in the production by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. It’s set in a Parliament Chamber (Act I) and an empty cinema (Act II). The orgy is spent with people looking at a film apparently projected into the auditorium and some low level, rather uncomfortable-looking fumbling. It failed to project the position of the Israelites in a way that meant anything or to help me understand what the opera was about. It may well have worked better in Stuttgart with an audience able directly to understand the words. Here the mind wandered quite a lot, you longed for some of the stage effects that Schoenberg envisaged and you wondered why they hadn’t just done in concert. I felt that, with such importance placed on debate and the words that it needed to be sung in English so that we could directly understand what was going on. Moving from stage to surtitles all the time was really too difficult.

It may be that this piece is impossible to stage and that it’s just too heavy ever to work as more than a connoisseur’s piece but I left this wanting to see another staging and wanting to get to know the piece better. It had better not be another 48 years before the next London staging.