Tag Archives: Vladimir Jurowski

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.



Britten and Britten Variations at Glyndebourne

18 Aug

One of the nice innovations at Glyndebourne in recent years has been the free performances in the Jerwood Studio before a small number of the performances towards the end of the season.  It’s an opportunity for experimentation and for some chorus members to get some additional experience. The Yellow Sofa was first done here and proved a fine opportunity for a promising young composer to try his hand at opera.

This year, their Composer in Residence, Luke Styles had an opportunity with Wakening Shadow.  I saw the last performance on 17th August.  Styles has taken three of Britten’s Canticles, orchestrated them and added three of his own settings and an opening to, apparently, explore the relationship between man and divinity.  It lasts about 70 minutes.

The good things about the performance were the committed performances by the cast (particularly outstanding performance from Owen Willetts as the counter-tenor roles in the Canticles, Rupert Charlesworth in the Saint Narcissus canticle and Stuart Jackson in Abraham and Isaac, Vladimir Jurowski’s splendid conducting and, I felt Styles’s confidence with the orchestra.  The sound world that he created for the instrumentalists was fascinating and, particularly in the Britten settings, provided a really strong background for the words.  I enjoyed listening to it.

The less good things were the overall concept itself, which struck me as messy and difficult to follow, Daisy Evans’s frankly desperate attempts to make it interesting and, ultimately,  Styles’s setting of words.  By putting his own settings of Shelley, Brodsky and Byron alongside Britten’s, he was setting himself a very high bar indeed.  Whenever Britten’s settings started, you felt a sense of relief at being able to make out the words and, more importantly, the sentences and the meaning.  I wasn’t convinced this was a coherent or dramatic work.

Still, it wasn’t a wasted afternoon.  It’s good to have the opportunity to hear Styles’s music and I heard enough to feel that I wanted to hear more.  It will be good to hear WIlletts, Jackson and Charlesworth again, too.

The main reason for the visit, though, was to see the revival of Billy Budd. The reviews have been outstanding and it’s an opera i love.  When I saw it in 2010, I wasn’t completely convinced by Michael Grandage’s production, finding it a bit remote and without the insights that, say, Vick, Albery and Alden have found in this opera and I thought Jacques Imbraillo’s Budd a bit anonymous.  But the prospect of Andrew Davis conducting and Mark Padmore as Vere was enticing.

I spent the first three quarters of this performance admiring the evening but without being involved.  Grandage’s production is clear and honest.  It tells the story cleanly but without a single interesting or memorable image.  Characters act and react to each other well.  I suspect that this is a production which works better from the stalls where you are closer and can watch the acting (Grandage’s main successes recently have been at the Donmar Warehouse, where every blink counts).  The set, specifically a ship is claustrophobic (of course it’s meant to be) and heavy, which works for telling the story but doesn’t provide some of the lightness and spaciousness that, in fact, the opera needs if the metaphysical element is to come across.  Twice a ceiling comes down which effectively cuts off those of us in the upper regions of the theatre.

Davis’s conducting struck me as strong, clear but without making you aware, as Mark Elder did when this was new, of the remarkable tinta of the opera, the specific dark colouring.  The singers were excellent and there was nothing to dislike.  Padmore was a fine, clear Vere, Imbraillo seemed much more assured than last time, but still a bit anonymous; Brindley Sherratt was a well-sung, reptilian, sinister Claggart.

Then, after Claggart died, the whole piece started to become gripping and enthralling.  The trial scene became a centre piece as everyone new what the outcome would be and knew that it was wrong.  You understood the dilemma and agonised over it.  Then came Billy in the Darbies and I don’t think I have ever heard it more beautifully sung.  Imbraillo caught anger and about it that I’d not heard before, but also a stillness.  I don’t think I’ve heard it sung more softly.  The scene with Jeremy White’s marvellous Dansker was heart-breaking and one of Grandage’s finest images is the picture of Dansker, the Novice’s Friend and the two other pressed men, holding the rope that hangs Billy.  The rebellion seemed to me to be the most threatening and likely to succeed that I’ve seen.  At that point, the audience was gripped and it was left to Mark Padmore to wrap it up wonderfully.  This is the magic that at good Budd should weave.

Padmore didn’t disappoint.  He sounds entirely right for the role and has exactly the right intellectual, other-worldly worried mien for the man – he is easily the finest Vere since Philip Langridge and I don’t think I can imagine a better.  Sherratt’s Claggart managed to combine the violence and sheer creepiness that it is in the man.  There were super performances from Peter Gijsbertsen as the Novice, Duncan Rock as his friend and the remainder of the officers.  The chorus was outstanding.

I had thought until the interval that Andrew Davis’s conducting was, as you would expect from him – fine, idiomatic and hugely reliable.  In the second Act, it was substantially more than that.  It’s a long time since I’ve heard the battle scene have the level of impact that it provided here.  He ratched up the tension as the Act went on and, at the end, there was a silence as the audience absorbed what it had seen and heard.  He’s a great conductor and, after his return for Rusalka in 2011, it would be nice to see him back again soon.

So it was a good day at Glyndebourne – but go for the more expensive seats.