Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

Der Rosenkavalier is a pain in the backside. It has more than its fair share of first-class operatic music and provides a superb vehicle for the opulence and escapism that any evening out on the town can offer. Alas, it's also an over-inflated work, stretched by its investigation of the limits of tonality at the same time as indulging its pathological need to set up the moments of great beauty and pathos. At either extreme, to get at the beauty you need to resist the bore.

The trio of Act 3 it has both beauty and pathos in one of the great operatic set pieces. The cast of the Royal Opera's revival are beautifully balanced in ensemble, making this a ravishing, irresistible moment in the work. The music flows off the stage and into the stalls in much the same way as their fourth-wall-breaking manoeuvre from the stage-within-the-stage does. To my mind these three are glove-perfect fits in the roles. Soile Isokoski is porcelain-beautiful in production and decorous use of her sound. Sophie Koch produces a supple, almost-virile tone. Lucy Crowe is possibly the central gemstone with freshness, sparkle and an unselfconscious élan in her high threads of sound. I felt that her stagecraft was a little constrained but wasn't watching fairly soon after hearing her start to sing.

However, refined singing apart, for me the great joy of the evening was Peter Rose's Ochs. I have been waiting for the chance to see this characterisation ever since missing a well thought-of Scottish Opera production 12 years ago and I was beyond satisfied. This Ochs is not quite the slobbering thug that secures our distaste of him well before the close. Instead we can luxuriate in a finely-sung performance of exemplary German and a comic timing - nay, simply timing - that made the others look rather mannered.

The set-piece pillar-and-post of Act 2 presentation and Act 3 trio apart, Rosenkavalier has a fine opening Act which rather showed the cramped functionallity of Kiril Petrenko's approach. There was precious little space for the music to breathe a hush as the Marschallin reflects on the futility of sonnambulant clock-tampering. I also missed the surface sadness (the one 'wet' eye) as Octavian's imagination convinces him that his rejection is imminent - it sounded too close to the sexual raging of the overture. Otherwise this was a secure rendition from the pit.

The production may be old but I enjoyed its careful variations on a limited palette. This is a production that appreciates the importance of the periphery: the blocking, the modulation of the innocuous to the seminal, just as the raging, chaotic wash of noumenal atonality sometimes spurts through into the action and changes the outwardly serene course of the phenomenal drama. This performance was not that cosmic, fin-de-siècle interpretation that renders psychotropic drugs redundant and makes you weep openly on the train home, but it was enchanting nonetheless.

UPDATE (10 December 2009):
Reviews collected at Culture Critic

Friday, 27 November 2009

The Tsarina's Slippers at ROH

It's Christmas. How do I know? Because the estimable Royal Opera House, Covent Garden have produced a run of performances of a lesser-known Tchaikovsky opera, Cherevichki or The Tsarina's Slippers. It's a colourful, fairytale opera full of dance and fun. This is what they would have you think of prior to setting foot inside the auditorium:

It's also one of the worst operas I can think of ever having to sit through. We are introduced to characters one by laboured one - Solokha, a blacksmith's wife who is also a witch and the randy devil who has popped up to take her good-for-nothing son Vakula to task (for some counter-blasphemous graffiti). Fortuitously Vakula turns out to be a tenor and the reluctant focus of his attention, Oxana, a soprano... but we still don't get anywhere near a mention of a Tsarina or her footwear until after an interminable sequence in which Solokha's suitors get trussed up in sacks. Finally, a festive conflagration warms Oxana up; she promises her hand to Vakula if he can bring her slippers that the Tsarina might wear. Vakula isn't up to the task and runs away.

All this takes the best part of an hour and a half, mitigated only by some, frankly, pretty standard Tchaik tunes. The worst is yet to come however as the second half (that's Act three of four) opens with a corps de ballet dancing as water nymphs to the sparodic accompaniment of a grotesque water goblin begging for some quiet. I was begging for some plot development, or at least a single character I recognised from the first half.

Then Vakula appears, distracted from his sulking by the song and dance and, in the background up pops the devil. You'll forgive me for thinking things were about to come together. Instead, in not so much a handbrake turn of plotting as a quantum sidestep Vakula goes form being captive to captor and demands the devil take him to St Petersburg to fetch some slippers - which they do and return to a happy ending. Almost as quickly as that. Naturally, inbetween, we are treated to further ballet and Cossak dancing.

This opera is extremely silly. It is to the Royal Opera's credit that they treat it at once without knowing irony but without even a hint of seriousness. The devil and his demonic cohorts pose no threat throughout the opera and, with their rather useful tails, help the plot to move from one inert, sugar-iced set-piece to the next. In those set pieces we hear some good singing (Diadkova's Solotka, Grivnov's Vakula) some ok singing (Guryakova's Oxana, the night I went, and Vladimir Matorin's Chub) and the reliable chorus and orchestra of the Opera wringing something musical out of a strictly functional score. Even to this untutored commentator, the dancing seems to pay lip-service to its interpolated sequences, although the finessed performance brought the greatest reception from the audience. The set and costume design are the best reason to see the show.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Turandot at ENO

ENO have already got their new season off to a terrific start with a raucous but well-performed Grand Macabre. The first big new production of standard repertoire followed with Rupert Goold's Turandot, currently half way through its run. It's a gaudy, black-humoured updating of the opera, semi-abstracted by setting the whole thing in a Chinese restaurant. Goold has also grafted on an entire strata of story by casting an actor to wander the set as the composer, complete with an unfortunate end at the appropriate moment in the score (ENO are using Alfano's completion).

You probably getting a sniff of how I feel about this entirely superfluous and distracting addition already, so let me get that out of the way. I will say that the actor saddled with inhabiting a role which is not in the piece does a perfectly reasonable job.

The rest of the production is a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, Turandot is nothing if not a klaxon of fin de siècle razzmatazz, as well as a strange but surprisingly effective hybrid of Straussian harmonic coal-hopping and Puccini's more familiar lush Italian melody. Consequently it feels right that the cast should be a wildly diverse, brash assemblage of social tropes and pop-culture figures. They enjoy their evening out at the restaurant in one passage and cower at the unsettling dominatrix-waitresses the next. Come the end of the riddle scene they even swap clothing, props and gestures as the melange of style really gets mixed up (maybe it's a symbol of the rise of the meritocrat, the victor correctly answering the riddles rather than buying his way into the court? I do the production to much justice).

Too much is lost in the execution of this idea though. The subjugation of a people toiling under a static, introverted regime and the consequent police state is simply lost: the chorus, cast as clients at a restaurant automatically have a different social standing to that proscribed by the opera. The final act, set in the kitchen, works better. The chorus, now out of an associative environment, become simply what they sing about.

The principals fare better in the manner in which they are used, with the possible exception of Liu. In Goold's conception, she is overtly tragic rather than the lodestone of purity and goodness that would be better to offset the cruelty of Turandot (and Calaf) and the horror of the abuse which Turandot is intimated to have suffered in the past. Amanda Echalaz fulfils this role admirably but is not the still, gleaming counterweight to the red-eyed frenzy that goes beside her.

The (eventual) lovers are a fine couple of singers in this production. The Austrian soprano Kirsten Blanck has power and timbre to spare, even in the barn of the Coliseum. Gwyn Hughes Jones' Calaf can't compete by weight or gauge but his voice is a delight, clear, easy and with the dramatic attack from top to bottom that marks him out as the hero without any acting necessary (he does that as well). James Creswell is a generous, sonorous-toned Timur inspiring genuine pathos and Stuart Kale's Emporer is a real rather than a glace cherry atop the rich vocal cake.

In addition to my general misgivings about the production there were a number of bizarre additions. The ENOs (often productive) obsession with dancers and actors continues. Spectacle, as I have suggested, is important to this opera but that was largely all that was added from a cast of pig-headed extras (i.e. they wore pigs heads. They came from the kitchen, where there was butchery going on, see). We also had some moppet in a white party dress appear every so often presumably as a symbol or perhaps ghost of Turandot's forgone purity, crassly papering over the neglect of Liu in this production. Finally I didn't realise that the (rather English!) character who turns out to be Puccini was the composer until someone told me - I just assumed he was some sort of journalist-trope, and that the red book in which he noted these historical Chinese events was in some way linked to the rise of Chinese communism via Mao's own Little Red Book.

Despite these manifold distractions, there's enough of the original piece being performed with sufficient vigour and quality to make it a worthwhile evening. The chorus have never sounded better - currently at the peak of a very long ascent in quality - and Edward Gardner takes his chance to open up the throttle in the pit. And for all my criticism of Goold I thought he handled that peculiar second act Pi/a/ong sequence well (set on a fire escape outside the restaurant).

Friday, 9 October 2009

Wozzeck Salonen/Philharmonia

'Like a blade running through the world' is how the contemptible Captain describes Wozzeck. This phrase that pops out of the middle of Berg's opera really stuck with me: it occurs to me that this particular blade is very sharp, making a clean incision - no sooner has the violent cut been made than it closes again, rather like the waters quietly closing over his head as he drowns in the penultimate scene.

That's the pathos at the centre of Wozzeck, bullied into hallucinatory possession under the burden of which he slays his woman and then, by accident, himself. Simon Keenlyside's immersive performance had this absolutely nailed down. His Wozzeck has little grace, void of self-esteem in his gait and posture. He's not distracted, he just lacks any self-regard. Like the music though Keenlyside can move (and sing) with great explosive energy. One imagines it must have been terrifying for Katarina Dalayman to rehearse Marie's murder over and over, given how shockingly real it seems.

Keenlyside's Wozzeck is, like the music, a curious, self-effacing hybrid of protagonist and dramatic subordinate so one ocassionally lapses into 'noticing' the more conventional dramatic characterisations. Dalayman sings a powerful, sympathetic Marie but the stand-out role of the evening was the grotesque, snide Captain of Peter Hoare, a comic, loathsome and pathetic figure whose every word and gesture Hoare was determined should be heard right at the back of the hall. David Soar's fine cameo as the Branntewein-soaked First Apprentice was of this stable. I also have to mention the final scene's appearance of a select group of children. Coming on in all black like a premonitory column of corpses they were outstanding, even more so for their brevity of appearance.

No less a character, especially in this concert staging was the Philharmonia Orchestra, expanded to meet the scoring and firing into the red to meet its virtuosic demands. The Philharmonia's strength, control, found perfume in the dust kicked up by the periodic and fierce expressionist raging - their celebrated string ensemble was particularly effective (and the section principals were particularly fine, with James Clark leading). I felt that Esa-Pekka Salonen's handling was a curious mix, with a typically tight grip on the score but, strangely, only so that he could pursue its Romanticism. We heard Mahler flooding out between the music-as-woodcut smears of sound but I didn't always hear the real modernism in the score. This wasn't the most lean, diaphanous of readings.

An interesting addition to this production was that of a video installation. Relayed on a huge screen behind the orchestra, Jean-Baptiste Barrière's visual production 'projects the opera in vivid colours, inspired by expressionist paintings' (in Barrière's own words). The expressionism he refers to here is more to do with the swirling distortions of Munch or Schoenberg perhaps rather than, as he says, the quasi-satirical angularities of Grosz or Beckmann. Consequently the kaleidoscopic palette of the video swirled throughout the opera, incorporating real-time images of the performers in a datamoshed, Schnitzler-like Traum. Most of the time this worked as a visual adjunct (although, screen-wise, I was more interested in the surtitles) although the clip-arty shattering of an image of the boy at the moment of Marie's murder was a strangely crass anomaly.

A fine Wozzeck then, perhaps crowning the piece's incipient past rather than pitching it as the overseer of 20th century modernism but then, as such, it was a fitting conclusion to the Philharmonia's City Of Dreams season.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Christof Loy's Tristan for the Royal Opera

Does this look familiar (hat tip Opera News)? This is a scene from Christof Loy's Lulu for the Royal Opera from earlier this year played out in a minimal staging - next to no furniture and monochrome, contemporary vernacular costume.

To others (who, as I did, attended the public dress rehearsal) this will look very similar to the Royal Opera's production of Tristan und Isolde, also directed by Loy, which opens on Tuesday. I left rather more confounded than I had been by Lulu.

Where Lulu was set in a number of urban spaces, for which an undressed stage is as good a proxy as any, Tristan und Isolde is set on the sea (Act 1) and overlooking the sea (Act 3). "How black the sea is!" remarks the shepherd in Act 3 making explicit the connection between the noumenal night that has been referred to throughout the previous act - "immeasurable, unorganised, void" as Aschenbach has it in Death in Venice, Britten's Wagnerian love-and-the-sea opera.

Needless to say then that there is no sea/boat/sails etc. in Loy's production. This is fair enough in his aesthetic - there is no action in the water, which stands as a metaphor in the dialogue. The reason it becomes an issue though is that Loy does show a fair bit of corollary action further upstage in a 19th century-a-like ballroom behind the rake. This involves a men-only formal dinner, the close-parallel universe in which King Marke's court and its trappings are the moral and social rubric.

It's one thing to omit a vista or imply rather than show a scene. To have others occupy a space in order to focus the metaphorical emphasis of that scene (or its omission) is a further step - but to replace it with something else is really stretching the disbelief-suspension envelope for an audience. I think Loy has thought, reasonably, that Wagner's allusions to reality are generally metaphors anyway. Tristan is, after all, a philosophical discourse poetised for lyrical delivery. It's meant to be abstract at face value. The problem I have (this being the case) is that Loy is substituting this 'metaphorical' staging for some other one - and consequently the audience must work twice as hard, jumping from what the singers are talking about to what it means twice instead of just once. It's not more direct, it's actually more complicated.

Loy is a modernising reductionist, who "doesn't like superficial distractions" (more Lulu-quote), i.e. he wants to get at the drama at the core of the piece. Well, that's all fine and good, but in order to dramatise a work one has to dress it to a certain extent. Loy chooses a stark modern idiom which is fairly close to the unsullied palette to be found near the 'core' of any piece. Yet some dressing is necessary, some 'distraction' (read mediation) and Loy's decision in this production is at odds to what is in the text.

I liked one or two other directorial decision - slo-mo sequences in the background are an interesting response to the time-stretching solipsisms of the eponymous principals downstage. I also liked the violence of the red on black-on-white as the final massacre comes about in its frenetic final pocket of the third act. People have been referring to this as the 'Tarantino Tristan', in reference to Reservoir Dogs (and also as Reservoir Dogs is a film in which a significant pre-story is recounted but not shown).

Ultimately Tristan is a difficult opera to stage and it's down to the cast and orchestra to make its case. Pappano certainly knows how it 'goes' and one hopes that its intent comes alive during the run.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Le Grand Macabre at ENO

What is Le Grand Macabre? Well, it does pretty much what it says as semi-occultist, taboo-transgressing circus of grand theatrical gesture. English National Opera have imported quite a spectacle from the continent as a vehicle for this rarely performed end-of-world satire by Ligeti and it makes an impression.

The piece is a succession of absurd episodes, spilling from and orbiting the body of a woman frozen in time as she fears some sort of catastrophic corporeal malfunction. This, straightaway, is the first masterstroke of La Fura dels Baus' production concept, a meta-image of where the action is taking place: the woman, shown living - and possibly dying - in squalor is shown first on screen then replicated on a huge installation that serves as the set throughout the opera. They've called it Claudia. It's brilliant.

The absurdity and terror of this situation spawns characters. Two lovers, all exposed sinew like the plastinated bodies of Gunter von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibits appear and attempt to copulate (it has the same repellant fascination and humour as the famous Simpsons Halloween episode Treehouse Of Horror V in which the family's bodies are inverted for the final chorus). The Grand Macabre himself pops out of Claudia's mouth and arms himself for the evening's work - to bring the world (i.e. this fleshy microcosm of the world, but the metaphor is already breaking down to excorporate everything) to an end. More worldly recognisable characters are also involved - the drink-sodden Piet the Pot and his friend Astrodamors, suffering psychologically what Claudia wrestles with physically under his domineering nymphomaniac wife Mescalina.

Rebecca Bottone and Frances Bourne are nicely cast as the contradictory lovers, ardent, lyrical and, physically, utterly repellant. Both Piet and Astrodamors, as the human figures on stage have the most wretched, unforgiving vocal tasks. Alas, Astrodamors is a step to far for the usually magnificent Frode Olsen. Pavlo Hunka's ashen Mussolini of a Nekrotzar is domineering enough but rather prosaic in a role which probably needs more vocal thunder.

One has the feeling that La Fura dels Baus director Alex Ollé knows pretty much what he's doing. He never wrestles with the piece, which is invariably punchy and manic and certainly never explains itself. Rather the written jokes are nicely delivered and there's plenty of interpolated humour besides. Indeed the grotesque end-of-days vision is rendered, if not palatable, then manageable by the relentless farce both in the libretto and on the stage. It must be said that Ligeti's rigour in serving de Ghelderode's original fin-de-sieclé, Breughel-Boschian concept is the main advocate of the score. One can discern the formal units in the music (if not always the programme-trumpeted stylistic parody) and Ollé has also chased the dramatic purpose in the twists and turns of the staging rather than responding to the music.

The second half of the production ups the ante once again. The versatile set of Claudia, fascinatingly manipulated with projection and separable body parts in the first half, is completely thrown open. The head, thrust out in terror rotates through 360 degrees as in The Exorcist and the potty-mouthed Black and White ministers that squeeze from the huge anus, pull the backside apart to reveal the intestine as a none-too-covert war zone. This third act is the most assured comic passage in the piece with, Dan Norman and Simon Butterkiss' Ministers owning their well-honed shtick with Andrew Watts' gold-suite Prince Go-Go. Inamongst all this is cast the vocally rock-like performance of Suzanna Andersson, a stutter-gun of crazy coloratura and the cabaletta to the cavatina delivered as the Japanese pop-pink porn-kitten of Chewbacca's dreams back in the first half (yes, it's that mad). The riot reaches a climax in a disco sequence that gets the best reception of the evening in incorporating an apposite homage to Michael Jackson's Thriller. It is most certainly the night of the living dead.

Unfortunately and rather lilke the toxic shock and hangover that the whole opera might be arguaed to represent, the fourth act is an over-distended denoument. Nekrotzar, inebriated, fails to bring apocalypse and the cast realise they are not doomed. In fact this may be the saddest span of the opera, recognising that the party of abandon is as absurd as the possibility of annihilation. Life either continues, monotonously, or it ends. Though it's formally fairly satisfying I couldn't quite process the Don Giovanni-like epilogue ensemble number which seemed a bit neat.

Clearly this production is a sensory and intellectual torrent, an experience that not deconstruction and discussion can really contain the measure of. Baldur Brönnimann's stewardship of the commendable house orchestra seemed unimpeachable. There were no weak links from chorus to dancer-actors to technicians. The opera certainly throws fresh light on my experience in watching a half-comparable piece, Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus, back in August. Birtwistle's work is a more totemic, more po-faced sequence of episodes but I enjoyed Ligeti's work more for more than just its humour. The music does have pockets of self-interested lyricism like ribbons stretched between the barbs of satire. It wasn't enough to make me feel comfortable using the word 'beauty' in respect of this piece but it did leaven the experience, investing it with humanity and much-needed respite from its invariable brutality.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Hildegard Behrens 1937-2009

The dramatic soprano Hildegard Behrens has died in Japan. She was one of the better post-war Brünnhildes, Karajan's Salome and part of the outstanding cast in Abbado's Vienna State Opera Wozzeck.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Bryn Terfel retires his Don Giovanni

Bryn Terfel has declared that the Verbier Festival concert performance of Don Giovanni which he gave yesterday will be his last in that role. It is an extraordinary virtuoso-charismatic performance which you can watch on medici.tv, the online streaming performance 'channel'. Terfel says that he prefers to do Leporello, which 'is more fun, really'.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne

An overwhelming and, amazingly, coherent production of this opulent semi-opera sprawl. The Fairy Opera is A Midsummer Night's Dream with illuminating musical interludes - masques - interpolated. These are sung by a small cast alien to the play and the chorus is joined by a dance troupe (making this the second GFO production with a significant dance investment, alongside Guilio Cesare). The singing is good. Carolyn Sampson's often reflective character stands out where the more narrative voices of Lucy Crowe, Ed Lyon and Andrew Foster-Williams seem entirely in control of the staging blancmange going on around them.

Blancmange? How about sherry trifle prepared in a paddling pool. Even by Glyndebourne's standards, this production of The Fairy Queen is opulent. Each change of scene ushers in what seems to be a completely new set. The most striking sequence of the evening lasts little longer than two minutes in which the entire cast come on stage in full rabbit costume to fornicate and then run off again. Interestingly, one could argue that a money-no-object approach to producing this piece is period practice, given that such a tableau-work would have been created with exactly this treatment in mind. It's an overwhelming experience in many ways and some take care of the 'not all'.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Amour de Loin - Saariaho at ENO

Well, I broadly agree with Ruper Christansen in The Telegraph:
If what you want from opera is the equivalent of a warm bath filled with scented bubbles...
as well as Andrew Clements in The Guardian:
... the evening remains desperately uninvolving.
With slightly more detail I'm best allied with Edward Seckerson in The Indie. He's prepared to recommend the show to the Classic FMers in the same way that Christiansen does - "If two hours in a floatation tank is your idea of heaven, then this is for you." - but does the piece the service of trying to actually get a grip on it too.

He has two interesting points. Firstly, one that eluded me, was that
"love from afar"... has some resonance with the internet generation... in endorsing the idea that distance (or anonymity) really does lend enchantment, promoting safety in fantasy.
This is the romance at the heart of the opera's appeal, exacerbated by the principals' inability to actually connect with one another, as each character is played in triplicate, dancers shadowing the singer. This act in itself has interesting potential and is terribly confused over the span of the opera. It just hadn't quite been sufficiently thought through.

The second is that of the nebulous spiritual - in fact, religious - gravitational pull of the text. With a pair of lovers drifting together on the basis of hearsay there is a lot of store put by fatalism, the idea of destiny. Rather weakly, Amin Maalouf's text all too easily slips into their assumption of some sort of divine scriptwriter who has decreed their union. This half-baked idea is taken up in Clémence's abject rant as the piece closes.

It's a great shame. There's an opera just waiting to burst forth from the third character, a sort of go-between for the lovers who is also a pilgrim; this character is never some sort of Olympian seer, removed from the (chaste) passion by piety but rather the all too human messenger-to-be-shot. I'm really sorry to say that this potential seems to emerge because of the weakness of the writing/staging than as the intention of the composers, something that is also apparent in Clémence's final peroration. It's just (buzz) words for Saariaho to wind sound around rather than something to pique the interest of the audience. It is not insignificant that during the curtain call the one production member so caught up in congratulating the (deserving) performers to the detriment of the patient audience was Maalouf.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Lulu at the Royal Opera

A fine opera with a fine cast and something rather special going on in the pit. It should be a shattering experience but I left "merely" dazed. Why?

Clearly this is a tricky opera to produce. It's serial language, extreme vocal demands and relentlessness mean that only the best will do, which is why we saw old favourites on stage - Howell, Langridge, Larmore, Michael Volle. Those who we haven't come across before become fixed in mind - Hartmann, Shipp. I had never heard of Agneta Eichenholz before either but her name and, crucially, her cool palette of features from ironic to a startled glaze, will ring in the memory for a while to come. Here was a fine Lulu: consistent singing across a fearsome tessitura; good acting (good looks). I could have done with one more vocal gear for critical moments of the piece but was too absorbed by the character for it to really matter by that stage.

Whatever the cast do though it's always going to be through the prism of the director. I think that Christof Loy's production is a worthy one, although he tries to have his cake and eat it. The design is b&w minimalist, with blocking and acting to match, an economical arrangement which I believe tries to draw the focus onto the characters - into the characters - as a working exercise in uncluttering action and score. Many will say it is an essay in film noir (of course the opera has a sequence of 'film music' within it) with its monochromaticism and Reinhard Traub's elegant, thoughtful lighting. Yet the sensibility is not shadow/intrigue. Rather the action is pushed up at the front of the stage, the lighting and design suggesting that there is nothing to hid. Suicide, murder and sex occurs centre-stage at the front of the action. The painting of Lulu is conceptualised by the use of a bright spotlight on the antiheroine, searching out and isolating but comparably unreal. Ceci n'est pas une peinture, as Magritte might have said.

(*Actually, the set design reminded me of the Sophie Muller video for PJ Harvey's This Is Love, which is also b&w and makes cunning use of the easy inversion of this monochromaticism simply by changing the lighting.)

There's a general detachment from the piece which is in keeping with the opera itself; Alwa stumbles through the opera thinking how it might make a good opera. Music vanishes at points, either for genuine melodrama or backstory/exposition. Loy's production surely tracks this self-awareness (in a work that begins with the Animal Trainer inviting us inside the 'menagerie' but with the implication that we're already on show) and also nods towards the revolutionary reductionism of Brechtian epic theatre. Indeed, the only time the 'set', a frosted glass wall, is used is when Lulu performs the other side of it in an offstage cabaret during Act 1, Scene 3.

Loy's intelligent deconstruction only works so far though. There are important entrances, exits and tragedies that only work with doors, of which there are none. The coolness of the production is also a hindrance - I didn't feel myself borne on or consumed by spumes of passion and felt detached from loving exchanges (and there are genuine moments of love and tenderness). Instead I had to rely on the action in the pit, which, although beautiful, isn't the drama sui generis - it's not Wagnerian in the Tristan manner of musico-dramatic Gesamtkunstwerk (I was reminded of my experience watching the Herbert Wernicke Tristan in this house eight years ago, in which a static, austerely reductionsit production meant that all the attention gravitated towards Haitink and the orchestra).

A key crack in the concept comes in the tricky ensemble scene of Act 3, the Jungfrau shares sequence. Where the principal cast battled on with some success the minor parts simply played out another opera, without sufficient awareness of the fourth-wall-straddling going on. It doesn't help that they're forced to the back (and by this point, the very back) of the stage for most of the action. I also felt that Act 3 had let the rest of the idea down when Loy posits the final scene in the space (and often blocking) of the first. This is symmetrical overkill: we're meant to be aware that the grotesque clients of Lulu's final employment are mutations of the earlier characters but there should also be a sense of lapsarian pathos. Dressing Eichenholz in Pagliaccoesque white bow tie on black and having her made up to look pale was insufficient.

Fine singing, fine music making. An intelligent but problem-punctured production. You can't fault anyone for trying.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Flatpack, an opera in IKEA

No, I'm not kidding. This is Ikea just off the North Circular, which for four dates this month has played host to a remarkable, semi-site-specific lyric-dramatic event. Have a look here.

Flatpack - something of a misnomer, as the audience didn't really have to assemble anything - played out a handful of dramatic scenarios on the showroom floor. Keyboards had been set up at a few designated points, between which the audience were shepherded by a pied piper violinist and a pair of dancers. The dramas could be loosely characterised as modern, sketch-sized bites of Abigail's Party-cisms: one couple falling out over different furnishing tastes, the other with very different ideas on how to host a dinner party.

Tom Lane's music is unsettled, angular but deceptively recognisable, using repetition of itself and the economical libretto, usually just the names of the furnishings. It's eminently singable though and the women's voices are particularly adept at making something of it in a building with all manner of peculiar acoustic annexes and background noise. The musical director, Oliver-John Ruthven, directs from the keyboard(s) and even gets in on the action, along with the director Rebecca Lea (who wisely employed herself organising the audience at the gathering points).

Of course, Flatpack isn't an entirely opportunist moniker as there is a scene in which construction of shelves (Billy) is the running gag. But then everything is meant to be fairly fluid. The performance I attended benefitted from clearly absorbed children and the willingness of everyone to straddle the invisible boundaries between the staging and reception. And afterwards I had time to buy a fish slice.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Falstaff at Glyndebourne

A new production of Verdi's final opera for the famous Sussex opera season company, directed by Richard Jones. Jones' reputation goes before him as something of a pop-art enfant terrible using unlikely designs and associations in order to access the heart of the drama. This blogger has already responded positively to the 'Cav & Pag' he mounted for ENO earlier in the season and (consequently) I was looking forward to seeing how he'd handle a bona fide comedy.

It's mostly good news. Jones parachutes the opera into post war, Dig For Victory mentality Britain, a land of old institutions and new faith in their benefits and solidity. Most solid and most sure among them is Sir John Falstaff, Chris Purves in a customary but not notably excessive fatsuit. He holds court at the sort of pub that one recognises even today upon visiting Windsor: the set design for this, as for all the scenes of the opera bar (the final Herne's Wood anomaly) push the stage area right up to the footlights, creating a present 2-dimensionality that is prefigured by the tapestry safety curtain.

If there's a noticeable manner of staging then its in the grouping of units of characters. Verdi's opera is an unrepentantly ensemble work and it is from this that Jones takes his most noteworthy directorial cue. The singers all stick together in pockets, chattering, purposeful, amiable groups where even the scheming seems well-intentioned. On top of this there are plenty of non-singing extras - brownie groups, a rowing eight, friends in a pub or shopping - who move through the piece as like-minded units. Against this Falstaff, though not played as a buffoon and not rejected as some sort of social anomaly does have an air of isolation: the eccentric, rather than the pariah.

Indeed, at the end of the opera the entire company join him in a drink despite the mad shenanigans of Herne's Wood. This is the weak point of the show for me. The entire stage is suddenly put to use, dominated by a huge tree, into which space pour the whole company in every Halloween costume ever invented. The blocking is a bit rough, certainly compared to the purposeful regimentation of what had gone before; as to the drama that had gone before, well this scene seems interpolated from a completely different show (A Midsummer Night's Dream, methought). I was left feeling utterly bewildered at the curtain.

'Luckily' the music's good - 'luckily', as I still haven't managed to get my head around the opera itself. After a lifetime of sculpting perfect lyric masterpieces, Verdi dived off into this contiguous, stream-of-consciousness epilogue to his career, full of energy and humour but without the formal corners that might help better define the drama. As an unbroken fabric (tapestry, again) of sound though it's difficult to beat the performance of the LPO on the shiniest of form, Jurowski procuring a punchy and plangent sound from the pit on the twist of a stick. Fantastic.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Peter Grimes at ENO

A new David Alden production. I expected no stone (pebble?) to be left unturned in his stage-search for the heart of the drama and I was not 'disappointed'. There's a meticulous details in the characters, who wear themselves and their back stories in their costumes, most notably the wonderful double act of the nieces Gillian Ramm and Mairéad Buick, skittering all over the stage as glazed, maturity-stunted products of years of causal abuse. Britten's idea was fairly clear - no-one's perfect, but the 'outsider' is the one that gets picked on - and Alden simply runs riot with it. Paul Steinberg's set design is fine, a shifting mix of the abstract, realist and inspired (I didn't get on with the Starbucks-a-like for Auntie's inner sanctum of the Boar but I thought that the reproduction of John Piper's designs for Death in Venice as the outside of the same in the anti-penultimate party scene where a show highlight).

Stuart Skelton's singing of Grimes is all about beauty, exemplified in an ethereal Great Bear aria but with power to spare all over the score. His acting is not quite in the same league (you can tell when he's been well-directed or not) but this is a fine Grimes altogether, a career-marker. The other principals, in rather more lurid colours of music and staging crowd this Grimes through sheer quality: Felicity Palmer's Mrs Sedley is an hilarious force of nature; Leigh Melrose's Ned Keene a spiv as high on his own product as she is; and Gerald Finely's Balstrode is the most beautifully sung characterisation I can remember on stage or on record. Amanda Roocroft is a remarkable Ellen, at once girlish and flighty, taking years off the typical characterisation of the more measured widower one might be used to, although I wanted more beauty in the sound, more of the 'silken thread' of her own set-piece Embroidery aria.

In support, the augmented chorus are on great form, a real purple patch of output, with heft and precision. There's a fair bit of abandon in the acting too, as opposed to the usual back-of-the-stage ennui that this lot can specialise in. Once again though, it's all about what's going on in the pit and what is going on in the pit is Edward Gardner. I feel that's it's still a work in progress. The real bite, purchase and ribbon in the sound that one is familiar from seasoned pit ensembles (LPO at Glyndebourne, Covent Garden Orchestra) cannot be too far away and will come with time and trust. There's no doubt however that Gardner knows exactly what he wants and how do it - when band and conductor meet in the middle it's really super.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

... and 10 operas you've never heard of.

As a corollary to the previous 10 Best Operas in the History of the World, Ever, Fact (etc.), here's an esoteric aside. In no particular order:

10. Fosca (Carlos Gomes, 1873)

"Surely you mean Tosca?"

9. Layla and Majnun The best known Azerbaijani traditional opera, which is essentially a Middle Eastern tale interspersed with the traditional song of Azerbaijan, the Mugham.

8. Flammen (Edwin Schulhoff, 1901)

You've heard of Don Giovanni by Mozart. The music buffs among you will have heard of Gazzaniga's Don Giovanni which predates Mozart (just). You probably haven't heard of the Czech Edwin Schulhoff who had a crack at Don Juan with Flammen and who perished in the Holocaust.

7. Licht (Kalheinz Stockhausen, 1977-2003) a 29hr long opera performed piecemeal as it has been completed over a 20 year period. Phew.

6. María de Buenos Aires (Astor Piazzola, 1968) - tango operita.

5. Japanese Noh drama (traditional). You might well have heard of Curlew River, a single act 'church' parable by Benjamin Britten. However it is unlikely that you will have heard of a famous Japanese Noh composition, from which Curlew River takes its form. The performers do not rehearse together and the performance and drama is dictated only by the traditional story upon which a performance is based.

4. Ariane et Barbe-bleu (Paul Dukas, 1907) You've probably heard of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and you've surely heard of Pelleas et Melisande, Debussy's only opera, to a text by Maurice Maeterlinck. Ariane is a feminist Bluebeard's Castle to a Maeterlinck text. Make of that what you will...

3. Doña Francisquita (Amadeo Vives, 1923) The 'classic' of the (romantic) zarzuela genre.

2. Oscar (Mike Read, 2004) This musical on the life of Oscar Wilde managed one performance.

1. Anything written since the war. It's almost impossible to conjure the memory of an opera written since the war that has impacted on the general consciousness, let alone entered the repertory. Britten's compositions are almost an exception. Music drama by the likes of John Adams, Philip Glass and Michael Nyman are familiar through their piecemeal use in the commercial sector. Serious operatic composers (i.e. more than one or two operas) such as Hans Werner Henze and Sir Harrison Birtwistle could monopolise this list single-handedly the same way that Verdi could saturate a '10 Best' list. And of course, there's the list of failure or folly: Madonna reportedly bought a ticket for the premiere of Nicholas Maw's critically mauled version of Sophie's Choice (2002); nobody was really particularly interested in Lorin Maazel's self-serving 1984 (2005); and simply trying to make novelty happen of its own accord by shock or wholesale-import modernism is always going to fail.

It's essential that people don't stop trying though. If sump-lists such as this fail to fill up with contemporary novelties, its a worrying indicator of the trail-and-error rate of current composers.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The 10 Best Operas - EVER!

This afternoon I listened to Der Rosenkavalier for the first time in a long time and got emotionally mugged. Reminded of what a good opera is capable of, I had a think about the best ones and this is my Top Ten:

10. Peter Grimes (Benjamin Britten, 1945)

Britten was the most celebrated British composer of the 20th century and arguably the best since Henry Purcell (17th century). Grimes was his first and best opera, a Verdian essay on a socially outcast fisherman.

*if you liked this you might like Billy Budd

9. Tosca (Giacomo Puccini, 1990)

Puccini wrote the best Italian Opera of the 19th century. That's not to say he wrote the most authentic Italian opera, as that accolade is more properly laid upon Verdi. However, as far as opera has mutated into a modern subgenre that typifies the trappings of 'opera' as a modernist would understand it Puccini is the exemplar. Doubt of this was vaporised when Marc Forster used the climatic close of the first Act to underscore a particularly melodramatic sequence in the centre of his Bond blockbuster, Quantum of Solace (2008). This bit, in fact:

*if you liked this you might like La Boheme

8. Così fan tutte ('They're all like that', WA Mozart, 1790)

It was banned/performed in bits in the 19th century because people thought it was subversive. They were right. It starts as sweet, innocent fun and ends in horror.

*if you liked this you might like The Marriage of Figaro

7. Der Rosenkavalier ('The Knight of the Rose', Richard Strauss, 1911)

As discussed. Actually, it's a bit of a cheat this as Der Rosenkavalier is overlong, certainly compared to the great, dramatically punchy predecessor masterpieces Salome and Elektra. However, it does have Elysian music, a post-Wagnerian flood of glory that doesn't subside until you're a wreck, as I re-discovered five hours ago.

*if you liked this you might like Ariadne auf Naxos

6. Jenůfa (Leoš Janáček, 1904)

What? say those of you who've never heard of Janáček... and those who have. Well, if a test of a great opera composer is to have completed at least three masterpieces in the genre, then he makes the grade. Jenůfa is the most violent, passionate, tragic and cathartic of his output.

*if you liked this you might like Katya Kabanova

5. Otello (Giuseppe Verdi, 1887)

Really, it's possible to complete this list using only the operas of Giuseppe Verdi. To paraphrase the former editor of Opera Magazine, Rodney Milnes, to dismiss Verdi is to misunderstand the nature of opera. Verdi also had a thing about Shakespeare which meant that the plots were ace too and his setting of Otello has all the quintessence of opera: love, jealousy, Machiavellian deceit and melody.

*if you liked this you might like Rigoletto

4. Wozzeck (Alban Berg, 1925)

The only truly 20th century opera on this list, with all the themes and lush lyricism of what had gone before but with the sounds and sensibility of what was to come.

*if you liked this you might like Lulu

3. Carmen (Georges Bizet, 1875)

Sex and death with great tunes. People use it for ringtones. 'nuff said.

*if you liked this you might like Cavalleria Rusticana

2. Don Giovanni (WA Mozart, 1787)

Don Giovanni is a rapist, a violent tyrant and a liar. He's also the hero of Mozart's best opera and so we can't help but love him even when he's being dragged into hell.

*if you liked this you might like The Magic Flute

1. Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner, 1856)

It's rather long and the principals spend five minutes discussing the word 'and' in the second act. Yet it's arguably the greatest piece of music ever written, let alone opera, and if you're really tuned into it it hurts.

*if you liked this you might like Die Walküre

Consequently, I would be prepared to say that the greatest three operas ever written are TristanDon Giovanni and Carmen. I'd like to make a further assertion, also from this list, namely that the three greatest 20th century operas are Wozzeck, Jenůfa and Peter Grimes (Der Rosenkavalier was completed in 1911 but it is firmly in the tradition of its previous century).

I am aware that the earliest opera on this list is Don Giovanni, completed 1787, and that the basically knowledgeable will be scratching their head, mouthing 'no Monteverdi?'... to which I can only plead ignorance/a self-evident limit of 10, and counter with 'hey, no Handel!'.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Dr Atomic at ENO

I saw the 4th performance of this new opera by John Adams last night:

It's a big disappointment in that it is remarkably inert

(OK, quick aside... I can see the endless possibilities for puns queueing around the block. Here it's a periodic table gag, i.e. inert gas, from the familiar chart that forms the safety curtain for this production. I'll be neither pointing them up nor apologising for them.)

and perversely, given that the subject matter is physically the most dramatic thing of which we can conceive, it has no drama in it at all.

What is opera if not drama? That's meant to be a rhetorical question, although I suspect a reasonable response is 'music'. Well the music is good,
particularly in the first half. Lyrical without being melodically pungent, it serves as a reasonable conduit for a cast emoting as they wait for the weather to clear and allow their test explosion to go ahead.

But here's the thing. That's it. That's the whole story. Cast wait for text explosion, cast get test explosion. At one point the central figure of the thing,
Robert Oppenheimer, goes home to his wife... but she talks to us, not to him. There's no argument, no metaphor, no cause and effect. The opera doesn't so much lean as stand upon the basis that we all know all about the subsequent, dispiritng history of nuclear proliferation, detterence and, most immediately, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It does nothing (OK, little, if one takes this production in the subset of 'the opera') to provide information or dramatic bias for these themes. Just like the ill-conceived The Minotaur that the ROH put on last year, the opera is simply a meditation on a known event. Like The Minotaur I would rather hear it in concert. It's entireyly possible that this misdirection is in no small part spawned in the libretto - written by Peter Sellars, no less. Moonlighting, tsk.

If one does get to hear it on the radio then, probably the best place for it, then it would be just fine to have the cast I did on Saturday. James Cleverton was standing in for an indisposed Gerald Finley (who has been honing the role internationally) and did a good job, although I wonder how much of my wandering interest in the whole was due to this unavoidable substitution... Brindley Sherratt was clearly the most impressive of the principals. The band played this coloured but often relentless score very well under Lawrence Renes.

I could talk about other things but they don't matter there's no point in having great design, choreography and lighting if you don't have a drama to enhance. The first dud of the 08-09 season.