Monday, 22 March 2010

The Need for Professional Criticism

Eighteen months ago I had a think about the state of film criticism following an editorial in Sight & Sound magazine. Again I find myself reflecting on the role of the amateur (in both sense) critic and what effect this has on the professional in the light of a really rather good - and, characteristically, robustly objective - piece by Norman Lebrecht for the New Statesman. I urge you to read it and to visit the critics nu-media collective, also at to which he refers in his essay.

Happy Birthday Stephen Sondheim

In celebration of the master lyric dramatist on his birthday, here's a remarkable clip: Take Me To The World from Evening Primrose (my favourite Sondheim number, I think), sung in a 1966 made-for-TV broadcast starring Anthony Perkins (yes, that Anthony Perkins!).

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Cunning Little Vixen, Royal Opera

There's a pleasant irony in Rob Bryden's production (that's not it above!!) of Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen being twenty years old, in that half the (prepubescent) cast won't have been alive. The piece is all about marrying the long, rose-tinted view backwards with the zest and restless wonder of youth. That is what this production manages with its big top staging effects and entertaining costuming, and helmed by the undisputed magus of this music, 84-year-old Sir Charles Mackerras.

It is a remarkably tricky piece to pull off though. There are a number of children's roles, which are indeed assigned to children. This has its own charm but presents balancing issues. Added to this, the score is an etiolated affair, delicate and skittish. The effect of full orchestral bloom can be, consequently, overwhelming - the first act dream, the second act love duet and the glorious, life-affirming close to all three - but there's a lack of argument which I'd find frustrating were I not simply flushed with a genuine joie de vivre at the onwards rush of melody and the proto-hippie nature-wonder.

In this run of performances, the Vixen is sung by Australian Emma Matthews, with whom I was unfamiliar. She's everything Janácek's Vixen should be, singing and acting hand-in-glove, a golden, present tone never obviously having to fight for space with all manner of on-stage shenanigans. Above all, she makes it sound easy, which it is not.

With its lifecycle-of-fox foretext, this piece is about the Vixen but I often wonder if the Forester is the key principal. Christopher Maltman performed this role quite beautifully, treating the stretches of arioso as if the whole opera were yet another of Janácek's dramatised song cycles. There was such comfort in his voice - to those of use of a certain age in the audience - as he puts the Forester about his business, managing his work, friends and domesticity with equanimity and great warmth. Just so, very touching (and good, unobtrusive support from Robin Leggate & Jeremy White in this too).

Perhaps the most startling drama of the evening was off-stage, as it was announced that Emma Bell, due to play the Fox had been taken ill (she has had an emergency operation to remove her appendix). This is a shame as Bell is a thrilling singer-actress. However, with commendable resolve the Royal Opera went to Bell's cover, the Jette Parker Young Artist Elisabeth Meister, to take over. This was a remarkable debut under the circumstances. More than just secure, Meister is charismatic, entertaining and a natural fit with Matthews, singing freely and with considerable dynamic control into the bargain. The inevitably rowdy curtain call was well-deserved. I also enjoyed Matthew Rose's poacher, perfectly cast.

A delightful production of a delightful but - and this is a caveat to meet head-on - tricky opera. The pit is a petri-dish of treachery in this respect. Naturally, with the man one might consider the greatest living interpreter of Janácek there was no bother... though I felt that there were strange, temporary bald patches. Mackerras is not a young man any more (indeed, he took his fulsome curtain call from the podium). Whilst the music that irradiated from the stage and pit was halcyon, unfettered by artifice, I also felt its wit was a mite blunt.

Altogether a special evening to be in the Covent Garden auditorium. As if to make the point, a howl of horror from a toddler as the Vixen is shot in act 3 was greeted with a titter of compassion from the audience, a sure sign that the opera had hit its mark well before the curtain.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Katya Kabanova, English National Opera

With English National Opera's new Katya Kabanova, we get the next instalment of David Alden's striking, realist Janáček productions. The bar had been set high by his previous ENO staging, a strong Jenůfa. I remember then, as now, an unusually steep rake to the stage. Indeed Patricia Racette's intensely characterised Katya is required to walk along the edge of it, which, along with placing an icon on her drawing room wall, exposes Alden's tendency to over-egg.

Generally allergic to being patronised in a theatre, I'm happy to recall that this didn't bother me too much. Janáček in general - Katya in particular - is powerful, compressed opera, made up of of pulsing (aching) units of music that seems to burst from one another. The music tends to the extreme and demands action of the same heightened realism. The 'walking a tightrope' analogy may be trite in itself but the rather uncomfortable sensation I had watching Racette undertake her direction* is entirely in keeping with the score. There's plenty more where that came from, too.

It's a staging of mixed fortunes though. I loved the simplicity of moving the diagonal backdrop to the opposite diagonal for the exterior-to-interior change of Act 1 but I didn't buy the highly stylised staging of the Act 3 storm. In general though, I think the uncluttered set design works in the piece's favour. Neither does Alden try to do too much fill it.

The singing is very strong, Racette well-cast on vocal grip alone. She's partnered with Stuart Skelton who I found a good but not overwhelming Grimes. His Boris may be summed up in the same manner. The less hysterical parts of Vanya and Varvara were quite beautifully sung and acted by Alfie Boe and Anna Grevelius, whose contrivance of honest, youthful love overcame both the metaphor and impracticality of the hard stage rake.

Susan Bickley knocked me out in The Gambler last month and I was salivating at the prospect of her Kabanicha, which didn't disappoint. I also really liked John Graham-Hall's Tichon, although I always see Graham-Hall rather than his character on stage. It's a personal thing.

Above all, I really loved Mark Wigglesworth's sculpting (a carefully chosen word here, as he kept a tight gesture-to-sound/phrase ratio on the go) of the score. The music's a slippery beast, loving but tourettish and yet it always rang out with purpose. The company orchestra were above averagely good. A satisfying evening in the Coliseum.

*Of course, I might not have been quite so flustered had not a soprano managed to fall off the front of the stage (also in a Czech opera) at Glyndebourne last year.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Oscars 2010

More or less as expected then. The Oscars, subjective nonsense but essential industry focal event gave us some quality awards for women (Bigelow, Bullock, Mo'Nique), although missing a trick for not garlanding Carey Mulligan. Well done everyone. Now go back to work.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Philip Langridge, 1939-2010

News arrived yesterday of the death of the English tenor Philip Langridge. Like all that leave us abruptly, this has been a shock. I never saw Langridge live in a staged principal role but I heard him on record and in broadcast on a number of occasions. I remember a radio broadcast of a visceral, taut Winterreise (with David Owen Norris) which stopped me from getting on a train once, caught as I was in its spell. Many talk of the metaphysical assumption of Grimes for Tim Albery at ENO. I find his Captain Vere (Billy Budd) also for Tim Albery at ENO just as affecting, even via DVD. Clearly Langridge was not only a fine singer but also a convincing actor.

Above all I understand that he was a colleague of good humour, warmth and generosity to peers and impressionable students alike, belying the frostily nominal 'industry' in which he excelled. To engender admiration from both sides of the proscenium arch is notoriously difficult. It is because Langridge achieved this that his loss will be all the more keenly felt.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

La Clemeza di Tito, Quintessential Opera

Another off-the beaten track performance of intermittently dusty operatic repertoire, another cast of good, young workaday singers. In fact this cast proved to fulfil the really rather impressive claims of the programme: the majority seem to be working hard in the mezzanine of singing work where covering roles in the top tier of companies is the next step after considerable experience as provincial principals and major house choruses (Glyndebourne seems to be their common experience).

La Clemenza is a difficult opera. It's a pageantry drama - roughly equivalent to latterday courtroom drama - there's not a lot one can stage, semi- or otherwise. The cast performed in modern-but-appropriate dress (Verena Gunz' Sesto and Ciara Hendrick's Annio literally in trousered role) with a chorus (uncredited, but one assumes the Unitarian Chapel's resident choir) on the opposite side of the stage to Edmund Connolly, directing the music from the piano.

Clearly this was a performance that would rely very heavily on a uniformly high level of singing and indeed, this is what made the evening successful. Leading from the front was Paul Hopwood's eponymous Cesare Tito, consistent, warm and ringing in a well-blended, well projected manner, dismissing the abject acoustics of the chapel with an imperiousness equal to his character. Strident or soft, his singing exhibited confidence and consistency that encouraged and was met with the same throughout the cast.

That's not to say that the other five singers simply gave us more of the same. Part of the pleasure of pared down performances such as this is being able to concentrate on the particularities that allow each to create their own character-space. Lisa Wilson had Vitellia's coloratura under such control that she could manipulate it from scheming to seductive, coyly blowing Sesto's fringe with a well-placed consonant ('aletta') at will. Verena Gunz's golden mezzo-soprano is a strong, plangent instrument, affectingly used. Equally luxuriant, Ciara Hendrick's Annio was a study in deceptive ease, in a discreet performance of lovely, quiet, present singing. Torna di Tito was worth waiting for. Stephanie Bodsworth's gilded her Servilia with generous tone to a particularly pleasing top - again, the shortcomings of the building were exposed. Publio is a more functional role, although consequently oft-used in what I think of as the best music in this opera, the ensembles. Paul Sheehan made more of Publio's sole aria than the score deserves, demonstrating that his rigour wasn't simply channelling itself into highly professional diction and acting.

The music was given a good outing here, with the chorus well-drilled (by Duncan Aspden) and Edmund Connolly making all the right decisions in tempi and pacing at the keyboard. Whilst the basic staging worked perfectly well I felt that this group might have benefitted from a dedicated director just to tease out the drama to stand alongside the singing. Still this was a good way to hear the opera and profoundly encouraging indication of the state of domestic operatic performance.