Thursday, 8 December 2011

Berlioz's Cinematic L'Enfance du Christ

Hector Berlioz
This evening I attended a performance of L'Enfance du Christ, Berlioz's approachable oratorio concerning the flight of the holy family from Herod's bloodlust and their resettlement in Sais, in Egypt. Berlioz's music has a cinematic panache all of its own, the scores bursting with melodrama, mental pictures and many of the dramatic effects that one associates with modern cinema.

For example, this piece begins with a once-upon-a-time style recitative before dissolving into a prologue. At the end the narrator returns as the music reconstitutes the here and now with a sequence of simple notes. One can actually hear the cross-fading of images, suggesting the passing of time (rather like the end of The Shining, for example). This very same musical-cinemtaic idea of Berlioz's is used by Terence Malick to move into the final sequence of his recent film The Tree Of Life - a movement that suggests stepping from either the present or the period of the film into some alternative state.

Elsewhere there is a real mix of music that follows the drama closely, just as in an opera. The piece would be more operatic but for the sung portions being separated by lengthy stretches of orchestral music which have clear visual connotations: the prologue is a marching bass line, earmarking the core of the work as concerning the family's flight (complete with braying donkey, borrowed from that prior theatrical work of note Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream); choruses dissolve into orchestral stretches that suggest everything from infanticide to domestic bustle; angelic offstage choruses provide not only acoustic effects but also dramatic coups in the performance. This is typical of Berlioz's output at large, which is both operatic and in large orchestral realisations of familiar literature (by both Shakespeare and Geothe).

Berlioz's musical language also has a long resonance. Familiar traces of Puccini and Wagner can be heard at given moments (more than just coincidental fragments of melody, the melodic outline of O mio babbino caro (translated as 'o my beloved child', from Gianni Schicci) comes as Mary talks of her child and a motif from Wagner's Parsifal (an Arthurian legend of a naive hero) pops up as the child-saviour's birth is discussed. Berlioz is not at all shy of using what we might now think of as crude musical devices, such as diminished chords, to generate the melodrama just when he wants it, a technique familiar to a certain school of silent film piano accompaniment.

I was watching the Britten Sinfonia and Voices at the Queen Elizabeth Hall under the magnetic Mark Elder.  The orchestra had some stand-out wind playing, particularly in the often tiresome, interpolated flute duet with harp, which was here a real highlight. The principal horn and bassoon also deserve mention, characterful and alive but never over-pungent. The soloists, Allan Clayton, Sarah Connolly, Roderick Williams and Neal Davies were uniformly superb, fully engaged with all this real and imaginary drama through exemplary singing.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Opera in Margaret (Lonergan, 2011)

My life isn't an opera!
That's a moot point heavily chewed over in Kenneth Lonergan's new film Margaret, a drama that investigates the relationships and moral equivalence of a disparate ensemble of New Yorkers. At their centre is a precocious but emotionally flammable high-school girl, Lisa (played by Anna Paquin). Lisa is prone to escalating the heat of exchanges. In her words, she can become hyperbolic, just like the heightened expression associated with the storylines and vernacular of opera. Lonergan uses this mode of expression both symbolically and formally, not least in contradistinction to the basic ennui of everyday New Yorkers. Their life may have its dramas but it isn't an opera.

What is opera? Not even Lisa's mother, an actor, seems familiar with the form. Lisa offers a thumbnail idea at the height of an early discussion - not to do with music, drama or emotion but in dismissing it as performers trying to prove how loud they can sing.

As if to prove the point, Lisa's own operatic sensibility leads her into situations either involving shouting or competition to be heard. This is most notable in the two set piece debate classes at her school where she gets involved in loud, heated exchanges with a peer. Abandoning the conventions of the discussion (for her own heightened expression), she begins to look like someone trying to prove how loud they can shout.

Lonergan's manipulation of a popular perception of opera in this way has a surprising pay off when we actually get inside the Metropolitan Opera House. There are two visits, the first as a preparatory episode for the second. Neither the aria from Bellini's Norma (that Lisa's mother attends) nor the duet from Offenbach's The Tales Of Hoffmann (which Lisa and her mother see together)* have any thematic resonance with the film. Rather, the two extracts are chosen for their simple melodic beauty to contrast with the raucousness of the dialogue elsewhere, as well as debunking that peremptory definition of opera confined to volume.

The second sequence proper begins by borrowing formally from Ingmar Bergman's film of The Magic Flute, in which a diverse audience are shown attending the lowered curtain as the introductory music starts.

As in Bergman it's a device for setting up parity between the audience and the stage, establishing equivalence between performance and reality. Moreover, as Offenbach's music is heard against the pointedly framed images of the audience one asks if it has become dislocated from the opera being watched to become the underscoring of the film. The diegesis becomes muddled. Indeed, when the camera turns back on the action of the performance, it's in medium close-up on the singers, i.e. with not only the audience but also the proscenium arch (the fourth wall) behind it. The singers occupy the same existential space, according to Lonergan's camera, as the audience, even to extent that their duet is filmed according to the 180° rule, as if they were characters in the preceding - real - drama.

Perhaps the film is an opera then. Could the individual and cumulative lives of the New Yorkers that the camera seeks out in this final scene constitute an opera? Lonergan's opening shot would suggest so, showing the movement of commuters on the street in slow-motion against the music of the opening titles. Slow motion is the natural state of opera, its drama being slowed or suspended for its most celebrated moments (arias and duets, such as those featured in the film). It is also a familiar device in the romantic apexes of films.

More than this, the film also has its own Interlude, or Intermezzo. Raging Bull and the third Godfather film have made us familiar with the short, stand-alone Intermezzo that comes at about the two-thirds mark of Mascagni's opera Cavelleria Rusticana. Structurally transcribed at the two-thirds mark of Margaret, Lonergan introduces his own interlude, a poetic visual solipsism, a slow-motion track following the back of Lisa's head down the street, followed by a vertical pan up between the buildings. It's a soul-in-flight moment of visual-operatic bravura (of which the Antonioni of The Passenger would have approved). It also serves as a riposte to the 'My life is not an opera!' rebuke, made after Lisa has unwittingly described a soul-possession experience.

With extracts from two highly familiar operas and Lonergan's own operatic approach to the structure and style of the film, it is interesting to see how Nico Muhly's original score finds its place. I found the musical cues invariably conventional, working with the action. However, there are one or two interesting moments where the music itself seems - consciously - at odds to the drama, casting confrontations in an absurd or playful light. Certainly, I felt that Muhly's music doesn't stake any claim for itself, a sense I also had on seeing his own dedicated opera Two Boys in London in the summer (it would be of interest to find out whether the opera was written before or after the film score, given the protracted release of the film).

Margaret is a complicated film. Characters contradict themselves as much as one another. Lonergan's incorporation of opera is equally contradictory. However it also effectively makes the case for the catharsis of art, particularly in the overt closing sequence. Opera is in many ways an absurd art form, demanding a considerable suspension of disbelief. The unifying theme of much of the film's welter of episodes is to do with adopting a high tolerance in order to try and achieve some sort of harmony despite these contradictions. The final scene suggests that once experienced, this harmoniousness attains a truth that renders the original contradiction the greatest absurdity of all.

*Please note that in the film the excerpts are performed by real opera singers: Christina Goerke sings Bellini's Casta Diva and Renée Fleming & Susan Graham sing Offenbach's O belle nuit. No easy link is available for any of these three artists performing these excerpts.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Eugene Onegin, ENO

When [Tchaikovsky] smiles, it's a pale smile. Edward Gardner, Music Director, ENO
Like Verdi's Don Carlos, Eugene Onegin is a fine opera: an abundance of melody, ripe for good singing and bound with high drama throughout. Also like Don Carlos the heat of the romance comes early and briefly. The descent is long and chilling. Here's what the conductor and cast have to say about their new production for ENO:

This is a curious new production for ENO of this strong, core work of the repertory. Deborah Warner mounts the piece with minimal fuss, traditionally/literally staged and without the capricious subtext-teasing that is ubiquitous and mandatory in so much contemporary operatic production. Yet for all that this is a commendably hands-off approach, there's perhaps too little direction. Dancers and actors are clearly undertaking the task of a chorus shunted en bloc between back and mid stage and the principals don't appear to have had an editing hand in the formative rehearsal ideas that have remained in the final cut, as it were.

Perhaps this has its benefits as it allows the singers to concentrate on singing the music without obstruction. Audun Iversen looks the part and is comfortable singing it although his Eugene is often as pale as Tchaikovsky's smile. It might be something to do with his neutral-vowel command of English. This is not an issue for Amanda Echalaz who manages to be affecting inbetween looking both stunned at her own consumption in love and the catastrophe of it being unrequited. This latter scene may be one of the most obscene in music, gentle, melodious, the poison of rejection delivered by intravenous drip rather than the gun of Act 2. The explosiveness - the drama and fully-formed expressions of youthful love and its consequences happily fall to an in-form Toby Spence, ably partnered  by Claudia Huckle's Olga.

For something more substantial from the production there is the arresting penultimate scene - also resonant of Don Carlos - in which Prince Gremin presents Tatyana, now his wife. Brindley Sherratt manages the tricky blend of good grace - love but awareness of having taken the much-younger Tatyana from the promises and possibilities of youth, in a set-piece aria as good as anything else that comes before. And whilst I'm on the low voices I might also mention the beautiful quality of David Stout's Zaretski, a perfect assumption of an operatic bit-part: it just made one want to hear more. I also liked the design decision to keep the silvery mirrored floor first seen as the glacial woodland grove in which the friends fight as the brilliant-but-cold floor of the urban rooms of state.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Errol Morris Does Opera

Errol Morris is everywhere on a screen near you at the moment. His latest documentary feature, Tabloid is opening on screens across the UK this weekend and the night before last BBC 4 showed his 1988 exemplar in the genre The Thin Blue Line. Here's a commercial he directed ten years ago, Photobooth, a spot for Public Broadcasting Channel PBS that won him an Emmy. The track is Di quella pira from Verdi's Il Trovatore, almost certainly recorded by the famous tenor of the 78 era, Enrico Caruso:

(hat tip -

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Film or Opera - how much detail do you need to understand?

Yesterday I saw George Clooney's new film of political skulduggery The Ides Of March. Like a feature length version of an episode of The West Wing, it's a film about the treachery, manipulation and frailties of being human caught beneath the lens in the petri dish of modern American politics. I say lens advisedly. Like The West Wing, there is an intensification of the drama in this situation, as if magnified.

However it was interesting that I found my comprehension skimming along on the surface of the dialogue. I simply wasn't taking a proportion of the script in. I don't know whether this is because I'm not familiar with the details of the American political system (or the Democrat-nicene part of it), whether it's just a more general reaction to the subject matter, or whether the script was being delivered in such a manner (not to mention speed) that it seemed implicitly unnecessary to grapple with it word for word. In fact I realise that it wasn't that I couldn't understand it despite any effort - it was that I was choosing not to engage with it in the first place.

This was certainly my experience of watching The West Wing, that the substance of the script was not necessarily intended to be mutually inclusive of the substance of the drama. Rather, though it was the basis for the drama, the drama itself fizzed and flared on its surface.

This is not dissimilar to the experience I often have when listening to operas in foreign languages, particularly those of the late 19th century onwards which are less likely to repeat sections or even lines of text. Instead, everything can be gleaned from the music, if not the staging and acting. It's important to know what's going on - surtitles are now provided in major Western opera houses, providing text in the vernacular - but it's not a sine qua non to have a comprehensive dramatic experience on the substance of the story. This is certainly the case with an opera I also saw yesterday, Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. The text is rather rudimentary and serves as basis for Wagner's musical composition. Indeed, the text is his own and written with a particular emphasis on Stabreim (or alliteration), so that the text actually takes on more of an onomatopoeic function, contributing intrinsically to the sound rather than the dialogue of the drama.

This is an important parallel to draw up as it isolates that part of a film which is presenting the drama. In an opera it is the composer's music; in a film, although the closest material parallel would be the original score, the actual corollary is that of the directorial decisions taken in production (and refined in the edit). In other words, the framing and tracking of shots, in-camera motion, pacing (and ultimate collation of these) equates to the director's music-like dramatic composition of the film.

The Flying Dutchman, Royal Opera

It's not often that an evening spent at the Royal Opera (let alone any opera company) is rescued by the chorus. This was my basic reaction on leaving the new Der fliegende Holländer (or Flying Dutchman) last night. Clearly the work itself is not in the same ball park of quality as the Ring Cycle (certainly not the post-Tristan operas) despite some splashes of ingenious orchestration. Jeffrey Tate got the swollen bass tremolos at the beginning of Senta's ballad to storm the lip of the pit just like the waves they're meant to be. Elsewhere though the music struck me as very vertical: balanced but lacking an essential lyricism, and making the singers work extremely hard.

Perhaps the memory of Christian Gerhaher charming the very gilt of the walls of the auditorium in last year's Tannhäuser has set the bar for these pedestrian Wagner works too high but the singing seemed rather ordinary. The Dutchman is possibly a mite low for Egils Silins, who really got into his stride in the latter moment of high drama and therefore tessitura. Anja Kampe gave a charismatic Senta though the singing always seemed to be a struggle. Conversely Endrik Wottrich's Erik rang out into the auditorium, but then his energies were clearly focused on the singing rather than his part on the stage.

It all seemed rather a shame, given the breathtaking set design by Michael Levine. A steep rake had been constructed in the manner of a ship's bow, though concave instead of convex, curving monumentally into the wings. Immediately apparent were the scale of the music and the supernatural obligations upon the titular character, not to mention the sea itself. David Finn's lighting design isolated spaces on this iron deck for individual scenes and to make the most of their transitions each of which amounted to a minor theatrical coup.

Nonetheless, such entertaining spectacle is inert if the music drama treads water. It was with huge relief then that the chorus swarmed over the space for the landing celebrations in the final third of the work. Clearly this part of the company now have a natural symbiosis and the movement and dancing seemed totally natural, an adjunct to some clean, muscular singing. Again, maybe its a quirk of the piece that the chorus part is a boon and the roles a series of albatrosses but the vitality of the chorus was taking full advantage of it.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Film In Opera

This week - and into next - the Royal Opera House is blogging about the use of opera in film. They're promoting the beginning of their big screen season and it also serves to draw attention to their successful relays where opera is shown live in cinemas. It's a particularly auspicious time to be doing this of course as the London Film Festival is now fully into its stride. What better time for a flagship West End events-house to be talking about its film connections than with international film press and the heightened sensibility of a potential public audience wandering the streets between Leicester Square and the South Bank?

It occurs to me though that the Royal Opera may have missed a trick. Opera gets co-opted into film production, but the opposite also happens - the use of film in opera productions. Here are some that you might be interested to know about.

1. Mike Figgis shot a number of specially produced clips shown inbetween scenes of his production of Lucrezia Borgia at English National Opera earlier this year.

UPDATE: I saw the BBC4 broadcast of English National Opera's The Damnation of Faust this evening. Directed by another film director, Terry Gilliam, the production uses a short film early on to show a stylised version of the second world war, and assert the credentials of the Mephistophelean character.

2. Alban Berg's Lulu (incomplete at his death in 1935) specifies a silent film to be shown during the interlude in the middle of the second Act. Doubtless the composer had in his mind Georg Pabst's celebrated 1928 silent film Pandora's Box as both share the same source material. The section of the opera covered by the film equates to the trial of Lulu in Pabst's film.

3. Nico Muhly's new opera Two Boys included specially constructed CCTV footage as part of the production design in a high-tech operatic thriller about the internet.

4. Wagner is one of the most popular composers whose music is appropriated by filmmakers: look no further than the prodigious use of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde in Lars von Trier's recent film Melancholia. The recent Tristan Project production of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in both America and Europe used short films by video installation artist Bill Viola to enhance the narrative of the opera when performed semi-staged.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Mikado, Charles Court Opera, Rosemary Branch

Back to the Rosemary Branch Theatre (a super, 50-seater space above a good, straightforward Hackney pub) for more music theatre. On this occasion I had come along to hear Charles Court Opera perform Gilbert and Sullivan's most celebrated operetta The Mikado, in which what I imagine to be the usual ingredients of sprightly melody and textual wit are transposed to a (occasionally ersatz) Japanese situation.

I was hugely impressed in some unlikely areas with this production. The costume design was several notches above the begged, borrowed or pressed-into-service arrangements that many small and medium-sized music theatre companies operate. I would struggle to believe that the bright, period-hinting costumes had not been made from scratch across the cast. The advantage this has is that is sets a level of freshness that is entirely consonant with the energy that the company bring to their performance, which is constantly high.

Additionally, the production itself takes place in an empty space save for a stack of nine scarlet boxes which are moved about by the cast. Apart from creating channels, daises and entrances this also has the advantage of giving the performers a further, abstract concern whilst on stage. Some might consider this a burden on the cast but, given the high tempo at which they moved about the space and delivered their lines, it was useful for them to have this recourse where one might otherwise expect to find on stage furniture, windows or props for them to work with.

Given the visual stimulus of the costuming and the openness of the stage, the restlessness of the show comes as no surprise. It's focused though, respecting the text and always sensibly blocked so that nothing is obscured. Kevin Kyle's Nanki-Poo sets early expectations high anyway by blowing his own trumpet - well, trombone - and the two gentlemen of Japan Pish-Tush (Ian Beadle) and Pooh-Bah lay down a benchmark for the patter that is to come. Director John Savournin, singing Pooh-Bah, is clearly fluent in the idiom, managing the hopping between sung and spoken voice without seam and delivering lines with an optimum sense of timing. It's upon this sense that not only the comedy but a sense of clarity amongst the tumble of parody and farce is achieved.

Naturally the 'three little maids from school' rushed the stage as if from a roughly opened bottle of pop. A blur of choreography and Louise Brooks-bobbed wigs was punctuated by giggling. Susan Moore's finger-picking was a clever little trope which instantly made her the pubescent Peep-Bo, where Carolina Kenedy simply deployed her saucer-eyes as Pitti-Sing. Catrine Kirkman's Yum-Yum, decked out in scarlet as the  base-note of the production, claimed her role prima inter pares at first with a great smile and later with some terrific, unleashed soprano singing.

The drama of The Mikado is created by a further trio of characters, fed into the story to maximise their drama and impact. Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner is played by Philip Lee in an entirely appropriate nod to Stan Laurel, generating the comedy through persistent (ingratiating) incongruity. Just as the first half seems to have found some sort of equilibrium to the problem of Nanki-Poo as thwarted lover and Ko-Ko as ridiculous interloper Rosie Strobel bursts in with a Katisha of Turandot-like instability, throwing things into disarray with terrific comic melodrama. Things reach a head, so to speak, when The Mikado himself comes to see that all is as it should be; again, just as in Puccini's Turandot, this is a moment for a considerable stage presence and Simon Masterson-Smith delivers this with a splendid mix of hauteur and affability.

James Young and David Eaton perform the score as a four-handed duet with quite exceptional ensemble and sensitivity to recitative, no mean feat given that they are up stage of the cast and facing that way too. I could barely get over the furious, Nozze di Figaro-like runs of the opening. But then, the whole performance was like that, so settling into a mix of wonder and frequent guffawing seemed like the natural way to spend the show.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Suor Angelica, Fulham Opera

There is inherent drama in a group of nuns (any closed clerical order, perhaps). The austerity of an existence of service and humility will at one time or another be either too claustrophobic for some or an attractive retreat for others. Consequently, the drama within such a group depends both upon the outside world and upon the background of the characters within. The films The Sound Of Music (1965) and Black Narcissus (1947) deal in changing political realities tipping only marginally suitable women of the cloth into danger. This is also the case in probably the purest example, Carl Dreyer's The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928) - Maria Falconetti's Joan isn't battling to defend or escape the walls of a building but her own body. The modern political reality (of the Inquisition) is outside in the courtroom whilst the battle she ultimately wins is with her faith in God, a conflict sealed up inside her head.

I mention this as Puccini's Suor Angelica concerns an young woman with a complicated backstory, who is tipped into tragedy following outside intervention; her eleventh hour re-assertion of faith and consequent redemption is dramatised as if projected from her posthumous conscience. It is a straightforward tale which Puccini renders in an hour of relative composure (i.e. without the dramatic punch of Il Tabarro or the comic tumble of Gianni Schicci, the other two operas that bookend Suor Angelica in Il Trittico) and which Fulham Opera have produced for a pair of performances with minimal fuss.

Puccini's music moves with a certain homophony, and melody in parallel intervals, rather like the lines of nuns processing in and out of the space in twos. Rendered on the piano, this music takes on a carillon-like identity, the bell-like tones being perfectly apposite for piece and space alike. Ben Woodward plays without intrusion.

Elizabeth Capener sings Angelica, a sizeable soprano voice which comes into its own in the high-lying climaxes of passion. Joining her in the decisive central sequence, Sara Gonzalez plays the Zia Principessa as a version of Verdi's Grand Inquisitor, worldly, omnipotent with a sound to match it. It's a powerful, almost choking section of the production, with Angelica subjugated on her knees downstage.

This climate of hauteur is propagated across those in clerical garments. Director Zoë South, as La Badessa, delivers with her eyes on stage what she delivers with a cane off it. Melanie Lodge sings the severe sister Zelatrice, a sort of bad cop to good cop Cathy Bell's compassionate La Maestra, high and low mezzo-sopranos from whom I wish Puccini had allowed us to hear more. In the ensemble of junior nuns there were also a smattering of well-taken ariosi, most notably Nuria Luterbacher's plangent Nurse.

Again Fulham Opera provide surtitles projected onto the back wall of the church, a welcome addition to the production, sung in Italian. However, they do fight with the immutable altar in the centre of the staging area in St John's Church: the action is necessarily off-centre or sequestered in the gloom behind it. I would also question putting so much of the action sitting or kneeling. It can be difficult to see what's going on, even from the third or fourth row. I didn't catch anything of the supernatural coda to the drama, seeing the boy for the first time only at the curtain call. Not to worry - this performance rung with good singing, not least in the final 'off-stage' chorus, a terrific peal of devotional ardour.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Berkeley/Martinu Double Bill, Rosemary Branch

Lennox Berkeley
Lennox Berkeley's A Dinner Engagement and Bohuslav Martinu's Comedy On The Bridge, performed at the Rosemary Branch Theatre by Minotaur Music Theatre, are not particularly well-known works. There are a number of reasons for this. Neither Berkeley nor Martinu are particularly familiar names, and one-act operas are by their nature rather marginalised (it's difficult to programme one for an evening in the same way as a full-length, three act work; and the necessary pairing to fill the programme, such as this, results in tempering of each other work's impact).

It's also the case that neither work is really particularly overwhelming. A Dinner Engagement (1954) is a jolly but highly mannered domestic farce, an Ealing Comedy set in a kitchen. Self-conscious stylistic ideas creep in to try and froth up the text and for all the crisp lyricism in the melody there isn't really call for either bel canto proper (pace Prince Phillipe's moments of pastiche) or quite the thematic distinction that one associates with Berkeley's contemporary Benjamin Britten (on whose own social comedy of seven years earlier, Albert Herring, Berkeley cannot have helped to have drawn in some way - I certainly heard some of this is in the ensemble stretches).

It has charm though, which was what I missed from the Martinu. The Comedy On The Bridge (1937) is a very comprehensive way of describing the function of the piece - aside from the absurdity of the five-handed cast getting stranded on a bridge slung between two conflicting armies there isn't all that much humour to be wrung out of the work. Once again though, there are nice tranches of melody (albeit in the surprisingly angular, post-Janacek vein) to be savoured.

Both shows used the same production team, clearly a hand-in-glove outfit where Gregor Donnelly's sets stretch out diagonally from a rear wing to the front of the stage on the opposite side and are lit (specifically in the Martinu) with musical precision by Jerome Douglas. The design also assists director Stuart Barker in keeping the characters moving in very mobile productions.

All twelve of the singing cast gave good accounts of the roles. In Dinner, David Milner-Pearce relished the Earl of Dunmow's language and Emily Kenway gave Mrs Kneebone the full Eliza Doolittle, neither scrimping on tone. As Prince Phillipe, Alberto Sousa sang with bright and easy ring, well-managed within the small space; the Cupid-strike between him and Louise Lloyd's Susan was sweetly played. Sara Gonzalez Saavedra and Elizabeth Roberts played their mother figures straight but with attention and subtlety - I must also mention the bookending role of the Errand Boy which required tenor Rhys Bowden to run into the brewing farce, blurt out high-lying music and then rush off again. It's in such well-taken moments that the comedy lights up.

On the Bridge, there was a similar consistency, with the Samuel Smith's baritone Schoolmaster for me the stand-out (though I wish he hadn't needed to rush about so much to point up his mania and that tiresome 'deer' business). Georgis Ginsberg's Josephine was also fine, setting the standard in the first five minutes to which the subsequent Joseph Padfield (Brewer), Owain Browne (Johnny) and Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Eva) rose. Daniel Ricker's spoken role (the Guards, offstage) was a well-judged addition to the mix, just the right pace and drawl in delivery to convince as a jobsworth and lubricate the comedy nicely. Alice Turner and Lliam Paterson played the pianos (and more besides!) musically and securely in sometimes tricksy scores.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Mike Figgis Deloitte Ignite, Royal Opera House

I suppose the best way to describe the 'Ignite' weekend at the Royal Opera House is to talk in terms of the village fete. The doors are thrown open and the public invited to wander the various spaces. There are half a dozen attractions from conventional performances in the Linbury Studio to a pop-up cinema in the Crush Bar. The Clore Studio, balcony and upstairs bar - though not the main auditorium - were also open and all the while there were talks, music and a pair of hard-working ballet dancers in the Paul Hamlyn Hall (the one that looks like a greenhouse, above).

One of the big draws of this weekend of events was simply coming into the Royal Opera House and wandering about. It is not only and interesting but also rather pleasant space and on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the view out onto a busy Covent Garden piazza is super. What did Mike Figgis, curating the event, want the weekend to be about though? The 'statement of intent' he publishes in the accompanying leaflet reads
I'm bringing together a cross section of the cultural community for a weekend of aesthetic intercourse that will be shared with the public... I'm intrigued to know what we all think about the state of the culture that we all exist in.
This is - in the chaos that is a village fete for the cultural village - exactly what was on offer. Initially I saw the rather more formal presentations. On arriving I went to see the first of Eva Yerbabuena's flamenco sets in the Linbury Studio. This half hour performance of flamenco given by Yerbabuena and her husband, guitarist Paco Jarana (and a percussionist) was as immediately arresting as I remember the Sadler's Wells performances to have been. It went something like this:

From there I went straight to the Crush Bar cinema to catch the last 10 mins (perhaps this could have been programmed better so as not to have overlapped?) of Mike Figgis' documentary film Flamenco Women (1997 - watch a clip here, including Figgis on trumpet). Immediately after this was a screening of a specially prepared interview with the critic and writer John Berger (famous for the aesthetic treatise, Ways Of Seeing), which I also saw.

It's interesting that in these two films, the style of Figgis immediately becomes apparent. He is unafraid to edit documents, which, on the face of it, risk the charge of changing what is being said. Though this was most apparent in the rapid cross-fading of what Berger had to say, on reflection this seemed most problematic when applied to the record of the flamenco. Having come from a performance in which the artist often left gaps or moments of respite from the intensity of performance, to watch a film in which the tempo and intensity is maintained through editing seemed strange (if breathlessly exciting!).

After this I submitted to the open circus of the rest of the event. I went up to the bar to escape the People's Band, a furious free jazz ensemble blowing any remaining cobwebs out of the hall. Wandering around the upper floor there were a number of dancers doing what they usually do behind closed doors on both the terrace and in the bar. I returned to see the end of Vincent Walsh's talk and listen to what else Figgis had to recommend about the rest of the weekend before heading off.

The nature of an event convening 'pure art' as a poster suggested is that it does risk pretension and exclusion, so it was good that Figgis and the Royal Opera House were prepared to risk this. Above all it was good the  Opera House was prepared to put on so many events and discussions whose content often challenged the very people who make up its core audience and benefactors. This struck me as more a statement of intent regarding its attitude to accessibility and the geenral purpose of the work that is put on on its stages than any marketing drive or publicity statement.

Friday, 2 September 2011

La Clemenza Di Tito, Opus Opera

La Clemenza Di Tito is the second opera that Opus Opera has mounted this year, once again a Mozart opera seria. An opera tilting toward the enlightenment, the same mixture of longing and deceit is removed from the god-fearing and fatalism of it's elder cousin Idomeneo and repositioned in a more day-to-day political situation. Though he is not always exactly inspired, this dessication is not a hindrance to Mozart, writing in this the last year of his life. However, the opera isn't helped by the rather prosaic and often long-winded recitative, almost certainly interpolated by a student. In this successful and coherent performance of the opera my only thought would be whether some judicious trimming of the recitative would have been appropriate (especially given that the performance was sung in Italian, without surtitling or libretti available).

In putting on this concert performance, resources went into providing an orchestra, a modest (though effective) chorus and, on this occasion, a fortepiano for the recitatives played by the musical director, Gregory Batsleer. The venue, Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, is a sizeable church whose marbled cavities are currently engorged by an absent organ. The sound is consequently a little unwieldy; not so much boomy as difficult to control. The young, undoubtedly late-convened orchestra's ensemble was never going to retain any fizz through this nebulous acoustic - this is a space ideal for a Coronation Mass, rather than a stage drama. Nonetheless with his assertive direction Batsleer did manage to pull some real definition from the score as well as some occasional loveliness, particularly from the upper woodwind.

Cutting through these inevitable compromises, the sextet of characters sang well, investing both Italian and  music with technical and dramatic fluency. Kirstin Sharpin's Vitellia gripped the story from the offset, wringing drama from the recitative exchanges with Emilie Alford's Sesto. Deh, se piacer mi vuoi showed range and bite. As the plangent Annio, Kate Grosset sang with crisp Italian, a nicely balanced counterpart to Rebecca Henning's Servilia. Their sweet love duet Ah, perdona al primo affetto achieved a natural, consoling lilt. When the eponymous Emperor finally appeared it was worth the wait. Ben Thapa sang right down the church without clubbing the sound. The space was no friend of the extremes of dynamic gradient he is able to achieve, but this power supports a lovely legato, allowing the character to remain above the fray but never forcefully imperious. Beside him Alexander Learmonth made the most of the functional Publio, allowing himself the occasional (and not unwelcome) Yes, Minister smirk to season his smooth, open baritone with some buffo. Careering inamongst the scheming, Emilie Alford was a flawless Sesto throughout. The disarming ease of a frighteningly vivace close-out to Parto parto should probably have prepared us for the time-stopping piano that finally tamed the difficult hall in the later Deh per questo instante solo. Classy singing.

One isn't always guaranteed such attention to the singing in the self-generated productions that orbit the West End of London. The preparation of the score by the singers certainly carried this performance and with some panache.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Das Rheingold, Fulham Opera

Wagner is different. The differences between this composer's music dramas and those of other composers are often issues of taste, let alone the business of scale or technicality. With all the attendant paraphernalia of a full-blown theatrical production what sets it apart can sometimes get obscured. Fulham Opera's production of Das Rheingold is necessarily without the benefits or trappings of a mainstream production, allowing one to examine it on its own terms. It invites one to stare the art form as Wagner conceived it in the face, toe to toe.

Literally, I might add. This production, staged within and incorporating the frame and furniture of a church in Fulham has the singers brushing past performers in the aisles and perspiring directly onto the front row of seating. The acoustic is odd but actually plays into the hands of the audience - a lack of presence as the sound goes up and back as well as forward disperses the harshness from the operational clatter of having large voices at such proximity. No tinnitus-by-Tosca in the back room of a pub here.

This is valuable. Wagner really is different, demanding breadth in performers and patience in an audience. All that Stabreim, the alliterative mortar of Wagner's self-penned libretto was sharply in focus here. For all Ben Woodward's heroic (and thematically detailed) rendering of the score at the keyboard, the colours of the orchestration, its line and sonority cannot be recreated on a piano. However, this reduction does reveal the inherent sound of the text as an unimpeachable component of the experience.

Chief among those on top of this issue was the outstanding Alberich of Robert Presley delivering heft and quality of sound, within character and without dropping a syllabic stitch. The same can be said of Brian Smith-Walters' spiv Loge, with a charming characterisation whose cynicism was most at ease with the updating. Ian Wilson-Pope's heraldic-baritoned Wotan held back some silver in the top third of his voice for the key moments, as Wotan releases his frustrations with the moral compromises of absolute power.

These three performers took their curtain call last as befits their importance in the drama, although the whole company was strong in the key areas of text, sound and characterisation. For example, Sara Gonzalez's Flosshilde, doubling as Erda makes a credible volte face from first scene tease to penultimate scene Cassandra with modest adjustments to the colour of her voluptuous mezzo-soprano.

Fiona Williams' expedient production used a high concept of Wotan as a mid-West oil baron (There Will Be Cursing?) into which Presley's Aloha-shirted Alberich and the glazed, corporation-suited giants fitted coherently, if loosely: gangsters all in different guises. Humour did work, particularly Elizabeth Capener's never over-played hot-pink Rhinestonemaiden Freia. Now and then the staging struggled with familiar issues of the inflexible space and modest lighting with people often caught in anonymous upstage crevices or shadow. That said, the lighting variation and back-projected surtitles were more than I had been expecting and were welcome.

Above all I was delighted that the cast had the courage to remain static for stretches of the piece and just deliver the score. Wagner may be different, but it's still opera, making demands on the ability of performers to sing their way into a role and deliver character and drama to the audience by this method. For all the invention of the staging (the Tarnhelm/Wurm transformation is a genuine coup) the onus remains on the singers to offer a lyric argument and this was delivered emphatically.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Turn Of The Screw, Glyndebourne

First to the technology. This is the second live streaming of a Glyndebourne opera production this season (the first was Die Meistersinger), an event distinguished by its accessibility: if you have a good internet connection, you can watch. There are a number of things to be said about this form of seeing an opera but straight away one must acknowledge that The Guardian, hosting the event, have got the basic issue correct - a good quality stream. Factors such as the quality of the screen, speakers and the domestic broadband connection may be out of their hands but The Guardian have triumphed in setting up an arrangement which is clear, in synch and not prey to operating other programmes on the computer or even with the same browser. I used social networking sites during the performance, toggling between tabs on the same browser window without loss of sound or the feed frame freezing (or 'buffering').

Secondly, the performance. The open-plan set seems almost too transparent to accommodate the emergence of spectres from shadows or hidden entrances. In conjunction with some intelligent lighting from Mark Henderson the dissolving of characters into and out of the staging is not only effective but also varied. One also gets the impression of time passing by virtue of the revolve and design nods to seasonal change. Coming of age is part of the drama being worked out in The Turn Of The Screw and the pathos of the passing of time has its own weight besides the extremity of corruption.

The singing is - from what I can tell, and I'll come back to this - good and the playing excellent under Jakub Hrůša. I was surprised to find myself most enchanted, on a purely vocal level by Joanna Songi's Flora, delivering the music clearly, without unnecessary art. Giselle Allen's English (as Miss Jessel) was exemplary amongst the cast. Miah Persson's Governess was a very attentive character study, conspicuously avoiding the igenue babysitter who must stop dreaming of Mr Darcy and grow up hurriedly. Thomas Parfitt impressed as Miles, bringing that underrated quality of opera singing to the stage, i.e. stillness - this particularly noteworthy when seen framed in close-up by a camera.

I'm not sure I really got the claustrophobia that the piece demands to really explode at its denoument. I suspect this is because of the staging, although I remember Deborah Warner's incrementally denuded Barbican theatre production for the itinerant Royal Opera twelve years ago managing the balance of revelation and internal compression with hammerblow effect. Still it was nice to hear the full score after the less delicate (if no less musical) OperaUpClose version currently playing in London.

Of course, for all there is to be said about the accessibility and quality of the experience there is a final word to be said about the simple nature of a relay. There is no substitute for hearing this or any other staged lyric drama via audio-visual media. One was reminded of this in the second scene in which Mrs Grose's first entry was immediate subject to violent level changes by the attentive engineers, coming, as it does, after the children's singing. In the auditorium, not only does one have a natural organic level adjustment to such a moment (i.e. without the white noise of dials being turned) but this also has its own effect within the drama. At a moment such as this the elastic web between performers and audience is at its most subtle. The curious balance between the fragility of the children and the world-weariness of an adult, not necessarily written into the notes but buried somewhere in the music is first heard. All the issues, both positive and negative, surrounding my experience of seeing such a relay in a cinema remain pertinent.

The Guardian's How To Enjoy Opera

This weekend The Guardian published a supplement to coincide with the second of their live opera performance relays from GlyndebourneHow To Enjoy Opera is intended as a guide for the barely/un-initiated: key works of the repertoire; how opera has changed; basic ideas to scotch myths and prepare the listener for a first experience; and some useful tips on how to find affordably-priced tickets.

On the face of it this is a perfectly good idea. However my suspicions of the enterprise were quickly alerted by the video trailer the paper had produced to market the project. This involves three people on a typical, if comfortable urban estate discussing the appeal of opera by singing to one another. The music that is used to score the gimmick is that of The Barber Of Seville, jolly, benign, vaguely recognisable music. Inoffensive, like a scented candle - tempting, soothing, providing a temporary focus of meandering attention, ultimately pointless.

And this is the basic temperament of the whole guide: jolly, benign, vaguely recognisable. Consequently, we get lists. Lists are never designed to inform but as a reference point; 'ooh, I know that one' is the basic response, 'perhaps I'm not completely ignorant of this opera business after all' says the reader, wrapping themselves in a slanket of self-satisfaction. Fiona Maddocks, who compiled the 'Top 50 Operas' was vaguely apologetic about it on Twitter, saying
re lists my preferred heading wld be 'operas from the canon worth knowing about that happen to number 50'...
Quite. I would have preferred to see a generic list of operas ('these are the top political dramas, these great love stories, the best comedies are' etc.). This is often the way in which films are listed at the cinema or in DVD collections and today the analogy to be drawn between films and opera is closer than it's ever been. A chronological list, like this one, is stuffy and no longer pertinent in the director-led climate. Tim Ashley's modern composer list is more helpful as a discussion of styles. Certainly, the glossary that Ms Maddocks provides of operatic terms is utterly pointless. No-one needs to know a single one of these terms in order to engage with an opera, let alone enjoy it. Many people involved professionally in opera will only know a proportion of these terms.

Most infuriating is John Crace's How to survive your first opera. Like all these jolly, benign, vaguely recognisable pieces on anything its moderation is its weakness.
Here was art at its most sublime:
he says recalling his first, Damascene experience. What does sublime even mean? Does is mean a perfectly miscible blend of art forms that can access consciousness other art form cannot (objective)? Or is he using the term in the more common (subjective) manner of overwhelming, sense-saturating?
an overwhelming combination of music, drama and poetry.
oh, he means both. Is this article about to become have-and-eat-cake?

Sure enough, he begins to get glib. He notes that dresscode is now really only the preserve of Glyndebourne, which he also seems to think this is great fun,
For Glyndebourne I wear a suit without a tie and still feel like a tramp.
Well, clearly Mr Crace is still struggling with 'the prejudice in [his] own head' he notes in his opening sentence. Glyndebourne - opaquely - outlines the tradition on its website. However there is no obligation to wear anything specific. Read the terms and conditions of purchase. There is no mention of dress requirement as a mandatory adjunct for purchasing or using a ticket. As for Glyndebourne's fragile logic that evening dress originated out of respect for the performers, well not only is this unlikely but one suspects it had more to do with the original audience dressing in a period appropriate manner to attend a private performance involving dinner at a private home. Perpetuating a 'dresscode' is anachronistic nonsense.

What to see?
for your first opera stick to one you've probably heard of
More nonsense. Trying something new? Go and see something you think you might know. Crace's reasonable point is that you don't want to accidentally sit down in front of a four hour epic of slaughter and politics if you wanted to see a tidy tearjerker with perfumed tunes - so I return to my point about generic listing above. To that I'd add investigating the running time. These are the pragamatic facts of any sort of artistic experience over which an audience may have control and so of which one wants to be informed beforehand. However, trying to control what you experience once inside the theatre is missing the point of theatre-going.

Homework, writes Crace
You should be prepared to do a bit of background research before the curtain rises.
Bullshit. Sorry, I usually try to avoid this sort of language but this made me angry. If the show doesn't communicate with an audience coming to it cold, it has failed. Once again, trying to control what you experience in the theatre is missing the point of theatre-going.

Then, to close
A final word of warning. Wagner. Don't.
A lazy, crass line of text wasting everything he has written in the rest of his own piece.

There is a useful piece on how to deal with the pricing structure of major theatres and tips on how to find cheaper tickets, although these problems are by no means the solve preserve of opera. A related Guardian article from a few days back suggests that the current vogue for opera in fringe venues provides not only an affordable opera but also a more involving circumstance for its performers and audience alike. I might add that it also allows good singers - of which London has a few - who may not yet be the elite athletes of the art form required to fill the barn-like auditoria of the West End the ability to sing within themselves, thus doing justice to the art form. What How To Enjoy Opera does not do is justice.

Addendum: I was thinking about Lord Harewood, who died last month, and the publication for which he was famous, Kobbé's Complete Opera Book. It's an interesting book but not one I'd recommend to the newcomer as it is - for the reasons emergent above - rather dated. However it is worth noting that a man such as the Earl of Harewood was not by any means an ivory tower recluse interested only in lyric theatre in its snobbish postwar heyday, as he was also president of the FA in the 1960s.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Birtwistle, Angel Fighter, BBC Proms

Another day, another new opera in London town. Today I saw the UK premiere of Angel Fighter, a new work which is essentially a short opera (people will probably want to call it a cantata). It was commissioned by the Leipzig Bach Festival and, in situ, sounds something like this:

The performance I heard was at London's Cadogan Hall, a much dryer acoustic than the Thomaskirche Leipzig, with a strange vertical nature - the sounds rolls up, not out. This is important as I found myself struggling to get to grips with the text. This is a characteristic of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's music. For all its surprisingly meticulous orchestration it really comes at you with minimum violence, making almost insuperable demands on the soloists.

Quite apart from their gifts as singers I wouldn't have minded seeing Andrew Watts and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts go head to head in a real fight. These two mean are well-built and immediately put me in mind of Jacob Epstein's sculpture of the same title (right; although the homoeroticism of the sculpture isn't something at all apparent in Birtwistle's piece, the composer himself referring to a painting instead). Watts' initial entry was from the back of the hall where one was able to hear his forward, clarion, well-modulated tone. But on stage both were assaulted with the timbre-saturation and volume coming from behind them and it was difficult to really make them out. The BBC Singers, who warmed up into some quality ensemble singing in the first piece of the programme (Peter Maxwell-Davies' Il rozzo martello) were better defined but only as they had a more nebulous character, as is defined in Stephen Plaice's lyric appropriation of the tale.

Indeed this turned out to be yet another typical Birtwistle experience after Royal Opera's The Minotaur and the Mask of Orpheus Prom from a couple of years back. You fight to hear the buried orchestration and the metaphor of struggle is directly resosnant with the conflict going on right at the surface of the music. When a certain dramatic irony is involved to colour this experience - as in the ENO's recent Punch & Judy at the Young Vic - this can become quite an invigorating experience. However, with a really wonderfully balanced performance of Georges Aperghis's 'piano concerto' Champ-Contrechamp prior to it (the London Sinfonietta with Nicolas Hodges) as well as the tonally contra-distinct colours conjured by the BBC Singers in the Peter Maxwell-Davies, I found myself combing through the bluster of the Birtwsitle for comparatively little return.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril, Courtauld

Somerset House has, in the past decade, reinvented itself as a buzzing London venue. I was there fairly recently to see the latter half of the Ai Weiwei exhibition curated by the Lisson Gallery. On this special evening for the Courtauld Gallery, which occupies the north side of the building, there were a number of queues of those waiting to get into the Film4 Screen series, where films are shown in the courtyard.

The Courtauld has obviously understood the appeal of creating an 'event' evening to help promote its exhibitions. I found myself amongst a number of voluntarily costumed punters coming to see the Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond The Moulin Rouge show, drawn by the novelty of fin-de-siècle Parisian dressing up (as well as the waived entrance fee for having done so). In addition the Courtauld had thrown in a brief talk on a number of the canvases in the modest exhibition and a short display of Can-Can dancing.

Perks aside, this exhibition is a real winner. Showing highly familiar poster prints such as the one above alongside the sketches for them and other contemporaneous canvases threw the former in to absinthe-perfumed relief. The hauteur of the world-weary Avril emerges from the familiar stylising of the prints especially in conjunction with the canvases of her outside the clubs in the street, sloping along. Lautrec is also shown to emply painterly techniques du jour with raw, decorative colourising in the style of Bonnard and even Vuillard (if not Seurat). Indeed it's the colour of the paintings which brings one back to the prints, rather than their casual, florid lines.

In addition to the rich room of Lautrec/Avril pieces, there is a second room of other contemporaneous work: different artists tackling the same district of Paris as well as an interesting Munch frontispiece for a similar event elsewhere. What I found most extraordinary was wandering furhter afield in the Courtauld. One forgets that this gallery has a simply unrivalled collection of Impresionist masterpieces, groundbreaking and beautiful artworks that surround the Lautrec exhibition like more well-heeled Arrondissements. If there had been no dancing or dressing-up this would still be a very special exhibition.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Serpentine Pavilion and Gallery 2011

Hortus Conclusus, Peter Zumthor's Pavilion for the Serpentine this year is a stern, even exclusive affair. A thick featureless black gauze suggests the entrance to a labyrinth and, once inside, the space resembles a cloister. It's actually rather lovely inside, peaceful and removed if cramped, with plenty of tables at which to sit and have a drink. I'm not sure that the opacity is going to endear it to those used to having a space to complement a gallery visit. I was certainly happier to sit out on the grass, given the good weather.

Inside the gallery is a remarkable, continuous installation by the Italian Michelangelo Pistoletto. At first it looks as if the corrugated cardboard packaging has been left uncleared but this is in fact the basis of the work. Rippling around at just-over-waist-height, one has the sensation of standing beside a chocolate bar, like endless cross-sections of Cadbury's Flakes standing upright. The undulating card gives way to a few select points, all demanding on the theme of sensation: a pair of ear trumpets; a mirror reflecting the ceiling window in a self-perpetuating well of light; a prayer pew in front of a mirror. It makes for an unusual and even entertaining visit, although the volume of the installation means that it makes for a rather corwded viewing experience - the antithesis of the reflection-in-situ that it seeks to promote.

So both inside and outside the Serpentine there is a monkish sensibility but also one of claustrophobia. It's a peculiar sensibility to be bringing to a gallery in the middle of the wide-open space of Hyde Park.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Die Fledermaus, Iris Theatre

In the great tradition of concerts held in St. Paul's Covent Garden, Iris Theatre's production of Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus had competition from street performers in the market. It's unlikely that the al fresco crowd were getting a show with more energy than that generated in this production of Strauss' farce though. In fact, it might be that there was too much energy in this high-calibre performance. Mel Cook's production is a slapstick-heavy affair, the knockabout comedy taking its lead from the vitality (not to mention champagne froth) of the celebrated central-Act party. With so much movement (complete with entrances that necessitated a sizeable walk up the church's aisles) characters were occasionally masked by shadow or had their voices scattered in the melee. Above all, the rather frenzied comic playing tended to transfer itself to the singers when they were actually singing. There really is plenty of comedy and chutzpah already written into the opera without having to generate extra physical comedy, entertaining though it was: to coin an appropriate metaphor, one has to hold the champagne glass still to get the full measure and effect of Strauss' sparkling wine.

Despite this I was impressed by a spirited, even classy evening's music-making. Comprising little more than two quartets (string & wind), the Orchestra Of St. Paul's under the direction of Ben Palmer filled out the chamber arrangement of the score with meticulous ensemble and an occasional flare of character. The combination of sinuous lead violin and woodwind brought an Austro-Hungarian flavour to the sound, like an accordion at the heart of a Czardas. Lugubrious woodwind at the end of the party conjured the decadence of Kurt Weill and the actual music of Stravinsky and Wagner also made cameo appearances. Accompanying ensembles are typically thrown together by necessity or afterthought in the West End, so it was a pleasure to hear a balanced, well-prepared group creating a sound platform for the singers.

In their turn the singers took full advantage of the opportunity. Not unlike Mozart's Il Nozze di Figaro, the focus of Die Fledermaus is on a young aristocratic couple blundering into confrontation and comeuppance. Andrew Dickinson's Eisenstein is at the centre of this, played, in updated dialogue, as a Sloane of contemporary, gap yah-vernacular. His was the exemplary performance under the circumstances: clear in speech and song despite the perpetual motion, never neglecting the audience. As his wife Rosalinda, Felicity Hayward sang with generous tone and sparkle whilst successfully negotiating the rough and tumble (but I felt slightly cheated that her thrilling high C at the end of the Act 1 ensemble was delivered directly at the conductor's feet!).

The showpiece party of the second Act revolved around Belinda Williams' Count Orlofsky. Playing him as a bored Russian playboy (setting the action firmly in contemporary Chelsea), Williams used a broody mix of pride and ennui, allowing her to move and sing without the mania of the over-excited guests; a highly charismatic performance. Henry Manning carved out plenty of room to showcase his manipulative Falke (complete with Nolan/Batman jokes in a nod to the opera's title). Sarah Gabriel, who had already won the audience in the first Act with a nicely pitched Eliza Doolittle of an Adele, delivered the Laughing Song in the second with an impressive lightness of touch. The third Act consolidated the strength of cast, Edward Lee (as Alfred) alternately showing off his clarion tenor and y-fronts, and Amy Payne and Leif Jone Olberg (Ida and the Prison Governor) modestly subordinating well-produced sound to the demands of functional character.

Someone had also spent more time than is usual for these events preparing costume and choreography. Clearly a great deal of preparation and attention had been spent on this production and it was well-invested.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Music in The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

The Tree Of Life is released today in the UK. I've had a chance to see the film and though I'm planning to write about it in my usual way, I thought I might think separately about the music used in the film. The music is a vital part of The Tree Of Life, not only aesthetically but also structurally; Malick often chooses to have sequences of fragments of shots strung together and the music lends them the consistency of thought - or at least intent - that might otherwise feel rather more elusive. The use of the music in the film is also rather similar to that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci-fi epic, whose content and vision is justifiably comparable with Malick's new film. In 2001, Kubrick famously used commercially available recordings to suggest what he wanted, only to use much of that very music itself in the film. Malick has also used a number of commercially available recordings with the supervision of composer Alexandre Desplat, who also wrote some original music.

Throughout this post, I'm grateful for information from other bloggers - OperaChic and All Things Shining - pointed at by the LA Times. The links are, where possible, to the actual recordings used in the film.

As Malick's film may be said to consider love, loss and memory in the epic context of the life-span of the Earth, there is clearly scope for music that does more than underpin action. Indeed, much of the music reflects on the one hand the viscera & wonder of the natural world and on the other the aspiration towards something spiritual or at least, something beyond life, something noumenal. An early example of the latter is John Taverner's Funeral Canticle, choral music rocking back and forth like a pendulum, apparently unable to come to rest. This underpins an early dramatic event that sets in motion the meditative, nostalgic content of the bulk of the film. Despite the title of the piece it's not expressly mournful or soulful music. Rather it is music that enables rumination, supporting the imagination and the extension of thought.

It's a surprising volte face then that a subsequent birth-of-galaxy sequence should be underscored by a sung version of the liturgy, Zbigniew Preisner's setting of the Lachrymosa from the Requiem Mass. We can deduce then that this is part of Malick's intent for the film, a continual juxtaposition of the natural and the supernatural, just as the opening voiceover suggests
There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace.
This is probably confirmed with the use of Gustav Holst's Hymn to Dionysus, again a work with Bacchanalian title and text at odds with the visual temperament of the graceful mother watching over the children's infancy. I found it as well to remember that Holst brings his own Planets Suite to a close with the similarly upper-voice choral music of Neptune, using the same sound world (no text) for his interplanetary vision. Holy or savage text, life beginning or ending, the sonority of choice appears to be choral.

Nonetheless, one can see the inherent contradiction. To make my point, see the music of a subsequent scene, a moment of unequivocal theological content. The frustrated musician father, played by Brad Pitt, plays the organ during a service at his church watched (with equivocal interest) by his son. The music is the hackneyed Toccata and Fugue attributed to J.S. Bach, BWV 565. It immediately put me in mind of this children's animation from the 1970s, where it underscores a title sequence taking in the same gargantuan span as Malick (but in a considerably shorter 90 seconds!):

But then I like the interesting decision to follow this with more Bach - the E Flat Minor fugue from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 853 as the boy plays on in the church which his father has left. The didact has gone and the boy is free to make of the building what he will. Similarly the gothic portentousness of the D Minor Toccata and Fugue is replaced by a more intimate, fluid and interrogative piece. It is also - in E Flat Minor - a semitone above the D minor of the organ piece and so, at a crude-but-effective level, is an enlightened step up from the music that has gone before.

The Bach is not the only music brandished by the father. During a meal he breaks off from the table to involve himself more fully in the climax to the 4th Symphony by Johannes Brahms. This is a particularly rich episode in the film. For a start the music itself is an extremely turbulent cascade of variations, a notable orchestral outcry from a composer one associates with classical restraint. Secondly, Brad Pitt's father makes a point of naming the conductor, Arturo Toscanini (the first of two occasions on which he is invoked). Toscanini is arguably the most notorious autodidact in the history of conducting, a man who demanded unquestioning fealty from his musicians, bullying them into performing as he wanted. Is the father listening to the music? Or is he listening to the expression of a condutor, through the music, whose approach to claiming what he wants in life is attractive? (It's also interesting that Brahms' music is used at a similar point in the development of the overbearing father-son relationship in PT Anderson's There Will Be Blood).

I suspect the use of Brahms in these period sequences has something to do with the central European sound that migrated across the Atlantic towards the end of the 19th century. It's the sound of the roots of America. One of the most powerful interludes in the film is that piece used also in the trailer, Vlatava from Bedrich Smetana's Ma Vlast.

Noble and proud, the music is nonetheless wistful, just like the character of memory in which the bulk of the film is couched. The fluid running flute is also a well-considered as a sonic counterpart to the dynamic steadicam filming and restless cutting. Additionally, the music of the most famous of European ex-pats, Gustav Mahler, finds its way into the the film (in an extract of his 1st Symphony), though this unsurprising context in which to find a composer who declared that 'the symphony should be like the world - it must contain everything'.

So there's a bracket of composers that are consonant with the conflicted nostalgia of the film. There is also music that deals with the mysterious, evocative nature of the film too - we have already come across the Preisner and can also consider the use of Henryk Gorecki's 3rd Symphony (Movement 2, Lento e Largo) in this bracket. What I found most interesting is the music that seems to issue as if from Malick himself.

Hector Berlioz was a rather extreme composer, writing uncompromising music for impractical resources in the middle of the 19th century. He is part of the line of artists like William Blake before him and indeed Malick after him, who pursue their ideas stubbornly in the face of derision. Berlioz's setting of the Requiem is a case in point, an outrageous work where performers would have outnumbered the audience in a complete performance. It is the conciliatory close of Berlioz's Requiem that Malick uses to underscore the visionary denoument of the movie. Straight away the music is unearthly, using woodwind at the outer reaches of their ranges, the alpha and omega of sonorities, creating a surreal doorway to the peace beyond after the sturm and drang before it (as the images do in this point in the film). This is not the only use of Berlioz in the film either, though I can't remember exactly where earlier extract of the Requiem (the cowed, paranoid Offertorium) and the youthful, heroic tone poem for solo viola Harold In Italy occur. It certainly seems that Malick found a musico-rhetorical counterpart to his filmmaking in the work of this composer.

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Turn Of The Screw, King's Head Theatre

OperaUpClose have achieved with a fairly successful staging of Britten's serial spectrecle. The Turn Of The Screw is a tricky opera littered with themes and vernacular that are very slippery to grasp. Britten's treatment is no less elusive. Though his extraordinary (even by his standards) rigour in composition is clear in analysis, in the theatre, especially one as compressed as The King's Head, themes can seem a bit buried. In this performing version, OperaUpClose have engaged an excellent pianist, David Eaton, who plays with great dynamic range, shape and dramatic awareness. Yet even he cannot prevent the piano from becoming congested, unable to make sense of the delicate, diaphanous ensemble for which Britten originally conceived the music. The percussive Gamelan origins of the score are well rendered but, played on a single instrument, the weight of the orchestral voices simply accumulate - at times the sheer volume of the sound becomes rather overwhelming.

As a corollary to this, up close there is a wide range of approach to singing the music. I appreciated the insidious, powder-intimate piano singing of David Menezes' Quint as well as the clear, bashful-but-not-fragile treble voice of Samuel Woof [I think*]. At the other end of the scale is Eleanor Burke's Flora, singing right out into the space with great confidence, and Laura Casey's Mrs Grose playing down but not underselling her considerable instrument in a comic reading of the role's class-difference.

Managing all possible approaches in a single performance is Katie Bird, singing the Governess. This is the exemplar of how to sing a role irrespective of the space or production, giving body to the sound even at the quietest moments but filling in moments of tutta forza with stagecraft and vocal colour, never forcing the needle into the red, as it were. It's classy singing, coupled with poised, absorbing acting, clearly working out clear direction. In Edward Dick's psychologically-centred production (of the two basic readings he sides with the action coming from within the Governess' imagination, the so-called 'second reading') the Governess becomes the centre of the drama, with the space and its inhabitants an extension of her own mind. In addition to this, Katie Bird gave us a beautifully ambivalent complex of both compassion for the children and at the same time a creepy, physical possessiveness that aligned her dangerously close to the suffocating adult demands of Quint. As her predecessor Miss Jessel, Catrine Kirkman is a fine expressionist counterpart to Bird, an anti-Governess with sultry, almost New-Romantic costuming & makeup, a fevered stage presence and some comparably fine singing.

The director has clearly assembled quite a strong production team. The deceptively simple, white-screen space is a super playground for his lighting designer (also using subtle but effective projection) and I suspect that they've also used a choreographer, not only for the pockets of dancing required by the score but also for the movement of characters within and behind the set. It all works within its modest confines. It might not be the best way to hear the opera by it does have a fine principal showcasing her ability, the best reason to see the show.

*Neither OperaUpClose nor The King's Head Theatre publish a cast online, so I can't check (although, on this occasion, a cast was written on a board at the auditorium door)

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Two Boys, ENO

The ENO company machine is purring like a high-marque luxury car at the moment: consistent, uncontroversial, impressive. Nico Muhly's Two Boys, here receiving its premiere at ENO ahead of further performances at the Metropolitan Opera, New York is guaranteed a strong showing. The opera (written with librettist Craig Lucas) is a fairly straightforward thriller couched within the intrigue and vernacular of internet-based social networking. It's an issue with currency, with two major feature films concerning the phenomenon of Facebook (The Social Network and Catfish) released within the last year. The story is a juxtaposition of two perspectives. The first is that of a detective investigating an attempted murder. The second is the that of her chief suspect, Brian, whose own story is told in interpolated flashback. Over the duration of the opera it emerges that the 16-year-old Brian has been drawn into friendship with various characters via a networking site (incidentally, Facebook is neither named nor implied), the obscured outcome of which has something to do with a young boy recovering in a hospital bed.

And, to be honest, that's about it. The plot and its nicely handled twist will be familiar to anyone who has watched high quality procedural thrillers on British television. What I missed was the psychological chicanery of genuine operatic drama. Admittedly, Muhly-Clucas do scrutinise the parallel, removed life of the rather embittered detective Strawson (Jane Tennison?), especially in her a second act aria 'Unsung, alone and unloved'. This came in the form of existential expressionism, rather like 'Batter My Heart' from the idiomatically resonant John Adams' Doctor Atomic.

Elsewhere though opportunities came and were passed over. Brian's parents have their own social networking medium - the church - but despite a dedicated scene, this relationship is not investigated. Instead of a Grimesian, offstage Greek chorus we have a stand-alone liturgical sequence which is effective staging punctuation but has no dramatic weight. The motivation of the dialogue and exchanges via the 'web chat' (for want to a better term) between characters is also poorly worked through. The naughtiness of the webcam version of phone sex has its own inherent humour but the dramatic contorting of that by subsequent characters was obscured to me. Moreover, the dreadful phenomenon of internet suicide support groups is sung about in slogan form from character to chorus but not chewed over in any detail.

The enterprise reminded me of A Dog's Heart, the Complicite/McBurney/Raskatov collaboration earlier in the season. There as here, one was aware of the integration of composition and production. Yet there's a also a sense - particularly in Muhly-Clucas - of an abdication of responsibility for the drama. I felt that Clucas' prosaic text sat waiting to be brought alive, only to find itself underscored rather than set by Muhly. The video projections of 59 Productions were almost the most inventive partner in their intermittent contributions, particularly in the swirling helix-matrix abstractions that drew skeletal CGI characters out of maps of the internet-using diaspora. Identity is one thing that the production cannot fail to address and that it does with some subtlety, leaving the chorus as an uncannily dispersed net of individuals and setting up a single coup in which Muhly's sense of orchestration is at its sharpest. It's still not as gripping (nor as operatic) as Catfish nor has the highly nuanced levels of Sorkin/Fincher's eloquent allegory (The Social Network) though. By the end of the piece I felt that Muhly-Clucas had tried something interesting, even different - to dramatically invert the familiar spectre of the sex pest posing as the youthful innocent online - but had relinquished their conclusions to a white noise of pathos.

Singing the roles principal roles, Susan Bickley continues her extended run of form as Strawson. I felt that, in the space, the sound was missing some body but the characterisation and annunciation were top notch, second only to the fine singing of Nicky Spence as Brian. His entry is a scene or two into the opera and immediately lifts the experience, with ringing, muscular singing, registering easily over the full orchestra. His manic, adolescent brow-beating (and not just his brow, of course) is expertly judged. Rebecca and Fiona, the two women who appear only as apparitions of the internet are beautifully sung by Mary Bevan and Heather Shipp (the latter dusting off my favourable memory of her functional roles in the Royal Opera's Lulu). Perhaps the biggest star of the evening though, creeping in under the radar of the theatre of the piece was the 'boy soprano' of Joseph Beesley. Confident and secure musically and on stage in some very demanding situations Beesley also sang beautifully, not least in the final tableau, another nicely scored corner from Muhly. There were a number of other roles. As I've suggested some key ones felt underwritten. I felt that Valerie Reid worked hard as the detective's mother, as did Rebecca Stockland and Paul Napier-Burrows making the most of their isolated sequences as Brian's parents.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream, ENO

A Midsummer Nightmare. ENO have produced one of the most powerful and discombobulating stagings of an opera that I have seen there for a long time. That they've managed to do so with a production that many have, reasonably, found offensive and with an opera that in my opinion is one of Britten's less successful speaks volumes for director Christopher Alden's conviction. Set in a boy's prep school at the time of the opera's conception (1960), Oberon and Tytania become members of staff, Puck a petulant, confused student on the cusp of adolescence, the Athenians, sixth formers. The mechanicals are - as in the original - functionaries and minor staff. Additionally, the production uses a trope simultaneously being employed up the road in the Royal Opera's new Peter Grimes - an extra character, who, in this case, wanders the set as a grown version of one of the boys (probably Puck).

The conceit throws into relief a smorgasboard of connotations. The greyness of Charles Edwards' single, monumental two-storey set immediately makes sense of the apparent incongruity of the school inhabitants' talk of woods and magic, as allegorical escape from it. Not for the first time did I think of Lindsay Anderson's If... Alden plays fast and loose with terms, props and action - Oberon's narcotic flower becomes the brand of cigarette that he chain-smokes. But then Britten set Shakespeare's original without detailed adaptation and the disjunct between what's sung and done is no different from dealing with the anachronism is language for a modern audience. Above all there is a sexual tension between all manner of characters in the production, the most sinister suggesting the less palatable side to Britten's own interest in young boys, though we see no more than Oberon's hand on a shoulder of his 'Indian boy'.

For me the great triumph of the production is in the lighting. Adam Silverman conjures all sort of different shades that resonate with a post-war boys' school that move from realism to a stark expressionistic contrast that exacerbates the idea of horror. Both extremes move through a dusky sepia, familiar from the ubiquitous school photograph. Even the Englishness of the music benefits from the lighting design: just as the seemingly monochrome set becomes a matte canvas for a surprising range of colours and effects, so one becomes newly aware of the strange, layered character of the music (mainly buried in its orchestration).

The production works using the triggers of these ideas and connotations, framed by the photo-fixing of the light. Just as the story, a coming of age tale, oscillates between the imaginary and the real, the wished-for and the earthbound with, in retrospect, all its nostalgia and regret, so the lighting manages the transition in simple terms. The fourth wall assault, led by the (initially) mute character is part of this and culminates in one of the more shocking and hilarious moments in the piece (where, inevitably, a single, pointed profanity has greater impact than any part of the much trumpeted crudity of, for example, the Anna Nicole libretto).

Perhaps the most notable achievement of the production is that it makes its mark before all its own imperfections - let alone those of the (overlong) opera - can register. The second half of the second Act is a dull, slo-mo tableau where Britten's relative lack of interest in the lovers is clear and the beginning of the third is a simple case of one idea too many. Luckily, the opera has a notable bias from the theatrical to the musical compared to the play and ENO have assembled a fantastic cast to perform it. There's no weak link right own to the last mechanical and the excellent quartet of choirboys. I might say additionally that Anna Christy's Tytania and Tamara Gura's Hermia were on particualrly wonderful form at the performance I attended and that those who were denied Iestyn Davies (necessarily) charismatic Oberon in voice if not body at the beginning of the run can consider themselves unlucky. My greatest praise must be reserved for the conductor though. Though I've no doubt Britten does a lot of the tricky balancing work in his score, given the palette of staged voices used, it must be said that Leo Hussain teased music from the work to complement the production. From the start, the exoticism was consonant with the quasi-occult undertow of the score, rather than some sort of surface magic. One heard this no clearer than in the strangely curdled pastiche of Bel Canto that forms much of the mechanicals' play, a strange prismatic reading of a medieval lovers' tragedy in re-appropriated grand Romanticism (I simply hadn't heard this music before Hussain's reading).

I had thought of plenty to pick at but I was too busy trying to collect myself after the brilliant assault of the first half to worry about the imperfections of the second. Strong stuff.