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.