Showing posts with label Emma Bell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Emma Bell. Show all posts

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Reflections on the Bieito 'Fidelio'

A fascinating business, this: coming back from that very Beethoveny trip to Bonn and landing bang in the middle of Calixto Bieito's production of Fidelio at ENO.

This staging seems to have left audiences not so much divided as ranged round a spectrum of 360-odd viewpoints. Predictably, many hated it - and yes, there was some booing of the production team on opening night, though it was counterbalanced by cheering elsewhere in the house. Here are two contrasting reviews to demonstrate that range: Andrew Clements in The Guardian and Tully Potter in the Mail. (Production pics by Tristram Kenton.)

Bieito's concept, you'll have gathered, is that the prison is our mind, and each character, with the possible exception of Leonore, is trapped within a type of living rabbit-hutch of his/her own making. It is art that sets us free, not least because temporal authority - Don Fernando, whose shock appearance at the end said much about our lack of trust in leaders today - can't be relied on. Don Fernando in the original Munich version of this production resembled not the 18th-century fop who graces the ENO stage, but the Joker from Batman. He is more than an unreliable leader: he is the cruelty, capriciousness and vile irony of fate itself (at least, if you share Bieito's dark view of life).

The other day I stood in front of Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament: the document in which he wrote to his brothers of the agonising recognition that he, a musician, was losing his hearing; and declares that he had come close to suicide, but did not want to leave the world before he had accomplished all he felt he had come here to do. (Full text here.) That prison was not of Beethoven's own making, but remained an anguish-inducing fetter nonetheless; yet without that, would he have composed the same music that has reached us today, in the form of the greatest of his symphonies, the late quartets, the Diabelli Variations, and this opera too? Art may not have set him free from that ailment, but his music has lived on to prove what glories a human being can create, given the necessary courage and strength, and that there is beauty and truth in art even when we can find little of it anywhere else. He brings us (as Andras said the other day) courage. That's a liberation in itself.

As Bieto floats the brave Heath Quartet above the reunited Florestan and Leonore, the first violin and cello each in an individual cage, the second violin and viola together in a third, drifting overhead but somehow able to play the (truncated) Heilige Dankgesang of Beethoven's Op.132 quartet despite their boxes wandering in draughts from side to side, the point is proven. (More here...)

This is not in the original Fidelio. But it works. Bieito may not be bringing us a Fidelio that we recognise, or a literal one that could have been seen in the 1950s, but instead a personal vision of the work that speaks volumes about our world today and the enduring power of Beethoven within it.

The musical performance, by the way, was red-hot under Ed Gardner's direction, with the glory that is Stuart Skelton as Florestan and the central force of Emma Bell's idealistic and beautifully sung Leonore. And the chorus was magnificent.

So why the vitriol? A case of chacun a son gout, of course. But my own little problem with all of this is not about Bieito's concept. It's about the language. I have no objection to Bieito's choice of using quotes from Jose Luis Borges, the Argentinian-born magical realist (pictured below), whose image of the labyrinth seems to underpin the elaborate contraption that forms the set, and whose words take the place of the usual dialogue. But is something being lost in translation?

Here are a few Borges poems, translated. And here are some more, in Spanish. Now, my Spanish is, er, a bit rusty. But read them aloud, to the best of one's limited abilities, and you can still feel the music in the syllables.

A translation can bring us the literal message; but without the music inherent in the words the poet created, half the real meaning may be gone. I remember, many years ago, my Russian then-boyfriend discovered that I wasn't familiar with the poetry of Osip Mandelstam and disapproved of this major gap in my cultural education. I bought a volume in translation - only to suffer bitter disappointment at the pedestrian nature of what I was reading. My friend took one look, chucked the book over a shoulder, and recited one of the poems by heart, in the original. I understood not one literal word - yet it remained one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard.

Translating is difficult enough. Translating well is harder still. And translating singably is an art all its own. I've had a shot at it myself recently: earlier this year I prepared an English version of Roxanna Panufnik's Tallinn Mass: Dance of Life for a recording that has just been made. Faced with literal translations of 19 poems by two of Estonia's leading poets, and Rox's painstaking and extraordinarily beautiful settings of the original Estonian, I had to make the new English words fit her existing music: you need open syllables on the longer, higher notes, you need the right emotional inflection on the appropriate harmony, and so forth. Some of them had to rhyme; all of them had to make rhythmic sense. And in literal translation, the poems might well have lost the essence of their poetry; a few liberties had to be taken, paradoxically, in order to restore some of that to the concepts. The poets, fortunately, are alive and kicking and able to approve the texts, which they have done. But talk about a learning curve...

Many people in the regular ENO audience love opera in English. That is the company's raison d'etre and normally, these days, it goes unquestioned. Opera-goers frequently troop into the Coli only too pleased to hear a performance in our own language, while despairing over the avant-garde concepts and experimental outlooks that are being fostered there. I realise now that I do the opposite. I am happy that in ENO today we have a thoroughly modern European opera house that's engaging directors to preside over a great deal more than crowd-control and park-and-bark productions and that enters partnerships with houses like Munich and the Met to make greater ambitions reality. But I'm trying to remember the last time I rejoiced in principle at hearing an opera in English that is not originally in English and I can't think of one single occasion. I have enjoyed individual translations at ENO by Jeremy Sams, whose sparkling versions of La Boheme and The Magic Flute, for example, do work wonders. He, though, seems to be the exception.

We don't have that issue with Peter Grimes (come and hear it tonight at the RFH, incidentally). It's not about the language itself; English is perfectly singable - Britten, Delius, Tippett, Vaughan Williams, Thomas Ades, George Benjamin and many others prove it every day. But composers set words according not only to their meaning, but according to the music they feel inside the language the poet has used.

A translation is, essentially, bound to be a compromise. Some succeed better than others, but I'm unconvinced that opera in translation can ever be entirely successful. I'd love to try doing one myself, of course, even if I know the cause may ultimately be lost. But for me that was the single biggest problem with the Bieito Fidelio: the translation, whether of the libretto or the Borges poems. Now that there are surtitles at ENO, is it not time to reopen the whole debate?

It remains only to wonder how on earth Stuart Skelton is managing, this week, to alternate Florestan and Grimes, often on consecutive evenings, and also preside over a charity gala. Perhaps that's what Heldentenors are truly about: heroism.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Seven - no, EIGHT - things to do on International Women's Day

1. Go to the eclectic Women of the World Festival at the Southbank. Among musically-oriented treats today are Jessye Norman (yes), speaking at 4.30pm this afternoon; and tonight, the OAE with Marin Alsop and soprano Emma Bell in a delicious programme of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber and Schumann, part of the Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers series.

2. Go to the UK premiere of Written on Skin by composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp, at the Royal Opera House. It is a contemporary masterpiece and, although it's by two men, the story is very much about the sexual emancipation of a woman in the 13th century. I talked to its director, Katie Mitchell, about that, and the article should hopefully be out tomorrow. (Not going to see it until 18th, but I've heard the recording from Aix and found it absolutely amazing. My chat with George about the music for the ROH website is here.)

3. Spend a little time celebrating the music of women composers over the centuries whose work was discouraged, disguised or suppressed, unless it happened to be cute salon music for the home. And remember the ones who went right on ahead and did their own thing. 

4. Spend a little time remembering the great female performers of the past who knuckled down to work instead of knuckling under.

5. Listen to some music by the increasing raft of gifted, dedicated and proud women composers of today, whether on stage, screen, concert hall or multimedia. A reasonably random example, but one I've much enjoyed, is this mingling of space mission, dance, special effects and music by Errollyn Wallen in Falling.

6. Remember that today's greatest women performers simply cannot be bettered.

7. Reflect that it should not be necessary, in an ideal world, to add extra celebration to the achievements of women - in the classical music world as much as anywhere, and more than some - but with sexism so desperately ingrained in our culture, it is.

8. Remember that International Women's Day is all very well, but next we have to sort out the other 364 days of the year.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Fate is...a counter-tenor?

The UK premiere of Judith Weir's new opera  Miss Fortune, a co-commission with the Bregenz Festival, was indeed a blend of the ups and downs its story suggests. Life is a roller-coaster, its protagonists point out. But whatever happened to free will?

If Fate is a counter-tenor, then we're all doomed. It's a Sartre-esque choice of a voice, inescapable as it shadows the powerful lead soprano, Emma Bell, in the most claustrophobia-inducing way. The psychological, or psychiatric, implications of his presence as the voice inside Miss Fortune's head could have been the most interesting thing about this opera, had they been explored a lot more. But they weren't. The implications of her awful relationship with her ghastly parents, too, could have been explored a lot more, but... yes, exactly. And is her supposed saviour, a nice, very rich boy called Simon, actually that nice? Come off it - he wants to pull down Donna's laundromat and build pied-a-terres for his City chums! Amid many uncomfortable dramatic choices, some of which are more uncomfortable than ever inside a place as plush as the ROH, Miss Fortune offers a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.

Miss Fortune's personal Fate - Andrew Watts - isn't to blame for that. He, his colleagues and the dazzling breakdancers of Soul Mavericks made the show a treat in its own way; so, too, the designs and its special effects (set: Tom Pye, lighting/projections: Scott Zielinski, Leigh Sachwitz, Flora and Faunavisions) - projected video effects are clearly flavour of the operatic zeigeist at the moment. The orchestra, under Paul Daniel, and the chorus provided all the sympathetic backup you should expect from a top international opera house.

Bell held the stage throughout, a scarlet flame in voice as well as costume. The men in her life - the American rising star tenor Noah Stewart as Hassan, the man with the kebab van, and the South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo as Simon - should have been a tough choice for her at the end, although she apparently doesn't even consider the penniless Hassan. I'd have wished she'd gone off with him had Imbrailo's gorgeous, luminous voice not beguiled heart and mind every bit as much. And had it not been for the quality of the singing, the breakdancers would have had a walkover triumph (though walking is perhaps the only thing that doesn't happen in breakdancing).

I wonder if the Bregenz request for an opera "for an entirely normal audience" became perhaps a shackle to one of British music's most enticing imaginations? Weir's story is linear, told "from A to Z", but supposing it wasn't? Supposing there'd been carte blanche for her to turn more fantastical, to go deeper, to go wild with all the possibilities that music, drama, stage technology and fabulous musicians can offer? One way or another, that didn't happen. The music felt as hamstrung as the drama. It just doesn't get off the ground - not even when Noah Stewart sings his Aubade from the roof of kebab-van-ex-machina.

The trouble with updating folk stories about Fate to the modern world is that we have to believe that that is how things work. Covent Garden's programme uses a quorum of chopped-down trees trying to convince us: among several essays on the topic, there's even a fascinating one about chaos, randomness and astrophysics. But what happened to the fact that the financial crash - which sparks the entire story - was entirely man-made? It is a miserable history of cause, effect, ideological idiocy and the seven deadly sins, a true tragedy that unfurls the fatal flaws in human nature - Greek in more ways than one. That in itself would make a much better story. Yes, things do happen to us that we don't plan. But sometimes, somewhere, some of those things are the result of someone else's stupidity, greed or megalomania. You can't entirely avoid cancer or multiple sclerosis. But financial crashes can be prevented by sensible economic management. And this opera is about a financial crash.

Here's my alternative scenario for Tina and her missed fortunes.

* The sweat-shop workers join forces with the breakdancers and organise themselves into a powerful protest lobby. They hold Lord Fortune's bossy wife to ransom and remind him of those modest, hardworking roots of which he boasts so copiously. His conscience is swayed.

* Instead of losing what remains of his offshore riches to pirates, he gives his daughter a trust-fund so that she doesn't have to work in the laundromat but can devote herself to becoming Director of Communications for the protest lobby. He then agrees to stand as an independent MP to fight the cause of liberty, siblinghood, equality.

* Simon, instead of telling her to throw her winning lottery ticket away, uses his portion of the proceeds (because Tina's going to share it all out) to chuck in his horrid City job and become a full-time baritone, donating the income from his first album to an inner-city regeneration project.

* He and Tina and Hassan can't choose between one another, so they set up as a menage-a-trois and finish the opera by singing All You Need Is Love.

* Somebody seizes Fate by the throat and chucks him into the orchestra pit.

If you want to see it - and you should, for the singing and dancing at the very least - there's a special offer from the ROH for 23 March, when you can get the best available seat, a kebab and a beer for £45. More details here.

(Photos: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House)

Friday, March 02, 2012

Girl Power

Hooray for music's powerful women! 


Judith Weir's latest full-length opera is heading for Covent Garden, opening on 12 March, and it's the first opera ever to finish (as far as I'm aware) with the heroine winning the lottery. Emma Bell is in the leading role of Tina, conquering a number of different stratospheres (left, Emma atop "the shape"). I talked to them both about creating what Bregenz Festival director David Pountney called "an opera for an entirely normal audience". See my feature in today's Independent, here.


The Lyric Opera of Chicago has commissioned the young Peruvian composer Jimmy Lopez to write the work, which is scheduled for the 2015-16 season. Ann Patchett's novel describes a terrorist attack in a South American jungle in which a group of opera lovers, politicians and a singer, Roxanne Coss, are taken hostage: over the months, attackers and hostages form unexpected alliances. RENEE FLEMING, Lyric's creative consultant, chose the book as the perfect topic for the opera. The libretto is by playwright Nilo Cruz, the director is Stephen Wadworth and Sir Andrew Davis conducts. And Danni, who's much more than Glyndebourne's fabled Cleopatra, takes the lead as Roxanne. More here.

“It’s about terrorism on one level, but it’s also about what happens when people are forced to live together for a long time, and how art can raise their level of humanity as a group,” Fleming said. “Most of us crave a cathartic emotional experience when we’re at the theater, and I believe Bel Canto has the components to do that... I was struck by Jimmy Lopez's intelligence and the way he understands both the problems in bringing this piece to the stage, but also the possibilities that opera as a medium offers for illuminating a story. For example, the orchestra can accentuate the dramatic situation onstage, but it can also convey the underlying turmoil that one might not see. This is something that many composers miss and that Jimmy understands completely.” 


The new classical music trade fair Classical:Next, taking place in Munich from 30 May to 1 June, has announced its initial line-up of events and speakers, and I am happy to report that JD is to be on a panel discussing the future of music journalism, along with BBC Music Magazine editor Oliver Condy and the editor of the German magazine PIANONews, Carsten Durer. Classical:Next is a sister production to WOMEX, and if that event is anything to go by, we want to be there.


Tonight at the Anvil, Basingstoke, and tomorrow night at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon, the London Mozart Players and TASMIN LITTLE (left) give the world premiere of the complete Four World Seasons by ROXANNA PANUFNIK. Having had a sneak peek for Classical Music magazine, I reckon Vivaldi wouldn't know what's hit him. Rox writes:
"In early 2008, the violinist Tasmin Little rang me to ask whether I’d write a series of short pieces for her, accompanied by chamber orchestra. Considering a world where global concern for climate change and seismic shifts in international political landscapes affect us all, we decided to take Antonio Vivaldi’s much-loved 1725 Four Seasons and give the concept a 21st-century twist, creating an entirely new work with each season (lasting approximately 5 minutes) influenced by a country that has become culturally associated with it."  Spring in Japan, an Indian Summer, Autumn in Albania and a Tibetan Winter form the music in this celebration of music across the world, reflecting the many cultures that descend on London for the 2012 Olympic Games." 


Ahead of her time, Frederick Ashton's Sylvia was created for Margot Fonteyn in the 1950s. Diana's top nymph is not exactly your typical 1950s ideal housewife. I love the power, joy and freedom in Darcey Bussell's interpretation, filmed at the ROH in 2005. Girl Power if ever we saw it! Roberto Bolle is her lovestruck swain. Enjoy.