Showing posts with label English National Opera. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English National Opera. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Helter-Skelton!

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/stuart-skelton-rising-to-the-challenge-of-otello-9722095.html
Here's my piece from today's Independent about the fab Heldentenot Stuart Skelton, who stars as Otello at ENO's opening night on Saturday. He tells me about his path to the top, the challenges of Otello and why he and ENO feel the love...

Friday, June 06, 2014

A big "Benvenuto" to Cellini!


It's the deadline from hell. If Benvenuto Cellini hasn't cast his golden Perseus statue by morning, the Pope will have him hanged. But it has to be now that his rival in love arrives, demanding that he fight a duel this minute. In comes his girlfriend, saying she's run away from home and wants to live with him. Her father runs in after her to say no, no, she has to marry the other guy. Then the foundry workers go on strike because they haven't been paid. The project seems doomed. The flames are blazing, the noose is raised and Cellini is running out of time.

What does he do? He sings a big aria about how he'd like to move to the mountains and be a drover instead.

Any creative artist in the audience is won by then - 3/4 of the way through - because this character has such a ring of truth to him. But then, they're probably won anyway. This rip-roaring, totally bonkers, "semi-serious" opera (yes, that is a genre) in Terry Giliam's brand-new staging at ENO is a knockout from overture to final curtain.

Admittedly it is not the greatest opera ever written - sometimes Berlioz nearly drowns in the well of his own ambition (something that meanwhile happens on stage to our slightly stuffy baddy, Fierabosco). Still, it contains several top-notch arias, particularly in the second half, and some stonking choruses, including one that's much of what we usually know as the Roman Carnival Overture, portraying, well, a Roman carnival - and sung at a tremendous lick while stilt walkers, acrobats, a trapeze artist in a hoop and circus fun are going at full tilt all around.

"Applaud and laud all art and artisans!" sings the chorus, raising the roof - and we rather wanted to join in, because here at last is a work of art that praises the creation of works of art, throws its whole weight behind the artist - however dissolute - and declares with enormous conviction and passion that art is a matter of life and death. Here who dares wins. For Cellini, read Berlioz. And for Berlioz, add Gilliam, who seems to have found the perfect piece to suit his own creative personality. Production and music match to a tee: huge-hearted, overwhelmingly warm and generous, ridiculously OTT and full of thrills.

It's less tricksy than Gilliam's take on The Damnation of Faust, and unlike that production he does stick to telling the story. Nor is it excessively Pythonian, despite the part where everyone is dressed up as monks, trying to abduct the soprano (the reference, with mirrors further confusing matters, is more Marx Brothers than Monty Python). Theatricality is everything: giant carnival figures are paraded through the audience, glittery confetti bursts from the ceiling and twirls down upon us, and inspired coups include the set's inspiration from Piranesi, the final unveiling of the great statue, and a rather creative approach to visualising a tuba cadenza.

The words, in a translation by Charles Hart, award-winning lyricist of The Phantom of the Opera, are very wordy, sometimes cumbersomely so, rich in alliteration and certainly not designed to make life easy for the chorus. They are, though, extraordinarily clever at times and their flair matches Berlioz's and Gilliam's in spirit. One magnificent twist finds "Applaud and laud all art and artisans" transformed into "Applaud and laud all tarts and courtesans".

Tenor Michael Spyres is a strong, beefy, bold Cellini in every sense - it's a huge role with some stratospheric moments to which he gives his all. Corinne Winters is extrovert, sassy and in terrific voice as his beloved Teresa; and Sir Willard White as the Pope is as inspired a piece of casting as one's ever seen, besides the glory of his voice. Highlights in the supporting cast include Paula Murrihy as Ascanio, the business manager, who has the second-best aria in the whole piece, and the duo of Nicky Spence and David Soar as the foremen. Applaud and laud Ed Gardner and the orchestra, perhaps most of all, for holding this sprawling virtuoso feast together, turning it into a musical kite and letting it fly.

As for Gilliam and his creative team, they got a standing ovation, turning the convention of 'director's opera' on its head (the creatives' bow is usually when the booing kicks in). I don't know if the former Python is ushering in a new era of director's opera with a very different meaning - ambitious, theatrical stagings that are true to the spirit of the piece and that everybody is itching to see - or if he's a one-off. I suspect the latter. But he really can cut the operatic mustard, so what's next for him? How about a Ring cycle? Go on, Tez. You know you want to.

We don't do star ratings out of five here on JDCMB, but if we did, this would be a six. (Update: my colleague at the Indy doesn't agree and gives it a two. It's five from the Telegraph and four from the Guardian and The Arts Desk.)

If you can't get to a show, go and see the live relay in the cinema on 17 June.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

When is a bat not a bat?

When it's a turkey. Here's my review of the new Die Fledermaus at ENO.
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/reviews/opera-review-die-fledermaus--english-national-opera-london-coliseum-8852067.html

Odd that Bieito's thought-provoking Fidelio was booed and this one wasn't, though the applause was little more than "well done for trying".

We may need a moratorium on jackboots at the opera. Terry Gilliam got away with it in The Damnation of Faust because of the general brilliance of the whole; and The Passenger, by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, was the real thing and couldn't do without them - though notably failed to sell. But in Die Fledermaus? This is getting silly. Next time someone brings gratuitous Nazis into an opera production, I might just stand up in the auditorium and start singing 'Springtime for Hitler'...

There's a serious point to this. If productions fill up with Nazis the minute anything is German or Austrian, it is lazy thinking and becomes a cliche. And if Nazis are reduced to a cliche on the operatic stage, it devalues the horrors that they (and other fascist/totalitarian regimes) have perpetrated. It devalues their victims. Enough, already.

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.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

JD meets... CALIXTO BIEITO

In which the Bad Boy of Opera turns out to be a pussycat. I went to see him to preview his Fidelio, which opens at ENO this week. Some of the interview is in today's Independent, here, but I am putting the director's cut (ie, long version) below. First, the beginning of his Don Giovanni...



You might expect Calixto Bieito to resemble a cross between Count Dracula and Quentin Tarantino. The Spanish director, often called “the bad boy of opera”, has become notorious for extreme productions that often feature explicit sex and violence, their concepts including a cannibalistic post-nuclear Parsifal and a present-day Don Giovanni that involved vicious scenes of rape, drug overdose and murder. Audiences at his shows are no strangers to sights that have variously included toilet activities, nudity and a great deal of blood. Now, in a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Bieito is bringing his staging of Beethoven’s Fidelio to ENO and traditionalists are quaking in their boots.
Yet when he emerges from rehearsals in east London, clad in his trademark black, it turns out that Bieito is a pussycat. He’s a soft-spoken family man with a social conscience and anxieties about threats to democracy and free speech; and he acknowledges that he often takes a bleak view of life. “I have to be careful,” he says, “because I sometimes suffer from melancholia, and this is why my work can become quite dark.”
Nevertheless, he seems mystified by the degree of hostility that’s been expressed against his work. One critic referred to his Don Giovanni as “the most reviled opera production in the recent history of British theatre”; others believe he is out to shock. He insists not. “I promise I have never tried to shock people in that way,” he protests quietly. “I don’t think that doing a show to shock people is the right way to approach it. The direction must come naturally from inside you. It’s as if you find the hidden meaning of dreams emerging.”
Such dreams can be fairly horrifying. That Don Giovanni, he says, illustrated “what happens every Friday night” among young people across Europe, “though with a very sad ending”. The arrival of the Commendatore to threaten the Don with hell became a drug-induced hallucination, reducing Giovanni to a helpless wreck; the other characters then murder him. “I have strong emotional responses, and for me this Don Giovanni was sad because there was a sense of no hope,” Bieito comments. “There is no hope in young people killing another young man – and it was based on a real incident. I was completely surprised at the reaction.” But it’s worth remembering that other critics responded to the production with words like “stunned admiration”, and I, for one, found its raw and desperate humanity extraordinarily powerful.
British reactions to Bieito have generally been more prurient than those in Germany, where modern, provocative productions are de rigeur. But if Britain’s tastes are conservative, those of the US are even more so. Bieito is soon to work with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, in another co-production with ENO, but the details of what, when and how are closely guarded – possibly due to the likely degree of resulting fuss.
Bieito was first drawn towards directing while a pupil in a Jesuit school, where he says music and theatre were crucial parts of education. He left drama college after one year, “because it was too posh for me”. Music has been central to his life since childhood; his mother insisted on piano practice, his father had a passion for Italian opera and his brother became a professional musician. Despite his father’s influence, Italian bel canto is apparently Bieito’s blind spot: “I enjoy watching it, but here I feel I have nothing to say. I can’t direct an opera if I don’t love the music.”
Despite managerial belt-tightening in opera houses around the world, Bieito is essentially optimistic about the future of the artform. “Opera is an art of the future – it brings together so many elements – and I hope that we will survive together, with some brave intendants,” he says. He recognises that in difficult financial times decision-makers might become risk averse, but feels this is not necessarily a sensible path: “I did my Carmen 13 years ago and now it is being taken up everywhere,” he points out. “That means something is changing. Even if the intendants start to be more conservative, it’s not possible to stop the new feelings of the people.
“It’s a completely wrong thing when people say ‘this opera has to be done like this’ – usually it only means that the costumes look a little bit old,” he adds. “You cannot reproduce the atmosphere of the first opening of a Mozart or Verdi opera. They were very modern in their time, very involved with people. Verdi was known in all of society.” That is the kind of immediacy he is after.

His Fidelio could prove chewy. In Beethoven’s opera, the heroine Leonora’s husband, Florestan, is a political prisoner; she disguises herself as a man named Fidelio to infiltrate the prison and rescue him. Bieito’s staging, unlike his hyper-realistic Carmen and Don Giovanni, is complex and symbolic, set in a labyrinth that some reviewers of its Munich performances compared to The Matrix. “All the characters are lost in the labyrinth, imprisoned,” he says. “Sometimes our minds are our prison. I find Fidelio’s story quite weak if it is approached realistically, but if you take the philosophical side more seriously, then you can say much more about human beings today: what freedom means for us, or love, or loyalty, or justice. That is very important to our democracy.”
Above all, Beethoven’s idealistic humanism in Fidelio strikes a special chord with him. “I think we need a new humanism in Europe in the very open, cultural sense, and Fidelio gives me the opportunity to talk about this,” he says. But his characters do not live happily ever after: “It is very hard to believe in the possibility of justice,” he says – melancholic again, thanks to his cynical view of politics in Spain.
 “There are people who’ll say ‘I don’t like Calixto Bieito, I don’t like anything he does’,” he comments. “I don’t know how to convince them. You cannot go to an exhibition thinking it’s going to be crap and you can’t go into a restaurant thinking ‘Oh, the food will be terrible’. This I cannot change. But I’m talking about these topics: justice, love, liberty, loyalty, freedom. We have to value these issues and we have to protect our democracies very strongly from corruption. I think, when it’s not just commercial, art is a way to freedom.”
Fidelio, English National Opera, from 25 September. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Martinu's musical Magritte


If you like surrealism, you'll love Martinu's Julietta. It's now on at ENO in a slick staging by Richard Jones first seen in Paris about ten years ago. The set is a gigantic accordion - the sound of music being the one thing that can sometimes anchor the amnesiac population of the opera's seaside town to long-ago memories.

Michel, a Parisian bookseller, arrives with his suitcase in search of a mysterious girl whom he once heard singing. But nothing around him makes any sense - because the townsfolk can't remember anything for more than ten minutes. It sounds daft, and the incidents match that assessment. And yet...we all know people like that, and societies too. The resonance works. It works particularly well given that Martinu completed the work in 1938, when the world was a very mad place indeed.

When surrealism is at its best, the crazier it gets, the deeper it goes. I was fortunate enough to see a huge exhibition of Magritte in Vienna earlier this year, which was a revelation. With Julietta, Martinu hooks up the synapses in our minds in a similar way.

The opera is based on a play by the composer's friend Georges Neveux, which Martinu snaffled from under Kurt Weill's nose by getting to it about 48 hours earlier than his eminent colleague. Michel's final encounter at the Ministry of Dreams (photo above - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith) lends a hint of Kafka, and the circular nature of the drama, a recurring dream, a confluence with that terribly scary 1945 movie Dead of Night. Yet the absurdity lends an irresistible lightness. Does Michel really shoot his Julietta when the memories she wants to buy turn out to be nicer than the authentic ones? In which she recalls laughing at him because he looks like a stuffed crocodile?

Martinu is a hard sell and difficult to describe, especially as all most of us know of him is that he was born in a Czech bell tower and went on to lead an ever-shifting existence in the European vortex of the 1930s and, ultimately, the US. He was a great Francophile, though, and adopted Paris as home for some years. His music is not easy to pin down: hints of Debussy, virtual quotes from Stravinsky, some luscious love music in Act II that pulls in somewhere between Szymanowski and Rachmaninov. The voice of Martinu himself, however, is less obvious than the voices of others: at times, he seems not so much crocodile as chameleon. He offers us moments of great beauty and delicious, light-touch humour. Textures in the main are thin, allowing the words to project easily, the lines drawn with a deft swish of colour from a well-chosen instrument or two - often more Matisse than Magritte. It is a good opera, imaginative, fun, whimsical - and it's a joy to experience something as gently batty as this in an art form that frequently takes itself too seriously.

Of course, if you don't like surrealism, or imagination, or anything that isn't quite on the same level as Mozart, Puccini or Wagner, then you probably won't get it. A good few didn't. That's their problem. Why does every piece of music we hear have to be perfect? Yes, the best is the enemy of the good - but it doesn't invalidate those corners of creation in time that do have quality, if just a fraction less of it. They provide context, richness, insight and much to enjoy, even if not everyone can write The Magic Flute. And unusual, good-though-not-perfect works sometimes offer a welcome new experience, along with an angle that makes us think differently about their world and ours. If we heard nothing of opera but Mozart, Puccini and Wagner, life wouldn't be half so interesting.

Sterling performances all round: Peter Hoare more than holding the stage throughout as the mystified Michel, the Swedish soprano Julia Sporsen shining in every way as the red-haired Julietta, and vignette appearances by such fabulous personalities as Susan Bickley, Gwynne Howell and Andrew Shore, to name but three. Ed Gardner made Martinu's score both sensual and sparkly. Verdict: go see.

Here's an insightful review from The Observer by Fiona Maddocks.

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Flying Duchen

Let's get to the heart of this right away. How can we "do" Romanticism in an age of cynical post-modern irony? I don't pretend to have the answer, but the question is a hefty one. And Jonathan Kent's new production of The Flying Dutchman at ENO asks it full on. That is not the least reason it is so effective. Whether or not the director intended to do so, he's sunk his teeth into one of the big artistic conundrums of today. It deserves to be brought into the open.


We see Senta first as a child in pink pyjamas, watching the waves through a giant skylight; she craves her father's affection, but he is unable to deliver any and pushes off to sea, leaving her with a book of fairy tales for company. The Dutchman manifests as her imagining, her interior living, if you like, of such a fairy tale - as children do, as we all do if only we remember, casting her father one of its characters, and the Steersman too - who sings his quiet song with rapt nostalgia and falls asleep on the floor, where little Senta covers him tenderly with her duvet. The Dutchman and his ship arrive in a terrific coup-de-theatre, he in full Mr Darcy getup, while the ship wouldn't disgrace Errol Flynn's in The Sea Hawk. And Daland's eagerness to marry the stranger off to his daughter without noticing that said stranger is one of the Undead is all too convincing, because Daland is a stranger to love and values nothing but money.

Senta, meanwhile, grows up to be Orla Boylan - except that she doesn't. She's still living that fairy tale, her emotional world twisted into an alternative reality by the lack of emotional substance around her. She works in a factory making ships in bottles - the set (designed by Paul Brown) is magnificent, with a vast window and plenty of wood suggesting past glories for this Norwegian one-ghost suburb. Her refuge is the image of the Dutchman: her own longing, her own clinging to belief in the redemptive power of love and compassion. There's none of that in her real world. Even Erik (sung by Stuart Skelton, who is an absolute knockout of a Heldentenor) is no answer. He's a security guard at the factory and there's a hint of violence, born of frustration, in his treatment of her; this big guy doesn't know his own strength. And the other girls pick on her: she's the mildly deranged fat lump in the pink dress (Primark?) who pooh-poohs their sluttishness.

And then the boys come back from sea, they have a piss-up in the factory and they try to gang-rape her. In the song to the Steersman they're egging him on, as their leader, to do the deed. Remember that nostalgic first song he had in act 1? Everything now is inside-out and upside-down. The ghost ship chorus - beamed in by amplification from somewhere offstage (a bit of a pity soundwise) comes to Senta's aid and scares everyone off, but the event pushes her over the edge and, exhausted and already dead within, she breaks a beer bottle and stabs herself with it. She is destroyed by the society in which she lives. Jonathan Kent shows us the death of a soul.

The performances match the power of the staging. The chorus, for a start, is possibly the best I've ever heard at ENO. Orla Boylan's Senta gives everything in her Ballade; there may be issues about pacing and stamina, as in the scene with Erik she began to sound strained and tired, but she summoned reserves of strength for the final scene that made her Senta seem cousin not so much to Isolde (as Wagner later saw her, rewriting the ending post-Tristan - we got the early version at ENO) but Brunnhilde, facing a test of fire instead of water.

Clive Bayley is a magnificent and all too believable Daland; James Creswell as the Dutchman is strong and even-toned, though could maybe use more variety in vocal colour to put across the emotional content, rather than relying too heavily on diction - it's good to hear all the words, but it sometimes distorted the ends of his phrases. Tenor Robert Murray made much of the Steersman aria, which in the grand scheme of the staging acquired extra dramatic significance. But Skelton just about steals the show, despite his character having too little to do. He tweeted the other day that he was off to New York to sing in Die Walkure at very short notice (jumping in for Kaufmann). Lucky Met.

Still, there's big stuff happening at home, and it is happening most of all down the pit. This is Ed Gardner's first Wagner. And from the moment the lights go off and the orchestra plunges into the deep end, we plunge with them. They grab us by the throat and don't let us go for the full 135 minutes (no interval, thanks). The intensity is fabulous, both at the opera's wildest moments and its stillest; the pacing is excellent, passionate, convincing. This seemed the case after that glorious Rosenkavalier a few months back, but now there's no doubt about it: ENO is busy growing a great conductor.

So, I was wondering how we do romanticism in an anti-romantic age. And then I went to see a preview screening of the 3D film of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, which is being released into cinemas worldwide on 15 May starring Richard Winsor (and very good it is). And there's the prelude. The child prince in bed, in his pyjamas. His mother comes in; he reaches out to her, she backs away. He has a fuzzy swan by way of comforter. He has a nightmare vision of the real swan. And the action commences. Remind you of anything?

Now, I'm not suggesting for one moment that this Dutchman production borrows anything from anybody, but the general atmosphere and logic of the concept is quite prevalent enough for different directors to arrive at the same scenario from contrasting positions. The Flying Dutchman story has plenty in common with that of Swan Lake. The lead character's fantasy world becomes his/her reality, encroaches on actual reality, then destroys him/her.

And today, we can't take it on its own terms, the way Wagner or Tchaikovsky intended; we have to interpret and explain it, because it seems nobody will buy into it otherwise. If a twisted mind through lack of a parent's affection is becoming the dramatic cliche of today (taking over from child abuse, which has been used ad nauseam), there may be a good reason for it.

It's one of those odd things about Romanticism, though, that it involved plenty of cynicism. It was the composers, not the writers, whose senses of humour and awareness of irony sometimes fell flat. The Flying Dutchman is based on a story by Heinrich Heine, whose bite is much fiercer than his eloquent bark. In Heine, the ending of the tale - the suicide of "Mrs Flying Dutchman" - is cynical as hell: the only way a woman can be faithful to this man unto death, he suggests, is if she dies right away. Wagner makes a virtue out of this, but that's not how Heine wrote it. Just as Schumann, setting Heine's songs, avoids the razor edge of this poet's fearsome blade and refuses to laugh or sneer with him, so Wagner goes a stage further and creates his own philosophy out of it - perfumed, feverish and egotistical it may be, but it's alive and well and blazes out of the music. Heine, one suspects, would have been livid.

And Romanticism? Its music still has the strongest appeal to audiences for classical music - not all, of course, but a distinct majority. You want "popular classics"? You get Tchaikovsky. So it is not dead. Twisted, certainly, but defunct, not at all. Most of us still, somewhere, believe in the redemptive power of love - don't we? - and the current craze for vampire movies suggests that maybe we even want to believe, at some level, in the supernatural. But the destruction of a soul through lack of love, and that lack of love, and tenderness, and compassion, and kindness, and idealism, as a comment on our society, is taking hold. Maybe we should take notice.



Sunday, February 26, 2012

Klinghoffer rings, clings and clangs

Yesterday was the opening night of The Death of Klinghoffer at English National Opera.

Rings: it's strong stuff, first of all. Tom Morris's staging is magnificent, overwhelming at times in the power of its imagery, dominated by the draining and dangerous Middle Eastern sun.

The concrete panels of that wall, the so-called "separation barrier" (it is a wall - I have touched the real thing), are present throughout. They not only provide the necessary claustrophobic resonances and contexts, but also form a screen for the film projections of the limestone hills, the rolling waves, and, for the finale of act 1, layer upon layer of graffiti. Some are grumbling that the wall wasn't there at the time of the Achille Lauro hijacking. The Death of Klinghoffer may have been written 20 years ago, but the issues are as current as ever and it would have been invidious for Morris to ignore how matters have progressed, or not progressed (those condemning the opera as anti-Zionist are in denial - this business is real and it won't conveniently vanish on demand). Besides, in certain ways Klinghoffer is very much an opera of its time - more of that later - and bringing it up to date for presentation now is an artistic necessity, even more than a political one.

Dance provides a marvellous opportunity to illuminate certain characters' inner feelings that might not otherwise emerge. Hats off to choreographer Arthur Pita, who has created a dance language that corresponds to the music, full of repeated fragments, patterns that build up associations, the physical depiction of the running and rerunning of memory and conflicted thought. Four men manoeuvre a figure representing Klinghoffer - perhaps the man he used to be in his youth? - while the wonderful Alan Opie (who has by then been killed) delivers the "aria of the falling body" against the backdrop of the terrible, hot sky. Omar, the terrorist who shoots Klinghoffer, is played by a dancer (Jesse Kovarsky) and says not a word: his fear and desperation are shown through his movements. As the British shipboard dancing girl (Kate Miller-Heidke) and her 1980s pop music remind us, it's the quiet ones you have to watch.

Michaela Martens as Marilyn Klinghoffer partners Alan Opie in performances of great dignity, honesty and vulnerability. Their plight brings home the essence of this history of macrocosm and microcosm: two innocent, normal people are caught up in something not of their making and out of their control, their lives shattered as a result. The opera, at its core, is about how ordinary people are destroyed by world events. It is always the innocent who pay the price.

Christopher Magiera is a fine and believable Captain, thinking on his feet, especially touching in the scene where Mamoud (the eloquent baritone Richard Burkhard), a dead ringer for Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, opens up overnight and tells him his own story - an incident based, like many of the opera's scenes, on the captain's memoirs, extracts of which you can read in the programme. Superb vignettes by Kathryn Harries as the Austrian woman who describes locking herself in her bathroom and escaping unnoticed, all of it a first-rate take-off of Pierrot Lunaire sprechstimme; and by Clare Presland as the Palestinian Woman, implicitly Omar's mother, intensity suffusing every blazing note.

It's a huge score, full of marvels, embroidered with sizzling colours and layer upon layer of musical cause and effect; the inspired and beautiful choruses and the reflective arias for the Klinghoffers are perhaps its finest moments. The ENO chorus did the former proud and the orchestra ran, so to speak, a tight ship under the expert captaincy of Baldur Bronnimann. Rarely can it have been made so clear that "minimalist" is a misleading misnomer. The music is almost Wagnerian at times, in that the real action takes place in unfolding of the orchestral fabric, the singers floating over the top.

And what clings is its atmosphere. The aura of the music captures the same atmosphere I experienced every day when I visited the West Bank two years ago. This is what you breathe in at the background of each moment, even happy and relaxed ones: the quivering of nerve endings, the claustrophobia, the looming dread at the glimpse of a panel of wall or a soldier with a gun, the uncertainty of exactly what may lie around the next bend of the road through the hills. It's all there, in the trumpets, the pizzicati, the flickering repetitive figures on keyboard, or the way a quiet chorus can build up so fast to unanticipated levels of violence.

What you experience in this opera is therefore something almost miraculously authentic. It is similar to the way Puccini captures the emotional truth of Rodolfo at the end of La Boheme when he realises Mimi is dead - those stark horns evoke in one precise stroke one's own memories of the moment a loved one died: that was it, that was how it felt, that is it exactly. This particular form of genius is reserved for only the most empathetic of operatic composers - something that no writer or visual artist can convey with such instant visceral impact.

And then... the clangs. It's the words. Not the structure - a deconstructive collage of impressions is a fine device for conveying the fractured memories of a past event and furthermore provide much-needed variety. Nor the details of the scenes, many of which are based, as we've seen, on reality. And I find it admirably "even-handed". But the details of the lines, the images, the metaphors, the words themselves, had me longing for a red pen to plaster over the surtitles. There are too many words: and they are cumbersome words, syllabic, complex, very wordy words, and often meaningless words - poetry that might (perhaps) work on the page, but that must have given Adams the mother of all headaches. When he described the other day the storminess of his working relationship with the poet Alice Goodman, I thought he was joking. Now I'm not so sure.

How do you work with a libretto like that? How do you even think it is suitable for setting? It takes three to five times as long to sing a word as to speak it, and there is no doubt that opera requires prima la musica - the words must serve musical needs. Perhaps they do, in their own way. But still, is it a good idea to throw the audience off balance, distracting you, jerking you out of the flow to wonder what exactly an antlion is when you are supposed to be caught up in the emotions of the hijacking's aftermath? I mean, we're not all David Attenborough. And it's equally startling to hear a reference to the Dome of the Rock in the Chorus of Exiled Jews, which depicts a couple implicitly thrown apart by the Second World War and reunited unexpectedly after many traumas. The man compares the woman's scars to the holy sites of Israel, but, not to put too fine a point on it, the Dome of the Rock itself is not a site holy to Judaism - it is its location, the Temple Mount, that is. This, and the antlion, are only two meagre examples. I don't remember this being such a problem in Penny Woolcock's film - but that had been heavily cut. (Here is Wikipedia to explain the antlion.)

The words, too, give the opera its slightly dated feel. Self-indulgent, pretentious poetic stuff in opera libretti was very much a feature of opera of the 1960s-80s (Klinghoffer's premiere was in 1991). Its ultimate death blow, I suspect, was Jerry Springer: The Opera (2003)Good, concise, beautiful poetry is another matter: Birtwistle's The Minotaur has a libretto by David Harsent that is a work of art. Time to take another look at how Da Ponte did it.

The other thing that clanged - or rather made a very small clunk - was the protest luridly predicted by the Sunday Telegraph, which materialised as one (1) man with a placard outside the theatre - he has no doubt achieved the not-inconsiderable solo feat of being mentioned in each and every write-up.

In time, Klinghoffer should come to be regarded as what it is: a fine, thought-provoking opera, representative of its era, flawed but with many beauties, the latter including passages that show Adams at his most inspired. It will be no more scandalous, a hundred years from now, than Le nozze di Figaro - the original play of which was thought, in its day, to be condoning class conflict.

Six more performances until 9 March. Do go and see it. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

'Klinghoffer' opens tonight

...so John Adams came to London a day early and English National Opera held a Friends event at which artistic director John Berry interviewed him about his life and work. I went along to listen.

A thoroughly entertaining discussion: although he must have been extremely jet-lagged, the jokes flowed free and fast, if with serious points behind them. Audience member: "Was there any moment in your career when you felt able to say to yourself, 'Now I am a successful composer'?" Adams: "Possibly last Tuesday...but by Wednesday it was all gone."

The production, by Tom Morris - of War Horse fame (and more) - promises to be much more naturalistic than some of the other stagings over the years. Except, of course, for Penny Woolcock's screen version, which was shown on Channel 4 some years ago. It was filmed aboard a ship and the performers had to be shown how to hold and fire Kalashnikovs. "That was a bit too naturalistic for me," said John Adams. "Oh," said John Berry, "we're doing that as well."

Fascinating, also, to learn that originally Adams had planned the story of the hijacking and murder to occupy only the first half of the opera, with the second half a political black comedy featuring Margaret Thatcher and co. But when he began to compose the opening chorus, he realised that he had something altogether more serious in hand.

He was frank in describing his working relationship with Alice Goodman, the librettist, as stormy - "it made the Israeli-Palestinian situation look like a love-fest!" - and gave us a taste of the most difficult line of poetry he's ever had to set. It's in the captain's scene, when he reflects on the pleasures of being alone with the waves and time to think, though couched in somewhat different language. Listen out for it.

Interesting insights, too, into Adams's background and the attitude during his upbringing towards his hopes of becoming a composer. When he started out (he has just turned 65) it was, he thinks, almost impossible to contemplate a career writing music full-time; that situation has changed considerably over the decades. Nevertheless, he remarked, his parents never tried to push him towards a proper job like law or medicine; they wanted him to be an artist. He says that he always feels strange writing his occupation as "composer" on landing cards at airports, et al, and wonders if the immigration official will say "Composer?...just step over here a minute, sir..." - but for one occasion in the UK when the guy said to him, "Oh, I love Harmonium..."

One audience member asked him what he would have done had he not been a composer. Adams looked momentarily stumped - he eventually said that he enjoys writing, has a blog, has written a book and writes book reviews for the New York Times "because it's fun", so could have contemplated "something literary". But I think it's clear that his vocation as composer is so much part and parcel of who he is that he couldn't really imagine life without it at all.

Full production details and booking here.

I took along my CD of Klinghoffer for him to sign. And, dear reader, though I blush at such immodesty as to tell you what followed, the great composer then thanked me for the piece I wrote in the Independent the other week and said that it was the most eloquent article about Klinghoffer he had read in years. Dear reader, this does not happen every day. I guess that must be how Julius Korngold felt when Brahms got in touch (though hopefully any resemblance stops there). Here is the article again, in case you missed it.

And here is a trailer from ENO in which director Tom Morris talks about the work - followed, below, by extracts from, and reactions to, the dress rehearsal.






Monday, January 30, 2012

Gold stars for this silver rose

If you only do one thing in London over the next few weeks, make it this: go and see Der Rosenkavalier at ENO.

The opening night on Saturday...where to start? The dream-team cast? OK, Amanda Roocroft is The Marschallin for the first time - not that you would guess for a moment she had not been born singing this music. Roocroft is one of the finest actresses in British opera right now - look at her awards for all that Janacek. She can effortlessly evoke the charming, open-hearted aristocrat on the one hand, and, lurking just beneath the surface, a self-destructive woman whose fear of losing her beloved young lover leads her to chase him away; act I's conclusion leaves her cradling a cushion in despair. Sarah Connolly is everyone's perfect Octavian: glowing, dashing, her voice as silvery as her armour (and those of us who follow her updates on Facebook were extra-pleased to see her as she'd been stuck on a motionless train with points failure for half the afternoon).

Sophie Bevan as Sophie

But perhaps most stunning of all was the debut of Sophie Bevan as Sophie (above, pic by Clive Barda). A star is born? You can't argue with the goose-bumps: you can't always explain them, but you know them when they happen. The moment Sophie opened her mouth, it was clear that she is no common-or-garden girl soprano, but one with potential to reach some very special places indeed. At no point while she sang did one have to glance at the surtitles; every word was clear as the proverbial bell, and every twist of character projected with relish. The voice - pure, flexible, snowy and effortlessly voluminous when required - never faltered; and the magical moments following the presentation of the rose as Sophie and Octavian fall in love made us all fall in love too. The audience went mad for her. I can't wait to hear what she does next.

Nor can you argue with John Tomlinson as the odious Ochs. Some of us feel that the opera contains too much Ochs and too little outrage over his ghastliness (the programme notes said that Strauss makes us like Ochs, but actually no, he doesn't) - but 'John Tom' is so convincing that what one remembers is a) the 18th-century setting would have condemned him to the guillotine had Strauss and Hofmannsthal not shifted the action to Vienna instead of Paris, and b) the world premiere, in 1911, took place only six years before the Russian revolution. Rosenkavalier as social commentary for its own time and maybe for ours too... Meanwhile, so involved was the singer with his role that in the scene with the attorney he turned physically scarlet with anger.

David McVicar's direction of a production as opulently golden as its music is typically astute and detailed - probing, questioning and poetic. For instance, why doesn't Octavian dressed as Mariandel slip out of the boudoir to escape Ochs's attentions? Because the mystery doors in the wall are so mysterious that he can't work out how to get them open. And the last gesture of Octavian towards the departing Marie-Therese before turning back to Sophie sparks an idea that we may not have seen the last of that affair after all...while young Mohamed the page boy has a crush of his own to pursue after curtain-down.

Down t'pit, Ed Gardner was working a magic of his own. This was a shimmering, generous, expansive Rosenkavalier - running to 4 hrs 10 mins, it was 25 mins longer than the theatre's estimate - but not a second of it was excessive. The music had room to breathe, grow and smoulder. Super violin solos from leader Janice Graham and some very lovely woodwind playing.

I have only two complaints. First of all, fine though the diction of the singers was, this opera's entire musical world is so bound up with flow of the German language that in English it just sounds all wrong. That's nobody's fault. I imagine the translation could have been more inspiring, but perhaps it would be a losing battle in any case. The other issue is that the set scarcely changes from scene to scene - without differentiation between the Marschallin's olde-worlde palace and the Faninal's new-build house, half the matter of class distinction, which is such an overriding theme, can't help but be somewhat submerged. Still, sets cost money; and, quite honestly, this cast could have performed in concert alone and still convinced us every step of the way.

Runs to 27 February. I wanna go again!

Photos here: http://www.flickr.com//photos/eno-baylis/sets/72157629055732903/show/

Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Historical for Mozart's Birthday, plus some news

First of all, I'm delighted to announce that I have "a new gig", contributing to The Spectator Arts Blog. My first piece is out today and it's a look at six of the best young opera singers I've come across in the last year or so. First up is Sophie Bevan, who will be singing her namesake in Der Rosenkavalier for ENO from Saturday. And five more budding superstars... Read it here.

And it's Mozart's birthday, and it's Friday, so here is some Friday Historical Mozart: the first movement of the Concerto for Three Pianos, with Sir Georg Solti (conducting and playing), Daniel Barenboim and Andras Schiff, and the English Chamber Orchestra. Happy 256th birthday to our darling Wolferl!

Monday, November 07, 2011

John Adams on 'Klinghoffer' in London & NY

My goodness, the folks at ENO and the Met are brave. They're staging a co-production of John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer, directed by Tom Morris (of War Horse fame). ENO will give seven performances, opening on 25 February. It will be the London stage premiere of this American supremo's most controversial opera. The Los Angeles Music Center Opera, one of the work's co-commissioners, cancelled its planned staging without explanation back in the early '90s and the only one in the US since then took place a few months ago at the Opera Theater of St Louis (read review here).

In a statement that ENO has just put out, Adams has this to say:
"ENO has become the home for my operas in the UK. I count myself a very lucky composer to have such an artistically progressive company in my corner. ENO has already introduced Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic in powerfully committed performances and I expect nothing less from Tom Morris's new staging of The Death of Klinghoffer which has every promise of being provocative, humane and deeply imagined. London audiences are my ideal listeners - sophisticated, musically literate, enthusiastic and of course a little bit insane. I look forward to being among them for the premiere."
His introduction to his opera and its performing history on his site, Earbox.com, is well worth a read. Meanwhile, I only hope that our London audiences won't prove too "insane" to give the work a listen and judge it objectively on its own merits.