Showing posts with label Royal Opera House. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Royal Opera House. Show all posts

Friday, March 18, 2016

X-ratings at the opera?

There's been something of a furore - or at least a few raised eyebrows - since the Royal Opera House sent round an email to ticket holders warning of graphic sex and violence (though not necessarily at the same moment) in the forthcoming new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Katie Mitchell. There's also been an "unsuitable for children under 12" message re Boris Godunov. As Fiona Maddocks points out in The Guardian, this is potentially a slippery slope: art, a mind-broadening process, should not be delivered with apologies.

Natalie Dessay as Lucia at the Met, NY, 2011

So, does opera need: a) raised expectations of theatrical staging, b) a suitability ratings system akin to that of cinema, and/or c) a whole new approach for a new century?

First of all, why are expectations of operatic productions so low? Many opera-goers are familiar with the works they are about to hear and are likely to know the stories. Lucia is about a woman who is forced into marriage with a man she doesn't love and on their wedding night goes mad and kills him before dropping dead herself. That is pretty bloody violent. If a film director such as Quentin Tarantino tackled such a tale, and you went to the cinema to see it, you'd be fairly astonished if all that happened was that Lucia sang a nice coloratura passage accompanied by a flute and then mysteriously keeled over.

Katie Mitchell, one of today's most brilliant theatre directors, is known for her ruthless, forensic interrogation of character and drama (I've just done a big interview with her for the American magazine Opera News, which will be out soon and explores all of this) and if you only want crinolines and ringlets you probably don't go to her productions. Yet crinolines and ringlets, in dramatic terms, can be awfully boring - unless handled by an exceptional director who can bring such matters to life through evocation of character and nuance.

Operatic music and the stories it illustrates are of necessity extreme - opera at its finest reaches the moments of human experience in which words become inadequate and only music can capture the emotion at hand. (Tosca: "Vissi d'arte". Wotan's Farewell. The Countess in Figaro. And so on.) Why are expectations, then, so leery of extremity?

Rigoletto: Planet of the Apes (Munich, 2007)
First, because that was probably how opera was staged for decades and decades, until someone realised it was theatre. Secondly, because unfortunately a good deal of so-called "Regietheater" really is disappointing. I contend that that is not inherently because it is Regietheater; it is perfectly possible for radical productions to be convincing, insightful and strikingly imaginative while remaining perfectly in tune with the opera's content. Yet I once asked Joseph Calleja what had been the most ridiculous thing he'd ever had to do on stage and he promptly responded: "Singing the Duke of Mantua in a monkey suit".

Next question: is it time to introduce mandatory "suitability" ratings for opera productions? We have them for cinema, so why not opera as well? It would, however, be up to each theatre to assess its own roster - but there's no reason why every opera should be suitable for children no matter what story it tells. Besides, just imagine: Lucia di Lammermoor is X-rated and teenagers try to smuggle themselves in as a badge of honour...

This system would mean no need for grovelly, late-notice, apologies-in-advance and no refunds. People would know a bit about what they're signing up for from the start and that is fine. You don't go to a Tarantino movie expecting soft-focus romanticism. And you don't expect that from Katie Mitchell either.

Anyway, I'm more worried about this production's conductor, whose Robert le Diable was so dull that it made an iffy opera pretty much intolerable. Perhaps he'll be more comfortable with Donizetti.

When I went to Budapest last week I interviewed a very different conductor, Iván Fischer, about his glorious Budapest Festival Orchestra and especially his semi-staged production of The Magic Flute, which is coming to London soon. His idea is to explore "organic, integrated opera" which brings the drama and the music together - the latter having to be performed dramatically, the former being scaled down somewhat. Fischer, one of the most genuinely creative minds on the podium at present, drew heavy criticism for a venture into this when he brought one to Edinburgh, but his idea is well worth exploring. His take on it is that for 40 years now there has been a polarisation between stage and pit: the former expected to be radical and innovative, the latter expected to be deeply conservative (with "original instruments" et al). This polarisation has become a trope, a cliché effectively, and besides it doesn't always make for a satisfying overall experience. It's time, he says, to try something new. More about this when the feature comes out. I find his analysis cogent and agree with him that it is time to look for a new way forward, rather than just chugging along in the same old tramlines.

And meanwhile I can't wait to see what Katie Mitchell has done with Lucia di Lammermoor. It opens on 7 April.




Saturday, January 30, 2016

Chabrier's Star in the ascendant


Lost already? You're in a sort of French Monty Python with very good music, coming up fast at Covent Garden. Chabrier's L'Étoile opens Monday. Had lovely chats with director Mariame Clément and conductor Sir Mark Elder for a short and sweet feature in today's Independent.

Here's one of the most beautiful bits of the music, the 'Romance de l'étoile':


The king, the pedlar, his lover, the astrologer, Chris Addison and a glass of green chartreuse… Lost already? Welcome to the absurd fantasy world of Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’étoile (The Star), which opens at the Royal Opera House on 1 February.

It’s rare for the Royal Opera to venture into French 19th-century operetta – but they’ve picked a good one. Chabrier (1841-1894) has long languished in the shadows of his contemporaries, among them Saint-Saëns, Massenet and Fauré – and it is excellent to see him back in the limelight. He was well known in his day for his charm, wit and technical brilliance both at the composer’s desk and at the piano. He was friendly with Degas and Manet and collected impressionist art; he was conducted by Richard Strauss, referenced by Stravinsky, admired by Ravel; and his bright-hued orchestral work España even impressed Mahler. His music’s perfectionism, refinement and lightness of touch (L’étoile even includes a Tickling Trio) mark him out as a creator of the highest calibre. Yet like many musicians blessed with a rare gift for writing good comedy, he longed to compose serious opera and later produced a Wagnerian-style drama entitled Gwendoline.

Posterity seems to prefer L’étoile. As its conductor at Covent Garden, Sir Mark Elder says, “The operatic repertoire is so full of wonderfully powerful, tragic melodramas that it’s lovely, especially in winter, to have a fantastical, bizarre, mad comedy instead. The music is so full of colour, contrast and wit that for a first-time listener it’s irresistible.”

Though neglected throughout the 20th century, L’étoile has begun to shine once more in the 21st. In recent years it has been popping up in opera houses around Europe, with airings in Geneva, Berlin, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, among others; a few weeks ago its overture featured in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Saint Sylvester concert conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

But one reason that perhaps we don’t hear enough French operetta generally is that stylistically it’s so difficult to pull off. “It has to have sensuality, but it also has to have verve and attack,” says Elder. “It mustn’t be heavy, yet it must have great brilliance.”

According to the production’s director, Mariame Clément – who is making her Royal Opera debut with it – we can expect “French operetta meets Monty Python”. For her the big challenge is to bridge the gap between Chabrier’s world and that of 21st-century opera-goers – and that is why Chris Addison, star of The Thick of It and Mock the Week among much else, is treading the boards alongside the singers. “The story is very French,” says Clément, “full of misunderstandings, affairs and disguises, a very convoluted plot - but what it has in common with British humour is the nonsense of it! Monty Python is a frequent reference in our staging.”

“With surtitles, speed and style it’s possible to be very entertaining,” Elder confirms. “And I can promise you that we’ve got some surprises for everyone.”



L’étoile, Royal Opera House, London, from 1 February. Box office: 020 7304 4000

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Kasper Holten is going home

Sad to receive the press release this morning informing us that Kasper Holten, director of opera at the Royal Opera House, is to leave his post in 2017, after his new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg opens. Here's his letter.


Kasper Holten. Photo: Sim Cannetty-Clarke
Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to you as I want to share with you that I have decided to leave my position at The Royal Opera in March 2017.

I love working at ROH – and with all the amazing colleagues here – and it feels very painful to let go of that in 2017. But when I moved to London, my partner and I didn’t have children. Now we do, and after much soul searching we have decided that we want to be closer to our families and inevitably that means we make Copenhagen our home where the children will grow up and go to school.

So when Alex offered me an extension of my contract for another five years beyond summer 2016, I have decided only to ask for an extension of seven months, giving the ROH time to plan for my succession and for me to continue the work as long as possible. I will therefore leave my position in March 2017 after Tony and I open our new production of Wagner’s Meistersinger here at ROH. But my work isn’t done yet, so please don’t do too many farewells quite yet!

I will continue to work hard for The Royal Opera until the day I leave, and Tony and I will put strong plans in place for The Royal Opera until 2020 and beyond, with a varied repertory and many exciting new commissions and productions.

It is with a very heavy heart that I send you these lines, but at the end of the day this decision has been inevitable for me. I am deeply grateful to ROH and to all of you for the amazing adventure it has been to work here – and will continue to be for a while yet!

Warmest regards

Kasper’


Kasper's resignation is part of a trend that I suspect is on the increase: the best  overseas professionals deciding to leave the UK for pastures a little more reasonable. London's insane housing prices, the shockingly dreadful state of our school provision system (I know nobody with children who has not gone through a nightmare or many when finding places to educate them), the distances that people have to travel between work and home and the time it takes to do so - these make family life in the capital an affair so stressful that one can't blame anybody who can move to a more civilised environment for wanting to do so. If we leave the EU, moreover, it's likely to become more difficult still to engage and retain the best European experts. 

Kasper is an often brilliant director, a dynamic and inspiring character and always a joy to interview. We'll miss him, but understand his decision.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Leaping into the unknown - with Georg Friedrich Haas

Haas's new opera Morgen und Abend premieres on Friday 13 November at the Royal Opera House. Quite a date for a big, risky premiere, no? I had a good chat with Kasper Holten, the ROH's director of opera, about why taking a risk by staging the new and edgy is more important than ever before, and also had a chat with soprano Sarah Wegener about singing microtones. Article is in today's Independent.

The book Morning and Evening by the Norwegian playwright and author Jon Fosse, by the way, is extraordinary, startling, poetic, sonorous. Read it. Fosse has prepared the libretto for Haas.

Here is Klaus Maria Brandauer, the great Austrian actor who stars in the first part of the performance, on his role.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Orphée et Eurydice: grief and catharsis at the ROH

(This was originally for the Independent's Observations section the other day.)


The new season at the Royal Opera House opens with a collaborative effort unusual enough to seem a tad startling. Orphée et Eurydice, by Christoph Willibald Gluck, is an 18th-century classic of the first order, mingling singing, dance and orchestral interludes in the service of a timeless Greek myth. To realise it, the theatre is opening its doors to the Israeli-born, London-based choreographer and composer Hofesh Shechter and his company of 22 dancers; and also to the conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his orchestra and chorus, the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir. The celebrated Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez sings the title role, the British soprano Lucy Crowe is his Eurydice, and the production is co-directed by John Fulljames and Shechter.

It is Shechter’s first venture into opera – and he is on board because he simply fell in love with the Gluck. “I was offered work in opera before and refused,” he says. “I have to feel I’m connecting with the music when I make dance for it and when I heard this I felt there was something about the simplicity of it that seemed to lend itself to dance. Often operatic music can feel very busy, or doesn’t leave enough space for the imagination. Something about Orphée, though, is pure, spacious and open. I really love it and I was very curious about how my style of movement would fit with it and how it would bring other qualities and feelings into my material.”

This collaboration is a new departure for John Fulljames, too: “I have no choreographic training, and this is Hofesh’s first experience in opera, so I think there’s a good complementarity there,” he remarks. “One of the most important things about Hofesh is that he’s not only a choreographer; he’s a musician. He’s unique amongst choreographers at his level in that he not only makes his own choreography, but usually he also writes his own music – so it’s been fascinating for him to work with existing music and to respond to it in detail.”

When Orphée’s beloved Eurydice dies, the demigod travels beyond the grave to try to bring her back, aided by the power of his music. The story, suggests Fulljames, is at heart all about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one.

“I love this opera’s directness,” he says. “It’s extraordinarily undecorated. So much opera risks being sentimental or melodramatic – but this is the opposite. Gluck strips back everything in order to get to an emotional truth: he’s interested in exploring grief and the relationship of love to loss. You really understand love when you understand loss. I think the piece is an extraordinary study of the grieving process, going through stages of anger and betrayal and eventually reaching a point of acceptance about loss. Its consequence is coming to a much greater understanding of love.”

With all this to relish, the joy of hearing Flórez sing the aria immortalised by the great English contralto Kathleen Ferrier in translation as “I have lost my Eurydice” can only be a bonus. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Woolf Works - it does

Federico Bonelli & Alessandra Ferri (photo: Tristram Kenton)

The wonder of dance is that it makes the human body capable of expressing extreme emotion through movement alone. And what a treat it is to see Alessandra Ferri portraying the anguish of the suicidal Virginia Woolf simply by walking across the Covent Garden stage. The Italian ballerina, who left the Royal Ballet for ABT in her twenties, is now 52 and back from what looks to have been a premature retirement. Artistry oozes from her every centimetre; delicate, vulnerable, dignified and technically flawless too, she is a privilege to watch. Why should it be assumed that dancers will retire in their forties? Why should they, and we, miss out on the fruits of mature artistry?

Woolf Works really does work. Wayne McGregor's choreography in the past has often been virtuosic, intellectual, trendy, or all three at once, yet it's in poetic vision - expressed in whatever medium - that the best creators live on. McGregor has in the past offered flashes of that poetry in moments like Raven Girl's final pas de deux. But here, at least in the first and third sections, the physical poetry of emotion is there in force. It's as if he has found his true voice lying beneath all the bedazzlement and is now letting it sing. Edward Watson in 'I Now, I Then' (based on Mrs Dalloway) as the shell-shocked World War I soldier Septimus accompanied in Max Richter's score by a keening solo cello à la Elgar, matches Ferri and her younger self (Beatrix Stix-Brunnell) in the evocation of that poetry and is a special highlight.

Steven McRae & Natalia Osipova (photo: Tristram Kenton)
Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae (right) navigate the central section, 'Becomings', with the expected magnificence, Osipova's legs reaching what looks like a 240-degree extension. This episode - based, but less tangibly so, on Orlando - perhaps overstays its welcome; half an hour is a long time for any composer to sustain variations on 'La Folia', especially this loud, and while the idea was always that one dance idea begins while another is still in full flow, it can at times be hard to know where to look - whatever you focus on, you always feel you're missing something else. This episode is constant movement, a collage of ideas flashing and whirling by in a continual state of evolution, stunningly lit with lasers through dry ice (though the gold crinkly crinolines are a bit garish).

Finally, in 'Tuesday', Woolf's suicide note and her death blends with the stream-of-consciousness flow of The Waves, unfurling against filmed sea breakers in slow motion; a tender duet  takes place as she pays heart-rending homage to her husband, before walking into the water-embodying corps de ballet, is partnered by them, becomes one of them.

Richter's score is studded with moments of impressive imagination; its surround-sound electronic effects, the use of chamber music moments, voices - notably Virginia Woolf's own at the outset - plus the sounds of nature or of a much amplified scratching pen add constant new dimensions to the minimalist-derived style. Tchaikovsky it ain't, but it serves this multimedia dance theatre experience strongly and is an organic part of the whole.

If you love Woolf Works as much as I did, by the way, and you want a different kind of souvenir, I can highly recommend Caroline Zoob's gorgeous book about Woolf's garden at Monk's House. We see filmed glimpses of this garden in 'I Now, I Then', but the book is so beautifully done that it's the next best thing to visiting the place. In this strange world of ours, too, it is also possible to download an e-book of Woolf's complete novels for all of £1.19.

Woolf Works continues to 26 May. Book here.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Down the King's head with Karol, Tony and Kasper

(NB: contains spoilers. If you haven't seen the ROH Król Roger yet, and you're going to, and you don't want to know what they do with it, look away now and come back afterwards...)

There's a live streaming tonight of Karol Szymanowski's opera Król Roger (King Roger) from the Royal Opera House. Highly recommended. A gift of an excuse to do this opera has appeared - namely the Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień, of big, oak-dark tone and native ability with the language - and in Tony Pappano's hands the score doesn't only seduce, but blisters and burns. I went in last week (reviewing for The JC) expecting honey and rosewater, but found neat chilli vodka instead. You can see the streaming on the brand-new Opera Europa platform - 15 of Europe's leading opera houses clubbing together to stream productions free to all - or on the ROH's own Youtube channel. It will be available on demand for 6 months afterwards.

Kasper Holten's production is, first, clever, and second, clear. The score and the action - inspired by Euripides, but written by the composer's cousin and travelling companion, the poet Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz - are sensual and heady for a good reason; the composer's inner conflicts, as a gay Catholic in the early 20th century, are given full rein to express themselves, as is the musical lure of the exotic near east and north Africa, where matters at the time were less repressive. Holten takes us inside the King's head, and I don't mean that Islington pub.

The first act finds the stage dominated by a giant head. In act two, the face turns to the back and we see its inner workings: three levels, connected by iron staircases. The superego at the top, somewhat underpopulated; the ego, strewn with piles of old books; the id, beneath, a mass of seething, writhing dancers, hemmed in, struggling to get out. In act III the question arises: what happens when they do? And who are they? And who, then, is the Shepherd?

Szymanowski's shepherd - sung here by the Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, with a range of expression that carries him from rose velvet in the centre to knife-edge iron at the top when the drama demands - is (like Korngold's Stranger from Heliane, oddly enough premiered a year later) a newcomer in a repressed, traditional world. He arrives preaching love and hedonism; the Queen is enchanted by him; the King is filled with conflict, his adviser Edrisi warning him to be cautious and the church powers encouraging the stamping out of this unorthodox approach to life. Roger tries to condemn the stranger to death; Queen Roxana begs him not to.

But Roger is as mesmerised by this beautiful, tempting man as everyone else is. Szymanowski's music proves to us that the attraction is sexual; and in the drama, Roger's relationship with Roxana is clearly in trouble. But Holten remembers that Roger is a king and that his populace are all too keen to follow the newcomer instead. So who is this charismatic political upstart in his raw silk coat? A smouldering bonfire in the centre of the stage at the start of act III soon leaves us in little doubt as the populace bring out books to burn. This opera was premiered in 1926, and the costumes here are in the style of that time or shortly after.

Sometimes subverting an opera's intrinsic story is a mistake, on those occasions when you feel the solution is imposed on questions that were never there in the first place. But this is different. This is one of those lightbulb moments that you didn't necessarily see coming up, but that makes complete sense - and makes the production as vital an experience as the opera is in the first place.



I haven't written anything about the general election here because I simply don't know what to say other than "well, I didn't vote for them...". (Our local MP is a popular, independent-minded Tory, Zac Goldsmith, a vocal opponent to Heathrow expansion. Nobody else stood a chance round here.) I like the idea of the "northern powerhouse" and especially of faster trains thereto. But I dread the deepening of the already insane inequalities in our society; I dread what will happen to the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the country; and I fear an EU referendum that may leave us an isolated, powerless island on fantasy-fangled ideological grounds, even though the country's business leaders think we would be stark raving bonkers to take such a course. And I don't like to think what will happen to the arts. Last time round, a number of small companies and organisation either went under or had to find radical ways to reinvent themselves. This time, I think that may well start happening to bigger ones. And the BBC is going to face a huge upheaval next year when the licence fee arrangement is due for renewal or revision.

What's this got to do with King Roger (apart from another King Roger having abdicated from the Proms while the going was good)? This: it shows us what we don't have - specifically, a charismatic leader whose personal magnetism and honeyed promises can lead huge swathes of the population to follow him into dangerous paths. And if we don't have this, says the production, perhaps it's just as well. It's possible that one, of sorts, may emerge in due course - and it may not be who you think - but maybe we should count our blessings that no Szymanowskian shepherd of any one of those many political hues has yet walked through the gates of Westminster.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Long live King Roger!

Karol Szymanowski's operatic masterpiece is coming up at the Royal Opera House next week, and not a moment too soon. My God, what an impossibly gorgeous score it is. I nearly died of joy the first time I heard it. So I had a chat with its director, Kasper Holten - and wasn't sorry to hear about his passion for early 20th-century opera, or the fact that one of his happiest experiences to date was with Korngold's Die tote Stadt (his production, for the Finnish National Opera, is on DVD).

Tony Pappano conducts, the wonderful Mariusz Kwiecień is the King, Georgia Jarman is Queen Roxana and the production opens 1 May. NB the live streaming on the Internet on 16 May.

Here's my piece from today's Independent.
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/karol-szymanowskis-krl-roger-a-forgotten-classic-setto-rule-again-10193436.html

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Royal Opera House 2015-16: JDCMB's top choices



Yesterday the Royal Opera House held its big press conference to announce the new season. And it's a goodie. There was so much to announce that chief executive Alex Beard gently told Antonio Pappano he had to wind up his speech so they could move on. "I'm a Sir, and don't you forget it!" laughed the irrepressible music director.

During the question session an American journalist asked about attendance figures. Some houses in the US have problems, he suggested, with actually getting people to go and see things. How are sales doing here? Kasper Holten, head of opera, told him that for the past season the operas have averaged around 94 per cent. Kevin O'Hare, artistic director of the Royal Ballet, modestly added that for ballet it's been more like 98-99%.

I get the feeling they are doing something right. A mixture of balancing old and new repertoire and productions, scheduling the right number of performances of each piece, setting the ticket prices at levels which - if still steep to many - still do a rather healthy trade. In the new season there are some ambitious and radical treats alongside a fair few war-horses with exciting singers. Eight new productions. A new full-scale opera commission from Georg Friedrich Haas. New ballets with new scores to be written for our top choreographers by Lowell Liebermann, for Liam Scarlett's first full-length ballet, Frankenstein, Mark-Anthony Turnage, for a new Christopher Wheeldon ballet; and Esa-Pekka Salonen for a new work by Wayne McGregor. An eagerness on Tony Pappano's part to get the orchestra out of the pit and playing in its own right on the stage - which would, of course, also give us the chance to hear the maestro exploring non-operatic repertoire, a treat that we don't hear often enough in London.

One name, amongst the very many being trumpeted, was missing. Oh dear, what is this - a Kaufmann-free season? A brand-new Cav'n'Pag starring...Aleksandrs Antonenko. Tosca starring...ooh, the excellent Franceso Meli, which is great in itself, but...? On the way out to the coffee and pastries, rumblings were going on: WHERE'S JONAS?

Well, I found him. Buried deep in the pages of the brochure, there he is, singing...two performances of what is tipped to be the last revival of Francesca Zambello's production of Carmen. Kaufmaniacs might like to put 14 and 16 November in their diaries.

Aside from that, here are my personal must-sees of the opera season.

1. The aforementioned new Cav'n'Pag - Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, conducted by Pappano, directed by the exciting young Italian, Damiano Michieletto, and starring Eva-Maria Westbroek, Carmen Giannattassio and, in both tenor roles, Aleksandrs Antonenko. "There is another tenor besides Jonas Kaufmann," declared Pappano. "He's a great singer." Holten told us that the production will be set in southern Italy in the 1980s - "but it hasn't changed much since then." Pappano's presence in the pit would alone be enough to get me running to this.

2. A revival of Holten's Eugene Onegin. Yes, really. It got largely hideous reviews, but I rather loved it. It's apparently having something of an overhaul and there's a thrilling cast: as Tatyana, the young Australian soprano Nicole Car, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin, Michael Fabiano as Lensky, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Prince Gremin and Semyon Bychkov conducting.

3. An actual staging of an opera by Chabrier. L'Etoile, a rare opéra bouffe by the sparkling French master, to be staged by Mariame Clément and conducted by Mark Elder. I can feel the fresh air zipping in already.

4. Rare repertoire, top that? Yes: here comes my pin-up hero Enescu (honest, guv, I've a big poster of him above my piano, brought from Bucharest), and his opera Oedipe, the latest in the ROH's splendid focus on early 20th-century operas that can use some attention. Fabulous cast includes Johan Reuter, John Tomlinson, Sophie Bevan, Sarah Connolly, Claudia Huckle, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Alan Oke and more. Conductor: Leo Hussain, director Alex Ollé.

5. Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest is back, this time being performed at the Barbican. I couldn't get in last time and it sounds like a seriously hilarious must-see.

6. New commission, Morgen und Abend, from the composer Georg Friedrich Haas and librettist Jon Fosse, based on the latter's novel. Graham Vick directs. Apparently it begins with a huge monologue for the great German actor Klaus-Maria Brandauer. It's a co-commission with the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

7. At the ballet, besides all those brilliant pieces with brand-new scores, The Winter's Tale is being revived, as is Raven Girl, they're going to do Ashton's The Two Pigeons for the first time in 30 years, and there's a new Carmen (to Shchedrin's version) from Carlos Acosta. (See my interview with him in the latest edition of About the House Magazine. He is even more lovely than you think.)

That's just the very tip of a warm sort of iceberg that includes a new Lucia di Lammermoor, a Tannhauser revival complete with Gerhaher as Wolfram, an ambitious project based around Orpheus and featuring a new staging of Gluck's eponymous opera with John Eliot Gardiner bringing in his own orchestra (though many of us are sure the ROH's own orchestra would have done it just as splendidly) and being directed by both John Fulljames and the choreographer Hofesh Schechter, an all-dancing as well as all-singing job, and with no less than Juan Diego Flórez in the lead, with Lucy Crowe as his Eurydice. Other stars aplenty: Karita Mattila in Ariadne auf Naxos, Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca, Venera Gimadieva and Rolando Villazón in Traviata, Bryn Terfel singing Boris Godunov for the first time in a new production by Richard Jones.

The new website of Opera Europa will soon be making it easier for us all to see live-streamings from 15 different European opera houses in one website, the ROH included, and an increasing capacity for co-productions is beginning to feed Covent Garden's plans as it does ENO.





Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mahagonny rising and falling

Sobering to wake up the morning after this particular opera to see on the news scenes of devastation from the cyclone in Vanuatu. A hurricane is the central force - in some senses - of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Brecht and Weill show us the impact on the city's collective psyche of nature's approaching Armageddon, turning the place from deathly, over-regulated calm to equally deathly venal over-permissiveness. The hurricane, though, takes a "detour" - despite the "footnotes - of which Brecht & Weill are unaware" that the director at Covent Garden, John Fulljames, brings us.

Yes, Mahagonny, written in the late twenties and premiered in 1930, feels as if it could have been written yesterday, in certain ways. But that is not because of the hurricane, even though there was one. It's because of the corruption, the moral vacuity, the drunkenness, the greed, the selfishness, the falsity. Focusing on climate change, which is specific to our times, but was not to the late 1920s, at the expense of these other qualities, specific to all times, is only the first of many problems I had with the production and the performance. (Reviews so far have been mixed,  but I don't seem to have seen the same show as any of them.)

The trial scene, including Anne Sofie von Otter as Widow Begbick (centre)
and Kurt Streit as Jimmy (right, on the box).
(c) ROH, photo by Clive Barda
Dystopian societies were order of the day for composers, film-makers and authors in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Think of them: Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (published 1932), Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane (- yes, really - 1927), and that's just for starters. One can trace influences to the rise of the Soviet Union, the seismic devastation left by World War One barely ten years earlier, the runaway inflation that followed it in Germany and Austria, the boom and fearful bust of the late 1920s, the rise and rise of the USA and its skyscrapers (construction of the Empire State Building began in 1929). As John Fulljames put it when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago, Brecht's vision is "America with a k"- the work is set there because that was the new place, the boom place, but it's an imaginary version of the country: today you might perhaps choose Dubai or Shanghai.

The production has one desperately powerful and chilling concept. It is built - by Es Devlin's inspired design - around shipping containers, which double as brightly coloured houses rising as far as the eye can see. But when you see a shipping container, what do you think of? Personally, I can't help associating them with people being smuggled and suffocated therein. Early on in this opera, a chorus of men in grey suits and hats - implicitly western city workers - are herded into a container to be taken to Mahagonny. The staging, with its climate change warning, points to our own likely dystopia: we will all have to flee our cities and find somewhere new to go, because, as Brecht puts it, translated by Jeremy Sams, we don't need hurricanes, "we're spoiling the world just fine."

Brecht does like to bash us over the head with his messages, though. He can never simply put a fable in front of us and let us draw our own conclusions. A good red pen wouldn't have gone amiss from time to time. The four lumberjacks from Alaska who are destroyed by the place, one by one - except for Billy - recap their words about the terrible winters and the great pine trees they felled so often that a gentle excision or two wouldn't have hurt - except that I suspect Brecht would have given you a black eye if you'd tried.

Another problem, though, for which we can't entirely blame Brecht & Weill: strophic songs are awkward on an opera stage. This stage especially. The set takes up most of the space, so the action is confined principally to the very front. When it acquires more than two dimensions, it goes upwards into split levels. Perhaps that solves part of the intimacy problem - it's a large house for not a large troupe and a piece in which words are all-important - but there's less room to play with and the fable-like nature of the story perhaps invites a more symbolic, static approach than a naturalistic scenario might. But in short, there's not enough going on in the strophic songs. Yes, we need to focus on the words - but we need a little more action, too, or the pace can really sag, and it does.

In similar fashion, many of the cast are under-characterised. These individuals are archetypes, of course, but they need to come to convincing life. Only our hero, Jimmy McIntyre - sung magnificently by Kurt Streit - assumes a measure of actual personality. Even Christine Rice, in fabulous voice as Jenny the prostitute, could give the role more nuance; when she refuses to help Jimmy, who loves her, it should probably come as a sickening shock, but doesn't. Then there's Anne Sofie von Otter as Widow Begbick - one wants to admire her, given that she is a magnificent artist and one of today's very great singers, but this role needs an overwhelming presence, a true battle-axe personality, and neither she nor her direction - which turns her into a dip-dye-pink-haired Estuary type - provides enough of that essential force. (Have a look at the extracts on Youtube of Patti LuPone in the role in the US). Sir Willard White is a brilliant Trinity Moses; one wants more of him. Peter Hoare as Fatty does not have much to do either, but his very presence, standing still and smoking, carries a fabulous weight of imagery. The singing is often operatically beautiful, especially from Streit and Rice - and according to Jeremy Sams, whom I interviewed for my article last week, so it should be. Full marks to orchestra, chorus and Mark Wigglesworth on the podium.

For me, the message of Mahagonny is not about what Brecht puts on stage, but what he doesn't. If this society is eating itself away through ennui and self-destructiveness, feeling something's missing, why? What is it that is missing? Try these:

No families. The only women on stage are prostitutes and the Widow Begbick. No children. No older people. The men can have sex, but apparently only with women who are doing it for money.
No art. The populace possesses nothing creative, nothing expressive.
No sport or fitness or teamwork. They do have bare-knuckle boxing, which is singular and kills its combatant.
No community. Every man (and it's mostly men - but it's true of Jenny too) for himself.
Nothing for people to do except indulge their basest appetites well beyond their hearts' desires. No orchestras or painting classes, that's for sure.
No education.
No history.
Nothing to encourage any actual sense of humanity or kindness or relationship.

Only money, appetite and self-interest have any value here. There is one grim reference to religion, right at the end. Brecht bashes us on the head with it, and so does Fulljames, turning Jimmy's execution into a scene reminiscent of the Crucifixion.

Some of this is also why the updating doesn't quite work. The nature of the piece is much of its own day; there isn't space within it to turn it into a convincing picture of our own times and the make-up of our society. Filmed images of the front of the ROH and the blown-up bus in Russell Square 2005 do little to help.

Inside us all there is, perhaps inevitably, a personal opera-director who pipes up: "I want to see it like this instead..." My mini-me would like to see it set...
...in Germany, in 1930. Performed as it might have been then (and in German - I liked the translation and can see why it perhaps needs to be done in translation, but I'd rather hear it in German anyway). I would set it as a play within a play, amid the society it would have been in; people impoverished, desperate, surrounded by the rise of fascism, with the work's message bowling out loud and clear and horrific. "Nothing can be done to help the living," goes the final chorus, sending us out thoroughly depressed. Brecht and Weill don't leave 'em laughing. No redemption here. Imagine that message in Germany three years before Hitler took power.

'Nuff said. Shudder. I'm off to comb my cats.




Sunday, March 08, 2015

Brecht and Weill: the bite lives on

Here's a piece I wrote for The Independent about Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which opens at the Royal Opera House on Tuesday. It's never been staged there before and it's about time. It stars Sir Willard White, Anne Sofie von Otter, Christine Rice and many more, and is staged by John Fulljames with a new translation by Jeremy Sams.
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/brecht-has-lost-none-of-his-bite-how-the-message-from-a-1920s-opera-resonates-today-10094014.html

This exploration of the opera's themes by Will Self is well worth a watch, too.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Making a splash with Der fliegende Holländer

Royal Opera House, 5 February 2015. ****
(This is my review for The Independent, now online here.)

Adrianne Pieczonka as Senta, with the chorus of ghost sailors
Photo: Clive Barda

Before the opening night of Der fliegende Holländer some of the Royal Opera House Orchestra had already taken a soaking; apparently the patch of on-stage sea for act III found its way into the pit at the dress rehearsal. But Tim Albery’s Olivier Award-nominated staging, first seen in 2009, is an immersive and immersing experience, pulling you into its depths even if you don’t get splashed en route.

Like many of the most interesting Wagner productions, it is not overloaded with activity, but homes in on human interaction, within elemental shapes; the basic concave shell could be a sail, a wave, a ship’s belly, or the slope of the shore’s hillside. Dark, stark and strong, it is impressively lit by David Finn, with intriguing angles, sometimes harsh, sometimes beautiful, usually symbolic. There seems no need to interpret to excess. Senta’s obsession with the Dutchman comes across not as psychosis, but a genuine love; at the end, instead of throwing herself into the sea, the poor girl seems to die of grief. The mini model ship, though, sometimes feels like a prop too far.

There are two ways, very broadly speaking, to treat this opera. It can emphasise the influence of its musical roots, including Italian bel canto, Weber and Marschner (his Der Vampyr); or it can look forward to the composer’s mature masterpieces. It can be gothic horror with high emotion and great tunes; or a dusky foreshadowing of the philosophical drives that Wagner brought to bear on the Ring cycle and its companions. This account is the latter in no uncertain terms: Albery’s atmospheric staging and Andris Nelsons’s spacious conducting combine into a seriously grown-up angle.

Bryn Terfel’s Dutchman is so strongly characterised that the doomed seaman’s entire history seems visible at his first entrance, weary and burdened, dragging the ship’s rope around his shoulders; vocally he paces himself finely, saving the strongest for last as the dramatic tension peaks. As Senta, Adrianne Pieczonka is simply magnificent, with a warm and radiant voice that melts in its lower register and cuts higher up, and the ability to inhabit the role to heartbreaking effect. The central pair are more than superbly supported by Peter Rose as Senta’s father, Daland; tenor Michael König is a lyrical Erik; and in smaller roles the contributions of Ed Lyon as the Steersman and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Mary were outstanding. One of the night’s biggest plaudits, though, goes to the chorus: the terrifying clash of the locals and the ghost ship’s crew in act III packs a massive punch.

Some elements perhaps still need to settle a little; on this opening night it was hard not to wonder whether Nelsons’ drawn-out tempi challenged sustaining power too much. The overture dragged surprisingly – not aided by the hypnotic waves of grey curtain rolling from left to right – but Nelsons’ skill as an accompanist with forensic control of line and texture allows the singers to shine without shouting, to be supported without ever being drowned.