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

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Free ZooNation! Mad Hatter's Tea Party to be LIVE STREAMED

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party: ZooNation in rehearsal
Photo: David Sandison
I spent an utterly enthralling and invigorating few hours at the ROH the other week watching ZooNation rehearse its new family show for the Linbury, The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, and then writing about it. Huge respect for these amazing dancers who work so hard but manage to create so much fun while doing so. Full feature is in the Independent today along with a photo gallery from the rehearsals.

The show - the first-ever commission in hip-hop style from the ROH - runs from Saturday until 3 January, but the theatre has just announced that the performance on 18 December will be live-streamed on a) the Royal Opera House's Youtube channel and b) the BBC Arts website. If what I saw is anything to go by, it's going to be both terrifically danced and terrifically bonkers - and the tickets have been going like the proverbial hot cakes. Indeed, it's pretty much sold out - just a few tickets left now for Saturday 13 Dec 12.30pm - so you may have to log on to share the fun with ZooNation's dazzling stars Tommy Franzen, Lizzie Gough, Teneisha Bonner and, of course, 'Turbo'.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The secrets of the great Domingo



In case you missed this wonderful web stream from the Royal Opera House yesterday, watch it here now. Tony Pappano interviews Plácido Domingo about his extraordinary career, singing baritone instead of tenor, and much, much more.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

No tittering at Anna Nicole

Went to Anna Nicole last night at the Royal Opera House, and took with me an American friend who was seeing it for the first time. She thought Richard Thomas's libretto was brilliant, which it is, and she laughed at the jokes, of which there are many.

At the start of the interval, the besuited guy in front of us turned round and told her to stop laughing.

Problem: this opera is meant to be funny.

The librettist would have been overjoyed to get such a positive reaction (elsewhere in the house sharp intakes of breath could be heard around some of the filthier lines). So would the composer. So would the performers; there's nothing worse than uttering something that's meant to be hilarious and eliciting...well, polite silence.

Meanwhile the management is doing its best to open up access and encourage wider appreciation of its artforms. Nobody I know in the echelons of musical performers and creators is remotely stuffy or elitist; everyone, but everyone, wants the audience to enjoy their work. The whole music world is falling over backwards trying to open itself up to bigger, broader audiences.

But frankly, if other opera-goers won't let people laugh at the jokes, what hope is there? All that effort - straight down the drain. Deity-of-choice [to quote the opera], help us all.

This incident is a nice little supplement to the time a critic was spotted telling off a small African-American child in the RFH (remember that?) and the occasion on which another one told me and my niece to stop laughing at a Prom - the incident being a pianist who as his post-concerto encore played a fugue on a Lady Gaga song, and my niece was the only one of us who actually knew what it was. If I've personally encountered such situations three times in just a few years - and I am press, for goodness sake - then I shudder to think what other people are being subjected to out there.

My friend, incidentally, comes from Detroit, which is one reason she laughed so much - for her, the portrayal of the background to Anna Nicole's trailer-trash early life rings all too true. Now she lives in Berlin and is one of the more vital movers-and-shakers in the classical music world. She sees it as her mission to help find ways for this industry to move ahead in new directions, a forum where the community of music-makers around the world can work together to create an innovative, forward-looking future. Her organisation is called Classical:NEXT. Bring it on.

[UPDATE: For those who are still not sure what Anna Nicole is all about, here is a preview from the ROH. It's a tragicomedy by Mark-Anthony Turnage, based on the true story of Anna Nicole Smith. The end is desperately sad, but the first half is full of wit and wordplay. The librettist Richard Thomas also wrote Jerry Springer: The Opera]

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"It's got to be obsessive." Meet Mark-Anthony Turnage

I went to see Mark-Anthony Turnage the other week to talk to him about the revival of Anna Nicole that is to open the Royal Opera House's new season (11 Sept). Article is in the Independent now and the uncut version is below. First, a taster: the PARTAY scene with the amazing team of Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole and Gerald Finley as Howard Stern... 

One more thought: isn't it also high time someone staged his earlier opera The Silver Tassie again? 





The premiere of Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage, in 2011, was unlike any other the Royal Opera House has experienced. The foyer was plastered with images of the soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole Smith, complete with supersized fake breasts; and on the stage’s red velvet curtains the initials for the Queen, ER II, were replaced with “AnR”. This startling transformation of empty celebrity into high art is back to open the Royal Opera House’s new season on 11 September, with a special performance for an audience of students.

Turnage himself is all for this latter idea. “I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “I feel it’s part of a genuine effort by Covent Garden to get a wider audience in – they really want to make a difference.” Still, he has no idea how the work will go over with this youthful crowd: “I hope they’ll see it as a comic piece with a tragic end. But it’s quite likely that none of them, mostly aged between 18 and 26, will have heard of Anna Nicole Smith,” he remarks.

The eponymous heroine, to remind you, built a career as model and TV presenter after having her breasts surgically enhanced to vast proportions. She married an octogenarian billionaire, but was excluded from his will, lost her son to drugs and died of an overdose aged 39 in 2007. The court cases around her have rumbled on into recent weeks.

Still, it is the archetypal “fallen woman” resonances of her tale that well suit the genre of opera. “I think you can get too obsessed with the idea that it’s a story that relates to today,” says Turnage. “We were after a story that’s universal. Relevance – so what? If it dates, it dates. This time I won’t read the reviews.”

Anna Nicole was a hit with some for Turnage’s gritty, jazzy, sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful score and its snarky libretto by Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer: The Opera). Others, considering the subject too trashy for an opera house, couldn’t abide it. For its composer, creating it was both agony and ecstasy.

“I found it very hard to write,” he says. The difficulty was the comedy: “It’s so hard to make people laugh!” He says he relied strongly on Thomas’s skill and experience with that side of it, adding, “All the miserable, angsty, lyrical stuff – that’s much easier for me.”

Controversy still surrounds the work: several opera houses in the US have demurred from staging it because of its bad language. But at 54 Turnage is no stranger to controversy. He shot to fame in his late twenties when his first opera, Greek, established him as the “bad boy” of British new music. While modernism and serialism were still excessively dominant forces, he drew vital influences from popular idioms, which was considered highly rebellious; and much was made in the press of his Essex background and his passion for football. “I’d played it up,” he admits, “and it hasn’t done me any harm.”

More fuss emerged in 2010 when his orchestral work for the Proms, Hammered Out, proved to have rather a lot in common with Beyoncé’s "Single Ladies". The imitation was a sincere form of flattery, plus a musical gift for his son, who liked the song; but eventually, Turnage says, “I paid 50 per cent to Beyoncé. I’d handled it really badly,” he reflects. “I should have come clean about it from the start.” His biggest regret, though, seems to be that he did not get to meet the R&B star.

His penchant for popular idioms may not have endeared Turnage to musical establishment organisations that give annual awards; incredibly, his only prizes are for his opera The Silver Tassie, which scooped an Olivier Award and a South Bank Award in 2000. Nevertheless, he has a strong following among both public and musicians, constantly garnering an impressive string of international commissions at the highest level, with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. The premiere takes place in Flanders, in October, of Passchendaele, a work commemorating World War I; further highlights ahead include another opera for Covent Garden, planned for 2020.

“People say I’m prolific,” Turnage remarks. “Well, I’ve got a lot of kids, so I’ve got to write a lot of music. I’m not writing to be indulgent, I’m writing to provide for my family.” He has four children aged between 18 and three, from two ex-marriages. Composers, he acknowledges, can be difficult to live with: “You can become so focused on work that you can be a pain in the arse. I think I’ve learned how to switch off.” Today he lives alone in a compact north London flat where his desk companions are busts of Beethoven and Brahms and, on his computer, an exceptionally scary photograph of Stravinsky.

“People do find composing hard and they do struggle,” he says. “But that struggle, the pain of it, is also very attractive to me, very engaging. If we’re not totally bound up in this strange world we’re in in composition, then something’s wrong. It’s got to be obsessive.”

Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House, London, from 11 September. Box office: 020 7304 4000





Thursday, June 19, 2014

Manon Top


The new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, directed by Jonathan Kent, has already divided audiences into those who applaud the contemporary relevance of its updating and those who'd rather just see the beautiful Kristine Opolais clad in a nice pretty dress. Others still were so swept away by the music and its ravishing performance that they didn't much care what was going on on the stage in any case.

The Manon Top is not Jonas Kaufmann - well, he is, but there's someone else too. It's the conductor, Tony Pappano. That ROH orchestra blazed almost as if Toscanini himself had stepped out in front of them. The highlight of the evening was the Intermezzo before the second half, given to us with an urgency, sweep and intensity of tone that could raise your hair and crack your heart open. This rarely-performed opera is dramatically problematic - it could use an extra scene or two to make the narrative less patchy - but the music is some of Puccini's finest (personally I'd even put it ahead of Butterfly) and an interpretation of this quality is absolutely what it needs, restoring it to the front ranks where it belongs. Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann matched Pappano's glories turn for turn: Kaufmann contained and paced his ever-irresistible singing, saving the best for the last act, and Opolais infused every vivid note with her character's charismatic personality. The three together were a dream-team, inspiring one another to a level of artistic wonder that we're lucky to be alive to hear.

Now, back to the production. Manon Lescaut is not a nice pretty story. The book, by the Abbé Prévost, is light years away from big romantic tunes; it's a terse, nasty page-turner, an 18th-century thriller that careers at high speed through a hideous, greedy and depraved world which the clever Manon tries to use for her own ends, but which eventually destroys not only her innocence but her life.

Contemporary? Relevant? Just a little. Intriguing to note that there are no fewer than three different adaptations of the book on offer at the ROH this year: operas by Puccini and Massenet and, in the autumn, the Kenneth MacMillan ballet (including several performances with Natalia Osipova in the lead); four if you include the return of Turnage's Anna Nicole, which opens the season - the same kind of story, only real. This can't be a coincidence.

Jonathan Kent's production was booed on opening night - though it was cheered, too. It maybe needs time to warm up and settle a little more, but the concept is powerful and the tragedy overwhelming: Opolais and Kaufmann are stranded as if mid-air at the end of a collapsed and abandoned motorway in the middle of the American nowhere.

At the outset Manon arrives by car in a housing estate of pre-fab flats with a casino to hand; her wide-boy brother (wonderfully portrayed by Christopher Maltman) never flinches at the idea of selling his mini-skirted sister to the imposing Geronte. She becomes instantly an object, a blank slate for the depraved manipulation of all around her with the sole exception of Des Grieux.

Kaufmann's Des Grieux is a touchstone for other values, other worlds - choosing a book when others choose the gambling tables, holding on to the concept of love when it leaves others unscathed; however much the students sing about it at the start, they are clearly out for less exalted emotional encounters. Manon, meeting his impassioned declarations, responds like a rabbit in the headlights; such things are beyond her spheres of reference and when she runs off with him, she is running away from Geronte rather than towards her new life.

Puccini's opera, unlike Massenet's and the ballet, lacks a scene in which Manon and Des Grieux are poor but happy. Instead we cut straight to Geronte's mansion: Manon has abandoned love for luxury. Cue cameras: Kent turns Geronte implicitly into a porn king, filming Manon in a ghastly blonde wig and pink Barbie dress, the dancing master transformed into the director, instructing her while the visiting singer (Nadezhda Karyazina) engages in some apparently titillating girl-on-girl manoeuvres with her. There isn't much that any director can do to make her response more sympathetic, though, when Des Grieux arrives to rescue her and she hesitates too long because she doesn't want to leave her jewels behind.

The hypocrisy of this society, though, is underlined by the way Geronte and his friends debase, exploit and corrupt Manon, but then have her arrested and deported for prostitution. The scene by the ship in Act III turns into reality TV: Des Grieux's plea to go with her takes place under the lights and cameras. (Aside: reality TV is turning into an operatic trope and is on the verge of becoming a cliché: after seeing it in ENO's Götterdämmerung and, of course, Anna Nicole, I suspect that perhaps it's time to leave it for a while. One could say the same about staircases, spiral and otherwise.)

Act III, by the ship, is dominated by a huge poster: a beautiful face, a giant pink lily, the word NAÏVETE emblazoned across the image as if for a perfume advert. Later, the poster is slashed, across the model's cheek. This is a world that has gone beyond the romanticisation of naïveté, one that can only corrupt and disfigure beauty, one that experiences beauty only to squander it for greed. And when we see the blasted-out motorway in the final scene, it seems symbolic in the extreme. The crash barrier is broken. It is not only Manon that is dying, ruined and corrupted and learning her lessons too late; it is, quite possibly, western society as a whole.

Try seeing the production with open eyes. If you don't like it, close them and listen to the performance. But this Manon Lescaut succeeds because its director understands the story is too close for comfort.



Tuesday, June 17, 2014

TONY PAPPANO: MORE POWER TO HIS ELBOW


I had an excellent chat with Tony Pappano recently about Manon Lescaut (which opens tonight), working with Jonas Kaufmann (who's singing Des Grieux), what it's like to be music director of the Royal Opera House, why conducting gave him tennis elbow and what he has to say to our government about cuts to the arts. Article is in today's Independent.

"I say to these guys: be careful. This place [the ROH] is one of several crown jewels in the UK; internationally speaking it's a fantastic representation of our grit and our taste. And I think funding decisions are made so quickly sometimes, and so recklessly. It's the same approach in music education, which is facing enormous cuts. This is ridiculous. It's not 'my opinion' that people who study music develop their brains better for the future – it's proven fact. Take that on board!"

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The soprano who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs...

It's Sally Matthews, who stars as Blanche in the forthcoming run (the Robert Carsen production) at Covent Garden of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. The opera ends with the onstage beheading of 16 nuns. 

Here's my interview with her from today's Independent.  And a little extract from Gianni Schicchi.




If you met Sally Matthews in the street you might not guess that she is one of Britain's finest sopranos. Quiet, serious and rather reserved, the 38-year-old singer is anything but an obvious star; but on stage her voice speaks for itself. Blessed with great range and a rich tone containing unusual warmth, colour and shadow, her refulgent yet pure sound is ideal for Mozart, Strauss and, not least, French music.

Matthews is about to take the leading role in Francis Poulenc's opera Dialogues des Carmélites at the Royal Opera House, amid an all-star cast conducted by Simon Rattle. Operatic success does not get much bigger than this, but she refuses to play the diva. To her, opera is teamwork; and she prefers to avoid repertoire like the more melodramatic moments of Puccini, which possibly attract a different type of personality. "Sometimes the big egos completely detract from what we're doing," she muses. "I've worked with a few of them and I didn't like it much. It should be all about the music."

The Southampton-born singer's career was launched when she won the Kathleen Ferrier Singing Competition in 1999, but it was a special opportunity at the Royal Opera House in 2001 that subsequently determined her direction...
READ THE REST HERE

'Dialogues des Carmélites', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) 29 May to 11 June

Friday, December 13, 2013

Parsifal: A Love Story?

Angela Denoke as Kundry & Simon O'Neill as Parsifal. Photos: Clive Barda

Yesterday I mentioned that the Royal Opera's new Parsifal, directed by Stephen Langridge, seemed rather a curate's egg as cooked by Heston Blumenthal. But the more one thinks about it, the deeper it goes. What follows contains spoilers aplenty, so if you don't want to know the results, look away now.

Langridge's concept is startling, thought-provoking and at times extremely disturbing. It is a very contemporary interpretation, some of which works, some of which doesn't, and some of which seems better after you've had 36+ hours to digest it.

First of all, take the giant cube that occupies the centre of the stage. The first impression is that this is infelicitous design - it resembles a set of Portaloos, or alternatively an outsized SAD lamp (goodness knows our knights need one). More to the point, the hammy gestured flashbacks enacted within it (see image below) are unnecessary distractions and add little of discernible value to the whole, while making it necessary for the real action to take place on the peripheries of the stage.

But wait. Our friend Pliable at Overgrown Path has pointed out that the cube has resonances from Islam. There's another image here... The set design, furthermore, places the holy spring at the back of the stage in a rectangular tub bearing no small resemblance to a mosque's howz for ritual purification.

So are these Grail Knights a kind of Wagnerian Al Qaida? As they send four initiates out into the world in woolly hats, armed with pistols, at the end of the Grail ceremony, it seems not entirely impossible. What's certain is that at the heart of this ceremony lies something dark and desperate. At its outset, in a ritual motion, the knights take knives and spear their own hands.

The ailing Amfortas, bound to the cult/temple/whatever-it-is by his father's demand, doesn't want to carry out the Grail ceremony and begs not to have to do it. The question, though, is always why? Isn't lifting the Holy Grail a beautiful thing to do? Not here - because the Grail is a young boy, and Amfortas has to slash his stomach. No wonder he doesn't want to do it. The boy then passes out and is carried in a classic pieta tableau around the knights, who reach out towards him. But when he comes round, he sits on a bench wrapped in a sheet, ignored and alone, apparently no longer of any significance. Parsifal alone rushes to sit beside him; a look passes between them. This also makes sense - for what inspires human compassion as much as a child abandoned, wounded and suffering? It's the discovery of compassion that transforms the 'Pure Fool'.

The question "why?" appears to be a powerful driving force. Why is Kundry going to such lengths to cure Amfortas when she was responsible for his initial downfall? Simple: she loves him. He loves her too, but his terrible wound has come between them. And at the end, Amfortas cured, Kundry redeemed, they walk off hand in hand, away from the cult/temple/whatever-it-is to live happily ever after. Parsifal has saved Amfortas so that he can live and love and be a whole man. Parsifal opens the Grail shrine to find that the Grail - who was there earlier, a bit older than he was in Act I - has disappeared. Parsifal follows suit, walking away and exiting at the back. Job done. True Grail revealed: it is human love.

At least, I think that is what's going on. It could perhaps use a little more clarification. I may have got it completely wrong, but it's been a process of elimination: if that isn't what's happening, then what is? Pass.

The single biggest problem with the notion - which is beautiful in itself - is that while it can, with some effort, be extrapolated from Wagner's original meanings (insofar as any of us really understand them), it doesn't dovetail easily with other issues, notably that of Kundry. An astonishing character, the constantly reincarnated female version of the Wandering Jew mingled with Mary Magdalene and Venus, Kundry is released from her curse by Parsifal: not only the curse of tearlessness, but that of deathlessness. Usually she finds her rest at the opera's conclusion. Here, she may find true love, but the effect is still to diminish her significance.

Since seeing the performance I've been looking at the Royal Opera House's reactions page and found a fascinating post interpreting the production via profoundly Christian symbolism and the eucharistic litury. Scroll down and read; it's the one by Richard Davey. It makes a huge amount of sense and is wholly different from my take. Perhaps this Parsifal will be "read" in a unique and personal way by everyone who experiences it - rather like those psychological tests where you see images in an ink blot that reflect your own mind. Then it becomes fascinating on a whole new level.

So, the performances. Gerald Finley stole the show as Amfortas, in no uncertain terms. Heartbreaking, all-encompassing, impassioned, incandescent, desperately moving. Rene Pape's Gurnemanz is a true classic, but at this performance he seemed short of his best; and Angela Denoke's much-praised Kundry unfortunately went somewhat off the rails in Act II, losing control of intonation and struggling for the high notes. She was absolutely fine in Act III, but we spent part of the interval wondering whether an understudy might have to sing from a wing. Simon O'Neill's Parsifal grew from harsh-toned callow youth in Act I, breaking his own bow on realising his guilt at killing the swan, to steely, determined redeemer with voice to match. Willard White smouldered as Klingsor - the first time one might wish for an evil magician to have a bit more to do. Chorus and orchestra were on blistering form, with Tony Pappano leading an account that was sumptuously coloured, full of tension and concentrated beauty.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Stephen Langridge talks about Parsifal

The Royal Opera House's new production of Parsifal opens in three-quarters of an hour. I'm not going until 11th, but can't wait...it will be my 4th Parsifal of this year. I simply couldn't stand the thing when I first heard it. Yet now the piece has got under my skin the way no opera has since Die Zauberflote. So it was intriguing to be presented with the chance to ask its  director, Stephen Langridge, a few big questions in an e-chat...(This is a long version of a short piece for the Indy.)

JD: What does it mean to you personally to be directing Parsifal?

SL: I first saw Parsifal in the Hans Jürgen Syberberg film version as a teenager, and loved it… but in my twenties I really fell out with the piece (loathed it), and only in the last few years have I returned to it. But even when I hated it I was always aware of its enormity and importance. Now I find myself moved by its simple humanity and complex almost desperate scrabble for spiritual meaning in life.

JD: Please tell us something about what you're doing with it in this new production?

SL: There are a couple of clear developments the piece which emerge from a close consideration of the story’s background and when you take the characters seriously as people rather than symbolic representations of an idea. One is the effort to effect a paradigm shift – to move from a world ofschadenfreude, cruel mocking laughter at another’s suffering, to one of mitleid, compassion. The other is from a hierarchical, closed and exclusive spiritual community, to an uncovered Grail, where each person must make their own connection with the numinous. These ideas are on one level, simple, but Wagner is not simplistic, and he forces us to experience very dark twists and turns on the journey. Our attempt is to tell a clear story, but to allow the piece to keep its mystery: to find recognizable humanity in the characters, but also to keep the magic of the myth.

JD: Many opera-lovers (myself included) feel that Parsifal is itself a kind of Holy Grail... What are its biggest challenges, excitements and dangers for you as director? Do you see it as in any way a story for our times?

SL: Parsifal is like the Holy Grail if you are ever tempted to think that there is a perfect way to do it, which will be forever relevant. Its philosophy and even its narrative are slippery, contradictory, intangible. It is a huge piece - not just in terms of length - through which there are probably as many journeys available as there are people to engage with it. As a director I suppose the main thing is not to be overwhelmed by its performance history, but to listen openly as if for the first time, to focus on the human moments that resonate and move us. Is it a story for our own times? Yes – but perhaps this could be a definition of any masterpiece, when a piece’s multifaceted complexity reveals itself anew to each generation.

JD: Wagner has become desperately associated with the Nazis and anti-Semitism. How can we best deal with this today?

SL: Wagner was anti-Semitic, and he wrote and said poisonous things. But I think he composed beyond his bigotry, plunging instinctively into deep myth structure. I don’t think that we need to present his operas to comment on his horrible views. If I felt that was all that was going on in Parsifal, I wouldn’t direct it. It’s right to continue to examine and expose Wagner’s views and behavior, and to wonder at this same man being able to compose such sublime music, and to dedicate his last work to the idea of human compassion. In the stark contradiction sits flawed humanity.

Parsifal, Royal Opera House, from 2 December. Box office: 020 7304 4000

And here is a video preview in which Gerald Finley talks about singing the role of Amfortas.



Saturday, November 02, 2013

Sizzling Vespers at ROH


A last-minute invitation to the Royal Opera House's Great Big Verdi Bicentenary Production yesterday was more than welcome. Yet it conspired with blocked local train lines and slow rush-hour tubes to ensure that I arrived a hair's breadth before curtain up for an opera I didn't know, without having had time to read the story.

What a marvellous way to listen. You wouldn't look up the plot before attending a film, would you? If someone gave you a programme containing a synopsis, indeed, you might be cross. You'd call it a 'spoiler'. OK, some operas are so convoluted that we might need a little help. After our 20th Marriage of Figaro, we might have unravelled the plot enough to have some idea of what's going on. But in the era of surtitles, and of certain directors who actually know how to tell a good story when they get the chance, do we still need advance briefing? The only giveaway, in this state of blissful ignorance at a grand-scale, nearly-four-hour romantic roller-roaster, was knowing that the finish time would be 9.50pm. If hero and heroine start singing happy wedding songs at 9.20pm, you can bet your bottom dollar it's all going to go horribly wrong.

Robert McKee, Hollywood screenwriting story guru par excellence, might be impressed with certain part of this plot. Who could imagine a greater conflict for our young hero, Henri? He is a rebel; he discovers his father is the local dictator; and he has to choose between his newly discovered instinctive feel for his dad, aka Guy de Montfort, and the rebel duchess whom he loves, Helene. Montfort wants to kill Helene, having already killed her brother, but after Henri cracks and obediently calls him "mon pere", he changes his mind and insists that she and Henri marry. Yet the leader of the rebels, Procida - vengeful after the psychologically muddled Henri has betrayed him - declares that their wedding bells will be the signal to unleash a massacre. All of this takes place against background conflict of occupation, wanton cruelty and simmering revolt.

Stefan Herheim's production contains a few absolute masterstrokes. In the prologue, a ballet class is in progress. Soldiers burst in, taunt the girls, abduct them. Montfort chooses one and commits violent rape. The act is witnessed by the ballet master, powerless to help his dancer. He is Procida and becomes the rebel leader after years in exile - and you know exactly where he found his motivation. The rape victim demonstrates to her attacker what is about to happen: evoked in ballet, we see the pregnancy, the baby, the mother and child. The little boy will become Henri. Ballet is a vital part of the storytelling throughout, representing Henri's mother and her appalling history as a vital presence while the action progresses. The details are superb: for instance it's clear that the ballet girls in the crowd recognise, love and respect Procida for his original incarnation in their own world. And we see, on Procida's return to his studio, exactly how the rape of his dancer has become equated in his mind with the rape of his country.

The designs by Philipp Fürhofer are big, bold, convincing. Michael Volle as Montfort virtually stole the show; Bryan Hymel - the current high-register, French-conversant tenor du jour - was often beautiful in tone, but a little underpowered and, as actor, slightly wooden within a drama where so much was detailed and realistic. Lianna Haroutounian (replacing Marina "Popsy" Poplavskaya), matched him well; again, a voice that is basically gorgeous and has much character and distinction, yet perhaps not quite large enough in such a vast-scale opera. Erwin Schrott as Procida seethed, fumed and loomed - though personally I wouldn't have chosen to bring him on in a dress at that particular moment in the last act (and another touch that proved uncomfortable was Helene's cradling - and others' footballing - of her brother's severed head). Throughout, Pappano's conducting existed in technicolour, full of razor-blade edginess and Mediterranean warmth.

As for Verdi in French - it sounds even weirder, if that's possible, than Verdi in English. But it is authentic, so... what was needed was better diction from most of the cast other than Hymel. And despite all the ballet - no actual ballet. There's around half an hour of designated ballet music in this opera and there was to have been a major collaboration on this between Royal Opera, Royal Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet. But thanks to some operatic goings-on behind the scenes some months ago, the whole thing went ballet-up. It's fine dramatically as it is, of course - probably better - but still a pity to lose that.

There are reasons, one suspects, why the opera is not presented more often: it is vintage Verdi in many ways, but the music is more generic and less distinguished than such works as Otello, Rigoletto or Falstaff, while tenors who can pull off the role of Henri are few and far between. Hymel is a godsend, in that respect. This production, despite a few inevitable flaws, seems set to become a classic that will be remembered for many years to come.





Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Karita Mattila: Power from Start to Finnish...

Meet my latest interviewee: the astonishing Karita Mattila. "The Finnish Venus" needs no introduction except for this:


 
(A short version of this interview appeared in The Independent on 26 October. Karita Mattila sings Marie in Berg's Wozzeck at the Royal Opera House, opening 31 October.)
 
Karita Mattila is not eight feet tall, but such is the force of her presence and her voice that she almost seems it. At 53, the soprano nicknamed "the Finnish Venus" is among today's most powerful operatic stars, not only vocally, but also as a visceral actress. When she performed the final scene from Strauss's Salome at the Royal Festival Hall recently, a mesmerised audience lived the princess's horror-laden sensuality almost as voraciously as she did.
It is no wonder that opera directors often play to her strengths. “Because I’m such a physical person, they find a physical way for me to serve the character,” she says. “I understand singing, too, as a physical process, so it becomes fascinating to put those things together.”
A farmer’s daughter from rural Finland, whose career launched when she won the 1983 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, she has grown as an artist and kept on growing. The increasing range of her pure-yet-soul-shattering voice has brought thrilling new roles within her grasp. She began as a classic Mozartian. Now she is singing Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck for the first time, at the Royal Opera House: next year she is doing her first Ariadne auf Naxos and Schoenberg’s Erwartung, while Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre and the Kostelnicka in Jenufa by Janacek are in view.
She prepares her roles rigorously: “I try to do my homework,” she declares. “I think it would be an impossibility for me to go on stage and try to do a part without knowing who the character is. In a nutshell, I feel I can’t use my instrument in full if I don’t understand the dramatic background. It’s not just learning your part and knowing the story; you read and you listen to all the material you can get these days. I think it’s wonderful we have everything in the Internet – you can read all kinds of analysis. Then you go to the rehearsals and hope that the director and the conductor are well prepared too – which,” she adds darkly, “is not always the case.”
You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of this lady. “I work hard before I come to rehearsals, so I’m quite demanding towards the others,” she says. “I demand so much of myself because I know my level and it’s very hard for me to reach it, so I’m expecting everyone else to do their homework too. I’m sure there are directors or conductors who think I’m a piece of work. But you know, I am the most willing tool – if I am convinced that the person who is about to direct me or conduct knows what they are doing.”

Despite that, she insists she has only ever walked out once for anything but health reasons: “It was a concert, a performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. The conductor not only mocked me in front of the whole orchestra, but tried to blackmail me into doing something that it had been agreed I wouldn’t do, a recording on the morning of the performance. At first I thought, ‘Oh, he sounds like my father’ and didn’t walk out – but I realised I could not be at the mercy of a conductor whose goal is not the music, but a personal putting-down.” It was a traumatic moment. “Luckily I was old enough and experienced enough to come to terms with the idea that those kind of fossils, those kind of dinosaurs, still exist. And they will soon be dead.”
She pinpoints a few key moments that inspired her and opened up new vistas: “When I did my first Fidelio with Jürgen Flimm directing, at the Met in New York, I went out of the first rehearsal determined that I was going to cut my hair and dye it brown!” Leonore in Fidelio is desperately misunderstood too often, she insists: “Flimm made her this wonderful woman, so moving, so bright, so brave. But there are so many chauvinist directors -  maybe it’s this patriarchal society, that the directors are in their own prison with their ideas! I remember reading such crap analyses written by such men, who didn’t have a clue about Fidelio. There were even women who thought ‘Leonore is so ruthless’!” Now Mattila is on fire: “As if you wouldn’t be ruthless when your husband is in jail and it’s up to you to save him! Any woman in love with her husband would do anything for that!”
Many might modestly put enduring success down to good fortune, but Mattila insists that it’s plain hard work. “My big film idol, Jeremy Irons, once said in an interview that the people who succeed are the ones who work a little harder. They put a little more of themselves into things, they make more sacrifices and they don’t even think about it. That’s exactly how I feel. Yes, you have to be lucky, and I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time and to have the type of voice that I have – but luck alone wouldn’t have got me to the place I’m in now. I’m proud of this wonderful life.”

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lise Lindstrom shines as Turandot

Meet Lise Lindstrom, the American dramatic soprano whose voice lit up that old crowd-pleaser production of a Turandot (directed by Andrei Serban) in her house debut at Covent Garden yesterday. Here's my review for The Independent.

Many plaudits too to Eri Nakamura, the fabulous Liu, and in the pit, Henrik Nanasi from Hungary, who like Lindstrom was making his debut with the Royal Opera.

But I'm dreaming of a really good, up to date, best-of-Regietheater Turandot - one that goes more than costume-deep. Where is Calixto Bieito when you need him? (Actually, we know exactly where he is: down the road at ENO preparing Fidelio...).

We want a bit of psychology here, a bit of believable drama. What drives Calaf to become obsessed with Turandot? How does he really wake her up from ice-maidendom? How is Liu's love divided between Calaf and his father, and what does that say about their relationship? Why is Calaf's name so secret? This is a story about sexual obsession, which isn't pretty, but can be glorious if handled well (in staging terms, that is). And how about this: supposing Liu is actually Calaf's mother? Just think about it.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Coronation chicken? Or was it?

Whatever happened to Gloriana in 1953? More turkey than Coronation Chicken, it would seem. But ahead of Richard Jones's staging at Covent Garden - the first time the ROH has done the work since its unfortunate premiere 60 years ago - I've been talking to its conductor, Paul Daniel, its Earl of Essex, Toby Spence, and the playwright Mark Ravenhill, who has written a new radio play about the relationship of Britten and Imogen Holst, looking at what really went wrong. Piece is in The Independent, here. Slightly longer Director's Cut below the video. Book for the opera here.

Meanwhile, it sounds like everyone had the most brilliant time last night at Grimes on the Beach at Aldeburgh. Having been away/concert-giving for most of the last ten days, and heading to the Cotswolds for Longborough's Die Walkure today, I needed yesterday to stay in and work, so regretfully declined an offered place on the press bus. Sounds like this may not have been the best move in the world... The extraordinary event has, fortunately, been filmed and Tim Albery says it should be in the cinemas this autumn - which I guess will be warmer, if nothing else.

Onwards to the next big Britten event...here's an extract from Richard Jones's production of Gloriana, which has already been seen in Hamburg:





It was not Benjamin Britten’s finest hour. The world premiere of his Gloriana, written to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, was a flop. Opening night, 8 June 1953, found dignitaries, ambassadors, court officials and the youthful monarch assembling in the Royal Opera House for the glittering occasion: a new opera about the young queen’s namesake, Queen Elizabeth I. 

Yet such was the apparent disappointment with it that, despite successful airings at Welsh National Opera and Opera North in intervening decades, its original venue has not attempted to stage it again. Now, after 60 years, a new production by the director Richard Jones is to open there at last. 

Jones, in this co-production with the Hamburg Staatsoper, has updated the setting to 1953, so that the opera’s action – which concerns the relationship of Elizabeth and Robert Deveraux, the Earl of Essex – takes place as a play within a play, framed by the exact era of its composition. The designs by Ultz present children in grey uniforms and a dilapidated wooden school hall – within which bright colours, vivid dances and stylised backgrounds evoke what could be the 1950s’ idealised, escapist vision of the 16th century, including lettering formed from stacked vegetables and a golden coach made entirely of roses. A star-studded British cast is headed by the soprano Susan Bullock as Elizabeth and the tenor Toby Spence as Deveraux, and Paul Daniel conducts. 

This is an anniversary year for both the Queen and the composer; the event is a major contribution to the Britten centenary celebrations. But it’s time to take stock. Whatever went wrong with Gloriana back in 1953? 

The short answer is: pretty much everything. 

“This was an opera written with the bunting up,” says Toby Spence. “Britain had just come out of the Second World War and had only just got past rationing. We were still a broken country, so any excuse to get out the banners and flags and give them a wave was gratefully received.” 

The opera received financial support from the still-new Arts Council and Britten worked under extreme pressure to finish the score in about nine months (most operas take several years). He was aided and abetted in its administration by Imogen Holst, daughter of the composer Gustav Holst, who helped to make its completion viable. 

An official, courtly stage work nevertheless seemed a strange direction for a composer not noted for his prime place in the establishment. During the war Britten had been a conscientious objector; and he was homosexual, publicly so in his long relationship with the tenor Peter Pears. The climate of the Cold War and the ripples of McCarthyism were making themselves felt all too strongly at the time; the display of patriotism and pageantry around the Coronation was perhaps partly a veneer over an atmosphere of alarm and repression.

Britten habitually depicted the latter qualities rather better than he did pomp and circumstance. One of his great strengths in opera was his ability to evoke empathy for the vulnerable and the alienated. And so he does for Queen Elizabeth I. Gloriana – with a libretto by William Plomer based on Lytton Strachey’s book Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History – shows her as a complex, ageing woman facing intense personal anguish, her public self essentially forced to destroy the man she privately loves. The premiere’s audience, less than conversant with contemporary music, arrived hoping for royal celebration. They did not get it.

It was said that the newly crowned queen was not too taken with the subject matter; Lord Harewood described the event as “one of the great disasters of operatic history”; and the work was omitted from a supposedly complete recording of Britten conducting his own works. Its failure had long-lasting effects on the composer: “Afterwards, he closed in upon himself,” says the conductor Paul Daniel. “His music became more introverted for the next ten years.” 

According to Mark Ravenhill, who has written a play for BBC Radio 3 entitled Imo and Ben about the creative process behind Gloriana, Britten was somewhat naive. “He didn’t think strategically or politically – he just thought it was a great story,” Ravenhill suggests. “But just at the moment when people were trying to invest the young queen with all the regalia of royalty, to show an old woman being divested of that seems a really bad choice.” 

Spence points out that the work is not without structural problems. “It is a more difficult opera to stage than Britten’s others, because it’s more chopped up,” he says. “There are long gaps in the narrative and as an audience you have to span those gaps in your mind as to what’s happened in between. But the music is as beautiful as anything else he wrote.” 

Daniel indicates Britten’s technical expertise. “The whole point is that Queen Elizabeth I is very public, on view and on trial as a woman and as a queen; but on trial in her own mind, she tortures herself with her private life,” he says. “Britten jumps brilliantly from one side of her existence to the other. He scales up and down, focuses in and focuses out, rather like a brilliant film maker.” He suggests that the disastrous opening night was not solely about the work, but also concerned the performance: “There is a recording of that premiere and musically it was a sorry experience.” 

Ravenhill, though, nails the paradox at the heart of the matter. “I was intrigued by the idea of an artist being commissioned to write an official piece, a sort of national work of art – rather like the opening ceremony for the Olympics - and how much was at stake in that idea,” he says. “The Arts Council and public subsidy was very new and in many ways this was seen as a test case. 

“I think Britten himself felt ambiguous about that. He wanted that national recognition, partly because it said something about the importance of opera, which still was not really valued as an English art-form. Nevertheless, he knew that his art was not best made as national and official and that maybe he worked better when he was writing for a group of friends at home in Aldeburgh. That contradiction within him – about creating great work, but not being quite able to fit within big official structures – says something about the climate at the time.”

To Spence, Britten still did exactly the right thing: writing from the heart and to his own strengths, putting humanity above all else, no matter the establishment reaction. “I don’t think an artist should ever pander to a set of invisible rules by which people are made to conform,” Spence says. “It is artists’ and composers’ jobs to expose those rules as a load of old rubbish.”

Today Gloriana is free to prove its worth. Let’s hope the Queen may like it better this time around.

Gloriana, Royal Opera House, from 20 June. Live cinema relay 24 June. Box office: 020 7304 4000. Mark Ravenhill’s Imo and Ben is on BBC Radio 3 on 30 June, 8.30pm