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

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


Friday, June 07, 2013

Royal Ballet is OUT of Les vepres sicilienne at the ROH

Big news from Covent Garden for last thing on a Friday afternoon. Here's the press statement. Suffice it to say that for the theatre's own glorious ballet company, and its school, and the Royal Danish Ballet too, to be out, wholesale, replaced by "freelance dancers", in which had been much vaunted as a flapship production for next season and the climax of the Verdi bicentenary is - well, rather operatic. Ooof.


7 JUNE 2013
PRESS STATEMENT

CHOREOGRAPHER CHANGE FOR LES VÊPRES SICILIENNES
17, 21, 24, 29 October, 1, 4, 7, 11 November 2013


“We regret that it has been necessary to rethink the inclusion of the Four Seasons ballet, in its entirety, from Act III of The Royal Opera’s new production of Les Vêpres siciliennes which opens in October. As a result of artistically differing approaches to the project between Johan Kobborg and director Stefan Herheim, Johan Kobborg and The Royal Ballet will no longer be working on this production.”

“There will still be a strong element of dance in the production, however no longer featuring Artists from The Royal Ballet, The Royal Danish Ballet and students from The Royal Ballet School.”

“We are delighted that choreographer Andre de Jong, who has previously worked with director Stefan Herheim on his production of Eugene Onegin in Amsterdam, is now the choreographer, working with freelance dancers.”

Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet and Kasper Holten, Director of Opera



Friday, May 24, 2013

The lives of other birds? Gabriel Yared talks about writing for Ravel Girl

My interview with Gabriel Yared, composer of the new mingled orchestral and electronic score for Raven Girl, is up now on the Royal Opera House's website. Raven Girl's world premiere is tonight (I'm going to see it next week) and dance fans are on tenterhooks.

More on Raven Girl here:
http://jessicamusic.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/raven-ous-at-ballet.html
Booking here.

Yared has scored such movies as Betty Blue, The English Patient and The Lives of Others, to name but three. Here's the interview: http://www.roh.org.uk/news/raven-girl-composer-gabriel-yared-on-scoring-for-the-stage-rather-than-the-screen

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A tale in tartan?

A starry cast is set to make waves in La Donna del Lago at Covent Garden. I had a brief chat with the director, John Fulljames, about why he thinks Rossini's rarity is - well, rare.

He thinks it's all to do with the difficulty of the vocal writing; as for the story, it's at the heart of that weird 19th-century idea that Scotland is the most romantic place on earth - a form of cultural nationalism that was invented, as he explained, by Sir Walter Scott. Might it yet prove to be a favourite opera for the Scottish National Party? We'll see... anyway, one hopes they can't go far wrong with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez out front. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/la-donna-del-lago-at-the-royal-opera-house-starry-cast-all-set-to-make-waves-8619557.html?origin=internalSearch

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sunday roundup from a very busy week

I've been burning the candle at both ends, to coin a phrase. It beats the hell out of sitting alone at home watching repeats of Midsomer Murders - something I have resolved never to do again.

Last Saturday, Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House. You wake up, the sun is shining, you're free, it's opening night at Covent Garden, Jonas is singing and you're not there? Unthinkable! I scooped a return and drank long and deep of the genius of Verdi. It was almost impossible to imagine a finer cast. Sometimes when Kaufmann is on stage, the rest can fade to insignificance, but here his peers matched him moment for moment.

This appears to be the one performance that the scheduled soprano, Anja Harteros, was able in the end to do, and the first time I've managed to hear her live. Her voice has an almost uncanny beauty along with extraordinary range of expression: the deepest levels enhanced by taut, dramatic diction, the uppermost soaring with rare 100-carat sheen. She's the perfect stage partner for Kaufmann, matching his sensitivity to nuance and blending with his multifaceted colourations, the final duet daringly hushed. Mariusz Kwiecien's double-edged charm and rich-flowing baritone, as Rodrigo, might otherwise have stolen the show, while Ferruccio Furlanetto's magnificently tortured and heartbreaking Philip II threatened to do likewise, with the type of voice and interpretation that brings every twist of phrase and fortune into close-up. Eric Halfvorsen's Grand Inquisitor rose to the challenge of one of Verdi's nastiest and truest personalities. In the pit, Tony Pappano and the orchestra plunged through the four-and-a-half hour span with passion undimmed; and the chorus was absolutely on fire for the auto da fe, a scene in which the confluence of symbol and drama could scarcely be finer.

Carlos is, after all, a German romantic hero - by Schiller - in all but moniker, a soul whose obsession with Elisabeth after one scant encounter in the forest can match that of Goethe's Werther for Charlotte. Flanders is Elisabeth; the burning heretics are the heart of Carlos, who burns inwardly for breaking the taboo of aching for his stepmother. Freud might have enjoyed that final moment of farewell when he addresses Elisabeth as 'mother'. What happened to Carlos's real mother anyway? We are not told.

Lianna Haroutounian has since stepped into Harteros's shoes, making her ROH debut; and the churlish anonymi grumbling on the ROH comments boxes that the house should have had a "name" as second cast may want to think again. Fiona Maddocks's review today declares: "Haroutounian seemed to pull forth ever-increasing vocal powers until you thought her heart, or yours, would burst."

On Tuesday we had the first run-through at home of the Hungarian Dances concert with the new team for the Ulverston and the St James Theatre June performances. David Le Page (violin) and Anthony Hewitt (piano) used to be duo partners in their teens, but hadn't met in 23 years...yet it was as if they'd last seen each other yesterday. And the intensity of their musical response to the story took me completely by surprise. It felt as these concerts probably should: we may be a reader and two musicians, but their engagement with the drama and the emotions in the narrative bounced different angles into the music, while their impassioned interpretations made me see new and darker corners in my own text. It was as if we all made music together, essentially. I'm hugely grateful to them and excited about sharing a stage with them. Ulverston is on 8 June, the St James Theatre Studio in central London is on 11 June, and booking is open.

On Wednesday, to St John's Smith Square to hear Angelo Villani in recital. Angelo, you remember, is the Italian-Australian pianist we talked to a little while back when he started to make his comeback after 20 years away from the concert platform due to a trapped nerve in his shoulder. He performs in white gloves. And there's something of the white gloves about his musicianship too, in the best sense: while some complained that the programme he chose consisted more of the slow and soft than the barnstorming so many people seem to expect of concert pianists these days, that was actually the point.

Whether in the freely-calibrated rubato of the Chopin Nocturnes Op.9, two of the Liszt Petrarch Sonnets and the Ballade No.2, or the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, adapted from Wagner by various hands including Von Bulow, Liszt and Villani himself, his exceptional and microscopic sensitivity, the way he immerses us in sonority, allows us to soak up the edges of vibration as if letting subtle-coloured dye infiltrate and diffuse through our inner worlds. It's unusual and it may not be for everyone, but this is fine-art pianism and it is good to know that it hasn't been entirely lost in the outside welter of the (largely positive but often noisy) Lang Lang Effect.

There's a wonderful story about Daniel Guilet, the founding violinist of the Beaux Arts Trio, as a young lad meeting Fauré in the foyer of the Paris Conservatoire. Monsieur le Directeur, as Fauré was then (pictured right), said to Daniel: where are you going in such a hurry? "My violin lesson, sir." Ahh, said Fauré. You'll go to your lesson and you'll learn to play fast and loud. But to play slow and soft: that is really difficult.

On Thursday, my mates from the Culturekicks blog took me to the trendiest gig in town: The Knife, at the Roundhouse. I'll be writing about it more fully for them, but in brief, the experience was a polar opposite from Angelo's concert (=ear protectors) and in other ways just like the Proms, because if you're my height you can't see much. Music: Nordic Noir without the murders. More about it soon.

The great thing is that in this extraordinary world, and especially in this matchless city of ours, there's room for everything: music of different eras, angles, twists, turns, scale, substance and aspect. Try to do it all, if and when you have the chance. Because each experience feeds the next.

Last but not least, yesterday I went to a school reunion and saw friends I haven't seen since our A levels, more years ago than I'd like to admit, and they hadn't changed a bit. Time's a funny old thing. Just as an opera that is well over 100 years old can feel as fresh and relevant in terms of drama and emotional impact as an electro-post-pop band, the passing decades simply disappear when people's energies connect, reconnect and blossom. Yes, this was quite a week...


Monday, April 01, 2013

Stop press! Motorcycles to take over Royal Opera House


The Royal Opera House's new production of I vespri siciliani, a grand celebration of Verdi's bicentenary involving both the opera and ballet companies, has been widely tipped to be the event of the season. And so it will be - but not quite as expected.

Everyone has been so busy speculating about the choice of the French language version and the strength of the mooted dance element - to say nothing of the cost - that until now we completely failed to notice one vital fact about the production.

This is in fact not Giuseppe Verdi's opera The Sicilian Vespers, but a work by Guillaume Verdi, an all-but-unknown French composer deemed to be the descendent of, allegedly, an illegitimate relative of the great Italian father of grand opera. Its title is The Sicilian Vespas.

It's to be a treat for opera and ballet lovers alike: a newly discovered European equivalent, perhaps, to West Side Story. Two rival motorcycle gangs in Palermo clash over their Mafia heritage; the star-crossed lovers, Paulo and Giulia, mirror the tragic progress of their Shakespearean models. The stage of the Royal Opera House is to host a specially constructed "volcano" on which the bikes will race in a spectacle unlike anything these august spaces have seen before.

I tracked down Guillaume Verdi's daughter to her remote hillside home in Provence. Valerie Verdi, a woman of few words, with dark eyes that speak more than her voice, expressed simple gratitude that her father's work is at last to receive the attention it deserves.

"It's a beautiful, dynamic creation," she suggested, "but was long suppressed in an atmosphere of contemporary music that was hostile to any style but the atonal avant-garde. And in terms of stage drama, Leonard Bernstein dominated the same territory my father chose, with West Side Story, and who knows if he had a vested interest in suppressing any potential rival? Who knows the truth?" She gave a shrug and a smile that betrayed a long-held and infinite sorrow.

I asked her to tell JDCMB readers more about her father's relationship to Giuseppe Verdi. "It's difficult to prove," she said. "Given the circumstances of my father's birth, documentation is limited. But there really was an extraordinary resemblance between them. When I look at photographs of Verdi and his beard, I see my father's face."

Will she come to London for the show? "Yes, perhaps," she said, "if I can find someone to feed my goats in my absence."

Speculation is rife that Sergei Polunin will return from Moscow's Stanislavsky Ballet to dance the ballet-double of Paulo, with tiger-scratch tattoo fully exposed. Leading ballerinas are said to be vying for the chance to play Giulia. As for the singers, the house has apparently put in a call to a German tenor who happens to look rather good in leather.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A solution to vocal problems? Oh yes! Oh yes!

Argy-bargy at the Royal Opera House press conference yesterday: in the course of a highly operatic morning, Tony Pappano had a go at everyone about the misinformation and conspiracy theories that circulated around the Robert le Diable cast changes a few months back.

Leaving aside the possibility that the work itself is jinxed and should just be quietly buried...what happened, Pappano said, was this: first Florez decided against moving into heavier repertoire, following an unhappy experience with the Duke of Mantua; next, Diana Damrau got pregnant; and though Maria Poplavskaya was ill, she then recovered and went back into the show because her doctor said she was was well enough to do so. The saga with Jennifer Rowley is another issue altogether...

Apart from that, there's plenty good stuff next season including a recital on the main stage by Jonas Kaufmann, who'll also be singing in Puccini's Manon Lescaut; three Strauss operas for the composer's anniversary year, including Karita Mattila in Ariadne auf Naxos; Faust with Calleja and Terfel; Les Dialogues des Carmelites with Magdalena Kozena on stage and Simon Rattle in the pit; a new production of Parsifal; and a lavish, expensive staging together with the Royal Ballet of The Sicilian Vespers. In ballet, there'll be a full-length creation by Christopher Wheeldon based on Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, with a new score by Joby Talbot, and Carlos Acosta will be in charge of a new staging of Don Quixote. Sales are up, with ballet reaching 98% of box office and opera hot on its heels (so to speak). More opera 13-14 news here. More ballet 13-14 news here.

Still, it was clear that TP is fairly fed up with singers who cancel, and that it does happen more than it used to.

What to do? Maybe the ROH needs to invest in some vibrators.

This is not a joke. (At least, I don't think it is.) Just look at this news from the University of Alberta:
Vibrators are being used by researchers at the University of Alberta to help give actors a little bit more vocal power. The team of researchers found that pressing the sex toys against the throats of actors helps to give them improved projection and range – vocally, of course.
“You can actually watch on a spectrograph how vocal energy grows,” said David Ley, who worked on the project. “Even when you take the vibrator off, the frequencies are greater than when first applied.
He said he has used this method with singers, schoolteachers and actors, and so far the vibrator technique has always worked...
Ley headed over to a local love shop in search of some hand-held vibrators in order to test out whether they could help release various forms of muscular tension. He was looking for a vibrator with a frequency somewhere between 100 and 120 hertz, which is close to the range of the human voice. Once he applied the vibrator to an actress’ neck over the vocal cords, she was able to produce striking results.
(As reported on RedOrbit - Your Universe Online - read the whole thing here.)

Saturday, March 09, 2013

A feminist opera by two men

Written on Skin is that, and much more too. I found it intriguing to get its director Katie Mitchell's perspective on the challenges of staging it, and I've also been talking to its composer, George Benjamin. Part of the result is in the Independent today, there's my longer chat with George on the ROH website, and the full version of the Indy piece with Katie's comments is below. First, here's the ROH's video... I'm a little miffed about missing the first night, but will be going on 18 March.




According to the director Katie Mitchell, it was not so much a standing ovation as “an eruption” that greeted the world premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. A rapturous response for contemporary opera is a tad rare, to say the least, but at last summer’s Aix-en-Provence Festival critics and public alike were swift to declare this one a masterpiece. Now it is coming to the Royal Opera House (it is a co-production between five international theatres and festivals) and a new CD, recorded at Aix, is also testimony to the extraordinary quality of its music, text and performers. 

Based on a 13th-century Provençal story entitled Guillem de Cabestanh – le coeur mangé (“The Eaten Heart”), the opera brings together this leading British composer’s precisely wrought music and an original text by Martin Crimp. A group of present-day angels, world-weary and vengeful, awaken from the medieval dead three people: the Protector, his wife Agnès and a character named simply the Boy – in fact one of the angels – to re-enact the worst moments of their lives. 

The Protector commissions the Boy to create a book of illuminated manuscripts, which are “written on skin”, to portray his glory. Agnès – illiterate, oppressed, bright and furious ­– begins a passionate affair with the Boy and demands that he enters this fact into his book. Questioned by the Protector, he lies, saying that his lover is Agnès’s sister; but Agnès berates him for his untruth. The facts revealed in writing – which Agnès cannot read – the Protector murders him, then forces Agnès to eat a meal which he later declares was the Boy’s heart. Agnès defies him: nothing he can do will erase the taste. Before he can kill her, she leaps from a window to her death. 

As Crimp’s libretto presents it, this dark history is anything but realistic. Each character narrates his or her own actions while living them; medieval depictions rub shoulders with contemporary evocations of multi-storey car parks, motorways and red shoes; the two worlds bleed imagery into one another. The sectional set design by Vicki Mortimer reflects this by placing the love triangle’s action alongside a contemporary studio for the controlling and observing angels – one of whose wings are literally written on his skin. But within this artifice, Benjamin’s music is virtually a form of hyper-realism, highlighting the nuances of the emotions as if placing them under a microscope, with a delicacy of orchestral texture that allows each word to be effortlessly audible. 

Benjamin is a notorious perfectionist, relinquishing his music so slowly that it can seem positively reluctant. Despite his early start – he was only 20 when a work of his was first performed at the Proms – at 52 he still has fewer than 40 works to his catalogue. Following a triumph with a 35-minute drama, Into the Little Hill, also to a libretto by Crimp, Written on Skin is his first full-length opera. And there is a chance that this work may open his floodgates at last. 

“While I was writing it I became a complete recluse,” Benjamin says. “I stopped conducting, I stopped travelling, I almost stopped teaching and I devoted myself, all day, every day, every week throughout the whole period, to a degree of concentration and submersion in work that I’ve never experienced before. But it came out, for me, very quickly – the whole process, once I got down to composing, took under two and a half years. It seems that when I have a text by Martin Crimp, wonderful people to write it for and a context which seems harmonious and welcoming, then my speed of composing is roughly eight to ten times faster than is normal for me.” 

Perhaps that means that he is, at heart, an opera composer? “I think there’s something in that,” he acknowledges – and confirms that he and Crimp are now discussing their next project.

“The wonderful thing about Martin’s librettos is that they tell simple stories very directly,” says Benjamin, “but from an unpredictable angle. The words are of extraordinary clarity, but the theatrical form and the approach to narrative are highly individual. This beckons my music. If it was a completely normal, everyday setting, I wouldn’t feel any need for music. And this unusual construction, while rigorously clear, is the magic spell that allows me to write music to his words. I depend on that a hundred per cent and my objective is to serve his text and bring it to life.”

That, he adds, is what opera is for. “To me, opera is many things; but one thing is that you come to an evening, it does something to you and you come out a little bit changed. It should confront serious and profound things within us – because that, in a way, is why people sing.”

Katie Mitchell’s task has been to match the action – often visceral and violent – both to this special structure and to some extraordinary musical coups-de-théâtre. And there are two female orgasms on stage, for the story is at core about erotic rights and freedom, which Agnès asserts against the odds. “Agnès is made free sexually and that’s rather amazing,” Mitchell says. “It’s a tremendously feminist piece, which is thrilling in ‘planet opera’.” Feminist slants in opera – traditional or contemporary – indeed remain all too rare. 

Throughout the piece, Mitchell adds, “we had to construct a world where modern-day angels could talk as they do, yet where simultaneously the medieval story could run as it does. And we had to try again and again to find a means of staging the end that was as good as the music.” Without betraying the entire secret of the opera’s most startling moment, let’s just say that Benjamin does something utterly breathtaking with a glass harmonica.

At the Royal Opera House, Benjamin conducts his opera himself. The Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan – who is also a trained dancer – stars in the extremely physical role of Agnès, the British baritone Christopher Purves is the Protector and Bejun Mehta, the celebrated American counter-tenor, is the Boy/Angel. 

 Mitchell has no doubt that Written on Skin will be a modern classic. “It’s a remarkable work in every way,” she says. “That was palpable on the opening night in Aix. The brilliance of the composition and the libretto has an immediate and concrete effect on people. I think it will outlive us all.”

Written on Skin, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is on now. Box office: 020 7304 4000