Showing posts with label Sir John Tomlinson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sir John Tomlinson. Show all posts

Friday, January 25, 2013

Seeing 'The Minotaur'

A revival at Covent Garden of Birtwistle's most recent opera, The Minotaur? Time to take the bull by the horns and see it.

I'm still reeling.

The Minotaur seems to spring from a very deep, dark place and takes us back there with it. The power it packs perhaps concerns the primal nature of the myth and the archetypal imagery that it dramatises, but there is more to it than that. Whatever it says to us, whatever it does to us - from the moment the first notes growl and surge from the pit, with the film of endless swelling sea to match - it hits us at such a profound gut level that it is flummoxing to attempt quantifying it. Most astonishing of all, perhaps, is that this is an evening of gore, ferocity and claustrophobia, yet at its core is an almost superhuman compassion and empathy.

There have been some complaints in other quarters about David Harsent's libretto, but that seems a bizarre response. It's not only sterling-quality poetry, full of images that would flare at high voltage even without the music, but it also has indubitable advantages of strong structure, absolute clarity, concentration and concision that many libretti lack, and that the genre absolutely needs. Every word carries the weight of a hundred, and that's as it should be. It is light years away from the verbose pretentiousness of The Death of Klinghoffer, the extended tracts of book that weighed down Sophie's Choice, the mundane cosy prose of Miss Fortune.


It's loud. Very loud. The percussion spills over on both sides of the stalls circle. The orchestration is remarkable - despite the volume and depth of the music, its is so well written that there is never any problem of balance between singers and instrumentalists. Birtwistle's sonic imagination was what stayed with me most strongly after seeing The Second Mrs Kong about 20 years ago and in this quality The Minotaur doesn't disappoint, however different it is. One of the most inspired touches is the use of the cimbalom, its hard-edged fury jangling the nerves and cutting into the monolithic textures.

This performance was one of those rare occasions when music, text, design and performance fuse into one: it's hard to imagine it staged any differently, or sung any better. John Tomlinson, Christine Rice and Johann Reiter are the original trio of Asterios, Ariadne and Theseus, each a masterful interpretation with a timbre that encapsulates his/her character and offsets the others. Elizabeth Meister is a terrifying coloratura Ker, the steely-winged vulture. Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, taking over a very tall order from Tony Pappano, who's off with tendonitis, did a magnificent job with it. Grand plaudits to the whole team - director Stephen Langridge, designer Alison Chitty, video company 59 Productions, movement director Philippe Giraudeau, lighting designer Paul Pyant.

I've spent much time in the past few days writing about The Rite of Spring (watch this space). Seeing The Minotaur with The Rite in my ears and mind was intriguing in itself. It seems to me that they share a certain wellspring, dragging us through something subconscious, something mesmerising concerning ritual, mortality, cruelty and that crucial compassion.

It's tempting to wonder what makes someone create an opera like this. Why would anyone attempt to write the last scene of the first half, death after sacrificial death in the bullring, the Keres descending to devour the flesh? I can just imagine asking Sir Harry about it, though, and receiving a response not unlike that of Jerome Kern when someone asked him what made him write 'Ol' Man River', which was originally in Showboat. He's supposed to have said: "I needed something to end Act 1 Scene 3."

Twelve hours after curtain-down I need serious coffee and I need it now.



Friday, October 05, 2012

A last-minute trip to Valhalla

Where do you sit for Die Walküre? In the Gods, of course. And the single best thing about going to Wagner? No queue in the Ladies' Room. Though apparently there was a massive queue in the Gents. Now they know what it's like for us at almost everything else.

I managed, with the help of an eagle-eyed and quick-moused pal, to get a last-minute return for the Wagner at Covent Garden last night. Amid all our yadda yesterday about dressing-down, seat prices et al, I can report that a) the amphitheatre of the Royal Opera House was very dressed-down indeed - Wagner is a long haul flight and you need to go for comfort rather than style; b) the rest of the audience didn't look excessively flash either; and c) you can see nearly six hours of opera with a world-beating cast like this one, a clear view of the complete stage and an excellent take on the house acoustic, for £61. I don't think that is overpriced, under the circumstances. Most people I spoke to had booked a year in advance. Everyone up there was a total Wagner nut, and the hush and stillness through the performance was something to marvel at.

Highlights of the evening appeared in unusual places. First of all, Sarah Connolly's Fricka: a nuanced, heart-rending, ruby-toned performance, exceptionally sophisticated and classy. Another call for someone, please, to award a recording contract, scandalously absent at present. Come on, people - Connolly is a national treasure. She's on disc. But not enough. [Connolly, left, not in character.] 

This, too, was the production's one real masterstroke: the tortured relationship between her and Bryn Terfel's Wotan is the heart of the story. Often Fricka is portrayed as little more than a backroom bully, a fundamental ideologist forcing Wotan's hand over a point of malign principle (it's a common enough problem) and you always wonder why he's weak enough to cave in (a common enough problem too). Here, though, there is still a great love between this long-married couple, on both sides. Connolly made you feel every twist of Fricka's shredded heart as the faithless Wotan cradles her with tremendous tenderness. Wotan lets her win because his love for her ultimately overrides his other amours. It makes sense out of the whole story.

It was more or less the only sense we got out of Keith Warner's production, which I have not attended before. It's cluttered, fussy and occasionally worrying: there's a distinct tendency for characters to trip over the red rope that is doing goodness knows what across the stage, and over the metal thingummyjig that rears up in the middle of the set, and then there's the ladder, from which Susan Bullock apparently had to be unhooked by a stage-hand on the first night - and will something elsewhere in the cycle make sense of the three-pronged fan under which Brunnhilde falls asleep? What's it for - repelling mosquitoes? On the top of a mountain? Most of the action appears to take place in a disused storeroom or perhaps a very messy study (a bit like mine) with a black office table, a leather chaise-longue and a huge heap of discarded books. I was constantly alarmed in case someone decided to do a Nazi-reference thing by setting light to it, though fortunately they didn't. If you're going to offer a concept Walküre, then clarity of that concept helps. This one, if it exists, eludes me. And according to Fiona Maddocks, the production has actually been streamlined since last time. [Above, Bullock & Terfel, pic by Clive Barda.]

The other unforgettable performance was Sir John Tomlinson's Hunding, who could dominate the stage with his first swing of the axe and the auditorium with his first note and all thereafter. A marvellous moment when he and Terfel's Wotan come face to face - these two legends together are not something you see every day. Marvels too from Terfel himself, of course, a Wotan incarnate; and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, creamy-toned, all-giving and ultimately transcendental as she blesses Brunnhilde. As the latter, a feisty Susan Bullock, tiny and ferocious. Simon O'Neill as Siegmund started strong, but threatened to fade out as Act 1 wrestled him and nearly won. Luxury singing from the Valkyrie gang and, below, Tony Pappano presided over a rich-toned and rhapsodic orchestra augmented by six harps plucking away in the stalls circle. 

At the risk of sounding heretical, though, I'm not convinced Wagner is Pappano's finest six hours. He has become incomparable in Italian repertoire - Il Trittico a year ago was one of the greatest evenings I've ever had in the ROH, and I mean it. But this was rather gentle Wagner: an interpretation that roused and glowed but didn't transfigure. It needs an extra hard-edge of ecstasy that simply wasn't there, despite the glories of the singing. 

Let's face it: we go to Wagner to get high. That's why people get addicted. And if you don't get the high, something isn't quite working. And the place it needs to be generated is in the pit. It's legal. But it shouldn't necessarily sound it.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Gold stars for this silver rose

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

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

Sophie Bevan as Sophie

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

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

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

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

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

Runs to 27 February. I wanna go again!

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

Friday, November 04, 2011

Friday Historical: Bartok plays Scarlatti



Amazing, no? The above is in honour of the end of the Philharmonia's fabulous year-long series 'Infernal Dance', exploring the music of Bartok Bela at length and leisure.

What a way they chose to bow out yesterday: Duke Bluebeard's Castle, semi-staged with digital video projections by Nick Hillel's Yeast Culture (I had a sneak preview which I wrote about a couple of weeks back). Sir John Tomlinson as Bluebeard made the character utterly convincing - vulnerable, haunted, unable to face up to the possibility of a better future and consigning the blazing-bright Judith (Michelle DeYoung) to the secrets of the seventh door when she tries to come too close.

Nick's imagery, projected on 'turrets' on the stage set of the grey castle, grew in power and intensity, working with the music without ever intruding upon it: the close HD flowers with petals filling with blood, the sensual outlines and shadows of the lost wives wandering through time and space, and a huge coup de theatre in the blaze of golden light in the audience's face as the fifth door opens onto Bluebeard's realm - inference, perhaps, that we are his subjects? At the end Judith, on film, is trapped behind the closing of an origami eye. Or something. Whatever it was, it was heart-rending. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted a passionate, detailed, precise account and Juliet Stevenson joined them on stage to read the prologue, with just the right mixture of detachment and hinted menace.

Curtain-raisers of Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune and the Bartok Piano Concerto No.3 were enjoyable and appropriate, though I have to admit Yefim Bronfman doesn't quite do it for me: his playing is full of magisterial power, but there is little to appeal in terms of charm, sympathy or fresh insights. I keep going back to Schiff's fabulous performance at the Proms.

In other news - well, there's plenty today. Here is an update.

-- Marshall Marcus, head of music at the Southbank Centre for the past five years, is leaving to work with El Sistema and to develop its relationship with the UK. We'll miss him, but I can't applaud him more strongly for following his heart and devoting himself to this project. Like I keep saying, we need El Sistema and we need it now. More information from Norman over at Slipped Disc.

-- Speaking of El Sistema, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra and The Dude will appear for the London 2012 Olympic cultural stuff in....a deprived estate in Raploch, Scotland, where Sistema Scotland's Big Noise has really turned up trumps. There'll be a big outdoor concert against the backdrop of Stirling Castle on the shortest night of the year, 21 June. Plus a residency for the band at Southbank Centre for the next few days.

-- The London 2012 Festival has a website in which we can explore its full programme. Fine, but what will happen to the country's arts budget when it is all over? Remember, a lot has been siphoned off for the bottomless pit that is the Olympic Games.Will those who've lost out find any funding restored, or will their status quo quietly become the norm, or, indeed, the maximum upper limit?