Showing posts with label Toby Spence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Toby Spence. Show all posts

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


Sunday, January 27, 2013

Another 2 1/2p on the ENO issue

My interview with English National Opera's artistic director, John Berry, attempted to address a few tough questions. The company has won every award in town. It has also turned out to have a £2.2m deficit for the 2011-12 financial year. The piece is in The Independent, here.

[Above: Ed Lyon and Roderick Williams in the Oliver Award-winning Castor and Pollux.]

Time to reflect a little...

Reactions to my article via Twitter were intriguing. I have the impression that some read in it only what they wanted to read, which is normal enough, but means that false impressions may have circulated. Right at the start I ask whether ENO has been flying too close to the sun - all those awards, all those new, risky productions. Obviously, the answer is yes. John Berry does acknowledge that perhaps mistakes were made, admitting that with hindsight perhaps they should not have done Weinberg's The Passenger or Glanert's Caligula. He doesn't "blame the audience", as one or two people muttered; he says, of The Passenger, "...but I couldn't sell it." He does acknowledge that there is a price-tag in taking risks, saying that he has no choice now but to "rebalance" the programme; and he also makes the point that the international co-productions that are the chief focus of this article enable the staging of work that ENO could never have afforded on its own.

Naturally the economic climate is nasty and the combination of that with the £1.3m cut in ENO's ACE grant accounts for a large proportion of the problem, but that isn't all there is to it. Some question why ENO has such a big a deficit when other artistic institutions don't. Clearly, a strategy of artistic risk that's then whacked with a massive grant cut is a kind of "perfect storm". But also, sadly, it's only a matter of time - and probably not all that much of it - until other institutions find themselves in the same boat. ENO is merely the first. (I lived through the '80s: been there, seen it all before, bought the t-shirt, now using it as a mop.)

Perhaps ENO is in a kind of double-bind with its international co-productions. Ingrained tastes in audiences vary a great deal from country to country, even from city to city. So, if you're going to produce an opera in collaboration with a place that is used to pushing the boat out in terms of directorial concept, it may not go down especially well with UK audiences, and you can probably forget it in America. (ENO is not the only place that's come up against this: think of "that" Rusalka last year at Covent Garden.) Perhaps that is why the Met is the most frequent of ENO's co-producers; a beautiful Satyagraha; a Klinghoffer [above] that was sensitive and visually striking; but a comparatively dreary Gounod Faust that was not very interesting at all.

I put the question of varying audience tastes to Berry. He defended his decisions, as you'd expect, and it's only fair that he should have the chance to do so. He pointed out that British creative work, this way, is exported and showcased all over the world. Yesterday someone asked where the singers are in all this. They don't usually do the travelling... In that Faust, we had the very fine Toby Spence. At the Met, they had Jonas Kaufmann.

Without those partnerships, and without a strong artistic vision, we might risk being reduced to wall-to-wall Gubbay-style Butterflies and Carmens, because there wouldn't be enough money for anything else. But the fact remains that "Eurotrash" productions have never been favourites with British audiences, yet houses in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain and elsewhere want them, expect them, encourage them. Essentially: you could be stuffed if you do them and stuffed if you don't.

On the other hand, even an old favourite like Nicholas Hytner's perennial production of The Magic Flute was not particularly full when I attended a few months ago; it's beautiful, but has been very thoroughly seen. A new one by a top director (there are rumours of Simon McBurney) with performance to match might draw the audience much more.

But here's another thought: as one canny "tweep" mentioned, it's the music that sells opera. Last year's ENO Rosenkavalier, in the staging by David McVicar, was as glorious a performance vocally and musically as anyone could have wished, with Ed Gardner going great guns in the pit and a cast consisting of Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly and Sophie Bevan, with John Tomlinson as Baron Ochs [left: Tomlinson & Connolly]. It was outstanding. It was unforgettable. I've been stirred, shaken and overjoyed by many, many performances I heard there last year. Gardner's conducting in The Flying Dutchman; Peter Hoare singing in Martinu's amazing Julietta; the list could go on and on. Under Gardner's music directorship, the standard has shot up to a whole new level, and there have been some terrific decisions in the casting department.

Are there solutions to the financial woes? As Berry is the first to admit, there will have to be a "rebalancing" of the programme, and one suspects that various structures in the company's operation will need a long, hard look: ticket pricing, website, marketing, message. ENO runs on minimal staff already and it neither likes nor could afford cinecasting. But most of the clangers, to my view, have been in the question of how they get the message across, or don't.

Round the corner from the Coliseum is the Royal Opera House, with its Tosca, its Trittico, its, er, La Sonnambula and its, ooh, Robert le Diable (if you're grumbling about turkeys, I've seen more of them there in the past couple of years than at ENO)... Christmas dinner aside, Covent Garden gets the Great Big Whopping International Names. It's the place you go to see Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, Calleja, Terfel, Stemme, DiDonato, Florez, Beczala, Pappano, Bychkov...

ENO can't compete with that - or so we'd think. Yet ENO has its fair share of stars too: Toby Spence and Sarah Connolly are regulars, Stuart Skelton's rise and rise has happened largely on the boards of the Coli, Sophie Bevan has become a meteor under their auspices, Gerald Finlay brought the house down in Adams's Doctor Atomic [right] - these people are among the best in the world. And of course they pop up frequently at Covent Garden too. As for Gardner, I find him one of the most exciting conductors in the country at the moment. The standard seems to be so high now that that is almost taken for granted. Should we not be told about this a little more often?

But with Covent Garden doing the big traditional productions - Copley's perennial Boheme, Zambello's Carmen - and pulling in the grandest names, ENO needs a different, distinct identity, a defined and individual brand. Now it has one, and it is in these adventurous, internationally-minded productions.The new audience Berry seems to want to reach is not necessarily the one for fabulous star singers, but the one for experimental theatre.

Now, if it is going to keep doing cutting-edge, European-style directors' opera, which people may not "like", and it doesn't mind if not everyone likes them, it has to do a better job of convincing its public that it is OK to go to something and be provoked or stimulated or disturbed by it, rather than necessarily liking every moment This isn't "blaming the public". It's a question of how to speak to them. That will be up to marketing, box office strategy, et al, and will mean cutting out misfiring or patronising schemes like the "Undressed" venture. It's quite a few years since the incident of Aida and the cut-out-and-colour paper dolls, but these things stick in the mind. 

I sympathise with ENO's aims, their integrity, their courage and their musical standards [left: Ed Gardner, who works a lot of magic]. I don't "like" everything they do, but I'd rather be surprised, startled and stirred than bored silly. And if they're boxed into a no-risks, please-the-crowds corner, all that creativity might go down the drain. They deserve support for their vision and their ambition and their achievements. (I mean, that's a lot of awards they've got. Really. It's not just me that's cheering for all this.) That doesn't mean failing to acknowledge that there'll have to be some changes.

In a way, ENO is a little hobbled by its original mission statement. It's gone beyond English or National. It could be better described as British International Opera. That in turn might raise and slightly shift our expectations of what they're about - if it's weren't for the likelihood of such a name being shortened to BIO. And opera in English? That's a topic for another time... 










Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday catch-up and Friday historical...

Busy patch. Here are some highlights of days past and the weekend ahead.

>> I was on BBC Radio 4's Front Row the other day, in discussion with Klaus Heymann, founder of Naxos Records, about the way the record industry has changed since the company launched 25 years ago. If you missed it, you can catch it on the BBC iPlayer until Tuesday: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01h75d9#p00s959x

>> Pianist Anthony Hewitt, "The Olympianist", has set off on his big ride from Land's End to John O'Groats and was lucky enough to encounter a strong west tail wind to get things started. He made it from kick-off to Truro in three hours, with his trusty BeethoVan close behind. Follow his progress via his website here. He's already raised more than £4000 for his seven musical and sporting charities.

>> The Royal Philharmonic Society Awards ceremony was held on Tuesday night at the Dorchester. Highlights included a gold medal for Mitsuko Uchida, whose speech was as vivid and genuine as her playing. So was Gareth Malone's - as keynote speaker he was gloriously positive. We are representing the best music in the world, so let's celebrate that! He stopped short of getting us all to sing, though. Maurizio Pollini was Instrumentalist of the Year and Claudio Abbado scooped the Conductor prize. Cellist Olly Coates was selected as Young Artist, heading off extraordinary competition from a shortlist that also included Benjamin Grosvenor and Sophie Bevan. It was an extremely good night for ENO, which won the Opera award for its Eugene Onegin. With them was Toby Spence, who won Singer of the Year, a prize that incidentally was decided upon well before the distressing news reached anybody that he has been having treatment for thyroid cancer. He tells me he is on the mend, supported by a superb team of doctors and vocal coaches. And he was wearing some spectacular leopard-print shoes. A fine time was had by one and all. Full list of winners here. A Radio 3 broadcast is coming up on

>> I've just attended a special screening of John Bridcut's new documentary about Delius. It's fabulous. Exquisitely shot, full of insights and containing one or two considerable surprises - not least, some unfamiliar music that has no business being as neglected as it is. A few familiar faces on board, too (hello, Aarhus!). Don't miss it. It will be on BBC4 on 25 May.

>> My latest piece for The Spectator Arts Blog is about the unstoppable rise of the modern counter-tenor. I asked Iestyn Davies to explain to us how That Voice works. Read the whole thing here.

>> Tomorrow the LSO is giving a free concert in Trafalgar Square, complete with Valery Gergiev on the podium. Expect lots of Stravinsky, big screens and a London backdrop second to none. And the weather forecast says that, for once, it is NOT going to rain. Even Prince Charles will tell you so. Apparently he's always wanted to be a weatherman. Now his guest appearance on BBC Scotland has gone viral...

>> On Sunday Roxanna Panufnik has the world premiere of her new choral piece Love Endureth at Westminster Cathedral, during Vespers, 3.30pm. You don't have to be Catholic to go in. Here's an interview with her about this multi-faith project that I wrote a few weeks back - for the JC.

>> Apparently Roman Polanski is making a film about the Dreyfus Case. In the Guardian he comments: "one can show its absolute relevance to what is happening in today's world – the age-old spectacle of the witch hunt on a minority group, security paranoia, secret military tribunals, out-of-control intelligence agencies, governmental cover-ups and a rabid press." (Quite.)

And so to Friday Historical. Tomorrow is Gabriel Fauré's birthday. Here is Samson François playing the Nocturne No.6 in D flat.