Showing posts with label ENO. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ENO. Show all posts

Friday, March 15, 2019

Sarastro gets a sympathy laugh

Wow! Thomas Oliemans as Papageno.
(All photos courtesy of ENO, (c) Donald Cooper)

It's not every day that Sarastro announces "This is the most important assembly we've ever held - the decision we are about to make is of grave importance" - only to find half the audience giving him a belly-laugh. But then, it's not every day that The Magic Flute feels so relevant to our needs that the whole of the House of Commons should be frogmarched into the Coliseum and made to study every word of it. This Magic Flute has got...bells.

ENO's production by Simon McBurney is back for another revival, and gosh, it's just better and better: the storytelling could not be clearer, nor the inventiveness, nor the meaning. In Mozart and Schikaneder's Enlightenment fairytale, wisdom, truth and love battle against the forces of darkness – lies, ignorance, superstition, vengeance, violence. (Sounds familiar?) And the forces of good triumph. (Yes!) Along the way, in their quest, the young couple Tamino and Pamina are tested to their limits, and protected by their steadfast devotion to each other and the power of their music. (Double yes!)

The Magic Flute in person, with attendant bird action
The ingenious designs by Michael Levine turn the spines of books into pillars of the temple of wisdom, and Papageno's birds are their fluttering, faithful leaves. Wisdom, enlightenment itself, comes through studiousness, learning, books, self-discipline, the embrace of art and culture. The transformative effect of music saves Tamino and Pamina's lives and Papageno's too. There is something uniquely moving about a work by one of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived that pays such a direct tribute to the art to which he devoted his short life.

The Magic Flute is open to infinite numbers of interpretation and reinterpretation, but McBurney's is the only production I've seen in which the emotional climax - the tests of Fire and Water - actually are frightening: an extended, roaring engulfment of flames followed by a magical flood in which Tamino and Pamina must swim for the spiralling surface. There's magic and whimsy aplenty - the sets are live-drawn, the sound-effects produced by a Foley artist in real time (she even has to dodge the attentions of Papageno), and the prince and Papageno are respectively attended by the orchestra's flautist and keyboard player, trotting up from the pit when needed - until Papageno learns to play his own bells.

Rupert Charlesworth (Tamino) and Lucy Crowe (Pamina) swim for their lives
For this revival the musical performance is a little uneven, but chiefly splendid: Lucy Crowe's Pamina brought a blazing emotional gravitas, Thomas Olieman's Papageno a grumpy yet irresistible charm. Brindley Sherratt's Sarastro simply couldn't be bettered (and, um, I think he was speaking those crucial lines perhaps not 100% "in character" which, under the circumstances, is fine with me). Julia Bauer's Queen of the Night delivered her arias with a concentrated punch of energy, making up in scariness for anything lacking in projection. Rupert Charlesworth as Tamino was slightly the opposite, with a powerful tone that nevertheless did not fully bloom into the sort of open generosity one might long for at the top. The Three Ladies had luxury casting in Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price and Katie Stevenson, Daniel Norman was a splendid Monostatos and Rowan Pierce's Papagena so appealing that you'd wish her to have a great deal more to sing.

Ben Gernon's conducting felt a little hard-driven and businesslike, at least in the first half; there was sometimes too little space for the music to breathe and it seemed to lack the sense of lightness and air that can add the final touch of Mozartian warmth; but in the second half, Papageno's high comedy with the tuned wine bottles and Lucy Crowe's heartbreak aria oddly enough sorted things out as if simply through the power of Mozart himself. And the upside of the briskness is that the drama does bowl along, keeping you on the edge of your seat all the way through.

The performance was dedicated - as McBurney announced at the end - to the memory of its translator, Stephen Jeffreys, who died last autumn. His English version sparkles and twists and shines.

And did we come out of the Coliseum to find that wisdom had prevailed down the road in Westminster? Not quite - and yet, there's progress. Perhaps a parliament trip to this show might help them put the final pieces into place to save us all from the forces of darkness...

Go see. You'll laugh and cry.

Monday, October 01, 2018

"Salome, dear, not in the fridge"

Allison Cook as Salome, with placcy bag
Photo: Catherine Ashmore

As I slunk homewards from ENO's opening night, a friend on Twitter kindly sent me the above headline. It's from an anthology of winning entries to competitions in The New Statesman, edited by Arthur Marshall, and cheered me up somewhat.

Not that ENO's Salome would have needed to worry, because there wasn't much evidence of a severed head at all: just a placcy bag that for all we know might have contained a large cauliflower. One's cynical side considers it's probably cheaper than constructing a replica head of Jokanaan.

I love good reinterpretations of operas. Like science fiction or magical realism (in which I've been learning a thing or two recently), they need to create consistent worlds, to make sense within those worlds and, if stretching disbelief, make us believe one big thing by getting the small things right. The denouement has to be stunning, too, to make everyone feel they have suspended that disbelief for a good reason.

Under the circumstances, a radical feminist interpretation of Strauss's Salome should be eminently possible, especially with such a fine actress as Allison Cook in the title role. The story contains plenty of potential: a young woman, her sexuality awakened, frustrated, abused and finally twisted beyond redemption, is destroyed by men's attitudes to her - brutal religious fundamentalism on one hand and the incestuous lust of her stepfather on the other.

But if that was what was going on in Adena Jacobs' production, it didn't quite work. Herod is an almost pantomime Father Christmas - red and white cape over a gold vest and bare legs - bringing Salome jewels wrapped in big bright parcels with bows on. Jokanaan is first revealed wearing pink stilettos. There's a lot of pink, à la Anna Nicole, but including a decapitated pink horse, suspended upside-down spilling entrails that turn out to be pink and purple flowers. There's a lot of blood around, meanwhile, but it's pink too. In the midst of this, Salome is good at yoga, but leaves the heavy-duty moves to four lookalikes, also clad in black bikini bottoms and blonde wigs, who help out with the Dance of the Seven Veils. ("Twerking," my companion mused. "So 2013.") And there's a lot of sexuality, whether the self-pleasuring of the lookalikes, or what happens when the close-up live film projection of Jokanaan's mouth is turned on its side and begins to resemble something else, with teeth.

Some might object to all of this on principle; conversely, a lot of people seemed to enjoy it very much. I have no problem with the components (with the exception of the dead horse, which reminds me of Graham Vick's Glyndebourne Don Giovanni from last century and therefore seems derivative, and besides, I can't bear it when bad things happen to animals). But I'd like to know whether it really adds up to more than the sum of its, um, parts. I found no particular revelations within it and three days later I'm still musing over exactly what insights we were supposed to gain.

Strauss keeps right on being Strauss and sometimes all one could do was listen, because Martyn Brabbins was working such high-octane intensity with the ENO Orchestra that they swept all before them. The magical, lustrous scoring shone out, the pacing magnificently managed. David Soar's charismatic Jokanaan had his moments, but at other times the range sounded too high for him; Cook's Salome, too, offered a lower voice than suits the role's stratospheres. Supporting roles were all excellently sung. Michael Colvin as Herod gave a fine performance despite the Santa Claus coat, and Susan Bickley's Herodias - dignified and still at the centre of the whole - was perhaps the best of all the many ideas.

Go and see it for yourself, if you can. It's certainly a memorable evening.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

You're gonna rise up singing

One of the events I'm most looking forward to in London this autumn is ENO's first-ever staging of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. John Wilson is conducting it and the starry cast includes Nicole Cabell as Bess, Nadine Benjamin as Clara, Eric Greene as Porgy, Gweneth-Ann Rand as Serena, and more (see the line-up here.)

I was going to write something about what a masterpiece of an opera it is, how Gershwin perfectly blended those different musical idioms into a work with total integrity and deep empathy, and how it is often done as a musical, but not the full-whack operatic creation it really is, so grab a ticket while you can - but actually all you need in order to be persuaded is a taste of the heavenly voice of Nadine Benjamin singing 'Summertime', above.

On 11 October they're going to rise up singing. Book here.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Through Glass darkly

I should have expected to love Philip Glass's Satyagraha, yet I've steered away from attending it for years. A meditative opera of enormous sincerity and compassion about one of the 20th century's giant humanitarian figures? With a production at ENO by Improbable and Phelim McDermott that has propelled it to top classic status? What's not to love? Still it was only the other night I saw it for the first time at English National Opera - and came out wondering, dazed, where it had been all my life. It's left me musing on a great many things, some personal, some musicological, some about Glass himself.

So here is a long post from a Satyagraha novice...

Toby Spence as Gandhi. Photo (c) Donald Cooper, ENO
Satyagraha has one of the longest synopses I've come across in an opera programme. It's spread across eight pages, including a couple of photos and a lot of translated text - for this is a work that ENO - whose mission statement is to perform opera in English - gives entirely in Sanskrit with no surtitles (the production does include some select translations, projected onto the set). The programme provides the story, the history, the context. You wouldn't guess it otherwise.

This production melds perfectly with the music, unfurling in slow motion with moments of extraordinary magic. A woman will suddenly become airborne, mirroring the moon, as if it's the most natural thing in the world, or giant puppets of the warriors and gods of Hindu legend seem to acquire a life of their own, or strange, shimmering things are done with what looks like long strands of giant sellotape.

The pace of change and the degree of imagination on stage matches that of the music, which casts its sonorous and translucent spells with subtlety, at long, slow, steady length, the evolution and the eventual contrast located deep within the structures. Glass has said before now that the composer closest to his heart is Schubert, and one is occasionally put in mind of the moment in Der Doppelgänger at which, having set up a repetitive, pitch-dark harmonic world, Schubert inserts a rise of one semitone that can shatter your heart with a single note.

It's rare to see an opera in which a production suits the composition to quite such an intimate degree. As for the storytelling, we were advised by those in the know to read every word of the programme beforehand, but didn't get round to it, so depended on the show to do its own job, and at times it does. Gandhi's actions in 19th/20th-century South Africa, his leadership of peaceful resistance in the face of vast injustice, is reflected with moments of specificity, watched over in turn by the unmistakable figures of Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and finally, from the future, Martin Luther King. Gandhi's white-clad followers burn their identity cards. His associates are led away by armoured police. He, morphing from business-suited lawyer to isolated holy man in white robe, treats everything with equanimity.

But the music itself does not give us the story. Essentially, Satyagraha is a setting of texts from the Bhagavad Gita, apportioned to certain voices according to the story outline, but telling precious little of it in itself. And that is absolutely fine, because in certain ways Satyagraha is a natural successor to Parsifal. The wide, deep horizon unfurling in a timespan of its own. The journey to wisdom through compassion. The promise of spiritually enlightened leadership. The reminder, to a delusion-blinded audience, that spiritual truths and the goodness of which humanity is capable can only be reached when we discard materialism and ego. Wagner wanted to write a Buddhist opera, but apparently cut his efforts short when he realised he'd already done it in Parsifal.

Andri Björn-Robertsson as Krishna. Photo (c) Donald Cooper ENO

This is the point at which the spiritual, the political, the artistic and the historical blend and balance - in Wagner implicitly, in Glass explicitly. Satyagraha offers a message for today, delivered through words from an eastern scripture written earlier than 400 BC.

Many years ago, back in the 1990s when I was a very green twenty-something, I became briefly involved in a system of yoga and meditation that was, possibly, one step short of a cult. There were ashrams in many different countries, a guru, festivals, traditions, fabulous Indian vegetarian food, texts, lectures, courses, "intensives" - at which your kundalini spiritual energy would be awakened - and, not least, all-night chants. I'd never have expected to be got by such a thing, and it's hard, looking back, to comprehend exactly how it happened - though I know it was something to do with a conversation at the Salzburg Festival, of all places, around 1991. To cut a long story short, I spent three years happily immersed in the heightened sensitivity and intuition that results from deep meditation and unshakeable faith...while my life fell to pieces around my ears.

I gave it all up in 1995 when I realised that it held none of the answers I wanted. You can keep chanting - kali durga namo namah, om jaya jaya etc - but if you lose three members of your family to cancer in quick succession, your partners dump you for not paying them enough attention and your bosses take advantage of your distraction to bleed your work capacity dry for two quid an hour, you actually need to get your feet back on the ground and deal with it. Besides, some things in life, notably triple bereavements, simply don't have answers. Soon after that, an exposé of the organisation in The New Yorker proved an eye-opener, and I stopped going.

The important thing, however, is that there were good things too. In particular, the memory of the space within the mind that's opened out by meditation has never quite left me. It is one of the better, more mysterious, more creative and most beautiful spheres available to human beings that doesn't involve going to a mountaintop or the sea. It's within us at all times, waiting for us to access it. And it has immense benefits to offer us when we do. Twenty minutes into Satyagraha and I'm back in that self-same space.

And I wonder: is this, perhaps, where our "minimalism" comes from? There's nothing minimal about a three and a half hour opera, by the way. It's massive (and it could perhaps shed 15-20 minutes without losing much import). But the musical idea that has been saddled with the term "minimalism" - the repetition of cells and phrases that slowly evolve and change - what's behind that? Is it the chants of eastern mysticism, those long, spirit-awakening chants that we used to sing? A typical chant is, for example, two eight-bar phrases (with words in Sanskrit). And it repeats and repeats, for as long as necessary. Gradually it speeds up. Usually there's a music group at the front - a tanpura providing the background drone, some tabla, perhaps some tiny clinking cymbals - and the music leader determines the pace and the intensity as the chant goes along. This can last fifteen minutes, two hours, all night, three days.

You mightn't want to stay in the London Coliseum for three days. But the principle of the chant, though much less sophisticated, is possibly not entirely far removed from Glass's opera. The sound of Glass has become ubiquitous in the modern world, its impact on film scores, TV, pop music and contemporary classical alike being immeasurable. If it all originates in spiritual chant, how utterly ironic that it's become the soundtrack to a deluded, polarised, divided, cruel, uber-materialistic world so lacking in the compassion and equanimity that Satyagraha extols.

Glass. Photo from
A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to secure an interview with Philip Glass (you can read the original result in the Independent if you can find it, but the new-look site seems not to have preserved this precious moment; fortunately I've also written a longer account at Primephonic here). I loved talking to him because he was such a genuine musician, so down to earth - real musicians are utterly practical people. To him, yoga is not an optional extra: it is part of that down-to-earthness. It keeps him in shape mentally and physically, he suggests, and it will enable him to continue working into his nineties if he wants to - he was, at the time of the interview, an extremely youthful 77. His book Words Without Music is fabulous, a portrait of his times and his journey through their exceptional, collaborative, enriching, enlightening creativities. (My goodness, how sorry I am that I missed the Sixties.)

As I can't find my Independent article, I've just nipped back to the original interview transcript to snaffle a few comments from Glass about Satyagraha and the background to how he wrote it. It was, incidentally, his "breakthrough" work. I asked how influenced his music was by the world of eastern mysticism. "The connection is right in the music itself," he said...
"Satyagraha was the piece that took me into making a living. But it started off slowly and even the year before I had no idea that later on I would not be working at a day job. In fact I’d been living off of music for six months before it occurred to me that I hadn’t had a day job in six months. I remember it very clearly – my cab licence came up for renewal and I renewed it. I had no confidence that I would be able to make a living. But I didn’t use it and three years later when it came up for renewal again I didn’t renew it. That tells you where I was at!...  
"I went to India a lot of times and as well as studying with a lot of yoga teachers I was an assistant to Ravi Shankar – he was an important part of my music world, and there were lessons I learned from him – not through him, but the movie he was working on…. His teacher was there and gave me lessons just because I was there. I origianlly went to India for two reasons. I went to study Gandhism and that was an important motivation – I spent at least 10 years going back and forth and meeting people who knew him and going to places he’d lived. My opera method is a total immersion in a subject, without even considering what the structure and content will be for a while – I had no idea what I’d do with the Gandhi material, I was working on it from 1971 on and I didn’t write the piece until about 10 years later and during that period I went there six or eight times...  
"I did another big piece about Ramakrishna. People don’t look at it that way, but I know what I’ve done, people don’t know that, but if you look at that, there are songs based on a Tibetan yogi. If you just look at the libretto for my Fifth Symphony, there are 34 texts from [nearly as many] traditions. So in some ways it’s gone into the music directly, either because it’s about the person or their texts I’ve used. So if you say has it had an influence – well, I’ve used the material! It’s not an influence, it’s an actual usage! Satyagraha couldn’t have been written without that. I had a detailed and as intimate [exploration], given that Gandhi died in 1947, I was working on it 20 years after he died and I was able to meet in a bar with people he knew, I was able to visit places he'd lived, and I made a point of going to every location. When you look at the opera, I don’t think anyone could have written that opera who hadn’t had a very in-depth acquaintance with it all. There are some wonderful books by people who knew him and lived with him and worked with him… So is there a connection? The connection is right in the music itself."
You'd think, given my own little spell immersed in eastern mysticism, that I'd be a natural Glass-head. Yet I shied away from going to Satyagraha for years. The only other piece I avoided to nearly the same degree was the Ring cycle (though I did see that for the first time in my mid twenties). You'll know, if you're a regular at JDCMB, how often I curse received opinion. And have I not been as prone to received opinion as anyone else? Well, of course. That's how I've learned how lousy and insidious the syndrome is. The bald fact is that prejudice against stuff puts other people off. If you're aware that many of your friends and colleagues avoid certain kinds of music because either it bores them silly or they just don't get it, you're less likely to venture to "get it" yourself. I run with excitement to Reich and Adams, have done for years, but less so to Glass, because I thought I'd heard so much of it that I knew what it was about. But I didn't.

So there's a moral to this long weekend read for you. Never make uninformed choices. Investigate thoroughly. Understand what you're doing and thinking and saying. Never take someone else's opinion for your own. Go and hear that piece of music that scares you a bit, and only then make up your own mind, once you've been immersed in it, preferably in live performance.

And do go and see Satyagraha. It's on through this month at ENO. Toby Spence sings a bright, pure-toned Gandhi, the chorus is glorious and Glass expert Karen Kamensek conducts. Book here.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Belatedly, Marnie at ENO

Sasha Cooke as Marnie
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith/ENO

I finally got to see Marnie, Nico Muhly's latest opera, at ENO. Here's my review, for the Critics' Circle website - a second opinion for them, but it seems that I and the other critic were among the few who liked it. But...what's not to like? My quibbles are explained in the review, and are not limited to "Liebfraumilch and soda", but for the most part it was jolly good, for a number of important reasons...

Read the whole thing here.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Aida at ENO: a pearl, an intractable oyster and an elephant in the house

Latonia Moore as Aida. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Here's my review of ENO's new production of Aida, for The Arts Desk. I've never particularly liked this opera and the staging really did not help. But Latonia Moore is truly wonderful. As for the elephant, it's the language, this translation especially. When 'shelter' rhymes with 'Delta', isn't it time to go back to Italian? Or at least commission a new and better version?

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Don Giovanni disturbs and dazzles at ENO

Wanted... Mary Bevan as Zerlina and Christopher Purves as Don Giovanni
Photo: Robert Workman
WANTED. A huge poster of Christopher Purves as a gangster-like, shaven-headed Don Giovanni, states as much. He's wanted for murder...but also, for other things, by every woman who crosses his path, to say nothing of the occasional bloke. Sensuality, magnetism, confidence and the knowhow of the older man, backed up by threat, are working their illogical yet eternal magic.

In an age in which subtlety is not generally much valued, Mozart's operas seem to be getting harder to stage. They defy easy classification. Just when you think one of them will be tragic, it makes you laugh; and you decide something is a comedy of manners, only to have it kick out your guts. So what to do with Don Giovanni, that peerless "dramatic comedy" about sex, violence and hellfires, in a 21st century inured to the first two and disbelieving of the third?

Whatever you think about that, you may not have foreseen the utterly brilliant twist that the director Richard Jones brings to the denouement in his new production for English National Opera. It's tempting to spill the beans, but suffice it to say that whatever puzzles you in Act I, such as the presence of a Leporello look-alike, may come home to roost after the interval; and that the dizzy episodes of mistaken identity assume a more important position in the drama than usual. Problem: the meaning of the end is changed. But one can puzzle over that conundrum only to decide (as I did) that it's so flipping clever you just don't mind.

Clive Bayley (Leporello), Christopher Purves (Don Giovanni), Caitlin Lynch (Donna Anna)
Jones's set designer, Paul Steinberg, offers a gloomy, impersonal scene full of doors, resembling a dingy hotel sometime before mobile phones were invented; a phone box has a vital role to play. Looming yellow streetlights and a desultory party scene do little to liven it up. Act I begins with Giovanni rapidly servicing a stream of black-clad female clients (plus a man); the attack on Anna is transformed into a sex game, the sounds interrupting her father's session with a hooker in the room opposite. Derangement soon seeps in around the edges - perhaps the result of the constant hot-cold manipulation Giovanni foists on those around him. Elvira is basically nuts, as are strange shivering, gyrating dancers at the party; by the start of the final scene, Leporello too is losing it a bit.

If that feels glum and confusing, don't worry: most of what's going on is setting up what's to follow in part II - a key moment of which involves Giovanni's Serenade as a phone call, the effect of which upon Elvira's infatuated maid almost exceeds John Cleese's Russian in A Fish Called Wanda. Jones astutely counters this with Anna's 'Non mi dir' likewise delivered to Ottavio at a distance - however tangled in the wire you are, it's still a sorry way to chuck your fiancé for a year, especially when he is as wonderful a singer as Allan Clayton.

Allan Clayton as Don Ottavio. His expression was common to many of us by the end.
Photo: Robert Workman
Mark Wigglesworth is back in the pit he recently elected to leave when he resigned as ENO's music director. His Mozart certainly shows us what the management has lost with his departure. He's a rare, self-effacing conductor, modestly picking (mostly) excellent tempi, accompanying (mostly) ideally and leading a light-stepping, supple account of the score. One tricky moment when the stage and pit parted company will probably vanish with the first-night nerves. Meanwhile we wish, wish, wish he was staying.

The cast is very fine, with Clayton outstanding in the two tenor arias and the American soprano Caitlin Lynch as a characterful and precise Donna Anna. Christine Rice is quite a surprise as Donna Elvira; we more associate her with mezzo roles, yet her voice seems to be growing in both range and amplitude. And even if I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea that Elvira is off her trolley - she is far too subtle and fascinating a character for that - Rice brings her a convincing sense of desperation as the love she loathes simply refuses to die. Zerlina is Mary Bevan, pure-toned and full of warmth, clad in white while all around wear black. Nicholas Crawley is a strong, bitter Masetto and James Creswell as the Commendatore delivers a magisterial cameo.

But it is the double-act of Christopher Purves and Clive Bayley as Giovanni and Leporello on which the show hinges, and they don't disappoint. Purves's soft, velvety, sensually nuanced singing brings an edge of sinister magic to the Don; Bayley, as professional sidekick, is deeper and louder, yet meshes beautifully. The relationship is splendidly worked, full of details such as a much-lived-in drinks-serving ritual; and even if their modus vivendi seems balanced and settled, the master's more than callous treatment of the servant proves that any suspected affection is in fact non existent. You can be left wondering how many Leporellos the Don gets through, each one perhaps presented with the same glasses and red wig.

Would one really be irresistibly seduced by this Don Giovanni? Personally I wouldn't buy a second-hand cat-basket from him, let alone a car. But ahhh...there's the voice, that voice... He can call my landline any time.

Don Giovanni, ENO, to 26 October.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

It's the first night of ENO's Tristan

[FRIDAY MORNING, 10 JUNE: OH DEAR. The trouble with writing previews is that sometimes the reality does not deliver. Warning: the value of investments can go down as well as up....

I'm leaving my original preview up here, but after seeing the performance I have to report that though it was many things, Gesamtkunstwerk it ain't.]

The last Tristan und Isolde I saw was Katherina Wagner's production at Bayreuth 2015. Interesting moments, striking designs, but by and large it was a disappointment. Firstly because there seemed no coherence between the three acts - the style of each was so different that a massive disconnect ensued. Secondly, and more importantly, it imposed on the opera a heap of stuff that simply isn't in it and ultimately subverted the whole point. King Marke is not a vicious dictator. It's not in his music or his words or the drama. And in this miserable vision's finale, he simply dragged Isolde away from the dead Tristan's bed and marched her off. Liebestod schmiebestod.

Having just seen a Manon Lescaut in Munich that didn't make much sense either until the final Kaufmann-Opolais act (which was stupendous), I started to wonder if I was going off Regietheater.

I love radical reinterpretations when they bring us new insights and "relevance" that is actually relevant to the opera as well as the supposed audience. Hats off to Calixto Bieito's The Force of Destiny at ENO, which just days ago won a South Bank Sky Arts Award. But when I talked to Iván Fischer a couple of months ago, I did begin to wonder if he was right: we need to start exploring a "third way" to present opera that does not alienate newcomers and fans alike, yet that also isn't stuck in some imaginary golden age of pretty dresses, painted backdrops and park-and-bark. Something, instead, that brings the music and the drama into one "integrated" whole.

So with Tristan and Isolde opening tonight at ENO - Daniel Kramer directing, Ed Gardner conducting, designs by Anish Kapoor and singers including Stuart Skelton, Heidi Melton, Karen Cargill and Matthew Rose - I wrote this little think-piece for the Indy about whether a refreshed take on Wagner's notion of Gesamtkunstwerk can help to save ENO. First, a foretaste of the love duet from rehearsals...

Tonight English National Opera opens a new production of Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner’s gigantic, groundbreaking hymn to love and Schopenhauerian philosophy. With designs by the artist Anish Kapoor, ENO’s ex-music director Edward Gardner conducting, direction by Daniel Kramer – the company’s artistic director elect – and a starry cast featuring the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton as Tristan, it promises much. ENO, strapped for cash and mired in controversy, badly needs a smash hit, other than Sunset Boulevard; hopes ride high that this could be it.

Kramer has described the production as “a very poetical, mythical, simple world that Anish Kapoor and I have created to let the music and the singers just become gods”. This feels unusually close to Wagner’s own ideal. In 1849, the composer wrote a series of essays entitled The Artwork of the Future, expounding the idea of a “Gesamtkunstwerk”: a complete art work, fusing together music, drama, design, dance and more, in which a fellowship of artists would work together towards one shared goal.

Today, though, this is radical in its own way. And here’s why.

ENO's image for Tristan
There’s a Facebook group called “Against Modern Opera Productions”. No, really, there is. It loves “beauty” and often pours vitriol upon “Regietheater”, the director-led concepts that have dominated European lyric stages for the past several decades. Some critics, academics and opera professionals watch its hatred with a fascination of horror. It feels reactionary; as if operas’ blood-and-guts tales of sex and violence can only succeed if prettified for some imagined 1950s golden age. Yet this group currently boasts well over 35,500 “likes”. That’s enough people to fill the beleagured London Coliseum for nearly a fortnight.

Is the operatic audience really in revolt against Regietheater? Recently the Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer told me in an interview here that he was seeking ways to develop “organic, integrated opera performances”. In his view, the disconnect between staging and music that can result from focus on supposed originality in the former and on historical accuracy in the latter has run its course. It’s become a cliché and it’s time for a change.

When Regietheater is inspired and coherent, when it truly casts valuable new light on a familiar masterwork, there is nothing better. I admire and enjoy the finest of it. Yet reluctantly I’m starting to agree that the operatic sphere needs to find new types of approach less likely to put off newcomers and frustrate fans. Success stories seem to be thinner on the ground than duds and in certain territories audiences have started to vote with their feet. As for the singers, I once asked the tenor Joseph Calleja what the most outrageous thing is that a director has asked him to do on stage. His answer: “Singing the Duke of Mantua [in Verdi’s Rigoletto] wearing a monkey suit.” The production was set on the Planet of the Apes.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth Enrico Nawrath/© Bayreuther Festspiele
A couple of years ago I attended Wagner’s Tannhäuser at Bayreuth, the festival founded by the composer himself. It was staged as an opera-within-an-opera: a supposedly futuristic society putting on a show. The set was dominated by a huge processing machine glooping away throughout; the concept must have cost a pretty penny to design and produce, yet added to the opera…precisely nothing. Last year the same festival’s new Tristan und Isolde imposed a vicious, dictatorial character on King Marke that simply isn’t in the music or the drama. And the lovers had to sing their heavenly duet with their backs to the audience.

That festival appears still to be able to afford controversy, indeed to court it. But in the UK cash for opera companies is ever more difficult to come by and increasingly requires justification. If a new staging of a popular piece goes clunking to an early death, there’s a sense of tragic waste. Yes, artists and companies need space to fail. But that space is getting smaller every year.

Still, the Metropolitan Opera in New York has not been enjoying much success of late with supposedly safe, traditional productions. The current season is projected to reach only 66 per cent of potential box office revenue, its lowest ever. Some punters, and even some critics, would like ENO to stay safe and traditional too: middle-of-road productions of popular repertoire for middle-class audiences. But that’s not how London works these days, or New York. These audiences can mingle eager newbies with knowledgeable, cosmopolitan types; and none like to feel they’re being fobbed off with something predictable and second-rate any more than with something pretentious or incoherent. If opera houses want audiences, they have to find out how that audience functions now and what its needs are. These are not the same as the 1950s. They’re not even the same as the 2000s.

And so a radical readoption of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk principles might hold some answers, along with Fischer’s “integrated” approach. It’s possible to be wonderfully imaginative, sophisticated and stylish while working in harmony, rather than in a seeming struggle between inherently opposed ideals.

If Kramer can indeed bring ENO a strong, simple, transcendental Tristan, perhaps he can signal a way forward for the troubled company. Can Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk save ENO? It’s time to find out.

Tristan and Isolde, English National Opera, London Coliseum, from 9 June. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Save the People's Opera

The ongoing crisis at English National Opera is provoking much thought, soul-searching and protest. The current plan on the management side is to cut the chorus's pay by 25 per cent. The chorus, not surprisingly, is balloting for strike action.

Most people who go to ENO or who have performed with the company are all too aware that the chorus is the absolute life-blood of it - and it is not least their magnificent singing that has made so many of ENO's performances so outstanding over the past years. Some singers have remarked that the planned cut amounts to a good deal more than 25 per cent in practice, and that with the costs of family life, accommodation and travel in the capital, such a cut would make it unviable for them to continue in their jobs.

Meanwhile, a petition is gathering signatures, including many from leading singers who have starred on the Coliseum stage, not least Sarah Connolly and Stuart Skelton. Soprano Susan Bullock has commented: So much damage has been done to this wonderful company in recent years, and it is now time for it to stop. Wake up ENO Board before it is too late and fight for the company you are supposed to represent. Do not allow the heart to be ripped out of it by administrators who have no clue about opera. You can’t expect high quality performances from a broken company, nor do you deserve them if you persist in making these cuts.’

Mark Wigglesworth, who is in his first season as music director, has strong words about the company's present and future in today's Guardian. He is at the helm for a revival of The Magic Flute, in Simon McBurney's edgy and fascinating production. Do read this. 

And the company is currently advertising for an artistic director...

Meanwhile, I've been having a look back at where the company used to be. It has been very easy for people to use John Berry's artistic directorship as a punchbag, and ditto for Peter Bazalgette, who has recently announced his resignation from the chair of ACE (in a former life he was on ENO's board himself). But things have been volatile at the Coli for decades. It seems an endless cycle of boom and bust. Mostly bust.

Have a look at this, from the Telegraph in 1997.

I'd like to draw attention to this section: 

Go down to the Coliseum after dark and you get swept up in pre-revolutionary ferment. The place is packed out, even for non-pops such as Verdi's Falstaff and Janácek's From the House of the Dead. The lobbies heave with men in windcheaters and ladies in print frocks, solid Labour types who come to the Coliseum two nights a week, no matter what's playing. There are schoolboys, unchaperoned by teachers, booked in of their own initiative. There are young couples of every gender-pairing and whole families, grans to tots, out for a birthday treat. No one has paid more than £25 a seat and some are in for less than a fiver.Inside the auditorium, the tension that mounts with any good drama explodes in roars of solidarity as, during curtain calls, a company member steps forward to advocate the case for survival. These appeals began spontaneously on the night of Smith's statement, when the new music director, Paul Daniel, delivered an emotional defence speech. "We have a very special platform of work," said Daniel, "and a very, very strong case for making opera as we do."
The audience is different today. So is the company. On the latter side, ticket prices are higher, considerably so; on the former, many people's incomes are less secure, more pressurised and less likely to be spent on opera seats two nights a week. Generally, loyalties are less pronounced. The company faced low ticket sales for "non-pops", even when they were as fine as Vaughan Williams's A Pilgrim's Progress and Martinu's fabulous Julietta directed by Richard Jones. And people are scared to step forward and speak up. Today does anybody dare to take the stage after the performance and tell the audience what's going on? Does the audience dare to roar its support for its beloved operatic family? I hope they will, if they haven't already. Because if they don't, it would be a sign of our cultural shift compared to 19 years back: the crushing of dissent, or self-censorship out of fear of it. Laugh if you want to, but there's a lot of this around and we ignore it at our peril.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Letters of support plead for ENO's lifeblood

Stormy weather: ENO's chorus in Martinu's Julietta. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

London stands to lose a lot more than Kasper Holten (see yesterday) at this rate. Sir Antonio Pappano (music director at Covent Garden) has written an open letter to The Times, warning that cuts to the English National Opera chorus members' contracts and the limiting of the season to a grand total of eight operas could destroy the company.

Today The Guardian carries two letters of support for ENO, one from the head of Equity's live performance section, the other from a group of ENO stalwarts and other musicians including David Alden, Sarah Connolly, Marin Alsop, John Eliot Gardiner, Stuart Skelton and Sir Willard White. Read them here.

The threat to the chorus is particularly noxious - because over the past few years ENO's chorus has been among the best in the business. Many, many times they've proved the highlight of the performance: their vibrancy, accuracy and intensity in The Flying Dutchman was unforgettable, for example, ditto The Death of Klinghoffer, and in Benvenuto Cellini the way they belted out "Applaud and laud all art and artisans!" with such relish will stay with me for a very long time. Indeed, were I to list all the works in which ENO's chorus has proved its very best feature, this would be an overlong blogpost.

But what's really insidious is the underlying sense that perhaps the chorus is believed, somehow, by someone, somewhere, to be something that can and should be chopped back. That it doesn't really need to be there. That it's subsidiary to the "star" soloists, a poor relation to the business of a tenor hitting the high notes.

Guess what? The chorus is the lifeblood of opera.

Can you think of many operatic masterpieces that could survive without their chorus? For the majority of great opera composers, the chorus is a character - often the central character. Peter Grimes is all about the chorus, which becomes the seething almost-lynch-mob of the Borough. Parsifal's choruses are integral to the music's detailed, mesmerising tapestry. Anyone fancy Nabucco without the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves?

And by the way, being an opera chorus member isn't something just anybody can do. If one thinks "chorus" and pictures a nice amateur choral society trotting out Messiah with one rehearsal a week and scores to read from, that's not what's going on here. Opera choruses are not keen amateurs; they are seasoned professionals who learn everything from memory, have to work with those demanding directors, have to do very strange things sometimes (in Munich's Manon Lescaut the Bavarian State Opera Chorus had to bob about in fat suits...) and work extraordinary hours for not a great heap of remuneration*. The soloists are the cherries on the cake. The chorus is the cake.

"Without them there is no ENO" declares the luminaries' letter.

Applaud and laud all art and artisans, please: once more from the top!

* Note: in some German houses the chorus is rather well paid, in some cases earning more than some of the soloists.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The virgin Mikado

Richard Suart as the Lord High Executioner, doing his Little List. Photo: Sarah Lee

Confession time, folks. I have never seen The Mikado before. OK, maybe the first half on TV when I was about ten, but no more. Indeed, I have never even been to a professional performance of a Gilbert & Sullivan. A depressing am-dram Iolanthe about 30 years ago served as ferocious deterrent and our school performance of The Pirates of Penzance hadn't helped set up a positive impression, especially not when the big co-ed up the road was doing the St Matthew Passion and we, in the  Ladies' Seminary complete with lacrosse sticks, were stuck lumping through a G&S in which there are in fact only two female roles.

But G&S is - well, if you're fond of clever words (tick) and great tunes (tick) and desperately silly stories that nevertheless have a nugget or two of gold at their core (tick), and you love things that look pretty on stage (Jonathan Miller's production for ENO is simply gorgeous, darlings), and some really good singing too (tick), then what's not to like? The Miller production has been boomeranging back and back and back to the Coliseum since 1986, clocking up nearly 200 performances. Last night the man himself was there and went on stage to take a bow; the devoted audience gave him a standing ovation.

The words are indeed clever. Favourite lines include the idea that if you're going to masquerade as a Second Trombone, "you have to take the consequences". The Lord High Executioner's Little List of contemporary cruelties knocks the spots off Have I Got News For You and included on this occasion a fine predictive-rhyme swipe at our prime minister (hint: the word we heard was "dig" and we can imagine what would have followed...), alongside various demolitions of Nicola Sturgeon, Jeremy Corbyn and anything that remains of the Lib Dems.

The tunes are fabadabadoo. After all, I even conscripted one of them for kitten purposes a year ago.

The Jonathan Miller production has precious little to do with Japan, but that is true of the piece itself; so the black-and-white art deco approach complete with tap-dancing waiters and Yum-Yum looking strikingly like Ginger Rogers is all fine with all of us. The press info tells us it is supposed to be an English seaside hotel of the 1930s, but to me that idea says "miserable depression-era burned toast" - this stage set more resembles the Savoy, as well it might.

The nuggets of gold at the heart of the story? First of all, who could resist the ultra-romantic idea - delivered, of course, with irony aplenty - that it is better to enjoy one scant month of marriage to your true love and then die than never to wed her/him at all? Then there's the Lord High Executioner who finally reveals that he's so soft-hearted he couldn't even kill a bluebottle. And the one person who does have a chance to "soliloquise" with an aria all alone on stage is Katisha, the much-maligned Older Woman, who is the only character with a modicum of rounding out and a few specks of actual wisdom, which in this particular La-La Land is in short supply.

Singing is brilliant: Mary Bevan as Yum-Yum and Anthony Gregory as Nanki-Poo were ideal casting, Graeme Danby as Pooh-Bah was wonderfully convincing and Robert Lloyd managed the extra weight as the eponymous Mikado magnificently. Richard Suart's Lord High Executioner and Yvonne Howard's Katisha both seemed to be having the time of their lives.

So what's not to like? Why did I come out feeling "OK, been there, done that, would buy the t-shirt if there were one, but I don't have to see it again"? The evening felt very, very long and it didn't fly and sparkle and do that champagne-bubble thing that you want from operetta. And it wasn't just because in this day and age all the beheading jokes felt a bit close to the bone [sorry]. It felt like a half-open prosecco that's been in the fridge too long without a stopper. Tempi were often a little sluggish, except when they inadvertently galloped; several singers seemed to be trying to push things along, except on the occasions - including 'Three Little Maids' - when they had to step on it a bit to keep up. If only operas had previews to play themselves in, like theatre...

I have that feeling, which I had also over Jonas Kaufmann's Berlin album, that lightness of touch is fast becoming a lost art. Light music needs to be...lightly handled. Any screenwriter will tell you that comedy is the hardest thing of all to pull off - as will most actors - as it is all about timing. It is bloody difficult to do it well. And I am starting to wish that ENO would not throw its fine young conductors in at the deep end, getting them to do things like The Magic Flute, Die Fledermaus and, indeed, this for their debuts. Fergus Macleod, the incumbent Mackerras Fellow young conductor, whose house debut this was, is a highly gifted young maestro and I look forward to hearing him many more times in the future, in different, less niche repertoire.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Verdi's Guernica: The Force of Destiny at ENO

Calixto Bieito's hotly awaited (by some of us) new staging of Verdi's The Force of Destiny opened last night at ENO. I've reviewed it for the recently expanded reviews section of The Critics' Circle website and you can read it here.

Picasso's Guernica
Mine is one of the more enthusiastic write-ups doing the rounds this morning (except for The Standard, which gives it 5 stars. Mine is starless - hooray! - but would have given 4 had that been necessary. The Guardian also gives it 4).

So, confession time. I've never got along with Forza. I've seen it a few times and always found it overblown, implausible, ghastly and ridiculous by turns. Last night, though, I was thoroughly absorbed and deeply moved. Perhaps because I am a sceptic about the piece and therefore don't have my own fixed ideas of what I want from it (other than Jonas Kaufmann as the tenor, please) (I went to see him do it in Munich once, but he was off sick), I found Bieito's updating to the Spanish Civil War worked pretty well, on the whole.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

May the Forza be with Calixto Bieito

ENO's new production of La forza del destino - OK, The Force of Destiny - opens on Monday. I had an interview with its director, the ever-controversial Calixto Bieito, the other day which I think (hope) should be out in the Independent today. 

To get us in the mood for what promises to be an immense interpretation of this epic-scale Verdi masterpiece, here's an extract of a very different one - the production by Martin Kušej from the Bavarian State Opera, starring Anja Harteros as Leonora. This is "Pace, pace, mio dio" from the start of the final scene. Not because Bieito's will be anything like this. Simply because I was fortunate enough to see Harteros perform this in Munich and thought she was one of the greatest sopranos I've ever heard in my life, most of all in this aria. (The cast at ENO includes Tamara Wilson as Leonora, Gwyn Hughes Jones as Alvaro, Anthony Michaels-Moore as Carlo and Rinat Shaham as Preziosilla, and Mark Wigglesworth conducts.)

Calixto Bieito is directing The Force of Destiny. Those words might strike terror into the hearts of any opera-lovers who like their Verdi presented as it might have been in the 1950s, with quaint costumes and park-and-bark stances. Bieito, who has been likened to radical film directors such as Quentin Tarantino or Pedro Almodovár, could not be further from that approach if he tried. 

Opera forums have been buzzing with the pros and cons of his take on Puccini’s Turandot, which recently opened at Northern Ireland Opera in Belfast, set not in ancient fairy-tale China, but in a doll factory in the communist era. Among his other productions have been a cannibalistic Parsifal and a Matrix-like Fidelio – and while much has been controversial, his contemporary production of Carmen has been enjoying enormous success in opera houses all over the world for some 15 years. But for Bieito, The Force of Destiny may prove to be a special test. 

“For me this is a very personal show,” says the soft-spoken and self-confessedly melancholic Spanish director, who is 52. He has not tackled it before: “I was offered it, but I said no. I felt that for this I had to be much more mature than I was 15 or 20 years ago. I think this is a good moment to do it – but the music has been with me for a long, long time.” 

La forza del destino, to give its original Italian title, is a marathon three-and-half hour epic. Two star-crossed lovers, Leonora and Don Alvaro, attempt to elope, but Alvaro accidentally shoots Leonora’s father when he intercepts them. Her brother Carlo seeks revenge and the lovers try to escape: Leonora becomes a hermit, courtesy of fanatical local priests, while Alvaro joins the army under an assumed name and encounters Carlo, also in disguise, at war. A series of impossible-sounding coincidences leads, inevitably, to tragedy.

The plot is sometimes dismissed as confused – indeed, the opera used to be considered “cursed” – yet it is based on a Spanish classic, Don Álvaro; o La Fuerza del sino (1835), by Duque de Rivas, the play credited with initiating romanticism in Spain. “The text is extremely familiar to me because it belongs to Spanish culture and it’s obligatory in school. I read it for the first time when I was maybe 12 years old,” Bieito says. 

It is not so much a crazy opera, he adds, as an opera about insanity: “It’s related to the themes of the romantic period and the time of Verdi. It’s related to religion, fanaticism, nationalism, anger and revenge. In this opera, the family is the mirror of the war and the war is the mirror of the family. There’s a sentence I like very much, written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: ‘Civil war is not war but a disease. The enemy is internal, people fighting themselves.’ And I think that this piece is about three people who are fighting themselves all the time.” 

“The piece in that sense is a kind of oratorio in chiaroscuro for the family,” he says. “Finally forgiveness and the goodness of the people is very important. In this opera the problem is the hate, the anger, the revenge, the blood of the family that provokes an explosion.” The eponymous force of destiny, he suggests, is in the genes. 

He has set his production in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, an era that has strong personal significance for him. He grew up in Miranda de Ebro, north-eastern Spain, not far from Guernica. “It came as a shock when I saw for the first time Picasso’s Guernica,” he says, “because I went to Guernica many times in my childhood. Guernica was the first time the Germans were bombing a city not with military objectives, but just bombing the people.” That was 1937; the Luftwaffe attacked Guernica to support General Franco against the Basque government. 

“It was only I went to university after many years that I discovered that the biggest concentration camp in the south of Europe was in my city,” he recounts. “Nobody talked about this. In the 1940s the boss of the concentration camp was a German general, but in the civil war for sure it was a Spanish one.” The camp was only closed in 1947.

His grandmother had lived through the civil war: “A lot of images in this show come from the stories my grandmother told me about that time, in a very simple, very honest way,” he says. In this imagery, walls are crucial: “They reflect the houses of the imaginary Guernica in my mind: the walls that keep the memories of the bombs, of the people who have died, the people who are weeping, and the refugees.” 

This production was planned some two years ago, before the current civil war in Syria provoked some European countries into erecting walls to keep out today’s refugees. “There are refugees in the show for sure,” says Bieito, “those who went to the Spanish border to escape to France, but in the end went to the Germans’ concentration camps. It was a big tragedy.”

Opening at ENO on 9 November, ENO’s staging is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where it will form Bieito’s house debut, in 2017-18; and with the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto, another first for him. Is this take-up in new territories perhaps a sign that the world is readier to accept the extreme darkness and intensity of the Bieito vision, that people are willing to look beyond old preconceptions that he wants to shock or horrify us? 

“I have never tried to horrify or shock,” Bieito says. “I’m trying to be honest with myself – and I feel privileged to express myself with the music of a fantastic composer and with the text of a wonderful writer. Everything is interpretation. All opera, all art is interpretation. I have been reading a book by Edvard Munch, the painter, in which he says that an artist must open his heart to express himself. I think – in a humble way, a simple way – that’s what I am doing.”

The Force of Destiny, English National Opera, London Coliseum, opens 9 November. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Monday, October 19, 2015

ENO's new La bohème: a bit too boho?

This is my review for The Independent of the new La bohème at English National Opera. Not the finest hour, perhaps, but a couple of very good performances therein... 


Corinne Winters as Mimi. Let's face it, you'd pay a fortune for a pad like this in Shoreditch...
Photo: Tristram Kenton

As opera lacks the luxury of previews, seemingly undercooked first nights aren’t as unusual as one might like. This staging of the perennial Puccini favourite by Benedict Andrews – a co-production with Dutch National Opera and new to ENO – is just the latest. Updated to somewhere vaguely near the present, it contains beautiful moments: plate-glass windows admit a golden sunset while Mimi breathes her last (set design by Johannes Schütz). Problem: you'd pay an arm and a leg for a pad like that in cool places like Shoreditch today, probably even without electricity...

But too often this production feels like a postmodern magpie collection of bohemian tropes: sparkly dresses, fake furs, Rodolfo’s typewriter, Marcello’s ballet skirt (sic), apparently emanating from a timeless Bohemia of the soul. More seriously, if Mimi and Rodolfo spend their Act I arias injecting heroin, yet this proves a dramatic dead-end, believability fades.

With the orchestra, conducted by Xian Zhang, in need of better ensemble and more pizzazz, the evening required redemption. It arrived in several very fine performances. Corinne Winters as Mimi offered bright, pure, unshakeable singing and a touchingly genuine character; Duncan Rock as Marcello bowled out charisma and vocal strength; and Simon Butteriss’s vignettes as both an estuary-style landlord Benoit and Musetta’s sugar-daddy Alcindoro were fabulous. 

Zach Borichevsky’s Rodolfo sounded warm but vocally patchy and Rhian Lois’s Musetta seemed comfortable only in the vamping-free final act.