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

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. https://www.eno.org/whats-on/don-giovanni/



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 change.org 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. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4711225/How-ENO-got-its-act-together.html

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. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Diva in waiting: meet ENO's new Mimi

Here's my interview with the wonderful Corinne Winters, the young American soprano who's about to star in the new production of La Bohème that opens on Friday at ENO. From yesterday's Independent (but I can't locate it yet on the new-look website). This fresh-sounding staging, a co-production with Dutch National Opera, is directed by Benedict Andrews and also stars Zach Borichevsky as Rodolfo, Duncan Rock as Marcello and Rhian Lois as Musetta. Xian Zhang conducts.


Corinne Winters. Photo: Kristin Hoebermann


"I CAN SING ALL DAY"


Corinne Winters, the young American soprano, meets me at the London Coliseum. It has effectively been her artistic home since her breakthrough appearance as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata in 2013. Her megawatt personality and quick, strong thinking remain undimmed after a full-on morning rehearsal for English National Opera’s new production of La Bohème, in which she sings Mimi, perhaps Puccini’s best-loved heroine. “I have this indestructible thing where I can sing all day,” she remarks. “It’s just the way my throat is. Some of my friends joke that I have cords of steel.” 

She must have nerves of steel, too, as some of ENO’s most contrary critics grumble when non-UK singers star in the company’s productions. Winters shrugs that off. “That doesn’t faze me,” she says. “I know why I’m here and I have a lot of support.” That emanates from many sources, ranging from the artistic team of ENO to fans on Twitter.

The company helped to propel the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton to stardom; Winters could be next. At 32, she has everything: the voice, the charisma, the looks, the intensity, the acting. The rounded bloom of her high notes made her Teresa a highlight of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in Terry Gilliam’s brilliant 2014 production. Her Violetta – touching, vulnerable and vocally flexible, melting or brilliantly edgy as necessary – apparently won her several years’ worth of further engagements. 


Violetta (Opera Hong Kong)


Nevertheless, Winters didn’t know opera existed until she was 17. “In suburban America, it’s not part of life – we never even hear about it,” she says. She is from Frederick, Maryland. “My father was a lawyer, but he was an amateur rock musician and had a fantastic ear,” she remembers. “We used to sing Beatles songs together – he would take John Lennon’s line, I would take Paul McCartney’s, and we’d sing in harmony. That was my entrée into singing. 

“I started with a choir and loved it. I thought I would keep doing that on the side – I wanted to be a writer or a psychologist. But then it was time to apply for colleges and I didn’t want to stop singing, but I’d never taken a voice lesson in my life. So I took one when I was 17 and the teacher said, ‘You have a powerful operatic voice’. I thought, ‘What?’”

She trained first as a mezzo-soprano, only discovering later that her true voice was higher and stronger; and the penny dropped in earnest when she finally attended her first opera, which was La Bohème. “The first thing was the wall of sound that hit me and the vibrations I felt in my body,” she says. “I was completely blown away by the sheer power of the unamplified human voice.” In effect, she had found herself: “The mezzo roles I’d been doing didn’t suit my temperament,” she remarks. “Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro was fun, but Mimi is heart-on-sleeve, heartfelt, raw. That’s who I am.” 

Tatyana in Eugene Onegin


Her first decade in the profession was tough: “Ten rejections for every ‘yes’,” she says. “You have to be persistent to deal with that.” All that changed after La traviata. This season she faces a concentrated patch of debuts, including Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, in Antwerp. Last year she released an album of Spanish songs, upon which Plácido Domingo commented that her voice has “such a charismatic, opulent sound”. Next season she sings at the Royal Opera House. Her “dream role” would be Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, she says, though she thinks she would not be ready to tackle it for another seven years.

In July Winters moved permanently to the UK. Personal life takes a back seat to her singing at the moment, she adds, but she is thriving as a Londoner. “Most of my work is here or in Europe, and I love the theatre, the ballet and going to museums,” she says. “London’s culture is so rich that I can do something different every night.” 

When it comes to convincing newcomers of the worth and relevance of opera, though, she senses there is more work to be done. “I feel many opera houses are getting their marketing to young people wrong,” she declares. “I think it’s the sheer power of great singing that makes people come back. We have to trust that – and to trust the fact that a 17 year old will know if they like something. The young people on Twitter say, ‘We just want to hear great singing – we don’t need gimmicks to come to the opera’. If gimmicks get people through the door, great. But we need to go back to the root of it.

“As with any learned art form,” she notes, “if you don’t know about it you tend to think you don’t like it. I once thought I didn’t like opera. Look at me now – I’m obsessed!”



La Bohème, English National Opera, from 16 October. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Friday, July 10, 2015

ENO loses its head

ENO's Benvenuto Cellini, directed by Terry Gilliam
ENO is to lose its head. The company announced this morning that John Berry is stepping down after 20 years with the company, ten of them as artistic director. It seems that his departure will take effect with the close of this season, since Berry says he intends to spend the summer "deciding on my next role".

ENO has been in financial trouble for a very long time. It's both a tragic and ridiculous situation, and one with roots that go back way further than Berry's directorship. And it's a crying shame. London is a huge European capital, with a population forecast to rise to 10 million sooner rather than later, and it deserves at least two opera houses of world quality - which is what ENO has been of late, troubles aside. The audience exists, but it must be maintained. The will has to exist too. The will has, indeed, existed until now. Will it continue?

Those who for some mysterious reason would like to see it turn into a middle-of-the-road theatre offering middle-of-the-road productions of ever-popular hits might be rubbing their hands with gleeful hope. Those of us who love cutting-edge productions, the taking of risks, the soaring of artistic standards and the pushing out of repertoire boundaries are not so happy. Yes, some productions have been more successful than others and there've been a few turkeys - but the same is true round the corner at Covent Garden, which is funded to another tune altogether.

Without Berry we might never have had such stupendous efforts as Martinu's Giulietta - a gorgeous opera and Richard Jones production to match - which didn't sell, but shouldn't have been missed for the world. We wouldn't have had Weinberg's The Passenger. We wouldn't have had that now-classic Peter Grimes. We wouldn't have had the glorious Jones production of Meistersingers coming to London from its Welsh origins, or the David McVicar all-UK-star Rosenkavalier - two of the best evenings I've ever had at any opera house anywhere in the world. And we wouldn't have had Terry Gilliam's Berliozes. I rest my case.

If change is needed at ENO - and, sadly, it seems that it is - that change has to be in its pricing policies, the way it sells itself, and maybe the pressing ahead of creative outreach and education work, a field in which it is sometimes perceived to be lagging behind. Artistically, dear ENO, keep your vision and ambition. Please keep believing that where there's a will, there's a way.

Anthony Whitworth-Jones, who is heading the board's artistic committee, is one of the most experienced people in the business, with both Glyndebourne and Garsington long under his belt; one senses a safe pair of hands in which confidence can be placed, and this can only be a good thing. Good luck to you all.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Edward Gardner bows out

Photos both by Richard Hubert Smith

Yesterday Edward Gardner took his final bow as music director of English National Opera after the last night of The Queen of Spades.

The new incumbent, Mark Wigglesworth, steps up in the new season. We love Mark too, but we are going to miss Ed like the blazes. I have no doubt that the brightest of brilliant futures awaits this thrilling, charismatic and galvanisingly energetic musician. The good news is he's coming back to do Tristan & Isolde next year.

ENO sent out a range of pictures from the event. Below, John Berry, flanked by the orchestra, bids farewell to Ed. I hope the figures high above them are not representatives of Arts Council England.






Sunday, June 07, 2015

Tchaikovsky, spades and stalkers...

I had a chat with director David Alden about The Queen of Spades at ENO for The Independent (opening night was yesterday). He revealed that Tchaikovsky was no stranger himself to the sort of stalking that Lisa experiences from Hermann...



Few operas can boast a libretto based on a literary masterpiece that is also a psychological thriller. Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, after Alexander Pushkin’s short story, is the exception – and its gripping tale, focusing on a crazed anti-hero, presents a peach of a challenge for any opera company. English National Opera is about to stage its first production of the work in some 20 years with the American director David Alden at its helm. After his enduring success for ENO with Britten’s Peter Grimes, expectations run high.

The opera’s protagonist, Hermann, believes that if he can discover the secret of the “three cards” it will transform his life. He courts the unfortunate Lisa to gain access to her grandmother, an elderly Countess who guards the crucial gambling formula; tragedy ensues as his obsession spirals out of control.

“It’s not easy to stage,” Alden confirms. “It’s a very big piece, it’s quite a monstrous, gigantic panorama, and to keep refocusing it requires a difficult balance between its elements.”

Despite its scale and depth, The Queen of Spades is often overshadowed by Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, also based on Pushkin, which preceded it by a decade. No less compelling, though, are the driven, haunted qualities of his music for Hermann and Lisa and the care and delight with which he created Mozartian pastiche to evoke the Countess’s memories of the court of Catherine the Great.

The score’s special intensity, Alden points out, may have been turbo-charged by a frightening situation that would have led Tchaikovsky to identify with the confused and increasingly desperate Lisa. Some years earlier, the composer had married, most ill-advisedly, a young woman named Antonina Milyukova who had pursued him by letter. He was gay; she was mentally unstable; disaster ensued. “He had got her out of his life, but she returned and started to make trouble for him,” Alden says. “She flipped over something petty and started threatening to expose him. He fled to Italy in order to write this piece.”

Hermann is in love, at a distance, with Lisa; he pursues her like a stalker, uses her blatantly to access the Countess, and finally drives her to suicide. His obsession transfers to the old Countess and her secret of the three cards. “It’s very Freudian,” Alden suggests. “There’s a triangle of him and the two women, and it turns out the real erotic zinger of the opera is between him and the Countess: his horror of her, his desire for her and the cards.” The setting of St Petersburg becomes virtually a character in its own right, “an aristocratic milieu with decadence and corruption only just under the surface”.

It sounds all too contemporary – but the psychological element remains timeless and universal. “It is very non-literal,” Alden says, of his new production. “It’s a weird, beautiful, dreamy thing.”

The Queen of Spades, English National Opera, from 6 June. Box office: 020 7845 9300