Showing posts with label English National Opera. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English National Opera. Show all posts

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Underwhelmed in the Underworld

Mary Bevan as Eurydice and Alan Oke as John Styx in ENO's Orpheus in the Underworld,
supposedly a comic operetta
Photo: Bill Knight/The Arts Desk

It takes quite a dreadful evening at a fundamentally misconceived operetta production to make real life seem fun at the moment. But my goodness, I was glad to get out of this show at the end. ENO has well and truly gone to hell this time. I am giving up on British opera houses trying to do operetta - and suspect the Birtwistle Orpheus will be more fun than this.

My full review of a production that was better designed and performed than it deserved to be is now up at The Arts Desk.

Maybe British opera houses just don’t get operetta. Without wit, lightness and snappy pace, and instead cudgelling us with desperate relevance, the frothiest works crash to earth stone cold dead. There have been disasters elsewhere, too, though ENO is the chief culprit, and (after a miserable Merry Widowand a fearful Fledermaus) this one is the nail in the coffenbach. If you think that’s a bad joke, wait til you hear the ones on stage...

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A tale of two parties

No, not those parties. These are Baron Zeta's embassy ball, and Hanna Glawari's glamour-trip do. We're in Paris and we're at a different party in each act of The Merry Widow, where the filthy-rich Hanna, having inherited millions from her deceased spouse, is the target of Baron Zeta's determination to marry her off to a fellow countryman to bolster the national economy of their homeland, Pontevedro.

A moment of magic: Sarah Tynan as Hanna sings 'Vilja' from the moon.
All photos from ENO (c) Clive Barda

The great thing about operetta is that it is "light". But the trouble with operetta is that it has to be "light", otherwise it becomes heavy and goes clunk. Treat its subject matter with too much earnestness and it can be a total disaster. But what is "light"?

It's in the music, it's in the drama, it's in the touch. It's in the teasing out of meaning, rather than the hammer-head of fate. It's in the quality of projection, the creation of imagery, the flexibility and, most elusively, that strange old-fashioned thing called charm. It makes you laugh, but not without occasionally raising a tear to the eye. There's farce or fantasy, madcap humour and melodies to go mad about. There are home truths, but happy endings. Mostly nobody dies. And, as remarked my companion for the evening - a friend and colleague who knows his central Europe inside out - it's like goulash: there's no one recipe. Anyone who's ever tried will tell you that comedy is far and away the most difficult genre to pull off - whether you're writing, or filming, or staging opera/operetta.

Maybe, then, it's no wonder that a trip to The Merry Widow at English National Opera is a rare experience. We all know the waltz tune, but Franz Lehár's best-known work doesn't often make it to the stage in the UK, let alone in English. This version, with English new book by April de Angelis (Flight) and lyrics by Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer: The Opera), looked enticing and promised much.

How does it match up? Musically, pretty well - though the Overture seemed a strange mash-up of The Best of the Merry Widow, rather than Lehár's original. Still, Kristiina Poska's conducting maintained a pleasing spring in the step, bowling-along momentum and some nice Viennese-style rubato. The cast's voices suited the roles and the music. Sarah Tynan's girlish high soprano was well chosen, precise and biting, with a beautifully plaintive 'Vilja' song delivered from the crescent moon. Nathan Gunn was clear-spoken and world-weary as Danilo and the supporting acts of Rhian Lois, Robert Murray and Andrew Shore as respectively Valencienne, Camille and Baron Zeta pulled off their multiple shenanigans with terrific aplomb.

Go with the flow...
Max Webster's staging had its ups and downs. The splendour and romance of Hanna's party, with that dangling moon, was hard to resist, but act I, taking place inside a stage-within-a-stage that was occupied mostly by a sweeping staircase, felt a bit cramped. The major weakness, though, was one-dimensional characters; Hanna herself, "common as muck", as she's described in this version, is also hard as nails and veers all the way from vampily taunting the predatory men about their obsession with her money to... vampily taunting the predatory men about their obsession with her money. Tynan certainly looks the part in a svelte silver gown, but the character proved oddly hard to care about; when she suddenly deduces that "he loves only me" it comes as a bit of a surprise that she's even interested. Gunn's Danilo was, well, a good match. Their relationship seemed as shallow as both of them, beyond a vague old-flame frisson. These two deserved each other.

And the translation? Sassy and modern, yes: the women get the upper hand, the men are baffled and buffeted. Sideswipes at the present political situation hit home, notably when it's pointed out that the trouble with being Pontevedran is that you're from a country with no natural resources, no manufacturing industry and with whom nobody would want to do business, and that risks being annexed by Lichtenstein. But the highlight was the men's song at their row of urinals, wondering how on earth the women took control ("Go with the flow!"). Last time I heard an English version of this, it was all about "Girls, girls, girls, girls, giiiirls", so a radical rethink was somewhat refreshing. Besides, the words were not only quick, catchy and clever, but they actually worked with the music.

That wasn't always the case elsewhere. Not that this was likely to be a smooth run. I've done some pieces myself that involved fitting new words to existing music, and it's a challenge. You have to make sure you do go with the flow - the shape of the phrases, the open vowels, the way the stresses fall naturally - but when the sound of the original language can be so much a part of the music itself (and it is - others will say it isn't, but in most cases it really, really is), you're almost doomed before you start. Still. One example. You know that waltz tune? The three falling notes at the end of the phrases? Here they sang: "I'll miss you." It comes out with the music as "I'LL miss YOU," though the natural flow of these words, though is "I'll MISS you." Try saying it aloud: it's the shape and impact of the syllables themselves...

There's a lot to be said for sassy, modern and up to date. But it means - perhaps inevitably - replacing charm with cynicism. And without charm, the whole thing risks missing the mark. You can take Lehár out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but you can't take the...oh.

I kid you not.

A quick word, to close, about the beavers, national symbol of Montevedro... You first encounter them in the foyer - gold ones - and then on stage. And you think perhaps the metaphor/pun is going to become something more risqué, but actually it doesn't, so the gag falls a little bit flat... Except that then two beavers appear at Hanna's party and, um, they tap-dance, accompanied by a gaudy array of moustachioed acrobatic strongmen and party-frocked prancers (see above). At which point, my companion remarked: "Actually, this is very like Romanian late-night TV." To which I can't really add anything at all.

Here's a little treat: the original Merry Widow, Mizzi Günther, singing 'Vilma', recorded in 1906.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

How to turn a film into a concert

If you were among the thousands of people who last Thursday lapped up the Royal Albert Hall showing of Independence Day with the score played live by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, you'll probably know by now that live film music is the concert trend de nos jours. The advance of digital technology has made it possible to strip out the music from the soundtracks and replace them with live orchestras while retaining the dialogue. Experience is proving there's a real appetite for the results.

Now classic after classic is being adapted. And one of the people at the forefront of the craze is the producer and presenter Tommy Pearson. I wanted to find out how it all works, and he's the man to tell us.

North by Northwest, coming up fast

Ahead of the first one to be done at the London Coliseum with the orchestra of English National Opera - Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest, with its blistering-hot score by Bernard Herrmann, coming up on 27 November - I asked Tommy a few questions...

JD: You're involved with a magnificent series of live film score concerts. It seems there's a huge explosion of enthusiasm for big-screen films with live orchestra at the moment. What's your role in all of this, and why is now the time for it to happen?
TP: I’ve been involved in film music concerts for a long time now, presenting and producing, and it’s been fascinating to see just how popular film music has become in the concert hall. When I first started in broadcasting (at Radio 3 in 1993) film music was still a dirty word and a lot of orchestras were nervous about performing it, simply because the people running the orchestras were either completely ignorant of it in the first place or didn’t think it was any good. 

There was also the problem of access to the music itself; since film composers recorded the music for their film in a studio and then left it at that and moved on, the orchestral parts and scores were packed away and often never seen again (and studios were terrible at looking after them). But slowly and surely, film music started to appear more in concerts, the composers would often attend, and orchestras saw that a new audience was coming to see them - an audience that might not have ever been to an orchestral concert before. Now almost every orchestra in the world performs film music in concert at some point in the their season, which is fantastic. On Saturday, I’m hosting two concerts at the Royal Albert Hall with the RPO featuring the music of John Williams - both performances are sold out. That’s a lot of people!

The Live Film genre has really developed out of this renewed popularity. Technology has had a lot to do with it (see below!). But the hunger for hearing film scores performed live has naturally developed into hearing entire scores played live to a whole film, which is ironic since that’s the way movies were presented before sound was invented! And as audiences demand more for the their money and are looking for more ‘event’-like shows, this genre is a great way to enjoy a film they love, with an orchestra playing the score live, creating a very special experience. And the studios are finally realising that this is a very effective way of reminding audiences about their back catalogues!

JD: What's involved in preparing these massive works for public presentation? For instance, where are the scores held, and how are they reconstructed?
TP: It differs from project to project. North By Northwest has taken about 5 years to get off the ground, working with Warner Bros, the rights holder, and dealing with the various estates to get the right to do it in the first place. But we also discovered that a lot of Herrmann’s score, because the film was originally mixed in mono, appears on the dialogue track. When we perform scores live, we have to remove the actual music soundtrack so that we replace it with the live musicians playing it instead. With modern films this is relatively easy because the music is on its own, separate track; so we can simply remove it without losing anything else (like sound effects and dialogue). But with earlier films (NBNW is 1959), this isn’t always the case. So, we have an amazing company in Los Angeles, Audionamix, who is, as we speak, digitally removing all the music on the soundtrack. It’s an incredible process and I don’t pretend to understand how they do it. They also removed the orchestra from the soundtrack to West Side Story so it could be performed live, but with the singing on the film completely intact - amazing. 

Herrmann’s music in NBNW, though, needs very little editing. There’s quite a bit of music that he recorded that wasn’t used in the finished film and there are quite a lot of cuts in the cues that are in the film. But nothing complicated. 
That’s in complete contrast to my most recent production, Independence Day Live, which was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall last week. That score took 9 months to reconstruct! David Arnold, the composer of the score, wrote and recorded the 2 hours of music in LA 20 years ago. So everything we had was handwritten by David’s orchestrator, Nicholas Dodd. And, once the score had been recorded, it was then often hacked to pieces by the editor, as the film was re-edited or the director made different choices about which bits of music to use where. So when we came to do Independence Day Live, we had to work ‘backwards’: we had all the original scores and the final movie soundtrack and had to make them the same, so that when we performed it live it would all work in synch. It was a huge, very complicated job and I asked a friend of mine, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, to do it - he reconstructed the score and put it into Sibelius, then the copyists produced all the scores and orchestral parts. 

The other important element is the conductor and how he/she synchronises all the music with the film: the score must fit the film exactly. This means creating a version of the film that only the conductor can see (on a screen in front of them on stage), which has all sorts of things on the screen: timecode, which is locked exactly to the version that the audience is watching; a visual click, which is a counter showing bar numbers and beats in that bar, so the conductor can always be in time; and various visual aids that also mean the conductor can ‘hit marks’ in the film (for example, when a door slams and the music also plays a big beat at exactly the same time). 

Most of these projects take about a year to put together and I spend a lot of time working with the studios, not just on the legal contractual stuff (and there’s a lot of that!) but also preparing the film itself and making sure it looks as good as it can. We almost always use computer files these days and play the films out via laptop. Amazing really. 

JD: Bernard Herrmann is one of the all-time greats as far as I'm concerned. Please tell us something about him and why you feel North by North West is a prime candidate for this treatment? Might this showing help to cast new light on his music?
TP: Herrmann is one of the greatest voices in film music, no doubt about that. And the films he did with Hitchcock are surely the best work of both men. Herrmann is very well represented in film music performance and orchestras have been playing his scores for years: you’ll often hear the Vertigo overture, the Psycho suite and the North By Northwest overture in concert. And there are full versions of Vertigo and Psycho as live film performances which have been done all over the world.

 I came to North By Northwest in a roundabout way. A friend of mine works at Warner Bros and he’s a huge film music fan. We were just talking one day about live film concerts and I asked which classic films Warners owned; NBNW came up and I immediately seized on it since it’s one of my favourite films and has such a terrific score. Of the three greats - Vertigo, Psycho, NBNW - it is easily the most family-friendly and funny, so I went for it. When deciding which films to present in this way, I’m always trying to look for a great film which also happens to have a great score; it’s not enough for the film to just have an amazing score, it’s got to be something a general audience will want to go and see (since these projects are always quite expensive to produce). 

For me, North By Northwest is the perfect film. And Herrmann’s score is a masterclass in musical economy and drama. It’s been fascinating looking at his original scores and seeing what he does with the tiniest amount of material, how he develops it, uses it in so many different ways. There’s only 50 minutes of music in the entire film, yet it’s used so well, in exactly the right places for all the right reasons, that it makes a real impact, dramatically and artistically. I wish a lot of modern scores were like that!

It will be great to hear the detail of Herrmann’s score. At times in the film, the music was mixed quite low so it’s often difficult to hear it. But when we do it in the Coliseum, we’ll hear every detail which is an exciting prospect.   

JD: Why at ENO? Is it a one-off, or might they do more? 
TP: I work with U-Live, the promoters; we put these projects on together. The idea of doing one of these projects in a London theatre came up and I think there had been a casual conversation about it with someone at ENO and it all developed from there. I think it’s a great idea; the Coli is a wonderful venue, with a decent number of seats, and the screen will look fantastic, filling the whole front of the stage. It’s going to be like the early days of film, with the orchestra in the pit playing the score. If North by Northwest works well, we are definitely looking at making it a regular relationship. 

JD: It seems extraordinary that we still have to combat snobbery towards film scores when so much great music is contained in them. What are your thoughts on that? 
TP: To be honest, I don’t really care about the snobbery. There’s room for everything. Back in the days when the snobbery actively stopped film music from being performed, it was definitely a problem. But now film music is everywhere, so who cares about the snobs? In my experience, most people in classical music who are snobby towards film music are doing it through ignorance: they think they know about film music, but probably haven’t actually listened to any for decades. The main accusation thrown at film composers is unoriginality. And it’s certainly true that film music does, a lot of the time, have a sound of its own (taken from Strauss et al and fashioned for the cinema by Max Steiner, Korngold, Alfred Newman and the other early masters); plus, the extreme time-constraints that film composers have to work to are astonishing: 2 hours of music written in 3 weeks is not unusual, so of course there are going to be musical shortcuts.  

But anyone with even a passing knowledge of the music of Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, Alexandre Desplat, Tom Newman, John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, Michael Giacchino, Johann Johnannsson (I could go on) will know that there’s a lot of brilliantly original music out there. 

And are we really saying that none of the great classical composers ever took influences (or even stole) from other composers? 

There’s also the question of money: many people in classical music think that every film composer is fabulously rich and therefore cannot be a proper composer. Of course, film composers can do very well, but it’s only a tiny fraction of them. And in fact there’s never been less money in film music than right now. 

All the greatest film composers manage to combine creative and artistic credibility with huge popularity, which is not easy when dealing with a large number of studio suits, all of whom have an opinion on the music, the demands of the director who often knows nothing about music and cares even less, a producer trying to save money, and virtually no time in which to actually create the music. I have a huge amount of respect for film composers and I love working with them. 

There’s a lot of great film music and a lot of crap film music. It’s the same as any other genre of music. 

JD: Which other films would you most like to see reconstructed for live orchestral performance?
TP: ’m always on the look out for new projects and I have a few next year that I’m really excited about (but can’t mention yet!). I’d like to do a Korngold score since it would be a great play for the orchestra, but accessing the music and dealing with the films themselves (technically) might be rather challenging. And I’d do anything by Elliot Goldenthal because he’s a genius. His score for Batman Forever is, in my opinion, one of the finest (and certainly one of the most outrageous) scores of the last 25 years; trouble is, I think the film is awful!

Last year I produced Planet of the Apes (1968) live in concert at the Royal Festival Hall and that was a dream come true as Jerry Goldsmith’s celebrated serial score is my all-time favourite. It’s a true original. I can’t wait to do that again. So I’d love to do more Goldmsith too. 

But stay tuned, because next year will see some really diverse projects coming your way!

North by Northwest Live, London Coliseum, 27 November 3pm and 7.30pm. Booking here.

Friday, April 29, 2016

ENO appoints artistic director

Daniel Kramer. Photo:
The announcement is in. It's Daniel Kramer. He takes over on 1 August.

The American-British director, 39, is currently staging ENO's new Tristan and Isolde. His work with ENO extends backs to 2008: he was selected as part of ENO’s young director’s initiative for which he directed Punch and Judy at the Young Vic, which won the South Bank Show Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera. He also directed Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle for the company at the Coliseum in 2009. 

He is nevertheless best known for his work in theatre, notably as an associate at the Gate, Notting Hill, and the Young Vic, plus being creative associate at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is at a stage of life and career at which we can expect him to be hungry for success and creative about how to achieve it. 

ENO says: "The appointment was made by a panel of ENO Board Members chaired by Harry Brunjes, including Louise Jeffreys and Anthony Whitworth-Jones. The views of members of the Orchestra and Chorus and the senior artistic team were also taken into account. Daniel was unanimously chosen as the exceptional individual from a very strong field of candidates."

Daniel Kramer says: "“I am honoured to join this wonderful Company. The core of English National Opera is its unique Company spirit – its award-winning orchestra and chorus and its incredible staff, stage and house crew. My intention is to champion this family and to inspire audiences night after night with a thrilling programme of musical diversity, attracting audiences from opera to operetta through to popular music. We will work, too, with the wider community outside the Coliseum, to develop emerging talent and new audiences. We are here to play and sing for you. I hope you will join us in this new chapter of our evolution.“

I'm just waiting for the howls of outrage to start sounding round and about at the inclusion of the words "popular music". But if ENO is to remain the company we love and treasure, it needs a figure who can inspire confidence, around whom there is a genuine creative fizz, and who can attract a strong music director to stand alongside him. First sense is that Kramer fits the bill. Can he bring back the glory days? Let's hope so and wish him well with all our hearts, because it probably won't be easy.

Monday, April 04, 2016

ENO Orchestra and Chorus win Olivier Award

At yesterday's Olivier Awards, the prize for Outstanding Achievement in Opera went to ENO's orchestra and chorus. I should think so too. Let those who want to slash them squirm, big time.

Some of the other prizes went to the Royal Opera House for Best New Opera Production - Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci directed by Damiano Michieletto (the one with the baking); choreographer Wayne McGregor for Woolf Works; Dame Judi Dench for her supporting role in A Winter's Tale; and four awards to Gypsy starring Imelda Staunton and directed by Jonathan Kent. And many more, of course. It's a fabulous celebration of the quality, variety, vibrancy and sheer resilience of the theatrical arts in the UK. 

Awards season is upon us, incidentally: tomorrow evening it's BBC Music Magazine's.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Enquiries usually come too late

ENO: sink or swim?

The meltdown facing ENO at the moment is disgraceful. No artistic director has yet been appointed. Mark Wigglesworth has elected to walk away from his music directorship at the end of this season - having made clear that he believed maintaining a full-time company was absolutely fundamental, he probably felt he had no choice after the chorus deal was reached last week. In a resignation letter sent to musicians, he made this clearer still: "The company is evolving into something I do not recognise..."

In an article last month, he declared:

The Arts Council’s recent decision to cut ENO’s subsidy by £5m a year and the financial crisis that that has created demands that we rethink and reassess what we do and how we do it. How we respond to this challenge will determine our future success. I believe a fresh approach will fail if it compromises the company’s experience and expertise. Without the commitment, sense of ownership, love, and pride of the people who are the essence of ENO artistically, we have no right to ask for any curiosity, loyalty, or passion from our audience. ENO’s identity as a team defines its past and will be its greatest asset in protecting its future. Cutting the core of the company – musicians and technicians alike - would damage it irreparably.

The company is left, therefore, effectively without artistic leadership and in the hands consultants. The confusion beyond is...confused. One extra bit of trouble is that now Wigglesworth himself is being blamed for adding to it. It has to be said that a strong resignation statement from him throwing the whole filthy business wide open would have been handy, but has not been forthcoming. It wouldn't be surprising if some agreement has been reached that obliges him to do no such thing. (Arts organisations out of their depth are better than you might expect at muzzling those who know too much.)

Wigglesworth is a fine musician and a sensitive, thoughtful, principled person. What ENO actually needed in that job this season was an absolute bruiser.

But all this takes the focus away from the real problem, which was the original, punitive slashing of the ACE grant by 29 per cent. How was any company supposed to survive that intact?

The Magic Flute (pictured above in ENO's inspired production by Simon McBurney) shows a couple undergoing trial by fire and water, protected by their love for one another, their seeking after wisdom and the magic of their music-making. This is ENO's Magic Flute moment. If it can emerge, swimming rather than sinking, it will be stronger than ever. The difference is that in The Magic Flute the people subjecting Tamino and Pamina to the trials do want them to succeed.

If ENO were to fold, it would be a stain of dishonour upon British cultural life. ENO was, and still should be, the People's Opera. If it is murdered, there will need to be a post-mortem. Many of us would demand a public enquiry into its fate. That would come too late. We need it now, while the company can still be saved. We need to keep the big picture, first and foremost. The single most important thing is that the bean-counters cannot be permitted to sacrifice a company that at its finest is a national treasure and that reminds us at every performance of the best and most beautiful things of which human beings are capable.

(Here is a little light reading about management consultants.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Disaster at ENO: Wigglesworth has resigned

A press release from Mark Wigglesworth's PR has just hit my in-box bearing the following information. Wigglesworth seemed to be the only good thing that had happened to ENO of late and I am very worried indeed that his departure spells the beginning of worse times still. 

Mark Wigglesworth has today resigned as Music Director of English National Opera, effective from the end of the current season. He will continue to honour his contractual commitments as a conductor and looks forward to continuing to work with the wonderful musicians of ENO.

Mark Wigglesworth is not commenting further at this time.

A statement from ENO says:

We regret to confirm that Mark Wigglesworth feels unable to continue as Music Director despite the best efforts of the Board and Senior Management to persuade him to remain. We are disappointed that he will not be staying to lead the artistic forces through this particularly challenging period. 
Mark has agreed to complete this season as Music Director including conducting Jenufa and to return as a guest conductor for two scheduled productions in the 2016/17 season. Mark is a world class conductor and we look forward to welcoming him back as guest conductor in future years. 

Cressida speaks

Cressida Pollock, head of English National Opera, has written a piece for today's Independent about the current crisis and how she's tackling it. Well, more why she is tackling it than how...the one definite policy that emerges is a conviction that the Coliseum has to remain at the heart of ENO's work, and vice-versa. That's a start, I guess.
I am often asked if I am an “opera buff”. By the standards of the world in which I now work, I am not (although perhaps in 10 years I might make a claim!). But many of the people who make up our audience today are not “opera buffs”, and nor should they be. Our audience members have so many choices in what to do with an evening – to watch a series on Netflix, to meet friends for dinner, to go to a late night at a museum, or to one of the hundreds of live performances on each night in this city. We should not take their time, or money, for granted. It is our task to persuade them of three things – that opera is the most exciting art form of all, that seeing it live is an incomparable experience and that ENO is where they should see it. 
Happy reading...

[Update] You may find more illuminating information in The Arts Desk's piece talking to members of the exceedingly beleaguered and very wonderful chorus, here.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Find your voices?

The announcement of ENO's new season got off to a slightly flummoxed start yesterday at a press conference in which questions from the floor were short-circuited before they could begin. There was a determined speech from artistic director John Berry about leaving the past behind and looking to the future; a thoughtful and convincing defence of opera in English from the incoming music director Mark Wigglesworth; a few words from the acting CEO Cressida Pollock; and a short introductory film that began with blood being daubed upon someone's forehead, whether on or off I'm not sure. Then we were ushered out for tea and questions in corners. Berry was mobbed; the wonderful Wigglesworth was left hovering. Innovations for the season include price reductions on 50 per cent of tickets - some 60,000 seats priced at £20 or under - and a new partnership with Streetwise Opera, which works closely with vulnerable adults and community groups; and, of course, the new music director.

It's a fine spread of repertoire, beginning with a revival of The Magic Flute and featuring new productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, La forza del destino directed by Calixto Bieito, Glass's Akhnaten from Phelim McDermott, a new Boheme with Benedict Andrews in the driving seat and, best of all, a new Tristan (more of which in a moment). Revivals include Jenufa, The Mikado, Madam Butterfly, The Barber of Seville and an import of Opera North's Norma.

In a new season in which 88 per cent of the singers and conductors are either British, British trained or British resident, the 12 per cent who are not have attracted rather a lot of attention. Putting aside the reasons for which some people might consider this such a bad thing (mainly because I'm not sure what they are) I'm more curious about the match of operatic repertoire with the sort of voices that might be booked to sing in it, and how those voices come into being in the first place.

Stuart Skelton. Bring him on!
For me, the season highlight is the new Tristan and Isolde, in June 2016, to be conducted by Ed Gardner, designed by Anish Kapoor, directed by Daniel Kramer and starring Stuart Skelton (Australian) and Heidi Melton (American). Please forgive me if I'm missing something, but I would pretty much kill to hear Skelton sing Tristan and I don't give a four-x about where he comes from. Karen Cargill is Brangane and Matthew Rose King Marke, besides Gardner back in the pit, so it's not like no Brits are represented.

Besides, why should it be a bad thing to hear Xian Zhang conducting, or the glorious Corinne Winters as Mimi in La Boheme, or to explore the ever-controversial Bieito's concept for Forza (it's set, we're told, in the Spanish Civil War and features brilliant Rinat Shaham, liberated from her serial Carmens, as the mezzo-soprano who takes on that crazy war aria)? Opera is an international art. It always was, it always will be - deity-of-choice willing.

There are unquestionably some fine British singers who could take those roles. It's just that there don't appear to be very many of them. Longborough has been enjoying the voices of two remarkable British spinto-dramatic sopranos, Lee Bisset and Rachel Nicholls, in their Wagner productions; both are singing Isolde there this summer. I was lucky enough to hear a lovely young soprano with Wagnerian leanings, Lauren Fielder, in the Royal Northern College of Music's Gold Medal Competition last year, but she is still in her twenties and may not be ready for a full-blown Isolde for a while.

Ditto Ed Lyon and David Butt Philip, two notable and fantastic emerging voices, but ones who maybe could use more years under the belt before tackling a vocal marathon of that ilk, if indeed they ever grow to suit it. Longborough's Tristans are Peter Wedd (who had a fine impact as Lohengrin at WNO a couple of years ago) and Neal Cooper, whose uncle was apparently a heavyweight boxing champion. But to take on a whole run of Tristan in the biggest theatre in London, a singer has to be (a) ready, (b) willing and (c) free at the right time. Longborough is another story: a theatre that seats a modest 500-or-so, with a covered pit not quite a-la-Bayreuth and a reduced orchestra, puts less potential strain on the voice.

Dramatic-voiced singers don't grow on trees and not many appear to be growing in our indigenous woodland just now. A huge proportion of the advanced students - indeed, postgrads in general - in our conservatoires are from overseas. Meanwhile, young singers going through school and university are likely to be honed in the good old British choral tradition. This entails a pure, streamlined and rather small sound, with passion quelled in favour of spirituality and individuality in favour of blendability. It takes a very long time for a singer to get this tradition out of his/her system (usually 'his', because that's how the choirs are set up). Many British tenors seem to have started out this way, whether as boy choristers or choral scholars at Oxbridge.

Note that the really great British Wagnerites don't have that background. Bryn Terfel spent his childhood in farm gear rather than a cassock; Sir John Tomlinson was never exactly a choirboy type, training as a construction engineer before turning to singing at 21. Most of the other UK nationals who made a serious name in this repertoire are female - Anne Evans, Gwyneth Jones, Jane Eaglen...Today Catherine Foster, who sings leading Wagner roles at Bayreuth yet remains virtually unknown in her native UK, was a nurse and midwife for some 15 years before switching to music.

We do need more opportunities for young British singers, but we can't expect them to appear as if by magic, or to suit every opera that comes their way - and besides, having done our level best at conservatoire level to attract fine students from overseas to our expensive UK training, we can't then shut them out when it comes to professional engagements. And why should opera-lovers be denied the chance to hear singers such as Melton and Skelton just because they're not British? Perhaps we need to look at the entire picture of how our singers are raised and trained.

Back at ENO, more worth worrying about is the shortage of actual British repertoire in the new season. Beyond the ever-popular Gilbert and Sullivan, there's no other opera by a UK composer in the schedule. Not a Britten, a Delius, a Tippett. a Birtwistle, a Turnage, an Ades, an anything. If there really is an omission in the season, that is the one to grumble about. It's not like there's nothing out there to choose. If ENO is to continue to hold its own as British International Opera they could do worse than consistently support actual British music.

[update, 1.42pm: please see my post here for more on the British music programming - the situation is unfortunately worse than we thought...]

Here's Skelton in an extract from Britten's Peter Grimes.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"This is a period of mass intimidation"

I went to visit rehearsals for The Indian Queen at ENO's West Hampstead studios and found the one and only Peter Sellars, who's directing it, tackling the ongoing situation with hugs.

Substantial interview with him proved fascinating and provocative.

"This is a period of mass intimidation, one where it's no accident that governments are not only cutting the arts but destroying education...They want a frightened, docile population that's easily manipulated – and the arts are about thinking for yourself..." 

Read more of it today in the Independent.

Here's more about the music - "A sadness so deep it's life-giving," says Sellars.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Here's my piece from today's Independent about the fab Heldentenot Stuart Skelton, who stars as Otello at ENO's opening night on Saturday. He tells me about his path to the top, the challenges of Otello and why he and ENO feel the love...

Friday, June 06, 2014

A big "Benvenuto" to Cellini!

It's the deadline from hell. If Benvenuto Cellini hasn't cast his golden Perseus statue by morning, the Pope will have him hanged. But it has to be now that his rival in love arrives, demanding that he fight a duel this minute. In comes his girlfriend, saying she's run away from home and wants to live with him. Her father runs in after her to say no, no, she has to marry the other guy. Then the foundry workers go on strike because they haven't been paid. The project seems doomed. The flames are blazing, the noose is raised and Cellini is running out of time.

What does he do? He sings a big aria about how he'd like to move to the mountains and be a drover instead.

Any creative artist in the audience is won by then - 3/4 of the way through - because this character has such a ring of truth to him. But then, they're probably won anyway. This rip-roaring, totally bonkers, "semi-serious" opera (yes, that is a genre) in Terry Giliam's brand-new staging at ENO is a knockout from overture to final curtain.

Admittedly it is not the greatest opera ever written - sometimes Berlioz nearly drowns in the well of his own ambition (something that meanwhile happens on stage to our slightly stuffy baddy, Fierabosco). Still, it contains several top-notch arias, particularly in the second half, and some stonking choruses, including one that's much of what we usually know as the Roman Carnival Overture, portraying, well, a Roman carnival - and sung at a tremendous lick while stilt walkers, acrobats, a trapeze artist in a hoop and circus fun are going at full tilt all around.

"Applaud and laud all art and artisans!" sings the chorus, raising the roof - and we rather wanted to join in, because here at last is a work of art that praises the creation of works of art, throws its whole weight behind the artist - however dissolute - and declares with enormous conviction and passion that art is a matter of life and death. Here who dares wins. For Cellini, read Berlioz. And for Berlioz, add Gilliam, who seems to have found the perfect piece to suit his own creative personality. Production and music match to a tee: huge-hearted, overwhelmingly warm and generous, ridiculously OTT and full of thrills.

It's less tricksy than Gilliam's take on The Damnation of Faust, and unlike that production he does stick to telling the story. Nor is it excessively Pythonian, despite the part where everyone is dressed up as monks, trying to abduct the soprano (the reference, with mirrors further confusing matters, is more Marx Brothers than Monty Python). Theatricality is everything: giant carnival figures are paraded through the audience, glittery confetti bursts from the ceiling and twirls down upon us, and inspired coups include the set's inspiration from Piranesi, the final unveiling of the great statue, and a rather creative approach to visualising a tuba cadenza.

The words, in a translation by Charles Hart, award-winning lyricist of The Phantom of the Opera, are very wordy, sometimes cumbersomely so, rich in alliteration and certainly not designed to make life easy for the chorus. They are, though, extraordinarily clever at times and their flair matches Berlioz's and Gilliam's in spirit. One magnificent twist finds "Applaud and laud all art and artisans" transformed into "Applaud and laud all tarts and courtesans".

Tenor Michael Spyres is a strong, beefy, bold Cellini in every sense - it's a huge role with some stratospheric moments to which he gives his all. Corinne Winters is extrovert, sassy and in terrific voice as his beloved Teresa; and Sir Willard White as the Pope is as inspired a piece of casting as one's ever seen, besides the glory of his voice. Highlights in the supporting cast include Paula Murrihy as Ascanio, the business manager, who has the second-best aria in the whole piece, and the duo of Nicky Spence and David Soar as the foremen. Applaud and laud Ed Gardner and the orchestra, perhaps most of all, for holding this sprawling virtuoso feast together, turning it into a musical kite and letting it fly.

As for Gilliam and his creative team, they got a standing ovation, turning the convention of 'director's opera' on its head (the creatives' bow is usually when the booing kicks in). I don't know if the former Python is ushering in a new era of director's opera with a very different meaning - ambitious, theatrical stagings that are true to the spirit of the piece and that everybody is itching to see - or if he's a one-off. I suspect the latter. But he really can cut the operatic mustard, so what's next for him? How about a Ring cycle? Go on, Tez. You know you want to.

We don't do star ratings out of five here on JDCMB, but if we did, this would be a six. (Update: my colleague at the Indy doesn't agree and gives it a two. It's five from the Telegraph and four from the Guardian and The Arts Desk.)

If you can't get to a show, go and see the live relay in the cinema on 17 June.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

When is a bat not a bat?

When it's a turkey. Here's my review of the new Die Fledermaus at ENO.

Odd that Bieito's thought-provoking Fidelio was booed and this one wasn't, though the applause was little more than "well done for trying".

We may need a moratorium on jackboots at the opera. Terry Gilliam got away with it in The Damnation of Faust because of the general brilliance of the whole; and The Passenger, by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, was the real thing and couldn't do without them - though notably failed to sell. But in Die Fledermaus? This is getting silly. Next time someone brings gratuitous Nazis into an opera production, I might just stand up in the auditorium and start singing 'Springtime for Hitler'...

There's a serious point to this. If productions fill up with Nazis the minute anything is German or Austrian, it is lazy thinking and becomes a cliche. And if Nazis are reduced to a cliche on the operatic stage, it devalues the horrors that they (and other fascist/totalitarian regimes) have perpetrated. It devalues their victims. Enough, already.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Reflections on the Bieito 'Fidelio'

A fascinating business, this: coming back from that very Beethoveny trip to Bonn and landing bang in the middle of Calixto Bieito's production of Fidelio at ENO.

This staging seems to have left audiences not so much divided as ranged round a spectrum of 360-odd viewpoints. Predictably, many hated it - and yes, there was some booing of the production team on opening night, though it was counterbalanced by cheering elsewhere in the house. Here are two contrasting reviews to demonstrate that range: Andrew Clements in The Guardian and Tully Potter in the Mail. (Production pics by Tristram Kenton.)

Bieito's concept, you'll have gathered, is that the prison is our mind, and each character, with the possible exception of Leonore, is trapped within a type of living rabbit-hutch of his/her own making. It is art that sets us free, not least because temporal authority - Don Fernando, whose shock appearance at the end said much about our lack of trust in leaders today - can't be relied on. Don Fernando in the original Munich version of this production resembled not the 18th-century fop who graces the ENO stage, but the Joker from Batman. He is more than an unreliable leader: he is the cruelty, capriciousness and vile irony of fate itself (at least, if you share Bieito's dark view of life).

The other day I stood in front of Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament: the document in which he wrote to his brothers of the agonising recognition that he, a musician, was losing his hearing; and declares that he had come close to suicide, but did not want to leave the world before he had accomplished all he felt he had come here to do. (Full text here.) That prison was not of Beethoven's own making, but remained an anguish-inducing fetter nonetheless; yet without that, would he have composed the same music that has reached us today, in the form of the greatest of his symphonies, the late quartets, the Diabelli Variations, and this opera too? Art may not have set him free from that ailment, but his music has lived on to prove what glories a human being can create, given the necessary courage and strength, and that there is beauty and truth in art even when we can find little of it anywhere else. He brings us (as Andras said the other day) courage. That's a liberation in itself.

As Bieto floats the brave Heath Quartet above the reunited Florestan and Leonore, the first violin and cello each in an individual cage, the second violin and viola together in a third, drifting overhead but somehow able to play the (truncated) Heilige Dankgesang of Beethoven's Op.132 quartet despite their boxes wandering in draughts from side to side, the point is proven. (More here...)

This is not in the original Fidelio. But it works. Bieito may not be bringing us a Fidelio that we recognise, or a literal one that could have been seen in the 1950s, but instead a personal vision of the work that speaks volumes about our world today and the enduring power of Beethoven within it.

The musical performance, by the way, was red-hot under Ed Gardner's direction, with the glory that is Stuart Skelton as Florestan and the central force of Emma Bell's idealistic and beautifully sung Leonore. And the chorus was magnificent.

So why the vitriol? A case of chacun a son gout, of course. But my own little problem with all of this is not about Bieito's concept. It's about the language. I have no objection to Bieito's choice of using quotes from Jose Luis Borges, the Argentinian-born magical realist (pictured below), whose image of the labyrinth seems to underpin the elaborate contraption that forms the set, and whose words take the place of the usual dialogue. But is something being lost in translation?

Here are a few Borges poems, translated. And here are some more, in Spanish. Now, my Spanish is, er, a bit rusty. But read them aloud, to the best of one's limited abilities, and you can still feel the music in the syllables.

A translation can bring us the literal message; but without the music inherent in the words the poet created, half the real meaning may be gone. I remember, many years ago, my Russian then-boyfriend discovered that I wasn't familiar with the poetry of Osip Mandelstam and disapproved of this major gap in my cultural education. I bought a volume in translation - only to suffer bitter disappointment at the pedestrian nature of what I was reading. My friend took one look, chucked the book over a shoulder, and recited one of the poems by heart, in the original. I understood not one literal word - yet it remained one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard.

Translating is difficult enough. Translating well is harder still. And translating singably is an art all its own. I've had a shot at it myself recently: earlier this year I prepared an English version of Roxanna Panufnik's Tallinn Mass: Dance of Life for a recording that has just been made. Faced with literal translations of 19 poems by two of Estonia's leading poets, and Rox's painstaking and extraordinarily beautiful settings of the original Estonian, I had to make the new English words fit her existing music: you need open syllables on the longer, higher notes, you need the right emotional inflection on the appropriate harmony, and so forth. Some of them had to rhyme; all of them had to make rhythmic sense. And in literal translation, the poems might well have lost the essence of their poetry; a few liberties had to be taken, paradoxically, in order to restore some of that to the concepts. The poets, fortunately, are alive and kicking and able to approve the texts, which they have done. But talk about a learning curve...

Many people in the regular ENO audience love opera in English. That is the company's raison d'etre and normally, these days, it goes unquestioned. Opera-goers frequently troop into the Coli only too pleased to hear a performance in our own language, while despairing over the avant-garde concepts and experimental outlooks that are being fostered there. I realise now that I do the opposite. I am happy that in ENO today we have a thoroughly modern European opera house that's engaging directors to preside over a great deal more than crowd-control and park-and-bark productions and that enters partnerships with houses like Munich and the Met to make greater ambitions reality. But I'm trying to remember the last time I rejoiced in principle at hearing an opera in English that is not originally in English and I can't think of one single occasion. I have enjoyed individual translations at ENO by Jeremy Sams, whose sparkling versions of La Boheme and The Magic Flute, for example, do work wonders. He, though, seems to be the exception.

We don't have that issue with Peter Grimes (come and hear it tonight at the RFH, incidentally). It's not about the language itself; English is perfectly singable - Britten, Delius, Tippett, Vaughan Williams, Thomas Ades, George Benjamin and many others prove it every day. But composers set words according not only to their meaning, but according to the music they feel inside the language the poet has used.

A translation is, essentially, bound to be a compromise. Some succeed better than others, but I'm unconvinced that opera in translation can ever be entirely successful. I'd love to try doing one myself, of course, even if I know the cause may ultimately be lost. But for me that was the single biggest problem with the Bieito Fidelio: the translation, whether of the libretto or the Borges poems. Now that there are surtitles at ENO, is it not time to reopen the whole debate?

It remains only to wonder how on earth Stuart Skelton is managing, this week, to alternate Florestan and Grimes, often on consecutive evenings, and also preside over a charity gala. Perhaps that's what Heldentenors are truly about: heroism.

Saturday, September 21, 2013


In which the Bad Boy of Opera turns out to be a pussycat. I went to see him to preview his Fidelio, which opens at ENO this week. Some of the interview is in today's Independent, here, but I am putting the director's cut (ie, long version) below. First, the beginning of his Don Giovanni...

You might expect Calixto Bieito to resemble a cross between Count Dracula and Quentin Tarantino. The Spanish director, often called “the bad boy of opera”, has become notorious for extreme productions that often feature explicit sex and violence, their concepts including a cannibalistic post-nuclear Parsifal and a present-day Don Giovanni that involved vicious scenes of rape, drug overdose and murder. Audiences at his shows are no strangers to sights that have variously included toilet activities, nudity and a great deal of blood. Now, in a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Bieito is bringing his staging of Beethoven’s Fidelio to ENO and traditionalists are quaking in their boots.
Yet when he emerges from rehearsals in east London, clad in his trademark black, it turns out that Bieito is a pussycat. He’s a soft-spoken family man with a social conscience and anxieties about threats to democracy and free speech; and he acknowledges that he often takes a bleak view of life. “I have to be careful,” he says, “because I sometimes suffer from melancholia, and this is why my work can become quite dark.”
Nevertheless, he seems mystified by the degree of hostility that’s been expressed against his work. One critic referred to his Don Giovanni as “the most reviled opera production in the recent history of British theatre”; others believe he is out to shock. He insists not. “I promise I have never tried to shock people in that way,” he protests quietly. “I don’t think that doing a show to shock people is the right way to approach it. The direction must come naturally from inside you. It’s as if you find the hidden meaning of dreams emerging.”
Such dreams can be fairly horrifying. That Don Giovanni, he says, illustrated “what happens every Friday night” among young people across Europe, “though with a very sad ending”. The arrival of the Commendatore to threaten the Don with hell became a drug-induced hallucination, reducing Giovanni to a helpless wreck; the other characters then murder him. “I have strong emotional responses, and for me this Don Giovanni was sad because there was a sense of no hope,” Bieito comments. “There is no hope in young people killing another young man – and it was based on a real incident. I was completely surprised at the reaction.” But it’s worth remembering that other critics responded to the production with words like “stunned admiration”, and I, for one, found its raw and desperate humanity extraordinarily powerful.
British reactions to Bieito have generally been more prurient than those in Germany, where modern, provocative productions are de rigeur. But if Britain’s tastes are conservative, those of the US are even more so. Bieito is soon to work with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, in another co-production with ENO, but the details of what, when and how are closely guarded – possibly due to the likely degree of resulting fuss.
Bieito was first drawn towards directing while a pupil in a Jesuit school, where he says music and theatre were crucial parts of education. He left drama college after one year, “because it was too posh for me”. Music has been central to his life since childhood; his mother insisted on piano practice, his father had a passion for Italian opera and his brother became a professional musician. Despite his father’s influence, Italian bel canto is apparently Bieito’s blind spot: “I enjoy watching it, but here I feel I have nothing to say. I can’t direct an opera if I don’t love the music.”
Despite managerial belt-tightening in opera houses around the world, Bieito is essentially optimistic about the future of the artform. “Opera is an art of the future – it brings together so many elements – and I hope that we will survive together, with some brave intendants,” he says. He recognises that in difficult financial times decision-makers might become risk averse, but feels this is not necessarily a sensible path: “I did my Carmen 13 years ago and now it is being taken up everywhere,” he points out. “That means something is changing. Even if the intendants start to be more conservative, it’s not possible to stop the new feelings of the people.
“It’s a completely wrong thing when people say ‘this opera has to be done like this’ – usually it only means that the costumes look a little bit old,” he adds. “You cannot reproduce the atmosphere of the first opening of a Mozart or Verdi opera. They were very modern in their time, very involved with people. Verdi was known in all of society.” That is the kind of immediacy he is after.

His Fidelio could prove chewy. In Beethoven’s opera, the heroine Leonora’s husband, Florestan, is a political prisoner; she disguises herself as a man named Fidelio to infiltrate the prison and rescue him. Bieito’s staging, unlike his hyper-realistic Carmen and Don Giovanni, is complex and symbolic, set in a labyrinth that some reviewers of its Munich performances compared to The Matrix. “All the characters are lost in the labyrinth, imprisoned,” he says. “Sometimes our minds are our prison. I find Fidelio’s story quite weak if it is approached realistically, but if you take the philosophical side more seriously, then you can say much more about human beings today: what freedom means for us, or love, or loyalty, or justice. That is very important to our democracy.”
Above all, Beethoven’s idealistic humanism in Fidelio strikes a special chord with him. “I think we need a new humanism in Europe in the very open, cultural sense, and Fidelio gives me the opportunity to talk about this,” he says. But his characters do not live happily ever after: “It is very hard to believe in the possibility of justice,” he says – melancholic again, thanks to his cynical view of politics in Spain.
 “There are people who’ll say ‘I don’t like Calixto Bieito, I don’t like anything he does’,” he comments. “I don’t know how to convince them. You cannot go to an exhibition thinking it’s going to be crap and you can’t go into a restaurant thinking ‘Oh, the food will be terrible’. This I cannot change. But I’m talking about these topics: justice, love, liberty, loyalty, freedom. We have to value these issues and we have to protect our democracies very strongly from corruption. I think, when it’s not just commercial, art is a way to freedom.”
Fidelio, English National Opera, from 25 September. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Martinu's musical Magritte

If you like surrealism, you'll love Martinu's Julietta. It's now on at ENO in a slick staging by Richard Jones first seen in Paris about ten years ago. The set is a gigantic accordion - the sound of music being the one thing that can sometimes anchor the amnesiac population of the opera's seaside town to long-ago memories.

Michel, a Parisian bookseller, arrives with his suitcase in search of a mysterious girl whom he once heard singing. But nothing around him makes any sense - because the townsfolk can't remember anything for more than ten minutes. It sounds daft, and the incidents match that assessment. And yet...we all know people like that, and societies too. The resonance works. It works particularly well given that Martinu completed the work in 1938, when the world was a very mad place indeed.

When surrealism is at its best, the crazier it gets, the deeper it goes. I was fortunate enough to see a huge exhibition of Magritte in Vienna earlier this year, which was a revelation. With Julietta, Martinu hooks up the synapses in our minds in a similar way.

The opera is based on a play by the composer's friend Georges Neveux, which Martinu snaffled from under Kurt Weill's nose by getting to it about 48 hours earlier than his eminent colleague. Michel's final encounter at the Ministry of Dreams (photo above - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith) lends a hint of Kafka, and the circular nature of the drama, a recurring dream, a confluence with that terribly scary 1945 movie Dead of Night. Yet the absurdity lends an irresistible lightness. Does Michel really shoot his Julietta when the memories she wants to buy turn out to be nicer than the authentic ones? In which she recalls laughing at him because he looks like a stuffed crocodile?

Martinu is a hard sell and difficult to describe, especially as all most of us know of him is that he was born in a Czech bell tower and went on to lead an ever-shifting existence in the European vortex of the 1930s and, ultimately, the US. He was a great Francophile, though, and adopted Paris as home for some years. His music is not easy to pin down: hints of Debussy, virtual quotes from Stravinsky, some luscious love music in Act II that pulls in somewhere between Szymanowski and Rachmaninov. The voice of Martinu himself, however, is less obvious than the voices of others: at times, he seems not so much crocodile as chameleon. He offers us moments of great beauty and delicious, light-touch humour. Textures in the main are thin, allowing the words to project easily, the lines drawn with a deft swish of colour from a well-chosen instrument or two - often more Matisse than Magritte. It is a good opera, imaginative, fun, whimsical - and it's a joy to experience something as gently batty as this in an art form that frequently takes itself too seriously.

Of course, if you don't like surrealism, or imagination, or anything that isn't quite on the same level as Mozart, Puccini or Wagner, then you probably won't get it. A good few didn't. That's their problem. Why does every piece of music we hear have to be perfect? Yes, the best is the enemy of the good - but it doesn't invalidate those corners of creation in time that do have quality, if just a fraction less of it. They provide context, richness, insight and much to enjoy, even if not everyone can write The Magic Flute. And unusual, good-though-not-perfect works sometimes offer a welcome new experience, along with an angle that makes us think differently about their world and ours. If we heard nothing of opera but Mozart, Puccini and Wagner, life wouldn't be half so interesting.

Sterling performances all round: Peter Hoare more than holding the stage throughout as the mystified Michel, the Swedish soprano Julia Sporsen shining in every way as the red-haired Julietta, and vignette appearances by such fabulous personalities as Susan Bickley, Gwynne Howell and Andrew Shore, to name but three. Ed Gardner made Martinu's score both sensual and sparkly. Verdict: go see.

Here's an insightful review from The Observer by Fiona Maddocks.

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Flying Duchen

Let's get to the heart of this right away. How can we "do" Romanticism in an age of cynical post-modern irony? I don't pretend to have the answer, but the question is a hefty one. And Jonathan Kent's new production of The Flying Dutchman at ENO asks it full on. That is not the least reason it is so effective. Whether or not the director intended to do so, he's sunk his teeth into one of the big artistic conundrums of today. It deserves to be brought into the open.

We see Senta first as a child in pink pyjamas, watching the waves through a giant skylight; she craves her father's affection, but he is unable to deliver any and pushes off to sea, leaving her with a book of fairy tales for company. The Dutchman manifests as her imagining, her interior living, if you like, of such a fairy tale - as children do, as we all do if only we remember, casting her father one of its characters, and the Steersman too - who sings his quiet song with rapt nostalgia and falls asleep on the floor, where little Senta covers him tenderly with her duvet. The Dutchman and his ship arrive in a terrific coup-de-theatre, he in full Mr Darcy getup, while the ship wouldn't disgrace Errol Flynn's in The Sea Hawk. And Daland's eagerness to marry the stranger off to his daughter without noticing that said stranger is one of the Undead is all too convincing, because Daland is a stranger to love and values nothing but money.

Senta, meanwhile, grows up to be Orla Boylan - except that she doesn't. She's still living that fairy tale, her emotional world twisted into an alternative reality by the lack of emotional substance around her. She works in a factory making ships in bottles - the set (designed by Paul Brown) is magnificent, with a vast window and plenty of wood suggesting past glories for this Norwegian one-ghost suburb. Her refuge is the image of the Dutchman: her own longing, her own clinging to belief in the redemptive power of love and compassion. There's none of that in her real world. Even Erik (sung by Stuart Skelton, who is an absolute knockout of a Heldentenor) is no answer. He's a security guard at the factory and there's a hint of violence, born of frustration, in his treatment of her; this big guy doesn't know his own strength. And the other girls pick on her: she's the mildly deranged fat lump in the pink dress (Primark?) who pooh-poohs their sluttishness.

And then the boys come back from sea, they have a piss-up in the factory and they try to gang-rape her. In the song to the Steersman they're egging him on, as their leader, to do the deed. Remember that nostalgic first song he had in act 1? Everything now is inside-out and upside-down. The ghost ship chorus - beamed in by amplification from somewhere offstage (a bit of a pity soundwise) comes to Senta's aid and scares everyone off, but the event pushes her over the edge and, exhausted and already dead within, she breaks a beer bottle and stabs herself with it. She is destroyed by the society in which she lives. Jonathan Kent shows us the death of a soul.

The performances match the power of the staging. The chorus, for a start, is possibly the best I've ever heard at ENO. Orla Boylan's Senta gives everything in her Ballade; there may be issues about pacing and stamina, as in the scene with Erik she began to sound strained and tired, but she summoned reserves of strength for the final scene that made her Senta seem cousin not so much to Isolde (as Wagner later saw her, rewriting the ending post-Tristan - we got the early version at ENO) but Brunnhilde, facing a test of fire instead of water.

Clive Bayley is a magnificent and all too believable Daland; James Creswell as the Dutchman is strong and even-toned, though could maybe use more variety in vocal colour to put across the emotional content, rather than relying too heavily on diction - it's good to hear all the words, but it sometimes distorted the ends of his phrases. Tenor Robert Murray made much of the Steersman aria, which in the grand scheme of the staging acquired extra dramatic significance. But Skelton just about steals the show, despite his character having too little to do. He tweeted the other day that he was off to New York to sing in Die Walkure at very short notice (jumping in for Kaufmann). Lucky Met.

Still, there's big stuff happening at home, and it is happening most of all down the pit. This is Ed Gardner's first Wagner. And from the moment the lights go off and the orchestra plunges into the deep end, we plunge with them. They grab us by the throat and don't let us go for the full 135 minutes (no interval, thanks). The intensity is fabulous, both at the opera's wildest moments and its stillest; the pacing is excellent, passionate, convincing. This seemed the case after that glorious Rosenkavalier a few months back, but now there's no doubt about it: ENO is busy growing a great conductor.

So, I was wondering how we do romanticism in an anti-romantic age. And then I went to see a preview screening of the 3D film of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, which is being released into cinemas worldwide on 15 May starring Richard Winsor (and very good it is). And there's the prelude. The child prince in bed, in his pyjamas. His mother comes in; he reaches out to her, she backs away. He has a fuzzy swan by way of comforter. He has a nightmare vision of the real swan. And the action commences. Remind you of anything?

Now, I'm not suggesting for one moment that this Dutchman production borrows anything from anybody, but the general atmosphere and logic of the concept is quite prevalent enough for different directors to arrive at the same scenario from contrasting positions. The Flying Dutchman story has plenty in common with that of Swan Lake. The lead character's fantasy world becomes his/her reality, encroaches on actual reality, then destroys him/her.

And today, we can't take it on its own terms, the way Wagner or Tchaikovsky intended; we have to interpret and explain it, because it seems nobody will buy into it otherwise. If a twisted mind through lack of a parent's affection is becoming the dramatic cliche of today (taking over from child abuse, which has been used ad nauseam), there may be a good reason for it.

It's one of those odd things about Romanticism, though, that it involved plenty of cynicism. It was the composers, not the writers, whose senses of humour and awareness of irony sometimes fell flat. The Flying Dutchman is based on a story by Heinrich Heine, whose bite is much fiercer than his eloquent bark. In Heine, the ending of the tale - the suicide of "Mrs Flying Dutchman" - is cynical as hell: the only way a woman can be faithful to this man unto death, he suggests, is if she dies right away. Wagner makes a virtue out of this, but that's not how Heine wrote it. Just as Schumann, setting Heine's songs, avoids the razor edge of this poet's fearsome blade and refuses to laugh or sneer with him, so Wagner goes a stage further and creates his own philosophy out of it - perfumed, feverish and egotistical it may be, but it's alive and well and blazes out of the music. Heine, one suspects, would have been livid.

And Romanticism? Its music still has the strongest appeal to audiences for classical music - not all, of course, but a distinct majority. You want "popular classics"? You get Tchaikovsky. So it is not dead. Twisted, certainly, but defunct, not at all. Most of us still, somewhere, believe in the redemptive power of love - don't we? - and the current craze for vampire movies suggests that maybe we even want to believe, at some level, in the supernatural. But the destruction of a soul through lack of love, and that lack of love, and tenderness, and compassion, and kindness, and idealism, as a comment on our society, is taking hold. Maybe we should take notice.