Showing posts with label Martyn Brabbins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Martyn Brabbins. Show all posts

Monday, October 01, 2018

"Salome, dear, not in the fridge"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Progress for the Pilgrim

Last week Delius in Wexford, this week Vaughan Williams in London: last night, ENO gave RVW's The Pilgrim's Progress its first fully staged professional performance since 1951.

Like Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet, this is not just a remarkable opera, but a shamefully neglected masterpiece - and by one of "our own" in "das Land ohne Musik". Like the Delius, it is far from conventional; it doesn't do those things we tend to think opera ought to do, although there is no particularly logical reason for the artform to stick to them - in other words, it's light years away from La Traviata. Like the Delius, it is slow and gorgeous, mesmerising rather than melodramatic, exquisitely orchestrated, incantatory in its lines.

Unlike the Delius, though, its high points are its choral writing, its concise, well-chosen words - liberally peppered with extracts from the Psalms and spiced here and there with super-perceptive satire - and its deep, rich spirituality. While the story obviously is Christian, there's a universality to it - much enhanced by this fabulous production - that had me, and others, in tears several times. Vaughan Williams himself moved "from atheism into cheerful agnosticism", according to his second wife, Ursula. His faith, one senses, is music: "music in the home, music in the heart, music in the heavens..." as one particularly glorious passage says. He offers us a score containing a great-hearted warmth and wisdom that can bolster our inner strength in the same way that faith bolsters Pilgrim's. Read this excellent piece by conductor Martyn Brabbins on the opera's history.

Clever, brilliant, inspired ENO, putting this work on now. It's a parable for our times: the polarisation of spirituality versus materialism, and the destruction of the non-conformist who dares to speak his own truth against the corrupt rabble of Vanity Fair. The anguish of loneliness; the glow of beauty that attends support when it appears. And the final mortal terror of crossing over to the beyond.

Director Yoshi Oida offers a production of harsh beauty, simplicity and power. The setting is a prison and Pilgrim's inner journey - in essence, John Bunyan reflecting on his dream - takes him to the electric chair. The imagery is focused, the tableaux striking, the designs - set and videos by Tom Schenk, costumes by Sue Willmington - magnificent and imaginative, haunted by World War I, yet never heavy-handedly so. Apollyon, the ogre, is delivered via a piece of giant-scale puppetry that has to be seen to be believed. Magnificent performances by Roland Wood as John Bunyan/Pilgrim, Benedict Nelson as the umbrella-wielding Evangelist (and more), and vignettes throughout by a superlative cast culminating with Ann Murray herself as Madam Bubble, Mrs By-Ends and one of the three Celestial Voices. Brabbins and the orchestra - which has been possibly at its best ever through this year - give the score an account that is fervent yet balanced, translucent yet heady, drawing out the contrasts within the subtle progressions of emotion and letting RVW speak through with all his radiance.

Go see. Fast. There are only seven performances in total.

On the way home from the theatre yesterday, we heard the news that Elliott Carter has passed away at the age of 103. It's farewell to a remarkable man and creator of very different yet just as immortal music. May he reach the Pilgrim's Delectable Mountains and cross the deep river to peace.