Sunday, 30 November 2014

The psychopath and his second wife

Monteverdi, Coronation of Poppea (Opera North, dir. Laurence Cummings Theatre Royal Nottingham)

Opera North’s Coronation of Poppea saw early opera brought very thoroughly back to life. It might be set in a mortuary with a distinct aura of death, but the music, song and drama have an astonishing pulse.
It glistens, its slick, but it isn’t in the least gimmicky. The pared back space of somewhere ambiguous: perhaps a lunatic dictator’s bunker, perhaps some disused public baths, a swimming pool, a mortuary, a slaughter house or anywhere tiled; almost certainly for blood. Industrial chic with a chilling edge. It was apparent from square one that the jug of tomato juice would not be restricted to mixing up a few bloody Marys: smeared into wife # 1’s hair gave a gruesome display of the Emperor’s wickedness. Back to the bunker, its slightly tarnished look set everything on edge. And quietly, at both sides of the stage, two harpsichord-players/directors and six other musicians – only eight instruments in total, had bene lifted out of the pit and on to the stage. But somehow it all felt subterranean.
The Gods – including a rather spunky Cupid, either perched atop Norn-like, or on three theatrical seats – sitting over the pit (what a view!), munching insouciantly on popcorn.
Sung in English. But something in the way the words are almost laid across the music meant this was all gloriously successful. And the blasted television screens providing needless and distracting titles were turned off – hurrah!
Nerone has to be a bit bonkers and not a little psychotic, but it has to be done without becoming too pantomime – he isn’t a comedy villain – he is a historical character, here dramatically interpreted and adapted with a certain degree of malice. Countertenor James Laing was cast the part, to great effect. This presents a particular challenge because you need a countertenor with a voice which is both threatening (and nuts) at the same time. Jaroussky for example, would be far too angelic to sing this (I’d still go). James Laing was a wonderful choice by Opera North.
If Laing was probably the strongest singer, but really it was a very strong cast, and very well chosen too. It was good to see Fiona Kimm on good form again.  I also enjoyed Seneca and his sports coat-clad followers. This was an incredibly successful production. I would certainly catch a revival. 

Overall: One scary power couple.

Poppea Sandra Piques Eddy
Nerone James Laing
Ottavia Catherine Hopper
Seneca James Creswell
Ottone Christopher Ainslie
Drusilla Katherine Manley
Arnalta Fiona Kimm
Fortuna / Valletto Ciara Hendrick
Virtù Claire Pascoe
Amore Emilie Renard
Liberto Daniel Norman
Lucano Nicholas Sharratt
Famigliari Owen Willetts
Famigliari Warren Gillespie
Famigliari Dominic Barberi

Saturday, 29 November 2014

The marriage market in Soviet Russia

Bartered Bride (Orchestra of Opera North, cond. Anthony Kraus)

Opera North’s current production of Bedřich Smetana’s Bartered Bride sets the action in some part of the sprawling Russian Empire. In some part where the sun shines – 9th May 1972 according to the posters on the screen – I cannot fathom to what this refers.  But the communist sun shone down on the happy commune. Or did it? the corrupt mayor had to flee, and young love prevailed, whilst a greedy man who attempted to buy a bride for his son, loses money and face.

The setting worked well. The whole thing resembled a propaganda poster. The saturated colours and grimly-determined looks on faces. The lack of opportunity and over-bearing officials and elites. The futility of so much of private lives. 

In some ways, this is a highly conventional opera. Boy meets girl; destined to be together but some societal forces or conventions seem to imperil this; but all works out in end. Amorous Opera Type B: no love potions required. There aren’t really any plot twists so you can enjoy the music, singing and humour. And it this reminds you of Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan, you aren’t too far away. It even sounds like Gilbert and Sullivan – something in the strings perhaps. And the modern English translation found a lot of humour (some seemed to be in utter hysterics). A lot of rhymes added to this sense of Gilbertian humour.
A solid cast supported this well, but it was Kate Valentine who stole the show as Mařenka –fine in the Rape of Lucretia on Glyndebourne Tour last year as Female Chorus, and as Mimi in the lovely ENO Bohème last year too. Jeník was sung by Brenden Gunnell wonderfully & Vašek his shy, awkward but kindly brother Nicholas Watts. It is unresolved but we have ot hope he rungs off and is happy ever after with Jennifer France's sweet Esmeralda.
A small point:£5 for a programme seemed quite steep compared to Glyndebourne Tour's price of £5 for three operas- something of a bargain if you make it to them all.

Overall: successful translation to English and to Soviet. 

Mařenka - Kate Valentine
Jeník - Brenden Gunnell
Vašek - Nicholas Watts
Kecal - James Creswell
Ludmila - Ann Taylor
Krušina - Peter Savidge
Micha - Stephen Richardson
Háta - Fiona Kimm
Esmeralda - Jennifer France
Circus Master – Campbell Russell

Production now closed.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Barber 1, Surgeon 0

It’s an old fight. Surgeons and Barbers. They used to be bundled together, not all that happily. Rossini’s barber – a fellow by the name of Figaro – and one of the most popular opera characters – pulls one over the greedy doctor (I don’t know if he is a surgeon or not). Bartlett Sher’s production of The Barber of Seville would make most people smile. Last night, a really and genuinely funny performance was beamed into cinemas around the world from the Met. It is always hard to know by cinema link just how good (or not) singing is, but without a doubt Brownlee, Maltman, Lennard and Muraro were on absolutely top form. It didn’t hurt that somehow the Doctor (Muraro) looked like Alex Salmond (but I am pretty sure even Figaro wouldn’t succeed with such an opponent).

It was quite a conventional production in some ways – the costumes were traditional, and similar to images which I have used to decorate marmalade labels with much success. Lots of yellow doors on wheels; one had a balcony atop it. Figaro arrived with a cart painted in red and white from which he operated, pulled with comic effect by ladies. Christopher Maltman was Figaro. The relative simplicity of the set - it wasn’t a gimmicky production except for a giant anvil which worked to comic effect– paid dividends. Clearly, creative efforts were focused on humour and drama and singing. And it made for a really wonderful few hours.

I’m always in two minds about going to the relays; I feel they are quite steep when inexpensive tickets can be bought to things like Glyndebourne Tour and Opera North for not all that much more. However I don’t ever regret them. This was deeply charming. 

Overall: If released on DVD I will happily add to collection, as this would cheer up anyone. Take a bow, donkey included.*

* Interval programming showed Deborah Voigt introduced to the quadruped member of the cast, Sir Galahad.

Conductor: Michele Mariotti
Fiorello: Yunpeng Wang
Count Almaviva: Lawrence Brownlee
Figaro: Christopher Maltman
Rosina: Isabel Leonard
Dr Bartolo: Maurizi Muraro
Don Basilio: Paata Burchuladeze
Berta: Claudia Waite
An Officer: Dennis Petersen
Ambrogio: Rob Besserer

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Turn of the Stage

The Turn of the Screw (Glyndebourne Tour, cond. McFall)

This is the time of year for ghost stories. The trick to a successful ghost story is ambiguity. Specificity is the enemy of that delightful chilling sensation. M. R.  James is the undisputed master. He gives you enough to start imagining things but leaves it to your mind. Henry James wrote the Turn and is pretty creepy if you enjoy such things, as I do. I think there are some differences in the text and opera-  that Miles is nastier in the text and the staff are much frostier to the Governess. But it is a few years since I read it.

A giant astrolabe on the stage might be the way to explain Jonathan Kent’s staging. It included several really wonderful bits. The Prologue delivered from atop a trunk became a train very cleverly, with projected footage as if through windows and a lowered curtain. This revolved into a domestic scene, which rotated in something like a corkscrew, and was consistently charming and clever, quite literally by turns. A doll house was a toy but became the house in a distance when it had revolved around to the back of the stage for the section by the pond. Mark Henderson’s lighting revived by David Manion was highly effective in maximizing the impact of an essentially pared-back set. Britten’s score likewise was relatively spare but had moments of warmth and – between say Grimes and Venice. The staging and lighting really stole the show for me - everythign was well done, but it was the visual side of the production which really excelled.

Quint and Jessel were scary; the children were inoffensive; and Governess and Grose worked effectively too. This was an enjoyably creepy production, and I would be more than happy to see it again. 

Conductor: Leo McFall
Quint: Anthony Gregory
Governess: Natalya Romaniw
Flora: Louise Moseley
Miles: Thomas Delgado-Little
Mrs Grose: Anne Mason
Miss Jessel: Miranda Keys

Bunking off for an afternoon in the garden

La Finta Giardiniera (Glyndebourne Tour, cond. Moulds)

If Thomas Hood had lived in 2014 he might not have found November to be such an intolerable month; for had been a fan of opera, he might have trudged off to Milton Keynes on a chilly Thursday afternoon. Warmth and joy may not be the first words to jump to your mind. Glyndebourne’s gardens may be closed to the opera-going public just now, but we were able to bask in some artificial sun in the transportable tour production of the Finta Giardiniera.

As part of the education programme, large numbers of (impeccably-behaved) school children were invited to possibly their first taste of opera. A lady introduced the opera briefly at the start, and emphasized that it was about layers of falsehood and the damaging effects on the characters of not being themselves. This effectively set up the drama for everyone, and was much appreciated. The opera’s weakness is that the plot is actually quite complex and suffers in the way Fidelio does.
Musically, it does the Mozart thing of lifting you an inch or two up off the ground, and you float along on a little stream through the gardens. It’s early Mozart, so it doesn’t quite have the pace or power found in later Mozart, but hints of the greatness to come are there to hear. He was only eighteen when he wrote it. The sort of fact which surely makes us all feel inadequate.

At the start I had a moment of apprehension: during the quintet, I wondered, were these voices strong enough? But almost immediately they warmed up, and it cannot be said that any of the voices were weak at all. This did all the things the GT productions do so well. Found up-and-coming talent, took ambitious productions to the provinces, lavishly produced.

The whole thing was set in a baroque salon – a garden room by the windows. The First Act’s staging was of ordinary solidity; the second’s was paper, and totally wrecked by the end and deliberately destroyed – tearing down falsehood. A “running set” presumably. The paper setup could be pierced by shoe and singer: presumably a reference to Amadeus. All the trickery, falsehood, pretence and gilt work was the perfect setting for the subject matter. Against it light and shadows projected and obscured. It created a generous and layered space. After all, this has to fit the smallest dimension of various – not just the lowest common denominator, but the narrowest, shallowest too. It also has to be easily transportable in a fashion not required at the festival. I recollect that it received lukewarm reviews –on the basis that it was good production of a difficult work. On Tour, there was a very serious attempt to shine through the slight mistiness of November. For the audience there was much healthful ease. More apt that one might think, Hood reckoned ‘No recognitions of familiar people/ No courtesies for showing ‘em/No knowing ‘em.’

Movement showed the benefit of full rehearsal periods, with some really clever choreography.

As part of the education programme, worthy of rather more discussion that it is being given here, a really super site has been developed There was also a booklet – a sort of Kobbé for children – of which one had been dropped, and by which I was very impressed. Grownups would appreciate this sort of thing, especially for anything which is above the complexity of being explainable with condiments on the lunch table beforehand. Salt and pepper pots have their limitations.

Overall – a wonderful diversion. Early Mozart bound to charm.

Conductor: Christopher Moulds
Mayor: Timothy Robinson
Sandrina: Rosa Feola
Ramior: Hanna Hipp
Serpetta: Eliana Pretorian
Nardo (Roberto): Mattia Olivieri
Arminda: Eleonore Marguerre
Count Belfiore: Enea Scala