Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Oedipus Jones and the raiders of the lost opera (ROH/Oedipe)

George Enescu, Oedipe (Leo Hussain cond. Orchestra Royal Opera House)
A monumental production at the ROH presently begins with the projection of a four storey tableau. The curtain rises but nothing seems to change. Then the light does, but the same thing confronts us. Spectacular. Poses are held for half an hour by a large number of people, dressed as if from classical antiquity.
A snap of the projection
An awful lot happened after this. The spectacular nature of the production meant there was an awful lot to watch happening, scenery changing. Alfons Flores had not held back. Dress became more modern. Shepherds were road workers. Blood stained plastic sheeting the height of the stage (slaughterhouse/CSI thing going on). A  spitfire was winched down, torn to pieces by the Thebans. Then it finishes in some kind of subterranean temple, with lots of objects (can't help but thing: choose the real grail at this point), with water dripping the full height of the stage in to a bowl (pretty impressive- six storeys or something). But here is an example of how things got a bit overcooked: Oedipe walks in to dark, to light, to water sprayed; then in to bright light corridor, then lights change for chorus. The first bit alone would have been more powerful I suspect. Lighting was a relative weak point:  I am getting fed up of lighting designers who think it clever to blind the audience by shining bright lights at them. Peter van Praet's lighting was generally very evocative, but I would have liked better lighting to see what was going on: and so much was going on after all. Yet this is quibbling: essentially this was a seriously ambitious staging which carried off to spectacular effect, and I'd gladly see it again.

From the pit, the reliable Leo Hussain (previously  Lucretia) made a magnificent job of the score - which was entirely new to me. It was almost as if Bruckner wrote an opera, but with much lightness of touch.  Vocally, a spectacular cast was employed. Johan Reuter in the title role stunned all with his aria after the inevitable blidning scene. Of coure John Tomlinson very nearly stole the show - he always does - Tirésia. Laura Fagan sang Antigone at short notice, and very finely too. Sarah Connolly was magnificent. Not many Sphinxes can sing from a spitfire, but Marie-Nicole Lemieux was certainly the best I have seen. One can always rely on Alan Oke (Shepherd) and Nicholas Courjal (Theban High Priest). The chorus anda large number of actors with apparently endless ability to stay stock still a range of poses.

Overall: this was monumental to the point of being almost indigestible. Magnificent, but I'd need to see and hear it more than once. Worthy of attention in any case, but not as background or for a relaxed evening.

Until 8th June at ROH; on radio 3 Saturday 4th June.

Cast and creative team
Music - George Enescu
Libretto - Edmond Fleg
Directors - Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco
Set designer - Alfons Flores
Costume designer - Lluc Castells
Lighting designer - Peter van Praet
Conductor - Leo Hussain
Oedipe - Johan Reuter
Tirésias - John Tomlinson
Antigone - Lauren Fagan
Mérope - Claudia Huckle
Jocaste - Sarah Connolly
The Sphinx - Marie-Nicole Lemieux
A Shepherd - Alan Oke
The Theban High Priest - Nicolas Courjal
Laïos - Hubert Francis
Créon - Samuel Youn
Phorbas - In Sung Sim
The Watcher - Stefan Kocan
Thésée - Samuel Dale Johnson
Theban Woman - Lauren Fagan
Chorus - Royal Opera Chorus
Concert master - Peter Manning
Orchestra - Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Monday, 30 May 2016

An ending: the Ring Cycle in Leeds part four (ON/Ring)

Wagner, Götterdämmerung (Orchestra Opera North cond. Richard Farnes)

The prelude to Götterdämmerung, taught, spare, sets the tone for what is a long evening of long periods of low-key music, but other moments of overwhelming. I don’t know who could sit through this funeral music without a tear at the sheer scale of what is unfolding before them. Wagner wrote this piece to pay testament to the men of 1848 revolutions and he was more than clear. This was music on a heroic scale in heroic testament.  The orchestra became growingly confident – over the whole cycle actually – and by the end of Götterdämmerung seemed at risk of combustion. The Chorus, as Gibichungs, was deeply terrifying.
Yet so much is written on a smaller scale. The Norns (Fiona Kimm, Heather Shipp and Lee Bisset) recount the story so far. Kimm in particular has become a very confident Wagnerian voice over the incremental and complete cycle. By the embers of that big BBQ, could I honestly say we were missing Alwyn Mellor? Not really. Kelly Cae Hogan has been spectacular up to the part and the feat pulled off in the last evening was magnificent.  Mati Turi returned as the happy-go-lucky Siegfried and was better than ever. The star of the show was Mats Almgren (Hagen), for whom the very loudest ovation was reserved. His immaculate, controlled bass was thrilling and terrifying. More than up to the task of being the biggest bad guy in all of opera.  The Rheinmaidens glittered more than the Rhine in sunshine, sounding particularly wonderful. Giselle Allen returned as Gutrune and Andrew Foster-Williams made for a fine pair. Heather Shipp heroically stood in as Waltraute as Susan Bickley was ill. 
As always, I could not believe the speed of the last hour. Surreptitiously glancing at my watch, wondering how it can all still happen. But it does. Without a single dull moment, barely a note wrong and a overwhelming emotional realm, realized to tell a story really well, this has been an immense achievement. What will follow? Farnes is leaving, and he is an obvious replacement for Holten at Covent Garden. Or ENO? He ought to be given more exposure.

I’ll reiterate:it continues, it tours, it will be on the radio, there will be videos. Neglect at your peril.

Cast and creative team
Conductor - Richard Farnes
Concert Staging and Design Concept - Peter Mumford
Lighting and Projection Designer - Peter Mumford
Associate Director - Joe Austin
Brünnhilde - Kelly Cae Hogan
Siegfried - Mati Turi
Hagen - Mats Almgren
Gutrune - Giselle Allen
Gunther - Andrew Foster-Williams
Waltraute - Heather Shipp
Alberich - Jo Pohlheim
First Norn - Fiona Kimm
Second Norn - Heather Shipp
Third Norn - Lee Bisset
Woglinde - Jeni Bern
Wellgunde - Madeleine Shaw
Flosshilde - Sarah Castle
Chorus Opera North

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The animals of Nibelung wood: the Ring Cycle in Leeds part three (ON/Ring)

Wagner, Siegfried (Orchestra Opera North cond. Richard Farnes)
I was getting rather in to the swing of heading up to Leeds at the weekends for a smidge of Wagner by the time of my third trip. Siegfried (14th May) never quite gets the credit it deserves, in my book: a dragons, magic fire, an awkward child, a bear, a talking woodbird. It is basically the animals of farthing wood with a woman surrounded by magical fire. And Wagner’s joke. His only joke. ‘This is no man’. Young Siegfried (ably sung by Lars Cleveman) is growing up and something of a handful. His adoptive father Mume (Richard Roberts) seemed as frustrated as he was crafty as he dealt with a rather egregious cookoo in the nest. 

Béla Perencz was more than up to the task of crafty old Wotan, hiding in plain sight as a Wanderer. Apparently, in this world, nobody recognises you if you wear an eyepatch. Who knew? His daughter by Katherine Broderick was even more comfortable and secure vocally, making this seriously impressive. Mats Almgren (Fafner, offstage) was magnificent, but it was a shame amplification was used to convey his voice from offstage. I would have rather heard him. The Woodbird (Jeni Bern) looked like she might take flight as she flitted around the choir benches.  Alberich (Jo Pohlheim) remained a complete rotter.
Musically, the band were growingly confident at the quality of their work, and they sounded better for it. But this is only base camp: the big one was yet to come.

Cast and creative team
Conductor - Richard Farnes
Concert Staging and Design Concept - Peter Mumford
Lighting and Projection Designer - Peter Mumford
Associate Director - Joe Austin
Siegfried - Lars Cleveman
Brünnhilde - Katherine Broderick
Mime - Richard Roberts
Wanderer - Béla Perencz
Fafner - Mats Almgren
Alberich - Jo Pohlheim
Woodbird - Jeni Bern
Erda - Claudia Huckle

Friday, 27 May 2016

Hot tears and cold shivers: the Ring Cycle in Leeds parts one and two (ON/Ring)

Wagner, Das Rheingold and Walküre (Orchestra Opera North cond. Richard Farnes)
It is hard to imagine another regional company in the UK brave enough to tackle the Ring; less still one which appears to pull it off with such aplomb. Opera North’s cycles started on Saturday 23rd April with Das Rheingold and 30th April with the Walküre in Leeds Town Hall. 600 hours of rehearsals apparently, for the project. Even for a fifteen-hour piece, this is a serious commitment (of 35h work weeks, for example - you can do the maths here). And it is a revival after all. Or four. 
It started about five years ago, with the four parts provided incrementally on an annual basis; plus the Dutchman last year. Finally, it is come round at last. A glittering prize for Opera North, Richard Farnes, and perhaps most importantly, the importance of opera produced outside of London.

Orchestrally, it isn’t just that Farnes has his band up to the task, but a fairly sensible, clean reading of the music is given urgency and immediacy here that represents perfect space for the drama to unfold; perhaps one or two moments from the bass sounded not-quite-right at the Rheingold, but at nearly three hours without a break, this might be unfair. Moreover, the brass became better and stronger on each subsequent evening, so that by Gotterdammerung, it was almost too much to bear.
Vocally this was little less than stunning. Perhaps it isn’t the first-choice cast for that desert island; but maybe some of these singers should be. In the Rheingold, Michael Druiett as Wotan had the gravity: the tired old god desperate for “Das ende” was apparent from the start. Those two words don’t come until the second night, but they are the most important in the whole tetralogy. If it has a single meaning, it stems from this.
Desperate and perhaps bewildered, Wotan reaches to scheming Loge; a right-hand political magician who makes Machiavelli look like a lovely square-dealing fellow. And it was on this trickster than the drama hangs. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke did it perfectly, shaking fanned hands with correspondence to the music as if the music actually came from him. Leitmotivs at work, I suppose. Ablinger-Sperrhacke stole the show.
As Fafner, Mats Almgren was terrifying and superb, and his voice seemed to warm over the whole cycle. Giselle Allen, whom I don’t really think of as a Wagnerian voice was  a perfect harassed, terrified Frieja. The emotion was as real here as her unforgettable Ellen Orford some years ago for the same company. I still have goosebumps from Jo Pohlheim's renouncement of the power of love. 

So it isn’t a fully-staged production; but it does have maximum drama. The story, by some way the most important aspect of the Ring, is foregrounded and the intimacy of the concert hall brings this to fever pitch. The so-called austerity ring uses adapted eveningwear: green and silver buttons for Froh and Thor; for Wotan a silvery-gold waistcoat. You can tell the rotters later on, as they wear lounge suits. 
The Walküre is the beating heart of the ring cycle. It is here that emotion rather than sheer music alone overwhelms. Wotan’s clan contains enough family discord and disharmony to keep Jeremy Kyle going for years. But his relationship with his daughter is toxic stuff. Brünnhilde herself was sung magnificently by Kelly Cae Hogan, who gets better and better as the story progresses. Her sisters, as the late Anna Russell put it, are a noisy brood. Doesn’t do it justice really. 

Fricka was fearsome from Susan Bickley. As Wotan, Robert Hayward was stunning, and his plea in act two for ‘das ende’ sent shivers down my spine. He was a tired, confused old man. The most human of the gods. By the third act, it was almost too much to bear. I don’t always find that last act heart-breaking. These aren’t people to whom we can relate, but actually here the humanity of the father-daughter business in the second act gave a coherence to the conclusion. Opera North favourites or stalwarts included Susan Bickley and Fiona Kimm. Both have grown in to these parts (Fricka and Grimgerde in this instalment respectively).
Were we at Bayreuth? Heralded in by the brass section. Alas my camera work did not match the superb brass section.

Now they are doing complete cycles, the orchestra seems to have gelled even more (a decade of Farnes and critical acclaim will do that I suppose). With the confidence to lessen the leash slightly, the music has been even more thrilling than I might have hoped from the individual operas. The brass section, seeming to strengthen by the minute, might have rent the skies. Barely a note out of place. This music encourages little more than an orgy of hot tears and cold shivers. Quite how those going within a week will cope is beyond me. This is Wagnerian music making at its most Tristanite: it doesn’t require deep study or reflection. Or psychology. Or modernism. Simply, the music does all the work and will overwhelm you; in large quantities, it can be quite dangerous. But it is worth the risk.  

Creative team
Conductor - Richard Farnes
Concert Staging and Design Concept - Peter Mumford
Lighting and Projection Designer - Peter Mumford
Associate Director - Joe Austin
Singers: Rheingold
Wotan - Michael Druiett
Loge - Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Alberich - Jo Pohlheim
Fricka - Yvonne Howard
Mime - Richard Roberts
Freia - Giselle Allen
Fasolt - James Creswell
Fafner - Mats Almgren
Erda - Ceri Williams
Froh - Mark Le Brocq
Donner - Andrew Foster-Williams
Woglinde - Jeni Bern
Wellgunde - Madeleine Shaw
Flosshilde - Sarah Castle
Singers: Walkure
Brünnhilde - Kelly Cae Hogan
Sieglinde - Lee Bisset
Siegmund - Michael Weinius
Wotan - Robert Hayward
Fricka - Susan Bickley
Hunding - James Creswell
Helmwige - Katherine Broderick
Ortlinde - Kate Valentine
Gerhilde - Giselle Allen
Siegrune - Sarah Castle
Rossweisse - Madeleine Shaw
Waltraute - Heather Shipp
Grimgerde - Fiona Kimm
Schwertleite - Claudia Huckle