The Exterminating Angel at ROH

Much of the social media hype around the UK première of The Exterminating Angel seemed to revolve around the fact that there were sheep in it. And while this may seem superfluous, they certainly provided an intriguing opening to the evening. As the audience took their seats, the sheep stood on the stage, and bells rung eerily to induct us into the soundworld of the opera. From the beginning, as the servants of the house the opera is set in desperately make excuses to leave, there is a pervasive sense of uneasiness, which seems to be reinforced when the dinner guests enter, and repeat their introductions to one another – each character mimicking the others, and then the whole sequence repeating. At first, the proliferation of characters makes them a little hard to distinguish, but they quickly develop individual musical personalities. The high society cattiness they display at first then begins to deteriorate into savagery as they find themselves unable to leave.

Adès hangs the plot on music that takes inspiration from many sources while still seeming fresh and intriguing. Various Strausses are here, and Bach’s famous ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ is given a disconcerting parody as the sheep we saw in the opening are roasted after their inexplicable appearance. The cast and orchestra give the music admirable shape, under the direction of Adès himself. The ensemble cast is littered with famous names, almost entirely outstanding in their performances. Sophie Bevan and Ed Lyon as Beatriz and Eduardo are given some of the most rapturously beautiful music in the opera, which they make full use of. It can be a little hard to find emotion in the bewildering landscape of this piece, but they make the young lovers’ suicide pact heartbreakingly touching. Iestyn Davies was also particularly effective in his nervous Francisco de Ávila, complete with possibly incestuous passion for his sister, and singing at one point an ode to coffee spoons.

Occasionally the cast faltered. John Tomlinson’s voice, after a long and illustrious career, sounds rather tired, almost unwilling to extend over the angularity of the phrases, but he inhabits his character as Doctor Carlos Conde, attempting to maintain some kind of order as he finds himself amid the savagery that desperation and deprivation produces amongst these cultured people. Amanda Echalaz as the hostess Lucía de Nobile also seemed to have problems with maintaining a sense of line, and her diction was poor enough to make me very glad of the surtitles. But the cumulative effect of the many voices in their collective despair was mesmerising. The instrumental writing, too, was finely crafted, particularly the prelude to Act II, which effectively re-immersed us in the opera’s strange world. Cynthia Millar on the ondes Martenot (a precursor to the synthesiser) created a real sense of the unearthly throughout.

In the end, a re-enactment of part of their first evening in the room, guided by Audrey Luna’s opera singer Leticia Maynard, with stratospheric coloratura, allows them a way out. The odd repetitions we saw in Act I seem to crystallise in this moment, in this hair-raising suspense. Though the first time round she had declined to sing for them, Leticia now does, and the company make their baffled way out of the room. As they reunite with those who were waiting outside, the music continues to build, until the entire cast and chorus find themselves gathered under the arch that has been the centrepiece of the staging, seemingly trapped again. Adès and his librettist and the production’s director, Tom Cairns, seem reluctant to offer any answers about the happenings of the plot, but perhaps that isn’t the point. They leave us unsettled, baffled, and strangely moved by what is, in the end, a sharply drawn portrait of humanity under these fantastical circumstances.

Sideshows at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells

I am very pleased to introduce a guest post by the inimitable Jasper Bell.

In recent years, the genre of ‘immersive’ experiences has blossomed, in the arts and beyond. Operatically, prominent examples have included the electro-acoustic inspired ‘Found and Lost’ by Emily Hall, and ‘Vixen’, the English National Opera’s reimagining of Janáček’s classic opera ‘Cunning Little Vixen’. The trend is popular in theatre, too, and with Fawlty Towers and even Gatsby getting a look in it clearly doesn’t stop there. Although Leo Geyer’s Sideshows doesn’t quite fit into this category, and indeed its premiere at the Tête à Tête Opera Festival 2014 predates most of the ‘immersive’ trend, it is clearly inspired by a similar desire to engage audiences. The Ringmaster, played by composer and conductor Geyer himself, greets the audience prior to the show as they take their seats, and another character hands out sweets in the interval. The aesthetic anarchy which is created by this breaking of the Fourth Wall creates a satisfying parallel with the anarchy we see on stage. Musicians break from the conductor’s control and a palm-reader, snake and dancing bear make unwanted interruptions.

This humorous spectacular is played straight in terms of acting, but the music is anything but. The cross-fertilisation between jazz and contemporary classical is where Geyer’s music simply shines. Despite the virtuosic accuracy required from the performers, the score has an improvised quality which fits with the chaos of the drama. The musical ensemble of ‘clowns’, none of them trained actors, deserve great praise for the professional quality of movement as well as their performances on the clarinet, cello, violin and piano. They are directed with skill and humour by Geyer, who boasts an impressive array of compositional prizes and conducting positions despite his youth. These and the excellent writing and performance of Sideshows suggest that his is a career to watch with interest. However, the performance’s greatest stumbling point is the jarring Delia (Rachel Maby), whose juvenile, infant-like vocalisations, although fairly well-delivered, begin to grate on an audience who already has to subscribe to a somewhat ‘CBBC’ quality of humour. However, there were some redeeming features to this element of the production, whereby adult humour was aptly disguised by Henry Rankin.

Ultimately, Sideshows is a highly credible production and opera, and judging by the age range of the audience, is part of a welcome breaking down of the barrier between this art form and the young people it all too often fails to attract.

Labour of Love at the Noel Coward Theatre

James Graham seems to be becoming ubiquitous in the West End. Labour of Love is the third of his plays to be performed there this year, after the revival of This House and the transfer from the Almeida of Ink. It’s the newest and most sharply topical too, dramatizing years of the Labour party’s history right up to this year’s election. That’s where the play starts, before going back through various episodes in the Miliband and Blair years to the first election of David Lyons (Martin Freeman) as the new centrist MP parachuted into his Nottinghamshire constituency with his snooty wife. He clashes with the local party, and learns to get on with Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Greig), the last MP’s wife who he convinces to stay on as his agent. Their relationship is cleverly managed against the background of party politics as the narrative moves forward again through the second half, bringing us back to the present day. It’s reliably funny, though not necessarily gut-wrenchingly so, and while the emotions are not quite as developed as they could be, the characters are engaging and believable.

Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig carry the whole show. You’d never guess that Greig was a last-minute substitute – Jean’s acerbic wit feels like a perfect fit for her, and she’s gloriously funny. Freeman is by turns staid and ridiculous, and the changes in his character are deftly managed over the back-and-forward structure. The minor characters are carried with varying degrees of success. David’s wife Elizabeth, played by Rachael Stirling, feels both over-written and over-acted. Her sense of superiority and complete lack of comprehension of what the life of a Nottinghamshire town is like quickly grow trying. Dickon Tyrell and Susan Wokoma are much more successful, thoroughly believable as an old left zealot and a young party member.

The production works well and unobtrusively. The entire play takes place in the same constituency office, with the portrait of the leader on the wall and the technology being the main differences between the time periods. During the scene changes, we get cut together video of news segments and speeches, neatly providing an overview of the time passed over, though overlaid with some occasionally irritating music choice. Overall, this is an excellent performance of a very decent new play. The only question in my mind is whether Graham’s accomplished but slightly emotionally shallow and rather glib brand of political comedy really deserves all the attention it gets. We all seem to have a desperate appetite for satire of any kind – is the praise for this and his other plays entirely deserved?

The Curse of Operatic Immorality (or, how to rewrite an ending)

Many operas involve huge amounts of inappropriate material, legitimising reprehensible acts. We need to call for the immediate rewriting of many operatic plots, to remove these disgusting elements and allow our opera houses to be edifying places, appropriate for the musical education of our children. Below are a few suggestions for the modification of various operas.

Otello:

Desdemona leaves. She returns to Venetian society but is so ostracised that she ends up joining a convent. Emilia tells Otello about Iago’s deception, and he has a breakdown and is only just prevented from killing himself. He starts therapy, and learns to manage his jealousy. Otello and Iago refuse to fight (because violence is bad) and we segue into a Merchant of Venice style courtroom.

La Traviata:

Germont père becomes the hero. He prevents his son from falling into social disgrace. Violetta dies alone and ignobly, the proper reward for her lifestyle.

Peter Grimes:

Ellen refuses to let Peter continue in his ways after she discovers the John’s bruises. She firmly tells Peter they must marry at once. He is gentled by her presence, and the Borough gives in to the sweetness of their partnership, and accept them. They adopt a platoon of workhouse children, and all homoerotic subtext is repressed. The piece is renamed ‘A Woman’s Touch’.

Il Trovatore:

Azucena tells everybody everything. Di Luna and Manrico are reconciled, and di Luna stops pursuing Leonora out of respect for her. The rebels find out the Manrico is actually nobility and decide that therefore they should stop fighting. A professional negotiator is hired to sort out the political difficulties.

Dido and Aeneas:

Deus ex machina! Literally. The real Mercury turns up and tells Aeneas it was all a trick. He and Dido marry happily and live peacefully in Carthage. (Meanwhile in Italy, Turnus marries Lavinia and everyone is happy.)

Tosca:

Scarpia rapes the helpless Tosca, who then attempts to prosecute him, but sets Cavaradossi free. The police decide that she lead him on, and since she had a long-standing premarital affair, she can’t actually have not wanted this. Tosca and Cavaradossi separate under the pressure, and she leaves the city.

Carmen:

Michaela persuades Don Jose to get some counselling. He learns to manage his anger better, and retires to the countryside to care for his aging mother. Carmen inevitably leaves Enrico, and shortly afterwards dies of syphilis as a comeuppance for her dreadful way of life.

 

Please feel free to suggest your own alternatives. Together, we can work to eradicate violence and immorality from our stage.

 

 

 

Alice Coote and Julius Drake at Wigmore Hall (25/01/2017)

muhly

Nico Muhly

This song recital presented itself as an exploration of themes surrounding mental health. This was particularly true of the subjects of the first half of the programme, which took texts either about or written by those with some form of mental illness. Nico Muhly’s new song cycle Strange Productions (which felt more like a set of recitatives and arias than a true cycle) set poems by John Clare and passages from G. Mackenzie Bacon’s On the Writings of the Insane. Together, they formed a searching look at the mind of one such as Bacon’s patients. The settings of the two poems, ‘Invite to Eternity’ and ‘I Am!’ by Clare, who spent several years in an asylum himself, used the text well, and Coote brought out every word with careful shading. The final Clare poem was particularly effective, with Drake and Coote working well together to bring out the lyricism and emotional impact. Dominic Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf in some ways proved to be the true highlight of the evening. Coote brought a striking intensity and sense of character to these dramatic adaptations of diary entries ranging from 1919 to 1941. The performance was filled with vivid life, encompassing a wide range of moods, from the anxious to the meditative, with a share of the bleakness that filled both Woolf’s life and the world around her towards the end.

In the second half, we heard Schumann’s Kerner Lieder, which gave us an exploration of character and once more highlighted the ability these two musicians have to convey a huge amount of emotional heft. The range of colours throughout the songs was beautifully managed, from the Teutonic vivacity of the wandering songs to the moments of melancholic peace, particularly towards the end of the sequence. Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud was also a highlight, with Drake making the most of the organ-like accompaniment. Unfortunately Coote’s generally lovely vocal tone was occasionally slightly unnaturally coloured with some odd vowel sounds, which marred the flow. Mostly, however, these songs, and their encore, Meine Rose, were effectively and powerfully wrought.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann at ROH

Review of Les Contes d’Hoffmann on 07/11/16

I realised at the opening of the Royal Opera House’s revival of Les Contes d’Hoffmann yesterday that this production is in fact older than I am. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a production that opened when my parents were still teenagers, it’s beginning to feel a little tired. Much of it is still good, and it has stood the test of time well, but its age seems to be leading to a tendency to dramatic laziness, at least in the direction. The excitement, novelty, and life which it is generally so easy to find in a brand new production has faded. It seems to me that much of this is probably the fault of the revival director, Daniel Dooner. The performance needed more of an artistic push than it was given, and on the opening night the whole opera felt still under-rehearsed and more than a little scrappy.

The singing throughout generally impressed, however. Vittorio Grigòlo was in fine vocal form as the central Hoffmann. He handled the French well, and every note felt cared for and well-shaped. His tendency to melodrama worked for the lovelorn poet, though his excessiveness sometimes still overcame it. My usual problem with Grigòlo’s performances is his addition of seemingly unconscious gestures that don’t seem to stem from a characterisation decision, the worst of which is a thrusting forward of the chest with thrown back arms. This time, the gestures were reined in, which was a relief – his Werther earlier this year was beset by these distractions.

Thomas Hampson played all four of the villains fairly successfully. His Councillor Lindorf and Dappertutto (who looked rather like a pantomime villain in a sparkling costume) lacked menace, however, and seemed a little flat. Coppélius was suitably maverick, and Doctor Miracle had plenty of darkness, and Hampson gave one of the best vocal performances as him.

As for the three heroines, Sofia Fomina’s glassy Olympia worked well in an Act 1 that was amusing and entertaining. Spalanzani (Christophe Mortagne) worked well with her, but as a whole it ended up feeling a little too facile and failed to give much depth of emotion. It far exceeded Act 2, however, which lacked any life whatsoever. Despite the setting, it contained no hint of the erotic, and lacked any frisson of excitement. Christine Rice’s Giulietta had a good tone, but failed to lift the act sufficiently. Things grew considerably better in Act 3, however, which was carried mainly by Sonya Yoncheva’s beautiful performance. While she could have benefited from a little more of a suggestion of fragility in Antonia, she and Thomas Hampson gave a menacing and riveting finale end to the act.

For the rest, Kate Lindsey’s voice, though occasionally dwarfed by Grigòlo, was in radiant form, and she brought both wit and sincerity to Nicklausse, and was suitably enigmatic and ethereal as the Muse. The conducting was another area where things fell flat, though. Evelino Pidò gave no life to the score. He seemed to add a pedestrian tone that the cast valiantly fought against, but could not always overcome. The orchestra had some ensemble problems at the beginning, as well, but these were mostly overcome. There were still some problems between the orchestra and chorus, and though these were not the worst sins of the performance, they added to the impression that this was very much a production only just out of rehearsal.

Overall, this was a performance in which good singers fought against the dullness that seemed to mostly stem from poor direction, both dramatic and musical. Lethargy constantly threatened to overtake them, and occasionally the music was overcome by it.

The Nose at ROH

IMG_20161021_171303 (1).jpg

Last night saw the opening of Barrie Kosky’s highly anticipated Royal Opera House debut. Shostakovich’s The Nose was something that, I confess, I had no idea what to expect from. The only other Kosky production I had seen was one I loathed with a passion (ENO Castor and Pollux) for its tasteless vulgarity and lack of sensitivity to any nuance either of music or emotion. Some of these criticisms could also be applied to The Nose, but overall this was a production that managed to bring vitality and humour to the surreal fantasy.

At the heart of the piece lies a minor Russian bureaucrat Kovalyov (Martin Winkler), whose nose leaves him, and is then chased after all over St Petersburg. Ilan Galkoff as the nose itself is a charmingly tap-dancing schoolboy inside a giant costume, who in one memorable moment leads a chorus line of dancing noses on legs. This (male) chorus line, in fact, go through a whole range of strange parts, including lingerie with fur coats and beards with tiny circus-tent dresses. The choreography in general is well worked and effective, bringing psychedelic energy and a sense of drive throughout.

The music is Shostakovich in his anarchic youth – exuberant, full of witty parodies and quotations of other styles. Under Ingo Metzmacher the orchestra flourish and play with force and wit. The huge crowd scenes are also precisely corralled, and come off well. The huge number of solo parts work well together for the most part, with stand-out performances from Martin Winkler, John Tomlinson, and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, and charming cameos from Susan Bickley, and Helene Schneidermann and Ailish Tynan as an excellent mother-daughter duo. The English translation for the most part does its job, though as always the vowel sounds don’t quite feel right for the music. But for the sake of intelligibility and laughs, it seems to have been the right decision is this case.

The greatest success of this production is in the surrealism and comedy, which manages by a touch to avoid becoming too broad and slapstick. However, it falters when attempting to get at all close to finding any emotional heart in the chaos. Shostakovich himself said that “The Nose is a horror story, not a joke”. While we get tastes of Kovalyov’s despair and desperation, the main thrust of the production still seems aimed at humour, not horror. Much more could be done with the third act, which seemed to be styled as a descent in Kovalyov’s deranged imagination more than a straightforward treatment of the plot. The narrative thread becomes lost – in a way that feels deliberate, but may just be sloppy direction. This could leave space for us to truly pity Kovalyov, and Martin Winkler certainly makes a good stab at making us do so, but in the end the action around him leaves him and the whole piece without much of a soul.