The Exterminating Angel at ROH

Much of the hype around the UK première of The Exterminating Angel revolved around the fact that there were sheep in it. Yes, actual sheep. On stage. And while I did indulge in this a little myself, they certainly provided an oddly eerie opening to the evening. As the audience took their seats, the sheep stood on the stage, and bells rung 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 society cattiness they display 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 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 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 slowly took us deeper into the  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.

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

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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

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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.

Così fan tutte at ROH

The Royal Opera House’s new production of Così fan tutte attempts to dispel the title’s obvious misogyny by telling us that, in fact, it is all humanity who are fickle and deceitful. Most laboriously, this point is driven home when the some of the bulbs on the giant ‘Così fan tutte’ sign that descends over the stage are unscrewed to leave ‘Così fan tutti’. And it is this precisely this kind of heavy-handed concept that characterises the production.

The evening opened as it went on. The overture was from the start a touch too broad in tempo, and the mock period curtain call that accompanied it on stage, while wittily observed, went on long beyond when the audience had got the point. The production seemed to wander in a slightly aimless way across the centuries, with Don Alfonso in 18th century costume, and the four lovers and Despina in modern dress. From starting in the modern day Royal Opera House, for the farewell scene the action suddenly shifts to a 1940s train station. From there, the setting  continues to change, including a garden of Eden set, a dressmaker’s shop, and a baroque theatre set. While this shifting is perhaps intended to suggest the timelessness of  the moral of the title, all it did was leave the opera baseless and drifting.

Occasionally, the staging decisions worked as they were obviously intended to, especially in the second half, where the use of the theatre flats brought out the meta-theatre of Alfonso’s machinations, and allowed a little space for some of Fiordiligi’s conscience-wrangling. But in general, it felt unfocused rather than deliberately surreal, and altogether too clever for its own good.

Musically, the performance was mixed. Right from the start, Semyon Bychkov’s tempi were too broad and lugubrious. Mozart’s musical wit was therefore often lost, though the textures were clear and the orchestral tone beautiful. The cast, mostly young, and several of them making house debuts, were generally impressive. They provided a brightness and sparkle that the conducting lost.

Corinne Winters made an appealing Fiordiligi, with emotional fervour, though occasionally lacking some depth on the lower notes in ‘Come scoglio’. She was well-matched in vocal tone by Angela Brower as Dorabella, who also worked well with Alessio Arduini’s slightly lacklustre but decent Guglielmo. Daniel Behle truly shone as Ferrando, however, especially in ‘Un’aura amorosa’, for which the production for once stood still for a moment and let the music through. Johannes Martin Kränzle and Sabina Puértolas complete a cast who complement each other well – perhaps the most important thing in this ensemble opera.

In the end, we are left feeling slightly unsatisfied – a feeling that suits the ambiguous plot resolution, but not necessarily how one should feel after a truly successful performance.

An Introduction

This is a new project for me. For no apparent reason, other than that according to some part of my mind I am not busy enough, I have decided to start a blog. I’ll be posting reviews of anything I happen to see, hear, or watch. This will be primarily opera, theatre, classical concerts and CDs, and more occasionally art exhibitions or films. Most of these will be from London, though when I travel I’ll hopefully add the odd thing from elsewhere. I will update when I have something to write about, but hopefully on average once every week or fortnight. I hope you will read, follow on twitter @the_arts_page and enjoy!