Posts Tagged ‘Barbican’

The Sunken Garden, English National Opera, Barbican, April 2013

13 April, 2013

This new musical work by Michel van der Aa, combines film narrative and a 3D visual world behind a screen, to a libretto by novelist David Mitchell. Novels are very different from opera librettos, which must develop the characters and story in relatively few words, and part of the problem with this one is that it was difficult to care what happened to these people.

All images ENO/ Mike Hoban

All images ENO/ Mike Hoban

There were three main ones: Toby Kramer a wannabe video artist, Zenna Briggs who pretends to want to fund his work but really wants to draw him into a strange world of disappearances, and Doctor Marinus who works in a psychiatric hospital. Roderick Williams as Toby sang with excellent diction, but the ladies with their high notes had more trouble, and were not helped by the orchestration. Surtitles were needed, and I heard the people behind me commenting afterwards that they didn’t understand what was going on. A story as strange and convoluted as this one has to be delineated very carefully to work on the opera stage, and a quick read of David Mitchell’s own synopsis hardly gives a luminous rendering of the plot.



One can of course sit back and enjoy the colourful 3D garden with its vertical pool, which comes in about halfway through, but friends who were on the side upstairs evidently did not see the same effects as I did from the centre stalls. In the Garden are two lost and vanished young people, Simon and Amber, both suffering terribly from guilt, and we see on-screen interviews with his landlady and her mother before they disappeared. It turns out that they are not the only ones to suffer from psychiatric problems, but I was rather past caring by that time.

This reminded me of Judith Weir’s unsuccessful Miss Fortune at Covent Garden last year, but it does not compare with the ENO’s Two Boys, despite a preview comparison that I read. That had a compelling story; this didn’t.

Distortion of the Garden

Distortion of the Garden

Katherine Manley and Claron McFadden both sang well as Zenna Briggs and Doctor Marinus, and the diction problem could and should have been solved by surtitles. Whether that would have made this rather opaque story more engaging I doubt, but it would have helped.

This ‘film opera’, co-produced by the ENO, Opéra de Lyon, Luminato Festival and Holland Festival, will doubtless attract favourable comments for the composer’s combination of music, film footage, and 3D electronic world, but the music is dull, and the libretto a serious weakness. Performances continue until April 20 — for details click here.

Einstein on the Beach, Barbican Theatre, May 2012

7 May, 2012

When this work was created in 1976 the musical world was full of new inventiveness, and this opera — if that’s the right term — was very much in the avant garde. Five hours of theatre without an interval, allowing one to enter and exit at will, was a new experience and new experiences were in vogue. It was the year Jimmy Carter won the US presidency with his post-Vietnam morality, but four years later he was history.

Antoine Silverman, all images Lucie Jansch

So how has this opera fared in the meantime? Immediately after its premiere at Avignon, and tour around Europe, the Met put it on in New York for two performances and you couldn’t get a ticket. As Philip Glass says, “… we could go on giving Einstein at the Met every Sunday, and they would go on selling it out every Sunday, but we couldn’t afford it”. So it disappeared from the scene, making this revival at the Barbican Theatre very welcome. The ample leg room made it easy to scooch out and return without disturbing anyone, which I did, though some people near me stayed throughout, and chatted or used i-phones.

But what of the work itself? The music is ‘minimalist’, a term Glass dislikes, and as he says, “… it’s not about the big movements, it’s about all the little movements that are happening, changing like sand”. Musically interesting, dramatically empty, and theatrically the little movements were the essence. Before the start there are white shirted people in the pit, and when you look a second time there is one more … and one more, and you barely see where they come from.

The words are repeated … many times. “I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket/ and there were all these aisles/ and there were all these bathing caps that you could buy/ which had these kind of Fourth of July plumes on them/ they were red and yellow and blue/ I wasn’t tempted to buy one/ but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach”. And then without any break she repeats it … many dozens of times with tiny variations in emphasis and word spacing.

Repeating the supermarket sentence

Yes, it’s dated, as is the original title Einstein on the Beach on Wall Street. The libretto has nothing to do with Wall Street, nor with the beach, nor indeed with Einstein, though toward the end there are clocks going in two directions, vertical and horizontal, followed by a small rocket going diagonally across stage, and then writing appears on the front drop talking about nuclear power. Certainly the equation E = mc2 equating mass with energy came from Einstein’s first theory of relativity formulated forty years before the nuclear bomb, which in turn predated Glass’s ‘opera’ by just over thirty years.

Since that time production methods have moved on and Robert Wilson’s designs are no longer avant garde, making it seem a period piece. Beautifully performed though, with Michael Riesman conducting the Philip Glass Ensemble, and Antoine Silverman dressed to look like Einstein himself giving a fine performance on the solo violin.

Performances continue until May 13 — for details click here.

Ruddigore, Opera North, Barbican, November 2011

25 November, 2011

W. S. Gilbert, the librettist for this work, was a master of wit, not just on paper but spontaneously in conversation. When a neighbour referred admiringly to Ruddigore calling it Bloodygore, Gilbert objected, so the neighbour said: “Same thing isn’t it?” WSG was swift as a rapier, “If I admire your ruddy countenance, it doesn’t mean I like your bloody cheek, which I don’t”.

All images Robert Workman

There’s no blood in Ruddigore, but there is a ghostly episode after our hero, Robin has reluctantly accepted his real name of Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, whose position as the Lord of Ruddigore gives him the accursed obligation of committing a crime a day. Failure to do so condemns him to death. His attempted crimes are rather inadequate, and in Act II ancestral paintings come to life to accuse him of failure. This pantomime-like episode was very well done, with excellent sets and lighting by Richard Hudson and Anna Watson. All seems lost, but the trick in the plot is that the honest Robin suddenly realises that failure to commit a crime is suicide, which itself is a crime …

Robin and Rose, just before the intervention

Robin was delightfully sung and portrayed by Grant Doyle, a versatile performer whom I last saw as a bearded Abraham in Clemency, a serious Biblical opera by James MacMillan. His beloved Rose Maybud was beautifully sung by Amy Freston whose body movements were those of a ballerina. She even did a small jeté en tournant at the end, and the sheer joy of her performance was a charm in itself. Robin’s foster-brother, Dick Dauntless was engagingly performed by Hal Cazalet, and the rest of the cast formed an excellent team around these three principals, including Heather Shipp as the Mad Margaret, Steven Page as the ancestral Sir Roderic, Richard Burkhard as the sly Sir Despard, and Anne-Marie Owens as Dame Hannah, all well directed by Jo Davies.

The ghosts of Ruddigore

Sullivan’s music was played with wit and enthusiasm under the direction of John Wilson, and it was a pleasure to see a performance of this lesser-known operetta from the Gilbert and Sullivan stable.

Performances at the Barbican continue until November 26 — for details click here.

Queen of Spades, Opera North, Barbican, November 2011

23 November, 2011

Three, Seven, Ace — that’s the secret the old Countess tells Herman in her brief return from beyond the grave. She did it beautifully, Josephine Barstow singing this role in an utterly compelling way. A perfect Countess, well backed up by Jonathan Summers as Tomsky, who gave a gripping Act I account of the Countess’s young life in Paris, and William Dazeley as a noble Prince Yeletsky.

The Card Game in Act III, all images Bill Cooper

The staging by Neil Bartlett was simple but effective, and I liked the small lights around the edge of the stage, giving a nice late eighteenth century touch. This is after all set in the reign of Catherine the Great, who attends the ball in Act II appearing on the audience side of the auditorium, if the performers on stage were to be believed. And indeed they were entirely believable, except for the main pair, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Herman, and Orla Boylan as Lisa. Both had their good moments, their vocal performances were uneven, and their stage presentations left much to be desired. He looked like the Act III version of Baron Ochs from Rosenkavalier with his wig missing, and evinced little of the desperately obsessive passion that Tchaikovsky invested in this role. Her matronly appearance carried no conviction as the sheltered girl who falls for this nutcase and gives up her fiancé, Prince Yeletsky. Admittedly Tchaikovsky’s opera, with its libretto by his brother Modest, along with Pyotr Ilyich’s own emendations, is a far cry from Pushkin’s original novella, and the roles of Herman and Lisa are difficult ones to inhabit, but these were not convincing portrayals.

The Countess at the ball

The orchestra gave a good rendering of the score under the direction of Richard Farnes, not helped by the very dry acoustic of the Barbican Theatre. Better is the Barbican Concert Hall, and far better would have been Sadler’s Wells. This is not a good venue for opera, as it gives little feeling of ensemble to the orchestra. Moreover the orchestra pit was too small, so the trombones and trumpets were on stage right, with percussion and harp on stage left, and though the players did well to handle the situation, it is not ideal. I imagine this came over much better in Leeds.

Lisa and Herman at the ball

One small point about the production is that the card game of faro in Act III seemed too abstract, with no money on the table. Herman thinks he has drawn the player’s card, an ace, while the dealer’s card is a queen. In fact he holds the queen of spades — the killer that destroys him, just as his obsession led directly to the death of the Countess, and indirectly to the death of Lisa. Tchaikovsky found himself very much in sympathy with Herman’s obsessions in this opera and wrote the music in little more than six weeks. If you haven’t seen it before, performances continue until November 24 — for details click here.

A Magic Flute, C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, at the Barbican, March 2011

25 March, 2011

Singing in German, speaking in French with the occasional bit of German or English thrown in, and surtitles in English that sometimes, but not always, kept the same pace as the performers — that was what was on offer and I was rather glad when it was over. The indefinite article says this isn’t the Mozart/Schikaneder opera, though it’s certainly based on it. Essentially this is a pared down version of Mozart, played on the piano, with singers who would not hold their own with an orchestra, and sometimes had difficulty filling the Barbican concert hall. Yes, the bamboo sticks are a clever production idea in this minimalist staging by Peter Brook, and the two non-singing performers, William Nadylam and Abdou Ouologuem had great stage presence. They themselves could have filled the ninety minutes, but as a musical performance this left much to be desired.

Abdou Ouologuem with the flute, photos by Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

Some people evidently enjoyed it immensely and when I asked a friend why he thought it was so good, he said the acting was wonderful, and much better than you get in the opera house. Was it? I go regularly to the opera, and I think the acting these days is often very good indeed. To take one case, the best actor in this production was arguably Virgile Frannais as Papageno, but I’ve seen Papagenos at the Royal Opera and the English National Opera who could knock his performance into a cocked hat.

The Queen of the Night should be a dramatically threatening role, but here she just seemed to be a widow who hates Sarastro because he wears the sun disc that her husband donated to the initiates. A lot of depth seemed to be missing, but perhaps this appeals to those who don’t much like opera? I don’t know, and I don’t quite know what the purpose is. If this were a student performance it would get high plaudits for an imaginative production with almost no props and no orchestra, but then it wouldn’t be playing at the Barbican.

As it is, I shall be going to University College London to see a student performance of Die drei Pintos, an opera by Weber, completed by Mahler, and I’m expecting something much better than this.

Elektra, in concert with Valery Gergiev and the LSO, Barbican, January 2010

15 January, 2010

This powerful Richard Strauss opera, scored for an orchestra of over 110 instruments, has a huge dynamic range and needs singers who can rise above the orchestra. This is where Angela Denoke as Chrysothemis did wonderfully well, and I very much look forward to her singing Salome at the Royal Opera in July. Felicity Palmer as Klytemnestra showed just the right mix of uncertainty and determination in her portrayal, and the voices of the three main protagonists — Elektra, Chrysothemis, and Klytemnestra — were very well contrasted. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Elektra showed herself fierce and anguished, but was clearly out-sung by Angela Denoke. For example, towards the end, after Klytemnestra has been murdered and her lover Aegisthus cries out for help, Elektra sings, “Agamemnon hört dich!” (Agamemnon hears you!), but it was weak, and as he is dragged away, Chrysothemis comes in with “Elektra! Schwester! .. .” The contrast could not have been greater — Ms. Charbonnet was no match for the orchestra, but Ms. Denoke rose effortlessly above it. Matthias Goerne sang Orestes, keeping up well with Ms. Charbonnet in their duet, and Ian Storey sang Aegisthus.

But what really made this a terrific evening was the conducting by Gergiev. He gave us wonderfully melodious quiet passages, yet turned on the power when it was needed. The London Symphony Orchestra respond well to his enigmatic hand gestures, and the orchestral playing was beautifully lyrical. The name Elektra means ‘shining’ — as in the alloy electrum — and Gergiev with the LSO gave us a shining performance.