Posts Tagged ‘ENO’

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.

Amber

Amber

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.

Advertisements

The Barber of Seville, English National Opera, London Coliseum, February 2013

26 February, 2013

This witty Jonathan Miller production, under the baton of Jaime Martín who is making his British operatic debut, is full of lively energy. Revival director Peter Relton has produced excellent team work, with exemplary diction, led by that great singing actor Andrew Shore as Dr. Bartolo. He was a hoot, and the whole cast was highly amusing without ever being over the top.

Happy ending, all images ENO/ Scott Rylander

Happy ending, all images ENO/ Scott Rylander

Lucy Crowe made a delightful Rosina, vocally secure with her pretty frills and trills, and Benedict Nelson’s portrayal of Figaro gave a great sense of clever improvisation as he finds a way round all difficulties to assist Count Almaviva win her hand. As Almaviva himself, Andrew Kennedy serenaded Rosina with great vocal warmth, singing strongly in his duet with Figaro, and the entrance to her home as a drunken soldier was amusingly done. The vernacular translation helps as Almaviva quietly verifies his identity to the real soldiers and their commander says, “Back off chaps”.

Bartolo and Rosina

Bartolo and Rosina

David Soar as Basilio was terrific, and the translation allows him perfect insouciance after his “Calumny” aria when Bartolo proposes a different method of handling things, “As long as I’m paid I couldn’t care tuppence!” During that aria as Basilio sings of his plans rising to a crescendo that will produce explosions, the orchestra entered fully into the spirit of things with wonderful musical bangs. Martín’s conducting was a bundle of joy, and as the sextet from the end of Act I built in intensity there was a huge bounce to the music. Included in the sextet is Katherine Broderick as Bartolo’s maid Berta, who sang very strongly in her bold Act II aria.

Jonathan Miller’s production with its excellent lighting celebrates its 25th year, and is full of wonderful moments — I loved the noisy locking of the door at Bartolo’s house early in Act I. But what really brought this performance to a state of perfection was Andrew Shore’s handling of Bartolo. His long aria (For a doctor of my standing …) in Act I was very wittily delivered, and as he gets increasingly upset and falls down he produces awkward strangulated sounds. Wonderful fun, and in Act II when he nods off during the singing lesson and shows confusion about the place in the music, his brief falsetto was brilliantly done. However many times you have seen Rossini’s Barber go again for this untouchable example of how to perform Bartolo.

Performances continue until March 17 — for details click here.

Medea, English National Opera, London Coliseum, February 2013

16 February, 2013

Spectacular success for the ENO gives audiences the British premiere of this baroque jewel that has lain in the shadows for about 300 years. With an excellent libretto by Thomas Corneille, well translated by Christopher Cowell, this terrific production by David McVicar makes compelling theatre.

Medea conjures confusion, all images ENO/ Clive Barda

Medea conjures confusion, all images ENO/ Clive Barda

Excellent choreography by Lynne Page suits both music and drama, Paule Constable’s lighting gives a very effective atmosphere, and Bunny Christie’s designs are terrific.

2.Medea, Sarah Connolly (c) Clive BardaThe whole thing is set in 1940s wartime, with Creon as head of a French army, Jason a Royal Navy Captain, and the airmen American. Jason is needed to help fight for Corinth, and Creon is only too happy to banish Medea, offer Jason his daughter Creusa as a bride, and ignore Orontes, Prince of Argos who expects to wed her. The interests of Orontes and Medea naturally coincide, but Creusa being in love with Jason, firmly rejects Orontes, and Medea, as her name implies (it’s related to the Greek verb μηδομαι meaning cunningly plan or contrive), decides to exact vengeance on Jason.

The turning point is in Act III, between the two intervals, when Jason’s dissembling and scheming is fully revealed to Medea and she decides to invoke the supernatural powers she embodies. At this point Charpentier’s music gives her more colourful harmonies, and though audiences in 1693 might have objected, we are entirely ready for them, and the whole effect is a musical treat.

3.Medea, Jeffrey Francis, Sarah Connolly (c) Clive BardaSarah Connolly was a marvellous Medea, sure of voice, stage presence and theatrical impact, a woman who can summon demons from the depths in Act III, and dispute Creon’s will in Act IV, bringing in wish maidens to drive him crazy. The underlying idea in that scene is that Creon’s relationship with his daughter Creusa has already shown a somewhat incestuous impropriety, and he is an easy victim. Creon himself was brilliantly sung and acted by Brindley Sherratt, and Katherine Manley gave a beautiful performance as Creusa. Roderick Williams sang forcefully as Orontes, showing admirable emotion in Act IV, while Jeffrey Francis gave a calm but rather wooden portrayal of Jason. In the end the dead bodies of his young sons are brought in, and Medea ascends to the heavens witnessing her final terrrifying act of vengeance.

Fine dancing and body movements by the twelve dancers in their multiple roles, and it is a pleasure to see effective choreography, unlike some recent productions at a nearby opera house in London. Super conducting by Christian Curnyn brought out the intriguing nature of the music. The big boss of French music in the seventeenth century was Lully who fiercely protected his territory, but Charpentier was arguably a better composer, and Medea is a masterpiece. Whether you like baroque opera or not, a production of this calibre it is a must-see. Unmissable.

Performances continue until March 16 — for details click here.

La Traviata, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2013

3 February, 2013

Four scenes with no intermission and no sets, except for multiple curtains and a chair — but it works! This is Traviata cut to its essentials, concentrating on Violetta, and to a lesser extent Germont père.

Violetta, all images EON/ Tristram Kenton

Violetta, all images EON/ Tristram Kenton

Corinne Winters was a phenomenal Violetta, and as the opera ends she stands alone on stage facing Germont, Alfredo and Annina in the auditorium. Receding into the distance in her black slip, the lights go down, and it’s all over. There is no melodrama here, just a gentle vanishing that will affect the lives of those other three people, and gives the rest of us a view of who she is and what she feels. Peter Konwitschny’s stark production will surely have its detractors — and there were a smattering of boos for the production team — but I found it gripping, and moving.

2.La traviata, Corinne Winters, Ben Johnson 2 (c) Tristram Kenton

Concentrating on Violetta and Germont, brilliantly sung and portrayed by Anthony Michaels-Moore, is a clever device and their meeting in Scene 2 was a masterpiece of acting and timing. The tension and his gradual understanding of her plight were palpable. He has brought his young daughter, who rapidly feels sympathy for Violetta, and the turning point is when he slaps the young girl across the face, then turns his back, wondering what he has become. After the daughter exits, Violetta clings to him, wanting a father, and while one always feels for Violetta, the modern costumes, with Corinne Winters as such an attractive high-class prostitute, help the reality hit home.

I have reservations about portraying Alfredo as a bumbling bookish nerd because it’s not clear why she would be so attracted to him, but the director’s point is obviously that she wants to get away from the bling and goes for its exact opposite. The rowdy and uncouth behaviour of the party guests in evening dress adds emphasis to this contrast with Alfredo’s introspective world, and while the costumes for Violetta mark her out as especially glamorous, they also show her to be more demure.

Alfredo and Violetta, final scene

Alfredo and Violetta, final scene

Ben Johnson sang well as Alfredo, though this production upstages his character with those of his father and Violetta, making it hard for him. If you want a traditional production with all the party trimmings such as gypsies and matadors, then this co-production with Opera Graz is not for you, but if you want an intriguing insight into the main character it’s a must-see.

Fine singing from the chorus, and wonderful conducting by Michael Hofstetter who beautifully drew out the tension in Verdi’s music. And what a stunning performance by Corinne Winters as the frail one, making her European debut. Don’t miss seeing her.

Performances continue until March 3 — for details click here.

The Mikado, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, December 2012

6 December, 2012

The Mikado himself in this fantasia of English eccentricity was gloriously played by Richard Angas, with Robert Murray excellent as Nanki-Poo, and Richard Suart giving a brilliant performance of Ko-Ko in his 25thanniversary of the role. This vintage production continues to sparkle with bounce and fizz, and is so extraordinarily up to date that Ko-Ko’s little list of Society offenders not only includes the latest scandals, but even mentions George Osborne’s autumn statement, which he only gave on the day of this performance.

The Mikado, all images ENO/ Sarah Lee

The Mikado, all images ENO/ Sarah Lee

Clearly one should keep going to further nights of The Mikado to catch all the clever innuendos that Richard Suart puts into his role as Ko-Ko. I loved the allusion to the Leveson Inquiry, “I’ve put him on my list, in case I’m on his list”; the bit about corporate tax dodgers; and “the Speaker’s wife who’s such a berk and believes in Trial by Twitter”. Bravo! Satire is alive and well at the London Coliseum.

Pooh Bah, Ko-Ko, Pish-Tush

Pooh Bah, Ko-Ko, Pish-Tush

Add to this the glorious choreography and tap dancing, the super performance of Yvonne Howard as Katisha, with the lovely Mary Bevan as Yum-Yum, along with Fiona Canfield and Rachael Lloyd as the other two of the Three Little Maids from School, and you have a performance to charm the eye and delight the ear.

Three Little Girls from School

Three Little Maids from School

This Jonathan Miller production with designs by the late Stefanos Lazaridis, whose work was recently seen at Covent Garden in the Ring cycle, shows a white-on-white hotel complete with palms and piano. It’s huge fun, and the costumes by Sue Blane give a great sense of stylised Englishness masquerading as something from the Far East. Well conducted by David Parry with its sense of spontaneity revived by Elaine Tyler-Hall, this has a freshness belying the age of the production.

Yvonne Howard as Katisha

Yvonne Howard as Katisha

Yvonne Howard sang beautifully in her solo before Ko-Ko enters to propose to her in Act II, and when Richard Angas as the Mikado says, “Till after lunch then — bon appétit!”, I had to laugh out loud. The main characters bring perfection to their performances, spicing the wit of the words by body language and presentation, yet it all appears entirely natural and unrehearsed. This glorious piece of Gilbert and Sullivan is worth revisiting for the clever innuendos alone, even if you have seen it many times before.

Performances continue until January 31 — for details click here.

Carmen, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, November 2012

22 November, 2012

The ENO’s new production of Carmen by Calixto Bieito is a stunner. No romantic gypsies here, but a bunch of nasty crooks who don’t bother to tie up Zuniga when he appears in Act II, but simply kick the hell out of him behind their Mercedes. And in Act III after Micaëla, beautifully sung by Elizabeth Llewellyn, has been found hiding in the back seat of one of the half dozen Mercs on stage, Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercédès, go through her handbag and take whatever they feel like. Mercédès has a pretty daughter, but they are coarse women against whom Carmen looks like real class. And when Don Jose meets up with her in Act IV there is no stabbing. He slashes at her, she clutches her throat, and staggers with blood dripping over her hands.

All images ENO/ Alastair Muir

This is a very physical, earthy production. One of the soldiers runs round and around the stage at the start, presumably as a punishment, and collapses. But without strict orders, these are not soldiers you would want to get close if they are in buoyant mood. And during the overture when we see a conjuring trick that is merely a joke, this is a warning not to expect the usual. The occasional spoken dialogue worked well, the earthiness is compelling, and remember that the original story by Prosper Mérimée is based on a real case — in Spain he went to interview a prisoner condemned to death for killing a gypsy.

Carmen and Don Jose

As Don Jose, American tenor Adam Diegel sang brilliantly, portraying the honourable nature of this man who went so terribly wrong under Carmen’s spell. It was a great performance. Romanian mezzo Ruxandra Donose made an attractive sexy Carmen, and Mercè Paloma’s main costume for her was inspired, allowing her to bend her knees aside without losing decorum. Wonderful lighting by Bruno Poet went from dark to sultry to cheerful brightness for the start of Act IV when a pretty girl in long blond hair suns herself on a Spanish flag with a bull motif in its centre. At the end when Don Jose has committed his final sin, Carmen lies in the same position. The imagery is clever, with the dark shape of a huge bull at stage rear during Act III, pulled down with a bang to start the celebrations of Act IV.

The start of Act IV

Among supporting roles, Graeme Danby was smugly nasty as Lieutenant Zuniga, Duncan Rock made a fine Corporal Moralès with magnificent stage presence, and Madeleine Shaw sang an excellent Mercédès. The visceral energy of this production was complemented by Ryan Wigglesworth in the orchestra pit, along with excellent work by the chorus and children, and the whole thing came over as hugely realistic.

Not to be missed, and performances only continue until December 9 — for details click here.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, November 2012

6 November, 2012

John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, was imprisoned in the early 1660s for abstaining from Anglican church services and preaching at unlawful meetings — such things being no longer the vogue they were round the campfires of Cromwell’s army — and this opera starts with him in prison. There he dreams, and we follow his journey from the wicket gate onwards to the celestial city.

Pilgrim prepares for battles ahead, all images ROH/ Mike Hoban

The first performance of this opera, in 1951 at Covent Garden, was a great disappointment to its composer Vaughan Williams, but this production by Yoshi Oïda works beautifully. The sets are simple, uncrowded, and the music and words are free to speak for themselves. The movement of characters is cleverly done, and there are wonderful theatrical effects such as Apollyon as a gigantic garbage-monster. After rising from his sleep this mutant fiend comes threateningly close to killing the Pilgrim, temporarily represented by a puppet, but he rises again to defeat Apollyon and then encounters Vanity Fair. This was a riot of colour: nuns in corsets and fishnet stockings, transvestites, bi-gendered people and much more, but Lord Hate-Good arrives to condemn the Pilgrim to prison.

Vanity Fair

Starting the second part we hear those famous lines My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me, with images of war appearing on a small screen. This screen later shows the waters the Pilgrim must cross to reach the celestial city, and blindfolded he sings Preserve me from the deep waters … They are waters of death. Few mortals have traversed them and lived: Gilgamesh, Odysseus … but this is all a dream and the Pilgrim is back where he started, in prison.

Roland Wood gave a fine performance of the main role, and the chorus were magnificent. Other singers took multiple roles in the vast cast of characters, and Timothy Robinson sang and acted strikingly well, as did Ann Murray. Martyn Brabbins conducted with a glorious sweep giving a meditative rapture to the music. Yet this is opera, not oratorio, and Yoshi Oïda’s sensitive production is a thoroughly fulfilling theatrical experience.

The hero in Bunyan’s original is named Christian, but Vaughan Williams changed this to The Pilgrim, creating a drama that applies beyond Christianity. As the music started I was reminded of the story when U.S. ambassador Wendy Chamberlin took over the Pakistan mission, two days after the September 11 attacks. President Musharraf told her that jihad once had the meaning of a personal struggle against perceived weaknesses rather than the massacre of perceived enemies, and it is the sense of personal struggle that comes through in this production. Another success for the ENO — not to be missed.

Performances continue until November 28 — for details click here.

Don Giovanni, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, October 2012

21 October, 2012

The revival of this production by Rufus Norris has a cast very similar to its opening run in 2010 and works rather well this time. Paul Anderson’s excellent lighting helps create a sense of dark forces at work, and is particularly effective in Act II for the scene featuring Donna Elvira, and again towards the end when multiple Commendatores remove their head coverings and the flames of hell flicker round the side of the set.

Giovanni in action with Zerlina, all images ENO/ Richard Hubert Smith

The cheap picnic for the Commendatore at the end and Ian MacNeil’s simple sets, pushed around by masked men, lend an air of improvisation symptomatic of the Don’s horribly loose lifestyle, and this time Iain Paterson sang the title role with a far sharper cutting edge. Here was no longer a libidinously engaging academic but an assertive and ruthless womaniser, driven by a lust for power and new experiences. As his sidekick Leporello, Darren Jeffery was almost as unsympathetic as his master, and though unable to match Paterson’s strong bass-baritone, he became more engaging towards the end.

Anna, Zerlina, Masetto and Ottavio catch Leporello disguised as the Don

Don and Commendatore

Sarah Tynan and John Molloy reprised their delightful portrayal of the peasant couple Zerlina and Masetto, singing and acting with gusto, and Katherine Broderick gave another fine performance of Donna Anna, her recognition of Giovanni as the murderer of her father the Commendatore being delivered with fine vocal power, superbly backed up by the orchestra. As her fiancé Don Ottavio, Ben Johnson joined the cast to great effect, singing heroically, and his Dalla sua pace (referring to his fiancée’s peace of mind) in Act I was superbly delivered, in translation of course. Matthew Best sang a fine Commendatore, coming over very strongly after his return from the grave, and Sarah Redgwick reprised her performance as an attractive Donna Elvira in dark stockings and red dress.

The cast worked beautifully together and music director Edward Gardner conducted with great power and sensitivity, his curtain call appearance in white tie and tails adding a nice touch. These are performances of great musical strength, leavened by Jeremy Sams’ vernacular translation with its slightly coarse but witty moments.

Performances of the present production end on November 17 — for details click here.

Magic Flute, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, September 2012

14 September, 2012

This powerful and illuminating production by Nicholas Hytner may be seeing its last outing after twenty-five in the repertoire, so don’t miss this ‘final’ revival. The new cast, with young conductor Nicholas Collon making his ENO debut, did a super job.

Pamina and Papageno, all images ENO/ Alastair Muir

For me the star of the show was Duncan Rock, who recently made a very strong ENO debut as Donald in Billy Budd. Here he played Papageno with huge charm and ingenuousness, and as this is all done in translation he had some fun adding an Australian touch to the early part of the text, calling Tamino ‘mate’ and referring to Papagena as a ‘sheila’. It worked, and Elena Xanthoudakis, another Australian,  gave a beautifully vivid portrayal of Pamina. When she is in anguish in Act II after Tamino won’t answer, the lighting, superbly revived by Ric Mountjoy, showed her to perfection. In fact this revival by Ian Rutherford and James Bonas was beautifully directed, with excellent placing of singers on the stage, giving enormous clarity to Mozart’s late masterpiece.

Pamina, Sarastro, Tamino

As Sarastro, Robert Lloyd showed a noble bearing, a commanding voice, and forceful histrionics at the start of Act II. Furious he is with the Queen of the Night who was strongly sung, after a nervous start, by American soprano Kathryn Lewek, and her coloratura in the big aria in Act II was delivered with great lucidity. Her ladies, with their contrasting voices, came over very well, and Elizabeth Llewellyn with her mellifluous tones was outstanding as the first lady.

Queen and Pamina

There was plenty more in the way of fine singing with Adrian Thompson as Monostatos convincingly egregious in his unrequited desire for Pamina, Roland Wood a strong Speaker, and Barnaby Rea a hugely authoritative Second Priest. Shawn Mathey sang very strongly as Tamino, though his voice was a bit Heldentenorish for my liking, and Rhian Lois was a charmingly Welsh Papagena.

Fine singing and stage presence from the chorus and the three boys helped this production come alive, and although the designs by Bob Crowley, with their Egyptian hieroglyphs and flowing robes, are so good it would seem impossible to fail, good direction is vital and opening night showed it in abundance. The bird costume for Papageno at the start is a delight, and at the end when he and Papagena are united they are both portrayed as birds in a nest, sailing into the sky. Lovely fun.

Performances continue until October 18 — for details click here.

Peter Grimes, in concert, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, August 2012

25 August, 2012

For those who saw English National Opera’s new production of Peter Grimes in 2009, here was a chance to savour the full glory of Britten’s score. With the ENO orchestra and chorus in the vast expanse of the Albert Hall under brilliant direction by Edward Gardner, this was a musical treat.

As Grimes himself, Stuart Skelton gave a hugely powerful performance, with Amanda Roocroft warmly sympathetic as Ellen Orford, the same pair as in the 2009 production. Once again Rebecca de Pont Davies gave a fine performance of Auntie, and Gillian Ramm and Mairéad Buicke sang beautifully as her ‘nieces’. Felicity Palmer gave a witty portrayal of the spiteful Mrs Sedley, Leigh Melrose a strong performance as the apothecary Ned Keene, and Iain Paterson was terrific as Captain Balstrode. If the ENO restage this in coming years, one can only hope they will be able to call on his services for the role.

Despite the fact that this was a concert performance, broadcast on Radio 3, those of us in the audience had the advantage of some clever staging. Grimes’s new apprentice was present, cowering under his fierce domination, and at the beginning of Act II while Ellen is singing alone, the chorus (in church) turned round towards the chorus master, who conducted them standing in front of the bust of Henry Wood. As they sang, the Albert Hall organ played — a lovely touch. Then as the act progressed, Skelton hit his forehead in frustration, before calming down and trying to encourage the boy, sending him off-stage and letting him down by a rope. As the men from the town approached he forgot the rope, and we witnessed the fatal moment. At the end of the act, Balstrode stood alone on stage, the viola produced another solo, beautifully played by Amélie Roussel, and he slowly picked up one of the boots the boy had left behind.

Act III started with an off-stage band for the tavern scene, but as the chorus and principal singers start to express their disapproval of Grimes, using strong arm gestures, the stage was set for Amanda Roocroft to give a lovely rendering of “Peter, we’ve come to take you home”. To her horror, Balstrode tells him to take the boat out and sink it, and Grimes slowly exited winding his way through the audience in the pit. The singers returned to stage, the chorus intoned words about the majestic sweep of the sea, and this superb performance came to an end.

Edward Gardner with the ENO orchestra and chorus, along with Stuart Skelton as Grimes raised this to the very highest level, and I cannot wait to hear them do it again at the London Coliseum.