Posts Tagged ‘Giselle Allen’

The Passenger, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, September 2011

20 September, 2011

A ship bound for South America in the early 1960s is taking a German diplomat and his wife Liese to a post in Brazil. Steep stairways connect the upper deck of the ship to the hell of 1940s Auschwitz below. Nearly twenty years after the Second World War a guard and a prisoner of the concentration camp are on the same ship — or are they?

The prisoner Tadeusz plays Bach, all photos Catherine Ashmore

The set design was the idea of librettist Alexander Medvedev who died just a few days before the opera’s first staged performance at the Bregenz Festival in 2010. The composer himself, Mieczysław Weinberg, died in early 1996, but incredibly enough the ex-prisoner of Auschwitz who wrote the original story appeared on stage at the end, looking much younger than her 88 years. Zofia Posmysz, a young Polish woman, was one of the few who survived, and after the war she became a journalist. One day in the late 1950s she was sent on a quick round-trip visit to Paris and found herself close to a party of German tourists. She thought she heard the voice of one of the guards in the camp, “And there on the Place de la Concorde I heard that shrill voice yelling again. …  I looked in all directions and searched for her … my heart had stopped beating for a moment”. Back in Poland she wrote a radio play inspired by this incident, but in order that the guard could not get away, she set it on an ocean liner.

Weinberg and his librettist turned it into an opera in 1968, but it remained unstaged until last year. Weinberg was a Pole who escaped to the Soviet Union in 1939, but since his work did not fit the political correctness of so-called ‘Soviet Realism’, it was largely ignored. Musicians however knew it well, and Shostakovich wrote that he would never tire of this opera, “I have heard it three times already and have studied the score. …  [it] stirs the very soul in dramatic terms”. The music is on a subtle psychological level, sometimes represented by a single instrument, and at one point a solo violin is played on stage by one of the prisoners. This addition to Ms Posmysz’s original story is very effective. As she herself recalls, “The worst … was in 1943 and 1944 when huge numbers of Hungarian Jews were transported to the camp. … these masses of people were marched off towards the crematorium … and our excellent orchestra stood in front of the block Kommandant’s quarters and played … all those cheerful pieces [such as] Ich brauche keine Millionen“. This jaunty foxtrot can be heard on YouTube, and it’s a shock to listen and imagine . . . But to get back to the opera, the violinist is commanded to play the Kommandant’s favourite waltz. He knows he will be killed afterwards, so he plays Bach instead, is beaten to death, and his priceless instrument smashed to pieces. Later on the ship, the band plays the Kommandant’s waltz, apparently requested by the passenger who was once a prisoner. The effect on the guard is devastating, and the ghost of the past sends her down from the upper deck to the camp beneath.

The ship’s band plays the Kommandant’s waltz

This fine production by David Pountney with sets by Johan Engels and costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, was cleverly lit by Fabrice Kebour, sometimes from high above, sometimes from below. It’s a superb set with the white of the ship and its occupants contrasted with the darkness of the camp, and the railway tracks. Deft conducting by Richard Armstrong, and excellent singing from Michelle Breedt as Liese with Kim Begley as her diplomat husband, and especially Giselle Allen as Marta the prisoner whose role parallels that of the author herself. It’s a great team effort, with Leigh Melrose and Julia Sporsén as two of the other main prisoners. The story and subsequent opera is a remarkable creation, beautifully staged, and I shall go again.

Performances continue until October 25 — for details click here.

The Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne, August 2011

12 August, 2011

The clarity of this production, and this performance, was exceptional. From the first words of the Prologue to the last words of the drama when the Governess asks the limp body of Miles, “What have we done between us?”, the whole story was laid bare.

Governess and children, all photos by Alastair Muir

The scene with the governess travelling by train to the big house where she will look after the two children was beautifully done, with projections of moving countryside through train windows. You feel for the governess, for her uncertainty, “If things go wrong, what shall I do? Who can I ask, with none of my own kind to talk to?”

Flora and Miss Jessel, Miles and Quint

The central feature of this Jonathan Kent production is a large frame of windows, including a French window, that can revolve, be lifted, and rotated out of their frame. The windows help separate the world of normality from otherworldly forces, and in the scene at the lake they lie horizontally over the body of Miss Jessel, as if she were under water before rising up to spook the governess. The previous death of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint is represented partly by branches of a dead tree where Quint sits when he urges Miles to steal the letter, and the many scenes in this opera are formed by bringing stage props together by rotating various annular regions of the stage, sometimes in opposite directions. These are clever designs by Paul Brown, helped by Mark Henderson’s lighting, and I particularly liked the final scene of Act I where Miles is in the bath and Flora is washing her hair. She puts her head in the basin and remains utterly still while Quint appears to Miles. It’s as if time stands still. It’s as if these ghostly appearances exist in a wrinkle of time, inaccessible to Mrs. Grose the housekeeper, but they are disturbances that reveal themselves to receptive minds.

Governess and Miles

This is a chamber opera, with thirteen instrumentalists from the London Philharmonic playing beautifully under the direction of young Czech conductor, Jakub Hruša, the music director of Glyndebourne on Tour. The cast worked together as a team, all with excellent diction, and it’s impossible to pick out single brilliant performances. Toby Spence gave great clarity to the prologue and was a charismatic Quint; and Giselle Allen was a creepy looking Miss Jessel, with her long, untidy, black hair, and spine-tingling voice. Miah Persson was a wonderful governess, pretty and sure of voice, albeit plagued by anxiety, and Susan Bickley was strong and equally sure as Mrs. Grose. This wonderful team of adults was complemented by Joanna Songi as Flora and Thomas Parfitt as Miles. As a woman in her very early twenties, Ms Songi came over very well as a ten year old girl, and Thomas Parfitt played a boy of his own age (12) with superb clarity and voice control. This was as close to perfect a performance of Britten’s opera as one is ever likely to get, and is not to be missed.

 Performances continue until August 28 — for details click here.