Posts Tagged ‘London Coliseum’

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.

Julietta, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, September 2012

18 September, 2012

Dreams or Reality? For Michel, a bookseller from Paris, there is something addictive about dreams, but in the first two acts the auditorium lights slowly come on at the end, as if he is waking up. When the third act nears its conclusion the lighting shows some promise of doing the same again, but it suddenly goes dark and Michel is trapped for ever. This clever idea is just part of Richard Jones’s excellent new production of Martinů’s opera.

All images ENO/ Richard Hubert Smith

Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů left his homeland for Paris in 1923 and during his many years there he found Georges Neveux’s recent play Juliette, ou La clé des songes (the key of dreams) a fine subject for opera. He wrote the libretto himself, initially in French then in Czech, and it was first performed in Prague in 1938.

Michel and Julietta

The main protagonist Michel yearns to find a girl named Julietta, and he revisits the small coastal town where he once heard her singing at an open window. The inhabitants seem to live only in the present without memory of the past, and when Michel encounters a fortune teller he finds she doesn’t read the future, only the past … and can also read dreams. Nothing however is quite as it seems, and though Michel shoots Julietta it turns out later she is still alive and there is not a drop of blood.

Surreal it certainly is, and the music is intriguing. Severely spare at times, yet suddenly swelling into glorious melody, particularly in Act II, which is nearly as long as the other two half-hour acts combined. We are swayed and seduced by the harmonies, taken away into dreams, memories and hallucinations, and Edward Gardner in the orchestra pit succeeds brilliantly in bringing out the mystery and charm of this music.

Peter Hoare was outstanding as Michel, with Julia Sporsén giving a fine portrayal of Julietta. Andrew Shore was excellent as the man in a helmet, plus two other roles, and the other soloists, such as Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and Susan Bickley, all did well and took on multiple roles. An abundance of roles helps advance the action by exchanges between a constantly changing sequence of individuals, avoiding the need for extended vocal solos or big arias, despite the lyrical nature of the music.

The Central Bureau of Dreams

Huge designs by Antony McDonald, helped by Matthew Richardson’s excellent lighting, give a sense of irreality to Michel and the strange people he encounters, and the staging and wonderful conducting make this a compelling evening. Edward Gardner and director Richard Jones have scored another great success for the ENO.

Performances continue until October 3 — 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.

Swan Lake, English National Ballet, ENB, London Coliseum, August 2012

4 August, 2012

The English National Ballet’s production of Swan Lake is hard to beat, and it was beautifully danced, so don’t miss it. Wonderful designs by Peter Farmer with clever lighting by Howard Harrison, give a misty otherworldiness to the background in Acts I and III. That other world is where Act II and IV take place, and the stage and lighting effects give all four acts a magical quality.

Von Rothbart, ENB image/ Annabel Moeller

On the first night of the present run, Vadim Muntagirov was unavailable as Prince Siegfried, and was replaced by Zdenek Konvalina, making a fine debut in the role. He danced with great clarity, and was brilliantly partnered by Erina Takahashi as Odette/Odile. She danced a graceful Odette with beautiful arm movements, and her more assertive Odile had enormous poise and almost unearthly control. It was a lovingly lucid performance. James Streeter was a mendaciously powerful Von Rothbart with terrific stage presence, and I loved the short prologue where we see him capturing the princess and turning her into a swan. The transformation was deftly accomplished — she disappears behind his wings and as he rushes across stage the swan queen appears.

Siegfried and Odette, image Arnaud Stephenson

The corps danced beautifully throughout, and in Act I the pas-de-douze was a delight and in the pas-de-quatre I particularly liked Adela Ramirez and Junor Souza. Lovely cygnets in Act II, the Spanish dance and Czardas in Act III were enormous fun, and in the Neapolitan dance Barry Drummond was a revelation, showing superb musicality. Jane Howarth made a charming queen, and Michael Coleman a wonderfully bumbling tutor.

Siegfried and Odile, image Arnaud Stephenson

Conducting by Gavin Sutherland breathed life and liveliness into Tchaikovsky’s wonderful music, though some tempi seemed unduly slow. Altogether this is a super production and was given a terrific performance by the company, so come to London and get a ticket. Don’t be put off by the Olympic Games; the West End is nowhere near as crowded as was predicted, and this is a lovely treat for early August.

Performances continue until August 11 — for details click here.

Dr Dee, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2012

27 June, 2012

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. So says Hamlet in the words of Shakespeare, who died eight years after that extraordinary Englishman, John Dee (1527–1608), whom he may have used as a model for Prospero in The Tempest.

All images ENO/ Richard Hubert Smith

Part of the inspiration for this opera, according to Adrian Mourby’s essay in the programme, was the question of who was the greatest dead Englishman, and the answer was John Dee. Mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, alchemist and polymath, he was a sort of Faust-like character who wanted to go beyond human knowledge and communicate with angels. This led to his downfall because he came to trust the clever, flamboyant, scheming liar Edward Kelley, who would help him uncover the Enochian language of heaven. Kelley became Dee’s regular scryer (medium and crystal gazer), inveigled his way into the household and claimed that an angel commanded that he sleep with Dee’s wife.

Kelley, Dee’s wife, and Dee blindfolded

Dee had earlier been recruited by Francis Walsingham, head of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in particular to advise on an auspicious date for the coronation of the new queen, Elizabeth. But Kelley was seriously distrusted by those around Walsingham, and Dee’s influence at court waned. He died in straitened circumstances, and this opera starts and ends with the bedridden Dee being cared for by his daughter, Katherine.

Dee dies attended by his daughter

In the meantime we are treated to ingenious theatrical effects that convey the image of a man of tireless energy exploring the secrets of nature. Dee was well-known on the continent of Europe as an expert of Euclid, and the proof he gives on stage is just like those found in the Hellenistic world. In Euclidean geometry Dee was in touch with the ultimate, its theorems as valid now as they ever were, but not so with astronomy. We are treated to a wonderful view of the moon and planets forming geometric patterns as they revolve around the earth, a geocentric view of the universe propounded by Ptolemy in his famous Almagest. This was the basis for all astronomy until the seventeenth century when use of the telescope finally convinced Galileo and others that the planets had moons and orbited the sun. Yet Dee himself, and Walsingham, may have known of the telescope earlier, since a sixteenth century English design existed that would have been a closely guarded secret for the Navy Royal.

John Dee, polymath extraordinary

Dee’s books we see by the hundreds, and books are opened out as concertinas that grow in size and serve as screens. Early in the second half, people and objects appear from behind these screens as they are dragged across stage, and then another screen converts them into line drawings that decompose before our eyes. These stunning visual effects are very clever.

For most of the first half, all is well, with Paul Hilton entirely convincing as John Dee, Anna Dennis as his daughter Katherine, Clemmie Sveaas as Dee’s young wife Jane, and Steven Page giving a fine portrayal of Walsingham. But then counter-tenor Christopher Robson appears as Kelley, and Dee pursues a path towards his Faust-like error. Walsingham grows in size and the human ravens of his entourage take on a more menacing mien. Towards the end real ravens appear, flying across the auditorium and returning obediently to the upper level of the stage.

That upper level is where the orchestra sat for most of the opera, a reminder if any were needed of the habit in Elizabethan theatre of having the musicians at a higher level. Costumes are Elizabethan, and this extraordinary creation by Damon Albarn and director Rufus Norris is a sight not to be missed. The music by Damon Albarn, conducted and supervised by Stephen Higgins, mixes a twenty-first century popular style with musical ideas from the sixteenth and seventeenth century. In putting on this imaginative show the ENO is offering opera to a wide audience, and my only complaint is that they have abandoned their usual practice of providing surtitles. It was not always easy to understand the words, particularly the utterances of Edward Kelley, but the synopsis in the programme expressed everything with excellent clarity — so be sure to buy a programme.

Performances continue until July 7 — for details click here.

Billy Budd, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2012

19 June, 2012

This Benjamin Britten opera, based on Herman Melville’s story of the same name, is a tragedy set in 1797 during the French Revolutionary Wars. It’s a hugely strong work, and Edward Gardner in the orchestra pit gave it everything. The orchestra played with great power, the chorus was magnificent, and the singers were wonderful.

All images ENO/ Henrietta Butler

The opera begins and ends with Captain Vere, beautifully sung here by Kim Begley. After Claggart, the Master-at-Arms has made his false accusation, Begley came through with great power, “Oh, this cursed mist!” The mist that was hiding the French ship is a metaphor for the confusion created by Claggart, but Vere sees through it, and his “Claggart … beware … The mists are vanishing and you shall fail” makes it seem all will be well. Suddenly things go awry, and Vere fails. When Billy is faced with Claggart’s lies and can’t speak, Claggart laughs in his face, Billy hits out, and Vere abruptly stays aloof. Had they not been at war, all would have been different, but Vere’s failure to find a way out has haunted him for the rest of his life, and Begley gave us a well-nuanced portrayal of this intelligent, sensitive man.

Claggart and the Novice

Matthew Rose as Claggart developed his character from a plain non-commissioned officer to a man of sinister, hidden urges, and his long monologue, “O beauty, o handsomeness … I will destroy you” was delivered from the depths of his dark heart. Benedict Nelson as Billy gave a sympathetic portrayal, and singing of his impending death at the end he came over well, but could not quite rise to the poetry of the music. Some of the other solo performances were wonderfully strong, with Gwynne Howell giving a fine portrayal of the old sailor, Dansker. As the officers, Darren Jeffery, Henry Waddington and Jonathan Summers sang well as Flint, Ratcliffe, and Redburn, with Summers particularly good and showing fine stage presence.

Officers in judgement

After the chorus has let rip with “Blow her away. Blow her to Hilo”, Duncan Rock as Donald was terrific with his “We’re off to Samoa”, outsinging Billy at this point. And Nicky Spence gave a hugely strong rendering of the Novice, only let down by a costume and silly pair of glasses that made him look far older than he is. But the costumes were part of the problem here. This production by David Alden couldn’t seem to make up its mind what it was portraying. The only thing certain is that it wasn’t 1797. The leather trench coats and boots had a Nazi feel about them, and the sailors looked as if they worked at B&Q, but sometimes acted as if they were in a concentration camp. And what were the oil drums doing? The ship is a seventy-four — it says so in the libretto — a battleship with 74 guns that became standard in the Royal Navy in the nineteenth century. And what was the point of that slow motion attack by the marines at the end?

Billy about to hang

The production aside, the performance was superb, and the main character, Captain Vere beautifully sung. The opera ends with his recollection of years ago, “… when I, Edward Fairfax Vere, commanded the Indomitable …” At this point he should be alone, but the production left the sailors in place, all cowed into submission. Odd.

Performances continue until July 8 — for details click here.

Caligula, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, May 2012

26 May, 2012

Caligula ruled for just under four years (AD 37–41) before being assassinated at the age of 28. He was the emperor who threatened to make his horse a consul, simply to mock the subservience of the aristocracy, and when one sycophant proffered his own life should the emperor recover from illness, Caligula took it from him as soon as he was well. That incident appears in this opera, towards the end, and is one of several deaths, including Caligula’s own, stabbed by numerous hands. Yet afterwards he stands up and cries out, “I am still alive”. A minute later the opera ends, more or less as it starts, with a scream.

I am still alive! All images Johan Persson

At the beginning there is silence. A hand appears … then a man, and finally the curtain opens. A naked woman shrouded in white falls dead; the man screams. This is the death of Caligula’s lover and sister, Drusilla. Her death unhinges him, and he demands the moon.

The mirror as moon

When the moon is mentioned, as it is many times, the music has a sultry quality reminiscent of the humid moonlit night in Richard Strauss’s Salome, and there are other similarities, as when four nobles all sing contrasting things together.

The music by Detlev Glanert kept my attention throughout, though Hans-Ulrich Treichel’s libretto, well translated by Amanda Holden and based on a play by Camus, was slightly lacking in dramatic tension. The play, written during the Second World War, was a response to the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin, but Glanert’s opera, written in 2006, had more recent material to work with, and Benedict Andrews’ production reminded me of North Korea. All those flowers, the little yellow flags being waved by everyone in the stadium on stage, and the army with machine guns at the ready.

Caligula’s slave

Yet the characters were those of Rome, and Peter Coleman-Wright gave a superb performance of Caligula, with Yvonne Howard singing beautifully as his wife, Caesonia. Caligula’s slave, Helicon, who may well have been a eunuch, is a counter-tenor role, well performed by Christopher Ainslie, and Ryan Wigglesworth in the orchestra pit made huge sense of Glanert’s music.

Dress was modern, but with bizarre costumes for clowns, cartoon characters and women in various cabaret outfits thrown in. The naked Drusilla, shrouded in white at the start, becomes a naked woman in gold paint, and in Act III Caligula appears as Venus, wearing a dress and marrying the moon.

He is having an affair with Mucius’s wife and drags her out from dinner to have sex with her, despite the fact that she’s on her period, and after it’s over she returns to the table and throws up. You wonder why they don’t just kill the man, but then when they conspire to do it and he reappears everyone fawns on him. Brutal dictatorship is not a pretty sight, and this is not a pretty opera, but the music carries it forward, giving us an insight into the insanity of narcissistic paranoia.

Performances continue until June 14 — for details click here.

Madam Butterfly, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, May 2012

9 May, 2012

Anthony Minghella died four years ago, but his wonderful English National Opera production of Madam Butterfly lives on. Created in 2005 it attracted huge acclaim and won the Olivier Award for best new opera production.

Death at the end, all images Clive Barda

Those who attend live relays from the Metropolitan Opera in New York may have seen it in the cinema in 2009, but it’s better in the theatre so if you live anywhere near London go to the Coliseum. If theatre is anything to do with visual imagery, and it surely is, then the clever set designs by Michael Levine, the glorious costumes by Han Feng, and the fabulous lighting by Peter Mumford are a treat not to be missed. Excellent choreography by Minghella’s wife Carolyn Choa, along with the very clever use of puppetry, make this an unbeatable Butterfly production. Not only is Butterfly’s little son a puppet, but she looks on in Act III as a puppet of herself is manipulated by forces she can’t control.

Act I wedding

Mary Plazas gave a beautiful portrayal of Butterfly, with Gwyn Hughes Jones singing strongly in the thankless role of US Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton, particularly in Act III. Though his full name is Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, she refers to him as F.B.Pinkerton, and in my view he’s more of an FB than a BF. The US consul Sharpless has explained several times that she is taking this marriage in deadly earnest, but the hedonistic young naval man couldn’t give a monkey’s. Only in Act III is he finally sorry, singing with conviction, “I’m a coward, I am weak”, but it’s too late.

John Fanning sang with real feeling as Sharpless, and Pamela Helen Stephen came over very sympathetically as Butterfly’s maid Suzuki, both of them joining the main characters from the cast of 2005. This was excellent team-work under revival director Sarah Tipple, with musical direction by Oleg Caetani in the orchestra pit. His light touch yielded emphasis at the right moments, though I missed some of the emotional swell to this music.

The Butterfly puppet

Puppetry by the Blind Summit Theatre was excellent, and the whole cast, including those black-clad figures personifying the forces of Japanese tradition, moved beautifully in time with the music. And if you need some background to Puccini’s extraordinary take on Japanese culture, see the interesting article by Adrian Mourby in the programme.

Performances continue until June 2 — for details click here.

The Flying Dutchman, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, April 2012

29 April, 2012

Sudden darkness in the auditorium … the orchestra struck up, and we were treated to great power and sensitivity from the baton of Edward Gardner. The silences were silent, the quiet passages quiet, and the loud passages with the chorus came over with huge force.

All images by Robert Workman

This new production by Jonathan Kent starts in the overture with a little girl being put to bed by her father Daland the sea captain. She dreams of the sea … the wild, windy sea, shown in video projections designed by Nina Dunn. Then as the opera gets underway we see huge designs by Paul Brown filling the stage from top to bottom, with lighting by Mark Henderson embracing the video effects and giving beautiful colour changes during Daland’s lyrical dialogue with his daughter, when salvation beckons.

Clive Bayley as Daland

In the end when the Dutchman chides his would-be saviour, Senta for her apparent unfaithfulness he silently vanishes from the party throng, she smashes a bottle . . . and it’s all over. She dies and he is redeemed.

Entrance of the Dutchman

James Creswell as the Dutchman exhibited superb restraint and nobility, both in voice and stage presence, and with Clive Bayley portraying Daland as an engagingly earnest father to Senta, this was a cast rich in wonderful bass tones. At the higher register, Stuart Skelton was a brilliant Erik, the young man in love with Senta. He is a star in the ENO firmament. As Senta herself, Orla Boylan gave a somewhat uneven vocal performance with some strong moments but a flaccid stage-presence.

Senta at the party

The Dutchman has been wandering the planet for countless years, and in Jonathan Kent’s production we see him dressed in a costume from two hundred years ago, contrasting with the girls working in a modern assembly shop where a costume party turns wild, threatening a gang rape of Senta . . . but suddenly the Dutchman’s ghostly crew sing powerfully from off-stage, scaring the living daylights out of the revellers. This is the same director who has produced Sweeney Todd now playing in the West End, so perhaps a bit of the Sweeney darkness has invaded Wagner, but that’s no bad thing, and the chorus carried it off superbly. They were wonderful.

The Flying Dutchman is the first of Wagner’s operas in the regular canon of ten, and this was the first time Edward Gardner has conducted any of them. I look forward to more!

Performances continue until May 23 — for details click here.