Posts Tagged ‘London Coliseum’

Daphnis and Chloë/ The Two Pigeons, Birmingham Royal Ballet, BRB, London Coliseum, March 2012

14 March, 2012

Essential for first rate ballet are music and choreography, and this double bill provides them in spades, along with some very fine dancing.

Daphnis and Chloë, all images Bill Cooper

Both ballets involve young lovers splitting apart, yet reunited at the end, and both are choreographed by one of the great masters of the twentieth century, Frederick Ashton. His creations were entirely new, the original choreography for Daphnis and Chloë being lost, and Messager’s score for Two Pigeons being re-orchestrated by John Lanchbery, who rounded it off at the end with a return to the scene at the start, the lovers together again in the studio. Musically and choreographically these are a must-see. Ravel’s music for Daphnis and Chloë is one of the world’s great ballet scores, and though the music for Two Pigeons may be less well known it is simply glorious. Conducting by Koen Kessels was hugely powerful, yet entirely sensitive to the dancers.

The dancing itself was excellent, the corps work very fine, and Elisha Willis gave a lovely performance as both the virginal Chloë and the hot-blooded gypsy girl in Two Pigeons, who causes the young painter to leave his lover and run after her. She filled both roles with conviction, and Robert Parker and Nao Sakuma as the lovers in Pigeons were a delight. Strong dancing all round, with superb sets, costumes and lighting.

The designs for Daphnis and Chloë are John Craxton’s originals for Ashton’s ballet, the gathered skirts for the women and belted trousers and shirtsleeves for the men bringing the classical remoteness of this story into the Mediterranean world so well evoked by Ravel’s score. And the stylised sets, though highly evocative of the period in which they were created, give a timeless background to the story.

The Two Pigeons: Robert Parker and Nao Sakuma

In Two Pigeons, Jacques Dupont’s lovely set, with its window to the city and sky, was beautifully lit by Mark Jonathan, the colours of the sky evincing a magical appeal for the anchored freedom of rooftops, and life in the upper floor of a city building. And those pigeons, seeming to fly free outside the window yet with one flying in to join the other at the end, evoke the beauty of this charming story.

These two ballets form a superb double bill, but it will be over in the blink of an eye, so fly down to see it without delay. There is a matinée and evening performance at the London Coliseum on March 14 — for details click here.

The Death of Klinghoffer, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2012

29 February, 2012

This opera has sparked controversy at its first staging in London. Why?

All images by Richard Hubert Smith

The essential story is that in 1985 an Italian cruise ship at dock in Alexandria was hijacked by four Palestinian terrorists, who seem to have had a confused idea about freeing prisoners in Israeli jails. Many of the people on the cruise were away at a tour of the pyramids, leaving mainly women and children on board, along with a 70-year old American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer in a wheelchair. The terrorists ended up negotiating some kind of deal for landing the ship in Syria after shooting Klinghoffer in the back and dumping him and his chair overboard.

Klinghoffer and wife

The opera itself, created by John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, serves to remind us of an unedifying spectacle in the recent history of terrorism, and the anti-semitic remarks made by the Palestinians surely do not reflect the opinions of either composer or librettist. The production by Tom Morris, with sets by Tom Pye, hews closely to the concept embodied in this creation, but does the whole thing work?

Five years ago I saw a rather lovely Adams opera called  A Flowering Tree, based on an old Tamil story, a far cry from the days when he went out of his way to tackle political issues. Nixon in China was wonderful, and Klinghoffer and Dr. Atomic have been acclaimed by some. Part of the problem with Klinghoffer may be that Alice Goodman delivered her libretto in pieces, the choral parts first, and as a result the whole work is structured around six choruses, making it a cross between an oratorio and an opera.

The choral pieces are conceived in pairs, like the days of creation in the first chapter of Genesis where days 1, 2, 3 are paired with days 4, 5, 6. Here though the first pair, the chorus of Exiled Palestinians and chorus of Exiled Jews, comes in the Prologue. The Ocean chorus and the Night chorus end scenes 1 and 2 of Act I, and their counterparts, the Desert chorus and the Day chorus end scenes 1 and 2 of Act II.

Conducting by Baldur Brönnimann brought out the beauty of these choral passages, which form the musical strength of this work, and some of the solo performances came off well, particularly Alan Opie as Klinghoffer. Richard Burkhard gave a strong performance as the principal terrorist and Jesse Kovarsky did a nice dance number to complement his singing as another terrorist, but the strength of Adams’ creation is musical rather than theatrical.

Jesse Kovarsky in the dance number

Video projections by Tom Pye helped this rather static opera, sometimes showing the wake of a moving ship, sometimes the background to the choruses, and perhaps a semi-staged version in somewhere like the Festival Hall would work well too. But certainly the production fitted the opera, unlike the Rusalka now playing at Covent Garden.

Performances continue until March 9 — for details click here.

Tales of Hoffmann — a second view, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2012

19 February, 2012

This was a second visit to the English National Opera’s new production of Hoffmann, a joint venture with the Bavarian State Opera.

Olympia and her creator Spalanzani, all images Chris Christodolou

The cast was identical — see my previous review for more details — and once again, Georgia Jarman gave a remarkable performance as all three lovers: Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta, along with the silent role of Stella in the Prologue and Epilogue. Her performance of Olympia the doll is hugely realistic, particularly in those moments where she apparently loses energy in her movements and the pitch of her voice declines. Clive Bayley reprised his sinister performance in the four roles of Hoffmann’s nemesis: Lindorf as a rival for Stella, Coppelius whose collection of stolen eyes provide a pair for Olympia, Dr. Miracle whose anti-hippocratic antics cause the death of Antonia, and Departutto whose employment of Giulietta to steal men’s souls nearly causes the end of Hoffmann’s artistic life. It is Nicklausse, his companion, doubling as his muse, who saves him, and in this role Christine Rice gave a stunning vocal performance. Her final soliloquy, containing the phrase “but our tears make us great” was sung with a warmth that gave a final focus to the entire evening.

Hoffmann with Antonia

The forcefully sung Hoffmann of Barry Banks is having a crisis in the Prologue, banging his head against the wall and tearing up his written notes. Somehow his love for wine, women and song has disconnected him from his muse, and this opera represents his regeneration as a creative artist.

Christine Rice as Nicklausse

The production by Richard Jones has very interesting aspects, but there are no programme notes and as Mr. Jones is a man of few words, here is a brief, albeit inadequate summary.

The very stylised actions in the Prologue and the first act, well-portrayed in the painting-by-numbers front drop that descends part way through that act, give way in the mysterious Act II to the angst of Antonia and her father. As Dr. Miracle’s ‘patient’ she is finally seen merely as an eerie spotlight, rather than in the flesh, and then as the third act comes into play it is not Hoffmann’s lovers who are in danger of being lost, but the man himself.

Metaphorically the stylised nature of Act I represents some kind of safety for Hoffmann, as if he were clinging to the edge of the pool, but this changes in Act II with Antonia’s strangely ill-defined malady. Now Hoffmann lacks an anchor, and in Act III is in danger of drowning. His survival depends partly on himself, as he defeats Schlemil in a knife fight, and partly on the ineptitude of the forces ranged against him. One of my favourite lines in the French original is where Giulietta drinks the poison reserved for Nicklausse, and Departutto calls out,  “Ah, Giulietta, maladroite!”

Departutto teases Giulietta

On the opening night I was puzzled by the workmen appearing to fix the stage in between Acts I and II, but both these acts are portrayed as slightly unreal, as if they are contrivances devised by Nicklausse, and the workmen fit into this scheme. The gorilla appearing in the interval between Acts II and III, and again throughout Act III seems to have puzzled everyone. I have no explanation except to note that Departutto’s destructions are wrought through non-intellectual, animal desires, catalysed by Giulietta, and … well, it’s a long shot … but E.T.A. Hoffmann was so enamoured of Mozart that he changed his third name to Amadeus, and in Mozart’s Magic Flute strange animals appear from the forest. That, like Hoffmann, is an opera in which the hero endures various trials before reaching a state from which he can move forward.

Finally, Antony Walker in the orchestra pit conducted with fine sensitivity, and the musical aspects came over beautifully. I look forward to seeing a revival of this production in years to come, but in the meantime performances at the ENO continue until March 10 — for details click here.

Der Rosenkavalier, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, January 2012

29 January, 2012

For those who love this Strauss/Hofmannsthal collaboration, the programme booklet contains an interesting essay by Mike Reynolds, describing the vital contributions by Hofmannsthal’s collaborator, Count Harry Kessler. This well-connected and talented man, who was brought up in France, England and Germany, chose the plot and had a huge influence on its structure and realisation. The result inspired Strauss to create one of the most glorious operas ever written, and in Ronald Harwoood’s play Collaboration when the 80-year old Strauss is faced by allied soldiers at his house in 1945, he says, “I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier“.

The silver rose in Act II, all images by Clive Barda

Tomlinson and Connolly in Act I

Such a fabulous opera deserves performances of the highest calibre, and we had some here at the ENO. John Tomlinson is perhaps the finest Baron Ochs I have ever seen, giving this dreadful character a boorish aplomb that never goes over the top, and his diction, as ever, renders surtitles superfluous. He finds his match in the Octavian of Sarah Connolly, who invests this travesti role with youthful rambunctiousness, and sings with glorious power.  And then there is the Sophie of Sophie Bevan, who after a nervous start in Act II sang with quiet charm, floating her high notes above the confusion created by Ochs. Her meek responses to the Marschallin in Act III were enunciated with a tension that will remain with me as a template for all future performances of this opera. The Marschallin herself was Amanda Roocroft, a singer I have admired greatly as E.M. in Makropulos,  as Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes, and more recently as Eva in Meistersinger, but she has yet to inhabit the present role. I liked the wistfulness she showed in Act I after Octavian has left and she suddenly realises her little joke may kill their amours, and again in Act III her acceptance that the affair with Octavian is now over, but her portrayal needed more gravitas, and her appearance to quieten the confusion in Act III, which can be a high point of the opera, fell rather flat.

Amanda Roocroft in Act I

Musically the performance flowed with great charm under the baton of Edward Gardner, who gave fine support to the singers and produced magnificent climaxes from the orchestra at suitable moments, such as after Octavian leaves in Act I, and in the final Act.

The supporting roles were performed with great panache, the scheming Valzacchi and Annina well portrayed by Adrian Thompson and Madeleine Shaw, who whirled elegantly to the waltz time of the music as she handed the letter to Ochs towards the end of Act II. Marianne Leitmetzerin had great stage presence as Sophie’s duenna, prodding her charge with a fan to keep her on track in the conversation with Octavian, and Gwyn Hughes Jones was super as the Italian singer at the Marschallin’s levée in Act I. As Sophie’s father Faninal, Andrew Shore bristled with restrained emotion, and as he walked over to embrace his daughter towards the end of Act III he invested the moment with heartfelt reality.

Tomlinson and Connolly in Act III

This is a revival of David McVicar’s 2008 production, which comes from Scottish Opera, and I’m afraid I have reservations. Could someone please tell the supers not to run round pointing rifles at Ochs in Act III — this is the Austro-Hungarian empire, not the wild west — and Faninal offers Ochs a very old tokai, not a brandy. Tokai is a lovely sweet wine from Hungary, low in alcohol, just right for that time of day. Why can’t Alfred Kalisch, the translator keep with the original? And while on the topic why does he introduce claret when Ochs lies wounded on the couch? The text says nothing of claret, and in any case it was not served in a claret bottle.

These irritations aside, the scene for the presentation of the silver rose with Octavian in silver armour had a fairy-tale charm, and the musical quality of the performance makes this a must-see, particularly with the glorious representations of Ochs and Octavian by Tomlinson and Connolly.

Wonderful stuff, but be aware that performances, which continue until February 27, start at 6:30, or 5:30 on Saturdays — for details click here.

Tosca, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, November 2011

27 November, 2011

Catherine Malfitano’s production of Tosca opens with a bang, not just from the excellent conducting of Stephen Lord, but the sudden appearance of the escaped prisoner Angelotti, centre stage at the rear of the church. He turns and flies forward, a dramatic move that sets the scene for this most theatrical of operas.

All images by Mike Hoban

Cavaradossi’s entrance is low key — he is after all just a painter coming to work on a mural — but when Gwyn Hughes Jones bursts into his first aria on the beauty of women, his impassioned lyricism catapulted this performance immediately into the top division. The duet with Matthew Hargreaves as Angelotti was brilliantly delivered, showing us the political facet of Cavaradossi’s personality.

Cavaradossi and Sacristan

Scarpia’s entrance with his henchmen, and security guards in black top hats, is a fine piece of staging helped by the excellent lighting design of David Martin Jacques. As Scarpia himself, Anthony Michaels-Moore reprised the role he sang in the first run of this production in May 2010. This attractive but deadly man evinces real desire for Tosca, combined with cool-headed cunning. The evil depth that one sometimes sees is not emphasised, but then this drama is far bigger than the characters, and I find the representation by Michaels-Moore to be spot on.

The sacristan can often appear a mere bumbling idiot, but Henry Waddington gave him some depth as a churchman who thoroughly dislikes the secular nature of the French under Napoleon, happy to think that the forces of ‘freedom’ have been defeated and more than ready to help Scarpia find the rebel Angelotti. This production gives us the political dimension of Verdi’s opera, and the forces of tradition are well exhibited by the appearance of the cardinal in his vast red cloak towards the end of Act I.

Scarpia in sybaritic mood

As Acts II and III proceeded to draw the drama to its tragic conclusion, Claire Rutter came into her own as Tosca, after a disappointing performance in Act I. This is where Tosca sets the sequence of events off on a disastrous track by her own cupidity and misplaced jealousy, yet the charm of this great singing actress was most notable by its absence, though her reactions during the torture scene in Act II, and her singing of vissi d’arte, made up for it. The torture scene off-stage is entirely realistic, and it takes four of Scarpia’s men to carry in the ample body of Cavaradossi after he has collapsed. Gwyn Hughes Jones’ fine singing of Vittoria re-ignites his political aspect, and the realism of his execution in Act III was something to behold, with flashes of gunpowder from the muskets.

Tosca just before her fatal fall

The conversation between Cavaradossi and the Carceriere at the start of the third act was beautifully done, showing there is still some decency in the Castel Sant’Angelo, and I liked the horseplay between the guards before the final scene. After Cavaradossi lies dead, Tosca throws herself backwards over the parapet, and the curtain closes on a terrific production.

If you saw this in its first run in 2010, go again to hear a world-class performance by Gwyn Hughes Jones as Cavaradossi, with the orchestra superbly directed by Stephen Lord.

Performances continue until January 29 next year, so don’t miss it — for details click here.

Castor and Pollux, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, October 2011

25 October, 2011

Originally composed in 1737 this opera was revised in 1754 and subsequently became Rameau’s most popular. Castor and Pollux are brothers, the former mortal, the latter immortal, and the start of the story is roughly that Castor is adored by Phoebe and her sister Telaira, who is betrothed to Pollux. He gives her up so she can marry his brother, but Phoebe arranges for Castor’s abduction and he is killed. All this is in the first of five acts, and was omitted from the original 1737 composition, which instead included a prologue involving Mars, Venus and other gods.

Pollux kils his brother's killer, all photos Alastair Muir

Quite rightly the ENO is putting on the revised version, with Christian Curnyn conducting the orchestra in a raised pit so that the sound comes out more clearly, and musically this was delightful. Allan Clayton and Roderick Williams were wonderfully strong as Castor and Pollux, carrying off their roles to perfection, and Sophie Bevan was a charmingly pure voiced Telaira. Rameau was a contemporary of Handel, but his music is quite different, eschewing recitatives and arias in favour of a harmonically intriguing development of the music.

Telaira with the dead Castor

This is an opera about deeply troubled characters, about melancholy and loss. The spurned Phoebe tells her sister that she, Phoebe will recover Castor from Hades if Telaira relinquishes her love for him, but in fact only Pollux can bring Castor back, and only by giving up immortality and taking his brother’s place.  This he does, but Castor will not leave his brother, and promises to return after only a day on earth. After reuniting with Telaira he attempts to return to Hades, but in the end Jupiter annuls Castor’s promise, brings Pollux back and the brothers are turned into stars, leaving Telaira alone in her grief.

The production by Barrie Kosky has some nice aspects. I liked the very realistic fight sequence when Castor was killed, and again when Pollux killed his killer. I liked the representation of Hades in mounds of earth, I liked the starlight falling on two empty pairs of shoes at the end, while Telaira is left abandoned, and I liked the huge wooden box structure in which all the action takes place. However, I was sitting in the central section, and friends on the side said their view was badly obscured. This is important because the action goes right across the interior of the box, and from the sides of the auditorium you can’t see it all.

Masked chorus from Hades

Other aspects of the production seemed over the top. When the chorus appeared in long masks it reminded me of a different opera I saw in Germany recently, and indeed Barrie Kosky works in Berlin. A German production of a French opera based on themes from Greece and Rome sounds rather like the Euro, and it didn’t all make sense. It may appeal to those who relish the idea of seeing a woman pull her knickers down on stage, first one pair then another — I counted six in one case — to say nothing of full frontal nudity of men and women with long hair hanging over their faces, or indeed fingers emerging from Hades to penetrate Phoebe. If you like that sort of thing you may love it. I didn’t. And I do wish opera houses would make sure their producers understand that the production should be visible from everywhere in the auditorium. Covent Garden made the same error with a production of Tristan by a German director, and I hope this is a mistake the ENO will only make once.

Having said all this, though, I applaud a wonderful musical presentation of what is probably Rameau’s operatic masterpiece.

Running time is two and three-quarter hours, and performances continue until December 1 — for details click here.

The Marriage of Figaro, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, October 2011

6 October, 2011

Sometimes in Figaro the Count can appear a bit of a twerp, but not here. Fiona Shaw’s new production allows him to show testosterone-fuelled frustration, and Roland Wood acted the part as if he were Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey with a wonderful singing voice and hormones running riot, even tearing a doll to pieces in Act III. Forget the TV series — go to the opera. With Elizabeth Llewellyn stepping in at the last minute as the Countess, this was simply wonderful. Her cavatina at the start of Act II when she sighs for the loss of her husband’s love immediately raised the performance a notch, just as it had at Holland Park this summer.

Iain Paterson as Figaro, all images by Sarah Lee

Iain Paterson sang a very solid Figaro, with excellent diction, though you never felt he was in any danger of losing the plot, and Devon Guthrie sang a beautiful Susanna. She was delightful in every way, and Kathryn Rudge as Cherubino gave a remarkable en travesti performance, acting very much the amorous young man. The whole cast sang extremely well together, with fine support from Paul Daniel in the orchestra pit.

This Mozart and Da Ponte opera has a cutting edge, based as it is on Beaumarchais’s play, which was banned from the stage in Vienna where the opera was first performed, and this production adumbrated the tension between master and servants rather well. The translation by Jeremy Sams was suitably direct, as for example when the Count sings at the start of Act III, “Could it be that another of my lackeys has got ideas above his station”. And the emphasis on the master/servant relationship is alluded to before the overture even starts, as we see projections of silhouettes doffing their hats and bowing deeply. But if this makes it sound too political, the production admirably adheres to Beaumarchais’s alternative title The Crazy Day (La folle journée), with a rotating stage conveying different aspects of the house’s interior and adding to the confusion all round at the end of Act II.

Roland Wood as the Count with Antonio the gardener and Figaro

The designs by Peter McKintosh involved traditional costumes in an abstract modern setting, and the occasional use of video cameras pulled the whole thing forward in time as if we were looking back on a vanished world. Certainly that world vanished in one part of Europe with the French revolution in 1789, just three years after the first performance in Vienna, and the opera was only shown in France for the first time in 1793.

As with other English National Opera productions using modern translations, the words have an immediate effect, and Fiona Shaw’s production allows the performers to inhabit their roles and work together as if this were repertory theatre.

The result is well worth seeing, and performances continue until November 10 — for details click here.

Two Boys, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2011

25 June, 2011

New music, a new opera, and a thoroughly modern story: a teenage boy is stabbed in the heart, and another boy is arrested for the deed. If this sounds unpromising material, let me reassure you — I was riveted.

All photos by Richard Hubert Smith

The programme notes for new operas usually contain a detailed synopsis, so it’s refreshing to see one in which you’ve no idea what will happen. The complexity grows as the opera progresses, and we seem lost in a labyrinth of internet chat rooms with mysterious, needy and dangerous characters. Then there’s a detective who at the very beginning says, “Even senseless crime makes sense”, yet she too is puzzled. She lives with her elderly mother, who hobbles around on sticks, and tells her she should use more make-up, get her hair done, and lose some weight. In Act 2 the detective rushes home to her mother feeling guilty that she’s been so absent, working on the case, and sings of feeling she will one day die, “unsung, unloved and alone”. Her mother responds, “How do you think anyone gets what they want? They show what other people want”. And that’s it. Suddenly the detective sees how to unravel the whole mess.

A crucial scene in church, with Joseph Beesley and Nicky Spence

This is great theatre. But it’s also more than that. This is a wonderful opera — a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, who put together composer Nico Muhly and librettist Craig Lucas. The combination is inspired, and its realisation on stage by director Bartlett Sher, using projections and animation by Leo Warner, Mark Grimmer and Peter Stenhouse is quite remarkable. Their company did the wonderful projections and animations of pearl divers in the ENO’s new production of Pearl Fishers last year, but these are even better, and well served by Donald Holder’s lighting.

Anyone who has ever written out and delivered a talk or radio broadcast will know it’s essential to write it in spoken English, not written English. With an opera libretto this is far harder because the words will be sung to music, and we all know examples of operas, even by top rate composers where it doesn’t work well, yet Craig Lucas has done an exceptional job, and Nico Muhly’s music suits it perfectly. Internet chat rooms might seem a rather difficult thing to show the audience, particularly people like me who don’t even know what they are, but it’s all brilliantly done.

Heather Shipp, Nicky Spence and Susan Bickley in the foreground

We begin to get used to Brian as [A_Game], wonderfully sung by Nicky Spence, Rebecca and her brother Jake as [mindful16] and [GeekLand], both well portrayed by Mary Bevan and Jonathan McGovern, to say nothing of Aunt Fiona [agent_11e], strongly sung by Heather Shipp. Bass-baritone Robert Gleadow was powerfully threatening as Peter [peetr_69], Joseph Beesley was wonderful as the boy soprano, and above all there was Susan Bickley who gave a beautifully sung and superbly nuanced portrayal of the detective. She was well supported by a large cast of singers and other performers who worked extremely well together as a team. Conducting by Rumon Gamba brought out the details of Muhly’s intriguing music, reminding me of composers such as Britten, Adams and Glass, yet being unlike any of them.

The ENO does not recommend this opera for anyone under 16, but if you’re a parent or grandparent of teenagers, or even younger kids who use Facebook and internet chatrooms, this will make you think. There are some weird people out there, and we need artists of the calibre of Muhly and Lucas to create a theatrical event that not only brings us to think on these things, but entertains us into the bargain. If you compare the creators of this drama to some of the dullards who would allow dangerous nutcases to roam free — I’m thinking of a well known British case involving boys, which recently hit the news again — well … there’s no comparison. Life informs art, but this is a drama in which art can also inform life.

The production must cost an arm and a leg, presumably helped by being a joint project with the Met in New York, and we’re lucky to have the world premiere here in London. Don’t miss it.

Performances at the London Coliseum continue until July 8 — for details click here.

Simon Boccanegra, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2011

9 June, 2011

At the end of this opera, Boccanegra is finally reconciled with his arch-enemy Jacopo Fiesco, and blesses the marriage of his long lost daughter Amelia with the young Gabriele Adorno, a previously sworn enemy. Now, dying of a slow poison, administered by his right hand man Paolo, he asks Fiesco to make Adorno his successor as Doge of Genoa.

The Prologue with Fiesco in the foreground, all photos Mike Hoban

Powerful stuff, and Verdi was a master of expressing father-daughter relationships, but in this production, Amelia who has been — quite rightly — adoring and protective of her father, is suddenly shown to be unable to embrace him as he asks her to when he’s dying. Instead of the opera ending with his peaceful death on stage, he wanders off-stage in a strange paper hat, and she suddenly rushes after him, returning in anguish. As the music quietly ceases we see her having a fit. Why? What’s the point? Cruelty may be in vogue at the moment but there is quite enough in this opera without needing to add more and upset Verdi’s beautiful ending.

The Council Chamber, Boccanegra centre facing

The music has sublime moments, and powerful moments, and was superbly conducted by Edward Gardner. The chorus sang strongly, as did the main performers, and Brindley Sherratt was extremely powerful and entirely convincing, as Fiesco. Rena Harms gave a vivid portrayal of Amelia, Peter Auty came over very strongly as Adorno, and Bruno Caproni showed increasing gravitas as Boccanegra, though his voice was somewhat occluded when he turned away from the audience on several occasions. As Paolo, Boccanegra’s right hand man and later his nastiest enemy, Roland Wood sang very well, and Mark Richardson gave a sinister impression of Paolo’s henchman Pietro.

Adorno and Amelia

The production by Dmitri Tcherniakov, who also designed the sets, contained some imaginative ideas, particularly the flashbacks as the old set for the Prologue reappears by a clever trick of Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting. I also liked the pedagogical narrative, explaining the story during scene changes. That helps make things clear, particularly for those who may be unfamiliar with the opera, but the costumes made things less clear. Apart from Adorno in his motorcycle gear, most of the men in the ruling oligarchy wore grey suits, making it difficult to distinguish different characters — for example, Boccanegra and Paolo looked remarkably similar. At least Fiesco wore a dark suit, but the uncompromising greyness was a bit much. The Council scene was set in what looked rather like a cheap lecture room with very cheap chairs, perhaps to reflect the tiresomeness of government compared to the colours in the Prologue, which takes place 25 years earlier, as reflected in the late 1950s / early 1960s car and costumes.

At the final curtain calls there were several boos for the production team and I wonder whether this might be due to the strange ending when Amelia refuses to embrace her father? The only explanation I can think of is that Amelia is annoyed with him since she’s only just found her maternal grandfather, but what was in the director’s mind I don’t know, and I can’t see the point. Better to let the music speak over the dead body of Boccanegra, as Verdi intended.

Performances continue until July 9 — for more details click here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, May 2011

20 May, 2011

Three worlds: the fairies, the lovers, and the rustics, all together here in a secondary school. Oberon and Tytania are teachers, Puck one of the older boys, and the other fairies smaller boys; the lovers are sixth formers; and the rustics are janitorial staff.

The tall visitor with Puck, all photos by Alastair Muir

It all starts in silence. A tall young man wanders the school grounds, hunches down and slumps in a sitting position, his back against a wall. A boy appears. The music starts. Only by reading the first sentence of the synopsis can you understand what’s going on: On the eve of his wedding, a man returns to his old school. Long-forgotten memories of his schooldays come back to him in the form of a dream … . Small boys step silently along school corridors. It’s a little unnerving, and the visitor is spooked. But is this a ‘long-forgotten memory’ or something suppressed in a hidden chamber of his mind? An essay in the programme about paedophilia describes, in the first person, a case of the latter.

Benjamin Britten’s music creates an aura of sleepy magic that becomes discomforting in Christopher Alden’s new production. The spookiness is broken slightly by the appearance of a teenage girl in school uniform, hitching her skirt up. This is Hermia, soon united with a teenage Lysander behind the large waste bins, and later, Demetrius comes on with other boys in rugby kit, pursued by Helena.

Helena attacks Hermia

Our mysterious visitor inhabits the stage throughout, sometimes staggering in a dream-like stupor, sometimes asleep, as when the rustics, in the form of the janitorial staff, prepare their play. Willard White as Bottom is quietly sewing costumes, and when they do put on the play in Act III it’s a riot of colour against the grey background of the school, and very funny.

Acts I and II are run together without an interval, giving an intense atmosphere to the first part. In the second part, after the lovers’ problems have been put right and they are welcomed by Theseus and Hippolyta, his bride to be, the six of them occupy one of the audience boxes and enjoy the rustics’ spectacle. But Theseus has been there all the time … we never knew it, but he was the silent dreamer revisiting his old school, and Hippolyta already appeared in one of his dreams. Now all is well, or so we think. As the fairies are left on stage to give their blessing, Theseus takes leave of Hippolyta and is once again spooked. Will he ever escape?

Oberon and Tytania love the same boy

Britten’s music was beautifully conducted by Leo Hussain, the boys’ chorus was excellent, and the individual performances were all strong. Willard White was superb as Bottom, showing excellent stage presence, as did Jamie Manton who was a wonderful Puck. Anna Christy sang a fine Tytania, and William Towers did remarkably well as Oberon, coming up from Glyndebourne at the last minute to take over from Iestyn Davies who acted the part on stage — he was unwell, and so was his understudy. Apparently Allan Clayton rose from his sick-bed to sing Lysander, performing brilliantly, and I particularly liked the voice of Tamara Gura as Helena. Paul Whelan as Theseus was remarkable — as the visitor and dreamer he was a fine silent actor, and as the king of Athens he sang a strong bass.

Tytania indulges in S&M with Bottom

The set design by Charles Edwards emphasised a powerful and claustrophobic atmosphere for the school, well lit by Adam Silverman, and the costumes by Sue Wilmington were entirely in keeping with the production. If you want a traditional take on the story, this is not for you, and the production team certainly received some boos at the end. But if you’re willing to accept a representation of mysterious forces in the otherwise mundane world of human beings, then this is strongly recommended as an intriguing take on Britten’s opera.

Performances continue until June 30 — for more details click here.