Posts Tagged ‘Roderick Williams’

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

13 April, 2013

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

All images ENO/ Mike Hoban

All images ENO/ Mike Hoban

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



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

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

Distortion of the Garden

Distortion of the Garden

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

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

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.

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.

Peter Grimes, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, June 2011

22 June, 2011

Towards the end of Act III when Ellen Orford and Captain Balstrode find Grimes on his own, he covers his head with his coat, just as the apprentice did in Act II when Ellen tried to draw him out. This is a Grimes whose appalling lack of social skills render him easy meat for the inhabitants of The Borough, who can forget their differences by uniting against him, treating him as an unwanted outsider, and Ben Heppner played that part with consummate skill. I first saw him in this role in Chicago in 1997, and there is something touching about his lumbering clumsiness, his visionary dreams, his determined bloody mindedness and his singing of “What harbour shelters peace?”

Grimes enters the tavern in Act I, all photos by Clive Barda

Amanda Roocroft was simply wonderful as Ellen Orford, her voice as sure as the personality she inhabited on stage. The only woman who could really bring Peter out of his shell, she was so strong when she criticises him for “This unrelenting work, this grey unresting industry”. Yet even she cannot protect the boy — well played by Patrick Curtis — who looked to be no more than eleven years old. When the door to the tavern flies wide open for the second time in Act I the boy stands there alone, just as Grimes did earlier when he entered and stood in the open doorway singing, “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades …”. This powerful production by Willy Davis was extremely well revived by François de Carpentries, amply bringing out these high moments.

Act II, Grimes takes the apprentice off to work despite Ellen's pleas

Jonathan Summers gave a strongly sympathetic performance of Balstrode, and Roderick Williams performed well as the apothecary, Ned Keene. I would have preferred more spitefulness and edge from Jane Henschel’s Mrs. Sedley, who came over rather as an old fuss pot, but Catherine Wyn-Rogers was a fine Auntie, and Rebecca Botone and Anna Devin acted their hearts out as her nieces. Whenever they were on stage they were always near the centre of the action, and worked brilliantly well together.

Act III, The Borough prepare to march to Grimes's hut

The designs by John Macfarlane are plain but effective, well lit by David Finn. I love the opening of the set for the dawn music of the first sea interlude, and when Ned Keene breaks the tension in the Act I tavern scene with “Old Joe has gone fishing”, I love the direction that produces a dance in 7/4 time. This production brings out the horrid awkwardness of Grimes’s estrangement from the local community, eliciting our sympathy for him, and was powerfully supported by the orchestra and chorus under Andrew Davis’s direction.

Performances continue until July 3 — for details click here.

Capriccio, Grange Park Opera, June 2010

13 June, 2010

When Richard Strauss’s collaborator and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal died, Strauss turned to Stefan Zweig, who provided him with the text for his next opera Die Schweigsame Frau. He also provided him with the idea for Capriccio, drafting an early version based on Prima la musica e poi le parole (First the music and then the words), an opera by Salieri with a libretto by Giambattista Casti.

Strauss’s collaboration with Zweig was cut short by the Nazis, who came to power a year before Die Schweigsame Frau reached the stage, and Strauss was badly discomforted by losing Zweig. He reluctantly turned to a Viennese professor of literature named Josef Gregor, who was unequal to the task of writing great librettos, and after three somewhat ineffective texts, using earlier ideas from Hofmannstahl, and contributions from Zweig, he tried his hand at Prima la musica. He failed, and the opera was eventually produced in 1942 to a text by Strauss himself along with the conductor Clemens Krauss. This production by Stephen Medcalf brilliantly captures the dichotomy between a story set in a French villa prior to the 1789 revolution, and the war that the Nazis fought and lost. At the start we see a rehearsal room in early 1940s Germany, with Rauchen Verboten painted on stage right, and Bühne Links on stage left. The decor is grim, and the actors and singers enter in street clothes, providing a dumb show while the orchestra plays the overture, a string sextet supposedly composed by Flamand, the composer in this witty conversation piece.

Olivier, La Roche, Flamand

The story turns on the competition between Flamand and the poet Olivier for the hand of the Countess. She is a woman who wants to select one man, while her brother the Count has a roving eye, and is attracted to the actress Clairon. Olivier’s poem is set to music by Flamand and then spoken by the count, who suddenly says it all in English, an unusual feature in this production, which is otherwise in the original language. There are some nice touches, such as when the theatre director La Roche talks of his grand new production “The Birth of Pallas Athene”. As he enthusiastically describes Zeus devouring Athene’s mother, the Italian singers, ostentatiously kitted out in dramatic costumes and make-up, devour food, swallowing it with gusto.

The Italian singers eat with gusto

Strauss’s music was played by the English Chamber Orchestra, very well conducted by Stephen Barlow, and the singing was delightful, with suitable energy from Roderick Williams as Olivier and Andrew Kennedy as Flamand, a sparkling performance by Quirijn de Lang as the Count, a gentle portrayal of La Roche by Matthew Best, and a forceful representation of Clairon by Sara Fulgoni. But what really made the evening was the superb singing of Susan Gritton as the Countess. Her soliloquy towards the end was mesmerising. I was bowled over.

Susan Gritton in her final solo

The performers’ interactions were very finely directed, and the appearance of Stuart Kale as the prompter was beautifully done, though I found the Star of David on his back to be unnecessary. The designs by Francis O’Connor provided ample indication of Germany in the Second World War, showing the ruins of Dresden as the Countess delivers her final monologue on love and the choice between the two lovers. As she says, in choosing the one you will lose the other. But as Flamand courteously says to Olivier towards the end, ‘First the words, then the music. The words take precedence’, while Olivier courteously responds ‘No, the music — but born out of the words’. This was oddly translated in the surtitles as ‘the music brings out the words’. But of course Strauss in his later life needed the words in order to compose his sublime music, and in this work he combines the two most brilliantly. As he himself said after the first performance, “I can do no better”.

This was my first time at Grange Park, and I cannot think of a better opera for a first visit. The setting is delightful, perfect for taking a picnic, and the opera house is engagingly small. I shall go again!

Review — L’Amour de loin, English National Opera, London Coliseum, July 2009

1 July, 2009


If you like Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande you may love this opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, though I prefer music with more bite. It is a static, dreamlike creation lacking theatrical action, though that side of things was ably provided by director Daniele Finzi Pasca. He drew on his experience with Cirque du Soleil, and really did a terrific job, being responsible for the choreography and the lighting design, which was very colourful and clever. Each of the three principals was shadowed by two acrobats, and in that sense it reminded me of the recent Royal Opera production of Acis and Galatea, but this was so much better than Wayne McGregor’s nonsense that there was no comparison at all.

The story itself is based on a love poem by a famous troubadour from 12th century Aquitaine, a period when such poems in the Provençal language dealt with amor de lonh (distant love). The original author was troubadour Jaufré Rudel, prince of Blaye in Aquitaine, and his work had the title La vida breve. There are three main characters: the troubadour Jaufré; a travelling pilgrim; and Cleménce the princess of Tripoli.

The prince is obsessed by the idea of an ideal love, and though his companions mock him, the pilgrim says he has met such a lady, and when he returns to Tripoli, tells Cleménce about the prince. She prefers to remain distant to avoid any suffering, but the prince wants to meet her, and makes the journey, albeit full of foreboding and indecision, from which he becomes seriously ill. By the time he arrives in North Africa he is close to death, and meeting her, dies in her arms, metaphorically consummating his love. She rages against fate and enters a convent, praying to one far away, whether God or her lover we know not.

The libretto by Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf is rather dreamy, like the music. For example as Jaufré travels by ship he asks the pilgrim, “Why is the sea blue?” and the pilgrim responds, “Because it reflects the sky”. “But why is the sky blue?” “Because it reflects the sea”. What are we to make of that — was it in the original by Jaufré himself?

Saariaho’s music is kind to the singers in the sense that they never seem to be battling with it, but easily singing over it, and I thought Faith Sherman did particularly well as the pilgrim. So indeed did Roderick Williams as Jaufré, and Joan Rodgers did well as Cleménce. This UK premiere, under the baton of music director Edward Gardner, presumably did justice to the composer’s intentions, but I have to say that I found it dull. The production however was extraordinary, and I loved the set designs by Jean Rabasse, and the costumes by Kevin Pollard, even if the pilgrim did look like an elf from Peter Jackson’s film version of the Lord of the Rings. The journey by ship was done against a wonderful background of swirling water projected onto a screen, with acrobats performing throughout the voyage. The only thing I didn’t like about the production was the small screen that two performers wheeled to the front of the stage from time to time, showing rather odd images — it was a distraction.

Magic Flute, English National Opera, January 2009

2 February, 2009

This 1988 production by Nicholas Hytner works very well indeed. The large-scale designs by Bob Crowley are wonderful: a huge curved wall that opens at a jagged join, Egyptian hieroglyphs standing out on white marble walls and cut into a bronze backdrop, superb gowns embossed with hieroglyphs for Sarastro’s priests, and wonderful lighting designed by Nick Chelton. The star of the show was Roderick Williams as a wonderfully engaging Papageno in superb voice. His appearance in a bird costume set the scene for his future antics, and the real birds landing on his birdcage only added to the charm of this production. As Pamina we had Sarah-Jane Davies in Act I, replaced by Mairéad Buicke in Act II, who sang well, but with more vibrato than I would like. Robert Lloyd was a fine Sarastro, with strong stage presence, Robert Murray a rather emotionless Tamino, and Emily Hindrichs a queen of the night with strong if somewhat screechy coloratura. Amanda Forbes was Papagena, and Stuart Kale a suitably nasty Monostatos, who evidently took delight in the booing he attracted at the end. The orchestra played beautifully under the direction of Erik Nielsen, who seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.