Posts Tagged ‘ROH2’

The Metamorphosis, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, September 2011

21 September, 2011

This is perhaps the most exceptional production in the Linbury Studio for 2011 — a retelling of Franz Kafka’s strange story Die Verwandlung.

Edward Watson as an insect, all images Tristram Kenton

Stated in the simplest terms, Kafka’s novella tells how a young man is transformed into an insect. It’s not clear what kind of insect exactly, but several commentators have referred to it as a beetle, and Nabokov even suggested a particular kind of dung beetle. When I first read the story I found it puzzling, as many in the audience may, but read the original and you will see that this creation by Arthur Pita is a remarkable achievement, aided by music composed and played by Frank Moon. Kafka referred to his work as an ‘ausnehmend ekelhafte Geschichte‘ (an exceptionally disgusting story), and so it is, but it plays at deep levels, reflecting the dehumanisation inherent in a rigid routine of work necessitated by the demand to support a family.

This is brilliantly represented on stage at the beginning as we see the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, travel to and from work. Every day on the way in he passes the same woman who sells coffee and rolls, and on the way back beer and stronger drinks. Every day he buys a coffee in one direction and a slivovitz in the other. His time is not his own, but his money supports his father, mother and younger sister Grete. He’s a caring, supporting son, well illustrated on the second day when he brings home a pair of ballet slippers for his sister. She’s thrilled. Every day, Gregor takes an apple to work, leaving before the family is up and about, and when he returns they settle down to a simple meal. He puts his briefcase away and goes to bed. The movements are all carefully stylised — this is what passes for life. On the third morning the music is more ominous, and on the fourth, Gregor doesn’t rise. The alarm goes off, but Gregor has turned into an insect.

The mother and her son the insect

What happens after that is really the heart of the story. Edward Watson is quite incredible as Gregor — it’s a phenomenal performance. Laura Day is brilliant as his kid sister, who really cares about him and does what she can, and Nina Goldman and Anton Skrzypiciel are entirely convincing as the parents, the elegant but neurotic mother and the slothful father who finds he must go out to work again when Gregor turns into a disgusting parasite. The family take in lodgers, three young men who start to enjoy themselves, dancing with the family to Yiddish music. But then Gregor breaks out from his room, and the terrified lodgers leave. It’s the beginning of the end.

Kafka was never entirely happy with the ending of his story, but it is cleverly portrayed here. In fact the whole experience is very cleverly done, and Arthur Pita has brought in the many aspects of story including the sexual overtones between father and daughter, mother and son. The whole cast is wonderful, with Bettina Carpi as the maid and the drinks vendor at the station in Prague, calling out her wares in Czech, along with Greig Cook and Joe Walkling playing supporting parts. The black spiders crawling into Gregor’s room to torment him were very effective, and it is remarkable that Edward Watson can do this six days running, with two performances on Saturday.

See it while you can. There are still tickets for Saturday evening, September 24 — for details click here.

Clemency, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, May 2011

12 May, 2011

In Genesis Chapter 18 three unknown men visit Abraham. He welcomes them warmly and gives them food. In return they tell him that his wife Sarah will have a child, though “it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women”. She laughs, but the Lord promises to return a year hence when she will have a son. The men then rise up to go and destroy the twin cities, but Abraham negotiates — not an easy task when you’re dealing with omnipotence. He asks for clemency if there be but fifty righteous within Sodom, and the Lord agrees. Then Abraham reduces the number to forty-five, then forty, thirty, twenty, ten, and always the Lord agrees to relent. In the end, however, we move to Chapter 19, and Sodom is destroyed.

Grant Doyle as Abraham, all photos Stephen Cummiskey

This opera by James Macmillan deals just with Chapter 18, powerful and riveting stuff. Here is the Sumerian god Enlil, angry and willing to destroy as he did in the flood story, though in that ancient Sumerian tale the wise god Enki contrives to preserve life, by advising one man to build an ark. In the Biblical narrative, however, there is only one God, embodying multiple natures, and Genesis 18 is fascinating in the role Abraham plays, almost as if he were Enki, whose Sumerian name means earth lord. Of course Abraham is not a god, though he does later become lord of many flocks and a great household.

Doyle with Janis Kelly as Sarah

In this opera, however, Abraham and Sarah still live very simply, and the beginning was entirely silent, the only sound coming from the running water that Sarah is using to wash vegetables and prepare dinner. Eventually Abraham sings unaccompanied as if chanting a prayer, and at the end of his chanting the orchestra enters. Gradually the opera picks up momentum, and the three men enter. It might seem from this slow start that we are being prepared for a long evening, yet the whole thing lasts less than an hour, and Macmillan’s harmonious music creates a strong impression. This is a composer who has the ability to remain quiet and subdued but yet bring forth the full weight of the orchestra when it suits him.

His new work Clemency is one I would be very happy to revisit, but it’s not easy to catch the words as they are sung, so I recommend getting there early enough to read through the short libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts, which is included with the programme. It’s also worth reading Genesis 18 before you go. As many people will know, this is the 400th anniversary of the Authorised King James translation of the Bible, hence the Biblical topic, and it’s an excellent one to choose.

The music was beautifully played by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Clark Rundell, and Grant Doyle and Janis Kelly sang strongly as Abraham and Sarah, as did Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall and Andrew Tortise as the three men. The set design by Alex Eales is a triptych with Sarah’s kitchen in the left frame, and the three visitors appear only in the centre, reflecting the three-in-oneness of this story. The strangers are three, yet they act as one, and in the Biblical narrative it is sometimes God who speaks.

Performances of this ROH2 co-production with Scottish Opera continue at Covent Garden until May 14  — for more details click here.

Opera Shots: The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Doctor’s Tale, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, April 2011

9 April, 2011

The Tell-Tale Heart is an Edgar Allan Poe story in which the narrator kills an old man whose pale blue “vulture eye” bothers him inordinately. He worries about his own sanity, yet insists he must be quite sane since he carried out the murder with such care and precision, dismembering the body and hiding the pieces under the floorboards. The neighbours heard a scream in the night and called the police, but he gladly welcomes them and they find nothing amiss. Yet the beating of his own heart makes him believe the old man’s heart under the floor is still alive. This confirms his insanity, and he pulls up the floorboards, confessing to the crime.

Richard Suart as Edgar

Stewart Copeland’s wonderful adaptation of this story to the opera stage starts with the narrator — here called Edgar — in a straightjacket  that he then takes off to tell the story. Edgar was sung with excellent diction by Richard Suart, showing a calm sanity while hiding an interior insanity. This craziness was cleverly emphasised by having a shadow Edgar, sung by Richard Scrivens whose voice I heard echoing the real Edgar before seeing him appear darkly on stage while the real one was there in full view. Sneaking into the room to commit the murder is an important feature of the story and we see several slow silent attempts at night while the victim’s “vulture eye” is closed. The perpetrator’s mad idea is to close that eye forever, but he needs to see it open before committing the act, which he performs on a night when a ray of light wakens the eye.

In this production, directed by Jonathan Moore, the eye, both open and closed, is shown as a projection on the rear wall of the room, which functions as a stage within the stage. When the two policemen in their nineteenth century costumes enter the room with two neighbours, they search in a choreographically stylised manner, finding nothing, yet the music reveals the increasing sound of the tell-tale heart, until Edgar can stand it no more, and after his confession the police put him back in the straightjacket.

In 1977, Stewart Copeland was a founding member of The Police, a rock band in which he performed as drummer and percussionist, as well as doing vocals. His music in this opera rises from the bass, and its rhythmic intensity gives the story huge forward drive. It’s terrific — the music, the conception, the staging, everything works together to give a riveting and intense experience. Robert Ziegler’s conducting gave the necessary tension to the music, and this short opera was worth the whole price of the ticket.

The second item of the evening was a huge contrast. Terry Jones has created a Monty-Python-esque story called The Doctor’s Tale. Its earlier title was The Doctor is a Dog, a very accurate description of the story. A human looking dog, well sung and performed here by Darren Abrahams, is seeing patients, particularly those who “need a little love and attention”. We see a picture of his mother, and hear lines such as “They said they wouldn’t let her loose/ to wander round the town/ They said that she had cooked her goose,/ and then they put her down”. Towards the end the doctor meets his mother in doggy heaven where all these human dogs are endowed with angel wings. This is after he’s been put down himself, having been imprisoned with other dogs, one of was once a headmaster, who was found out to be a dog because he “slobbered and drooled”. Those who feel that a dog is a man’s best friend will love it, and I loved the start with the fun choreography where the dog and his patients do a one leg, other leg routine just as if they were in a Monty Python sketch.

The dog-doctor with his secretary

Terry Jones created the production using 1950s costumes along with floppy ears, tails and black noses for the dogs. The music by Anne Dudley, conducted by Tim Murray, had Kurt Weill qualities at some points but was far lighter than Stewart Copeland’s music for The Tell-Tale Heart. The audience obviously enjoyed the whole experience, which ended in doggy heaven with an outbreak of love.

Performances of this double bill continue to April 16 — for more details click here.