Posts Tagged ‘Vicki Mortimer’

Written on Skin, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, March 2013

9 March, 2013

The ROH Insight Evening for this opera described it as being about sexual emancipation and jealousy with a tragic ending that they declined to specify. The emancipation angle is a good spin for modern audiences, but the story is an old one. A man treats his wife as a chattel and she experiences a sexual awakening with a younger man who works for him. This is the plot of Il Tabarro where the husband kills the lover, but here we also have a nasty epilogue.

All images ©ROH/ Stephen Cummiskey 2013

All images ©ROH/ Stephen Cummiskey 2013

The husband, or Protector as he calls himself, is a brutal man who talks about burning villages and making Jews wear yellow. He aims to protect ‘the family’, which in his constricted world is everything, and the young man is there to compose an illustrated manuscript about it. The family seems to reach back into a distant past that endowed him with the house, which he boasts is increasing in value daily. The wife is another matter. Suppressed and unable to grow, she finds an outlet in the young illustrator, and after her husband kills him he serves her his heart to eat. After she fights back, a slow motion scene at the end shows her ascending a staircase and we are told she falls to her death.


The composer George Benjamin is English, but the music has a very French feel, and the opera was first produced to great acclaim at Aix-en-Provence last summer. There are resonances of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and its sultry shifting soundscapes are interspersed with moments of fierce emotion. Benjamin himself conducted the orchestra, and although the score matched the words of Martin Crimp’s libretto it all seemed a bit pretentious with the characters, particularly the husband, singing as narrators in their own story.

Final moments

Final moments

Katie Mitchell’s production did very well to combine a distant past with the present day, the trees growing out of the parquet floor on the lower right suggesting the passing of centuries, while the black clad figures moving in slow motion in the upper left give a connection to the modern forensic world that studies past events. This was all realised in Vicki Mortimer’s excellent doll’s house design, very well lit by Jon Clark.

The singing was outstanding, and Christopher Purves managed to make the husband a more nuanced character than the libretto suggests. Both he and Barbara Hannigan as his wife Agnès came over with huge conviction, and Bejun Mehta sang a fine counter-tenor as the young man.

The problem with this first full scale opera by George Benjamin is its over-layering of meaning, with angels, and black-clad figures moving in slow motion. The effect is very clever, but insufficiently compelling, and the static intellectuality of this 95 minute work suffers by comparison with some other new operas I have seen in recent years at the ENO and the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio.

There will be a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of this opera on June 22, and four further performances on March 11, 16, 18, 22 — for details click here.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Glyndebourne, May 2011

22 May, 2011

This new production of Meistersinger by David McVicar elicited thunderous applause at the end. And what an end it was, with Hans Sachs’s monologue being given its full force in a way I’ve not seen before.

Finley as Sachs in the final scene of Act III, all photos by Alastair Muir

When Walther refuses the award of Mastership from Pogner, Gerald Finley as Sachs draws him aside to stage right, and his first few lines, Verachtet mir die Meister nicht …, begging Walther not to spurn the Masters, are sung privately to him while the others talk in confusion among themselves. As Sachs moves forward with his great monologue, explaining how the Masters have nurtured true art through difficult times in the past, he moves to stage left and grasps Beckmesser by the arm. This is a nice touch because the poor old town clerk, pompous ass though he is, has made such a frightful mess of things and was moved to shed a tear as Walther sang his prize song. Then as Sachs continues to develop his great monologue he rushes round the stage urgently addressing everyone. His Hab’ Acht!, when he warns of German Art falling under false rule, is a wonderful moment. There is nothing sententious here, nothing to be taken amiss, just an appeal not to be led astray by false and foreign ideas, and it resonated with me as a striking comment against that awful 12-year rule known as the Third Reich. The chorus comes in with enormous force, Eva places the wreath on Sachs’s head, and he pitches it up to the revellers at the top of the bandstand. The curtain stayed up, the audience roared their approval, and the performers and production team on stage received a hugely vocal standing ovation.

Some say that Glyndebourne is too small a venue for Meistersinger, and it’s only their second Wagner production, but it was terrific. The designs by Vicki Mortimer are simply wonderful. I loved Sachs’s study in the first part of Act III with the wonderful summer morning light entering through the window. Paule Constable’s lighting is superbly calm, but also thrillingly dramatic as that warning shaft of light emerges in Act II at the moment Walther and Eva are about to elope in the darkness.

Beckmesser and Sachs in Act II

This is just before Beckmesser arrives to serenade Eva, and here and in the other two acts, Johannes Martin Kränzle was perfect in both voice and dramatic interpretation. He took full advantage of David McVicar’s clever production ideas. When he creeps into Sachs’s study in Act III the music allows time for plenty of side play and it was very funny: his tumbling over the bench, the paper sticking on his hand, and then his shoe, the boxes falling out of the shelves. It was all done with perfect comic timing.

Kränzle and Finley as Beckmessser and Sachs were the stars of this performance, and Finley opened out Sachs’s role in interesting ways. In the Flieder monologue of Act II, as he thinks of the Masters’ rejection of Walther’s Act I performance, he exhibits huge frustration. And in the Wahn monologue of Act III he shows enormous anguish, even kicking a chair over at the beginning, but calming down as he sings of his beloved Nuremberg and the customs and contentment in deed and work. Then after he expostulates about the events of the previous night, the London Philharmonic under the brilliant direction of Vladimir Jurowski, rises beautifully to the challenge of Sachs’s Der Flieder war’s: Johannisnacht! (It was the Elder-tree: Midsummer’s Eve!) Nun aber kam Johannistag! (But now there comes Midsummer’s Day!). These great monologues by Sachs are almost always stirringly sung, but Finley brought them out with huge emotion. A great performance.

Pogner enters with Eva in the final scene

His interaction with the other cast members was excellent, and the quintet in Act III was beautifully sung with Marco Jentzsch, Anna Gabler, Michaela Selinger, and Topi Lehtipuu in the roles of Walther, Eva, Magdalena and David. Alastair Miles was excellent as Eva’s father Pogner, and Marco Jentzsch was a strongly voiced Walther with a heroic tone. Anna Gabler also sang strongly as Eva, but perhaps a bit too forcefully for my taste. When Eva goes to see Sachs early in Act III, I’m used to her being very anxious, but here she seemed ill-tempered, so that rather than seeing her as a glorious future wife for Walther, I wondered if he knew what he was letting himself in for. Also in Act II when she hits Sachs she appeared more as a leading lady for Richard Strauss rather than Wagner. Her young nurse Magdalena often comes over as the more forceful and difficult of the two, but here it was the reverse, and Michaela Selinger’s well-sung Magdelena seemed perfectly charming. While on the topic of performance, Mats Almgren sang beautifully as the Night Watchman.

The jugglers in Act III

Among many lovely points about this production, I rather liked Augustin Moser, one of the mastersingers, bringing his small daughter into Act I where she sits on his lap until Frau Moser retrieves her. This was a nice touch, but I was not so wild about the fight at the end of that act. There were more women in nightshirts than men, and the choreography for the rent-a-mob fight crew was just too much. This is supposed to be an impromptu row caused by all the noise, and it should look like it. By contrast, the choreography for the dance in the final scene of Act III was very good: the girls from Fürth swishing their skirts, slapping their thighs and dancing in circular formation in the bandstand, with the boys joining in on the outside. I loved the jugglers, particularly those on stilts — they were brilliant. And the way Pogner brought Eva in on his arm reminded me briefly of the recent Royal Wedding. Then immediately Sachs came on the chorus made a glorious sound, and Finley’s Euch macht ihr’s leicht, mir macht ihr’s schwer . . . (For you it’s easy, but you make it hard for me . . .) was riveting. This was Finley’s first Hans Sachs, and as he matures into the role it will only get better.

My view of the stage from the upper circle was perfect, and if you can get ticket returns anywhere in the theatre, go for it at any price. Performances continue until June 26 — for more details click here.

The Master Builder, Almeida Theatre, Islington, London, November 2010

17 November, 2010

As the audience took their seats, one man sat alone on an almost bare stage. This was Halvard Solness, Master Builder, who worries about falling from the heights of his own success. Solness is the principal architect of his own building company, which he runs with a driving force and ruthless determination, while using and abusing others. One of these is the old man Knut Brovik, whose company he took over, another is Knut’s son Ragnar whose talents as an architect he refuses to recognise, and then there’s Knut’s fiancée Kaja who works for him, and adores him. At first we think there is some sexual liaison between Solness and Kaja — certainly his wife suspects it — but he happily accepts that guilt as a substitute for a far deeper guilt. Mrs. Solness is a sad and lonely woman who once lost her family home in a fire, later lost her baby sons, and now does her “duty” with little joy or enthusiasm.

Gemma Arterton with Stephen Dillane, photos by Simon Annand

Solness has helped crush the dreams of several people, but this narcissistic man suddenly meets his match in Hilde Wangel, a young woman who hikes in from the wild, declaring he knew her once, kissed her and promised her a kingdom. She was brilliantly played by Gemma Arterton, portraying her as very attractive, assertive and a bit of a minx. She charms everyone, and is the one character in this performance who is quite obviously crazy. But isn’t Solness crazy too? He was played by Stephen Dillane as a down to earth man who knows his limitations, yet is too easily enamoured of Hilde. I would have preferred a more nuanced portrayal of his character: greater imperiousness at the start, followed by a gradual descent into confusion as he succumbs to Hilde’s insane dreams. How else is one to explain his extraordinary decision at the end to do something that everyone knows is impossible for him?

John Light as Ragnar

Among the rest of the cast, Jack Shepherd was very good as the sympathetic doctor, Patrick Godfrey was convincing and entirely reasonable as Knut, the fatally ill father, and John Light was superb as Ragnar his son, coming into his own towards the end when he’s ready to defy Solness. Emma Hamilton gave a fine portrayal of Kaja, and Anastasia Hille showed Mrs. Solness to be a sad, dutiful wife, suddenly at sixes and sevens when guests arrive while she wants to run to her husband to stop him climbing the scaffolding. But when she talked to Hilde about losing her precious dolls in the fire, saying “they were alive in my heart”, there was little of the powerfully repressed emotion that I expected. The spark needed to bring Solness and his wife to life seemed lacking, so the performance revolved very much around Gemma Arterton, who brought a magnetic personality to the role of Hilde, exhibiting the charm and life that this deranged young woman brings to the Solness household.

The translation of Ibsen by Kenneth McLeish felt entirely natural, and this production by Travis Preston, with minimalist designs by Vicki Mortimer, packed everything into an hour and three-quarters with no interval. With excellent lighting by Paul Pyant, this should have been a more intense experience than it was, but I attended a preview and perhaps things will warm up later in the run.

This production continues until 8 January 2011 — for details click here.

Idomeneo, English National Opera, ENO at the London Coliseum, June 2010

19 June, 2010

Imagine a father accidentally committed to sacrificing his son — think Abraham and Isaac — and you have the essential element of this opera, which Mozart wrote when he was 24. It was completed and first performed in Munich, where he enjoyed a peaceful few months, and he later considered it to be one of his best works. The essence of the story is that Idomeneo, returning to Crete from the Trojan War, promises Poseidon that if spared from shipwreck he will sacrifice the first person he sees upon reaching home, and is met on landing by his son Idamante. This young man loves the Trojan princess Ilia, and has released her and the Trojan prisoners. She loves him in return, but so does Elektra, who is living at the palace in exile.

Robert Murray as Idamante and Sarah Tynan as Ilia

Idamante lamenting by the sea shore

The music is wonderfully expressive of the conflicting emotions, and was superbly conducted by Edward Gardner with powerful singing from the chorus. Paul Nilon sang strongly as Idomeneo, doing well with his important Act II aria Fuor del mar when he laments being saved from the sea only to have a raging sea in his heart. Idamante was a tenor role in this production, well sung by Robert Murray, whom I last saw nearly two years ago as a powerful simpleton in Boris Godunov. In the original version of 1781, Idamante was a castrato role, but Mozart gave a tenor alternative five years later in Vienna when it was being performed by amateurs. The opera starts with a long aria for Ilia, wonderfully sung by Sarah Tynan, whom I saw a few months ago as Adina in The Elixir of Love. She had a charming stage presence, her diction was superb, and she portrayed this Pamina-like role with great delicacy. Then as the vengeful Elektra, desperate to defeat her rival and win her prince, Emma Bell’s strong voice and presence showed sneering arrogance turning to anger, and in the end of course she becomes quite unhinged, waving a gun around and shooting herself off-stage.

Emma Bell as Elektra starts to go crazy

The use of guns made sense since this production by Katie Mitchell is in a modern context, and indeed the costumes by Vicki Mortimer are absolutely up to date, the men wearing suits, with Elektra in a black dress, and Ilia looking delightful in stylish light coloured dresses. I liked the clean, plain sets by Vicki Mortimer and Alex Eales, and loved the images of the sea, sometimes raging most fearsomely. I particularly liked the preparation for the proposed exile of Idamante in Act II, where he and others waited at the departure gate while Elekra sat comfortably in the VIP lounge, delighted to be off with her beloved, and away from her rival. When the terrible storm rages everyone floods into the lounge, creating a tight space for the chorus to sing fearfully about this new terror. My only complaint about the production was that there were too many irrelevant comings and goings across the stage while various duets and soliloquies were going on. I know this is a rather static opera, but the busy activity had the smell of contrivance. Indeed, Sarah Tynan held the stage well in her long first aria, and needed less distraction. But the emotion came through very well, and ENO’s first new production of Idomeneo since 1962 must be counted a great success.

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

Burnt by the Sun, National Theatre, May 2009

20 May, 2009


This is based on a 1994 movie by Rustam Ibragimbekov and Nikita Mikhalkov, and was turned into a play by Peter Flannery. The story takes place in 1936 as Stalin’s reign of terror is just picking up steam, and it deals with the destruction of General Sergei Kotov, whose idealism and strength of character were well portrayed by Ciaran Hinds. His wife Maroussia was convincingly played by Michelle Dockery, and her ex-fiancé Mitya (Dmitri Andreevich) was coolly and engagingly played by Rory Kinnear. He arrives unexpectedly at their dacha where Kotov lives in retirement with his daughter, wife, and members of her family of ex-aristocrats, and it is clear that Mitya and Maroussia still have strong feelings for one another. Mitya is a cultivated lover of the arts who plays the piano and listens to recordings of Puccini operas, and has been living abroad since disappearing suddenly several years ago, with no word of explanation to Maroussia. The reason was that Kotov got rid of him by having him forcibly recruited into the NKVD (a secret police and intelligence service), which sent him to Paris to spy on Russian émigrés. Kotov realises Mitya may try to take revenge, but feels secure in his personal connection with Stalin. He is close to the sun, but burnt by it, as Mitya falsely accuses him of spying for the Germans and Japanese, has him beaten up and taken away by NKVD agents. As for Mitya, he commits suicide. Throughout the play there are sexual undertones. Kotov seems to have a relationship with his ten year old daughter that some matrons in Maroussia’s family regard as too close, and he calls Mitya ‘pretty boy’ in a demeaning way that may reflect consciousness of a repressed adulation that Mitya bears him.

The acting was excellent. Not only did Ciaran Hinds, Michelle Dockery and Rory Kinnear play their parts extremely well, the members of Maroussia’s family were all realistically portrayed. Howard Davies directed well and the designs by Vicki Mortimer were very effective.

I understand there was once a plan to end with historical information on a screen — I would have liked that. Sergei Kotov, Commander in the Red Army was shot on 12 October 1936; his wife Maroussia was sentenced to 10 years in a prison camp where she died in 1940; his daughter Nadia was arrested with her mother, and now lives in retirement in Kazakhstan. They were rehabilitated on 27 November 1956 — Stalin died in 1953.