London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey (chorus director), Iwona Sobotka (soprano), Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Florian Boesch (baritone)
Barbican Hall, 12th February 2010
Not quite the Tourist’s last Beethoven fix before lockdown. A very dramatic take on various of the piano sonatas from Boris Giltburg was to follow a couple of weeks later, but this, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, was the final live orchestral piece I heard prior to us holing up, somewhat ahead of “Government” “advice”. The sonatas were shared with MSBD: the Choral with MS himself. A fine way to bow out then, hopefully temporarily, in this Beethoven anniversary year. And not just because the Ninth is such an almighty thing, ending with the “Ode to Joy”. Towering achievement is the customary cliche I believe. No, this was also memorable not just because it was the first time my lad had heard it performed live but also because Sir Simon Rattle, who has always nailed Beethoven in the past in my experience, and the LSO, smashed it.
OK so I can imagine, and have seen and heard, better all-round performances, not least from the wizard Haitink and this band in this hall a few years ago. But this was still something special. We opted for the cut-down programme, just the Choral, in the Half Six Fix slot, an initiative I hope the LSO maintains when normality, or some version of it, returns. Which means we missed out on Berg’s Lulu Suite. No pointing pushing my boy too hard and anyway, Lulu works better as opera than orchestral, where Alban’s lush romanticism can dominate at the expense of the quirky dramatic.
Anyway like I say the Beethoven was very, very good. Sir Si, after a little lecture on lessons learnt from past maestros, didn’t rush the Allegro first movement, from the opening crashing chord entries, properly cosmic, into the two themes, and, especially, in the giant coda, all ma non troppo, just like LVB said. Nor in the Scherzo, that marvel of sonata form, based on a racey fugue ,(pinched from the first movement opening), wrapped inside the ternary structure, with the dinky trio, with perky oboe solo from Juliana Koch, and Goughie’s sublime bassoon, in between. Which meant that when we got to the Adagio, I was happy to luxuriant in the vibrating string bubble bath, which is not always the case. I’d guess Rattle clocked in at over a quarter of an hour. I am normally a fan of the HIP close-to-10-minute take per Gardiner, Harnoncourt and Norrington, where the double variation structure doesn’t get lost, but here Rattle got away with it, like Bohm does in the classic VPO recording, (and unlike Rattle’s own recording with the Viennese which is really, really dull).
It was in the final movement though where the LSO and Sir Si really hit the heights. This wasn’t just down to the soloists, all blessed with power, clarity and control, and, for once, perfectly balanced. Or the simply outstanding LSO Chorus, who have never sounded better to my ears. Bravo Simon Halsey. No, it was because the mix of old-skool tempo and phrasing with more up-to-date technique, from the ear-straining pianissimo throb of the cello/bass first entry of the OTJ theme, after the recaps, to the chop-smashing last couple of bars, really paid dividends. Listening now to that very Bohm recording, which builds, and builds, and builds, then releases, and releases, and releases, I get what Rattle was aiming for. A kind of controlled volatility. MS and the other 2000 souls in the Barbican Hall felt it. For once the ovation made sense.
Say what you like. The Choral may be OTT, manipulative, hackneyed, ubiquitous, but, when done well, especially to those of us who like Beethoven’s big bones, there is nothing better. Still firmly on the credit side of the humanity ledger which we are all finding ourselves contemplating right now.
I bet Chris Bush was good at English at school and maybe beyond. In the precis question. For she has an unerring eye/ear/pen for taking complicated/contentious/convoluted issues and dramas and rendering them explicable, topical and entertaining. Kicking off with TONY! The Blair Musical from 2007, through a series of productions based and performed in her native Sheffield to her take on Pericles for the NT’s Public Arts project. I haven’t seen The Assassination of Katie Hopkins, the play that is, though would like to. The play that is …. Even a narcissistic cretin, who takes money for voicing offence, and who has choked and failed in her “career” on multiple occasions, deserves our sympathy, though not our attention.
Music and inclusiveness have formed central planks of CB’s work with Standing at the Sky’s Edge, co-written with Richard Hawley, set to grace the NT when normal service is reviewed. With Faustus TDW however she has chosen to contemporarise, (as she did with the mystery plays), and gender switch, the overly ambitious man about town and time, made famous by Marlowe and Goethe. With mixed results. It’s looks brilliant, there are some sound ideas beyond the gender inversion, and, for those of us new(ish) to the story, it is easy to follow, but some of the dialogue doesn’t quite match the ambition and it features a bold central performance from Jodie McNee which doesn’t help us to get beyond the cipher.
Johanna Faustus works hard alongside apothecary Dad (Barnaby Power) in plague-ridden 1660s London after Mum is executed for witchcraft. God isn’t going to dispense justice so our Johanna bites Lucifer’s (also Barnaby Power) hand off when he offers the deal. 144 years, 6x more than the male Faust, no requirement to be taken consecutively. Yet she, unlike her hubristic mythic counterpart, sets out on an altruistic path, first in her ‘hood and then, after a quick-fire Enlightenment education, a melodramatic Victorian London, through time, Cloud Atlas style, to a far future as CEO of a pharma company set on delivering eternal life to the masses. She meets various women (and some men) along the way, Elizabeth Garrett, Marie and Pierre Curie, variously played by Katherine Carlton, Alicia Charles, Tim Samuels and Emmanuella Cole, and is accompanied by her camp Mephistopheles (Danny Lee-Wynter), decked out in a natty white suit, Cuban heels and rouge, and ever quip-ready.
Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s set design may well be the star of the show, an expansive cavern, expressively lit by Richard Howell, like the inside of a whale, though it does come to dominate. There are a few enjoyable effects, notably in the recreation of the Seven Deadly Sins, assisted by Giles Thomas’s sound and Ian William Galloway’s video. Headlong director Caroline Byrne keeps things moving along, though this comes at the expense of the questions, of faith, of female agency and oppression, of mortality, technology, free-will, redemption, which themselves are rather jumbled up. Ambition and imagination has been a feature of the UK stage over the last few years, but Faustus TDW does, like some of its predecessors, push the envelope a little too far and risks looking a bit daft.
Mind you Marlowe’s anti-hero does drone on a bit, is an annoying clever dick and uses his expensively secured special powers to mostly make practical jokes and perform crowd-pleasing tricks. Which, to be fair, is probably what this bloke would do as well. On that basis we have to applaud the two CB’s for setting out an alternative. It just might have been better to restrict the inversion to the historical starting point. Still I enjoyed it and kind of liked its can-do punky attitude. A fine foil to the rather more technologically adroit achievement of Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch’s adaptation of Orlando which Schaubuhne Berlin kindly streamed the other day. Perhaps I should have a look see at what the mainstream female time traveller in Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who is up to these days.
“This could be the closest thing to heaven …. “. No not the Tears for Fears dirge from 2004 but one of the many fine singles from the vastly under-rated, and alas short-lived, Kane Gang from 1984. The KG, along with the magnificent Prefab Sprout, and the rather less remembered and post-punky Daintees, at least in my mind, were the apogee of the early 80s British pop/blue eyed soul bands hailing from the North East’s Kitchenware Records in the 1980s. Rich melodies, lush production, and often orchestration, skilled song-writing.. What has this got to do with Beethoven I hear you cry. Well nothing actually. It is just this was the song that popped into my head as I enjoyed a fine fry up for lunch courtesy of Fast Break on Day 1 of the Barbican Beethoven Weekender in early February. Plainly I was in a good mood.
Obviously the celebration of the 250th year since Beethoven’s birth has now been put on hold during these troubled times. (The Tourist had intended to take in Bonn on his Spring train break). Once again I apologise for rabbiting on about a classical music gig from many weeks ago when there is so much more of import going on around us. However I was able to attend a smattering of Beethoven programmes prior to the lockdown taking effect but frankly nothing came close to this offering from the Barbican. All the symphonies, courtesy of some of the UK’s finest orchestras based outside London, interspersed with other, well thought through and informative contributions featuring bits and pieces of LvB’s piano, quartet and violin chamber works, alongside some other, moreorless quirky, responses made up this excellent Festival. And all for just £45. That’s right. The greatest music ever written, (in the Western art canon at least), spread over two full days with change from a bullseye.
I was very taken with the exhibits, ear trumpets, the great man’s violin, the Warhol print, drawn from the Beethoven Haus collection in Bonn, with the Beethoven Bites contributions from various young composers and performers, many drawn from the ranks of the Guildhall School, and Matthew Herbert’s deconstruction/ reconstruction of the Ninth, especially Together, which takes 30 or so recordings of the third movement and plays them simultaneously to the same time frame. This shows how performance can differ, not just in tempo, but also in tuning, pitch, recording technique, dynamics.
Christopher Park’s readings of various of the Bagatelles at St Luke’s Old Street was surprisingly involving, despite the always interesting interruptions by Gerald McBurney reading eye witness accounts of LvB’s playing (and scheming). Daniel Sepec is the only musician (I think) entrusted with playing Beethoven’s own fiddle, and he was joined in Milton Court by Tobias Schabenberger (fortepiano), Taj Murray (violin) and Silke Avenhaus (piano) for extracts from early violin sonatas and the Kreutzer. The Beeb’s Sara Mohr-Pietsch paid tribute to George Bridgewater, the Afro-European musician who inspired LvB’s greatest sonata and was its original dedicatee. And the marvellous Carducci Quartet, in the Pit, were joined by uber-luvvie Simon Callow for intense extracts from various string quartets interspersed with letters from LvB, to family, to collaborators, and, of course, his Immortal Beloved. Now Mr Callow is rightly renowned for his ability to put us through the emotional wringer, but, from my perch very close to him, I can confirm the old boy shed a real tear or two. Terrific.
Still it’s the Symphonies that put the meat on the bones of this celebration and I can report that we were treated to performances of the highest quality, all brought together with enthusiastic wisdom from uber Beethoven fan-boy John Suchet. I won’t babble on about the works themselves or the detail of the performances. All I can say is that I need to get out, of London, more. Although, based on the stunning interpretation of the Fifth and Sixth from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic *****, Liverpool’s (and Oslo’s) loss will be London’s gain when the young(ish) Russian comes permanently to the Royal Philharmonic. I expected much and wasn’t disappointed. If there is a better way to spend a Saturday morning then you had better tell me.
Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia **** (finally there is a connection with Newcastle) put everything and more into the Seventh and Eighth, and jst about edged Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Orchestra’s **** more thoughtful takes on the Second and Fourth. But this may reflect my preference for Seven and Eight in the pecking order. The programme notes certainly don’t imply that Ms Gražinytė-Tyla thought that she was in any way getting the short straw with Two and Four and the performances were testament to this. I think I am right in saying that she has shaken off you know what. A good reason to explore some of the good stuff the CBSO has posted up to take us through the coming weeks/months, including the documentary about their gifted musical director prodigy.
In fact the riches that the world’s orchestras have offered up in the past few weeks have to be seen and heard to be believed. The Concertgebouw probably takes the biscuit, I have started working my way through the Ivan Fischer Beethoven cycle, but take a look too at the offers from the Berlin Philharmonie, the LSO, the LPO, Wigmore Hall, the BRSO and, my favourite so far, the Monteverdi Orchestra and Choir. And, at this rate, no one will ever enter an opera house again. Just kidding but there is a lot to see for free right now. Though not for free as all us privileged types should be financially supporting our cultural institutions right now, as well, of course as those in the front line, and less fortunate than ourselves.
Anyway Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra *** were quite able to match the RCO in their performance of the Eroica, which got a little muddled in the development of the opening Allegro con brio and in some of the variations in the Finale, though their interpretation of the First more than passed muster. I have to say though that the least convincing interpretation in the cycle was the closing Ninth from the Halle Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder ***. Sopranos Elizabeth Watts and Sarah Castle were bulldozed a little, the balance between orchestra and chorus didn’t feel right and the tempi overall were too measured for me especially in the slow movement. Still it’s the Choral, it capped an amazing couple of days and I still went home happily humming the Ode to Joy.
Something to hang on to until this is all over.
PS. The programme notes to accompany the Weekender are excellent BTW. To the point essays on Beethoven’s various disappointments in life (family, love and deafness), his idealist politics, his cultural impact and some wham bam notes on the symphonies.
Or to give it its full name Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail or The Abduction from the Seraglio. Here though Seraglio, not just to reflect the fact that this English Touring Opera production is sung, (and spoken), in English following a colloquial translation by Andrew Porter of Gottlieb Stephanie’s original German libretto, but also to deflect away from the abduction and attempted rape which lies at the heart of the story.
And that’s not all. The setting, the seraglio, (where wives and concubines were confined), of Pasha Selim, reflects the fascination in late C18 Austria with an exoticised Ottoman Empire which had recently been decisively defeated by the Hapsburg forces. A story of racist superiority is what patron Emperor Joseph II expected to see at the premiere in Vienna in 1782 and this is, broadly, what he got, notably in the character of the Baddie henchman overseer Osmin. But Mozart being Mozart, with his quirky Enlightenment sensibilities, he took something of an axe to audience preconceptions by, eventually, showing the Pasha as selfless in relinquishing his claim on Konstanze and passing her to our hero Belmonte. Put like that it doesn’t sound much more palatable. Yet this twist is what directors in the modern age have clung on to fuel their interpretations. Stephen Medcalf, the experienced director here, was no exception.
If you want to enjoy Mozart’s operatic genius you are going to have to take the historically conditioned plotting rough with the many-noted, (this is the piece about which Emperor Joe made his famous, though apocryphal, comment), smooth. This is not the best of Mozart by a long way. Gottlieb Stephanie’s libretto relies on spoken word to advance the plot, and was not built for recitative, and some of the tunes are a little bit too pastiche Turkish. Even so there are some very fine arias however, which hint at emotional depth, and are some of the most challenging the boy Wolfgang ever penned, and there are plenty of comic sparks. For Seraglio is, despite its dubious content, a comedy which pivots on two “love” triangles.
As usual then the Tourist has to get comfortable with the idea of a Mozart “comic” singspiel opera rooted in anachronistic tropes before he can sit back and enjoy, but also, as is usual, eventually the music takes over. Mind you when I say sit back that is a bit of an exaggeration. At just £15 the side of the Upper Circle at the Hackney Empire is a steal. Sight-lines are fine and you are close enough to the pit for the acoustic not to be an issue. These are not the comfiest of chairs. On the other hand they are no worse than the equivalent cheapest seats at the ROH and the ENO. And there you need oxygen and 8×40 binoculars. So I will take this option every time, (and so should you with a Cosi and a slimmed-down version of their Giulio Cesare to come in ETO’s spring season).
The sets in the handful of ETO productions I have seen have always impressed. Not too abstract but not too conservative. Touring plainly focusses the creative mind. Adam Wiltshire has devised a collection of gilded bird cages to symbolise the seraglio which swivels to provide Osmin’s Moorish gatehouse cum workshop, all framed by David W Kidd’s colourful lighting design. Costumes are faithful to the early C17 setting. Though it takes a little time before the big reveal given the perky extended orchestral intro that Mozart scored to show off his skills and introduce his themes. The Old Street Band orchestra, on top form under conductor John Andrews, was the standard 29 strong HIP Classical set up with a bit more percussion and wind (particularly convincing) to beef up the “Turkish” passages.
Enter Spaniard Belmonte in the form of John-Colyn Gyeantey who has come looking for his betrothed Konstanze (Lucy Hall), her maid Blonde (Nazan Fikret) and his steward Pedrillo (Richard Pinkstone). The two ladies have been captured by pirates and sold to Pasha Selim (Alex Andreou) who keeps perving the still virtuous Konstanze, with Blonde given to Osmin (Matthew Stiff, a well upholstered fellow much like the Tourist), as a slave. Osmin badmouths Belmonte, and then Pedrillo, prior to the two lads reuniting and hatching a plan to spring their lady loves. Pedrillo persuades the Pasha to give Belmonte a job as, er, an architect.
Act II. Blonde and Konstanze rebuff the advances of Osmin and the Pasha in turn. Pedrillo challenges Osmi to a drinking game. The two couples happily get together though only before, usual opera sexist nonsense, the fidelity of the ladies is confirmed.
Act III. Ladders. Distraction. Capture. An unfortunate bribe by Belmonte when it turns out his uncle Lostados is Pasha Selim’s sworn enemy. Likely torture and death until the Pasha’s extraordinary switchback as he decides he can make his point better by showing clemency. Happy ending.
Daft eh. Well yes. And torn, as was the Western intellectual and political fashion at the time, and maybe since, between admiration for “Oriental” culture and fear of the brutish “Muslim” other with sexual corruption a barely concealed sub-text. Mozart wasn’t the only composer of an “abduction/escape” comic opera. Audiences lapped them up. But whilst it takes a little time, the Pasha’s sensitivity and dignity, is eventually revealed, and Belmonte and Konstanze both explicitly voice their respect for him at the end. The finale may be a cheesy six way encomium, which puts Osmin back in his box, but the message of tolerance still shines through.
This doesn’t mean a get out of jail free card, (the pun is deliberate), for the comic shenanigans that precede this, even if there is more to the Pasha and even Osmin than meets the eye. And this is where the translation, the performances and Mr Medcalf’s clear-sighted direction persuaded. The acting, choreography and singing of the scenes between Pedrillo and Osmin (“Solche hergelaufne Laffen” and “Vivat Bacchus! Bacchus lebe!”), Osmin and Blonde (“Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln” and “Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir”) and Konstanze and the Pasha (“Martern aller Arten” which is about as good as it gets Classical soprano wise), are tender and funny largely because they are the tussles of equals. Osmin’s amazing aria, (“O, wie will ich triumphieren”) where the bass part descends to a low D, is an empty triumphalism. Conversely there is a sense in Belmonte’s set pieces (“Konstanze, Konstanze, dich wiederzusehen … O wie ängstlich” and later, “Wenn der Freude Tränen fließen” and duet “Welch ein Geschick! O Qual der Seele…. Weh, du soltest für mich sterben”) that he isn’t just going automatically win back Konstanze. In a plot built on rash negotiation the women here are definitely more in control.
It is still built on disconcerting premises but with acting and singing of this quality, especially from the feisty soprano Nazan Fikret, the dextrous light tenor Richard Pinkstone and plaintive Matthew Stiff, and the secure voices of John-Colyn Gyeantey, (bar a few wiggly vibratos), and Lucy Hall, it was impossible not to get carried along and I ended up thoroughly enjoying this production. Mozart wrote the parts for specific, and very talented, singers of the day, and Lucy Hall and Matthew Stiff particularly, were up to the task of navigating them. Alex Andreou was able to bring an air of thoughtful grandeur to the non-singing Pasha despite limited opportunity and a few shouty moments, especially when describing how he was so wronged by Belmonte’s uncle. And the small chorus of four, two guards, two concubines, (Rosanna Harris, Holle-Anne Bangham, David Horton, Jan Capinski) gamely mucked in with prop moving alongside their vocal duties.
So there you have it. A thoughtful production where director and designer simply nudge the material into the c21 and then allow the talented cast and well drilled orchestra to highlight the comedy in Mozart’s music and in the plot. And, for once, I didn’t really need the sur-titles. In my still far too limited experience opera either works or it doesn’t. Sometimes you can stake high and lose big. Not here though. A massive beat to expectations as I might have said in a past life.
I have banged on before about just how revelatory Thomas Ades’ Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia has been. Well it seems that, for the final couple of concerts, the rest of the world, (well OK a few Beethoven nuts in London, Norwich and Saffron Walden) has caught up. A near full house for the Choral and a much better turnout for 7 and 8 than in previous installments.
The combination of, largely, modern instruments by an orchestra of solo and chamber specialists, (and now my favourite British ensemble), who have completely bought into the lessons of HIP under the baton of, again for my money, Britain’s greatest living composer, have produced Beethoven symphonies that surely reproduce the thrill of their first performance. Appropriate forces, minimal vibrato, tempos that believe Beethoven, textures exposed and perfectly combined. I have bloody loved the first four concerts and was really looking forward to the final pairing.
I wasn’t disappointed. The best Ninth I have ever heard. Ever. Soloists perfectly balanced and all as clear as a bell over the sympathetic accompaniment. And the choirs were immense. You don’t need a cast of thousands. How on earth Mr Ades and Eamonn Dougan managed to make the voices sound this perfect in this acoustic was a miracle. And everything Mr Ades drew out of the previous three movements before the finale was perfect.
Best Eighth I have ever heard live too though here the competition is, I admit, somewhat slighter. I will be honest and just say I never knew it was so good. It is short, it is jolly, with no slow movement, but it is full of intriguing, if brief, ideas. I finally got it. The Seventh wasn’t quite up to the same standard with the opening Vivace with all those abrupt early key changes not quite dropping into place and with the stop/start of the Allegretto funeral march maybe too pronounced. Minor quibbles. Still amazing.
The Barry Viola Concerto takes the flexing and stretching of a musical exercise with a simple melody and subjects it to all manner of variations. It ended with Lawrence Power whistling. It is, like all of Barry’s music in the series, immediately arresting, just a little bit unsettling, rhythmically muscular and very funny. Terrific.
The Eternal Recurrence which proceeded the Choral is equally unexpected. Extracts from Nietzche’s Also sprach Zarathustra are delivered in a string of high notes by the soprano, here the fearless Jennifer France, in an a parlando, actorly style which is designed to mimic speech and not to sound “sing-y”. It’s a bit nuts and undercuts the text in a slightly sarcastic way, a bit like, some would say,Beethoven does with Schiller in the Ode to Joy. It reminded me of Barry’s The Conquest of Ireland which was paired with the Pastoral earlier on in this cycle.
I gather Gerard Barry uses a similar technique in his opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, (based on the Fassbinder film). That is now firmly near the top of my opera “to see” list but for the moment I am very pleased to see that both The Intelligence Park and Alice’s Adventures Underground are coming up at the Royal Opera House. Thanks to Thomas Ades I think I can safely say I am now a fan of Gerard Barry. And the old fella has style and is generous to the performers of his music as we see when he takes his bow at each of these performances.
I won’t go rabbiting on about the musical structure or context of the Beethoven symphonies. You will know them. And if you don’t then frankly you are only living half a life. Beethoven wrote the greatest music ever written. If you don’t believe me then why not start next year when a recording of this cycle will be released and when there will be wall to wall live Beethoven performances to celebrate 250 years since his birth. Here’s a list of the best of them in London. They’ll be more.
6th January, 6th February, 27th February, 19th March, 2nd April – Kings Place – Brodsky Quartet – Late Beethoven String Quartets
19th January – Barbican Hall – LSO, Sir Simon Rattle – Berg Violin Concerto, Beethoven Christ on the Mount of Olives.
1st and 2nd February – Barbican – Beethoven weekender – All of the Beethoven symphonies from various UK orchestras and much much more – all for £45
6th February – Barbican Hall – Evgeny Kissin – Piano Sonatas 8, 17 and 21
12th February – Barbican Hall – LSO. Sir Simon Rattle – Symphony No 9
20th February, 4th November – Kings Place – Rachel Podger, Christopher Glynn – Beethoven Violin Sonatas
1st to 17th March – Royal Opera House – Beethoven Fidelio
15th March – Royal Festival Hall, PO, Esa-Pekka Salonen – 1808 Reconstructed – Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 6, Piano Concerto No 4, Extracts from Mass in C, Choral Fantasy and more
4th April – LPO, Vladimir Jurowski – The Undiscovered Beethoven – inc. The Cantata for the Death of Emperor Joseph II
8th April – Barbican Hall – Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis – Beethoven Violin Sonatas 5, 7 and 9
11th to 16th May – Barbican Hall – Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner – the entire Symphony cycle.
22nd November – Kings Place – Peter Wispelwey, Alasdair Beaton – Beethoven complete Cello Sonatas
Top Girls. Downstate. Small Island. Follies which I can vouch for from the first run. And now this Tartuffe. All superb. If the NT is still going through a dodgy patch artistically then f*ck knows how good it is going to be when it gets back on track. This punter for one is very happy. And having paid £15 for this, as well as Small Island, and just a few notes more for Downstate, combined this has to represent just about the best bullseye the Tourist has ever spent.
For those of you Londoners, (I accept that for those outside the capital the N in NT may be a source of frustration despite the NT Live and touring initiatives), who whinge about not being able to get to see the NT “sold-out” productions I say the following. Sign up. Watch the updates. Book early. And take a risk. There will always be a few hot playwrights or big name actor productions where the members will beat you to it, but generally you will be OK. Risk a few quid. Worst case if your busy social life means when the date looms you are positively FOMO’d then, for a couple of quid, you can get credit for next time. And, if it does turn out to be sh*te, think of it as a necessary donation to maintain society’s cultural fabric. Any one of these recent productions was still eminently, and cheaply, bookable just a few weeks in advance. If you wait for reviews and chase the big hits you’ll end up paying twice the price in some cramped West End mausoleum. Here endeth the lesson.
Until now I hadn’t seen a convincing adaptation of Tartuffe or, frankly, any of Moliere’s plays. Started too late in my learning and maybe just unlucky. Played with too much fidelity to the “original” conception and it’s just unfunny caricature. Depart too far from the central hypothesis of hypocrisy, especially religious, or cram to much in in a bid for relevance and it can become chaotic or risibly naive. Keith A Comedy?, Patrick Marmion’s take at the Arcola recently smacked of the latter. As for the recent RSC Tartuffe, no comment. Sounded interesting but just a bit too far for the Tourist to go to knacker his back again in the Swan.
For this version, at the time of booking, I didn’t know the cast and, in any event, had never see anything by our Tartuffe here, Dennis O’Hare. Translator/adaptor John Donnelly was also new to me. Forget actors. I can’t stress enough how important the role of the adaptor is to making ye olde theatre work for modern, attention deficit audiences. But, as I say, in this case, no form guide. So that just left director Blanche McIntyre as the only confirmed draw. That was enough however. Ms McIntyre was the canny brains behind the RSC’s 2017 Titus Andronicus with David Troughton in the lead and The Writer, Ella Hickson’s brilliant feminist discourse at the Almeida last year. Next up she will tackle Bartholomew Fair at the Sam Wanamaker.
What can I say? Result. John Donnelly and Blanche McIntyre have created a Tartuffe who genuinely appears to believe his own hype and an Orgon (Kevin Doyle) who desperately wants his sins expiated. He is a speculator who has made a fortune trading around some dodgy war time activity facilitated by the government. (Think big oil, Cheney and Iraq if you find this too hard to believe). He is holed up with family, and Tartuffe himself, in his hyper-designed Highgate palace, Robert Jones’s set offering a nod to French baroque routed through World of Interiors.
Dennis O’Hare’s Tartuffe comes with prayer beads, topknot, bizarre South American accent and compromised personal hygiene. His spiritual philosophising veers from trite to acute. His religion is eclectic but filled with Goop-y self-help, lifestyle, homilies. Kevin Doyle’s agitated Organ believes the rest of his family sees his family’s antipathy to Tartuffe’s wisdom as reflecting their selfish claims on him and his wealth. So far, so recognisable. The difference here is that our shaman Tartuffe might just be right rather than the pious Christian hypocrite of most interpretations. And Orgon might just be justified in ridding himself of his ill-gotten gains and the guilt that comes with it to try to live a simpler life, albeit steeped in nostalgia. And there is a hint of something more like love in their complex relationship. (Maybe the pink and green neon St Sebastian on the back wall had something to say about this?)
From this starting point Mr Donnelly builds a consistent thesis all the way through to the expeditious deus ex machina which concludes the business. Here Orgon is saved from Tartuffe’s disclosure because the government doesn’t want its illegal war-time activities disclosed. Tartuffe is still the vehicle for much comedy but his genuine belief in his mission shifts the focus of the play into more satirical territory, closer to Moliere’s original intention. The original was quickly banned, not because Louis XIV, (and the public by all accounts), didn’t love it but because the Church and Aristocracy couldn’t stomach the p*ss taking.
The rhyming couplets, at least until the end, are abandoned which allows the retributive message, the farce in the plot, the fine jokes (Spymonkey’s Toby Park was involved) and the characters, (with their roots in the stock characters of Roman comedy), to emerge with more than usual clarity. Money makes their worlds go around and Orgon is the ATM. Kitty Archer, (who stood out in her debut One for Sorrow at the Royal Court), as daughter Marianne is a spoilt brat, but painfully aware of it, as she debates the forced marriage to Tartuffe per Daddy’s demands, or pauperdom with posh “street poet” boyfriend Valere, (some cracking lines for Geoffrey Lumb – “rhyme is a bourgeois concept”). Susan Engel does a fine turn as Orgon’s dismissive mother Pernelle who even, at one point, starts to fall for Tartuffe’s logic. Olivia Williams as wife Elmire shines in the “seduction” scene, here showing the wrong done to women by being used as sexual pawns in male games. Hari Dhillon’s Cleante and Kathy Kiera Clarke as Dorinne both offer a knowing, though still selfish, take on the action. Enyi Okoronkwo’s doltish son Damis gets some good laughs out of being a few lines off the pace.
I can see why some might want their Tartuffe to be lighter and less didactic. See the pic above. More comedy less message. Tough. There’ll probably be the same bunch who can’t contemplate Shakespeare without doublets. The reason theatre lives is because it changes as we do. And Tartuffe is a classic because it can speak to all times. This certainly did.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When opera works there is no other art form to touch. But when it doesn’t it can be mystifyingly dull. What’s more it can be the very same opera which is both of these things.
Take The Magic Flute. It is an undeniably daft opera. Its message is the triumph of the light and reason offered by the Enlightenment over the dark forces of Empress Maria Theresa’s absolutist Habsburg regime and the obscurantist Catholic Church. I understand that the Freemasons here are the good guys, even when they don’t appear to be, (though I gather the current mode de jour is to play down Mozart’s funny handshake connections), and that the Queen of the Night, even if she can hold a note (high F6 apparently), is not ideal mother-in-law material.
But even armed with sub-textual knowledge, insight into plot and familiarity with the score, (though that isn’t necessary though, this being Mozart, undeniably the greatest ever composer for dramatic voice), it can still it can still come across as upper class pantomime and take an age to get through. Unless of course it is directed by the genius that is Simon McBurney. There he is above in The Encounter. Mr McBurney OBE is the Artistic Director and a co-founder of Complicite. Complicite might just be the most important, and certainly the most innovative, theatre company in the UK. And therefore maybe the world. I say this secure in the knowledge that I have only seen a handful of their productions but when you see what they do you will know too. Which is what happened to BUD on the evening we went to see this Magic Flute. Mr McBurney has an eclectic list of film and TV, and directing, credits, so you are bound to have seen him somewhere, but it is his work with Complicite, extending far beyond direction and performance, given the vast array of associates involved in the company, that makes him special.
Now the Tourist, given his only rudimentary understanding of opera as an art form, and especially his inability to grasp the basics of musical constructions, find it tricky to opine on the subject. Moreover by rejecting pretty much all of C19 opera, (the bel canto of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the pompous melodrama of Verdi, the sentimental, pot-boiler manipulation of Puccini, the meandering bombast of Wagner – I’ve tried it all and I can’t be doing with it), and seeing it as drama with music, not music and tunes to which the drama is stitched on, I appreciate I am drastically narrowing the field. There is plenty to like musically from the Baroque but you need to get on with gods, monsters and Classical Greece plot wise, and some of then don’t half go on a bit, (I am looking at you Mr Handel). There aren’t actually that many C20 operas that have stood the test of time and get a regular airing. All this means then that the Tourist, especially since he isn’t going to drop £200 for a decent view at the Royal Opera House, or worse still some poncey gaff like Glyndebourne, on the off chance he might be converted, is condemned to see a lot of Mozart, Britten and contemporary opera. Which suits him but doesn’t really qualify him to write about it, even to himself. And he has never seen a Gluck opera, nor Fielio and suspects he might put up with any old nonsense story if Vivaldi’s music backed it up.
Which is why he has failed to document some of his more recent brushes with Mozart. But, with this Flute, once again with BUD as Sancho Panza to the Tourist’s Don Quixote, some clear patterns, worthy of comment, have emerged. Cases in point. We saw the Die Zauberflute at the Royal Opera House in October 2017. Nice perch. Stalls Circle to the side, nose to nose with the pit, though the rear of half of the stage was cut off. Sur-titles on a little screen on the ledge in front. So a strong showing musically, and in terms of the acting from the cast, but less impact from the set and from the libretto. Lesson one then. Having to look down at the translation doesn’t help. Which brings me to the wider, and contentious, claim. For me opera is better in English. Not because I can understand every word that is sung but because I might, particularly if the translation of the libretto captures the meaning, spirit and musicality of the original. As evidence I offer up Jeremy Sams genius offering for The Marriage of Figaro in the Fiona Shaw ENO production. You can berate me as much as you like but, if the singing, and sur-titles, make a connection, (in so far as that is possible when some soprano is going balls-out coloratura on what feels like the twentieth reprise of her showcase aria’s first verse), then the Tourist can start to find a way into the drama. Anathema to the purist but there it is. As for this ENO Flute, Simon Jeffrey’s pithy translation certainly did the trick.
Lesson two. Now I couldn’t tell you why but clearly some opera singers are better than others. Stronger, more powerful, more resonant, more accurate. a wider range, a better understanding of language, breath control, squillo, tessitura,rubato, vibrato, etc, etc. The ROH Flute definitely had the edge on the singing front, even with a “second string” cast when compared to this ENO Flute, (with the exception of Lucy Crowe’s Pamina). The ovation accorded to Greek soprano Christina Poulitsi after she nailed Der Holle Rache was something and well deserved. Goodness knows how excited the punters will have been after Sabine Devieilhe, the dastardly Queen for the other performances and the critic’s darling, squeaked her damndest. Yet, in terms of performance I preferred the ENO version because the singing, and for that matter the musical interpretation from the ENO Orchestra, fitted the drama more satisfyingly than the ROH production.
Which brings me to lesson number three, the most important of all. In opera the director really matters. That is, of course, also true in straight theatre but in opera, where there are so many interpretative decisions to be taken and where spectacle matters, the vision the director brings, can, in the Tourist’s limited experience, may a huge difference, particularly in drawing out the universal themes and creating a “look” that resonants with a modern audience in works that were written a few hundred years ago. Now there are some that are going to prefer their opera unsullied by the hand of the Regieoper. I certainly get that if the creative mind goes on to wild a bender the result can be a mess. On the other hand seeing something that emphasises the drama, the theatre of opera, and imposes some meaning, or at least insight, is more interesting to me than a straight, “period” interpretation, whatever that might be.
Not that David McVicar’s “classic” 2003 ROH production, revived for the sixth time by Thomas Guthrie, with design from John MacFarlane and lighting from Paule Constable, comes straight out unvarnished from 1791. But it does emphasise the “pantomime” and “set-piece” look, feel and structure of what I imagine to be Mozart’s, and his librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder’s, original Singspiel vision. Magic, fable, predictable comic turns from the boy Papageno, starry night skies, Masonic temples, swathes of primary colours, sharply delineated light and dark, some immense puppetry, a spiritual journey. All present and correct but it did jog on a bit and there wasn’t really a thread that held the whole together. The cast was sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of the set and the dramaturgy a little stolid. The daft story, and the aforementioned clash of philosophies, were showcased but nothing really connected.
Now in contrast Mr McBurney’s ENO version was a revelation. In part because he utilises the whole arsenal of typical Complicite aural and visual tricks, video projection, here with on-stage digital blackboard, on-stage Foley artist, a tilting, floating stage, fluttering birds simulated through sheaves of paper, orchestra players incorporated into the action on stage and singers descending into the raised pit and auditorium, to create a spectacle that highlights the artifice and wit of the theatrical experience, but also in the “magical” plot and in Mozart’s spectacular score. It is entertaining for sure but when it needs to make a point, the book-shelf to symbolise Sarastro’s Temple for example, it does. And, as if to directly address one of the banes of the Tourist opera attending life, there is constant on stage movement. No member of the cast is parked. to sing or otherwise.
The three ladies (Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price and Katie Stevenson) taking snaps of the unconscious Tamino (a properly hunky Rupert Charlesworth) on their phones, the three alarmingly old looking boy spirits (Guillermo Fernandez-Aguayo Martin, Richard Wolfson, and Nat Fukui), Julia Bauer’s Queen of the Night careering around in her wheelchair, the video snake, the “boardroom” table, the coup de theatre trials by fire and water with video backdrop covering the entire width of the stage, a genuine Prosperian “philosopher king” Sarastro, (bass Brindley Sheratt was compelling), and a genuinely strong and courageous Pamina (Lucy Crowe is both the best singer and actor I have ever seen on an opera stage, though appreciate experience is limited), a gentleman of the road Papageno, (Thomas Oliemans) and come to think of it Papagena (Rowan Pierce), with the ability to translate frankly p*ss poor comedy into real pathos, a greasy, lank-haired Monostatos (Daniel Norman) who is pure creep. And a magic flute which literally takes centre stage. Mr McBurney has thought about how it all fits together, about the story he wants to tell, and then worked on every detail to make us believe that this symbolic, numerological gibberish is really saying something to us.
It is as well that Mr McBurney’s creative collaborators were up to executing the vision. At this performance Chris Hopkins took the baton from young Ben Gernon. Sounded fine to me. I have no doubt that chief amongst all this invention was associate and movement director Josie Daxter who has worked with SMcB on his other opera A Dog’s Heart and A Rake’s Progress in Amsterdam. And there there was the set design of Michael Levine, the costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, the lighting design of Mike Gunning, (based on the original work of Jean Kalman), the video of Finn Ross, the sound of Gareth Fry and the aforementioned on stage artists Ben Thompson and Ruth Sullivan.
Now just in case you opera buffs were thinking the Tourist is some sort of lightweight with a toddler-esque attention span that delights in directors upending operatic tradition I offer up a recent visit to the Royal Opera House and Cost Fan Tutte. Overall this was a fine night out with the SO, BUD and KCK for company with much to enjoy. Admittedly in a cheap (for a reason) box which restricted the view but still. It was Mozart, a fine, if not perfectly matched, cast highlighted by Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso and Serena Gamberoni’s Despina alongside the menage a quatre of Paolo Fanale (Fernando), Gyula Orendt (Guglielmo), Salome Jicia (Fiordiligi) and Serena Malfi (Dorabella), and a barnstorming performance in the pianoforte continuo from conductor Stefano Montanari who amped up the tempi to good effect.
However Julia Burbach’s direction of this revival of German Regie Jan Philipp Gloger’s original production didn’t really work for me. I had seen the original at the cinema and was mystified by some of its conceits then. Same here live. I get the notion that it is daft to believe that our funny lovers, even when the lads are dressed up as “east” Europeans, wouldn’t recognise each other, but it is equally daft to presume that they are all deliberately playing along to rediscover love and something about themselves. So we enter Don Alfonso’s School for Lovers, after a performance of the opera has ended, the scenes are played out in a rehearsal of the opera itself, with stagehands milling about and putting up each of Ben Bauer’s inconsistent designs ahead of each scene, there is plenty of implied guff about defining and reclaiming identity and the sexist title is repurposed to include us all rather that just the “women who are like that” with a simple replacement of an “e” by an “i” – tutti you see. All is artifice, all is deceit, and that includes you audience.
I get the idea. The problem is the plot and libretto. There is no way round it. This story and the words da Ponte sets to Mozart’s glorious sounds to tell it are sexist claptrap. So the gap between what Herr Gloger wants us to understand is the message and what we hear (or more exactly, read in translation) just gets wider and wider. Nothing wrong with director’s manipulating and mining sacred texts to resonate with contemporary audiences and to repurpose the arguments and nothing wrong with exploring the dissonance between what was acceptable then and what is acceptable now but there has to be some internal logic and clarity in what we see and hear that doesn’t require a download of the programme notes in advance to understand.
And the performers have to be convinced by the director’s vision that no-one here is convinced by what they are doing or singing. I don’t think they were, with perhaps the exception of Serena Malfi. So neither was I. Better to recognise the reality of the first, misogynist, take on the opera, and then start to tease out the ironies that might exist in da Ponte’s texts and Mozart’s music. It might not entirely paper over the ugly stereotypes at the heart of the “comedy”, nor the fact that it does go on a bit, but there is plenty to work with in the right hands, as with Shakespeare’s more cloth-eared passages, and, failing this, there is always the music and the farce.
Right that’s the state of play in the Tourist’s head Mozart opera wise. Until the next time when he will likely entirely reverse his opinions.