prisoner of the state at the Barbican review ****

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov (conductor), Elkhanah Pulitzer (director), Julie Mathevet, Jarrett Ott, Alan Oke, Davóne Tines, BBC Singers

Barbican Hall, 11th January 2020

In which American contemporary composer David Lang, co-founder alongside Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon and probably best known for his Pulitzer prize winning the little match girl passion, offers up his update of Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio, (in its various, protracted, incarnations). And yes he does title his compositions in lower-case.

Mr Lang has come up with some striking and novel ideas in the past to inspire his largely vocal body of work. Comic strips, disappearances, Bach, Death, search engines, the crowd at Highbury, national anthems, autopsies, Glen Gould and broken musical instruments. The whiff of the conceptual, which I like. POTS however focuses on the big themes at the heart of LvB’s opera, liberty, justice, freedom, heroism, sacrifice, as well as the central love story, but jettisons all of the comic padding, glorious as it easy musically if not always dramatically, and compacts the story down to just under an hour. Like a best bits, reworked in the immediate, post-minimalist style, though still with plenty of punch, that characterises the music of DL and his compatriots.

The lead characters become Every-Men, and Women, with Leonara now the Assistant, who inveigles her way into the prion where hubby Florestan is now the Prisoner, watched over by the Jailor and the Governor, as well as assorted guards, and a prisoser chorus which features throughout. This permits a more timeless vibe, for all the prisoners of the state, then and now, highlighted in DL’s own idiomatic and very direct libretto, which borrows from other, relevant texts (Machiavelli, Bentham, Rousseau, Hannah Arendt, and a list of English prisoners about to be carted off to Australia) . OK so maybe the simplification, at least musically, with a regular rhythmic ostinato ebb and flow of build-up arias and big choruses, verges on the repetitive, but there is no denying its emotional impact. Even if at times. especially in the final climax, the sound got a bit messy. DL certainly knows how to handle a chorus.

I have to confess that I do not know Fidelio as well as I should given my firm conviction that Beethoven was the greatest music maker of all time. A couple of productions seen on telly/laptop and a couple of listens through, with less than complete concentration, is plainly insufficient. Failed to secure a ticket for this season’s ROH production from Tobias Kratzer so a cinema viewing will have to suffice. Which means I couldn’t tell you how David Lang has re-interpreted LvB’s key set pieces though I gather they are largely present and correct if concentrated.

The singspiel style opera was semi-staged, as intended by DL, under the direction of Elkhanah Pulitzer, with a simple set design from Matt Saunders to simulate the prison, complete with lighting from Thom Weaver, projections from Yuki Izumihara and costumes from Maline Casta. I could see it working effectively as quasi-oratorio given its simple, though winning, harmonic language and direct story-telling. After all the original is more about ideas and character than convincing narrative The (amplified) vocal parts prioritise power and clarity over intricacy, which favoured the bass-baritone of Davone Tines as the Jailor and elfin soprano Julie Mathevet who convinced as the heroic, disguised, Assistant/Wife. The contrast between the defiant idealist Prisoner, baritone Jarrett Ott, and Alan Okie’s rich tenor as the authoritarian Governor was also effective, though the latter backed down pretty quickly when it cane to the pivotal rescue scene. Mind you at least this avoided the cringey, sexist ending of Beethoven’s original as the townspeople bang on about wifely virtue rather than freedom from tyranny.

This cast, with the the exception of Davone Tines, performed at the premiere of the work by the New York Philharmonic, and it will also be getting airings at co-commisioners, in Rotterdam, Barcelona, Bochum and Bruges. I have no doubt that the BBCSO and BBC Singers (here assisted by some enthusiastic students from the Guildhall) will have more than held their own against the other ensembles during the tour of the work. Once again I was struck by the authority and commitment that the oh so versatile BBCSO brought to the work.

Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House *****

Death in Venice

Royal Opera House, 3rd December 2019

Fresh from the superlative semi-staged version of Peter Grimes from Ed Gardner, the Bergen PO and assorted chums and straight into this. A top drawer new version of Death in Venice from David McVicar. I have fond memories of seeing Deborah Warner’s production of DIV at the ENO with, guess who, Edward Gardner on conducting duty, which also bewitched the SO, (who has also been persuaded by The Turn of the Screw and, though she may not know it, is going to be a fan of Britten opera).

Now I am partial to BB and his operas. As you can see from recent viewings documented hereabouts. They are up there with the best of British cultural expression, indeed the best from anywhere. But that doesn’t me they are all perfect or that creatives can’t fall down when tackling them. Paul Bunyan is a bit bonkers, (the recent ENO outing wisely went with the flow), the Rape of Lucretia has a pretentious and inappropriately Christian libretto from Ronald Duncan, you need to be in the right mood for the Church Parables, I have never seen Owen Wingrave live or in the TV original and Gloriana is, well, just a bit crap. Even the musically bullet-proof, Grimes, TTOTS, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, need sympathetic performers and directors. Billy Budd is always a tricky customer. The comedies/children’s operas are too generous to fail other than in the eyes and ears of the flinty-hearted.

Some say Death in Venice is also a trick(s)y opera though I have never really understood why .(Maybe it’s because it isn’t a simple, straight A to B, with obstacles, misogynistic love story). Here David McVicar got the Edwardian look and feel spot on. DIV is a set, costume and lighting designer’s wet dream and Vicki Mortimer and Paule Constable duly delivered to create exquisite, cinematic, vertical and horizontal tableaux across the 17 scenes with maximum efficiency and impact. The water of the lagoon ever present in the backdrop. With no f*cking around with interpretation. Visconti and Mann would be purring in their graves, (or suing for plagiarism), so precise was the realisation. Even the gondola looked real. And that was with two fellas pushing it. Lynne Page similarly brought just enough to the table with the choreography of the dance scenes. Realistic with just enough grace and artistry especially from our lovely, knowing teenage Tadzio (Leo Dixon) and his irate chum Jaschiu (Olly Bell).

But the real triumph was not having our van Aschenbach go too full-on, homo-erotic, pretentious, unhinged, tortured artist too early. He really is a bit of a ninnyhammer getting all lathered up with the young boys, the culture, the heat, the plague, the offuscazione, all those words, all that useless beauty, that Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic, all that bloody philosophising. (Honestly Gustav, don’t beat yourself up mate). He is though a clever cookie, in control mentally and physically until the lurgy properly strikes, and he can eloquently verbalise. At length. Immense length. In Myfanwy Piper’s appropriately mannered libretto. Brought to life by the beautiful voice of Mark Padmore. Who can act. Even to the back of the stalls.

This isn’t quite a one-man show. The support of Gerald Finley as Traveller/Fop/Gondolier/Manager/Barber/Player/Voice of Dionysius made this very special. Has there ever been a more inspired piece of operatic doubling (and not just in the service of cheap laughs and flimsy plotting) or a more talented singer/actor to pull it off? And, as if that wasn’t enough we get the sweet counter-tenor of Tim Mead interjecting as hunky tourist Apollo. And the never-ending stream of “extras” including the likes of Elizabeth McGorian as the Lady of the Pearls and, get this, Rebecca Evans as the Strawberry Seller.

But the ever present, tireless Mr Padmore is what made this special as we go deep inside von Aschenbach’s head. An operatic Hamlet. What is real and what is imagined? Messrs McVicar and Padmore don’t tell, giving the creepy Don’t Look Now Venice a wide berth, but do largely make sense of GvA’s meanderings and even make him seem human rather than the vessel for Thomas Mann’s symbolism and aestheticism. Not that it matters. BB’s music is so clever, haunting, sparse, ascetic, with the repetitions, motifs, and the gamelan shimmers, that it tells the story, conjures up place and inhabits character all by itself. Even at the end, like GvA consumed by his own mortality, BB was turning out perfection with that poignant passacaglia, (a link back to the Doric Quartet’s muscular performance of BB’s final quartet a couple of weeks previous), and Richard Farnes and the ROH orchestra know exactly what is required of them. This score then is the truly beautiful.

25 years since the ROH last staged DIV but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t come back soonest. So go see what I mean. And pay up for a decent perch as, by ROH standards, Britten comes cheap. All the toffs seemingly never tiring of OTT Italian C19 flim-flammery or worse still Wagnerian guff.

I see I have a couple more outings with Gustav van Aschenbach later in the year. Ivo van Hove and Ramsay Naar will be bringing ITA’s interpretation over to the Barbican in April with music from Nico Muhly and the great Greg Hicks will be serving up his solo turn at the Arcola in June. I expect they will be quite different.

Peter Grimes at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor), Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor, Royal Northern College of Music Chorus, Choir of Collegiûm Mûsicûm, Håkon Matti Skrede (chorus master), Vera Rostin Wexelsen (stage direction)

Royal Festival Hall, 30th November 2019

Let’s not waste too much time on this. For this extraordinary evening is what happens when talented music-makers devote themselves to doing justice to a near perfect, no make that perfect, work of musical theatre.

The Bergen Philharmonic’s principal conductor Edward Gardner had already elevated Britten’s most complete opera into something special at the ENO (and the Proms) during his tenure there alongside Aussie heldentenor Stuart Skelton generally acknowledged to the best Grimes in the world today. EG’s Norwegian chums have taken The Borough to their hearts, what with fish, the sea, overcast skies, gruffness and chunky knit jumpers I guess it is no great surprise, and when they unveiled the fruits of this collaboration at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years back the critics went mental.

As they did again after this. And they were right too. You will not hear a more powerful, dramatic, atmospheric, moving interpretation of the score. And Mr Skelton now captures utterly the ambiguity in Grimes as he bullies the apprentice (Samuel Winter), whilst just about retaining enough man-child humanity to justify Ellen Orford’s sympathy. And I doubt you will see or hear a better Ellen than Erin Wall. Swedish and Norwegian sopranos, Hanna Husahr and Vibeke Kristensen, brought a bit of Scandi glamour to the two nieces, joining a peerless Brit cast. Roderick Williams as Balstrode, Susan Bickley as Auntie, Catherine Wyn-Rodgers as Mrs Sedley, Neil Davies as Swallow, Marcus Fansworth as Ned Keene, Robert Murray as Bob Boles, James Gilchrist as the Reverend Adams and Barnaby Rea as Hobson. It doesn’t get much better in terms of matching voice to character.

Now the thing is, these semi- staged versions, here just costumes (dark blues, greens and black, with just one telling flash or red), some barrels, ropes and so on, standing in for the various Borough locations, mean everything is focussed on the music and the voices. Which partly explains just why this was so darned good. But it also means we the audience are not distracted by too much visual stimulus. Not that this is a bad thing in the best opera productions. But the absence thereof here meant that the performers could uncover all of the nuanced psychological insight that is afforded by BB’s music and Montagu Slater’s libretto. (And, to be fair George Crabbe’s richly descriptive poetry which inspired it). Which is what took this performance into a different league. Grimes’s otherness, his failure to fit in, the darkness, cruelty or worse, that torments him, the ordinariness of the villagers and their routines, the scapegoating, hypocrisy and vengeance, the landscapes. The ambivalence of people, place and purpose. The good, the bad and the ugly of humanity. This really digs in to the themes generating real drama in a way you rarely see in any theatre. music or otherwise. Setting the chorus (brilliantly assembled and marshalled by Hakon Matti Skrede) behind orchestra, with principals ranged at the front of the stage, was not the only echo of Greek tragedy.

I assume that this ensemble will set this down in a recording one day but it really needs to be heard, and seen, to be appreciated. So, if and when it appears again, do not hesitate if you have any interest at all in the work. I await Mr Gardner’s return to a London gig with the LPO with bated breath.

Orphee at ENO review ***

Orphee

English National Opera, 27th November 2019

The Mask of Orpheus. Extraordinary music, fine singing, showy production. Orpheus and Eurydice. Fine music, mostly, superb singing, faulty production. So how would the Tourist fair in his third encounter with the Orpheus myth in the ENO season. Well since you ask. Best production of the three by far courtesy of Netia Jones, who also oversaw costume and video, and Lizzie Clachlan’s multi-faceted set. Mind you I knew just how good Ms Jones’s ideas can be, heavy though they are on monochrome video visuals, thanks to her memorable take on Britten’s Curlew River in 2013. Singing, well singing-through, since the libretto is a pretty straight, (here closely translated into English by the versatile Ms Jones and Emma Jenkins), lift from the Cocteau 1950 film script, that was more than up to the task notably from Nicholas Lester as our eponymous hero, coloratura Jennifer France as the baddie Princess and, unsurprisingly, Nicky Spence as the ominous chauffeur Heurtebise. Music faultlessly executed by the ENO orchestra as usual under the baton of Geoffrey Paterson, though it is near two hours of Philip Glass with all the good and bad that implies.

So why wasn’t I bowled over. Well I think that comes down to the source material. Jean Cocteau was a wilful fellow, with talent to burn across media, even when off his tits on opium, but he did have his bugbears and did not see any problem with excess self-love. His film is Art with a big A, about love, death and jealously like its source, but also about how the Artist operates in a realm far beyond that occupied by us ordinary mortals. Indeed Orphee here is a misunderstood poet who seeks immortality. With the help of a lot of mirrors. Cocteau thought he was special and was determined to show us. More Narcissus and Thanatos than Orpheus maybe, though with more than a whiff of grumpy old man misogyny. Mind you Cocteau himself came in for a lot of criticism from the artistic elite, notably the Surrealists, which was often tinged with homophobia. The most obvious inspiration for his aesthetic in the film is surely Man Ray.

The film is a mix of dream and naturalism set in 1950s Paris. A drunken night out ends with younger poet rival to Orphee, Cegeste (Anthony Gregory) mown down by a couple of motor bikes after a fight. The mysterious Princess steps in to help, but instead abducts Orphee to a chateau, where she, her lackeys and the reanimated (!) Cegeste disappear. No problem as Heurtebise returns Orphee to his hone where the coppers, wife put upon Eurydice (Sarah Tynan) and feminist friend Aglaonice (Rachael Lloyd) are wondering what he has been up to. Heurtebise moves in and falls for the pregnant Eurydice. Orphee gets obsessed with the radio which may be talking to him via some ropey poetry, Eurydice is murdered by the Princess’s lackeys and Heurtebise and Orphee make a trip to the Underworld. A dodgy Court says he can take Orphee back, subject to the usual condition, when he declares he no longer fancies Death/The Princess. Eurydice fatally looks at hubby in the car mirror and so back to square one, with Orphee joining her after getting shot at the bar where all this shenanigans kicked off. Back to the Underworld to have memories wiped for O & E with Death/Princess and Heurtebise checking in for good.

Worth knowing all this and brushing up on the synopsis though even so I confess to losing the thread a few times through the 18 scenes. And to not fully appreciating the point of the many “framing” extras that Ms Jones introduces. No matter. Glass’s score contains just enough variation to demarcate the shifts in the odd narrative and in character, (this was still well before Glass drifted into auto-pilot mode), and visually the production is a treat with Netia Jones emulating Cocteau’s own mix of lo and hi (for the time) cinematographic technique to provide an equally striking impression. Cocteau made it up as he went along. Ms Jones, along with Lucy Carter (lighting) and Danielle Agami (choreography), and unlike some other directors at the ENO recently, takes a far more methodical approach, which, deliberately mirrors the film (with direct video quotes), and its “making of” successor, Le Testament d’Orphee, whilst still remembering to be an opera. As I think Glass envisaged even if he wrote for French not English and maybe with a smaller stage in mind.

Philip Glass long harboured an ambition to convert Cocteau’s vision into opera after spending 1954 in a hedonistic whirl in Paris. (He returned in the mid 1960s to study under Nadia Boulanger). It was composed in 1991 just after his wife, artist Candy Jernigan, died unexpectedly from liver cancer. He went on to compose two further operas based on Cocteau’s films, La Belle et la Bete (1994) and Les Enfants Terribles (1996).

Orpheus and Eurydice at the ENO review ***

Orpheus and Eurydice

English National Opera, 14th November 2019

The second part of my engagement with the ENO O&E odyssey. (See how easy it easy to be a librettist). Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus first, simultaneously monumental and camp, Philip Glass’s homage to Cocteau’s Orphee to come in a couple of weeks, and there was no chance of me ever signing up for Emma Rice’s take on Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.

Going in this was probably the one on which the Tourist was most keen. Never heard or seen it before. Learned a lot in recent months about Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714 to 1787) and how he, and his circle, revolutionised opera by insisting on the primacy of drama. With Orfeo et Euridice, from 1762, the first, and prime example of the reform. Less repetition, melisma and showing off in arias, similarly less ritornello in the instrumental passages, intelligible text, less recitative and more accompanied than secco, and more flow in melodies and action.

With a cast of Sarah Tynan as Eurydice, Soraya Mafi as Love and the powerful voice of Alice Coote as Orpheus, the cast was top notch, and with Wayne MacGregor in the director’s chair, the dance passages were going to receive due care and attention. And all played straight through coming in at a tidy 90 minutes.

Or so I thought. Turned out the production did feature and unnecessary interval, (in my opinion though maybe not shared by the dance ensemble), and that the choreography took precedence over the drama. The sublime combination of Alice Coote’s powerful mezzo, Sarah Tynan’s lighter, brighter, and up and coming Soraya Mafi’s sharp, accurate, coloraturas, the modernist clarity of Lizzie Clachlan’s big box set, Jon Clark’s lighting and Ben Cullen Williams’s flashy (literally at times) video designs, the vivid colours, contrasting with simple monochromes, of Louise Gray’s costumes, and Mr MacGregor’s complex choreography, all worked individually. Together, I wasn’t so sure. And the story, and occasionally the three protagonists, sometimes looked lost in all of the look and feel.

What I hadn’t anticipated was just how good the score was going to be in the hands of Harry Bickett and the ENO Orchestra. Time and again the ENO orchestra has elevated a production, true of The Mask of Orpheus, though Sir Harry’s imagination may have had something to do with it, and this for someone who is a big fan of the ENO. This was Hector Berlioz’s 4 act 1859 version of O&E, with the libretto created by Pierre Louis Moline in French 12 years after the original Italian by one Ranieri de’Calzabigi, drawn from a couple of chaps called Virgil and Ovid who you might have heard of. With English translation by Christopher Cowell.

O&E is apparently an azione teatrale, (I swear there are as many genres of opera as there are operas), mythological subject, with dancing, no chorus, few actors, short in scale, “noble simplicity” is apparently what Gluck was after. The original will have had a castrato singing Orpheus: this morphed into a haute-contre, or high tenor, but as pitch inflated, and even after the French government legislated for pitch, the diapason normale, a female alto became the norm for Orpheus. Berlioz went back to the original key scheme of the Vienna score of 1762 whilst still incorporating much of the additional Paris score of 1774, (Gluck having moved there to further his career, though he returned to Austria when fashion moved on and his final and 47th opera, Echo et Narcisse got the public thumbs down). If you want more details head over to the exhaustive Wiki page where clearly knowledgeable people in love with his work have been beavering away, (remembering to donate please), or even better the encyclopaedic programme notes. All I can tell you is that, whenever it was scored, and whoever it was scored by, this is exquisite music. I see Gluck wrote a few trio sonatas and sinfonias which barely get a look in. Shame as I am not one for listening to recordings of opera, and I like the sound of them.

Mr McGregor is apparently not the first choreographer to take on O&E. The chorus is now off stage (and therefore muffled) and the various shepherds, shepherdesses, nymphs, demons, Furies, happy spirits, heroes and heroines are replaced by the 14 dancers, with two of them, Jacob O’Connell and Rebecca Bassett-Graham, apparently representing their inner selves (you could have fooled me). Now whisper it, whilst I can admire dance, it doesn’t really do too much for me, and, though their were some striking poses, it was all a bit aimless and showy.

Not to worry, Even if the visuals and the action didn’t persuade there was always, as I said, the clean, lithe and lively music from the HIP appropriate band. And the three lovely voices. I am not informed enough to have a roster of favourite women opera singers, but Alice Coote, would join the likes of Barbara Hannigan, Sophie Bevan, Louise Alder, Lucy Crowe and Sally Matthews in leaving a mark as well as Kitty Whateley, Rowan Pierce, Nazan Fikret and Elen Wilmer. Ms Coote debuted in the role when she was just 18 on this very stage, on the night of 9/11. Sobering.

London Sinfonietta and Tansy Davies at Kings Place review ****

London Sinfonietta, Richard Baker (conductor), Tansy Davies (electronics), Elaine Mitchener (mezzo soprano), Elizabeth Burley (piano), Sound Intermedia

Kings Place, 9th November 2019

  • Tansy Davies – Salt box (2005)
  • Tansy Davies – Loophole and Lynchpins (2002-3)
  • Naomi Pinnock – everything does change (2012)
  • Tansy Davies – The rule is love (2019)
  • Tansy Davies – grind show (electric) (2007)
  • Tansy Davies – Undertow (1999, revised 2018)
  • Clara Iannotta – Al di làdel bianco (2009)
  • Tansy Davies – Neon (2004)

The Tourist has become very taken with the music of Tansy Davies. I have really enjoyed performances of her two operas, the mythic eco-fable, Cave and the tribute to the victims of 9/11, Between Worlds, and her Concerto for Four Horns, Forest, commissioned by the Philharmonia, and I have added a couple of CD’s of her music, Troubairitz and Spine to my, admittedly still small, contemporary classical collection. This concert was subtitled Jolts and Pulses, which is a pretty accurate and pithy description of the character of her chamber works, showcased here alongside works by two other women composers whose work, in TD’s eyes who curated this concert and performed on electronics, resembles her own.

TD started making music in a rock band before studying classical composition (and horn) at Colchester, the Guildhall and Royal Holloway. She won the BBC Composers Competition in 1996, commissions following hot on its heels, and now teaches at the Royal Academy. It is pretty easy to see why she is so popular amongst performers, (she has spent the early part of this year in residence in the hallowed halls of the Concertgebouw), and audiences. When I say popular I mean in the context of the admittedly non-mainstream fans of contemporary classical music. Most of which is still shoehorned into more accessible fare, or confined to chamber works such as here, and rarely performed on a large scale. Her music reaches into the rock, funk and jazz worlds, her unorthodox score directions reflect thi,s and she is unafraid of rhythm and repetition (which is why it floats my boat), or of explicit references and inspirations, natural and human. And electronics are often present to augment and support the acoustic instruments.

I think I can hear the influence of Sir Harrison Birtwhistle in her music: the wide dynamics, the layering, the solo lines, the percussive, er, jolts and pulses, the shimmers, the binary contrasts. It is no where near as thick, with much sparser textures, but it is raw, “organic”, alive, poetic. I’ll stop there.

The members of the London Sinfonietta on duty tonight are, obviously, perfect promulgators of her music and all were on top form. Salt boxes were used on battleships to keep ammunition dry and the work was inspired by the seascapes of the North Kent coast. The two part piano inventions of Loopholes and Lynchpins pulls apart the rhythms of Scarlatti sonatas. The rule is love, a new work co-commissioned by the LS, takes two 1995 texts, from John Berger and Sylvia Wynter, and sets Elaine Mitchener’s extraordinary vocal pyrotechnics (she also collaborated with TD in Cave) against a percussive drop. Kylie Minogue was in there somewhere I swear. Grind Show, a particular favourite, and inspired by a Goya painting, sets a twisted tango against a sinister, dank night. Undertow again contrasts the sleek and the dirty and neon is a funky workout, though more jazz/post-punk than James Brown. I defy anyone not to like this.

King Arthur by Henry Purcell at the Cadogan Hall review ***

London Concert Choir, Counterpoint, Mark Forkgen (conductor), Rachel Elliott (soprano), Rebecca Outram (soprano), Bethany Partridge (soprano), William Towers (countertenor), James Way (tenor), Peter Willcock (baritone)

Cadogan Hall, 7th November 2019

Henry Purcell – King Arthur

Early afternoon spent in the company of Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’s Joker before an evening listening to a semi-staged (is there any other) performance of Purcell’s semi-opera. I can categorically state that no-one else in the world will have thus spent their day.

You don’t need to hear from me as to Joker. Suffice to say that I am on the side of those who consider this bleak, referential, origin story to be a stone-cold classic.

As is, in it’s own way King Arthur. A classic I mean. Not bleak. Old HP didn’t have that in him. Though, famously, stone cold, per the famous chattering strings in the Frost Scene in Scene 2 of Act 3. HP just couldn’t help himself when it came to programmatic music, word painting as we arty farty types call it, and, when it comes to combination of music and voice he has rarely been surpassed, ever, though he always stayed in his comfortable, and successful, groove during his all too short 36 years.

Now King Arthur, like must of his theatrical oeuvre isn’t really an opera. The main characters don’t sing, to hat is left to the gods, fairies and peasants, of which there are a fair few here. The Britons and the Saxons, of which there are also a fair few, are spoken roles for actors. The libretto is by none other than John Dryden, superstar Restoration poet, imagine him and Purcell as a compositional supergroup, and the first performance was at the Queen’s Theatre on the river in London in 1691. Of course by then the royal patronage that both basked in under Charlie and Jimmy Twos was over, (Dryden had even converted to Catholicism to keep the commissions rolling in), and we had a Dutchman on the throne. After his success of Purcell’s Diocletian, promoter Thomas Betterton, who had written its libretto, took a punt on King Arthur, which also went down very well.

It is very silly. It tells the tale of the battles between King Arthur and the Saxons, specifically Arthur’s mission to rescue his betrothed, the blind Cornish princess Emmeline, stolen away by the dastardly King Oswald of Kent. Merlin, his Saxon equivalent, Osmond, and various right hand men and women also get a look in, as do Cupid, Venus, Grimbald, various other fairy types and a chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses. I think you can get the picture. The entertainment was intended to look as good as it sounded, with a masque in Act 3 and and variously, a sacrifice, an off stage battle, peasants dancing in a pavilion, an enchanted wood, a castle and the seas around our very own sceptred isle. Dryden used all manner of sources for his text and it shows. And, at its heart, it is shameless jingoism.

As you can see, written more for spectacle than sense, and to allow the stage-makers of the time to show off their skills. Even with a rudimentary synopsis and the explanations of our two narrators for this performance, Aisling Turner and Joe Pike. Best just to sit back and relax and let the tunes roll over. Which they did, though I have to say this didn’t really catch fire in the way I had expected. Purcell and Dryden crammed a lot in in terms of mood and message, as well as genre, so bringing it all together is tricky and maybe a bit beyond conductor Mark Forkgen. Moving choir and soloists on and off stage and to different parts of the hall, added drama but the logistics proved a little distracting. If I am honest I lost track a bit somewhere in Act 2 and never really caught up.

Which meant the focus was music and singers. IMHO the pick of the soloists was bass baritone Peter Willcock with some of the others occasionally getting lost against the muscly sound of fine scratch HIP ensemble Counterpoint. Which suited me since it is that, “oh isn’t that clever”, or “isn’t that lovely” reaction to so many of Purcell’s musical ideas, that makes it such a pleasure to listen to. Whether elaborate counterpoint, or direct homophony, invariably against the chugging ground bass continuo, with frequent arpeggios, dotted rhythms, wide spread chords, with minimal dissonance, always different, always the same, with simple structures subjected to continual reinvention.

The Mask of Orpheus at the ENO review ****

The Mask of Orpheus

English National Opera, 25th October 2019

No idea where we were in the story for much of the getting on for four hours with with the two intervals. Not helped by Peter Zinovieff’s impenetrable libretto, sung and spoken, the bloated rock star gets lost in early 80’s WAG Club setting courtesy of Lizzie Clachlan’s set and frock-maker Daniel Lismore’s preposterous spangly costumes, the tripartite two singer, one acrobat/dancer, Myth/Hero/Human, casting for our hero, heroine and baddie, and the wilful directing of Daniel Kramer, where spectacle trumps sense.

Who gives a fuck though when you have a score like this. With an ENO orchestra at the top of its game lovingly conducted by Martyn Brabbins, (who has history with this work), and James Henshaw, (yep it takes two). Up to now the Tourist’s exposure to Sir Harrison Birtwhistle has been fleeting. A few chamber pieces. None of the orchestral works bar the latest Donum Simoni MMXVIII, and certainly none of the operas. And, let’s face it, you are not going to sit down and listen to recordings. Nope the full on Sir Harry experience requires a live opera in performance.

Now I get it. As a contrast I don’t know where Xenakis’s music comes from, and I am conscious that I am probably just taking on board all the cultural baggage attached to its interpretation, but it definitely isn’t of this world, (though of course it is, it still being just notes on a page) . Whereas Sir HB’s tunes, for all that “elemental”, “earthy”, “massive”, “mythic”, “ritualistic”, “visceral”, and the like, that is applied to described most definitely does come from this planet, underneath our feet for sure, as many intuit, but also from within our selves. Which made its pairing with the Orpheus myth kind of inevitable. For all the racket that the brass, wind, percussion and electronica, entirely stringless, (well bar plucked like electric guitars and mandolin), that make up the score conjure up, this still very, well, human. The brass and wind is the flow, the percussion the accent.

Right poncey pseud-ery over. I could read the excellent ENO programme over and over, plough through the learned reviews, do the rounds on Wiki, but frankly it would get me no closer to the truth of what I heard and saw. Just impossible to take it all in. You know the story. O&E get it on, marry, snakebite, death, offer to O to go underground …. but don’t whatever you do Mr music man look ba….. oh shit, you did. Various endings depending on who you believe. All four are given a work-out here. In various other permutations and combinations of the whole story . 126 different elements in total. A prologue and epilogue. Act I – 3 scenes, 2 Passing Clouds and an Allegorical Flower. Act II – 17 Arches and the Second Flower. Act III – 8 Episodes and the Final Cloud.

Unstructured time. Flash-backs, flash-forwards, flash-arounds, flash-simultaneity. Contradiction and ambiguity. The antithesis of linear story-telling. With the aforementioned O&E, and the not so blessed cheesemaker randy Aristaeus, done three ways. So if the words don’t grab you, (and they very rarely will though the repetitions and exclamations will start to bite), you can turn to the songs, or the mime, or the dance, or the bath/barbecue/dentist chair/chrysalis/sexy time/funeral parlour/bobbly skin fellas/bee video effects (you can probably work out that I may not quite have fully grasped the messages), or the aerial silks, or the OTT costumes complete with, I forget, billions of Swarovski crystals.

And the cast and creatives really work hard. Matthew Smith and Alfa Marks as the very fit, in both senses, Hero O&E dancers. Tenor Daniel Norman and mezzo Clare Barnett-Jones as the Myth Orpheus/Hades and Myth Eurydice/Persephone respectively, who had the mother of all costume changes and the sweet mezzo tone of Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Woman Eurydice. James Cleverton, Simon Bailey and Leo Hedman as respectively The Man, The Myth/Charon and The Hero Aristaeus. And Claron McFadden as the Oracle, and Hecate, who marshals the crew who make up the three way judges, priests, women and furies.

But for balls out, (well not quite), on stage all night, haring round the stage, holding everything together whilst appearing, as the part demanded, pissed, the star of the show is Peter Hoare. I don’t know if he gets paid anymore for this role compared to his more normal C20 repertoire, but he should. Mind you I see he started off as a percussionist before taking up singing. Which I guess, deep down, makes him connected to the music in a way that maybe others aren’t. Even when said percussion, which Sir Harry explores in every conceivable combination, is drowning him out despite amplification. (Oh and do remember by the time we get to Act III some of the text isn’t even in English anyway).

When all else fails though, as it often did, I just closed by eyes and drowned in the sound. Three is the magic number. Orpheus remember makes sweet music. But when the going gets tough, arch after arch, the music gets bigger and louder with a literally earth shattering 40 minute climax at the end of Act II. The sampled harp chords which create the electronic interludes composed by Barry Anderson at IRCAM. The synthesised voice of Apollo. The scraps of, I hesitate to say, melody that are repeated again and again. Orpheus’s memories. Restless rhythms. The pulses, the marches, the clunks, the shimmers, the drones. The massive, monumental structures. The raw immediacy. Never heard anything like it and when surrendered to whatever it is, ignoring all the guff on or above the stage, I swear I have never felt anything like it.

I gather the original production, on this very stage in 1986, and only now revived, went for a more mythic, indeterminate Greek vibe, with singer, mime and puppet per the score and with masks. I think I might have got on better with this but frankly I can’t blame the much maligned and now departing Daniel Kramer for chucking the camp, surreal kitchen sink at this. If, budget-wise, you’ve got it, then you might as well flaunt it. Maybe it was all clear in his head but I doubt it. David Pountney, the director of the original, had the good grace to say he had no idea what it was all about.

Once in a lifetime experience. In which case I wouldn’t mind another life. Or many lives. For that is what it would take to wrap your ears around it. In the absence of that the memory will suffice and maybe I should relent and try the benchmark (only) recording from the BBCSO under Martyn Brabbins and Andrew Davies. In fact YOLO and its Christmas so I will.

Seraglio at the Hackney Empire review ****

Seraglio

Hackney Empire, 4th October 2019

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.

The Intelligence Park at the Linbury Theatre review ***

The Intelligence Park

Linbury Theatre Royal Opera House, 2nd October 2019

I have no-one else to blame for this. Having now heard a smattering of his larger scale works thanks in large part to Thomas Ades’s advocacy in his Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia, having invested in a CD of his chamber works and having thoroughly enjoyed the semi-staged version of his opera The Importance of Being Earnest at the Barbican a few yeas ago, I would certainly count myself a fan of Gerald Barry’s bracing, spikily rhythmic composition.

There were plenty of knowledgeable commentators however, including the composer himself, who warned that this, his first opera from 1990, is not the most transparent of entertainments. Though it was lauded on its first showing at the Almeida, largely for the music I gather, its plot is convoluted, the libretto from Barry’s Irish countryman, and Joycean scholar, Vincent Deane is florid, bordering on the impenetrable, and the aural intensity unyielding. Barry delights in music that bears no necessary connection with character, action or phrasing. 90 minutes, even with interval, is probably as much as even the most sympathetic of listeners can take.

And yet, out of this assault on the senses, comes something which is, well if not enjoyable, is certainly remarkable. The story, whilst admittedly needing more than a nudge from the programme synopsis, is no dafter than most opera buffa, complete with a knowing meta quality which I suspect would have appealed to C18 audiences. Something that Haydn would have attempted. Though also with an underpinning of Handelian serioso that the setting of this opera, and its successor, The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, (how’s that for a late C18 opera catch all title), implies. Even so GB has said “as to what The Intelligence Park is about, I have no fixed idea” though there may have been with tip of tongue in cheek.

It is Dublin. 1753. Composer Robert Paradies (bass-baritone Michel De Souza) is struggling to complete his opera on the romantic tryst between warrior Wattle and enchantress Daub. Best mate D’Esperaudieu (Adrian Dwyer) pitches up to remind him of his impending marriage to Jerusha Cramer (Rhian Lois) which is required if he is to inherit Daddy’s riches. The boys pitch up to a party at Sir Joshua Cramer’s (Stephen Richardson) townhouse. Jerusha starts singing but is interrupted by her teacher, visiting castrato Serafina (Patrick Terry) who is in attendance with his bessie Faranesi (soprano Stephanie Marshall). Paradies falls for Serafina and falls out with D’Esperaudieu.

Then it gets properly weird as the Wattle and Daub characters, complete with puppet heads (!), pitch into the real proceedings and we find out Jerusha also has the hots for Serafina. Fantasies, arguments, elopements, a series of comic (sort of) vignettes, revenge, a banquet and death all pile up as art and life collide. Though frankly, even as I had secured a better viewing perch, (a few punters gave up at the interval), it all got a bit confusing post interval. No matter. The tropes of classical opera, (and Georgian comedy), were all on show, no doubt there were allusions and quotations that went right over my head, which Nigel Lowery’s ironic, cartoonish Baroque vision, as set and costume designer, director and lighting designer, sought to play up. Think Hogarth on acid.

I also gave up on the subtitles. Not because I could make out what the cast were singing. That was impossible. Not because of any failing on their part. To a man and woman they were tremendous given the singing, acting and, critically, concentrations demands made upon them by GB’s score. Take Stephen Richardson’s bass part which keeps flipping from its lowest register into falsetto, sometimes mid line. (Hats off to repetiteur Ashley Beauchamp who certainly earned his fee). No the fact is, after a while trying to take in Mr Deane’s densely connotative text, it just became too much to take in alongside the music and the visuals. In my experience contemporary opera can veer towards the sombre and static. Not here. This is intensely theatrical.

So you are probably thinking, based on the above, that this was all a bit shit and only really shows the Tourist up as the pseud he is. Well no actually. Just because I can’t cover all the bases in terms of plot, character, message, text doesn’t make this a bad opera. The story is deliberately confusing and the music deliberately unsettling and that is what makes it interesting and intriguing. Being challenged by art is all part of the deal and opera is pretty binary when it comes to comfort or challenge. If you want the former then Handel or Mozart will probably float your boat, and I admit, often mine too. But sometimes exposing yourself, as here, to their evil twin can be bracing. Remember the first time you heard the Sex Pistols? Same thing.

Barry has described The Intelligence Park as being set an an “unsettling diagonal”, a fair description. TIOBE, and Alice’s Adventures Underground which will appear next year on the main ROH stage courtesy of WNO, in part because we know what we are looking at (even through the looking glass) and because they are funnier, (deadpan humour is a big part of GB’s shtick), are easier fare to digest but GB’s musical language is still a long way from most of his historical, and contemporary, peers. Opera, however daft or reactionary the plot, insists that the participants really mean what they are singing. Emotions run high, feelings are big and bold. GB undercuts, though doesn’t subvert, all of that with his music normally going out of its way to upset the expected code. Shifting time signatures. Voices careering across the register. High notes when there should be low and low when they should be high. Stopping mid line. Repetition but of the wrong word at the wrong time. Exaggeration at points of banality or curious indifference at points where emotions should be highest. Unusual accentuation as GB terms it. The plot may be linear. The music is not. There is steady pulse and rhythm often at a fairly brisk lick, with one beautiful lyrical passage excepted, and there is plenty of noise when required. But none of the “divine” interplay of music, libretto and emotion that Mozart and da Ponte conjured up. These obsessive characters are not in control of the music, they are being attacked by it.

This relentless energy and manic aggression is tiring and sometimes frustrating but it is undeniably thrilling and there are so many brilliant, unpredictable musical ideas that it is better to go with it than set your will against it. After all, whilst there may be dissonance, there is harmony, lots of it, just not always pretty. Needless to say the London Sinfonietta took the score in their stride, they thrive on stuff far more challenging than this, but it takes a conductor of guts to take this on. Jessica Cottis is rapidly becoming the opera conductor of choice for challenging new and recent opera and here she wisely promoted vigour and animation over precision.

After the six performances, (same number as for next year’s sold out Fidelio – go figure), at the Linbury this Music Theatre Wales/Royal Opera co-production went on to Cardiff, Manchester and Birmingham. So bravo to them for reviving this, bravo to everyone involved to bring it to fruition despite its challenges and, why not, bravo to all us who listened to it.