The Turn of the Screw at the Open Air Theatre review *****

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The Turn of the Screw

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, ENO, 29th June 2018

Benjamin Britten. The Turn of the Screw. Members of the ENO Orchestra conducted by up and coming talent Toby Purser. Timothy Sheader directing. A Soutra Gilmour set. At the Open Air Theatre. On a beautiful late June evening. In the company of the SO, (who loves her Henry James and surprised herself by enjoying Deborah Warner’s staging of Death in Venice in 2013 at the ENO), BUD and KCK. Of course I was going to love this.

One of the aims here was to extend young BUD’s operatic education beyond Mozart. As he remarked here, not a lot of tunes.. Not sure I agree but there is no doubt in my mind that Britten’s music became darker through time, cleverer, from an already very high base, more progressive and less conservative, whilst never embracing the fearsome avant-garde, and richer, even as textures got sparser. The tonality is tempered with lots of (lovely)  dissonance.

I think TTOTS occupies a key place in the development of all of Britten’s art. It was composed in 1954, just after Gloriana, and three years after Billy Budd. In the same year Britten composed his Canticle No III, Still Falls the Rain for tenor piano and, Britten’s favourite, horn. This is recognisably BB, like a trip-hop version of the Serenade Op 31, but this, and the Winter Words song cycle from 1953, seem more melancholic than the warmer equivalents before the war. Britten himself said that his music was forever changed by the WWII, as was true for pretty much all Western art, notably by a visit to Belsen, but I don’t think this really becomes apparent until the mid 1950’s.

Anyway TTOTS is definitely an example of the “less is more” BB where surface effect is toned down a little, (though not jettisoned entirely, there are plenty of ravishing musical ideas here), in the service of greater structural and emotional depth. And structurally this is a score of genius as a tightly wound serial “screw” theme and set of 15 variations built on a different semitone, opens each scene, ratcheting up the tension. So, you see BUD, there is a “tune”, you just hear it in a different way.

Which I think is why it is such an effective piece of musical theatre, an opinion with which BUD heartily conferred. TTOTS is apparently BB’s most performed opera. And probably the most performed opera in English. And, after your man Puccini, probably the most performed opera from the C20. Certainly the most performed of those operas written since the war. In part this reflects its chamber structure. With just 13 instrumentalists and a cast of 7, this is no big budget affair. As was intended. However I also think it reflects near perfect synthesis of story, libretto and music. All three offer a sufficient challenge to an audience but in no way is this intimidating. It always takes a bit of time to get swept up into a Britten opera, but swept up you will be, even if it isn’t the massive, warming, rush of Mozart.

In retrospect it was pretty much a nailed on certainty that BB and Myfanwy Piper would alight on Henry James’s novella. BB, and his various librettists, always started with an artistic inspiration. Usually the story revolved around an “outsider” estranged from the society around him. There’s usually some sort of spiritual dimension. And, nailed on, there will be some sort of uneasy “corruption of the innocent” theme. TTOTS has all of the requisite elements in spades. Better than this though is the ambiguity embedded in the story. What really happened at Bly? What was, or is, the nature of the relationship between Miles and Flora, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint? Who, and what, can we see? Who, and what, do the characters really see? After all only the Governess apparently sees the ghosts in HJ’s original. Is this all in the Governess’s mind then? How are we being manipulated? Strange to think then that the story came to HJ via none other than the future Archbishop of Canterbury in 1895.

Myfanwy Piper’s text reads like a poetic, musical impression of Henry James’s book but it picks its highpoint carefully. On to this BB’s score is perfectly stitched. In the book, told through the first person narrative of the Governess, it is up to you to imagine what happens. In my estimation, and those way smarter than me, its psychological depth and disturbing themes, take it beyond your bog standard gothic ghost story. In the innumerable film and TV versions, the ghosts can be made to seem like the extensions of everyday reality that HJ intended (I think), thanks to the trickery of the camera, but you all get one view, one take on the story. In a version for stage as here, (or notably The Innocents or the 2013 Almeida take), Quint and the Governess are undeniably corporeal, (any design team which could escape that mortal fact would get my money, no question), especially if they are going to sing, and the children are going to sing to them, and scenes unfold where the Governess is not present. So the mystery and ambivalence has to come from the music. And I cannot imagine anyone better than Britten at facilitating this.

But BB and MP take things a lot further. Take Miles’s famous Malo song that is repeated by the Governess at the end. Haunting for sure with viola, horn and harp. Malo in Latin could either mean “bad”, “to prefer” or an apple, symbol of innocence. “I would rather be… in an apple tree … than a naughty boy … in adversity”. The Latin words recited in the lesson prior to this contain all sorts of sexual references. Miles wanting “his own kind” and reflecting on his “queer life”. Mrs Gross’s line about Quint being “free with everyone” allowed to linger in the Regent’s Park air. Blimey. This is how the opera adds a new dimension contrasting the order and convention that the Governess clings to with the liberty that Quint offers whilst not seeking to mask the implication of abuse.

So, as you can see, I am a fan of this opera. What about the production then. Sandra Gilmour has imagined the remote country house of Bly as a large, dilapidated conservatory fronted by overgrown grass and a jetty leading to the “lake” and into the audience. It was amazing. Timothy Sheader, after a decade at Regents Park, now knows exactly how to use the unique space to best effect. TTOFTS was pushed out to an 8pm start to ensure sunset and early twilight matched the change in dramatic mood in the story and provided a perfect backdrop for lighting designer Jon Clark to show off his skills. Quint and Jessel make entrances from within the audience. Even the parakeets flew over on cue, “the birds fly home to these great trees”, at our performance. The debacle of last years Tale of Two Cities is entirely forgiven. The pacing was sublime and the musicianship top notch, especially, the viola of Rebecca Chambers, the clarinet of Barnaby Robson, the horn of John Thurgood and the harp of Alison Martin. Putting the orchestra inside the conservatory, behind a panel of ancient glass, thus lending them a ghostly quality, was a genius touch.

On this evening ENO Harewood Artists Elgan Llyr Thomas played Peter Quint with William Morgan taking the Prologue. Mr Thomas’s tenor voice is clear and direct, through the melismas especially, and fitted the space. I was a little less sure about his wig and beard combo. Anita Watson was a suitably unhinged Governess, for me she was convinced this was really happening, and Elin Pritchard a very disturbing, steampunky Miss Jessel. Janis Kelly, who has in her time played Flora. Miss Jessel and the Governess, now played a protective Mrs Gross. Daniel Alexander Sidhorn’s precociousness made for an arresting Miles though I have to say Elen Wilmer’s Flora was, for me, the more impressive voice. As an actor though Master Sidhorn is the real deal. Simultaneously vulnerable and malign.

Indeed Elen matched the elder Elin in look and movement creating a “bond” between Flora and Miss Jessel as disturbing in its way as that between Miles and Quint, an unexpected bonus. Mind you when Miles dons his purple shirt to match Quint’s and when he takes over from Quint on the piano, (young Sidhorn is either a mighty fine  pianist or an even better “piano mimer”), the audience was bolt upright in their collective seats. And, on top of all of this, Mr Sheader really messed with our heads with a provocatively erotic scene as the Governess, “lost in my labyrinth”, asleep, is joined silently by Quint and Miss Jessel, or more specifically her hair, with Flora’s symbolic dolly and with Miles’s symbolic jack-in-the-box. Oh and did I say Miss Jessel is pregnant here.

One final thing. It’s outside. Which means a little technology is required to keep the volume stable as it were for both ensemble and singers. Which meant every word, with a couple of exceptions when Anita Watson’s soprano heads off to the higher registers, was crystal clear. Didn’t stop me consulting the libretto on occasion but what it did mean is that, for maybe the first time ever, I could savour every word of the libretto, to set alongside this stunning score and this tremendous production. This is what theatre, and opera, should all be about.

 

 

Cave at the Printworks review ****

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Cave

The Printworks, Surrey Quays, 23rd June 2018

Cave is the second collaboration between composer Tansy Davies and librettist Nick Drake. Their last work, Between Worlds, which took as its subject the Twin Towers on 9/11, was superb. It was an immensely moving and sensitive elegy which focussed on the last conversations with loved ones of just five victims trapped together on one floor watched over by a benign Shaman or spirit, superbly directed by Deborah Warner. The audience I saw it with was floored (even if a couple of jaded critics were a bit sniffy).

I have since heard a few of Ms Davies’s very fine works including the premiere of her Concerto for four horns, entitled Forest. She has a way of finding the right shape, sound or phrase to match the intent and mood of her music, without ever serving up the obvious or banal. There is a rhythmic underpinning which I think reflects her familiarity with popular music genres, especially funk and post-rock. Her music can be muscular, industrial if you will, but, equally, she is capable of great lyricism. In more recent commissions she has been afforded the opportunity to work at a larger scale, but there is still a chamber like intimacy to her work, even when it is belting out in full on forte. In short she has the gift, and, even if contemporary classical music isn’t your bag, in fact maybe especially if contemporary classical music isn’t you bag, I defy you not to hear it.

She is also pretty keen on conveying a message in her music. As is librettist Nick Drake. Cave is set in a world disfigured by ecological catastrophe. A man (Mark Padmore) stumbles into a cave. He probably nibbles on some crazy mushrooms. He remembers his daughter Hannah, played and sung by Elaine Mitchener, and, when young, played by Akilah Mantock at my performance. Her spirits fills the cave. That is pretty much the long and the short of it. There are seven scenes in total beginning with the entry of the audience into The Lost River which runs through the cave.

The Printworks in Surrey Quays used to be where the Evening Standard was printed in the pre-digital era. It is a cavernous industrial space, as I discovered on my pre-prandial hike to the loo just ahead of the opening of the opera, which plays host to a variety of events, united in there “alternative” vibe. Perfect for this work. The audience was lined up along both sides of a very narrow, very long space in Mike Britton’s set, covered with, I think, wood bark. and with the seven members of the London Sinfonietta at one end and vast plastic hanging “doors” at the other. It was largely left to the marvellous lighting of Jack Knowles, who despite looking about 5 years old, has a massively impressive list of credits behind him, to conjure up the required magic, along with a sound design from, usual culprits, Sound Intermedia, as well as the electronics of Tansy Davies and Rolf Wallin.

Even with the principals moving up and down the space there were times when the “action” was a bit “laterally compromised”, especially for those of us pig-headed enough to go right along to the end where the ensemble was positioned. On the other hand this perch did afford a perfect insight into all the moving parts of the score, and, at one key point, the vocal pyrotechnics of Elaine Mitchener. She is not your opera mezzo diva. Thank goodness. Usually to be found in repertoire which is even more boundary-pushing than this, she has an extraordinary range of expression. I was spell-bound. For those of us who are regular listeners to Bach, Britten and Baroque, Mark Padmore needs no introduction at all. Here his singing was predictably exquisite. He also put in an acting shift as the Man plagued by his memories and a world that has literally fallen apart around him. I also suspect this won’t be the last I see of the precocious ten year old Akilah Mantock – no fear at all in what must have seemed a slightly odd role when she went to the audition.

Mr Drake’s other job is a poet. No kidding. The second scene, the Echoes, starts out with the Man hearing Hannah’s voice before he goes into an astonishing quasi aria describing his journey into the cave. This is when we see the connection that Ms Davies and Mr Drake intended to make to some of the very first human impacts on the earth. Apparently they went for a trip to have a peek at cave paintings in Niaux in the Pyrenees, which proved a crucial inspiration. I am not surprised, this is where art and nature recognisably first collided.

Scene three, the Cave of Birds, has the Man describing the onset of ecological catastrophe, and some sort of vision, scene four, The Mirror Cracks, is a “rave of agony” as the Man recalls losing Hannah, who “responds” by singing the last part of his “song” backwards. The Tree of Shadows starts with the Man and Hannah remembering a past holiday and then Hannah going a bit preachy as she describes how she wants to save the world from the havoc wrought by the generations which preceded her. A powerful instrumental interlude (with electronics I think) follows, The Storm, which then gives way to a lullaby shared by the two principals which shows off their superb singing. The final scene The River sees the man leaving the cave, presumably to die, but probably healed.

This is an epic myth, or more exactly a parable, and, in that, I was reminded of Britten’s Church Parables, which I don’t think were a direct inspiration, but, for me, have a similar vibe. The scoring is sparse, under the expert baton of Geoffrey Paterson, with most of the colour coming from the winds and brass, the clarinet/bass clarinet of Timothy Lines, contra bassoon of John Orford and horn of Michael Thompson, contrasted with the prominent harp of Helen Tunstall, set against a sort of continuo from Jonathan Morton’s violin and Enno Senft’s double bass. Elaine Mitchener gets to give a hefty whack to a drum at one point and, as I have said, electronics and some other sound effects (plenty of echo) play a major part. Overall you have no difficulty in musically distinguishing the scenes, there are some breathtaking sounds here and no little drama. I was not entirely convinced about the articulation between music, words and message but that probably says more about my pessimism than the creative talent on show here. It is certainly not the fault of director Lucy Bailey.

I don’t want to get more frightened of, and helpless about, the world around me as I get older, but it seems to be happening nonetheless. It certainly does feel like we humans are accelerating towards our inevitable extinction event despite the apparent gift of consciousness. Mother Earth will get over us I suppose. Anyway it is good that Tansy Davies and Nick Drake are not engulfed by this sort of negativity and prepared to make an ambitious stand of sorts in their art. It is also good that they are not cynical about all things “spiritual”. As this piece is sub-titled, courtesy of modern day environmental shaman and prodigious psychedelic drug-taker Terence McKenna, “Nature loves courage”.

At the end, Ms Davies was zipping by to thank the performers. I briefly thanked her. No doubt she thought I was a nutter so apologies but I felt compelled to offer up my appreciation. Thank you.

 

 

Venetian Baroque: Academy of Ancient Music at St Luke’s Old St review ****

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Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic (violin), Persephone Gibbs (violin), Sarah McMahon (cello), Alistair Ross (harpsichord), William Cater (theorbo)

LSO St Luke’s Old St, 15th June 2018

  • Dario Castello – Sonatas No 10 a 3 Book Two, No 1 a 2 Book One, Sonata No 1 for violin (Book Two), Sonata No 2 for violin (Book Two), Sonata No 12 a 3 (Book Two)
  • Tarquinio Merula – Ciaconna
  • Michelangelo Rossi – Toccata No 7 for harpsichord
  • Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger – Toccata and Ballo for theorbo
  • Francesco Tunrini – Sonata a 3 “il Corisino”

Venice in the early C17 was the hot place for music in the West. The Republic might have begun its long slow decline, having picked fights with the Ottoman Empire and the Vatican, amongst others, but there were plenty of punters who had made big bucks and were looking to spend it. It was certainly a big-time, sexy, funky, party town. Carnival was big business. Public opera, with that genius Claudio Monteverdi in the vanguard, was taking hold. New instrumental ensembles were being tried out. Exquisite brass was set alongside double and triple, or more, choirs in churches, following on from Gabrieli’s innovations in the previous century. (Even the guards telling the snaking hordes of tourists in St Mark’s Basilica to shut up sound musical thanks to the stunning acoustic). The best performers, composers and instrument makers gathered there.

This was the music members of the AAM sought to highlight in this BBC lunchtime concert, built around the sonatas of Dario Castello, which, to an extent, defined the form. He was born around 1590 and died around 1658, though his best known work comes from the 1620s. He was the leader of a wind ensemble, cornetts, sackbutts, shawns, bagpipes and so on, and might have had a job in St Mark’s. His two books of sonate concertate comprise 29 pieces, (five were played here), that alternate retro polyphonic sections with cutting edge, (by 1620s standards), expressive recitative, the stile concitato,  a la Monteverdi. Instruments are specified, including continuo, musicians are expected to be on their game. This simultaneous looking backwards and forwards is what makes this music fascinating if not entirely satisfying.

In addition to the Castello we had a chaconne, a simple bass riff with increasingly inventive variations, dead easy for the Baroque initiate to grasp, from one Tarquinio Merula, a harpsichord Toccata from Michelangelo Rossi, an unusual Toccata and Ballo for theorbo from Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger and a concluding trio sonata from Francesco Turini.

Merula never worked in Venice, (he had positions in Cremona and Bergamo)  but he knew the drill. He was an argumentative chap by reputation but he helped set the tone for the dance vibes of the later Baroque. Rossi came from Genoa, worked in Rome, wrote madrigals and operas, and, despite being a violinist, a book of 20 toccatas, which embrace some dramatic chromaticism and choppy tonality as here. Now you don’t often see a theorbo solo even if you are a paid up member of the Baroque club. The theorbo is that giant-sized lute that the player rests, like a loving parent, on his/her knee. GG Kasperger came to Rome by way of Vienna and was, in terms of theorbo virtuosity, the Charlie Mingus of his day. Turini was also born outside of Italy and published madrigals including some early instrumental sonatas.

I probably don’t need to tell you how very fine the members of the AAM were in this very rarely performed repertoire. Their excitement in exploring the, shall we say, backwaters, of the Venetian School was palpable. Bojan Cicic, as leader of the AAM, has appeared a few times before on this blog, as has Alistair Ross on the harpsichord. William Cater was as eloquent in his explanation of the theorbo piece as he was in its playing, but I was particularly taken by Persephone Gibbs’s playing in the second solo violin sonata of Castello. Great first name. Even better surname. And she leads a Baroque orchestra based in Devon. No relation though. She has talent after all.

 

The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York’s Theatre review ****

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The Moderate Soprano

Duke of York’s Theatre, 7th June 1018

There are a couple of weeks to go in the run of David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York’s Theatre. There are plenty of (discounted) tickets left. You could do a lot worse than seeing this if you are after a bit of last minute theatre action. It charts the relationship of eccentric millionaire type John Christie and his singer wife Audrey Mildmay, (and the bunch of pre WWII emigres from Central Europe who helped them), as they set out to create the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in, essentially, their back garden. So if a gentle, though still involving, tale of toffs ill-advisedly pursuing their opera dream appeals don’t hesitate. If not I’d understand but you would be missing a treat from one of out greatest living playwrights.

Roger Allam, complete with convincing bald pate courtesy of make-up, and preposterously high-waisted linen trousers, plays Captain John Christie a textbook British oddball who inherited the Glyndebourne estate but didn’t then loaf around Brideshead style, instead leading his troops from the front in WWI, teaching science at Eton and then poking his nose into to matters of Efficiency in the matter of Government in WWII. He loved the opera, specifically Wagner, (I gather some people do though it beats me why), making regular pilgrimages to Bayreuth. He eventually finds love, late in life, and marries English soprano singer Audrey Mildmay played by Nancy Caroll, after much persistent wooing.

The Captain hatches a plan to build a small. 300 seater, opera house in the grounds of the estate, as you do. He recruits conductor Fritz Busch as Musical Director, (his brother was the founder of the legendary Busch Quartet), Professor Carl Ebert as Artistic Director and Rudolf Bing as Festival Director and overall marketing supremo. All three have escaped Nazi Germany, Bing, (whose extraordinary life is worthy of its own dramatisation), because he was a well-to-do Jew married to a Russian ballerina, Busch because his artistic freedom was curtailed (in savage fashion) by Nazi sympathisers, including his own orchestra at one point, and Ebert because of his voluble criticism of the regime. In a series of informal meetings between the five we learn, as does Christie who is initially sanguine about the changes in the Germany he admires, how the regime has attacked the culture it hates, how Christie’s arm is twisted such that Mozart, not Wagner, becomes the staple of the inaugural pre-war seasons for reasons of practicality and how Audrey becomes the glue that holds the whole project together (and gets to sing). Christie aim was to ring world class opera to Britain, previously accustomed to more amateurish fare, and to do this he turned to the best that Europe had to offer.

The most powerful scenes however, in large part thanks to the supreme skill of both Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam, are the flash forwards after the Christies have passed on the baton of running the Festival and as Audrey’s health progressively deteriorates. Audrey and their two kids were sent by Christie to the safety of Canada during the War but, unable to receive money from England, Audrey needed to sing to get by, which eventually led to a bust up with Busch when he refused to cast her in his Cosi at the Met, the shop where he, and Bing, had pitched up post Glyndebourne. They eventually made up and Busch returned to Sussex from 1950. It seems that Audrey was poorly throughout when she returned, often cancelling performances, but was still able to support Christie at Glyndebourne, help Bing set up the Edinburgh Festival, (yes that Edinburgh Festival), and sit on the Arts Council. What a trooper.

We see her near the end, having lost her sight despite surgery for high blood pressure, and the devotion and love between her and Christie pours out off the stage. I am a sucker for watching art portraying old people still plainly in love but I defy you not to be drawn in. Christie in turn is looked after, by faithful retainer Jane Smith (Jade Williams) after Nancy passes away. Lovely stuff.

I fear I may have given a bit too much of the story away but perhaps this means you can see why David Hare, who I assume loves the opera, was drawn to it. Now I have to admit that I would love to see Mr Hare rustle up one of those searing, state of the nation multi-character extravaganzas of old, much like his recent Collateral on the telly. On the other hand his more “domestic”, heir-to-Rattigan, ordinary-made-extraordinary dramas, of which this is a prime example, are just as satisfying. Jeremy Herrin, who has form with both writer and cast, directs with his usual flair, Bob Crowley’s new set opens up to reveal stunning interior and exterior representations of Glyndebourne itself, including Christie’s impressive organ, (no tittering at the back), ably assisted by Paule Constable’s lighting and Simon Baker’s sound designs.

Paul Jesson as Busch, Anthony Calf as Ebert and, especially, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Bing are all perfectly cast and tremendous foils for Mr Allam and Ms Carroll, who reprise their roles from the original Hampstead Theatre run. The comedy, which is wired in to Mr Hare’s text, is beautifully executed, to sweetly contrast with the pathos.

Now I ave never been, nor would I ever go, to Glyndebourne. For the same price as even a ticket upstairs at Glyndebourne I could get a couple of luxury visits to Covent Garden, and several years worth of fun from my normal high up perch, or three or four trips to the ENO. I don’t have an evening suit and would vehemently object to wearing one anyway. And I can’t be arsed to travel to Sussex with a bunch of braying toffs. Oh, and as I have said before, most of the classic canon in the world of opera, which is Glyndebourne’s meat and drink, is a dreadful bore. So I can assure you my enjoyment of this play has nothing to do with any great love of the institution despite the fact I am a shocking cutural snob. It is just a very pleasing presentation of a very interesting story, unafraid of its explicit Romanticism.

Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera House review ****

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Lessons in Love and Violence

Royal Opera House, 26th May 2018

Here is an extract from an illuminated manuscript showing Eddy II getting a crown. Or more precisely a second crown. Not sure what that is all about but given he was by reputation a high maintenance sort of fella maybe two crowns makes sense.

George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp had a massive hit, (by contemporary opera standards), with their previous collaboration Written on Skin, which in terms of repeat performances has gone down better than BB’s Peter Grimes. Having finally seen it at the ROH in January last year I can report that it is pretty much as good as it is cracked up to be. GB is a superb dramatic composer for drama and, specifically, for the very particular prose that MC creates. I was not entirely persuaded by the only play of MC’s that I have see, The Treatment (The Treatment at the Almeida Theatre review ***), but I think he is growing on me.

This time round they have taken seven “events” in the life of the infamous Edward II, wisely leaving out his messy end, to tell the story of his relationships with lover Gaveston, wife Isabel and rival Mortimer. The two royal kids are thrown into the somewhat unusual household and we also see associated flunkeys and down trodden hoi polloi who were suffering under Eddy’s spendthrift ways. We begin with the banishment of Mortimer, then Isabel joining the plot to murder Gaveston after seeing the desitution of the people, Gaveston predicting the King’s future and then being seized, the King disowning Isabel after Gaveston’s death, Mortimer and Isabel setting up a rival court and grooming young Eddy (to be the III), the King’s abdication at Mortimer’s behest and finally the young Edward III seizing control from his Mummy.

As you might surmise the focus of MC’s story here is more on the “domestic” struggle between the “couples” and less on the conflict between King and nobles. The relationship between Mortimer and Isabel and Isabel and Edward II is given as much weight as that between Gaveston and the King. This, together with the truncated plot, makes it very different from its most obvious precursor, Marlowe’s Edward II, or, more precisely, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer. Now I happen to believe Marlowe’s play is one of the finest ever written, comparable with Shakespeare’s History Plays. But it does go on a bit. If MC and GB had attempted to set the whole story as an opera I would still be sitting there two weeks later. So Kent, Warwick, the Spensers and all the other nobles. Canterbury and the bishops, Hainault, the Welsh, the sadists and various other hangers-on are absent. As are France, fighting, Kenilworth, scythes and pokers. The key themes in Marlowe’s play, his two fingers to his own contemporary society, namely homo-eroticism, religion and social status are downplayed, Isabella’s role and the passion between the four main protagonists are foregrounded.

Extracting these key episodes and, in some cases, manipulating them to allow GB to weave his marvellous score around them, was a classy move by MC. His libretto, as in pretty much all he writes, swings from the prosaically direct to the cryptically poetic. I mean this as a compliment but his writing is not florid but quite angular with intriguing turns of phrase and clear delineations between characters. I gather that once they have agreed the shape of the work, MC goes off and writes the whole thing, with minimal consultation, before handing it over to GB, who then slowly and patiently builds up the music from the “bottom up”. At least that is what is sounded like from the interview in the programme. But given how distinctive, dark and clever MC’s approach is I can see why it works. GB knows the “voice’ he will write around and, as in their prior collaborations, he knows his musical style, which has itself been through iteration, will fit the libretto.

The music is superb. The orchestration is immensely colourful but GB only uses large scale forces occasionally. Most of the time small clusters of instruments are used to create different moods in each of the seven scenes, notably from bass clarinet, bassoons and brass. The percussion section gets to play with all sorts of new toys. A cimbalom gets an frequent airing. There are probably motifs, patterns and structures within this but you will need to find that out from someone who knows what they are talking about. All I know is that music and drama were perfectly matched across the compact 90 minutes. I think the emotional extremes were more pronounced that in Written on Skin which had a more mythic feel. GB ratcheted up key points in the action by plunging us into dramatic silences. In Scene 3 when Edward and Gaveston private tryst is interrupted by Isabel, the kids and the courtiers and in Scene 2 when the people impinge on the Court a rich musical chaos is invoked. Harmony and counterpoint are wound up into a ball before collapsing.

The production, courtesy of the genius director Katie Mitchell, regular design collaborator Vicki Mortimer, lighting from James Farncombe and movement from Joseph Alford, reflected the enclosed and intimate nature of the drama. Each scene was set in a royal bedroom, which revolved to offer a different perspective. This included the “private” entertainment in Scene 3 with Eddy II and Gaveston and the mirroring “public” entertainment in Scene 7. The “people” were given an audience before Isabel in the bedroom in Scene 2 to air their grievances. Mortimer’s household and the King’s imprisonment at Berkeley are also presented in the confined, intimate setting of the bedroom. A massive fish-tank, which drains of water and therefore life through the scenes, is both visual treat and prominent symbol. There is a Francis Bacon style painting on the wall: that probably tells you all you need to know about the uncomfortable, existential aesthetic the production seeks to traverse. There are one or two predictable Katie Mitchell cliches, slow motion soft-shoe shuffles anyone, but the tableau are undeniably effective, When you are stuck up in the Gods, (you would be hard pressed to be further away from the stage than I was, me being such a tightwad), this matters. At this distance the Court becomes a dolls house, an interesting perspective in itself, so the “choreography” that the director brings to proceedings, matters more than the close up expressiveness of the singers.

The ROH orchestra was on top form. Mind you if you have the composer himself conducting then there is little room for error. This is not a chamber opera, GB’s sound world is too rich, but some of the textures require various players to push their technique which they certainly did. I can’t really tell you much about the skil of the cast, they all amaze me, but Barbara Hannigan, as she always does, was off the scale as Isabel, vocally and as an actor. Stephane Degout bought a petulant, entitled air to Edward II, Peter Hoare’s Mortimer was a mixture of ambition and pragmaticism. Gyula Orendt stood out as Gaveston in his scenes with the King, a mystic of sorts. Samuel Boden’s sweet high-tenor stepped up very effectively towards the end as the Boy King and Ocean Barrington-Cook, (well done Mum and Dad for the name), artfully portrayed the damage done to her and her brother by having to witness the turmoil, despite not having a voiced part (another clever idea from the creators). The children were, I suppose, the ultimate recipients of the “lessons in love and violence” that we the audience were also privy to. Though the production was smartly modern-dress there was no crass attempt to draw any lessons for our own times but the plot, MC’s libretto and GB’s music combined to underscore the tension between the private and the political for those that wield power across history.

My guess is that if I saw and heard this again, perhaps from a more advantaged position, it would merit 5*. A few punters trotted out at various junctures which intrigued me. This surely is as digestible as contemporary. “modernist” opera gets. The historical subject is not obscure, the plot direct, music is beautiful, the libretto intriguing, the staging is excellent and it is hard to imagine the performances being topped. (the vocal parts were largely written for exactly this cast). Not much in the way of tunes and no arias, but surely the most cursory of examination would have revealed this in advance. The dissonance is never uncomfortable and is rooted in chordal progression. And it is short so why not see it through.

I would assume that GB and MC will, in the fullness of time, have another crack at this opera lark given how good they are it but I wonder if they have exhausted for now the “Medieval”. Like Written on Skin there is something of the illuminated manuscript here, (see what I have done there), a jewel like morality tale, (without all the God stuff). Suits me but with this amount of goodwill, (this is a seven way co-production), surely they could get away with something genuinely of the moment next time.

 

Caroline, or Change at the Hampstead Theatre review *****

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Caroline, or Change

Hampstead Theatre, 18th April 2018

How many exceptions does it take before the rule is unproven?

I don’t, as a rule, like musicals, as I have oft repeated on these very pages. I absolutely adored this though. That might be because it isn’t your classic show tunes, jazz hands, fake emotion overload. It might be because Jeanine Tesori’s eclectic score ranges across the history of African-American music, (with help from Jewish American music, and plenty more besides), and reminds us how lost contemporary human culture would be without it. it might be because CoC is operatic in intent and form. It might be because it is through-composed with no awkward recitative exposition. It might be because it is formally inventive, what with its singing appliances, swinging moon (!), split level and revolving stage, courtesy of Fly Davies, and repeated metaphors. It might be because Tony Kushner is a playwright, and here book and lyric writer, of fierce intelligence, politically engaged, unafraid of tackling big issues, or incorporating his own, real, experiences into his work. It might be because Sharon D. Clarke is just about the most powerful actor to be seen anywhere on the British stage. There are moments in this where her entire body quivers under the weight of Black American history. And when she sings. OMG as the young’uns would have it. And she’s not the only one knocking it out the park. Abiona Omanua as Emmie runs her a pretty close second in her own way.

This production was praised to the skies on its original outing at Chichester. I believed the hype, but ummed and ahhed about booking for the Hampstead transfer, trying to rope in some chums. No takers, the SO didn’t bite, her aversion to musicals being ideologically sounder than mine, so I ended up taking the plunge on my tod. In the end it was probably more the urge to collect productions of Mr Kushner’s work that swung it rather than these reviews. At times I was engrossed by both Angels in America at the NT and IHO here at Hampstead even if, ten minutes later, I baulked at his indulgence. His translation of Mother Courage was also used in the so-so recent production of Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse. I can see why he likes Brecht.

Well I only need to have paid attention to the 5* reviews, and so should you now that this is transferring to the Playhouse Theatre, from late November through to early February next year. I strongly recommend you get tickets. And don’t skimp. It is rubbish upstairs in the Playhouse and you need to take in all the set. I also see that the prices for decent seats, whilst not cheap, are not eye-gougingly expensive.

Music first. Jeanine Tesori’s score is magnificent. I assume it was composed for the orchestral forces on show in this production, 11 strong, with Nigel Lilley conducting. They are certainly put through their paces with Haydnesque chamber passages, a Jewish klezmer dance, hymns and folk tunes wedded to gospel, blues, soul, jazz and spirituals. And still room for a couple of show-tunes. If this all sounds a bit rich, it isn’t. The rhythms are simple and infectious and the melodies and motifs clear and recognisable even to this untrained ear. Ms Tesori doesn’t waste a note. What is most extraordinary is how she renders Tony Kushner’s text so immediately musical, as, presumably, he doesn’t write that way. There is a good interview in the programme, as there always is, from Will Mortimer of the Hampstead Theatre, with TK and JT where they describe their creative process. They seem to like working together. There is also an article written by TK setting out the genesis of CoC and a helpful essay on domestic workers in the US from slavery through the civil rights movement to the present day The HT programmes are always excellent in this regard, with material directly relevant to the production and not too removed or abstract as can sometimes be the case.

Whilst all of the orchestra sounded terrific to me I would highlight the brass and woodwind contributions of Alice Lee and John Graham. Their instruments were always likely to get the lion’s share of the expressive lines, given Mr Kushner is unafraid of emotion, but they sure know how to deliver them. In total I counted 53 songs. Like I say there is no filler, but you can work out for yourselves that, across the couple of hours of performances this means nothing outstays its welcome, so we have dynamism to match the musical invention.

So what’s it about? It is the 1960s in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It is hot and humid.. Caroline Thibodeaux is an African American mother of four kids, Emmie, whose consciousness is being raised by the Civil Rights protests, Jackie and Joe (I am really sorry I don’t know which young actors where in the hotseat on the day of the performance I attended), and an elder son in the army. Caroline’s drunk, abusive husband is long gone. She works as maid to the Gellman family, Stuart Gellman, his second wife Rose Stopnick Gellman, and young Noah (based on Tony Kushner himself). We also get to meet Caroline’s friend Dotty Moffett, trying to “better herself” through night school, and the Gellman grandparents and Grandpa Stopnick, in various imagined scenes, and when they visit Louisiana from New York.

Oh and we are introduced to a singing washing machine, a dryer, a Supremes style trio representing the radio, a moon on a swing and a bus. As you do. These fantasy elements make perfect sense in the context of the story Kushner and Tesori are telling, and provide further contrasts to the already rich mix created by Ms Tesori’s music and by Mr Kushner’s sharp, poetic, lyrical, emotional, analytical, metaphysical and often very funny lyrics. One detail in particular, the illuminated red ring around Ako Mitchell’s neck, to simulate the dryer, but suggesting something way more horrific from America’s past, shows just how many ideas are at work here.

In 1963 self-absorbed Noah is 8, (sorry, as with the boys, I can’t be sure who played Noah), and prone to bothering Caroline, and lighting her cigarettes, as she launders in the Gellman house basement. Noah’s mum recently died of cancer and the relationship with step-mum is delicate. Stuart, still grieving, and Rose’s relationship isn’t perfect either. Caroline gets paid $30 a week. Rose offers her food rather than a raise, and later, condescendingly suggests she take the small change the family leave in their pockets, especially Noah. This idea of change, (both personal for Caroline, and politically for her family and community), and of the unequal economic relationship between the Gellmans and Caroline, of which they are all acutely conscious, is central to the drama, and presents an extraordinarily powerful metaphor.

The assassination of JFK, and his legacy, and the destruction of a statue of a Confederate soldier at the local Lake Charles courthouse, provide wider social and political context and, in the case of the latter, acute contemporary resonance, given, for example, the ugly events last year in Charlottesville. The politics ramps up before, during and after the Chanukah party in the first half of Act 2, which, for me, served up half an hour of the most vital theatre I have seen ever seen anywhere. The aftermath of the party, and an elusive $20 bill, prompts a bust up between Caroline and Noah and then some sort of spiritual epiphany for Caroline, culminating in the passionate song Lot’s Wife, which made me, and half the audience, quietly blu. Emmie though has the last, defiant, word.

Caroline is angry, sullen and resentful at the hand that life has dealt her, but her faith, her dignity, her conditioning and the stark fact that she needs to feed her family, means she cannot fight back. Emmie, from the next generation, can though. Mr Kushner points out in the programme how damaging the failure to resolve issues of race and poverty has been to the American politic, but he also offers a message than change is still possible.

The Hampstead stage is just about big enough to contain the set, though I gather it was more expansive at Chichester, but small enough to let us savour every line and note. I don’t think I missed a word and Michael Longhurst’s direction was exemplary (if you’ve see Amadeus at the National you’ll know what he’s about), ably assisted by Ann Yee’s intricate choreography.

In my own little fantasy world of reviews on this blog site I dole out stars like candy, largely because I get so excited with how much marvellous culture London offers that I really do feel like I am in the proverbial sweet shop. This though is a brook no argument 5* masterpiece.

The best thing I have seen this year. And I was perched up in the gods wishing I was much closer and had booked sooner.

You must see it.

 

The Marriage of Figaro at the ENO review *****

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The Marriage of Figaro

English National Opera, 12th April 2018

It isn’t easy to think of a better opera than the Marriage of Figaro. And, as we culture vultures know, when opera works there is scarcely any entertainment to match it. It is just a shame that opera so rarely all comes together. It did here though making a perfect treat for BUD, and myself, as we continue to advance the young fella’s cultural education. One more Mozart to go, Cosi fan tutte, maybe the ROH revival next year, Britten now opening up, chuck in some Janacek after that and I’ll find a contemporary candidate which won’t scare him off.

It will be hard to match this though. Figaro may be the least daft and offensive of the classic Mozart operas but it still takes a wily director to render the sexual politics and dissection of class conflict entirely palatable to my modern eyes. Fiona Shaw certainly does this in her production, revived here for the second time with Peter Relton doing the honours. When I have something meaty to chew on in terms of message, to add to the comedy, and, of course, that divine, (might as well trot out the cliches), music, then there is nothing to do but sit back and enjoy. Singers who can act, constant movement through an imaginative. labyrinthine set from Peter McKintosh which intrigues and illuminates (and revolves, a lot!), and a concept which doesn’t overwhelm the story, but points up its darkest elements and is true to the Sevillian setting.

Now there is no doubt an army of opera bores who can tell me how much better it would be with top drawer international stars or a big name maestro in the pit. Piffle I say. What I like is an ensemble who can create a drama, rather than stepping off the plane, plonking themselves centre stage, screeching and then milking the applause. I was also more than satisfied with young Matthew Kofi Waldren’s handling of the ever exact ENO Orchestra. MKW is assistant to Martyn Brabbins and, in this uncluttered performance, was a more than capable deputy.

Even a musical numbnut like the Tourist can hear that Lucy Crowe, now graduated to the role of Countess, possesses a voice of exquisite power once she gets in the groove. When she comes in with that first aria hairs on backs of necks collectively stood on ends. Even when conspiring with Susanna to get back at the cocksure Count there was a tinge of heartache stiffened with revenge in her demeanour. Ashley Riches’s Count may not match her singing but he shows us a brutally direct aristo who is more confused than contrite when he gets his comeuppance. Thomas Oliemans may not be the most savvy of Figaros but he is perky enough. Rhian Lois as Susanna was the stand out for me though, as good as actor as I have seen on any stage, with a voice that needed no sur-titling. Katie Coventry’s Cherubino wasn’t annoying – that’s rare praise in my book.

Best of all though is getting to hear Jeremy Sams’s English translation of Da Ponte’s libretto in turn based on Beaumarchais’s play. The originals are exemplars of energy, suppleness and wit. Mr Sams’s verse matches them. It is often laugh out loud funny but still doesn’t blunt the sharper edges that puncture the mistaken identity and cupboard-hiding bromides. This is a comedy of cruelty not romance, as the Picasso-like bull skulls, (and minotaur allusions), the weapons, the confrontations, the barbs, the contracts, the tantrums, remind us. The cast, like the characters, relished turning the screw on each other. Remember this is a story where one woman (Marcellina) wouldn’t hesitate to use the law to catch her man (Figaro), a young boy (Cherubino) can’t keep his c*ck in his britches, the Countess agrees to feign adultery, she and her own fiance pimp out Susanna to the Count, a marriage (Marcellina and Bartolo) is agreed to legitimise an illegitimate child, Figaro is prepared to beat up his fiance on the basis of a lost pin and a bunch of blokes lurk beyond trees to watch the Count getting it on with Susanna. Nice eh.

The droit du seigneur that the Count will not relinquish may be the dramatic crux, but there is much more to Mozart/da Ponte’s plot, (even when it is shorn of the revolutionary monologue from Figaro berating the Count to be found in Beaumarchais). Fiona Shaw draws this out in ways that other, more frivolous, productions do not. Having the Countess walk out at the finale made sense. Men in positions of power haven’t changed much it seems so need to be reminded why then they are being w*nkers.

So a wonderful production of a wonderful opera. Don’t just take my word for it. Ask BUD.