You might think it’s a bit sad really. A grown man in his 50s on his own at a children’s opera performed by a community that he cannot claim to be any part of. Unfortunately my kids never caught the Britten bug when younger, despite what I thought were subtle attempts to influence them, and are now way too old to traipse along with Dad to this sort of thing. Actually what am I talking about? There was never a cat’s chance in hell that they were going to fall for Britten or opera, children’s or otherwise. A situation likely shared by 99.999999999% of the population. Which meant I was pretty much the only audience member there for the opera than the performers.
For this was the only Britten opera, (if you discount his version of Gay’s Beggars Opera), that the Tourist had never seen. And completism, as my regular reader undoubtedly registered sometime ago, is one of the Tourist’s many vices. As is condescension. So forgive me when I say that the bulk of the audience probably had next to no interest in Britten or his operas. But they did have a vested interest in seeing their little darlings on stage. And I can assure you that those kids made them properly proud. Though I would contend that, without the genius of BB, and the unnamed writer who created the Chester mystery play text from which the Victorian writer Alfred W Pollard drew his adaptation, this wouldn’t have been anything close to the uplifting entertainment it was.
BB had already written a little children’s opera, The Little Sweep, in 1949 (part of Let’s Make an Opera) and also previously adapted text from the Chester play cycle for his Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac. To Pollard’s text he added a few hymns, a Kyrie and an Alleluia chorus. There is a spoken Voice of God, played by acting royalty Suzanne Bertish no less, and Noah and his wife are both professional roles, here Marcus Farnsworth and Louise Callinan. Whilst Mr Farnsworth may be better known in recital he also has a distinguished opera CV to date and Ms Callinan is a veteran of multiple European houses. This, along with the 15 members of the ENO Orchestra, Martin Fitzpatrick, (Head of Music at ENO who conducted), Lyndsey Turner directing, and the likes of Soutra Gilmour (designer), Oliver Fenwick (lighting), Luke Halls (video), Lynne Page (movement), Oliver Jeffers (artwork) and Wayne McGregor (choreography), shows just how seriously the ENO took this production. This serious intent though never crushed the joy of its construction.
For Noye’s Fludde is really all about the amateur participants across the named human, (Noah’s sons and their wives and some gossips), and animal, (plenty of these, as you might expect), roles and the chorus. Step forward and take a bow Brampton Primary School, Churchfields Junior School, Newham Music and Newham Music Hub, and all the other local musicians and singers who were a part of this mammoth effort. And the Mums, Dads, siblings, Grannies, Grandads, carers, teachers, teaching assistants, community assistants, chaperones, ENO and TRSE back and front stage folk who chipped in. I hope you enjoyed it. I certainly did, even without any companions.
Special thanks though to BB. The idea of Noye’s Fludde had kicked around for a few years but it was a TV commission, eventually championed by Lew Grade at ATV, that spurred BB on to completing the score in March 1958. The wonder is that such genuinely inventive and atmospheric music should have been so brilliantly created for amateur musicians, as well as the professional core. And not just for the bugles, (hand)-bells, whistles and all manner of other improvised instruments that populate the music. No, there are proper parts for violins, violas, cellos, double basses and recorders. More than that these parts vary in difficulty with each section led by a professional. And there are plenty of passages which flirt with dissonance, in the manner of BB’s “grown-up” operas, well beyond the stuff you might expect from a “children’s” piece.
Listen to the first hymn which has an out of step bass line motif to contrast the chorus which lends a darker quality. This bass motif is taken up by the timpani to herald the first of God’s warnings. The syncopated song which follows as the Noah family come up is much more upbeat. The jaunty Mahlerian march which accompanies the Kyrie presages the entry of the animals and follows a striking, literally, as all manner of percussive effects are provided by the amateurs, passage as the Ark is built. There is a clever three part canon to introduce the birds. The storm scene at the centre of the opera is that old BB favourite an extended passacaglia, which uses the whole chromatic scale. Mugs hit by wooden spoons simulate raindrops, recorder trills become wind, strings become waves, percussion thunder and lightning, pianos provide the motif. A pastoral follows when the storm subsides and then, obviously, there are simple waltzes on cello and recorder to see off Raven and Dove. As the Ark empties out the bugles sound with handbells, (who pop up throughout until the very end), signalling the appearance of the rainbow. A rainbow that here spreads right across the stage, a fitting symbol of pride, to set alongside the. ecological message.
The way in which BB takes his trademark sound, simplifies it and recasts it for the different skills of his performers is really very, very clever. That it also able to incorporate all these various voices, including, sparingly, the audience and still create really effective, and moving, theatre is even more extraordinary. And just in case you are thinking this all sounds a little too tricksy-twee-schmatlzy-worthy there are plenty of clever visual gags from the animals to undercut it all.
BB specified the opera be performed in public, community spaces or churches rather than theatres. TRSE is such a dear old place however, and the “child’s picture book” design here, (which expertly captures the professional/amateur essence), so enchanting, that I am sure BB wouldn’t have complained. No idea if BB ever even met the architect of TRSE’s heyday Joan Littlewood but it is fitting that this vital piece of community theatre should have been so splendidly realised in such a space.
I have banged on before about just how revelatory Thomas Ades’ Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia has been. Well it seems that, for the final couple of concerts, the rest of the world, (well OK a few Beethoven nuts in London, Norwich and Saffron Walden) has caught up. A near full house for the Choral and a much better turnout for 7 and 8 than in previous installments.
The combination of, largely, modern instruments by an orchestra of solo and chamber specialists, (and now my favourite British ensemble), who have completely bought into the lessons of HIP under the baton of, again for my money, Britain’s greatest living composer, have produced Beethoven symphonies that surely reproduce the thrill of their first performance. Appropriate forces, minimal vibrato, tempos that believe Beethoven, textures exposed and perfectly combined. I have bloody loved the first four concerts and was really looking forward to the final pairing.
I wasn’t disappointed. The best Ninth I have ever heard. Ever. Soloists perfectly balanced and all as clear as a bell over the sympathetic accompaniment. And the choirs were immense. You don’t need a cast of thousands. How on earth Mr Ades and Eamonn Dougan managed to make the voices sound this perfect in this acoustic was a miracle. And everything Mr Ades drew out of the previous three movements before the finale was perfect.
Best Eighth I have ever heard live too though here the competition is, I admit, somewhat slighter. I will be honest and just say I never knew it was so good. It is short, it is jolly, with no slow movement, but it is full of intriguing, if brief, ideas. I finally got it. The Seventh wasn’t quite up to the same standard with the opening Vivace with all those abrupt early key changes not quite dropping into place and with the stop/start of the Allegretto funeral march maybe too pronounced. Minor quibbles. Still amazing.
The Barry Viola Concerto takes the flexing and stretching of a musical exercise with a simple melody and subjects it to all manner of variations. It ended with Lawrence Power whistling. It is, like all of Barry’s music in the series, immediately arresting, just a little bit unsettling, rhythmically muscular and very funny. Terrific.
The Eternal Recurrence which proceeded the Choral is equally unexpected. Extracts from Nietzche’s Also sprach Zarathustra are delivered in a string of high notes by the soprano, here the fearless Jennifer France, in an a parlando, actorly style which is designed to mimic speech and not to sound “sing-y”. It’s a bit nuts and undercuts the text in a slightly sarcastic way, a bit like, some would say,Beethoven does with Schiller in the Ode to Joy. It reminded me of Barry’s The Conquest of Ireland which was paired with the Pastoral earlier on in this cycle.
I gather Gerard Barry uses a similar technique in his opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, (based on the Fassbinder film). That is now firmly near the top of my opera “to see” list but for the moment I am very pleased to see that both The Intelligence Park and Alice’s Adventures Underground are coming up at the Royal Opera House. Thanks to Thomas Ades I think I can safely say I am now a fan of Gerard Barry. And the old fella has style and is generous to the performers of his music as we see when he takes his bow at each of these performances.
I won’t go rabbiting on about the musical structure or context of the Beethoven symphonies. You will know them. And if you don’t then frankly you are only living half a life. Beethoven wrote the greatest music ever written. If you don’t believe me then why not start next year when a recording of this cycle will be released and when there will be wall to wall live Beethoven performances to celebrate 250 years since his birth. Here’s a list of the best of them in London. They’ll be more.
6th January, 6th February, 27th February, 19th March, 2nd April – Kings Place – Brodsky Quartet – Late Beethoven String Quartets
19th January – Barbican Hall – LSO, Sir Simon Rattle – Berg Violin Concerto, Beethoven Christ on the Mount of Olives.
1st and 2nd February – Barbican – Beethoven weekender – All of the Beethoven symphonies from various UK orchestras and much much more – all for £45
6th February – Barbican Hall – Evgeny Kissin – Piano Sonatas 8, 17 and 21
12th February – Barbican Hall – LSO. Sir Simon Rattle – Symphony No 9
20th February, 4th November – Kings Place – Rachel Podger, Christopher Glynn – Beethoven Violin Sonatas
1st to 17th March – Royal Opera House – Beethoven Fidelio
15th March – Royal Festival Hall, PO, Esa-Pekka Salonen – 1808 Reconstructed – Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 6, Piano Concerto No 4, Extracts from Mass in C, Choral Fantasy and more
4th April – LPO, Vladimir Jurowski – The Undiscovered Beethoven – inc. The Cantata for the Death of Emperor Joseph II
8th April – Barbican Hall – Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis – Beethoven Violin Sonatas 5, 7 and 9
11th to 16th May – Barbican Hall – Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner – the entire Symphony cycle.
22nd November – Kings Place – Peter Wispelwey, Alasdair Beaton – Beethoven complete Cello Sonatas
Never seen John Gay’s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, though have seen Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, on which it is based, a couple of times. Have been waiting patiently for a production of Britten’s 1948 adaptation to pop up again having missed a couple of past opportunities. So it seemed a good idea in the meantime to take in this version, co-produced by Kneehigh and the Liverpool Everyman/Playhouse in which writer Carl Grose, composer Charles Hazlewood and director Mike Shepherd have reimagined the story for a contemporary audience using an eclectic mix of musical genres.
And, by and large, it was a good idea, even if it was a little overstuffed with Kneehiggh’s usual bag of tricks. The John Gay original was written as an antidote to the ever more preposterous gods, monsters and love story Baroque Italian style operas filling London theatres. Often cobbled together from other works with divas insisting on their own favourite arias regardless of context, rambling on for hours and with daft plots, they were ripe for satire. Remember too that the early C18 was a golden age for political satire led by Hogarth, Swift and Pope in print. (In fact it was the latter two who first suggested the idea of TBO to Gay). C18 toff Britain was busy racking up debt, sticking it too Johnny Foreigner and getting rich on the proceeds of slavery, whilst all around absolute poverty was rife. Sound familiar?
Gay and the other writers of so called Augustan drama were also pushing back against the Restoration comedies and nasty she-tragedies of the previous decades, creating middle and lower class characters mired in a world of corruption. The aim was not necessarily to highlight the social and economic injustice meted out to the poor, there was still a strong Christian and moral tone of instruction to the works, but to vent the frustration of the mercantile “libertarian” class at the “conservative” aristocracy and its political sycophants. Gay’s particular target in The Beggar’s Opera was actually the divisive Whig prime minister Robert Walpole and specifically his involvement in bailing out the original investors in the South Sea Bubble.
The 69 songs, across 45 short scenes, originally were to be sung without musical accompaniment but Johann Christoph Pepusch was brought in at the last minute to create a score for the mix of largely Scottish and French folk melodies, chucking in popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias lifted straight from the like of Handel, church hymns and even an overture. The punters lapped it up and it spawned multiple imitations, (though this is the only ballad opera which is still performed), and influenced much of the comic opera and musical theatre which followed in the C19 and C20. I see that it enjoyed a lengthy revival at this very theatre in the 1920s.
Carl Grose has kept most of the main characters, the Peachums (Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania), daughter Polly (Angela Hardie), Lockit (Giles King) and daughter Lucy (Beverly Rudd), Filch (Georgia Frost) and, of course Macheath (Dominic Marsh), and the bones of the plot including a repurposed, and instructive, parody ending, though here Macheath is a contract killer tasked with bumping off the virtuous Mayor, (and his innocent mutt), to make way for Peachum. Charles Hazlewood has thrown in electro, grime, dubstep, noire, trip hop rhythms as well as some punk and ska, alongside snatches of Purcell, Handel and even Greensleeves (from the original), to foot-tapping effect. By and large it all hangs together and I can’t fault the cast for effort. The dance routines (courtesy of Etta Murfitt) are entertaining and there are some effective visual treats, not least of which is the titular dead dog in the suitcase. The on stage musicians, who also take on key parts, notably violinist Patrycja Kujawska as Widow Goodman, cannot be faulted.
But Michael Vale’s set, complete with scaffolding and slide, whilst initially impressive, at times becomes an obstacle course for the cast to negotiate and multiple costume changes only add to the complications. Adding in a Punch and Judy routine, assorted puppetry (marshalled by Sarah Wright)and other creative trickery ends up slowing down proceedings and interrupting the momentum in what is intended to be a high energy entertainment. Sometimes less is more, especially if the intention is to make some points about the iniquity of the contemporary political class. I know this kitchen sink, amateur circus look is a keynote of some of Kneehigh’s work but it does rather blunt the satirical intent.
Still I can’t pretend I didn’t laugh, or jig about a bit, and the whole thing is done in just over a couple of hours. There’s a few days left at the Lyric and then the production moves on to complete the tour in Exeter, Cheltenham, Bristol and Galway.
What was that all about? Benjamin Britten and WH Auden’s “choral operetta” which premiered in 1941 when they were in America, is a fable, structured like a Broadway musical, with an array of musical styles, (though BB’s hand is always clear), sometimes camp, sometimes deadly serious with a libretto which, allegorically and sometimes explicitly, takes aim, and occasionally misses, at a whole host of, then, fashionable artistic targets. It got panned, was shelved by Britten until his very last days in 1976 when he revised it for a performance at the Aldeburgh Festival, (which sadly he didn’t witness), and it has gradually clawed its way back into the repertoire.
I saw it decades ago when my head was nowhere near capable of making sense of it and I had intended to see it at Wilton’s Music Hall where this ENO production fist surfaced, but, you know, stuff. Anyway the reviews persuaded me and, by and large, I am glad I listened. I can’t imagine a production that could better convince me of its peculiar merits, and the themes started to resonate, but I still confess I am not convinced by Britten and Auden’s motives. They were a clever couple of lads no doubt, (go see Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art to be persuaded), and this must have looked good on paper, particularly in the intellectual climate of the time, but it does feel like they over-egged it, and, for something that is supposed to be performed by semi-professional groups, it doesn’t seem to have a clear audience home.
Paul Bunyan, and his faithful companion Babe the Blue Ox, is a staple of American folklore, who apparently came out of the oral storytelling tradition of American loggers. He is, just run with this will you, a giant lumberjack, who, along with his trusty crew, set off across the US to perform feats of superhuman strength and carve out the landscapes of the US. Or maybe he wasn’t. Perhaps he was dreamed up by an adman, William B. Laughead, to promote the Red River Lumber Company in 1916, whose exploits then became a staple of kids books. Or maybe not. Maybe he was an actual lumberjack in Canada by the name of Fabian Fournier. Who knows? Whatever his origin he has been the subject of all manner of creative endeavour ever since and I gather the US is littered with oversized statues of the fella.
Already you can see why a couple of posh gay Brits, in love with America and its meaning, and keen to give something to the country in which they have, temporarily, taken refuge, might see the potential in such a subject. You might not know the Paul Bunyan legend but their hosts, across society, certainly did. The homegrown art of the US in the C19, (after all the portraiture of the late C18 and early C19 in common with Europe), was focussed on nature, the immensity of the landscape, and especially on man’s conquest of nature. This was fundamental in creating a powerful new identity for the young nation. The Hudson River School, pioneered by Thomas Cole, led the way. I knew f*ck all about this until I, with no great intent, saw the recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Cole’s work and specifically his allegory The Course of Empire. Very interesting.
Now you may wonder what a massive lumberjack, (here I have to ask you to listen to the Human League’s Empire State Human – wry banality is a sadly rare quality in pop music’s lyric history), and his blue ox might have to do with this. Well its springs from the same well. The creation of America though internal colonisation. Both good and bad. Now sticking with art history by the time we get to the 1930s, (BB and Peter Pears arrived in 1939 just after WHA and Christopher Isherwood), US art was torn in four ways as far as I can see. A more or less folksy nostalgia for America’s rural past and founding myths, or something far more critical which recognised the damage that had been done to the heartland by the Depression and Dustbowl. Or even something which stood, ironically, in both camps, with Grant Wood being the most powerful exponent. Then there was art which celebrated, or lamented, the march of US capitalism and power and the impact of technology on the city. As the America After the Fall exhibition, this time courtesy of the knowledgeable people at the Royal Academy (and elsewhere) and America’s Cool Modernism at the Ashmolean amply demonstrated the 1930’s, for those of us who like paint, figurativism and context, this was a fertile period and stateside.
Will you please get to the point Tourist? Well, the point is that Paul Bunyan the operetta represents the same optimism and pessimism, the celebration and subversion of the rural, mythic pas,t and the way the change to the urban would potentially upset it, that American pictorial art was exploring. And not just pictorial art. Take Our Town by Thornton Wilder in theatre from 1938, in film, Stagecoach and Modern Times in there very different ways, and art music, notably Aaron Copland, who Britten befriended and whose musical influence is also clear in Paul Bunyan. (As it happens Copland was a mentor to one Leonard Bernstein who left his own indelible mark on US musical culture after the war, and an early champion of Charles Ives who was exploring the very territory I am describing, the clash of past and present, some thee decades earlier).
Now musical theatre in 1930s US was a serious business. By which I mean that the government, specifically with its Federal Theatre Project in drama, stood firmly behind cultural revitalisation to match the economic recovery underpinned by the New Deal, and that some musicals even offered a deeper social and political message. Take Porgy and Bess at the high art end of the spectrum. BB and WHA had form back home when it came to a political message with their documentary collaborations and song cycles such as On This Island and the under-rated Our Hunting Fathers.
And at the end of Paul Bunyan, in the final Litany, they lay it on thick with the paean to the individualism and acceptance they see in America and the psalm chants of the animal’s petition in the preceding Christmas Party scene. It may be idealistic, even naive, but it is, especially in this production, undeniably effective.
So there you have it. My take on what it’s all about. No f*cking use whatsoever. So you could profitably enjoy PB without agonising about its messages and context and just as a story with some, this being BB, wonderful tunes. A story about some old trees who get warned by three geese that they will be in big trouble when the moon turns blue for that is when PB is born. A narrator, well three to be exact, tell of PB’s early life before we join him and Babe in the forest with his team of Swedish lumberjacks, a pair of culinarily challenged chefs, a bookkeeper, Johnny Inkslinger, and assorted cats and dogs (yep they sing). PB goes off to fetch his daughter Tiny but the crew gets unruly whilst he is away and a bloke called Slim turns up. PB returns, offers some of the lumberjacks the option of farming, the leader of the Swedes, Hel Helson, talks to all sorts of animals, before being egged on by his Scandi mates to pick a fight with PB, which he, unsurprisingly loses. Tiny and Slim fall in love and Helming realises the error of his ways. Christmas Eve. Slim and Tiny and Slim are to marry, Hel is off to Washington to join the Administration and Johnny is going to Hollywood.
I mean all fairly routine no? OK maybe not. It is as bonkers as it sounds and BB takes full advantage by chucking his take on all manner of musical genres, folksongs, ballads, blues, county & western, hymns, Broadway, cabaret, even ad jingles into the pot, and WHA lets rip with his precise poetry. knowing irony and unexpected vernacular, (Scandinavia rhymed with behaviour).
Even if doesn’t all quite add up it isn’t for the want of trying from the ENO players and chorus under James Henshaw, the cast, designer Camilla Clarke and, especially, director Jamie Manton. Whilst the execution was undeniably as serious as if this were, say Wozzeck at the Coliseum, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves so eventually, despite my reservations, it just seemed easier to go with the flow. And, I figured, maybe this “plot” was no dafter than the gods and monsters of the early Baroque.
For all the pastiche the score is bursting with BB’s melodic gift and ear-catching invention. He even offers a test of what was to come decades later with a hint of the singular scales of Balinese gamelan. And there is, in the choral and instrumental passages, even some “serious” opera to savour.
The Ally Pally theatre offers a beautiful, but voluminous, space so, given the transfer from the intimate surroundings of Wilton’s I was a bit concerned that this might, like the Headlong Richard III, get a bit swallowed up. Not in the slightest. Ensemble on a platform at stage rear, another platform for our three narrators, Claire Mitcher, Rebecca Stockland and Susanna Tudor Thomas, (when they are off-duty from being geese of course), projection stage, wheelie bins, blue Smeg fridges symbolising ox, constant motion, dance, costume designs John Waters would have embraced for his films. All presided over by a giant neon blue PB – did I mention we don’t actually see Paul Bunyan – never mind. We do hear him though booming out in the mellifluous shape of none other than Simon Russell Beale. And the chorus makes full use of the aisles, slips and rear, of the auditorium.
Which, when you have the mighty presence and voice of New Zealand based Samoan baritone Benson Wilson on your shoulder, turns out to be a hell of thing. Mr Wilson, who also plays farmer John Shears, was the winner of this years Kathleen Ferrier Award. I must say I was much taken with the big fella. I have never head an operatic voice up that close. More fool me. At somewhat lesser proximity I was also taken with Elgan Llyr Thomas as Inkslinger and Rowan Pierce as Tiny. But honestly this whole ensemble was just another reason why I prefer the ENO home grown talent to the ROH fly ins.
So there you have it. BB went on to bigger and better things, (and fell out big time with Auden), though this work, for all the funs and games, shows why no-one should have been surprised when, four years later, and back in Blighty, BB pitched up with Peter Grimes putting us back on the operatic compositional map 250 years since Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Don’t feel too sorry for clever clogs Auden. He went on to write the libretto for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.
The corruption of innocence, the struggle of good vs evil, Christ-like redemption and Pilate-like equivocation, the conflict between natural and legal justice, the outsider’s struggle for acceptance, repressed, scopophiliac, homosexual desire, the rational, scientific world contrasted with the mythic poetry of the imagination, dreams, the sea, the biblical musicality of his prose. Even the same initials. It isn’t much of a surprise than Benjamin Britten, who always fancied himself as a bit of a martyr, and his librettists EM Forster and Eric Crozier alighted on Herman Melville’s classic novella for operatic treatment.
Forster had long been an admirer of Britten’s music, (who wouldn’t be), but the idea only crystallised in 1948. Eric Crozier was brought in to provide the expert, though not always smooth, link between composer and novelist. The premiere of the original production, in four acts, appeared on this very stage on 1st December 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. The revised two act version, with epilogue and prologue for Captain Vere alone, first appeared here in 1964 but it is 19 years since the ROH last staged it in a production directed by Francesca Zambello.
The last time I saw it was in 2012 at the ENO in the Expressionistic version served up by David Alden. In one of Dad’s more widely inappropriate attempts to get BD into opera she came along too. Smart-arse that she was, and is, the themes, even when concealed by Mr Alden’s somewhat wilful interpretation, didn’t evade her. Even under all that maritime lingo this isn’t subtle even when it is ambiguous.
Having witnessed director Deborah Warner’s way with BB in The Turn of the Screw many years ago at the Barbican and in the Death in Venice revival at the ENO in 2013, (with the SO who surprised herself with a favourable reaction), as well as Tansy Davies’ Between Worlds, I wasn’t going to miss this production originally seen in Rome and Madrid. For once the Tourist paid up to sit downstairs though for opera of this scale, ( a cast of over 20 and a chorus of 60), and quality at this venue it seemed like a bargain when compared too the kind of bonkers prices the ROH normally requires from punters for a prime perch. Lucky for me those prices are generally the norm for the very repertoire I can’t abide.
(I know that there are bargains to be found, I normally sit in them, but they are compromised. Up in the amphitheatre you might be forgiven for thinking you had travelled to Zone 2, for example, and at the back of the balcony boxes you might want to take a book).
Billy Budd is BB’s grandest opera, in terms of music and ideas, but, self-evidently, it has one obvious constraint. Namely it is all blokes. BB is somewhat unfairly criticised for not serving up any top-drawer female roles. Ellen Orford, Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Female Chorus and Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia and, though I can’t be sure since I have never seen it, Queen Liz I in Gloriana, are all surely exceptions, but the fact is, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is in writing for the male voice where he excelled. In Billy Budd his cup overfloweth with the central trio of tenor (Captain Vere, the captain of The Indomitable), the bass of Master at Arms, John Claggart and the baritone of Billy himself. Then there are another fourteen named roles amongst the officers and the seaman, four boy treble midshipmen, the speaking only cabin boy and a singing chorus of 60, count ’em, augmented by another 30 actors. Put together the drama of the story and the opportunity to weave in traditional music, (including shanties,) with BB’s genius facility for word and scene painting in music and, wallop, you have, BB’s most powerful operatic score.
The orchestra doesn’t skimp on woodwind and brass, 4 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, double bassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombone and tuba, and that’s before doubling up, or percussion, (though there are no “funny” tuned or untuned instruments smuggled in as in other works). So when conductor, here the reliable Ivor Bolton, orchestra and chorus are on song, as they were, especially that chorus under William Spaulding’s direction, then the director and principals have a strong base on which to build.
First decision for the director is whether to go full on 1797 or something more timeless. The former risks dialling up the salty procedurals in the scenes and libretto, the latter over-egging the psychological, parabolic, pudding. Deborah Warner has come out somewhere in the middle. The ROH chippies haven’t been beavering away creating a replica man of war. Instead the ship in Michael Levine’s design is conjured up from an immense skein of chains/ropes from which platforms, sails and hammocks, are suspended. This takes us above and below decks as required and leaves the chorus crew with, believable, work to do (choreography Kim Brandstrup). It’s brilliant. A near literal prison. Then again the rill of water front stage was maybe dispensable. The officer uniforms (costumes by Chloe Obolensky) are more mid C20 than late C18, with the crew in timeless sailor rags (albeit exquisitely tailored rags).
As with Death in Venice, the lighting design of Jean Kalman, (like the above, another of Ms Warner’s trusted collaborators), and Mike Gunning, (including that mist for the symbolic, unconsummated battle scene), is an integral part of Ms Warner’s vision. Billy Budd is not, even in the two act version, a hurried opera, rising and falling like the sea, (I may have got carried away here), to the key confrontations and confessionals. Deborah Warner’s allows some depth and breadth to emerge which maybe detracts from the required foul, claustrophobic atmosphere but brings the slippery themes, and overt symbolism, into focus. BB, whoever his collaborators, never allows moral certainty to emerge in his operas, that is why they are essentially so much better as theatre than most everything written in the previous century, (imagine Puccini or Wagner not melodramatically clunking you over the head every ten minutes – not possible see). Ms Warner wisely runs with BB’s uncertainty.
As usual the Tourist is not qualified to remark on the quality of the singing but, acting wise, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy himself stood out. Obvs he is good to look out, though not as much as Duncan Rock as Donald with his rippling abs, but he moves with complete naturalism and his Billy was “good” but never “simple”. And he certainly wrung some emotion out of his arias especially “the darbies”. Brindley Sherratt as Claggart, nails the giant credo, clear as a ship’s bell, and those inner demons, but could have been outwardly crueller. He is, as Ms Warner intended, an angel who is still falling, rather than full-on disciple of Satan. The still youthful looking Toby Spence’s De Vere does grow as the opera unfolds so that by the end, the “blessing” in the epilogue, he has us in the palm of his pious hand, but his remoteness in the first few scenes is disconcerting. I was also taken, again, with Thomas Olieman’s performance as Mr Redburn and Clive Bayley as the veteran Dansker.
Could you imagine a production that gets closer to some of the really dark questions about cruelty, sex, desire, exploitation and hierarchy that run counter to the narrative of atonement? Of course. Can I have a Billy who looks like who could deck and kill Claggart with one punch. Could there have been a little more “compartmentalisation” set wise to ensure the highlights in the score matched the action on stage? A bit more confusion and less exact choreography. Some sweat. blood and, look away now purists and families of Messers Forster and Crozier, some gratuitous swearing slipped in. A crew that really looked like they might eat the officers for breakfast. For sure.
On the other hand, in the literally overwhelming 34 chord sequence when Vere sentences Billy to death, in this production we stay with Billy and not Vere. And the three officers wordlessly damn him for hiding behind the legalese. Utterly brilliant. With that and other powerful memories I will happily take this production, until, hopefully, one comes along that really doesn’t hold back.
Composer Iain Bell and his librettist Emma Jenkins wanted to call this just The Women of Whitechapel. Some marketing types at the ENO decided it needed to be prefixed with the title of the infamous murderer, charitably I suppose to let the potential audience know its subject. Worse, to continue the tiresome obsession with perpetrator and not victims. For this opera is specifically written about the women who were murdered. The murderer does not appear. Shame then that the creator’s original intentions could not have been fully honoured. Mind you I see that some bozo US deathcore band has appropriated the grotesque misogynistic fixation at the heart of this story by calling themselves Whitechapel. The band are in their 30s. Grow up lads.
I was predisposed to this new opera from the start. And I was extremely impressed with the end result. I see some proper reviewers who, to be fair, know their opera unlike the Tourist, think the opera is lacking in dramatic impact. I disagree. Yes there is no central single heroine to latch on to, there is no narrative arc towards some sort of tragedy or redemption, there are a fair few characters, the overall feel of the piece is dark and it is made up of a procession of set pieces. But that reflects the story of the five women that Mr Bell and Ms Jenkins wanted to tell, (based on scrupulous research where possible as well as some leaps of imagination). For me it was very powerful and very involving throughout.
I also accept that some of Iain Bell’s music and the way in which Daniel Kramer directed many of the scenes verged, on occasion, towards Les Mis style caricature, though this is no bad thing in terms of the immediacy of impact. However the more obvious inspiration might be Britten, Peter Grimes for the tone of the piece, and Death in Venice for the musical colouring. Worthy template. Mr Bell does not have BB’s compositional facility but the mix of solo and ensemble pieces, the set pieces with chorus, the unusual instrumentation, (the eerie elastic tone of the cimbalom to signify the presence of the murderer for example), the shifting in and out of tonal and more dissonant, atonal music, all conjure up a similar atmosphere.
The opera is centred on the last of the known victims, Mary Kelly, superbly sung and realised by Natalya Romaniw. Mr Bell and Ms Jenkins have created roles specifically for the mature voices of some ENO big stars, namely Marie McLaughlin (Annie Chapman), Janis Kelly (Polly Nicholls), Susan Bullock (Liz Stride) and Lesley Garrett (Catherine Eddowes), as well as the redoubtable Josephine Barstow as Maud, the proprieter of the doss house where the women are forced to live. The illustrious cast is further enhanced by the presence of Alan Opie as the aloof Pathologist who carries out the autopsies on the women’s bodies, Robert Hayward as the compromised Chief of Police and Paul Sheehan as the intimidated Coroner. From the current ENO vintage Nicky Spence provides a lighter touch as Sergeant Strong, James Cleverton is a Photographer with dubious intentions, William Morgan a rather underwritten, reformist Writer and Alex Otterburn is Squibby a local butcher’s boy. On the evening I attended Sophia Elton also stood out as Mary’s voiceless daughter Magpie.
Soutra Gilmour has conjured up another striking set, though it is sombre and dark, (and a bit Goth), in line with the mood of the piece, which is sufficiently versatile to persuade as doss-house, pub, street, mortuary and funeral procession for the coup de theatre of the, slightly over-long, ending (in which Paul Anderson’s lighting design, literally, really shines). Martyn Brabbins’s enthusiasm for the score and the commitment of the ENO Orchestra was never in doubt even in the slightly padded passages.
I think the opera makes its points about the callous way that the patriarchal society of the day treats these poor women – the murderer is simply an extension of the more “respectable” men that abuse them – the solace and support they take from each other and their overwhelming fear as the threat mounts. On its own this work cannot counter a century of writing out the victims as the expense of the sick fascination with the male perpetrator, (turn on your TV any night of the week to see that is still par for the course), but it is a brave, ambitious and engrossing attempt to do so and to provide a valid three hours of musical theatre. The symbolism, the Minotaur metaphor, the male chorus poking through the windows of the doss-house, the final ascension, is thought through and adds texture to the naturalism of previous scenes. The more poetic passages in Emma Jenkins’s libretto similarly contrast with the vernacular episodes.
I read a fair few reviews in thinking about this. They were all written by blokes. There were, with few exceptions, wrong about this. Presumably they would have been happier seeing yet another production of that scrupulously unmanipulative tale of female agency Madama Butterfly.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When opera works there is no other art form to touch. But when it doesn’t it can be mystifyingly dull. What’s more it can be the very same opera which is both of these things.
Take The Magic Flute. It is an undeniably daft opera. Its message is the triumph of the light and reason offered by the Enlightenment over the dark forces of Empress Maria Theresa’s absolutist Habsburg regime and the obscurantist Catholic Church. I understand that the Freemasons here are the good guys, even when they don’t appear to be, (though I gather the current mode de jour is to play down Mozart’s funny handshake connections), and that the Queen of the Night, even if she can hold a note (high F6 apparently), is not ideal mother-in-law material.
But even armed with sub-textual knowledge, insight into plot and familiarity with the score, (though that isn’t necessary though, this being Mozart, undeniably the greatest ever composer for dramatic voice), it can still it can still come across as upper class pantomime and take an age to get through. Unless of course it is directed by the genius that is Simon McBurney. There he is above in The Encounter. Mr McBurney OBE is the Artistic Director and a co-founder of Complicite. Complicite might just be the most important, and certainly the most innovative, theatre company in the UK. And therefore maybe the world. I say this secure in the knowledge that I have only seen a handful of their productions but when you see what they do you will know too. Which is what happened to BUD on the evening we went to see this Magic Flute. Mr McBurney has an eclectic list of film and TV, and directing, credits, so you are bound to have seen him somewhere, but it is his work with Complicite, extending far beyond direction and performance, given the vast array of associates involved in the company, that makes him special.
Now the Tourist, given his only rudimentary understanding of opera as an art form, and especially his inability to grasp the basics of musical constructions, find it tricky to opine on the subject. Moreover by rejecting pretty much all of C19 opera, (the bel canto of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the pompous melodrama of Verdi, the sentimental, pot-boiler manipulation of Puccini, the meandering bombast of Wagner – I’ve tried it all and I can’t be doing with it), and seeing it as drama with music, not music and tunes to which the drama is stitched on, I appreciate I am drastically narrowing the field. There is plenty to like musically from the Baroque but you need to get on with gods, monsters and Classical Greece plot wise, and some of then don’t half go on a bit, (I am looking at you Mr Handel). There aren’t actually that many C20 operas that have stood the test of time and get a regular airing. All this means then that the Tourist, especially since he isn’t going to drop £200 for a decent view at the Royal Opera House, or worse still some poncey gaff like Glyndebourne, on the off chance he might be converted, is condemned to see a lot of Mozart, Britten and contemporary opera. Which suits him but doesn’t really qualify him to write about it, even to himself. And he has never seen a Gluck opera, nor Fielio and suspects he might put up with any old nonsense story if Vivaldi’s music backed it up.
Which is why he has failed to document some of his more recent brushes with Mozart. But, with this Flute, once again with BUD as Sancho Panza to the Tourist’s Don Quixote, some clear patterns, worthy of comment, have emerged. Cases in point. We saw the Die Zauberflute at the Royal Opera House in October 2017. Nice perch. Stalls Circle to the side, nose to nose with the pit, though the rear of half of the stage was cut off. Sur-titles on a little screen on the ledge in front. So a strong showing musically, and in terms of the acting from the cast, but less impact from the set and from the libretto. Lesson one then. Having to look down at the translation doesn’t help. Which brings me to the wider, and contentious, claim. For me opera is better in English. Not because I can understand every word that is sung but because I might, particularly if the translation of the libretto captures the meaning, spirit and musicality of the original. As evidence I offer up Jeremy Sams genius offering for The Marriage of Figaro in the Fiona Shaw ENO production. You can berate me as much as you like but, if the singing, and sur-titles, make a connection, (in so far as that is possible when some soprano is going balls-out coloratura on what feels like the twentieth reprise of her showcase aria’s first verse), then the Tourist can start to find a way into the drama. Anathema to the purist but there it is. As for this ENO Flute, Simon Jeffrey’s pithy translation certainly did the trick.
Lesson two. Now I couldn’t tell you why but clearly some opera singers are better than others. Stronger, more powerful, more resonant, more accurate. a wider range, a better understanding of language, breath control, squillo, tessitura,rubato, vibrato, etc, etc. The ROH Flute definitely had the edge on the singing front, even with a “second string” cast when compared to this ENO Flute, (with the exception of Lucy Crowe’s Pamina). The ovation accorded to Greek soprano Christina Poulitsi after she nailed Der Holle Rache was something and well deserved. Goodness knows how excited the punters will have been after Sabine Devieilhe, the dastardly Queen for the other performances and the critic’s darling, squeaked her damndest. Yet, in terms of performance I preferred the ENO version because the singing, and for that matter the musical interpretation from the ENO Orchestra, fitted the drama more satisfyingly than the ROH production.
Which brings me to lesson number three, the most important of all. In opera the director really matters. That is, of course, also true in straight theatre but in opera, where there are so many interpretative decisions to be taken and where spectacle matters, the vision the director brings, can, in the Tourist’s limited experience, may a huge difference, particularly in drawing out the universal themes and creating a “look” that resonants with a modern audience in works that were written a few hundred years ago. Now there are some that are going to prefer their opera unsullied by the hand of the Regieoper. I certainly get that if the creative mind goes on to wild a bender the result can be a mess. On the other hand seeing something that emphasises the drama, the theatre of opera, and imposes some meaning, or at least insight, is more interesting to me than a straight, “period” interpretation, whatever that might be.
Not that David McVicar’s “classic” 2003 ROH production, revived for the sixth time by Thomas Guthrie, with design from John MacFarlane and lighting from Paule Constable, comes straight out unvarnished from 1791. But it does emphasise the “pantomime” and “set-piece” look, feel and structure of what I imagine to be Mozart’s, and his librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder’s, original Singspiel vision. Magic, fable, predictable comic turns from the boy Papageno, starry night skies, Masonic temples, swathes of primary colours, sharply delineated light and dark, some immense puppetry, a spiritual journey. All present and correct but it did jog on a bit and there wasn’t really a thread that held the whole together. The cast was sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of the set and the dramaturgy a little stolid. The daft story, and the aforementioned clash of philosophies, were showcased but nothing really connected.
Now in contrast Mr McBurney’s ENO version was a revelation. In part because he utilises the whole arsenal of typical Complicite aural and visual tricks, video projection, here with on-stage digital blackboard, on-stage Foley artist, a tilting, floating stage, fluttering birds simulated through sheaves of paper, orchestra players incorporated into the action on stage and singers descending into the raised pit and auditorium, to create a spectacle that highlights the artifice and wit of the theatrical experience, but also in the “magical” plot and in Mozart’s spectacular score. It is entertaining for sure but when it needs to make a point, the book-shelf to symbolise Sarastro’s Temple for example, it does. And, as if to directly address one of the banes of the Tourist opera attending life, there is constant on stage movement. No member of the cast is parked. to sing or otherwise.
The three ladies (Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price and Katie Stevenson) taking snaps of the unconscious Tamino (a properly hunky Rupert Charlesworth) on their phones, the three alarmingly old looking boy spirits (Guillermo Fernandez-Aguayo Martin, Richard Wolfson, and Nat Fukui), Julia Bauer’s Queen of the Night careering around in her wheelchair, the video snake, the “boardroom” table, the coup de theatre trials by fire and water with video backdrop covering the entire width of the stage, a genuine Prosperian “philosopher king” Sarastro, (bass Brindley Sheratt was compelling), and a genuinely strong and courageous Pamina (Lucy Crowe is both the best singer and actor I have ever seen on an opera stage, though appreciate experience is limited), a gentleman of the road Papageno, (Thomas Oliemans) and come to think of it Papagena (Rowan Pierce), with the ability to translate frankly p*ss poor comedy into real pathos, a greasy, lank-haired Monostatos (Daniel Norman) who is pure creep. And a magic flute which literally takes centre stage. Mr McBurney has thought about how it all fits together, about the story he wants to tell, and then worked on every detail to make us believe that this symbolic, numerological gibberish is really saying something to us.
It is as well that Mr McBurney’s creative collaborators were up to executing the vision. At this performance Chris Hopkins took the baton from young Ben Gernon. Sounded fine to me. I have no doubt that chief amongst all this invention was associate and movement director Josie Daxter who has worked with SMcB on his other opera A Dog’s Heart and A Rake’s Progress in Amsterdam. And there there was the set design of Michael Levine, the costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, the lighting design of Mike Gunning, (based on the original work of Jean Kalman), the video of Finn Ross, the sound of Gareth Fry and the aforementioned on stage artists Ben Thompson and Ruth Sullivan.
Now just in case you opera buffs were thinking the Tourist is some sort of lightweight with a toddler-esque attention span that delights in directors upending operatic tradition I offer up a recent visit to the Royal Opera House and Cost Fan Tutte. Overall this was a fine night out with the SO, BUD and KCK for company with much to enjoy. Admittedly in a cheap (for a reason) box which restricted the view but still. It was Mozart, a fine, if not perfectly matched, cast highlighted by Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso and Serena Gamberoni’s Despina alongside the menage a quatre of Paolo Fanale (Fernando), Gyula Orendt (Guglielmo), Salome Jicia (Fiordiligi) and Serena Malfi (Dorabella), and a barnstorming performance in the pianoforte continuo from conductor Stefano Montanari who amped up the tempi to good effect.
However Julia Burbach’s direction of this revival of German Regie Jan Philipp Gloger’s original production didn’t really work for me. I had seen the original at the cinema and was mystified by some of its conceits then. Same here live. I get the notion that it is daft to believe that our funny lovers, even when the lads are dressed up as “east” Europeans, wouldn’t recognise each other, but it is equally daft to presume that they are all deliberately playing along to rediscover love and something about themselves. So we enter Don Alfonso’s School for Lovers, after a performance of the opera has ended, the scenes are played out in a rehearsal of the opera itself, with stagehands milling about and putting up each of Ben Bauer’s inconsistent designs ahead of each scene, there is plenty of implied guff about defining and reclaiming identity and the sexist title is repurposed to include us all rather that just the “women who are like that” with a simple replacement of an “e” by an “i” – tutti you see. All is artifice, all is deceit, and that includes you audience.
I get the idea. The problem is the plot and libretto. There is no way round it. This story and the words da Ponte sets to Mozart’s glorious sounds to tell it are sexist claptrap. So the gap between what Herr Gloger wants us to understand is the message and what we hear (or more exactly, read in translation) just gets wider and wider. Nothing wrong with director’s manipulating and mining sacred texts to resonate with contemporary audiences and to repurpose the arguments and nothing wrong with exploring the dissonance between what was acceptable then and what is acceptable now but there has to be some internal logic and clarity in what we see and hear that doesn’t require a download of the programme notes in advance to understand.
And the performers have to be convinced by the director’s vision that no-one here is convinced by what they are doing or singing. I don’t think they were, with perhaps the exception of Serena Malfi. So neither was I. Better to recognise the reality of the first, misogynist, take on the opera, and then start to tease out the ironies that might exist in da Ponte’s texts and Mozart’s music. It might not entirely paper over the ugly stereotypes at the heart of the “comedy”, nor the fact that it does go on a bit, but there is plenty to work with in the right hands, as with Shakespeare’s more cloth-eared passages, and, failing this, there is always the music and the farce.
Right that’s the state of play in the Tourist’s head Mozart opera wise. Until the next time when he will likely entirely reverse his opinions.