Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House review ****

Billy Budd

Royal Opera House, 7th May 2019

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.

The Women of Whitechapel at the ENO review *****

Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel

English National Opera, 3rd April 2019

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.

The Magic Flute at the ENO review *****

The Magic Flute

English National Opera, 28th March 2019

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.

My top ten concerts and opera of 2018

Just a list so I don’t forget.

1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – English National Opera – 4th March

Not quite a war-horse of a production but Robert Carsen’s version of Britten’s Shakespearean opera looks, sounds and, well, is just wonderful.

2. Ligeti in Wonderland – South Bank – 11th, 12th and 13th May

Gyorgy Ligeti. Now bitten and no longer shy. If there is one second half of the C20 “modernist” composer every classical music buff should embrace Ligeti is that man.

3. Beethoven Cycle and Gerard Barry – Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades – Barbican – 22nd and 24th May

This is how Beethoven should sound. Do not miss the last instalments in the cycle this May.

4. Isabelle Faust, Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord) – JS Bach
Sonatas and Partitas – Wigmore Hall and LSO St Luke’s – 9th April and 16th June

And this is how JSB should sound.

5. Opera – The Turn of the Screw – ENO – Open Air Theatre Regents Park – 29th June

Even the parakeets came in on cue in this magical, and disturbing, evening.

6. Greek – Grimeborn – The Kantanti Ensemble – Arcola Theatre – 13th August

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s breakthrough opera is still a thrill.

7. The Silver Tassie – BBCSO – Barbican Hall – 10th November

And this was a graphic reminder of why his mature masterpiece must be revived on an opera house stage.

8. BBC Prom 68 – Berlin Philharmoniker, Kirill Petrenko – Beethoven Symphony No 7 – Royal Albert Hall – 2nd September

Crikey. I only went for this. If Mr Petrenko keeps going on like this he might just become the greatest ever.

9. Brodsky Quartet – In Time of War – Kings Place – 18th November

A stunning Shostakovich 8th Quartet and then George Crumb’s jaw-dropping Black Angels.

10. Venice Baroque Orchestra, Avi Avital (mandolin) – Vivaldi (mostly) – Wigmore Hall – 22nd December

As rock’n’roll as the Wigmore is ever going to get.

The Silver Tassie at the Barbican review *****

The Silver Tassie

Barbican Hall, 10th November 2018

  • Mark-Anthony Turnage (composer)
  • Amanda Holden (libretto)
  • Ashley Riches – Harry
  • Sally Matthews – Susie
  • Brindley Sherratt – The Croucher
  • Claire Booth – Mrs Foran
  • Marcus Farnsworth – Teddy
  • Alexander Robin Baker – Barney
  • Louise Alder – Jessie
  • Susan Bickley – Mrs Heegan
  • Mark le Brocq – Sylvester
  • Anthony Gregory – Dr Maxwell/Staff Officer
  • Andre Rupp – Corporal
  • Finchley Children’s Music Group
  • BBC Singers
  • BBC Symphony Orchestra
  • Ryan Wrigglesworth – conductor
  • Kenneth Richardson – stage director

B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. I never saw Mark-Anthony Turnage’s second full scale opera when it was first performed in early 2000 at the ENO. On the basis of this semi-staged performance from the BBCSO as part of the In Remembrance weekend this was a terrible omission on my part for it is an extraordinary work both musically, and, given the strength of Amanda Holden’s libretto, dramatically. It is intensely powerful and moving even without a full set and staging. It beggars belief that it has not been revived since 2002, (and that it missed out on a run in Dallas thanks to political sensitivities). 

It is constructed as a symphony in four acts, Home, War, Hospital and Dance. Harry Heegan is about to return to the family flat after a football match with his best mate Barney and girlfriend Jessie. Mum and Dad are intensely proud of their son who is about to head off to the war. Next door neighbour Susie joins the party, banging on about God. Mrs Foran from upstairs also turns up escaping abusive husband Teddy. The Silver Tassie, a cup with much significance appears, the men go to war full of optimism. The War act is primarily choral preceded by the mythic Croucher, representing, I think, the war dead and intoning Old Testament-ish doom. An officer complains at the doctors in the Red Cross station. A football game is delayed as the battle begins. The story then switches to the Hospital where an angry Harry is now paralysed, Teddy blinded and Jessie, who refuses to see Harry, is now coupled up with Barney, who saved Harry’s life. The final act sees Harry and Teddy spit out their pain and bitterness at those who still have their futures at the communal dance. 

The opera is based on Sean O’Casey’s eponymous plan and it is therefore we who have to thank for the gripping drama. Whilst it is never made explicit, O’Casey intended that the Heegan family, and the rest of the community, should hail from the East Wall, a working class district of Dublin, adding further pungency to the message of the play (and opera) because, at that time, Ireland was still part of the UK and the republican movement was divided on whether the country should be involved in the war. So as some young men like Harry, Barney and Teddy headed off to war others prepared for insurrection at home. 

O’Casey’s play was rejected by WB Yeats, then head honcho at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, when it was submitted in 1928, reflecting its political sensitivity. This was after the success of his first three major plays, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. So it premiered at the Apollo in London’s West End. There have been a fair few plays which rail at the futility of war and its consequences on the individuals who fight in it, but I doubt many match the raw power of The Silver Tassie. 

So Amanda Holden, (to be clear not the airhead judge on BGT), and M-AT had something monumental to work with. Even so, and in no way intending to downplay Ms Holden’s contribution which provides M-AT with multiple opportunities to show off his trademark stylistic jagged juxtapositions, it is the score that takes the breath away. M-AT had already shown his dramatic flair in his first opera Greek, and his compositional skill with orchestral pieces such as Three Screaming Popes, Momentum, Drowned Out, Dispelling the Fears and Silent Cities, especially when it came to percussion and brass, but The Silver Tassie is on another level.

The symphonic structure is inspired by mentor Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids, with the first act setting out the main ideas and themes, the second the Adagio slow movement, brought to life by the large scale choral scenes (echoing the more Expressionist feel of the act in SO’C’s play), the third a Scherzo and the last act a “dance” finale with “off stage” band. This structure offers rhythmic backbone and plenty of tunes derived from song, (including Robert Burns’s own Silver Tassie), and dance, as well as repeated motifs, which make it easy to follow and show off MA-T’s uncanny ability to capture the emotional interior of the characters. There are episodes of rich orchestral colour but there are also plenty of more economic orchestration.  The score should give the singers plenty of space, but just to make sure the cast were miked, (though M-AT, a couple of rows in front of me, needed to dash up to the sound desk to get the balance right early on).  The second and fourth acts are up there with the best I have ever heard on an opera stage. Even allowing for the fact that this wasn’t an opera stage. 

Sometimes this semi-staging lark can leave singers looking a little awkward unsure of how much to commit to performance versus voice. Costuming can also, sometimes, appear incongruous. Not here though, at east once the first act go going. There were some outstanding vocal performances, notably for me from Sally Matthews and Claire Booth, and Marcus Farnsworth as Teddy was very persuasive. But baritone Ashley Riches as Harry, even from my two perches (side stalls first half, back of circle second), was bloody marvellous not just in his singing but also in the way, pre and post wheelchair, he projected Harry’s exuberance and then his pain into the whole auditorium. 

Now I have nothing to compare it to but, given just how amazing this was, I have to assume that Ryan Wrigglesworth and the BBCSO, and the BBC Singers and Finchley Children’s Music Group (complete with ensemble writhing) got as close as possible to the heart of the music. 

You can listen to it for a couple more weeks on BBC Radio Opera on 3. Do yourself a favour and do so. 

And can I beg the ENO to find a way and time to revive this. With Mr Wrigglesworth on the podium. I will chip in a few quid if it helps. 

Porgy and Bess at the ENO review ****

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Porgy and Bess

English National Opera, 31st October 2018

It has been a long time coming. This co-production, together with the Met and the Dutch National Opera, is the first time it has appeared on the Coliseum stage. The re-written version, with book by Suzanne Lori-Parks, (which attracted the ire of Stephen Sondheim no less), popped up at the Open Air Theatre a few years ago and I gather that Welsh National Opera staged the Cape Town Opera production transcribed to South Africa in 2009. Prior to that I believe you have to go back to Trevor Nunn’s various tilts, at Glyndebourne in 1986, the Royal Opera House in 1992 and the less than successful musical theatre version, with speech replacing recitative, from 2006 at the Savoy. (Which, I have surmised, was what my special guests for this evening BUD and KCK, must have seen).

You’d think with all those tunes it would be a far more regular feature. On the other hand, one look at the set, and the massed cast at the opening of this production, perhaps reminds you why it is such an infrequent visitor. This must have cost a few bob. And assembling this many fine black singers from around the world, for this amount of time, will have required a patient, and skilled, logistical hand. The ENO has come under the cosh in the last few years, often unfairly in my view, so it is terrific to see that this has been a resounding critical and commercial success with standing room only across the run.

That is not so say it is perfect, at least from where the Tourist was sitting. (Nothing wrong with the view mind, though the old back was playing up a bit). The First Act does go on a bit: a fair few punters took the steamboat whistle as their cue to head to the bar. The chopping and changing of the time signatures in the jazzier parts of the score gets a bit wearing and I wouldn’t have minded if debutante conductor John Wilson has taken some passages at a greater lick. Not to say that he dawdled, just that I am all for brevity and clarity when it comes to orchestral music.

The plot and characterisation is very much of its time, Charleston in South Carolina in the 1920s. Not woke for sure. Even in the 1930s casts and creatives wrestled with the stereotypes that the opera presents. By the 1960s the opera had been pretty much consigned to the dustbin: no-one would perform it. It wasn’t just the characterisation, plot and language that vexed but also the appropriation of musical styles. In the last few decades performers have reclaimed the piece however, notably in South Africa. Ira Gershwin refused permission for the opera to be performed with white casts under apartheid as he and George had from the outset. Their stipulation for black only casts hasn’t always been maintained however, most notably by the Hungarian State Opera in their last season with a predominantly white cast, which looked, on the face of it, like a political provocation.

Having said all that I can absolutely see why the creative team, led by James Robinson AD of the Opera Theatre of St Louis, on his ENO debut, have played this absolutely straight, (and I suspect they always had one eye on the reception from the punters at the Met). Putting the condescension to one side, the characters in Porgy and Bess, even if there are probably too many, are more emotionally rounded than in most opera, and the drama, with its mythic underpinning, more engaging. This in large part reflects the work of Dorothy and DuBose Heyward from whose play and book the story is taken. That doesn’t mean it is without flaw however. Porgy’s seeming accommodation of his poverty and disability, Bess’s total lack of agency and final descent: these require a great deal more exploration than the few lines that opera can offer, especially one where so many other voices are heard. And Gershwin’s music as it slips from folk to jazz to blues to gospel to spiritual to, very obviously in the melodies of some big songs, his own Jewish heritage, doesn’t always match up to the psychology of the character. Say what you like about Mozart and Da Ponte’s plots, when words fall short and music needed to take over, Wolfgang was your man.

George Gershwin’s ability to mix popular, musical theatre with high art classical composition is there from the very beginning of the piece. The jazzy theme for full orchestra that emerges from the frenetic opening, with the entire cast on stage, drops down to a simple piano roll. Then Clara emerges and launches into you know what. If there has ever been a tune that more defines time and place in musical theatre, the bluesy Summertime is it. It’s hot, we are on Catfish Row and, for a lullaby about protecting the child, there is something infinitely sad about it. Which of course there is when it subsequently re-appears later on before the murder of Robbins by Crown and after the fatal storm.

Up to now George and lyricist brother Ira had delivered Broadway musical but George was determined to filter this through European classical modernism to create a unique American opera style, just as Bernstein would in the following decades. They must have got something right in this their operatic debut. The programme mentions an estimate of 25,000 version of Summertime. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and The Fun Boy Three in my library. From there on, for all the twist and turns of the music when it stands alone or supports the recitative (and kind of arioso), for all of the musical call-forwards, call-backs and motifs it is the songs and arias that the audience came to hear. Gone, Gone Gone, spirituals My Man’s Gone Now and It Take A Long Pull To Get There, It Ain’t Necessarily So, love duet Bess You Is My Woman Now,, Oh Doctor Jesus, Oh Lawd I’m On My Way., even banjo song I Got Plenty of Nuttin’.  Hard not to be carried away by that lot.

I have said before that I am not up to the task of commenting on the technical skill of the performers and, for me, acting in opera is as important as singing. If I had to pick out individuals then I would plump for Eric Greene’s rich, powerful baritone voice, which builds through the evening, and the poignancy he brings to Porgy. Nadine Benjamin’s sweet, sensitive Clara and Frederick Ballentine’s oily Sportin’ Life also stood out and I was taken with, at our performance, Gweneth-Ann Rand’s noble Serena and Tichina Vaughn’s gritty (acting not voice!) Maria. Soprano Nicole Cabell’s Bess was a little too reticent at times and Nmon Ford’s Crown, complete with rippling torso, a little too brisk, but what do I know. It is though when the chorus and orchestra come together in the big set-pieces, the fights, the murder, the funeral, the prayer-meetings, when the opera really takes off, and this chorus drawn from as far apart as the US, South Africa and New Zealand, was as good as I have heard anywhere. This was when I got the “opera buzz”. I am looking forward to the War Requiem that will follow at the ENO from this chorus.

For all the story-telling, playing, singing and dancing (courtesy of Dianne McIntyre) though, it was the look of the production that was perhaps the best thing about it. The set from legendary American designer Michael Yeargan, gives us the the bare bones of the Catfish Row tenements. The flesh then comes from another legend, lighting designer Donald Holder and the video design of our own Luke Halls, who is about the best in the business. No innovative representation or symbolism here. Sun, rain, water, daybreak, twilight, moonlight, quick time, slow time, public space, private space. All were vividly imagined. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are equally effective. Wheeling out the best of Broadway and pooling the budgets of the three producing houses has paid dividends handsomely. Even the SO to whom plot is everything was bowled over by the look as were keen companions BUD and KCK. We definitely got our money’s worth.

I see that I have a recording of Porgy and Bess, the LPO under Simon Rattle. I don’t listen to it though. I do listen to Miles Davis’ instrumental versions though, which are all over the shop. Not sure what that means. Essence of trumpet maybe.

 

English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire review ****

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English Touring Opera

Hackney Empire, 12th October 2018

  • Purcell – Dido and Aeneas
  • Carissimi – Jonas
  • Gesualdo – I Will Not Speak

I am partial to English Touring Opera’s productions. The repertoire tends to be up my street, with a bias to smaller, chamber and Baroque works, reflecting resources and logistics. Suits me. I can’t be doing with all that C19 showy stuff. Last year’s Giulio Cesare went on a bit, but that’s Handel for you, their take on Monteverdi’s Ulysses in 2016 was a corker, and I recall a Coronation of Poppea and Albert Herring a few years ago (before I kept track of stuff). And the Hackney Empire is like a favourite old aunt, if I had been born into circles that had such things.

This also was another opportunity to expand BUD’s opera education after the very successful Mozart forays, and the rather more muted reception to Britten. Now spare a though for the poor chap who is, like all the other economically productive people around me, working far too hard. When capitalism had the bright idea of separating work and leisure time, thereby ensuring we worked harder to make more money to spend in our ever decreasing leisure time, it cannot have foreseen just how clever the wheeze would be. Especially when so many of us are both labour and capital simultaneously. Anyway it meant that he was a little bushed and, with the Empire not too sure where to pitch the internal temperature in these climatic tipping point times, it was a bit close in the auditorium. I have put myself through many hours of training in London’s less comfortable venues so this was water off the proverbial, but even so I have to admit to skirting with drowsiness, notably in the Gesualdo.

Which is a shame, as in some ways, this was the most interesting of the three part programme. Director James Conway, and the eight soloists on stage on this evening (see below), tell the story of Gesualdo’s life, interspersed with various of the responses from his Tenebrae setting, a handful of relevant madrigals, poems by Southwell, Donne, Herbert and some other religious stuff. Now as you no doubt know Gesualdo had a bit of a temper on him and got himself in a bit of a tizzy with pain, agony, ecstasy, love, death, passion, blood, honour, violence, sorrow, religious fervour, torment, being forsaken and the like. And above all by guilt. That’s Catholicism for you. These texts captured all of that and more, being helpfully relayed through sur-titles. A dark, reflective set, atmospherically lit by candles, black costumes and some prudent choreography all helped the mood of the piece. Gesualdo, a dark presence in another, somewhat perplexing, recent entertainment I attended (The Second Violinist at the Barbican review ***), seems to exert a powerful hold on us devotees of early music.

I had bigged up all of the strange dissonances, out-there chromaticism and dark intensity which pervades the prince’s compositions, but as it turns out, BUD took it all in its stride. As did the Old Street Band, here under Jonathan Peter Kenny. Maybe they could have been a little wilder and more sympathetic to the text, and they seemed to me to be more comfortable in the Purcell and especially the Carissimi, but overall, this “I Will Not Speak” is not to be missed if Gesualdo floats your boat.

Giacomo Carissimi was an important chap in the development of vocal music in Europe in the early Baroque, and the dominant player in Rome. He was all over motets and cantatas but he really excelled in the oratorio, basically inventing the form. He was to religious choral music what Cavalli was to opera. (I appreciate that only in very limited circles will that mean anything at all). His big break came when he was appointed chapel master at Collegium Germanicum, a Jesuit bastion of the Counter-Reformation, in his early 20’s where he stayed for the rest of his life.

Now think of an oratorio as a biblical opera without action. Mind you here we got a bit of staging courtesy of designer Adam Wiltshire and the excellent lighting of Rory Beaton and some stylised choreography. You probably know Jonas by his more common moniker of Jonah, so I won’t bore you with the detail of the story. Naughty Niveveh-ians up to no good. God to Jonah “sort them out”. Jonah runs away. Storm. Sailors chuck him overboard. Unpleasant fish/whale belly short break gets just one star on TripAdvisor. Big belch. Washed ashore. God sends him back to Nineveh. This time they promise to be better. Thanks merciful God. Jonah throws a hissy fit and he and God have some sort of “my job is worse than yours” tiff.

So all the standard “behave yourself or else” merciful/vengeful God parable stuff. What is interesting is the way Carissimi employs really quite simple musical structures, (and dumps the last part), to bring the words to life and to convey the silly/substantial story, (depending on your point of view). And he really doesn’t hang about. It’s all over in 20 minutes. Put this, and his more famous Oratorio Jepthe, on one CD and there’s still space for a filler. Now it is made up of some fairly dryish recitative, but there is enough solo melody, some duets and trios, and small chorus, as well as instrumental breaks (sinfonias)  to add flavour, and to show why he became such an influence on later composers notably Charpentier. Don’t expect the funky mash-ups and luscious chromaticism of Monteverdi, this is straight-laced by comparison, but it is very effective and very moreish. It shows just how the voice and instruments could be combined in the service of drama in a way that the barrage of sound that was the polyphony of the previous century never could.

Of course this all went up a notch, actually well past 11, three decades later when the boy wonder Purcell gifted the world the score of Dido and Aeneas, the ill-fated lovers from Carthage and Troy. There is his cherubic little boat at the top. It is an undeniable fact that Purcell’s opera, with Nahum Tate’s libretto, lacks a bit on the plausibility front. Dido works herself up into a right lather, for no good reason, at the prospect of her bloke going off to war. I guess you could argue she is emotionally damaged, maybe even depressed, from the off, but that requires an awful lot of intellectual back-filling.

For this we probably have to thank the forces of anti-Catholic propaganda. No camp sorceress in Virgil’s original remember so Tate fiddled with plot in his play, The Enchanted Lovers,  on which the libretto is based to curry favour with the Court. And why not? They had to earn a corn.

There are also a fair few tonal shifts, with plenty of upbeat numbers amongst the tragedy and an ambivalent approach to Dido’s virtue. All of this perhaps reflects its genesis in a country where the masque, and plays, pre and post the Restoration (for which HP wrote lots of music), were been the dominant dramatic forms. Merrie Olde England, always wary of those suspect Continental innovations, like opera. This ETO production, which I have to say looks superb, thanks to the aforementioned Messrs Wiltshire and Beaton, is set in Jacobean times, think Dowland and later Shakespeare, several decades before the opera was first performed and a time when melancholy (cue our mate Gesualdo) and magic (James I wrote books on it) were all the rage. Worked for me. The staging I mean, not the belief in the spirit world.

Who cares about the structure though with music as ravishing and so perfectly matched to the voice as this. Which is after all what Purcell was all about. Now I can’t lie. I can only take so much singing in classical music. So all those odes, anthems, hymns and songs, whilst attractive enough on first listening, do fade a bit from memory. And, to be fair, I couldn’t tell which suite, fantasy, trio sonata, overture, air, minuet, blah, blah, blah is which in HP’s oeuvre. But what I do know is pretty much anything you will hear by Purcell will provoke an immediate, and very direct, response. I cannot be doing with the “genius touched by God” theories of artistic accomplishment but it is hard to deny some composers just “had it”. Everything just makes sense from the first listen of the first bar. HP was one of them. (Mind you living just down the road from Westminster Abbey and having a musically well-connected uncle probably came in handy). There are those who would have you endure a world of maximalist complexity in order to render you worthy of “appreciating” “Classical” music. Ignore them. Rhythm and the dance is where it’s at.

So this, his only “proper” opera, was his finest hour, literally. Like I say don’t dwell too much on the clunky dramatic devices and half-baked classicism and just listen to those amazing sounds. HP’s music can make fake emotion seem real. There are a few operas that people who have no interest in opera should go see and listen to. Dido and Aeneas is one of them. No need to change your view on the art form, I that a lot of opera is piffle, just don’t spend a life without this one. Without the music it is just nonsense, (though don’t blame the Greeks, it is the Renaissance trivialisation and prettification that is to blame). With the music it is transformed.

HP’s opera didn’t come out of nowhere, owing something to his bestie John Blow’s D and A and, more obliquely, Cavalli’s Didone (which also has a lament for dizzy Dido). HP may have delivered up what his conservative patrons demanded but he was aware of musical developments across the Channel even if he didn’t study there. After all, post Restoration, England was awash with French and Italian musicians, who brought us the Baroque bug. (You see Brexiteers, we have always benefitted economically and culturally from them furriners, even importing a few to sit on our throne if we didn’t fancy the home-grown alternative). Here Dido and Aeneas kicks off with your standard two part French overture and its best known tunes, including you know what with its stepping ground bass, are Italian style arias. HP delighted in gentle dissonance, splashes of chromaticism, sighing falls and minor thirds, all audible in Carissimi, amongst others. Yet he also favoured one of Tallis and Byrd’s gifts to the world, false relations, a “natural” note and its “sharps” played simultaneously.

HP, as far as I can tell didn’t live fast, but he did die young, maybe through TB or maybe, in a slightly more rock’n’roll way, after being locked out by his missus following a night on the lash. We in GB have always been convinced of his greatness, and our American cousins agree, but this may reflect the fact that we came up short on the composer front until, IMHO Benjamin Britten came along. BB obviously worshipped HP. So should you.

  • Susanna Fairbarn – Soprano
  • Alison Manifold – Soprano
  • Sky Ingram – Soprano
  • Benjamin Williamson – Countertenor
  • Jorge Navarro-Colorado – Tenor
  • Richard Dowling – Tenor
  • Nicholas Mogg – Baritone
  • Frederick Long – Bass