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

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Lessons in Love and Violence

Royal Opera House, 26th May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Caroline, or Change

Hampstead Theatre, 18th April 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You must see it.

 

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

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The Marriage of Figaro

English National Opera, 12th April 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Coraline at the Barbican Theatre review ****

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Coraline

Barbican Theatre, 7th April 2018

Was I the only person in the audience who knew nothing about Neil Gaiman’s 2003 cult children’s fantasy novella from whence came Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Coraline? It certainly felt like it. To be fair the provenance had dawned on me some time before the performance, but when I booked my perch it was the composer which drew me in not the subject. I guess if I had known more I might not have taken the plunge for fear of feeling a bit odd amongst this very youthful, in parts, audience. I am glad ignorance prevailed for I can report that this was a very fine entertainment indeed.

Music first. It isn’t MAT’s most inventive composition that is true though there are more than enough surprises to hold the attention of the musicophile. What it does do is fit Rory Mullarkey’s bracingly direct libretto, and Mr Gaiman’s pleasingly dark fable like the proverbial glove. It is through-composed, retaining MAT’s trademark spiky, jazzy, Stravinskian, often dissonant, tonality, with very little accommodation to its intended audience. Yet the musical ideas are plain enough even to the untutored ear (including mine). Our ageing actresses singing across the melody in their big number, their waltzes shifting to tangoes as we jump the house “divide”, the mouse orchestra, the close harmonies when ghosts are abroad and the way the Mother’s music darkens as we move from Good to Bad. Sian Edwards is an outstanding advocate of smaller scale new opera music, (she conducted the premiere of MAT’s debut opera Greek). The  Britten Sinfonia are about the best advocates of new music in this country. Put them together and the results are unsurprisingly sublime, bringing life to the score even when it flagged a touch. And Britten, whose Noye’s Fludde might be the best opera involving children because it, er, involves a lot of children, feels like he was an influence here.

Coraline, sung on this occasion by Robyn Allegra Parton, is a bolshie tween, who has just moved in to a new home with overbearing Mum, Kitty Whately, and kindly, inventor Dad, Alexander Robin Baker. The neighbours, Mr Bobo (Harry Nicoll), and the Misses Spink (Gillian Keith) and Forcible (Frances McCafferty), are a bit odd to say the least. The former directs a mouse orchestra and the latter were one time, fruity thespians. The front room of the flat has a door; Coraline walks through it to discover …. a mirror image of the room and parents with sown-up eyes, and another mother bent on evil. You can guess the rest even if you don’t know it. And even if you can’t guess there are plenty of people who could tell you.

If I am honest the couple of hours ex-interval running time could have been squeezed down to 90 minutes straight through, though I guess this might have tested the patience of some of the younger members of the audience. I have to say the youngsters were impeccably behaved throughout, reflecting the quality of what they were seeing and hearing, and putting to shame many an older audience what with their coughs, fidgeting, phone screens and snacking. Having just wrestled with a couple of excitable nephew/nieces the prior weekend I can appreciate just how well-behaved this audience was.

I can see why Rory Mullarkey felt the need to labour the story with excess exposition to ensure everyone knew where we were, but there was the odd time when the recitative might have been condensed. This too might have focussed the ear more on the best of MAT’s invention, and the fine stagecraft marshalled under Aletta Collin’s direction. The magic in particular was a tad underwhelming. On the other hand Giles Cadle’s claustrophobic revolving set, at the front of the otherwise blacked-out cavernous Barbican Theatre stage, was a marvel

The cast though was terrific, especially Robyn Allegra Parton as our heroine, who has a lot of singing to get through, and Kitty Whately as Bad Mum/Good Mum. Apparently Ms Whately had a bit of a sore throat for this performance. Only just about audible and it certainly did not inhibit her performance in any way. I recently saw her Sesto in Giulio Cesare, where she also stood out. Even with my ropey ears I heard most every line, which I can’t always claim is the case when the RSC treads the boards here.

Now this is a fair distance from Mr Turnage’s shocking breakthrough opera Greek, based on Stephen Berkhoff’s play, in turn drawn from Sophocles’s tragedy, Oedipus Rex. To this day that remains one of the finest pieces of musical theatre I have ever witnessed, at the ENO in 1990. His last full length opera, Anna Nicole, wasn’t too kid friendly either. I have never seen The Silver Tassie, based on Sean O’Casey’s anti-war play, though there is a concert performance in the diary.

I see MAT has indicated he may call it a day on opera after some critical muppets have had a pop at the score for Coraline, berating its relative simplicity. That would be a great shame IMHO. There is no doubt the audience was thoroughly bowled over by MAT’s family opera, even if these critics, who presumably never were, or never had, kids, are too blinkered to appreciate its appeal.

I don’t doubt a fair few of these critics get off on the gross, uber-mensch, toddler fantasies of racist, anti-semite Richard Wagner. Hmmmm…..

From the House of the Dead at the Royal Opera House review ****

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From the House of the Dead

Royal Opera House, 22nd March 2018

Now this is it what opera is all about. Not just some portly punters, (though a couple of the chaps here were carrying as much timber as me), parking themselves mid-stage and belting out their arias. No here we get a concept, and some, a detailed design to back it up, lashings of action and even more acting, maybe too much, and a score which fits the prose of the libretto. I see it has wound up a few die-hards who would probably be happier with some Puccini-esque love mush but this is the real deal for me.

Now Janacek famously never made his life easy when it came to picking the subject matter for his operas. Infanticide, forest animals, adultery and suicide, the delusion of eternal life, a warrior matriarchy, a meta tragic opera. What a bout a feel-good rom-com eh Leos? Anyway From the House of the Dead is drawn from Dostoevsky’s eponymous novel which Janacek translated and adapted in his own libretto and is set in a Siberian labour camp. It has only one assigned female character, a prostitute, though one of the prisoners is normally a soprano, though not here. There is no narrative arc. It is largely episodic and expositional with the main characters steeping out of the ensemble to describe the crimes that led to their incarceration. There is a play within a play which takes up most of the second act. The music is pretty intense, lots of that special Janacek ostinato rhythm, with not much in the way of quiet reflection. There is no ending or resolution to speak of.

It was Janacek’s last opera and was pretty much complete on his death. But a couple of his students decided it wasn’t and that he can’t possibly have meant what he had left on the page or that an unresolved ending was appropriate so they “enhanced” the score significantly and changed the ending. Sounds like Hollywood today. Anyway all this gloss has been cleared out to produce a score much closer to Janacek’s original intentions., here further refined by John Tyrell’s critical edition. Intentions that require a vast orchestra, here spilling out into the side of the stalls. Chains anyone? The Orchestra of the ROH under the baton of Mark Wigglesworth sounded fantastic. I can’t imagine a better conductor of Janacek’s operas.

This though was all about the director though. Krzysztof Warlikowski doesn’t hold back. The overture, which lays out Janacek’s main ideas, which are subject to subtle variations throughout the three acts, is accompanied by a video projection of French philosopher, and winder-up-in chief -of-reactionary-conservatives, Michel Foucault, theorising on the nature of power, punishment and control in the modern prison system. The curtain rises to a solitary basketball player and a brutal modern prison yard. The athlete turns out to be “Eagle” standing in for the bird that represents freedom in a classic staging. Novel huh? A glass box acts as the governor’s office and, later, as the stage for the play within a play. Throughout the whole ensemble is in movement, offering multiple perspectives on the stories. From my perch in the back of the gods it wasn’t always easy to know who was singing but no matter. I’ll gladly swap a bit of narrative confusion for all this visual content. All thanks to designer Malgorzata Szczesniak.

And it isn’t that tricky to work out what’s going on. Gorjancikov, (I’ll refrain from full names or we’ll be here all day), played by the extraordinary Willard White, now in his 70s, pitches up. He’s a political prisoner and toff so the governor (Alexander Vassiliev), as you do, has him beaten up. Skuratov (Ladislav Elgr) talks about his life in Moscow. Luka (Stefan Margita, who was very impressive) tells how he and a crew killed a prison officer. Gorjancikov befriends young Aljeja (Pascal Charbonneau) and teaches him to read and write. Skuratov prefaces the play within a play by telling how he killed the bloke his girlfriend was forced to marry. The two plays are performed in bawdy fashion. The Prostitute (Allison Cook) gets involved. There is a bit of a dust up. Sapkin (Peter Hoare) describes his interrogation, Siskov (Johan Reuter, another excellent performance, though the tattoos help convince) tells of how he killed his wife because she was still in love with the village w*anker Filka, who, sharp intake, turns out to be Luka, who has, second sharp intake, just dropped dead. Antonic (Graham Clark) says he should still be forgiven, the moral of Janacek’s tale. Everyone, however “evil” can be forgiven, we all have the “spark of God” apparently. Gorjancikov is released. The end.

So, as you can see, not much in the way of plot. Yet the stories, which are elaborated through the play within a play structure, are compelling and the atmosphere of tension, claustrophobia, frustration and violence, and yes a bit of confusion, travelled right up to the back of the amphitheatre. The performances of the cast, inside all this action, are powerful enough to bring life to the characters; best of the bunch is Nicky Spence as Nikita who really can act and sing simultaneously. These are men who have done wrong, really wrong, but Mr Warlikowksi, in his dramatic staging, tellingly makes the point that they are victims, of their own warped masculinity if nothing else, as well, who need help not punishment to the point of death. And he does this by sidestepping the religiosity of the source material.

Loved it. More of Mr Warlikowski and Ms Szczesniak artistic partnership please.

 

 

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the ENO review *****

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

English National Opera, 4th March 2018

Out of a long list of wildly inappropriate events that I dragged BD along to when she was younger perhaps provocateur Christopher Alden’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this very house was the most egregious. Not because the 14 year old her wasn’t up to the task of taking some pleasure from Britten’s opera; she is a very clever young woman who makes me immensely proud, (as do the other two in the very unlikely event that they read this – “Dad, what exactly do you do with you day now you are no longer working”). No, it was because of the audacious sub-text of public school abuse which underpinned the production. Not that this wasn’t an interesting, and very valid, perspective, just that it maybe wasn’t quite the Dream we were expecting.

ENO has reverted then to the older, 1995, Robert Carsen production of AMND, last revived in 2004, to pull in the punters. Good for me because a) I haven’t seen it and b) it is brilliant. Now my regular reader will likely be aware that I struggle with a lot of opera. Monteverdi, some Baroque, Mozart and some C20, can work for me but it is by no means guaranteed. Contemporary opera is what usually really floats my boat. There is a special place for Britten though. This is because it is English, or more precisely was written in English, so I have half a chance of understanding the words with my dodgy ears and don’t have to flick eyes up and down to sur-titles. Moreover, there is a proper marriage between libretto and music. The music fits the words and the drama and not the other way round. Britten chose stories with real drama and assumed that all of his performers could act. This much is reiterated by the interview with Britten in the programme. I care about the voices but I am not smart enough to know just how good the singers really are. In contrast I can understand why an audience gets all juiced up when the Queen of the Night hits those F6’s in Der Holle Racht … but it doesn’t always make up for an unfunny Papageno, risible plot and all that crass symbolism.

So drama first, music second, voices third. BB was judicious in his choice of source material, whether it be Auden, Crabbe, Maupassant, James, Melville or Mann. And why not turn to the greatest of them all in Shakespeare. But where to cut AMND, to avoid creating a 5 hour extravaganza, and how to shape the music around an already musical text? This is where BB, and Peter Pears, who took full joint credit for the libretto with BB, is so clever. By cutting out all the arranged marriage preamble, with the insertion of just one new line, we jump straight to the forest with Oberon and Titania wrangling. We swiftly get to experience the three different, but interlinked, sound worlds that BB has created for fairies, humans and mechanicals. The chop does mean that when Theseus and Hippolyta finally pitch up it’s a bit of a jolt, but by then we have had so many musically signposted episodes it’s easy enough to apprehend. A little bit of nipping and tucking in the order of the episodes to match text to music does also make for some novel juxtapositions: cheeky BB and PP send the lovers to bed unmarried, for example. Anyhow it’s the Dream so most of the audience will be up to speed on the story..

As ever with BB there a lot of essentially simple musical ideas which mean a numpty like me can feel the structure even if I can’t break the language. These ideas are clothed in innovative execution though. The Balinese influences, the debt to Purcell and Ravel, a bit of unthreatening twelve note serialism, all are audible, for this is the opera where Britten meshes the orchestral coloration and technical precociousness of the early operas and orchestral works with the spare stripped back austerity of his last decade or so. That is why, to me, it always sounds strikingly fresh and approachable whilst still endlessly inventive. The repetitions tell us where we are, and who we are with, in the drama but also allow us to soak up those exquisite sonorities that BB excelled in producing.

Intelligent and beautiful music in the service of the drama, not just a parade of flashy tunes. Which is where director Mr Carsen comes in, or more exactly his assistant, Emmanuele Bastet who supervised this revival. If Will S has provided plot and poetry, BB a crystalline musical structure around it, then the director only has to respond with a few big, bold ideas, and, ta-dah, success. Which is what we have here thanks in large part to Michael Levine’s outstanding designs.. A giant sloping bed fills the stage. Emerald green (Oberon) and a nocturnal blue (Tytania) dominate with occasional flashes of crimson. The Trinity Boys Choir of fairies marches on and off in perfect unison. The mechanicals, look like what they are, and their props in Pyramis and Thisbe, strike the right note of amateurish craft. The humans virginal white is gradually besmirched before they appear, alongside King and Queen, in glittering gold. There is coup de theatre in the suspended beds. Backdrops and lighting follow the same sharp, uncluttered aesthetic. A sort of synthesis of symbolist, minimalist and colour-field art, or maybe child-like Expressionism. Whatever, it it spot on. Any AMND, whether opera or on stage, that gets too floaty and ethereal gets the thumbs down in my book. That is not what dreams are made of.

Our Puck here, in the form of actor Miltos Yerolemou, counterpoints the action with his actions as much as his words. He is a very funny clown, (note he last appeared on stage as the Fool in the Royal Exchange Lear with Don Warrington), with pratfalls and tumbles a plenty, but he is the glue which brings the fairy and human worlds, fleetingly, together. As well as the superb design it is the choreography which enthrals in this production, courtesy of none other than Matthew Bourne and updated here by Daisy May Kemp.

Counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie stood out for me as Oberon, but that’s the way the opera is written, and because he is really, really good. The quartet of Hermia (Clare Presland), Lysander (David Webb), Helena (Eleanor Dennis) and Demetrius (Matthew Durkan) were well matched. The last three of these, along with our Tytania, soprano Soraya Mafi, and Theseus, Andri Bjorn Robertsson are all ENO home-grown talents, whose slight lack of projection was more than compensated by their movement and flair for the drama (and comedy). Joshua Bloom was perhaps an overly grandiloquent Bottom but that mattered less when unmasked/un-assed.

AMND doesn’t require a big orchestra which means ENO newcomer Alexander Snoddy, who is Director of the Nationaltheater Mannheim, could bring out all of BB’s eloquent phrasing and still keep the volume restrained enough to ensure the cast could all be clearly heard.

A perfect opera then based on a near perfect play near perfectly realised. At times like these I can accept, just, that opera trumps theatre as the greatest of art forms.

Satyagraha at English National Opera review ***

01/00/1998. File pictures of Mahatma Gandhi

Satyagraha

English National Opera, 27th February 2018

Finally I have got to see all three of Philip Glass’s seminal operas, Einstein on the Beach (the science-y one), Akhnaten (the religious one) and now this Satyagraha (the political one). Einstein on the Beach was a recreation of the original Robert Wilson production at the Barbican a few years ago. Gruelling in places, daft as well, and it looked pretty lo-fi. Akhnaten, also at the ENO with substantially the same creative  team, looked and sounded sublime, but overall I was middle-whelmed. And so it was with Satyagraha. Improbable’s staging certainly tops the already lofty heights they achieved in Akhnaten, and there was probably more to the story unfolding in Sanskrit, but the pleasure, and marginal pain, derived by this observer was not dissimilar.

Since I can’t really imagine more committed advocates than this creative team for these two operas I think I have to conclude that, if pushed, I prefer my Glass in other formats. Like the string quartets or the works for keyboards. That’s a terrible admission isn’t it. Anyway probably as well I know now as Mr Glass has written a fair few operas, 29 and counting, including the chamber works. Mind you he has been pretty busy across all genres. He’s already snuck in another string quartet this year for example I see. Anyway the profligacy of PG is both joy and curse for the committed fan of minimalism, or, as he terms it, repetitive music.

There is no doubt that there is a unique pleasure in succumbing to its hypnotic effect. Hearing the structures slowly change as the notes are added or subtracted. Melodies, motifs and harmonies appearing, disappearing and reappearing. Wave upon wave of sound, altering, circling, revisiting, but never really getting anywhere. Timeless. Meditative. All transcendent when it’s just you and the music. But with opera the whole point is to witness the music interact with the drama. And this is where the disconnect emerges. If you succumb solely to the music then the visual spectacle risks taking too much of a back seat. There is way too much stagecraft trickery to admire here though to permit drifting off into an hypnotic trance. Who would have thought so much could be done with papier-mache and sellotape? Yet the structure and pace of PG’s score, the episodic structure of the “action”, largely based on key events in the struggle for emancipation by Indians in South Africa, led by Gandhi, and the Sanskrit text, all make for very static human tableaux. And a lot of slow motion shuffling.

A spell is cast but there are times when it might be nice to be snapped out of the soporific contemplation into some high drama. Having influences on Gandhi past, present and future, in the form of Tolstoy, then Rabindranath Tagore, and finally Martin Luther King, lurking at the back of the set isn’t quite enough, and the wow moments as Improbable make newspaper come to life, create gods and monsters before our eyes or bring crowd scenes to life, don’t always articulate with the, you guessed it, non-linear story (based on my reading of the synopsis).

Still admire the parts. The marvellous chorus and orchestra led by Glass expert Karen Kamensek, (as in Akhnaten), moulded PG’s musical shapes effortlessly. I didn’t know that I had seem Improbable’s work before in a very different context, namely Lost Without Words at the National Theatre, improv theatre from a cast of older actors, which worked a bit better than I might have expected. AD’s Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson, and here associate Julian Crouch, don’t lack for imagination or, based on Satyagraha, brilliance of execution. The go-to team for video design, 59 Productions, also leave their mark. Toby Spence gives us the Gandhi of myth, standing stock still for long periods, then bursting into his sumptuous tenor, but no sign of the man himself. The rest of the cast have even less opportunity to shape characterisation beyond the puppets they share the stage with. They all sounded great to me though, especially soprano Charlotte Beament, as Gandhi’s assistant.

The central message of Satyagraha, a Sanskrit word which Gandhi defined as “holding on to truth”, and which underpinned his theory and praxis of nonviolence, does sort of emerge from the production, but a bit of reading around, before and after, helps. The denial of self, the power of the collective, the effectiveness of planned and self-critical resistance. Think of this as a project. Put a bit of effort in and you might just learn something.

Or just do what I suspect the majority of the packed house at the ENO were doing, (this has been revived thrice, it is so “popular”). Gaze and listen in wonder and don’t get antsy about the fact it is all over the shop. At the end of the day the ENO has its hit and this, with its predecessor, is pulling in all sorts of punters who might, rightly in my view, give a wide berth to Verdi and Puccini.

Mind you I reckon this new generation of Glass converts might draw the line at the 5 hours of hippyish clap-trap that is Einstein on the Beach.