Orpheus and Eurydice at the ENO review ***

Orpheus and Eurydice

English National Opera, 14th November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The LSO and Barbara Hannigan at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, Barbara Hannigan (soprano)

Barbican Hall, 10th January 2019

  • Sibelius – Symphony No 7 in C major, Op 105
  • Hans Abrahamsen – let me tell you
  • Nielsen – Symphony No 4 “Inextinguishable”, Op 29

I am pretty sure that Simon Rattle’s Sibelius cycle with the CBSO from 1991 was one of the first classical music CDs that I bought, (there was a bit of vinyl prior to this and I have never been what you might call an early adopter). So there was a time when I liked, or thought I should like, the Sibelius symphonies and Sir Simon’s way with them. No longer I am afraid. I can get the ebb and flow, the organic construction, the elemental, the river and sea analogies, but I just start to zone out after a while and it all turns into a bit of a drone. Maybe Sir Simon’s now generally heavier readings, deliberate pacing and eye for detail overwhelmed the piece but it did nothing for me.

What a confession to have to make. I understand that the Seventh Symphony, completed in 1924, was itself something of a mould breaker what with its one unbroken movement, its constantly shifting tempi and its dogged reliance on C major and minor. And the fact that he wrote it when p*ssed up to his eyeballs. He went on to compose the tone poem Tapiola and an arrangement of the Tempest suite and a few chamber pieces, and destroyed the manuscript of an Eighth Symphony, but by 1929 he was done, publishing nothing for the next three decades, although I gather he tried, (as well as knocking up some tunes for his Mason mates). Retirement, after a lifetime of excess, was clearly good for him since he got to the ripe old age of 91. I can see why the Finns are so proud of him but I am with those who hear the radical conservative in his music rather than the conservative radical.

Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s song cycle, let me tell you, from 2012-13, was composed with Barbara Hannigan’s voice in mind. He wasn’t the first contemporary composer to do this and he won’t be the last. For her soprano is a most extraordinary instrument. The piece is divided into three parts with seven sections in all and the text, created by Paul Griffiths from his novella of the same title, is drawn entirely from the 483 words that Ophelia delivers in Hamlet, though with very changed meanings and tones. This Ophelia speaks of memory, of music, or love and she doesn’t end up face down in a pond, hair artfully arranged amongst petals. The music of Mr Abrahamsen is (micro)-tonal and largely consonant, but he does slice it up in unusual ways harmonically, whilst still offering a clear, if shifting, pulse behind the glittering, glassy melody textures, driven by percussion and high strings. As most informed commentators have said, it is wintry music, no question. Now I can’t pretend the music leapt out at me on first hearing but it did create a solicitous backdrop for that voice and there is no doubt I will be listening again.

Whether she is singing Britten, Berg, George Benjamin, Gerard Barry, Ligeti, or any number of other modern and contemporary composers it has not yet been my pleasure to hear, she is utterly beguiling and totally convincing. Her soprano is light and clear, but immensely powerful, and she can act. I had another look at Lessons in Love and Violence, this time courtesy of the BBC broadcast, and this time therefore up close rather than the dolls-house view from the ROH amphitheatre of the live view. Firstly a reminder that it is a very, very good opera and secondly there are times when, as Queen Isabel, Ms Hannigan, IMHO, is up there with the best of stage actors, whilst still managing to sing exquisitely, with meaning, to the back of the auditorium.

In this piece HA has served up all manner of opportunity for BH to show off that emotional connection, with suspensions, tremolos, swoops and soars, mournful ululations, floating high notes, even Monteverdian rebounds or, to use the technical term, “stile concitato”. It was a big success when to first appeared, the recording with Andriss Nelsons and the Bavarian RSO went down a storm, and the audience lapped it up at the Proms a couple of years ago. Easy to see why HA, BH, Sir Simon and the LSO fully deserved the applause.

The Nielsen was an altogether jollier affair than the Sibelius (Danes being, in the Tourist’s experience, somewhat more upbeat company than Finns). And for me, Rattle’s deliberate way, and the LSO’s accurate playing, served this much better than the Sibelius. Nielsen, as we all know, liked to chuck it about a bit and here in the Fourth with his defiant sub-title and programmatic exhortation – “in case all the world were to be devastated by fire, flood or volcanoes and all things were destroyed and dead, nature would still begin to breed new life again….” – he starts as he means to go on.

I can see why some might not take to the Nielsen’s progressive tonalities, awkward, clashing sonorities, his shifting themes, big, bold rhythms and mix of C19 and C20 musical languages. For me he is, in contrast to Sibelius, the conservative radical. Tonalities don’t always comfortably agree with each other, but always resolve in some way. I like the way all the ideas jostle for space, and there are many interesting and unusual textures and colours, which often bear an uncanny resemblance to the work of composers from earlier and later decades. One foot in the past and one in the future. If you started with Brahms and Grieg, mashed it up with a hefty squirt of Mahler, a dash of Shostakovich, put it in an oven marked Bartok and Schoenberg, whilst still remaining in a kitchen built by polyphony and Bach, you might have the recipe.

He went through a wobbly phase through the turn of the century, listen to the Second Symphony, and he certainly played up to the stereotype of the troubled Nordic creative. Whilst recognised in his lifetime, it took some a much longer before his distinctive voice was recognised internationally, if not in Denmark, where his songs remain part of the country’s fabric.

The symphony has four defined movements, but these are unbroken, and it takes a few listens to realise that themes that emerge in each of the movements do, in fact, share material. The opening Allegro opens with a stirring crossing of woodwind and strings and from which emerges a hopeful woodwind whistle in E major, which returns in the final movement. After numerous dramatic rises and falls the climax of this movement also anticipates the final resolve. The Poco Allegretto which follows is an impish folk tune, subject to various treatments. The Poco Adagio starts with descending strings set against an intermittent timpani thud, turns a bit darkly pastoral, before building to another foretaste of the climax. The final Allegro starts with scurrying strings, before some Hollywood gush, some chaotic martial cross rhythms, a calmer phase before the message of hope, if we can just endure, is hammered home.

The Fourth was written in 1916. Nielsen had gone into WWI a proud nationalist like Sibelius and so many artists and intellectual across Europe. It didn’t take him long, amidst the carnage of industrialised slaughter, to change his mind. This was his response. “Music is life, and like it, inextinguishable”. A fair motto to also attach to the composition from his countryman a century later.

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

Royal 20 A.II, f.10

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.