No idea where we were in the story for much of the getting on for four hours with with the two intervals. Not helped by Peter Zinovieff’s impenetrable libretto, sung and spoken, the bloated rock star gets lost in early 80’s WAG Club setting courtesy of Lizzie Clachlan’s set and frock-maker Daniel Lismore’s preposterous spangly costumes, the tripartite two singer, one acrobat/dancer, Myth/Hero/Human, casting for our hero, heroine and baddie, and the wilful directing of Daniel Kramer, where spectacle trumps sense.
Who gives a fuck though when you have a score like this. With an ENO orchestra at the top of its game lovingly conducted by Martyn Brabbins, (who has history with this work), and James Henshaw, (yep it takes two). Up to now the Tourist’s exposure to Sir Harrison Birtwhistle has been fleeting. A few chamber pieces. None of the orchestral works bar the latest Donum Simoni MMXVIII, and certainly none of the operas. And, let’s face it, you are not going to sit down and listen to recordings. Nope the full on Sir Harry experience requires a live opera in performance.
Now I get it. As a contrast I don’t know where Xenakis’s music comes from, and I am conscious that I am probably just taking on board all the cultural baggage attached to its interpretation, but it definitely isn’t of this world, (though of course it is, it still being just notes on a page) . Whereas Sir HB’s tunes, for all that “elemental”, “earthy”, “massive”, “mythic”, “ritualistic”, “visceral”, and the like, that is applied to described most definitely does come from this planet, underneath our feet for sure, as many intuit, but also from within our selves. Which made its pairing with the Orpheus myth kind of inevitable. For all the racket that the brass, wind, percussion and electronica, entirely stringless, (well bar plucked like electric guitars and mandolin), that make up the score conjure up, this still very, well, human. The brass and wind is the flow, the percussion the accent.
Right poncey pseud-ery over. I could read the excellent ENO programme over and over, plough through the learned reviews, do the rounds on Wiki, but frankly it would get me no closer to the truth of what I heard and saw. Just impossible to take it all in. You know the story. O&E get it on, marry, snakebite, death, offer to O to go underground …. but don’t whatever you do Mr music man look ba….. oh shit, you did. Various endings depending on who you believe. All four are given a work-out here. In various other permutations and combinations of the whole story . 126 different elements in total. A prologue and epilogue. Act I – 3 scenes, 2 Passing Clouds and an Allegorical Flower. Act II – 17 Arches and the Second Flower. Act III – 8 Episodes and the Final Cloud.
Unstructured time. Flash-backs, flash-forwards, flash-arounds, flash-simultaneity. Contradiction and ambiguity. The antithesis of linear story-telling. With the aforementioned O&E, and the not so blessed cheesemaker randy Aristaeus, done three ways. So if the words don’t grab you, (and they very rarely will though the repetitions and exclamations will start to bite), you can turn to the songs, or the mime, or the dance, or the bath/barbecue/dentist chair/chrysalis/sexy time/funeral parlour/bobbly skin fellas/bee video effects (you can probably work out that I may not quite have fully grasped the messages), or the aerial silks, or the OTT costumes complete with, I forget, billions of Swarovski crystals.
And the cast and creatives really work hard. Matthew Smith and Alfa Marks as the very fit, in both senses, Hero O&E dancers. Tenor Daniel Norman and mezzo Clare Barnett-Jones as the Myth Orpheus/Hades and Myth Eurydice/Persephone respectively, who had the mother of all costume changes and the sweet mezzo tone of Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Woman Eurydice. James Cleverton, Simon Bailey and Leo Hedman as respectively The Man, The Myth/Charon and The Hero Aristaeus. And Claron McFadden as the Oracle, and Hecate, who marshals the crew who make up the three way judges, priests, women and furies.
But for balls out, (well not quite), on stage all night, haring round the stage, holding everything together whilst appearing, as the part demanded, pissed, the star of the show is Peter Hoare. I don’t know if he gets paid anymore for this role compared to his more normal C20 repertoire, but he should. Mind you I see he started off as a percussionist before taking up singing. Which I guess, deep down, makes him connected to the music in a way that maybe others aren’t. Even when said percussion, which Sir Harry explores in every conceivable combination, is drowning him out despite amplification. (Oh and do remember by the time we get to Act III some of the text isn’t even in English anyway).
When all else fails though, as it often did, I just closed by eyes and drowned in the sound. Three is the magic number. Orpheus remember makes sweet music. But when the going gets tough, arch after arch, the music gets bigger and louder with a literally earth shattering 40 minute climax at the end of Act II. The sampled harp chords which create the electronic interludes composed by Barry Anderson at IRCAM. The synthesised voice of Apollo. The scraps of, I hesitate to say, melody that are repeated again and again. Orpheus’s memories. Restless rhythms. The pulses, the marches, the clunks, the shimmers, the drones. The massive, monumental structures. The raw immediacy. Never heard anything like it and when surrendered to whatever it is, ignoring all the guff on or above the stage, I swear I have never felt anything like it.
I gather the original production, on this very stage in 1986, and only now revived, went for a more mythic, indeterminate Greek vibe, with singer, mime and puppet per the score and with masks. I think I might have got on better with this but frankly I can’t blame the much maligned and now departing Daniel Kramer for chucking the camp, surreal kitchen sink at this. If, budget-wise, you’ve got it, then you might as well flaunt it. Maybe it was all clear in his head but I doubt it. David Pountney, the director of the original, had the good grace to say he had no idea what it was all about.
Once in a lifetime experience. In which case I wouldn’t mind another life. Or many lives. For that is what it would take to wrap your ears around it. In the absence of that the memory will suffice and maybe I should relent and try the benchmark (only) recording from the BBCSO under Martyn Brabbins and Andrew Davies. In fact YOLO and its Christmas so I will.
Composer Iain Bell and his librettist Emma Jenkins wanted to call this just The Women of Whitechapel. Some marketing types at the ENO decided it needed to be prefixed with the title of the infamous murderer, charitably I suppose to let the potential audience know its subject. Worse, to continue the tiresome obsession with perpetrator and not victims. For this opera is specifically written about the women who were murdered. The murderer does not appear. Shame then that the creator’s original intentions could not have been fully honoured. Mind you I see that some bozo US deathcore band has appropriated the grotesque misogynistic fixation at the heart of this story by calling themselves Whitechapel. The band are in their 30s. Grow up lads.
I was predisposed to this new opera from the start. And I was extremely impressed with the end result. I see some proper reviewers who, to be fair, know their opera unlike the Tourist, think the opera is lacking in dramatic impact. I disagree. Yes there is no central single heroine to latch on to, there is no narrative arc towards some sort of tragedy or redemption, there are a fair few characters, the overall feel of the piece is dark and it is made up of a procession of set pieces. But that reflects the story of the five women that Mr Bell and Ms Jenkins wanted to tell, (based on scrupulous research where possible as well as some leaps of imagination). For me it was very powerful and very involving throughout.
I also accept that some of Iain Bell’s music and the way in which Daniel Kramer directed many of the scenes verged, on occasion, towards Les Mis style caricature, though this is no bad thing in terms of the immediacy of impact. However the more obvious inspiration might be Britten, Peter Grimes for the tone of the piece, and Death in Venice for the musical colouring. Worthy template. Mr Bell does not have BB’s compositional facility but the mix of solo and ensemble pieces, the set pieces with chorus, the unusual instrumentation, (the eerie elastic tone of the cimbalom to signify the presence of the murderer for example), the shifting in and out of tonal and more dissonant, atonal music, all conjure up a similar atmosphere.
The opera is centred on the last of the known victims, Mary Kelly, superbly sung and realised by Natalya Romaniw. Mr Bell and Ms Jenkins have created roles specifically for the mature voices of some ENO big stars, namely Marie McLaughlin (Annie Chapman), Janis Kelly (Polly Nicholls), Susan Bullock (Liz Stride) and Lesley Garrett (Catherine Eddowes), as well as the redoubtable Josephine Barstow as Maud, the proprieter of the doss house where the women are forced to live. The illustrious cast is further enhanced by the presence of Alan Opie as the aloof Pathologist who carries out the autopsies on the women’s bodies, Robert Hayward as the compromised Chief of Police and Paul Sheehan as the intimidated Coroner. From the current ENO vintage Nicky Spence provides a lighter touch as Sergeant Strong, James Cleverton is a Photographer with dubious intentions, William Morgan a rather underwritten, reformist Writer and Alex Otterburn is Squibby a local butcher’s boy. On the evening I attended Sophia Elton also stood out as Mary’s voiceless daughter Magpie.
Soutra Gilmour has conjured up another striking set, though it is sombre and dark, (and a bit Goth), in line with the mood of the piece, which is sufficiently versatile to persuade as doss-house, pub, street, mortuary and funeral procession for the coup de theatre of the, slightly over-long, ending (in which Paul Anderson’s lighting design, literally, really shines). Martyn Brabbins’s enthusiasm for the score and the commitment of the ENO Orchestra was never in doubt even in the slightly padded passages.
I think the opera makes its points about the callous way that the patriarchal society of the day treats these poor women – the murderer is simply an extension of the more “respectable” men that abuse them – the solace and support they take from each other and their overwhelming fear as the threat mounts. On its own this work cannot counter a century of writing out the victims as the expense of the sick fascination with the male perpetrator, (turn on your TV any night of the week to see that is still par for the course), but it is a brave, ambitious and engrossing attempt to do so and to provide a valid three hours of musical theatre. The symbolism, the Minotaur metaphor, the male chorus poking through the windows of the doss-house, the final ascension, is thought through and adds texture to the naturalism of previous scenes. The more poetic passages in Emma Jenkins’s libretto similarly contrast with the vernacular episodes.
I read a fair few reviews in thinking about this. They were all written by blokes. There were, with few exceptions, wrong about this. Presumably they would have been happier seeing yet another production of that scrupulously unmanipulative tale of female agency Madama Butterfly.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When opera works there is no other art form to touch. But when it doesn’t it can be mystifyingly dull. What’s more it can be the very same opera which is both of these things.
Take The Magic Flute. It is an undeniably daft opera. Its message is the triumph of the light and reason offered by the Enlightenment over the dark forces of Empress Maria Theresa’s absolutist Habsburg regime and the obscurantist Catholic Church. I understand that the Freemasons here are the good guys, even when they don’t appear to be, (though I gather the current mode de jour is to play down Mozart’s funny handshake connections), and that the Queen of the Night, even if she can hold a note (high F6 apparently), is not ideal mother-in-law material.
But even armed with sub-textual knowledge, insight into plot and familiarity with the score, (though that isn’t necessary though, this being Mozart, undeniably the greatest ever composer for dramatic voice), it can still it can still come across as upper class pantomime and take an age to get through. Unless of course it is directed by the genius that is Simon McBurney. There he is above in The Encounter. Mr McBurney OBE is the Artistic Director and a co-founder of Complicite. Complicite might just be the most important, and certainly the most innovative, theatre company in the UK. And therefore maybe the world. I say this secure in the knowledge that I have only seen a handful of their productions but when you see what they do you will know too. Which is what happened to BUD on the evening we went to see this Magic Flute. Mr McBurney has an eclectic list of film and TV, and directing, credits, so you are bound to have seen him somewhere, but it is his work with Complicite, extending far beyond direction and performance, given the vast array of associates involved in the company, that makes him special.
Now the Tourist, given his only rudimentary understanding of opera as an art form, and especially his inability to grasp the basics of musical constructions, find it tricky to opine on the subject. Moreover by rejecting pretty much all of C19 opera, (the bel canto of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the pompous melodrama of Verdi, the sentimental, pot-boiler manipulation of Puccini, the meandering bombast of Wagner – I’ve tried it all and I can’t be doing with it), and seeing it as drama with music, not music and tunes to which the drama is stitched on, I appreciate I am drastically narrowing the field. There is plenty to like musically from the Baroque but you need to get on with gods, monsters and Classical Greece plot wise, and some of then don’t half go on a bit, (I am looking at you Mr Handel). There aren’t actually that many C20 operas that have stood the test of time and get a regular airing. All this means then that the Tourist, especially since he isn’t going to drop £200 for a decent view at the Royal Opera House, or worse still some poncey gaff like Glyndebourne, on the off chance he might be converted, is condemned to see a lot of Mozart, Britten and contemporary opera. Which suits him but doesn’t really qualify him to write about it, even to himself. And he has never seen a Gluck opera, nor Fielio and suspects he might put up with any old nonsense story if Vivaldi’s music backed it up.
Which is why he has failed to document some of his more recent brushes with Mozart. But, with this Flute, once again with BUD as Sancho Panza to the Tourist’s Don Quixote, some clear patterns, worthy of comment, have emerged. Cases in point. We saw the Die Zauberflute at the Royal Opera House in October 2017. Nice perch. Stalls Circle to the side, nose to nose with the pit, though the rear of half of the stage was cut off. Sur-titles on a little screen on the ledge in front. So a strong showing musically, and in terms of the acting from the cast, but less impact from the set and from the libretto. Lesson one then. Having to look down at the translation doesn’t help. Which brings me to the wider, and contentious, claim. For me opera is better in English. Not because I can understand every word that is sung but because I might, particularly if the translation of the libretto captures the meaning, spirit and musicality of the original. As evidence I offer up Jeremy Sams genius offering for The Marriage of Figaro in the Fiona Shaw ENO production. You can berate me as much as you like but, if the singing, and sur-titles, make a connection, (in so far as that is possible when some soprano is going balls-out coloratura on what feels like the twentieth reprise of her showcase aria’s first verse), then the Tourist can start to find a way into the drama. Anathema to the purist but there it is. As for this ENO Flute, Simon Jeffrey’s pithy translation certainly did the trick.
Lesson two. Now I couldn’t tell you why but clearly some opera singers are better than others. Stronger, more powerful, more resonant, more accurate. a wider range, a better understanding of language, breath control, squillo, tessitura,rubato, vibrato, etc, etc. The ROH Flute definitely had the edge on the singing front, even with a “second string” cast when compared to this ENO Flute, (with the exception of Lucy Crowe’s Pamina). The ovation accorded to Greek soprano Christina Poulitsi after she nailed Der Holle Rache was something and well deserved. Goodness knows how excited the punters will have been after Sabine Devieilhe, the dastardly Queen for the other performances and the critic’s darling, squeaked her damndest. Yet, in terms of performance I preferred the ENO version because the singing, and for that matter the musical interpretation from the ENO Orchestra, fitted the drama more satisfyingly than the ROH production.
Which brings me to lesson number three, the most important of all. In opera the director really matters. That is, of course, also true in straight theatre but in opera, where there are so many interpretative decisions to be taken and where spectacle matters, the vision the director brings, can, in the Tourist’s limited experience, may a huge difference, particularly in drawing out the universal themes and creating a “look” that resonants with a modern audience in works that were written a few hundred years ago. Now there are some that are going to prefer their opera unsullied by the hand of the Regieoper. I certainly get that if the creative mind goes on to wild a bender the result can be a mess. On the other hand seeing something that emphasises the drama, the theatre of opera, and imposes some meaning, or at least insight, is more interesting to me than a straight, “period” interpretation, whatever that might be.
Not that David McVicar’s “classic” 2003 ROH production, revived for the sixth time by Thomas Guthrie, with design from John MacFarlane and lighting from Paule Constable, comes straight out unvarnished from 1791. But it does emphasise the “pantomime” and “set-piece” look, feel and structure of what I imagine to be Mozart’s, and his librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder’s, original Singspiel vision. Magic, fable, predictable comic turns from the boy Papageno, starry night skies, Masonic temples, swathes of primary colours, sharply delineated light and dark, some immense puppetry, a spiritual journey. All present and correct but it did jog on a bit and there wasn’t really a thread that held the whole together. The cast was sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of the set and the dramaturgy a little stolid. The daft story, and the aforementioned clash of philosophies, were showcased but nothing really connected.
Now in contrast Mr McBurney’s ENO version was a revelation. In part because he utilises the whole arsenal of typical Complicite aural and visual tricks, video projection, here with on-stage digital blackboard, on-stage Foley artist, a tilting, floating stage, fluttering birds simulated through sheaves of paper, orchestra players incorporated into the action on stage and singers descending into the raised pit and auditorium, to create a spectacle that highlights the artifice and wit of the theatrical experience, but also in the “magical” plot and in Mozart’s spectacular score. It is entertaining for sure but when it needs to make a point, the book-shelf to symbolise Sarastro’s Temple for example, it does. And, as if to directly address one of the banes of the Tourist opera attending life, there is constant on stage movement. No member of the cast is parked. to sing or otherwise.
The three ladies (Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price and Katie Stevenson) taking snaps of the unconscious Tamino (a properly hunky Rupert Charlesworth) on their phones, the three alarmingly old looking boy spirits (Guillermo Fernandez-Aguayo Martin, Richard Wolfson, and Nat Fukui), Julia Bauer’s Queen of the Night careering around in her wheelchair, the video snake, the “boardroom” table, the coup de theatre trials by fire and water with video backdrop covering the entire width of the stage, a genuine Prosperian “philosopher king” Sarastro, (bass Brindley Sheratt was compelling), and a genuinely strong and courageous Pamina (Lucy Crowe is both the best singer and actor I have ever seen on an opera stage, though appreciate experience is limited), a gentleman of the road Papageno, (Thomas Oliemans) and come to think of it Papagena (Rowan Pierce), with the ability to translate frankly p*ss poor comedy into real pathos, a greasy, lank-haired Monostatos (Daniel Norman) who is pure creep. And a magic flute which literally takes centre stage. Mr McBurney has thought about how it all fits together, about the story he wants to tell, and then worked on every detail to make us believe that this symbolic, numerological gibberish is really saying something to us.
It is as well that Mr McBurney’s creative collaborators were up to executing the vision. At this performance Chris Hopkins took the baton from young Ben Gernon. Sounded fine to me. I have no doubt that chief amongst all this invention was associate and movement director Josie Daxter who has worked with SMcB on his other opera A Dog’s Heart and A Rake’s Progress in Amsterdam. And there there was the set design of Michael Levine, the costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, the lighting design of Mike Gunning, (based on the original work of Jean Kalman), the video of Finn Ross, the sound of Gareth Fry and the aforementioned on stage artists Ben Thompson and Ruth Sullivan.
Now just in case you opera buffs were thinking the Tourist is some sort of lightweight with a toddler-esque attention span that delights in directors upending operatic tradition I offer up a recent visit to the Royal Opera House and Cost Fan Tutte. Overall this was a fine night out with the SO, BUD and KCK for company with much to enjoy. Admittedly in a cheap (for a reason) box which restricted the view but still. It was Mozart, a fine, if not perfectly matched, cast highlighted by Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso and Serena Gamberoni’s Despina alongside the menage a quatre of Paolo Fanale (Fernando), Gyula Orendt (Guglielmo), Salome Jicia (Fiordiligi) and Serena Malfi (Dorabella), and a barnstorming performance in the pianoforte continuo from conductor Stefano Montanari who amped up the tempi to good effect.
However Julia Burbach’s direction of this revival of German Regie Jan Philipp Gloger’s original production didn’t really work for me. I had seen the original at the cinema and was mystified by some of its conceits then. Same here live. I get the notion that it is daft to believe that our funny lovers, even when the lads are dressed up as “east” Europeans, wouldn’t recognise each other, but it is equally daft to presume that they are all deliberately playing along to rediscover love and something about themselves. So we enter Don Alfonso’s School for Lovers, after a performance of the opera has ended, the scenes are played out in a rehearsal of the opera itself, with stagehands milling about and putting up each of Ben Bauer’s inconsistent designs ahead of each scene, there is plenty of implied guff about defining and reclaiming identity and the sexist title is repurposed to include us all rather that just the “women who are like that” with a simple replacement of an “e” by an “i” – tutti you see. All is artifice, all is deceit, and that includes you audience.
I get the idea. The problem is the plot and libretto. There is no way round it. This story and the words da Ponte sets to Mozart’s glorious sounds to tell it are sexist claptrap. So the gap between what Herr Gloger wants us to understand is the message and what we hear (or more exactly, read in translation) just gets wider and wider. Nothing wrong with director’s manipulating and mining sacred texts to resonate with contemporary audiences and to repurpose the arguments and nothing wrong with exploring the dissonance between what was acceptable then and what is acceptable now but there has to be some internal logic and clarity in what we see and hear that doesn’t require a download of the programme notes in advance to understand.
And the performers have to be convinced by the director’s vision that no-one here is convinced by what they are doing or singing. I don’t think they were, with perhaps the exception of Serena Malfi. So neither was I. Better to recognise the reality of the first, misogynist, take on the opera, and then start to tease out the ironies that might exist in da Ponte’s texts and Mozart’s music. It might not entirely paper over the ugly stereotypes at the heart of the “comedy”, nor the fact that it does go on a bit, but there is plenty to work with in the right hands, as with Shakespeare’s more cloth-eared passages, and, failing this, there is always the music and the farce.
Right that’s the state of play in the Tourist’s head Mozart opera wise. Until the next time when he will likely entirely reverse his opinions.
English National Opera, London Coliseum, 22nd November 2018
Please probably inevitable that the Tourist, armed with the freedom (and fortunately the budget) to gad about town, his love of Benjamin Britten’s music and his wish to continue to honour those who die in pointless wars was going to end up attending a performance of War Requiem this year. The ENO version, which had the added draw of the Porgy and Bess cast, (augmenting the ENO’s marvellous choir), and the involvement of German photographer artist Wolfgang Tillmans looked the likeliest candidate.
I, or more correctly we, as TMBOAD, a scion of Coventry and admirer of the work, joined me, got way more than we bargained for. I had expected a semi-staged concert performance, with maybe a few arty slides in the background. Instead we got a full scale dramatic interpretation of BB’s oratorio, with the three soloists and choirs telling the story of Wilfred Owen’s war poems, alongside the setting of the Latin Requiem, fully costumed, with very effective lighting from Charles Balfour, augmenting the and with Mr Tillmans distinctive photographic techniques adding further colour.
Obviously the War Requiem was not written as an opera but BB being BB it is naturally dramatic and, up to a point, lends itself to an “operatic” interpretation. Having said that, the very nature and subject of the work, even in its most striking scoring, is steadily paced and having the ENO orchestra, solidly conducted by Martyn Brabbins, in the pit and a chorus constantly in motion, and indeed often prone, inevitably has some impact on what we heard. But this was, moreorless, compensated by what we saw, which was, at times, extremely powerful.
Back to the story. WR was first performed in May 1962 for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, built alongside the ruins of the C14 original destroyed in Luftwaffe bombing raids in November 1940 (see above). BB, a lifelong pacifist, scored the work for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, chorus, boys’ choir, organ, and two orchestras (a full orchestra and a chamber orchestra). The full orchestrated choirs and soprano are used to accompany the sections of the Latin Requiem. to represent formal, transcendent grief, with the chamber forces and male soloists, representing two opposing soldiers, singing the interspersed English poetry. The children’s choir, accompanied by a chamber organ, present a more distant presence, innocence corrupted, an ever-present BB theme.
BB had originally intended that Peter Pears, an Englishman, sang the tenor role, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a German, the baritone and Galina Vishnevskaya, a Russian, the soprano, but the Soviet authorities prevented the latter from travelling so Heather Harper stepped in. The classic recording with the LSO and Bach Choir conduced by BB, which everyone should own, has the original trio however. (Mind you there are plenty to choose from).
BB unfortunately couldn’t conduct the CBSO at the premiere but no matter. The performance was a triumph. The Tourist has enjoyed a fair few performances in his time, (and seen the curious Derek Jarman film interpretation which is notable for Sir Larry O’s last ever performance). The music always delivers and so it was here. Now in addition to the contrast provided by the juxtaposition of the poem settings and the six movements of the Requiem itself (Requiem aeternam, Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Libera me, BB apparently uses the interval of a tritone between C and F sharp (an interval of three whole tones, known as the “devil in music”) as a recurring motif to create harmonic distance and then resolution, notably in the Agnus Dei, and thus evoke the notion of conflict and resolution. Elsewhere there are various brass fanfares, string arpeggios, marches and fugues in various three part time signatures, and various repetitions of lines, but the full vocal forces do not combine until the very end. So three is the magic number here.
Even if you don’t know your tritone from your backside your ears will still easily navigate their way through the score even on first hearing, such is the immediacy of B’s orchestration. And there are enough OMG musical moments to pull you up short. And that’s before you even get to the texts. Particular highlights for me are the extract from Anthem for Doomed Youth for tenor in the opening Requiem Aeternam, the soprano and chorus Lacrimosa in the Des irae, the Domine Jesu Christe from the boys’ choir, the Parable of the Old Man and the Young for tenor and baritone, The Sanctus and Benedictus, Strange Meeting with the lilting, poignant lullaby “Let us sleep now ….” and indeed pretty much everything else in the Libera me at the end.
So, if the music, words and message reliably overwhelm, and get you thinking deeply about the utter horror and pointlessness of war, what is added through a full scale staging. Well, having the chorus on stage, variously signifying troops, refugees, dead bodies, I am assuming, was intriguing. A remarkable choreographic achievement from Ann Yee allied with costume design by Nasir Mazhar. Mr Tillmans most successfully employed close up, sharply exposed photographic images drawn, I believe, from Coventry Cathedral itself in the three screen back drop to the stage, which dissolved into blocks of muted colour, and there were some fine tableaux (notably a snow/mushroom cloud effect) courtesy of ENO house director Daniel Kramer. Having said that, and despite the remarkable efforts of dramaturg Luc Joosten, carving out a sort of narrative when none is really there, there were a few moments when the various elements didn’t quite gel and the on-stage shuffling, and overt literalism, was more distraction than illumination.
But no matter. It is one of the finest, acclaimed and most powerful pieces of classical music written in the second half of the C20. The Tourist has seen a fair few performances of impassioned anti-war classical work in the last few weeks, George Crumb’s Black Angels, Shostakovich Eighth String Quartet, Turnage’s The Silver Tassie, but this ranks as the definitive statement. And, with soloists of the calibre of Roderick Williams, David Butt Philip, and, the tremendous Emma Bell as seer/earth mother/angel of death, there was never any real risk of disappointment.
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.
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.