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.

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…..

Giulio Cesare opera at Hackney Empire review ***

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Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Parts 1 and 2

Hackney Empire, 7th October 2017

The more opera I see, the less I want to see. Yet this does not mean I don’t enjoy opera: on the contrary, when it works, it can match the best that theatre can offer in terms of transcendent entertainment. The problem is that there are so few composers, (and even fewer librettists), who do it for me. This opportunity set narrows even further with disappointing productions. I mean to continue to try to unravel this paradox though even if it risks being, frankly, a bit bored for parts of an evening.

So we come to the English Touring Opera’s production of George Frideric Handel’s Guilio Cesare in Egitto, Julius Caesar in Egypt to you and me, at the lovely Hackney Empire. It isn’t on my back door but I have an affection for this lovely theatre, which always feels airy to me and where the views and tickets are good value.

This was my first Handel of the billions he wrote. I realised that taking on one of the old boy’s very longest operas (over four hours uncut), even split into two parts, and in one afternoon/evening, was asking for trouble. But I figured, from what I know of his music and having listened to a production as part of my homework, that the tunes were sufficiently digestible to allow me to slip a bit on the concentration front.

And so it proved. Since I don’t know the piece I can’t really tell you anything about the musical structure, but the tunes, smoothly delivered by the Old Street Band, under the baton of Jonathan Peter Kenny, are very easy on the ear. Maybe a bit too easy. The ensemble, a mix of modern and appropriate period, burbled along at the brisk pace that underpins much of Handel’s score, and the balance between soloists and musicians was spot on from where I was sitting. The chorus, in smart casual, occupied the slips, creating a nice surprise on their entry.

I also enjoyed the singing and acting to a large degree. The counter-tenors, Christopher Ainslie playing an up-right/tight Giulio Cesare, and Benjamin Williamson as the craven Tolomeo, were captivating. Remember these parts would have been castrati in original productions, along with Nierno, here sung by Thomas Scott-Cowell. Fortunately authentic performance doesn’t extend that far. Soprano Sonaya Mafi as mendacious Cleopatra, was probably the best of the bunch vocally, with Kitty Whately as her son Sesto, a little less forceful, though she captured the character’s ineffectual simpering very well. Ever the disappointment to his Mummy. There was a perhaps a little bit too much of contralto Catherine Carby’s Cornelia. Not the fault of the singer; it was just there were only so many ways she could convey her grief at the loss of brutally beheaded hubby, Pompey. The cast was rounded out by the two basses, Frederick Long as Caesar’s faithful sidekick Curio and Benjamin Bevan as Achilla, Tolomeo’s brother in arms who turns against him.

I was very struck by the elegant set and costume design of Cordelia Chisholm and by the lighting design of Mark Howland. ETO Director James Conway wisely chose to locate the production at the time of its premiere in 1724, with sumptuous Regency threads and gilt and blue hues predominating. The Romans stand in for the upright Hanoverian Protestants and the Egyptians the Catholic troublemakers. There were a handful of effective visual coups, including Cleopatra’s dissonant entrance posed as a Virgin Mary bent on seduction (!). There are some excellent essays in the programme (which also covered ETO’s other current production Rameau’s Dardanus), on the differences between Italian and French opera at the time and on the contemporary performance of Handel’s opera. James Conway also persuasively explains his interpretation of the motivations behind the characters, the sub-text relating to the Protestant succession and the pesky Jacobites, his decision to stretch the full text out over two parts and to up the seria quotient and expunge any buffa.

And this for me was where the production went slightly awry. Old Handel was never at the cutting edge of musical fashion so the structure of the opera is still firmly Baroque with some admittedly fine, showy arias, interspersed with quite a lot of dry recitative. Every character, bar the two retainers, gets a few turns. This tends inevitably towards a “park and bark” delivery. The narrative is pretty straightforward with little in the way of pace change or surprises. Caesar has pursued Pompey to Egypt. Tolomeo has had Pompey’s head chopped off. Cornelia, his now widow and her son Sesto, swear vengeance, repeatedly. Cleopatra wants to oust brother Tolomeo and enlists Cornelia, Sesto and Caesar into her cunning plan. Caesar falls for Cleopatra, and, much to her surprise she reciprocates. Tolomeo attempts to have Caesar killed but he escapes. Dirty Tolomeo is eventually skewered by Sesto. Caesar returns with turncoat Achilla and conquers Egypt installing Cleopatra on the Egyptian throne.

To make the two parts, titled The Death of Pompey and Cleopatra’s Needle, work independently, Mr Conway gives us a near hour of overlap at the start of the second part. As I say, given the fairly even pace of proceedings, musically and dramatically, this was a little frustrating, especially as the scenes which follow the overlap are about as dramatic as the whole affair gets. It also means we end up with a surfeit of Cornelia and Cleopatra, but not when they are most interesting (from the plot, and for Cleopatra musical, points of view) in the final scenes. And we are hours in before we get to Caesar and Tolomeo’s most exciting turns. My fault. I should have found out more about the structure ahead of the production.

So a nice to be there rather than a must see. and probably enough to persuade me not to add Handel to the small list of opera composers I have to seek out: Monteverdi if the director takes some risks, Mozart, if the production can make sense of the misogyny and any daftness, Fidelio obviously, Janacek, Berg, Stravinsky, Britten and some modern/contemporary stuff.

However, if the Baroque twirls of Handel get your juices flowing, and you are appraised of the production length, then this is definitely worth a shot. At the time of writing this I see that the good people of Portsmouth, Norwich, Buxton, Durham, Saffron Walden, Bath, Exeter, Keswick and Great Malvern, are all due a visit from these exemplary troupe.