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.

Seraglio at the Hackney Empire review ****

Seraglio

Hackney Empire, 4th October 2019

Or to give it its full name Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail or The Abduction from the Seraglio. Here though Seraglio, not just to reflect the fact that this English Touring Opera production is sung, (and spoken), in English following a colloquial translation by Andrew Porter of Gottlieb Stephanie’s original German libretto, but also to deflect away from the abduction and attempted rape which lies at the heart of the story.

And that’s not all. The setting, the seraglio, (where wives and concubines were confined), of Pasha Selim, reflects the fascination in late C18 Austria with an exoticised Ottoman Empire which had recently been decisively defeated by the Hapsburg forces. A story of racist superiority is what patron Emperor Joseph II expected to see at the premiere in Vienna in 1782 and this is, broadly, what he got, notably in the character of the Baddie henchman overseer Osmin. But Mozart being Mozart, with his quirky Enlightenment sensibilities, he took something of an axe to audience preconceptions by, eventually, showing the Pasha as selfless in relinquishing his claim on Konstanze and passing her to our hero Belmonte. Put like that it doesn’t sound much more palatable. Yet this twist is what directors in the modern age have clung on to fuel their interpretations. Stephen Medcalf, the experienced director here, was no exception.

If you want to enjoy Mozart’s operatic genius you are going to have to take the historically conditioned plotting rough with the many-noted, (this is the piece about which Emperor Joe made his famous, though apocryphal, comment), smooth. This is not the best of Mozart by a long way. Gottlieb Stephanie’s libretto relies on spoken word to advance the plot, and was not built for recitative, and some of the tunes are a little bit too pastiche Turkish. Even so there are some very fine arias however, which hint at emotional depth, and are some of the most challenging the boy Wolfgang ever penned, and there are plenty of comic sparks. For Seraglio is, despite its dubious content, a comedy which pivots on two “love” triangles.

As usual then the Tourist has to get comfortable with the idea of a Mozart “comic” singspiel opera rooted in anachronistic tropes before he can sit back and enjoy, but also, as is usual, eventually the music takes over. Mind you when I say sit back that is a bit of an exaggeration. At just £15 the side of the Upper Circle at the Hackney Empire is a steal. Sight-lines are fine and you are close enough to the pit for the acoustic not to be an issue. These are not the comfiest of chairs. On the other hand they are no worse than the equivalent cheapest seats at the ROH and the ENO. And there you need oxygen and 8×40 binoculars. So I will take this option every time, (and so should you with a Cosi and a slimmed-down version of their Giulio Cesare to come in ETO’s spring season).

The sets in the handful of ETO productions I have seen have always impressed. Not too abstract but not too conservative. Touring plainly focusses the creative mind. Adam Wiltshire has devised a collection of gilded bird cages to symbolise the seraglio which swivels to provide Osmin’s Moorish gatehouse cum workshop, all framed by David W Kidd’s colourful lighting design. Costumes are faithful to the early C17 setting. Though it takes a little time before the big reveal given the perky extended orchestral intro that Mozart scored to show off his skills and introduce his themes. The Old Street Band orchestra, on top form under conductor John Andrews, was the standard 29 strong HIP Classical set up with a bit more percussion and wind (particularly convincing) to beef up the “Turkish” passages.

Enter Spaniard Belmonte in the form of John-Colyn Gyeantey who has come looking for his betrothed Konstanze (Lucy Hall), her maid Blonde (Nazan Fikret) and his steward Pedrillo (Richard Pinkstone). The two ladies have been captured by pirates and sold to Pasha Selim (Alex Andreou) who keeps perving the still virtuous Konstanze, with Blonde given to Osmin (Matthew Stiff, a well upholstered fellow much like the Tourist), as a slave. Osmin badmouths Belmonte, and then Pedrillo, prior to the two lads reuniting and hatching a plan to spring their lady loves. Pedrillo persuades the Pasha to give Belmonte a job as, er, an architect.

Act II. Blonde and Konstanze rebuff the advances of Osmin and the Pasha in turn. Pedrillo challenges Osmi to a drinking game. The two couples happily get together though only before, usual opera sexist nonsense, the fidelity of the ladies is confirmed.

Act III. Ladders. Distraction. Capture. An unfortunate bribe by Belmonte when it turns out his uncle Lostados is Pasha Selim’s sworn enemy. Likely torture and death until the Pasha’s extraordinary switchback as he decides he can make his point better by showing clemency. Happy ending.

Daft eh. Well yes. And torn, as was the Western intellectual and political fashion at the time, and maybe since, between admiration for “Oriental” culture and fear of the brutish “Muslim” other with sexual corruption a barely concealed sub-text. Mozart wasn’t the only composer of an “abduction/escape” comic opera. Audiences lapped them up. But whilst it takes a little time, the Pasha’s sensitivity and dignity, is eventually revealed, and Belmonte and Konstanze both explicitly voice their respect for him at the end. The finale may be a cheesy six way encomium, which puts Osmin back in his box, but the message of tolerance still shines through.

This doesn’t mean a get out of jail free card, (the pun is deliberate), for the comic shenanigans that precede this, even if there is more to the Pasha and even Osmin than meets the eye. And this is where the translation, the performances and Mr Medcalf’s clear-sighted direction persuaded. The acting, choreography and singing of the scenes between Pedrillo and Osmin (“Solche hergelaufne Laffen” and “Vivat Bacchus! Bacchus lebe!”), Osmin and Blonde (“Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln” and “Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir”) and Konstanze and the Pasha (“Martern aller Arten” which is about as good as it gets Classical soprano wise), are tender and funny largely because they are the tussles of equals. Osmin’s amazing aria, (“O, wie will ich triumphieren”) where the bass part descends to a low D, is an empty triumphalism. Conversely there is a sense in Belmonte’s set pieces (“Konstanze, Konstanze, dich wiederzusehen … O wie ängstlich” and later, “Wenn der Freude Tränen fließen” and duet  “Welch ein Geschick! O Qual der Seele…. Weh, du soltest für mich sterben”) that he isn’t just going automatically win back Konstanze. In a plot built on rash negotiation the women here are definitely more in control.

It is still built on disconcerting premises but with acting and singing of this quality, especially from the feisty soprano Nazan Fikret, the dextrous light tenor Richard Pinkstone and plaintive Matthew Stiff, and the secure voices of John-Colyn Gyeantey, (bar a few wiggly vibratos), and Lucy Hall, it was impossible not to get carried along and I ended up thoroughly enjoying this production. Mozart wrote the parts for specific, and very talented, singers of the day, and Lucy Hall and Matthew Stiff particularly, were up to the task of navigating them. Alex Andreou was able to bring an air of thoughtful grandeur to the non-singing Pasha despite limited opportunity and a few shouty moments, especially when describing how he was so wronged by Belmonte’s uncle. And the small chorus of four, two guards, two concubines, (Rosanna Harris, Holle-Anne Bangham, David Horton, Jan Capinski) gamely mucked in with prop moving alongside their vocal duties.

So there you have it. A thoughtful production where director and designer simply nudge the material into the c21 and then allow the talented cast and well drilled orchestra to highlight the comedy in Mozart’s music and in the plot. And, for once, I didn’t really need the sur-titles. In my still far too limited experience opera either works or it doesn’t. Sometimes you can stake high and lose big. Not here though. A massive beat to expectations as I might have said in a past life.