Marnie at English National Opera review *****

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Marnie

English National Opera, The Coliseum, 3rd December 2017

I really don’t understand why the serious broadsheet reaction to Nico Muhly’s new opera has been so lukewarm. They generally seem to have admired the score, commended the ENO Orchestra’s playing under new Director Martyn Brabbins, praised many of the performers and, largely, looked favourably on the designs of Julian Crouch and 59 Productions (set and projection), Arianne Philips (costume), Kevin Adams (lighting) and choreography of Lynne Page. The criticism, as far as I can see, centres on the “histrionic” plot, though others think the story insufficiently tense, Nicholas Wright’s lean libretto, the unsympathetic characters, the structural stylisations and the absence of “memorable” arias.

Well I profoundly disagree with these criticisms. The operatic canon is littered with plots that are significantly more overblown than Marnie, yes the libretto is direct and lacks poetry, but this is a story of an unhappy woman who manipulates and is manipulated because of what happened to her, so the language seemed entirely appropriate to me. The libretto, together with the dramaturgical and visual rendering and the musical motifs, (each character has its own instrument, a shrill or seductive oboe for Marnie, disturbing trombones for Mark Rutland, a sordid trumpet for Terry), all made for a very clear and complete production. I don’t really understand why so many commentators look to empathise or sympathise with dramatic characters or demand redemption or recompense. Several flawed sh*ts on a stage does it for me.

Finally for me opera usually fails, (as it so often does, though when it succeeds it can be the very best of art forms), because the singing takes over. Sounds perverse I know but when the voice of the fat lady is all the punters care about, to the detriment of plot, acting, movement, staging, ideas, drama, then I am out the door (not literally of course). This is probably why I seem to get on with the best of contemporary opera, and why I can leave, for example, Puccini to the buffs. Stories that make sense, music that matches the action, stuff to make you think. Nico Muhly’s music isn’t challenging, (though it is not entirely tonal), and does occasionally lapse into John Adamesque “romantic minimalist running on the spot”, but pretty soon a captivating new idea or sound pops up. This constant flow of musical phrases mirrors the constant flux of Marnie’s subconscious. His choral writing, (and the chorus here gets lots of action, and Greek style commentary), is sublime, up there with, well maybe not quite, Britten.

Messrs Muhly and Wright, at the suggestion of director Michael Mayer, have taken Winston Graham’s 1961 novel, which is written in the first person, as their source rather than Hitchcock’s 1964 film starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. The latter relocates the story to the US, ramps up the saturated colours, echoes German expressionist films and has a vivid score courtesy of Bernard Hermann. This was the last time Hitchcock worked with Hermann, and with cinematographer Robert Burks, and the last of his disturbing “Hitchcock blonde” movies. So love it or hate it, it is, by the standards of today’s Hollywood, it is heady stuff. It is also in places quite different from the plot of the book.

I thought the setting in Home Counties Britain in the 1950’s and the closer adherence to the plot of the book, (with some tweaks, Terry is now Mark Rutland’s brother and Marnie’s phobia of the colour red is no longer explicit), made for a more interesting and less melodramatic story, without entirely losing the stylised “psychological terror” of the film. Hitchcock generates tension and unease through the way he directs and films as much as the plot itself. The opera was, perhaps, less able to generate this tension, (and cannot hope to draw out all of the dense action in the book), but it did make a better fist of showing why Marnie’s childhood traumas drove her to lie and steal. In particular the four altar ego Marnies which surrounded her at key moments, singing in close harmony, provided not only stunning visual images but also made flesh her inner turmoils. Similarly the eight male dancers, besuited and in natty trilbies provided an intriguing and restrained (most of the time) representation of Marnie’s fear of sex. Most importantly the ambiguity of the novel’s, and opera’s, ending is far more fitting.

American mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Marnie was cooly convincing, not only in terms of her singing, but also her acting, no need for any exaggerated, writhing around and screeching which is the operatic default button for “unhinged woman seductress”. Canadian Daniel Okulitch pulled off the remarkable feat of making Mark’s voice, as well as his character, become more disturbing as the scenes unfolded and his desire for Marnie escalated. Countertenor James Laing as Terry was my particular favourite however, a voice of immense clarity, a character of reptilian sleaze. Lesley Garrett as Mrs Rutland understandably owns the stage in every scenes she appears in. I could pretty much hear every word of every performer making this one of those rare occasions when sur-titles might be redundant.

Marnie is off to New York and the Met next and I reckon it will find other homes. For me this was up there with Thomas Ades’s The Exterminating Angel and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin in terms of contemporary operas that have thoroughly enveloped me. Marnie though, thanks to Mr Muhly’s musical immediacy and the equivocation of the story, is more approachable and interesting. If you have never been to a contemporary opera start here. Indeed if you have never been to an opera before start here. I bet you watch films with modernist scores, you might well like the theatre, and you will have heard people singing before. Those are the only qualifications you will need to enjoy this.

 

The Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

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The Seagull

Lyric Hammersmith, 9th October 2017

Right where I come from seagulls are a bloody menace. There are times when I feel the same way about Chekhov. You sit there thinking all his people are self-indulgent, lovelorn whingers who just need to lighten up and get a grip. But slowly, or more rapidly if it is class production, the lines pile up, you begin to understand and care about the characters, and the unsettling mix of everyday tragedy and comedy wields its magic. Life probably is a series of frustrations and missed expectations, which can sometimes get out of hand. When an audience collectively connects with one of AC’s characters mid-monologue it is one of theatre’s greatest pleasures. But this “theatre of mood” isn’t always the easiest of drama to pull off so I get why some people approach our Anton with trepidation.

I always think of AC’s four “great” plays as a sort of theme, more accurately themes, and variations. An impoverished landowner, the beautiful, and sometimes ageing woman, maybe an actress, who returns, and is constantly seeking validation, maybe a matriarchal dame, a young idealist/artist head over heels in love, the frustrated sibling stuck in the country, the young innocent woman (one or both parents lost to her) in love with the wrong bloke, a successful artist/writer/academic looking back to his youth, a discontented schoolteacher, maybe cuckolded, a wise doctor, a faithful retainer, soldiers of various rank, various lippy servants. You can mix them all up and they vary in each play, and Three Sisters deviates a fair bit, but these egotistical archetypes of Russian society populate the plays.

We are normally a long way from the city, to the frustration of all and sundry, and money, getting it and keeping it, is a big issue. Always bubbling away in the background is the ossified nature of the Russian society and economy at the time and the fact that this could not continue. The disparities of wealth and opportunity between AC’s characters is acute, remember these are provincial bourgeoisie so not the very richest, and serfs are generally absent or incidental. The life of the mind, and therefore some riffing on the nature of life and art (and specifically the theatre in The Seagull), will usually get worked over by AC. And, of course, love, romantic and familial, permeates the whole.

And that gun, real or metaphorical.

Back to this Seagull. You may have guessed from the above that I don’t like my Chekhov to shift too far from the socio-economic backdrop against which it was written. That doesn’t mean I need naturalistic sets and costumes. Just that the class structure should be articulated and the sense of place palpable. AC was a father of naturalism, and the plays to me are more about theme, character and rhythm than plot or spectacle. In this production, director Sean Holmes and designer Hyemi Shin have opted to shake it up a bit visually which I think de-emphasies the context I describe above,

I also found the performances a little variable in tone which meant that the whole took a bit longer to get going than normal. This is definitely not the fault of Simon Stephens new adaption which I thought was terrific. It just seemed to me that the actors approached the characters in slightly different ways, so that the multiplicity of love triangles was a little veiled at first. However after our poor seagull puts in his appearance things started to coalesce.

Nicholas Gleaves’s Boris started off in slightly diffident fashion but once he got into the monologues lamenting the fate of the writer, and the prison of the creative impulse, he found his stride. Lesley Sharp’s self-obsessed Irina, unsurprisingly was on the money from the off. Brian Vernel’s Konstantin was initially more petulant than idealist, and I wasn’t entirely persuaded by his passion for Nina, but his final scenes were very persuasive. I have seen more guileless Nina’s than Adelayo Adedayo’s, but that made the scenes with Boris more tenable. Paul Higgins’s Hugo and Nicholas Tennant’s Peter were striking but the other “minor” characters seemed a little less vivid than in other productions.

Now I hasten to say that once I had adjusted to the shape of the production it did the business, such that by Acts 3 and 4 I was firmly in the Chekhovian zone. If you fancy a Chekhov fix then this is certainly one to see. I just prefer my Chekhov to be a little more obviously rooted in its time and place, and for all the instruments in Chekhov’s orchestra to be in the same key if that makes sense. The version of The Seagull offered up at the NT last year, as part of the Chichester Young Chekhov trilogy, was certainly in the groove, and I also preferred the one served up at the Open Air Theatre a couple of years ago. Mind you the performance I attended there was interrupted by the noise from a party at the US ambassador’s gaff next door. I could just about forgive the near hour long break in my entertainment but not the fact that the Yanks had chosen Duran Duran to colour theirs. Appalling taste.

BTW. I remember seeing Duran Duran in the early 80s. Backcombed hair and full on make-up. Me that is. Meant I ditched the specs to preserve my illusion of New Romantic glamour. Which then meant I couldn’t see a thing. Which then meant there was nothing to detract from the music. Purgatory.

Second BTW. Has anyone else noticed the preponderance of Lesser and Greater Black Backed Gulls popping up all over London. Herring and Black Headed Gulls are ten a penny but these big b*ggers shouldn’t be here should they? Maybe Hitchcock was on to something in The Birds. Other than fawning over Tippi Hedren of course.

Third BTW. Talking of Hitchcock and Ms Hedren I see there are still a fair few tickets fat the ENO for Nico Muhly’s new opera Marnie based on the Winston Graham book which Hitchcock committed to film. I think this will be a belter. And I hope the new ENO season can pull in the punters and get the haters off their backs.