Posts Tagged ‘ ENO ’

Lucrezia Borgia, ENO: review

ENO, Coliseum
Dir: Mike Figgis
ENO Lucrezia

Mike Figgis, who directed the film Leaving Las Vegas, has turned to opera. With mixed results. Donizetti’s, Lucrezia Borgia has everything a director could wish for: rape, murder, incest and tragedy. It’s a gift, in short, and an over-excited Figgis throws everything at this sumptuous production. The evening drips with jewels and velvet, but instead of being elegant and graceful, the production stumbles under its own voluptuousness.

Things get off to a bizarre start, with a film apparently in homage to the Twilight franchise. According to the director’s note in the programme, the footage is supposed to fill in the background details of Lucrezia’s life. The result is an eye-brow raising mixture of budget soft porn and medieval morality play. Such a simplistic “whore-of-Babylon” view of Catholicism has not been expounded since the Mystery plays and such blatant anti-Popery sits awkwardly next to Donizetti’s nuanced work.

Three more films punctuate the evening but they are so different from Donizetti’s version of the story in style and tone that they add nothing but momentary titillation (this production is definitely not for kids). The Lucrezia in the short films, played by Katy Saunders, is so completely two-dimensional and different from Claire Rutter’s brilliant representation on the stage that many of my fellow audience members were utterly confused.

Lucrezia Borgia

Further confusion is caused by Figgis’ decision to turn the male “trouser role” of Orsini into a woman. Traditionally, these parts are male characters but sung by women (like the princes in modern pantomime, for example). Figgis’ clear impatience with this convention means we are presented with a female Orsini – Elizabeth DeShong in the role wears a corset, high heels and has long wavy hair – but who wears men’s clothes, talks like the other men and is supposed to be a soldier. An unnecessary and confusing change.

All that aside, the music is magnificent. Claire Rutter in the lead role is both hateful and tender: she lurks in the shadows like a spectre, aware of her own powerlessness but adept at getting what she wants. Rutter’s Lucrezia is not the caricature villain of Figgis’ film – and thank goodness. She is a complex woman and Rutter’s voice manages to suggest years of repressed emotion much more effectively than tens of Figgis’ background films could have done. Her first aria, as she gazes at her sleeping long-lost son is masterful and her argument with her husband, Alfonso (sung by Alastair Miles), bristles with tension and resentment. Michael Fabiano as her son, Gennaro, is desperate and pleading, jovial and amorous and steals the second Act with his opening aria.

The orchestra, conducted by Paul Daniel, is energetic and bright – just the thing for Donizetti – and the horns are particularly strong. The musical aspects of the evening are brilliant – it’s just a shame the staging lets them down. Figgis is new to opera – and his production reflects this. The set (by Es Devlin) is magnificent and the costumes beautiful but it is as if Figgis has created his idea of opera – all extravagance and gold leaf – rather than looking at the work itself.3 Comedy Masks

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Faust, ENO: review

ENO
Dir: Des McAnuff
Cond: Edward Gardner

“He who does not love music does not deserve to be called a human being; he who merely loves it is only half a human being; but he who makes music is a whole human being.” These words, written by Johann Goethe, have been an open invitation to composers wishing to set his texts to music.

Frenchman, Charles Gounod, is one such. Taking Goethe’s tale of a man who strikes a pact with the devil as a starting point, Gounod created an opera not so much about damnation as about devotion, less concerned with learning than romance. This ENO production, directed by Des McAnuff (who directed Jersey Boys) and conducted by Edward Gardner, shifts the action to a period which spans both World Wars. McAnuff makes a half-hearted attempt to draw links between Faust’s quest for scientific knowledge and the development of the atomic bomb but is best when concentrating on the romance.

As the eponymous hero, Toby Spence is commanding: he has the unusual task of having to age both forwards and backwards. He manages it brilliantly, disappearing behind a cloud of smoke and then almost instantly reappearing (in Stars in Their Eyes fashion) which golden locks and a youthful spring in his step. Spence’s enunciation is cut-crystal clear and his rich tone brings ardour to the music. His scenes with Melody Moore, as Marguerite, are moving in their intimacy and elegantly staged by McAnuff.

Faust Gounod ENOAs in any version of the Faust tale, Mephistopheles, played by Iain Paterson, steals the show. The diabolic dance he leads in Act Two (with angular choreography from Kelly Devine) is the highlight of the evening. As a swaggering aristocrat, Paterson is all suave sophistication but could have played up to the devilish stereotype even more. His entrance, for example, was simply through a door. Not a sniff of brimstone.

This reluctance to dive into the histrionics of Hell resulted in a few disappointments. A scene billed as a sort of infernal orgy (Walpurgis Night) is little more that dancers in rags writhing abound a bare table. And Faust’s damnation is over in a matter of seconds.

Robert Brill’s set has some nice touches – the symmetrical spiral staircases are incorporated well into the action – but it fails to hold its own in the Coliseum’s cavernous space. The actors too look lost on the vast stage and McAnuff’s clumsy staging of the first two Acts cannot disguise this. Other directorial interpolations seem gratuitous: a giant puppet of a soldier strolls on in the second act adding nothing but confusion to proceedings. Computer generated images on the back wall looked amateur – especially when roses appeared, only to dissolve as Mephistopheles claimed to conjure them.

The singing cannot be faulted and the ENO orchestra, under Edward Gardner, bring out a kaleidoscope of colours in Gounod’s writing. But this production ultimately disappoints: it is neither a melodramatic tale of damnation nor a convincing moral fable on the reach of modern science.

A Fearsome Foursome of Fausts

London has become a city of damned souls.  And one damned soul, in particular: Dr John Faust is everywhere.Faust Young Vic by Vesturport and Reykjavík City Theater Faust’s tale is one of ambition, hell-fire and damnation: since medieval times his story has fascinated and horrified.

Goethe grappled with this anti-hero throughout his life, Marlowe made it into his most famous play and composers Berlioz and Gounod set it to music. More recently, the Fates have conspired to saturate 21st-century London with Faust’s tragedy. Why do we poor sinners keep coming back to it?

BBC Radio3 were the first to jump into the inferno with a production whose ambition was matched only by its protagonist’s. In September, Sam West starred as Goethe’s Faust opposite Toby Jones as Mephistopheles; Derek Jacobi and Anna Maxwell Martin also featured. ENO is currently staging Gounod’s five-act opera (based on Goethe’s text) and the Young Vic has an unorthodox circus production, again based loosely on Goethe.

Dr Faustus with MephistophelesThe Faust story first appeared in the Faustbuch in 1587 and was initially popular as a tale of damnation: a sixteenth-century scandal story. But if the original medieval tale was one of religious finger-wagging, Goethe had a completely different agenda. His Faust is an idealist: like Marlowe’s creation, Goethe’s hero seeks knowledge and self-realization.

Good and evil, black and white, innocence and guilt: Goethe and Marlowe blurred these previously impermeable boundaries. In doing so they created dramatic texts which are more relevant now than ever.

Marlowe, who was accused of being an atheist*(among other things), had little interest in black and white morality. Instead, his play is a tragedy: his hero is not evil, but human; the tragedy springs not from an evil soul, but Faust’s hunger for knowledge.

The relentless quest for knowledge is familiar to us. Modern microscopes and telescopes have opened new visual worlds, scientists have delved into the workings of our own bodies and developments in health care mean we are living longer than ever.

Only last month, Stephen Hawking declared that science has displaced God. Marlowe’s Renaissance man would be eminently at home in our world of scepticism, science and selfishness. Faust’s desire to be young again (in Goethe’s reading) is a pre-figuring of our own society’s desire to look youthful. Marlowe’s Faust asks to meet Helen (of the long legs) of Troy – the most beautiful woman ever to have lived: of course he didn’t have the modern men’s mag, Playboy (…on second thoughts, I won’t add a hyperlink there), to turn to.

Faust is a thoroughly modern man: disillusioned with life, nihilistic and solipsistic. His story’s current vogue is no coincidence: modern audiences identify with Faust, his temptations are our own, his desires are ones we recognize. The chilling lesson for modern audiences is that we no longer need God to damn us: we already do that ourselves.

*in the Baines note: “A note Containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly Concerning his Damnable Judgment of Religion, and scorn of gods word”

What’s On Highlights 20-26 September

Just a quick one today. My ones to watch this week are:

Pope’s Wedding at the Cock Tavern Theatre

The second play in the Cock’s Edward Bond Season. Disappointingly, the title is not a literal reference to the events of the play…

19 Sep-2 Oct

The Makropulos Case, by Leoš Janáček, Coliseum
ENO’s first revival of  Christopher Alden’s staging of the Czech composer’s penultimate opera “which tells the story of the enigmatic Emilia Marty, the cold-hearted diva whose uncanny knowledge of past events provides the key to resolving a 100-year-old lawsuit but also unlocks ancient mysteries that call into question mankind’s obsessive quest for eternal life.”

20 Sep-5 Oct
Pocket Dream, Hampstead Theatre
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for young audiences. At only 60 minutes long, Pocket Dream promises “a dynamic, contemporary and physical introduction to Shakespeare”. Oh my!

21-24 Sep

Niobe, Regina di Tebe, by Agostino Steffani, ROH
Although well-regarded in his own time, Steffani (1654–1728) is little known today. This opera takes the ancient Greek story of Niobe, who angered the gods and so was punished with the of all her children. Cheery stuff – and unmissable for any early opera enthusiasts (…anyone??). And it claims there are £5 tickets available.

23 Sep-3 Oct

Theatrigirl’s highlights, 13-19 September

Edward Bond Season – Olly’s Prison, Cock Tavern Theatre, Kilburn

The first play in the eagerly anticipated Edward Bond season at the Cock Tavern, which will culminate with the premiere of a new play. Famed for the violent and controversial subjects of his work, Bond is one of the most important living British playwrights. Olly’s Prison examines a father-daughter relationship gone horribly wrong.

Olly’s Prison: 14 Sep-2 Oct
Edward Bond Season:14 Sep-13 Nov

The Human Comedy, The Young Vic

Set in a small town California during the second World War, The Human Comedy is a coming-of-age story complete with musical numbers. This production, directed by John Fulljames boasts a “Community Chorus” of 80 in addition to the principal roles. The stage might get a bit cosy!

13-18 Sep

Faust at ENO opens this week

Les Misérables, Barbican

To celebrate this ridiculously successful musical’s 25th anniversary, a different cast are bringing the show to the Barbican for a few nights only. A chance to see this hugely popular musical for a more reasonable price!

14 Sep-2 Oct

Krapp’s Last Tape, Duchess Theatre

Good, solid Beckettian stuff: gloom, doom and a funny bit with a banana. With Michael Gambon as the eponymous Krapp, this existential monologue should have plenty of gravitas and absurdity.

15 Sep-20 Nov

Faust, by Gounod, Barbier and Carré, after Goethe, ENO at the London Coliseum

Goethe’s tale of the man who wanted to know everything there was to know gets the operatic treatment courtesy of this new production at ENO. Edward Gardner conducts while Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys) directs a modern-dress production.

18 Sep-16 Oct

In Praise of Comfy Seating

Whether it’s a production of Into the Woods in Regent’s Park, Shakespeare in a disused church or Greek tragedy in a military training base, site-specific theatre is all the rage. But does this fashion for quirky and unusual spaces add anything to our experience as an audience? Anything, that is, apart from numb behinds, insect bites and runny noses.

In a recent review of a site-specific production of Aeschylus’ The Persians high up in the Brecon Beacons, Michael Billington wrote: “The combination of the story and the setting, with the sun slowly disappearing over the hills, is overwhelming”. This most ancient of dramatic texts managed to live up to this most ancient of landscapes.

Similarly, the production of Into the Woods currently showing at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has been well received by the critics: Sondheim’s musical chimes with and is complemented by the wooded surroundings. But in my experience, these success stories are exceptions to the rule.


At its best, site-specific theatre manages to feed on its surroundings and the piece is made more relevant, more poignant and bigger, in every sense of the word, as a result. At its worst it can be self-indulgent, wearisome and decidedly irritating. There is nothing worse than watching a dull production, shivering on uncomfortable seating – and knowing that the performers are having a great time.

Hubris seems to be the heart of the problem when site-specific theatre falls flat – which it often does. As far as outdoor theatre is concerned, soaring peaks and limitless horizons make humans look – and feel – very small. And it is a rare play indeed which can convince an audience of the relevance of its story against such a backdrop.

There is something about the vastness of nature – the drama inherent in a panoramic view – which tempts theatre practitioners. The Minack theatre in Cornwall, although purpose built, can be placed under the “site-specific” heading as it also attempts to tap into the power of landscape. And the seats are awful. Although I’ve seen a number of plays there, rarely can the actors compete with the backdrop. On one memorable occasion, a basking shark sauntered past and the audience – of Peter Pan, I think it was – rather lost interest in the action on stage.

Site-specific indoor theatre – such as ENO and Punchdrunk’s recent Duchess of Malfi, or the RSC’s histories series in Westminster abbey – may not have to deal with the insect bites, but these plays still have to work hard to justify the use of the space. Non-traditional venues encourage an audience to question a play’s purpose and worth more readily than traditional spaces – which, in the end has to be an argument in favour.

Truly great site-specific theatre can affect an audience in ways a production in a purpose-built venue never can. Productions in unusual venues come under greater scrutiny and demand more mental (and occasionally physical) involvement in the piece – audiences, used to drama tucked safely behind the footlights, become engaged in a more meaningful way. The stakes, in other words, are higher. When site-specific theatre is good, it’s very very good: but when it’s bad, it’s yawningly, bum-numbingly, pretentiously horrid.

Tosca, Puccini, ENO

music by Giacomo Puccini
libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
trans. by Edmund Tracey
ENO, London Coliseum

ENO’s production of Puccini’s barnstormer, Tosca, is knowledgeable yet aloof; academic yet distant. This is a “diet” Tosca, where darker shades and richer textures are reduced or taken away completely.

Directed by Catherine Malfitano, a celebrated Tosca in her own right, this production is broadly traditionalist – from Gideon Davey’s unobtrusive period costumes, to Malfitano’s decision to restore contemporary details to the libretto. Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s imposing, geometric set makes the singers look like dolls. The battlements of Castel Sant’Angelo dwarf the singers, creating a sense of loneliness and vulnerability. David Martin Jacques’ lighting design works with Schlössmann’s set to create a visually impeccable piece.

Amanda Echalez is everything you could ask for in a Tosca: fiery and vulnerable; mischievous with a hint of the malevolent. Her voice can simmer with anger or tremble with barely-concealed terror, from its rich lower tones to the bright-as-brass top. Her diction could be clearer but Echalez’s Tosca is a rational, believable creature, laughing at her own jealousy and brimming with the excitement of an adolescent lover.

Julian Gavin’s Cavaradossi, though technically right on the money, lacks the necessary intensity in the famous ‘E lucevan le stelle’ aria and his relationship with Echalez’s Tosca is clumsy and lacking in chemistry. Anthony Michaels-Moore lacks the bile-filled malice which the part of Scarpia demands with the result that his attempted rape of Tosca is unconvincing. Edward Gardner does not help matters at the end of Act One by rushing the final, dramatic chords. Overall, however, his interpretation is youthful and the music sounds fresh under his baton.

Yet the evening feels muted: though this may be deliberate. In a strikingly frank programme note, Arman Schwartz argues the case for a ‘modernist Tosca: Puccini’s music, he says, ‘participates in the stage action without ‘interpreting’ it’. The aim, Schwartz claims, was ‘to build a wall between the audience and the on-stage world.’

As such, Malfitano’s production failed to grip as it should: at times the production seemed to be fighting against the impulses of Puccini’s score. Real, human emotion was lacking and as Puccini himself said: ‘Only with emotion can one achieve a triumph that endures.’

4/5

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