Posts Tagged ‘ opera ’

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Glyndebourne: review

Yesterday I went to Glyndebourne and I am feeling very smug about it.

Not, as some might assume, because I am part of a rich elite who can afford access to high culture that other plebs can’t, but because I am a pleb and nevertheless managed to get in. For £20.

Getting a ticket for Glyndebourne involves roughly the same amount of effort and money as, say, locating a Siberian tiger. In fact, the latter is probably cheaper. So I was pleased with my £20 ticket – standing, admittedly, and with restricted view. But David McVicar’s staging of Meistersinger looks set to be one of the opera tickets of the year, if not the decade. So what’s a bit of leg ache?

I got the ticket through Glyndebourne’s excellent <30 scheme for the under 30s. Last year I managed to get a £30 seat in the stalls to see Hansel und Gretel and the previous year I paid the same for their brilliant The Fairy Queen. There’s no waiting list, just sign up on their website.

And so, on to the production. The opera tells the story of a song contest held in the guild of Mastersingers of Nuremberg. A member of the guild offers his daughter’s hand in marriage as the prize. The only problem is that she’s in love with a knight who isn’t a Mastersinger. (The whole sticky mess could have been avoided if the daughter, Eva, had been left to choose her own husband. But that would have been too simple. And too feminist.)

The London Philharmonic Orchestra, under Vladimir Jurowski, was on stunning form: they responded to each flick and tremor of the maestro’s baton with precision and tangible enthusiasm. This was an orchestra at the top of its game and there was some particularly fine horn playing.

Wagner GlyndebourneBut can you go to this, of all Wagner’s operas, and simply enjoy the music? David McVicar certainly thinks so – and his production encourages the audience to lay aside all the political and historical baggage that accompanies Meistersinger (see this excellent blog from Tom Service for more on this). The setting is a politically safe period around 1810 and the final paean to German art becomes less about cultural superiority and more a general celebration of art. Everywhere McVicar tones down distasteful elements – the final song (‘Even if the holy Roman empire/ Should dissolve in mist,/ For us there would yet remain/ Holy German art’) is sung without surtitles and the character Beckmesser – often regarded as an anti-semetic caricature – is pompous but essentially empathetic.

Partly this is thanks to the characterful, comic performance from Johannes Martin Kränzle who is an operatic Mr Collins, wooing Eva (Anna Gabler). Who is clearly far too young and evidently doesn’t like him anyway. The other stand-out performance is Gerald Finley’s in the lead role of Hans Sachs. Finley’s powerful baritone proved more than equal to the part and his Sachs, if slightly younger than usual, manages to convince as a pillar of the community.

McVivar’s staging has been criticised for being unadventurous. True, both costume and set are fairly naturalistic, but with an opera that is so rarely performed, why go for a Big Idea? Why not just stage the work elegantly and simply – as was done here.

Finally, I will add that despite the length of Meistersinger (4hr with a fair wind), my legs only began to ache in the last 15 mins as there is a convenient bar to lean on. Jolly good show all round, Glyndebourne. Shame about the weather – see to that for next year will you?

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Is Classical Music Relevant: Cambridge Union debate, Stephen Fry and Kissy Sell Out

“The idea that classical music is the province of white-wigged old farts shows a failure of imagination and rank snobbery.”

Thus spake Stephen Fry at a debate in Cambridge last night on the relevance of classical music to today’s youth. His adversaries included Kissy Sell-Out, Radio 1 DJ and critic Greg Sandow. But it was Stephen “dub-step is my life” Fry who stole the show – and indeed won the debate (365 to 57, 88 abstentions). As someone embarking on a career as a classical music journalist I’m obviously pleased with the result, but much of the debate was depressing.

Classical Music

White-wigged old fart?

Over and over the genre was called “elitist”, snobby, exclusive, out of touch. Yet only yesterday morning I was musing with my pianist and conductor house mate as to whether now was the best possible time to be a classical musician – or indeed spectator.

London alone has a healthy clutch of symphony orchestras performing music from Puccini to Pärt, Tippet to Turner, every evening. And there are chamber ensembles across the country, constantly experimenting, performing contemporary music and attracting new audiences. The classical music scene is vibrant, exciting and full of incredibly talented people.

Nor is it fair to call the classical music world elitist. Opera houses and concert halls are busting their gut strings to show young people that the door is open, there are comfy seats waiting for them and –look – you don’t even have to wear a suit.

This summer I will be going to the Glyndebourne opera festival for the second time in as many years. Last year my ticket was £30, this year it is £20 – both special deals for the under 30s. And the OAE are forever throwing late night events with tickets for just £5 – which always seem to sell out. Thanks to these initiatives, classical concerts are full of young people just enjoying the music and, rare from worrying about it’s relevance, they are simply thankful that for a few brief moments, they are transported away from worries about exams, boyfriends, school gangs, fashion, essays or emails. It’s just them and the music.

Why this concern over relevance anyway? Why can’t classical music just be enjoyable, moving, terrifying, thrilling, transcendental, beautiful, staggering, heart-breaking, cheeky, humorous, thought-provoking or threatening? Pop music may use the language of the young, refer to Twitter, video games and clubs but it is the toilet paper of the music world: a one-use item. It is relevant today, gone tomorrow. Classical music, by contrast, is vellum – it might take a bit of blood to produce, but will be around long after the toilet paper has disintegrated.

The brilliant Benjamin Grosvenor (very much not wearing a white wig)

And the, ahem, toilet paper

The whole debate will be available to view at http://www.cus.org/connect

Semele, Upstairs at the Gatehouse: review

Hampstead Garden Opera
Director: James Hurley
Music Director: Oliver-John Ruthven

Semele Handel

Picture: LaurentCompagnon

OperaUpClose may be dominating the headlines with their re-imaginings of Bohème and Butterfly but in Highgate there is another fringe opera company, who play with an altogether straighter bat. James Hurley’s production of Semele for Hampstead Garden Opera sticks to Handel’s scenario – and is all the better for it.

The text, by William Congreve, tells the classical story of Semele, who catches the eye of Jove, king of the Olympian gods. He transforms into an eagle and whisks her away to Mount Olympus where they share “endless pleasure”. Ahem. Jove’s celestial wife, Juno, however, becomes jealous. She sneaks into the palace where Semele is hidden and persuades her that she will become immortal if she sees Jove in his godly form. In fact, she will die.

The cast is almost entirely made up of postgraduate music students and the singing is universally of a high standard. Tom Verney as the butter-wouldn’t-melt Prince Athamas, Semele’s mortal fiancé, is a particular highlight. He trips lightly up and down Handel’s coloratura as if they’ve just occurred to him. The central role is sung voluptuously by Robyn Parton, who tackles the challenging part confidently. She holds every eye in the house as she sulks like a child or pouts playfully at the king of the gods. Jove is sung by tenor Zachary Devin with pinpoint clarity and Kathryn Walker’s excellent Juno is all cartoon anger and feel-my-wrath vocal flourishes.

In Hurley’s production the scenes in the mortal realm are set in something approximating to the 1950s but for Mount Olympus, white dominates. In Rachel Szmukler’s design the back wall is hung with strips of white polystyrene and the chorus of spirits wear costumes of bubble wrap. Semele is given a bubble wrap dress which results in some comic popping noises during the rather intimate scenes between her and Jove. This design comes into its own, however, in one of the closing scenes in which Semele storms around doing her best impression of an ireful goddess as she rips down the gauze and white drapes.

Oliver-John Ruthven directs the musical side of things well from the harpsichord (yes, a harpsichord in a pub!) but there is a sense that the musical director’s vision is at odds with the director’s. For example, Athamas pleads with Semele’s sister “do not shun me” while she is, in fact, clinging to him. Similarly, the opening action – before the overture begins – doesn’t add anything to the performance and is incomprehensible. Semele was written as an oratorio so is short on dramatic action, but Hurley over-compensates for this with too many gimmicks which tend to distract from rather than complement the very enjoyable singing.

The Met at the IMAX: Opera on the big screen

A couple of weeks ago I went to The Met.

Well, almost. What I actually saw was a live transmission of their production of Gluck’s Ipigénie en Tauride, conducted by Patrick Summers and directed by Stephen Wadsworth, in London’s BFI IMAX cinema. Although I am always an advocate of anything that takes opera to a wider audience, I was anticipating something that very much felt like a broadcast, not a live performance.

But I was pleasantly surprised. The BFI and The Met in their series of opera broadcasts have created something which is as close as possible to attending a live performance – without the cost of the trans-Atlantic plane fare. As you walk into the IMAX cinema the crowd noise from The Met and the sounds of the orchestra tuning up are played into the auditorium in London so you feel immersed in the live performance before it even starts.

It was a matinee in New York which meant the performance started in the UK at the very respectable time of 6pm. And as the leisurely afternoon audience took their seats across the pond, we settled down in the comfy seats of the IMAX in England. And the curtain rose.

And I had never seen anything like it. I am used to the sparse sets of ENO or the modern-dress productions at Covent Garden. In fact, even Glyndbourne wasn’t as lavish as the staging before me now. The opera is set in a temple dedicated to the goddess Diana: there was an enormous statue of the Goddess, a sacrificial altar, torches burning and the performance opened with the Godess herself descending from the roof to whisk Iphigénie away from her father. (He was trying to sacrifice her. Just a normal day in Ancient Greece). Even the fake blood looked expensive.

The cast were phenomenal – Susan Graham in the title role was just the right side of hysterical and Plácido Domingo and Paul Groves as her brother Oreste and his friend Pylade, respectively, were in fine voice. This was even more impressive as an announcement before the curtain went up told us they were all suffering from a bad bout of flu.

What impressed me most about the broadcast, however, was not the singing, the sumptuous set or the fake blood. But the fact that immediately the curtain fell on the first Act, the three leads toddled over to Natalie Dessay (who is a stunning soprano in her own right) to be interviewed about how the evening was going and their approach to the opera. This was, let’s not forget, in the middle of the performance, when you might have thought they wanted to lie down in a darkened room or at least go over the arias in the next Act in their head. But here they were looking relaxed, laughing and chatting away to millions of viewers. Well, I suppose it’s just another day at the office for them.

 

The next broadcast from the Met is on April 9 and is Rossini’s Le Comte Ory starring Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez

Anna Nicole the opera – a BRAvura performance

Anna NicoleThe real Anna Nicole

As I took my seat for the very first public preview of ‘Anna Nicole’, I noticed something was different in the Royal Opera House. In place of the usual lion and unicorn on the stage curtain there were two bikini-clad body builders. And the Royal shield had been replaced with a laughing picture of the opera’s eponymous character – Anna Nicole Smith. Usually red with gold embroidery, the curtains were now pink with a border of pouting lips. She would have loved this, I thought.

On Saturday morning, the ROH allowed a small audience – mostly students –in for a rehearsal/run-through of their much-talked-about new work. With music from Mark-Anthony Turnage – who passes for a bad boy, as classical composers go – and a libretto from Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer the Opera fame), Anna Nicole was never going to be a low-key affair. And unsurprisingly the press have loved the story so far – playboy model, billionaire’s wife, drug addict…opera.

Royal Opera House Anna Nicole

Eva-Maria Westbroek

The singer tasked with bringing this unorthodox life to the stage is Eva-Maria Westbroek. And she is brilliant. She has nailed the Texas drawl (nice is “nahce”; life, “lahfe”) and manages to make Anna silly but sympathetic. The first time we see her she is reclining in a giant gold armchair. She leans forward and whisper-sings the words “I wanna blow you all…I wanna blow you all…a kiss.” Which sets the tone for what follows.

Richard Thomas’ libretto is shocking – as you might expect from one of the creators of Jerry Springer the Opera – but it is also very funny and moving in places. This is a nice clean, family blog, so I’m not going to repeat the x-rated phrases, but suffice it to say that I was shocked – and I’ve studied 17th-century pornography. One aria sung by Anna is entirely made up of different words for breasts. And just when you think Thomas has exhausted the possibilities, another ten ring out in Westbroek’s rich soprano before declaring to her plastic surgeon “Supersize me!”

Everything about this production is over the top – but it had to be. How else could a stage show have hoped to recreate Anna Nicole Smith’s firework of a life? She came from the poorest of the poor, married one of the richest men in the world, had ENORMOUS breasts and died young of a drugs overdose. Subtlety is not what is called for.Anna Nicole Smith opera

But you never feel that the opera is laughing at her. Yes, she’s a bit dippy, yes, she clearly married for money. But Turnage and Thomas make Anna Nicole into a resourceful woman: not proud of her life choices, but not seeing any alternatives. As she sings: “I made some bad choices, some worse choices and then ran outta choices”. She is more a victim of circumstance than anything more sinister.

The baddy, in this version of the tale (and as the characters keep stressing, this is only one version), is her lawyer, Stern, played without lazy caricature by Gerald Finley. The entire cast are excellent (and this was only a rehearsal!) but Alan Oke as Anna Nicole’s billionaire husband, J Howard Marshall II, is particularly funny. His entrance is one of the production’s stand-out moments (I won’t spoil it…)

Most importantly though, there is nothing mawkish or voyeuristic about Turnage’s opera. It doesn’t feel like wealthy, opera-goers gawping at a young woman’s car crash life – which it could so easily have been. Instead, we get a wry, witty look at the lure of money, fame and the American dream. Sure, it’s rude – the lap dancers redefine the term flexible and the f word is splattered like [rude simile censored] across the score. But Turnage and Thomas have created an opera which takes a hard look at greed, morality, poverty and ambition – Anna Nicole’s life is just the vehicle.

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

Madam Butterfly (Bangkok Butterfly) – review

King’s Head Theatre, Islington
Dir: Adam Spreadbury-Maher

Puccini’s Madam Butterfly is the latest to get OperaUpClose’s pub treatment and it by and large survives it.

In Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production the action is transported to modern Bangkok, from Puccini’s original Japan, and the geisha Madam Butterfly becomes a Thai ladyboy. Butterfly is introduced to an American officer, Pinkerton, who is fascinated by the young ladyboy (she is supposed to be 15): ‘She is a stunner, exotic and wondrous…Heart of a boy but the soul of a woman.’ During a party someone sarcastically suggests marriage and there is a jokey ceremony. Butterfly- naïve and desperate to escape – takes Pinkerton’s vows of love at face value and waits loyally for him when he goes back to America. For Pinkerton, however, the affair is just a bit of fun.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production undoubtedly has its moments: Margaret Cooper has the right mix of coquettishness and innocence for Butterfly. As she tidies the flat ready for Pinkerton’s return she is excited and poignantly childlike. Alison Dunne, as the maid Suzuki, has a beautifully rich mezzo-soprano voice: it is a pity her character doesn’t have more to sing. Mario Sofroniou is fairly detestable as Pinkerton – as he should be – and while his voice fills the small space it doesn’t overwhelm the audience. The trio between Suzuki, Pinkerton and Sharpless (brought vividly to life by Oliver Gibbs) towards the end of the opera is simply staged and is one of the highlights of the evening, as are the tender scenes between Butterfly and her maid, Suzuki.

The cast are almost without exception conservatoire graduates so inevitably the standard of singing is high – although in the role of Butterfly, Cooper’s vibrato is too wide for my taste. Musical director Elspeth Wilkes had just two other players to work with – a violinist/violist and a clarinettist – and with such limited resources Puccini’s heroic music does lose some of its force.

But I remain unconvinced about the justification for changing the setting so dramatically – not least because making Butterfly a ladyboy causes an obvious biological problem when it comes to the baby she’s supposed to have had. I’m still not sure exactly how they explained the sudden appearance of the child. While ladyboys and geishas have certain parallels, the concept felt ill-thought-out: for example, in Puccini’s original, Butterfly and all her family believe she is marrying Pinkerton for good and it is only Pinkerton who regards it as a sham. In Spreadbury-Maher’s production, the whole marriage idea is a joke: the “ceremony” is conducted by one of the other Amercian officers at the party. Everyone realises it is a sort of playground marriage – except Butterfly.

This version of the tale is not less poignant but it becomes a different tragedy: a tragedy not of betrayal but of delusion. Butterfly is so desperate to get away from her life standing ‘on bars in Patpong road’ that she puts her faith in a ghost of a marriage. What is more, Puccini’s music – written to evoke the highly stylised and constricted life of the Japanese geishas – doesn’t fit with the tacky clothes and miserable life of these lady boys. Nevertheless, the story is moving and the music beautiful, but as a fellow audience member said during the interval ‘the music would be poignant if they’d set it in a chicken factory.’

This review originally appeared on The Public Reviews

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