07 Oct 2013
Die Fledermaus, ENO
‘Chacun à son goût!’ cries the inebriated Prince Orlovsky, invigorated by champagne and high-living. An indifferent ‘each to his own’?
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
‘Chacun à son goût!’ cries the inebriated Prince Orlovsky, invigorated by champagne and high-living. An indifferent ‘each to his own’?
Or, a more sceptical ‘there’s no accounting for taste’? — for Christopher Alden’s production of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus at ENO certainly suggests that he has an idiosyncratic preference for a distinctly dark and bitter vintage.
The curtain rises on Allen Moyer’s economical, sombre-hued set; flock wallpaper and silken bed drapes in various ‘shades of grey’ suggest, ironically, a dampening of the passions in the Eisensteins’ Victorian bedroom. As the polkas and waltzes of Strauss’s overture flutter from the pit, between the sheets Rosalinde tosses and turns, lunging at the air, clutching the plump pillows, writhing and wriggling, the luscious melodies presumably illustrative of her erotic dreaming. And, when winged bat-women sweep menacingly across the bedroom, we infer the stuff of her nightmares. Above hangs an outsize model of Eisenstein’s pocket watch — the very watch that will later incriminate him when he attempts to seduce a mysterious Hungarian Countess — pendulously, hypnotically swinging, a ‘path to the subconscious’, the director declares.
So, Alden envisages his characters as psychiatric case studies: their Vienna is a socially and emotionally repressive prison, and Falke a bat-cloaked Nosferatu, tempting them to turn the frustrated fantasies of their subconscious into corporeal fulfilment. An interesting conceit. But, one which quickly runs aground, the bubbly turning distinctly flat. For, Alden imposes a threatening subliminal world on a musical score which speaks of light-hearted, self-indulgent escapism, and on a libretto which is more farce than psychoanalytical theory. And the disjuncture — a psychiatric ‘split’ — is as large as the fissure which cracks the Victorian chamber wall at the end of Act 1. The music whizzes by, an ear-pleasing stream of movement and melody, while the action on stage stultifies, the characters as comatose as if they lay on a consulting couch.
Things might have been better if Alden had truly allowed his characters to ‘slip free from societal constraints and sip the heady champagne of pleasure and fulfilment’ in the Act 2 ball. But, while he declares that Falke invites his pawns to a ‘dreamy, libidinous party where they are given free rein to transcend their quotidian selves’, in fact the chasm in the wall of restraint opens on a distinctly dreary and featureless room, billed as Art Deco but consisting merely of a sweeping back-curtain — garishly lit by the psychedelic colours of Paul Palazzo’s lighting — and a nondescript staircase. Indeed, the occasional swivels of the stairway are the only indication that a dance might be underway, for the large chorus of cross-dressed, under-dressed revellers show little inclination to wiggle and frolic. Epitomising the absence of physical exuberance, they sing the rousing finale standing stock still on the stairway; a freeze-frame snap of a Hollywood sequence, this troupe hardly look ready to ‘dance all night’.
Richard Burkhard and Tom Randle
This immobility matters. The polkas and waltzes are not merely tuneful decorations but convey the sentiments of the text. Thus, it is with a waltz that the seducer, Alfredo, lures Rosalinde to drown her cares in champagne. And, Rosalinde saves her own reputation at the end of Act 1 with a polka which dupes Frank, the prisoner governer, into believing that Alfredo is her husband. Adele reads her sister’s letter inviting her to the party to the accompaniment of yet another polka; while the disguised Adele defends herself from Eisenstein’s attentions with a waltz, ‘My dear Marquis’. Falke’s gentle, sentimental waltz at the climax of the ball has hints of melancholy, as he toasts brotherhood and love. The characters are always dancing, and if they are dancing they are also probably seducing. Thus, motionless leads to meaninglessness.
The translation by Stephen Lawless and Daniel Dooner is full of witty rhyming repartee, but on this opening night many of the words were lost in the set’s vast empty spaces and the audience, with little on stage to indicate that a gag was on the way, largely remained in silent bafflement.
Not surprisingly, the cast struggle to establish credible, engaging characters and dramatic momentum. Even Tom Randle looked a bit lost as Eisenstein, though he sang with his usual power and lyricism. Andrew Shore, as a gender-bending Frank, used his considerable acting talents to get things moving along; and Edgaras Montvidas was a delightfully disreputable and foppish Alfred, demonstrating an appreciation of the absurd elements of the opera which Alden tried hard to bury beneath the Freudian symbolism. Richard Burkhard presented an assured Falke, a confident, slick Nick Shadow figure —although it was hard for the ‘master-of-ceremonies’ to impose his presence in the final Act, given that he spent its entirety in an airborne state, perched precariously on the suspended timepiece.
The rest of the cast were ultimately unable to overcome Alden’s static direction. Rosalinde is envisaged as a Freudian case study: a ‘hysterical woman’, trapped in a repressive marriage to a philandering husband, denied sexual fulfilment. Given that she was largely confined to her bed in Act 1 — albeit, sharing it with a host of others — and directed to sing her Csárdás from a stationary position on the far left of the stage, it was hardly surprising that Julia Sporsén was a rather underwhelming Rosalinde.
As Prince Orlovsky — no longer presented wryly en travesti but rather as a neurotic, misanthropic lesbian — Jennifer Holloway also struggled to convince. Orlovsky’s philosophy is that if he is intent on hedonistic fun, then so must all his guests indulge to excess, but as Holloway pounded the walls in self-pitying misery, it was hard to imagine a less hospitable party host. Holloway’s tone was warm and rich but a thick European accent muffled the text. Rhian Lois’s Adele was a bit too close to caricature, but her two showpiece arias were bright and vivacious, the ‘Laughing Song’ especially sparkly.
Simon Butteriss and Jan Pohl did their best with the bizarre characterisation of Dr Blind, Eisenstein’s incompetent lawyer, and Frosch, the prison jailor — the latter presented as an S&M obsessed Nazi, prone to violent spasms and vicious brutality.
Billed as ‘dangerous and sexy’, Alden’s production is in fact dull and soporific. Conductor Eun Sun Kim drew some infectious, sweet playing from the ENO orchestra, but the dances didn’t quite float and spin with the necessary weightless frothiness. Although Alden admits that the ‘hedonistic waltzes of Die Fledermaus ultimately sweep away its darker connotations in a tsunami of champagne’, in this instance the popping of corks was confined to the pit and a few vocal highpoints, and the end result was distinctly lacking in fizz.
Cast and production information:
Gabriel von Eisenstein, Tom Randle; Rosalinde, Julia Sporsén; Frank, Andrew Shore; Prince Orlovsky, Jennifer Holloway; Alfred, Edgaras Montvidas; Dr Falke, Richard Burkhard; Dr Blind, Simon Butteriss; Adele, Rhian Lois; Ida, Lydia Marchione; Frosch, Jan Pohl; Actors, Peter Cooney, Tom Fackrell, Stewart Heffernan, Adam Trembath; Director, Christopher Alden; Set Designer, Allen Moyer; Lighting Designer, Paul Palazzo; Costume Designer, Constance Hoffman; Conductor, Eun Sun Kim; Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Monday 30th September 2013.