Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

West Wind: A new song-cycle by Sally Beamish

In a recent article in BBC Music Magazine tenor James Gilchrist reflected on the reason why early-nineteenth-century England produced no corpus of art song to match the German lieder of Schumann, Schubert and others, despite the great flowering of English Romantic poetry during this period.

Florencia en el Amazonas, NYCO

With the New York Premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas, the New York City Opera Steps Out of the Shadows of the Past

Idomeneo, re di Creta, Garsington

Opportunities to see Idomeneo are not so frequent as they might be, certainly not so frequent as they should be.

Don Carlo in San Francisco

Not merely Don Carlo, but the five-act Don Carlo in the 1886 Modena version! The welcomed esotericism of San Francisco Opera’s extraordinary spring season.

Jenůfa in San Francisco

The early summer San Francisco Opera season has the feel of a classy festival. There is an introduction of Spanish director Calixto Bieito to American audiences, a five-act Don Carlo and two awaited, inevitable role debuts, Karita Mattila as Kostelnička and Malin Bystrom as Janacek's Jenůfa.

Musings on the “American Ring

Now that the curtain has long fallen on the third and last performance of the Ring cycle at the Washington National Opera (WNO), it is safe to say that the long-anticipated production has been an unqualified success for the company, director Francesca Zambello, and conductor Philippe Auguin.

Nabucco, Covent Garden

Most of the attention during this revival of Daniele Abbado’s 2013 production of Nabucco has been directed at Plácido Domingo’s reprise of the title role, with the critical reception somewhat mixed.

The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne

Four years ago, almost to the day (13th to 12th), I saw Melly Still’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen during its first Glyndebourne run. I found myself surprised how much more warmly I responded to it this time.

London: A 90th birthday tribute to Horovitz

This recital celebrated both the work of the Park Lane Group, which has been supporting the careers of outstanding young artists for 60 years, and the 90th birthday of Joseph Horovitz, who was born in Vienna in 1926 and emigrated to England aged 12.

Opera Las Vegas: A Blazing Carmen in the Desert

Headed by General Director Luana DeVol, a world-renowned dramatic soprano, Opera Las Vegas is a relatively new company that presents opera with first-rate casts at the University of Las Vegas’s Judy Bayley Theater. In 2014 they presented Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and in 2015, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year they offered a blazing rendition of Georges Bizet’s Carmen.

La bohème, Opera Holland Park

Ever since a friend was reported as having said he would like something in return for modern-dress Shakespeare (how quaint that term seems now, as if anyone would bat an eyelid!), namely an Elizabethan-dress staging of Look Back in Anger, I have been curious about the possibilities of ‘down-dating’, as I suppose we might call it. Rarely, if ever, do we see it, though.

Holland Festival: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Amsterdam

Leading a very muscular Dutch Radio Philharmonic, Principal Conductor Markus Stenz brilliantly delivered Alban Berg’s Wozzeck with a superb Florian Boesch in the lead and a mesmerising Asmik Grigorian as Marie his wife.

Pietro Mascagni: Iris

There can’t be that many operas that start with an extended solo for double bass. At Holland Park, the eerie, angular melody for lone bass player which opens Pietro Mascagni’s Iris immediately unsettled the relaxed mood of the summer evening.

L’italiana in Algeri, Garsington Opera

George Souglides’ set for Will Tuckett’s new production of Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri at Garsington would surely have delighted Liberace.

Carmen in San Francisco

Calixto Bieito is always news, Carmen with a good cast is always news. So here is the news.

Eugene Onegin, Garsington Opera

Distinguished theatre director Michael Boyd’s first operatic outing was his brilliant re-invention of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo for the Royal Opera at the Roundhouse in 2015, so what he did next was always going to rouse interest.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Ariane and Alexandre bis

Although Bohuslav Martinů’s short operas Ariane and Alexandre bis date from 1958 and 1937 respectively, there was a distinct tint of 1920s Parisian surrealism about director Rodula Gaitanou’s double bill, as presented by the postgraduate students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Lohengrin, Dresden

The eyes of the opera world turned recently to Dresden—the city where Wagner premiered his Rienzi, Fliegende Holländer, and Tannhäuser—for an important performance of Lohengrin. For once in Germany it was not about the staging.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Glyndebourne

Having been privileged already to see in little over two months two great productions of Die Meistersinger, one in Paris (Stefan Herheim) and one in Munich (David Bösch), I was unable to resist the prospect of a third staging, at Glyndebourne.

The Threepenny Opera, London

‘Mack does bad things.’ The tabloid headline that convinces Rory Kinnear’s surly, sharp-suited Macheath that it might be time to take a short holiday epitomizes the cold, understated menace of Rufus Norris’s production of Simon Stephens’ new adaptation of The Threepenny Opera at the Olivier Theatre.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Jenna Roberts as Princess Belle Sakura and William Bracewell as the Salamander Prince [Photo by Bill Cooper]
06 Mar 2014

Benjamin Britten: The Prince of the Pagodas

As the Britten centenary events draw to a close, the Birmingham Royal Ballet are offering one final highlight: a new version of Britten’s only ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas, with choreography by David Bintley.

Benjamin Britten: The Prince of the Pagodas

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Jenna Roberts as Princess Belle Sakura and William Bracewell as the Salamander Prince [Photo by Bill Cooper]

 

Premiered at Covent Garden on 1 January 1957, with choreography by John Cranko and sets by John Piper, Britten’s ballet received a mixed welcome. While the score was admired, Cranko’s scenario and choreography was less well-received, judged ‘wild and woolly’ by one critic. In 1960, Britten and Cranko had a falling out over the composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and this, together with the underwhelming critical response, led to the ballet largely disappearing from the stage until 1989, when it was revived by Kenneth MacMillan, with Darcey Bussell in the principal role and Cranko’s scenario significantly revised by Colin Thubron.

The Prince of the Pagodas depicts an Emperor who, King Lear-like, ordains that his evil eldest daughter, Belle Épine, will inherit his throne, disdaining his younger child, the beautiful Belle Rose. The latter is magically transported to Pagoda Land where she meets and dances with the Salamander, who sloughs off his skin to reveal himself as the Prince of Pagoda Land. Belle Rose and the Prince return to the Emperor’s kingdom and confront Belle Épine, eventually succeeding in driving her away.

Bintley’s new version — a joint venture with the New National Theatre Tokyo and first seen in a performance by the National Ballet of Japan in Tokyo on 30 October 2011 — pays homage to a medley of literary and musical precursors, from Cinderella to The Merchant of Venice to The Magic Flute, which a dash of pantomime thrown into the mixture. As director of both National Ballet of Japan and Birmingham Royal Ballet, Bintley has aimed to create ‘a fusion of British and Japanese culture and mythologies’. He has been inspired by Japanese history — Japan’s self-imposed isolation during the Tokugawa period and the corruption of the court under Empress Épine — as well as the ukiyo-e paintings by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Visually it’s a luxurious feast: Rae Smith’s sets and costumes are a perfect match for the opulence of the score. Yards of swelling silk create air and grace. Lighting designer Peter Teigen wields a hypnotising palette to transport us seamlessly from the serene world of the court to more perilous and threatening terrains; and from realism to fantasy. Watching over all is a suspended Japanese moon, which casts a quiet beam upon a distant Mount Fuji. Imbued with a kaleidoscope of successful, redolent hues, this moon ultimately appears as a ripe cherry hanging pendulously amid fragile, blanched sakura. Particularly arresting are the Pagoda Land landscapes through which Princess Sakura undertakes her quest in Act 2: aquamarine underwater whirlpools transform into lurching flames, as she passes from the trial by Water to the tests of Fire.

Birmingham Royal Ballet - The Prince of the Pagodas (trailer) from Rob Lindsay on Vimeo.

In a programme article, Bintley explains that he sees Pagodas primarily as a ‘love story with no reason, purpose, conclusion or romance!’; he has aimed to make ‘another kind of love story, not expounding on the Eros type love of a man for a woman, but portraying something more mystical and subtle … the love of a girl for her brother, a father for his son and ultimately that of a family reunited after much trial and tribulation’.

Bintley transforms the malevolent Épine from sister to step-mother, while the Salamander Prince becomes Princess Sakura’s lost elder brother. Resisting her step-mother’s attempt to ‘sell’ her to the highest bidder, Sakura rejects four regal suitors and flees with the mysterious Salamander, who is both ‘fascinating and repellent’. Undergoing trials by Earth, Air, Fire and Water, Sakura finally arrives in Pagoda Land and learns of her brother’s fate: as a child, he was cursed and banished by Épine and condemned to live his days as a salamander. Sakura resolves to return home and reveal her step-mother’s treachery. Horrified by Épine’s deceit and betrayal, the Emperor expels her and father and children are joyfully re-united.

These changes have many merits. Sakura is more strongly characterised and the narrative given more focus and drive, through the introduction of the quest in Act 2. There also opportunities for additional digressions which allow for the introduction of a host of contrasting contexts and characters, and also provide ‘action’ for some of the longer musical episodes: a pas de deux in Act 1 poignantly presents Sakura’s memory of happier times when her brother was alive; three young child dancers — Natalie Rooney, Cameron-James Bailey and Jake Tang — touchingly enact the Salamander’s revelation.

Perhaps the balance between pathos and humour is not quite right, though, leaning too far in favour of the comic. So, at the start, rather than establishing an air of mourning as Sakura weeps for her dead sibling, Bintley perches the Court Fool (Tzu-Chao Chou) on the front edge of the stage, dangling and swinging her legs, teasing the orchestra — their warm-up snatches of other masterworks of the ballet repertoire met with her firm, opinionated rejection. The Fool welcomes the conductor, invites our applause and guides us into the royal court. This mime sequence prompts audience chuckles but the flippant mood feels out of place in juxtaposition with the snatched view we are offered of the salamander, coiled within an imposing Japanese urn, and does not clearly elucidate the ‘back-story’.

Similarly, some of the characterisation was a little too pantomime-esque. For example, Rory Mackay’s Emperor was convincingly aged and ailed; grieving for his lost daughter, he languished into decrepitude, the crouching Fool providing a useful bench for his fading, falling master. The rapid restoration of the old man’s vigour upon Sakura’s return raised a wry smile, but overall the Emperor seemed to me to lack a certain dignity and true authority, such as one would expect of one who wields absolute power.

And, complementing the refined gliding of geishas and imperial ministers in the ensembles at court, and the ballet grace of the samurai-inspired fight scenes, Bintley also offers more light-hearted set-pieces; but while the winsome wriggles of camp crabs, the buoyant leaps of sea horses and the comic waddling of spear-clutching, bulge-eyed monsters showcased Rae’s wonderful costumes and deepened the mood of fantastical enchantment, the ‘seriousness’ of Sakura’s quest was at times lost beneath the surface diversions.

But, these are small misgivings. Taken together it’s a tremendous show and the dancing at this performance was uniformly impressive. As the Salamander Prince, Mathias Dingman was seductively sinuous, lithe and supple; and, Dingman was equally notable when in role as the Prince, his gestures regal and elegant, but infused with warmth and generosity of spirit. Momoko Hirata beautifully conveyed Sakura’s delicate melancholy in the opening act, then captured her energy and purposefulness in Act 2, before Sakura’s sense of wonder and spirit of adventure were replaced by a growing maturity and grace in the final Act. Momoko’s movements and gestures were gentle but always clearly defined, suggesting the purity and simplicity of the innocent princess.

As Belle Épine, Elisha Willis conjured an arrogant hauteur, combining elegance and power. The four suitors all proved themselves masters of characterisation. The King of the North (Oliver Till) executed a vibrant Cusack-dance, all restrained power and poise, while as the King of the East (William Bracewell, standing in for Chi Cao who was indisposed moments before curtain-up) coiled and curled as the snake-charming rajah. James Barton’s King of the West — glitteringly attired, a cross between Uncle Sam and P. T. Barnum, deftly twirling baton and rifle — demonstrated a superb rhythmic ‘snappiness’ and dazzling showmanship, executing many a perfectly timed flick of the head or strut of the shoulders. The powerful angularity of Yasuo Atsuji’s tribal dance gestures, coupled with a resplendent African head-dress, made him a foreboding King of the South. The emphasis was more upon the Kings as individuals than upon their interaction with the two princesses, as Epine parades her sister before the suitors in a mercenary matrimonial auction, but the characterisation was engaging and the decision to bring the monarchs back, donning devilish red, to torment Sakura during the trial by fire was a well-judged one.

Conductor Paul Murphy makes much of the riches of Britten’s ‘fairy-tale’ score, the complex textures and evocative timbres of which were inspired by the gamelan music which Britten heard while undertaking a tour of the Far East with Peter Pears during winter 1955 to spring 1956. Tempi were supportive of the dancers, and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia exploited the exoticisms of the score to tell the story persuasively. The moments of ceremony were full of striking panache, while the wispy, fantastical depictions of Pagoda Land created a mood of mystery. Soloists relished the driving lyricism of Britten’s melodies.

The final divertissement on the theme of Love and Freedom is overly long but well-executed. Overall, Bintley fully captures the ‘escapism’ of Britten’s ballet, and charms us into a world of delight and enchantment. The Birmingham Royal Ballet will tour to Theatre Royal Plymouth (19 - 22 March) and London Coliseum (26 - 29 March). Catch it if you can.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Princess Belle Sakura, Momoko Hirata; The Salamander Prince, Mathias Dingman; Empress Épine, Elisha Willis; The Emperor, Rory Mackay; King of the North, Oliver Till; King of the East, Will Bracewell; King of the West, James Barton; King of the South, Yasuo Atsuji; Fool, Tzu-Chao Chou; Official, Jonathan Payn; Choreographer, David Bintley; Designs, Rae Smith; Lighting, Peter Teigen; Conductor, Peter Murphy; Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Birmingham Hippodrome, Saturday 1st March 2014.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):