Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

François-Xavier Roth conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Works by Ligeti, Bartók and Haydn

For the second of my armistice anniversary concerts, I moved across town from the Royal Festival Hall to the Barbican.

The Silver Tassie at the Barbican Hall

‘Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’ The words of George Orwell, expressed in a Tribune article, ‘The Sporting Spirit’, published in 1945.

‘The Eternal Flame’: Works by Debussy, Magnus Lindberg, Stravinsky, and Janáček

If an armistice remembrance concert is to be held - and surely it is not unreasonable to do so, one hundred years on from 1918 - let it be programmed like this. Yes, official remembrance has, in the very worst sense, been politicised way beyond endurance for most of us in the United Kingdom.

The Last Letter: the Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court

The Barbican Centre’s For the Fallen commemorations continued with this varied and thought-provoking programme, The Last Letter, which interweaved vocal and instrumental music with poems and prose, and focused on relationships - between husband and wife, fellow soldiers, young men and their homelands - disrupted by war.

Fiona Shaw's Cendrillon casts a spell: Glyndebourne Tour 2018

Fiona Shaw’s new production of Massenet’s Cendrillon (1899) for this year’s Glyndebourne Tour makes one feel that the annual Christmas treat at the ballet or the panto has come one month early.

The Rake’s Progress: Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic

Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is not, in many ways, a progressive opera; it doesn’t seek to radicalise, or even transform, opera and yet it is indisputably one of the great twentieth-century operas.

A raucous Così fan tutte at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Precisely where and when Così fan tutte takes place should be a matter of sublime indifference - or at least of individual taste. It is ‘about’ many things, but eighteenth-century Naples - should that actually be the less exotic yet still ‘othered’ neāpolis of Wiener Neustadt? - is not among them.

For the Fallen: James Macmillan's All the Hills and Vales Along at Barbican Hall

‘He has clothed his attitude in fine words: but he has taken the sentimental attitude.’ So, wrote fellow war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley of the last sonnets of Rupert Brooke.

English Touring Opera: Troubled fidelities and faiths

‘Can engaging with contemporary social issues save the opera?’ asked M. Sophia Newman last week, on the website, News City, noting that many commentators believe that ‘public interest in stuffy, intimidating, expensive opera is inevitably dwindling’, and that ‘several recent opera productions suggest that interest in a new kind of urban, less formally-staged, socially-engaged opera is emerging and drawing in new audiences to the centuries-old art form’.

Himmelsmusik: L'Arpeggiata bring north and south together at Wigmore Hall

Johann Theile, Crato Bütner, Franz Tunder, Christian Ritter, Giovanni Felice Sances … such names do not loom large in the annals of musical historiography. But, these and other little-known seventeenth-century composers took their place alongside Bach and Biber, Schütz and Monteverdi during L’Arpeggiata’s most recent exploration of musical cross-influences and connections.

Piotr Beczała – Polish and Italian art song, Wigmore Hall London

Can Piotr Beczała sing the pants off Jonas Kaufmann ? Beczała is a major celebrity who could fill a big house, like Kaufmann does, and at Kaufmann prices. Instead, Beczała and Helmut Deutsch reached out to that truly dedicated core audience that has made the reputation of the Wigmore Hall : an audience which takes music seriously enough to stretch themselves with an eclectic evening of Polish and Italian song.

Soloists excel in Chelsea Opera Group's Norma at Cadogan Hall

“Let us not be ashamed to be carried away by the simple nobility and beauty of a lucid melody of Bellini. Let us not be ashamed to shed a tear of emotion as we hear it!”

Handel's Serse: Il Pomo d'Oro at the Barbican Hall

Sadly, and worryingly, there are plenty of modern-day political leaders - both dictators and the democratically elected - whose petulance, stubbornness and egoism threaten the safety of their own subjects as well as the stability and security of other nations.

Dutch touring Tosca is an edge-of-your-seat thriller

Who needs another Tosca? Seasoned opera buffs can be blasé about repertoire mainstays. But the Nederlandse Reisopera’s production currently touring the Netherlands is worth seeing, whether it is your first or your hundred-and-first acquaintance with Puccini’s political drama. The staging is refreshing and pacey. Musically, it has the four crucial ingredients: three accomplished leads and a conductor who swashbuckles through the score in a blaze of color.

David Alden's fine Lucia returns to ENO

The burden of the past, and the duty to ensure its survival in the present and future, exercise a violent grip on the male protagonists in David Alden’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor for English National Opera, with dangerous and disturbing consequences.

Verdi's Requiem at the ROH

The full title of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem per l’anniversario della morte di Manzoni 22 maggio 1874 attests to its origins, but it was the death of Giacomo Rossini on 13th November 1868 that was the initial impetus for Verdi’s desire to compose a Requiem Mass which would honour Rossini, one of the figureheads of Italian cultural magnificence, in a national ceremony which - following the example of Cherubini’s C minor Requiem and Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts - was to be as much a public and political occasion as a religious one.

Wexford Festival 2018

The 67th Wexford Opera Festival kicked off with three mighty whacks of a drum and rooster’s raucous squawk, heralding the murderous machinations of the drug-dealing degenerate, Cim-Fen, in Franco Leoni’s one-act blood-and-guts verismo melodrama, L’oracolo … alongside an announcement by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan, of an award of €1 million in capital funding for the National Opera House to support necessary updating and refurbishment works over the next 3 years.

A New La bohème Opens Season at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 2018-19 season with Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème. This new production, shared with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and with the Teatro Real, Madrid, features an accomplished cast and innovative scenic approaches.

Arabella in San Francisco

A great big guy in a great big fur coat falls in love with the photo of the worldly daughter of a compulsive gambler. A great big conductor promotes the maelstrom of great big music that shepherds all this to ecstatic conclusion.

Two falls out of three for Britten in Seattle Screw

The miasma of doom that pervades the air of the great house of Bly seems to seep slowly into the auditorium, dulling the senses, weighing down the mind. What evil lurks here? Can these people be saved? Do we care?

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):