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

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Don Pasquale: a cold-hearted comedy at Glyndebourne

Director Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, first seen during the 2011 tour and staged in the house in 2013, treads a fine line between realism and artifice.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Tannhäuser at Munich

Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic — if one may speak in the singular — is very different from almost anything else on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ — as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves.

Des Moines Answers Turandot’s Riddles

With Turandot, Des Moines Metro Opera operated from the premise of prima la voce, and if the no-holds-barred singing and rhapsodic playing didn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you were at the wrong address.

Maria Visits Des Moines

With an atmospheric, crackling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Des Moines Metro Opera once again set off creative sparks with its Second Stage concept.

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

World Premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water Savonlinna Opera Festival

For my first trip to Finland, I flew from Helsinki to the east, close to the border of Russia near St. Petersburg over many of Suomi’s thousand lakes, where the summer getaway Savonlinna lays. Right after the solstice during July and early August, the town’s opera festival offers high quality productions. In this enchanting locale in the midst of peaceful nature, the sky at dusk after the mesmerising sunset fades away is worth the trip alone!

Mozart and Stravinsky in Aix

Bathed in Mediterranean light, basking in enlightenment Aix found two famous classical works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in its famous festival’s open air Théâtre de l’Archevêche. But were we enlightened?

Des Moines: Nothing ‘Little’ About Night Music

Des Moines Metro Opera’s richly detailed production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music left an appreciative audience to waltz home on air, and has prompted this viewer to search for adequate superlatives.

Longborough Festival Opera: A World Class Tristan und Isolde in a Barn Shed

Of all the places, I did not expect a sublime Tristan und Isolde in a repurposed barn in the Cotswolds. Don’t be fooled by Longborough’s stage without lavish red curtains to open and close each act. Any opera house would envy the riveting chemistry between Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset in this intimate, 500 seat setting. Conductor Anthony Negus proved himself a master at Wagner’s emotional depth. Epic drama in minimalistic elegance: who needs a big budget when you have talent and drama this passionate?

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

Die Frau ohne Schatten at Munich

It was fascinating to see — and of course, to hear — Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s productions of Die Gezeichneten and Die Frau ohne Schatten on consecutive nights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival.

Dulwich Opera’s Carmen

Dulwich Opera Company’s Carmen was a convincingly successful show.  This was mainly due to succinct musical direction and rigorous dramatic direction.  It also meant that the proximity of the action was a fascinating treat, and by the artists being young, and easy on the eye.

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):