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

Temple Winter Festival: the Gesualdo Six

‘Gaudete, gaudete!’ - Rejoice, rejoice! - was certainly the underlying spirit of this lunchtime concert at Temple Church, part of the 5th Temple Winter Festival. Whether it was vigorous joy or peaceful contemplation, the Gesualdo Six communicate a reassuring and affirmative celebration of Christ’s birth in a concert which fused medieval and modern concerns, illuminating surprising affinities.

Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

The journey is always the same, and never the same. As Ian Bostridge remarks, at the end of his prize-winning book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, when the wanderer asks Der Leiermann, “Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?”, in the final song of Winterreise, the ‘crazy but logical procedure would be to go right back to the beginning of the whole cycle and start all over again’.

Turandot in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera wrapped up its 95th fall opera season just now with a bang up Turandot. It has been a season of hopeful hints that this venerable company may regain some of its former luster.

Daniel Michieletto's Cav and Pag returns to Covent Garden

It felt rather decadent to be sitting in an opera house at 12pm. Even more so given the passion-fuelled excesses of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which might seem rather too sensual and savage for mid-day consumption.

Manitoba Opera: Madama Butterfly

Manitoba Opera opened its 45th season with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly proving that the aching heart as expressed through art knows no racial or cultural divide, with the Italian composer’s self-avowed favourite opera still able to spread its poetic wings across time and space since its Milan premiere in 1904.

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake celebrate 25 years of music-making

In 1992, concert promoter Heinz Liebrecht introduced pianist Julius Drake to tenor Ian Bostridge and an acclaimed, inspiring musical partnership was born. On Wenlock Edge formed part of their first programme, at Holkham Hall in Norfolk; and, so, in this recital at Middle Temple Hall, celebrating their 25 years of music-making, the duo included Vaughan Williams’ Housman settings for tenor, piano and string quartet alongside works with a seventeenth-century origin or flavour.

Girls of the Golden West in San Francisco

Not many (maybe any) of the new operas presented by San Francisco Opera over the past 10 years would lure me to the War Memorial Opera House a second time around. But for Girls of the Golden West just now I would be there again tomorrow night and the next, and I am eagerly awaiting all future productions.

DiDonato is superb in Semiramide at Covent Garden

It’s taken a while for Rossini’s Semiramide to reach the Covent Garden stage. The last of the operas which Rossini composed for Italian theatres between 1810-1823, Semiramide has had only one outing at the Royal Opera House since 1887, and that was a concert version in 1986.

Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse at the Wigmore Hall

‘His master’s masterpiece, the work of heaven’: ‘a common fountain’ from which flow ‘pure silver drops’. At the risk of effulgent hyperbole, I’d suggest that Antonio’s image of the blessed governance and purifying power of the French court - in the opening scene of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi - is also a perfect metaphor for the voice of French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, as it slips through Handel’s roulades like a silken ribbon.

La Rondine Takes Flight in San Jose

Kudos to San Jose Opera for offering up a wholly winning, consistently captivating new production of Puccini’s seldom performed La Rondine.

Clonter Opera Gala

Clonter’s Opera Gala in the breath-taking beautiful ball-room at the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair was a glamorously glittering smattering of opera – which made me want to run out to every opera in town.  

A New Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the start of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s splendid, new production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre conflict and resolution are portrayed throughout with moving intensity. The central character Brünnhilde is sung by Christine Goerke and her father Wotan by Eric Owens.

As One a Haunting Success in San Diego

San Diego Opera has mined solid gold with its mesmerizing and affecting production of As One, a part of their innovative ‘Detour Series.’

OLF: Songs by Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Georgy Sviridov

Compared to the oft-explored world of German lieder and French chansons, the songs of Russia are unfairly neglected in recordings and in the concert hall. The raw emotion and expansive lyricism present in much of this repertoire was clearly in evidence at the Holywell Music Room for the penultimate day of the celebrated Oxford Lieder Festival.

Stockhausen’s STIMMUNG and COSMIC PULSES at the Barbican.

This concert was an event on several levels - marking a decade since the death of Stockhausen, the fortieth anniversary (almost to the day) since Singcircle first performed STIMMUNG (at the Round House), and their final public performance of the piece. It was also a rare opportunity to hear (and see) Stockhausen’s last completed purely electronic work, COSMIC PULSES - an overwhelming visual and aural experience that anyone who was at this concert will long remember.

Nico Muhly's Marnie at ENO

Winston Graham’s 1961 novel Marnie was bold for its time. Its themes of sexual repression, psychological suspense and criminality set within the dark social fabric of contemporary Britain are but outlier themes of the anti-heroine’s own narrative of deceit, guilt, multiple identities and blackmail.

TOSCA: A Dramatic Sing-Fest

On November 12, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s verismo opera, Tosca, in a dramatic production directed by Tara Faircloth. Her production utilized realistic scenery from Seattle Opera and detailed costumes from the New York City Opera. Gregory Allen Hirsch’s lighting made the set look like the church of St. Andrea as some of us may have remembered it from time gone by.

The Lighthouse: Shadwell Opera at Hackney Showroom

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … and horror … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.’

Elisabeth Kulman sings Mahler's Rückert-Lieder with Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia

Austrian singer Elisabeth Kulman has had an interesting career trajectory. She began her singing life as a soprano but later shifted to mezzo-soprano/contralto territory. Esteemed on the operatic stage, she relinquished the theatre for the concert platform in 2015, following an accident while rehearsing Tristan.

Tremendous revival of Katie Mitchell's Lucia at the ROH

The morning sickness, miscarriage and maundering wraiths are still present, but Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor, receiving its first revival at the ROH, seems less ‘hysterical’ this time round - and all the more harrowing for it.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King [Photo by Tristram Kenton]
11 May 2015

The Pirates of Penzance, ENO

Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh’s 1999 film starring Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent, dramatized the fraught working relationship of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan; it won four Oscar nominations (garnering two Academy Awards, for costume and make-up) and is a wonderful exploration of the creative process of bringing a theatrical work to life.

The Pirates of Penzance, ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King

Photos by Tristram Kenton

 

In his contribution to the ENO programme booklet, ‘Gilbert & Sullivan: some reflections’ (which reproduces an article which Leigh published in the Guardian in November 2006), the director sets out his understanding of Gilbert’s means and ends:

‘The operas have often been misunderstood. They are referred to as satires, which they are not. There may be satirical elements in Iolanthe or Utopia Limited, but Gilbert’s true intention is never to draw specific parallels. He merely holds up his mirror to the world, and reflects on its madness. Similarly misunderstood is his much-criticised attitude to elderly women. He is not attacking them; he is doing no more than lament the way life is. We all grow old, and the plain and the ugly have a harder time than the beautiful.

If these shows have fallen into disrepute over the years, it is because directors have failed to understand their raw edge. This results in boring, bland, sentimental, self-conscious, often gratuitously camp productions, which entirely miss the point.’

Making his operatic directorial debut with this staging of The Pirates of Penzance at English National Opera, Leigh now has the chance to show us how to avoid tedious mundanity and kitschy mawkishness. He has offered an analysis of what he terms ‘the stylistic alchemy of Gilbert's art as a dramatist’: ‘His genius is to fuse opposites with an imperceptible sleight of hand, to blend the surreal with the real, and the caricature with the natural. In other words, to tell a perfectly outrageous story in a completely deadpan way. Indeed, to disguise a subversive anarchist bomb as bourgeois respectability.’ And, this production lives up to those ideals. But, the ‘deadpan’ approach also runs the risk of snuffing out both the dissent and the fun.

Designer Alison Chitty’s complementary colour scheme is a beguiling emblem of a ‘wrong-side-up’ world. Blue bangs against orange, red against green, just as order slides into disorder. As conductor David Parry leads the Orchestra of English National Opera through a detailed, nuanced and surprisingly genteel reading of the overture, we are presented with a midnight blue front-drop adorned with a shining ring of cobalt, at the base of which is perched a complacent seagull, the circle marred with a vigorous orange splurge — the sort of wildly exuberant, rebellious gesture which Timothy Spall might have made as the painterly protagonist in Leigh’s recent film Mr Turner.

ENO The Pirates Of Penzance Claudia Boyle, Robert Murray and ENO Chorus and company (c) Tristram Kenton.pngClaudia Boyle as Mabel, Robert Murray as Frederic and chorus

So, we are in a Dali-esque world. Is the circle a rabbit hole from Alice’s Wonderland down which we will plunge into a world of inversions and subversions? Later the colours will reverse: a parrot will squat within a hanging orange loop. And, in Act 2 the circle will become a cameo medallion from which the disapproving frown of Queen Victoria will glower. In the first instance, as the curtain rises it is revealed to be a foreshadowing of a ‘porthole’ through which jut the orange deck-planks of the pirates’ rigging-bedecked ship.

The circle can be split and pulled apart, elongated across the stage, mimicking the movements of a camera from short to long range. In Act 1 the hemispheres slide outwards to reveal a lurid green stairway — a slippery seaweed escalator down which the Major-General and his daughters effect their arrival on the shore. In Act 2, the squashed oblong contains a cross on a pedestal — Victorian hypocrisy? — the only item of ‘furniture’ decorating the Major-General’s chambers. But, the design is also limiting; in the opening scene there is little room for the pirates to do more than wave a flag and slap a thigh. When the Major-General’s dozens of daughters gather on the shore — their Victorian bustles replicating all the shades of the ocean from its creamy white horses to its deep-blue depths, via every tint of emerald and aquamarine — the foreshortened stage forces them to huddle on mass, first right then left. The marauding pirates, claiming these feminine fancies for their wives, hoist them aloft and rustle their ruffs, but cannot actually whisk them away.

ENO The Pirates Of Penzance Robert Murray, Joshua Bloom, Alexander Robin Baker, ENO Chorus and Rebecca de Pont Davies (c) Tristram Kenton.pngRobert Murray as Frederic, Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King, Alexander Robin Baker as Samuel, ENO Chorus and Rebecca de Pont Davies as Ruth

The direction is unfussy: although there are thoughtful details and nuances, on the whole Leigh has decided to tell it straight and let Gilbert’s irony do its own work (there has been no meddling with the libretto). And, his cast served him well, if cautiously, on this opening night. Joshua Bloom was terrific as the Pirate King: a Dustin Hoffmane-sque Hook — all wry winks and sinister smiles - he beguiled with his ingenuity, honesty and innate warm-heart. For this listener, with his resonant tone, athletic projection and meticulous comic nous — and, his disreputably shabby black tricorn — Bloom stole the show. As Frederic, tenor Robert Murray — his knotted ‘kerchief less impressive than Bell’s splendid skull-and-cross bone adorned headgear — sang endearingly but, after the opening scenes he was under-directed and made less dramatic impact. Jonathan Lemalu’s generous bass-baritone made him a striking Sergeant of Police, and his Act 2 number, ‘When a felon’s not engaged in his employment’, was one of the highlights of the evening.

Rebecca de Pont Davies was a characterful Ruth — the muddled maid whose auditory mix-up (pilot/pirate) is the start of Frederic’s woes; her excruciatingly emphatic enunciation of Gilbert’s rhymes in ‘When Frederic was a little lad’ was a wry reminder of her phonic blunder. As Mabel, Irish soprano Claudia Boyle rivalled Bloom for candid audacity, cheekily claiming Frederic as her beau, and flitting from coquetry to feistiness. Boyle’s Mabel sparkled and captivated; vocally she gleamed. Making her ENO debut, soprano Soraya Mafi (second prize winner in the recent 2015 Kathleen Ferrier competition) was a lively Edith. The chorus and orchestra performed with style and discipline, and Parry brought out the beauty of the score.

ENO The Pirates Of Penzance Joshua Bloom and Andrew Shore (c) Tristram Kenton.pngJoshua Bloom as the Pirate King and Andrew Shore as Major-General Stanley

So far, so unobjectionable: but, subversive? Anarchic? Andrew Shore, veteran musical comedian, ticked all the right boxes as the Major-General: sporting an extravagantly plumed helmet and imperial scarlet, he delivered the patter of ‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General’ with a metronomic exactitude which seemed to uphold Victorian certainty and presumption, but at a breakneck pace which made a mockery of such self-assurance and values. Leigh has remarked that, ‘Gilbert saw the world as a chaotic place, in which our lives are brutal accidents of birth, fate and human blunder, a jungle of confusion and delusion, where we all aspire to be other than who we are, and where nobody is really who or what they seem to be.’ Yet, there was a predictability about Shore’s interpretation that conveyed little of what Leigh describes as the innate ‘dark side’ and ‘hard edge’ of G&S.

The newspaper Fun was launched in 1861 and for ten years Gilbert wrote articles and poems for the magazine. This production, for all its coherence and authenticity, seemed markedly lacking in ‘fun’. Perhaps it was a mere diversion for Leigh, who may be more focused on Peterloo than Penzance (his next film is to tackle the 1819 massacre in Manchester) but the ENO management need this production to succeed. Two extra performances have been added to the run, but, while advance booking is high, one questions whether the pirates will have the lasting pulling power of the Jonathan Miller’s Mikado which returns in the autumn, thirty years after it first appearance. The trouble with (and joy of) G&S is that the operas are all individual but also absolutely alike. Miller made The Mikado his own. Topsy Turvy — warm-hearted and droll — was essentially about two men’s devotion to the theatre, and Leigh’s love and reverence for this piece is clear: but, it needs a bit more rough-handling.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Major-General Stanley: Andrew Shore, The Pirate King: Joshua Bloom, Frederic: Robert Murray, Sergeant of Police: Jonathan Lemalu, Mabel: Claudia Boyle, Ruth: Rebecca de Pont Davies, Samuel: Alexander Robin Baker, Edith: Soraya Mafi, Kate: Angharad Lyddon, Isabel: Lydia Marchione; Conductor David Parry, Director Mike Leigh, Designer Alison Chitty, Lighting Designer Paul Pyant, Choreographer Francesca Jaynes. English National Opera, Saturday 9th May 2015.

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):