The Flying Dutchman - English National Opera, 28 April 2012 (first night)
It seems Jonathan Kent has been watching a few classic German opera DVDs. His new The Flying Dutchman (yes, it's sung in English) for ENO bravely departs from straightforward story telling -but only to recycle some of the weariest cliches in Wagner Oper. Slick West End-worthy production values and a few satisfying musical aspects do not entirely compensate.
Dmitri Tcherniakov’s reputation for radical and thought-provoking productions is solidified by his new Simon Boccanegra for ENO. Unfortunately his ideas are so drably clothed and opaquely executed that the experience is a testing one.
Linking the rise of the Nazis to the Faust tale isn't new - Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus got there a long time ago. But Terry Gilliam's exploration of the seductive power of the dark side is so assured and so brilliantly integrated with Berlioz's music that it's hard to believe this is the first time he's directed an opera - not to mention that he claims to be no great opera fan anyway.
Tosca - English National Opera, 18 May 2010 (first night)
I haven’t always been Ed Gardner’s biggest fan in the past, and to be perfectly honest, I'm not Puccini's either, but his breathtakingly superb conducting has got to be the main reason to catch this new Tosca. 'Revelatory' is a word that's often tossed lazily around, but here it's perfectly justified. This is a Tosca I could listen to over and over again.
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle / The Rite of Spring - ENO, 6 November 2009
Opera and ballet don’t necessarily go as well together in practice as they do in theory - witness Covent Garden’s recent Acis/Dido double bill and Opera Holland Park’s Iolanta. The most compelling argument for the Bluebeard/Rite pairing is the logistical one – you might as well use the massive orchestra Bluebeard demands for something else as well. Perhaps ENO hoped too for some cross-fertilisation of opera and dance audiences. But it’s a brief evening, and I can’t think many would be happy to pay £90 for less than an hour of opera, still less for the half hour of dance which follows. Another special discount must be on its way.
Daniel Kramer’s very graphic Bluebeard won’t please purists, but it’s riveting theatre. The reason for Clive Bayley’s quaint Austrian hunting jacket soon becomes obvious – Bluebeard is a Fritzl-like figure with a Sound of Music fixation and a secret family in the basement. His ultimate kick is to dress up as Captain von Trapp while doing something extremely nasty with a sword to his spreadeagled Julie Andrews, Judith. The grubby slasher movie set is atmospheric if not quite the castle of the soul Bartok had in mind, and its boxy shape helps the voices project over the enlarged orchestra. The dramatic pacing is fantastic – Kramer lets little clues slip here and there, but the ending is still a colossal, queasy shock.
The main drawback is the price of rounding out the enigmatic Bluebeard. In a traditional production Bluebeard’s cryptic personality is open to interpretation. A monster, a myth or simply a man? But here, as his desires and needs gain concrete form, Judith’s attraction to him becomes less and less credible. Put simply, you wonder what she’s doing there with this twitching maniacal psychopath. But it’s a brilliantly-executed alternative to the usual inevitably static alternative if you don’t think too hard. Clive Bayley’s rough around the edges voice suits the speech-like lines and he works hard to keep the demented villainy on the right side of panto. Michaela Martens is a more full-bodied mezzo than usually heard, lending her interpretation a knowing quality that doesn’t sit credibly with the easily duped young bride. But both sang clearly, accurately and loudly – basic requirements that the Coliseum doesn’t always meet.
I was less convinced by Ed Gardner’s conducting. Not on a technical level – the orchestra played excellently. But it didn’t deliver dramatically, something a less breathless production might have exposed. Gardner’s young, and he’s tackling many of the works he conducts at ENO for the first time. A conductor needs to spend time with the score as well as with the orchestra. Is he simply taking on more than he can handle?
His Rite of Spring was more accomplished – the key corners at least sounded thought-out. A pity Fabulous Beast’s dance element was so risible. If a weary parade of bog-trotter clichés didn’t diminish the timeless power of Stravinsky’s score enough, there were twenty todgers jiggling in the breeze to contend with as the male dancers disrobed en masse. To give the much-derided Calixto Bieito his due, he understands the effect of mass male nudity on stage is purely and always comedic - he could teach choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan a lesson. And I was left baffled by the ending, where the Chosen One (female) is surrounded by men in frocks. Men should take women's place? A nice bit of misogyny to go home with.
Sure, the glossy Chinese gastropalace and its population of post-modern archetypes look good in pics. That's because the designs are imaginative and meticulously executed. Even if we’ve seen some of the ideas before – the last act’s tiled kitchen from Goold’s Macbeth, the animal masks and typeface projections from his Enron, to name a couple – they’re still original enough to constitute an aesthetic rather than a shortage of ideas.
The problem is they're nothing more than an artsy backdrop to some decidedly old-fashioned stand and deliver action. Goold is used to working with the likes of Michael Gambon and Patrick Stewart. Here he’s saddled with a genre of performers for whom acting skills are a helpful bonus, not than a job requirement. That’s not to say that this cast are bad actors, just that they’re typical singers, and they need more direction than they’ve received here to bring out their best. The principals are left pretty much to their own devices. Amanda Echalaz as Liù reprised the memorable drug-addled victim of her OHP Un ballo in maschera. Kirsten Blanck (Turandot) has clearly seen a few Siouxsie videos. Gwyn Hughes Jones (Calaf) just wanders round in his cheap mac like a lost tourist.
The individually-costumed and fussily-blocked chorus and the superfluous dancers are more of a distraction than a compensation. Perhaps he’s trying to say that even people who consider themselves individuals can become complicit in a murderous regime. Whatever. That’s a side dish – it’s not what Turandot is about. When it comes to telling the real story, what Goold serves up is a concert performance in cool frocks.
The only character Goold shows much interest in is one he's grafted on. 'The Writer' - presumably a reflection of Puccini - is an irritating silent witness and occasional participant. He scribbles away in a book until bloodily despatched at Turandot's command towards the end - not uncoincidentally, at the point Puccini stopped writing. His book is picked up by a pig-headed dancer who writes the last few pages. You couldn't offer a clearer opinion of Alfano’s completion than that, but did we really have to suffer the previous hour and half to get there? To most operagoers, whether they like Turandot or not, Puccini's failure to complete it is simply a footnote, but Goold's staging elevates it to the raison d'etre of the entire production.
Relief came only from a handful of sterling vocal performances in the central roles, chief among them Amanda Echalaz’s thrilling Liù. Gwyn Hughes Jones offered a blank slate of a Calaf, unconvincing in his passion for the ice princess. At least he sang with some ardour and assurance. A more detailed portrayal would make him truly terrific in this part. Kirsten Blanck’s Turandot was heroically powerful, served up in a stern Marlene Dietrich accent with gale force top notes. Benedict Nelson’s Ping was the standout amongst the rest.
Edward Gardner hammered the score into submission as if he was repaying a grudge. It was a loud and dirty fight.
Prom 33: London Sinfonietta / Edward Gardner - Royal Albert Hall, 9 August 2009
Antheil Ballet mécanique John Adams Grand Pianola Music Bartók Sonata for two pianos and percussion Stravinsky Les noces
At least the second Prom of ‘Multiple Pianos’ day, unlike the first, stretched to four pianos for a couple of the works on offer. The impact of Antheil’s now-quaint Ballet mécanique was neutered by performing it in the less jazzy and less relentless 1953 update and confining the more outrageous sound effects (aeroplane propellors are specified) to laptop recordings. And couldn’t Edward Gardner have whipped up a bit more volume? Some early 20th century works still have the power to provoke, but this just came across as machine-age kitsch.
The four pianos were fully staffed again for an acoustically-unbalanced Les noces. Tatiana Monogarova and Elena Manistina managed to sing through the robust orchestration, but Vsevolod Grivnov and Kostas Smoriginas were buried beneath – a shame as their exposed solos were ardently and beautifully delivered. The refined voices of the BBC Singers, stranded way behind, floated over the visceral music more like a commentary than a part of the ecstatic communal celebration. It probably came across better on the radio.
In between came the spare textures of Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion, disappointingly stranded in the cavernous acoustic, and John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music. Like most of Adams’s non-opera music, there seems to be something missing – a cushion of words, or a movie it could soundtrack. Although this one was, according to the composer’s own programme note, booed for its radicalism on its 1982 premiere, it sounds to me like the sort of thing Sting might write on a day off. Adams serves up the superficial characteristics of Reich-style minimalism – the harmonic repetitions, the rippling arpeggiation - without the formal intelligence. The syrup-bathed first section demonstrates how readily the simple becomes banal if it’s fussed-over. The ironically recycled themes of the livelier second part, a sort of stoner Ride of the Valkyries, owe most of their appeal to subliminal recognition.
It was easily the best-performed (and received) work of the evening, but then the Royal Albert Hall acoustic finds it harder to defeat a full orchestra. Another reason to hate the 80s.
These are perhaps not the recipients the professional critics would have chosen (Partenope's reviews were mixed to say the least). But with half their judging panel made up of enthusiastic theatre and opera-goers, the Oliviers reflect public taste better than most.
La Clemenza di Tito - OAE/Gardner - Barbican, 26 July 2008
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment immediately sounded a lot better on this outing than they do at their native South Bank, confirming my suspicion that however questionable the Barbican acoustics might be, the Royal Festival Hall's are (despite the refurb) still worse.
As for the rest of the evening, this concert performance knocked the spots off David McVicar's recent ninja yawnathon for ENO (in which conductor Ed Gardner and Alice Coote also featured).
The OAE were immaculately prepared - perhaps a repeat performance this weekend at the Lincoln Center , marking Gardner's New York debut, justified a little extra rehearsal time. They were on thrilling form, playing as if their lives depended on it.
Even though the daily ENO grind is turning Gardner prematurely grey, his floppy-fringed cuteness endures. If only that was enough to move orchestras. I've found his ENO efforts patchy - too often pallid and uninspired - but he surprised me tonight, working up a sweat on the podium and a fire on the stage.
Tito seems to have built up a chorus of apologists recently, all ready to proclaim that it's unjustifiably sidelined, one of Mozart's finest, etc. But it's not. Unlike Die Zauberflöte, so eminently resistant to even the most cack-handed of treatments, when Tito's given a second-rate performance, it sounds like a second-rate opera. This is the first time I've heard it dispatched with the sort of passion and commitment that do it justice.
Of course the soloists played a huge part in this, none more so than Alice Coote, who gave so much more than just singing. In the central role of Sesto, agonisingly torn between self-destructive love for the selfish, ambitious Vitellia and loyalty to the Emperor Tito, she inhabited her part fearlessly and totally. This was a concert performance, but nothing except the music stand gave a hint that this was anything less than Coote would deliver on the opera house stage. She looked utterly spent as she sank back into her plastic chair at the end of each aria.
Toby Spence as Tito was dressed for St Moritz in January with his white polo neck and thick velvet jacket. But this was London in July, with British (i.e. rubbish) aircon. When he whipped the jacket off and sat astride his chair (to the apparent surprise of the other performers) as he started to interrogate Coote aria-style, I wondered if it was a spot of heat exhaustion. But no - dramatic licence (and very effective) - he put it straight back on again afterwards.
There was a range to his performance that suggested experiment as much as expressive breadth. Not all of it came off - in particular I felt he stressed Tito's benevolence at the expense of his authority - but it was clear he has an ever-growing range of vocal tools, not to mention the ability to keep an audience on the edge of their seats.
Next to the white-hot intensity of these two, Hillevi Martinpelto's studied and refined portrayal of Vitellia inevitably paled a little. Vitellia's mean streak needed a harder edge. But she sang beautifully, every note appropriately shaded, the voice still lustrous and almost girlish. It was 'Mozart singing' in the classic sense, and a pleasure to listen too.
Sarah Tynan was wonderfully cast as the sweet Servilia, the plaintive innocent, and Fiona Murphy too as the doughty Annio.
Matthew Rose's Publio seemed rather lugubrious in comparison to the spirited performances elsewhere, but there's something of that in the character anyway, and his sonorous bass was impressively mobile in the faster passages.
The Clare College Cambridge Choir were enthusiastic and crisply drilled - a textbook rendition, if not an especially sensitive one, to nitpick.
This concert was announced relatively late, and the Proms always provide stiff competition at this time of year. Even so, it surprised me, given the casting, that it was far from sold out - the whole balcony closed, and empty seats here and there elsewhere. The Barbican sometimes offers up some rather dodgy programming in its annual summer Mozart festival, but this was an overwhelming exception.
Here's one she made earlier: Hillevi Martinpelto sings Deh seh piacer mi vuoi for Charles Mackerras: