Review: ROH – L’Étoile

 

Bursting out of a fantastical set and laced with bitingly British new dialogue, the endlessly amusing score by unsung genius Emanuel Chabrier sings out at the Royal Opera House in wild Technicolor. Silly, funny and so intelligent, this mad musical treat is a gem of sublimely surreal but warmly familiar pop-art.

etiole advert Image Source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/KRhRyJgveXE/hqdefault.jpg

 

“Let’s stop rediscovering Chabrier every twenty years. Let’s put him once and for all in his true place, right at the top.” Roland-Manuel, Biographer of Maurice Ravel

The top it is, with Royal Opera House’s eclectic production of this rarely-performed work. Chabrier’s music is a revelation. Persistently funny, it retains a degree of elegance and intelligence that draws it into the smartness of wit just as the dazzling tomfoolery threatens to become rather too silly. The opera as a musical work is detailed and engaging throughout. I particularly admire Chabrier’s marvellous and meticulous placing of space, breath and pause, which the knowing performances of the Covent Garden cast put to proper use. Indeed like all good comedy, whilst both the music and the theatrical performances seem random and daft, under the surface of farce is a decisive and intelligent line of thought that gives this work its direction – even if that direction is somewhat squiggly at times.

Chabrier’s sound is both familiar and unique. A contemporary of Debussy, Ravel and Fauré, Chabrier was famously influenced by the music of Wagner and yet on first hearing at least, little of this seems to have obviously impacted his individual style in L’Étoile. Fascinatingly Chabrier avoided formal training, which may or may not be why his music is so packed with character, improvisational and compositional skill.

chorus red elephantImage Source: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/feb/02/l-etoile-review-royal-opera-house-london

This current production by Mariame Clément presents the work in a unique and slightly altered form, including new dialogue that frames the human universals packed into this decidedly French 19th Century comedy for a contemporary London audience. Thinking even a little about what makes comedy funny very quickly reveals that comedy is a decidedly culturally and temporally specific thing, especially given that shared political or cultural heritage is most often the basis – or ‘butt’ – of comedy’s joke. Chabrier’s storyline does indeed include a few time-and-place specific nudges that will particularly delight Francophile historians. However, a great deal of the comedy revolves around human universals of love, mistaken identity, and a generalised unwillingness to confront death without a fight. Clément’s restructuring of the work acknowledges and enhances both of these factors by introduction of the brilliantly foppish Victorian ‘English Gentleman’, Smith (played by Chris Addison) and his French Valet, Dupont. Smith and Dupont’s intermittent commentary on aspects of the story, staging, and even the subtitles re-contextualises the work for a contemporary London audience, very often by pointing out the ridiculous in an exasperated and profoundly British way. Although they have been dismissed by some newspaper critics as unnecessary devices, Smith and Dupont were greatly enjoyed by the audience and fitted seamlessly into the existing work.

lazuli smith.jpgImage Source: https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2016/letoile-at-royal-opera-house-london-dramatically-slight/

The star of the show is undoubtedly Kate Lindsay as the obnoxious Lazuli. With a swagger that inspires envy, Kate delivers both comedic high points (Je suis Lazuli) and the serious emotional goods (O petite étoile) with vocal control that beggars belief. Sublime, soaring piano moments are contrasted with perfectly pitched sneezes and laughs demonstrating the full range of this remarkable mezzo. King Ouf’s characterful voice is also excellent (Christophe Mortagne), partnering wonderfully with the rumblingly resonant bass of Simon Bailey as the bluffing astrologer Siroco. The chorus of the Royal Opera House are particularly excellent in this production, as Chabrier’s music gives them both the opportunity to demonstrate both their technical skill and slickness as a musical unit, and to enjoy some strong character acting. The costumes are wonderful, with luscious silks and beautiful detail, as indeed is all the set.

Lazuli chartreuse.jpgImage Source: http://www.roh.org.uk/news/opera-essentials-letoile

In this production the set itself is a special triumph. Just as Clément’s direction and libretto tweaks reframe L’Étoile for its intended audience, the imaginative and eclectic set brings out the fantasy of the Orientalist 19th Century fairy-tale setting with a decidedly British irreverence. In the spirit of Chabrier’s everywhere-and-nowhere-in-particular imagined kingdom, the scenery and costume design juxtaposes Arabian Maghrebi architecture, Bohemian Paris, Ottoman silks, positively Alpine countrysides and more than a touch of Bollywood ‘ouf’ in an entirely glorious celebration of what is wonderful and magical in the cultural creations of humanity. Musical and theatrical operatic devices, such as musical epithets for particular characters, are visually emphasised through apparently random imagery. The poutily gasping face of vintage woman face hails Lazuli in his ‘pedlar’ mode, and scattered bowler hats tend to appear not too long before or after the miserably hatless Smith, for example. The visuals in themselves are culturally humorous with more than a nod to the surrealist and Dadaist movements that influenced Chabrier himself. On the topmost layer, the British context of this production is driven home with clear references to Monty Python and the addition of ‘London’ pigeons in front of classic Parisian, Eiffel tower imagery.

set lipstick.jpgImage Source: http://www.roh.org.uk/news/your-reaction-letoile

The criticisms of ROH’s L’Étoile in the press have run along two main veins: firstly that the production somehow lacks focus, and secondly that the work is somehow too ‘silly’ and not serious enough for the ‘grandeur’ of the Royal Opera House as a venue. In my not-so-humble opinion, such criticisms completely miss the point and spirit both of this particular opera production and of opera as a performing art in general. Chabrier and his librettists did not intend for there to be a geographical, fixed political, or indeed narrative focus to this work and to manufacture one would be to damage the intentionally light and fluffy form of the piece as a product. Clément and designer Julia Hansen have run and run with the potential for farce in the opera, and have produced sugar-sweetness of just enough intensity for a piece that is, after all, only 125 minutes long. This production is intentionally over-full. The excess of visual references to global historical and British popular culture create a world at once familiar and strange, whilst the musical and theatrical pushing of comedy and repetition reflects a slapstick humour Chabrier never really wrote beyond. I suggest that those looking for focus and seriousness find it elsewhere, in its proper place, rather than insisting it appear here. For those seeking a scholarly basis for this suggestion, they need only look to the wealth of writing that links Chabrier directly to the anarchic Dadaist movement within art that I mentioned earlier, and the tendency of his friendship circles towards surrealist and impressionist rebellions against the strait-jackets of the so-called ‘serious’ art forms of their time.

Chabrier’s L’Étoile is a wonderful reminder that really good music does not have to be pinned down by seriousness or ‘focus’, and that there’s nothing wrong with a good dose of silliness on a Saturday night at the theatre. Opera has a reputation for the macabre, the melodramatic and the ‘grand’ that is simply not true of the whole of the repertoire – and shouldn’t be. Art forms captivate the human imagination because of their endless potential to express, and opera is special precisely because it draws together music, theatre, and visual art. Therefore, why should Covent Garden’s glorious theatre restrict itself only to productions that are as gilt and pompous as everybody who has never experienced the joy of opera expects it to be? This production is a masterclass in light opera, and succeeded last night in making an enormous and packed auditorium laugh out loud every few minutes for two and a half hours. Disregarding the brilliant musical foundation of the work, that is an admirable achievement in itself.

set chartreuse.jpgImage Source: https://bachtrack.com/review-chabrier-etoile-clement-elder-royal-opera-february-2016

In sum, the Royal Opera House’s production of L’Étoile is a brilliant night out, driven by Chabrier’s genuinely intelligent music in a production that embraces the joy of being silly. I encourage everybody with a sense of humour and a taste of fun to grab a ticket and go see it. I’ll buy you a therapist if you don’t laugh at least once.

 

 

 

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Review: ENO – The Magic Flute

 

This curious production draws together the simplest and the most technically advanced of special effects devices, running with the original spirit of Mozart’s comic opera The Magic Flute. Driven by the principles of entertainment, ‘magic’ and the spirit of the music, the result is an unusual piece of sung theatre bringing something quite unique to a well-worn favourite.

papageno.jpgImage Source: https://www.eno.org/whats-on/15-16/the-magic-flute/2015-production-images

On Thursday 11th March my Opera Buddy and I rocked up to the London Coliseum early to benefit from the Opera Undressed scheme run by the ENO. Opera Undressed offers members on a waiting list the opportunity to buy limited tickets for a massively discounted price of £20 a head, which gives access to a brief pre-show talk, a pair of the best seats in the house, and a cheeky G&T at an after-party with cast and crew. The scheme is excellent and I strongly recommend it to both opera lovers and opera virgins (at whom it is principally aimed). Providing a well-structured and introduction to opera through emailed synopses and the pre-show talk, it is as financially and intellectually accessible as it professes to be. The tone and spirit with which the scheme is delivered decidedly enhances the experience both of the opera in general and this production in particular.

The current production brings together a mish mash of stylistic theatrical devices, from the modern and post-modern to the very old school. The birds of Papageno the Bird Catcher are represented extremely effectively by fluttering folded sheets of A4 papers which make a flock in the hands of chorus actors in black. However in other places the chorus is in specific costume and spatially organised (‘blocked’) in a very traditional way. The use of space is both minimalist, with no specific set or scenery, yet at the same time it is highly technical, shaped mainly by a large square of staging attached at all four corners to motorised pulleys which raise, lower and angle it into slides, mountains, two-storey buildings and many things more besides throughout the show. A key feature of this production is its treatment of the Orchestra, which is raised within the pit to be almost on the same level as the main stage. Fully lit, the music and orchestra are integrated into the performance space, and “The Magic Flute” is the orchestral flautist herself, who ‘lends’ her instrument, and occasionally her talent, to the romantic lead as a talisman in times of rejoicing or distress.

Given the confusing density of different ideas, from different styles and periods of theatrical thought, the production hangs together very well as a piece. It must be said that taking away the trappings of 18th Century costumery and pomp reveals the thinness of the narrative upon which the opera is based. However Simon McBurney has intentionally restructured this piece around the very thing the libretto was created for: special effects.

In Christopher Cook’s illuminating pre-show talk he explained to Opera Undressed goers that the libretto for The Magic Flute was written by Emanuel Schikaneder, who in addition to being a friend of Mozart was renowned in theatre at the time for his talent with special effects. The Magic Flute was always intended to be a visual spectacle, and a challenge for the theatre’s in house ‘magicians’. This production makes exceptional use of modern-day magic in the form of digital projections and a telephone-box sized sound-effects studio for creating and enhancing live sets and sound effects whilst the performance is in action. Comedic chalk drawings title the Acts, introduce characters and produce beautiful backgrounds whilst watering cans and scrunchy paper adds to the sound world Mozart created. The ‘tests’ of fire and water endured by Tamino and Pamina in the second act are particularly breath-taking, and so seamless in their execution that as an audience member excited a welcome experience of wonder and awe.

watertest.jpgImage Source: https://www.eno.org/whats-on/15-16/the-magic-flute/2015-production-images

However the main thing that seals the production as a success is the strength of character and acting brought by the cast. James Creswell as Sarastro deserves a particular mention for his exceptional technique, resounding and rich voice and entirely believable performance of the sometimes controversial High Priest. The storyline hangs on Sarastro being both a credible ‘good guy’, and his maligned reputation being also understandable. Creswell achieves this tricky balance, whilst keeping us spellbound with his phenomenal voice. On the night we attended Lucy Crowe was ill and unable to sing Pamina, however we did not feel her loss at all. Reisha Adams, who stepped in a few hours before the performance, delivered Pamina’s arias with a clear and glorious tone that established and developed a believable and realistic portrayal of the character’s conflicting and genuine affections. Though one of the smallest solo roles, Soraya Mafi was a pleasant shock treat as Papagena, and the fantastic acting and spookily bell-like voices of the three ‘ancient children’ were confounding in their freakishly mature portrayal of ghostly decay.

Of course the real star of The Magic Flute is the wrathful and bitter Queen of the Night. She is almost always portrayed as a formidable and almost glorious super-power, a diva in a glittering ball-gown and usually with mad and enormous hair or headgear. In this production however, she is a frail, grey-haired old woman, withered and bitter, and very often in a wheelchair. Her venom, her hatred and her manipulative hang-ups make her real, a tangible and almost familiar character from a world we know. Ambur Braid stopped the show with her aria in the first act, presenting an incredible combination of vocal acrobatics with an exceptional level of acting. The way she moved and walked was astoundingly accurate in its depiction of the comportment of the extremely elderly, and this level of energy and character never slipped throughout the play. Although the famous aria in the second half was not the most technically perfect rendition it was one of the most powerful I have seen. Not only did Braid sing the opening phrases of the aria whilst hurtling herself across the stage in a wheelchair, she performed the entire aria, which is one of the highest and most difficult in the entire vocal repertoire, sitting down and very often leaning over as she caressed the head of her daughter Pamina. Not only was this a positively Olympic achievement by Braid, the energy and level of characterisation it brought to the aria was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The emotional power of the frail, wheedling, sobbing mother, stroking her daughter’s hair as she begged her to murder her enemy, was on a totally different level to the foot-stamping, hollering, shrieking poltergeist that usually is portrayed in this scene. As a result the turmoil of Pamina’s character with her conflicting emotions makes much more sense, and the frailties of the underlying story are significantly relieved.

queen of nightImage Source: https://www.eno.org/whats-on/15-16/the-magic-flute/2015-production-images

This ‘undressed’ production is certainly very strange, drawing as it does from an inconsistent and confusing range of stylistic influences. However, it is driven by masterful staging and strong character acting, which makes up greatly for the flaws and imperfections of the original story and frames Mozart’s music in a playful but supported, believable world.


Note: This video uses footage from the previous cast/staging of this production at the ENO

Special Thanks to my Opera Buddy, Paris Andrew, who helped me thrash out exactly what I thought about this Opera experience.