Absurdly Brilliant – Review: ROH – The Nose

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Giant tap-dancing noses, a Cross-dressed balalaika-playing prostitute, a man who has lost his nose and the Carnivalesque Russian society that will not help him get it back. Barrie Kosky brings Shostakovich’s first opera to the Royal Opera House stage for the first time with a production that raises this work to a whole new level.

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Image Source: http://www.theartsdesk.com

 

The English translation by David Pountney is funny, relatable and conveys the character of Gogol’s absurdist short story on which the Opera is based. Martin Winkler tackles the lead role with vocal delivery that is as characterful as it is technically exciting, with excellent comic timing throughout. The work hangs almost entirely between Winkler as the inexplicably noseless Collegiate Assessor and the Royal Opera House Chorus who, supported by a phenomenal cast of dancers, are powerful, funny and at their musical best.

This production is especially notable for its imaginative use of space, staging and perspective, focussing much of the action through a circular aperture (a nostril? Suggests my Opera Buddy) and a further round dais. The set is minimal but hugely effective, and the use of space through dance, movement around the stage and blocking is captivating throughout, despite this production’s choice to run without an interval. Indeed, with such pace and momentum an interval really is not required.

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Image Source: ft.com

The method of presentation and much of the stagecraft is obviously influenced by Brechtian techniques, linking to this avant garde tradition of theatre wherein the ideology was designed to support absurdist and critical reflections on serious social issues. Elaborate and nonsensical dance sequences interrupt the story at random moments, reducing the audience to laughter and providing space for critical reflection on the possible political implications of the performance whilst costumery, lighting and presentation styles come together to satirise here the various institutions of the media, the police and self-satisfied upper-class society. The layers of political commentary are complicated to the extreme when bringing together the possible meanings of Gogol’s original in the context of late 19th Century Russia and Shostakovich’s lifetime of artistic and ideological struggle with the Soviet Union. A fruitily English commentator shatters both the fourth wall of the stage and the Operatic dream-world to ask whether The Nose, as text or as opera, is about anything at all anyway.  Not originally part of Shostakovich’s opera, this directly reflects Gogol’s narrative voice at the end of the original pamphlet and further anchors this production in the German tradition of the avant-garde whilst signposting its Britishness in a self-derisive but definite claim.

The Nose has been long regarded as an opera that falls short of musical success, but the convincing delivery given here by the ROH Orchestra and Chorus convinces me otherwise, the momentum only slowing down in the Letter Scene – and those are notoriously difficult to pitch across all periods and styles of opera. Refusing to answer the question whether or not The Nose has anything specific or meaningful to say about society or politics then or now, this opera was an excellent choice as an access work via the student scheme and I highly recommend anybody of any background to catch it before it closes on November 9th. Bravo, Kosky and the Royal Opera House!

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Image Source: musicomh.com
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Alternative Futures for Opera sung in English? – Review: English Touring Opera – Xerses

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English Touring Opera – Opera that moves. And indeed it does. Hailing as I do from Yorkshire I am from extremely warm towards a company that seeks to bring the Operatic art form to audiences outside of London. The company also breaks out of the institution of the Opera House, touring halls, theatres and similar venues from Exeter to Durham, Malvern to Snape Maltings and everywhere in between – although I was disappointed to hear that despite there not being a major Opera production from any other companies in my hometown of Hull since I was a small child, the council and theatres there didn’t permit the tour to extend to the banks of the Humber (local friends – what can we do together about this scandal?).

Of course any English tour however outreach focused must include London, where I attended the performance of Handel’s Xerses on Saturday 8th October. This production will be travelling the country (alongside others) until early next year.

 

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Image Source: http://www.exeternorthcott.co.uk

 

The ETO set up in London at the attractive yet intimate space of the Hackney Empire theatre. A pre-show talk with James Conway (Director of both this particular production and of ETO as a company) explained the basis of the 1940s interpretation, which was first put on to great acclaim in 2011. Conway presented an artistic ethos that focusses on this importance of the narrative story and taking seriously the characters of the operatic narrative, and this approach was effective in making believable the complex and potentially silly plot of this work. So many plots in Opera border on ridiculous and it is important to sustain them with dramatic commitment. Xerses did so, with a balanced and quirky lacing of humour. The famous opening aria Ombra mai fu (Under Thy Shade) remains beautiful, but is transformed into an extended pun as it is delivered to the ‘beloved Plane’ instead of a Plane Tree, simultaneously delivering a poignant comment on modern political leaders’ obsessions with aerial warfare. Sibling rivalry is rampant and extends to a slapstick bedroom scene between the warring sisters and an amusing but terrifyingly intense dynamic between the royal brothers, Xerses and Arsamenes.

The technical aspect of this production deserves special mention, with a set that was minimal without ever feeling lacking and lighting the balanced well the creation of mood and warmth with its role in guiding the focus of the audience to particular aspects of the staging and musical dialogues. This is particularly impressive for a company that tours.

The cast included some excellent singers, particularly Laura Mitchell as Romilda, Galina Averina as Atalanta and Clint van der Linde as Arsamenes. Averina delivered the most technically impressive soprano work, with the power in her vocal capacity used at appropriate musical opportunities and not simply for the sake of it. She crafted a character who though silly and spiteful was ultimately pitiable and relatable, which is not an easy task. Clint van der Linde successfully conveyed the deep conflict and pain of a man whose wilful and at times vindictive older brother is also his Lord and King. Although Julia Riley as Xerses noticeably lacked power and projection compared to the rest of the cast, the Act II duet between Xerses and Arsamenes was very special, both in terms of vocal technique and the masterful communications that were delivered through the music about the nature of fraternal relationships, the emotions of frustrated and intense love, and the experience of injustice each endures. For Arsamenes these are injustices of hierarchy and the precedence of his brother’s birth; for Xerses it is the injustice of unrequited love.

 

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Image Source: http://www.ft.com

 

The presentation of the story was unfortunately slightly marred by issues of intelligibility. I heard a number of individuals discussing the issue of struggling to understand during the interval, and this has been picked up on in other reviews – despite the diction being some of the clearest and most precise I have heard. The English Touring Opera chooses not to use subtitles as much as possible, I assume because subtitling unavoidably detracts attention from stage action and often leads to a distracted or partial theatrical experience. However within the Hackney Empire space the diction of anything sung behind the middle of the stage was sadly lost, and even given my substantial experience of the classical voice there were times when I only was able to catch the libretto because of Handel’s continued use of text repetition. I would encourage those who are less confident in understanding the classical voice to make sure they read up on the storyline before attending to facilitate getting their head around any moments that are partially obscured in this way.

This raises a problem for classical music that is much more general, since I have recently come to realise that the vast majority of people find it extremely difficult to parse words from classical singing, however good the diction is. I have recently been sharing a great deal of performances with people who are not accustomed to listening to the classical voice, and passages that find crystal clear are completely unintelligible to them. Furthermore a Catch-22 situation is generated since it takes a great deal of effort and concentration for those less accustomed to classical song to parse words and meaning from it, which distracts them from the musical or theatrical content whilst also potentially detracting from their enjoyment of the overall experience. Given that those with lower exposure to classical music are a great part of ETO’s outreach and target audience, and these are the people who find it most difficult to interpret the sung texts, I conclude that despite laudable and understandable artistic ideals it may be of significant importance for the ETO to reconsider their approach to subtitling in future productions. For this tour I hope that the acoustics of the other venues will be a little kinder to both the cast and those experiencing the classical voice from a fresher perspective, and more broadly I hope that musicians can find creative ways to solve the conundrum of accessibility and maintaining an optimum experience of the classical voice.

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Image Source: http://www.herefordtimes.com

 

 

I came away from the ETO production of Xerses with my confidence refreshed in the future of Opera sung in English. I was sincerely impressed by the passion and vision delivered by ETO Director James Conway in his pre-show talk, and am sympathetic to the many exceptional outreach projects for which the ETO is noteworthy.

In each location of the tour the company is providing a free workshop to secondary school children allowing them to watch a rehearsal and go backstage to understand what is involved in putting an opera together. My own students benefited from this in London, and returned more deeply enthused with opera as an art form and more aware of its particular challenges and complexities. Alongside the three baroque operas touring this season are performances of Bach’s St. John Passion, bringing local amateur choirs from diverse backgrounds (gospel, university, community) together with the ETO team. This project involves groups in music-making larger than themselves and is also an exploration of the meaning of the St. John Passion in today’s largely but not entirely secular context, where music’s origins and its destinations have become apparently separated. The director is especially keen on access and diversity, for those who will not have experienced this music before, and who will find emotional, intellectual and other levels of personal fulfilment and enrichment through the opportunity to perform and be exposed to it.

Amidst generalised lack of funding for operatic projects and almost hysterical uncertainty surrounding the future of the ENO there is real reason to fear for English-sung Opera in the present moment. However ETO’s fresh, grounded and democratic approach to the art-form has significantly alleviated my concerns. I may even be so bold as to suggest that, whilst the eyes of the musical community are focussed on the plight of larger and longer-standing organisations, the future of opera sung in English may be moving in a completely different and very welcome direction.

How to make sex and murder boring. Review: ENO – Don Giovanni

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A middle-aged man in a shiny suit stands in a bland and minimalist corridor set. Every few moments a woman walks by, goes behind a door with him for a few short seconds, they come out together completely unflustered and a few moments later this happens again. And again. And again. Either the short time spent behind the door is meant to effect a feeling of sped up time, or Don Giovanni is the quickest and most disappointing lay in history. In any case the sequence is annoying, pointless, and fails entirely to effectively communicate anything meaningful about the main character of this classic operatic work. Meanwhile this empty and boring charade completely distracted me from Mozart’s Overture, which irritated me even further.

The perceived need to ‘cover’ the time of the Overture without having any useful ideas about how to do so is an affliction of many operatic productions, great and otherwise. Unfortunately on this occasion, at least for this particular performance, this confusing and pointless exposition was indeed a sad taster of the production that followed. Indeed when the interval came my opera buddy and I also walked out of a door, disappointed and relieved not to return for the second half. Although not quite in numbers as great as the Don’s conquests, we weren’t even close to being the only ones to do this last Tuesday. Whilst I am fully aware that it may be seen as unjust to review a production I only saw half of, I have never walked out of a theatre in my life before which, I feel, is justification and review enough in itself.

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Leporello enjoys peeping through the keyhole as Don Giovanni plays Kink with Donna Anna. Image Source: The Guardian

 

Don Giovanni is a notoriously difficult opera to put on. Like so many of Mozart’s librettos the storyline delivers a string of gaping holes and the characters are so confused in their identities and motivations that it’s almost impossible to sustain them in a dramatic world that, having been touched by the study of realism, is no longer willing to tolerate portrayals that don’t follow consistently from one moment to another. It can of course be done thrillingly well – but instead of seizing the ingenious music and the erotic farce and the power of the underlying mortality tale , this production seems to try to ignore them with a low-energy ‘minimalism’ and hope that they’ll go away. They didn’t. In addition, my Year 12 class (who I sent to the opening night last Friday) explained that in the second half the plot has been entirely changed, completely removing any moral direction or meaning from the iconic story in favour of a series of gimmicks with wigs.

Christopher Purves was not in good voice, with a sometimes soft-rock vocal timbre and musically uninspiring presentation of the lead character. His banter with Clive Bayley’s Leporello was witty indeed, but it was Bayley himself who for me was the vocal star of the show followed closely by Allan Clayton as Don Ottavio and, in certain glorious moments, Caitlyn Lynch as Donna Anna. Clayton is tender and is one of the only principals to convincingly act his character throughout. Despite thrilling top notes Lynch seemed at a loss on the acting front for how to portray grief believably – a great flaw in any Donna Anna. Her opening aria was musically enchanting despite a frustrating mismatch between her lyric vibrato and Clayton’s lighter tone. Her reaction to the murder of her father was completely unconvincing as she stood still and expressionless whilst accounting it through song. Christine Rice as Donna Elvira had a vibrato that was far too wide for my personal taste and at times I felt that the shape of Mozart’s more delicate coloratura lines was almost completely obscured by it. Her Elvira was more annoying than pitiful, which makes it difficult to engage properly with the wider themes that are supposed to run through the characters’ relationships.

Mary Bevan has received mixed reviews as Zerlina. On this occasion I found her uncharacteristically mediocre and dramatically dubious. The character of Zerlina, with her erratic and conflicting emotions, suffers in condensed form all the difficulties of inconsistency in the wider libretto of Don Giovanni. She is undeniably a challenge to play, however I didn’t feel that Bevan herself was clear on Zerlina’s motivations. I feel that the character can be made to work well when given a direction, for example either truly in love with Masetto or secretly leaning towards Don Giovanni, but Bevan conveyed a swinging ambivalence that was not supported enough to provide a good basis for the trajectory of her role. The high notes she delivered in the Act 1 Aria ‘Batti, batti, o bel Masetto’ were surprisingly thin and even strained. James Creswell as Masetto actually fell a full half bar out with Wigglesworth and the Orchestra at one point, something I have never seen on a major operatic stage.

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WTF? Purves modelling how we felt. Image Source: http://www.theindependent.co.uk

Given the fragility of the ENO at the present time and its huge importance as the bridge between this incredible art form and the vernacular, performers cannot afford to have ‘off’ evenings and the production teams cannot be allowed to deliver uninspiring, bland or flawed productions. The reviews of Tosca, which is also currently playing at The Coliseum, are equally flat and betray a failure to connect with young audiences. This production also fell down on basic points of execution such as tacky sets and costume additions that looked cheap instead of minimalist, and the moment where the (heartbreakingly small) chorus could be heard stomping into their next position behind the set front. Some of the best opera productions I’ve seen have been at the ENO (see AkhnatenThe Magic Flute). Between an exodus at half time and a group of 17 year olds who, despite being first-time opera-goers, were annoyed by an alternative ending that “doesn’t make sense”, this is not the way to ensure the future of Opera performed in English or this Opera Company.

 

 

Organist Anxiety : Am I Totally Irrelevant?

 

It’s hard to be in love in an instrument that the world keeps telling you is irrelevant, out of touch, a ‘dying art’ and the preserve of the elite. I have cumulatively spent weeks, months, probably pushing years of my life at an organ bench, burning my neurons to shreds over pieces that demand my two hands and feet to play three independent melodies across up to 6 keyboards (including one made of pedals). I have experienced ridiculous ecstasy that beats hands down any other feeling I’ve ever known, and I’ve sobbed my heart out at the console as well.

Last week I was doing a lot of the latter – yes, partly because I was tired and run down, but mostly because in that state I couldn’t sustain the confidence that people actually cared about the music I think is so special, or that anybody could possibly want to hear something so ‘niche’, so ‘stuffy’ and ‘out of date’ as an Organ Recital. And yes, these are all ways that real people have, with all kind intentions, described the organ and its music to me.

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The Organ. Not always an ‘easy sell’.

My anxiety came as I was scheduled to open a local arts festival with an organ recital, as has been tradition since the first of these festivals however many years ago. A few weeks before one of the organisers had appended half an hour of a local Rock Choir onto this – and some small circumstances been different, I suspect it would have replaced my stint entirely. The inclusion of the Rock Choir in the opening ceremony is a great thing – a group of local people, having fun making music together as part of the local community. Brilliant! However, I’d been practicing for months, and this sudden change of genre made me feel both dated and somewhat dispensable. I suppressed this initially, but a few days before the recital I suddenly became convinced that nobody wanted to hear an organ recital any more, and I was a living relic.

My carefully selected programme caused me particular concern. I had chosen to play a technical and structurally complex piece of Bach (Trio Sonata no. 3), a couple of studies by Schumann and a loud, bombastic, but ultimately atonal and harmonically ‘weird’ modern piece by a French Composer (Fête by Langlais). To put into perspective the dedication the organ demands, I have been gradually learning this last piece over two years. It’s not easy at all. My confidence in its impressiveness however was shook when, on hearing fragments of practice, a non-musician friend betrayed that they didn’t understand why I was so enthused about it – and that was my most exciting piece of the lot! Finally and most keenly, I felt that the Bach work I had chosen and slaved over was too academic and too intellectual to be wanted by anybody other than musicians in general and organists in particular. I firmly believed that the audience would spend the half-hour of organ music itching for me to get off the dais and for the Bon Jovi arrangements to begin. I felt totally unwanted, and completely irrelevant. It became almost impossible to convince me otherwise.

There is so much going on between the lines of this anecdote. It is sobering and also inspiring, in a way, that my musician friends and colleagues didn’t pretend to know any better than me whether most people wanted to hear a Bach Trio Sonata when I sobbed about how non-musicians would find it boring. One teaching colleague did however point out to me that, when presented in the right way, the children I teach in school can become completely invigorated by such stuff. My inner pessimist resisted this observation, and felt that both those children and the attendees at the upcoming festival would be a ‘captive’ audience.

The turning point came when one of my best friends, and fellow organist-relevance-explorer reminded me that when we perform we should, above all, enjoy ourselves. Amidst the panic and anxiety about whether Bach, Langlais, the Organ and I were wanted or not I forgot this basic truth. This music and this beast of an instrument make me happy and fill my life with beauty and philosophy that penetrates beyond itself, into everything I do. It is important to be concerned with outreach and teaching and other service-based work, but in the two-year gap since I last played a recital I forgot that I’m supposed to be the main beneficiary of my musical life. When I was a child I played for hours every day, just for me. When did that change and why?

triosonata-facsimile The morning of the festival came, and as I practiced my friend and page-turner couldn’t
contain her awe at the beauty of Bach’s work. As I opened my heart and my unashamedly academic music-brain to the music again I realised I was playing it too fast – in a misguided attempt to race through the ‘boring’ movement and make it more exciting for a lay audience. I had forgotten to use my painfully begotten technical skills to draw out the beauty that was already in the music, the way it was written and meant to be. I chose to refuse to apologise for the mind-boggling genius that is Bach in all his works, and especially in his Trio Sonatas. It is true that my audience couldn’t understand the theoretical reasons why those six pages of semiquavers were such a marvel – but I communicated it to them anyway, and I made sure that they felt it with me on a much more important, abstract level. I had fun with Schumann’s jokes, and I used every single one of the 2000+ pipes on the organ for the screaming Langlais at the end. The result? An audience in raptures, and I wondered what I had ever been worried about.

Music is a gift for musicians themselves as well as for them to give to others, and the organ more than deserves its title “The King of Instruments”. A full organ has a range greater than that of a Symphonic Orchestra, and a skilled musician of any ilk can communicate the most wonderful things to any listener, regardless of that person’s musical background or interests.

So, this uncharacteristically wandering and introspective post is something of an advertisement: I’m back on the bench again, as far as recitals are concerned. If you have a gap in your concert series, I’d be happy to fill it for you. I love the organ and its fantastic repertoire, and I’ll not be apologising for it ever again. Finally I’m extremely grateful that, through a little tiredness and insecurity, I remembered why I spend so much of my life in front of a keyboard – primarily, it’s for me.

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