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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Opera Down The Pub – Review: Kings Head Theatre – La Bohème

Every night until 8th October something fantastic is happening in the small theatre at the back of The Kings Head pub in Islington – Puccini’s La Bohème is being performed by a talented and switched-on cast who are bringing this enormous work to a new kind of audience on a totally new set of terms.

The intimacy of the Kings Head Theatre itself gives this production its particular intrigue, and indeed it has been developed and adapted by a resident creative team in conversation with the space. The libretto[1] has been radically but brilliantly reworked, stripping the cast back to the four key characters, Mimi and Ralph (i.e. Rodolfo in the original) and Mark (Marcello) and Musetta. This sharpens the focus on the ups and downs of these two toxic and intense relationships, involving the audience in their joys and conflicts with almost uncomfortable immediacy – for some gentlemen on the front row, quite literally!

The adapted storyline translates Puccini’s consumptive and delicate Mimi into a heroin addict whose initially casual habits lead to the fracturing of an otherwise loving relationship with Ralph and her dramatic and desperately undignified demise. This is the most central and focused of several comments on contemporary social issues, alongside pointed references to city pollution, London’s spiralling rents and ambivalent uses of social media. Usually such alterations personally make me squirm, but this version by King’s Head Artistic Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Becca Marriott, who plays Mimi in one of the two casts, makes for creasingly funny moments throughout the first half. In addition to the surface humour, which does occasionally border on the excessively silly, there are some excellent inward-facing tongue-in-cheek moments for those who know the original and the musical style of Puccini himself. The second half, which abandons the punning and swearing to go for the meat of the tragic storyline, is especially powerful.

The quality of the singing and musicianship is at the highest standard. Becca Marriott (Mimi) and Thomas Humphreys (Mark) particularly shone vocally – I’ll be watching their futures with interest. Meanwhile Matthew Kimble’s presentation of Ralph’s first act aria, equivalent to the iconic Che Gelida Manina (What cold hands!) was a moving emotional highlight. Although the diction is clear from all the cast members throughout I recommend purchasing a £3 programme to assist following the moments where, in duets and trios, characters sing simultaneously with different texts. I would advise, however, trying not to read ahead from what is being sung – I find it takes the edge of the humour or poignancy if you know what’s coming.

To be so physically close to music at this level is thrilling in itself[2]. At this range the soaring voices literally resound through your body and listening becomes a more entire experience. Every minute detail of the actors’ faces is clear to everybody. The reduction of the La Bohème score to piano and cello was effective and didn’t feel lacking in the context of this production.

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The King’s Head Theatre production of La Bohème is an excellent introduction to opera for those who have yet to experience it, and an exciting development in the shape and character of the craft. Madame Butterfly is coming up in the new year and previous productions at this location including Pagliacci, The Barber of Seville and The Elixir of Love, staged during the residency of the company OperaUpClose. The theatre at Kings Head is reliant on making £100 000 in addition to ticket sales annually, so if you would like the opportunity to go see a production in this style don’t dither about buying a ticket. At a running time of 1h 55min including interval this production is a perfect evening out, even on a weeknight. La Bohème at The King’s Head will challenge your perceptions of what Opera can and should be, whilst keeping you feeling alive through the strong presentation of Puccini’s masterful music.

 

[1] Text of the Opera, the ‘lyrics’ if you will.

[2] The proximity reminded me of the exhilarating experience of Multi-Story Orchestra in Peckham, where you’re so close to the orchestra at the front that the Violin bows poking your eyes out is a genuine risk. Do explore this exceptional project and annual music festival for similar experiences to the ones described at The Kings Head.

A Note on the Last Night of the Proms 2016

 

Two years ago I wrote an article about the disjuncture between the iconic Last Night of the Proms and the fantastic series of concerts that precedes it. By sheer chance ( a friend asking about returns an hour after some new seats had been released ) I got hold of tickets for the Last Night of the Proms this year, and attended relishing the chance to test my points from 2014.

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In my original article I made two broad points. Firstly that The Last Night of the Proms was so unlike the rest of the Proms series in terms of content, [in]accessibility and structure that ‘The Last Night’ is as good as a misnomer. Secondly I expressed discomfort at the unquestioned, militaristic nationalism, which was part and parcel of Empire and British Colonial endeavours in the time it was first put together.

Both of these points are of serious contemporary importance, both musically and politically. Inequality in the UK has been accelerating sharply since 1979 and economic recessions in recent years have exacerbated this effect[1]. Accessibility to cultural events and life-enriching opportunities is increasingly out of the reach of many, and tickets to the Last Night of the Proms are incredibly expensive. Our tickets were only £44, as they were returns with restricted view – however nearby seats were being sold at online on the day for over £700 each, and all other concert-goers my Prom buddy and I spoke to on the evening had paid well into the three-figure range for their tickets direct from the Royal Albert Hall. I therefore stand by the financial aspect of my point about inaccessibility – despite our fluke, the Last Night of the Proms is not open to the vast majority of people unless they have significant disposable income or are willing and able to Prom for the whole day[2].

The balance of new, British, straight-laced classical and world music was well tempered, with the opening piece well-pitched as an example of new music. It both pushed the boundaries of music today but remained within accessible bounds for non-academic music lovers, which reinforced the Proms’ encouragement of exploration of new music.

Most important was the atmosphere, although having a reputation for ‘upper-middle class tomfoolery’ that could be alienating for some, was on this occasion genuinely light-hearted and warm. I feel that there is an excessive sense of seriousness surrounding Western Classical music, and that contributes to many people’s sense that it is something ‘not for them’. Although it is important to be able to hear the music and not be excessively, unnecessarily disturbed, the Last Night had the atmosphere of a party that is lacking at other concerts, even at other Proms. Perhaps the other concerts in the series would benefit from short addresses from the conductor or other performers to increase the sense of connection between stage and audience and better introduce the work performed? Indeed some classical concerts do take this form, and many performers find the opportunity to address and welcome their audience an essential part of bringing them into their musical world. The sense of being relaxed around classical music is key to its future and central to the continuing development of cultural accessibility.

The nationalistic, neo-colonial tone of the second half received even more attention than ever before in this year of the EU Referendum. The dissemination of EU flags outside the event was seen as a controversial protest, and many feared clashes between In and Out factions. However as a musician I never doubted that the flags of the EU and Britain would be united at this event. It is a simple fact that all world-leading musical ensembles are international affairs –there must be so few exceptions I cannot even bring one to mind. Music has always been a thoroughly international endeavour as far back as the naturalisation of Handel in England and the exchange of composers between courts in the European Renaissance. Therefore even the musical traditions that inform nationalist works are not isolated. At a very banal level, Arne would never have been able to record Rule! Brittania without the use of the Italian notation system and the European advances in Baroque music that were ongoing at the time he was writing it.

I personally felt extremely uncomfortable during Rule! Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory, for the first time ever. I am aware that I am more actively politically involved than most people, but I used to really love and feel pride in those numbers at an earlier time in my life. In the context of pressing current affairs and social attitudes, it felt a little excessive to me. However most people enjoyed it thoroughly, and the diversity of flags waving dissipated any sense that this was necessarily a narrow-focused point being made. Conductor Sakari Oramo is to be congratulated on the gentle and uncontroversial tone in which he spoke of music’s inherent border-crossing universality.

A colleague of mine reflected that although the Nationalistic music at the end of the Last Night has deeply entrenched colonial connotations, unless we continue to perform and consider them new connotations and links will never be made with them. This thought gives me great hope. Music is, after all, the ultimate abstract representation. Interpretation of the performer and of every listener is all its essence. We can choose how and when to deploy certain pieces and work to loose them from past contexts, and make them into something meaningful for the new. However, I struggled for days to see how the words from Land of Hope and Glory (‘May her [Britain’s] bounds be wider set) could ever be entirely disentangled from the expansionist colonial programme to which they referred. Later I realised that ironically, if we take the words in today’s internationalist context, Land of Hope and Glory may after all be one of the strongest Remain sentiments expressible. If we can use the words to look beyond our shores, the words and music may be recast as a Liberal call for regional or global unity in “equal laws… by Freedom gained, by Truth maintained.”

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[1] Source: https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/how-has-inequality-changed

[2] In addition to gain access to the Last Night of the Proms concert-goers must present stubs of tickets from 5 earlier concerts in the series. Therefore queueing on the day for tickets (Promming) is effectively only open to Londoners or people who can afford to both attend Proms concerts and travel significant distances to do so.

Children and Concert Etiquette: Just a Thought

On the 27th July I attended Prom 18, an featuring the indomitable Chloë Hanslip as soloist in Michael Berkeley’s new Violin Concerto, involving pairing the classical instrument with both tabla and at one point switching it for its electric counterpart. The work was book-ended by Dukas’ La Péri and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, two stonking examples of the evocative power of the orchestra. Truly exciting stuff. Unfortunately I was utterly frustrated in my efforts to enjoy at least half of La Péri and the majority of Berkeley’s Concerto by goings on in front of me that simply should not have been happening in that space.

A lady had brought her two young children to the prom. Directly in front of me sat a small boy of five or six years, and on the other side of his mother a girl of about eight or nine. The small boy was extremely quiet throughout, perfectly behaved, although due to his small size his feet stuck off the seat at an awkward angle and so he shuffled occasionally, and his head sometimes wandered around the hall as the music was playing. How distracting. It was far too much for the lady sitting next to him, one before me and to the right, and my goodness did she make it known.

Holding her Proms programme plastered to her right cheek, effecting a visor between her and the child so that she wouldn’t have to see his occasional small movements in her peripheral vision, she huffed and periodically shifted the programme up and down so that the mother of the boy could be in no doubt as to how disgusting her squirming offspring was found to be. At one moment near the end of the first half the young boy leaned close to his mother’s ear and whispered something to her. Despite being positioned directly above him I would not have known had I not been alerted by the violent shushing, accompanied by an aggressive across-the-armrest lean, that the child’s neighbour performed before slamming her programme-visor back to her face. I was seething.

The lady in the row in front of me shamed the children’s mother as if the children were running amok in the aisles. In reality at no point in the concert did I actually hear them, and I probably would not have noticed them at all if it were not for the drama made of out of it by the honourable concert-police. Although I believe this would have happened to some degree regardless of the additional fact I’m about to raise, I feel that the shaming may have been more pronounced and free-flowing owing to a difference in ethnic/racial background between the lady and the young family. Madame Concert Police had paid a meagre £15 for the honour of sitting at the very top of the Rausing Circle in the Royal Albert Hall. She was not being disturbed in a lavish box at the Met (boxes, by the way, were originally for socialising, not for paying any attention to the concert). So too the mother and her children had paid. They had every right to be there as everybody else and they should have been treated that way.

It is particularly appalling that this happened at The Proms. The Promenade Concerts were founded with the sole ambition of bringing classical music to a wider public, for everybody regardless of class, age and background to enjoy. The Proms exist precisely to counter the view that classical music and art music concerts are the reserve and the right of the privileged, the wealthy, the knowledgeable, those who learned to play Chopin’s Nocture in E flat as a fifteen-year-old on the piano in the front drawing room. The Proms exists for that young family and the spirit of that mother. Why else would The Proms’ organisers arrange strategically placed ‘Family Workshops’ before evening performances? Children are a priority, target audience of The Proms and rightly so. Children belong at concerts. That is precisely the point.

I can’t refrain from alluding to the often-forgotten truth that silence and high-brow ‘concert etiquette’ is a very recent and localised Western European phenomenon. Certainly I welcome and prefer it, especially when after months of practice and preparation an audience sits as quietly and comfortably possible to listen to and consider what I as a musician might perform. However live music, as aleatoric composers of the 20th and 21st century have intentionally exploited, necessitates and engagement with humanity. Humanity in all its coughing, shuffling, sneezing, programme-rustling glory. Of course it is somewhat inconsiderate to performers and fellow ticket-holders alike to attend a serious performance if you are suffering a terrible bout of flu, and are liable to be spluttering loudly every few minutes for the duration of the concert. However I was (only mildly) disturbed by quite a few coughs from the audience at the Albert Hall in July, all of which were louder and more distracting that the child in front of me. I wonder by what practice of restraint the lady in question didn’t stand up to chastise every cougher in turn.

If your connection with the music you’re attending to hear is so deep, profound and untouchable that you can’t bear the thought of another’s humanity marring its peripheries, perhaps you should listen to music lying alone in a darkened room, in the comfort of your own home or prison cell. I can’t resist offering the view that such folk may have missed the point of music as an expression and engagement with all types of humanity, and therefore perhaps should be referred to as truly tone deaf.

I approached the mother in the interval and thanked her for bringing her children to The Proms as a show of support and solidarity – however she was so badly frightened by her neighbour she looked terrified as I approached her and I’m not convinced she really heard me properly. I was glad to see she returned for the second half, although she put her slightly older daughter next to the Concert Police, who appeared mollified by this exchange.

One of those two parties shouldn’t have been at The Proms that evening. I don’t think it takes a great genius or too much of a hippie to work out which one I’m referring to.

RAH

Image Source: http://www.royalalberthall.com/about-the-hall/news/2016/april/proms-that-are-great-for-the-whole-family/

 

The Game Changer – Review: ENO -Akhnaten

 

I went to see Akhnaten over a month ago, on Thursday 17th March. After a tough month I was so desperate to see it that I paid up the last of my month’s wages for a same-day returned ticket that cost me a good deal more than I’ve ever paid for a single ticket in my life.

Why?

There are a number of reasons. Firstly, Akhnaten is very rarely performed. Its last London staging was over 30 years ago in 1984. Unless fashions change it’s down to luck whether I will have the chance to see this work performed again in my lifetime Secondly I was driven to support the ENO in their moment of crisis. There however were nothing compared to a burning curiosity I had to understand more about the music and vision of Philip Glass. Glass is a composer who, along with a handful of others, pioneered and developed the sub-genre ‘minimalism’. Minimalism and Glass’s ideas have infiltrated and influenced the basis of today’s music – pop, classical, jazz, film and soundtracks alike – more than anybody ever could have predicted they would when they first caused such uproar in the 1970s-80s.

Akhnaten set

For those readers are non-theorists, in the next two paragraphs follows a brief ( (and therefore imperfect) description of minimalism in music.

Minimalism came as part of a wave of ‘reactive’ musical forms that mushroomed in the 20th century, as composers decided that everything expressible with the familiar form and structure of Western classical music as it was had indeed been expressed. Seeking to find new things to ‘do’ with music and new ways to convey ideas and emotions composers attempted various fundamental alterations to the Western Classical Music system. Some deconstructed the scale or familiar tones on which it is based (Schonberg’s Serialist/12-tone technique, atonal music), others dramatically altered the roles of composers and performers in the creative process of deciding what notes to play (‘graphic scores’, Ligeti, Stockhausen). Another approach questioned the concept of what could be considered a musical instrument (John Cage’s ‘Prepared Piano’, Hoffung’s Concerto for three vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher). Minimalism’s contribution was, on the surface, less radical in some ways than these other examples, but arguably has had a more far-reaching and fundamental impact upon musical aesthetics in the 20th Century and beyond. Minimalism works by targeting principles of structure in music – from the micro level of the structure of melodies, to the larger structure of a suite or ‘symphonic’ piece, to the macro scale. Let’s say, the structure of an opera.

Minimalism is so called because it is characterised by repetition of small melodic, harmonic or rhythmic fragments with small but usually increasing variations to the repeated fragment. One effect is that, as a gross generalisation, the harmony in music tends to progress more gradually (slower harmonic rhythm) than in typical art music– but this does not necessarily mean that the music or piece has a slower emotional or intellectual development. This potential is something very fully explored in this exceptional production of Glass’s Akhnaten. In this way, Glass’s work often shifts the relationship between the main features of music – melody, harmony, and rhythm – inverting their importance or driving power in relation to one another. It is his rhythms and harmonies principally that create the haunting, and that stick in ones head long after their first hearing. Glass and his minimalist colleagues are not people who write ‘tunes’ you can sing along to.

 

All this is the basis of my fascination. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Like a sinner entering a church for the first time, so I approached Akhnaten.

 

A REVIEW

The production at ENO is a collaboration between the English National Opera itself and LA Opera. Starring the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten, the production uses fantastical lighting techniques combined with historically informed costume, movement and direction choices that are glazed with the glamour of a knowing orientalism.

Akhnaten robing

The opening music is played over a mesmerising iridescent backdrop that shimmers, imperceptibly changing from green to copper to gold and through marbled combinations of the three through some unperceived technical wizardry. The subtle glowing effect was spoiled for me by harsh white, modernist geometrical projections of vaguely hieroglyphic shapes on top of this screen. As the only clean lines and projections of the entire production they were jarringly out of place. Although I spent the rest of the time trying to fathom the context they were supposed to fit with, I conclude that the producers were not brave enough to allow the music to speak for itself in this overture passage and added them to spoon-feed or ‘occupy’ the audience, which is a great shame.

Nonetheless the use of light throughout the opera performance itself was commendable. Glow-tubes were used in a particularly imaginative and enhancing way in the scene ‘The Window of Appearances’, exuding confidence in the audience’s ability to parse meaning from the kaleidoscopic array of symbols, representations and possibilities presented to them by the cast and crew.

Akhnaten sun

 

The movement of all actors, and particularly the chorus, was cleverly stylised. Costumes and postures directly evoked Ancient Egyptian paintings and characters. The crucially important ENO Opera Chorus was supplemented by the presence of jugglers, coordinated by Sean Gandini, whose work with variously sized white balls provided a visualisation both of the rhythm and pace of Glass’s music, but also of its structure through measured and coordinated display. Happily it is also historically consistent with the Egyptological stylisation, since the first archaeological evidence of toss juggling in fact comes from Ancient Egypt.

Akhnaten Juggler

Apart from the consistent movement of the juggling balls, all physical action in this production of Akhnaten is paced with creeping intensity. All actors move in ultra slow motion at all times, which results in a peculiarly hypnotic effect. Just as one watches a child growing day by day, it seems as if little or nothing is happening, only for the theatre-goer to realise abruptly that whilst they have been focusing on one area of the stage the entire scene has completely changed. This kinetic effect also cleverly follows the pattern of minimalist music, which develops gradually in minute and sometimes barely perceptible ways to create dramatic and varying emotional and intellectual states.

AKhnaten throne

Roth Costanzo has a truly unique voice. Seething with drama, he has an air-curdling tone that he renders intentionally thin and cutting for much of this performance. Roth Costanzo is an erudite but passionately human performer who really draws his audience into his world. His portrayal of Akhnaten was bold and complex. He fully embodies this man’s belief in his absolute power, whilst throughout simultaneously revealing his palpable frailty and mortality. Although I admire Roth Costanzo immensely I did feel his tone occasionally needed more colour and breadth in the trios to blend and mingle better with the esoteric voices of his two female co-star companions. That said, there was truly exciting chemistry and dynamism between Roth Costanzo, Emma Carrington as Nefertiti and Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye.

Carrington brings to Nefertiti a full-bodied womanly voice, the depth and resonance of which contrasted wonderfully with the androgynous Akhnaten, making for spellbinding duet and trio work between the two. Glass scored the characters to have a similar vocal range (tessitura/pitch), which processes the unity of the characters as historical figures. The tensions of the dissonances and consonances between the parts is sweetened and heightened by the singers’ differences in vocal tone (timbre), which is especially exciting as their political and sexual relationship plays out in their mesmerising Love Duet.

As Akhnaten’s mother, Queen Tye, Bottone provides the stand-out characterisation of the production from an acting perspective. Whilst having some of the most demanding vocal lines in the entire piece Bottone pitches her role well, never overpowering the other two lead characters. She is required to emote and move the audience through micro-expression and minimal movements in both death scenes of the pieces, and successfully provides a great deal of the production’s emotional charisma.

Akhnaten Tye

 

This production of Akhnaten juxtaposes human nakedness and the insinuation thereof with opulence and power. Most costumes for the Pharoah and his Queen are translucent, revealing their bodies as a constant reminder of their humanity. However, like some of the other symbolic work in this production, by the end I felt it was overused. The allusion to nakedness continued in scenes even where the reminder of humanity was less central to the tensions or themes of the scene, such as in Akhnaten’s Sun Aria in Act 2. As a result, by the final act in which Akhnaten is overthrown by his people, the potence of this visual cue was greatly reduced, although still salient enough to be moving. Similarly, the juggling was possibly somewhat overdone. I was particularly disappointed at the end when the balls, which represented Akhnatens religious empire and political reign fell more than once. Surely, this should have been the one point at which the production should have curtailed their theme of developed repetition?

 

Akhnaten death

 

THE GAME CHANGER

Visually fantastic, technically excellent and musically exceptional, this production of Akhnaten is as artistically important as it was enthralling to watch. My minor criticisms of thematic work are personal opinion, and did not affect the fact that this is one of the most incredible works of art I have ever had the honour of experiencing. Glass has changed the musical landscape of the world forever with this piece, even though it is performed so rarely, and this production has set a benchmark for others both within this genre and out of it. I hope it will not be 30 years before it returns to London again.

 

 

BONUS

The Glory of Anthony Roth Costanzo:

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.