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Tinder eat your heart out – Review: ENO – Partenope

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This review is published after the production has closed – and for that I apologise. However I couldn’t miss the chance to discuss this smart, glittering and self-consciously tongue-in-cheek performance.

Partenope eno

Image Source : ENO

To my frustration I arrived 15 minutes late, and watched the first act relayed by screen. However the relay was relatively high quality in sound and visuals, and was located in the quiet downstairs area so I could still enjoy the production (Covent Garden, take note).

Sarah Tynan was phenomenal, a jewel in a fantastic cast. This production restyled Queen Partenope as a ‘Queen Bee’, surrounded by an array of clumsy suitors as she hosts an all night Scott-Fitzgerald style party. The story maps very well, and is believable and funny by virtue of becoming somewhat less serious than the original setting.

This was clearly not the easiest of Handel’s operas to stage convincingly as a piece of theatre. It is full of many extended, intricate and virtuosic arias that lend themselves better to a declamatory recital-style. Here however arias were delivered whilst falling off staircases, arranging nude photograph exhibitions, straddling bewildered love interests and, when there was no other option, whilst drawing attention to the awkwardness of the fit between aria and stagecraft with mime, Charleston and pastiches of 1920’s dance moves.

Partenope Bachtrack

Image Source : bachtrack.com

The production was engaging throughout and laugh-out loud funny, with wittiness that showed ENO very close to its best. It left me wishing that this company could be more consistent in the quality of its productions, and play to its fundamental strengths. From my point of view these are the casting of top class, well-acclaimed singers, and well-executed productions that support but do not draw attention away from (or as with Don Giovanni, entirely change) the plot. Of course this is more easily said than done – but it’s still worth saying.

More like Partenope, please!

Partenope the sage

Image Source : thestage.co.uk


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.

 

 


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: 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.