Review: The Exterminating Angel – ROH

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There has been a lot of build-up to this UK premiere production of Adès’ latest opera. Pushed by the Opera House and trailered enthusiastically on BBC Radio 3, my expectations were high from the outset. I can’t say I was entirely disappointed.

I enjoyed Adès’ music. The work was cohesive as an opera and enjoyable – extremely funny. Both the libretto and the score were littered with muso jokes, most of which I and those like me in the audience (most of the audience) found much more hilarious than my musically-appreciative-but-not-quite-a-muso Opera Buddy. Audrey Luna was mind-blowing as Leticia, the opera singer, whose vocal part makes the Queen of the Night aria look like it was written for a contralto. The tone, resonance and range of expression she achieved well above top C is freakish and wonderful. In fact the entire cast is phenomenal – musically irreproachable – except that a few days down the line I’ve forgotten most of what they sang and the score that went underneath it. I don’t feel like that’s the point of going to an opera.

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Maybe it’s because I’ve not seen the film, but I concluded that my interest petered because there’s a distinct lack of character and plot development which makes the situation difficult to sustain over such a long time. I appreciate that the point is partly boredom of the bourgeouisie – but is it too much to ask that I can do this by being entertained by a representation of bored bourgeoisie instead of feeling like one myself? The general message was about the descent into a Hobbesian state of nature, and being trapped in the worlds we create for ourselves. Granted. For me personally however the point was made in a rather unexplosive way. Perhaps that was also the point, but I doubt it.

I enjoyed The Exterminating Angel. I would recommend it to go and see once, but I don’t think I’d be moved to go see it again. It was enjoyable, funny, I laughed out loud, and in the event I was engaged most of the time. It’s a good night out, and it will keep you in the room for three acts – but I doubt it will change your life.

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Perfectly Beautiful, this imperfect humanity. Review: ROH – Der Rosenkavalier

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I was lucky enough to attend the opening night of ROH’s Production of Der Rosenkavalier, with Renée Fleming (Die Marschallin), Alice Coote (Octavian) and Sophie Bevan (Sophie) in the soprano lead roles. The artistry of these three was stunning.

I was unfortunately stupid enough to misremember the timing of this performance, and as a result my OperaBuddy and I missed the very start of the overture, watching the entire first act via a monitor amidst the clatterings of Covent Garden’s Amphitheatre Bar Staff, preparing for the first interval as they were. The microphone we were dependent upon was evidently in the pit. This was no great disappointment as the orchestra were in truly divine form under the baton of Andris Nelsons, however much of the singing (mostly Fleming and Coote) appeared to be lost. Interestingly all three of the other attendees I spoke to commented that Fleming was in fact surprisingly underpowered in this first half, and took a good while to warm up into the role vocally. Perhaps even great opera singers still get nervous on opening night. Nonetheless their unexpected comments were reflected quite accurately by what we experienced on the monitor. From our distance, mediated by screens and speakers, the first act appeared visually charming. The emotional divebomb that the text takes from sexual play to the musings and anxieties of a self-consciously fading rose was definite, tender and beautiful.

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The gorgeousness of this masterwork by Strauss is such that it increases and develops all the more as the opera goes along. The relationships in Act II, potentially tricky to portray convincingly, could not have been doubted for a moment. Sophie Bevan’s endearing naïvety and soaring voice were absolutely entrancing. Coote was compelling beyond belief in her portrayal of the adolescent Octavian. She succeeded in relating his sincerity throughout his emotional struggle and the goodness of his heart, which is ultimately the source of the youthful ideals and illusions that lead to him falling in love with Sophie whilst not quite managing to relinquish his feelings of loyalty and commitment to the Marschallin.

I was a little distracted by the strange set design choices in Act II. From the grand, romantic era chamber of Act I we jumped to cartoonish and clumsy neo-classical backgrounds decked with both anachronistic, modern/minimalist black sofas and large canons (in Herr von Faninal’s living room?) that wobbled conspicuously when cast members jumped or sat on them. Bad dancing for no apparent reason in the background also proved a strange distraction. Despite the conflicting period indicators, the music remained at the highest level throughout. Matthew Rose as Baron Ochs was master over his wonderful voice, deplorable and funny without becoming a caricature, a rare achievement for this difficult character.

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In Act III the set again betrayed inconsistencies of vision with half-nude, can-can-esque prostitutes dawdling over early 20th Century style telephones, peculiar intermittent shifts to modern lighting (including at one point multicolour neon tubes) and a divergent reference to caged pole-dancing that bordered on the gratuitous. Had the portrayal of sexual excess been more thoughtfully incorporated into a distinctive and identifiable style it would have been more effective in its intended effect of communicating and denouncing the character and motivations of Baron Ochs.

Coote clearly revelled in the gender-bending genius of Strauss’s librettist von Hofmannsthal, starting this act as a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman, seducing a man who has no idea that this woman is in fact a man in drag (did you follow that?). The production would however benefit from a stronger creative decision about whether it is to approach these passages as explicitly theatrical farce or with something more like (necessarily camp) seriousness.

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The Marschallin, of course, breaks the Burlesque before it disintegrates, selfessly saves Sophie from a miserable marriage and graciously blesses the union of this charming younger version of herself with her own, still much-adored Octavian. This was the moment Fleming came into her mythical own, living the role in alls its fullness. Her Marschallin was humble, painfully elegant, true in her renunciation and yet still you could almost taste her agony and the depth of her love for this silly boy Octavian. All this mingled in the rare and unique colours of her musical performance.

The trio at the end of this act is one of the most moving and honest expressions of humanity I have had the honour to experience. Fleming, Coote and Bevan wove togetherall the wonderful and complex nuances, elations and anxieties of love and sexual desire. My heart broke when, in the Marschallin’s presence, Coote as Octavian sang the same pledges of love to Sophie as he had to the Marschallin herself in the first act. This passage transcends reality because the librettist, and Strauss through his other-worldly music, distill human experience and offer it in all its imperfection. The three sopranos realised this vision irreproachably, and I for one was overwhelmed by the confounding sensations of being simultaneously lifted out of the world whilst witnessing it in a strangely naked human form before me.

This opera is a truly special work of art, and the casting and musical performance, including Nelsons in the pit, was especially exceptional. Only clearer vision from the staging and lighting could have improved this production. It is entirely the honour and credit of the musical artists that the anachronisms and holes in that aspect of the presentation did not detract in any significant way from the beautiful humanity they created together.

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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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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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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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