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Posts Tagged ‘Bizet’

The inside of playwright Simon Stephens brain must be one hell of a place. I blow hot and cold with his work, but it’s always interesting and  challenging. This one’s more luke warm, largely because I don’t really get it.

Carmen is a rent boy, Don Jose a female taxi driver, Escamillo a hot-shot trader and Micaela a girl from the sticks. Then there’s the character of an opera singer, and an actual opera singer as ‘chorus’. Two of the characters aren’t particularly well drawn (Micaela & the taxi driver) and their stories not well developed. It’s mostly a series of monologues (if you know me, you can see where I’m going here…..) with seemingly little interconnectedness.

You enter the stalls through the dressing room / wings and over the stage, where a dead bull dominates. We seem to be in a disused theatre, complete with chandelier and red balcony fascia with lamps. Lizzie Clachan’s design and Jack Knowles lighting create striking, compelling images. Simon Slater’s original music, played on two cellos, adds to and references actual Bizet and is very atmospheric. The performances are all terrific. It’s all very ‘European’.

But what exactly is the point of taking characters from an opera and giving them different lives and stories and then telling them individually on the same stage without really linking them together into a cohesive narrative? Answers on a postcard, please.

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What with travelling and theatre catch-up as a consequence, April was a lean month for anything else.

Opera

My first visit to The Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was to an opera rather than a play. It’s a gorgeous, intimate venue and it suited Cavali’s L’Ormindo perfectly. The production was lovely, with terrific costumes, a great ensemble under Christian Curnyn and some fantastic singing. Singers popped up all over the place – in a gallery or in the pit, from under the stage or descending from ‘the heavens’. I doubt I’ll have more fun at the opera this year, or for much longer than that.

Through His Teeth at the Linbury Studio was a fascinating short opera by Luke Bedford and playwright David Harrower about a woman preyed on by a conman. Short scenes of her experiences were framed by the filming of a documentary after his imprisonment. There were some first night glitches, but it was an original subject for opera and it was staged with great tension.

Pop Up Opera took Bizet’s early one-acter Le Docteur Miracle and added a Pearl Fishers prologue and a trio of pieces from Carmen as an encore to make a delightful evening. Really well sung, with just piano accompaniment, it was an absolute hoot. This particular venue was called The Department Store and was billed as a disused one, though it turned out to be a space in a block of craft studios next to a railway line in Dalston! A company to watch.

Dance

I was a touch disappointed by the Royal Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale. It looked gorgeous and the music was good, but I didn’t really take to the choreographic style and the middle act was one of those full of show dances that added little to the storytelling and broke up the dramatic flow. Two long intervals also slowed down the drama, with gaps amounting to a third of the running time.

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English ‘National’ Opera 5 (The Pearl Fishers 2* Idomeneo 3*)

Welsh National Opera 10 (Rigoletto 5* Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg 5*)

This proved to be a fascinating and revealing match. ENO’s Pearl Fishers started really well. They seemed to be actually diving for pearls in a vast expanse of water behind glass whilst Bizet’s beautiful music began. Then we moved to an extraordinary waterside shanty town with the chorus sounding great and both Nadir, Alfie Boe, and Zurga, Roland Wood, singing well. Then the soprano, Hanan Alattar, came on………..it was a harsh sound with poor diction; frankly it was sometimes difficult to listen to without squirming. It went down hill from there with a translation which turned the beautiful sound of sung French into banal English and some really clumsy staging.

On to Wales for WNO’s Rigoletto, which I’ve never considered one of Verdi’s greats – not in the Traviata & Otello league for me. When I discovered that director James Macdonald had relocated it to 60’s Washington I inwardly groaned.  Then the orchestra began and almost everything that followed was spell-binding. Rigoletto as a White House fixer with the Duke as a philandering President somehow worked. The chorus of men-in-black were terrific. US soprano Sarah Coburn made a most auspicious UK debut as Gilda. Gwyn Hughes Jones  (guess where he’s from?!) sang the Duke well, even if he doesn’t really look the part. Simon Keenlyside’s Rigoletto reminded me of Anthony Sher’s Richard III, a manic-tragic creation you can’t take your eyes off. He sang wonderfully, with every emotion pouring forth – cynical, contemptuous, angry, sad, bitter….Keenlyside has a habit of being so good that he comes to ‘own’ a role – as he has with Billy Budd and Prospero in Thomas Ades’  Tempest – and here he does it again in this role debut; you just can’t imagine wanting to see anyone else. The design wasn’t always successful, but the staging was, and this Rigoletto made me promote the opera to Verdi’s Premiere League.

Operatic triumphs don’t often come in  pairs, but 18 hours later the orchestra played the first notes of Wagner’s overture (more like a symphony really) to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and the journey through operatic heaven continued. When I first saw this opera in Covent Garden, I found it overblown and long-winded and haven’t seen it in the 20+ years since. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown through the hundred’s of operas I’ve seen in between, but this time I got lost in the beauty of the music and forgot about time altogether. You’d be hard pressed to hear it sung better anywhere in the world by a chorus as good as WNO’s  which in the last scene sent shivers up my spine and almost levitated me out of my seat. It’s a long away from 70’s comic C&W outfit Harvey & The Wallbangers, but Christopher Purves was as fine a Beckmesser as you’d wish to see. Then there’s Bryn Terfel…..he also hijack’s roles, as he has done with Verdi’s Falstaff and does again here with his role debut as Hans Sachs. Like Simon Keenlyside, he’s as good an actor as he is a singer, and this was a truly stunning display of both. Director Richard Jones and designer Paul Steinberg avoided modern spin and produced something simple, timeless, elegant and effective. Their solution for the problematic nationalistic ending was inspired – they turned it into a celebration of German artistic achievement. The audience in Cardiff are normally more reserved than London, but not tonight. They stood in unison as the curtain went up on the whole company and the cheers were deafening.

It was going to be hard for ENO to follow this when we were back in London for Mozart’s Idomeneo, an early Mozart which I found rather Handelian (it came before he began to write ‘too many notes’, as Salieri is alleged to have put it!). There were no ‘harsh’ sopranos this time – both Emma Bell and Sarah Tynan sang beautifully, as did the leading men – Paul Nilon and Robert Murray – and the orchestra and chorus under Edward Gardiner were great. So, a musical success then….. unfortunately, it wasn’t a concert. It was left to Director Katie Mitchell to destroy the evening with a cold-as-ice clinical modern staging that didn’t illuminate or reveal anything, hampered rather than aided the story-telling, added absolutely no contemporary relevance and removed all emotion. There were many distractions, including several scenes populated with waiters coming and going in and out of doors while the singers were trying to sing lovely arias. I’m not sure Mozart intended Elektra to sing her second act aria whilst pissed and flirting with a waiter! It wasn’t as bad as her National Theatre de(con)structions, but it was bad enough to drag a musical treat down to a dull and irritating musical theatre experience.

So there you have it. You might consider me unfair because this really was WNO at the height of their powers, and there’s more than my fair share of national pride, but I’m going to make the comparisons anyway! WNO receive two-thirds of the subsidy of ENO and half of the subsidy of the Royal Opera. The best seats for BOTH of the operas in Cardiff were the same as EITHER Pearl Fishers OR Idomeneo and 40% of one ticket for that up-and-coming baritone Domingo, currently wowing them in Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden. When they leave Cardiff, they take both of these productions to the poor opera-starved people of Birmingham because the English NATIONAL Opera and the Royal Opera never leave their London bases. Half of WNO’s subsidy is in fact provided by Arts Council ENGLAND to provide opera on a regular basis in the otherwise operatic black holes called Plymouth, Bristol, Southampton, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and Liverpool. Now, if I ran the Arts Council, I’d be looking for quality, accessibility and value – and based on this months’ scores there’s only one company providing all three!

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