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Saturday, 12 November 2016

ENO: Kentridge's Lulu ★★★★

Brenda Rae in ENO's 'Lulu'  (C) Alastair Muir 
This week is another tasteful and satisfying evening out at the ENO. It is also the second time the ENO has presented a revival work, following The Pearl Fishers (click here for my review), that went down a treat in New York's Met opera house last year (click here for my review), also shown in Amsterdam as a co-production with Dutch National Opera. The formidable artistic director William Kentridge has brought his magnetically animated production of Berg's Lulu to the ENO stage, and for an English conversion it seemed to work so, so well.

Alban Berg didn't live long enough to finish his three-act opera, and it was in the hands of Friedrich Cerha to complete the final and most ghastly act where our lead character is murdered by London's mysterious killer - Jack the Ripper. 

The narrative of Lulu isn't, at all, complicated, yet the musical mastery of Berg's score shows the depth of his innovation, out of the Second Viennese School, with expressionist composers Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. Berg wrote his second opera, after a successful Wozzeck, during a time in Germany where women were repressed, and writing Lulu was his escapism. 
James Morris as Dr. Schöen and Brenda Rae in ENO's 'Lulu' . (C) Alastair Muir 
This modern opera (1937) is atonal and remarkable for a narrative filled with diverse voices; brimming with scandal, mistresses, clandestine relationships, sex, blood, and suicide. That said, everything is left to the audience's imagination in Kentridge's stylish production; you may see underwear and legs, but hardly a sight of nudity - the projections do the work. 

Lulu, an alluring, yet brazenly sexual woman is loved and lusted over by many. It is her sensuality and seductive powers that bring her admirers down, yet as the opera progresses audiences see that it is the essence of her ultimate demise as well. 

The production has various dynamic parts and components happening at the same time. The stage is a party of all sorts: mime, moving imagery, strong visuals, projections of expressionist artwork, thick paint marks, and a rainbow set that perfectly sits within the 1920-30s vintage style and couture. Audiences applauded Kentridge, Sabine Theunissen, Greta Goiris, Catherine Meyburgh and Urs Schöenbaum for their creative achievements at ENO's opening night. 

Mark Wigglesworth drains out the best he can of the ENO Orchestra as it is his last performance as ENO's music director. The orchestra sets in motion a buttery, rich and unbroken interpretation under the baton of an exceptional conductor. 

Brenda Rae and Sarah Connolly as Countess Geschwitz in ENO's 'Lulu'. (C) Alastair Muir 

Having seen Marlis Petersen, who had mastered the role of Lulu for 20 years, at the Met Live production last year, it is hard to compare American soprano Brenda Rae for her own vigourous interpretation of the title-role. Lulu is a challenging and tough role, but Rae is consistent. Ready for each scene, she has vocal charm, yet it would have been nice to see something that stood out in her performance - something she could call her own. All of Lulu's admirers - Countess Geschwitz, a schoolboy, painter, athlete, animal tamer, Dr. Schön and Schigold - are performed by sublime soloists, Sarah Connolly, Clare Presland, Michael Colvin, David Soar, Nicky Spence, James Morris and Willard White. 

Joanna Dudley gives a fine performance as the symbolic mime figure of Lulu's alter ego. While Lulu arouses Dr. Schön's son's Alwa, Dudley distorts her body, opening her legs but holds them in the air for minutes, suggesting she is ready to commit adultery on the same sofa her second husband bled to death. Andrea Fabi is also a bold mute figure from a black and white film that acts like a butler to the stage, helping the characters along with the narrative. 

This is a unique and tenacious production, worth seeing, but it is three hours and 40 minutes long. The ending may receive some mixed opinions and the opera won't be to everyone's taste, yet why stick to what you like and know? Try something new and get a ticket to a unique opera which will give your brain an opera orgasm. 

Lulu is showing at the ENO until November 19th 2016. Get your tickets now here!

Sunday, 6 November 2016

ENO: The Pearl Fishers, 2016 ★★★

Claudia Boyle as Leïla CREDIT: ALASTAIR MUIR
This is the third time I've seen Penny Woolcock's visually stunning production of The Pearl Fishers and I still haven't got tired of it. English National Opera has brought its original showing of Bizet's less successful opera (first premiered in Théâtre Lyrique, 1863), compared to his passion-raged opera, Carmen, back for the London audience, which has some small amends that make for a less messier outing.

I first saw the ENO production in 2014, with singers George von Berger, John Tessier and Sophie Bevan who sung with heartfelt tendency and poignancy, yet I was concerned about the loud, distracting noises which took place behind the main stage. Then it was at the beginning of the year that I caught up with Metropolitan Opera's HD Live screening with superb singers; Diana Damrau, Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien: obviously an incomparable experience. For one, the Met have a larger budget; commissioning 59 Productions to coordinate visual projections, and implementing airplane machinery for acrobats to emulate diving pearl fishers, searching for pearls in the ocean. Secondly, there's the camera direction that brought audiences closer to the lead singers' facial expressions, making the viewing experience far more sophisticated and intimate.

ENO Chorus and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga CREDIT: ALASTAIR MUIR
Nonetheless, Woolcock's production is unique, and for any opera newbie, it is guaranteed to impress . Yet there are some elements of the opera that may stray some audiences away, including its storyline of two best friends fighting over the same 'pure' priestess who vows to protect a village but falls in love with a man, when she isn't supposed to, anyway.

Maestro Roland Böer gives an enticing performance of the sensitive overture with the consistently brilliant ENO Orchestra, which sets the mood of a tranquil Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) that soon diminishes through betrayal and mistrust. The famous aria Au fond du temple saint, sung by Jacques Imbrailo and Robert McPherson, as Zurga and Nadir, is enjoyable to listen to. They both appear to be in their element, both understanding the music, and there's that sense of hope that nothing can come between their friendship.

Dickie Bird's gorgeous shimmer of the Indian Ocean still stands as one of the best stage settings I've, ever, seen at the London Coliseum. This time round, the 2016 production brought together a collage of footage from recent tsunamis that had destroyed villages and homes. Focusing on countries that suffer from droughts, flooding and tsunami (Bangladesh being a major example as supplied in the programme notes), Woolcock aims to remind her audience that although nature causes these disasters the people who endure them are still human; they still fall in love, they still undergo heartbreak, and still have friendships that collapse.

Claudio Boyle as Leïla (Copyright: Alastair Muir.)
Bizet's music cannot be questioned here. The ENO Orchestra are, hands-down, successful in drawing on the finer details of Bizet's account. This includes the courageous ENO Chorus who were vocally heroic at the end of act 1; their climactic singing sent shivers down my spine and teleported me into the powerful waters which destroy the village after Leïla, the priestess, and Nadir are caught intimately together: a violation of Zurga's laws.

Claudia Boyle gave a strong appearance as the easily swayed priestess, yet vocally she could have been more passionate and stronger, I felt. Her efforts are noted nevertheless. James Creswell, a resident singer at the London Coliseum for the past couple of years, warrants credit for his solid and stoic performance as the high priest, even if it is a small part.

Jacques Imbrailo is a confident Zurga and matched the title role as village leader. His singing was neat, and his character's transgressions, which he shows in act 2, is equally convincing. There is particularly something likable about Robert Mcpherson's singing as lovestruck Nadir. Although his colouring was slightly higher than I am used to, compared to other recordings and performances I've heard, I thought that it worked for Nadir's naivety and besotted manner, in loving Leila and the desire to be privately alone with her.

There is a 'but' however. As much as I enjoyed this production, there was no fire burning for me in this production. Yes, at the end, Zurga burns the village and there is literal fire on stage, but there was absence of an emotional spark that pulled me to love this opera. The friendship duet seemed rather loose, and there also appeared to be no visible chemistry between Boyle and McPherson's characters. I just needed that extra nudge. Simply enjoying something is, clearly, not enough.

The Pearl Fishers is showing at the ENO until December 2nd. Click here to purchase tickets and more information. 

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Met HD: Don Giovanni with the return of Simon Keenlyside ★★★★★

Simon Keenlyside as Don Giovanni © Marty Sohl/ Met Opera photography.
It was Simon Keenlyside himself who told Michael Cooper of the New York Times, “I felt a tick, and I knew it had gone” when recounting the night in Vienna, where he had to leave mid-opera. (I reported the event here.) It was thereafter that the British baritone underwent intense thyroid surgery, which the singer recalled as ‘a bad job.’ Just under two years later, he is - now - back on New York’s Metropolitan stage to perform one of his favourite opera roles, Don Giovanni. 

His much-anticipated performance for many of his fans, including myself, was a simulcast, broadcasted to all around the globe. It is not the first time Keenlyside has had to sing as the Don in Michael Grandage’s dark and, often considered, lifeless staging. 

Set in Spain in the early 18th century, a first-class cast including Hibla Gerzmava, Malin Byström, Serena Malfi, Adam Plachetka, Paul Appleby and Matthew Rose, gave way to a musically hypnotising and exciting work of scandalous drama - betrayal, deceit, and revenge. And let’s not forget – there’s plenty of womanizing from Giovanni. 

© Marty Sohl/ Met Opera photography.
The Met HD event was hosted by esteemed soprano Joyce Didonato who managed to catch up with some of the soloists during the interval. This included Keenlyside himself. Within seconds of the curtain going down at the end of the first act, Didonato was spoken to about revolution, liberty and the history of humanity by Simon, enthusiastically thanking the Zoology department of Cambridge University, a subject which he studied there. Seeming like much more than one had bargained for a Saturday night viewing, I couldn’t see the relevance these academic references had to the opera or Mozart, yet given the limited time, it was a testament to Keenlyside’s in-depth understanding, passion, and respect for Mozart’s work. Didonato hardly got the chance to ask him a second question.

Last night Keenlyside proved that he had mastered the role of Giovanni. He has the ability to display both a vulgar and licentious Giovanni to his servant Leporello whilst presenting a more polished Spanish gentlemen to others, including the noblemen and ladies he intends on wooing. 

Many love the opera, Don Giovanni, for various reasons. Some believe that Mozart wrote it grieving the death of his father, which happened a year before the premiere of the opera. According to them, this generated his creative urge, making it a touch more personal to him. Other sources say he completed the overture the night before it premiered. 

Despite the grey and unimaginative background, there’s much to enjoy in this Met production including the harmonious key structure and the musical symmetries which are tightly executed by the Met Orchestra under the baton of versatile conductor Fabio Luisi (well, at least from what I heard from the screens of Wimbledon’s Curzon cinema.) Luisi commanded a lyrical and yet powerful introduction to this performance, and the Met Orchestra performed with precision, paying particular attention to tempi and retaining full force for pivotal moments. The D minor chords from the overture and the supper scene, distinctively highlighting the Commendatore and the authority of moral justice, is just an example of one of these crucial moments. 

Paul Appleby and Hibla Gerzmava as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna © Marty Sohl/ Met Opera photography.
Alongside the music, there’s the introspective viewpoint from all of the main characters. Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte deliberately imposed this as it gave the audience the opportunity to see these characters voice their deeper thoughts, concerns, and worries, serving to make the story more relatable to the audience. With Met HD, cinema audiences got an enhanced experience with cameras focusing on the character’s facial expressions when they were singing solo, or in a duet. 

Plachetka did a tremendous job as Giovanni’s desperate servant. He seemed particularly at home singing the catalogue aria where he tells Don Elvira of the 1,003 Spanish, 640 Italians, 231 Germans, 100 French and 91 Turkish women he had seduced. Plachetka’s characterisation is inward thinking, constantly questioning the lack of morality of his employer, and at one point seeks to quit and leave, yet he’s won over by the four coins of gold which Keenlyside drops on the floor like crumbs of bread. A rotten scoundrel and deceiver Giovanni is, he points the finger at Leporello when he doesn’t succeed in getting his way with country, newbie bride Zerlina. Keenlyside’s Giovanni is cold, he has no merci for those that try to get in the way of what he desires. 

Malin Byström deserves a salute for her challenging role as Giovanni’s former conquest Don Elvira. Her singing reflected the heartbreak and disappointment of Giovanni, so there was sheer gusto to her performance with vocal fluidity, which shined throughout the night. 
Adam Plachetka and Malin Byström  as Leporello and Donna Elvira. © Marty Sohl/ Met Opera photography.
Serena Malfi’s Zerlina was completely likable, enough to calm down Matthew Rose’s Masetto when he had been physically crushed by the Don. Little effort was required from Malfi to sing Batti, batti bel Masetto, and both her and Rose worked comfortably together, even though the woman considered leaving him on their wedding day. Rose also stood out as a fantastic singer as vengeful Masetto, playing the role of a duped lover, angry and frustrated to be sidelined by his love.

Donna Anna was gorgeously sung by Hibla Germzmava. She was absolutely astonishing. It was the first time I had seen her perform, and I’d love to her again in another coloratura role - she’d definitely hit the mark. You could sympathize with her Donna Anna who had not only been subjected to a horrifying rape attempt but saw her father’s blood drip to the ground. 

Her fiancé Don Ottavio was performed by Paul Appleby, and he gave an entirely unique act. Don Ottavio’s character is usually written to be wet and weedy as he swears revenge to Donna Anna. Don Ottavio sings 'if she sighs, I too must sigh', and is usually conceived as a bore, yet Appleby revolutionizes Ottavio and makes him stronger and almost alpha-like. Mozart gave him beautiful music, which is the direct opposite to the lustful music of Giovanni, and Appleby more than complements this. When he sang Il mio Tesoro, he was a joy to listen to – I felt musically seduced.

Singing was pretty seamless last night, yet the camera work was poor, I’m afraid. There were several tweets from cinema viewers complaining there was a lack of surtitles and sound. For me, the serenading song to Don Elvira's maid can easily capture the heart of anyone, however, for those sat in front of a cinema screen, the camera director decided to focus the singing on Keenlyside as oppose to the discreet and curious maid behind the curtain, which would have produced a much more lustrous and sensitive touch to the scene. Shame on them! 

Other favourite scenes include the astonishing scene where there were two different dances happening at the end of the first act. The music is distinctive, and you can tell the difference between the peasants' dance versus the noble. All characters are on stage, from country dancing to a waltz and a minuet. There's also the sextet in act II which reaches a climax and everyone admits to being confused as to who the man is in front of them is. We know it is Leporello, but he is dressed as the Don. Disguised or not, in the face of god, we are all judged for our moral and immoral behaviour. Viva la liberty!

More information about the HD Cinema showing is here. In New York it is still available at the Metropolitan until May 11th 2017. The next showing is on November 4th. Click here to purchase tickets. Next viewing of Met HD is L'Amour de Loin on December 10th. More information here.

This blog post continues from a post I wrote about Keenlyside in December 2014. Click here to acces it. 

Friday, 14 October 2016

Amadeus LIVE : The Royal Albert Hall

Friday was a special occasion for many who had waited for the live orchestra event to the Oscar-winning film, Amadeus (1984). The Royal Albert Hall was full to the brim of spectators seeking a Friday night thrill with Mozart's grand music, taking them back to 17th century Vienna through the ears and eyes of maestro Ludwig Wicki, pianist extraordinaire Patricia Ulrich and the fascinating orchestra who recorded the soundtrack of the film, the Academy of St. Martin in the Field.

The screenplay, originally written for the stage, by Peter Shaffer, saw success on London's West End and New York's Broadway during the height of the 80s. It was here that the production caught the attention of producers Saul Zaentz and director Milos Forman as casual audience members who decided to reinvent the show into a film.

Fleshing out the complicated and often curiously-studied relationship between the two composers, Salieri and Mozart, Amadeus shows a wittier and child-like side to Mozart, which moves off from the original play. Moreover, it was a phenomenal opportunity to piece together the music of Mozart which made him the legendary composer and devoted music-maker as we know him today. 

History provides proof suggesting that a 35-year-old Mozart died of Miliary Fever and that both composers had a healthy rivalry. Yet there are myths surrounding a supposed jealousy and disdain for Mozart by Salieri, who poisoned him to death.

In the film, Shaffer takes an interesting turn with this myth and takes the murdering of Mozart to an abstract level, through a third character, arguably the most important character in this feature film - his music. 

In 1984, Amadeus became a box office success and won eight Oscars, and a Golden Globe, after its premiere in Los Angeles including 'Best Picture', 'Best Director', and Best Actor in a Leading Role' (F. Murray Abraham). The stunning pictures and scenery goes back to Prague, and given the then communist rule at the time of shooting, the center of the old Czechoslovakia seemed an ideal location to depict old Vienna; there wasn't the slightest sight of modernity, the only things needed included gas lights and snow.

Back at The Royal Albert Hall, this evening's event was dedicated to the orchestra's founder Sir Neville Marriner who sadly passed away this year. He conducted and performed the original soundtrack of Amadeus back in the 1980s, and Wicki did an exceptional job, tonight, keeping the music fresh and alive for an excited audience. Wicki has conducted many live performances of various blockbusters, such as Fantasia, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Fellowship of the Ring, internationally, including the Royal Albert Hall and Radio city Hall in NYC. 

Sir Neville Marriner once described Tom Hulce (Mozart) as being note perfect in every scene as both he and Abraham's (Salieri) had to learn how to play the piano whilst filming. The soundtrack altogether plays an emotional and impactful part in the film, adding to the drama between the composers, the festering anger within Salieri and the conflicts developing in Mozart's  personal life, with his father (Roy Dotrice) and his wife, Constanze (Elizabeth Kerridge).

The recurring motifs performed throughout the movie derive from the ominous chords from the Overture and finale Commendatory scene from Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni, which is commonly associated with Mozart's father and the masked messenger who requested he write a Mass Requiem. There's also a grand scene to his magical and mythical opera, The Magic Flute, which saw a younger Simon Callow singing as Papageno, in English, in a Vaudeville theatre. 

Throughout the evening, the hall's audience laughed and giggled to the charming dialogue between the Emperor Joseph II and Mozart, and the rest of his court composers and music directors by his side, also misjudging the Salzburg-born maestro. The winning words, however, go to Abraham for depicting a disgruntled and unsatisfied Salieri, gone mad. 

The audience were completely blown away by the careful instrumental and passages shown through the Academy of St. Martin in the Field and the Philharmonia Chorus who steadily presented Mozart and Salieri composing roles in the mighty Requiem Mass. Watching the tenors, altos, basses, clarinet, oboe, strings, and timpani work singularly to then progress into a masterful harmonious collaboration was a true reminder of what they had been waiting for. It was a heroic moment for those performing at the pit to show what Shaffer wanted the audience to understand about Mozart's love for music, and if not necessarily the truest way he composed his Requiem Mass, it proved the intricacies of Mozart's musical mind and how he had developed a beautiful relationship with musical notes, ever since he had learnt them as a three-year-old boy. 

This event has ended, more information can be found here. The Royal Albert Hall will be presenting Michael Morpurgo's War Horse on October 27th and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial with live Orchestra on December 28th. Hover for more information and to purchase tickets.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

ROH: Norma with Sonya Yoncheva ★★★

Sonya Yoncheva in Àlex Ollé's Norma, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
It's been a while since I was at the Royal Opera House (that's two months actually,) and this time round I was coming back to see Bellini's bel canto fantasy world where religion, chastity, and loyalty just isn't enough. After Alex Ollé's (of La Fura dels Baus) production was first announced to the public, its signed-off soprano, Anna Netrebko bailed out where Sonya Yoncheva came in. And may I add, this isn't the first time this has happened. It was this Spring at the Covent Garden that she was her replacement in La bohème, where she provided a worthy Mimì- encouraging tears and tissue hugging from most members of the audience.

Sonya Yoncheva is gaining a strong fan base, and her presence on the stage is enough to warrant grabbing a ticket to any of her performances. For a soprano role as tough as Norma, let alone La bohème, or La Traviata, she has truly proven her mettle. The strongest highlight of the show and one that shall stick in my memory is her interpretation of Casta Diva. Yes, once used in a Jean Paul Gautier TV commercial, this aria was popularly known in the 19th century as well. It is a spectacular one that relies on a simple melody with the symbolism of purity and holiness engraved into the character of Norma. Yoncheva achieves lightness and softness of tone, compared to other voices such as Maria Callas and this year's lead, Marjorie Owens at the English National Opera, who sang with more fire and gusto, equally enjoyable nonetheless.

Norma is a Druid priestess who finds herself in a struggle; amongst her people who seek a rebellion and the clandestine relationship she has with an officer in the forces occupying her land, Pollione. The drama lies in a secret. Although she is meant to be chaste as priestess she bears two children with Pollione, which no one knows about until Adalgisa, the priestess at the temple of Irminsul, informs her of her own infidelity.  

Cast of Norma, Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra with maestro Pappano.
There is even reference to infanticide in Bellini's last bel canto opera, which was inspired by French poet Alexandre Somet. Ollé places Norma's world into a contemporary setting where religion is solid as governing a country. Spanish priests, with traditional robes often confused with the ku klux klan, mill around the stage, which is a rare sight - hundreds of religious crosses stacked together emphasizing the religious influence and its omnipresence. However, this seemed overbearing at times when audiences could have comfortably understood where they were in the storyline had the scene been less crowded. 

The first hour and a half is the long haul with no interval, which was slow on direction and staging. Yet superior voices from Joseph Calleja, Yoncheva, Brindley Sherratt and Sonia Ganassi, alongside superb music performed by the ROH orchestra under the ruthless baton of Antonio Pappano had me nicely nestled in my seat. Yoncheva's duets with Ganassi and Calleja are a pleasure to listen to as they sweetly complemented Bellini's lush score. 

The second half is a complete game changer, however. It was as if I was watching an entirely different opera, visually. The stacks of crosses were gone and a modern-day living room with children's cartoon playing on a flat screen TV, a toy train crashing and a space-hopping child energetically bouncing to the beat of Bellini's score came together to a climactic duet between the two priestesses. The pace also quickened with both Pollione and Norma sentenced to death. There's also an unexpected bang at the end that certainly converted some parts of my view of this production. Sadly not all. 

Brindley Sherratt as Oroveso, Sonya Yoncheva as Norma and Joseph Calleja as Pollione in Norma, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper.

This production of Norma ends this Saturday 8th October. Click here for more information or call up the box office for returns. The Covent Garden (ROH) are also showing Cosi fan tutte and The Barber of Seville, and many other operas and ballets. Click here to find out more. 

Saturday, 3 September 2016

#edfringe2016: Ghost Quartet: Summer Hall ★★★★★

Dave Malloy - Photography by Ryan Jansen
A 9pm showing of Ghost Quartet, by Ghost Quartet, was how I spent my last night at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Set at the Roundabout, a large tent at the back of Summer Hall, encased musical curiosities and explorations of ghost stories read to fringe audiences in a spectacular blend of music styles. Jazz, slow rock, gospel, ballad or emo, call it what you want, but one thing's for sure and that's that the music is a collection of crafty creativity you've never heard of before. 

The music and lyrics were composed and written by New York-based Dave Malloy, and he has accolades to boast. Success from his off-Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 grabbed punters attention, and Ghost Quartet is a testament that his individual score writing prevails. 

There in a carpet floored, round swirl of eager music lovers, Molloy, Gelsey Bell, Brittain Ashford and Brent Arnold took to the small circle stage facing each other with a wide range of peculiar instruments at hand. This included an erhu, dulcimer, ukulele, Celtic harp, metallophone and their exhilarating, harmonising voices.

As the marketing suggests there are moments where audiences are left in the dark, encouraged to listen to the music for itself and pay attention to the pivotal details of the ghostly tales. However, the performance as a whole isn't linear or perhaps it is and I may have missed the punch; there are patchy mentions of a broken camera, a talking bear, a Thelonious monk, an astronomer, a man that dies in a subway and lost sisters reunited, but all seem unrelated, and somehow related. 

Arnold is an intelligent cellist. Malloy is the man with a capital M - a pioneering rhythm-maker, while Armold and Bell produce the most amazing vocal sounds that can bring you to tears in their solo ballads. 

Engaging talent, enthusiasm, and passion are harmoniously harnessed by Ghost Quartet. I'd highly recommend this to anyone who loves soul and the idea of clapping and stomping until their hands and feet hurt, to the sound of loud percussions instruments.