Sunday, 22 November 2015

Live in HD: Met Opera - Berg's Lulu ★★★★★

“Were it not for those childlike eyes of yours, I should take you for the most cunning whore that ever led a man to ruin.” These are the words Alwa says at the end of Act 2 of Alban Berg's Lulu just as he seduces his father's wife and murderer. Lulu replies, “Would to God that I were.” This is the most clearest way of understanding Marlis Petersen's leading role at the MetOpera's new productin, under the direction by South African visionaire, William Kentridge.

Berg captured the concept of the highly dramatic tale of Lulu - the femme fatale and object of desire - originally written by playwright Frank Wedekind. From child beggar, who is rescued by a doctor, she becomes a model, a stage performer and dies a prostitute. She is also taken prisoner, escapes but is ultimately killed after enrapturing the hearts of many lovers, some who died because of her.

Petersen's Lulu, however, has something indisputably loveable about her. Her innocence (not as innocent as Manon Lescaut though), pity and warmth draw audience’s eyes to her every move. In the outset, her first husband faints in front of her as she models for a painter, yet her childlike reaction and fickle flirtations set the wheels for what can only become a tragic ending. The shock of her true love, Dr. Schön, shoving a gun into her hand whilst frantically forcing her to kill herself and desperate pleas to Jack the Ripper to stay the night, as if she is terrified of being alone, point at the desperation, naivety and vulnerability of a woman that everyone wants. 

Kentridge doesn't commit any stage scandals. Petersen's characterisation leaves out nudity and the power of sex, which is channelled through stark, animated and dynamic video projections instead. This gives audiences more chance to understand Lulu through Petersen's clarity of voice and fearless acting. Pieces of paper with drawn-on images of breasts are glued onto Petersen's costume, offering a subtle suggestion of nakedness where, in the past, productions tended to dress singers performing Lulu in the nude. Even in Act II, as Alwa sings about her flawless body, Alwa hardly lays a finger on her.
Sabine Theunissen's sharp, poised and highly charged projections of cut out dictionary pages with splashes of thick black ink and full body nudes bring the opera to life, providing symbolism and context to this highly perplexing drama. This is Kentridge's second production at the Met, following Shostakovich's The Nose, where his collages create movement and expressions of Lulu's various lovers; there's also omnipresent portraits of the composer as well.

A silent actress is positioned on the edge of the stage. She observes Lulu's actions and glares back and forth at the audience as if she were as much as part of the viewing process as they are. She is a representation of Lulu's inner self; the sensual and playfulness attributed to Lulu through strange postures, such as sticking her legs out of a piano and opening her legs wide, where Petersen doesn't have to.

Watching it at the Curzon cinema, however, there's a sense that cinema audiences where let off, not having to deal with so much happening on the vivacious stage. While the video director, Michael Diamond, offers brevity and focused footage to keep up with real-time action, Met audiences are exposed to a barrage of conceptual visuals that could throw them off; the opera may seem more demanding on the eyes for them. Yet, despite these misgivings, in my years of watching Live in HD screenings of the Met, this is one of the best stage designs I have seen out of New York.
Also the cinema acoustics didn't hinder the splendour and skill of its shinny cast. Johan Reuter exudes the appeal of an intelligent and rich Dr. Schön with the psychotic depth and darkness of Jack the Ripper through his rich bass-baritone voice. As Countess Geschwitz, Susan Graham does an impeccable job singing as the most honest, mislead and misguided lesbian lover of Lulu. Martin Winkler is tough and sturdy as the acrobat and animal tamer while Daniel Brenna sings brilliantly as the subdued and bright-eyed Alwa.

For those listening to Berg for the first time, one has to be prepared of the harshness and roughness of his music, yet the appeal of Lulu is in the lyricism of its libretto which is equally enhanced by superb and distinguished singing.

With the final act completed by Friedrich Cerha, where Berg died before he completed it, it is a challenging opera for directors to stage and musicians to truly understand. This is stressed more with the historical context it was written in and the pulsating intensity of its lead characters.

The Met orchestra are tenacious. Lotha Koenigs conducts the production with skill and wonderment (which James Levine opted out of due to health reasons), as if he knew the score through and through. In those heart-stopping scenes, Lulu's love scene with Dr. Schön and the countess's cry when Lulu is murdered, we hear the slick and versatile stripes of Berg's creative music writing.

It is no surprise that here at the Curzon Cinema, in Chelsea, viewers were cheering on for Petersen at the curtain call. Even though she may not have heard their reaction, it is a clear sign that she deserves the roar of applause after mastering a role, vocally and theatrically, for more than 20 years. She has announced that this was her final show as Lulu, and to that we can only salute her.   

Lulu runs through December 3 at the Metropolitan Opera. Derrick Inouye conducts on November 24, November 28, and December 3.


Lulu runs through December 3 at the Metropolitan Opera. Derrick Inouye conducts on November 24, November 28, and December 3. - See more at:
Lulu runs through December 3 at the Metropolitan Opera. Derrick Inouye conducts on November 24, November 28, and December 3. - See more at:

Saturday, 21 November 2015



Friday, 20 November 2015

Interview with Stage Director Nina Brazier

Nina Brazier, director of Clapham Opera Festival's La bohème, has vast experience directing opera at Buxton Festival, Tête-à Tête, Grimeborn and Stockholm Interplay Festivals. She has been called 'One of Britain's leading young directors of opera' by the Observer. Just before La bohème's opening night, I caught up with her to talk about the art of directing. 

Is it your first time directing la bohème?
Yes. I worked on the opera as an assistant director at Welsh National Opera quite a few years ago. I assisted the main director and supported the in-house side of the team and found it a very different approach when bringing it to life.

I can imagine it's very exciting right now?
Yes, it is. We have young emerging singers who are establishing themselves so we’re very lucky on that front. 

Alongside La bohème, what other Puccini operas are you dying to direct?
The epic opera Tosca. That's an incredible one I'd like to get my teeth into. It's such a great dark tale. There are other beautiful ones like Rondine and the lesser known ones I haven't worked on that would be interesting too.

Let's talk about your directing style. Some people like to work alone, utilise the internet or collaborate with others. How do prefer to work?
I work very collaboratively. Normally in a project you would work hand in hand with the designer and together you will brain storm and come up with ideas and visuals. I find this more interesting than looking online. I would also rather go out to an exhibition or go to the zoo where you can really share ideas and come up with a common vision. Having ideas from people and throwing them back and forth at each other is part of the collaborative process with the designer. It’s to ensure you have an idea of the elements in place and what's out there to play with such as entrances, exits and that sort of thing. It's also a step-by-step process. 

Speaking about art exhibitions have you seen anything recently that really caught your eye?

The Ai Weiwei exhibition is on at the moment at the Royal Academy and he has got an incredible exhibition. It's quite hard to describe. It's about human rights in China essentially. There were enormous earthquakes over there and he was putting together the names of the children who had been killed because the local services wouldn't release them. The whole thing was extraordinarily tragic. The schools that had been built collapsed in the earthquake killing thousands and thousands of innocent children and nobody was putting the pieces together because it would have become a big scandal. It was him and his team who were digging through the debris to work out what had gone wrong and they found corruption in many of the buildings of these properties that he is now creating artwork of. They reflect all of that corruption. I found that incredibly powerful.

Right now, I'm working on a piece on human rights and it’s interesting to see ideas that go back to the origins of human rights. There are so many corrupt societies today. I find it powerful given what is going on at the moment.

The other recent exhibition I’ve seen recently is Frank Auerbach at the Tate Britain. That was absolutely fascinating. The paintings are built up slightly in 3D and have a fascinating theatrical effect. 

Do you go to art exhibitions regularly?
I really like sculptures. Seeing them in 3D sets off your imagination in terms of structures you might use for building a set. You can imagine things working as entrances and exits. I like things that have sculptural properties. I have to remember to take photos and have them ready in my mind as it could be useful later down the line.
Of course, you can absorb information from wonderful artists. We are not trying to steal things from other people but it's just the gem of an idea. By Victoria Park, in Hackney, there are some extraordinary straw sculptures that rise up out of the big ponds and I'm always thinking about how I can use them in some way on a set. 

Do you have specific artists you turn to for your work or is it constantly changing?
I did a production last year, one that springs to mind is the Coronation of Poppea and we had the three gods at the beginning. Their designs were based on wonderful Klimt portraits. That was certainly inspirational. It was god-like and it was a starting point as we were working on a small budget but it was something about the colour and the intensity of those characters. How they were framed and haloed. We tried to capture the use of gold leaf and bringing that to life.
So I would say it always changes from piece to piece and very much depends on how much budget you’ve got, and whether you have the ability to bring something like that to life. With saying that, I'm hugely inspired by Alberto Giacometti's sculpture. These human forms are stripped back to nothing and they are so skinny with long limbs. There is something that he said one time that really stayed with me. It was that he didn't mean for them to come out that way but it took away everything that wasn't meant to be there. He took everything away that didn't need to be there. Keep it to the necessities of the personalities and the characters. I really like that and find his work dynamic. 

I understand you are directing A Song of Good and Evil at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

It's this weekend which is the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials and it's a narrated piece written by human rights lawyer, Philippe Sands. He has already written a couple of books and this is one of his latest pieces. It's all about the origins of human rights and tying together song, storytelling, narration and images. It is all around the three men originally involved in the trials. There's music that tie these men together and it becomes an exploration of modern justice. It's difficult to explain because it's not a play or an opera. Philippe, the writer, is one of the narrators. Vanessa Redgrave is the second narrator and we have a second performance where Vanessa has to come back to London. So, on the opening night of La bohème at Clapham Opera Festival, I'm jumping on a plane in the early morning as we open on Saturday night at Nuremberg. I can't wait until Monday when I can breathe.
What inspires you? Gets you out of bed every day?
It's different everyday. If you're in rehearsal mode you have to be up, out and have the energy to lead the room and coordinate with the music director. You have to have the energy to inspire others. It's your responsibility and I often find that your energy is mirrored in the people you are working with. On other days I'm at home in preparation mode. I have to be disciplined and be in control of my time and be ahead of different projects. It's about finding that balance between being excellent but also learning new things at the same time; looking for improvements and saying, 'I could have done that better' and not getting distracted by other things. Looking ahead into the future is also important. 

What would you say is the most challenging part of directing?
There are a variety of challenges including technical challenges. Last year there were moving elements of the set that were getting more and more complicated and weren't working properly. With that production it were the technical things which meant choreographing a lot of scene changes as there were around 17 scenes. These sets were starting to disintegrate and going wrong and I had to totally rethink that. Meanwhile the cast were a dream. They were getting on with it doing a wonderful job.
There might be another scenario where you might find it difficult to get on with the singers. Or other people who find it difficult to get into the production. Occasionally it might be the people. You find with any given show there seems to be something else that becomes a challenge. There may be one day where I might be able to get through more challenges (I'm not sure). Another challenge is keeping everything fresh and not falling back on old directing habits. You have to think about how the production is going to be different and how is it going to be new. That's a creative challenge in trying to keep your production fresh and interesting whilst not allowing your directing style to become stale and tired. 

How did you feel when you told by the Observer that you were  ‘One of Britain’s leading young directors of opera’?
I thought they were very kind. The press is such a random thing and people get picked for this and that and I feel very lucky to have such a lovely quote. I have been around for a while but it is nice to be considered as a leading person. You take it with a smile and with this difficult industry you have to be grateful for positive things. So, take it and enjoy it! If it's useful, it's wonderful. It doesn't make me feel smug. [Laughs]

Do you like reading reviews of your work? 
Generally, if you get positive ones it is wonderful. The thing for me, and I say this on behalf of emerging artists, is that when you leave a show all you can take with you are production photos as a record of what you have done and anything you get from the reviews. If you take it away it becomes difficult for that production, the show and that emerging artist. Yet it can be disheartening if you get a bad review especially if you feel like your work has been misunderstood. But for the most part it feels like validation of your work because it is out there for the world and it’s from someone who is coming in as a critical observer. And for many artists it is incredibly important that those reviews happen even if it is a negative review. The fact is, someone has come to see it. In terms of documenting your work for a portfolio it's what us artists need to build up.  It's also fascinating getting someone's objective opinion as well. 

What's next on your directing agenda for 2016? 
After this weekend in Nuremberg we are moving A Song of Good and Evil to the South of France and we are doing it in French because most of the people involved are French. Philippe, the writer, is half French including some actresses. We recently had our rehearsals in Paris and it was my first time directing in French and that was a massive challenge because the whole team from singers and pianist are French. It's definitely a second language for me.
In January I'm taking some time off but taking up intense German lessons. That's the next language on the agenda. Then I'm directing a few opera scenes for the Royal College of Music. I was there earlier this year and they've invited me back. After that I’m moving ahead with showing A Song of Good and Evil in Istanbul in April and then performing it in London in May. Everything's ticking along.  

What are the kinds of things that you want the audience to feel, see or even take home when they've seen a show you've directed?
For me it’s the clarity of the storytelling, and the interaction between the characters and making that as vivid and real as possible. Coming from a theatre background, the characters, their journey and the music, which make up the essence of story has to become real. It's those moments, the sparing of the characters, moments of chemistry, moments of contact, when they are together, and not together, that is alive and immediate. I might think differently in ten years time when I'm playing with enormous sets but for the moment, as I'm working at this scale, it's about keeping those moments true.

LA BOHÈME at the Clapham Opera Festival– FRI 20TH NOV 7.30PM & SUN 22ND NOV 4.30PM (click here to purchase tickets)

For more information about Nina Brazier and A Song of Good and Evil, click here for her website. Due to be shown in London next year in May. 

Solomon's Knot: l'Ospedale ★★★★

Photos by Robert Workman
This article is also available on

Back in 2003, Naomi Matsumoto came across an edited score at the Marciana Library in Venice. It was a handwritten score, which seemed to have been written in the 17th century with no mention of a composer or librettist. However, there was a brief note stating, "This score corresponds to the poem 'Lo Spedale'", by Antonio Abati. (This was the way ‘hospital’ was spelt in the Italian Renaissance.)
When music director of Solomon's Knot, James Halliday, asked Matsumoto for a suggestion for their repertoire she immediately recommended her discovery: the Italian one-act opera that hadn't been performed for over 350 years. After much studying, translating and experimentation, L'Ospedale is finally being presented on the Victorian stage of Wilton's Music Hall.
Solomon's Knot, part of Aldeburgh Music's Open Space residency programme, has inspired an ingenious Baroque production that captures both historical and modern parallels. During the 17th century L'ospedale (the hospital) meant something much more sinister: a place for social outcasts and unfortunates who were classed as mentally deranged.  
Photos by Robert Workman
Stage Director James Hurley expands the set onto the audience, inviting us into the derelict, hopeless world of the 17th century asylum. This opera sheds light on the minds of many Italians during the Renaissance era, including the suspected librettist Antonio Abati, who often questioned the role of the state and the treatment of those who were considered to be ill. 

To set the scene, the voice of a deceiving MP at the House of Commons acts as a symbol of health from Abati’s prologue and epilogue, with cheering backbenchers in the background. This resonates with today's political squabbles, particularly the NHS. Rachel Szmukler’s set design is a dark and filthy one; rubbish bags filled with hospital waste pile onto the main stage while a vending machine hums below. A trolley stacked with urine samples and a horror movie’s hospital bed take centre stage.

However, blood and dirt aside, the music and singing is heavenly. It is executed with precision and confidence by a talented group of singers. A resentful hospital worker (Lucy Page) spreads pessimism onto four patients stuck in this shattered asylum. The doctor (Jonathan Sells) is a corrupt, lying phony. Innamorato (Rebecca Moon) suffers from a broken heart; Cortiguano (Thomas Herford) is burdened with a stressful job; Pavero (Nicholas Merryweather) is miserably poor; while Matto (Michal Czerniawski) is mentally disturbed.

Photos by Robert Workman
A combination of sublime arias, recitatives and ariosos are incorporated with two of Carlos Gesualdo’s madrigals. These vocal passages of polyphony are sung astoundingly. Ben Pickersgill’s coordination of dim and bright lights are also effective. This is complete with a buoyant ensemble of harpsichord, lute, viola de gamba and violone players conducted with skill and flair by Halliday. Baroque opera meets contemporary politics in L'ospedale: a highly polished and crafty production.

Click here to purchase tickets. Three shows left. Last performance on the 21st November.
For more information about Solomon's Knot, please click here.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

ROH: Morgen und Abend - A Philosopher's Ghost Opera ★★★★

Georg Friedrich Haas's new opera Morgen und Abend is one of those operas that will stick in your memory for a long time. It's a creative co-production with the Royal Opera House and Deutsche Oper Berlin, directed by Graham Vick, yet despite the lack of song in the first 35 minutes, there's something interesting and intellectually absorbing about it.

The offstage echoing vocals, the microtonal and complex score is a large part of what makes up the alluring soundscape. It suspends itself on human emotion and a deep inspection of life and death. Its short duration of 1 hour 30 minutes (without a pause) exemplifies how simple and compact it is.

The opera, based on Norwegian writer Jon Fosse's Morgon og Lveld (2000), centres on the life of fisherman Johannes. Without giving the story away, Johannes discovers a truth about himself and his reality with every interaction he has with his wife, daughter and fisherman friend Peter. Death is called into question and Johannes is left grappling with his confused answers as an old man, as a father and a husband.
The opera begins at the outset of his life, when his father Olai first gives Johannes his name. Klaus Maria Brandauer is a famous Austrian actor who takes on this complicated paternal role. Although mostly spoken in English, his performance is authentic as an elderly and reflective man. He howls and screams, concerned over the meaning of his existence. It's a long section that could have worked better if it were cut short to 15 minutes. Nonetheless, the build up sets the tone for the rest of the opera, where the mysticism unravels.

On either side of the orchestra, in the stalls circle, there are two percussionists who strike the drums hard. These vibrations relentlessly bewilder the auditorium. Michael Boder conducts the ROH orchestra and given the sublime variations, temperaments, repetitions and chilling twists, they deserve much credit for performing so well. Some hear hints of Peter Grimes in the music. To me I hear echoes of Philip Glass.

The set is is minimal. Richard Hudson's revolving set is like a surreal, icy dream world. It's completely white and laid out like a paper scroll. On this page there's a white door, a white fisherman's boat, a white bed and a couple of white chairs. The English translation of the German libretto is projected behind the performers like a filtered instagram image. The stage moves steadily and slowly and a large spot light travels, at a snail pace, above the singers like the movement of the sun - from morning to night. Objects move without the blind eye noticing.
Christoph Pohl performs as the despairing Johannes, which is fascinating to watch. Alongside him is the strong soaring voice of Helena Rasker as Johannes's loving wife. She's constantly there but not as Johannes thinks. Sarah Wegener has a lucid vocal talent that rises above and beyond as both daughter and midwife. Taking on these two roles is a tough challenge but she sweeps many off their feet with her tantalising voice. Will Hartmann as pale faced Peter also adds a nostalgic effect to the opera with heartfelt singing and constant reminders, by Johannes, to have a overdue haircut. 

The German libretto may seem repetitive, yet its narrative is simple. It deals with critical ideas of existentialism. A lot of the time the audience's feelings about life and death influence how much the opera impacts them. It seems that Haas has no expectations of how the audience is meant to react other than draw upon their own personal associations and past experiences dealing with family loss and loneliness.

This opera isn't for everyone. Yet, those who appreciate less action for more contemplation and intense atmospheric music will. 

(Photographs courtesy of the Royal Opera House) Click here to purchase tickets. Only three showings left - last showing 28th November 2015.