Sunday, 21 February 2016

One week, many operas: L'Étoile, The Magic Flute, Norma and The Rinse Cycle

Five operas in a space of seven days may seem like a tall order but somehow I managed to do all of them. The range included works by Fringe companies like Opera Vera (read review here) and Unexpected Opera as well as those at the Covent Garden and English National Opera (ENO). To my delight it was an even spread that pretty much captured the kind of operas happening in London - and my, (oh, my) there are plenty! 

Royal Opera House: L'Étoile, Covent Garden ★★★★
(Photograph from the ROH website)
L'Étoile was composed by Emmanuel Chabrier and premiered at Offenbach's Théâtre des Bouffes in 1977. Parisians absolutely loved it back then and now, at the Royal Opera House, with some commendable additions - British comedian Chris Addison, breaking of the fourth wall with maestro Mark Elder and add-on slapstick dialogue - it is a fun-packed, entertaining production that I'd happily recommend anyone to see. Yet if you like your opera serious, sans kinkiness and completely covered with passionate and I-am-going-to-die-tragically singing, then this one may not be for you.

However I must admit that the music glows and is highly addictive. The ROH Chorus sing wittingly to Couplets du Pal as they celebrate King Ouf's execution by impalement (yeah, I know - it's very weird!) By the end of it, I was humming a few catchy songs I hadn't heard before including Le chartreuse verte. The opera is performed entirely in French, which is a good way to re-cap on your beginner's French (which you probably left behind after GCSEs), and like a Shakespeare, Mozart or Strauss narrative, there's a master of disguise, a trouser role, multiple plots going on and ridiculous love triangles. 

Addison and Jean-Luc Vincent, as Dupont, are the two comedy commentaries who interject throughout and sporadically, but I favoured this - I thought Addison was actually funny, especially when he points at the surtitles and realises he's in a real opera! Elder conducts jubilantly (and happily), and it's not hard to see why with Chabrier's highly spirited music. Hélène Guilmette (Princess Laoula) melted my heart with some scintillating singing, and mezzo-singer Kate Lindsey, as Lazuli, was a great match to her as the wandering pedlar who falls in love. In Lazuli’s solo aria (in Act 2) Lindsey's voice truly blooms.

Much hilarity is maintained by exceptional performances through Samuel Sakker (Patacha), Samuel Dale Johnson (Zalzal), Christopher Mortagne (King Ouf), Simon Bailey (Siroco), Julie Boulianne (Aloès) and Aimery Lefèvre (Tapioca). And the flamboyant and freshly coloured set designs shouldn't go unnoticed - thanks to Julia Hansen for the crazy anachronistic satire of the 19th century and Arabian Night styles. Sadly, this one isn't PC enough for the kids as it is pretty saucy. No - it's very sexy! Unless they've past puberty then, of course - by all means, bring them! 

English National Opera: The Magic Flute  ★★★★
(Photo from the Guardian website)
Things are not getting better for our opera house at the London Coliseum. More negative news keeps coming in and the most recent is the livelihood of its Chorus which has been stated to reduce, including the number of opera productions taking place next year by ENO CEO, Cressida Polluck. With many internationally known musicians, performers, conductors, directors and classical music journalists signing a petition via @SaveEno (here), it is only a matter of time before the ENO's management has to face up to the inevitable and give the people (audiences, singers, performers, musicians and tax-payers), an answer to their financial dilemma.

Yet in the face of such crisis, the show must go on and the nation's supposed opera house has introduced a revival production of Complicite artistic director Simon McBurney, The Magic Flute, which was first shown in 2013. Admittedly I didn't enjoy that production; I re-read my review (here), which seemed like I was in agony by the end of it. Influenced by social media, however, with rave reviews of the revival's opening night, I got myself a ticket hoping that they were right and luckily I wasn't disappointed - phew!

The set hadn't changed much in three years - the ENO orchestra was elevated from the pit and a simple platform moved in mid-air. The staging was recycled from the last production but this time round the opera was executed to a better standard. Here's my reasons why.

Firstly, it seemed much more together; there was no fuss on stage among the performers and they seemed on top of what they were doing. Secondly, the voices of its brilliant cast were stronger. This was enhanced by stimulating conducting from ENO’s resident maestro, Mark Wigglesworth. The grand overture, The vengeance of Hell by the Queen of the night and blissful duets such as Pa … pa … pa ... were performed to a hugely satisfied mixed audience of children and adults. And thirdly, there were Finn Ross's video projections which were previously implemented, but here introduced with some extra additions, making it more imaginative and mythical (I won't spoil it by telling you what - visually - happens.) Overall, though, there was a real sense that the performers and singers believed in the production, making it a far more gratifying production. 

Allan Clayton and Lucy Crowe performed convincingly as star-struck lovers and although they were not the comedy starlets, they were able to stay in character while their zany companion creatures, Papageno (Peter Coleman-Wright), Monostrato (John Graham-Hall) and Papagena (Soroya Malfi) kept the childish humour of Mozart at bay. I had seen Crowe perform at the ROH in L'elisir d'amore, so I wasn't surprised she gave an impressively delicate and sweet sounding Pamina, particularly in her solo aria in the final act. 
Ambur Braid performed courageously as the wheelchair-stricken OAP version of the Queen. The ENO Chorus was tremendous in voice and played a pertinent part with McBurney's tacky paper birds. Coleman-Wright's Papageno, however, was much more friend-down-the-pub and had other handy gimmicks compared to the last production's bird catcher, Roland Woods. Though with saying that, they played a version of Papageno that was entirely their own. Woods was much more sharper in voice for Mozart's harmonious and witty music while Coleman-Wright wanted to make the audience laugh – and that’s exactly what he did! James Creswell is the voice of authority, Sarastro and there was a moment when he looked on to the audience, as well as his political cronies, and said, 'we are in a crisis!' I thought he was referring to the ENO crisis but then I remembered this was the bit that they worry over Tamino's dedication to love and truth - BLAUGH! 

English National Opera: Norma
Alastair Muir
[From Review first published at]
The English National Opera (ENO) first performed Bellini’s 1831 bel canto opera, Norma this month. Christopher Alden's production was first presented by Opera North in 2012, which is a co-production with Die Theatre Chemnitz and has toured to Bordeaux ever since. Bellini put down on paper, 'Carve in your head in adamantine letters: Opera must make people weak, feel horrified, die through singing' and to many composers, artists and philosophers they were heavily affected by the composer's artistry.

Conducted by Stephen Lord, who demonstrates his aptitude for bel canto repertory, the production was dramatic in narrative and the music's sublimity that could only come together from a solid hand (and baton) to guide the roaring and heartfelt score. The opening night permitted its ENO Chorus to take to the curtain call twice, which was well-deserved for this chorus-heavy opera. They give a phenomenal performance as excellent actors and singers. Unforgettable scenes come in the final act where Norma reveals her treachery to them, and in their pain, they fall to the ground, then abandon her. It stressed the significance of the ENO Chorus’s role at the opera house at a time where their status is being compromised and negotiated by the ENO's management. 

Due to a word count I have to follow, I wasn’t able to put down a couple of things to be wary of with watching ENO’s Norma in my review. To put it bluntly, it is one of those operas that you are really going to love or really hate, and for me I found that I truly loved the music.

Listening to an opera where you can completely lose yourself in the music is one of the reasons  I love opera – and Norma is one of those operas, yet the production is, as I said, dry and woody as the staging, and the only beings capable of moving you are the cast, ENO Chorus and the gracious music, which has the ability to make you cry and feel vulnerable.

Another thing to note is that towards the last act, which was the most musically interesting, it took a long time to end and in some ways dragged. It was almost approaching 10.30pm and yes, I was tired (having had a long week at work already) but, surely, there must have been other ways that the production could have more appealing?

Should you go and see Norma, stick with it or at least go with the knowledge that there is nothing visually sophisticated to see and you must take the narrative and magnitude of the voices as they are.

Unexpected Opera: The Rinse Cycle, Charing Cross Theatre ★★★★★
Photograph by Robert Workman
I am an advocate of the fringe scene, a place where young and aspiring musicians and performers can reveal their trained voice and talent to an audience new to opera. Yet opera aficionados also like to check out small-scale productions too. Who knows if they might be seeing the next Maria Callas or Placido Domingo? (Honestly, who knows?) Some fringe opera companies are based locally while others go on tour, and this week I had the pleasure of seeing The Rinse Cycle by Unexpected Opera. It may sound rather cliché but I truly didn't know what to expect. The programme booklet reads, 'Wagner's Ring Cycle Conditioned with comedy and shrunk to 2 hours' and on analysis it did just that but in an inventive and intelligent way. 

Unexpected Opera's artistic director, Lynn Binstock is on a mission to bring opera to those who think it's not for them as well as those who are devout operagoers through engaging and hilarious productions, and I've seen some funny operas but this one took comedy to another level. From the very beginning scenes I wasn't sure when Wagner's Rhinemaidens were going to fly in but it really didn't matter at this point as I got stuck in to the bizarre laundry stage and odd props: Patisserie Valkyrie sign post, mermaid aprons, disputed leitmotifs, an ironed out sword, Norfolk accents and oven gloves for Wotan’s giants.  Somehow Top Gun's Tom Cruise, with a phony American accent, also seemed relevant.

What's smart about this show is that it eases the audience in with its own light-hearted story. Ronnie (Simon Thorpe) and ex-opera singer Edith (Harriet Williams) are the married couple with son, Tim (Edward Hughes) while Hilda (Mari Wyn Williams) and Robin (Anna Gregory) are like the waitresses from BBC Comedy 'Allo 'Allo, who go through the trouble of delivering the Ring cycle in a shrunken down version for the audience sat in front of them. However Tim didn't hear his dad properly and thought he said Rinse - not ring, hence, the hypnotic washing machines on stage.

Though jokes aside, it is only by the end of the first half that you begin to get to the core of Wagner's music and all of that powerful Wagnerian singing. So while you may have spend the first hour doing stomach crunches in your seat, you'll be enlightened by real music drama, and the transition is, pretty much, seamless through the conviction of its passionate cast. 
There are two casts for this production and on the opening night Thorpe sung both baritone roles, as Wotan and Alberich, yet he also played other characters with strange accents, including Sean Connery, on his knees and standing up. He gave a sensitive performance for the audience by the second half. The same can be said for Williams who sung as Fricka and her voice was intense, bold and alluring - my favourite voice of the night! 
Photograph by Robert Workman
Mari Wyn Williams sung the prelude of Die Walküre almost effortlessly with utter assurance and she had multiple roles to go on including Sieglinde and Ronnie's secret flirt. I also enjoyed tenor Edward Hughes who was marvellous as Siegmund and Siegfried - poor Tim kept getting confused playing both roles, but Hughes rose to the occasion and hit all those brave notes!
Gregory has the vocal prowess for her roles as well ranging from Gutrune and Tim's knocked up girlfriend. Music director Kevin Lim had a shaky start on the piano but that was quickly forgotten when it came to performing the pithy and heartfelt songs sung by the cast.
Some may only prefer their Wagner operas to be heard as the composer wrote it, or wanted it to be performed in Bayreuth, but that would be elitist, wouldn't it? For veteran operagoers who don't mind letting their hair down, having a beer and watching a cheerful and slightly cheesy opera that speeds through Wagner's 16-hour opera and neatly trims it down to 2 (with a break in between), then this is a perfect antidote. This is mutually beneficial for opera newbies, too, who will still get a taste of Wagner's profoundly dramatic music straight up from a versatile cast. Hats off to Unexpected Opera for ending my week on a high and making me sing Hoyotoho with the crowd - honestly, no one predicted that would happen and I love surprises.

L'Étoile ends 24th February, 2016. (Click here for more information)

The Magic Flute ends 19th March, 2016. (Click here for the ENO website.) 

Norma ends 11th March, 2016 (Click here for more information) 

Art Review: Electronic Superhighway at Whitechapel Gallery

Nowadays it's hard to find anyone who will say that they don't like the internet. Just think about how much has been achieved because of it. Electronic Superhighway is a new exhibition currently showing at the Whitechapel gallery that amalgamates internet art in a clever retrospective, though visually there is nothing structured about it, and that's mainly because it's an explosion of multiple mediums. 

It delves deep into how artists have adopted and critiqued technology for the last six decades and provides a narrative of technology in human history. There are various bits and pieces: monitors, paintings, intimate objects, manipulated images, noises, selfies, and strange digital paraphernalia that demonstrate the impact of digital art. 

Starting from the 1960s, the exhibition takes you into a field of digital bombardment - heavy images and video footage from a cacophony of monitors by Nam June Paik; it illustrates the mass consumption of television gone into hyperdrive. There are a range of prototypes of modern computers and motherboards on display as well - let’s not forget this was the same time the Beatles became number one in the music charts!

Then the 1970s came along with its release of floppy disks and the unveiling of the first Apple computer by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Here the exhibition leads you on to the first interactive artwork which gives spectators a taste of the claustrophobic and isolating effect of television. This is depicted through Lyn Hershman Leeson's 1979-82 video installation, Lorna, which observes the behaviour of a agoraphobic woman dolling herself up in her small apartment. You can flip between channels and see various sequences of her life but the strange part about it is that you’re sat in her apartment - she could come in and shoot you anytime!

The 1980s saw the making of Microsoft Windows in 1985 and Apple’s first graphical user interface (GUI). This brought colour and animated imagery into the digital world. Playing with the idea of reality, and things not looking as they seem, is leading figure of optical and kinetic movements, Peter Sedgley with his simple yet effective paintings of fuzzy concentric circles. They are brightly lit, change colour and distort the way you see it every time you look.

The internet came into fruition by the 1990s, or the world wide web as it was called then; in 1993 there were just over 600 websites. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer felt the tensions of a Big Brother-style surveillance strategy happening online, which he encapsulated through ‘Surface Tension’, an interactive installation where a large eye follows you around the room.

The 2000s introduced the dotcom bubble where Facebook and more, and more, social network sites dominated our personal lives, while 2010s opened the door to the selfie, digital natives, narcissism and alienation. Amalia Ulman instills this dimension of fakeness through uploads of her digital form on instagram in her work, ‘performance, excellences and perfections’. 

Taking the internet into our private lives is Celia Hempton's paintings where she tasked herself with quickly painting the users she spoke to - mostly naked people - in online chat rooms. These obscure thick brush stokes depict dark, salacious images including a man touching himself, two naked men and another of a guy's arm. Visually striking and hypnotising is Douglas Coupland's geometric forms and shapes, which are similar to online avatars which disguise people from who they are really are, and release some coded energy.

The digital world has spilled into our daily movements and Evan Roth analyses this through Self Portrait: July 17, 2012 - a massive paper roll of images he found in a day's worth of online browsing. At the same time as looking as this piece, you begin to realise how many photographs you've taken on your phone or the amount of times you've clicked on a website on that day - think about all of that data!

Electronic Superhighway only shows a very small part of digital history, yet it contains a multitude of pertinent snapshots and offers some food for thought.  The digital has taken over our life; we can find a partner, order breakfast, communicate visually with our relatives on the other side of the world and so much more, and it's hard to switch off. The exhibition has a lot of material and there's plenty to take in. Yet the main aim is for the spectator to observe how we experience the world compared to the past and what the digital possibilities are moving forward - this is only the beginning.                 

Exhibition is showing until open now until the 15th May, 2016. Click here for more information.

Click here for photos of last year's exhibition of Pleasure and Pain at the V & A and more opera and art reviews featured on (here)

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Opera Vera: Così fan tutte

(Photo from
Whenever you're in the piazza of Covent Garden you pass a church that tends to be ignored, mostly due to the hustle and bustle of Central London, but Actors' Church is, in fact, a unique space for small-stage productions like Opera Vera's Così fan tutte which I was delighted to see on the Valentine's weekend. Not only did conductor, Philip Hesketh and the 10 musicians of the Opera Vera Players give an imaginative and sharp-witted performance, they managed to present the fine subtleties and characteristics inhabited by its hilarious fiancée-swapping plot in what was regarded as Mozart's most controversial opera.

For Opera Vera, they set their comedy in today’s cannot-live-without-my-smartphone world, by the coastal lines of the Italian sea. In the background, a scrolled down screen pans images of the Italian mountains alongside the beautiful coast, then on the left a cameraman sets up his gear for what could be a reality TV show. Queue camera! The charming philosopher, Don Alfonso (Håkan Vramsmo) glares into focus, quickly sorts out his hair and gives a cheeky smile that everyone in the audience can see on screen.

Ferrando (Tom Morss) and Guiglelmo (Peter Brooke) are our optimistic and adamant fiancés assured that their other halves Dorabella (Camilla Bull) and Fiordiligi (Susan Jiwey) would never stray into another man's arms, and so they bargain with Don Alfonso to their defence. This is where the camera came in and acted as a portal for these men to speak freely about their love gamble. Yet in this yoga, selfie laden, strawberry and creams, barbeques-at-the-ready universe, men dressed as if they had walked off a Middle-Eastern desert can still turn the righteous heads of fiancées.

With many excuses to laugh and giggle, there were a fabulously polished cast that revealed hidden talents I hadn't heard before. Tom Morss and Peter Brooke gave a comical performance as the strange men who pretended to poison themselves, in the name of love – of course! Morss firmly executed some serious singing, particularly when his character realises he might have been wrong about his lover, while Brooke gave a refined and terrific performance as an overly complacent Guiglielmo.

Susan Jiwey, as Fiordiligi, is a hidden gem whose voice shined throughout the halls. Clear and gracious, her voice rose high and had a dimension of sophistication that I hope to hear again in the near future. Camilla Bull's Dorabella likes to smash things on the food table and create a big mess. She also met the challenges of her role singing beautifully with Jiwey and Vramsmo in “Soave sia il vento". (It sounded so good, I had to close my eyes!)

And Caroline Kennedy was the feline Despina dressed like the ladies' PA, with a realistic outlook of men and women and of the belief that women should be as naughty as the opposite sex. I'm no stranger to Kennedy's voice and found it a pleasure to see and hear her again as the multilinguist witch doctor and clumsy notary.

James McOran-Campbell and Alexander Anderson-Hall's Così is a brilliant illustration of how classical operas framed in a modern settings can really work, and, indeed, be very relevant. Gender stereotypes aside, Mozart's opera eventually became popular by the 20th century and today - where both men and women can be mutually 'stupid' and it, really, isn't a big deal.

This production has ended. To find out more about Opera Vera, please go to their website (here), and follow them on Twitter on: @operavera (here).

Monday, 8 February 2016

Orpheus in the Underworld, Opera Danube

Orpheus and Euridice (Telegraph website)

A fun and cheeky production of Offenbach’s witty opera - Orpheus in the Underworld - was put together by the young and emerging opera company of Andrew Dickinson, Opera Danube, with direction by Simon Butteriss. Having performed a variety of operas including the brilliantly sung Die Fledermaus (link here), they lit up St John’s Smith Square’s semi-stage with the accompany of the great Orpheus Sinfornia – they too represent a young collective of enthusiastic artists and musicians. Pushing the music forward was music director, Oliver Gooch. He demonstrated an intelligent take of Offenbach’s music that is deeply entrenched with a kaleidoscope of genres from baroque, classic and Can-Can music. The Orpheus Sinfornia gave a fiery performance as they warmed to the the soloists’ playful stamping around the stage to double entendres and highly energised Can- Can dancing.

Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers as it is called in French) is an interesting comedy opera that isn't all about the usual big voices, grand music and happy ending. Taking the original Greek mythology of Orpheus and Eurydice - where the virtuoso lyre musician bargains with Pluto to release his wife if he promises not to look at her on their way out of hell, but sadly fails - here Offenbach turned the gods and goddesses on their head and made them mortals - and for the 19th century that was a pretty big deal! This was Offenbach’s way of saying up yours to traditional opera by making men of authoritative figures; it was also another way to please the audience. This satirical opera made such an impact that Parisians were flocking to grab a ticket, despite scathing reviews condemning it. Without a doubt there are echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan but, in fact, their operas were inspired by Offenbach through their manager, D' Oyly Carte; and it was he who introduced Offenbach's operettas to England first.

Back at St John's Smith Square, the setting was giddy and childish with the deities dressed in onesies and pyjamas under the watchful eye of mama and papa, Juno and Jupiter. Its director, Butteriss, inhibited two roles: the witty and showbiz-like narrator, and the unfaithful Jupiter, with easy transition. Kathy Steffan displayed a tough goddess, nursing both her super kids and adulterous husband. Matthew Buswell had a great time playing the role of Mars as well as the dog eared Styx who ends up falling in love with Eurydice. William Morgan displayed a narcissus of Orpheus, and Emily Vine's Eurydice was bright-eyed, vocally strong and a wonder to watch. Sweet, cute and joyful, her appearance seemed close to the human version of Elsa from Disney's Frozen, making her the most likeable character. Much praise is also due to Tristan Stocks (Mercury), Felicity Buckland (Cupid), Hannah Sawle (Diana) and Jan Capinski (Pluto) for their gung-ho acting and vigorous singing.

Gooch and the Orpheus Sinfonia did justice to Offenbach's sophisticated music which was enjoyable to hear, and something I'd like to hear again, yet while watching this production it was hard for me to break out of the Gilbert and Sullivan foil. Ridiculously funny as it was, it deserved to be staged elsewhere at other fringe opera venues such as a pub theatre where younger audiences would relish such silly, comedy antics compared to the usual attendees at the Square who would have appreciated more clothes on. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable feast for the Sunday matinee crowd including the children, and I, in the audience.

For more information about Opera Danube, click here

Or click here for information on St John Smith's Square and other concerts they are showing. 

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Pianist of Willesden Lane at St James Theatre ☆ ☆ ☆☆

 Currently showing at the St James Theatre is a heart-breaking musical feast that takes the audience back in time, demonstrating how far we have come since WWII. The Pianist of Willesden Lane is a one-woman show, originally written from the book The Memoir of Music, Love and Survival by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen. 
Reliving the past is Golabek herself who gives an up close and personal account of the most intimate details of her family’s traumatic and shocking life.  The writer and musician takes us into her personal space, speaking heroically about her mother Lisa Jura, whilst playing various piano pieces effortlessly including Scriabin’s Etude in D Minor, Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata and Debussy’s Clair de Lune
Lisa is a young Jewish girl who loves to play the piano; even in silence she loves to place her fingers over the piano keys. One day, as she made her usual way to visit her piano teacher in Vienna, in preparation of playing Grieg’s Piano Concert in A Minor at the Musikverein Concert Call in the future, her life changed as soon as she arrived at his door.
This change came from the regime's decision to make it illegal to teach Jewish children, so he told her it was best to leave immediately, and that was the last time she ever saw her teacher.
Towards the end of 1938, the Nazi’s military power grew stronger and enforced the slaughter and persecution of the Jewish population – Kristalnacht – which was prevalent throughout the Third Reich. Yet by luck, Lisa's father managed to get a golden ticket for her to take the Kindertransport to England. 
Golabek gives a remarkable rendition of her courageous mother through touching and tender moments. These segments included Lisa saying goodbye to her family before boarding the train, to finding a place to sleep during the London’s Blitz and, by chance, getting a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.

Adapted by Hershey Felder, this visceral play steals the hearts of the audience including those new to classical music. The production has black and white footage, which provide visual context and emotional language to Golabek’s voice. These visual projections are formed by Andrew Wilder’s gold edged frames that act as a way into Lisa’s world, alongside a large Steinway grand piano for Golabek to play breathtaking variations by the great composers.
In light of current affairs, where today’s UK government is considering taking 3000 unaccompanied children from Syria, this 90 minute play is not only a history lesson but a musical story filled with love, pathos and sweeping tension. 

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