Wednesday, 29 June 2016

ENO: Tristan and Isolde ★★★★

Many opera lovers know that there is much luscious music to discover with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The climactic love-death song that is Liebestod (otherwise known as Isolde’s Verklärung), the glorious intensity of the score alongside the romantic verse written by the German composer himself are a few reasons, out of many, as to why it is considered a landmark opera which has influenced music history. Not forgetting the tragic story where two lovers down a love potion which leaves them stuck in a world they cannot exist together in.

The English National Opera (ENO) last staged Wagner’s visceral opera twenty years ago, yet its newly appointed artistic director Daniel Kramer has introduced a new production with grand designs by award-winning contemporary artist Anish Kapoor – the man who designed the Orbital Tower at the heart of the Olympic Park and controversial sculptures for the French palace of Versailles. 

The inspiration behind Wagner’s four-hour opera includes his admiration for Arthur Schopenhauer and his metaphysical ideas of the annihilation of the self, as well as his keen interest in medieval literature and another love; a love that is revealed through various letters he wrote to the wife of his benefactor, Mathilde Wesendonch.

Although Wagner was already married, living in exile in Switzerland for his part in the Dresden Uprising of 1894, he felt compelled to write the ‘most full-blooded musical conception’. One could describe Wagner’s reasons for composing his monumental opera as a way of hammering out a message to Mathilde or releasing his own frustrations on such a sensitive situation. Regardless of his motivations, one thing that cannot be negated is the biopic nature the opera had on Wagner, where ‘words, stage setting, visible action, and music come together in closest harmony towards the central dramatic purpose.’

The ENO’s previous musical director Edward Gardner returns to his former residence, and in this case for Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which he performs with warmth and vitality from start to finish. The ENO Orchestra also presents Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) exquisitely - the prelude and lovely ‘Tristan chord’, which lingers throughout the opera are a wonder to hear. 

Following the nihilistic notions of Schopenhauer; the yearning for the dark, escape from the realities of the day in exchange for an existence beyond the physical, light plays a huge part of the production's staging and this is executed by Paul Anderson’s light designs, which assists Kapoor’s large scale artworks. However, some audience members may feel a bit left behind with what they see before them.

A golden stage divided by three, a huge ball sliced in half with our lovers hiding in its inner cave, and a ripped out hole, which releases blood, are the artist’s ‘vision for a complete artistic experience’, yet these abstract works can appear ambiguous unless one is familiar with Kapoor’s work. Much praise goes to the visual lighting effects that take place on stage, but a visually stimulating stage isn’t necessary for a grand opera that is already a musical masterpiece in its own right.

The production’s costumes, designed by Christina Cunningham, are filled with characteristics from a Star Wars movie, which also seem weak in relevance to the opera or Kapoor's complex staging despite their craft and sophistication.

Nonetheless, justice can be found from outstanding performances including Stuart Skelton as Tristan. His robust and silvery voice makes his Tristan a triumphant performance which is no surprise for a tenor who received positive reviews for his role as Peter Grimes at the ENO. Karen Cargill, as Brangäne, and Craig Colclough, as Kurwenal, sing effectively and energetically while Matthew Rose deeply impresses and charms the audiences as elderly King Marke. 

Making her debut at the ENO is Heidi Melton. Many members of the audience sob as she closes the opera with her version of Liebstod. Singing the role of Isolde is a tough challenge, bestowing a devoted and headstrong princess but Melton doesn't falter. She is solid in the beginning scenes, but performs best at its conclusion, rendering the auditorium speechless. It is a touching sight seeing Isolde sing romantic words, similar to a sonnet, as she holds Tristan's face - an image that will stay with me for a long time. 

Tristan and Isolde is playing at the London Coliseum until July 9. Click here to book tickets. 

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, West End ★★★★★

Just like three years ago, when I first saw the National Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I had a warm fuzzy feeling as I left the Gielgud Theatre last night. It was just as inquisitive, visually stimulating and theatrical as I recall. Back then it was staged at West End’s Apollo Theatre and suffered from its stage ceiling collapsing which meant that the show was absent from the West End for a few months, yet it soon returned, in a new location.

Since 2013, the production has gained international recognition and continues to pull in new audiences. Writer, Simon Stephen adapted Mark Haddon’s acclaimed novel for the stage (now used in the classroom as a children’s textbook), which blew both West End and Broadway away; last year it won five Tony Awards including Best Play and Best Director.

The show itself has so many things to love about it. Firstly, its lead character - the socially awkward 15-year-old with behavioral issues - Christopher Boone is something out of the ordinary and I don’t mean that to highlight his mental disability, in this case Asperger Syndrome, but that it pinpoints the difficulty endured by those who can't interact or engage with others, who detest human touch and physically lash out when stuck in an uncomfortable situation. Often the actor who plays Christopher has a tough challenge, remembering line after line of theorems and algebraic formulas whilst pacing fast up and around the stage (literally!) – it takes real courage and skill to play the role.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the original Christopher played by Luke Treadaway. He was a wonder to watch and truly encapsulated the attributes of Christopher’s peculiar personality and wild imagination. Sîon Daniel Young is the most current version of Christopher who also provides a memorable performance, bringing the human story much closer to the audience. Both brilliant actors, there is no set way of showcasing the traits of a person with Asperger Syndrome, and I doubt this was their intention, nor the director’s, Marianne Eliott.

The second reason I love this production is that the staging is utilised to the T. It lights up like stars, beams at you in emergency red and has layers of hidden cupboards and doors filled with LEGO models and other surprises. Given the logical and systematic mind of Christopher, the stage is fashioned as a place to see Christopher’s thought process as he identifies who killed Wellington, the neighbour’s pet dog. With dreams of becoming a scientist, and - perhaps - travelling up to space and in it, Christopher’s mathematical ability is explored - it is a mirror of today’s university departments that have a high concentration of mathematicians with Asperger’s; it is associated with their brain's capacity to focus on a problem and cancel everything else out.

Adrian Sutton’s music – a whiff of electronica and moving themes – also sets the tone for a play not solely based on a dog murder mystery. Stephens is known for writing stage works of a macabre and realistic nature, as I've seen in his other work, Wastwater (click here to read the review), and in Christopher's case it’s a slightly abusive, jilted father and a depressed mother who left him as a result of the hardship of raising him. Without giving any spoilers away, it’s a real human story that has its poignant moments that are lifted with some dark humour, smart stagecraft, and ambient lighting.

My third reason for admiring the show is the ensemble, of up to nine cast members. On top of being skillful and energetic, they are a significant force that pushes Christopher through his mathematical adventures and dog investigation. Together they play over thirty characters whilst physically carrying Christopher on their backs, holding him up to the wall and turning him around in mid-air. Overall, it’s a fast-paced, intelligent and entertaining show that will remind audiences' of the chaotic journey commuters have to take on the TFL, and somehow come out alive once they have reached their destination.

To book tickets, please click here for Box - It is showing until February 2017.

For more information on the production, please click here

Monday, 6 June 2016

ENO: Jenůfa ★★★★

Photo by Donald Cooper.
Despite how musically rich and sensitive Janáček’s opera Jenůfa is, its grotesque storyline, which includes the murdering of a child, is not. It captures a sample of small-town life in Moravian Slovakia during the mid-1850s, which first influenced Gabriela Preissová to write Její Pastorkyňa (“The Stepdaughter”), which inspired Janáček to compose his opera.
Photo by Alistair Muir
It took 10 years to complete and during that time Janáček’s work took an autobiographical turn as his daughter, also caught up in an unhappy affair and a similar fate to Jenůfa, died from typhoid fever. Janáček takes us to a sound world of grief, shame and guilt in a society where tragic consequences, prejudice, and hypocrisy took place for a woman who bore a child out of wedlock – it was considered a mortal sin.
Janáček’s musical achievements are often neglected, unfortunately, and underperformed, though in the last couple of years there has been a surge of his great works programmed at some the UK’s top concert halls; The Cunning Little Vixen and Jenůfa is one of them. David Alden’s 2006 production, of the latter, has returned to the London Coliseum in luminous and triumphant form.
Photo by Donald Cooper
Back then the production won an Olivier Award for Best New Production, and if the 2006 production was as good as it was last night, then much credit is due to the intense focus of its outlandish characters, dramatic and minimal staging as well as its refined and impassioned melodies.
An empty run-down Eastern bloc of a factory yard, plucked from a Communist system, is how Charles Edwards’ displays Janáček’s Moravian Slovakian community. Jon Morrell presents simple costumes for the cast, drawn from a closed off society, while the lyrical score is welded together by the unwavering prowess of the ENO chorus and the finesse of the ENO’s most recent music director, accomplished Mark Wigglesworth. (He resigned from the position over controversial disputes with ENO’s senior management this year.) 
Stage and vocal performances from the lead cast are courageous too. Nicky Spence provides a vivid picture of Jenůfa’s lover Steva; he’s an obnoxious alcoholic and reckless womanizer, yet he sings with a rich and fluid voice. His brash character is so superficial that he leaves Jenůfa after his jealous half-brother Laca, sung impressively by Peter Hoare, slashes her cheek with a knife, out of frustrated love for her.
Laura Wilde offers a true and honest depiction of a troubled woman starved of love, childless, and left bitterly disillusioned. Although Wilde’s vocal lines brim with empathy and sentimental force as Jenůfa, it isn’t as powerful as I would like. Hopefully, this is insight based on the first night only and her performance enhances as the production goes on.
Michaela Martens, on the other hand, took charge of the stage as Jenůfa’s paranoid and concerned stepmother Kostelnicka – her voice is utterly spellbinding. Her character is the catalyst in the opera, and Martens encapsulates the trauma of a mother consumed by a community controlled by religious and social pressures.
Rarely performed, David Alden’s production at the ENO is worth the watch even if it is almost three hours long. Any die hard Janáček fan should make it their mission to see it.

This production is showing until the 8th of July. Click here to see the ENO website and purchase tickets.