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.