Category Archives: ENO
2017 was a busy opera year for yours truly, with plenty local outings as well as opera trips to Italy, Austria and Germany, and a return to Glyndebourne in style (3 out of 4 dates = sunny). I met old and new friends and even ran into a certain contralto on the street 😉 And then there was the Summer of Tito. Plus a couple of duds and misses… 😉
Now that we’re nearing the end of 2017, 2016 memories have started to take firmer shape.
Three productions had a profound impact on yours truly this year: ENO’s Akhnaten and ROH’s The Nose and Oedipe. Hard to miss that all of them are 20th century operas. Perhaps they just lend themselves a lot better to contemporary takes. Also, to apparently fresh takes, as none is particularly often performed. The thrill of the lesser spotted is its own reward.
Becoming who you are
Akhnaten the opera is, for me, a great example of an intelligent way of dealing with a subject (apparently) alien to our contemporary sensibilities. Our sources of understanding are 2000 years of Christianity, the Curse of the Pyramids, National Geographic aesthetics and Tutankhamen as pop culture symbol. The assertion of the self resonates through centuries.
The Nose is comedy in its purest sense. Laughing – letting go of words – is letting go of rationality (= identity). We laugh at something when it becomes absurd and words to describe what is happening fail us. Laughing is also an act of confidence: identity is revealed as silly self importance.
Identity as burden
Oh, poor Oedipe, he is cursed to be who he is. The terracotta living wall is visceral and primordial, sun-infused and of slithery mud at the same time.
Your execution is my retribution or Rodelinda, queen of hilarious choreography (ENO, 9 November 2017)
The challenge for ENO was not only in rendering a Handel libretto palatable to 21st century audiences but in making an obscure 7th century AD political situation entertaining when you understand every word of it. Enter Richard Jones and team, officially my favourite Baroque opera director/team. If you liked his Aix Ariodante you will like (potentially love) this. Check out what he has to say about it:
For whatever reason the pertinent commentary from Jones has no visuals from Rodelinda, so here’s the trailer, but ignore the comments, which are heartfelt but tell you nothing:
Rodelinda: Rebecca Evans
Bertarido: Tim Mead (with a cold)
Grimoaldo: Juan Sancho
Eduige: Susan Bickley
Garibaldo: Neal Davies
Unulfo: Christopher Lowrey
Flavio: Matt Casey
Conductor: Christian Curnyn | Choir and Orchestra of the ENO
Director: Richard Jones/Donna Stirrup (revival director)
Choreographer: Sarah Fahie
The Longobards/Lombards, right? There are few foggier historical periods than those significantly lumped under the term The Dark Ages (of Europe). The constant waves of migrations criss-crossing Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire never quite got big in popular culture. One can rightly assume this period was the theatre of political musical chairs, with tribal hopefuls stealing thrones from each other only to be swallowed by the black hole of historical oblivion. Jones sort of updates this to fascist Italy, says the Guardian, but to me it looked like the mob in the ’20s. Strangely, though, for all the update it still feels like way back when. In a good way.
Purely on a “let’s not do another story from the Big Book of Greek Myths” basis I welcome the librettist’s decision. I also welcome the presence of leading damsels who stand up to their oppressors. I mentioned before that a Baroque opera named after a woman means said woman is no shrinking violet. Rodelinda is possibly the most kick ass Baroque heroine (the line quoted in this post’s title is hers).
The Guardian review mentions “a dark vision of Handel” but I think it’s rather a dark subject matter, treated in an unexpectedly funny manner. I don’t know if my sense of humour is particularly bleak, but, omg, I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard during a
Baroque opera production before, even during comedies. Surprise was a major factor. I attended this performance because I recently fell in love with the music but I found out there were so many hilarious moments and they were so cleverly placed as the night progressed, it was hard to keep track and generally not to snort.
As I was saying, I’ve only discovered this musically wonderful opera this year, with the livestreamed Madrid performance, featuring Crowe, Mehta, Zazzo and Prina, in Guth’s thougthful and sensitive production. Let me tell you, Jones’ 2014 production is not thoughtless by any means, but sensitive it is not. I liked Guth’s as well, but I would say this is more in keeping with the ethos of the Dark Ages.
As someone whose first language isn’t an operatic one and who has been introduced to the art form via operas in their supposed languages, it is always striking to hear an opera in a language that you instantly understand 100%. There is also the issue of translation. When you have a couple of lines that get repeated over 5min you/I really want a poetic translation. I quite struggled during Partenope on that account. Here the translation was also mostly to the point (except for a couple of arias) but the choreography was so clever it turned something potentially bland into the height of hilarity.
My favourite moment was Rodelinda’s aria where she tells Garibaldo just what she’s going to do to him after she is forced (by him) to marry her reprehensible stalker Grimoaldo. Whilst she’s singing, she and son Flavio are mimic-ing just what she has in mind and let me tell you, that was some imaginative(ly amusing) choreography to fill 3 to 5min.
Then we have metrosexual double agent Unulfo coming up with a plan to free Bertarido, in which he selects a gigantic meat cleaver from Garibaldo’s serial killer shed, whilst Eduige is busy unscrewing a window frame for easy transfer. Said meat cleaver returns to “haunt” Unulfo later, when Bertarido accidentally stabs him (repeatedly) with it, only to apologise profusely.
Unulfo (caughing blood): my lord, is that you? How handy with a sword you have become!
Bertarido (aghast): omg, I’m so sorry, Unulfo! How could I do this to you?! Let me press my jacket to your fatal wounds.
Unulfo (leaking entrails all over the floor): there is no time, my lord! You must save yourself and your loved ones!
Bertarido: but me must get you to the A and E!
Unulfo (crawling heroically, hands him the fatal meat cleaver): I’ll… be… fine!… Save… yourself!
But we’ve all figured out that Unulfo is devoted to the literal last breath, and although he’s more chopped liver than human by this point, he makes sure there is a happy ending – just not for him, sadly, as, forgotten by all, he collapses in the last scene. Dark Ages, eh? I know this sounds gruesome but it isn’t visually offensive.
Like I said, there is more, not the least the happy ending chorus, during which Rodelinda and Bertarido lock up Grimoaldo and Eduige, with Grimoaldo getting the meat cleaver treatment from Bertarido’s traumatised son Flavio (that one is going to need a lifetime of therapy; failing that, the serial killer shed is already set up).
So that’s 800 words on the production alone.
Musically I was surprised the Guardian reviewer felt Curnyn’s conducting occasionally lacked definition and impetus. I thought it was some of the best Baroque conducting I’ve heard in London. The orchestra, too, played beautifully and idiomatically, with the harpsichord (just right, volume-wise), oboe and strings particularly in good form; really nice interplay between the sections and with the singers (never overpowered).
Though a notch below the Madrid team (except for Davies = vastly superior to aging Chiummo), the singers were strong throughout and they also had a lot of stuff to do physically, more often than not requiring perfect timing with each other.
Bertarido’s entrance aria (Dove sei, amato bene) was rather uneven but Mead’s performance grew in strength over the evening (much better in his lament at having lost it all) and he still had enough energy to power through Vivi, tiranno (I saved you), or at least power it as much as possible given his countertenor-of-the-lyrical-kind voice. You really need a contralto for Eduige; a mezzo, no matter how experienced, is not the same. Above mentioned Davies rocked Garibaldo’s late aria in praise of gung-ho tyranny.
Io t’abbraccio (Ah, my beloved) wasn’t bad, Mead and Evans mixed well; all it needed was that extra bit of something. Lowrey did a very good job as general butt of jokes Unulfo (I didn’t even know this one had so many arias!), gamely coping with it all and showing top comedic skills (best moment: when he sings whilst holding the meat clever of doom, on which Eduige is writing a VERY long message to Bertarido – who subsequently reads it all in recit, much to everyone’s amusement). Imagine a metrosexual
holding propping up a giant, rusty meat cleaver like it’s dipped in poo.
Somewhat like Lowrey, Juan Sancho had to put up with a thankless role, in his case deconstructing evil into pathetic – his singing had something wistful to go with that. In fact, beyond the
cheapish laughs, Jones has once again given us a production that deals with (toxic) masculinity and which, interestingly, includes Eduige (and possibly Rodelinda herself) as a culprit. I was pleasantly surprised to see this dealt with here, after our discussion during and after the Madrid livestream. Here the big sign of the macho is getting a tattoo. Bertarido has one of Rodelinda on his arm (foreshadowing), Eduige has one of Grimoaldo on her back and Grimoaldo gets one of Rodelinda (whilst singing! I’m telling you, they get up to some stuff in this production). Rodelinda needs no tattoos to assert herself when she makes Grimoaldo an offer he can’t bring himself to accept.
Rodelinda: I’m ready to marry you…
Rodelinda: … on one condition.
Gariblado: she’s going to ask for my head!
Grimoaldo: … anything, except his head.
Rodelinda: pffft, who cares about that moron?
Grimoaldo: very good! What, then? Name it and you shall have it.
Rodelinda: in order to get the throne, you must kill my son, the rightful heir!
She even draws a big X in lipstick on her son’s chest whilst singing the taunting aria! Rodelinda is right out of Orange is the new Black, yo. So the “happy” ending comes less as a surprise.
I had a seat up in the gods (you can always get a row all to yourself up there, so you can move around as needed1, and it’s above the angle where you get the Balcony railing to block half of your view). London venues offer very good sound from their amphitheatre seats. Given this is the biggest of them all, I had time during the evening to re-think my usual position on big venues vs. Baroque. I now think it’s mostly down to acoustics and a thoughtful conductor. So there you go, big halls of the world, update your acoustics, hire a good conductor and bring on the Baroque, gruesome or not.
PS: ENO, I ❤ you. Please don’t screw yourself up any time soon. We need “people” like you.
- If, say, you get a tallish woman with a brazen bun in front of you. ↩
Now that venues are posting their 2017-2018 offerings it turns out that ENO is bringing out their 2014 production of the beautiful Rodelinda in Oct/Nov, whilst the Barbican is airing Rinaldo on 13 March, with a few features from the Glyndebourne production – Iestyn Davies 1 in the title role and Pisaroni as Argante + the addition of Jane Archibald as Armida. I have to say my £15 was for Pisaroni’s Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto. I hope the trumpets live up to the hype all the way to the balcony. I’m not sure about Rodelinda (Io t’abraccio in English) just yet, I might pull a Partenope-move and book at the last minute if I can’t get it out of my mind long enough.
- He sang in the recent revival which I missed because he’s not Prina. ↩
You know what we/I haven’t had in a while? (A bit of semi-obscure) Handel! Since Gauvin’s recital at the end of January, to be precise. ENO has programmed their revival of the Award Winning 2008 production of Partenope to coincide with the usual time of the year when we celebrate the Grandmaster of the Baroque Formula.
I bought this ticket the day before the show, just before leaving for the Radvanovsky recital. Because 1) I bungled it when the tickets went on sale, 2) there was no way for me to attend this week’s performances no matter how I tried to cut it (and these days the situation at work is the sort where one should try to cut it as little as possible) and last but most importantly 3) this is a badass production, which kept niggling at the back of my mind (you’re not going to see that? Seriously? You’re not? And you call yourself an admirer of
clever stylish silly ideas? It’s Handel, ffs! A Handel comedy!).
Oh, who am I kidding?! It all comes down to:
Like Radvanovsky was saying: I just
like I was lucky to have quite a grand introduction to it, on my very first outing at Wigmore Hall. You should see my badass moves 😉 If I were a singer with a half decent coloratura this would be one of my audition/recital staples. By the end of it the audience would be bawling on each other’s shoulders. Or perhaps chuckling. But moved they would be. After about 30min on repeat (various versions) my musically inclined cat joined in with the coloratura 😀 that’s how much we love this aria at casa dehggi.
Partenope: Sarah Tynan
Emilio: Rupert Charlesworth (taking the entire season over from Robert Murray (indisposed))
Arsace: Patricia Bardon
Armindo: James Laing
Rosmira “Eurimene”: Stephanie Windsor-Lewis
Ormonte: Matthew Durkhan
Conductor: Christian Curnyn | Orchestra of the ENO
Director: Christopher Alden
Set designer: Andrew Lieberman
Costume designer: Jon Morell
In this production, the laddish Arsace, who sings the aria after being roasted by his jilted lover, brandishes about a bottle of something stiff but somehow does not smash it by the end. Dude! I’d like several (the entire stash) to smash to the coloratura.
“But what if Man Ray isn’t what turns you on? If your fancy isn’t taken by the erotic charge of a strategically positioned black triangle, or a prominent nipple in an expanse of flesh smoothed flat by the lens and viewpoint, or if the sight of a 1920s siren smoking through a long cigarette holder fails to excite? In that case, this production has little for you.” (Davin Karlin for Bachtrack on this revival of ENO/Opera Australia’s 2008 production of Partenope).
That’s the case with every production built on a schtick. Luckily, I get down with all of that, especially the siren bit, which Tynan rocks (is there anything more stylish than 1920s fashions? Nah.) It’s a sort of “flat” production, in the sense it’s all about posing rather than following a plot logically1 but then we’re talking Surrealist photography, Bauhaus and whatnot. Visual arts during Modernism made a point out of removing (or at least disrupting) the narrative.
How does this relate to Handel? Singers do silly things whilst singing but we’re reminded that singers in Handel’s time used to make the most of their limelight moments as well and the public was often engaged otherwise. People do silly things at moments of heightened emotion – and sometimes at regular times, too. Sometimes overthinking gets in the way of good fun.
Partenope the character is flirty but constant. She likes to be admired and friendzones men by the boatload. Arsace (her lover at the beginning of the opera) isn’t particularly flirty but as soon as “Eurimene” shows up he suddenly
knows remembers he’s actually Rosmira, his hitherto fogotten ex. It’s a bit Alcina without the magic – or “for adults”. Case in point: we have the bonus of a mezzo making out with both the title soprano and another mezzo.
In the end Partenope rebounds with the shy guy and Rosmira gets her pretty man back after a satisfying bout of emotional torture (no hard feelings from Partenope, who is reasonable/together enough to know it’s all Arsace’s fault). Emilio – the enemy, who, in a short duet suavely sings he’d like to make Partenope his chattel – is added to the friendzone menagerie. So far so contemporary feminist.
The singing was constantly fine across the board though I can’t say it ever rose to stratospheric levels of emotion. Bardon has a very recognisable dark mezzo and here somehow outcountertenored Laing. She also showed what a bitch of an aria Furibondo… is. I remember someone on youtube commenting on a live recording of Scholl singing it how he for once prefers Daniels. Not fair comparing live to studio!
The reason why I love it is because Handel packs so much. You start on coloratura, then you have to vary projection, sometimes mid-phrase (= shouts of agitation), more coloratura, then you get to the B section, where I gather you add rubato to taste (I really liked what Horne did there on an almost melancholic agitata and the contrast with the very dark dol), because the rhythm is pretty much the same throughout – relentless and staccato.
Back to Bardon’s: it was good but not fabulous. I suppose there are many factors that go into this. People have criticised Curnyn’s approach as too fast in general, not giving singers breathers. I remember thinking during one of the slow Arsace arias that it could’ve been a tad faster. He did manage some very pretty interventions from the winds and assorted brass during Eurimene’s warlike aria2. Also the rhythm section deserves praise for keeping it tight throughout. It made me grin, thinking, ah, there’s nothing (in classical music) quite like Baroque to rock a solid rhythm.
But yes, perhaps Furibondo… was too fast. There were times (the shouty moments) when Bardon didn’t project as strongly as I would’ve expected – for whatever reason. I thought the role suited her otherwise, even though, like I said, I don’t remember her sounding quite so countertenorish before. Special mention: really nice job from Bardon on the movement-whilst-singing-a-male-character department.
Tynan has the right voice and style for the role. All is needed is a bit of extra something to make it outstanding. Her interaction with her suitors and her Partenope persona were on the money throughout. I must commend the Personnenregie in general, very convincing in its details.
But in spite of the mezzo-soprano-mezzo estravaganza, Charlesworth’s Emilio stole the show this time. He took proper advantage of the silliness surrounding his character – the baddie, here a privacy stealing Man Ray – and seemed to have so much fun every time he was on stage that he drew the most attention and applause. It didn’t hurt that his diction was the best of the bunch and his pojection grand.
It was rather good fun – literally and figuratively – and really easy on the eyes. I’m glad I went last week, not after the Petibon concert (though I wish I’d’ve posted this before that concert, it would’ve read a lot more lively). Sitting in those tiny bum seats in the Balcony (economy) section between a Spanish couple and two Polish women I thought to myself how the ENO audience often seems like the most relaxed. ENO has the biggest opera-presenting hall in London yet it somehow feels very cosy (must be the tiny bum seats) and up there it feels almost as chummy as TEC.
Cotroversial in everyday life and politics, 2016 was a good opera year for yours truly. I went to Vienna again and returned to Paris after two decades, lots of fun! London wasn’t too shabby either, with its mezzo/contralto traffic jams and my love affair with Wigmore Hall only intensified this year ❤ Last but not least, looking over the many shows that sign posted this year I had another opportunity to think about the fine people I shared some of these good times with. Thank you all and a much happier 2017!
11 Benjamin Appl | Wigmore Hall: a Schubert start to the year
20 L’Etoile | ROH: a bit of a weird romp, but a romp nonetheless (le romp francais). I hope whoever succeeds Holten at ROH sprinkles the seasons with wackiness of this sort.
14 Maria Ostroukhova | St George’s Hanover Sq: Cecca notte!
16 Ekaterina Siurina/Luis Gomes | Wigmore Hall: there is still Belcanto, lest we forgot about it
17 Berenice | St George’s Hanover Sq: hit and miss Handel
21 Boris Godunov | ROH: Terfel, the Welsh Boris(h)
23 Ann Hallenberg | Wigmore Hall: Il pianto di Maria
31 Elpidia | St George’s Hanover Sq: very good singing, so-so pasticcio
14 Lucia di Lammermoor | ROH: Damrau is no damsel in distress
27 Lucio Silla | Theater an der Wien: the Arnold Schoenberg Choir! with not that much to sing 😉
28 Il Vologeso | Cadogan Hall: proof that Jommelli rocks
30 Sandrine Piau | Wigmore Hall: super stylish Boroque with La Piau
08 Tannhauser | ROH: an opportunity to see Christian Gerhaher sing Wagner lyrically.
23 Ann Hallenberg | Wigmore Hall: 😀
26 Oedipe | ROH: almost as spectacular as Akhnaten
24 Werther | ROH: Pappano gets it
29 Sonia Prina | Wigmore Hall: the first of two shows this year; this is the feisty one.
02 Nathalie Stutzmann | Wigmore Hall: the smoothest contralto takes on Vivaldi
07 Il trovatore | ROH: Bosch brings his caravan to Verdi
17 JPYA | ROH: ROH students return
03 Bluebeard’s Castle | Proms/Royal Albert Hall: there are a few things I will always attend and this is one of them.
21 Demetrio (Hasse) | Cadogan Hall: musically not the most exciting
22 Cosi fan tutte | ROH: this one was a bit of a miss…
02 Nathalie Stutzmann/Orfeo 55 | Wigmore Hall: oh yea!
05 Anna Bonitatibus | Wigmore Hall: …and yea to Semiramide, too.
21 The Nose | ROH: between this and L’Etoile we covered Eastern and Western wackiness.
02 Juditha triumphans | Barbican: the mezzo/contralto fest of the year
05 Dorothea Roschmann | Wigmore Hall: dramatic Roschmann is here
07 Les contes d’Hoffmann | ROH: traditional tales of sexism (with mezzos)
13 Oreste (Handel) | Wilton’s Music Hall: the Atrides in Jack the Ripper’s neighbourhood
20 Luca Pisaroni | Wigmore Hall: Luca sings the Schubert
24 Stuart Jackson/Marcus Farnsworth | Wigmore Hall: more Schubert!
28 La Calisto | Wigmore Hall: Wigmore Hall goes kookoo-funny
30 La finta giardiniera | RCM Britten Hall: students being successfully silly
05 Don Giovanni | Theatre des Champs-Elysees: Don Leporello muses in the beautiful surroundings of TCE.
06 Sancta Susanna/Cavalleria rusticana | Opera Bastille: Sancta Susanna = the runner up in the badass production contest of the year
29 Sonia Prina/Roberta Invernizzi | Wigmore Hall: oh so quiet and gentle
The brown and gold sands of time dissipate to uncover the shadows of Egyptian dieties slowly twisting into 3D from their customary flat positions. Plastic screen-doors on the bottom tier of the stage half conceal the shrouded body of the late pharao. I like that, plastic + mummy. It is traditional but not completely. People in white coats fuss with the body. It feels like a lost X-Files episode.
Last night was my second time seeing Akhnaten live. I liked it more than the first time. The fact that I’ve been obsessively listening to it for the past week might have something to do with it. But perhaps that’s how this one works, it slowly insinuates itself into your awareness (like this).
The 15 March performance will be recorded for BBC3. One hopes there will be a DVD as well? It’s not like the market is crawling with Akhnaten productions.
My interest in the last installment of Glass’s trilogy can be traced back via this blog, the biggest success to date of my Thursday’s Something Else series (on first hearing it I called it “soothing classical music” 😉 ). It’s been a slow burner indeed but constantly at the back of my mind. No wonder people use terms like “mesmerising”. The more you dig, the more there is to discover. As usual, nothing focuses your attention more than a live performance (or two). Perhaps it’s because I’m very visual, but I focus better if I actually see what’s happening. Even watching the bow pulsate over strings makes it all more enjoyable. The cello features heavily and it was a pleasure to watch and listen, as was the brass section, the winds (especially the prominent flute(s) and bass clarinet (ftw!)) and the various percussion – epecially this one.
For this special event I chanced on the £20 “secret seat” twice. I’m so satisfied with my luck that I highly recommend the secret seat scheme. Both seats were in the Dress Circle, the first in row D and the second in row A (no heads in front! and awesome view of the orchestra – did you know Maestra sings along with the chorus?).
Also because it was so special (ENO had last mounted it in 1985) I bought a programme and from it I learned that Hymn to the Sun is a chaconne, Glass making a point of referencing Baroque style writing. The cello obligato part is indeed a thing of beauty. I’m still not sold on the vocal part. It wasn’t helped by the fact that ARC was – here and there – inaudible. Not quite sure what was going on but I don’t remember it from last time. Who knows, memory is very selective. To be fair to him, he soared when called for in his duets/trios with his ladies.
Friday, though, I was under the Balcony overhang which I more or less blamed for whatever was inaudible (mainly bass Clive Bayley as Aye, Nefertiti’s father; barely heard again, kind of annoying, as his part is rather interesting judging by this). Funny thing: this time around the jugglers dropped some of their balls/candles – something else I didn’t remember happening on Friday.
Choreography. The subject matter asks for the opposite kind of acting than what you normally hope for in opera. Namely, not naturalistic. It really feels more like dance than “acting” – underwater dancing, at that. But it works and it adds immensely to the hypnotic nature of the music. I thought Rebecca Bottone as Queen (Mum) Tye had the best knack for this. She looked right at home and (emotionally) moving to boot. She also gets points for great pitch (and ping and stamina) in the insane vocalise during The Temple, when Akhnaten and Tye banish the cult of Amon. In another hark back to Baroque tropes we get ha-ha-ha-has that are actual hahahahas (it feels like they are laughing at the High Priest). Gotta love ’em. Here they came off a lot more comical than in the Stuttgart recording – and what with the jugglers, even playful – so great job all.
Contrasts. It is, I think, unusual in the DVD age to discover an opera via an audio recording. But since this is not a frequently staged opera, I, like most other people, am mainly acquainted with the 1984 Stuttgart version. I enjoyed the Stuttgart Scribe better in the opening recit (Open are the double doors of the horizon, unlocked are its bolts1) because I felt the mythical mood needed a remote, monotonous presentation. But I liked the ENO Scribe (bass Zachary James) better in the recit preceeding The City, the scene that depicts the building of Akhnaten’s new capital, where his lively, theatrical rendition fits the buzz and excitment of the new.
This brings me back to the acting in Hymn to the Sun. I said last time that ARC did not possess the kind of charisma needed to carry this pivotal moment. Well, on seeing it again I think the fault isn’t entirely his (plus he did very well in the comical/violent Temple2 scene). It is true that he has a very ethereal presence – which fits the rest of the performance – but the personnenregie did not help him out here. Along with the two different ways I feel the Scribe should act, I am now convinced that we need both approaches for Akhnaten as well. There are plenty moments of contrast in this opera so I’m sure a production will one day successfully incorporate both.
Jugglers. We had jugglers, who very subtly introduced and carried to the end the ball motif. They started innocuous enough from the getgo, as if humbly providing a bit of pizzazz during the ceremonies. Only later – when they juggle them around the newly crowned Akhnaten – it turns out that their balls are foreshadowing the greatest ball (of fire). Astute detail, as I understand Amenhotep III had already planted the seeds of a revolt against a too powerful clergy. Another neat trick is how they intentionally drop the balls when Akhnaten is attacked and killed. It’s all very simple but it looks great. In the Epilogue, where we have the ghosts of the past the jugglers return pushing the balls on the ground, recalling dung beetles (and tumbleweed). But speaking of the Epilogue, I wonder why Akhnaten and the ladies appear in the afterlife dressed as their pre-Aton-loving selves3?
I had an epilogue of my own: from the side of the Dress Circle there is an exit that spits you out right into the street in 2min flat. I don’t remember ever getting out of a theatre so quickly before. You walk into a sort of loading bay which doubles as homeless shelter by night.
Go and see it if you can, perhaps in Los Angeles, since it’s done in colaboration with LA Opera.
- What a great line! ↩
- I especially enjoyed how he crept from the top tier, where the Horuses were flapping their giant wings. His nimble moves reminded me a bit of Dumaux’s scene stealing Tolomeo in the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare. ↩
- Even stranger is that Akhnaten’s cermonial robe, as well as Nefertiti’s, has many mini skulls sewn into it. By contrast, their (identical) robes from The Family scene are of beautiful white gauze, my favourite of the bunch. ↩
When I first heard about this new ENO production I hoped it wouldn’t be traditional. Well, it is but I can’t fault it much. It’s got its inner logic and the key moments are done with enough imagination. Visually it’s very close to stunning. I’m not sure why the costumes (all beautiful) mix Victorian style with the more or less abstract Ancient Egyptian. There seems to be an unwritten rule that productions must nod in some way to the country where the opera is being given. The very literal Egyptian “heads” are on the kitsch side but I don’t mind if anyone disagrees. On the other hand the lyrical scene of Akhnaten and Nefertiti’s act II duet was done in a fittingly abstract manner, with just them two on stage entertwining matching red robes.
Akhnaten: Anthony Roth Costanzo
Nefertiti: Emma Carrington
Tye: Rebecca Bottone
Horemhab: James Cleverton
Aye: Clive Bayley
High Priest of Amon: Colin Judson
Scribe: Zachary James
the 6 daughters of Akhnaten and Nefertiti: Clare Eggington/ Alexa Mason/ Rosie Lomas/ Anna Huntley/ Katie Bray/ Victoria Gray
young Tutankhamun: Joshua Simpson
Conductor: Karen Kamensek | ENO Orchestra and Chorus
The libretto has a basic plot (Akhnaten’s rise and fall from power) but there’s plenty abstract stuff, especially in act II which is about Akhnaten’s implementation of his new cultural/political vision. Because it’s “out there” for his time it’s of course rich in symbols. On the other hand Amenhotep III’s funeral (which starts the proceedings) is a high tech version of “as literal as it gets”. Interesting for those curious about Ancient Egyptian royal funerary rituals, probably very informative for some people on my row who wondered aloud why did (the new and improved) Akhnaten have breasts. Nobody seemed to wonder why Akhnaten was written as a countertenor but that would’ve partly answered their question.
Glass, Minimalism – this is not the kind of opera you want to sit through if you can’t take repetition. It certainly needs subtlety in handling the transitions from one musical phrase to the next and in conveying the lyricism of act II, as I wouldn’t say Glass is a titan at writing vocal music. Maestra did a pretty good job with all this. The chorus added a lot of pizzazz with its very engaging interventions. It baffles the mind that the powers that be want to trim it down when everybody agrees it’s one of the main assets of the ENO.
Regardless of what one thinks of repetition, the endless arpeggios do fit the subject matter and the direction was centred on slowness of movement which added to the hypnotic nature of the thing. You settle into something as close to a trance-like state as possible without chemical help (though it would be interesting to experience it with the help of “street meds”) and just let music and visuals do their work, whatever that may be. It doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that needs overthinking on our part.
It being the first night I suppose some things need some tweaking – such as the orchestra covering the vocals during Amenhotep III’s funeral, which is drum/brass heavy. The three mains – Akhnaten, Nefertiti (his wife) and Tye (his mum) needed a bit of time to adjust to each other during their trio in the Window of Appearances but worked well afterwards.
Naturally Akhnaten has the chunkiest bit to sing. I found ARC rather on the bleaty side and really wondered how Sabadus would’ve sounded in this role, as it’s very high and his beautiful tone would work with the otherworldliness that Akhnaten needs to project throughout and especially during his act II hymn. Dramatically that is a pivotal moment in the opera, calling for a singer of considerable charisma. I wasn’t convinced ARC posses that level of charisma or the versatility needed to switch from the highly stylised to the engagingly realistic.
During the first and third acts Akhnaten acts in a hieratic manner but act II (especially the hymn) is the moment where we get a glimpse of the real him. So to say “real him”, as I personally don’t see Akhnaten so much as a person, rather as something. That something being autocracy, personal independence – a proto-Romantic ideal. The hymn is a moment of realness amidst pose and ritual.
The interesting thing that art history teaches us about Akhnaten is that his cultural revolution included an overhaul of the way pharaos were depicted visually, namely more realistic than before or after. But not too realistic, as he indeed was pictured with some feminine features, hence the breasts in this production. In that sense I think it was telling that he first appears on stage in the nude which thus leaves no doubt about his gender, only to have his appearence stylised after his reinvention as Akhnaten. I don’t think this curious change in image was explained by art historians but this production offers some ideas. Aside from the beginning when he ascends to the throne, Akhnaten is seen almost always in the company of women, which he seems to identify with. It is implied he has no interest in war and spends all his time with his family, which includes 6 daughters and wants the same for his kingdom.
The ending had a rather neat twist: the Scribe (the ancient narrator who keeps us abreast of plot development during the opera, now a history lecturer) talks to a class of not very interested students about how Akhnaten’s image and name was erased from history and his city has survived only in very poor condition to the point there’s not much to visit. Pretty piss poor job at erasing his name and image if 3600 years later we’re attending an opera based on his life… so the “ghosts” of Akhnaten and his ladies are lurking.
There’s more to say – of course – but I’ll leave that for next week, when I’m seeing it again.
Today I should’ve been at Glyndebourne for Die Entfuhrung but I was schythed down by a merciless cold so I’m finishing up this write-up instead. Luckily, there’s quite a bit of Mozartean influence. But Tchaikovsky himself isn’t a slouch at spinning a tune either.
Hermann: Peter Hoare
Lisa: Giselle Allen
Countess: Felicity Palmer
Prince Yeletsky: Nicholas Pallesen
Count Tomsky: Gregory Dahl
Pauline: Catherine Young
Tchenkalinsky: Colin Judson
Sourin: Wyn Pencarreg
Governess: Valerie Reid
Mascha: Katie Bird
Tchaplitsky: Peter Van Hulle
Narumov: Charles Johnston
Conductor: Edward Gardner | ENO Choir and Orchestra | Co-production with Fondazione Teatro La Fenice di Venezia
Director: David Alden
The Ace of Spades
This production is as cynical as it gets. By contrast, Hoare’s lyric Hermann appears in an unsually favourable light. Alden uses the weirdly cheerful prologue of children at play to establish that reality is frequently intruded upon by Hermann’s hallucinations. You know he’s getting unsettled whenever a rectangle in the back wall opens to show a musically and visually intrusive scene. Interestingly, the Countess and Liza first enter through that same rectangle.
Gardner’s conducting ephasised the contrasts to the point the sound verged on disjointed. It made sense, considering the route taken by the direction. As such, the Mozartness of certain parts (the ball in scene 1 of act II) was way obvious. Good thing, too, as the chorus that starts act II is strongly reminiscent of Idomeneo’s Nettuno s’onori. The masque presented at Yeletsky’s party, cheerfully out of place with the heartbreak of the romantic score, gives Alden the opportunity to get silly. I suppose the choreography centred on tossing stuffed animal heads in the air illustrates that Hermann is beyond upset with Liza’s engagement to Yeletsky. Happy endings where the girl goes for the poor but loving suitor (the masque’s plot) appear to him as utterly ludicrous.
Having not read the short story there is something crucial I never quite got. He unexpectedly learns that the woman he hopelessly loves actually returns his feelings. Why does he then suddenly make a sharp turn and starts getting more interested in The Countess’ secret? My only explaination is he thought that even though Liza loved him they couldn’t possibly marry considering he was poor. He needed a plan to get rich pronto. Or maybe it’s just the curse of many an opera libretto: sense, what sense? Or, you know, he’s gay. The woman you’ve been pining for is throwing herself at you and you’re like so how’s your grandmother, hon?
Liza: Hermann, take the key to my grandmother’s room. From there you can enter mine. I’ve decided to lose my virginity to you tomorrow night.
Hermann: tomorrow? I must get to the Countess’ room tonight!
Liza: tonight? Uh… ok, I guess I could lose my virginity sooner than planned because I really love you, although that’s a really big deal for a girl, especially before the 1960s, you know.
Hermann: yes, I must get the secret tonight!
Who said romance was dead? Still, good job Hoare for never coming off like a heartless dickhead. He brings out the addict’s tragedy in the last scene. Excellent performance.
Considering this opera is named after the mysterious old countess you’d think she has a lot to sing. She doesn’t. She usually lurks around as a thought in Hermann’s feverish mind. The scene where she reminisces about the past is the only one where she has centre stage. She appears a typical old woman: grumpy and lacking patience with the younger generation, who as ever, doesn’t measure up to the good old days. She sings a sentimental tune from her youth. The legend around her secret is most likely just that. Count de St. Germain – or someone like him – probably lent her the money she lost at cards. Or something equally as mundane. But Hermann of course imagines fabulous things were at play. He scares her to death and later on his guilty conscience coupled with his already obsessed mind brings her back as a hallucination where she tells him her supposed secret.
Felicity Palmer does a subtle job with the atmospheric moment when the Countess, now alone, sings a happy/sad version of Grétry’s Je crains de lui parler la nuit. It feels like a window into another world, creepy more by virtue of sounding so old fashioned and coming from an old woman. In spite of her age Palmer isn’t shrill. I like how she keeps it subtle throught to express the Countess’ almost otherwordly nature. There’s also an elegance to her singing that convinces us that she was once a high society beauty who could have made the notoriously elusive Count of St. Germain share a secret with her.
I like this moment a lot in the same way I like cover versions. Taking liberties with an existing piece digs out surprising new meanings when done successfully. Also Tchaikovsky’s playing with different styles is one my favourite things about this opera. We’ve got this, we have the Mozart pastiche, the traditional Russian songs, the Orthodox church music, the whiff of belcanto that runs through most of the 19th century Russian opera, the late Romantic influences. It takes a special talent to makes it all work.
Mezzosopranos – the bass players of the opera world
Mezzos are like blenders: you know you need one but you’re never too sure why.
Almost invariably a rock band includes a bass player but 9 times out of 10 his work is pushed back in the final mix. There are leading mezzo roles in the repertoire. But most are just there to provide the harmony to the soprano’s melody. Otherwise known as the trusty companion/best friend/old nurse/mother/auntie/other wise women. Sometimes – especially if they clean up nicely in a suit – they get drafted to sing the boy roles that tenors (and sometimes countertenors) can’t cope with. Other times they take one for the team/get lucky (depending on inclination) and play the town slut/evil woman. So spoiled for choice! The best kept secret: the mezzo role rarely meets an untimely death. While sopranos and tenors get felled left and right and baritones and basses have to live ever after with their evil deed-stained souls, the worldly mezzo digs her heels in and lives to tell the tale (as a wise old woman).
This production offers a once in a lifetime opportunity for a versatile mezzo to score a 3 in 1: from the cheerful and musically inclined best friend of act I to the lucky in love cheeky shepherd in the act II masque to the party animal of the gambling scene there’s nothing she can’t do. Except it’s the the soprano who gets all the applause. Or in the case of this opera, the tenor.
Young does it all quite valiantly, though I thought her acting as good friend Pauline was rather odd. Or maybe that was the personenregie, which here could be summed up as: no matter what you do, act OTT. The scene with Liza, Pauline and the other girls goes like this: Liza and Pauline sing a song about brooklets in the evening (a lied, eh?). Then Liza asks Pauline to sing one alone. She obliges and sings a proper Russian dirge about being unlucky in love, which she says is Liza’s favourite song. Forshadow city; the tune is later recalled in the countess’ song – oddly, in a happier manner. But after this they all sing the only cheerful Russian tune known to man (and woman)! What a treasure this opera is 😉
There is really nothing in this scene that calls for OTT-ness. It’s girls singing and some undertow but that can be done in an innocent manner. Maybe that’s it, this production doesn’t know innocence. I guess we need to allow for this being in English but the dirge’s specific flavour of Russian wistfulness didn’t come out as strongly as it could. Talking about OTT, whatever one thinks about feeling rotten, you need to raise it up a few notches if you’ve got a Russian character.
In conclusion: it’s a beautiful, sophisticated score, that makes typical Italian or German opera sound provincial. It’s got some wonderful tunes for the winds and all that was served very well by this performance. I wasn’t all that taken by Allen’s tone though I can’t say she didn’t do her job. The singers in the smaller roles were fine enough. I’d have liked less cynicism (!) but the production did make sense after all.
* it appears the quote is apocryphal… 😉