If you’re wondering what happened to my 2019 ENO Akhnaten reviews I will have to disappoint you. They are not going to happen. One day I will probably want to publicly write/talk about Akhnaten again in one context or another but the two shows I saw last week have brutally become part of my personal mythology so the door is closed on them.
You may or may not know, but for the past few years all of late December has been family time chez dehhgi. So now that New Year is being celebrated at the ancestral home, yours truly gets involved in food preparation. Due to a fluke (a less adventurous one than the setting up of the 2017 Christmas tree 😉 ), we ended up cooking all we wanted to cook yesterday, leaving quite a bit of thumb twiddling time for today, just right for a recap of what I took part – and what I skipped or missed – in 2018.
I think the right word for 2018 is fabulous, in its glamorous connotation – Venice, Salzburger Festspiele and lots of Glyndebourne, with notable stops in Halle and at the Bremen Music Fest, all of which spawned wonderful memories from meeting up with you, gentle reader, for some rocking performances (and a certain odd production). I think I may also start paying rent at Wiggy, since from the below list it looks like I went there at least once a month, with the notable exception of August, festival month.
Hope to see you at a theatre near you (or me) in 2019 😀 though what is on at the usual places does not look quite as exciting as before. Then again, there were some things this year I did not know I was going to see until closer to the time…
11 Sonia Prina | Wigmore Hall – a good way to start the year, right?
17 Salome | ROH
21 Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria | Roundhouse – I like this January Monteverdi fixture every couple of years. After we are done with the rep, can we start over?
23 Classical Opera (Mozart’s 1768) | Wigmore Hall
25 Anna Bonitatibus and friends | Wigmore Hall
27 Anna Bonitatibus | Wigmore Hall – I did not write about it because she did not sing from En travesti and I was a bit underwhelmed by her choices. But, of course, she is wonderful 🙂
31 Angelika Kirchschlanger | Wigmore Hall
4 Adrian Behle | Wigmore Hall
5 Golda Schultz | Wigmore Hall
English Concert (Buxtehude) | Wigmore Hall – I was sick for the rest of the month, along with Mum (who was visiting…) and one of my cats. Not the best of times chez dehggi by a very long shot.
26 Les Talens Lyriques | Wigmore Hall
13 Rinaldo | Barbican – quite the letdown, aside from Pisaroni as Argante. Both Davies and Harvey did much, much better at Glyndebourne later in the year.
14 From the House of the Dead | ROH
Christine Rice / Rebecca Evans | Wigmore Hall
22 Esther | Wigmore Hall – this year most of the festivals happened elsewhere. This was the only London Handel Fest performance I saw and in the end I did not write about it. Not the best Handel I have seen, I would say, though for sure nowhere near the worst.
26 D’Odette | Wigmore Hall
5 Haim /
Crebassa / Desandre / Devieilhe | Wigmore Hall – yes, this happened. Do not ask me details, as I cannot remember much, beside enjoying the deft playing of the band that did not need extra fireworks. The same Desadre that wowed me in Salzburg did not do much for me here. Perhaps I was bummed Crebassa bailed on me us?
7 Dido and Aeneas | Wigmore Hall
19 Orlando furioso | Teatro Malibran, Venice
21 Orlando furioso | Teatro Malibran, Venice – this was such a fun trip, I do need to write about it again.
24 Matthias Goerne | Wigmore Hall
1 Sonia Prina / Vivica Genaux | Wigmore Hall
3 Mauro Peter | Wigmore Hall
4 Lucy Crowe | Wigmore Hall
6 Royal Academy | Wigmore Hall
16 Hannigan Masterclass | Linbury Studio
21 Sara Mingardo / Francesca Biliotti | Wigmore Hall
24 Lessons in Love and Violence | ROH – it did spawn some interesting ideas (about love and violence) which in the end did not coagulate into a post. I kinda wish I had persevered but sometimes where there is a lot on the roster it is not easy to get your mind disciplined about something you do not particularly enjoy as such.
27 Simon Keenlyside | Wigmore Hall
4 Franco Fagioli | Barbican
5 Stephane Degout | Wigmore Hall
9 Arianna in Creta | Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche Halle Handelfest – after a couple of years of feasts, we have missed Hallenberg in London, so this was an awesome treat.
13 Jakub Jozef Orlinski | Wigmore Hall
15 Giulio Cesare | Glyndebourne – THE Glyndebourne Cesare! With overseas friends! A good metaphor for blogging about opera, right?
17 Ian Bostridge | Wigmore Hall
Christine Rice Julien Van Mallaerts | Wigmore Hall
19 Der Rosenkavalier | Glyndebourne
23 Giulio Cesare | Glyndebourne – and again 😀
2 Veronique Gens | Wigmore Hall
6 Sandrine Piau | Wigmore Hall – that was the week of fabu French singers and I did not write up on them. For no fault of theirs, they were wonderful as usual in their light and sophisticated way. I was absolutely rotten lazy/tired in July, as you can see by the lack of activity below.
Felicity Palmer | Wigmore Hall
15 JPYA | ROH – yes, I went again but I did not write, although I had an absolutely hilarious seatmate, very much up my own alley in spirit. The show itself was a bit underwhelming this year, cannot say anyone stood out for me, hence the lack of commentary.
18 L’ange de Nisida | ROH – if no one produces La favourite around here, at least we got its previous incarnation.
20 Giulio Cesare | Glyndebourne – and the third time, now with the London Crew. It was a very fun (although overcast) day, and the post is half written. I swear I was so tired and a bit out of it in July that I am afraid I came off stand-offish to those who know me less, though it was by no means the case.
22 Pavol Breslik | Wigmore Hall
27 Saul | Glyndebourne – such a fun production! For some reason, a Chinook flew over the gardens. They give me the heebie-jeebies.
1 Pelleas et Melisande | Glyndebourne
12 L’incoronazione di Poppea | Salzburger Festspiele (Haus fur Mozart) – yes. At least nobody got clever with the musical content.
8 La Iole (Porpora) | Theater Oldenburg – my first live encounter with the wonderful Iervolino – and with a Porpora work in its entirety. If you are asking yourself Oldenburg what? this was part of the Bremen Music Festival 2018, which is kind enough to spread around the region instead of allowing the city to hog all the events. Another take on the Hercules/Dejanira story, this centres on the woman with whom he is cheating on her. The cosy Theater Oldenburg lavished its audience with a cast of top young singers in excellent form – Iervolino (Dejanira), Aspromonte (Iole) and Renato Dolcini (Ercole). It is a short (but fun) work but all three really got into it with much gusto and the audience loved it. I liked Aspromonte here much better than in Vivaldi.
10 Dorothea Roschmann | Wigmore Hall
Marianne Crebassa / Mass in B minor | Löningen – also part of the Bremen Music Festival 2018. As you can see, Crebassa remains elusive to me, but the Mass in B minor is a lovely work and the choir did a good job.
19 Masterclass Sarah Connolly | Wigmore Hall – cannot tell you why I never finished this post, I was even well rested by then.
Sandrine Piau | Wigmore Hall
17 Porgy and Bess | ENO
Karina Gauvin | Wigmore Hall – annoyingly, I was under some rough weather in October and missed these two fine ladies due to horrible head colds.
25 Semiramide | Teatro La Fenice – back to Venice 😀 and more Iervolino! Excuse me if I simply love the woman, she is cute as button here. She also sings rather well 😉
26 Serse | Barbican
2 Marie-Nicole Lemieux | Wigmore Hall
19 Roberta Invernizzi | Wigmore Hall – the show that caused me to pick up a guitar (and make some noise)!
11 Lucy Crowe | Wigmore Hall
Porgy: Eric Greene
Bess: Nicole Cabell
Crown: Nmon Ford
Sportin’ Life: Frederick Ballentine
Serena: Latonia Moore
Clara: Nadine Benjamin
Maria: Tichina Vaughn
Conductor: John Wilson
Director: James Robinson
Last night was the premiere of ENO’s first (!) production of Porgy and Bess. I don’t think I’ve seen such a rambunctious crowd at ENO before. The Balcony was full! And the ushers actually paraded up and down with “no mobiles and cameras” signs. Do they do it at other types of performances? I haven’t seen this at the opera before. I mean it was done on top of the very loud “turn off your mobiles now” sound effects that you normally hear. The crowd was significantly younger and more diverse (instead of the usual 2 black people, there were 10 last night). It’s always younger at 20th century/contemporary shows – and more diverse, though I noticed belcanto also gets its share of ethnic diversity. Baroque (this side of oratorios) is still niche-y.
The fact that it’s younger doesn’t mean it’s more enthusiastic or more knowledgeable (very fashionable and pretty woman in her 20s, on her mobile, of course: I hope the second part isn’t this long! – it was surprisingly long, I agree; about the length of your regular Baroque opera (with cuts)). But I did overhear intelligent (and enthusiastic) remarks from a couple of 30 somethings about some of the performances I agreed with and the possibility of freely shaping the sound inherent to jazz-influenced writing.
The length is justified, though, and Gershwin keeps it inventive, with a surprising number of memorable tunes (dude was good, both at absorbing/rehashing/writing in black vernacular and in carrying the tension over 3 hours). It’s got one of the grittiest libretti I can think of – in a good way. Very realistic and detailed in its observations regarding people’s interactions in a small, southern town, where the only whites are the police and their involvement is minimal1.
The production is “of its time”, so it won’t tell you anything the libretto doesn’t but the large cast, which is on stage most of the time, is well handled and acts well in return. The stage design – stilt houses in a fishing town (Catfish Row) – revolves occasionally to show the shore of the river at the back or reassembles to suggest the inside of a building (the church?) during the hurricane scene. The fight scenes are very effective and well acted.
The male singers are are all great and act superbly, especially the trio that circles Bess – Crown (her original boyfriend and top bad guy, sung by Nmon Ford), his drug dealin’ friend, Sportin’ Life (sung with just the right amount of oily smugness by Frederick Ballentine) and, best of all, Eric Greene as Porgy, the gentle-hearted town cripple who takes Bess in when no one wants to associate with her. Greene was simply wonderful all around, such a smooth tone and way with sound!
Of the women, Latonia Moore as Serena has a voice that I would like to hear again – really exqusite tone and great support. I’m not the biggest Cabell fan but she can hold a note like a superstar and has the opportunity to do so on several occasions. There’s always this feeling with her that she’s holding back, because the basic sound or her voice is very fine otherwise so on paper there’s little she can’t do. However, dramatically she’s very credible as the complex and troubled Bess.
All in all, a very intense evening, with impressive commitment from the cast and some really fine brass playing from the orchestra as you would like in this context.
- The plot in brief: Crown is a gamblin’, swearin’, fight pickin’, coke snortin’ bad guy, Bess is his equally hard partyin’ girlfriend and Sportin’ Life is their drug dealin’ (and wheelin’) friend. The town is ambivalent about them (namely, the church going women are). Crown stabs someone whilst drunk, everyone clears off, leaving Bess in a lurch. Porgy, the local kind hearted crippled beggar, takes her in and one thing leads to another – as it always does with Bess. Everything goes well for a while, she’s “mending her ways” and Porgy is happy. But then Crown returns from hiding from the law. As you can imagine, things go downhill from there. Like, really downhill. It ends on a strange note: Porgy decides to go looking for Bess in NYC (it’s sung in major key) but how well can this endeavour end? ↩
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. ↩
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.