The three great productions this year for me were the Royal Ballet’s Wozzeck, ENO’s Satyagraha and this. Death in Venice had to win, though, as on of the most moving productions I have experienced in any medium. I suspect I appreciated it more for being old (although I loved the original story by Thomas Mann over 40 years ago). It is not just a story of an old man longing for an unobtainable youth – this production makes it very clear that it is a story of an old man longing for unobtainable youth. The production was magical, the scenery and lighting complementing the underlying feelings perfectly and the words came through crystal clear with no need for surtitles, demonstrating Britten’s place as the greatest composer of English opera.
ENO emailed me an offer of a seat in row E of the stalls for the same price I paid last week to sit in the back row of the upper circle. I’m not a Puccini fan but this is his most famous opera and I thought, “why not give it a go? I am really glad I did. I have found Puccini on the radio boring but this was great theatre in a terrific production, originally directed by Jonathan Miller. It was credited as a revival by Natascha Metherell but Jonathan Miller came onto the stage at the end to take his well deserved bow. Robyn Lyn Evans was a last minute replacement for Gwyn Hughes-Jones as Rodolfo and I suspect Jonathan Miller was on hand to add some last minute direction. You would never have guessed Evans was a replacement apart from a few places where the largely unnecessary surtitles did not quite match the lines he sang.
One of the things that puts me off the Puccini that gets played on the radio is the vibrato used in many of the classic recordings. I am so glad it has gone out of fashion; I detected only the slighted traces of it in a couple of the excellent performances yesterday. Overall, it did not match the astonishing emotional intensity of last week’s Death in Venice but there is a place for both and it was certainly more tuneful.
This was as perfect as an opera can be. John Graham-Hall as von Aschenbach sang an extraordinarily demanding role perfectly. His final, vocally demanding aria, sung virtually unaccompanied, at the end of three hours was full of heartbreak. Deborah Warner’s direction, Tom Pye’s set and Jean Kalman’s lighting were all so perfect that I have to mention them, as I do the brilliant conducting of Edward Gardner. I was pleased to be sitting where we could not see the surtitles as every word John Graham-Hall sang was perfectly clear, as were most of the others. It’s only after reading other reviews I discovered they wisely chose not to use the surtitles. This should be standard for Britten operas: he wrote for the English language so perfectly you can almost hear the words in the music alone.
Roderick Williams stood out as Pollux in ENO’s Castor & Pollux and is brilliant in this. There are no surtitles and none would be necessary if the other singers sang as clearly as he does.
The music is excellent and the 3D video visually stunning:
The last thing I saw, “Table” at the Shed, used a bare stage with a table and a few chairs, a handful of excellent actors and a simple family saga but ended up much greater than the sum of its parts. This had a great score by Michel van der Aa, very well conducted by André de Ridder (not easy when you need to integrate singing on video with live singing, beautiful singing), an intriguing story by David Mitchell (the one who wrote Cloud Atlas), fantastic visual effects and yet it somehow ended up as less than the sum of its parts. Each of those elements is great and it is well worth watching for that alone – I’d rather see an experiment that does not quite work than a company just playing it safe.
Excellent singing, fabulous set, great direction and terrific dancing: everything about this production is perfect. As with Castor & Pollux, Christian Curnyn conducts the orchestra beautifully, although this time the orchestra pit is sadly not raised. The dancers (excellently choreographed by Lynne Page) enhance rather than distract, deserving the spontaneous applause following their first appearance.
Sarah Connolly gives a powerful performance as Medea, her passionate love for Jason turning to passionate revenge when he falls for another.
Director David McVicar places the action in the middle of WWII, using the countries’ uniforms to make clear who is working for whom. The allied Thessalonian Jason (British navy) and Corinthian king Creon (French army) need the support of Orontes of Argos – enter the American airmen in their leather flying jackets. Creon promises Orontes his daughter Creusa in return for his support. Orontes prepares a celebration, featuring Cupid and her chariot (a glitter covered USAF plane) pulled by her Slaves of Love (sailors and tarts) in a fabulous parody of a Hollywood musical. I hadn’t realised before how close the Hollywood musical is in structure to that of Baroque opera with love songs and set dance pieces punctuating the unfolding of the story.
Meanwhile, Jason and Creusa have fallen in love and Creon promises them they can get married once the battle is won. Medea finds out and reveals her dark side as a sorceress:
Using her blood, she calls up the demons from Hades (even spookier than the ghostly nuns in Robert le Diable):
Medea relentlessly releases her powers, slaughtering all, even her own children, apart from Jason. I know I promised short reviews but this really deserved more and I only wish I had space to applaud the terrific performances individually. I may well have already seen my favourite opera of 2013 (and may go and see it again). By the way, I couldn’t see the surtitles from my seat but it didn’t matter at all as the singing was so clear.