I love opera on this scale, in a small, packed theatre with just five singers and three musicians so that you hear every note and every word clearly. The smaller scale doesn’t mean it’s easier for the singers, in some ways quite the reverse, particularly as it places much greater pressure on the singers to act naturally despite singing their heads off. I’m glad to say Louisa Tee as Violetta and Philip Lee as Alfredo both acted as excellently as they sang and Andrew Mayor as Alfredo’s father was also very good. The action was moved forward to the 1920s with a new English libretto by Robin Norton-Hale. The plot was necessarily simplified with basic scene changes but these were easily outweighed by the overall quality of the production, as shown by the massive applause at the end. It is deservedly selling out fast and casting changes each night so you might not get to see the same line-up as I did, but this is the third production by them that I’ve seen and I’ve never been disappointed. If you like opera in English, it’s also worth noting that, unlike the ENO at the Coliseum, the Soho Theatre has excellent air conditioning and plenty of knee room!
How far the ENO have come. It is less than four years ago that I saw Handel’s Radamisto at the ENO with a woman singing the castrato role and very static staging. How much better it is now that the importance of the counter tenor has been recognised. This showed up most dramatically in the Act II duet between Iestyn Davies as Bertarido and Rebecca Evans as his wife Rodelinda. His counter tenor and her soprano may have been similar in vocal range but they sounded as different as woodwind and string instruments, creating the most wonderful highlight of the opera. The staging was good too, with good acting from the six singers and one actor who somehow filled the stage and made me forget how few singers there are in most opera seria, although the direction was perhaps a little more tongue in cheek than the heacy plot deserved. Also many thanks for Christian Curnyn who I have now seen conducting four baroque operas at the Coliseum. He currently seems unsurpassably good in this area. My only minor grumble is that, having found how good it was to raise the orchestra pit for Castor and Pollux, why has it not become standard for all their baroque operas?
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.
This was an astonishingly intense production that deserves the five star reviews it has received. The set and the direction were stunning and it was certainly far more rewarding than The Drowned Man, based on the same story. I am not sure the balance between the orchestra and singers was quite right, with the latter sometimes overwhelmed by Berg’s use of brass but the music itself is wonderfully dramatic. Despite this, the man next to me spent 10-15 minutes sneezing and loudly blowing his nose before falling asleep for half an hour. Sometimes it can be kinder to the other members of the audience to go on sick leave.
Maybe I do like Puccini after all! I certainly enjoyed this very small scale production (five singers, three musicians) more than the might of the ENO. I hadn’t expected to – I saw the OperaUpClose version of Britten’s Turn of the Screw which was terrific but that was a chamber opera to start with and only had five characters anyway. In the event, this was terrific. The updated libretto placed it in East Germany shortly before the collapse of Honecker’s government which suited the plot well. The good value programme (£3) included the full English libretto but every word was clear (no need for surtitles here). Grab a ticket while you can – it finishes this Sunday. My only complaint is that the programme lists both casts, two singers per role, so it wasn’t clear which singers I saw and I can’t credit them – Scarpia was particularly excellent.
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.
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.
The innocents about to be sacrificed
(all images copyright Royal Opera House used with permission)
The composer, Harrison Birtwistle, came on stage at the end of this last performance in this run of his opera to huge, well-justifed applause. The music was wonderful and the huge orchestra (filling the orchestra pit and spreading into the auditorium) was excellently conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth; the singing was superb, especially John Tomlinson as the poor, suffering Minotaur.
Johan Reuter as Theseus and John Tomlinson as the Minotaur
If I were to give the slightest criticism, I would have preferred a shorter first act or more dramatic action to keep the act going – it is very intense stuff for a solid 90 minutes. That said, this was a tremendous production and drew in a much younger audience than I usually see at the ROH. One young man near me was even wearing a safety pin through his ear – maybe punk is coming back!
It’s too late to see it again in this run but I’m sure it will be back.
I am very surprised to realise that I enjoyed this more than any other opera this year. Other productions were better, such as Robert le Diable or Pilgrim’s Progress and if I’d kept my eyes shut then Julius Caesar would have won easily. However, the synthesis of music, performance and production reached its peak for me in the ENO’s production of Martinu’s Julietta. The most promising work was probably Dr Dee. I am a big fan of Damon Albarn and recommend The Fall by Gorillaz but this didn’t quite work. I gather it was an improvement on the original Manchester production and look forward to seeing further refinement – I think it could be really great.