Engaging and visually spectacular, ENO’s new production of Aida foregrounds the human themes of war, love, duty and honour through a fantastical world as unsettlingly familiar as it is strange.
I approached this production as part of an ongoing research project into contemporary productions of ‘Orientalist’ operas. As far as exoticism goes, Verdi’s approach to Aida was archetypal of Western approaches to the mysterious and magical ‘other’, seeking to ‘authentically’ reproduce an alluring world of emotions, irrationality and dangerous sexuality that was equally the product of Western society’s interpretation and the heart of so many of its fears.
The world of Phelim McDermott’s Aida is indeed alluring. Emotional, sexual, dangerous, brave and beautiful, it is however clearly a world that we all inhabit, unavoidably recognisable and thereby all the more pertinent and powerful. The stylised set, juxtaposed with eclectic costumes, simultaneously evoke the ‘Egypt’ referenced by the libretto without reformulating tired architectural and historical-cultural stereotypes which essentialise and distance the human message of that civilisation through the seductive kaleidoscope of the Western imperial gaze. Soldiers are bedecked in a variety of European military apparel, lady chorus members’ headdresses range from modern interpretations of African women’s headwear to the positively medieval, and the pagan nakedness of temple dancers juxtaposes with priestly robes that are unmistakably influenced by high-church Christianity. Colour is the device that binds the diversity of representation together, stylising the mood of various scenes and cleverly unifying the visual field. Verdi’s indulgent orchestral passages are brought to life by a multi-talented ‘skills ensemble’ who represent and enhance moods and scenes through acrobatics, dance and physical theatre.
The ethnically diverse cast, unusually representative of the part of the world invoked by the storyline, is welcome, and the singers are formidable in their performance. Latonia Moore balances vocal power with emotional vulnerability, presenting a believably complex Aida, and despite an apparent lack of acting-chemistry with Gwyn Hughes Jones as Radamès their musical partnership is excellent and deeply moving. DeYoung as Amneris is disappointingly distracting with distorted dark vowels which make the subtitles frustratingly necessary. This contrasts awkwardly with the bright and clearly produced English of her colleagues whose vocal projection on this occasion also outshines her own. The chorus of the ENO are thrilling. Definitely one to experience while you can.
Opera is one of the great loves of my life, and yet it is an art from which I feel sometimes helplessly absent. It is, by its nature as a Western European art form, largely written by white ‘Western’ composers using the languages and symbolisms of these cultures. Symbols like white weddings and black funerals, symbols that are so hegemonically ingrained that most of the world don’t perceive them as symbols, systems of meaning, iconographic worlds that stir some folk more deeply than others. Other folk have different ways of loving, of being, of making meaning of out life.
Though born in Yorkshire, in many ways I am and I feel myself one of those ‘others’. Of course what I love most about Opera is that, through music, it transcends these worldly differences and aims (often) to tackle the heart of something that is above all divisions, to explore those things that are universally human – love, death, hate, dilemma, identity. Yet the anthropologist in me wants to remind you that all human experience, even these universals, are expressed in culturally specific, meaningful ways. In this sense, in opera, I am (as a young British South Asian woman of mixed heritage) utterly unrepresented.
There was a lot riding on Ravi Shankar’s Sukanya for me. After seeing Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at ENO last year I was so set back by the sense of disenfranchisement I felt from two hours of inaccurate, reductionist and (to me) frankly offensive Orientalism was so acute that I couldn’t even bring myself to write about it. I’ve dreamed for myself about what an opera bringing the two parts of me together would look like. I was simultaneously afraid and excited to experience Sukanya. If anybody could achieve a sure representation of Indianness through Opera, surely it would be Pandit Ravi Shankar. Ten minutes into the opera I was weeping like I wept at the end of Der Rosenkavalier – I felt real. I was seeing something of myself, something true about my life, in operatic art for the first time.
Sukanya will touch and stir people from diverse backgrounds (as it did last night), if through nothing other than the unspeakable beauty and elegance of its music. The music is, in its own right, thrilling. Between the vision of Ravi Shankar and the dedication of arranger and conductor David Murphy there is an imaginative fusion of Indian and Western Classical styles, forms and principles that is simultaneously true and authentic to both traditions in their vast complexity, without reducing or compromising either one. Indian instruments play alongside Western Orchestra. The arias and choruses make use of konnakol (spoken Indian rhythmic patterns) and improvisations on ragas, and the libretto travels through English story-telling to the words of Hindi prayers and shamelessly Bengali declarations of love.
The expression and Anglicised pronunciations of the Indian elements is curiously insignificant, even adding to the charm and the sense of art rising above divisions. The two traditions were full, supple, and unified, complementing one another, even elevating one another in new and jarringly peculiar ways. The singers were every one of them exceptional, and their bravery and skill in working between Western art music and raga-based improvisation effective and impressive. It was a joy also to see such an ethnically diverse cast – I have never seen so many different backgrounds represented on an ‘opera’ stage.
Akash Odedra’s company of dancers punctuated and enhanced the story through a fantastical fusion of Indian classical dance styles (which lend themselves to story-telling) and contemporary interpretation. Although semi-staged, this production was fully absorbing, and the dancers can take a large degree of credit for generating and cementing this effect.
For me personally this Opera was the most tender, affirming and terrifying work I’ve seen. After a lifetime of craving a way to bring together the two inseparable sides of myself – British and Indian, always neither, always both – now there is an Opera that communicates what that is like, what it looks like and sounds like and sings like, to the world. I wondered whether my response might be biased – but I know that if after all this time somebody had staged something so intimate as an operatic love scene in Bengali and missed the mark even a little it would have hurt me ten times more than the Orientalism of The Pearl Fishers and its ilk. This is a very special piece of work, musically groundbreaking and wonderfully crafted, and I look forward to its staging in a long-term run sometime soon.
There has been a lot of build-up to this UK premiere production of Adès’ latest opera. Pushed by the Opera House and trailered enthusiastically on BBC Radio 3, my expectations were high from the outset. I can’t say I was entirely disappointed.
I enjoyed Adès’ music. The work was cohesive as an opera and enjoyable – extremely funny. Both the libretto and the score were littered with muso jokes, most of which I and those like me in the audience (most of the audience) found much more hilarious than my musically-appreciative-but-not-quite-a-muso Opera Buddy. Audrey Luna was mind-blowing as Leticia, the opera singer, whose vocal part makes the Queen of the Night aria look like it was written for a contralto. The tone, resonance and range of expression she achieved well above top C is freakish and wonderful. In fact the entire cast is phenomenal – musically irreproachable – except that a few days down the line I’ve forgotten most of what they sang and the score that went underneath it. I don’t feel like that’s the point of going to an opera.
Maybe it’s because I’ve not seen the film, but I concluded that my interest petered because there’s a distinct lack of character and plot development which makes the situation difficult to sustain over such a long time. I appreciate that the point is partly boredom of the bourgeouisie – but is it too much to ask that I can do this by being entertained by a representation of bored bourgeoisie instead of feeling like one myself? The general message was about the descent into a Hobbesian state of nature, and being trapped in the worlds we create for ourselves. Granted. For me personally however the point was made in a rather unexplosive way. Perhaps that was also the point, but I doubt it.
I enjoyed The Exterminating Angel. I would recommend it to go and see once, but I don’t think I’d be moved to go see it again. It was enjoyable, funny, I laughed out loud, and in the event I was engaged most of the time. It’s a good night out, and it will keep you in the room for three acts – but I doubt it will change your life.
This review is published after the production has closed – and for that I apologise. However I couldn’t miss the chance to discuss this smart, glittering and self-consciously tongue-in-cheek performance.
To my frustration I arrived 15 minutes late, and watched the first act relayed by screen. However the relay was relatively high quality in sound and visuals, and was located in the quiet downstairs area so I could still enjoy the production (Covent Garden, take note).
Sarah Tynan was phenomenal, a jewel in a fantastic cast. This production restyled Queen Partenope as a ‘Queen Bee’, surrounded by an array of clumsy suitors as she hosts an all night Scott-Fitzgerald style party. The story maps very well, and is believable and funny by virtue of becoming somewhat less serious than the original setting.
This was clearly not the easiest of Handel’s operas to stage convincingly as a piece of theatre. It is full of many extended, intricate and virtuosic arias that lend themselves better to a declamatory recital-style. Here however arias were delivered whilst falling off staircases, arranging nude photograph exhibitions, straddling bewildered love interests and, when there was no other option, whilst drawing attention to the awkwardness of the fit between aria and stagecraft with mime, Charleston and pastiches of 1920’s dance moves.
The production was engaging throughout and laugh-out loud funny, with wittiness that showed ENO very close to its best. It left me wishing that this company could be more consistent in the quality of its productions, and play to its fundamental strengths. From my point of view these are the casting of top class, well-acclaimed singers, and well-executed productions that support but do not draw attention away from (or as with Don Giovanni, entirely change) the plot. Of course this is more easily said than done – but it’s still worth saying.
On Thursday 9th March I took ten Music GCSE student to see their first opera at Hackney Empire. To say these students are from a deprived social and educational context is an understatement – they live in a working-class area of London, and the demographic of their school shows that students available for Free School Meals, Pupil Premium is well above the national average (in fact 3-4 times the national average), whilst the number of students with English as a Foreign Language, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities is at a similar rate. I’ve had the absolute pleasure this year of leading their GCSE studies, and have found them to be absurdly talented in music. They are no less capable than students who will have many more opportunities than they have – one of the Y11s, for instance, has secured a scholarship to the Royal College of Music Saturday school.
I wanted to share my love of Opera with these students because I feel that Opera at its best stretches the musical and theatrical art forms to its limits. I wanted them to experience something that would be unlike anything they’d seen, and find out what their reaction was as much as anything else. From the outset I felt that this would be make or break. If their first experience was a bad one they wouldn’t come back a second time. I felt that top quality performance had to be combined with accessible prices and venue, and for that the English Touring Opera was the obvious choice. It also had to be something that could in some way give a reasonably meaningful flavour of this vast and diverse genre.
The production for ETO’s Tosca was relatively simple (this is to be expected of a touring company for practical reasons). The stage was divided into levels which was sometimes effective, and at other times distracting. The smaller stage size (compared with other opera venues) did sometimes feel inhibiting in terms of action. There was less opportunity for movement and use of space during the deliver of arias, resulting in a somewhat more ‘recital’-esque feel, with less sense of integration between the theatrical/acting component of the opera and its musical presentation.
The singing was utterly top class, especially from Tosca herself. As there is a split cast and I didn’t manage to get my hands on a programme that evening I can’t be entirely sure, but I think we had the pleasure of Laura Mitchell. Her expression and the scope of her sound were exquisite. The set really came into its own for Tosca’s final fall, with the extreme height created producing an even more compelling ending than usual, although it wasn’t apparent why the guards would stand at the foot of a ladder and make no attempt to prevent her jump for a good number of minutes before it actually occurred.
The relationship between Tosca and Cavaradossi was youthful, playful and exciting. It was very accessible to the young audience I brought with me, being very much alive and believable rather than formal or scripted as can sometimes be the case in Opera. Scarpia’s coldness made good sense of his chilling behaviour, and at times his gestures were shockingly, blackly humourous.
For people who enjoy opera this is a production well worth going to. Moreover, for those who are new to Opera it is also an excellent introduction.
Going to the Opera with these students and seeing it through their eyes opened mine to what Opera can be like in an entirely new way. I had to make an number of decisions about how to prepare them and how much. I decided, against much popular advice, to prepare them minimally. I wanted the music and the genre to speak for itself, and I was conscious not to over-hype the experience or make the students feel in any way that they couldn’t be totally honest with me about how they found it, especially if they genuinely didn’t enjoy it.
Since the story of Tosca is such a rollercoaster I told the students how it goes up to the arrest only, and left the ending for them to discover as Puccini intended it. For other operas I probably would have given them the whole story, but it was a great feeling to watch 16-year-old boys jump out of their seats in horror when La Tosca grabbed the knife in the middle of Act II!
The students did all find Act I very confusing and a little boring, which is not surprising as Tosca Act I is largely ‘scene-setting’. I had to explain it to them a little more in the interval, but this shows how the sometimes overly-complicated plots and backstories of opera can be a genuine barrier. Act II re-engaged the students through its fast pace and action, and by Act III they were visibly overwhelmed by the music.
I sensed a mixed response at the end. Some students were uncharacteristically quiet and reflective. Others were excited simply by looking into the pit and seeing Double Basses and Tubular Bells for the first time, whilst a number of students commented with awe on how “loud” the singing and orchestra were. They couldn’t believe it had been achieved without microphones. After this my colleagues reported that they students were buzzing around school for a good week afterwards, telling their friends about the Opera. On the night a few of the students asked me how and where they could find cheap opera tickets, and if they were allowed to go on their own!
Much of the students’ ability to access and engage with this production was a direct result of the involvement of the English Touring Opera Education department. ETO puts on a large number of free pre-show talks and runs schemes for local singers, schools and children to get involved with opera as they move across the country. I cheekily contacted Education and Community Coordinator, Daniel Coelho, who went above and beyond for our students, even arranging for two members of the cast to speak to them ahead of their experience. Although unfortunately due to a traffic incident we were unable to attend this company’s dedication to opening the opera experience to all is at a level unrivalled by any scheme I have seen, not least because it reaches across the nation rather than being anchored to a specific opera house or theatre. The students arrived in time for the public pre-show talk and I am grateful to Director Blanche McIntyre for avoiding spoilers throughout! I asked her to advise our students how to cope if they were finding the opera difficult. Her response was kind and authentic. She reflected that people often make opera out to be more difficult than it actually is, and emphasised the importance of the story and emotions. Overall, she encouraged them to sit back and listen to the music, especially if everything else became ‘too much’.
I am thoroughly grateful to English Touring Opera for their commitment to high quality opera, low prices and their genuine ethos of outreach and education. Other companies, larger and wealthier and better recognised, could learn a great deal from them.
I was lucky enough to attend the opening night of ROH’s Production of Der Rosenkavalier, with Renée Fleming (Die Marschallin), Alice Coote (Octavian) and Sophie Bevan (Sophie) in the soprano lead roles. The artistry of these three was stunning.
I was unfortunately stupid enough to misremember the timing of this performance, and as a result my OperaBuddy and I missed the very start of the overture, watching the entire first act via a monitor amidst the clatterings of Covent Garden’s Amphitheatre Bar Staff, preparing for the first interval as they were. The microphone we were dependent upon was evidently in the pit. This was no great disappointment as the orchestra were in truly divine form under the baton of Andris Nelsons, however much of the singing (mostly Fleming and Coote) appeared to be lost. Interestingly all three of the other attendees I spoke to commented that Fleming was in fact surprisingly underpowered in this first half, and took a good while to warm up into the role vocally. Perhaps even great opera singers still get nervous on opening night. Nonetheless their unexpected comments were reflected quite accurately by what we experienced on the monitor. From our distance, mediated by screens and speakers, the first act appeared visually charming. The emotional divebomb that the text takes from sexual play to the musings and anxieties of a self-consciously fading rose was definite, tender and beautiful.
The gorgeousness of this masterwork by Strauss is such that it increases and develops all the more as the opera goes along. The relationships in Act II, potentially tricky to portray convincingly, could not have been doubted for a moment. Sophie Bevan’s endearing naïvety and soaring voice were absolutely entrancing. Coote was compelling beyond belief in her portrayal of the adolescent Octavian. She succeeded in relating his sincerity throughout his emotional struggle and the goodness of his heart, which is ultimately the source of the youthful ideals and illusions that lead to him falling in love with Sophie whilst not quite managing to relinquish his feelings of loyalty and commitment to the Marschallin.
I was a little distracted by the strange set design choices in Act II. From the grand, romantic era chamber of Act I we jumped to cartoonish and clumsy neo-classical backgrounds decked with both anachronistic, modern/minimalist black sofas and large canons (in Herr von Faninal’s living room?) that wobbled conspicuously when cast members jumped or sat on them. Bad dancing for no apparent reason in the background also proved a strange distraction. Despite the conflicting period indicators, the music remained at the highest level throughout. Matthew Rose as Baron Ochs was master over his wonderful voice, deplorable and funny without becoming a caricature, a rare achievement for this difficult character.
In Act III the set again betrayed inconsistencies of vision with half-nude, can-can-esque prostitutes dawdling over early 20th Century style telephones, peculiar intermittent shifts to modern lighting (including at one point multicolour neon tubes) and a divergent reference to caged pole-dancing that bordered on the gratuitous. Had the portrayal of sexual excess been more thoughtfully incorporated into a distinctive and identifiable style it would have been more effective in its intended effect of communicating and denouncing the character and motivations of Baron Ochs.
Coote clearly revelled in the gender-bending genius of Strauss’s librettist von Hofmannsthal, starting this act as a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman, seducing a man who has no idea that this woman is in fact a man in drag (did you follow that?). The production would however benefit from a stronger creative decision about whether it is to approach these passages as explicitly theatrical farce or with something more like (necessarily camp) seriousness.
The Marschallin, of course, breaks the Burlesque before it disintegrates, selfessly saves Sophie from a miserable marriage and graciously blesses the union of this charming younger version of herself with her own, still much-adored Octavian. This was the moment Fleming came into her mythical own, living the role in alls its fullness. Her Marschallin was humble, painfully elegant, true in her renunciation and yet still you could almost taste her agony and the depth of her love for this silly boy Octavian. All this mingled in the rare and unique colours of her musical performance.
The trio at the end of this act is one of the most moving and honest expressions of humanity I have had the honour to experience. Fleming, Coote and Bevan wove togetherall the wonderful and complex nuances, elations and anxieties of love and sexual desire. My heart broke when, in the Marschallin’s presence, Coote as Octavian sang the same pledges of love to Sophie as he had to the Marschallin herself in the first act. This passage transcends reality because the librettist, and Strauss through his other-worldly music, distill human experience and offer it in all its imperfection. The three sopranos realised this vision irreproachably, and I for one was overwhelmed by the confounding sensations of being simultaneously lifted out of the world whilst witnessing it in a strangely naked human form before me.
This opera is a truly special work of art, and the casting and musical performance, including Nelsons in the pit, was especially exceptional. Only clearer vision from the staging and lighting could have improved this production. It is entirely the honour and credit of the musical artists that the anachronisms and holes in that aspect of the presentation did not detract in any significant way from the beautiful humanity they created together.
Giant tap-dancing noses, a Cross-dressed balalaika-playing prostitute, a man who has lost his nose and the Carnivalesque Russian society that will not help him get it back. Barrie Kosky brings Shostakovich’s first opera to the Royal Opera House stage for the first time with a production that raises this work to a whole new level.
The English translation by David Pountney is funny, relatable and conveys the character of Gogol’s absurdist short story on which the Opera is based. Martin Winkler tackles the lead role with vocal delivery that is as characterful as it is technically exciting, with excellent comic timing throughout. The work hangs almost entirely between Winkler as the inexplicably noseless Collegiate Assessor and the Royal Opera House Chorus who, supported by a phenomenal cast of dancers, are powerful, funny and at their musical best.
This production is especially notable for its imaginative use of space, staging and perspective, focussing much of the action through a circular aperture (a nostril? Suggests my Opera Buddy) and a further round dais. The set is minimal but hugely effective, and the use of space through dance, movement around the stage and blocking is captivating throughout, despite this production’s choice to run without an interval. Indeed, with such pace and momentum an interval really is not required.
The method of presentation and much of the stagecraft is obviously influenced by Brechtian techniques, linking to this avant garde tradition of theatre wherein the ideology was designed to support absurdist and critical reflections on serious social issues. Elaborate and nonsensical dance sequences interrupt the story at random moments, reducing the audience to laughter and providing space for critical reflection on the possible political implications of the performance whilst costumery, lighting and presentation styles come together to satirise here the various institutions of the media, the police and self-satisfied upper-class society. The layers of political commentary are complicated to the extreme when bringing together the possible meanings of Gogol’s original in the context of late 19th Century Russia and Shostakovich’s lifetime of artistic and ideological struggle with the Soviet Union. A fruitily English commentator shatters both the fourth wall of the stage and the Operatic dream-world to ask whether The Nose, as text or as opera, is about anything at all anyway. Not originally part of Shostakovich’s opera, this directly reflects Gogol’s narrative voice at the end of the original pamphlet and further anchors this production in the German tradition of the avant-garde whilst signposting its Britishness in a self-derisive but definite claim.
The Nose has been long regarded as an opera that falls short of musical success, but the convincing delivery given here by the ROH Orchestra and Chorus convinces me otherwise, the momentum only slowing down in the Letter Scene – and those are notoriously difficult to pitch across all periods and styles of opera. Refusing to answer the question whether or not The Nose has anything specific or meaningful to say about society or politics then or now, this opera was an excellent choice as an access work via the student scheme and I highly recommend anybody of any background to catch it before it closes on November 9th. Bravo, Kosky and the Royal Opera House!
English Touring Opera – Opera that moves. And indeed it does. Hailing as I do from Yorkshire I am from extremely warm towards a company that seeks to bring the Operatic art form to audiences outside of London. The company also breaks out of the institution of the Opera House, touring halls, theatres and similar venues from Exeter to Durham, Malvern to Snape Maltings and everywhere in between – although I was disappointed to hear that despite there not being a major Opera production from any other companies in my hometown of Hull since I was a small child, the council and theatres there didn’t permit the tour to extend to the banks of the Humber (local friends – what can we do together about this scandal?).
Of course any English tour however outreach focused must include London, where I attended the performance of Handel’s Xerses on Saturday 8th October. This production will be travelling the country (alongside others) until early next year.
The ETO set up in London at the attractive yet intimate space of the Hackney Empire theatre. A pre-show talk with James Conway (Director of both this particular production and of ETO as a company) explained the basis of the 1940s interpretation, which was first put on to great acclaim in 2011. Conway presented an artistic ethos that focusses on this importance of the narrative story and taking seriously the characters of the operatic narrative, and this approach was effective in making believable the complex and potentially silly plot of this work. So many plots in Opera border on ridiculous and it is important to sustain them with dramatic commitment. Xerses did so, with a balanced and quirky lacing of humour. The famous opening aria Ombra mai fu (Under Thy Shade) remains beautiful, but is transformed into an extended pun as it is delivered to the ‘beloved Plane’ instead of a Plane Tree, simultaneously delivering a poignant comment on modern political leaders’ obsessions with aerial warfare. Sibling rivalry is rampant and extends to a slapstick bedroom scene between the warring sisters and an amusing but terrifyingly intense dynamic between the royal brothers, Xerses and Arsamenes.
The technical aspect of this production deserves special mention, with a set that was minimal without ever feeling lacking and lighting the balanced well the creation of mood and warmth with its role in guiding the focus of the audience to particular aspects of the staging and musical dialogues. This is particularly impressive for a company that tours.
The cast included some excellent singers, particularly Laura Mitchell as Romilda, Galina Averina as Atalanta and Clint van der Linde as Arsamenes. Averina delivered the most technically impressive soprano work, with the power in her vocal capacity used at appropriate musical opportunities and not simply for the sake of it. She crafted a character who though silly and spiteful was ultimately pitiable and relatable, which is not an easy task. Clint van der Linde successfully conveyed the deep conflict and pain of a man whose wilful and at times vindictive older brother is also his Lord and King. Although Julia Riley as Xerses noticeably lacked power and projection compared to the rest of the cast, the Act II duet between Xerses and Arsamenes was very special, both in terms of vocal technique and the masterful communications that were delivered through the music about the nature of fraternal relationships, the emotions of frustrated and intense love, and the experience of injustice each endures. For Arsamenes these are injustices of hierarchy and the precedence of his brother’s birth; for Xerses it is the injustice of unrequited love.
The presentation of the story was unfortunately slightly marred by issues of intelligibility. I heard a number of individuals discussing the issue of struggling to understand during the interval, and this has been picked up on in other reviews – despite the diction being some of the clearest and most precise I have heard. The English Touring Opera chooses not to use subtitles as much as possible, I assume because subtitling unavoidably detracts attention from stage action and often leads to a distracted or partial theatrical experience. However within the Hackney Empire space the diction of anything sung behind the middle of the stage was sadly lost, and even given my substantial experience of the classical voice there were times when I only was able to catch the libretto because of Handel’s continued use of text repetition. I would encourage those who are less confident in understanding the classical voice to make sure they read up on the storyline before attending to facilitate getting their head around any moments that are partially obscured in this way.
This raises a problem for classical music that is much more general, since I have recently come to realise that the vast majority of people find it extremely difficult to parse words from classical singing, however good the diction is. I have recently been sharing a great deal of performances with people who are not accustomed to listening to the classical voice, and passages that find crystal clear are completely unintelligible to them. Furthermore a Catch-22 situation is generated since it takes a great deal of effort and concentration for those less accustomed to classical song to parse words and meaning from it, which distracts them from the musical or theatrical content whilst also potentially detracting from their enjoyment of the overall experience. Given that those with lower exposure to classical music are a great part of ETO’s outreach and target audience, and these are the people who find it most difficult to interpret the sung texts, I conclude that despite laudable and understandable artistic ideals it may be of significant importance for the ETO to reconsider their approach to subtitling in future productions. For this tour I hope that the acoustics of the other venues will be a little kinder to both the cast and those experiencing the classical voice from a fresher perspective, and more broadly I hope that musicians can find creative ways to solve the conundrum of accessibility and maintaining an optimum experience of the classical voice.
I came away from the ETO production of Xerses with my confidence refreshed in the future of Opera sung in English. I was sincerely impressed by the passion and vision delivered by ETO Director James Conway in his pre-show talk, and am sympathetic to the many exceptional outreach projects for which the ETO is noteworthy.
In each location of the tour the company is providing a free workshop to secondary school children allowing them to watch a rehearsal and go backstage to understand what is involved in putting an opera together. My own students benefited from this in London, and returned more deeply enthused with opera as an art form and more aware of its particular challenges and complexities. Alongside the three baroque operas touring this season are performances of Bach’s St. John Passion, bringing local amateur choirs from diverse backgrounds (gospel, university, community) together with the ETO team. This project involves groups in music-making larger than themselves and is also an exploration of the meaning of the St. John Passion in today’s largely but not entirely secular context, where music’s origins and its destinations have become apparently separated. The director is especially keen on access and diversity, for those who will not have experienced this music before, and who will find emotional, intellectual and other levels of personal fulfilment and enrichment through the opportunity to perform and be exposed to it.
Amidst generalised lack of funding for operatic projects and almost hysterical uncertainty surrounding the future of the ENO there is real reason to fear for English-sung Opera in the present moment. However ETO’s fresh, grounded and democratic approach to the art-form has significantly alleviated my concerns. I may even be so bold as to suggest that, whilst the eyes of the musical community are focussed on the plight of larger and longer-standing organisations, the future of opera sung in English may be moving in a completely different and very welcome direction.
A middle-aged man in a shiny suit stands in a bland and minimalist corridor set. Every few moments a woman walks by, goes behind a door with him for a few short seconds, they come out together completely unflustered and a few moments later this happens again. And again. And again. Either the short time spent behind the door is meant to effect a feeling of sped up time, or Don Giovanni is the quickest and most disappointing lay in history. In any case the sequence is annoying, pointless, and fails entirely to effectively communicate anything meaningful about the main character of this classic operatic work. Meanwhile this empty and boring charade completely distracted me from Mozart’s Overture, which irritated me even further.
The perceived need to ‘cover’ the time of the Overture without having any useful ideas about how to do so is an affliction of many operatic productions, great and otherwise. Unfortunately on this occasion, at least for this particular performance, this confusing and pointless exposition was indeed a sad taster of the production that followed. Indeed when the interval came my opera buddy and I also walked out of a door, disappointed and relieved not to return for the second half. Although not quite in numbers as great as the Don’s conquests, we weren’t even close to being the only ones to do this last Tuesday. Whilst I am fully aware that it may be seen as unjust to review a production I only saw half of, I have never walked out of a theatre in my life before which, I feel, is justification and review enough in itself.
Don Giovanni is a notoriously difficult opera to put on. Like so many of Mozart’s librettos the storyline delivers a string of gaping holes and the characters are so confused in their identities and motivations that it’s almost impossible to sustain them in a dramatic world that, having been touched by the study of realism, is no longer willing to tolerate portrayals that don’t follow consistently from one moment to another. It can of course be done thrillingly well – but instead of seizing the ingenious music and the erotic farce and the power of the underlying mortality tale , this production seems to try to ignore them with a low-energy ‘minimalism’ and hope that they’ll go away. They didn’t. In addition, my Year 12 class (who I sent to the opening night last Friday) explained that in the second half the plot has been entirely changed, completely removing any moral direction or meaning from the iconic story in favour of a series of gimmicks with wigs.
Christopher Purves was not in good voice, with a sometimes soft-rock vocal timbre and musically uninspiring presentation of the lead character. His banter with Clive Bayley’s Leporello was witty indeed, but it was Bayley himself who for me was the vocal star of the show followed closely by Allan Clayton as Don Ottavio and, in certain glorious moments, Caitlyn Lynch as Donna Anna. Clayton is tender and is one of the only principals to convincingly act his character throughout. Despite thrilling top notes Lynch seemed at a loss on the acting front for how to portray grief believably – a great flaw in any Donna Anna. Her opening aria was musically enchanting despite a frustrating mismatch between her lyric vibrato and Clayton’s lighter tone. Her reaction to the murder of her father was completely unconvincing as she stood still and expressionless whilst accounting it through song. Christine Rice as Donna Elvira had a vibrato that was far too wide for my personal taste and at times I felt that the shape of Mozart’s more delicate coloratura lines was almost completely obscured by it. Her Elvira was more annoying than pitiful, which makes it difficult to engage properly with the wider themes that are supposed to run through the characters’ relationships.
Mary Bevan has received mixed reviews as Zerlina. On this occasion I found her uncharacteristically mediocre and dramatically dubious. The character of Zerlina, with her erratic and conflicting emotions, suffers in condensed form all the difficulties of inconsistency in the wider libretto of Don Giovanni. She is undeniably a challenge to play, however I didn’t feel that Bevan herself was clear on Zerlina’s motivations. I feel that the character can be made to work well when given a direction, for example either truly in love with Masetto or secretly leaning towards Don Giovanni, but Bevan conveyed a swinging ambivalence that was not supported enough to provide a good basis for the trajectory of her role. The high notes she delivered in the Act 1 Aria ‘Batti, batti, o bel Masetto’ were surprisingly thin and even strained. James Creswell as Masetto actually fell a full half bar out with Wigglesworth and the Orchestra at one point, something I have never seen on a major operatic stage.
Given the fragility of the ENO at the present time and its huge importance as the bridge between this incredible art form and the vernacular, performers cannot afford to have ‘off’ evenings and the production teams cannot be allowed to deliver uninspiring, bland or flawed productions. The reviews of Tosca, which is also currently playing at The Coliseum, are equally flat and betray a failure to connect with young audiences. This production also fell down on basic points of execution such as tacky sets and costume additions that looked cheap instead of minimalist, and the moment where the (heartbreakingly small) chorus could be heard stomping into their next position behind the set front. Some of the best opera productions I’ve seen have been at the ENO (see Akhnaten, The Magic Flute). Between an exodus at half time and a group of 17 year olds who, despite being first-time opera-goers, were annoyed by an alternative ending that “doesn’t make sense”, this is not the way to ensure the future of Opera performed in English or this Opera Company.
It’s hard to be in love in an instrument that the world keeps telling you is irrelevant, out of touch, a ‘dying art’ and the preserve of the elite. I have cumulatively spent weeks, months, probably pushing years of my life at an organ bench, burning my neurons to shreds over pieces that demand my two hands and feet to play three independent melodies across up to 6 keyboards (including one made of pedals). I have experienced ridiculous ecstasy that beats hands down any other feeling I’ve ever known, and I’ve sobbed my heart out at the console as well.
Last week I was doing a lot of the latter – yes, partly because I was tired and run down, but mostly because in that state I couldn’t sustain the confidence that people actually cared about the music I think is so special, or that anybody could possibly want to hear something so ‘niche’, so ‘stuffy’ and ‘out of date’ as an Organ Recital. And yes, these are all ways that real people have, with all kind intentions, described the organ and its music to me.
My anxiety came as I was scheduled to open a local arts festival with an organ recital, as has been tradition since the first of these festivals however many years ago. A few weeks before one of the organisers had appended half an hour of a local Rock Choir onto this – and some small circumstances been different, I suspect it would have replaced my stint entirely. The inclusion of the Rock Choir in the opening ceremony is a great thing – a group of local people, having fun making music together as part of the local community. Brilliant! However, I’d been practicing for months, and this sudden change of genre made me feel both dated and somewhat dispensable. I suppressed this initially, but a few days before the recital I suddenly became convinced that nobody wanted to hear an organ recital any more, and I was a living relic.
My carefully selected programme caused me particular concern. I had chosen to play a technical and structurally complex piece of Bach, a couple of studies by Schumann and a loud, bombastic, but ultimately atonal and harmonically ‘weird’ modern piece by a French Composer (Fête by Langlais). To put into perspective the dedication the organ demands, I have been gradually learning this last piece over two years. It’s not easy at all. My confidence in its impressiveness however was shook when, on hearing fragments of practice, a non-musician friend betrayed that they didn’t understand why I was so enthused about it – and that was my most exciting piece of the lot! Finally and most keenly, I felt that the Bach work I had chosen and slaved over was too academic and too intellectual to be wanted by anybody other than musicians in general and organists in particular. I firmly believed that the audience would spend the half-hour of organ music itching for me to get off the dais and for the Bon Jovi arrangements to begin. I felt totally unwanted, and completely irrelevant. It became almost impossible to convince me otherwise.
There is so much going on between the lines of this anecdote. It is sobering and also inspiring, in a way, that my musician friends and colleagues didn’t pretend to know any better than me whether most people wanted to hear a Bach Trio Sonata when I sobbed about how non-musicians would find it boring. One teaching colleague did however point out to me that, when presented in the right way, the children I teach in school can become completely invigorated by such stuff. My inner pessimist resisted this observation, and felt that both those children and the attendees at the upcoming festival would be a ‘captive’ audience.
The turning point came when one of my best friends, and fellow organist-relevance-explorer reminded me that when we perform we should, above all, enjoy ourselves. Amidst the panic and anxiety about whether Bach, Langlais, the Organ and I were wanted or not I forgot this basic truth. This music and this beast of an instrument make me happy and fill my life with beauty and philosophy that penetrates beyond itself, into everything I do. It is important to be concerned with outreach and teaching and other service-based work, but in the two-year gap since I last played a recital I forgot that I’m supposed to be the main beneficiary of my musical life. When I was a child I played for hours every day, just for me. When did that change and why?
The morning of the festival came, and as I practiced my friend and page-turner couldn’t
contain her awe at the beauty of Bach’s work. As I opened my heart and my unashamedly academic music-brain to the music again I realised I was playing it too fast – in a misguided attempt to race through the ‘boring’ movement and make it more exciting for a lay audience. I had forgotten to use my painfully begotten technical skills to draw out the beauty that was already in the music, the way it was written and meant to be. I chose to refuse to apologise for the mind-boggling genius that is Bach in all his works, and especially in his Trio Sonatas. It is true that my audience couldn’t understand the theoretical reasons why those six pages of semiquavers were such a marvel – but I communicated it to them anyway, and I made sure that they felt it with me on a much more important, abstract level. I had fun with Schumann’s jokes, and I used every single one of the 2000+ pipes on the organ for the screaming Langlais at the end. The result? An audience in raptures, and I wondered what I had ever been worried about.
Music is a gift for musicians themselves as well as for them to give to others, and the organ more than deserves its title “The King of Instruments”. A full organ has a range greater than that of a Symphonic Orchestra, and a skilled musician of any ilk can communicate the most wonderful things to any listener, regardless of that person’s musical background or interests.
So, this uncharacteristically wandering and introspective post is something of an advertisement: I’m back on the bench again, as far as recitals are concerned. If you have a gap in your concert series, I’d be happy to fill it for you. I love the organ and its fantastic repertoire, and I’ll not be apologising for it ever again. Finally I’m extremely grateful that, through a little tiredness and insecurity, I remembered why I spend so much of my life in front of a keyboard – primarily, it’s for me.