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.
Toilet is a love story, but it’s also a film with an agenda – raising awareness about sanitation needs in India. This is an agenda absolutely worthy of praise, but as Mayuri Bhattacharjee wrote yesterday on Feminism in India, Toilet portrays at least as many problematic behaviours and ideals as progressive ones. In particular, the film unquestioningly romanticises behaviour that can only be described as stalking.
The storyline runs something like this. Boy (Keshav) meets girl (Jaya), they fall in love, marry, and when Jaya discovers there’s no toilet in her new husband’s family home the main storyline (about the struggles of building toilets and establishing sanitation) begins. For angles on the sanitation aspect, see Bhattacherjee’s article. However by this point in the movie I, like many others, had already been turned off by the portrayal of Keshav and Jaya’s developing romance.
Keshav first catches sight of Jaya in a public place. His eyes pop out of his and he bothers her by physically getting in her way and spouting tired pick-up lines while he’s at it. He then proceeds to follow Jaya everywhere, secretly taking photographs of her without her permission, even going so far as to use one of her pictures in a public advertisement for his cycle shop. When Jaya comes to his office to ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing, he steals her phone number and start to harass her that way as well. After being told ‘no’ a few more times that should be necessary (i.e. once), Keshav desists, at which point Jaya develops Stockholm Syndrome, misses his attention, and starts chasing him instead.
Stalking is a tired and frustrating trope in an absurdly large number of Bollywood movies. In my opinion, what makes these attitudes even more prominent in Toilet is their juxtaposition with condemnations of eve-teasing and several positive assertions of women’s rights. The film’s opening, for example, shows Jaya throwing a coconut at a man who is sexually harassing women in the street and him falling into a pile of manure. In other places the conservative custom of women having to cover their heads before elders is rejected, and much is made of Jaya being a ‘topper’ in her class. The fact she’s brainy is posited as one of the major reasons she is attractive. However this positive attitude towards women’s rights in certain contexts is undermined not just by the normalisation of harassment, but also a wider failure to recognise and challenge assumptions about women and femininity that result in a sustained, systematic disempowerment of women.
I was struck that only the women in the film are shown as having major problems with going to the toilet outside. The discomfort of Jaya is the main source of change, and the justification of her position is ultimately supported by a rebellion of the village women and an episode relating to Keshav’s aging grandmother (perhaps the only women Keshav’s hyper-religious father would need to ‘respect’). Whilst it is true that women are more likely to face problems such as sexual harassment when defecating outside this is due to underlying attitudes in society, as is the fact that women in rural India are forced to walk long distances and hide to relieve themselves whilst men (as is shown in the film) may squat quite openly nearer to the house or even in the view of others. This inequality, both in representation and in real life experience, is linked to notions of shame surrounding women’s bodies and bodily functions. By not raising the issue of whether men experience discomfort or are exposed to health risks more prevalently in the film I feel this aspect, which structurally underlies much of the problem, has also been allowed to slide. Whilst biological plumbing may make urination a less messy affair for men than women, I find it difficult to believe that anything other than social attitudes makes men more ‘comfortable’ with defecating in a bush than women.
The apparent contradiction and hypocrisy found in Toilet’s representations of women is in fact significant and instructive. Many individual members of society (Indian or otherwise) unconsciously live out these kinds of hypocrisies every day of their lives. A large number of well-meaning people actively profess liberal, progressive ideas about women’s rights and gender equality, but can be found to maintain patriarchal and gender-biased social scripts at other times when it suits them. Very often such people are not aware of the contradiction, and do not consider themselves to be behaving hypocritically. It’s about where they are in their personal journey. Toilet’s split-personality approach to women’s freedoms reminds us that not only is it possible to hold contradictory beliefs, but also that old habits (including thinking habits) die hard. We need to continue to resist the normalised everyday assumptions about women and women’s behaviour without complacency, because progress isn’t like flipping a switch or a one-time, holistic realisation that changes a person completely. Progress is a fractured, patchwork process, and we have to be prepared to tackle attitudes and behaviours (within society, with others, and even with ourselves) one idea at a time.
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.
Opera, anti-opera, or anti-anti-opera? Whichever it is, Le Grand Macabre is Ligeti’s only one, and it’s very exciting to have the opportunity to hear this work performed. With Simon Rattle heading up the LSO and a cast of top-class singers the musical realisation presented here is wonderful, as to be expected. The percussion section of the LSO dominated the stage (spatially and metaphorically) throughout with calm virtuosity. Musical and comic timing combined to send up the absurdity of modern life through the infamous car-horn fanfares and masterful execution of Ligeti’s challenging and diverse score.
Every member of the cast was impressive vocally. Ligeti makes huge demands on his singers, writing across and beyond conventional ranges to require sopranos to rattle more than a fifth below middle C, and basses to soar above their soprano duettists’ familiar tessitura. Frode Olsen as Astradamors merits special praise for particularly amazing acrobatics, stretching the lower ends of our pitch perception with solid, shuddering bass notes that beggared belief contrasted with tender and emotive tone in what would generally be considered high tenor or alto range.
The only peculiarity of this presentation is the ambiguity of its staging. As the LSO fills the Barbican stage, the dramatis personae have limited space in which to deliver the action. Physical movement is limited and props are minimal, not always to best effect. Sellars has chosen to use Ligeti’s intended burlesque-like “flea-market” into a sterile and slightly contrived nuclear emergency situation. The lack of set and the disembodiment of the action resulting from sharing the stage with the orchestra is compensated for by video projections. However I found these to be distracting, confusing and surplus to requirements, especially in the first half. A particularly awkward and random montage appeared to show international leaders shaking hands, with this short slice of action looped several times. Bearing no relation to the action in Ligeti’s work and not portraying any of the main characters, it was a confusing and frankly unwelcome distraction from the music and action onstage. There were some effective moments with videography in the second half, including projections of onstage characters and chilling maps of nuclear explosions driving home the apocalyptic and political messages of The Grand Macabre. On the whole I would have preferred this to have been dropped. Humour, intensity and the quality of relationships were lost, particularly between Mescalina and Astradamors as their BDSM interactions were awkwardly transposed to the context of a web exchange. Despite sensual and emotionally charged singing from Watts and Miller, removing physical interaction from the equation of Amando and Amanda’s relationship would make sense only in a concert-style presentation of the music.
The stars of this presentation were the LSO and the voices. Surround-sound use of the concert-hall space was extremely effective, with the voice of Venus (solo and chorus) swelling from the uppermost balconies and the powerful London Symphony Chorus swelling in the aisles of the stalls as the people of Breughelland. The music penetrated the listener’s being – much of this is, of course, Ligeti’s genius. I was pleased to have the opportunity to experience it, and look forward to experiencing a full and perhaps more faithful staging before too long.
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.
Every night until 8th October something fantastic is happening in the small theatre at the back of The Kings Head pub in Islington – Puccini’s La Bohème is being performed by a talented and switched-on cast who are bringing this enormous work to a new kind of audience on a totally new set of terms.
The intimacy of the Kings Head Theatre itself gives this production its particular intrigue, and indeed it has been developed and adapted by a resident creative team in conversation with the space. The libretto has been radically but brilliantly reworked, stripping the cast back to the four key characters, Mimi and Ralph (i.e. Rodolfo in the original) and Mark (Marcello) and Musetta. This sharpens the focus on the ups and downs of these two toxic and intense relationships, involving the audience in their joys and conflicts with almost uncomfortable immediacy – for some gentlemen on the front row, quite literally!
The adapted storyline translates Puccini’s consumptive and delicate Mimi into a heroin addict whose initially casual habits lead to the fracturing of an otherwise loving relationship with Ralph and her dramatic and desperately undignified demise. This is the most central and focused of several comments on contemporary social issues, alongside pointed references to city pollution, London’s spiralling rents and ambivalent uses of social media. Usually such alterations personally make me squirm, but this version by King’s Head Artistic Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Becca Marriott, who plays Mimi in one of the two casts, makes for creasingly funny moments throughout the first half. In addition to the surface humour, which does occasionally border on the excessively silly, there are some excellent inward-facing tongue-in-cheek moments for those who know the original and the musical style of Puccini himself. The second half, which abandons the punning and swearing to go for the meat of the tragic storyline, is especially powerful.
The quality of the singing and musicianship is at the highest standard. Becca Marriott (Mimi) and Thomas Humphreys (Mark) particularly shone vocally – I’ll be watching their futures with interest. Meanwhile Matthew Kimble’s presentation of Ralph’s first act aria, equivalent to the iconic Che Gelida Manina (What cold hands!) was a moving emotional highlight. Although the diction is clear from all the cast members throughout I recommend purchasing a £3 programme to assist following the moments where, in duets and trios, characters sing simultaneously with different texts. I would advise, however, trying not to read ahead from what is being sung – I find it takes the edge of the humour or poignancy if you know what’s coming.
To be so physically close to music at this level is thrilling in itself. At this range the soaring voices literally resound through your body and listening becomes a more entire experience. Every minute detail of the actors’ faces is clear to everybody. The reduction of the La Bohème score to piano and cello was effective and didn’t feel lacking in the context of this production.
The King’s Head Theatre production of La Bohème is an excellent introduction to opera for those who have yet to experience it, and an exciting development in the shape and character of the craft. Madame Butterfly is coming up in the new year and previous productions at this location including Pagliacci, The Barber of Seville and The Elixir of Love, staged during the residency of the company OperaUpClose. The theatre at Kings Head is reliant on making £100 000 in addition to ticket sales annually, so if you would like the opportunity to go see a production in this style don’t dither about buying a ticket. At a running time of 1h 55min including interval this production is a perfect evening out, even on a weeknight. La Bohème at The King’s Head will challenge your perceptions of what Opera can and should be, whilst keeping you feeling alive through the strong presentation of Puccini’s masterful music.
 The proximity reminded me of the exhilarating experience of Multi-Story Orchestra in Peckham, where you’re so close to the orchestra at the front that the Violin bows poking your eyes out is a genuine risk. Do explore this exceptional project and annual music festival for similar experiences to the ones described at The Kings Head.
Two years ago I wrote an article about the disjuncture between the iconic Last Night of the Proms and the fantastic series of concerts that precedes it. By sheer chance ( a friend asking about returns an hour after some new seats had been released ) I got hold of tickets for the Last Night of the Proms this year, and attended relishing the chance to test my points from 2014.
In my original article I made two broad points. Firstly that The Last Night of the Proms was so unlike the rest of the Proms series in terms of content, [in]accessibility and structure that ‘The Last Night’ is as good as a misnomer. Secondly I expressed discomfort at the unquestioned, militaristic nationalism, which was part and parcel of Empire and British Colonial endeavours in the time it was first put together.
Both of these points are of serious contemporary importance, both musically and politically. Inequality in the UK has been accelerating sharply since 1979 and economic recessions in recent years have exacerbated this effect. Accessibility to cultural events and life-enriching opportunities is increasingly out of the reach of many, and tickets to the Last Night of the Proms are incredibly expensive. Our tickets were only £44, as they were returns with restricted view – however nearby seats were being sold at online on the day for over £700 each, and all other concert-goers my Prom buddy and I spoke to on the evening had paid well into the three-figure range for their tickets direct from the Royal Albert Hall. I therefore stand by the financial aspect of my point about inaccessibility – despite our fluke, the Last Night of the Proms is not open to the vast majority of people unless they have significant disposable income or are willing and able to Prom for the whole day.
The balance of new, British, straight-laced classical and world music was well tempered, with the opening piece well-pitched as an example of new music. It both pushed the boundaries of music today but remained within accessible bounds for non-academic music lovers, which reinforced the Proms’ encouragement of exploration of new music.
Most important was the atmosphere, although having a reputation for ‘upper-middle class tomfoolery’ that could be alienating for some, was on this occasion genuinely light-hearted and warm. I feel that there is an excessive sense of seriousness surrounding Western Classical music, and that contributes to many people’s sense that it is something ‘not for them’. Although it is important to be able to hear the music and not be excessively, unnecessarily disturbed, the Last Night had the atmosphere of a party that is lacking at other concerts, even at other Proms. Perhaps the other concerts in the series would benefit from short addresses from the conductor or other performers to increase the sense of connection between stage and audience and better introduce the work performed? Indeed some classical concerts do take this form, and many performers find the opportunity to address and welcome their audience an essential part of bringing them into their musical world. The sense of being relaxed around classical music is key to its future and central to the continuing development of cultural accessibility.
The nationalistic, neo-colonial tone of the second half received even more attention than ever before in this year of the EU Referendum. The dissemination of EU flags outside the event was seen as a controversial protest, and many feared clashes between In and Out factions. However as a musician I never doubted that the flags of the EU and Britain would be united at this event. It is a simple fact that all world-leading musical ensembles are international affairs –there must be so few exceptions I cannot even bring one to mind. Music has always been a thoroughly international endeavour as far back as the naturalisation of Handel in England and the exchange of composers between courts in the European Renaissance. Therefore even the musical traditions that inform nationalist works are not isolated. At a very banal level, Arne would never have been able to record Rule! Brittania without the use of the Italian notation system and the European advances in Baroque music that were ongoing at the time he was writing it.
I personally felt extremely uncomfortable during Rule! Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory, for the first time ever. I am aware that I am more actively politically involved than most people, but I used to really love and feel pride in those numbers at an earlier time in my life. In the context of pressing current affairs and social attitudes, it felt a little excessive to me. However most people enjoyed it thoroughly, and the diversity of flags waving dissipated any sense that this was necessarily a narrow-focused point being made. Conductor Sakari Oramo is to be congratulated on the gentle and uncontroversial tone in which he spoke of music’s inherent border-crossing universality.
A colleague of mine reflected that although the Nationalistic music at the end of the Last Night has deeply entrenched colonial connotations, unless we continue to perform and consider them new connotations and links will never be made with them. This thought gives me great hope. Music is, after all, the ultimate abstract representation. Interpretation of the performer and of every listener is all its essence. We can choose how and when to deploy certain pieces and work to loose them from past contexts, and make them into something meaningful for the new. However, I struggled for days to see how the words from Land of Hope and Glory (‘May her [Britain’s] bounds be wider set) could ever be entirely disentangled from the expansionist colonial programme to which they referred. Later I realised that ironically, if we take the words in today’s internationalist context, Land of Hope and Glory may after all be one of the strongest Remain sentiments expressible. If we can use the words to look beyond our shores, the words and music may be recast as a Liberal call for regional or global unity in “equal laws… by Freedom gained, by Truth maintained.”
 In addition to gain access to the Last Night of the Proms concert-goers must present stubs of tickets from 5 earlier concerts in the series. Therefore queueing on the day for tickets (Promming) is effectively only open to Londoners or people who can afford to both attend Proms concerts and travel significant distances to do so.
I went to see Akhnaten over a month ago, on Thursday 17th March. After a tough month I was so desperate to see it that I paid up the last of my month’s wages for a same-day returned ticket that cost me a good deal more than I’ve ever paid for a single ticket in my life.
There are a number of reasons. Firstly, Akhnaten is very rarely performed. Its last London staging was over 30 years ago in 1984. Unless fashions change it’s down to luck whether I will have the chance to see this work performed again in my lifetime Secondly I was driven to support the ENO in their moment of crisis. There however were nothing compared to a burning curiosity I had to understand more about the music and vision of Philip Glass. Glass is a composer who, along with a handful of others, pioneered and developed the sub-genre ‘minimalism’. Minimalism and Glass’s ideas have infiltrated and influenced the basis of today’s music – pop, classical, jazz, film and soundtracks alike – more than anybody ever could have predicted they would when they first caused such uproar in the 1970s-80s.
For those readers are non-theorists, in the next two paragraphs follows a brief ( (and therefore imperfect) description of minimalism in music.
Minimalism came as part of a wave of ‘reactive’ musical forms that mushroomed in the 20th century, as composers decided that everything expressible with the familiar form and structure of Western classical music as it was had indeed been expressed. Seeking to find new things to ‘do’ with music and new ways to convey ideas and emotions composers attempted various fundamental alterations to the Western Classical Music system. Some deconstructed the scale or familiar tones on which it is based (Schonberg’s Serialist/12-tone technique, atonal music), others dramatically altered the roles of composers and performers in the creative process of deciding what notes to play (‘graphic scores’, Ligeti, Stockhausen). Another approach questioned the concept of what could be considered a musical instrument (John Cage’s ‘Prepared Piano’, Hoffung’s Concerto for three vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher). Minimalism’s contribution was, on the surface, less radical in some ways than these other examples, but arguably has had a more far-reaching and fundamental impact upon musical aesthetics in the 20th Century and beyond. Minimalism works by targeting principles of structure in music – from the micro level of the structure of melodies, to the larger structure of a suite or ‘symphonic’ piece, to the macro scale. Let’s say, the structure of an opera.
Minimalism is so called because it is characterised by repetition of small melodic, harmonic or rhythmic fragments with small but usually increasing variations to the repeated fragment. One effect is that, as a gross generalisation, the harmony in music tends to progress more gradually (slower harmonic rhythm) than in typical art music– but this does not necessarily mean that the music or piece has a slower emotional or intellectual development. This potential is something very fully explored in this exceptional production of Glass’s Akhnaten. In this way, Glass’s work often shifts the relationship between the main features of music – melody, harmony, and rhythm – inverting their importance or driving power in relation to one another. It is his rhythms and harmonies principally that create the haunting, and that stick in ones head long after their first hearing. Glass and his minimalist colleagues are not people who write ‘tunes’ you can sing along to.
All this is the basis of my fascination. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Like a sinner entering a church for the first time, so I approached Akhnaten.
The production at ENO is a collaboration between the English National Opera itself and LA Opera. Starring the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten, the production uses fantastical lighting techniques combined with historically informed costume, movement and direction choices that are glazed with the glamour of a knowing orientalism.
The opening music is played over a mesmerising iridescent backdrop that shimmers, imperceptibly changing from green to copper to gold and through marbled combinations of the three through some unperceived technical wizardry. The subtle glowing effect was spoiled for me by harsh white, modernist geometrical projections of vaguely hieroglyphic shapes on top of this screen. As the only clean lines and projections of the entire production they were jarringly out of place. Although I spent the rest of the time trying to fathom the context they were supposed to fit with, I conclude that the producers were not brave enough to allow the music to speak for itself in this overture passage and added them to spoon-feed or ‘occupy’ the audience, which is a great shame.
Nonetheless the use of light throughout the opera performance itself was commendable. Glow-tubes were used in a particularly imaginative and enhancing way in the scene ‘The Window of Appearances’, exuding confidence in the audience’s ability to parse meaning from the kaleidoscopic array of symbols, representations and possibilities presented to them by the cast and crew.
The movement of all actors, and particularly the chorus, was cleverly stylised. Costumes and postures directly evoked Ancient Egyptian paintings and characters. The crucially important ENO Opera Chorus was supplemented by the presence of jugglers, coordinated by Sean Gandini, whose work with variously sized white balls provided a visualisation both of the rhythm and pace of Glass’s music, but also of its structure through measured and coordinated display. Happily it is also historically consistent with the Egyptological stylisation, since the first archaeological evidence of toss juggling in fact comes from Ancient Egypt.
Apart from the consistent movement of the juggling balls, all physical action in this production of Akhnaten is paced with creeping intensity. All actors move in ultra slow motion at all times, which results in a peculiarly hypnotic effect. Just as one watches a child growing day by day, it seems as if little or nothing is happening, only for the theatre-goer to realise abruptly that whilst they have been focusing on one area of the stage the entire scene has completely changed. This kinetic effect also cleverly follows the pattern of minimalist music, which develops gradually in minute and sometimes barely perceptible ways to create dramatic and varying emotional and intellectual states.
Roth Costanzo has a truly unique voice. Seething with drama, he has an air-curdling tone that he renders intentionally thin and cutting for much of this performance. Roth Costanzo is an erudite but passionately human performer who really draws his audience into his world. His portrayal of Akhnaten was bold and complex. He fully embodies this man’s belief in his absolute power, whilst throughout simultaneously revealing his palpable frailty and mortality. Although I admire Roth Costanzo immensely I did feel his tone occasionally needed more colour and breadth in the trios to blend and mingle better with the esoteric voices of his two female co-star companions. That said, there was truly exciting chemistry and dynamism between Roth Costanzo, Emma Carrington as Nefertiti and Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye.
Carrington brings to Nefertiti a full-bodied womanly voice, the depth and resonance of which contrasted wonderfully with the androgynous Akhnaten, making for spellbinding duet and trio work between the two. Glass scored the characters to have a similar vocal range (tessitura/pitch), which processes the unity of the characters as historical figures. The tensions of the dissonances and consonances between the parts is sweetened and heightened by the singers’ differences in vocal tone (timbre), which is especially exciting as their political and sexual relationship plays out in their mesmerising Love Duet.
As Akhnaten’s mother, Queen Tye, Bottone provides the stand-out characterisation of the production from an acting perspective. Whilst having some of the most demanding vocal lines in the entire piece Bottone pitches her role well, never overpowering the other two lead characters. She is required to emote and move the audience through micro-expression and minimal movements in both death scenes of the pieces, and successfully provides a great deal of the production’s emotional charisma.
This production of Akhnaten juxtaposes human nakedness and the insinuation thereof with opulence and power. Most costumes for the Pharoah and his Queen are translucent, revealing their bodies as a constant reminder of their humanity. However, like some of the other symbolic work in this production, by the end I felt it was overused. The allusion to nakedness continued in scenes even where the reminder of humanity was less central to the tensions or themes of the scene, such as in Akhnaten’s Sun Aria in Act 2. As a result, by the final act in which Akhnaten is overthrown by his people, the potence of this visual cue was greatly reduced, although still salient enough to be moving. Similarly, the juggling was possibly somewhat overdone. I was particularly disappointed at the end when the balls, which represented Akhnatens religious empire and political reign fell more than once. Surely, this should have been the one point at which the production should have curtailed their theme of developed repetition?
THE GAME CHANGER
Visually fantastic, technically excellent and musically exceptional, this production of Akhnaten is as artistically important as it was enthralling to watch. My minor criticisms of thematic work are personal opinion, and did not affect the fact that this is one of the most incredible works of art I have ever had the honour of experiencing. Glass has changed the musical landscape of the world forever with this piece, even though it is performed so rarely, and this production has set a benchmark for others both within this genre and out of it. I hope it will not be 30 years before it returns to London again.