Wednesday, 20 June 2012

ENO: Billy Budd; Royal Opera: La Bohème

Apart from Doctor Dee, Monday evening's Billy Budd was the final new production of what's been, by any criteria, an impressive season for ENO. Apart from anything else, it's seen the newly-honoured Edward Gardner further galvanize the orchestra into a enormously impressive band, consistently delivering high-quality results across a wide repertoire. Few will be surprised that they played out of their collective skins in Britten's unflinchingly powerful score, or that the singing of the chorus pushed the Beaufort scale up to eleven, if you'll excuse the awkward collision of metaphor and allusion.

Kim Begley (above centre, as Vere), with Darren Jeffrey (l) and Jonathan Summers (r) (Photo: Henrietta Butler)
I doubt many were surprised by the generally fine home-grown cast, either, or the fact that, in David Alden's production, we only had hints of a ship. There was much yanking of ropes attached to something undefined off-stage, and, in Paul Steinberg's austere designs, vast panels vaguely suggesting of some sort of oversized vessel; but the crew, dressed in overalls, seemed to be part of some large industrial machine. With officers in leather greatcoats, as well as plenty of guns and truncheons, the atmosphere was one of generalized oppression. For me prisoners of war came to mind, but the references achieved an admirable sense of universality: difficult to pin down, perhaps, but, at the same time, not worryingly specific. It was all impressive in its way, but there seemed to be a discrepancy between some highly-stylized movement (the guards were a case in point, while the dancing accompanying the sea shanty turned more Billy Elliot than Budd) and the naturalism elsewhere, and I couldn't escape the feeling that, having decided to avoid anything so obvious as a recognizable ship, Alden hadn't exactly worked out what he was replacing it with. The juxtaposition achieved between the bowels of whatever we were in and all-in-white Starry Vere's cabin--looking for all the world like a sterilised capsule tucked surreptitiously half way around the Large Hadron Collider--couldn't have been clearer, I suppose, but the whole thing was nevertheless a bit vague.

Matthew Rose as Claggart (photo: Henrietta Butler)
Or at least it definitely would have seemed so, had we not had some impressive, sharply directed central performances. As Vere, Kim Begley had stepped in to replace Toby Spence, and did an excellent job, communicating nobility and anguish and singing with impressive security. The young and young-sounding Spence would have been unusual casting, but would have been interesting against Matthew Rose's unusually youthful Claggart. And, as with so often with the baddies, it was Rose (the recent well-deserved recipient of the Critics Circle Exceptional Young Talent Award) who stole the show. His bass voice is not the gnarly beast often heard in the role, but its cultivated beauty, if anything, made him all the more chilling in the part (as it had in his recent Sparafucile at the Royal Opera), while Adam Silverman's lighting brought a sepulchral evil to his clean-shaven face. His Iago-like credo below decks was chilling in the extreme; the subsequent total subjugation of Nicky Spence's excellent Novice deeply disturbing.

The one main gripe about the casting must involve Benedict Nelson's Budd. There's no doubting he's an outstanding talent, and the voice itself can be very beautiful indeed. But it only seems to be so within limits, with notes at the top, in particular, coming across as noticeably manufactured--especially so in the otherwise excellent scene before his execution. But, more seriously, it's a voice that lacks the volume and bite to carry this show, often getting swallowed up. I wondered, too, if a certain exaggeration in his physical performance was designed to compensate. Otherwise the cast, a compendium of British vocal talent (the ever-green Gwynne Howell still going strong as a touching Dansker at one end of the wide age spectrum), has no weakness. And, while I'm not sure this is quite the knockout show it should be, it's certainly got plenty to make it worth seeing.

Finally, here's a quick word about yesterday evening's La Bohème at the Royal Opera House. I'm writing it up for OPERA so can't give away much about the show itself, which was the first of two to reunite Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu as the ill-fated poet and manually-challenged seamstress. But there was some unexpected drama when, after two attempts, the house curtains remained stubbornly closed. Twice an unsurprisingly sheepish member of the technical team came out to apologise, then after a quarter of an hour, in a master stroke of positive spin, it was announced the curtains would be removed, and we'd witness open scene changes, a treat usually reserved for school children. John Copley's famously lavish and realistic production, we were additionally told, was about the best staging to see being openly changed. Repeated attempts to raise the burgundy-velvet beasts were met with 'ooohs' and 'aaahs', as if Rooney had just narrowly missed a free-kick. 

When finally we got under way (about 30 minutes behind schedule), the largely jolly audience cheered as if he'd finally scored. And, as promised, it was indeed engrossing to see the first scene change in all its glory. The garret was whisked away to reveal Cafe Momus, slightly squished together with all its lavishly-dressed chorus and extras secreted behind, before the whole lot slid silently towards us. After being opened out a bit and given a few extra tweaks, we got going again. (It made me wonder why we don't see more productions with fluid, 'open' scene changes at the Royal Opera--there's not much in theatre that's more seductive). Things seemed relatively back-to-normal after the interval, but no risks were taken: there was a black out at the end, ahead of the curtains being gently closed. At this star-driven show, though, it was nice to be reminded of the immense amount of backstage work involved to bring things together. But, since the performance was given to mark the famous couple's 20 years at the Royal Opera, here's a little bit of them. 

Friday, 15 June 2012

Pires, LSO/Haitink: Purcell, Mozart, Schubert; Purcell, Mozart, Bruckner

There wasn't much to grab the headlines at these two fine London Symphony Orchestra concerts, one on Sunday and one on Thursday, but a lot to remind one of how a solid, conventional programme can still prove a highly rewarding experience. At least it certainly can with a soloist like Maria João Pires and a conductor like Bernard Haitink, in charge of an alert LSO. Each concert started with an arrangement of Purcell. The D-minor Chacony came first, performed with restraint and discipline by a beefy complement of strings; it was Britten's faithful arrangement, I gather, even though the fact was not acknowledged in the running order. Thursday brought Steven Stucky's 1992 take on the famous Funeral Music for Queen Mary, interestingly refashioned for brass and percussion (including piano and harp). It amplified the work into something effective and visceral--the thudding piano-and-timpani pedal point was a stroke of inspiration--but I was less convinced as it veered off into altogether unexpected territory in the central section.

Pires brought irresistible lightness and instinctive, unforced musical imagination to her two Mozart concertos--the D minor K.466 in the first concert, the A major K.488 in the second--with Haitink providing excellent support, and the LSO winds, especially, on wonderful form. There was controlled drama in the D minor work, too, with the diminutive pianist showing that she can pack a punch, particularly in a beautifully gauged account of Beethoven's cadenza (and here, just for fun, is a great clip of her being surprised in a concert, for one reason or another expecting a different concerto and having to pull up K.466 from the memory bank--'sprong zi in paniek op' indeed). 

The Romanze was delicately done, with some floated, long phrases, too. The same virtues distinguished the A major work, where, if anything, Pires's playing was even more delicate. Her understated interpolations in the barer passages of the Adagio were self-effacing almost to the point of inaudibility--those in favour of such additions would have been kept happy; those not wouldn't have had to much difficulty in filtering them out. But was I alone in wishing she'd assert herself a bit more in the presto finale, where much of the filigree in the piano part was lost?

When it comes to large-scale Austro-German symphonies, Haitink is never anything less than a reliable guide. Here he was a great deal more than that. His Schubert Ninth (on Sunday) might have been a bit hard pressed in the opening movement, but the single-mindedness of his approach brought powerful results in the remarkable Andante, and, with the LSO playing with considerable virtuosity, the Scherzo and Finale ticked along in the pleasing way only this music can--all airy inevitability and breeziness. Bruckner's symphonies are the natural heir to Schubert's 'Great' in particular, adding considerable weight to that work's 'heavenly length'. Haitink's Bruckner is justly famous--even if his Concertgebouw Fifth recently at the Barbican apparently bowled some over and left others cold--and this Seventh was a fine piece of work. Beautifully paced, and with a sobriety to contrast with the fire of Daniel Barenboim's recent RFH account, it nevertheless suffered from the Barbican's cramped acoustic, which made this music teeter over in the climaxes from assertive to aggressive (although I'm perhaps being generous to the players here: I notice a colleague shifts some blame on to them in his review). This did Bruckner's music, redolent of Alpine air and the sort of wholesomeness that was not without some more unpleasant ideological resonances in the 20th century, few favours. With the Vienna Phil, in the, ahem, rather less bright acoustic of the Albert Hall, the conductor's Bruckner 9 at the Proms is certainly something to look forward to.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Cape Town Opera: Porgy and Bess

Here's a link to my review of Cape Town Opera's Porgy and Bess, which I caught at the Birmingham Hippodrome on the first leg of a six-week tour. Cardiff will also get to see The Mandela Trilogy, a new trio of work's celebrating the Great Man's life. The company, which was formed just 13 years ago to tie together various threads of existing institutions (the Cape has a long operatic history: Der Freischütz had made it there in 1831, for example, we read in the programme), oozes with talent, and the choral singing--reflecting a strong local tradition--is astonishingly focussed and powerful. And, given the restrictions no doubt imposed by the touring schedule, the staging is eminently decent. As I hint in my review, though, the work itself has its issues: in terms of racial politics, of course, it opens up a can of worms--and this can is shaken about further by this show, which shifts the action to a Soweto township in the 1970s. It's great entertainment, of that there's no doubt, but should it be?

Details of the tour can be found at, and those in London will have a good chance to catch the show during its ten-day sting at the Coliseum