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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment