Wednesday, 19 September 2012

ENO's Julietta

Peter Hoare as Michel in Julietta at the Coliseum
(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
As the reviews came trickling in yesterday of Monday night’s Julietta at ENO, I have to admit to wondering if I had just been in the wrong mood, or just hadn’t got where the greatness of Martinů’s ‘rarely performed masterpiece’ lay. Indeed, was I just being too cynical in detecting a certain irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of such marketing rubric? Isn’t it often the case that many of these ‘masterpieces’ rely on their very status as ‘rarely performed’, giving their champions the convenient riposte: ‘well, you can never really judge it unless you see it in a decent staging’.

Well, Julietta has now definitely received that at ENO, with Richard Jones turning in a typically stylish production—although was I alone in wondering whether, beyond its striking, stretched and manipulated giant accordion, there wasn’t room for more in the way of dreamy imagination? The fine cast did an excellent job, the orchestra, too. And, while I should declare that Monday night was the first time I heard the score, it seemed as though Ed Gardner made a persuasive case for it: its splashes of glittering colour came across well, as did the lyrical outbursts, some of which came close to sweeping me along.

From left to right: Emelie Renard, Clare Presland
 and Samantha Price as the Gentlemen
and Peter Hoare  as Michel (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
But the work, based on a surreal play by Georges Neveux, left me entirely cold. It is neither terribly funny, nor, to our (or my, at least) jaded 21st-century imaginations, terribly interesting. An exploration of a community floating around in a state of collective amnesia has possibilities for highlighting humour or a sort of nightmarish, recurring futility, neither of which were explored. Meanwhile, the work’s leaden pace—lingering on matters with which, by definition, it is difficult for the audience to engage in any meaningful way—made the 50 minutes of Act 2, in particular, seem extremely long.

It measures pretty low on the surrealism scale, in any case, and suffers by not employing the sort of snappy pace—a playful, light engagement with time that deals in seconds rather than minutes—that would seem to be part and parcel of the aesthetic, where one flitting absurdity dissolves into the next before the brain has a chance to pin it down and destroy it with logic. A work that came to mind was Shostakovich’s The Nose—hardly a masterpiece, but a piece whose increasingly ridiculous scenes are rattled through at such a pace that they never overstay their welcome. And, of course, we can only have a fragmentary, patchy idea of the actual romance between Julietta and Michel, a travelling salesman who arrives in the strange amnesiac town with the advantage of a memory—an advantage that he, too, finally loses.   

That’s clearly one of the work’s main points, but whether or not it inspires deep contemplation or an eye-rolling sense of ‘so what?’ seems more down to the individual than is often the case, as reviews ranging from five, through four, to three stars would seem to make clear; from raves to what might best be called non-raves. Martinů’s score, for its part, has some fine moments, and is put together with considerable skill; but it seemed to wheel out influences with too little input from the composer himself, and, for a work first performed in 1938, seemed distinctly behind the curve—a sense only emphasized by the fact that the production was being supported by  ‘ENO’s Contemporary [!] Opera Group’. Still, there are plenty of opportunities for those who haven ’t seen it yet to make up their own minds. 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

ENO: The Magic Flute; Opera North: Carousel

First, apologies for a long absence. Here are a few links to my reviews of Proms, which went some way to keeping me busy over the summer (John Eliot Gardiner’s Pélleas here; Handel from the OAE and Concert Spirituel here, the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra here, and the Vienna Philharmonic’s two concerts here and here), along with my review of Opera Holland Park’s Falstaff and Onegin, here.

Elena Xanthoudakis (Pamina) and Kathryn  Lewek (Queen of the Night)
in ENO's revival of The Magic Flute (Photo: Alastair Muir)
Meanwhile, in the last week I’ve been returning from Last-Night-of-the-Proms and End-of-the-Golden-Summer euphoria to something approaching normalcy: back to business as usual with ENO’s final (and apparently this time it really is final) revival of Nicholas Hytner’s Magic Flute on Thursday, before catching Opera North’s Carousel at the Barbican Theatre before it spins its not-so-merry way out of London after an extended season. I’ll keep my comments on The Magic Flute to a minimum, since I’m reviewing it for next month’s opera: it’s a solid enough revival, with some outstanding singing (Kathryn Lewek’s Queen of the Night was particularly impressive), but one that didn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts on the first night of its 10-performance run—it surely will begin to do so as run progresses.

Inevitably, on the eve of its final weekend after a five-week run, Carousel was going to be a smoother affair; and, of course, Rogers and Hammerstein had a fair bit more practice at weaving together numbers and dialogue, within the bounds of much more clearly defined music-theatre tradition, than Mozart and Schikaneder did. Nevertheless, it was striking how awkward and stilted the delivery of the dialogue in Magic Flute seemed in comparison. And this Carousel is a brilliantly fluent show, smartly directed Jo Davies, ingeniously designed by Anthony Ward and choreographed with humour and imagination by Kay Shephard. The cast—led by Michael Todd Simpson’s hunky, broody Billy, Katherine Manley’s sweetly-sung and even-sweeter-natured Julie, and Sarah Tynan’s bright, zingy Carrie—was uniformly excellent; accents were uniformly convincing, too, in a way they certainly hadn’t been at the Coliseum the previous evening.

Opera North's Carousel (Photo: Alastair Muir)
In his Guardian review, Michael Billington referred to the Carousel’s ‘dodgy brilliance’, and, coming to it totally unprepared, I was struck not only by the quality of the music, but also what can only really be called the show’s philosophical ambition, with its flawed (anti-)hero Billy Bigelow dying and going to the afterlife before being given a chance to see his now-teenage daughter. This confrontation with her, however, highlights the work’s ‘dodgier’ side. He ends up hitting her, but, as she talks it over with her mother Julie, they agree that it’s one of those blows that feels a bit more like a kiss: a good thwack from someone who loves you is really, er, a tender expression of affection. It’s a deeply sinister message, and one that no number of reprises of ‘You’ll never walk alone’ can hope to dignify.

And, with Wednesday’s revelations regarding the betrayal of Hillsborough families, that song brought its independent power and associations with it more strongly than ever. I began to feel—against all my completist instincts and contextualising desires—that maybe it was better employed on Wednesday in front of Liverpool's St. George’s Hall than it was here. 

Nevertheless, this show demonstrated once more what interesting work is being done at Opera North, and Davies is to be commended for presenting Carousel with wharts-and-all candour: there’s enough sweetness in the score already to start sugar-coating its more troubling elements.