Archives for posts with tag: David Pountney

Opera North‘s first outing of Smetana’s foot-tappingly tuneful and characterful comedy The Bartered Bride dressed the piece in what might be loosely termed today as “pasted on” folksiness. I retain fond memories of Steven Pimlott’s previous 1981 production with its voluminous 19th Century frocks and tall hats. This was a traditional staging of its time, expected by the growing audience of a then new opera company not yet daring to court controversy.

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The current production, directed by Daniel Slater and conducted by Oliver von Dohnányi, originally starred Alwyn Mellor as Mařenka, Niall Archer as Jenik and Clive Bayley as Kecal when it premiered at Leeds Grand Theatre in September 1998. The events precipitated by the removal of the Berlin Wall a decade earlier had irrevocably changed the face of eastern Europe. By the early 1990s the iron fist had been replaced by the Velvet Revolution in the (former) Czechoslovakia. Slater deliberately pre-dates the Gorbachev Glasnost era by setting his production in the still Communist dominated Czechoslovakia of the early 1970s – a decade of dubious fashions and even more dubious hairstyles – and only a few years after the Prague Spring had been ruthlessly crushed by Soviet tanks.

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There is, of course, a sense of déjà vu on entering the Coliseum at the start of another season; familiar surroundings and familiar faces jostle with a keen sense of anticipation. That same sense of anticipation and déjà vu accompanies Michel, the Parisian bookseller, who enters the seaside town of Bohuslav Martinů’s opera Julietta. He seeks the girl of the title (literally, the girl of his dreams) who he spied three years earlier, singing from her window; the memory of her has haunted him ever since. The town seems to be the same, but something is different; the residents all appear to have no – or limited – capacity for memory, leading Michel to wade through a series of bizarre and frustrating encounters something akin to those met in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland tales. To sleep, perchance to dream – at least Alice can awake from her dreams; the obsessive Michel becomes trapped in his.

Martinů was so taken by the surrealist play Juliette, ou La clé des songes (Juliette, or The Key of Dreams) by Georges Neveux that he composed Act I of his proposed operatic version and played it through to him. The French author was so impressed – ‘I was literally dazzled by it’ – that he had to reverse his decision to offer the rights to Kurt Weill. Neveux travelled to Prague for the March 1938 premiere, travelling – surreally enough – in an otherwise unoccupied sleeper train, as Hitler stepped up his threats to occupy the Sudetenland.

Anyone familiar with Martinů’s orchestral style will recognise its DNA running through the opera, even though all of his symphonies were composed after Julietta; swirling glissandos, syncopations and insistent rhythmic ostinatos were all characteristics of his compositional style, along with the use of piano obbligato, especially associated with Julietta’s music. The only one of his six symphonies not to employ the piano, ironically enough, was the Sixth ‘Fantaisies symphoniques’ in which Martinů quoted from Julietta, assuming that he would never hear his opera performed again. It was an opera of which he was inordinately fond, preparing a concert work containing three ‘fragments’ of the opera. His vocal writing, while reminding one of Janácek in its speech setting, is not unlike that of Ravel. Act II strikes me as the strongest, both musically and dramatically – lush orchestration, quite overwhelmingly beautiful – and the disturbing idea of the Seller of Memories, peddling photos, postcards and mementos to give the inhabitants of this amnesiac world a shared past.

Such a Surrealist plot would seem to be perfect fodder for director Richard Jones. His 2002 production, previously seen in Paris and Geneva, can hardly be judged as new, yet is the perfect realisation of the dreamscape created by Neveux and Martinů, yet considering the fantastical and grotesque aspects of many of his productions, this one bears few of his trademarks directorial tics – throw away your Richard Jones bingo cards! Only the scene where a clone of Michel gradually morphs into a crocodile struck a familiar chord, Jones never one to throw away the chance to employ animal masks. However, it’s all perfectly in keeping with the libretto, where Julietta seems to ridicule Michel and his crocodile skin briefcase.

Antony McDonald’s set is a giant accordion – the instrument makes a solo appearance in a haunting waltz in the first and third acts – and each act sees it from a different angle. Its wistful music seems to offer solace to the people deprived of their memories. It opens out in Act II to reveal a starlit forest (beautifully lit by Matthew Richardson), while in Act III comes something of a hybrid accordion and filing cabinet, revealing to Michel that he is at the Central Bureau of Dreams and all that’s happened has, in fact, been dreamt. Unfortunately, Jones rather gives this all away at the start of the opera, when we see a pyjama-clad Michel crawl into this dreamland. I would imagine that the Act III revelation would have had greater impact if the audience had been left in some doubt about Michel’s predicament. Apart from this, the production seemed entirely successful. It was the simplicity in Jones’ concept which struck me – centring on the accordion set and bravely using it as the main ‘prop’ too.

Martinů originally began composing the opera in French, but in translating it into Czech, found his music didn’t fit, so translated Neveux’s whole play into Czech, recomposing his opera from scratch. It was since translated back into French (from Martinů’s Czech libretto rather than Neveux’s original text) and – as Juliette – has had several performances, including a concert performance under Jirí Belohlávek at the Barbican in 2009. David Pountney’s English translation works extremely well, maintaining the surreal humour of the original.

Rarely can a title role have so little to sing, yet Julia Sporsén captivates as Julietta, catching the ambiguity behind her character. Does she really remember Michel from three years before? Why does she taunt and tease him? Does she even actually exist? Sporsén’s soprano is perhaps not as ethereal as one might ideally wish for, but she makes much of her two scenes on stage, with some impassioned singing in the duet with Michel in the woods.

The whole opera actually centres around Peter Hoare’s Michel, quite brilliantly performed and heroically sung. His bright, robust tenor rang around the Coliseum in the finale, where Michel slumbers and believes he can see and hear Julietta once again. It’s a staggering performance, as Hoare is on stage for most of the evening, a concentrated study in bewilderment and obsession. Jones’ production – and Martinů’s opera – seems to be so much more than the nature of sleep and dreams. It is something of a philosophical poem on the thin dividing line between sanity and madness and Hoare submits to the insanity of Michel’s predicament, as he tries to unlock his dream.

The supporting cast, many in multiple roles, is strong, from the sonorous Gwynne Howell, first seen as the old Arab, to Susan Bickley, vamping it up as the fortune-teller who guides Michel out of a few near misses. Andrew Shore showed his gift for humour as the Man in a Pith Helmet – great comic timing and immaculate diction – but was also unnerving as the Seller of Memories. Bright-voiced young mezzo Emilie Renard, making her ENO debut, made an excellent Young Arab, her quip about not having any legs quickly revealing the bizarre nature of Michel’s dream. Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts – the harangued clerk in the Bureau of Dreams – showed great humanity and was in good voice as the Commissar, while Henry Waddington, as the mysterious man in the window of the accordion, was firm-voiced, touching as the waiter in the forest serving up memories along with the wine.

Along with Hoare’s Michel, the real heroes were in the pit. Edward Gardner had been convinced of this opera’s merits on catching Jones’ production, quite by chance, in Paris. He clearly believes in the score and the Orchestra of English National Opera immersed itself in Martinů’s orchestration and punchy rhythms with distinction, conjuring up some dazzling sounds and adorned with some fine solo playing, especially the unnamed horn player on stage for much of the action. They fully deserved the acclaim directed at the pit at the curtain call. Martinů is still something of a rarity in the concert hall, never mind the opera house, but it would be gratifying to see more of his sixteen operas on stage here.

There is, of course, a sense of déjà vu on entering the Coliseum at the start of another season; familiar surroundings and familiar faces jostle with a keen sense of anticipation. Rarely can that anticipation have been so richly rewarded.

*****

Mark Pullinger

Opera Britannia

Photographs © Richard Hubert Smith

I have a great deal of empathy with the poor cursed Flying Dutchman.  As I traipse around various British and European opera houses I feel doomed to never find a production of Wagner’s early masterpiece that remains truly faithful to the composer’s intentions.  I’ve encountered sewing machines in the Covent Garden version, exercise bikes in Munich, a space station in Cardiff and twenty-four refrigerators in Stuttgart but never anything that truly gets to the essential heart of the piece.  English National Opera’s interesting new modern dress production by Jonathan Kent is promising but flawed, although the show is redeemed by some magnificent singing and thrilling orchestral playing which ranks among the finest I’ve heard at the Coliseum.

Kent’s concept centres around the fantasy world of the obsessed Senta, first seen during the overture as a ten-year old child in pink pyjamas, reading a book about the Dutchman while her father Daland goes out to work on the dark stormy seas (some brilliantly evocative video imagery by Nina Dunn).  An intriguing start, but the continued presence of the little girl – centre stage on her bed – throughout the entire first act became an unwanted distraction, not to mention the disturbing suggestion that it was a pre-pubescent child (and not Senta the young woman) that Daland was happily selling in marriage to a complete stranger.  Designer Paul Brown’s set consisted of stark metal walls and an upper level room accessed by a spiral staircase which served both as the interior to Daland’s ship as well as the run-down factory where Senta and her friends are busy assembling miniature Flying Dutchman ships in bottles (£12.99 + free delivery from Amazon) while wearing drab blue overalls and hairnets reminiscent of Act II’s sewing factory employees in the Covent Garden production.

The Dutchman himself looked like Eugene Onegin who had wandered into the wrong opera, almost too elegant in a beautiful long black Victorian frock coat and red velvet waistcoat – not a particularly realistic look for a weary, weather-beaten mariner after a heavy storm but his overly romanticised image was obviously straight out of Senta’s fantasy and this production did leave me  wondering whether he did actually exist at all or was merely a figment of her imagination, particularly as this shadowy character came across as so other-worldly and aloof, almost as if he wasn’t human.  The moment when the Dutchman’s ship crashes violently through the walls of Daland’s ship is an impressive theatrical device, although how Daland’s ship manages to sail home afterwards with a gigantic gaping hole in the hull is a mystery best overlooked.

 

Though Kent’s production has some interesting ideas and a good deal to recommend it, I’m afraid his handling of the Act III sailors’ chorus spoiled it for me somewhat.  There shouldn’t be any laughs in Der fliegende Holländer but this drunken party saw the chorus in ridiculously garish fancy dress costumes, including one chap apparently dressed as a dancing parrot and another jumping about the stage with an enormous inflatable carrot between his legs.  Suffice to say there was so much hyperactive distraction occurring on stage that it was almost impossible to pay attention to the music (which was a pity, considering the ENO Chorus was on truly superlative form).  The general silliness rapidly degenerated into vulgarity and violence as poor Senta was sexually assaulted and nearly gang raped.  I’m not suggesting for a moment that the Norwegian sailors should all sit around and politely drink tea during this scene but when the on-stage excesses get in the way of the music to this extent I do have an issue with it.  I also felt the ending was something of an anticlimax; the Dutchman disappears down through a trapdoor in a Mephistophelean manner and Senta stabs herself to death with a broken wine bottle – a gritty and depressing ending that is 100% redemption-free.

Musically, however, this was a stunning performance and Edward Gardner (conducting his first ever Wagner opera) launched into the tempestuous overture with a breathtaking energy and intensity that never flagged throughout the entire evening – somehow getting through the score in an almost unbelievable 2 hours 10 minutes without the tempi ever feeling rushed.  Gardner created beautiful dynamic contrasts in the slower, quieter sections while maintaining the underlying tension and ensuring that the big dramatic moments were suitably Wagnerian, both in grandeur and in volume. The orchestral playing was uniformly excellent and inspired, although special praise is due to the brass section, particularly the French horns.

ENO fielded an extremely strong cast with barely a weak link, led by the superb Irish soprano Orla Boylan as the deranged Senta.  I’ve heard Boylan as Tatyana, Sieglinde, Ariadne and Lisa (Queen of Spades) in the past but her Senta was quite a revelation.  After an uncertain start and a few intonation issues in the Ballad she really attacked the role and produced some electrifying singing with laser-like, beautifully focussed top notes that cut through the loudest orchestration with ease.  It’s a very big dramatic voice with a slightly steely edge but full-bodied and radiant in tone, quite ideal for this part (although my colleague commented that she should be singing Elektra!)  A convincing actress, she made a compelling and sympathetic, psychologically unhinged heroine.  After a performance like this I can’t help thinking that Brünnhilde might one day be on the cards for her.

The titular Dutchman was sung by American bass-baritone James Creswell, whom I last saw back in January as Oroveso in Opera North’s Norma, a role which he sang extremely well but which gave him little opportunity to demonstrate his Wagnerian credentials.  When it comes to the casting of this role I’m extremely difficult to please, having been spoiled by hearing Bryn Terfel sing the part about ten times in three different productions.  Suffice to say Creswell impressed me greatly – a majestic, velvet-toned Heldenbaßbariton who sang with astonishing elegance and sensitivity but still had sufficient heft for the big dramatic outbursts in “Die Frist ist um”.   According to his programme biography Creswell will be singing Mephistopheles at Opera North and I will certainly be travelling up to Leeds for that.  A pity that Kent’s direction makes the character so static and emotionally restrained, although I suspect this might have been a deliberate part of the concept to portray the Dutchman as a fantasy figure instead of a real person of flesh and blood.   The moment when Senta embraced him and he just stood there, unresponsive as a statue was a nice touch, calling to mind her father’s inability to demonstrate physical affection towards her as a child during the overture.

 

Heldentenor Stuart Skelton also did a splendid job in the thanklessly unsympathetic role of the whining Erik – here a uniformed security guard instead of a hunter in the updated setting, and dismissively referred to as an “office boy” in David Pountney’s otherwise inoffensive English translation, thankfully free from any risible rhyming couplets.  Skelton’s voice has a bright and vibrant ringing top and a rich heroic timbre, quite thrilling to listen to.

Clive Bayley’s Daland needed a bit more gravitas, although it didn’t help that he was lumbered with a scruffy old costume which didn’t differentiate him from the other sailors or show his higher rank in any way.  However, he sang extremely well with a warm middle register and excellent clear diction throughout, even if some of the sustained notes above the stave were somewhat underpowered.  Bayley gave a strong acting performance too and you really got a sense of who the character was.

Tenor Robert Murray’s Steersman was beautifully sung and he really made his mark on this small role, although I was less moved by Susanna Tudor-Thomas’s rather anonymous Mary, here portrayed as a chavvy factory supervisor in a short skirt.  The ENO chorus made a fantastic contribution and it’s the best and most powerful singing I’ve heard from them to date – with special praise due to the tenors in Act I in particular who produced some glorious high notes.

For an exhilarating evening of first class Wagner, the ENO’s new Dutchman should not be missed and there are six remaining performances at ENO in May. As for this poor critic, I will continue in my hopeless search for the perfect production but will certainly be returning to the Coliseum for a second viewing.

4 stars

Faye Courtney

Opera Britannia

(Photos by Robert Workman)