Archives for posts with tag: ENO

“We have a delightful production of one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. It’s not very old, and audiences seem to love it. Clearly, what we should do is replace it with something stark, unengaging and gimmicky. Oh, and while we’re at it, have you seen the musical Rent?


That conversation almost certainly never took place but it might as well have. Jonathan Miller’s 2009 staging of Puccini’s La Bohème – charming, evocative, and fitting both music and libretto like a glove – has been usurped by a sordid reimagining from director Benedict Andrews, that is colder and more brutal than its predecessor and completely devoid of romance. Read the rest of this entry »

Anybody who has enjoyed an extended love affair with opera will know from their frequent disappointment that it is an art form alarmingly susceptible to being royally buggered up. Singers who – either through delusion or an inability to say no – allow themselves to be cast in roles for which they are patently ill-equipped will suck the life out of the best productions; theatre management that persists in colluding with them perpetuates both the disappointment for the audience and the damage to the reputation of the performers; directors in thrall to white-tiled bathrooms, chain-link fencing or the Third Reich can render risible a musical performance that would otherwise rank as world-class.

8759 Read the rest of this entry »

Having previously directed masterful productions of Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea, Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers, and Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, actress Fiona Shaw has proven beyond any doubt that her dramatic talents extend to a fine sensibility for opera. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro represents a somewhat different challenge, however, in the convoluted mechanics of its wide swathe of interpersonal relationships as much as its assured place as a popular favourite in the canon. Ms. Shaw’s production for English National Opera—the home of the first two aforementioned productions—admittedly stumbles more than her other efforts, its forced concepts of animalistic masculinity and misogyny occasionally overbearing by contrast to the emotional purity of the music. Nevertheless, much of its action is guided by directorial intelligence and the sure dramatic flair of a habitué of the stage; bolstered by a solid cast, this first revival proved a highly enjoyable, if not exactly flawless, evening.


Read the rest of this entry »

The presence of New York Metropolitan supremo, Peter Gelb at last night’s première of ENO’s new production of The Girl of the Golden West is probably explained by his wish to support Keri-Lynn Wilson, who was in charge of the baton for the evening, and who also happens to be his wife. If, however, he was also scouting for a new La fanciulla del West to borrow for New York, he will have been pleased to encounter no nasty surprises that might frighten the Met’s famously conservative audience in Richard Jones’ production of Puccini’s 1910 cowboy opera. (The alternative possibility that, in the wake of his recent trials and tribulations on the other side of the Atlantic, he might be about to interview for a new job never once crossed my mind. No, honestly, it didn’t.)


Read the rest of this entry »

rsz_eno_xerxes_-_alice_coote_1_c_mike_hobanI began this review thinking comparisons with those who have previously sung these roles in Nicholas Hytner’s extraordinary 1985 production of Xerxes should probably be avoided, but, wouldn’t you know, my fellow critics across the broadsheets and internet have leapt into this muddy pit with gusto. I feel transported back to a typical 18th century theatre where those in the more expensive boxes of the third tier would throw pasta onto the heads of the poor souls in the “pit”, while the rival supporters of the castrati challenge each other in the streets surrounding what is now Trafalgar Square.

Read the rest of this entry »

While up in Bow Street, the Royal Opera opened the season with open house for a youthful audience watching a paean to unlikely mammaries, English National Opera, perhaps mindful that they were competing with Last Night of the Proms, opened with Stuart Skelton singing the title role in a new production of Verdi’s Otello. In recent years, Verdi’s masterpiece has very much been the property of the Royal Opera, with a series of highly successful revivals of Elijah Moshinsky’s traditional and long-lived production involving big international stars. The most recent of these involved the near perfect partnership of Antonenko and Harteros under the incendiary baton of Antonio Pappano. Those are big shoes to step into but I am delighted to report that ENO more than stepped up to the mark – this was the best opening night at the Coliseum that I can remember in a very long time and all factors coalesced into a thrilling and emotionally draining evening.


Read the rest of this entry »

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)

ENO recently scooped two Olivier Awards (which doubtless tasted even sweeter for being held at the Royal Opera House): the Best New Opera Production for Rameau’s Castor and Pollux and the Outstanding Achievement in Opera award for ‘The Breadth and Diversity of the Artistic Programme’. That breadth and diversity is there in spades for the 2012-13 season, unveiled this morning at the Coliseum. Another bold, risk-taking season lies ahead, headed by two new works, ensuring this is no Mickey Mouse season!

Walt Disney is the subject of Philip Glass’ 24th opera, The Perfect American, a partly fictionalised account of his final years, mixed with surreal encounters. Based on Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel Der König von Amerika, the scope for controversy in telling the dying days of this iconic figure is ripe, especially as there is a leading role for a disgruntled Disney employee in the plot. Phelim McDermott and Improbable, who created the critically acclaimed production of Satyagraha, return to ENO to stage this new Glass opera, a co-commission withTeatro Real, Madrid. Christopher Purves creates the role of Walt Disney.

The second new opera is Michel van der Aa’s Sunken Garden, which will be staged in the more intimate setting of the Barbican Theatre. It explores the connection between the disappearance of a software engineer, a rich girl and a neurotic film-maker and will use video technology integrated with live performance. Roderick Williams stars alongside Katherine Manley.

Bold choices re directors has been a feature of recent ENO seasons. These continue with Rupert Goold’s new production of Berg’s Wozzeck, Peter Konwitschny’s heavily cut La Traviata (a production first seen in Graz) and Calixto Bieito’s Carmen, a Barcelona production which has been redesigned for London. There is also a return for Rufus Norris’ controversial production of Don Giovanni, which may puzzle many who saw it first time round.

New productions of operatic rarities are especially welcome; Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress is not technically an opera at all, but anyone who saw the semi-staged production by the Philharmonia at Sadler’s Wells under Richard Hickox will attest to its powerful dramatic possibilities. Yoshi Oïda makes his directorial debut at ENO in what will be the first fully-staged professional production since the work’s 1951 premiere at the Festival of Britain. Another eagerly anticipated new production is Martinů’s Julietta, which takes place in a surreal, dreamlike world, to be directed by Richard Jones in a production first seen at Paris Opéra. Julia Sporsén, one of the newly announced ENO Harewood Artists, takes the title role.

After its Baroque success with Rameau this season, there is further exploration with a new production of Charpentier’s Medea, starring Sarah Connolly in the title role, conducted by Christian Curnyn, who also conducts the season’s other new Baroque production, Julius Caesar. David McVicar directs Medea, while Michael Keegan-Dolan takes on the Handel, which features a strong cast including Lawrence Zazzo, Anna Christy and Tim Mead.

Dr Jonathan Miller gets more productions than Verdi and Wagner put together, with revivals of The Barber of Seville, The Mikado and La bohème. Indeed, once the Royal Opera’s Ring is done and dusted, there will be no Wagner at London’s two main opera houses for the rest of the season. Other ENO revivals include an ‘absolutely last chance to see’ Nicholas Hytner’s evergreen production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and a welcome return for Deborah Warner’s Death in Venice, which has evolved on outings at La Monnaie and La Scala and returns to mark the start of ENO’s Britten centenary celebrations. Revivals are strongly cast, on the whole.

Ed Gardner, ENO’s Music Director, spoke of his admiration for the directors of the four productions which he himself conducts next season (Julietta, Death in Venice, Wozzeck and Don Giovanni) as well as words of praise for other conductors and artists featuring in the 2012-13 season.

John Berry, ENO’s Artistic Director, set his sights on ‘keeping ENO relevant and the exciting home for modern opera in London’. This challenging, exciting programme boldly throws down the gauntlet to that claim.

Mark Pullinger

Opera Britannia

Photographs © Getty Images (Disney); Antoni Bofill (Carmen); Yunus Durukan (Julietta)

The unveiling of the annual BBC Proms prospectus is always a cause for anticipation, even if, operatically, some of the key events have been open secrets for some time. Among the ‘known unknowns’ is Glyndebourne’s Le nozze di Figaro on 28th August. Conducted by Robin Ticciati, there’s a strong cast led by Vito Priante (Figaro), Lydia Teuscher (Susanna), Sally Matthews soprano (Countess Almaviva) and Audun Iversen (Almaviva). Dinner jackets and tiaras at the ready!

Sneaking a wooden horse past security at the Royal Albert Hall is the Royal Opera under Sir Antonio Pappano, bringing their new production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens for a concert performance on Sunday 22nd July. Starring Jonas Kaufmann (who made his sole Prom appearance so far as a soloist in Beethoven 9 in 2004) and Anna Caterina Antonacci, it’s a fair bet that this will be the first Proms to sell out once online booking opens on Saturday 12th May.

English National Opera makes a welcome appearance in the season with a concert performance of Peter Grimes on 24th August, starring Stuart Skelton in the title role. As it’s late in the season, might the David Alden production be heading for a September revival at the Coli? (ENO press launch eagerly anticipated next Tuesday). Ed Gardner conducts.

Opening weekend features Pelléas et Mélisande on Sunday 15th July, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and a cast featuring Phillip Addis (Pelléas), Karen Vourc’h (Mélisande), Laurent Naouri (Golaud) and Sir John Tomlinson (Arkel).

John Adams’ Nixon in China is performed on Wednesday 5th September, starring Kathleen Kim (Madame Mao), Alan Oke tenor (Chairman Mao), Gerald Finley bass-baritone (Chou En-Lai), Robert Orth baritone (President Nixon) and Jessica Rivera (Pat Nixon). The composer conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

G&S fans will welcome The Yeomen of the Guard on 19th August, the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Jane Glover.

For those inclined that way, My Fair Lady is on Saturday 14th July.

Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus is offered by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, strongly cast: John Mark Ainsley, Christopher Purves, Rosemary Joshua, Christine Rice and Tim Mead.

Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast is served up by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Tadaaki Otaka on 31st July, with Jonathan Lemalu the bass-baritone soloist.

Elgar’s The Apostles with the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder should be another season highlight, boasting a fantastic line-up of Rebecca Evans, Alice Coote, Paul Groves, Jacques Imbrailo, Iain Paterson and Clive Bayley. Will Sir Mark opt for the shofar?

Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder makes a welcome appearance on Sunday 12th August, featuring Angela Denoke, Simon O’Neill and Katarina Karnéus, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek.

Joseph Calleja sings operatic arias and songs from musicals at the Last Night on 8th September.

Which of the Prom concerts tickle your musical tastebuds?