Archives for posts with tag: Robert Murray

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)

Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius is now firmly established in the English tradition of religious choral music.  Yet Elgar was himself wary of labelling it an oratorio in the tradition of Handel or Mendelssohn; indeed, the work sits somewhat uncomfortably amidst such a backdrop.  On the one hand, there is the unusual nature of its subject matter itself—though the spiritual undertones and poignant music are starkly dramatic, the narrative focus is interiorised and abstract rather than physical.  All drama and beauty, all despair and fury, must correspond not with any physical altercation, but rather the passage of a man’s soul from life to death and his ultimate journey before God.  To be sure, it is a theme rich with meaning and gravity; nevertheless, it is surely not a facile one to realise dramatically in music.  More to the point, the musical dramatisation Elgar evokes is grounded in the tradition of Wagnerian Leitmotif, calling to mind the German master’s unbroken, evolving melodies of rich sonority and vibrant tonal colouring.  Despite an inauspicious beginning in England upon its premiere in Birmingham in 1900, Richard Strauss spoke of Elgar after the work’s 1901 premiere in Germany as ‘the first English progressive.’

Nevertheless, perhaps on a more basic level than any of the above, Gerontius is separated by the simple fact that the English choral tradition epitomised by Handel was thoroughly Protestant.  Gerontius, conversely, is not; it is taken from a poem written by Cardinal John Henry Newman, who had himself converted to Catholicism.  Though the difference may strike contemporary—especially contemporary secular—audiences as nominal, to an audience more than a century ago, it was not.  Invocation of the intercession of Mary on behalf of human souls before their final judgment, the necessity of an intermediary period in Purgatory before a person’s soul may be appropriately cleansed for heaven, reference to Catholic Mass—all declared the work’s distinction from the English tradition in which it was somewhat uncomfortably placed.  Factor in the aforementioned allusiveness to the idiom of Wagner—still indicative of a difficult sort of modernism to many mainstream circles—and Elgar’s great work established itself at once as something both challenging and unique.  Its ill-fated opening performance led Elgar to declare ‘I always said God was against art…I allowed my heart to open once—it is now shut against every religious feeling and every soft, gentle impulse forever’, yet for all the talent and grandeur in its writing, Gerontius soon became one of the mainstays of the twentieth-century English canon.

And then there is the music.  At turns staggeringly monumental and sublime, at others quietly shimmering, introverted and serene, it succeeds astonishingly well in painting the redemptive journey of a flawed but virtuous human spirit.  Though this performance at the Barbican as well as a prior one in Birmingham were to have been conducted by Andris Nelsons, Mr. Nelsons withdrew and was replaced by Edward Gardner.  Mr. Gardner is the Principal Guest Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and his close affinity with the orchestra was patent from the opening bars of the work.  The performance seemed to suffer not a whit from the last minute change of direction; under Mr. Gardner’s hand, the orchestra played with immense sensitivity to the broader architecture of the piece as much as the emotiveness of more intimate passages.  The Prelude to Gerontius attains a particular pre-eminence in the piece, introducing many of the key themes which are to be developed in the duration.  Mr. Gardner’s triumph was in evoking such superb balance, searing strings conjuring fire and then fading to quiet radiance, the faint rustling of the woodwinds drawn out expansively with the texture of the score.  Though the reading never lost sight of overall dramatic impetus, Mr. Gardner maintained an ever-adaptable tempo, granting dynamism to Gerontius’s majesty yet simultaneously prolonging every hint of the ethereal beauty contained within Elgar’s music.  The Prelude was riddled with evocation of Wagner’s Parsifal, great swaths covered in a glittering translucence of dappled beauty voiced through the gently lilting strings and soft murmurs of the winds.  The orchestra bore this out immaculately, layers of silken spirituality laid out against the sweeping force of Gerontius’s journey from life to that which lies beyond.

Gerontius, Elgar’s everyman at the end of his mortal life who finds his spirit on a path toward God, was sung by tenor Robert Murray.  Mr. Murray was replacing an indisposed Toby Spence, and he did so superbly; his singing, natural and limned with a lightly golden tone, brought an unusual elegance to the role.  His opening cry of ‘Jesu, Maria—I am near to death’ was beautifully voiced, and he succeeded in conveying a man weary of living and yet inherently tied to the richness of life.  His ‘Sanctus fortis’ carried on this poignant ambivalence and he navigated its tessitura with remarkable ease.  The beauty with which he sang sometimes came at a price—a darker, heavier tenor can be capable of investing more gravity into the role, achieving better tonal shading and emotional potency.  Yet Mr. Murray’s ‘Take me away’ was heartfelt and moving, and there is little doubt that his interpretation stands only to grow in future performances.

Though the tenor and conductor necessitated last minute replacements, one could only feel grateful the same was not true for the role of the Angel, sung by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly.  Looking fittingly lovely in white, Ms. Connolly brought one of the chief pleasures of this Gerontius.  Her singing was filled with tenderness and radiance, her interpretation well-developed and emotive; her opening passage in the second part, ‘My work is done’, was suffused with all the grace and purity of tone for which one could hope.  Yet equally as impressive as the quality of her timbre was her sensitivity to the text.  Every word was enunciated clearly with continued regard for overall dramatic feeling.  Her upper register was bright and burnished, a touch of controlled vibrato lending richness.  Hearing the tender beauty she brought to her cry of ‘Alleluja’, or her softly delivered valedictory passage ‘Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul’, it was difficult to imagine a singer better suited to the part.

James Rutherford assumed the smaller dual role of the Priest and Angel of the Agony—roles which, alas, felt all too minor for so good a performer.  Mr. Rutherford’s entrance with ‘Proficiscere, anima christiana, de hoc mundo!’ in the first part was stirring, his bass-baritone markedly rich and sonorous; his supplication to Jesus in the second part was even more moving in effect, his cries of ‘Jesu!  Spare these souls which are so dear to Thee’ riddled with anguish.

Yet it remained the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mr. Gardner that held the evening together.  Though allowing his orchestra room to open up overwhelmingly during more dramatic passages—the chorus of Demons, the Soul’s approach of God—Mr. Gardner brought deft support to his singers, careful never to overshadow them.  Just as impressive was his utilisation of stillness; in the ‘Sanctus fortis’, when Gerontius expresses ‘I fain would sleep’, the orchestra was brought to a complete stop, a moment of silence redounding before Mr. Murray continued.  Silence may certainly be as fecund as sonority in a work like Gerontius, and the balance between the two was one of the performance’s most impressive features.

The orchestra was augmented with a wonderful contribution by the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus.  The male voices were in particularly good form as the demon chorus, singing with pronounced power as brass surged and strings soared in a tumult under Mr. Gardner’s direction.  The female singers shone in the final angelic chorus, their light, effulgent tone offering sweet balsam to the end of Gerontius’s journey.  And, indeed, to the audience—as the chorus’s serene singing joined with that of Ms. Connolly and Mr. Murray, a fitting end was offered to an altogether excellent evening of music.

4 stars

John E.De Wald

Opera Britannia