Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Das Rheingold, Fulham Opera

Wagner is different. The differences between this composer's music dramas and those of other composers are often issues of taste, let alone the business of scale or technicality. With all the attendant paraphernalia of a full-blown theatrical production what sets it apart can sometimes get obscured. Fulham Opera's production of Das Rheingold is necessarily without the benefits or trappings of a mainstream production, allowing one to examine it on its own terms. It invites one to stare the art form as Wagner conceived it in the face, toe to toe.

Literally, I might add. This production, staged within and incorporating the frame and furniture of a church in Fulham has the singers brushing past performers in the aisles and perspiring directly onto the front row of seating. The acoustic is odd but actually plays into the hands of the audience - a lack of presence as the sound goes up and back as well as forward disperses the harshness from the operational clatter of having large voices at such proximity. No tinnitus-by-Tosca in the back room of a pub here.

This is valuable. Wagner really is different, demanding breadth in performers and patience in an audience. All that Stabreim, the alliterative mortar of Wagner's self-penned libretto was sharply in focus here. For all Ben Woodward's heroic (and thematically detailed) rendering of the score at the keyboard, the colours of the orchestration, its line and sonority cannot be recreated on a piano. However, this reduction does reveal the inherent sound of the text as an unimpeachable component of the experience.

Chief among those on top of this issue was the outstanding Alberich of Robert Presley delivering heft and quality of sound, within character and without dropping a syllabic stitch. The same can be said of Brian Smith-Walters' spiv Loge, with a charming characterisation whose cynicism was most at ease with the updating. Ian Wilson-Pope's heraldic-baritoned Wotan held back some silver in the top third of his voice for the key moments, as Wotan releases his frustrations with the moral compromises of absolute power.

These three performers took their curtain call last as befits their importance in the drama, although the whole company was strong in the key areas of text, sound and characterisation. For example, Sara Gonzalez's Flosshilde, doubling as Erda makes a credible volte face from first scene tease to penultimate scene Cassandra with modest adjustments to the colour of her voluptuous mezzo-soprano.

Fiona Williams' expedient production used a high concept of Wotan as a mid-West oil baron (There Will Be Cursing?) into which Presley's Aloha-shirted Alberich and the glazed, corporation-suited giants fitted coherently, if loosely: gangsters all in different guises. Humour did work, particularly Elizabeth Capener's never over-played hot-pink Rhinestonemaiden Freia. Now and then the staging struggled with familiar issues of the inflexible space and modest lighting with people often caught in anonymous upstage crevices or shadow. That said, the lighting variation and back-projected surtitles were more than I had been expecting and were welcome.

Above all I was delighted that the cast had the courage to remain static for stretches of the piece and just deliver the score. Wagner may be different, but it's still opera, making demands on the ability of performers to sing their way into a role and deliver character and drama to the audience by this method. For all the invention of the staging (the Tarnhelm/Wurm transformation is a genuine coup) the onus remains on the singers to offer a lyric argument and this was delivered emphatically.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Turn Of The Screw, Glyndebourne

First to the technology. This is the second live streaming of a Glyndebourne opera production this season (the first was Die Meistersinger), an event distinguished by its accessibility: if you have a good internet connection, you can watch. There are a number of things to be said about this form of seeing an opera but straight away one must acknowledge that The Guardian, hosting the event, have got the basic issue correct - a good quality stream. Factors such as the quality of the screen, speakers and the domestic broadband connection may be out of their hands but The Guardian have triumphed in setting up an arrangement which is clear, in synch and not prey to operating other programmes on the computer or even with the same browser. I used social networking sites during the performance, toggling between tabs on the same browser window without loss of sound or the feed frame freezing (or 'buffering').

Secondly, the performance. The open-plan set seems almost too transparent to accommodate the emergence of spectres from shadows or hidden entrances. In conjunction with some intelligent lighting from Mark Henderson the dissolving of characters into and out of the staging is not only effective but also varied. One also gets the impression of time passing by virtue of the revolve and design nods to seasonal change. Coming of age is part of the drama being worked out in The Turn Of The Screw and the pathos of the passing of time has its own weight besides the extremity of corruption.

The singing is - from what I can tell, and I'll come back to this - good and the playing excellent under Jakub Hrůša. I was surprised to find myself most enchanted, on a purely vocal level by Joanna Songi's Flora, delivering the music clearly, without unnecessary art. Giselle Allen's English (as Miss Jessel) was exemplary amongst the cast. Miah Persson's Governess was a very attentive character study, conspicuously avoiding the igenue babysitter who must stop dreaming of Mr Darcy and grow up hurriedly. Thomas Parfitt impressed as Miles, bringing that underrated quality of opera singing to the stage, i.e. stillness - this particularly noteworthy when seen framed in close-up by a camera.

I'm not sure I really got the claustrophobia that the piece demands to really explode at its denoument. I suspect this is because of the staging, although I remember Deborah Warner's incrementally denuded Barbican theatre production for the itinerant Royal Opera twelve years ago managing the balance of revelation and internal compression with hammerblow effect. Still it was nice to hear the full score after the less delicate (if no less musical) OperaUpClose version currently playing in London.

Of course, for all there is to be said about the accessibility and quality of the experience there is a final word to be said about the simple nature of a relay. There is no substitute for hearing this or any other staged lyric drama via audio-visual media. One was reminded of this in the second scene in which Mrs Grose's first entry was immediate subject to violent level changes by the attentive engineers, coming, as it does, after the children's singing. In the auditorium, not only does one have a natural organic level adjustment to such a moment (i.e. without the white noise of dials being turned) but this also has its own effect within the drama. At a moment such as this the elastic web between performers and audience is at its most subtle. The curious balance between the fragility of the children and the world-weariness of an adult, not necessarily written into the notes but buried somewhere in the music is first heard. All the issues, both positive and negative, surrounding my experience of seeing such a relay in a cinema remain pertinent.

The Guardian's How To Enjoy Opera

This weekend The Guardian published a supplement to coincide with the second of their live opera performance relays from GlyndebourneHow To Enjoy Opera is intended as a guide for the barely/un-initiated: key works of the repertoire; how opera has changed; basic ideas to scotch myths and prepare the listener for a first experience; and some useful tips on how to find affordably-priced tickets.

On the face of it this is a perfectly good idea. However my suspicions of the enterprise were quickly alerted by the video trailer the paper had produced to market the project. This involves three people on a typical, if comfortable urban estate discussing the appeal of opera by singing to one another. The music that is used to score the gimmick is that of The Barber Of Seville, jolly, benign, vaguely recognisable music. Inoffensive, like a scented candle - tempting, soothing, providing a temporary focus of meandering attention, ultimately pointless.

And this is the basic temperament of the whole guide: jolly, benign, vaguely recognisable. Consequently, we get lists. Lists are never designed to inform but as a reference point; 'ooh, I know that one' is the basic response, 'perhaps I'm not completely ignorant of this opera business after all' says the reader, wrapping themselves in a slanket of self-satisfaction. Fiona Maddocks, who compiled the 'Top 50 Operas' was vaguely apologetic about it on Twitter, saying
re lists my preferred heading wld be 'operas from the canon worth knowing about that happen to number 50'...
Quite. I would have preferred to see a generic list of operas ('these are the top political dramas, these great love stories, the best comedies are' etc.). This is often the way in which films are listed at the cinema or in DVD collections and today the analogy to be drawn between films and opera is closer than it's ever been. A chronological list, like this one, is stuffy and no longer pertinent in the director-led climate. Tim Ashley's modern composer list is more helpful as a discussion of styles. Certainly, the glossary that Ms Maddocks provides of operatic terms is utterly pointless. No-one needs to know a single one of these terms in order to engage with an opera, let alone enjoy it. Many people involved professionally in opera will only know a proportion of these terms.

Most infuriating is John Crace's How to survive your first opera. Like all these jolly, benign, vaguely recognisable pieces on anything its moderation is its weakness.
Here was art at its most sublime:
he says recalling his first, Damascene experience. What does sublime even mean? Does is mean a perfectly miscible blend of art forms that can access consciousness other art form cannot (objective)? Or is he using the term in the more common (subjective) manner of overwhelming, sense-saturating?
an overwhelming combination of music, drama and poetry.
oh, he means both. Is this article about to become have-and-eat-cake?

Sure enough, he begins to get glib. He notes that dresscode is now really only the preserve of Glyndebourne, which he also seems to think this is great fun,
For Glyndebourne I wear a suit without a tie and still feel like a tramp.
Well, clearly Mr Crace is still struggling with 'the prejudice in [his] own head' he notes in his opening sentence. Glyndebourne - opaquely - outlines the tradition on its website. However there is no obligation to wear anything specific. Read the terms and conditions of purchase. There is no mention of dress requirement as a mandatory adjunct for purchasing or using a ticket. As for Glyndebourne's fragile logic that evening dress originated out of respect for the performers, well not only is this unlikely but one suspects it had more to do with the original audience dressing in a period appropriate manner to attend a private performance involving dinner at a private home. Perpetuating a 'dresscode' is anachronistic nonsense.

What to see?
for your first opera stick to one you've probably heard of
More nonsense. Trying something new? Go and see something you think you might know. Crace's reasonable point is that you don't want to accidentally sit down in front of a four hour epic of slaughter and politics if you wanted to see a tidy tearjerker with perfumed tunes - so I return to my point about generic listing above. To that I'd add investigating the running time. These are the pragamatic facts of any sort of artistic experience over which an audience may have control and so of which one wants to be informed beforehand. However, trying to control what you experience once inside the theatre is missing the point of theatre-going.

Homework, writes Crace
You should be prepared to do a bit of background research before the curtain rises.
Bullshit. Sorry, I usually try to avoid this sort of language but this made me angry. If the show doesn't communicate with an audience coming to it cold, it has failed. Once again, trying to control what you experience in the theatre is missing the point of theatre-going.

Then, to close
A final word of warning. Wagner. Don't.
A lazy, crass line of text wasting everything he has written in the rest of his own piece.

There is a useful piece on how to deal with the pricing structure of major theatres and tips on how to find cheaper tickets, although these problems are by no means the solve preserve of opera. A related Guardian article from a few days back suggests that the current vogue for opera in fringe venues provides not only an affordable opera but also a more involving circumstance for its performers and audience alike. I might add that it also allows good singers - of which London has a few - who may not yet be the elite athletes of the art form required to fill the barn-like auditoria of the West End the ability to sing within themselves, thus doing justice to the art form. What How To Enjoy Opera does not do is justice.

Addendum: I was thinking about Lord Harewood, who died last month, and the publication for which he was famous, Kobbé's Complete Opera Book. It's an interesting book but not one I'd recommend to the newcomer as it is - for the reasons emergent above - rather dated. However it is worth noting that a man such as the Earl of Harewood was not by any means an ivory tower recluse interested only in lyric theatre in its snobbish postwar heyday, as he was also president of the FA in the 1960s.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Birtwistle, Angel Fighter, BBC Proms

Another day, another new opera in London town. Today I saw the UK premiere of Angel Fighter, a new work which is essentially a short opera (people will probably want to call it a cantata). It was commissioned by the Leipzig Bach Festival and, in situ, sounds something like this:

The performance I heard was at London's Cadogan Hall, a much dryer acoustic than the Thomaskirche Leipzig, with a strange vertical nature - the sounds rolls up, not out. This is important as I found myself struggling to get to grips with the text. This is a characteristic of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's music. For all its surprisingly meticulous orchestration it really comes at you with minimum violence, making almost insuperable demands on the soloists.

Quite apart from their gifts as singers I wouldn't have minded seeing Andrew Watts and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts go head to head in a real fight. These two mean are well-built and immediately put me in mind of Jacob Epstein's sculpture of the same title (right; although the homoeroticism of the sculpture isn't something at all apparent in Birtwistle's piece, the composer himself referring to a painting instead). Watts' initial entry was from the back of the hall where one was able to hear his forward, clarion, well-modulated tone. But on stage both were assaulted with the timbre-saturation and volume coming from behind them and it was difficult to really make them out. The BBC Singers, who warmed up into some quality ensemble singing in the first piece of the programme (Peter Maxwell-Davies' Il rozzo martello) were better defined but only as they had a more nebulous character, as is defined in Stephen Plaice's lyric appropriation of the tale.

Indeed this turned out to be yet another typical Birtwistle experience after Royal Opera's The Minotaur and the Mask of Orpheus Prom from a couple of years back. You fight to hear the buried orchestration and the metaphor of struggle is directly resosnant with the conflict going on right at the surface of the music. When a certain dramatic irony is involved to colour this experience - as in the ENO's recent Punch & Judy at the Young Vic - this can become quite an invigorating experience. However, with a really wonderfully balanced performance of Georges Aperghis's 'piano concerto' Champ-Contrechamp prior to it (the London Sinfonietta with Nicolas Hodges) as well as the tonally contra-distinct colours conjured by the BBC Singers in the Peter Maxwell-Davies, I found myself combing through the bluster of the Birtwsitle for comparatively little return.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril, Courtauld

Somerset House has, in the past decade, reinvented itself as a buzzing London venue. I was there fairly recently to see the latter half of the Ai Weiwei exhibition curated by the Lisson Gallery. On this special evening for the Courtauld Gallery, which occupies the north side of the building, there were a number of queues of those waiting to get into the Film4 Screen series, where films are shown in the courtyard.

The Courtauld has obviously understood the appeal of creating an 'event' evening to help promote its exhibitions. I found myself amongst a number of voluntarily costumed punters coming to see the Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond The Moulin Rouge show, drawn by the novelty of fin-de-siècle Parisian dressing up (as well as the waived entrance fee for having done so). In addition the Courtauld had thrown in a brief talk on a number of the canvases in the modest exhibition and a short display of Can-Can dancing.

Perks aside, this exhibition is a real winner. Showing highly familiar poster prints such as the one above alongside the sketches for them and other contemporaneous canvases threw the former in to absinthe-perfumed relief. The hauteur of the world-weary Avril emerges from the familiar stylising of the prints especially in conjunction with the canvases of her outside the clubs in the street, sloping along. Lautrec is also shown to emply painterly techniques du jour with raw, decorative colourising in the style of Bonnard and even Vuillard (if not Seurat). Indeed it's the colour of the paintings which brings one back to the prints, rather than their casual, florid lines.

In addition to the rich room of Lautrec/Avril pieces, there is a second room of other contemporaneous work: different artists tackling the same district of Paris as well as an interesting Munch frontispiece for a similar event elsewhere. What I found most extraordinary was wandering furhter afield in the Courtauld. One forgets that this gallery has a simply unrivalled collection of Impresionist masterpieces, groundbreaking and beautiful artworks that surround the Lautrec exhibition like more well-heeled Arrondissements. If there had been no dancing or dressing-up this would still be a very special exhibition.