Saturday, 29 November 2014

John Adam's The Gospel According to the Other Mary: The ENO's Gospel and its link to Street Dance ★★★★

Martha (Meredith Arwady), Mary (Patricia Bardon) dancers (Stephanie Berge, Ingrid Mackinnon, Parinay Mehra) and Seraphim (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley)

When we think of an oratorio Bach's Christmas or Handel's Messiah spring to mind. We focus less on the staging and costume designs compared to a fully fledged staged opera where we do. For an oratorio, we concentrate on the large-scale orchestration, the principal soloists and religious subject matter, which is precisely how one should view John Adam’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary. It had its world premiér, and is currently showing, at the English National Opera (ENO). Its librettist and director Peter Sellars wrote the piece for audiences to hone in on these pertinent parts with the added arrangement of contemporary dance, specifically Street Dance.
The Gospel According to the Other Mary was first performed in Los Angeles in 2012. It was later co-commissioned by the Barbican in 2013. It is an companion piece to John Adam’s El Niño nativity oratorio that premiéred in 2000, which is also framed with a collection of Spanish and Latin poetry by 12th century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen and extracts from the New Testament.
Sellars' production, however, is set in modern day where women are jailed for protesting on behalf of the poor, much like Jesus who is mentioned in the New Testament as blessing the poor and encouraging acts of charity. Based on passion of Jesus, as indicated in the title, the oratorio paints the perspective of the other Mary: the so-called prostitute Mary Magadalene - which many scholastics have argued against -, and her sister Martha, distinctively sung by contralto Meredith Arwady.
Sellars and Adams wanted to portray Mary as an emotionally complex woman with a corrupt past and this is done sorrowfully by firm mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, To feed the audience’s intrigue of Mary’s traumatic experiences her words are highlighted through the inspirational works of Bingen and other female poets who partook in social activism or undergone social injustice in their personal lives such as Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich and June Jordan. 
Lazarus (Russell Thomas) and Mary (Patricia Bardon)

Sellar’s presentation on the ENO stage is full of intensity and chilling story telling. Adam’s moving and cinematic score conveys the journey of the passion without the character of Jesus. With the use of three countertenors; (Nathan Medley, Brian Cummings and Daniel Bubeck), to sing as the Seraphim and narrator; four contemporary dancers (Stephanie Berge, Ingrid Mackinnon, Parinay Mehra)' including the spectacular and taut hip hop dancer Banks-Artiste, the work becomes spiritually alive, full of verve and determination. You don’t need to be a Christian to enjoy this riveting and substantial piece of work.
Scene by scene, as we watch the story of the passion through the eyes of two sisters and their brother Lazarus - fervidly sung by model Broadway voice Russell Thomas - the audience is simultaneously exposed to a musical trail where Adam's eclectically modern score progressively builds in impact and texture: a swirl of turmoil and climactic serenity. 
Introducing street dancer Banks in the passover scene

Joana Carneiro brazenly conducts the ENO orchestra stressing Adam’s implementation of bold drum rolls, boastful brass instruments, bassy cellos, aggressive violins and a mix of percussions, which  makes the experience more intense, and real. The audience see the ENO orchestra go in full steam in such scenes as 'Lazarus' and 'Golgotha' through an ominous and heartrending reenactment of the crucifixion. Watch as Banks crawls under the stage as a spirit conjuring dynamic moves (like a creepy lizard), that revives a sick Lazarus, performed by dancer Mehra.
So what does The Gospel According to the Other Mary have to do with street dance? Why did Sellars purposefully decide to bring in the talented 25-year-old Brooklyn born Krumper and flex dancer, Banks-Artiste, to star as the Angel Gabriel? Why isn’t the music and vocals enough? I’d like to provide my own ideas of this by alluding to the work of David Hume in his 1711 book 'Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion', which is a collection of discussions by fictional characters attempting to understand the nature of God. Put simply, one of these characters named Demea argues that even if God exists we would not be able to comprehend God’s nature because it is beyond the capacity of human understanding. 

Sellars decision to employ a cross-fertilisation of artistic genres is a marvellous one that adds weight to the spiritualism of the oratorio. Not only is the audience entertained by a talented dancer but are able to watch stamping, flexing, locking and popping as another form of sacred communication. It is an added device to heighten the ethereal and poetic libretto. As the voices tell the story, Banks plays an instrumental role placing visual cues to a supposed higher power that, in the words of Demea, is unfathomable. Through another art form like dance, a notable message and meaning is revealed in this ambitious and highly exploratory oratorio. 
The Gospel According to the Other Mary is showing at the ENO until the 5th December 2014. Click here to purchase tickets.  Photos courtesy of the ENO and Mark Ronan.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Royal Opera House : L'Elisir D'amore at the Cinema Live Screen ★★★★

On 26th November cinemas all over the world screened the much-anticipated opera that many had been looking forward to experiencing, namely the Royal Opera House’s (ROH) production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore (The Love Potion). The opera, first performed at the Teatro della Canobbiana Milan in 1832, has been regarded as many positive things from an ideal first-timers’ opera, a musically enthralling masterpiece with playfulness and a happy-go-lucky spirit given its romantic and ‘love conquers all’ ethos. It comes to no surprise that it was the most popular opera in Italy between 1838 and 1848 and comfortably sits in most opera houses’ repertory. 

The evening was hosted by BBC Radio 4 presenter Martha Kearney who managed to ask a couple of questions to the animated and young Jette Parker Young Artist (of 2008–9) and conductor Daniele Rustoni, as well as accomplished bass singer Bryn Terfel who stated that L’Elisir D’Amore was ‘possibly one of the best operas written.’ He effortlessly sings as the love pharmacist and Doctor Dulcamara in this production as he had done for a Euro-glitzy production at Dutch Opera (Nederlandse Opera) in 2002 impersonating a funky Elvis. He shall be singing the role of Sweeney Todd at the ENO next year with Emma Thompson.
Also, many fans of handsome Vittorio Grigòlo, whose opera career has skyrocketing, would be excited to see him sing amorous arias here as the lead tenor and hapless love puppy Nemorino. 

Director Laurent Pelly intelligently sets our opera in Italy in the 1950s where the countryside is blissful and sun-kissed with a rustic bar called Trattorio, heaps of haystack, Vespa motorbikes and stray dogs reside. Nemorino, the poor farm worker, falls in love seeking desperate measures to be loved in return by Adina. The notable aria Una furtiva lagrima, that your average Joe would recognise, was sung perfectly by Grigòlo as he made the song his own. His voice was made for such a cosmically gorgeous piece of music and the subtle drips of light bulbs that were added by Chantal Thomas symbolise the starry night making it ever more magical.
The farm owner Adina, dressed in a pink floral dress, who plays hard to get with Nemorino - and even suggests living a promiscuous life - is sung by charming English rose Lucy Crowe despite being mean and feisty towards Nemorino in the beginning scenes. Her voice was delectable and something I’d like to hear in a baroque opera by Monteverdi or, perhaps, Handel.
The bad-boy sergeant Belcore is sung by baritone singer Levente Molnár who seems to enjoy gyrated his love parts to the female villagers who Adina uses as a ploy to get Nemorino jealous. Although vocally stale in some parts Molnár played the theatrical part of a militarised Don Giovanni exceedingly well.

The chorus singers also brought masses of entertainment, smiles and enjoyment to the opera and with such charming songs as Bel conforto the merriment spread throughout the cinema screen (and in the ROH auditorium, I am sure!) Rustoni shone his love for the opera as he jumped and conducted like an energising bunny in the pit and the acoustics seemed pretty good from the cinema speakers. (Unfortunately I cannot speak on behalf of the actual acoustics of the ROH as I wasn't there.)
Bring your children! Bring your friends and family members who are new to opera. Its story line is as comprehensible as a modern Rom Com movie and it comes with no frills or fuss but silly funnies to the happiest music, which will pull the sun out of the clouds. What’s even better is there’s a little dog that runs on and off the stage. What more could you ask for? 
Currently showing until the 13th December: Click here for more tickets for the Royal House Performance 
(Photos are courtesy from the Royal Opera House)

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Royal College of Music: Mozart's Die Zauberflöte/The Magic Flute (RCMIOS) ***

Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is an opera journey about two lovers and their mystical struggle to be together with numerous fantasia-esque characters who help them, while others obstruct them, on their way. It is one of the few operas that is performed just before (and during) the festive season as it encapsulates prevalent fantasy and mystical themes. Some would content that this derived from Mozart’s personal engagement with the freemasonry; yet the opera’s significance is not simply due to its mysticism or status as Mozart’s penultimate operatic work but from its stunning and uniquely written musical composition which evoke the musical wizardry and emotions that produced the splendour of Mozart's overture in The Marriage of Figaro (and possibly Così fan tutte.) 
The Royal College of Music International Opera School (RCMIOS) is currently performing Die Zauberflöte under the directorship of Jean-Claude Auvay at the Britten Theatre. This opera production is one of the many opportunities to showcase the school's new and fresh talent. Some of the biggest names in opera trained at RCMIOS including Dame Joan Sutherland, Sarah Connolly and Gerald Finley. Elizabeth Watts, Alfie Boe and Sophie Bevan also made their mark through the opera school. Maestro Michael Rosewell, director of opera at the RCM, had the RCM Opera Orchestra at the helm. He embraces the natural and earthy hues of Mozart’s masterpiece and allowed the exuberant overture to flourish with heavy double basses, abrasive cellos and lusciously played oboes, reminding the audience that life is sweet, just like the opera’s endings.
Galina Averina as Pamina (Photograph from stjohns-hydepark)
As the opera begins, the audience watch how Sarastro's masked men kidnap innocent Pamina (Galina Averina). We are then left guessing what a projected image of cartoon furniture has to do with a magic flute; yet this is quickly swiped under the carpet as Tamino (Gyula Rab) attempts to spiral his way out from being attacked by a giant snake, which we unfortunately never see.
A toy snake however is bragged about by our deviant three ladies lavishly sung by Natasha Day, Rose Setten and Amy Williamson. They are presented as purple dressed fashionistas and practice some saucy acts on unconscious Tamino.
Tamino sung by Gyula Rab - (Photograph from
Our comic relief and lonely Papageno was sung by the talented Timonthy Nelson. Both him and Rab made the songspiel feature of the opera amusing through their clear Germanic diction. Our Queen of the Night was sung by Marie Jaermann and, during the evening, it seemed as if she had sung the role several times before. She gave the patient audience what they wanted to hear in "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" but also showed hints of humility in her vocal agility as well.
Our three child spirits (Louise Fuller, Katie Coventry, Polly Leach) complimented the opera's share of fun and games. Their synchronised vocals paid off and heightened their spiritual and harmonious characterisations. Simon Shibambu sung as an authoritative Saratsto with his corporate suits working below him; yet I would have liked to have heard more of his voice as there were moments when there wasn't enough zeal to convey the paternal side of Sarastro.
Pamina, sung by Averina, was the most taut, sorrowful and beguiling particularly when she sung "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden" in the final scenes. And Gyula Rab sung as the bounty tenor visually matching Pamina on stage, but lacked a tiny spark of pathos. Still, a decently sung Tamino.
Timonthy Nelson - (Photograph from Oxford Leider website)
In Act 2 scene 7, when the elements scene takes hold, neon lights with the words ‘wasser’ in blue and ‘fueue’ in red manage to impress the audience, but only for a few moments. The overall stage was designed by Ruari Murchison, which is a mix of semi-stage with a large folded and concealed room at its centre. Often the cast were left having to pull and push open the doors for the room which seemed like a physical hassle, but once these doors were open the wonder was demystified; this is due to Mark Doubleday’s own lighting techniques.
The production's ending is slightly unexpected and ambiguous. Both Tamino and Pamina are romantically united but dressed in suits with a book (they reveal) as if they had just published it, or as proof they had triumphantly graduated from a business school, perhaps. Audiences will interpret this to mean many things. One of these ideas could be the success after a hard journey, whether personal or profession; it’s all driven by passion; an inherent notion Mozart undoubtedly wanted to convey in the opera.
The RCMIOS's production is a very German experience with both the intrigue of Mozart’s enchanting opera muzzled in with light humour. It is also a springboard for the diverse talent at the RCMIOS. One rarely feels miserable after seeing Die Zauberflöte and being exposed to Mozart's operatic power.

Die Zauberflöte is showing until the 29th November 2014. Click here for more information. Please note the change in cast depending on the night.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Longhurst's 'Tis Pity She’s A Whore is taboo, indecent, blood-gushing and too good to be true. ★★★★★

©The Globe/Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
John Ford’s 16th century, incestuous and blood splatter drama has made its way into the brand new, beautiful and elegant candlelit jewel box of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Its title 'Tis Pity She’s A Whore plays a significant role than simply highlighting the sensationalist and taboo nature of the play. ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore’ is also the last line said by the Italian Cardinal, which infers the religious context that foreshadows the fate of the two siblings Annabella (Fiona Button) and Giovanni (Max Bennett) who fall desperately in love despite social conventions. 
Its imaginative director Michael Longhurst, who won the Evening Standard Best Play 2012 Award for directing Nick Payne’s dazzling play Constellations, has managed to produce a delightful and minty production which contain all the corruptive and blasphemous elements of Ford’s world, that is, until we reach the final Jacobean blood bath scene. Yet even when the gore spews on stage, the show shimmers with holiness no less enhanced by the atmospheric candles that alight our little, 340-seater, golden playhouse. 
©Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
The beauty of the Alex Lowde’s set is heightened by its musical ambiance composed by Simon Slater with the use of Elizabethan instruments; lutes viols, recorders, and unusual, eerie and sardonic sounds produced by never-seen-before metal and steel percussion instruments to denote the bad omens to come. Choral singing is also subtly incorporated to add irony to the impiety of the naïve brother and sister.
The play however has several suspense-driven subplots encompassing the incest story, which makes the play fruitier and thrilling to watch; there’s never a dull moment. We have Bergetto (James Garnon), Grimaldi (Jethro Skinner), and Soranzo (Stefano Braschi) all racing for Annabella’s hand in marriage; the betrayal of Vasquez (Philip Cumbus) to Hippolita (Noma Dumezweni) who jilts her into thinking he will marry her after he has murdered his master Soranzo, who is also Hippolita’s past-lover; and the in-the-dark murder of innocent Bergetto who Grimaldi mistakes for Soranzo. Most of all, there’s the parallel slapstick comedy to balance the misfortunes, all carried out in the first half of play, by Poggio (Dean Nolan), Bergetto, Donado (Sam Cox) (who is Bergetto’s uncle), and Annabella’s maid and tutoress Putana (Morag Siller). 
There are bucket loads of stagecraft to marvel at too. This includes the cleverly executed sword fight scenes, which are choreographed to look as wicked as real fights, the alluring contemporary dances, and semi-Elizabethan, semi-contemporary costumes designed by Jemima Penny. The standard of talent and theatrical acting is exceedingly high; knifes stabbing into one another appear so genuine that audiences would think that murder had taken place at The Globe but this is quickly rectified by the ensue of poetic dialogue and gallons of fake blood flowing out of the woody Sam Wanamaker stage. 
[Left to Right: Richardetto (Daniel Rabin), Giovanni (Max Bennett), Cardinal (James Garnon) Donaldo (Sam Cox) & the lovers' father: Florio (Edward Peel)
Bennett portrays an ardent and star-struck lover that turns into a jealous and blood hungry anti-hero; the audience gasps as they see him hold a dagger with Annabella’s pulsating heart in his hand. This cleverly compares with Button’s ability to bestow a passive and vulnerable Annabella whose tender naturalism is sullied by her clandestine relationship with her brother. It begs the question as to whether she would have fallen for her brother if he hadn’t had confessed his love first. Garnon's ability to transform from the inexperienced and scatterbrain Bergetto to the revered Cardinal with gold rings and red silks robes is phenomenal as well. His funny and hobbit like Bergetto is mirrored by his loyal and clowney servant Poggio played by Nolan. Cumbus’ hypocritical and semi-villainous character Vasquez is quite new too. He provokes hatred even if his deeds are done for selfless reasons. And straight shooter Braschi is our chauvinist noble who does a handsome job of keeping the tension tense. 
Longhurst's 'Tis Pity She’s A Whore is taboo, indecent, blood-gushing and too good to be true. The production warns, ‘Contains nudity and scenes of a sexual nature’ and there’s also an unsettling suggestion that Annabella is pregnant with her own brother’s child, which can make the audience queasy. The fact that Bennett and Button look like siblings doesn't help either. There’s a lot to appreciate about the delightful stage and visuals; but be sure to go in with a full stomach as there’s a plenty of Jacobean bloodletting that transpires later on in the play.
This production is currently showing until the 7th December but tickets are selling fast. Click here to purchase tickets.