Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Bartók: Duke Bluebeard's Castle - A Horror Opera (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & Charles Dutoit)

 Sir Willard White
Ildikó Komlósi

I hadn’t come across Béla Bartók before tonight’s performance of his opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the Royal Festival Hall. It was only until the opera began that I realised I was about to experience my first horror opera. 

The orchestra of the night was the dazzling Royal Philharmonic. They shone and soared through Bartók’s multifaceted masterpiece with maestro Charles Dutoit conducting and revealing the dark hues of Bartók's insidious work.

It was fairly recent news that Andrea Meláth and Bálint Szabó could not sing the roles of the Duke or Judith due to illness. Yet unexpected replacements Ildikó Komlósi and Sir Willard White, both on top form, saved the show.

Charles Dutoit
Komlósi took audiences in and out of Judith’s curious mind and bewitched them with her vocal talent as, both a worrisome woman and passive wife. Sir White elicited traits of a dangerous man from the moment he sang the first note, an inclusion deliberately added by Bartók to enrich his phenomenal score.

Despite only being  an hour long, the opera contains some of the most chilling and spine-tingling music you could heard from psychological thrillers, ‘scary’ movies and film noir. Sitting there in the Royal  Festival Hall I recognised similar musical extracts, and had the same reactions, to listening to Strauss’ Sprach Zarathustra, Ridley Scott ‘s Aliens’ films (with scores composed by Jerry Goldsmith) and Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho. 

Judith's Journey in Bluebeard's Castle 

The opera is based on a Duke who introduces his wife to a castle of seven locked doors, spilling blood. It’s too gruesome not to pique anyone’s interest. Mention ‘torture chamber’ and many will realise it isn’t a typical romantic opera.  

For the evening’s semi-staged performance audiences were left to use their imagination through reading Christopher Hassall’s translation of Béla Balázs’s original libretto and allowing Bartók’s musical creativity to guide them on Judith’s steps of opening each blood-soaked door. 

An audio effect was used to enhance the ominous quagmire of terror and dread. It was the sound of air blowing through the hollow and mysterious castle that the Duke and his wife were walking in.  

Each door unlocked a different type of space: the intense stir of strings for a menacing torture chamber in door one; a room of armoury for door two; a treasure room, depicted by a light tinkering sounds from a celesta, for door three; and a fragrant garden, illustrated by discordant flutes, for room four. 

Yet the pinnacle orchestral moments took place when Judith made her way into the fifth door, screaming. The long chords from the Royal Festival Hall’s large organ, shown off by Andrew Lucas, echoed entry into another realm – a next level up of macabre. One soon became concerned, and afraid, for Judith’s life.  

As we moved onto room six blaring brass instruments and hard thuds of timpani increased the dramatic suspense. The inquisitive wife enters door number six, a lake of tears, represented by gentle glissandi from a harp. But it’s too late for any hope of a happier ending. Not even the harp could transform the outcome. 

The conclusion had less musical climax, compared to door five, but there’s an apotheosis nonetheless. Here, Bartók mucks with our head. We know that the Duke will kill Judith as he had done with his previous wives but it is this type of titillation, which causes many to love his music.


Bartók was influenced by the existential readings of Nietzsche and the national Hungarian mood at the onset of the First World War. He once wrote, ‘ I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing’ and I believe he left the ending progressively quieter, unsettling and unresolved for audiences’ to re-think what death means.

His cinematic visionary music grabs us. Bartók, probably, wasn’t aware his music would be compared to modern-day film or that he'd still be studied for that matter! Yet the opera tells us more about Bartók, which, even, he would admit.  We learn that he was a visceral composer and yet in the face of war conflict, he chose to construct the human spirit through an opera, which, after his death, is cherished by many.  

For more events taking place at the Royal Festival Hall, please click here. 
Photos courtesy of Willard White, Ildiko Komlosi and Charles Dutoit home websites. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

ROH: Andréa Chénier : Charming, captivating and eclectic, but where's all the grit? ★★★★★

The highly anticipated opening night of Andréa Chénier, after 30 years of absence from the Royal Opera House (ROH), fulfilled almost everyone’s expectations. David McVicar’s extravagantly traditional production provided a gracious setting for Umberto Giordano’s lusty score.  This was topped off with world-class singing from tenor-of-the-moment, Jonas Kaufmann, the front-running star who many had spent their 'bottom dollar' to see. Rest assured many won’t be asking for their money back. 

Based in the 18th century, the historic Andréa Chénier was a poet who wrote against the status quo and was executed during the French Revolution -a tale that coincides and echoes the recent atrocities in Paris. For this verismo and classically tragic opera, however, Giordano sticks in a dagger and invents Gerard, an anti-hero to cause heart ache and anguish in a rivalry for Chénier’s muse and lover Maddalena di Coigny.

Yet despite a gritty tale with a chilling guillotine and hoard of outspoken sans-culottes, Robert Jone’s staging was pretty and pristine with traditional décor, candle lit chandeliers and Jenny Tiramani’s clothes designs of pastel coloured dresses and Kaufmann’s noticeable purple socks. The dances, from gavotte to pastoral ballet, were traditional choreography as well. 
Even for the action scenes set at the ‘Reign of Terror’ to the moments before Chénier approached his impending death, the guillotine and jails appeared newly furbished. Yet compared to the last ROH production of Un ballo in maschera, the quality of the staging was worlds apart with far more cash to spend, it seemed. Perhaps this was the edge that McVicar was looking for in producing this verismo opera. By reinforcing the lack of grit and references to the Mala vita the production recreated a sumptuous and grander opera of romantic sharp music and higher emotional power, which worked marvelously for such a beautiful opera.

Long applause greeted Kaufmann's first aria, Un dì all'azzuro spazio, and no one dared to cough through it. Having been acclaimed for his recent performance at Wigmore Hall, he brought the same temperament and skill into the opera house. His handsome looks mirrored his glorious voice and portrayed a man of conviction, wisdom and lover of Maddelena. 

Željko Lučić also played a substantial role this evening, but had some warming up to do before impressing audiences with his bold voice in act 3. He sung with full force and sensibility particularly in ‘Nemico della Patria’. Despite not bringing the house down, as he did in last year’s production of Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera, his acting abilities presented a visceral side to Gérald’s fickle and jealous conscience.
Eva-Maria Westbroek was suitably matched to ‘Esparanza’ Maddalena. When Westbroek sang ‘La mamma morta’, in act 3, she sang with courageous pathos, which was superbly followed by a gentle cello solo. Westbroek parked her former role as the starry and debauched Anna Nicole for a tender and vulnerable Maddalena; one could imagine her as a knock-out Mimi in La Bohéme. The opera had a victorious ending with a spectacular love duet evoked by our lead couple, which reached all the money notes: it was a duet that had all the stuff of a truly romantic opera.

 There were other singers that performed marvelously from Elena Zilio, who sang as the blind mother who gave away her son to the war, to Roland Woods as the honest friend of Chénier, Roucher. Peter Hoard, Peter Coleman-Wright, Rosalind Plowright, Carlo Bosi and Adrian Clarke had small roles, yet their theatrical and operatic contributions were valued by the audience.

As for the conducting, Antonio Pappano’s made Giordano’s opera seem almost too perfect. Although euphonious and harmonious, I felt that, the music sounded pure and virtuous for an opera about injustice and the grime nature of the ‘Reign of Terror’.

 One can only wish that there were more scenes with Chénier and Maddalena flaunting their love and more of Kaufmann's operatic prowess and profound presence. The opera, with its additional march music and lavish dances, is charming, captivating and eclectic. If you can’t get a ticket to the Royal Opera House, I’d highly recommend you grab a cinema ticket for the live screen on the 29thJanuary.
Photographs courtesy of the Royal Opera House. For more information, click here. The opera is showing until the 6th February. For more information about the live screening, click here.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Orfeo ★★★ at The Round House: A successful collaboration or successful mess?

Last Tuesday [13th January 2015] was the opening night and first-time collaboration of the Royal Opera House (ROH) and The Round House of Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo (1607). Orfeo is a Greek mythology that has been molded and re-shaped in art, music and poetry for its symbolic imagery and heartbreaking, defining moment where the hero looses his love giving into temptation and ‘looks back’.

Michael Boyd - former Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) artistic director for the past 16 years - made his debut directed this production. This was also the case for Don Paterson who had the challenge of translating the original libretto into fuller English phrases. Luckily for him he managed to find an already translated version by Anne Ridler but still found the task ‘like trying to fit a set of spanners into a velvet box made for a dinner-service.'

The set design by Tom Piper is bare. Performers and cast move barefoot and make use of a circular stage with built in soundboards. Attached is a long, stretched out walk-on slope that led to the corner of theatre depicting an entry into the other realm. Singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama stood on a balcony overlooking the stage with the musicians of the Early Opera Orchestra sat below with beautiful, large string and brass continuo instruments. 

Props are limited to green streamers, taken off and on stage, to replicate a pastoral atmosphere and the beginning of marriage life for Orfeo (Gyula Orendt) and virtuous Euridice (Mary Bevan). What is lacked in physical props, however, are replaced with human movement, acrobats and circus skills by East London Dance: young dancers aged between 11 and 21. There are no water trails or video projections of a river Styx but 15 dancers using their bodily strength to roll on their stomachs, jump impressively high and create human bridges stacked on top of each other. 
This is where the first part of the production spends a lot of time on - feet stamping, tireless acrobatic movements and irrelevant dancing. This is where the audience’s real grief begins. Not so much on Orfeo's grief. When one should be paying attention to Monteverdi’s opera, audiences move their eyes to a boy attempting to jump over our lead singer Orendt and a boy in front of him. And when Orfeo torments over his loss of Eurydice one of the dancers spins around loosely on the ground in a green streamer, which is rather annoying. Indeed, at this poignant part of the opera it is wise, and acceptable, for directors to add something extra to enhance Orfeo’s disposition, whether metaphorically or direct engagement, but this direction destroyed the entire scene for audiences, including myself. Come the second part and some audiences, a mix of students and veteran operagoers, had already left.

Boyd also framed the opera with a different setting which didn’t bode well with fans of Monteverdi’s opera. Boyd’s court is looked over by ‘pastors’: not shepherds, who are dressed like intimidating priests, except for fresh faced American countertenor Christopher Lowrey whose stunning and silky voice drove out the omnious quality of his priest-like clothing. To add to the religious theme Orendt was introduced as he was in the end: as a pietà of Euridice holding her darling limp in her arms. The ending is saddened with Orfeo hanging loosely from a high-up harness, like a semi-crucifixion, trying effortlessly to touch his Euridice standing far below.

Yet this injection of religious revelation stunted the romance and magic of the Greek myth, I thought. Perhaps Orfeo shouldn’t have turned around to check if his lover was actually there or arrogantly attempt to outsmart mortality, but with all these law-abiding priests hovering over him it leaves very little room for audiences’ to use their imagination. To go to the depths of hell to save one's love is a beautiful act that permeates in Monteverdi’s operatic score, but this was taken a step back in Boyd’s production. Anything can happen on ‘the stage’ and, for many, this is the reason why audiences come to theatre. Insert priests for marriage, fine, however, for an opera like Orfeo priests act as a restrictor and drawback. To add to their lack of direction was the definitive moment Orfeo looked his wife. What should have been a climactic moment was treated like any moment. How disappointing!

But ‘how about the singing?’ I hear you ask. Pretty good in terms of opera standards and what I’d expect from a baroque opera, despite what was happening on stage. Hungarian-Romanian baritone Orendt ignites a courageous Orfeo. Nothing about his stage presence made him appear feeble or morose even if the arias sang of misery. Bevan was also starry and oozed all that was pure of Euridice even though she plays a small vocal role, mostly, in the first half. Susan Bickley as the messenger entered from the tip of the slope with her face shadowed depicting a heavenly mystery with her tremendous voice, which echoed pity. Callum Thorpe as Pluto and Propserpina sung by Rachel Kelly were also absorbing with their classy cocktail-party attire, and not forgetting Susanna Hurrell, as a joyful nymph, Anthony Gregory and Alexander Sprague who delivered on the night as well. 

So is Orfeo a successful collaboration or successful mess?

Indeed, both ROH and Round House have succeeded in their own unique ways. Some may say that the Royal Opera House thrives as being one of the grandest opera houses in the world. Our north London theatre, however, isn’t known for performing operas. It prizes itself as a ‘engine house’ of contemporary genres from theatre, rock and punk. Much credit goes to the Round House for its supportive campaigns to encourage younger artists; from London communities, to get more involved in the arts.

So bearing these things in mind in that these establishments’ have their own contrasting and distinctive qualities, was Orfeo a successful collaboration, welcomed by audiences, or a complete mess? The answer is ‘no’ to the latter, but for those who are seeking that ‘opera experience’ where your seats are worth £120, you dress up to the nines and buy champagne at the interval (or whatever that might mean to you), don’t bother. On the other hand, if you are a true lover of early baroque opera and a sincere Monteverdi follower than come with your ears open as you won't be let down by the fierce and talented cast, included the postgraduate singers of Guildhall School of Music and Drama with stylish conductor Christopher Moulds and musicians of the Early Opera Company. There are a few stage directions and themes that didn't quite mesh, for me, but this is a first collaboration after all. Maybe it won't be try too hard next time.

Currently showing until 24th January. Click here for more details. Photos courtesy of the Royal Opera House and the The Round House.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Amazon Prime: Mozart in the Jungle - Season 1

Paul Weitz, director of teenage sex education film American Pie, has just witnessed the unveiling of his Amazon Prime series Mozart in the Jungle, but let’s get one thing straight. It has nothing to do with the great composer.
The inspiration behind the series comes from Blair Tindall’s 2005 memoir of life as a professional oboist.
In Weitz’s production, viewers watch girl next-door amateur musician Hailey (Lola Kirke) and her amusing journey playing for phantom orchestra, the New York Symphony after impressing new, young and eclectic maestro Roderigo (Gael García Bernal) with his bohemian hair and unconventional charm.
Rodrigo, the supposed rebel conductor is animated, passionate, and South American, which sounds like exotic heartthrob qualities, but, honesty, there is nothing fiery or magical about him besides his outlandishness. 
What may seem like an insight into classical music orchestras is, in actual fact, just a nicely filmed, pictorial drama set in sunny Manhattan.
The terminology isn’t designed to wow classical music experts or professionals either: those in the field would despise the show, any way, given the numerous musical inaccuracies from cast members holding their instruments incorrectly to gleaming over some misguiding generalisations about how orchestras are run.
The feedback for Mozart in the Jungle however is surprisingly positive. Many, including myself, agree that the show gives viewers something to entertain them.
All episodes are available in bite size chunks, as little as half an hour of your precious time, with uninteresting titles.
There are other attractive characters in addition to the maestro and oboist. There are such characters as the veteran and former conductor Thomas (Malcolm McDowell) and orchestra’s cellist Cynthia (Saffron Burrows) who spices up the sex and humour of the show with their clandestine affair. She also lets off steam by shagging other colleagues in the orchestra, which she admits to Hailey and gives a spiel about musicians having sex the same way they play their instruments. Funny!
There is also Hailey’s adorable love interest: a dancer (Peter Vack) and her neuroses with potty mouth flat mate Lizzie (Hannah Dunne).
The initial trailer of Mozart in the Jungle is misleading as well; one would think that the show would probe into the enlightened maestro tearing down classical music barriers with the orchestra yet little do newbies of classical music know that conductors gain their pedigree from other things but innovation and blind faith creativity: musicians have to dedicate years, from childhood, to perfect their trade and regretfully the programme leaves this unshakable point out.
The show fast forwards to Rodrigo as an already established conductor which limits the sophistication of the show, pushing out any opportunity to make it ingenious and simply succeeding in making it mediocre.
Rodrigo and Hailey’s characters are likable enough that viewers will ask ‘how did they get there?’ or ‘how did they get to their musical level?’ Very little is explored about Hailey’s educational background with the oboe as well.
It is undeniable that the book, and the series, attempts to provide positive inspiration, but this pertinent link is missing. 
The beautiful shots, picturesque settings, particularly in episode 7: 'You go to my Head', of a rose garden party and some scenes of orchestral rehearsals with conductors may give viewers teeny tiny glimpses of orchestras in real life; besides that there is nothing to glorify it but the show's passable TV value.
The lighthearted humour is intact; the programme may make you smile. And there are lukewarm dramatic moments where characters fall and crumble.
If there, really, is nothing else on television and, for some reason, you can’t watch anything else, then I guess you could watch this, but it is not life changing as Breaking Bad - they are worlds apart. Nor is it as intense and sentimental as the other Amazon Prime series, Transparent.
Another let down is a tacky scene with the ghost of Mozart turning up in the New York library to spook out our maestro. He has an American accent, wears a white 17th century wig with all the frills of a traditional costume. What a load of rubbish!