Trouble in Rice’s Underworld

 

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Emma Rice’s ENO staging of Orpheus in the Underworld has been much maligned in the traditional press recently, much to my dismay. Her efforts to update this nineteenth century operetta to suit the modern zeitgeist and ‘me too’  sensibility have been frowned upon by those supposedly in the know, who see her efforts to change storylines and libretto as “vulgar” and humourless. 

Emma Rice is anything but! She does like to provoke but in many ways there is method to her madness. Much research for a start. And so what if she gets a little carried away sometimes!

Rice follows a long tradition of creatives who have tried to inject new meaning into traditional story-lines. Offenbach himself, cooked up a storm with the press in 1858, when he opened his two-act Orpheus in the Underworld (he wrote two versions – one two act and a later four act) at the Bouffes-Parisiens. On that occasion, the press accused him of satirising Gluck’s elegant Orpheus and Eurydice, of blaspheming antiquity and of attacking Napoleon III – in short he had created a monster!

Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice was serious and romantic by comparison (see my recent review of Orpheus and Eurydice at ENO here: McGregor’s Dance in ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ Gets the Youth Backing)  

In Offenbach’s reincarnation of the myth, the luckless pair are married and unhappily so.

Despite the press’s opposition, Napoleonic society did give Offenbach’s controversial production a chance, and before long, the composer had a huge success on his hands.

When Rice first set eyes on Offenbach’s operetta, she was much disturbed by the representation of Offenbach’s Eurydice as an angry wife, who slept around happily with different gods from Mount Olympus and the Underworld. What was the point, thought the seasoned theatre director, if a modern audience doesn’t feel any sympathy towards Orpheus’s frisky wife. For Eurydice to sleep with Pluto (disguised as a shepherd), Rice wanted her to have a good reason. The reason came in the form of the death of Eurydice’s and Orpheus’s baby and their inability to bond over their grief.

Rice’s tragic narrative add-on has disturbed today’s journalists, who see it as a step too far, a cheap trick and out of place in what is supposed to be a light-hearted operetta. I disagree.

The humour was sparkling in the performance I attended. Alex Otterburn singing Pluto, was magnificent. When he tosses his long curly mane and swishes around in a sequinned suit and flame-tipped trousers with barbed tail singing, ‘I’m as handsome as hell’, you cannot help but laugh. He’s exuberant, a wonderful tenor and perfect for the riotous, rakish role.

Mary Bevan’s Eurydice brought gravitas to the operetta. She was truly moving when she delivered heart-breaking lines such as ‘What is this sweet and strange sensation’ and ‘The mess of living falls away’ in her sweet soprano voice as she lies dying from a snake bite. As a grief-stricken mother, Bevan was totally plausible welcoming death and infernal love as a way of blotting out the trauma of losing a child. Most reviewers, I am happy to say, have praised Bevan’s performance.

The cast of gods and goddesses was equally strong. Willard White’s bass baritone stood out as it should and he played Jupiter displaying just the right amount of calm authority and seductive power as befits the top dog on Mount Olympus. Under that charm, was a person who lies to get what he wants. He seduces Eurydice disguised as a fly, then tricks Orpheus finally with disastrous consequences. Jupiter’s underhand behaviour in the final act is another Emma Rice construct. 

The stage and costumes did much to lighten the mood. Lots of colourful sequin dresses on Mount Olympus in Act II. The kingdom was a gleaming multi-levelled Hollywoodian swimming pool, complete with bellboy servants serving drinks. The gods, backed up by the chorus, created a wonderfully rich sound. Really impressive. Sometimes I had to remind myself I was at the opera though, not watching a Busby Berkley production!

Memorable too, were the Underworld scenes, notably the Peep Show in which poor Eurydice finds herself. Alan Oke playing Styx, stood out as Pluto’s sleazy henchman. Long-haired with a bald patch and dressed in a long, dirty cardigan and mack, he sang a show-stopping “King of Poland” number. Here, he not only displayed his amazing voice but his great comedic ability too.

 

ENO Orpheus in the Underworld 2019, (c) Clive Barda (8)

My concerns were channelled towards the final Act IV, where Rice introduced amplification and a mic at the infernal party where the ghostly gallop infernal ie the can-can, is performed. I am a fan of Rice’s, but mics are clearly redundant in opera! Singers  have spent the best part of their lives building up their voices and have no need of them. The use of amplification and bright lighting had already caused Emma Rice’s premature departure as artist director at the Globe Theatre in 2018. 

Disappointing too was Act IV abrupt end. The tragedy on stage did not reflect in the music. Rice however could not change Offenbach’s music, hence the disconnect.

Otherwise I really enjoyed the performance and one cannot take away the brilliance of the stellar cast. I feel I have not done them justice in this review but go and see for yourselves.

And one other thing – it’s my little guilty secret. I have seen a lot of opera in my time but never Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. I had no preconceived ideas on how it should be staged or performed. I was coming to it fresh, like probably hundreds of late-teens I saw in the Coliseum audience that night, who seemed to enjoy the show as much as I did.

 

KH

Orpheus in the Underworld remaining dates: 23rd, 30th October. 1st, 8th, 12th, 21st, 26, 28th November. Matinées 19, 26th October

Still running Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice: 17th, 24th 31st October. 14 and 19th November

Gauguin Portraits at the National Gallery

 

Would you have left your teenage daughter alone with Paul Gauguin? If her expression in Gauguin’s portrait (above) is anything to go by, Thérèse-Josephine de Nimal was none too happy at the prospect. Actually, she was probably chaperoned but even so, the studio must have been positively crackling with electricity that day. Gauguin decided to celebrate what the National Gallery’s blurb coyly refers to as Thérèse’s ‘transition to womanhood’ by including a sculpture – one of his own, in fact – of a copiously menstruating figure in the bottom right-hand corner of the canvas. Not surprisingly Thérèse’s mother, the Comtesse de Nimal, was not amused and declined to buy the painting. Gauguin always loved to push the boundaries.

These days Gauguin (1848-1903) is a problematic artist: white privilege, cultural appropriation, #Me Too, he ticks all the boxes. The NG is upfront about this, conceding that ‘European colonial and misogynist fantasies about Polynesian women were widespread…(and) the artist did more than most in acting these out’. It’s rather telling that, with a single exception, all the paintings of Tahitian beauties shown here are the ones in which they’re not nude but wearing ‘missionary’ dresses. On the other hand, the organisers don’t help the defence by retaining the artist’s original titles with their frequent references to ‘savages’, although Gauguin would have considered the term a compliment and often applied it to himself. He also went round telling everyone he was a great artist and in this respect at least he has surely been vindicated. Besides, we might have to wait another decade for a major Gauguin show in London (the last was in 2010), so this isn’t one to miss.

 

Paul Gauguin, Contes barbares, 1902, Oil on canvas, 131.5 × 90.5 cm, Museum Folkwang Essen (Inv. G 54)© Museum Folkwang Essen/ARTOTHEK

 

On the face of it, the idea of focussing on Gauguin as a portraitist is rather odd, because his whole schtick lay in subjective experience rather than literal reality; he would not be ‘shackled by the need of probability’, as he put it. Not surprisingly, though, as a man obsessed with his own persona he painted a lot of self-portraits, ostensibly grouped in the first room but actually scattered round the whole show. And naturally he had no qualms about representing himself on the slopes of Golgotha or more explicitly as ‘Christ in the Garden of Olives’ (1889), sporting – for reasons not explained here – shocking ginger hair. Why wouldn’t he? Had he too not suffered and been forced to offer himself up for martyrdom? (To be fair, Gauguin was hardly the first artist to make this association).

Otherwise, although Gauguin did do a few ‘straight’ portraits like that of Thérèse-Josephine, he mostly employed his friends and associates, both in France and later on Tahiti, as stock characters in his narratives. He had great fun, for example, with the lugubrious features of fellow artist Meijer de Haan, whom he used as a sinister foil to the natural innocence of the native girls in ‘Barbarian Tales’ (1902), pictured above. Gauguin also did at least one portrait of another, far better-known Dutch artist: Van Gogh. This isn’t in the show, although the curators have included a painting of sunflowers which, they suggest, may be a ‘surrogate portrait’ of him. Maybe, maybe not.

 

Paul Gauguin, Père Paillard, 1902, Painted miro wood, 67.9 x 18 x 20.7 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.238, Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

 

This is quite a small exhibition – just 55 works – but as well as paintings there’s a good selection of his often neglected but highly original sculptures in clay and wood. Of the latter, one in particular not only shows that Gauguin did a good line in satire but also makes you warm to him. Monseigneur Joseph Martin was a local bishop with whom he conducted a lively feud during his final sojourn in the remote Marquesas. Martin had chided the artist for his loose morals while at the same time, Gauguin knew, he was carrying on with his own housekeeper. In 1902 Gauguin did a carving of him as ‘Père Paillard’ (‘Father Lechery’), squatting totem-like with horns, which he set up on a plinth outside his house. Pot – kettle – black! Martin had to walk past it every day.

Unfortunately ‘Père Paillard’ had the last laugh because within a year Gauguin – embittered, debilitated by syphilis, seemingly forgotten – was dead. He was only 54. His last self-portrait is a revelation: bespectacled and with a neat goatee, he looks the very model of propriety. Less the devil incarnate, more like a retired banker, which in another life he had indeed once been. Was this the real Gauguin, beneath all the bravado and bluster? Probably not. Strange man.

NM

 

Paul Gauguin; Portrait de l’artiste par lui-même; 1903
Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait, 1903, Oil on canvas, 41.4 × 23.5 cm, © Kunstmuseum Basel (1943)

 

Gauguin Portraits at the National Gallery London until 20 January 2020

Header image: Paul Gauguin, Young Breton Woman, 1889, Oil on canvas, 46 × 38 cm, Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

Into the Night at the Barbican

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Shadow Theatre at Le Chat Noir, Paris. 

I always look forward to the Barbican Gallery’s exhibitions. Theme-based with enticing titles, they always capture my imagination. The last show I covered there, entitled Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde (see here LOVE IN A CREATIVE CLIMATE) in January of this year, was riveting. With the theme of power couples in art, the curators had their work cut out for them. It was an enormous show. Letters featured in great numbers, as well as paintings, sculptures, photographs and textile prints. I remember been amused by Camille Claudel’s letters to Rodin.

When I turned up to Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art this week, the galleries seemed sparsely furnished in comparison.

I could see the curator’s challenge though. Cabarets and bars are all about atmosphere which is hard to evoke in paintings and photographs.

Walking up the steps, I entered Paris. Le Chat Noir corner to be precise. The cabaret sprung up in Montmartre in the late nineteenth century. Entertainment then consisted of poetry, improvised monologues and satyrical songs. The first artists and writers, who came here,  liked to call themselves ‘Hydropathes’, those afraid of water (ie wine and beer drinkers)

As Le Chat Noir grew in popularity and occupied larger premises, up sprung another source of entertainment, the Shadow theatre (see header image)

An arrangement of zinc silhouettes adorn the wall at the Barbican. It’s hard to imagine that they were used for such ambitious stagings of religious tales, epics and complete fantasies. People flocked to see these plays in a grand room hung with drawings by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

I run my eyes over a strange creatures with wings, a maid and a Napoleonic soldier on a horse. Later at home, I read of a production entitled L’Epopée (The Epic) performed in 1887 by Caran d’Ache at Le Chat Noir. It was a grandiose work replete with heroic Napoleonic scenes in twenty tableaux.

Back at the gallery, I peer down at the exhibition space below, where much larger recreations of the puppets, twist and turn above peoples’s heads and project large shadows upon the walls.

Still in Paris I turn my attention to dancer  Loïe Fuller, who performed at the Folies Bergère in the 1890’s. Fuller became known for her mesmeric dances, using her costume, poles and lighting to creative effect. Toulouse-Lautrec, clearly captivated by her, produced a series of hand-coloured lithographs.  In the gallery, I was particularly drawn to La Danse du Feu. It’s strange – so used are we to seeing mass-produced posters of Lautrec’s dancers, that we forget that they were of talented performers! Knowing a little about Fuller now, I will look out for her in the poster shops.

At the show, an early film features an imitator of Fuller. This dancer performs a flower dance. The effect produced is rather like peering through a child’s magic kaleidoscope.

Next I was in Vienna 1907 at the Fledermaus cabaret which was renowned for its spectacular, modern, tiled interior. Visitors at the show were treated to a recreation of the multi-coloured tiled bar, which you can admire on the lower level  of the exhibition. Gleaming tiles displayed fantastical motifs but the installation itself seemed oddly bare with no waiters or singers to animate the space. Music, which had been wafting up to the upper levels, had ceased. I think I might have missed a show!

Sticking to Europe, I peeped into the Berlin Weimar Nightlife of the 1920s and 30s. Of interest was Rudolf Schlicher’s Damenkneiper (Women’s Club), a painting depicting women dressed in men’s attire and sporting bobs. In Germany, women had got the right to vote in 1919, and were now, not only taking their liberated selves out, but foregoing masculine company as well.

Mexico of the 1920s was a welcome addition to the exhibition. At the Café de Nadie in Mexico City  radical artists and writers met to  discuss new political and social ideas following the Mexican revolution. Slogans such as ‘Chopin to the Electric Chair’ must have driven Chopin-playing pianists underground! In 1924 the radical group held its first  exhibition which embraced poetry, performance, music, woodcuts and paintings. Masks were also used, showing the movement’s attachment to ancient culture.

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Mexican masks by sculptor Germán Cueto 1924

A celebration of indigenous culture also came up in what was to me the most interesting part of the show: the Nigerian Mbari Clubs. They came into being in the early 1960s, after Nigeria’s independence. ‘Mbari’  was an Igbo word for ‘creation’ and the first club was open-air in the university town of Ibadan. Here writers, musicians and actors congregated to read their poetry, exhibit their art and perform music and dance. Another club opened in Osogbo and became home to the Yoruba opera company. 

oznorHBOil portrait Self-portrait of Suffering 1961 by Ibrahim El-Salahi

The clubs were both influenced by Western art but were rooted in their own tradition. I loved the art on display particularly an oil portrait by Ibrahim El-Salahi but also a black and white film of a performance of drumming and dance where the cheekiness of the woman dancer wanting to outdo her male dance partner is delightful to watch. The joy and exuberance of all taking part in the musical event warms the soul.

And this was the strength of this part of the show – that you could see, hear and feel the atmosphere of the club. 

An imperfect show but with fascinating insights into clubs from further afield. 

KH

Talks, music and film accompanying the show: https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2019/event/into-the-night-cabarets-clubs-in-modern-art

 

 

‘Rembrandt’s Light’ lights up Dulwich

 

A new show has opened for autumn at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It’s called Rembrandt’s Light. It’s intelligent, empathetic, surprising and at one point breathtaking, and I urge you all to go and see it as soon as possible.

Dulwich, the UK’s earliest purpose-built public picture gallery (it was founded in 1811), was designed by Sir John Soane, an architect obsessed with light. Soane’s architecture suits Rembrandt – his idiosyncrasy, his small spaces within larger rooms, the domesticity he celebrates, and Soane’s understanding of the nature of outside light inside, as well. One senses off-stage at the Gallery a great deal of determination therefore to make Dulwich the premier London site for this Rembrandt year – 2019 being the 350th  anniversary of the artist’s death. Because if ever there was an artist obsessed with exploring light and its effects, and equally adept at manipulating those effects – visually, temporally and emotionally – it was Rembrandt.

The first mighty coup Dulwich have achieved here is to have their show lit by the cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who lit Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back amongst many another major movie. This, you might think, would be quite starry enough, but the show takes the ethos of the movies further, until it has you thinking about light, and its opposite, darkness, in ways that make it quite one of the most arresting and satisfying exhibitions I have seen this year.

It has fun with the theatricality of the paintings, first of all. ‘EXT. JERUSALEM – NIGHT,’ begins the wall-text for one of the show’s major loans, the Denial of St Peterof 1660, which you would usually have to go to the Rijksmuseum to see, as if Rembrandt were storyboarding a movie. Then, balancing the fun with proper heavyweight curatorial purpose, you are led to see (in my case, for the first time) how Rembrandt uses light in this work to depict time itself – the fiery glow up-front, at the surface of the painting, where St Peter utters his third denial, and in the murk of its background, Christ with his hands bound, hearing the words, and slowly, resignedly, turning toward their source.

The Denial of St Peter

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Denial of St Peter, 1660. © The Rijksmuseum

The showstopper here – and at the press view, it had hardened reviewers gasping – is the lighting of the Royal Collection’s Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb. Hung on a wall in Buckingham Palace, I hate to say it, but it’s just another 17th-century religious painting. The way it is displayed here, with the lighting set to softly intensify around it, you come as close as you could reasonably expect to sharing the Magdalen’s astonished, almost terrified recognition of Christ; and you see as well the brilliance in Rembrandt’s own lighting of the scene: the symbolism of the dawn, the painful brightness of Christ’s robes, the light cast on the Magdalen’s face as she finally sees him for who he is.

Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb

Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, 1638, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Rembrandt of course created his works with no such 21st-century aids; all he had in his ruinously expensive house and studio on the Breestraat in Amsterdam were daylight and candles, but if that house gave him his light, no wonder he thought it was worth going broke for. Two of the rooms in the show (and it’s not huge, by any means, there are only 35 works and five separate spaces, and a very open hang – ‘slow-looking’ is what this show is about) recreate a studio-room in that house as it is shown in his own drawings and etchings of it – the large window, the linen hung above the window to reflect light down into the room, and then the same space as it would have appeared to his students by night, as they worked away under flickering candles with a slumbering fire in the grate. One lovely example of how intelligently this show has been hung shows the studio by day, with a model, half-clothed, sat under that fall of light, keeping warm by a stove; and then beside it is a study of a half-clothed model sat just as she might have appeared in that studio to the artist.

The Artist's Studio

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Artist’s Studio, c. 1658. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The final room (see image at top) contains a run of portraits, including Dulwich’s own wondrous Girl at a Window of 1645. Here she’s been hung against a panel of one of those state-of-the art super-blacks, so she seems to be hanging in a void. She hangs between a model waiting very likely in Rembrandt’s own bed, and very likely for Rembrandt himself, drawing back the bed curtain at his approach; and the artist’s study of his partner Hendrickje Stoffels, standing in a stream. Why Hendrickje should be paddling about in a stream at night, dressed only in her shift, no-one ever asks. The whole point of the scene is its sparkle – a word Rembrandt used about his paintings in 1639. The final work in the show is Rembrandt himself, in his self-portrait of 1642. He too is looking highly twinkly – as well he might.

Visitors should look in on the small display of ‘Artists in Amsterdam’, as well, which makes its own quiet point of London’s European connections. And don’t forget the deeply pleasing exhibition publication, either, which has big, high-quality illustrations and a properly thought-through narrative. Dulwich is pioneering a £5 ticket for this show, for 18-30 years olds. Scoop up as many as you can find, and take them with you.

JCH

‘Rembrandt’s Light’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery, 4 October 2019 – 2 February 2020

Top: ‘Rembrandt’s Light’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Lighting by ERCO. Photography by Gavriil Papadiotis.

 

McGregor’s Dance in ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ Gets the Youth Backing

 

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Dancers in the Underworld.  Company Wayne

London was in the eye of a rainstorm on the opening night of Orpheus and Eurydice at the ENO so I was relieved to step into the Colosseum’s warm, crimson interior and bound up the stairs to my seat. In the dress circle, people were filming the grand auditorium and taking pictures of the colourful safety curtain for ENO’s 2019/20 season, comprising a lyre-playing Apollo and Orpheus on violin, painted in the style of a Chagall or a Dufy.

A little frisson down the rows made me look round: a young man with a well trimmed beard was descending the stair with a retinue of blonde women flicking their sun-bleached hair and laughing. Were they stars from the Made in Chelsea cast?

An announcement was made. Alice Coote, playing Orpheus (she always plays the trouser role) was pulling herself out of her sick bed to entertain us that night.

Gluck’s opera has just three solo singing parts and Alice Coote, singing Orpheus, had the principal one. I wondered whether it wouldn’t have been more sensible to get an understudy, but I imagined Coote was the last person to bow out of anything. I hoped she was going to survive this stage marathon, and also (quite selfishly) – to impress.

My mind turned to other matters; namely the dance element in this opera. Much had been made of the fact that Orpheus and Eurydice was a collaboration between ENO and studio Wayne McGregor. Classical dance is no new thing in opera and there’s plenty of it in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice! What I was anticipating was however some modern choreography and a new type of interaction with the singers.

In the ENO programme, McGregor, a perfectionist I imagine, rightfully voiced the challenges of combining the two mediums. “I’ve worked on about eighteen operas, and I’m always trying to work out the best way to work with the singer and the dancer. It can be a very difficult hybrid”. 

Yes! On the night in question, I hoped that it would be both imaginative and would bring a new element to the mythic narrative.

Orpheus, devastated by the death of his wife, Eurydice, goes to the underworld to get her back. He has been told by Love, that he has a chance of drawing her out of Hades by singing beautifully. HIs voice can placate Cerberus, the furies.

There were moments when the dancers shone, for example as furies in Act II in the underworld in their reflective costumes (see header pic). In Act III  they worked well with Gluck’s elegant score in a modern interpretation of a formal dance before the Elysian Fields scene.

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ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE by Christoph Willibald Gluck the first production of the English National Opera (ENO) Orpheus myth season at the London Coliseum, WC2 opening on 1st October 2019 with 7 further performances until 19th November directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor conducted by Harry Bicket set design: Lizzie Clachan costume design: Louise Gray lighting design: Jon Clark

 

Memorable also was the bird dance duet performed by two male dancers, their backs beautifully arched, their chests thrust forward to suggest two plump birds. However elsewhere, the dancers were de trop in what was already an emotionally charged libretto (there was much talk of heartbreak and wanting death). Here they became a distraction, when the audience should have been concentrating on the singer’s voice.

Despite my misgivings, there is no doubt that for the younger members in the audience, the dancers were a cool addition to their entertainment.

The ENO chorus was outstanding as usual. McGregor’s decision to put them in the orchestra pit was an interesting one. On the one hand, their voices wafted up celestially, all the way to the dress circle where I was sitting. There was a problem however. The absence of chorus on stage created great gaps on either side and there was little or no scenery, other than a flickering screen. 

Alice Coote meanwhile showed her mettle. She started off a little feebly in the opening act and seemed to have trouble mounting her scales in the big bravura aria. She was supposed to be grief- stricken though after her wife’s death from a snakebite, so we could say she was in character. 

Sarah Tynan, singing Eurydice, spent most of the first act lying suspended in a glass tank, like one of Damian Hirst’s luckless animal specimens. It was quite effecting and dreamlike. 

Vocally, acts IV and V were more compelling. Tynan sang her disappointment movingly, when she believed her husband was cold towards her. The duet, with Coote singing “My soul is in torment” and Tynan “In a sleep everlasting” was poignantly expressed. Coote built up to the famous aria, “Where is love without you,” and the sincerity in her voice rang true.

And there is no denying that Gluck’s music is ravishing with life-enhancing echoes of Vivaldi and Rameau (Gluck much admired the two composers) This production however is Berlioz’s adaption of the original opera.

Conductor Harry Bicket, made a good job of ensuring that the strings, flutes and harps, conjoined to create a bright, sophisticated, focussed sound. The audience in the end was appreciative but divided on the dance. An ageist gulf seemed to have opened up at the end. The younger generation gave Wayne McGregor and his troupe thunderous applause but there was muttering along my row.

You can’t please everyone but actually the applause was decent and appreciative overall. 

I’m looking forward to ENO’s next offering in the Orpheus cycle: ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ directed by former Globe director, Emma Rice. No doubt there will be much debate over her directorial decisions too. She is no stranger to controversy! But I really hope it works as I’m a great fan of hers!

All in all, a promising start to the Orpheus cycle and ENO is to be thanked, once again, for endeavouring to encourage new creative approaches to opera. In this way, the genre is more likely to grow and become more relevant to our times.

KH

Orpheus and Eurydice continues at ENO : Oct 10, 17, 24, 31 & Nov 14, 19 at 19:30. Oct 12 at 14:00

 

Pietà Premieres in London: Interview with composer Richard Blackford

 

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In June 2019 Frances Wilson reviewed Pietà, a new choral work by Richard Blackford for The Cross-Eyed Pianist. Drawing on the theme of maternal grief and loss, Blackford took as his starting point the Stabat Mater. It is a hymn to Mary, and portrays her suffering as Jesus Christ’s mother at his crucifixion. In his exploration of maternal grief, Blackford decided to add Anna Akhmatova’s cycle of poems, Requiem, to the libretto. Written in 1938 when her son Lev was arrested by Stalin’s secret police, they are a record of the anguish she felt when she believed that she had lost him for good. 

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Portrait of Anna Akhmatova 1914 by Nathan Altman. State Russian Museum

At Pietà’s world premiere, at the Lighthouse, Poole, the musicians and solo singing artists performed to a packed house and received a standing ovation.

In anticipation of Pietà’s London premiere at Cadogan Hall on the 19th October, Karine Hetherington of artmuselondon.com interviewed the composer, Richard Blackford.

When did you first start working on Pietà? And what were the creative stages of the work?

In 2017. It was following a visit to Rome where I saw the famous Michelangelo statue in St Peter’s. What struck me was how moving and sad the story of Pietà was, of Mary cradling her crucified son. I wondered how something so sad, could be also so beautiful and so inspiring in so many ways.

I decided to set the Stabat Mater text, although I was aware it had been set over 200 times. At the same time I was moved by stories about mothers losing their children in the Syrian war. I couldn’t quite finalise my approach to it until I found some poems by Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet. She wrote a series of poems called Requiem when her son was taken away by the KGB. In them she used very strong Stabat Mater imagery.

How do you work and how long did it take to complete Pietà?

I immerse myself in one work at a time. I block out everything and work very long hours. Getting into it is the hardest thing but once the first of the movements was written for Pietà, I had a handle on the musical language.

It took five months in all to write. It would have taken longer if I had had a full orchestra. This was written for string orchestra and soprano saxophone.

How did it come to you?  Generally composing do you start with words or music?

In this case it was the words first. I wasn’t sure where Anna Akhmatova’s poems would come in or how many poems I would set. Two of them are in fact set back to back in one huge mezzo aria. The other poem I found extraordinary was when Akhmatova wrote “A chorus of angels sang/In that momentous hour”. I thought, the music I write for this mustn’t be saccharine. These are no Hollywood angels! I wanted a tumultuous cry of avenging angels. I wanted it to be more about the mother’s rage. I decided that my setting of the Stabat Mater which is normally slow and meditative, was going to be dramatic. As well as grief, it was going to be about rage and finally acceptance. It would be about earning a place in paradise, not just being granted redemption for no particular reason. I think it gives the music an edge.

Do you play different instruments? How are you able to write for other instruments?

Well I’m a pianist – not a very good one. I used to play percussion, the viola for a few years. But I’ve been a professional conductor all my life and so as a composer and conductor it’s just part of the job to know how to score for every instrument. I’ve always tried to write for instruments and voices, music that is good to play and good to sing. If it’s well written for them – to me – that’s part of the job.

Do you need absolute quiet to work in?

I really do. I’m lucky enough to have a studio in my house in Oxfordshire. I work eight or nine hour days with perhaps a walk around the village in between. When my wife comes home from work she asks me to play back what I’ve written. Sometimes she’ll just nod. Sometimes she’ll say: “I’ve got a real sense of where that’s going”. Her opinion as a listener is very important to me although she is not classically trained. It’s nice because it can be a very lonely path being a composer.

When you are composing, do you stop listening to other music?

That’s a good question. I don’t deliberately stop listening to other music. Perhaps a better way to answer your question is to say that before I start a piece, I do a lot of research. In other words when I was writing the  Stabat Mater, I did listen to a dozen Stabat Maters, including contemporary settings as well, in order to have an insight into how other composers have treated the same text. Research is something I learned through doing my PhD in music. Research is not only necessary but is also very pleasurable.

Is composing a necessity for you? Do you have breaks when you are not  composing?

It is a necessity. Whether it’s composing or being creative in another way, it’s the only thing I really know how to do. I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I start to get cranky if I’m not composing or researching.

Pietà premiered at the Lighthouse, Poole in June this year. What was it like hearing it being performed for the first time?

I knew musically how it would sound as it’s my job to know that. What is impossible to anticipate is particularly how the soloists will interpret your work. I wasn’t prepared for the power of Jennifer Johnston’s interpretation of Anna Akhmatova’s poems [Her mezzo-soprano part will be sung by Catherine Wyn-Rogers at the Cadogan Hall] . I hate the expression but they “blew me away”! I wasn’t prepared for how sweet and moving the children’s chorus was because the Stabat Mater is a bleak, dark piece and yet I try to bring elements of light into it. The children’s chorus is like finding water in the desert.

Are you sensitive to different music venues? Pietà will be performed at the Cadogan Hall this month.

In some ways the sound may be more powerful at Cadogan Hall because it’s smaller. In the Cadogan Hall you will be able to hear the words more clearly. My feeling about performance is that once we’ve recorded it, and we have recorded it with Nimbus records, then I let it go. Then if another conductor wants to take it faster or slower, I don’t mind at all because the work has a life of its own then. At least the recording is how I intended it.

Any mad projects in the pipeline?

Very odd that you should ask that! I’m working on a very large orchestral commission about madness. I’m writing a piece for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales about British artist, Richard Dadd, the Victorian painter who was schizophrenic. He murdered his father and was confined to Bethlehem hospital in the mid 19th century. The governor of the asylum saw that he was a hugely talented artist and gave him paints and canvases. For forty years he produced extraordinary paintings. He has works in Tate Britain. The piece is about the thin line between creativity and madness and also how art can redeem someone.

Well we may be coming back to you to ask you about this when it’s finished!

In the meantime I look forward to Pietà’s London premiere at the Cadogan Hall, Saturday 19th October. 

For tickets : https://cadoganhall.com/whats-on/bournemouth-symphony-chorus-2019/

Benjamin Britten and the Challenge of Singing

 

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Portrait of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten  by Kenneth Green 1943

 

The voice is an extraordinary thing. Air pumped from our lungs, passes over the fleshy folds in our throat, to emit a full spectrum of sounds. Some more pleasing than others.

Last weekend I shouted and screamed so hard at a football match that I I woke up hoarse!

Professional singers cannot afford to lose their most precious asset – their money spinning, life-enhancing, voice. They will go to great lengths to protect it and spend decades training it to be as versatile as possible; to weather all musical challenges.

And even then they worry: When I interviewed star baritone, Jacques Imbrailo, at the Royal Opera House recently Interview: Star Baritone Jacques Imbrailo , Imbrailo talked about what many professional singers at all levels feel about contemporary music, that it has to be handled with great care. 

New operas are sometimes frustrating to prepare for, rhythmically and harmonically. For him the old composers wrote better for the voice. This didn’t stop him earning himself great reviews in Britten’s Billy Budd both at Glynebourne and at the Royal Opera House.

Benjamin Britten, although not absolutely modern (he died in December 1976) had a way of testing his singers, notably tenor Peter Pears, who was also his life partner.

On September 21st, I attended the opening of the Kensington Olympia Music Festival of Music and the Arts  (KOFMA) where an ambitious programme of Britten Song Cycles had been chosen to wet our palates this season. It was an interesting choice of programme, for not only are Britten’s songs a challenging sing, but they are not always easy for audiences, unfamiliar with the work.

I had never heard Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, which Britten wrote in 1940 during his time in the United States. Britten dedicated it to Peter Pears, who was much daunted by the prospect of singing the work which required formidable agility in the vocal range. Pears, who was at the beginning of his career, gave himself time to prepare, and didn’t sing Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo in public until September 1942 at the Wigmore Hall. 

At the KOFMA opening I attended, James Black’s tenor voice, with its warm, rich tones, were gorgeousness incarnate. Perfectly suited to sing Britten’s extended love letter to Peter Pears, Black’s performance had however two tiny chinks. Several squeaks after he had hit certain notes cleanly. I am no expert on why this happened but these so-called slips added authenticity to the anguished emotions Britten was endeavouring to express. Black’s performance is one which I will remember – it was so emotionally charged.

Young soprano (22 years of age) Bonnie Callaghan sang On This Island. Of note was the achingly beautiful Nocturne which she sang to perfection.

The high point of the evening was Britten’s late work Phaedra which he dedicated to Dame Janet Baker. Its full title is Op.93 Dramatic Cantata for Mezzo-Soprano. And dramatic it is. It not only requires virtuosity with the voice but fine acting skills. The audience needs to believe that the singer is Phaedra, married to Theseus and in love with her step son Hippolytus, and suffering much on account of the shame she feels for transgressing social mores.

If anyone was going to pull off the work, it was Irish mezzo-soprano Laura Lamph. I have been following her career with interest for the past five years. As a solo artist she has taken on operatic roles such as Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Dido must have prepared her psychologically for Phaedra, (Dido and Phaedra are tormented queens who both decide to take their own lives). Dido however is an easier sing. 

On the evening in question in St Peter’s Church, Lamph’s performance was quite mesmerising. She came to the stage, her face whitened, her black eye-liner accentuating Phaedra’s mad, staring eyes. Without stage props or orchestra, simply a piano to accompany her (the accompanist Miles Lallement is the best in the business) the audience was transported inside her tormented mind.

Meanwhile here is Janet Baker’s Phaedra live recording with orchestra.

 

There is no doubt, Phaedra is an exciting challenge for the mezzo willing to throw herself into the role. It is not for the faint-hearted.

In the end, it is up to singers to decide what roles they want to take on and how they want to sing them. Or is it? Singers are not always in a position to choose. They need to earn a living and put food on the table.

Curious to see how one prepares for a virtuosic, ‘difficult sing’ in this case, Benjamin Britten’s Phaedra, I went to talk about it with Laura Lamph the following day of her performance.

Why did you decide to sing Britten’s Phaedra?

I had originally thought of singing a selection of Britten folk songs but it was suggested by my teacher (Ashley Stafford) and accompanist Miles Lallemant that I should think about singing Phaedra. I thought, why not use the opportunity to challenge myself and the audience. 

What did you think of it at first and what made you think you could do it?

I listened to Janet Baker and Sarah Connolly perform it and I thought, Wow, that is class – I need to sing it. I had a few concerns about the fact that it is quite high as I am not always keen to use the upper limits of my voice. My other thought was whether it would work with piano but I chatted with Miles and we decided that for this particular occasion it would work.

Do you like singing difficult repertoire?

Interesting question, It depends on why it is difficult. Because I am not always in control of the repertoire I perform, I sing quite a lot of difficult music, sometimes I don’t love it all. Basically, I like it if it is worth the effort involved in learning it! Phaedra is an amazing work, so cleverly written and was 100% worth it!

Did you receive help in your preparation? 

Yes, I rehearsed with Miles and the piano and had some lessons working specifically on this piece.

What are the particular difficulties of the piece?

Some people might not find it difficult but for me I would say the extremes of range, the chromatic passages and the frequent changes in time. I worked quite a lot on my character as the presentation in a piece like this makes such a difference.

Did just having the piano for accompaniment make it harder?

I am not sure really as I have not tried it with the orchestra but I would say that I probably had a lot more opportunity to practice with the piano than I would have otherwise. I would definitely like to try it with the other instruments at some point.

Are you protective of your voice?

In my own way I am but you have to live and singing is a big part of my life but not my whole life. I don’t do anything weird and I try not to worry about it too much as I am convinced you can worry yourself into frequent vocal crisis. I am not always at 100% but I always sing unless I am in a bad way, if I didn’t I would be in financial crisis! However, I do try not to party or be wild before a big performance.

Is there some repertoire you refuse to sing because it’s not healthy for the voice?

There have been a couple of occasions were composers ask for strange things to create a certain effect and I know they are not great for my voice, particularly if I have to do them repeatedly.  I usually try and find a cheat or assure the director that I will do it in performance but can certainly not sustain it in days of rehearsal. 

Would you like to perform Phaedra again?

I definitely want to do it again! I am already thinking about a programme I could make it work as part of or possibly even recording it at some point.

KH