An Electrifying ‘Mask of Orpheus’ at ENO

 

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Aerialists, Matthew Smith (Orpheus Hero) and Alfa Marks (Eurydice Hero)

 

Commissioned by ENO, The Mask of Orpheus, caused quite a stir, when it premiered at the Coliseum in 1986. Some heralded it as a genius work. Others found it difficult, which probably explains why it has not been fully staged again until now.

There is no doubt that Harrison Birtwistle’s three-hour epic composition was a radical musical departure from the opera on offer at the time. Composers flocked to the premiere to hear Birtwistle’s new sound. The use of prerecorded electronic music to supplement the acoustic score  was deemed highly innovative and damned exciting.

Fast forward to today, I can see why The Mask of Orpheus could be regarded as a challenge to stage. Birtwistle’s version of the myth is not linear. Orpheus’s tale of love and loss is played out over and over in Ground Hog day fashion.

There is a further detail to test the patience of the traditional opera goer; in Mask of Orpheus, Orpheus appears under three different guises: Orpheus The Man, Orpheus The Hero and Orpheus the Myth. Birtwistle was obsessed with the classics and was particularly drawn to Orpheus, who has, over time, he argues, come to embody both the hero and the myth. Birtwistle chose to do the same with Eurydice and her seducer, Aristaeus. 

Confused? It all made sense on stage when I saw it performed the night of the 25th of October. Orpheus Man was the young Orpheus in love, Orpheus the Myth, the older version of Orpheus who had taken to drink. In Hero guises, Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus, didn’t sing but mimed and performed balletically on ropes. Former circus performers and aerialists, Matthew Smith, Alfa Marks and Leo Hedman were amazing, reenacting the passion, jealousy, rage and finally tenderness felt by Orpheus for his wife (see header image).

Indeed all the dancers were outstanding in this production, displaying split-second timing, and great versatility and control. The dance troupe performing various mythic characters were extraordinary to watch, their jerky, desperate movements behind a glass wall, mimicking angry, trapped insects. The choreography was underpinned by the bee theme as Aristaeus is not only Eurydice’s seducer but also beekeeper and representative of  nature. Barnaby Booth’s choreography was quite brilliant. He is definitely one to watch out for in future operatic and theatrical productions. 

On the night, Birtwistle’s music still sounded fresh and inventive after all these years. It was accessible and engaging too. In sections, I could distinguish Wagnerian strains and melodies which started off as background sound, only to suddenly swell like waves rising slowly in the deep ocean. Claire Barnett-Jones, playing Eurydice Myth, was a superb ‘Valkyrie’, both in body and voice, and so were the furies. 

Peter Hoare was equally impressive, as Orpheus Man in crimson wrap, decorated with sparkling  lyre. Sporting blonde spiky hair, Hoare bore an uncanny resemblance to comedian Eddie Izzard. He was captivating throughout, dying and being reborn again, repeating the same mistake with Eurydice. His voice and enunciation were superb. I could understand every word that he sung, even when his speech was supposed to be unintelligible! Memorable was his haunting, pared down, jazzy delivery of Cole Porter’s song, ’Every time we say goodbye’ as he slow-danced with Eurydice Woman on the bed. Marta Fontanals-Simmons, incarnating the young Eurydice had tremendous presence and  the purity and passion in her voice, expressed the newness of her love for Orpheus most eloquently.

The staging was a dress designer’s dream. You couldn’t miss the furies with their bright orange beehives, exaggerated posteriors and breasts, squeezed into rubber dresses. They were reminiscent of  Nicki de Saint  Phalle’s swollen statues in the Stravinsky Fountain, Paris.

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Katie Stevenson, Charlotte Shaw and Katie Coventry as Furies.

 

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Nicki de Saint Phalle’s women.

All in all a totally absorbing, ambitious and cohesive production of Birtwistle’s monumental work. The ending was absolutely spell-binding, sweet music finally opening up and spilling out into its ecstatic conclusion.

A unique and unforgettable experience! 

 

KH

The Mask of Orpheus : Remaining performances : 29th October, 7th and 13th November 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

 

Classical Opera Goes Virtual

 

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Tim Benjamin is not the first composer to use digital sound and music in opera. Modern opera is all about experimentation and if you are a small opera company with constrained budgets, virtual is the way to go if you want a chorus in the score!

But this is not quite Tim Benjamin’s story, whose new opera, The Fire of Olympus is a contemporary reimagining of Prometheus’s story of stealing fire from Zeus and of Prometheus’s relationship with Pandora.

Thanks to an outreach programme funded by the Classical Association, Tim Benjamin was able to go in search of his chorus by travelling around the North of England this year. He visited choruses and choral societies with opera singer, Michael Jones, who plays Hephaestus in this production, and managed to amass 1,000 amateur singers! They turned out to be a very diverse crowd in the workshops but all of them embraced their role as Vox Populi in the classically-inspired opera Benjamin had written.

Once back from his UK wanderings, Benjamin assembled his recordings, comprising of song and the spoken word. In the properly staged 2hr opera you will be able to hear the finished product in surround sound.

I got a taster of what is to come the other evening when I went to listen to Tim Benjamin talk about the project and to hear his soloists perform the highlights.

Tim Benjamin was affable and engaging describing his journey into the musical genre. He had already written an opera on Emily Davison’s life (the suffragette who threw herself in front of the King’s horse). However it was his oratorio, Herakles, which got him thinking about Prometheus (if you know your mythology you will know that Heracles freed Prometheus from his eternal torment of having his liver pecked out by an eagle). The present opera backtrack to Prometheus’s story, before his spat with Zeus.

Four singers sat down in a row on stage. Over the speakers came a crescendoing babble (the chorus). Prometheus stood up. Sophie Dicks in a pulled-down hoodie, men’s shoes and trousers, was highly convincing as a man. She sang the mezzo-soprano role with conviction, power and intensity. The same could be said of Elspeth Marrow, singing the other ‘trouser-role’, that of of Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother. Both of the young women’s handling of the Handel-inspired score was impressive. So too were baritone, Robert Glyndwr Garland, Zeus and President of Olympus (the parallels to be drawn with Donald Trump are clear!), and soprano, Charlotte Hoather, singing Pandora. 

The libretto, sung in English, worked well mostly except when the aim was to shock and to bring us up to today’s zeitgeist. Pandora singing ‘A fuck is just a fuck’ jarred because she looked so demure! But maybe it is supposed to as at the end of the aria she is crying out for revolution!

What was really inspired was the weaving of the amalgamated chorus into the opera. When Prometheus sings in the finale, ‘What’s done is done… The fire will spread..’ You know we are all doomed!

What started out as an outreach programme for Tim Benjamin, has developed into a staged opera. In Brexit Britain composers are having to be more inventive in the way they raise money for their projects. Perhaps this is a good thing and will bring new blood and fresh ideas to a genre which seemed to be running out of steam not so long ago. No longer.

KH

For more information: https://radiusopera.org/productions/the-fire-of-olympus/