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 Classics Association, Tim Benjamin was able to go in search of his chorus by travelling around the Midlands of England this year. He visited choruses and choral societies with his répétiteur 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 Midlands’s chorus into the opera. When Zeus sings in the finale, ‘What is 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/

Is This The Future of Opera? Youthful Exuberance for Opera Holland Park.

 

12.jpgJack Holton (Anckarström) with Blaise Malaba (Ribbing) and Tom Mole (Horn).

 

Like Shakespearean actors and concert pianists, opera singers are outsiders in today’s entertainment world of self-made performers boasting one million subscribers on their Youtube channel.

Accessibility is of course a lovely idea and the internet has certainly provided an equal platform for aspirants. But there is one thing you can be sure of, even with the best will in the world, that you will never become an opera star just like that! Years of training and true grit might just get you over the first hurdle when you first set foot on the stage.

Knowing this, it is astonishing to think that there are still those willing to sacrifice the best of their youth to such a tough profession.

And yet they are, for opera is attracting more young blood and not always from the usual classical music schools. The Nadine Benjamins of this world are on the increase. Benjamin fought her way up from a Brixton council estate to become one of the UK’s most sought after lyrical sopranos. Of course it was a fight for her, even when she managed to find teachers, some of whom were most unhelpfully suggesting that she turn her efforts to jazz.

10Nadine Benjamin singing Amelia.

Still – there are now more job opportunities in opera as it opens up and is performed outside the established venues. The standard used to be middling to good outside ROH, Glynebourne, Garsington but all that has changed. Opera has evolved and what is more astounding, it is starting to get through to the young, thanks to people like Michael Volpe running Opera Holland Park, whose mission it has been to make opera accessible to all.

I was astonished to view a Twitter video recently of school children (10 years plus) giving a standing ovation to Un Ballo in Maschera at Holland Park Opera. The Ballo in question was a Young Artists’ performance of Verdi’s masterpiece. ‘Young artists’ in opera terms denotes singers in their mid to late 20s who are starting out in this careers.

Buoyed by this concept I was curious to see why the young audience had reacted so enthusiastically and made my way to the evening performance of Ballo the following day. The formula was thus: two leads sung by established singers, Nadine Benjamin in this production singing Amelia, and Adriano Graziani the ill-fated Swedish king, Gustavo. The rest of the troupe were youth artists. And of course all the above were supported by a strong OHP chorus and consistently brilliant City of London Sinfonia orchestra. The staging and set were gleaned from the original Ballo production at Holland Park the week before, which had been universally praised by the reviewers.

Never before have I heard Nadine Benjamin sing with such beauty and raw emotion. She was Amelia; married, loyal and gradually worn thin by her feelings for her husband’s employer.Wherever she was on stage she projected with passion and intelligence without overacting. Her centred approach gave more power to that astonishing voice of hers.

Adriano Graziani as Gustavo, excelled in the light-hearted arias in Act One, his bright tenor suiting the role. His body language was however awkward in the more intimate duets with Amelia. In Act III his solos in the penultimate scene were however intensely moving as he decides to let Amelia go to save her honour and marriage. Graziani was a generous support to his page, Oscar, sung by youth singer, Claire Lees. There was a nervous, tightness in Lees’s voice and body language to start (tough when you are singing coloratura) but with Graziani’s encouraging presence beside her, her life-enhancing, crystalline voice took off.

 

3Adriano Graziani (Gustavo) with Claire Lees (Oscar)

Meanwhile, Jack Holton embraced the onerous Anckarström role. At the matinée performance he had caused quite a stir on stage with his impressive stature, pony-tail and caressing baritone. He was almost too seductive for the role. It was only by clomping inelegantly around the stage did he succeed in making himself appear a little more prosaic. His young baritone voice was stretched a little in parts in the lower register, but in the main, it came across as rich and assured.

Other notable performances were Georgia Mae Bishop’s confident portrayal of Madame Arvidson the fortune teller. Conspirators, Ribbing, (Blaise Malaba), and Horn (Tom Mole) provided much needed black comedy to the piece especially in their mocking laughter trio with Anckarström.

Sam Oram finally, in the cameo role of Cristiano, didn’t quite get the opportunity to display his baritone credentials, but he is also someone scaling the operatic ladder.

All in all an exciting, highly ambitious project which came off brilliantly! Conductor, Sonia Ben-Santamaria, also from the young artist scheme, did a fine job of directing City of London Sinfonia in what is a fiendishly difficult opera to conduct with its fast tempos, quintets and intricate arrangements. Slight timing issues, when the French horns ran away with themselves for example, were just blips on an otherwise beautifully fluid interpretation of one of Verdi’s most ravishing of scores.

KH

Schools matinée curtain call of the year 2019: https://www.facebook.com/operahollandpark/videos/424337234958625/?q=Opera%20Holland%20Park&epa=SEARCH_BOX

My review of the adult performance of Ballo: https://artmuselondon.com/2019/06/20/verdis-ballo-in-maschera-a-revelation/

If you are interested in reading about the young artists at Opera Holland Park, here is the link: https://operahollandpark.com/news/introducing-the-opera-holland-park-young-artists-2019

    

Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera. A Revelation.

 

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Verdi and the Naples censor when preparing “Ballo”, 1857–58, caricature by Delfico

 

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, nearly didn’t see the light of day.

The problem lay in Italy’s troubled political situation and the opera’s libretto, based on the assassination of King Gustave III in 1793 during a masked ball. 

When Verdi was set to stage it in Naples in January 1858, the authorities were given more reason to feel jittery. Three Italian revolutionists, who saw Napoleon III as a hindrance to Italy’s unification, threw three bombs at the Emperor’s carriage in Paris. He was making his way to the opera with his wife. The bombs exploded, killing horses, staff. There were eight fatalities and a hundred were injured. Miraculously the Emperor and Empress escaped unharmed!

Back in Naples, the terrified censors asked Verdi to change his story-line, worried over the incendiary message the opera may be sending to the people. Verdi refused. The Neopolitans took to the streets, shouting ‘Viva Verdi.’ Verdi’s surname got caught up in the unification movement and became a code name for those who wanted Vittorio Emmanuele Re DItalia as King.

It wasn’t until February 1859 that Verdi agreed to change the name of the opera (it had taken on several different titles, Gustavo III and even Un Vendetta) to Un Ballo in Maschera, and for the narrative to be set as far away as Boston!

Nowadays the opera is back to its original Swedish setting. It is a political opera but with a love story thrown in. On a deeper level it is also, as the name suggests, an opera about secrecy and the suppression of truth.

Rodula Gaitanou, director of Holland Park Opera’s production, provided a sumptuous opening, drawing on the secrecy theme. It opens on a fencing school, the chorus and main singers, indistinguishable from each other, in their fencing apparel and visors. The set of wood panelling, stretching right  across the stage behind them, shields them from the outside world but also provides secret doors, through which those with things to hide, can disappear.

In the middle of the fencing class, a tightly-suited, young man with shapely thighs, leapt across the set, confidently wielding his foil. Oscar, King Gustavo’s page, is a wonderful incarnation and Alison Langer, bright-voiced and cheeky, sang him to perfection.

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But it is not only the staging, direction and cameo roles which impress, in this Holland Pk production. Matteo Lippi as King Gustavo never ceased to hold the audience’s attention on the night that I went, with his sympathetic portrayal of the pleasure-loving, decent monarch facing sentimental and political problems. His fine-phrased, focused singing seemed ideally suited to his role as chivalrous admirer to Amelia, his best friend’s wife. I also appreciated Lippe’s authentic rendering (he is Italian-born) of what seemed to be a simple folksong ‘Di’ tu se fedele/Tell me if the sea awaits me faithfully” and imagined the Italian audiences of Verdi’s time humming along to it.

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Anne-Sophie Duprels’s voice meanwhile, expressed all the torment of Amelia’s perilous standing. Married, and loving her husband’s best friend, from afar, she faced two years imprisonment in Verdi’s time, should she commit the unpardonable. Italian audiences would have been painfully aware of this fact.

Most heart-breaking and mournful however was her aria, ‘cello obbligato Morrò, ma prima in grazia, where she begs her husband, Anckaström, not to take her son away. I can still see her now, holding her baby to her breast, her face expressing loss, confusion, terror. Duprel’s goes to the very heart of this poor, defenceless woman.

Anckaström’s baritone voice, controlled, and also steely was excellent in Eri tu where he reveals his   contradictory emotions towards his wife, who he still loves.

I had never been to see Un Ballo in Maschera; perhaps I had been deterred by what I thought to be its innocuous title. The opera does have protracted scenes. In Act 1 Scene 2 for example, at the fortune teller’s. Rosalind Plowright singing Madame Arvidson provided a mesmerising performance however, her tall, crane-like figure occupying the stage, and her eerie contralto voice kept me on the edge of my seat. She had already made her mark in OHP’s Queen of Spades several years before. Once seen, never forgotten!

For three days now I have been reliving the highlights, the arias, duets, quintets. It is a very rich work musically and City of London Sinfonia orchestra under Matthew Kofi Waldren’s baton was seamless and totally in synch with the singers. I couldn’t detect any timing issues.

 This is a very slick production all round. Go! Only a few performances left!

KH

Un Ballo in Maschera is on for a few more dates : Friday 21st June, Tuesday 25th June, Thursday 27th June, Friday 28th June and Saturday 29th June.

https://operahollandpark.com/season-and-events/

Elizabeth Llewellyn In Fine Voice in Opera Holland Park’s ‘Manon Lescaut’.

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It had been quite some time since I had last seen Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s early opera. Not since 2014 when leading man, Jonas Kaufmann, the Tom Jones of opera, topped the bill, playing an overly confident De Grieux at the Royal Opera House. Nevertheless I lapped up his ill-fated love affair with Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais, singing Manon, and the extravagent sets. 

Thinking back on it now, I question the lavish production. The operatic couple may have melded beautifully and the contemporary staging may have dazzled at first, but somehow it was distracting. 

Puccini’s operas run on high octane emotion. To have an ostentatious set can be de trop!

Opera Holland Park minimalist set did its work with no frills: a bar, a boudoir, which morphed into a film set and finally the harbour with broken brick wall, where Manon and other fallen women are shipped off to New Orleans. New Orleans well – you just had to imagine it. You wouldn’t have known the places without checking the libretto. Sometimes this was a touch disorientating.

More important was the inspired casting and interaction between the lovers and other key members of the troupe.

Here, I believe, Opera Holland Park got it absolutely right. Elizabeth Llewellyn, a statuesque Manon, was good at fleshing out her heroine’s complex character. Kittenish and flirtatious at first, cavorting with abandon at a party on a Twister mat, she shows herself to be easily led and impressed by money. She has supposedly fallen for student De Grieux beforehand and yet it doesn’t stop her playful antics with her brother, Lescaut, before Geronte, the wealthy and aged pursuer of young women. 

Paul Carey-Jones, as Lescaut, artfully demonstrated his slippery character in the way he disappeared and popped up unexpectedly on stage, first in the De Grieux, then in the Geronte camp. His baritone voice contained the right amount of menace and humour required for the role.

TT_Ssv80Meanwhile Stephen Richardson, singing Geronte, had the air of an eminent professor one minute, his elegant grey streaks and sharp suits giving him maximum allure, and mafioso, the next, in his dark shades. Wherever he was, he seemed to dominate the scene. His solid bass voice was memorable in the lower register but not allowed much space in this opera for tenors!

Peter Auty, playing the all important paramour, De Grieux was an interesting one. It must be hard for all principal singers to interpret well known roles and works. The audience expects so much of you and your leading lady, and Puccini certainly expected 100 per cent from his singers. 

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There is also the problem of the way we perceive the lover. De Grieux in the story of Manon is a poor student and madly in love. The audience sympathies could well lie with him. In this production, he is seen as not only grief-stricken but obsessive and childish; even unhinged! I’m thinking that that might be what Karolina Sofulak, director of Manon, had in mind.

Peter Auty captures the restlessness of the lover, his jerky body language on stage, manifests physically the inner turmoil Manon instils in him. His Italianate tenor voice is at times close to breaking point and his high notes seem to be wrested from a truly tortured soul. Important arias like ‘Guardate, pazzo son’ (Have a care – I’m driven to madness’) when he persuades the captain of the ship, to take him on board to join Manon, are truly moving.  

Placed before the more poised Manon, whose strangled emotion only really comes through in the final act, De Grieux comes across as a psychological mess.

Llewellyn’s soprano voice was sophisticated, rich with all the necessary fragility in all the right moments. In the final act for example, when De Grieux has left her momentarily to seek help, she crumbles as the lights suddenly  illuminate the cinema posters on the wall where a ‘Manon’ tops the bill . She rips them to shreds, no longer able to contemplate her young, beautiful former self or is it her replacement? ‘Now I beg for the grave.’ ‘My love help me.’ 

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There was some consternation in the audience after the final scene as the lovers ended up far apart from each other, Manon standing beneath a flickering street lamp and De Grieux many metres away in despair. The ladies in question seated in front of me, might have seen Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais in the Convent Garden Opera version, virtually joined at the hip, lying on the edge of a truncated flyover (you had to be there!). 

There is method to Karolina Sofulak’s vision. This quirk at the end emphasises Manon’s complete isolation. When Manon sings ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata,’ she really is, even when her lover returns from his vain search for help.

Highly recommended as Elisabeth Llewellyn is in fine voice.

Manon Lescaut, Opera Holland Pk runs for four more performances : Tues 18th June, Thurs 20th June, Saturday 22nd June and Wednesday 26th June.

KH

A Riveting Ripper at the Coliseum

 

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Jack the Ripper’s frenzied killing spree in Victorian London has never ceased to fascinate and appall. 

Iain Bell, composer of the ambitious new opera of the same name, and his librettist Emma Jenkins, decided, when creating their new work, to rid the stage of his presence altogether and to focus instead on the Ripper’s female victims, the women of Whitechapel.

In the opera Jack exists merely in song, most memorably in the scene with the Pathologist, when Ripper’s grisly acts are revealed in minute detail.

The curtain rose on a doss house, resembling both prison and morgue, with its macabre drawers and recesses. The higher drawers slid back and out popped a row of heads belonging to Victorian undertakers in top hats, like clients at a peep show. 

Surreal yes! This strange scene also reflects the reality of doss houses at that time which not only attracted prostitution but also provided strange bedding arrangements. Ropes were on offer for tuppence a time, for those prepared to flop over them and sleep standing up. Coffin beds were the upgrade for a few pennies more.

What we see on stage are not coffins however but open graves, from which the female occupants rise, like the dead in Stanley Spencer’s famous painting, ‘The Resurrection’.

The stage was so starkly lit that at first we were unable to distinguish the main female protagonists hiding in shadow. Nor could we see who was singing!

The interval was the time to check the cast list so as to make quite sure that we were seeing who we thought we were seeing!

No doubt this was a ploy to show the anonymity of women living in the sprawling slum. In the 1880’s Whitechapel, one-in-four women were obliged to take to the streets when money was short.

I had recognised Natalya Romaniw playing the part of Mary, daughter of Maud, the doss-house proprietress. Romaniw, I am delighted to say, fully embraced her character. Her acting was assured in this opera and her voice – well what a voice it is. Mournful, pitch-perfect, the sort of voice which astounds and moves at once.

Romaniw was really convincing in the role of anxious mother trying to protect her daughter, Magpie, from prostitution.

 

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UKNatalya Romaniw Ashirah Foster Notice.

It helped too that Romaniw’s stage mother, Maud, was Dame Josephine Barlow, who disturbs in her evil, matriarchal role. (Think Flora Robson in Wuthering Heights with the strict hair bun, wiry figure in black with her cold, dead stare). 

Maud reminds us throughout the opera that she was raped aged eight, (‘the rasp of carpet under my cheek … it is with me always’). Hopelessly damaged, she can only think about herself, her suffering, her pain! 

The confrontational scenes with Romaniw and Barstow were tense, exciting and marvellously dramatic.

But all ‘six little trollops’ (their words not mine) were played convincingly. I particularly enjoyed Liz Stride’s comic character, sung by Susan Bullock. She was a humorous drunk as she belted out, ‘God, I love a fireman!’

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

An interesting, and for me, essential part of this opera, was its portrayal of men, who are not all hypocritical, sexual predators. Some are vulnerable.

Nor are all women victims. Maud is the ultimate female abuser. It is she who procures young flesh for the Victorian establishment and who wants her granddaughter to enter the profession so that she can earn her way.

Sometimes the abuser-victim lines were blurred. ’Don’t touch me,’ sang a furious male photographer, who produced erotica, when Catherine, his model (played by Leslie Garrett) tried to seduce him. But he is far from squeaky clean since he provides gory pictures of naked victims to Victorian gentlemen. 

Details like this prevented the opera from being overly simplistic in its conclusions and I applaud Iain Bell for that.

It is true that anonymous black-suited men did regularly flood the stage like  locusts feeding on their female prey. 

Two male outsiders come across as sympathetic to women. Squibby feeds the starving girls with scraps of meat he has put aside in the slaughter house he works in. He does have a motive meanwhile; he is passionately in love with Mary.

 The Writer meanwhile is a young, social reformer who has ended up lodging at the doss-house. He pens a letter to Queen Victoria to alert her to the misery of Whitechapel and its women and also undertakes to educate Magpie, Mary’s daughter. 

Sadly both men are not rewarded for their troubles.

 Alex Otterburn (Squibby) was particularly touching in the scenes in which he played with Mary’s daughter, Magpie.

As for the music itself, it is always difficult to review new music, especially opera. It warrants hearing many times over before it sinks in. All I can say is that Ian Bell’s stark composition really evoked the horrors of the slum. At times, the evil, death march sounds and pace seemed almost too much. Sensibly Bell had added humour and pathos to the mix.

Emma Jenkins’s libretto improved as the opera progressed. At first, there was a little too much telling of what was evident. The libretto firmed up, phrases of suffering were repeated over and over, adding urgency and tension to the piece.

There were moments of beauty and reflection as when Lesley Garrett and Janis Kelly sing a melody full of nostalgic longing: ‘I had a man before… I had a life before,’ with the chorus.

Bell and Jenkins must have felt blessed to have such a stellar cast of sopranos to work with. Indeed all the singers and chorus were excellent – not one bad apple among them!

My most vivid memory of the evening was the drinking song, performed in the friendly Britannia Pub. Its amber-lit, stained-glass window of art and crafts design was  a beacon of warmth in an otherwise living hell. 

In stark contrast, the final scene was visually chilling with its horizon of top hats and Victorian matriarch with black plume rearing up like the Queen of Spades in Tchaikovsky’s opera.

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Dame Josephine Barstow (centre) with chorus

 

All in all a fascinating multi-layered work and a rare opportunity to see six famous sopranos sing under one roof!

 

KH

 

 

Jack The Ripper. The Women of Whitechapel is on for a further 5 performances. 03,05,08, 10 and 12 April at 7.30pm

500 tickets for £20 are available for each performance. 

McBurney’s Magic Flute Enchants Again.

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Mozart’s Magic Flute is an unusual opera, full of Viennese slapstick, magic and strange journeys through a fairy-tale landscape.

Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto, was a theatre-manager, actor and most importantly, Mozart’s friend. The two relished working together and being both a little strapped for cash in 1791, they strove to create an opera that would be entertaining, comical and meaningful. In other words, it had to have everything. And who better than Mozart to convey all of the above in music!

The tale begins simply. Prince Tamino has fallen for the Queen of the Night’s daughter, Pamina, who has been abducted by the High Priest, Sarastro. Sarastro is using Pamina as a hostage to stop the Queen of Night wreaking havoc upon his people.

Sarastro’s character is interesting. He is both evil, having abducted Pamina, and fair, seeing it his duty to protect his community. Nevertheless, he rules his people with a rod of iron and forces Tamino and Pamina to undergo terrible trials before he allows them to be together.

Is Sarastro good or bad? The truth is, he is both. This is exactly what makes this opera so endlessly fascinating.

This is Simon McBurney’s 3rdstab at The Magic Flute since its first outing in 2013 so he has had plenty of practice with this enigmatic narrative and has earned huge acclaim for the fruits of his labour.

The staging is of course superb. You would expect this with McBurney. It is not so complex as to detract from the singing. The direction is fluid, lucid and funny.  Michael Levine’s drawbridge stage design is simple and very effective: hoisted and tilted at an awkward angle it symbolises the character’s psychological turmoil; raised up, it becomes the neon-lit roof of Sarastro’s priestly sanctum. Laid flat it is becomes the high priest’s meeting table.

Special visual projections and sound effects enliven the bare scenery. They are a speciality of McBurney. Most memorable is Papageno’s trial of silence where Papageno’s footsteps and scrunching sweet wrappers are amplified to great comic effect.

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Thomas Olieman’s Papageno was a triumph on the night. Not for the first time I hear. Olieman knows how to appear deliciously absurd or touchingly tragic. His wish to hang himself (because he has no love) is shocking in amongst all the horseplay. Olieman’s marvellous baritone voice seemed happy singing comedy or tragedy. It is clearly a role made for him.

Meanwhile, Lucy Crowe, playing Pamina, was entrancing. Her crystalline, lyrical soprano, enraptured the audience and the pairing with Rupert Charlesworth taking up his first ENO leading role as Tamino, worked like a dream. Their voices melded together beautifully and Charlesworth was convincing as her princely paramour.

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The baddies in the piece were equally good. German soprano, Julia Bauer, making her house debut as The Queen of Night, was a menacing presence in her wheel chair as she held out her knife to her daughter and asked her to kill Sarastro. In the famous, “I’ll have revenge, no longer can I bear it”, her staccato coloratura skills and her four top F’s showed her remarkable vocal control, but she never lost sight of her malevolent, witchy character. Meanwhile, Brindley Sherratt had gravitas as the powerful Sarastro and Daniel Norman, was very creepy as the sexual deviant, Monostatos.

Most bewitching were the three Genii (see title photograph) sent to guide Tamano and Papageno along their journey.  ‘The three boys’, who trotted along with their canes, their long, white hair standing up on end, looked as they had just walked out of a Tolkien novel. Their vocals were brilliantly ethereal, discordant and bizarrely beautiful.

It is rare to be presented with such a perfect operatic production. ENO is having a good run at the moment. Of course McBurney, the singers and orchestra had good material to play with in the first place. But from start to finish, McBurney’s direction not only makes sense but it flows effortlessly. No lulls in this Magic Flute. The special effects provide the necessary magic intrinsic to the work.

And what of Tamano and Papagano? They are not only saved by the power of love. The magic flute and chimes protect them from evil spells. Music becomes their salvation. And strange friends along the way, some with questionable morals, become their mentors and guides. It’s a topsy-turvy world in The Magic Flute, one which we all know too well.

 

 

KH

 

The ‘Magic Flute’ continues : 21, 23 and 28 March and 2,9 and 11 April at 7.30pm. 16 March at 6.30pm and 6 April at 3p

‘The Merry Widow’ Comes of Age

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‘Can you hold my drink so that I can leap over you,’ bellows a middle-aged woman in front of me to perfect strangers. Friday night at the Coliseum and some of the punters in the dress circle have been overdoing the Sauvignon. It’s also the opening night of The Merry Widow and all this boisterous behaviour seems de rigeur.

Franz Lehar’s operetta was considered licentious and shocking in 1905 when it was first performed at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Soon the word spread like wildfire and its melodic tunes such as The Merry Widow Waltz, Vilja and Chez Maxim’s were hummed in the street and played on every home piano around Europe.

My eye is drawn to a well-built male in a theatre box adjusting his bright pink feather bower, hair net and diamante hair clips.

The whole of humanity it seems has shown up tonight: opera buffs, young couples with plastic flutes of prosecco, coach parties up from the shires (The Sauvignon crowd). Having arrived on my tod, I am soaking in the mirthful, irreverent atmosphere. The Opera Comique in Paris would have been like this in its heyday.

Operetta is not usually my genre. A mixture of singing and speaking (it is after all the precursor to musicals) tends to grate on me – especially when the dialogue is antiquated and out of synch with today’s sensibilities.

But I have heard Richard Thomas, the librettist, speak recently in interview about his new English translation (from the German). Thomas is used to working outside the box, having being involved in Jerry Springer: The Opera (2003) and Anna Nicole (2011). The dramatist, April de Angelis, also has been employed to modernise the dialogue. Thomas speaks compellingly about The Merry Widow. He claims that it is now fit for the me-too generation (well perhaps not quite).

It is the story of a fabulously wealthy woman, Hanna Glawari, who has recently been widowed. The Baron Zeta, ambassador to the impoverished Balkan state of Pontevedro, wants to marry her off to a Pontevedrin citizen, so that her much needed cash doesn’t leave the country. The lengths he goes to find a suitor, the misunderstandings along the way, create the comedy.

An operetta has to be funny to work. It is, aside its music, its raison d’être.

In this respect, the libretto and spoken dialogue worked well, sometimes a little cheesy but most of the time very funny. A few Brexit jokes and the clerk, Njegus, played by Gerard Carey, was hilarious. In a surreal moment he tries to prevent the Baron Zeta from discovering his wife with her lover under a banquet table. To distract the Baron he grabs a lobster from a dish: ‘I’m being attacked by a lobster and I’m vegan!’ I was reminded of Manuel from Fawlty Towers. As for the song with the seven males lined up in front of their urinals, bemoaning women – well you have to see it. I wasn’t the only female to laugh and then cringe as things got out of hand!

And so to the vocalists. Hannah, played by Sarah Tynan, is a superb soprano. Her version of Vilja, was quite spell-binding. The audience hung onto her every word as she performed the aria sitting on a suspended crescent moon.

ENO-The-Merry-Widow-Sarah-Tynan-and-ENO-Chorus-c-Clive-Barda

Paired with baritone Nathan Gunn in the role of the Count Danilo, she seemed to lose her sparkle however. The romantic duets did not move me as much as I would have wished. Gunn’s voice thinned out on the higher register. And yet he played the reprobate well and seemed more comfortable singing bawdy songs and Chez Maxim’s.

The more successful romantic pairing was that of Rian Louis, Valencienne, and Robert Murray’s Camille. Both sing beautifully and are wonderfully funny and touching. Their duet in a broom cupboard was most memorable, especially as they emerged from a giant painting of a beaver. Not very subtle in its erotic intent but amusing all the same!

The choreography was also slick and designed to amuse. The grisettes dancing in their Doctor Martin boots, the male dancers in their satin shorts straight out of La Cage Aux Folles. I couldn’t help but laugh at the old men with their Zimmer frames scuttling across the stage. Heaven knows why that was funny but it was!

All in all an entertaining new production with great musical highlights.  I left the Coliseum humming the The Merry Widow Waltz and dived into the St Martin’s Lane crowds with a light heart.

 

 

 

The Merry Widow runs for 12 performances: 1,6,8,9,13,15,22,27 and 29 March and 1 and 4 April at 7.30pm and 13 April at 3pm

 

KH