Orphée – Philip Glass’s mesmerising homage to Jean Cocteau

Orphée – Philip Glass

English National Opera, 15 November 2019

After the technicolour excesses of The Mask of Orpheus, English National Opera’s season of operas inspired by the Orpheus myth closes with Philip Glass’s 1991 Orphée, a mesmerising, monochrome hommage to Cocteau’s eponymous film of 1950.

The operas of Philip Glass have proved a rich seam for ENO, with a sold out revival of their award-winning Aknaten (2016), and Satyagraha (2017) – both sumptuous, absorbing productions. For those of us attuned to the slow-mo unfolding narratives and choreography of these operas, Orphée by comparison positively jostles – at least in its opening café scene, the influence of French music and Glass’s studies in Paris evident in this sequence. It is also considerably shorter at only two hours, with a small chamber orchestra, though the music is no less satisfying and I was surprised at how texturally rich it was even with reduced orchestral forces.

This new production of Orphée is directed with great imagination and thought by Netia Jones, who combines live action and projection, including fragments of Cocteau’s film, and a constantly counting digital clock, to compelling effect, continually reminding us of the illusory-versus-reality nature of film. This, along with almost entirely monochrome costumes – black with white details redolent of Cocteau’s own line drawings, and only occasional flashes of colour in the red socks of the waiters, Eurydice’s chintz dress or the vivid fuschia pink costume of the Princess in the closing scenes – creates a highly concentrated effect, allowing one to focus on the drama. And then, of course, there is Glass’s hypnotic, spooling music, its unexpected harmonic shifts creating moments of tension and release, as richly-hued and emotionally varied as Schubert (for this reviewer at least!).

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Jennifer France as The Princess (photo © Catherine Ashmore)

Here the Orpheus myth is given a more relatable, contemporary reading: set in post-war Paris, Orphée is a self-absorbed poet who has become passé, who writes but “does not write”, and who has lost his creative impulse. He craves immortality and believes this can be achieved through his implication in the death of Cégeste, a young, successful poet, played with an appropriately teenage sulleness by Anthony Gregory. Though married to Eurydice, who is expecting their child, Orphée falls in love with the enigmatic Princess (Jennifer France), who, representing Death, lures him into the Underworld, via Resistance-style radio broadcasts, and with the assistance of the chauffeur Heurtebise (Nicky Spence). After the vivid black and white of Paris and its noisy bustling cafés where the poets, artists and intellectuals hang out, here the Underworld is a strange shadowy place of crumbling, bombed out buildings and crazed souls (Albert Einstein makes an appearance, a pleasing nod to Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach).

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Nicholas Lester as Orphée with Sarah Tynan Eurydice (Photo: DONALD COOPER/PHOTOSTAGE)

“We watch ourselves grow old in mirrors. They bring us closer to death,” wrote Jean Cocteau – and in this production the mirror, as both a reflection of ourselves and our own immortality, Glass’s reflection on Cocteau’s film and Cocteau’s reflections on notions of fame and reputation, becomes central to the visual narrative. Physically, a mirror is the entrance (and exit) to the Underworld, and it becomes a perilous piece of interior decoration when Orphée and Eurydice are allowed to return from the Underworld on the condition that Orphée does not ever look at Eurydice’s face. A large empty frame, which glides across the stage at intervals, serves the double purpose of “framing” the narrative while also reminding us that this opera is based on a film: in effect, it acts as a freeze-frame to capture significant moments; the projections reinforce this.

Although conceived on a small scale, Netia Jones’ production turns this intimate, intense drama into a cinematic spectacular. While some of the vocal colour of the original French libretto is lost in this new English translation, there are some entertaining, witty and genuinely poignant moments, and given the profound, philosophical nature of the Orpheus myth, and Cocteau’s eccentric film, this retelling is satisfyingly human and accessible. There is also a fleeting reference to Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, a fragment of the famous ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ in a flute solo, which neatly connects this to the opera which opened ENO’s 2019/20 season.

There are fine performances by all the lead parts. Nicholas Lester as Orphée is petulant and narcisstic, though increasingly sympathetic towards the close. Sarah Tynan plays Eurydice as the vulnerable, wounded, ignored wife, while Jennifer France as the Princess is haughty and histrionic. But it is Heurtebise the chauffeur, sung by Nicky Spence, who really steals the show, at once obsequious in his duty to the Princess but also tender and caring in his love for Eurydice.

In sum, this is an exquisitely playful, poignant production, with some genuine hair-standing moments, and an accessible, convincing drama that may leave you wondering what really lies on the other side of that mirror in the hallway……

Recommended

Orphee continues at ENO/London Coliseum until 29 November


FW

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Interview: Star Baritone Jacques Imbrailo

 

ROYAL OPERA

 

Jacques Imbrailo is singing in Jules Massenet’s Werther (see our review here) at the Royal Opera House and then he is off around the world on various singing engagements through 2020. In April this year, this rising star among baritones earned great reviews in Billy Budd and his Albert in Werther is another step forward in his accelerating career.

Karine Hetherington met the 40-year-old South African at the Royal Opera House.

Any opera singers in your family?

No – no classical music whatsoever. I grew up on a farm. My parents are not musical at all.

I went to a boys’ choir school at a young age and that’s where the classical music started.

Did you have a mentor somewhere along the line?

At different stages, different people. Probably the biggest influence that persuaded me to take singing seriously and follow it as a career, was my first singing teacher in South Africa, Professor Werner Nel. He was a wonderful singer, a wonderful teacher. He gave me lessons when I was about sixteen and I carried with him when I was at university.

Did you study music?

At first I studied law. I was a very lazy law student. It went in one ear, onto the paper and out the other ear. I didn’t care much about it.

Was the law useful?

No use whatsoever!

What was your first real break?

I was taken on the Jette Parker Young Artists programme at Royal Opera House. So that helped. I sang in the title role of Owen Wingrave in the Linbury Theatre which got well received. On the strength of that I got an audition for Billy Budd at Glynebourne.

At what point did you know you were a tenor or a baritone?

My voice broke very late. I could still sing the Queen of the Night at sixteen! But shortly after my sixteenth birthday, my voice started to slide down. At seventeen I was still a school boy tenor. By the time I was taking lessons at university my voice slid down to a baritone.

High baritones often get nudged by people saying ‘aren’t you a tenor’? but it’s not just a matter of singing higher notes. It’s the whole range.

What are your favourite operas to listen to – or do you tend to only concentrate on the operas you are working on?

Only to operas I’m working on. When I’m not working, I listen to my children’s music. So it’s the The Lion King and Aladdin at the moment. That’s what’s on in the car most of the time.

Otherwise, rather than listen to operas, I tend to listen to singers that I like. From the baritones I love Battistini, the “King of Baritones” from the nineteenth century. I also love Robert Merrill and at the moment I’m listening to the Swedish tenor Nikolai Gedda.

You have taken on very different roles. How important is the acting process for you?

I love that part very much. Sometimes to my detriment. It can get in the way of singing if you get too emotionally involved, like in Billy Budd. It makes it hard to sing as well as you would like to.

Do you find with getting older, your voice changes?

My voice changes a lot but it’s not to do with age. It depends on my emotional state. Whether I’m tired, my kids have kept me up a lot. You try however to consistently produce the same voice all the time.

So what do you do to relax?

The kids take up all my spare time. Singing abroad I haven’t had a lot of time in the past few years as the roles have been large. But I like to catch up on all the sports. I like to watch rugby.

Have you sung in any contemporary opera?

Yes. I did the Brett Dean Hamlet last year. Another opera called Brothers. I like the end product but I find it very frustrating to learn, rhythmically and harmonically. It takes a long time.

When I first start working on a modern piece I hate it. I’m a grumpy bear for the first few weeks. As I get on top of it, I start to enjoy more or admire more and usually by the time it’s on stage it’s fine.

But for the most part I prefer to sing traditional works. They are safer for the voice.

Favourite city to visit? 

I really enjoyed Madrid because I worked with a great bunch of people there. Chicago. And my wife and I enjoy Amsterdam.

Favourite language to sing in?

I quite like French. It tends to keep the voice in a nice high position. It might not be the one I’m best in, but it suits my voice. I don’t mind Italian or German. Russian is quite nice.

Any mad projects?

You know they do Peter Grimes on the beach in Suffolk. I would love to do Billy Budd on a ship. Cutty Sark. It would be great fun!

What are you next singing?

I’m off to Moscow, end October, to sing Aeneas in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. I go to Washington for a few days to sing the part of Hamlet in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet. After that I’ve got La Favorite and then my first Marcello in la Bohème in Berlin. And Merry Widow in Mumbai of all places which should be interesting. Cose von Tutte in Seville.

A very packed schedule

Yes. I’m having to learn four to five new operas a year at the moment.

I do admire opera singers for their hard work from a young age. Like premiership footballers. Is it really like that?

In some ways yes. It never stops. You have to learn new music, new skills and new repertoire.

Did you have a childhood though?

Yes. I had a glorious childhood on the farm in South Africa. We could run around everywhere without our parents knowing where we were. We’d fish in the river in our spare time at school and in the holidays slept outside under the stars. Rode horses. It saddens me that my kids won’t have what I had.

 

KH

If you want to catch Jacques Imbrailo in Werther, performances are : Sept 24th and 27th. 1st and 5th October 2019

Werther: A Romance Worthy of Revival

ROYAL OPERA

Isabel Leonard, Charlotte. Juan Diego Flórez, Werther.

 

As I step into the  Royal Opera House’s stylish new café, there is the familiar Covent Garden buzz. It’s the opening night of Werther, and also the start of the new opera season. The talking points are Joyce di Donato’s upcoming title role in Agrippina. She was also in the last 2016 performance of Werther, alongside the flamboyant Italian tenor, Vittoria Grigolo. Would the 2019 Werther, sung by Juan Diego Flórez, match Grigolo’s high octane performance in 2016?

 I had been gripped by Grigolo’s ROH debut in Werther, a broadcast of  which I saw at the cinema. The camera angles were daring: I remember a close up of Grigolo’s pulsating vocal folds as he hit the high notes.

Werther is all psychological drama. The narrative is bare but doesn’t feel so because of the richness of the music. In parts Jules Massenet, the French composer, shows his love for Wagner, in others, sorrowful and heart-rending music of great delicacy . 

On the September 17th opening of the latest Werther, it took me a while to warm to Flórez’s Werther. While Grigolo’s performance had a Hollywoodian appeal, Flórez brought a quieter, more anguished, interpretation of the role. But I believe it was more effective. True, the voice didn’t have the heft of Grigolo’s. In parts it seemed to be competing with the orchestra. In Act III however I was won over by his rendering of the blood-tingling Pourquoi me réveiller’/What is the use of waking me. There, his silken voice and wonderfully nuanced interpretation earned him huge applause.

But leading tenors do not act alone. Fresh from the Met was the ROH debut of mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard. What a voice she has with acting skills to boot. The role of Charlotte is difficult because the character is dutiful, prosaic, and perhaps even slightly dull. She’s a magistrate’s daughter with maternal responsibilities enforced on her from an early age, due to the death of her mother. She is sister to Sophie, sung and played confidently by Heather Engebretson, who also performed the role with Joyce Di Donato. She is also promised to the worthy Albert.

When Leonard mourned her mother, she did so to perfection in Act I. The scene reveals all the emotion she has held back. Werther, however, has the key to her heart. In Act III, when Charlotte  reads Werther’s letters, she is overcome. The timing is tragic. She has married Albert.

 

ROYAL OPERA

Isabel Leonard and Jacques Imbrailo

So for several reasons, Jacques Imbrailo has a job on his hands singing Albert. Projecting dog-like devotion for your wife is hard to do in opera. He could have come across as a smug fool in Act II, sitting proudly beside his new wife. And yet he doesn’t. For one thing he cuts a dashing figure as a young man in a burgundy frock coat (he has no paunch, he is not old). Two, the sky above Albert and Charlotte is a pale blue Joshua Reynolds’s sky with beautiful white cotton wool clouds of harmony disappearing into infinity. Soon to disappear of course. We feel pity for the one who sees beauty, where in fact there is unhappiness.

Finally Imbrailo’s mellifluous, expressive voice. One well-known opera reviewer behind me said to his neighbour: ‘Imbrailo’s up with the best of French baritones.’ 

Imbrailo is in fact South African, a rising star, who enjoyed rave reviews in ROH’s Billy Budd in April this year. He is set for great things. (See my interview with Jacques Imbrailo here)

Werther is a compelling opera. It’s not one which is played very often, perhaps because it is both spare in story-line and also demanding of its voices.

Massenet based his work on Göethe’s novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers/The sorrows of young Werther. When it was published in 1774, it was a signal of the start of the Romantic movement and helped spawn a generation of young men determined to live according to their most deeply-held desires; for sensitivity equalled truth. 

While the movement produced great poets, writers and new political thought, it encouraged egotistical behaviour, dangerous hedonism and premature suicide.

These are of course the paradoxes of romanticism that continue to resonate with us. And in this revival of Werther, we have both a story and performances well worth seeing. Visually arresting – especially in the final act – this is a production that should appeal most of all to a youthful audience. Including the young at heart.

 

KH

Performances of Werther left : 24 and 27th September. 1 and 5 October 2019