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.

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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

 

Philip Glass’s Akhnaten at ENO

The audience settles, the house lights dim, ominous music begins to build in the orchestra pit. ‘Opened are the double doors of the horizon/Unlocked are its bolts’, the narrator intones. Welcome to 18th Dynasty Egypt as envisaged by American minimalist composer Philip Glass.

You don’t have to be a fully paid-up Glasshead to enjoy the journey, but it probably helps. In my case, the connection is through David Bowie, Brian Eno, ambient music and yes, the familiar soundtracks: Mishima, Notes on a Scandal, The Hours. Like the work of G. F. Handel (another personal favourite), there’s a pleasing austerity to Glass’s repetitive structures.

‘Akhnaten’ is the last of Glass’s ‘portrait’ trilogy, following ‘Einstein on the Beach’ and ‘Satyagraha’. It has few of the experimental touches that you’ll find in ‘Einstein’ for example: no ‘Knee plays’, no nonsense tales, no ‘Mr. Bojangles’ or ‘baggy pants’, and definitely no yelping or whooping. There’s a conventional three-act format and even a plot of sorts. All of which probably explains why it has greater popular appeal than the other two operas.

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ENO has considerable form with Glass, having staged the UK premiere of Akhnaten in 1985. By all accounts that was a pared-down affair, tons of sand standing in for the pharaoh’s failed desert empire. Phelim McDermott’s production, back after a three-year hiatus, is the complete antithesis, a vast baroque phantasmagoria awash with colour and spectacle which concentrates on the hieratic and ritualistic elements of the story. A ‘skills ensemble’ of jugglers, perfectly choreographed to Glass’s music, adds further visual interest, with some (male) nudity thrown into the mix as well.

There are at least two outstanding performances, both from Americans returning to ENO from the original 2016 run. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, in the title role, brings an eerie, other-worldly quality to his singing of the (mostly) ancient Egyptian texts; he even looks uncannily like Aknhaten, if contemporary statuary is anything to go by. Karen Kamensek, a seasoned Glass hand, conducts with the steely discipline that this music demands if it’s going to work properly.

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There are few quibbles. As other critics have pointed out, the secondary characters – Queen Tye, Nefertiti, the High Priest of Amon – tend to disappear into the chorus. Conversely, a little of Glass’s narrator (‘the Scribe’) goes a long way, in my opinion. McDermott’s jugglers are also made to carry rather too much – literally – and in any case, you’re always expecting them to drop something, although naturally they don’t. None of this seemed to bother the Coliseum audience, though, which lapped it up all the way to the last curtain. This is opera without pain.

NM

Akhnaten at English National Opera to 7 March 2019

All production images ©Jane Hobson

 

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Soprano Romaniw Sparkles in Miller’s Revival of La Bohème at ENO

Jonathan Miller was one of the reasons I started to take notice of opera in my early twenties. On camera, Miller spoke impressively of his aims to change opera for the better. Inventor of the time-shift opera, he was bent on creating better, more authentic drama. Out went the kitschy costumes, bad acting and antiquated sets so often associated with the opera genre.

In the 1980s Miller’s cinematic staging drew new audiences and his innovative stage direction breathed new life into iconic opera characters. People wanted to be entertained as well as hear the greats sing but predictably some opera stars were reluctant to change and refused to take orders from Miller. After many successes and a few run-ins with management and stars, Miller announced his departure in 2004, aged 74. Five years later however he was back staging La Bohème for ENO in 2009. His production was repeated a year later and in 2013, with Natasha Metherell in charge of the revival’s direction, the production was deemed flawless on every level by opera critics.

As the curtain went up on the opening night of the fourth revival of Miller’s ‘La Bohème’, I sighed with pleasure as I took in the 1930s artist studio with its high, narrow windows, lit to perfection. Rodolfo and Marcello working at the window in the dwindling light, painted the perfect picture of Bohemian Paris. Marcello, artist, had been stripped of his beret and smock and his thumb was not pointed at an easel. No easel in sight. Miller had spirited away all the embarrassing clichés of previous 19th century-inspired productions.

La boheme - Puccini - English National Opera - 26th November 2018  Conductor - Alexander Joel Director - Jonathan Miller Designer - Isabella Bywater  Mimi - Natalya Romaniw Rudolf - Jonathan Tetelman Marcello - Nicholas Lester Benoit/Alcindoro - Simon But
Nicholas Lester, Bozidar Smiljanic, Simon Butteriss, Jonathan Tetelman (photo by Robert Workman)

The scene with Rodolfo and Marcello and fellow bohemians gently ribbing each other and jokingly bemoaning their fate, was authentic and charming. Comedic moments supplied by landlord, Benoît, were a joy. Simon Butteriss in the role was so close to Leonard Rossiter’s character in the sitcom Rising Damp. His boasts and gripes about the female race: “Skinny women are here to spite us“, elicited laughter from a row of girls seated behind me in the dress circle.

A more serious Jonathan Tetelman in the all important role of Rodolfo was making his European debut. His voice, though sensitive and sweet, especially in the upper register, came across as tight alongside Nicholas Lester, whose warm, more assured delivery was perfect for his Marcello role.

In the interval, my neighbours wondered whether Tetelman should have turned to face the audience more. True – the set may have been a little challenging for him. The Paris studio was set back on the stage and Lester and Tetelman were singing from an upper level. Their voices had to carry across the stage, over the orchestra pit, across to us in the dress circle.

That said, the friendship between Rodolfo and Marcello was artfully portrayed. Tetelman is potentially good in a romantic role too but with Natalya Romaniw’s soprano, who sang the part of Mimi, mostly to perfection, his voice was not put to full advantage. The all-important moving arias of Act One were however well executed by both singers.

Rodolfo’s and Mimi’s love is subsumed in the hustle and bustle of Act Two. The stage set was striking: a café, with mirrors down one wall, a row of apartment buildings and roof tops disappearing off into the distance to the right of the stage, giving it great depth and breath. This allowed the chorus room to move around in and for the military band to break through the crowd and march off to great fanfare.

If Act Two is all about lightness and movement, Act Three plunges the audience into an atmosphere of darkness, stillness and hell. Miller’s set does this so eloquently. Two prostitutes straight out of a Brassai photograph loiter for business outside a dimly lit bar. Mimi appears from a partially-lit alleyway looking pale and anxious. The quartet when it came, with Mimi and Rodolpho versus Musetta and Marcello, worked quite well, Mimi and Rodolpho’s poignant lyricism piercing through Musetta’s and Marcello’s bickering. Nadine Benjamin, fresh from ENO’s enormously successful Porgy and Bess, where she played the role of Clara, portrayed a rather pared down version of Musetta. She was not as confidently petulant as I would have liked. Her voice was at its best in the final act when she had given up on flirtatiousness and sung movingly around the dying Mimi.

The star of the evening was without a doubt Natalya Romaniw, who was singing the role of Mimi for the first time. Having already been impressed by footage of her singing in the role of Tatyana in Eugene Onegin at Garsington, I knew I would already be in for a treat with La Bohème. Something in that mournful timbre of hers just seizes your heart. Her portrayal of Mimi has still a way to go, but her voice lingers in your head days after you have heard her sing. A true star, Romaniw brings further magic to what is already an arresting production.

KH

La Boheme continues in repertory at ENO until 22 February 2019

Further information


(Header image: Jonathan Tetelman and Natalya Romaniw)

Britten’s War Requiem finds new life with ENO’s staging

At the Coliseum to watch the first UK staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem on its opening night, I was curious to see how Turner prize-winning photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans would tackle this work as set designer.

War Requiem’s reputation has soared since 1962, when it was first performed in Coventry Cathedral. As a choral work, it now enjoys the same popularity as Handel’s Messiah.

The horrors of war remain a compelling theme with modern audiences and Tillmans, who is German and a pacifist, leapt at the idea of staging Britten’s work. It is one thing however to be an edgy artist such as Tillmans, and to stage an opera (plenty do), but War Requiem is hard to define, it is a hybrid choral work drawing its text both from church liturgy, the Mass of the Dead, and Wilfred Owen’s war poems.

So what does ‘staging’ really entail? Isn’t there enough movement and richness in the text and musical score for us to conjure for ourselves the full terror of death and war? The male solo parts are so achingly beautiful and poignant. And if the libretto wasn’t enough, ENO has enlisted 120 singers in the chorus, 3 top soloists and an 85-strong orchestra to hammer the message home. And yet I do understand ENO’s wish to bring another dimension to the work.

I had watched a 1964 black and white BBC film of War Requiem on YouTube. Presented by Richard Baker in clipped British tones at the Albert Hall, it brought back to me how stiff a concert performance could be. The soloists, choirs, musicians all in their appointed place on stage; singers standing to attention when it was their turn perform. I also watched a more recent Festival Hall production, which felt more fluid, less regal and stiff.

ENO’s War Requiem gets off to a terrific start in the opening movement. The pages of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 anti-war book, entitled ‘War against War’ are projected onto two LED screens with the chorus in darkness behind them. The children’s choir starts up – and at the same moment, illustrations of tin soldiers and toy guns appear, the equivalent of today’s computer war games. David Kramer, Artistic Director, dramatises this point later on in Offertorium, when the soprano, the wonderful Emma Bell, is seen leading a young boy to a grave. A funeral is taking place. He breaks away from his mother angrily to play on his iPad, which he inevitably bashes with his little fist.

But back to the opening. The screen slowly parts and little by little the chorus come through to centre stage singing ‘perpetual light shine upon them’ while the audience is presented with photographs of dull-eyed soldiers with monstrous facial disfigurements – a soldier with a badly grafted nose, another with a gaping hole where his mouth should be. But then the projections cease, the chorus plays dead, and the tenor, David Butt Philip, starts singing Owen’s words taken from ‘Anthem for doomed Youth’. Here the poetry does the talking and we are able to fully focus on his extraordinary expressive voice. David Butt Philip was the star of the night for me.

And this is what Tillmans meant in a recent Times interview. He was keen ‘to leave room for the sung word’. For almost a third of the time, Tillmans sensibly chooses to have a blank stage, most notably in the middle section of the last movement, Libera Me, when the ghosts of a British and German officer meet. ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, sings Roderick Williams in his gentle baritone.

Although Tillmans is careful not to intrude on our musical pleasure, at times his imagery feels arbitrary, like Tillmans’s photographs of battling football hooligans which although powerful images in themselves, bring nothing new to the equation.

Tillmans is more effective when he focuses his canny photographer’s eye on nature. Branches split in two in the style of Paul Nash, or a giant white chrysanthemum, which might represent a mushroom bomb or be a symbol of regeneration.

I loved the final scene: a lofty, open window suffused with bright green light with a tree filling its frame. Stage lighting moves the audience’s eye to a grave on the stage. The change in emphasis charters the changing mood of Britten’s musical finale.

Equally impressive was the calibre of the ENO chorus. Not only was their sound rich and nuanced but the cast moved and lay down well creating the most ghostly of tableaux. One particular picture sticks in the mind; their piled up bodies in the Srebrenica scene. A flyer commemorating the 1995 massacre is projected on a panel. Or in Libera Me, lying down in the snow. Beautifully lit, they brought to mind the painting ‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent.

Less well achieved was the Abraham parable section. Too many cast members swirling around on stage. The dramatic moment of Abraham raising a knife to his son is somehow lost in the crowding. There seemed to be timing issues at this point between the singers and orchestra but this is the only time I felt things might have been a little out of synch in an otherwise fluid staging.

Despite this very minor quibble, I left the Coliseum feeling that the bar had been greatly raised in this staging of War Requiem and that the work had received a new lease of life thanks to inspired direction and stage design.

So does this mean the end of plain old concerts? I doubt it. Certainly I applaud ENO for presenting a musical work in a new light, but equally I believe audiences should be given space to ponder the music. Imagination is a dwindling commodity in this world where everything needs to be explained. It will be a sad day when it becomes redundant.


War Requiem has a further 5 performances on 22nd, 27th, 29th November and 4th and 7th December at 7.30pm.
English National Opera

KH

 

 

The shudder that counts: ‘Salome’ at ENO

In the week of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing in the US, and the ongoing MeToo movement, which both raise potent and complex questions surrounding male power and control, toxic masculinity and the male gaze, and whether women “ask for it” by behaving or dressing provocatively, English National Opera’s 2018/19 season opened with Richard Strauss’s dark and disturbing psycho-drama Salome in a visually striking and elegantly-sung new production.

The narrative is well-known, from the Gospels and the play by Oscar Wilde, from which came Strauss’s influential transformation into an opera, premiered in Dresden in 1905 in that heady, decadent era before the outbreak of the First World War. At its premiere, the opera perfectly caught the spirit of its time – the era of Freud and Jung, Beardsley’s Yellow Book, and the art of Klimt and Schiele – and was an instant success. This new “feminist” production, directed by Adena Jacobs, also catches the zeitgeist. Freighted with contemporary sensibilities and preoccupations, the opera offers a warning about the dangers of toxic masculinity and unchecked female desire. The spare modern setting with references to contemporary life, pop culture and gender fluidity further underline this.

Right from the outset, we know that “terrible things will happen”. In fact, we never actually see the head of John the Baptist (or Jokanaan as he is in Wilde’s and Strauss’s versions), but we know it’s coming. It arrives not on a silver salver but casually chucked in a plastic bag such as the type in which one might carry a takeaway curry. Earlier in the play, a pink horse, its cascading entrails represented by pink and red flowers, is brought on stage. Decapitated, it provides a metaphor for the final denouement.

Strauss’s music is haunting and sensuous, pungent and perfumed, and because the work is organised in one act, with an almost continuous flow of action, one has the sense of the tension-laden drama creeping inexorably to its brutal conclusion. Under the baton of ENO music director Martyn Brabbins, the orchestra shone, bold and beautiful.

Salome herself, sung by Allison Cook whose light soprano seems just about perfect for this role, is a pouty teenager who insinuates her way on to the stage and into the action as Narraboth (powerfully sung by Stuart Jackson) extolls her erotic girlish charms. Largely presented in darkness, Narraboth and his cohort are in a roped off area, as if waiting to spy a celebrity at a red-carpet event or queueing to enter an exclusive nightclub, while Salome remains quiet and aloof in the darkness, the light occasionally catching her pale blonde Ariana Grande-style ponytail.

The voice of Jokanaan is heard first via a loudspeaker. David Soar’s baritone is rich and declamatory, and when the scene shifts to the cistern in which he is imprisoned, strikingly lit from above suggesting a prison grille, we get a close up projection of his mouth forming dark prophecies and stentorian outpourings. Presented initially in monochrome, it changes to colour as the heat of Salome’s desire increases. It’s moist and plump and when the camera turns 90 degrees, it looks like a vagina….. All this, appropriately, while Salome sings of her lascivious desire to kiss Jokanaan’s lips. Narraboth, meanwhile, is voyeuristically filming the proceedings on a hand-held video camera, hardly able to contain his base urges before he kills himself.

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The ensuing banquet scene presents Herod (Michael Colvin) as a bumptuous prancing clown, luxuriating in Narraboth’s gore which puddles on the stage. While he drunkenly cavorts, his wife Herodias (Susan Bickley) looks on, haggard and tight-lipped with disapproval. In contrast to the salacious action on stage and the decapitated My Little Pony with its spewing entrails, a giant image of a beautiful blindfolded boy – somewhat androgynous – fills the backdrop. Caravaggio-like, it was, for me, one of the most striking visuals of this visually-arresting production.

Salome’s girl-gang of maidservants perform the Dance of the Seven Veils. Béyoncé lookalikes – all swinging ponytails, golden leotards, face masks and chunky trainers – their dance is a mixture of aggressive pelvis-thrusting body-pump and sensuous masturbatory writhing. While this goes on, Salome tugs her long hair away, revealing a boyish cropped cut, perhaps signalling her appropriation of masculine powers.

And so to that denouement……You know full well what’s in the plastic bag – it has a horrible dread weight about it, palpable even from the Dress Circle. It’s like that scene in the film ‘Seven’, when Kevin Spacey appears before Brad Pitt with the closed cardboard box… We don’t need to look inside to know that something terrible, horrible, and disgusting is in there. The fact that Salome hardly looks at the bag containing the Baptist’s head lends an equal sense of disgust, as if she is cannot bring herself to look at the thing she thought she most desired. This recalls her first encounter with Jokanaan, where, despite her lascivious obsession, she never actually looks at him directly. The kiss, when it comes, is not placed upon Jokanaan’s dead lips but those of Herodias, Salome’s mother (who wanted Jokanaan dead all along). So “the shudder that counts” (Wilde) – maybe it was all in Salome’s head?

Salome continues at English National Opera until 23 October


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(Header image: Allison Cook as Salome; Jokanaan in his cistern by Catherine Ashmore)