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

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(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.

salome

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


FW

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

 

‘Marnie’ at English National Opera

The plot of ‘Marnie’ has all the prime ingredients for dramatic classic opera: childhood secrets, multiple identities, unspoken feelings, disturbing relationships, kleptomania, lust, sex, treachery, betrayal and subterfuge. In creating his brand new opera for ENO and the Met in New York, American composer Nico Muhly turned not to the “insane sadism” of Alfred Hitchcock’s film (and his disturbing obsession with Tippi Hidren who starred as his eponymous heroine), but to the novel by Winston Graham, author of the ‘Poldark’ series, on which Nicholas Wright based the libretto. Comparisons will inevitably be made with the film and the novel, but I deliberately avoided seeing the film ahead of the premiere and have not read the book. Muhly brings the action back to England (as in the book) and the first act opens in a drab 1950s office in Birmingham before moving to Barnet and Beaconsfield.

One of the key themes explored in the opera is the control and objectification of women via the lustful male gaze. This of course is up-to-the-minute topical and lends an additional frisson to the drama. Throughout Marnie is being watched, tracked and objectified – from her first meeting with Mark Rutland to the queasily flirtatious encounter with his brother Terry (brilliantly sung by counter-tenor James Laing, whose voice is by turns wheedling and shrill). To emphasise this further, she is stalked by a group of sinister men in grey suits and homburg hats, who step in and out of the shadowy corners of Marnie’s conscious and the set, providing a constant masculine antagonism (both physical and metaphorical), and whose writhing dancing also serves to inform the narrative.

It is the psychology of Marnie herself on which the plot hinges and music is the means by which her secrets are unlocked. Instruments at their highest and lowest registers (specifically a solo oboe) become the mouthpieces for her when she is under the most extreme pressure. In the same way, each instrument is paired with a character in order to express his or her unspoken feelings. In a narrative where people are continually lying, the orchestra, by contrast, never lies: Mark Rutland’s lust is expressed by the trombone, while Terry’s loucheness is portrayed by a sleazy sinewy trumpet motif. Thus sound is used to convey powerful emotions in a way the text or action don’t always inform us: trembling slicing strings, frenetic percussion, shrill yet haunting woodwind, together with urgent agitato rhythms or long layers of sound and spooling melodies. The splendid ENO chorus is also used to great effect, acting at times like a Greek chorus to comment on the action, taunting Marnie or revealing her inner thoughts. Her psyche is further expressed through four Marnie-clones, whose vividly-coloured costumes vibrate against the drab set. These “Shadow Marnies”, as Muhly calls them, are particular effective in the psychiatric analysis scene in Act II where they interchange with one another and Marnie herself, suggesting her confused mindset as she confronts her complex emotional landscape and troubled past.

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Sasha Cooke as Marnie (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Sasha Cooke as Marnie is marvellous, her mezzo voice resonant and expressive (and brilliantly sustained throughout as she barely leaves the stage during the entire opera), and her interactions with Mark Rutland, sensitively played by David Okulitch, who succeeds in appearing both sexually predatory and vulnerable (and as a consequence one of the more sympathetic characters in a cast of generally unlikeable people) are edgy and compelling in their portrayal of this couple’s difficult relationship. Lesley Garrett makes a wonderful cameo appearance as Mrs Rutland, the manipulative matriarch.

The costumes, designed by Arianne Phillips, are fabulous – deeply evocative of the era (late 1950s) and a hommage to the Hitchcock film too. Martyn Brabbins, in his first appearance as the new director of music of ENO, conducts with subtle sensitivity, while the spare set and staging allows characters and music to come to the fore with tautly-paced drama (at times almost unbearably tense, particularly in the first act) and moments of deeply disquieting dramatic irony. The only longueur for me was the fox hunting scene (used in the narrative as a metaphor for Marnie’s constant flight from her past and her persecutors). Not easy to stage, it was cleverly organised with a projection of galloping hooves, but it was not entirely convincing and was rather too drawn out.

Overall, a compelling and enigmatic psycho-thriller.


‘Marnie’ continues in repertory at English National Opera

 

FW

An opera for our troubled times: ‘The Winter’s Tale’ at ENO

How to turn one of Shakespeare’s late “problem plays” into an opera? It’s something which has preoccupied conductor and composer Ryan Wigglesworth since his student days. Now 37, his ruminations have come to fruition in this commission for English National opera (ENO) and in The Winter’s Tale, he has produced an opera for our troubled times – tense, unsettling and eloquently-scored.

Wigglesworth admits that while he’s never seen a convincing stage version of The Winter’s Tale, the material is ripe for operatic adaptation, not only its powerful central theme – a king looking back repentantly over his past – but also the set pieces of dramatic crisis: the trial, the storm, the passing of the years. In Wigglesworth’s version, plot and text are stripped right back – an adaptation into another art form almost begs a radical appraisal of what is essential to the narrative – and Wigglesworth’s concision means one never feels overloaded with music. In fact, one of the most striking features of this opera, amongst many others, is the way text and music dovetail to create a condensed dramatic whole which vibrates with intensity. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter does not lend itself easily to song (it’s too long to be sung intelligibly), so Wigglesworth, who also wrote the libretto, has created a text which has a keen sense of the poetry of Shakespeare, artful but never simplistic, set to music which is mercurial, lyrical and deeply atmospheric with its tender washes of strings, haunting clarinet lines, anxious flutter-tongued flute, portentous growling basses and trombones, and edgy xylophone and snare drum to match Leontes’ agitation and suspicion about his queen. A Britten-like melancholy and tautness suffuses the score.

It is the “fake news” in Leontes’ head which drives the narrative in the first act. He suspects his wife Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes, King of Bohemia, but unlike Othello, who is convinced by Iago’s weasel words, Leontes believes his own propaganda and every touch, every incline of the head between Hermione and Polixenes feeds his fears. Baritone Iain Paterson portrays a King of Sicilia who is both powerful yet vulnerable. At times his voice almost creaks with emotion, his broad-shoulders clad in a boxy uniform seem poised on the cusp of collapse. In the opening sequence he parades and preens, self-admiring and proud, his body language redolent of a more contemporary leader who favours over-sized suits and self-aggrandisement….. The contrast between this and the broken, repentant man we meet in Act 3 is stark and poignantly drawn.

His queen Hermione, elegantly sung by Sophie Bevan, is gently flirtatious but never openly coquettish with Polixenes. When she begs him to stay in Sicilia, it is the pleading of a friend not a lover. Polixenes, sharply sung by Leigh Melrose, takes heed of servant Camillo’s advice and flees Sicilia before the trial.

The trial is the dramatic heart of Act 1 and is the first opportunity for the ENO’s fine chorus to come to the fore as the crowd who act like a Greek chorus, chanting their support for Hermione and calling upon the god Apollo. The revolving, circular set is used to great dramatic effect here, cleaving into jagged parts which then form a seascape for baby Perdita’s storm-tossed journey to Bohemia. In Act 3 the fractured walls reflect the King’s emotional scars.

The action moves forward apace in Act 1, yet the claustrophobic intensity of the narrative, the spare language and unsettling, haunting scoring create a sense of time elongated.

Act 2 opens in sunny Bohemia, a place of honey-stoned buildings and cheerful pavement cafés. This is where Perdita, Leontes’ daughter, has made her home, adopted by a kindly shepherd and in love with Florizel, son of Polixenes. But suspicious stalks the streets here too: camouflaged soldiers prod and provoke the crowd, and Polixenes appears in battle fatigues and dark glasses, like the military dictator of a South American republic. The joyful, folksy celebration of Perdita and Florizel’s love cannot last long and the couple are forced to flee to Sicilia, pursued by Polixenes.

The final Act, the scene of recognition and reconciliation between Leontes and his daughter ends not with a neat tying up of ends as one normally finds in theatrical productions of this play. A sense of ambiguity, of incompleteness pervades, and Leontes’ final soliloquy “Stars, stars, all eyes else dead coals!” is a moment of raw emotion.

Acclaimed actor Rory Kinnear, who makes his directorial debut, has set the narrative in a modern-day military state, replete with oversized state statues, sharply fitted uniforms heavy with medals and gold-frogging, and fearful obsequious servants – excepting the queen’s stalwart supporter Paulina, magnificently sung by Susan Bickley. The set’s concentric circular walls work well in informing and moving forward the narrative and create a sense of “us looking in on them”, as almost voyeuristic observers of the action.

There may be trouble at the top at ENO, but down on the stage great things are happening and this production of The Winter’s Tale further confirms that.

Recommended.

FW

The Winter’s Tale continues in repertory at ENO/London Coliseum until 14 March 2017

(Photo: Sophie Bevan, Zach Roberts and Iain Paterson in ENO’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’. Picture by Johan Persson)