ENO: Britten War Requiem

Britten: War Requiem
English National Opera
The Coliseum, 16 November 2018

English National Opera has a record of performing Benjamin Britten operas, as well as creating operas from the Bach Passions and other choral works, so it was no surprise that they would turn to Benjamin Britten’s famed War Requiem. As with the Bach Passions, when I first saw them staged, I was a little apprehensive as to what I was to see. Just how would they stage a work with such vastly contrasting moods and scenes, combining the heart-wrenching poems of Wilfred Owen and the words of a traditional Latin Requiem Mass? Britten himself accented this contrast by giving the two male soloists who sing the Owen poems their own chamber orchestra, to be positioned closest to the audience and with its own conductor. The Requiem settings are for a large chorus and orchestra and a soprano soloist, together with boys choir and accompanying organ which are to be situated some distance away from the main orchestras.

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ENO: Salome

Richard Strauss: Salome
English National Opera, Martyn Brabbins, Adena Jacobs
The Coliseum, 3 October 2018

In a production that veered from My Little Pony, via Lolita, to the Texans Chainsaw Massacre, there were two clear winners: the music of Richard Strauss, given a superb reading by Martyn Brabbins and the Orchestra of English National Opera, and mezzo Allison Cook in her strangely compelling and insightful interpretation of the complex role of Salome – a role and ENO debut. Usually depicted as the archetypical seductive femme fatale, for most of this production, directed by Adena Jacobs in an ENO debut, she seemed far more like a confused, hormone-ridden teenage girl, becoming increasingly fragile, delicate, and in need of protection. Perhaps I was viewing it through the mind of a father, rather than a voyeur, but it was an incredibly powerful image. Her first appearance was as a black-clad, demanding and confident long-haired princess arguing to see the imprisoned Jokanaan. As events unfolded, she mutated into a slight and vulnerable bare-breasted child-woman in minuscule schoolgirl gym knickers and with makeup smeared all over her face.

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Philip Glass’s Satyagraha

Philip Glass: Satyagraha
English National Opera, Improbable
Coliseum. 1 February 2018

One of the surprises of the contemporary opera world is that the 2007 ENO premiere of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha broke all box office records, becoming the most popular contemporary work to be performed by ENO. Its uncompromising approach to text and music seems to have appealed to the public, to the extent that it has just opened for its third revival. It follows ENO’s 2016 revival of Akhnaten, the third of a trilogy of operas, of which Satyagraha is the second. It is a difficult work to categorise. It is not a conventional opera, sung throughout in Sanskrit without an understandable libretto, in a sequence of seemingly unrelated tableaux, in random time frames, each with its own musical timbre. Through-composed, it switches from lengthy solos and ensemble pieces to enormous chorus scenes, in this production backed by spectacular visuals. The orchestra only uses strings and woodwind.

ENO Satyagraha Toby Spence ENO Chorus (c) Donald Cooper

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Rodelinda

Handel: Rodelinda
English National Opera
The Coliseum. 26 October 2017

I avoid checking back on my past reviews before going to an opera revival, but will sometimes do so after the event to see if my views have changed. In the case of this revival of Richard Jones’ production of Handel’s Rodelinda, they haven’t. A very popular production at the time, and gaining enthusiastic applause from the opening night of the revival, this left me less than inspired, with a few specific exceptions.

To start with the positive exceptions, I cannot praise the ENO orchestra high enough for their absorption of period style in recent years, despite remaining a modern instrument band. It has been a long road, aided by the influence of a series of inspirational conductors, the most recent being the excellent Christian Curnyn (who also conducted the first run in 2014). He is the current ENO go-to conductor for Handel, succeeding Laurence Cummings who did so much to start the ENO period performance revival. The orchestra played with stylistic conviction, and Christian Curnyn continued to confirm his reputation as a leading interpreter of Handel – his control of the pacing was exemplary. Continue reading

ENO: Partenope

Handel Partenope
English National Opera
The Coliseum, 22 March 2017

Partenope is an entertaining, if over-long, venture into cross-dressing, disguise, sexual and political intrigue and, at least in the original 1730 production, some impressive special effects, including a battle that employed a stage army. The story is a slight, but attractive one, with scope for drama, betrayal, intrigue, humour and sexual goings on.

Partenope is the Queen and mythological founder of Naples, who legend believes was also one of the Sirens who attempted to lure Odysseus onto the rocks. She has three admirers: Arsace, Armindo and Emilio. As the opera opens, her favourite, Arsace, is surprised to see his former lover (Rosmira) turn up disguised as a man (Eurimene). As a man, Eurimene becomes a rival for the Queen’s affections whilst, as a women and only recognisable to Arsace, she proceeds to mock and goad Arsace to the extent that the Queen demands that they fight a duel. Arsace, wanting to reveal Eurimene’s true identity, demands that they should both fight topless. Unfortunately for the dirty old men in the audience, Eurimene gives in at this point and reveals herself as Rosmira.

This was the first revival of Christopher Alden’s 2008 production. It is set in 1920s Paris around the complex interconnected lives of surrealist artists and the exotically (and erotically) wealthy. Continue reading

ENO: Don Giovanni

ENO: Don Giovanni
English National Opera
Coliseum. 4 October 2016

It would take a brave barrister to defend a serial rapist with the argument that “his gigantic passion beautifies and develops its object, who flushes in enhanced beauty by its reflection”. But that was one of the many attempts by 19th century commentators to interpret Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the light of their yearnings for the romantic hero, in this case from, the Swedish philosopher, Søren Keirkegaard in his discussion of aesthetic and ethics in the pseudonymous Either/Or. He goes on to refer to the Don as “the very incarnation of sensuous passion and desire” and a “simple, exuberant, uncomplicated, unreflective man”. Nowadays we are more likely to be reminded of The Archers’ Rob Titchener, Donald Trump, and the likes of Jimmy Savile and that ilk. In that vein, it is usually overlooked that the full title of the opera is Il dissoluto punito ossia il Don Giovanni – The Libertine (or Rake) Punished, namely Don Giovanni.  Continue reading

ENO: Tristan and Isolde

Tristan and Isolde
English National Opera
Coliseum. 22 June 2016

On the eve of the EU in-out referendum, it seemed appropriate to see English National Opera’s take on Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in which, in a post-Brexit world, Tristan fails to get the correct Visa to land in Ireland and is further delayed by his attempts at getting a Visa to allow Isolde to travel back with him to Cornwall, and then by having to negotiate a new formal trade agreement for transferring Princesses between an EU state and the ex-EU Cornish republic. The collapse of the cooperative EU policing and health agreements means drugged-drink crime goes unpunished and everybody dies in the end.

Or something like that. Continue reading

Philip Glass: Akhnaten

Philip Glass: Akhnaten
English National Opera
The Coliseum. 4 February 2016

What a lot of balls! For those expecting yet another press tirade about an English National Opera production (although very rarely from me), I stress that I use these words absolutely literally. For, in this powerful staging of Philip Glass opera, jugglers were a key part of the staging, courtesy of the Gandini Juggling Company whose director also choreographed the opera. It was directed by Phelim McDermott of Improbable Theatre Company and conducted by Karen Kamensek, an expert on the music of Philip Glass, making an excellent ENO debut.

As the name suggests, Glass’s Akhnaten explores aspects of the story of the historical Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaten (note the different spelling), Continue reading

ENO: The Magic Flute

Mozart: The Magic Flute
English National Opera
The Coliseum.  19 February 2016

What a different three years makes! I was rather dismissive of the first run of Simon McBurney’s 2013 new production of The Magic Flute, together with his theatre company Complicite in partnership with Netherlands Opera and Aix-en-Provence.  This was the first new ENO production of The Magic Flute for around 25 years, and replaced Nicholas Hytner’s much-loved, if rather traditional take. My review of the opening of McBurney’s version included “In contrast to the previous production, this Magic Flute is dark, mysterious and more than a little weird. A flood of ideas drenched the stage, aided by a commentator sitting in a box in the corner, chalking up comments onto a large video screen. But there seems, at least to me, on first sight, little coherence to link it all together. Masonic references are played down, but the element of cult is still stressed through colour-coded camps in conflict . . . It may well be that, in 25 years time, I will miss this production.  But, in the meantime, it will certainly take me some time to get used to it”.

Well, having now seen it for a second time, with revival director Josie Daxter (also from Complicite) and a new conductor, ENO’s new music director Mark Wigglesworth, and with some tweaking to the staging, I am happy to admit that I was bowled over by it. A radical take on the well-known, if little-understood plot, the Continue reading

Purcell/Sellars – The Indian Queen. English National Opera

Peter Sellars has done it again!  Although billed as “Purcell’s” Indian Queen, the latest in his radical reinterpretations of opera is really Peter Sellars’ Indian Queen, the plot completely re-imagined as a vehicle for Sellars’ political and social views.   This spectacular production left me more conflicted than many Sellars’ shows that I have seen.  As a pure performance extravaganza, it certainly worked well. But in order for it to work, you needed to suppress any sense of history or musical integrity.

With his spiky lavatory-brush hair and right-on approach to contemporary politics, this impish and oh-so-American director has always taken a cavalier approach to opera, imposing his own views on whatever plot the composer might have chosen.  His latest London production, notionally based on Purcell’s The Indian Queen (English National Opera, 26 Feb), is one of the most extreme examples of this approach, not least because he has jettisoned the text entirely and replaced it with spoken text of his own choosing – principally extracts from the novel The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by the Nicaraguan author Rosario Aguilar.  Aguilar’s novel aims to “recapture the woman’s view of the conquest and colonisation of Central America through the lives of six women who participated in the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians”. The historical setting has been changed from the years before the Spanish conquest of Central America (and a conflict between the kings of Peru and Mexico) to a post-conquest scenario where the brutality of the Spanish invaders is intermixed with a curious love story between Teculihuatzin (the Mayan Indian Queen) and Don Pedro de Alvarado, one of the conquistadors.

The music is based on Purcell’s unfinished ‘semi opera’ The Indian Queen, original intended as incidental music to Dryden’s play. It was first performed in 1695 in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, a few months before Purcell’s death. Only about 50 minutes of Purcell’s survives, consisting of a series of musical interludes at the end of each act, never quite achieving the status of typical late 17th century ‘masques’.  The music is difficult to programme in concerts – a 50 minute series of seemingly unrelated short pieces of very different temperaments and moods.  But Purcell’s music has the ability to delve into unbearably intense emotional depths, so it deserves to be heard far more than it is.

To that extent, Sellars has done Purcell’s music a service, in that it gets performed.  This is a co-production between ENO and the Russian Perm State Opera and the Teatro Real, Madrid, and had been performed in both places, to varying degrees of success, before its London opening.  To turn it into a full length (indeed, an over-long) opera, Sellars has added other music by Purcell, sacred and secular.   Not content with the new post-conquest story, Sellars’ opens at the beginning of time, Mayan style, with five scenes from Mayan creation myths, with dancing to a backdrop of what was supposed to be jungle noise, but was in practice rather uncomfortable white-noise broadcast rather too loudly from loudspeakers.  We were sent out for the interval with an almost cartoon-style massacre and rivers of blood, all to the accompaniment of ‘Hear my Prayer, O Lord’.  Not surprisingly, this didn’t go down too well in Madrid.  Sellars’ trademark mannered infant-class gestures featured in many of the chorus’s actions – something I have never got used.

The staging, lighting, costumes and the large painted panels were all bold and impressive.  And the music was outstanding, with generally excellent singing from the youthful soloists. Lucy Crowe excelled as Doña Isabel, notably in O Solitude and See, even night herself is here.  Bass Luthando Qave impressed as a Mayan Shaman, as did Noah Stewart as Don Pedro de Alvarado.  Vince Yi (Hunahpú) is billed as a countertenor, but his voice had the timbre of a male soprano.  Luisa Julia Bullock (as Teculihuatzin/Doña Luisa) displayed far too much uncontrolled vibrato for my taste and for Purcell’s music, although she impressed in her late duet O Lord, rebuke me not with Lucy Crowe. The text was extremely well declaimed by actress Maritxell Carrero, portrayed as Leonor, the daughter of Teculihuatzin and Don Pedro, and therefore of mixed race; something key to the text.

Laurence Cummings directed the ENO house band, most playing modern instruments, but showing just how far they have come in recent year to understanding period performance – something that Cummings must take much of the responsibility and credit for.  The orchestra was lifted to almost stage level, making them visible to most of the audience.  An unfortunately un-named specialist period instrument continuo group deserved the special applause they got at the end.  Laurence Cummings got into the mood of Sellars’ directorial style, pushing the music to its limits albeit always within his own deep understanding of period style.  Notable were several moments when he paused, mid phrase, producing very effective dramatic moments.  My only musical quibble was with the chorus, whose unadulterated vibrato I would have found excessive in Wagner.  I know that is just what they might have had to sing the following evening, and that it is hard to rein in vibrato, but unless they can do it I do wonder if bringing a specialist choir might be a solution to what is, too often, an ENO issue.

I always approach Sellars productions with a degree of trepidation, as this evening was no exception. But, despite everything arguing against it, I quickly got into the spectacular of the production and the curious story. Yes, it was too long, but the music was something special.  I tried not to like it, but just couldn’t.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/04/01/purcellsellars-the-indian-queen-english-national-opera/]