Handel: Berenice

Handel: Berenice
Royal Opera House / London Handel Festival
Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 1 April 2019

Handel’s Berenice was first performed in May 1737 in the Covent Garden Theatre, now the home of the Royal Opera House.  It was a tricky time for Handel and the London opera scene, with two opera houses competing for a limited audience. Handel promoted a large-scale 1736/7 season, but none of his new operas (Armino, Giustino, and Berenice) was successful. Handel also suffered a serious decline in his health, not least suffering a stroke in April 1737 that paralysed his right hand. It seems that Berenice only had three performances, probably rehearsed and directed by John Christopher Smith Jnr.  It returns to the present day Covent Garden (or, at least, the bowels of the present day Covent Garden) for the first time since its premiere, in the newly restored basement Linbury Theatre, in a Royal Opera House production in conjunction with the London Handel Festival. Continue reading

Return of Ulysses

he KingMonteverdi ‘The Return of Ulysses’
Royal Opera House, Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
The Roundhouse. 10 January 2018

After the success of their 2015 production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Roundhouse (reviewed here), the Royal Opera House returned with an English language version of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, under the title of ‘The Return of Ulysses’. As its name suggests, the Roundhouse is a large circular building in Camden, North London, built in 1854 by a railway company as the Great Circular Engine House and used, albeit only for a few years, as a maintenance depot. It had a central turntable to switch engines into the surrounding maintenance bays. John Fulljames’s production for the Royal Opera House maintains the link with this central turntable with a doughnut-shaped staging with an outer raised ring for the singers with the orchestra in the central circle. Both rotated, the instrumentalists going very slowly clockwise (a bit slower than the hour hand of a watch) and the singers intermittently rotating anti-clockwise. on their circular stage.

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Salome

Richard Strauss: Salome
Royal Opera House. 8 January 2018

This third revival of David McVicar’s 2008 production of Salome is directed by Bárbara Lluch and conducted by Henrik Nánási. Although I saw the ROH’s predecessor to this production in the late 1990s, this was my first viewing of McVicar’s production. He adds several additional layers to Strauss’s (and Oscar Wilde’s) already complex take on the sparse biblical/Josephus story. Although Strauss’s music is firmly rooted in the post-Wagnerian idiom of the fin de siècle pre-Expressionist era, the nature of the plot continues to disturb and shock; perhaps more so today, when it is all too easy to relate aspects of opera plots like this to present day news items, people, and social concerns.

The setting was a large rather decrepit basement with bare walls, exposed pipework and a smattering of naked young women. Anybody expecting to have to wait an hour or so for the famous dance before a flash of female flesh had ample opportunities early on – but none in the actual dance. A sweeping staircase to one side led up to an almost hidden upper dining room where Herod and friends are feasting. All the action takes place in the basement space as the upstairs party slowly descend to the depths, in more ways than one. Most of the cast remained onstage throughout, along with several non-singing actors, mostly standing around watching events unfold. Towards the end, it was male nudity that was more apparent, with the executioner, for no apparent reason, stripping to the buff before descending into the cistern to behead Jokanaan. Although silent, as depicted in the libretto and music, this turned out to be a messy affair, the executioner returning completely covered in blood, front and back, top to toe. Continue reading

George Benjamin: Written on Skin

George Benjamin: Written on Skin
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 13 January 2017

Since it premiered in 2012, Written on Skin, George Benjamin’s first full-length opera (to a text by Martin Creed), has been hailed as one of the masterpieces of the contemporary opera world, bringing such accolades as “the work of a genius 0326 WRITTEN ON SKIN PRODUCTION IMAGE c ROH. PHOTO STEPHEN CUMMISKEY.jpgunleashed”. This 90 minute work was composed over two years of concentration and virtual isolation, while Benjamin eschewed all other composition, teaching, and conducting work. It was commissioned by the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, along with the Royal Opera House and opera houses in Amsterdam, Toulouse, and Florence. A request to base the opera on something related to the Occitan area of Provence led to a mediaeval tale about a troubadour employed by a local lord who has a love affair with the lord’s wife. When he finds out, the lord kills the troubadour, cooks his heart and feeds it to his wife. When she finds out what she has eaten, she swears to never eat or drink again to keep her lover’s taste in her mouth. She avoids the lord’s anger and his sword by leaping from a window to her death. Continue reading

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner
Royal Opera House, 24 September 2015

With the Royal Opera House home team playing away in China, the field was open for a take over by the period instrument brigade. Although the house band of the ROH (and other opera venues) have been getting better at adopting suitable ‘period’ performance techniques in recent years, I have suggested many times over the years that they bring in a specialist orchestra for their ‘early music’ productions. On this occasion there was a more-or-less complete take-over by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, together with the Hofesh Shechter Company of dancers. The directors were Hofesh Shechter and the ROH’s own John Fulljames, and the conductor was John Eliot Gardiner. This was part of the Royal Opera House’s recent focus on the Orpheus myth that started with their Roundhouse production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo last February (reviewed elsewhere on this site). Continue reading

Orfeo at the Roundhouse

The Roundhouse is the latest of the Royal Opera House’s ventures away from Covent Garden, another being the Sam Wanamaker playhouse at The Globe. The circular building (a former engine shed in North London, and one of my haunts in earlier rock concert days) made an impressive, if acoustical tricky, venue for Monteverdi’s Orfeo. The audience sit in a 270° arc around the off-centre circular stage with the instrumentalists of the Early Opera Company at the back of the stage.

The Prologue opened with a young and rather sour looking Pluto and his entourage processing down a long sloping gangway onto the stage and up to a raised dais above the orchestra and what turned out to be the entrance to Hades. The gods were accompanied by be-robed priests who turned out to be the three Pastore (billed as ‘Pastors’ – very droll). It had the air of a court house, with the gods sitting in judgement as the scene unfolded below. Musica (who turns into Euridice via an on-stage costume change) sat with Orfeo draped pieta-like across her lap, a touching scene reversed at the end of the evening.The only prop was a simple chair, with the other scenes created by a lively group of 14 child dancers and acrobats (from East London Dance) who created arches through which the protagonists moved, as well as the ripples of the Styx.

This was the first attempt at opera direction by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s former Artistic Director, Michael Boyd, and he sensibly resisted the temptation to overly embellish the plot. The sparse setting allowed the focus to be on the music itself, something that the young singers rose to with considerable aplomb. The Transylvanian baritone, Gyula Orendt was a most impressive Orfeo, the clarity of his voice overcoming some slight pronunciation difficulties and the curious spectacle of him being hoisted precariously into the air at the end. Mary Bevan was outstanding as Euridice and Musica, both with her acting and the beauty of her voice. The other members of the cast were of a similar high standard, including the chorus drawn from Guildhall students. However, I was not convinced about casting Susan Bickley as the Messenger. The playing of the Early Opera Company and Christopher Moulds’ musical direction was spot on. There is more I could write about some of the production issues, but will certainly remember this as a fine musical event.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/23/orfeo-at-the-roundhouse-16-jan-2015/]