Review: Pelleas et Melisande, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

OPERA

 

Pelleas Et Melisande,

Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow;

Playing Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,

March 7-11

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Golaud, the eldest son of a wealthy family discovers a young woman (Melisande) alone and disoriented in the heart of the forest. He marries her and sails with her to his family’s castle, where his half-brother (Pelleas) and Melisande promptly (and secretly) fall in love with each other.

Both Golaud and Pelleas live in fear of the judgment of their grandfather, the powerful, increasingly blind patriarch Arkel, whose word is the law. In stark contrast to the shenanigans of this dysfunctional aristocratic family, poverty-stricken citizens die of starvation outside the castle gates.

This may sound like the overdue sequel to Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 Dogme Manifesto film Festen, but it is, in fact, the outline of Claude Debussy’s 1902 opera Pelleas Et Melisande. The work is based upon an 1892 play by the acclaimed Belgian dramatist Maurice  Maeterlinck, which is famed for its symbolism and mysticism.

Pelleas & Melisande #2
Roland Wood and Cedric Amamoo. Photo: Richard Campbell

Although the drama looks back into a mystical past (Melisande herself is a Pre-Raphaelite vision of fragile femininity), David McVicar, who directs this production for Scottish Opera, opts for a more modern setting. Designer Rae Smith’s atmospheric sets may be dominated by the French windows of the bleak, degenerating castle, but the costumes have a late 19th/early 20th-century simplicity about them.

Intriguingly, McVicar’s mind also seems to have turned towards Scandinavia. Not to Vinterberg, necessarily, but to his compatriot, the great Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi, whose 1901 painting Woman In An Interior, graces the cover of the programme for this production.

Like Hammershoi’s figure, who stands with her back to us, silent and solemn in the joyless comfort of a bourgeois residence, Melisande experiences her “rescue” as an imprisonment. Indeed, her hair flowing from the window of the castle tower that is her home, her predicament is likened (less-than-subtly) to that of the mythical captive Rapunzel (whose tale was popularised by the Brothers Grimm less than a century before Maeterlinck wrote his play).

This modern relocation of the story, with the aristocrats living, not only in bleakness, but also in a state of decline, is rewarding in dramatic terms, and courageous in its consciously limited visual palette. Lighting designer Paule Constable deserves particular plaudits for his efforts to transform Smith’s less-than-versatile sets into a series of locations, including a well in the gardens of the castle and a cave by the sea.

However, in dragging the tale forward in time, McVicar has landed himself with some continuity issues. He faces them with an admirably brazen audacity. Golaud, for instance, is not furnished with a pistol, but stomps around the stage brandishing a sword like some kind of deranged Medievalist.

Even if one is happy to suspend one’s disbelief where 20th-century sword wielding is concerned, there are moments in which one’s credulity is stretched to breaking point. Pelleas and Melisande’s late-night sojourn into the cave without so much as a lamp to hand generates atmosphere at the expense of their intelligence.

A somewhat dim-witted romantic hero he may be, but Pelleas is performed with tremendous emotion by Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko. English soprano Carolyn Sampson impresses equally in a knowingly ironic playing of the distinctly pre-feminist role of Melisande (which was created in Paris in 1902 by the Aberdonian opera star Mary Garden).

Indeed, Debussy’s beautiful, assiduously illustrative score (which matches the action emotion for emotion) is enhanced by fine performances across the piece. In particular, Roland Wood’s Golaud is a compelling raging bull of a man.

Alastair Miles is superb as the wise, anguished king Arkel, while young Cedric Amamoo is astonishing, both in vocal and physical expression, as Golaud’s schoolboy son Yniold.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 5, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: The Trial, by Scottish Opera

OPERA REVIEW

 

The Trial

Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow,

Run ended;

At King’s Theatre, Edinburgh,

February 3 & 4

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

scottish-opera-the-trial-2
Daniel Norman (Guard 1), Michael Druiett (the Inspector), Paul Carey Jones (Guard 2) and Nicholas Lester (Josef K). Photo: James Glossop.

When it comes to adapting prose fictions for the stage there can, surely, be few works that present more formidable challenges than Franz Kafka’s great psycho-political novel The Trial. When they transformed the book into an opera (for Music Theatre Wales in 2014), American minimalist composer Philip Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton were joining an honourable tradition that includes Steven Berkoff’s acclaimed 1970 theatre version.

It isn’t difficult to see the attraction of the novel for dramatists of various kinds. Kafka’s story of Josef K, a middle-ranking bank worker who is arrested on charges that are never disclosed remains one of the most frighteningly resonant novels in world literature.

Written during the First World War, it is a bleakly comic, almost surreal portrait of an unaccountable, inhumane, bureaucratic state. Like George Orwell’s 1984, it stands as one of the great premonitory art works of the 20th century.

This Scottish premiere (co-produced by Scottish Opera, Music Theatre Wales, The Royal Opera, London and German company Theater Magdeburg) reminds us that Glass’s piece, which the composer calls “a pocket opera”, is inherently paradoxical. In rendering The Trial as a stage drama, Glass and Hampton seek to create a performance work out of an intensely psychological novel.

All of which places a particular burden on the show’s designer Simon Banham. How to represent the impact upon the mind of Josef K of a Byzantine state and its labyrinthine legal system?

Banham opts, reasonably enough, for a minimal set (a “pocket” design, if you will). The entire story is told from within Josef’s non-descript bedsit in which items of clothing appear through gaps in the walls and police officers emerge from within a cupboard.

There is, in director Michael McCarthy’s production, an appropriate sense of early-twentieth century absurdist theatre. The cops who arrest Josef look, in their bowler hats and handlebar moustaches, as if they could have stepped out of a play by Eugene Ionesco.

Josef himself is played superbly by Australian baritone Nicholas Lester. The richness of his voice combines fascinatingly with his estimable height to expresses and embody the seeming self-worth and certainty of a middle-class functionary.

It is a perfect mask for the character’s human fragility. This is Josef as a conventionally upright, decent man who is, apparently, appalled by the moral and sexual degeneracy he discovers in the legal bureaucracy; a characterisation that is all the more effective given his abundant susceptibility to the sexual temptations his trial puts in front of him.

Lester is supported by an excellent cast, not least Emma Kerr as the dissolute washerwoman and Gwion Thomas as the debased Lawyer Huld.

Glass’s music is intriguing in its diversity. In one moment, its instantly recognisable repetitions and variations reflect the seeming pettiness of the situation; an innocent bank clerk caught up in a, surely to be quickly resolved, case of mistaken identity.

However, in the moments when the universality of Kafka’s theme becomes most apparent, and we see in the state what Hannah Arendt would later call “the banality of evil”, the score takes a radically different tone. Blasts from wind instruments burst through the harmonic interplay between keyboards and strings creating moments of discordance that speak both to Josef’s personal panic and the immense political danger his plight represents.

The production, inevitably, cannot match the psychological intensity of the novel, and one can’t help but feel that Banham’s ingenious set loses in thematic scale what it gains in claustrophobia. That said, it draws enough upon Kafka’s genius, and upon the brilliance of Glass and Hampton, to create a rewarding evening’s opera.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 29, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Billy Budd, The Lowry, Salford

OPERA REVIEW

 

Billy Budd

Seen at The Lowry, Salford;

at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,

December 1 & 3

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

billy-budd

As Scotland’s performing arts scene prepares to adorn itself with baubles and wrap itself in tinsel, Leeds-based Opera North offer us a final chance to see some high-quality, non-Christmassy fare before the theatrical festivities take over our theatres entirely. In truth, however, this exceptional production of Benjamin Britten’s masterwork Billy Budd (which alternates in this programme with a Puccini double bill of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica) is an early Christmas gift to opera lovers.

Based upon American writer Herman Melville’s final work, an unfinished novella, Billy Budd is a hugely accomplished, genuinely captivating work of musical drama. Boasting a libretto by the great novelist E.M. Forster and longstanding Britten collaborator Eric Crozier, it tells the story of a handsome, somewhat diffident young man who is, fatefully, forced into the service of the late 18th-century British Navy by a press-gang.

Unusually among the men, who are kept in place by a brutal regime that includes arbitrary and vicious floggings, Budd delights in his maritime adventure. As decent and kind as he is beautiful, he is universally adored, by officers and his fellow sailors alike.

Adored by all, that is, except the malevolent master-at-arms John Claggart, in whom adoration quickly turns into a demonic compulsion to destroy Budd.

The nature of Claggart’s obsession was coyly overlooked by the critics when the opera premiered in its original, four-act version in 1951 and, again, when it was restaged in this, improved, two-act incarnation in 1960. It could hardly have been otherwise. Male homosexuality remained illegal in England and Wales until 1967.

However, it is obvious to the 21st-century sensibility that Claggart’s soul is being eaten away by his repression of his own desires. Indeed, it would be naive to think that the general appreciation of Budd in this all-male society is based merely on admiration of his moral character.

Orpha Phelan’s magnificent production of the opera puts a sensitive, but very definite, emphasis on the homoerotic dimension of the piece. With the assistance of Leslie Travers’s extraordinary, deceptively versatile set (which opens out from a huge, decaying grey house), Phelan also emphasises the libretto’s great innovation on Melville’s story; namely, the unfolding of the narrative from within the guilt-stricken memory of the retired captain of the HMS Indomitable, Edward Fairfax Vere.

Vere is played with tremendous moral stature by the excellent tenor Alan Oke. His is an agonising predicament, as is he is torn, like an English Pontius Pilate, between his own sense of justice and his adherence to a rigid system of hierarchy in which Claggart’s seniority holds sway over Budd’s innocence.

Claggart, in turn, is performed with an oppressive, almost reptilian self-loathing by the superb bass Alastair Miles. Indeed, although Miles plays the role with moral complexity and emotional depth, there is enough of the pantomime villain in his performance to ensure that he was booed while taking his bows in Salford.

Budd himself is a difficult character to portray. Outstanding baritone Roderick Williams captures absolutely the man’s almost childlike humanity, but also his Christ-like qualities of goodness, beauty and, ultimately, submission to persecution.

Britten’s impressive score nods, tantalisingly, towards modernist discordance. Appropriately, it comes in waves, ranging from the lull of personal contemplation to the great crescendos of sea battle and moral conflict.

The powerful male chorus seizes its numerous opportunities for vocal grandeur, just as Travers’s designs produce great moments of visual spectacle. All-in-all, as complete and inspiring a rendering of this great opera as one could wish for.

 For details of the performances of Billy Budd and the Puccini double bill, visit: operanorth.co.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 27, 2016

© Mark Brown

Edinburgh Festival Review: Norma, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Triumph for classic opera with an anti-fascist twist

 

Norma

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Today and Tuesday

 

Review by Mark Brown

Norma
Cecilia Bartoli (Norma) and John Osborn (Pollione)

Norma, Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 opera, is set in the midst of historical events that will be somewhat obscure to many of us. The drama reimagines the conflict between the Gauls and their Roman occupiers 50 years before the birth of Christ.

However, this is no highbrow version of the famous Asterix And Obelix cartoons. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, co-directors of this Salzburg Festival production (which premiered in the Austrian city three years ago), have relocated the piece to Second World War France, with the rebellious Gauls as members of the French Resistance and the conquering Romans as German Nazis.

The devoutly pagan Gauls’ “sacred grove” is represented by a cavernous schoolroom, which doubles as a Resistance hideout. Norma, the titular druid priestess, is transformed into a patriotic, anti-fascist leader; a secular, 20th-century Joan of Arc.

The hated Roman proconsul, Pollione (who is, secretly, Norma’s former lover and father to her children), becomes a senior Nazi officer. In Bellini’s original, Pollione has a taste for Gaulish priestesses; he dumps Norma for Adalgisa, a younger druid. Here he is a fascist Casanova, able, it seems, to bed any female Resistance fighter who should take his fancy.

This may all seem like a considerable mental leap. However, if one is prepared to suspend one’s disbelief, this re-envisioning of the opera is every bit as valid as the Royal Shakespeare Company representing Coriolanus as a Napoleonic despot or Macbeth as a modern day Balkan warlord.

Ultimately, Leiser and Caurier, who have been working together for more than 30 years, rest their relocation, quite plausibly, on the story’s themes of occupation, resistance, betrayal and, ultimately, fealty to fundamental human instincts. Sex and love, suggests Bellini (or, more accurately, Alexandre Soumet, upon whose tale the opera is based), can lead us to transgress our most deeply held beliefs and principles. That, it need hardly be said, is a universal theme.

The directors and their designers, Christian Fenouillat (sets), Christophe Forey (lights) and Agostino Cavalca (costumes), have done a masterful job of reflecting Bellini’s music in their staging. Fenouillat’s grand schoolroom, which is filled with the paraphernalia of the Resistance, is the perfect location for the splendid, swirling orchestration that accompanies the outraged demands for vengeance of the French partisans (played superbly by the Swiss Radio and Television Chorus).

By the simple device of bringing down a partition, the back of the schoolroom is transformed into Norma’s modest apartment. As Forey’s lighting throws premonitory shadows around the set, the intimacy and foreboding is the very mirror of the music, as the desperate Norma, like a latter day Medea, contemplates the unthinkable.

All of which, concept, direction, design, chorus, requires a fine orchestra (which we have here, under the baton Gianluca Capuano) and excellent soloists. John Osborn, a tenor from the United States, and Rebeca Olvera, a Mexican soprano, give soaring performances as Pollione and Adalgisa respectively.

However, for many, the primary reason for attending this production is to hear Cecilia Bartoli, the internationally acclaimed, Italian mezzo-soprano, sing the title role. Without question, her performance is worth the not inconsiderable ticket price on its own.

Her singing of Norma’s great aria Casta Diva, which was popularised in the 20th century by Maria Callas, among others, is a thing of profound beauty. As Bartoli understands, seemingly instinctively, vocal range and power (both of which she has in abundance) count for little without feeling. She sings this plea for peace and patience with a shuddering emotional depth that would pacify the rashest of warriors.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 7, 2016

© Mark Brown

Review: The Mikado, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

OPERA REVIEW

 

The Mikado

Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Touring until July 2

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Mikado
Richard Suart as Ko-Ko and Andrew Shore as Pooh-Bah. Photo James Glossop

The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which stages the famous Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, is one of the most resilient companies in all of the performing arts. Established by G&S’s patron, impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, in the late 1870s, it seemed to have shuffled off its mortal coil when it was disbanded in 1982.

However the company was revived in 1988, and has produced work sporadically since then; most recently, a 2013 staging of The Pirates Of Penzance, in a co-production with Scottish Opera. So fruitful was that collaboration that D’Oyly Carte and SO are working together again, this time with a joyous and clever presentation of G&S’s much-loved and satiric light opera The Mikado.

First staged at the Savoy Theatre in London in 1885, The Mikado may seem to the enlightened 21st-century theatregoer like an exercise in dubious Victorian Orientalism. After all, the titular Mikado, ruler of Japan, is visiting a town called Titipu, in pursuit of his son, Nanki-Poo.

The town is populated by absurd characters with such un-Japanese monikers as Poo-Bah (the corrupt man of many high offices), Yum-Yum (the young object of Nanki-Poo’s affections) and the noble lord Pish-Tush.

However, look beneath the surface dodginess and you will find that this opera is a well-crafted satire. Targeted as resolutely at Victorian Britain as Gogol’s The Government Inspector is at Czarist Russia, The Mikado depicts a topsy-turvy world of arbitrary power and ludicrous legislation.

In Titipu flirting outside of wedlock is a criminal offence. Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, took the job in the belief that he wouldn’t actually have to execute anyone. Meanwhile Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else, can be relied upon to receive financial “insults” in order to consult with himself and come to the required decision.

Director Martin Lloyd-Evans’s delicious production puts the satire of British mores and politics front and centre. This is most immediately apparent in the ingenious costumes by designer Dick Bird, which are a delightful collision of the upper-class garb of Victorian London and classical Japanese attire. Bird’s brilliantly over-the-top, cartoon Orientalist sets provide a suitably silly backdrop.

The performances themselves are universally excellent. There is fine acting and singing from Nicholas Sharatt (a lovable Nanki-Poo) and Rebecca Bottone (a comically vain Yum-Yum). There are equally impressive performances from Stephen Richardson (the jocular but capricious Mikado), Andrew Shore (a wonderfully farcical Poo-Bah), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Katisha, the Mikado’s witch-like “daughter-in-law elect”) and Ben-McAteer (splendid as Pish-Tush).

No-one in the fine cast shines brighter than Richard Suart, who has made the role of Ko-Ko his own over many years. His playing of the decidedly squeamish state executioner is a comic joy, not least in his famous song I’ve Got A Little List.

The ditty was dragged into infamy by Peter Lilley, then Social Security Secretary, who used G&S’s song to offer his own list to Tory Party conference in 1992. Those who “never would be missed” included travelling communities, “bogus” asylum seekers and working-class single mothers.

Evans’s production restores the lyric to its original, broadly satirical intent. Politicians of all stripes come in for a gentle kicking, as do tax avoiding multinationals, car manufacturers who lie about their vehicles’ emissions and, most delightfully, the “tax dodgerists” whose names appear in the Panama Papers. There are jolly outings for other well-known songs, such as A Wand’ring Minstrel I and Three Little Maids From School Are We.

This is a Mikado that deals intelligently and sensitively with the opera’s politically incorrect baggage. It also stages G&S’s satire with tremendous colour and humour.

For tour details, visit: scottishopera.org.uk

An abridged version of this review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 15, 2016

© Mark Brown

 

Review: Rusalka, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

OPERA

 

RUSALKA

THEATRE ROYAL, GLASGOW

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Rusalka 1
Anne Sophie Duprels and Willard White in Rusalka

 

There are, no doubt, modern and psychological readings to be made of Antonín Dvořák’s 1901 opera Rusalka. However, director/designer Antony McDonald’s 2008 staging for Grange Park Opera, revived here by Scottish Opera under the baton of its new music director Stuart Stratford, is not one of them.

This revival marks the premiere of Rusalka for Scottish Opera. It is, in many ways, a traditional production.

McDonald leaves the metaphorical possibilities to the audience as he takes us into a mythical world that combines Czech folklore with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale of The Little Mermaid. Rusalka, a mermaid in a lake in the midst of an enchanted forest, falls in love with the Prince.

As her father, the merman Vodník, bewails the loss of his daughter to capricious humanity, Rusalka asks the witch Ježibaba to transform her into a woman. The sorceress agrees, on two dreadful conditions: in taking human form, Rusalka will become mute; and, should the Prince should stray from her, his infidelity will plunge Rusalka into the condition of a tormented spirit, neither dead nor alive.

   If McDonald has a Freudian or feminist take on this tale of enforced female silence he is not sharing it with us. The visual world of his production, complete with dark lake, bleak, leafless trees and menacing witch’s cottage is drawn from the realm of fairy tales.

   To say the piece is traditional is not to say that it is staid, however. This is a staging that bristles with, often macabre, humour.

   Leah-Marian Jones’s Ježibaba, for example, is comically vain, sarcastic and brutal when she is hacking off poor Rusalka’s tail fins. Natalya Romaniw’s foreign princess, who is vengefully jealous of Rusalka’s impending marriage to the Prince, is a wonderfully larger-than-life femme fatale.

   There are tremendous performances across the piece, not least from Willard White (a powerfully anguished Vodník) and Peter Wedd (a hapless and, ultimately, tragic, Prince).

However, the greatest challenge falls upon Anne Sophie Duprels in the title role. The French soprano plays an elusive character who is, by turns, a mythical creature, a mute human and a desolate spirit.

She plays all three with a compelling subtlety and deftness that is equal to the beauty of both her voice and Dvořák’s delightful, Slavonic music.

 Theatre Royal, Glasgow, April 7 and 9; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, April 14 and 16. Details: scottishopera.org.uk

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on April 6, 2016

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opera/what-to-see/scottish-operas-rusalka-traditional-but-also-bristling-with-maca/

© Mark Brown

 

Review: Ariodante, Theatre Royal, Glasgow (Sunday Herald)

OPERA

 

Ariodante

Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow;

playing Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

February 24 and 27

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Ariodante #2
Caitlin Hulcup as Ariodante. Photo: James Glossop/Scottish Opera

It’s 500 years since the publication of the epic poem Orlando Furioso by the Italian writer Ludovico Ariosto. It is also almost three centuries since the premiere (in 1735) of Ariodante, the second in Handel’s operatic trilogy based on the poem.

One can only wonder what the poet and the composer would have made of this, Scottish Opera’s decidedly 21st-century take on this story of sexual morality and vicious deceit. At first, director Harry Fehr’s production seems to be located in a society entirely dominated by the unforgiving laws of the Old Testament.

The brief opening scene shows two men being hanged, followed by a curtain adorned with a text from Deuteronomy that decrees the death penalty for sexual infidels.

However, when the curtain rises, we find ourselves in a Scotland, not of violent Calvinist retribution, but of a very modern wedding. In a sparkling, glass-walled dining room, amidst the paraphernalia of present-day catering, preparations are being made for the nuptials of Princess Ginevra and her bride, the eponymous soldier Ariodante.

The titular hero remains male in the libretto, but is played by the excellent Australian mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup. Who can doubt that Fehr is nodding towards the historic legalisation of same-sex marriage by the Holyrood Parliament two years ago this very month?

All of which adds a darker edge to the villainy of the low-life Polinesso, played with delicious gusto by the extraordinary Catalan counter-tenor Xavier Sabata. When he tricks Ariodante into thinking Ginevra has been unfaithful (with none other than Polinesso himself), it becomes an act of homophobia as well as of jealousy.

This production is balanced fascinatingly between Biblical prohibitions and the gentler sexual politics of modern day Scotland. It is also blessed with superb performances and, of course, a gorgeously rich score by one of the greatest Baroque composers.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 21, 2016

© Mark Brown