Review: Eugene Onegin, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

OPERA REVIEW

 

EUGENE ONEGIN

Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow,

Touring until June 30

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Eugene Onegin - James Glossop
Eugene Onegin. Photo: James Glossop

Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin (based upon the verse novel by Pushkin) reflects powerfully the stultifying atmosphere of Czarist Russia. The piece tells the tale of the eponymous, degenerate heir to a country estate and of the young woman, Tatyana Larina, who falls in love with him.

   Bored by the endless soirees that constituted his life in St Petersburg, Onegin arrives in the country, the seeming image of metropolitan sophistication. His excessive self-regard is given remarkable expression early in director Oliver Mears’s excellent production when Onegin rides an enormous horse through a set of French windows and into the sitting room of the Larina household.

   This, and every other action in the opera, is overseen by Tatyana in old age. Returning to her former home, now a picture of decayed grandeur and dereliction, the elderly woman envisions the tragic events that began with Onegin brutally rejecting her as a lovelorn 17-year-old (and, indeed, cynically lecturing her on self-restraint).

   The production’s bleak, carefully illuminated vision is realised beautifully by stage designer Annemarie Woods and lighting designer Fabiana Piccioli. Contrasting powerfully with the opulence and emotion of Tchaikovsky’s music, it provides the perfect frame for Pushkin’s story.

  Australian baritone Samuel Dale Johnson gives a superb performance in the title role. Whether he is the strutting playboy who callously sets his best friend, Vladimir Lensky, on the road to destruction, or the man who returns, years later, broken and regretful, Johnson is the very embodiment of Pushkin’s dubious romantic hero.

   Soprano Natalya Romaniw (who hails from Swansea, but is of Ukrainian heritage) is similarly affecting as Tatyana, both as a heartbroken teenager and, later, a resolute aristocrat. Her singing in the famous letter scene, in particular, exemplifies a production which is as strong on emotion as it is on narrative.

 For tour details, visit: scottishopera.org.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 6, 2018

© Mark Brown

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Review: Ariadne auf Naxos, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

OPERA REVIEW

 

Ariadne Auf Naxos

Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow;

Playing Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,

April 5 & 7

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Ariadne auf Naxos
The cabaret artistes in Ariadne auf Naxos. Photo: Richard Campbell

Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne Auf Naxos is a curious animal with a circuitous history. First staged in Stuttgart in 1912, with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, it was created to be performed after Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of Moliere‘s play The Bourgeois Gentleman.

In 1916 Strauss created a second version, in which the Moliere was jettisoned, to be replaced by a prologue that explained to the audience how the composer came to create an opera in which a Greek classical tale became entwined with a commedia dell’arte troupe.

The premiere of this witty, new co-production between Scottish Opera and the Holland Park opera company was put back by two days due to the Sauchiehall Street fire of March 22. Relocated to modern day Glasgow, with a new, English-language version of the prologue by Helen Cooper, it shifts Strauss’s juxtaposition of high art and low comedy into the 21st-century.

Ariadne auf Naxos 2
Jennifer France as Zerbinetta. Photo: Richard Campbell

Gone are the Renaissance Italian players, replaced by a cabaret troupe who specialise in knife throwing and risque burlesque. The unseen “richest man in Glasgow” has paid top dollar to assemble at his mansion, unbeknown to the artists themselves, both the cabaret performers and an opera company. Then, at the last moment, he decides he wants them to play, not consecutively, but together.

Ironically, the “lowbrow” artistes’ insistence that their routines will liven up the boring opera about Ariadne’s abandonment on the island of Naxos is borne out by the decidedly dry, somewhat static treatment afforded the classical story. The cabaret artists’ Village People-style appearance (with characters including a Weimar music hall hostess and a Greek guard) is given depth by a neat, Sapphic sub-plot.

Soprano Jennifer France excels as burlesque performer Zerbinetta, while Mardi Byers (Ariadne) and Kor-Jan Dusseljee (Dionysus) sing the closing scene with a power that elevates the ancient narrative.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 1, 2018

© Mark Brown

Review: Flight, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

A powerful Flight of fancy

 

Flight

Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow;

at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,

March 1-3

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Flight
Flight. Photo: James Glossop

The airport, as we saw in the National Theatre of Scotland/Grid Iron show Roam back in 2006, is not merely a functional location. Its comings and goings contain within them all manner of hopes and fears. Sometimes what goes on there is, literally, a matter of life and death.

Some eight years before Roam took its audiences around Edinburgh International Airport, the 1998 opera Flight, by Jonathan Dove (music) and April De Angelis (libretto), was addressing similar themes. Now, based upon the Investec Opera Holland Park production from 2015, the piece is now receiving its Scottish Opera premiere.

Rolling together the departure lounge and the arrivals hall, the opera brings together the kind of assortment of people you would be unlikely to find anywhere other than an airport.

There’s the middle-aged couple desperately trying to reignite the fire in their relationship. Their manufactured optimism contrasts humorously with the shenanigans of the airline steward and stewardess, for whom an airport elevator proves private enough for some sexual gymnastics.

Add to this the understandable crisis of confidence of the pregnant wife of a diplomat (is it motherhood or Minsk that is terrifying her?), the apprehension of a 52-year-old double divorcee waiting for her young lover and the plight of a refugee, who is stuck in the airport as if in limbo.

Played on Andrew Riley’s set, a precise evocation of its location which hosts Jack Henry James’s ambitious video work excellently, director Stephen Barlow’s production shifts effectively between comedy and tragedy. The impressively grand score, with its appropriately soaring crescendos and moments of spiky discordance, is matched by fine singing across the board (Jennifer France is especially affecting as the plaintive, almost ethereal Controller).

Ultimately, the figure of an implausibly humane immigration officer enables a powerful conclusion which puts the global refugee crisis centre stage.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 25, 2018

© Mark Brown

Review: La Traviata, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

OPERA REVIEW

 

La Traviata

Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Touring until December 2

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

La Traviata 2017
La Traviata. Photo: Drew Farrell

It isn’t difficult to see why there was so much resistance to the work of Giuseppe Verdi, both from sections of the 19th-century audience and, most damagingly, from the political and cultural establishment of the day. Although his music was among the most exquisite in all of opera, his political instincts (like those of the younger Alexandre Dumas, whose writings inspired La Traviata) were in conflict with the stern and hypocritical mores of his society.

La Traviata (or The Fallen Woman) is a love story and a morality tale about Violetta Valery, the high-class prostitute of Dumas’s novel La Dame Aux Camelias (who was based upon the real-life Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis). Turning her back on her former life for the love of young society gentleman Alfredo Germont, she finds herself confronted with the threats and exhortations of Alfredo’s puritanical father Giorgio. Proving herself more loving of Alfredo than her adversary, Violetta rejects her lover, so as to spare him and his family the strictures of an unforgiving society.

A brilliant revival of David McVicar’s 2008 production, this Scottish Opera staging by Marie Lambert takes us to the very heart of the opulent and cynical society soirees of Paris in the mid-1800s. Splendidly costumed, set and lit (by Tanya McCallin, design, and Stephen Powles, lighting), with vivid colour swallowed by dominant black, the piece looks and feels like a living premonition.

Dutch tenor Peter Gijsbertsen gives a vital and anguished performance as Alfredo, while English  baritone Stephen Gadd offers a perfect, stiff-necked rendering of the brutally upright Giorgio. The performance of the evening, however, comes from Russian soprano Gulnara Shafigullina, who makes a searing Scottish Opera debut with a hauntingly sympathetic, gorgeously sung Violetta.

For tour dates, visit: scottishopera.org.uk

An abridged version of this review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 29, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: La boheme, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

OPERA REVIEW

 

La boheme,

Theatre Royal, Glasgow,

various dates until May 20;

then touring until June 17

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

La boheme 2017
Hye-Youn Lee (Mimi) and Luis Gomes (Rodolfo). Photo: Sally Jubb

It is the measure of Paris’s status as the “City of Love” that even the poverty-stricken artists of the 19th-century are part its romantic iconography. This image (which contrasts starkly with the neglected banlieues of present day Paris) is referenced knowingly by Andre Barbe, designer of Scottish Opera’s new production of Puccini’s La boheme.

Director Renaud Doucet’s production cuts between the Latin Quarter today, replete with baseball-hatted American tourists, and the same streets in the early 1800s. As we meet penniless poet Rodolfo and the impoverished Bohemians who make up his circle of friends, Barbe frames a photograph of the famous rooftops of Paris as a picture postcard, stamped and franked for added irony.

The famous light-footedness of Puccini’s score is reflected in a production which emphasises the comic and romantic dimensions of the opera. As Rodolfo falls in love with the lonely and lovely seamstress Mimi, the singer Musetta (played by the excellent Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique) is reinvented as a version of Josephine Baker, the iconic entertainer of Paris in the jazz age.

Doucet’s staging veers between colourful Christmas carnival (complete with splendidly costumed street performers) and the tribulations of the starving artists. There are fine performances across the piece, not least the nuanced and emotive playing of Portuguese tenor Luis Gomes (Rodolfo) and British baritone David Stout (the painter Marcello).

Inevitably, however, the opera focuses on the increasingly desperate health of Mimi (who is in the grip of tuberculosis). The role of the ailing seamstress is performed with, by turns, touching sincerity and shuddering pathos by South Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee.

As Mimi lies dying on a sofa, surrounded by the artists who have become her adopted family, Doucet fashions a powerful denouement that honours Puccini’s stated desire to make his audiences weep.

For tour dates, visit: scottishopera.org.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 14, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: The 8th Door & Bluebeard’s Castle, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

OPERA REVIEW

 

The 8th Door & Bluebeard’s Castle,

Theatre Royal, Glasgow,

Run Ended

 

At Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,

April 5-8

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

8th Door
The 8th Door. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

This double bill of Bela Bartok’s famous opera Bluebeard’s Castle and, preceding it, the world premiere of the Bartok-inspired piece The 8th Door (which is conceived by composer Lliam Paterson and theatre director Matthew Lenton) was a tantalising prospect. A co-production between Scottish Opera and Glasgow-based theatre company Vanishing Point, under Lenton’s directorship, it promised to be, in every department, a celebration of the aesthetics of European Modernism.

Taking its title after Bluebeard’s Castle (in which, famously, the truth of the titular baron’s life are concealed behind seven doors), The 8th Door has a libretto built of poetry. The text is inspired, mainly, by Hungarian poets (such as Attila Jozsef and Sandor Weores), but also draws upon the work of Scotland’s late Makar, Edwin Morgan.

Growing from Bartok’s themes of secrecy and revelation between lovers, the piece charts, in visual terms at least, a young couple’s journey into the euphoria and pain of romantic love. Two actors (Gresa Pallaska and Robert Jack) are seated, with their backs to the audience, before video cameras from which their faces are projected alternately onto a large screen at the centre of the stage; the singers (who perform in Hungarian and English with English supertitles) are consigned to the orchestra pit.

There is a strong match between Paterson’s music (which is, by sudden turns, harmonic and discordant) and a libretto which overflows with affecting and disquieting metaphors. This ambiguous, poetic depth is undermined fatally, however, by Lenton’s staging.

Following an intriguing beginning, in which out-of-focus faces emerge slowly from the darkness, as if in a painting by Francis Bacon, the live video (which is realised by designer Kai Fischer, but, presumably, conceived by Lenton) soon descends into banality. From the giving of a flower to an absurd kiss, the unremarkable visual storytelling is, like a glaring light shone onto a beautiful twilight, at constant odds with the poetics of the opera.

Bluebeard's Castle
Bluebeard’s Castle. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Matters improve somewhat in Lenton’s presentation of Bluebeard’s Castle. Based upon the macabre French fairytale (which was popularised by Charles Perrault in the late-17th century), it tells the story of the secretive Baron Bluebeard and Judith, his fourth wife.

Bluebeard (who is rumoured to have murdered his previous wives) begs Judith to love him without question. Judith, however, insists that she will love Bluebeard regardless of his secrets, and requires the keys to the seven doors.

The metaphorical implications of the tale are timeless, which makes the decision by Lenton and Fischer to opt for a 21st-century design entirely legitimate. However, one might question the wisdom of transforming Bluebeard’s bleak castle into a modern, and surprisingly modest, living room, complete with sofa.

There is an irritating gulf between this prosaic setting and Bartok’s jagged, majestic music. Fischer attempts to dramatise his design with variably effective elemental projections (the lake of tears is impressive, blood red light shining from a laptop computer is simply silly). One can’t help but wish, however, that he and Lenton had opted for something more abstract from the outset.

Despite such disappointments, there are memorable performances from bass-baritone Robert Hayward (Bluebeard) and mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill (Judith). Their irreconcilable argument over the meaning of love is conducted at a transfixing emotional level.

There is an irony in Lenton and Vanishing Point coming up short on the visual front. Often, in recent times, their theatre work has been stronger in form than in content. Yet here, with a great Modernist masterpiece in their hands, it is their visual imagination that lets them down.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 2, 2017

© Mark Brown

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