English National Opera


RosenkavalierRichard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

English National Opera, London, 2012 | Edward Gardner, David McVicar, Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson, Sophie Bevan, Andrew Shore, Madeleine Shaw, Adrian Thompson, Jennifer Rhys-Davies, Jaewoo Kim, Mark Richardson | The Coliseum, 24 February 2012

If the previous night’s production at the Coliseum of the Richard Jones directed The Tales of Hoffmann was an example of throwing everything at a production to less than optimal effect, David McVicar’s production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier the following night was a lesson in the virtue of understatement. Understatement is not a quality you often associate with either Richard Strauss or indeed David McVicar, and the use of the term is indeed relative. This revival of the English National Opera’s 2008 production is by no means minimalist, the stage lushly decorated in authentic-looking period design and costumes, but it makes the most effective use of that set design across all three acts with thoughtful arrangements and little fuss.

This is undoubtedly the best way to approach Strauss’s most extravagant and lushly detailed work. Every single word and gesture is already expressed, enhanced and accompanied by carefully considered notes and instruments to add layers of meaning and significance, and what they don’t need is for the stage direction to ignore them or work against them. That approach might be valid for introducing or bringing out notes of irony in relation to the subject in another opera, but Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s playful farce set amongst the nobility of mid-eighteenth century Vienna is already loaded with ironic intention and musical references to Strauss waltzes and to Mozart’s comic operas of lecherous nobles. It doesn’t need any other layers to confuse matters or disrupt the delicate balance in a manner that tips it over into being far too clever by half.

Rosenkavalier

Surprisingly for this director, McVicar even chose to figuratively draw a veil (or stage curtain) over any on-stage visualisation of Strauss’s famous musical expression of the opening bedroom romp between the Marshallin and her young lover Octavian, preferring to let the stage bask in the golden afterglow of the morning after. Without any further stage devices other than the subtle shifts of golden light, Act 1 serves up the gorgeous luxuriousness of Strauss’s expression of those moments, the subsequent encounter with Baron Ochs and the Levée without any unwelcome distraction, intrusion or interpretation. Simply creating an appropriate environment for the detail of the score and the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier to work its own magic is sufficient, and that is brilliantly achieved here.

That makes it sound easy, but there is actually a lot of consideration put into actually understanding what the opera is about. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in a review of a recent Baden-Baden production, the opera is more than just a satire of 18th century Viennese society or a fond tribute to the Mozartian class comedy, but, setting it in an idealised past, it’s very much concerned with the passing of time, with the ways of the old making way for the way of the new. That’s not only expressed directly in the libretto, particularly in Marschallin’s reflections at the end of Act 1, or in the tradition of the Rosenkavalier itself for arranging marriages of convenience, but it’s reflected in the very fabric of the music, each of the long three acts taking place in real time where every second and every nuance of every moment, every expression of every character, individually and sometimes together, is crystallised in the most exquisitely detailed musical arrangements. Occasionally, it can feel excessive and over-elaborate, over-generous in its emotional expression to almost Puccini-like levels, leaving little for the listener to interpret for themselves, and leaving them merely as observers, but, my goodness, what brilliance to simply sit back and luxuriate in!

It’s a willingness on the part of director McVicar and conductor Edward Gardner to refrain from adding any personal touches or interpretations and simply take the cues from the score and the libretto, that serves the ENO’s production so well here. That’s not a matter of stepping back however and not being involved, but rather directing their efforts to where it is best employed, and that is in service of the performers on the stage. The drama moves along here so fluidly, with all its enjoyable little moments of visual humour and personal interaction, that it’s clear just how much consideration has been placed in giving the opera its best possible presentation, never getting bogged down in the cleverness of the detail, but with an eye to the bigger picture. Never in my experience of this work have those three acts of Der Rosenkavalier felt so perfectly a whole, with not a note out of place, not a gesture unwarranted, not a single moment that wasn’t simply thoughtful, delightful and entertaining.

Rosenkavalier

A very great deal of the success of the work, no matter how thoughtful the attention given to the other elements of the production, lies in the casting, and the ENO’s current line-up delivered performances of astonishing quality. Individually, it would be hard to improve on a cast that includes Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson and Sophie Bevan, but collectively they also work well together, giving appropriate weight and balance to the characters. A high-profile soprano in the role of Marschallin can tip the balance too much towards sentimental reflection, but while Amanda Roocroft is undoubtedly one of the top English sopranos she never let her character’s dilemma over-dominate proceedings. Marschallin’s self-sacrifice to the happiness of the young couple at the end was consequently deeply moving, particularly in the light of the perfection of how the production handled Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s setting of the scene.

The overbearing nature of Baron Ochs can also lead to this character dominating the show - the opera was indeed originally conceived with Ochs to the forefront and even went under the title of Ochs auf Lerchenau while it was being written - and that is certainly a possibility with as fine a singer as John Tomlinson in the role. Not only was the diction of his bass clear, musical and beautifully resonant, but his playing of the role of Ochs made the old goat genuinely sympathetic, without contradicting the less pleasant aspects of his character. He played Ochs not as a buffoon but as a throwback to the “old ways” of the privilege of nobility, formerly secure of his position, dishonourably regretting the reduction of his influence, but ultimately accepting of it as being in the nature of the passing of time and the way of youth to usurp the place of their elders.

The fact that Roocroft and Tomlinson impressed so greatly without over-dominating the proceedings is not only testament to the fine handling of the stage direction, but to having equally fine and impressive singers in the roles of Octavian and Sophie. Sophie Bevan was a spirited Sophie, her youthful innocence and purity matched by the depth of her feelings expressed so beautifully in her words to Octavian and in their delivery. Fitting in with the overall approach to the work, Sarah Connolly’s Octavian was a model of how to make an impact and have presence through understatement, or at least without overstatement. There’s a balance to be maintained between the comic and the serious elements in Octavian’s make-up, between his youthful enthusiasm and growing maturity, his sensitive delicacy and his hotheadedness, and as performed by Sarah Connolly, you could see that character develop in real-time over the course of the opera. She was in fine voice.

Certainly one of the best all-round performances I’ve ever seen of Der Rosenkavalier, the ENO production was also one of those all too rare occasions when the full potential of a great opera was fully realised and its impact could be felt throughout the house.

HoffmannJacques Offenbach - The Tales of Hoffmann

English National Opera, London, 2012 | Antony Walker, Richard Jones, Barry Banks, Georgia Jarman, Clive Bayley, Christine Rice, Iain Paton, Grame Danby, Simon Butteriss, Catherine Young | The Coliseum, 23 February 2012

For his final opera - his only opera proper, since his prolific output up to 1880 consisted principally of comic operetta - Jacques Offenbach found a suitably inventive and imaginative mind to “collaborate” with in the shape of ETA Hoffmann. Using three of the writer’s fabulous stories, interlinked through involving their original author in the relating and playing out of the stories, finding common connections in character types that allow them to be played and sung by singers in multiple roles, The Tales of Hoffmann is consequently a very rich work where the contributions of the composer and the original author can be played upon to interesting effect. The English National Opera’s new production of the opera (already seen in Munich as a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera) seems to find a like-minded stage director of inventiveness and imagination in Richard Jones, but while his stage design for the production delivers everything you would expect from this type of match, it also feels a little too neat and obvious and doesn’t yield any unexpected results.

There’s a balance between playfulness and tragedy to be achieved in The Tales of Hoffmann and Jones (as seen most famously recently in his Royal Opera House production for Turnage’s Anna Nicole) can be good at showing an underlying dark unease beneath the surface kitsch and colour. As if it’s all conjured up from within the fevered imagination of an alcoholic writer at his wits end (only a little licence involved in relating this to the real-life circumstances of ETA Hoffmann), the action in each of the acts takes place in a uniformly shaped, trompe d’oeil twisted room, with a bed, a bookcase, a sink, a writing desk and several other elements that change subtly in form and colouration according to each of the three gothic romances that Hoffman relates to his assembled (imaginary?) audience, three affairs that have taken him to the edge of despair and self-destruction. The sense that this fevered imagination is enhanced by the smoking of mind-altering substances is reinforced by the repeated appearance of Hoffmann, his muse and three gentlemen smoking pipes in between each of the stories, the smoke forming the names of the three women involved - Olympia, Antonia and Giuletta.

Hoffmann

Each of those three parts then is deliriously coloured to emphasis the fairytale quality of the original stories along with the dark undercurrent of gothic horror and tragedy that underpins them, and Richard Jones’s designs couldn’t be faulted for being eye-catching and imaginative in this respect. Just as in Offenbach’s score, there’s room for those familiar broader comic touches as well as for the more sensitive plays of character and emotion that lies within the situations, but it often feels perfunctory when compared to Offenbach’s wilder flights of fancy in his opéra comique, and merely playing on opera conventions. The production mirrors the nature of the work perfectly well in this respect, in other words, but it doesn’t manage to make anything more of those links and contrasts in the stories, in the differing views that Hoffmann and Offenbach bring to them, or in how they even relate to each other.

Some lovely melodies aside, The Tales of Hoffmann isn’t the most sophisticated work, and there perhaps isn’t much to delve into beneath the surface, but these elements and contradictions could be exploited further in the hands of a more adventurous director. Considering that the theme of the banal realities of life being enhanced by the imagination of a disturbed character or lunatic form a core part of the films of Terry Gilliam, I couldn’t help think that this opera would have been a more interesting vehicle for the former Python than Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the ENO (notwithstanding his success with that) - whereas with Richard Jones, The Tales of Hoffmann just feels in safe hands. It’s all very entertaining and visually impressive, but personally, I think this particular opera, with its rather old-fashioned storytelling devices relating a confusing and strange narrative needs rather more than a straightforward telling. Jones gets the surface down well, but there’s not a whole lot of sense or depth in it as a whole.

Hoffmann

It’s left to the singers then to try and bring something more memorable out of the production and, while the performances are terrific, it’s not enough to bring any new qualities out of the work. Barry Banks sings his heart out, but without any depth to the work or the production, he seems, like the character of Hoffmann in his choice of women (and like Offenbach himself), to be expending an awful lot of energy and investing a lot of emotion in something that doesn’t seem worthy of his efforts. Georgia Jarman acquits herself admirably across a notoriously difficult singing of the opera’s multi-part soprano role, bringing some genuine sensitivity to the character of Antonia at least, if he is unable to do much within the staging for the other parts. Christine Rice also brought some heartfelt emotion and character to the muse disguised as Nicklausse - indeed surpassing the otherwise unimaginative director’s interpretation of the character. Clive Bayley sang well and was suitably sinister as the villain of the pieces.

Antony Walker’s conducting of the score was excellent, but like all the other aspects of the production, it didn’t raise the work to any new levels - but that might perhaps be asking for too much. That perhaps sums up my overall impression of the ENO’s The Tales of Hoffmann, which on its own terms was a delightful and entertaining account of the work, marvellously performed with skill and commitment, but anyone looking for something a little more thoughtful or challenging from Richard Jones’s production could well feel a little bit disappointed.

ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

English National Opera, London | Mark Wigglesworth, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Iain Paterson, John Tomlinson, Tom Fox, Stuart Skelton, Jane Dutton, Andrew Greenan | The Coliseum, London - February 19th, 2011

Wagner’s final opera, written and first produced in 1882, a year before his death, takes around four hours to relate a story that could be easily summarised in a couple of lines. It’s about a group of knights, protectors of the Holy Grail, who hope one day to recover the equally holy spear that pierced Christ’s side while on the cross. It has been prophesised that only a pure innocent holy fool will be able to achieve this, wresting it from the clutches of the evil Klingsor and thereby bring about redemption for Amfortas, the leader of the knights who suffers from an eternal wound that the spear has inflicted upon him. The person who comes along to fulfil this prophecy is Parsifal.

It seems like a very simple storyline and not one that would fill four hours of an opera, one would think – or at least one would think that were they not familiar with Richard Wagner. The key word in the above description is ‘suffering’, and, no, I’m not describing what an audience listening to four hours of Wagner has to undergo. On the contrary, Parsifal is filled end to end with some of the most exquisitely beautiful, thoughtful and indescribably sublime music that the composer, or indeed any composer, has ever written. The opera, rather, was inspired by Wagner’s attempt, late in his life, to come to terms with the idea of suffering, endless suffering, life as sufferance, and question what humanity gains through endurance of such torment.

Parsifal

There’s evidently a heavily Christian undercurrent to Parsifal then (although Wagner was in fact largely inspired by Buddhist teaching on the matter), with many of the characters undergoing Christ-like trials and torments to ultimately achieve purification for humanity, rediscover innocence, peace and an end to suffering, and through this the inspiration to continue to wage a holy war against infidels and those whose blood is less than pure. That makes the concept that Parsifal explores rather more complicated, not to say, in the light of the composer’s notorious anti-Semitic sentiments, even somewhat sinister.

The huge undertaking of the various concepts, and the Christian ideals that are explored in Parsifal however can be seen not even as an undercurrent, but in the very overt subject matter of the Holy Grail itself and the powerful symbolism of this image – according to Wagner “The most profound symbol that could ever have been invented as the content of the physical-spiritual kernel of any religion”. One need only think of how the term is applied in a modern context as the be all and end all, the ultimate aim, aspiration and desire of every human being – something that they are prepared to sacrifice everything for and endure so much suffering to attain.That’s why Parsifal takes four hours to express its ideas, since this is something that has to be worked for, won through long suffering, endurance and purity of purpose. Almost all of the characters in the opera are single-minded in their pursuit of this aim, and it is not too difficult to fathom their motivations, but there are some, Amfortas, and particularly Kundry, who have conflicting behaviours and rather more complex personalities, and it is ultimately through them, as much as through Parsifal, that true enlightenment is reached. All of the characters however are given infinitely more depth through Wagner’s sensuously contemplative score that lifts the piece out of any earthly existence and out into a realm “beyond time and space”.

Parsifal

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s superb 1999 stage production, revived here for its final performances at the English National Opera, brilliantly works on multiple levels, creating a place that seems to exist in an otherworldly domain, while at the same time being resolutely physical and austere in its expression of the nature of the characters and their struggles. In stark contrast to Mike Figgis’ first attempt at opera direction with Lucrezia Borgia, seen on stage at the Coliseum the previous night, Lehnhoff – renowned for his productions of Wagner’s music dramas – demonstrates a deep understanding of Parsifal and, in what can be a very static opera, makes full use of the stage to express it. The restlessness of the characters and their relation to one another is played out in their movements and proximity to one another, lighting and colouration used for emphasis and to highlight the tones expressed by the music. And not only is full use of the stage made in this respect, but, like the score, it even takes it beyond the confines of the physical dimensions of the Raimund Bauer’s set designs. That sounds like hyperbole, but the staging and Wagner’s remarkable orchestration is so persuasive that it really does take the audience into another dimension.

The playing of the orchestra of the English National Opera, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, could not be faulted, nor could individual performances by a uniformly strong cast or the powerful presence of the chorus. It would be unfair to single out any one singer when every element works together in such a fashion, but John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz proved to be an impressive narrator to anchor the opera with his wonderful bass tone and clear English diction. There are only a few performances of this opera left at the Coliseum, and although it has been recorded for posterity and is available on Blu-ray disc, it is still well worth making the effort to see it in a live performance before it disappears from the stage forever.

LucreziaGaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

English National Opera, London | Paul Daniel, Mike Figgis, Claire Rutter, Michael Fabiano, Elizabeth DeShong, Alastair Miles | The Coliseum, London - February 18th, 2011

Even without reading the programme notes for Mike Figgis’ production of Lucrezia Borgia for the English National Opera, it’s clear from very early on that the medium isn’t an environment that the film director feels entirely comfortable with. Even before the opera proper starts, some flashback scenes written and filmed in Rome by Figgis as a background to what takes place in the opera, are projected onto a white screen hanging over the stage, making it clear that he has approached the opera in much the same way that he would make a film.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing – opera is open to incorporating many disciplines and giving them varying weight, as well as being open to the kind of reinvention that new technology and modern ideas can bring to it – and there has accordingly been a healthy cross-over of film directors between the cinema and opera. While the short films that accompany the opera then are not at all needed, they are nevertheless a valid response to what the director sees as a need to give psychological, real-world depth to a character who is larger than life and, in Donizetti’s opera, played larger than life. There are, one could say, inconsistencies in the characterisation and gaps in credibility that arise out of its novelistic source in the work of Victor Hugo and its attempts to provide redemption for a complex and really quite notorious historical figure whose vile nature and her murderous inclinations towards anyone who criticises her family name is scarcely tempered by her love for her lost son, Gennaro.

In this case however, the impression is given that not only does Figgis not know his audience – an opera audience does not need the same kind of literal, realist approach as cinema, with the psychological background of the characters laid-out in this way – but it seems that he doesn’t understand opera, and the fact that, in a strong well-written opera (and Lucrezia Borgia certainly falls into that category), all the explanations that are needed, all the expressions of personality and the motivational factors – the guilt and the passion that lies at the heart of the characters – are all contained within the music and within the singing itself, even more so than in the narrative of the libretto, which can otherwise seem contrived and scarcely credible.

This failure to understand and get to grips with the medium he is working in or the audience he is working for, results in a rather over-literal, static and reductive approach for a director who can otherwise be quite avant-garde and experimental when it comes to filmmaking (Timecode, Hotel, COMA). A measure of his mistrust of opera, his audience and his own reaction towards it is in his choice to play Orsini (a female playing the role of a male), as a female, as if an opera audience couldn’t possibly grasp this convention that is so far removed from the rather more literal approach of cinematic realism. On his approach to the actual staging, there is also some merit to reducing the amount of clutter and glitz that usually accompanies a period, bel canto opera, and just letting the music and singing stand on its own. For the most part, the performances are certainly up to that task, particularly from Claire Rutter in the role of Lucrezia, but there is also a strong performance (particularly in the brindisi scene) from Elizabeth DeShong as Orsini, and the bond of love and friendship that lies between them actually does take on an interesting dimension and create other resonances with Orsini played as a female.

Lucrezia

There is however an additional constraint that Figgis finds himself struggling with, and that is the policy of the English National Opera to perform opera in English wherever possible, regardless of the suitability of the opera. Admittedly, some opera can work surprisingly well in English – Wagner’s Parsifal, seen at the same opera house the following night – worked no less effectively in English than it does in German, but bel canto opera, for me at least, is entirely associated with the qualities and sounds of the Italian language. Conductor Paul Daniel worked on the translation himself, and really, he failed to do justice to the work, with some of the choices made provoking chuckles from the audience at inappropriate points, not at all helping to establish the desired tone, and making Figgis’ attempt at psychological depth and realism all the more difficult. Significantly, the short film segments made by Figgis himself were in Italian with English subtitles.

The reduction of the staging and the simplification of movements does have some impact then in reducing the over-the-top propensities of the opera that Figgis evidently feels need to be constrained, and while it restricts the dynamic and results in what is not the most eye-catching of productions, it does at least focus the attention on the singing. One gets the impression however that the reduction of the staging into smaller areas is an attempt by Figgis to scale down the canvas, as per the framing in his film work, and break it down into discreet, static, sections that can be brought together when reworked for the cinema or television screen. As such, it would seem that Mike Figgis has been brought in more with the first ever 3-D Live opera broadcast in mind (tomorrow 23rd February 2011 for Sky Arts 2 HD and for cinema). Here one can imagine the director being more at home, progressively experimenting in a filmed medium, using simultaneous action and multiple angles. As such however, unfair though it might be for the theatrical audience, his stage production of Lucrezia Borgia feels like an unfinished product that will only come to fruition when it is brought to the screen.