Bickley, Susan


JephthaGeorge Friedrich Handel - Jephtha

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Harry Christophers, Frederic Wake-Walker, James Gilchrist, Susan Bickley, Gillian Keith, Jonathan Best, William Purefoy, Elizabeth Karani | Buxton Opera House - 11 July 2012

Staging a Handel oratorio is an attractive proposition, since they often contain some of his most beautiful and stirring compositions in a much freer and more varied form outside of the restrictions and conventions of the Italian opera seria, but they inevitably present certain challenges when it comes to dramatising them for the stage. Works such as Theodora and Belshazzar are indeed semi-dramatic, their religious subject sometimes the only reason preventing them being staged as operas due to English censorship restrictions of the time on the staging of biblical subjects, and they have been successfully adapted as staged opera works, as even has Messiah. Categorised as a “dramatic oratorio in three acts”, Jephtha however doesn’t actually have all that much happening in the way of action, but the qualities of the music in Handel’s final oratorio, finished while partially blind and losing his sight completely soon after, mean that it’s certainly worth trying to find a way to present it to a modern audience.

The libretto by Dr Thomas Morell presents the biblical story of Jephtha from the Book of Judges in the oratorio style of repeated declamations and pronouncements, the devout sentiments expressed in a poetic fashion with only small sections of recitative to link them together. Not a lot actually happens in the relatively straightforward story, where Zabul asks his brother Jephtha to lead the Israelites into battle against the Ammonites. If successful, Jephtha will continue to rule and he vows that if God helps him, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees on his return. It’s his daughter Iphis however who he encounters, come to meet her father. Jephtha agonises over what has happened, but intends to carry out his promise, only to be prevented at the last moment by the intervention of an angel. The biblical story is filled out (and given a happy ending) by Morell by way of Euripides, with some scenes featuring Iphis’s beloved Hamor, and Jephtha’s wife Storge lamenting the premonitions she has had of what is to befall her family.

Like opera seria work from this period, it’s difficult to stage such scenes naturalistically, and particular so in a work that was created as an oratorio, where not only is there much expression of interiorised emotions, but those expressions are particularly ‘elevated’, by which I mean relating to religious convictions and conceptual ideas more so than simply reacting to circumstances. A conventional stage setting won’t work, and might even work against such a particular means of expression, so director Frederick Wake-Walker’s approach is appropriately conceptual. Initially, the staging seems to take a leaf from the book of Christof Loy, the stage bare but for five chairs, the singers dressed formally, taking their places as if for a rehearsal of a performance, walking forward to sing from the stand placed at the front of the stage, with some brief interaction between them. The idea of it being a performance remains throughout, coming through again at the presentation of flowers at the end, but there are other elements at play here that are more difficult to pin down.

It’s left to the chorus - an important element in Handel oratorios, and the principal attraction for staging such works - to take on the task of enhancing the meaning or deeper expression in this Buxton Festival production of Jephtha. Dressed in black robes, with ruffs around their neck, quite what their movements and placements on the stage mean can’t really be defined, but in many respects, they are the embodiment of the scenery, the sentiments and the whole mood of the piece. I know that sounds like grasping for meaning, but meaning is there for the individual to find in the work and its presentation, and if you are attempting to express dark thoughts and “scenes of horror”, then this approach is much more appropriate than setting it in a countryside location or some such naturalistic location. The measure of whether this approach works or not is in whether the full force of the work comes across without the need for literalism (which would be difficult to find in this work in any case), and there was no question that it served Handel and Morell’s work exceptionally well.

Just as vital, if not evidently more so, is the musical accompaniment and the singing, and in that respect, the staging supported what was being expressed here and didn’t detract from it. The playing from the Orchestra of the Sixteen in the pit conducted by Harry Christophers was marvellous, finding the drama in the music itself and working in accord with the singers. The role of Jephtha has the widest variety of emotions, from angry declamation and fervent passion though to complete dejection and soft humility, and James Gilchrist matched the tone and delivery for each sentiment perfectly. This is a wonderful work however for the variety of voices and in how they work together side-by-side in individual sections, but also in unison in duets and trios. Susan Bickley’s Storge, Gillian Keith’s Iphis and countertenor William Purefoy’s Hamor were all outstanding in this respect, each fully characterising their roles through the voice even more so than through the expression of somewhat obscure pronouncements. Jonathan Best and Elizabeth Karani in the smaller roles of Zebul and Angel fitted wonderfully into this arrangement, an arrangement of voices and expression that is amplified by Handel’s choral writing, delivered passionately by the Festival Chorus.

ScrewBenjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw

Glyndebourne 2011 | Jonathan Kent, Jakub Hrůša, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Miah Persson, Susan Bickley, Toby Spence, Giselle Allen, Thomas Parfitt, Joanna Songi | Live HD Broadcast, 21st August 2011

Although Glyndebourne haven’t been associated with perhaps the most famous name in modern English opera until relatively recently – a longstanding feud between the Suffolk opera company and Britten creating a thirty-five year gap up that lasted until the 1980s – they have put on some notable productions since. Two of Britten’s most famous operas however have had to wait a considerable time before they made their first appearance on the Glyndebourne stage, but with a production of Billy Budd conducted by Mark Elder in 2010, and a 2006 production of The Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne can certainly be seen to have made amends for those notable absences. If it’s not quite as definitive a production as their remarkable staging of Billy Budd last year, The Turn of the Screw, Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production revived here for the latest season, recorded and broadcast live in HD, is however a very different kind of opera that demands a different kind of treatment and performance.

The Turn of the Screw is similar to Billy Budd – as Mark Elder oberved – in that it deals with the theme of the loss of innocence, but, adapted from a short novel by Henry James (1898), the loss of innocence seems even more distressing when it is applied to the corruption of young children. In some respects a ghost story – one of the most famous and enigmatic of ghost stories ever written – The Turn of the Screw is also one of the first works to consider its hauntings and apparitions in psychological terms, the sightings of sinister figures seeming to be extensions of the hysterical imaginings of a sexually repressed Victorian governess. Charged with looking after two young children, Flora and Miles, by their uncle who is always away elsewhere on business, the Governess – with perhaps a bit of a crush on the man she only meets once (he’s not seen at all in the opera version) and who has forbidden her having any further contact with him unless absolutely necessary – the desires of the woman and her own repressed emotions become reflected and even enacted out on the lives of the children.

There are however many possible readings of the material which defies easy analysis and intentionally – to rather more disturbing effect – leaves plenty of room for ambiguity and personal impressions. Britten’s opera plays on this, or at least takes account of the potential that can be drawn out further through the use of equally evocative, ambiguous and often disturbing musical motifs and even nursery rhymes. The opera can be seen as a ghost story where the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are indeed present and interact with the children and the Governess, as a psychological reading where they are the manifestation of a heightened or disturbed mental state brought about by sexual repression (the Governess first sees Peter Quint on a tower after thinking about the children’s uncle, believing it to be him), and it is indeed also about the loss of innocence. It is not so much the suggestion of child abuse enacted upon the children by the malevolent servants – although that reading is certainly suggested – as much as the consideration that Flora and Miles will not remain innocent children for long, but will inevitably be “corrupted” by the world, by knowledge, and perhaps unwittingly even by the over solicitious behaviour of the Governess herself, conscious and feeling guilty about her own repressed adult desires.

Musically, all these thoughts and emotions are evoked magnificently in the chamber orchestration, where even the smallest of sounds, tones and emotional states have complex meanings and are often picked out by individual instruments. Jonathan Kent chooses to set the opera in the 1950s as the last period of innocence (a period and theme he would reuse in his 2010 Glyndebourne production of Don Giovanni for similar reasons), which doesn’t really add anything – although it does have additional significance as being the original period in which Britten’s opera was composed – but likewise, it doesn’t detract at all from the tone or the content of the opera. Much more importantly, Paul Brown’s set designs for the country house at Bly remain sparse and fluidly changeable, like the moods of the score and the tone of the whole piece itself. The walls surrounding the starkly lit set give an enclosed claustrophobic quality to the isolated drama being played-out, the centre of the stage dominated by a set of French windows that likewise suggest closedness, as well as showing a world outside, marked by a twisted tree branch. It’s a strong representation of the interior world in which Mrs Grose and the Governess want to keep the children protected and the external world which holds horrors that irresistibly attract them. Britten’s score likewise plays with this ambiguity, with plaintive violins relating to closed internal emotional states, while flutes and harps suggest the open air, as well as a more floating spiritual domain, but one that also has a more sinister touch.

The sets and music working in perfect accord, with concentric platforms swirling objects fluidly and hauntingly into place with perfect timing, the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra marvellously conducted by Jakub Hrůša to draw all the necessary tension out of the score, the singing was also perfect for the occasion. Really, it would be hard to say which side of the physical/spiritual divide held the upper hand, such was the strength of expression, deluded and dangerous though it might be, of Susan Bickley’s Mrs Grose and Miah Persson’s Governess, their terror over the apparitions powerfully delivered. They were however more than matched by Toby Spence’s Peter Quint and Giselle Allen’s Miss Jessel, who both asserted a forceful and appropriately sinister physical and vocal presence. The ensemble pieces with the children Thomas Parfitt and Joanna Songi were most effective in this regard, Songi in particular an impressive young talent. Pitched perfectly on every level, form and content working in perfect accord, this was a fine performance of another impressive Britten production at Glyndebourne.

AnnaNicoleMark-Anthony Turnage - Anna Nicole

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Alan Oke, Gerald Finley, Susan Bickley, Loré Lixenberg, Peter Hoare, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Allison Cook, Andrew Rees, Grant Doyle, Wynne Evans | Opus Arte

Dealing with a low-brow subject, treating it to an outlandish and tasteless staging, with crude language and bad-taste humour, there is a danger that Anna Nicole, an opera by Mark Anthony Turnage about the former Playboy model who died of a drug overdose in 2007, could be accused of making Eurotrash out of American Trash, but the language and the staging befits the tone of its subject. The barrage of rhyming couplets in the libretto from Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer the Opera) may clearly signal their intention to rhyme at the end with four-letter words and other mildly shocking profanities, but at the same time there is wit and pathos here in a libretto that actually manages to cut through the niceties directly to harsh crude reality of the circumstances of Anna Nicole Smith’s life, unpalatable though that might be to the average opera-going audience. Benjamin Britten and particularly Billy Budd comes to mind in the use of language, in its subject – which is also about a kind of loss of innocence on a bigger level than just the personal – and in Turnage’s score, which also adopts his usual jazz and American influences, successfully finding the right tone for each occasion.

The colourful, tastefully tacky set-designs by Richard Jones also adopt the right tone with plenty of eye-catching sights not commonly seen in an opera house, including a sequence in a lap-dancing parlour replete with artificial breast-enhanced women twirling themselves gymnastically and provocatively from poles. The decision to present the opera as if it were a reality-TV show in which a chorus of TV hosts interview Anna Nicole Smith, already dead but looking back over her life and tracing the path from smalltown girl to media celebrity that will ultimately lead to her destruction, is a masterstroke and it imbues the piece with a slightly sinister edge that grows as the opera proceeds. The tone darkens considerably by the second half, when it does indeed become a tragedy, as the people in Smith’s life disappear to be replaced by masses of ominous black figures with TV cameras for heads.

Antonio Pappano, conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, does well to allow the music score to assert its presence and not be overshadowed by the spectacle or the libretto. Eva-Maria Westbroek is marvellous in the title role, and well supported by Gerald Finlay and Alan Oke. As more of a Wagnerian soprano, Westbroek is not really tested by the limited singing demands of the role, but she sings exceptionally well and manages to bring out the inherent humanity of her character, never letting her be merely an icon, nor indeed, allowing the performance to descend into parody. Whether the opera ultimately has anything new to say or whether it touches on anything deeper in its subject – if indeed there is anything deeper to be drawn from its subject – is questionable, but Anna Nicole demonstrates nonetheless that opera can still be a vital artform to address contemporary subjects in a powerful manner that can connect with a modern audience.

On Blu-ray from Opus Arte, the opera – opening with a legal disclaimer that it is “not intended to be an actual factual depiction of any person” – looks every bit as bold as it should, the striking colours deeply saturated, with strong blacks and contrasts, and a good level of detail. This often looks just stunning, and it is well filmed, picking out the singers at the right moments, while also allowing the overall impact of the set to be appreciated. The audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are also effective in allowing the detail of the musical arrangements to come through. Subtitles are in English (so you can check that they actually sang what you thought they sang but couldn’t quite believe), French, German and Spanish. Aside from a Cast Gallery, the only other extra on the disc is a brief Production Report (8:25), introduced by Pappano, which nonetheless covers the development of the opera well with interviews with Turnage, Thomas and Westbroek.

AnnaNicoleMark-Anthony Turnage - Anna Nicole

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Alan Oke, Gerald Finley, Susan Bickley, Loré Lixenberg, Peter Hoare, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Allison Cook, Andrew Rees, Grant Doyle, Wynne Evans | World Premiere - February 17th, 2011

A few eyebrows will have been raised, and no little amount of scepticism expressed, when it was announced that Mark-Anthony Turnage would be writing an opera for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden about Anna Nicole Smith, a former Playboy model who died of a drug overdose in 2007. In reality, however there’s nothing at all new about opera dealing with women who live scandalous lives and come to an untimely end. If Turnage’s Anna Nicole is unlikely however to be considered a masterpiece on the scale of Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, La Traviata or Lulu, it at least has the advantage of dealing with a contemporary subject with the kind of social lifestyle and aspirations that a modern audience can relate to more easily. And if the merits of Anna Nicole as an opera can certainly be questioned, there is at least no doubt, judging from the headlines and media attention that it has generated, that is indeed a worthy subject of great interest to the general public.

Commissioned by the Royal Opera House under the direction currently of Antonio Pappano – a great supporter of opening up opera to a wider audience – the general public would at least have been no doubt familiar with the subject of the opera, Anna Nicole Smith, and have some familiarity with the nature of her “career” and the circumstances of her death at the age of only 39. What was rather less certain was the tone that would be adopted by Mark-Anthony Turnage (Greek, The Silver Tassie) – a composer who can be rather experimental in his work, and is known for incorporating jazz and other forms of modern music into his compositions. It didn’t take too long for it to be established that the tone of the opera would be heavily influenced by the choice of Richard Thomas as librettist, the resulting barrage of rhyming couplets, with a high swearword quotient, bring Anna Nicole closer to Thomas’ work on Jerry Springer the Opera than to Turnage’s Greek.

Initial and surface impressions however prove to be deceptive, for while Anna Nicole Smith’s early life, her escape from the “shithole” backwater of Mexia (pronounced Mu-HAY-ah, we are told, as if it gives the town some kind of distinction) and her first marriage to Billy Smith is very much the kind of material that US daytime TV shows thrive on, it does nonetheless have a relevance to how a large proportion of society live and it reflects their aspirations, unpalatable thought they may appear to an opera-going audience. Just as significantly, the manner in which the opera is initially presented and the tone it strikes is vitally important, and indeed it ought to match and be appropriate to the content. The decision then to present it through the medium of a chorus of TV hosts to whom Anna Nicole, already dead but looking back over her life in the manner of a reality TV show and tracing the path that will ultimately lead to her destruction, is a masterstroke, imbuing the piece with a slightly sinister edge that grows as the opera proceeds. The opera darkens considerably by the second half, when it does indeed become a tragedy, as the people in her life disappear to be replaced by masses of ominous black figures with TV cameras for heads.

AnnaNicole

While there are certainly plenty of eye-catching sights in the imaginative, colourful, tastefully tacky set-designs (by Richard Jones) to provide entertainment, with strong language and even a sequence in a lap-dancing parlour replete with breast-enhanced women twirling themselves gymnastically and provocatively from poles – all things that are, I think it’s safe to say, not all that common on the stage of the Royal Opera House and likely therefore to generate interest and headlines it’s easy to be distracted from what is going on musically and in the opera as a whole. Richard Thomas’ rhyming couplets, which deliberately clearly signal their intentions to rhyme at the end with four-letter words and other mildly shocking profanities, actually manage to cut through the niceties directly to harsh realities of the circumstances of Anna Nicole’s life in a tone that is appropriate and understandable to a modern-day audience. It’s reality-TV language, but there’s something in the phenomenon and popularity of reality-TV as a representation of the American Dream that is worth examining, and Thomas’ libretto gets to the hard truths and the tragedy of it all, wrapping it up cleverly in pithy, satirical and witty phrases.

It’s easy also to be distracted from what Turnage is doing musically, but he, likewise, succeeds allowing the nature of the opera’s subject to establish the correct tone rather than imposing his own upon it. In doing so moreover, Turnage nonetheless finds a perfect expression for his own musical language and the often American influences that he draws from and incorporates into his music. Anna Nicole Smith’s leaving of Mexia (pronounced Mu-HAY-ah), for Huston, where she works in a Wal-Mart store, is set to a blues rhythm that matches the zombie-like movements of its employees, a swinging jazz percussion accompaniment is used for the strip-club scene, while other scenes evoke George Gershwin. Antonio Pappano, conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, succeeded in allowing the music score to assert its presence at such times, darkening the tone considerably in the tragedy of the Second Act, by which stage the audience were thoroughly in the grip of the piece and solemnly mindful of where it was leading. Much credit for the embodiment of the tragedy that Anna Nicole’s life would represent has to go to the Eva-Maria Westbroek. As a Wagnerian soprano, her voice wasn’t at all tested by the limited singing demands of the role, but she sang exceptionally well and managed to bring out the inherent humanity of her character, never letting her be merely an icon, nor indeed, allowing it to descend into parody.

Whether Anna Nicole is ultimately considered a success as an opera – it received a very warm reception at its World Premiere from the audience at Covent Garden and a guardedly positive response from the national press – it is at least a success as far as the Royal Opera House is concerned, selling out its initial short run of six shows, but more importantly generating more interest and front page headlines than any other important opera event, premiere or any drawing of the biggest names in the opera to the house have achieved. Beyond its artistic merits, whether the opera ultimately has anything new to say or whether it touches on anything deeper in its subject – all of which are debatable and subjective – what Anna Nicole demonstrates is that opera can still be a vital artform that can address contemporary subjects in a powerful manner that connects with a modern audience.