Archive for the ‘theatres’ category

‘Cinderella’ at the Royal Opera House

April 24, 2011

Lovely dayout yesterday to matinee of Cinderella (Prokofiev ballet) at ROH. Rosie’s 6th birthday treat but we grownups adored it too! Glamour, magic, story clearly told, stunning sets and costumes, great music – reminding us what we go to the theatre for…

Classic Frederick Ashton choreography, with trademark Ashton figures in the hyperactive Jester (James Hay) and of course the pantomime-dame Ugly Sisters (James Wilkie and Thomas Whitehead, extremely funny). Yuhui Choe pretty and touching as Cinderella, Sergei Polunin likewise as her fairy-tale Prince. (But Rosie liked the Fairy Godmother – Francesca Filpi – best of all.)

Nice to see my old chum Mark Jonathan credited with the lighting, which was sumptuous and just right. And what a brilliant score – all the Prokofiev hallmarks of clarity, energy, ingenious and unexpected orchestration (particularly percussion, oboe, bassoon, contrabassoon and trumpet, all working incredibly hard! No ‘easy night off’ playing for the ballet in this one.) And he does that odd trick of putting a tuba on the bass line even in moving or touching passages – shouldn’t work but it does.

Not having seen a synopsis, I was fascinated by the reference to The Love for Three Oranges in the score, paralleled by the appearance of three oranges on stage… is this Prokofiev’s in-joke, or Ashton’s? Any insights welcome.

What a contrast to our dismal evening at The Tsar’s Bride earlier in the week. (No offence to Rimsky-Korsakov’s fine and sometimes amazing music, or to Sir Mark Elder’s equally fine but disappointingly ponderous conducting. But the ballet reminded us, by contrast, what a chore it is to sit through yet another grim updated staging that doesn’t fit the music and has us peering at a room full of dark-suited gents in a gloomy setting, trying to figure who is who and which one is singing. And that was just the first scene. Yes, we were sitting very high up in the Amphi! 😦

See review and photos of Cinderella at http://www.seenandheard-international.com/2011/04/09/prokofiev%e2%80%99s-cinderella-at-the-royal-ballet/

photo (c) Tristram Kenton

Bouncing Tosca — urban myth?

January 17, 2011

Anyone who works in opera dreads the moment when a non-operatic person says ‘I know a good story…’ and it always turns out to be the one about the time when Tosca did her suicide leap from the battlements at the end of Puccini’s opera, only to reappear to the audience’s sight as she bounced up again on a trampoline.

This is re-told in so many books of musical and operatic anecdotes, without attribution, that one naturally assumes it is an urban legend (along with the elephants falling through the stage in Aïda, or that awful pidgin-English synopsis of Carmen).

However… the other day, I met a distinguished gentleman (while waiting for the long-delayed start of the dress rehearsal of The Barber of Seville at the Royal Opera House – but that’s another story).  He started telling me his Tosca story, and my heart sank… until he said he had actually been there.  Heaven knows when it was – 1950s, I’d guess – but it was at the Vienna State Opera, the Tosca in question was soprano Ljuba Welitsch (‘not a small lady’) and the conductor was Herbert von Karajan (‘who was not at all amused’).  Whether it was a natural bounce or some disaffected person had substituted a trampoline for the regular pile of mattresses, history does not relate.

So now you know.  Next time someone starts telling you the old Tosca story, you can say, ‘Yes, I know.  It was…’

Philip Langridge CBE (1939-2010)

March 8, 2010

Another sad piece of news – the passing of Philip Langridge. A wonderful, intelligent English tenor, with a distinctive voice, great musicality and a huge range of repertoire (BBC Radio 3 marked his passing with ‘Comfort ye / Every valley’ from Handel’s Messiah – beautifully sung of course, and repertoire I had never associated with him before. How typical).

Probably my earliest memory of him is as Tom Rakewell in a student production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Cambridge, probably in 1969 or 70.  (The conductor was Antony Beaumont, director David Pountney, harpsichordist Mark Elder.)   Besides Philip’s voice, I remember his cream-and-brown ‘co-respondent’ shoes (it was a modern dress production).

All I ever want is to be true to the piece, the words and the character; to the whole thing, its meaning and so on. When we are true to what we do that is what makes great art. If you try and nudge it in a certain way to try and make it better for you or make you more famous then that’s boring. The public are not stupid and they may not have studied many hours what you are performing – some have, but many haven’t – but you can always tell when somebody means something and when they don’t.

Communication is also an important thing and if we do not communicate what we are doing – or what the music is doing – what is there left?
[from the interview referred to below]

Modest, unassuming, never a diva, always ready with a smile and a friendly word – Philip was one of music’s gentlemen.  I am proud to have worked with him at Glyndebourne, ENO and the Royal Opera. In the ground-breaking production of Janáček’s Osud at ENO he gave a harrowing performance as the composer Zivny, playing the tricky onstage piano part himself. With his wife Ann Murray he made a memorable double-act in Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict at ENO.

I treasure his recordings of Britten and Tippett and others, and memories of live performances including Schubert’s Winterreise at Blackheath Halls (with David Owen Norris). I also treasure the postcard he sent me from Aldeburgh (a watery watercolour scene with ‘Dawn’ from Britten’s Sea Interludes in a stave across the sky) in response to my congratulations on his CBE in 1994.

Energetic to the end, he could be seen leaping around the stage as Loge in Wagner’s Ring, or in more sedate (but vocally demanding) roles in Berg’s Lulu or Birtwistle’s The Minotaur.  Ever ready to learn new or unfamiliar music, at the age of 70 it seemed he would go on for ever.

Farewell, Philip.  And thank you for the music.

Deepest condolences to his wife Ann Murray, and his children including Anita and Stephen.

Obituary by Barry Millington here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/mar/07/philip-langridge-obituary

and a nice interview with Philip:

http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2009/jan-jun09/langridge_interview.htm

‘Tristan und Isolde’ at Covent Garden

October 3, 2009

Nina-Stemme-as-Isolde-and-Ben-Heppner-as-Tristan

Well!  The Royal Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde has really set the cat among the pigeons.  I couldn’t possibly comment myself, being closely involved with it (I wrote and edited the surtitles).

The critics’ reaction has been generally more than favourable (four or five stars) – the audience’s markedly less so (one seasoned witness said ‘I’ve never heard booing like it in the Opera House’)…

If you really want to see the fur flying, check out Charlotte Higgins’ blog on the Guardian website, and (especially) all the follow-up comments.  Most interesting.

Were you there?  What did you think?  Let me know — add a comment below.

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DISCLAIMER
Please note — all views expressed on this site are my own (or those of other contributors or persons quoted) and do not represent the views or policy of The Royal Opera or any other employer or organisation mentioned.

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 photo (uncredited) stolen from Charlotte Higgins’s blog

Gergiev’s ‘Ring’ at Covent Garden

August 3, 2009

rheingoldnatasharaz_228381t[1]So… the circus came to town last week, and now it has departed in a cloud of dust and a hail of booing (some of it mine – never done that before!) amid the storms of applause.

Valery Gergiev, the Ossetian wizard, attempted the impossible – all four operas of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in four days, with his Mariinsky company from St Petersburg (formerly the Kirov) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

I can’t really comment on all four, since for two of them I was behind the glass, working.  But my friend Diana did come to all four and took me to the other two (thank you, D!) so I got the general idea.

Did Gergiev succeed?  No.  Over-hyped, over-conducted, mostly beautifully played;  under-cast and under-sung, with very few honourable exceptions (it does not bode well for a Götterdämmerung when the loudest applause is for the Alberich);  over-designed, over-lit, under-rehearsed;  and, above all, under-directed.

This is surely Gergiev’s fault:  my feeling is that he doesn’t think anything is important except what he thinks is important, namely his conducting and the fact that he has ‘achieved’ this impossible feat at all.  He is quoted in interviews as saying that he wants to get away from the tyranny of the opera director:  having evolved his overall concept with designer George Tsypin (master of the enormous stage-cluttering useless object:  remember the giant cracked glass bottles in his Theodora from Glyndebourne?), Gergiev proceeded to sack or alienate at least four directors along the way (including Johannes Schaaf – ‘too German’ – and Opera Factory’s brilliant David Freeman). 

Finally he has brought in a fifth director, Alexander Zeldin, who has a Russian name but is British and as far as I can tell speaks not much Russian;  worst of all, he is only 24.  With the best will in the world, nobody aged 24 can have more then the haziest notion of how to direct this Everest of the operatic repertoire, which countless directors, conductors, scholars and analysts have spent whole lifetimes trying to understand.

I fear he is not really a director, but a ‘crisis manager’ and director of traffic, brought in to salvage what is left of previous attempts to make the original concept work.  By the time we got to the end of Götterdämmerung, it was impossible to discern any attempt at understanding the piece or the drama, or even listening to the music, for heaven’s sake.  Of all composers, Wagner tells you in every bar precisely what is going on, dramatically and emotionally;  just open your ears and listen (and read his stage directions!).  And please, try sitting out front and reading the surtitles, and then you will understand why the audience sniggered at things that were clearly in the text but were not happening on stage.  Ho hum.

Gergiev’s original concept was a fascinating one:  finding parallels between the Nordic myths that Wagner drew on and his own native Ossetian Nart sagas, he gets Tsypin to fill the stage with 30-foot effigies of Nart gods, and tries to get away from conventional Teutonic readings of the cycle by finding links with other mythologies.  Well yes, fine.  But (as my boss, Judi Palmer, said) it might have been a nice concept if anyone had done anything with it.  There were interesting ideas, such as making the ‘gold’ and the ‘Rhine’ out of shimmering masses of actors’ bodies;  but these ideas were not thought through or related to Wagner’s text, so failed to take off. 

Moreover, (more…)

King’s Theatre, Southsea

July 13, 2008

 A couple of weekends ago, I was privileged to be involved in a gig at the King’s Theatre, Southsea – with thanks to the indefatigable Jonathan Barry and his amazing shoestring opera company, Vox Lirika.

 

The King’s Theatre is a beautiful little gem, designed by Frank Matcham, doyen of theatre architects at the beginning of the 20th century – responsible for the Buxton Opera House, the Grand Opera House, Belfast, the Hackney Empire, the London Coliseum, and many others, each with its own atmosphere and decorative ‘theme’, and every one a satisfying masterpiece in its own right.

 

There must be a book on Frank Matcham and his theatres?  If not, someone should write one!

 

The King’s Theatre is built on a very unpromising triangular corner site:  entrance is through a small door, Tardis-like,  in the sharp end of the ‘wedge of cheese’, backstage spaces are tight and oddly-shaped, but the auditorium itself is a miracle of cramming the maximum possible number of seats into the minimum space.  The effect is a cosy and welcoming little dark red crucible where great theatrical experiences can happen.

 

Nonetheless, the stage is a decent size and there’s even a biggish orchestra pit (well, Wagner would be a bit of a squeeze…).  And the foyer, bars and front-of-house areas are lively and welcoming.

 

 

Whereas the London Coliseum’s decorative scheme is an idiosyncratic mix of ‘ancient Roman’ and ‘ancient Egyptian’, the King’s Theatre goes for ‘Italian Renaissance’ angels and cherubs, and very sweet it is too – much red velvet, marble and swags, with a big oval ceiling piece like an 18th-century drawing room.

 

Parts of the theatre have been helpfully restored, others are in an endearing state of crumbling quaintness…  The burghers of Portsmouth and Southsea are a cultured lot, and they welcome the busy schedule of things to be seen at their local theatre.  For example, I spotted Sondheim’s Passion coming up – which I would have loved to get to.

 

More power to them.  There is more fascinating history and information on their website:

http://www.kings-southsea.com/main/history.html

 

Many thanks too to the backstage staff for going out of their way to make my job seem easy.  And to Bob and Di for their hospitality!  I’ll be back…