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Big Fat Gypsy Opera – WNO’s ‘Carmen’

22 Sep

Operas are a trashy old business. Don’t let anyone tell you any differently, and don’t let the occasional audience member wearing a bow tie or the Italian jargon fool you into thinking operas are highbrow, because most of the time, they’re really not.

Take Carmen, for example. One of the most famous operas of all time, with more than its fair share of “hits” (Habanerathe Toreador Song), Bizet’s Carmen tells the story of Jose, a young soldier torn between the affections of goody-two-shoes Micaela and rambunctious gypsy bad girl Carmen, with a jealous lieutenant, showboating bullfighter and a band of gypsy smugglers chucked in for good measure. From its galloping overture to its violent conclusion, subtlety is not Carmen’s strong suit.

Blogpic

The WNO’s production makes much of its Spanish setting, capturing the look of Goya’s paintings in an otherwise very simple, stripped back set (something of a hallmark in recent productions). A just-about-visibly pregnant Alessandra Volpe gives a great account of the eponymous anti-heroine, revelling in her brazen sensuality and in the role’s comic side, and Peter Wedd makes a convincingly befuddled “hero”, but for me the star of the show is Jessica Muirhead as Micaela.

The “good girl” role in many operas is a thankless one. Most of the time, they’re only there as a concession to the morality of the time in which the opera was written. It simply wouldn’t do to have the main characters cavorting about without at least one voice of moral guidance, and that’s the purpose Micaela serves in Carmen, but where she’s allowed to soar is in her Act 3 aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”. Now, “sublime” isn’t a word I use casually, but it really is the only way to describe Muirhead’s performance. Her voice is crystal clear, reminding me of the amazing Gundula Janowitz, and earned the soprano some well-deserved “Bravos” and a standing ovation from many in the audience.

As always, the WNO’s chorus proves itself world class, and are given plenty to sink their musical teeth into, and I loved Christian Fenouillat’s expressionistic curtain, which descended between each act. Through some deft lighting, its giant, painterly swirl changed in colour with each appearance, brilliantly helping to set the tone for the following scene.

Some (very) minor criticisms: The whole thing ends a little anticlimactically (Carmen’s death is sudden, so she doesn’t have the kind of barnstorming “goodbye” aria that someone like Puccini would have given her – though, admittedly, that’s not the WNO’s fault!), and the “bullfighting” theme is used to misguided comic effect during the last scene. There were a few points where the singing from other members of the cast could have been a little tighter (including the adorable moment when one of the children’s chorus came in a beat too early), but this was the opening night, and I’m sure this will have been ironed out in future performances.

Carmen is at the Wales Millennium Centre on September 27th and 28th and October 2nd, before going on a national tour.

By the Rivers of Babylon – Verdi’s ‘Nabucco’ at the WMC

13 Jun

Nabucco

About a quarter of the way into Nabucco, I realised that director Rupert Frey has a fondness for wonkily-timed theatrical gunshots. Back last year, he gave us his take on Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, in which – contrary to what the history books will tell you – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester drew a handgun and shot himself in the stomach. Here, in Verdi’s 1841 opera, we had the titular king (better known as Nebuchadnezzar II) pulling a gun and firing it into the sky, thus unleashing a torrential downpour of gold glitter.

If Maria Stuarda – and, indeed, all of WNO’s Tudor trilogy – were cavalier with history, Nabucco is positively reckless. For one thing, there’s the set… or lack of one. Act 1, which Wikipedia assures me is set in Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon, happens against a plain black backdrop, with only a smidgen of dry ice accompanying the chorus and main characters. While the orchestra romp their way through a typically bombastic overture, the chorus stumble onto the stage looking shell-shocked and bewildered. Dressed in modern clothing, they look like the survivors of a terror attack, and we soon learn that their city is being invaded by the armies of Nabucco.

Kevin Short as Zaccaria

Kevin Short as Zaccaria

Well, I say we learn this… You see, unless you’re already familiar with the story of Nabucco/Nebuchadnezzar, it’s all a bit confusing. When Nabucco’s daughter, Abigaille, and a crack team of Babylonian soldiers enter the temple in disguise, they do so dressed much like everyone else, except they’re wearing glittery blindfolds. Well… I thought they were blindfolds, but I guess, seeing as the libretto later makes mention of them being in disguise, they were meant to be masks, and… oh… well, you see what I’m getting at.

Frey’s take on Nabucco is packed full of symbolism, I was just a bit lost as to what many of those symbols meant for much of the opera. It took me until Act 3 to realise glitter and gold represented Babylon and the worship of the god Baal (here referred to as Bel), and there was some symbolic connection between the Hebrews and black chairs, but I still haven’t got the foggiest what it was.

Eventually, I decided to surrender myself to it all, regardless of whether I was following the plot, and that was when I began to enjoy it, because there is so much to enjoy here… even if it doesn’t always make a lot of sense. The production’s brightest star is without a doubt Mary Elizabeth Williams as Abigaille. Oh, my word… Where do I even start? Her vocal range is jaw-dropping, and she plays the part with tons of panache, sassing her way through the aria (Salgo già del trono aurato – I ascend the bloodstained golden thronein which she plots to seize the Babylonian crown from her half-mad father. Whether the device of a Vegas-style backdrop, and Abigaille planting back feathers in the crowns of her balaclava-wearing chorus/backing dancers works – or, indeed, means a great deal – I couldn’t say; but bloody hell, it was fun.

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Abigaille

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Abigaille

The opera’s central plot – that of the madness of Nabucco and the power struggle between the pagan cult of Baal and Judaism (represented by Abigaille and her Jewish half-sister Fenena) – is just as bewildering. One moment, Nabucco is presented as a Gadafi-like military leader, the next as an almost Peter Stringfellow-like lothario. Actually… scratch that. If David Kempster’s Nabucco reminded me of anyone, it was of a certain former X Factor contestant.

I'll leave you to work out which one I mean.

I’ll leave you to work out which one I mean.

Kevin Short’s high priest, Zaccaria, has all the stentorian boom the part demands, but is lumbered with some distracting Vogue-esque dance moves, and while Robyn Lyn Evans sings the part of Ismaele beautifully, it’s one of those thankless, dreary roles that even the most spellbinding production would fail to make work entirely.

WNO’s Nabucco is paired, this season, with Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, under the loose theme of “Faith”. It’s interesting that there are so few operas based on biblical stories, though perhaps no coincidence, given that opera’s infancy coincides with those of humanism, the renaissance and the enlightenment. Art as a whole, in painting, literature and sculpture, was moving into more secular territory. This allowed composers and librettists to serve up the meat and potatoes of opera – love stories, revenge tragedies and comedies (or opera buffe), that are still easily understood today. You don’t need a degree in theology to get your head around Tosca or Don Giovanni.

The problem for a modern, even more secular audience, when it comes to an opera such as Nabucco, is that the story itself is increasingly remote. Verdi’s librettist, Temistocle Solera, saw no need for scene-setting exposition – their pious audience would surely be familiar with the story already. In 2014, however, the average audience member (if I’m anything to go by) needs a little help, a few visual cues to tell us what’s going on, and there’s little chance of that when a production opts for such oblique imagery.

Ultimately, WNO’s Nabucco left me thrilled and baffled in equal measure. The orchestra, conducted by Xian Zhang, were on top form, and – as with Moses und Aron – the company’s chorus was outstanding, delivering a spine-tingling rendition of the opera’s most famous number, Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate (better known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves). The artistic choices were often more curious than thought-provoking, but still allowed for some genuinely striking imagery, and I really can’t repeat this enough, but Mary Elizabeth Williams is incredible.

Nabucco is being performed at the WMC again on Saturday June 14th, at the Birmingham Hippodrome from the 19th-21st, and at Olavinlinna Castle in Savonlinna, Finland from July 29th until August 2nd.

 

Moses Supposes – Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron’ at the WMC

11 Jun

Twitpic

In theory, I should have hated Moses und Aron, and I went into the auditorium at the Wales Millennium Centre fully expecting to come out with a puzzled, slightly agitated expression on my face and the bitter feeling that I would never get the last two or three hours of my life back. Firstly, it’s by Arnold Schoenberg, a composer most famous for inventing what I call “spiky-wikey, plinky-plonky music”, but which those in the know call twelve tone, or dodecaphonic music. Twelve tone music isn’t easy on the ear, it certainly isn’t something I would tend to listen to at home, and when you’ve got a whole opera written in that style, it’s unlikely that you’ll come away humming any of the tunes.

Secondly, the work is unfinished. Schoenberg began writing it in the late 1920s, and had only written music for two of its three acts when his family were forced to flee Germany in 1933, resettling in California, where the composer would live and work until his death in 1951. I’m never quite sure how I feel about unfinished works. An unfinished novel such as Gogol’s Dead Souls is a masterpiece, even if it does end mid-sentence. Nabokov’s Laura, on the other hand, is little more than a collection of Post It notes and doodles, of interest to no-one except the most die-hard of fans and scholars.

Moses und Aron has, at least, the virtue of a fairly familiar story – telling a truncated account of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, but focused largely on the period when they wandered the desert for forty years.

If they'd had Google Maps they could have been there in under a week.

If they’d had Google Maps they could have been there in under a week.

More specifically, it explores the relationship – albeit in fairly esoteric terms – between brothers Moses and Aaron (here spelled “Aron”, allegedly because of Schoenberg’s triskaidecaphobia – Moses und Aaron having 13 letters!) After witnessing the miracle of the burning bush, Moses (Sir John Tomlinson) finds his brother Aaron (Rainer Trost) and takes him on as his spokesperson, tasked with communicating the complex message of God to the masses. This, Aaron does with what it’s fair to call “mixed results”, and the opera takes us up to the moment when Moses comes down from the mountain to find the Israelites fornicating like jack rabbits and worshipping false idols as if both pursuits were going rapidly out of fashion. So far, so The Ten Commandments, but that is where all similarities with the Easter-Sunday-afternoon-swallowing Biblical epic end.

Plus, at just over 2 hours, Schoenberg's opera clocks in at half the length of this bad boy.

Plus, at just over 2 hours, Schoenberg’s opera clocks in at half the length of this bad boy.

The WNO have borrowed a production first staged by Jossi Wieler and Serge Morabito in Stuttgart in 2003 which updates the action from the almost featureless deserts of the Middle East to a large, retro conference room; reminiscent, in particular, of the UN’s General Assembly in New York and Ken Adam’s designs on films such as Dr Strangelove. The brothers spend much of the opening scenes moving around the empty banks of mauve, leatherette seating, the libretto – with its references to burning bushes etc – often seeming more symbolic than literal.

When at last the Israelites arrive, they resemble not a ragged bunch of Olde Worlde peasants but a coachload of hijacked tourists, clad in tracksuits, jeans and t-shirts; shuffling their way uneasily into the chamber and then clambering over the seats en masse, asking their prophet of choice for answers.

As for Moses… This certainly isn’t a be-robed Charlton Heston commanding the Red Sea to part. Tomlinson’s prophet prowls the stage like a lion with a thorn in his paw, and the part – though written for a bass – is performed in sprechgesang, or sprechstimme; a combination of singing and speaking. When miracles, such as the transformation of Moses’ staff into a snake, or water turning into blood, are depicted, they are shown either as conscious metaphor (we see neither a staff nor a snake) or as confidence trick, suggesting that Aron is a charlatan from the get-go.

All this – particularly the decision to give the piece a modern setting, could come across as gimmicky, and I’m sure many will feel that it’s just that, but for me it allowed the ideas (and the libretto is packed full of ’em) to breathe, and to resonate with a contemporary audience far more than they might if Tomlinson and Co. were wandering about between fibreglass boulders in long, flowing robes.

Take the main set design, for instance. As already mentioned, it’s reminiscent of the UN’s headquarters, a building completed in 1952, just four years after the creation of the state of Israel. Is the production drawing a parallel between those Palestinians who have been more or less stateless since 1948, and the wandering Israelites of the Old Testament? Perhaps. Does it beat us over the head with this? Thankfully not.

In the second (and final) act, this space is transformed into a cinema auditorium for the scenes in which the Israelites, in Moses’ absence, descend into utter depravity. This device is surprisingly effective. The comparison between a golden idol and the cinema screen is far from strained, with lines referring to “golden rays” uncannily appropriate in context. The fact that this “audience” of Israelites are actually watching us gives the scene another dimension again – it is implied they are watching scenes of violence and/or pornography, but if we are what they are looking at, we become complicit. We are the sinners.

"Oh my God... Have you seen what that woman in Stalls J14 is wearing?"

“Oh my God… Have you seen what that woman in Stalls J14 is wearing?”

What’s more, much of this happens over a prolonged instrumental, with Schoenberg’s jarring, jagged music sounding surprisingly like film music from the 1960s, whether it’s Kubrick’s use of Ligetti and Penderecki in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Jerry Goldsmith’s percussive score to Planet of the Apes. By the time the scene has hit its zenith – or nadir – of debauchery, music and action are perfectly in sync, hitting a gut-wrenching crescendo that’ll have you begging for Moses to get his arse down off Sinai to sort things out.

Ultimately, it’s useless pretending Moses und Aron will be for everyone. I’m pretty sure I could hear nostrils flaring during the orgy scene’s more explicit moments, and the bleakly ambiguous “ending”, with Moses’ lamentation that his God defies human words, may leave some feeling unsatisfied. This isn’t exactly an opera that makes you feel, not in the sense that La boheme will have you reaching for the Kleenex, but if you’re willing to engage with the subject matter, it’s certainly an opera that will make you think.

Both Tomlinson and Trost are excellent, but the show is stolen by the chorus. While our eponymous “heroes” remain distant and unknowable to the end, the chorus is us. Their questions are our questions. Their flaws – however ugly – are our flaws. The chorus capture this in their performances, and make grappling with Schoenberg’s notoriously challenging vocal arrangements look effortless.

Moses und Aron will appear at Birmingham Hippodrome on June 18th and the Royal Opera House, London, on July 25th and 26th.

For an opposing take on the same opera – albeit one that, in my view, completely misses the point – you can read the Western Mail’s review here.

Sex, Drugs and Violins – ‘Manon Lescaut’ and ‘Boulevard Solitude’ at the WMC

3 Mar

Manon

If the German composer Hans Werner Henze were to write his opera Boulevard Solitude today, you can guarantee it would be labelled a “gritty reboot” of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. You see, both are adaptations of the same 18th Century French novel, about the trials and tribulations of the eponymous fallen woman, Manon, though musically, and philosophically, they couldn’t be any more different.

The Welsh National Opera have chosen to include both in their triple bill of operas about “Fallen Women” (the season is rounded off with Verdi’s La Traviata), with both productions directed by Mariusz Trelinski and conducted by Lothar Koenigs. Both operas use a very similar, modern backdrop resembling a contemporary Metro station. Both are infused with an often surreal, Technicolor noir vibe, owing a clear visual debt to the movies of David Lynch.

Stephen Richardson as Gironte di Ravoir in Manon Lescaut

Stephen Richardson as di Ravoir in Manon Lescaut

You might think, with both Manon and Boulevard being based on the same material, that this approach would work equally well in both operas, but it does not. As visually impressive as Manon is, with its superbly choreographed chorus of commuters and Bartek Marcias’s ravishing projected cityscapes, this is one instance of modernisation working in conflict with the opera itself. When we first meet Chiara Taigi’s Manon she’s wearing Jackie O sunglasses and a femme fatale red trench coat. So when, within the first few minutes, she announces that she is being sent off to a convent, my first thought was, “Really? In this day and age?”

Gwyn Hughes Jones’s des Grieux also seems to be occupying two very separate worlds simultaneously, described on several occasions as a student – and, what’s more, a theology student – while dressing like a sales rep or bank manager. Indeed, the fact that he’s in this subterranean commuter world, dressing like an office worker, suggests a middle-aged man caught up in Manon’s bewitching spell, not a young student falling hopelessly in love. Manon, meanwhile, sings like an innocent young woman exploited, to varying degrees, by all of the men in her life, but dresses and acts like Sharon Stone in Casino. 

Manon

The end result, is a little like one of those Hungarian showmen who ride two horses simultaneously, with a foot on each saddle. One horse is a story of erotic abandon, riffing on everything from Blue Velvet to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the other a lush, romantic tragedy. It’s a shame that the battle of style and content causes such discord, because the performances by all of the leads are uniformly excellent, and conductor Koenigs does a splendid job with Puccini’s surprisingly understated score.

Fortunately, the stylistic quirks have calmed down considerably by Acts 3 and 4, or at least feel more in fitting with the subject matter, and the climax – unexpectedly low-key – is particularly effective.

On the face of it, I really shouldn’t have enjoyed Boulevard Solitude more than its stablemate. It’s a mid-20th Century opera, belonging to what I call the “spiky-wikey, plinky plonky” school of vocal arrangement. I believe those in the know call it “twelve tone”, but to my ears it’s that up and done, notes-all-over-the-place noise you get in almost every opera written between World War II and the 1970s. (**PHILISTINE KLAXON**) As a result, I would find it very hard to tell you if the leads, including Sarah Tynan as Manon, Jason Bridges as des Grieux and Benjamin Bevan as Manon’s sleazy brother, did a good job. I think they did, but when the score demands that they sing all over the place, who knows?

Sarah Tynan as Manon and Adrian Thompson as Lilaque Pere in Boulevard Solitude

Sarah Tynan as Manon and Adrian Thompson as Lilaque Pere in Boulevard Solitude

That said, Henze’s orchestral score isn’t as brittle or as spikily modern as the likes of Britten and Tippett. There are touches of big band, and the film scores of Bernard Herrmann and Elmer Bernstein, and it’s perhaps this that makes the marriage of style and content so much more successful here than it is in Manon.

If there is perhaps one weakness to Boulevard, it’s that – like Manon – the direction is, in places, a little confusing. Now, sometimes this is played to great effect. In Boulevard, when Trelinski uses Henze’s intermezzi to bring us back repeatedly to the scene of the crime, it turns the whole opera into a kind of palindromic nightmare, but when he has Adrian Thompson’s Lilaque Pere collapse halfway through, I thought he’d died, making his character’s return later on more than a little baffling. Overall, though, the surreal and expressionistic touches work well. The trio of pig-masked men in dressing gowns – a slightly on-the-nose symbol for chauvinism – were sphincter-clenchingly unsettling.

See?

See?

Having seen both shows, it feels as if perhaps director Trelinski had his heart set on a Lynch/Hitchcock-infused version of Boulevard (with nods, especially in the opening scenes, to Martin Scorsese), one that was thematically consistent, and then tried to weld that particularly interpretation back onto Puccini’s “original” (there were other adaptations before his, but Puccini’s is the best-known of them). While this isn’t particularly successful, the two shows watched in close succession make for a very interesting double bill, touching on such timeless themes as erotic abandon and the sexual exploitation of women.

“Hoots, mon! Where’s ma heid?” – ‘Maria Stuarda’ at the WMC

6 Oct

Maria Stuarda

And so to the final installment in Welsh National Opera’s Tudor Trilogy, Donizetti’s trio of operas based on Tudor queens. Last week we had the stylish but musically limp Anna Bolena, about Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife; then, on Wednesday, it was the turn of Elizabeth I in the truly showstopping Roberto DevereuxLast night the stage was taken once again by Elizabeth I, squaring up to her nemesis and cousin, Mary Stuart, better known as Mary Queen of Scots.

Chronologically, in terms of both story and order of composition, this is the middle chapter in Donizetti’s Tudor epic. Here, Elizabeth is a younger queen, but just as prone to bitter jealousy as the older, more brazenly villainous character seen in Devereux. Maria Stuarda forms a kind of spiritual bridge between Bolena – in which Elizabeth’s mother Anne is a woman (to borrow a Shakespearean turn of phrase) more sinned against than sinning and Devereux, in which Elizabeth proves to be every bit her father’s daughter when it comes to the ruthless elimination of former flames.

In its first half Stuarda performs a kind of seesaw between Elizabeth and Mary, the first few scenes focused almost exclusively on the Elizabethan court before the action shifts to Mary’s incarceration at Fotheringhay Castle. Even so, Mary is a constant presence. Madeleine Boyd’s set – again using the same plain black background as Devereux and Bolena – is dominated by two large, cuboid cells. One, dressed with ornate, mahogany-like panels, belongs to Elizabeth; the other, identical in size and shape, is its bare, skeletal twin, representing Mary’s prison cell at Fotheringhay.

Maria Stuarda

As we’ve already seen in both Bolena and Devereux, Donizetti couldn’t even count the number of fucks he gave for historical accuracy on one finger, so it’s no surprise that he has Elizabeth and Mary meet. That said, this is a common feature in many dramatic portrayals of the story, with the two squaring up to each other in just about every movie and TV series based on them, from Mary of Scotland (starring Katherine Hepburn) to Elizabeth: The Golden Age (with Cate Blanchett and Samantha Morton).

Where Donizetti goes one further than his TV and big screen successors is in doing away with much of the political and religious turmoil behind the cousins’ bitter rivalry, reducing it to its basest – and most historically inaccurate – elements. You see, according to Donizetti, Elizabeth hated Mary not because she was a Catholic who plotted against Elizabeth’s life but because she was having an affair with Elizabeth’s favourite – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

"Hold the fucking phone..."

“Oh no she di’in’t.”

The midpoint confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary, in which Mary – who has had it up to here with Elizabeth’s trash talk – turns the tables on her captor, calling her a “whore” and a “vile bastard”, was enough to make the WMC audience gasp in 2013, and over 150 years earlier saw the opera more or less banned throughout much of the 19th Century. It’s certainly dramatic stuff…

But no. This Footballers Wives-like confrontation didn’t actually happen. Nor, when Mary was about to climb the scaffold, did Leicester draw a semi-automatic handgun and shoot himself in the chest. This addition – which caused some of those sat near us to giggle – is more the work of director Rudolf Frey than Donizetti, and was one of several baffling notes in the production, alongside Lord Burleigh’s strangely anachronistic clip folder and the impromptu fag break that Mary and her servant Hannah take when no-one’s looking.

Now, I know what you’ll say. You’ll say, “Hey, didn’t you enjoy Roberto Devereux? And didn’t that involve the queen riding around on a giant mechanical spider?” And yes, you’re right on both counts, but with Devereux, a certain, expressionistic visual licence was present from the get-go. Here, no visual or artistic justification is given for these  flourishes – the production doesn’t earn them – and so when they appear they simply seem a little silly.

Though it's still unlikely to win the coveted "Silliest Depiction of A British Royal Award 2013".

Though it’s still unlikely to win the coveted “Silliest Depiction of A British Royal Award 2013”.

This is a shame, as out of all three operas Maria Stuarda has perhaps the most well-rounded and sympathetic protagonist, and comes closest to feeling like a genuine tragedy – rather than a brutal spat between jealous, sex-mad aristocrats. Donizetti’s use of the chorus here is at its strongest, and – save for a single bum note fairly early on – Judith Howarth’s performance as Mary has been a highlight of the whole trilogy.

The device of the two boxes, mirroring one another, works splendidly in some scenes (the moment when Mary plays “reflection” to Elizabeth, only to have her throat “cut” with a daub of paint, was a visual stand-out), but in others leaves the main cast and chorus with far too little space to move around, pushing them awkwardly out to the periphery. The production, on the whole, doesn’t feel quite as tight as Devereux or Bolena, both of which were directed by Alessandro Talevi. That said, the opera’s climax – Leicester’s gun-play aside – is every bit as gripping as – and possibly more moving than – its stablemates’.

Maria Stuarda

All in all, the Tudors Trilogy has been a pleasure, and a success. It goes on tour next week, and will visit Swansea, Oxford, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, Llandudno, and Southampton. Though it’s certainly worth seeing all three operas, if you can only make it to the one, I would recommend Roberto Devereux, for brevity, eccentricity and all out, balls-to-the-wall drama.

Kiss of the Spider Queen – ‘Roberto Devereux’ at the WMC

3 Oct

Roberto Devereux

Having been mightily impressed by the staging – even if I wasn’t blown away by the music – in the WNO’s Anna Bolena, I jumped at the chance to watch the next part of Donizetti’s loose Tudor-themed trilogy, Roberto Devereux. 

This opera is the shortest of the three, and chronologically the last installment, and it brings to a close the Tudor dynasty, ending with (SPOILER ALERT) Queen Elizabeth I abdicating and handing her throne over to James I.

"Say whaaat?"

“Say whaaat?”

“Erm,” I hear you say. “But didn’t Elizabeth die before James became king?”

Yes. Yes she did. And do you know what Gaetano Donizetti says to that? “Fuck you and your historical accuracy,” is what he says. Followed by, “I’m Gaetano Donizetti, bitch.” You see, as already mentioned in my previous post, Donizetti’s approach to British history was more than a little cavalier. With the real life Elizabeth dying an inconvenient 2 years after the real life Earl of Essex, the composer and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano decided to throw the history books out of the window and just make that shit up.

So, instead of a nuanced tale in which Devereux – Earl of Essex and Elizabeth’s favourite – incurs the wrath of both his queen and the privy council by getting a bit big for his boots, we have a tawdry love quadrangle in which Elizabeth loves Devereux, but Devereux loves Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, wife of the Duke of Nottingham… whose real-life counterpart married women called Catherine and Margaret, but never a Sara. To which Donizetti would no doubt say, “What the fuck did you expect me to do? Ain’t got no Wikipedia. This is the 1830s. And besides… I’m Gaetano Donizetti, bitch.”

He's played here by Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul.

His attitude is just the worst.

Similar licence is taken by the WNO. Like Anna Bolena, the costumes and sets here are – on the whole – kept to a minimum, with the chorus and supporting cast dressed in black, quasi-Elizabethan get-up, the backdrops painted matte black with the occasional – and often sinister – use of an opaque screen. Whereas in Anna Bolena we had to wait for the opera’s climax for the introduction of colour, with the doomed Anne donning a red cloak before marching off to the scaffold, here her daughter Elizabeth (Alexandra Deshorties) is clad in Vivienne Westwoodish red from the start. In Anna Bolena the cloak symbolises blood; in Roberto Devereux we have a queen already drenched in the stuff.

If this understated, ahistorical approach to costume offends the purists, I’d love to know what they make of the giant mechanical spider. Yes, you read that correctly. At a particularly dramatic point in the opera, with Devereux’s fate hanging in the balance, Elizabeth climbs onto her large and decidedly spindly looking throne – which proceeds to stalk after him like a giant spider.

Roberto Devereux

It’s a startling image, matched – thankfully – by the composer actually growing a pair.

In Anna Bolena any moments of high emotion, whether it was melancholy, passion or terror, are undercut time and time again by Donizetti resorting to bizarrely inappropriate rum-ti-tum-ti-tum motifs, as if he thought anything more furious or emotional would be uncouth. Here, in an opera composed only 3 years later, he occasionally dares to take off his gloves. This is heard, from the word go, in the overture. Whereas Anna Bolena’s is pleasant but a tad bland, Roberto Devereux’s is what would happen if God Save the Queen (the anthem, not the Sex Pistols tune) was reworked by a firework-obsessed ADHD sufferer, and it really sets the tone for what follows.

It’s understandable, then, with the opera consisting of increasingly (melo)dramatic set pieces, that director Alessandro Talevi should choose to give it such an eccentric, almost David Lynch-like treatment, with Deshortie’s terrifying Elizabeth a cross between Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond and a velociraptor in a frock. The touches of Grand Guignol toward the end were much appreciated too, and helped add a little punch to Donizetti’s music, which – despite his growing a pair and taking off his gloves etc. – still keeps well away from emotional extremes. The sudden flash of light revealing a forest of severed heads on spikes was particularly heart-stopping, as was the stark silhouette of the Queen against blood red lighting at the beginning of Act 2.

Roberto Devereux

Where the opera fails is again down to a combination of Donizetti and real life, rather than this particular production. His Devereux – despite some great work from (the very easy on the eye) Leonardo Capaldo – remains an unconvincing tortured hero, even after he’s given his own “woe is me” prison cell aria, and knowing just how scheming and arrogant his real-life counterpart was doesn’t help matters. What’s more, both he and the Duke of Nottingham (David Kempster) are written as hot-blooded and phlegmatic in a way that seems more Mediterranean than English… but perhaps it wouldn’t have functioned as opera had Nottingham responded to his wife’s infidelity in the manner of John Le Mesurier.

"Having an affair with the Earl of Essex, you say? Oh, well. Can't be helped."

“Having an affair with the Earl of Essex, you say? My word…”

If, after two installments (I’m seeing Maria Stuarda on Saturday) I’ve learned anything about Donizetti, and about the WNO’s Three Queens Trilogy, it’s that the trick is simply to let go, to stop harking after the emotional turmoil of later Verdi, and to forget everything you’ve read about the Tudors, and treat them as surreal and tragic melodramas with singing. Then, they make for a very entertaining experience.

“Off with her head!” – The WNO’s ‘Anna Bolena’ at the Wales Millennium Centre

28 Sep

Anna Bolena

I’d been pre-warned, before watching Anna Bolena, and by someone who knows his stuff when it comes to opera, that Donizetti isn’t for everyone.

“He’s been compared to Gilbert & Sullivan,” said my friend. Without adding whether or not this was meant as a compliment.

As such, I approached the show (is that the right word?) with more than a little caution. Also, it was to be my partner’s first experience of opera – four years into our relationship, with me having spent the last 2 or 3 years trying to persuade him that he would enjoy it if he could only experience the real thing, live. Really he would.

“Oh dear,” said my friend. “You do realise Anna Bolena is almost 3 hours long, don’t you?”

Anna Bolena

“Couldn’t we have gone to see Mamma Mia?”

The opera (Donizetti’s 34th) is being performed in a loose trilogy by the WNO, one of three operas the composer wrote on the subject of the Tudors, alongside Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart, or Mary Queen of Scots to us Anglophones) and Roberto Devereux (about the tempestuous relationship/affair between Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex). Like countless present-day movie makers, Donizetti had a somewhat cavalier attitude towards British history, and obviously – being a Catholic composer, writing for a largely Catholic audience – he takes a somewhat dismal view of the Tudors (and Henry VIII in particular), but if any British royal family was the stuff of opera, it’s the Tudors.

You see, that’s the thing people who haven’t seen or listened to an opera, the ones who think it’s “not for them” don’t tend to realise. The plots of operas are very rarely complicated. In fact, they’re usually sub-Hollyoaks in complexity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no expert, but of the 9 or 10 I’ve seen performed live, almost all of them revolved around extramarital affairs, and all – and I mean all – of them ended with one or more of the main characters dying. Spectacularly.

Though, admittedly, not as spectacularly as John Malkovich in Con Air.

Though not as spectacularly as John Malkovich in Con Air.

In that respect, Anna Bolena ticked all of the boxes. It’s about not one but multiple affairs, real and imaginary. The diabolical Henry VIII (baritone Alistair Miles, looking distinctly Game of Thrones) wants to get rid of his young wife, Anne Boleyn (Serena Farnocchia) and marry his mistress Jane Seymour (Katharine Goeldner). To do so, he invites Anne’s old flame Lord Percy (tenor Robert McPherson) back from exile, hoping they will rekindle their affair so that he can accuse the queen of adultery. Added to the mix we have Smeaton, a young lad (played by soprano Faith Sherman) who is smitten with the queen, and who finds himself embroiled in the whole tawdry mess which follows.

Throughout, the chorus of courtiers – all clad in black, against a similarly single tone black backdrop – chime in with gossip and observations, and things build to the predictable climax in which the disgraced former queen must meet her fate. It’s all very stirring stuff, or at least it would be very stirring stuff if it weren’t for Donizetti’s music. I’ve read other reviews (by people who… you know… know what they’re talking about) that wax lyrical about the complexity of Donizetti’s score, but for me it’s just frustratingly MOR, and I suddenly realised what my friend was talking about when he compared it to Gilbert & Sullivan.

Gaetano Donizetti. Looking like a member of Mumford & Sons, appropriately enough.

Gaetano Donizetti. Looking like a member of Mumford & Sons, appropriately enough.

Given its turbulent subject matter, you might expect the yearning and heartbreak to scale vertiginous heights and for the thunder, doom and despair to plumb the depths of hell itself, but it does neither. Instead, what you’re left with are arias that build and build and are then cut short by an awful lot of tum-ti-tum-ti-tum filler. This is used to good effect just once when, near the end, Anne hears the fanfare for the king’s new bride, Jane Seymour, at the exact moment when she – Anne – is facing execution. The horrible contrast between Anne’s despair and this mercilessly upbeat march is truly affecting. Otherwise, it feels like Donizetti is afraid of getting too emotional, of working too hard on his audience’s feelings, and as a result ends up pulling his punches, over and over again.

It’s a shame, because the WNO’s production has all the ingredients in place for a heart-stopping melodrama. The stage design, though a little murky and eye-straining in the first half, opens up into a dramatic, starkly lit space in the second, and a turntable stage is used to impressive effect throughout. Most of the performances are excellent, and the costume design complements the bleak, black set wonderfully.

Anna Bolena

OK, so I did find myself on the verge of standing up and telling Lord Percy to zip it (every time he opens his mouth, someone gets in trouble), and the libretto makes curious over-use of the word “trembling” (everyone “trembles” in this opera, whatever the context), but none of that is the WNO’s fault, and should be laid more squarely at the feet of Donizetti. Where the Italian composer does excel, however, is in any set-piece involving three or more singers. Here, lines weave in and out of one another and overlap with great dexterity, and the chorus is given plenty of bombast to wrap their vocal chords around.

As with the set design, so the second half is where the opera’s music also picks up the pace, but there’s still a notable absence of anything “hummable”. Not the most important criteria in an opera, perhaps, but still… if you’re a layman like me it’s up near the top of the list, surely.

Where Anna Bolena exceeded expectations – and thus redeemed itself – was in its very last act. Here the staging, performances and – for the best part – the music combined for an edge-of-your-seat climax, with Farnocchia’s Anne donning a dramatic red cloak and utterly dominating the stage before disappearing into a mist of dry ice. Not the tear-jerking finale you – and, presumably, Donizetti – might have hoped for, but definitely enough to quicken the pace.

Even my partner – who rolls his eyes and tuts whenever I insist on listening to Radio 3 – enjoyed it enough to sign up for the next installment, Maria Stuarda. We may have found a convert.