opera stage coach

Tom Sutcliffe

 

Welcome to my performing arts website. My main concerns as a critic have been and remain opera and theatre. I use my blog for reviews of performances and for discussion of a variety of topics. Please feel free to join in with comments and contributions.

I also give tips about what's coming up - on a rolling basis - with (sometimes) useful hints about travel and cheap places to stay. And, if you go to Media, you can hear how I sounded when I was a professional countertenor in the 1960s.

I am writing a book on the ecology of opera and spoken theatre around the world, and I will be posting material connected with that and stemming from my research (funded by a Leverhulme Fellowship). You may be interested too in my archive of writing about opera and theatre over four decades, which you will also find here. And you can contact me about my books Believing in Opera and The Faber Book of Opera, and even buy them here.

The site motto is Shakespeare's ideal advice for audiences to keep in mind, from A Midsummer Night's Dream:
"The best in this kind are but shadows and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them"

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Changes at Stuttgart from 2011 are a vote for continuity

The decision to conclude Manfred Honeck's engagement as the Generalmusikdirektor of the Stuttgart opera is unsurprising, since it was in part the breakdown in the relationship between Honeck and current Opera Intendant Albrecht Puhlmann that led to the decision not to renew Puhlmann's contract after

Herbert Wernicke and the essence of the opera

The staging of opera today is one of the most ephemeral of art forms. It defies video recording or television transmission or filming because it is about putting characters and their narrative in the expressive meaningful context provided by a stage setting and lighting. No number of cameras can convey

A people's Glyndebourne in London - and the price is right!

Holland Park Opera is unusual in that it is run as part of the “Arts and Leisure Services” department of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London. It even, uniquely in the UK, gets £200,000 subsidy from local property taxpayers and is thus not entirely dependent on sponsors

Wagner saw the flaws that would undermine his nation's dream

The primary job of an opera production is of course to tell the story. Richard Jones’s Lohengrin in Munich certainly told the story - though not in the usual context. But you cannot just tell the story of Lohengrin these days. This is the ur-opera of German nationalism, the
 

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Why are British opera productions obsessed with the 1940s?

Anecdotal settings with strong resonances for audiences help explain why David Alden and Richard Jones opera productions have made a mark in recent seasons. But was Otto Dix really a good reference for ENO's Peter Grimes staging, and was it Biily Budd really meaningful to relocate Billy Budd to an onshore naval training base? How serious could Claggart be, converted into a tweedy Mr Chips?

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Why are British opera productions obsessed with the 1940s?


It's surely a weird choice to be making - but it seems popular.

I can see why David Alden chose to place his recent English National Opera production of Peter Grimes (set designs by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) in the mid 1940s, even if the atmosphere owed little to Aldeburgh as it really is and was - and quite a lot more to the great German painter of 1920s Weimar decadence Otto Dix. I can see why Richard Jones chose to transfer Billy Budd to Dartmouth Naval College sometime around the 1940s for his Frankfurt production in 2008, though it really did not ma ke much sense in the context of the story - which is about a time and place of real fighting, and immutably bound up with the British war against revolutionary France and the extraordinary fact that poorly paid press-ganged sailors could be led to resonate with a palpable sense of the national crusade. I can even see why Richard Jones’s wonderful new precision staging for Glyndebourne of Verdi’s Falstaff has been updated to 1945. At Glyndebourne, Windsor is naturally synonymous with Eton where John, Sir George, and Gus Christie - Glyndebourne's royal family - were educated. Designer Ultz has turned post-war austerity Britain into a conveniently (and amusingly) puritanical setting for the excesses of the fat knight living below his station in a local hostelry - though Rattigan’s Separate Tables film might have been a more challenging and interesting reference.

But all these literal and lovingly detailed transpositions into equivalent narrative contexts raise the question of proportion and priority. What is the meaning of the opera? What is its real burden? Why did the composer choose originally to set the story at a particular time? Or is the story indelibly linked to a period, in such a way that shifting it and updating it (or back-dating it for that matter) interferes with the way the themes can register in the mind of the audience?

Ultz’s designs and costumes for Glynbdebourne's Falstaff are wonderfully distilled, cleverly adjusted memories of post-war times: a dreary pub interior; Lutyens-like redbrick roofs and land-girls’ beds of cabbages and lettuces; a mock-Tudor Windsor shopping-street facade; an upstairs sitting-room in a dreary lodging house; and, finally, an artificial oak tree in the Windsor funfair. Hairstyle and clothes are caricature versions of post-war fashion: no chance to make a joke is missed. There are plenty of yankee servicemen over here - including Bülent Bezdüz’s Fenton. Perhaps that's why Tassis Christoyannis’s robust but rather Mediterranean Ford (more of a spiv than a local Windsor tradesman) doesn't want him to marry his baby Princess Nannetta. The front cloth before the start of the opera showed a genteel needlework Windsor view being stitched by Brownies (ie girl guides before they are old enough to wear older girls' blue uniforms). Later, in the first scene of the final act after Falstaff has been rescued from the Thames, a fat fluffy knitted swan gracefully crossed the front of the stage (Jones’s next assignment in Munich in July explained precisely when the next swan leaves... It was Lohengrin at the Bayerische Staatsoper). Three boys of various sizes in Eton uniform stare at the water suppressing giggles - as the fat knight is swept past. I never thought I would see a Jones production with mechanical marmalade and grey Persian cats indoors who respond to the stroking they get, and generally seem to be taking an interest in whatever happens. But why not? Let's add to the general mirth, even if laughter for its own sake is really contrary to Jones's religion - or has been in recent years. One aspect of this Falstaff was one's growing sense that Jones was giving class-conscious Glyndebourne just what it wanted - and thoroughly despising it for being so easy to satisfy with such cheap jokes.

Falstaff, sung and acted with stunning brilliance by Christopher Purves,  apparently quite unfazed by the thick fat-suit in which he is covered, taps at a typewriter composing his love-letters for Meg and Alice. This is the first time in my experience, almost, that I have met a Falstaff who appreciates, nay adores, his own jokes. But actually Jones rescues Falstaff from the excessive vanity to which he is often reduced. Perhaps the games at Glyndebourne are all a bit too precise, arch and studied. This is a virtuoso production and everybody in it knows it. At the bar in the first scene, leaning over their beers, sit the bleary-eyed Pistol and Bardolph (Paolo Battaglia and Alasdair Elliott - and why oh why does Glyndebourne not give a role like Pistol to a British comprimario singer?) like a pair of stuffed dummies. We get the situation quickly enough, including the motherly female publican half in love with Sir John. Indeed without her in charge how could he possibly be surviving there?

Vladimir Jurowski conducted with fabulous clarity and impact. This fruit of old age is a musical score with no flaws, every note just where the old man wanted it, more than any other Verdi opera a masterpiece of wit and unwithering imagination. Jurowski took it all a bit leisurely, the night I heard it. They were recording the performance for a DVD. Perhaps that made the singers polish their diction a tad extra. The beauty of the young lovers’ tunes is as adorable as a perfect Sussex sunset. Fenton and Adriana Kučerová’s Nannetta sang decently, but without quite the ideal mellifluousness. This opera can spin a magic web if the singing is truly beautiful - which on the whole Glyndebourne's cast were not. The tour in the autumn could be vocally better. Jones's incredibly precise, well-turned, enjoyable staging was a bit too self-conscious, cold and under-interpreted. Is this really all there is to say about such a sublime comic masterpiece? I think not.

The wooing scene went well enough. Dina Kuznetsova’s Alice is a bit of a worthy dumpling, not inspiring enough - frankly - to catch the attention of such an interesting Falstaff as Purves. Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Quickly in a Dad’s Army uniform costume was two-dimensional, forced in manner and almost entirely charmless - which again spoils one of the nice often neglected aspects of the piece, the fact that it's Quickly and Falstaff who really belong together. Peter Hoare as Dr Caius was very impressive - transformed by Ultz into a pompous Etonian form-master. One of the issues with this opera is how much romance gets into the final scene. Ultz’s wedding-dress and wig for Bardolph were wonderful. For once one could believe Caius might have mistaken himself. Yet the rest of the fun and games were strained. There seemed to be little going on at this dullish fun-fair, though Purves’s Falstaff brings the opera together in the end and makes sense of it in his way - not very penetrating. Jones was settling for less than his best, choosing to give Glyndebourne a show with enough heavily underlined jokes to guarantee satisfaction.

ENO earned lots of praise for the Alden Grimes which is bound to be revived, and may even win some prizes - though opera productions with very modest qualities seem outstanding in an operatic desert like the UK. What I objected to in Alden’s eccentric production was the treatment of the character of Grimes himself in relation to the rest of the inhabitants of the Suffolk "Borough", and the age of the apprentice who was taller than Ellen Orford and in the 1940s would probably have left school and got a job. Alden seriously distorted the opera by pretending that everybody in the town was against Grimes.  In truth, Balstrode and Ellen are not the only ones who "live and let live". Auntie does too, so does the Rector, and so does the pharmacist Ned Keene. The chorus may indeed turn into a hostile posse tracking Grimes to his hut, and the abuse of the apprentices of which all believe Grimes guilty might just as well involve sex. It could scarcely be worse if it did. People believe he killed the boys wilfully or through neglect.

But, really, how one believe in a Suffolk publican in the 1940s who dresses like the stylish lesbian one might conceivably have found running a Mayfair club for civil servants and black marketeers during the war? And would such a person say "For God’s sake someone start a song." None of this added up. In addition Stuart Skelton’s agreeable Grimes seemed lacking in danger or neurosis, even pleasant in many ways. It’s true all Grimes wants, at a certain level, is success - to "fish the sea dry... and... marry Ellen". It’s true he has poetic dreams, and that's what his aria about the Great Bear in the skies is telling us. It’s true these "Borough" inhabitants are wrong to want to drive him out. But the feelings and prejudices in the piece relate to a very different era in history from the mid-1940s - in those 18th- and 19th-century times children really were exploited and abused. And the abuse of children, the failures in parenting of those days of workhouses and the Poor Laws despite the existence of good people like Balstrode and Ellen, those are what Britten's opera is really concerned with.

Whatever did Alden mean by suggesting Gerald Finley’s soft-toned one-armed Balstrode would be espousing Amanda Roocroft’s far too naive Ellen, a figure whose behaviour had little to do with the school-teacher of yore but seemed more like a lady of good breeding running a dame school by the seaside. Steinberg's designs offered just one seaside scene, all wet sands and no fishing boats, nor nets being mended. In the 1940s fishing from Aldeburgh was not big business; nobody could make a fortune that way. Updating the opera makes Methodism and Bob Boles equally bizarre. Only Mrs Sedley could survive more or less in tact as she would be in any age, brilliantly performed by Felicity Palmer. By contrast, how could anybody believe in Alden's version of Lawyer Swallow presiding over the inquest into the dead apprentice? Dropped trousers in public in the 1940s? I don't think so. Sadly the music was also deprived - in Edward rather raw, self-consciously jagged, modern-sounding interpretation - of all Britten's North Sea surge and flow that it ought to possess.

Jones's approach to Billy Budd in Frankfurt - a blend of Lindsay Anderson's If.... and Noel Coward's In Which We Serve - was much liked by the German critics and by some Brits. But to me it seemed similiarly a quite wrong-headed approach that distorted and diminished crucial aspects of the piece. Perhaps that is because I come from a naval background and mind about "mistakes" like allowing Claggart to sport a moustache (the Senior Service rule has always been either full beard or clean shaven). Budd was indeed in a way Britten’s revisiting of the dangerous year 1941 a decade later in the Festival of Britain year 1951. Regardless of his pacifism and American domicile at the time, he had a deep instinctive consciousness of the overwhelming sense of danger that motivated everybody at that low point of the war against Hitler. There is a triumphalism in Budd, I admit, but it is surely not offensive. Jones's staging did catch the slightly schoolboyish enthusiasm that generates the "Starry Vere" chorus. But, with designer Anthony McDonald, he turned it into the motif of his entire interpretation - which is transferred from a warship at sea to a training college on land, a sort of blend between Dartmouth and one of the establishments (usually in fact on an old sailing ship) where naval ratings used to be brought up to scratch.

The centre of Melville’s story and of Britten’s opera is the need for control in time of war, the fear of subversion because of "The Rights of Man", Wilkes’s revolutionary pamphlet, and the fact that only naval law applies on board a ship in the middle of the ocean. So it really was perverse of Jones to set the story on land - and create a sort of public school ethos presided over by a vicious version of Mr Chips, disregarding the fact that Claggart’s power was entirely over pressed men who were ordinary seamen, but who in Nelson’s navy were able to be astonishingly enthused by his charismatic leadership and that of his fellow admirals and captains. Rum and buggery were also ingredients in the navy and the abuses of the time - as portrayed by John Masefield. But the heroism was also real. This opera has a seriously good libretto to which E M Forster contributed. So it did jar dreadfully that Clive Bailey’s urbane Claggart anachronistically sported a moustache - almost as if to say the production team did not want us to think this was really the navy, that it was just another chapter in Jones's understandable criticism of the British system. In the 1940s a drumhead court would not have been the way to deal with a death at an on-shore training establishment (such as HMS Collingwood near Portsmouth). Jones’s carefully studied "naval" world no doubt appeared realistic and "English" to the Frankfurt audience, But it was actually just nonsense, unrealistic and meaningless. As he often does, Jones here set up an Aunt Sally to knock down and pour scorn on - but his whole project was only marginally relevant to the proper themes of this work - which matter and which concern the exercise and abuse of authority and responsibility, big concerns in German culture as much as in our own. Billy Budd’s experiences at sea, and his relationship with Claggart and the intelligent, charming but weak Captain Vere have nothing to do with education, or with the abuse of power by a pathetic schoolmaster.

But does it matter in the theatre that everything is not what it is supposed to be? In the theatre and cinema it seldom is. It clearly did not offend the Germans for whom knowledge of such details from British history, ancient and recent, would be arcane. All they were aware of was a brilliantly assembled piece of theatre craft, gutes handwerk - as Jones’s staging certainly was. Jones and McDonald as usual devised a production that was theatrically totally aware of what it was doing. And their sense of tone and style were unwaveringly secure, especially with John Mark Ainsley’s smartly uniformed Captain Vere - in his immaculate uniform, a very well-sung performance. But to me it seemed that Jones’s conscious or unconscious anachronisms and misrepresentation of reality destroyed the fundamental and crucial motive that caused Britten, with his profound anti-war feelings, to write such a piece.

The war against Napoleon, like the war against Hitler, was a war of national survival - it was not a game within school rules. Captain Vere’s conscience, and all the sexual undertow of his and Claggart’s interest in "the men" is part of an arduous weighing-up of established regulations and motivations. The man "starry Vere" is meant by Britten to be seen and felt as an admirable Nelson-like figure, a hero even if a rather passive and intellectual one. Vere lacked Nelson’s extraordinary ability to break the rules - in life and in his naval strategies when leading his ships into sea battle. The story of Billy Budd is part of our national history. It is not ironical, nor is it parody or satire. Masefield’s depiction of the cruelty of the navy at the time is no general rule - Britten shows Claggart taking pleasure in his sadistic manipulation of those he wants to use. But the Master at Arms is scarcely a housemaster at a public school. The material of Britten’s opera is serious if not tragic, and it should move us with mixed emotions - not make us rather tritely indignant about systemic bad behaviour. Claggart, even with his unsavoury approach to security, did not deserve to be killed by Budd - and the death is an accident more than the hand of heaven. It is Vere’s failure to exercise mercy and save Billy that is the crucial issue. And somehow in Jones’s production the balance between Vere’s "goodness" and Claggart’s "evil" got very unhelpfully distorted. It may have been a brilliant staging in its way. It was actually a travesty.

It may be that each of these slightly pointed but still coherent narrative frames can appeal much more to British audiences, be acceptable to them, than some of the transpositions that have become almost like cliches in current German operatic productions - where there often seems to be an insistence on everything happening in a modern world of towering anonymous office blocks and housing estates. Both Jones and Alden have always been drawn to anecdotal settings that give the audience pleasure and are recognisable - but also historic. Both directors smuggle in - alongside their transpositions - attitudes towards the material which can impose various value judgments upon what is shown, without being serious enough in thoroughly exploring the dramaturgy of their interpretative approach. In a way these productions are rather old-fashioned. They do not really come face to face with the subject matter. Yet they both are the work of masters, indeed the best we have got here in Britain, and very well achieved. One must not look gift horses in the mouth. Jones and Alden have dominated British opera staging for a long time now - almost 30 years. There is not going to be a new wave of directors any time soon - considering how little properly funded opportunities there currently are here for unknown names or newcomers. More's the shame.

It's surely a weird choice to be making - but it seems popular.

I can see why David Alden chose to place his recent English National Opera production of Peter Grimes (set designs by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) in the mid 1940s, even if the atmosphere owed little to Aldeburgh as it really is and was - and quite a lot more to the great German painter of 1920s Weimar decadence Otto Dix. I can see why Richard Jones chose to transfer Billy Budd to Dartmouth Naval College sometime around the 1940s for his Frankfurt production in 2008, though it really did not ma ke much sense in the context of the story - which is about a time and place of real fighting, and immutably bound up with the British war against revolutionary France and the extraordinary fact that poorly paid press-ganged sailors could be led to resonate with a palpable sense of the national crusade. I can even see why Richard Jones’s wonderful new precision staging for Glyndebourne of Verdi’s Falstaff has been updated to 1945. At Glyndebourne, Windsor is naturally synonymous with Eton where John, Sir George, and Gus Christie - Glyndebourne's royal family - were educated. Designer Ultz has turned post-war austerity Britain into a conveniently (and amusingly) puritanical setting for the excesses of the fat knight living below his station in a local hostelry - though Rattigan’s Separate Tables film might have been a more challenging and interesting reference.

But all these literal and lovingly detailed transpositions into equivalent narrative contexts raise the question of proportion and priority. What is the meaning of the opera? What is its real burden? Why did the composer choose originally to set the story at a particular time? Or is the story indelibly linked to a period, in such a way that shifting it and updating it (or back-dating it for that matter) interferes with the way the themes can register in the mind of the audience?

Ultz’s designs and costumes for Glynbdebourne's Falstaff are wonderfully distilled, cleverly adjusted memories of post-war times: a dreary pub interior; Lutyens-like redbrick roofs and land-girls’ beds of cabbages and lettuces; a mock-Tudor Windsor shopping-street facade; an upstairs sitting-room in a dreary lodging house; and, finally, an artificial oak tree in the Windsor funfair. Hairstyle and clothes are caricature versions of post-war fashion: no chance to make a joke is missed. There are plenty of yankee servicemen over here - including Bülent Bezdüz’s Fenton. Perhaps that's why Tassis Christoyannis’s robust but rather Mediterranean Ford (more of a spiv than a local Windsor tradesman) doesn't want him to marry his baby Princess Nannetta. The front cloth before the start of the opera showed a genteel needlework Windsor view being stitched by Brownies (ie girl guides before they are old enough to wear older girls' blue uniforms). Later, in the first scene of the final act after Falstaff has been rescued from the Thames, a fat fluffy knitted swan gracefully crossed the front of the stage (Jones’s next assignment in Munich in July explained precisely when the next swan leaves... It was Lohengrin at the Bayerische Staatsoper). Three boys of various sizes in Eton uniform stare at the water suppressing giggles - as the fat knight is swept past. I never thought I would see a Jones production with mechanical marmalade and grey Persian cats indoors who respond to the stroking they get, and generally seem to be taking an interest in whatever happens. But why not? Let's add to the general mirth, even if laughter for its own sake is really contrary to Jones's religion - or has been in recent years. One aspect of this Falstaff was one's growing sense that Jones was giving class-conscious Glyndebourne just what it wanted - and thoroughly despising it for being so easy to satisfy with such cheap jokes.

Falstaff, sung and acted with stunning brilliance by Christopher Purves,  apparently quite unfazed by the thick fat-suit in which he is covered, taps at a typewriter composing his love-letters for Meg and Alice. This is the first time in my experience, almost, that I have met a Falstaff who appreciates, nay adores, his own jokes. But actually Jones rescues Falstaff from the excessive vanity to which he is often reduced. Perhaps the games at Glyndebourne are all a bit too precise, arch and studied. This is a virtuoso production and everybody in it knows it. At the bar in the first scene, leaning over their beers, sit the bleary-eyed Pistol and Bardolph (Paolo Battaglia and Alasdair Elliott - and why oh why does Glyndebourne not give a role like Pistol to a British comprimario singer?) like a pair of stuffed dummies. We get the situation quickly enough, including the motherly female publican half in love with Sir John. Indeed without her in charge how could he possibly be surviving there?

Vladimir Jurowski conducted with fabulous clarity and impact. This fruit of old age is a musical score with no flaws, every note just where the old man wanted it, more than any other Verdi opera a masterpiece of wit and unwithering imagination. Jurowski took it all a bit leisurely, the night I heard it. They were recording the performance for a DVD. Perhaps that made the singers polish their diction a tad extra. The beauty of the young lovers’ tunes is as adorable as a perfect Sussex sunset. Fenton and Adriana Kučerová’s Nannetta sang decently, but without quite the ideal mellifluousness. This opera can spin a magic web if the singing is truly beautiful - which on the whole Glyndebourne's cast were not. The tour in the autumn could be vocally better. Jones's incredibly precise, well-turned, enjoyable staging was a bit too self-conscious, cold and under-interpreted. Is this really all there is to say about such a sublime comic masterpiece? I think not.

The wooing scene went well enough. Dina Kuznetsova’s Alice is a bit of a worthy dumpling, not inspiring enough - frankly - to catch the attention of such an interesting Falstaff as Purves. Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Quickly in a Dad’s Army uniform costume was two-dimensional, forced in manner and almost entirely charmless - which again spoils one of the nice often neglected aspects of the piece, the fact that it's Quickly and Falstaff who really belong together. Peter Hoare as Dr Caius was very impressive - transformed by Ultz into a pompous Etonian form-master. One of the issues with this opera is how much romance gets into the final scene. Ultz’s wedding-dress and wig for Bardolph were wonderful. For once one could believe Caius might have mistaken himself. Yet the rest of the fun and games were strained. There seemed to be little going on at this dullish fun-fair, though Purves’s Falstaff brings the opera together in the end and makes sense of it in his way - not very penetrating. Jones was settling for less than his best, choosing to give Glyndebourne a show with enough heavily underlined jokes to guarantee satisfaction.

ENO earned lots of praise for the Alden Grimes which is bound to be revived, and may even win some prizes - though opera productions with very modest qualities seem outstanding in an operatic desert like the UK. What I objected to in Alden’s eccentric production was the treatment of the character of Grimes himself in relation to the rest of the inhabitants of the Suffolk "Borough", and the age of the apprentice who was taller than Ellen Orford and in the 1940s would probably have left school and got a job. Alden seriously distorted the opera by pretending that everybody in the town was against Grimes. In truth, Balstrode and Ellen are not the only ones who "live and let live". Auntie does too, so does the Rector, and so does the pharmacist Ned Keene. The chorus may indeed turn into a hostile posse tracking Grimes to his hut, and the abuse of the apprentices of which all believe Grimes guilty might just as well involve sex. It could scarcely be worse if it did. People believe he killed the boys wilfully or through neglect.

But, really, how one believe in a Suffolk publican in the 1940s who dresses like the stylish lesbian one might conceivably have found running a Mayfair club for civil servants and black marketeers during the war? And would such a person say "For God’s sake someone start a song." None of this added up. In addition Stuart Skelton’s agreeable Grimes seemed lacking in danger or neurosis, even pleasant in many ways. It’s true all Grimes wants, at a certain level, is success - to "fish the sea dry... and... marry Ellen". It’s true he has poetic dreams, and that's what his aria about the Great Bear in the skies is telling us. It’s true these "Borough" inhabitants are wrong to want to drive him out. But the feelings and prejudices in the piece relate to a very different era in history from the mid-1940s - in those 18th- and 19th-century times children really were exploited and abused. And the abuse of children, the failures in parenting of those days of workhouses and the Poor Laws despite the existence of good people like Balstrode and Ellen, those are what Britten's opera is really concerned with.

Whatever did Alden mean by suggesting Gerald Finley’s soft-toned one-armed Balstrode would be espousing Amanda Roocroft’s far too naive Ellen, a figure whose behaviour had little to do with the school-teacher of yore but seemed more like a lady of good breeding running a dame school by the seaside. Steinberg's designs offered just one seaside scene, all wet sands and no fishing boats, nor nets being mended. In the 1940s fishing from Aldeburgh was not big business; nobody could make a fortune that way. Updating the opera makes Methodism and Bob Boles equally bizarre. Only Mrs Sedley could survive more or less in tact as she would be in any age, brilliantly performed by Felicity Palmer. By contrast, how could anybody believe in Alden's version of Lawyer Swallow presiding over the inquest into the dead apprentice? Dropped trousers in public in the 1940s? I don't think so. Sadly the music was also deprived - in Edward rather raw, self-consciously jagged, modern-sounding interpretation - of all Britten's North Sea surge and flow that it ought to possess.

 Jones's approach to Billy Budd in Frankfurt - a blend of Lindsay Anderson's If.... and Noel Coward's In Which We Serve - was much liked by the German critics and by some Brits. But to me it seemed similiarly a quite wrong-headed approach that distorted and diminished crucial aspects of the piece. Perhaps that is because I come from a naval background and mind about "mistakes" like allowing Claggart to sport a moustache (the Senior Service rule has always been either full beard or clean shaven). Budd was indeed in a way Britten’s revisiting of the dangerous year 1941 a decade later in the Festival of Britain year 1951. Regardless of his pacifism and American domicile at the time, he had a deep instinctive consciousness of the overwhelming sense of danger that motivated everybody at that low point of the war against Hitler. There is a triumphalism in Budd, I admit, but it is surely not offensive. Jones's staging did catch the slightly schoolboyish enthusiasm that generates the "Starry Vere" chorus. But, with designer Anthony McDonald, he turned it into the motif of his entire interpretation - which is transferred from a warship at sea to a training college on land, a sort of blend between Dartmouth and one of the establishments (usually in fact on an old sailing ship) where naval ratings used to be brought up to scratch.

 The centre of Melville’s story and of Britten’s opera is the need for control in time of war, the fear of subversion because of "The Rights of Man", Wilkes’s revolutionary pamphlet, and the fact that only naval law applies on board a ship in the middle of the ocean. So it really was perverse of Jones to set the story on land - and create a sort of public school ethos presided over by a vicious version of Mr Chips, disregarding the fact that Claggart’s power was entirely over pressed men who were ordinary seamen, but who in Nelson’s navy were able to be astonishingly enthused by his charismatic leadership and that of his fellow admirals and captains. Rum and buggery were also ingredients in the navy and the abuses of the time - as portrayed by John Masefield. But the heroism was also real. This opera has a seriously good libretto to which E M Forster contributed. So it did jar dreadfully that Clive Bailey’s urbane Claggart anachronistically sported a moustache - almost as if to say the production team did not want us to think this was really the navy, that it was just another chapter in Jones's understandable criticism of the British system. In the 1940s a drumhead court would not have been the way to deal with a death at an on-shore training establishment (such as HMS Collingwood near Portsmouth). Jones’s carefully studied "naval" world no doubt appeared realistic and "English" to the Frankfurt audience, But it was actually just nonsense, unrealistic and meaningless. As he often does, Jones here set up an Aunt Sally to knock down and pour scorn on - but his whole project was only marginally relevant to the proper themes of this work - which matter and which concern the exercise and abuse of authority and responsibility, big concerns in German culture as much as in our own. Billy Budd’s experiences at sea, and his relationship with Claggart and the intelligent, charming but weak Captain Vere have nothing to do with education, or with the abuse of power by a pathetic schoolmaster.

But does it matter in the theatre that everything is not what it is supposed to be? In the theatre and cinema it seldom is. It clearly did not offend the Germans for whom knowledge of such details from British history, ancient and recent, would be arcane. All they were aware of was a brilliantly assembled piece of theatre craft, gutes handwerk - as Jones’s staging certainly was. Jones and McDonald as usual devised a production that was theatrically totally aware of what it was doing. And their sense of tone and style were unwaveringly secure, especially with John Mark Ainsley’s smartly uniformed Captain Vere - in his immaculate uniform, a very well-sung performance. But to me it seemed that Jones’s conscious or unconscious anachronisms and misrepresentation of reality destroyed the fundamental and crucial motive that caused Britten, with his profound anti-war feelings, to write such a piece.

The war against Napoleon, like the war against Hitler, was a war of national survival - it was not a game within school rules. Captain Vere’s conscience, and all the sexual undertow of his and Claggart’s interest in "the men" is part of an arduous weighing-up of established regulations and motivations. The man "starry Vere" is meant by Britten to be seen and felt as an admirable Nelson-like figure, a hero even if a rather passive and intellectual one. Vere lacked Nelson’s extraordinary ability to break the rules - in life and in his naval strategies when leading his ships into sea battle. The story of Billy Budd is part of our national history. It is not ironical, nor is it parody or satire. Masefield’s depiction of the cruelty of the navy at the time is no general rule - Britten shows Claggart taking pleasure in his sadistic manipulation of those he wants to use. But the Master at Arms is scarcely a housemaster at a public school. The material of Britten’s opera is serious if not tragic, and it should move us with mixed emotions - not make us rather tritely indignant about systemic bad behaviour. Claggart, even with his unsavoury approach to security, did not deserve to be killed by Budd - and the death is an accident more than the hand of heaven. It is Vere’s failure to exercise mercy and save Billy that is the crucial issue. And somehow in Jones’s production the balance between Vere’s "goodness" and Claggart’s "evil" got very unhelpfully distorted. It may have been a brilliant staging in its way. It was actually a travesty.

It may be that each of these slightly pointed but still coherent narrative frames can appeal much more to British audiences, be acceptable to them, than some of the transpositions that have become almost like cliches in current German operatic productions - where there often seems to be an insistence on everything happening in a modern world of towering anonymous office blocks and housing estates. Both Jones and Alden have always been drawn to anecdotal settings that give the audience pleasure and are recognisable - but also historic. Both directors smuggle in - alongside their transpositions - attitudes towards the material which can impose various value judgments upon what is shown, without being serious enough in thoroughly exploring the dramaturgy of their interpretative approach. In a way these productions are rather old-fashioned. They do not really come face to face with the subject matter. Yet they both are the work of masters, indeed the best we have got here in Britain, and very well achieved. One must not look gift horses in the mouth. Jones and Alden have dominated British opera staging for a long time now - almost 30 years. There is not going to be a new wave of directors any time soon - considering how little properly funded opportunities there currently are here for unknown names or newcomers. More's the shame.

Dare me! Don't encourage me! I'll shock you anyway

Is the Australian Barrie Kosky currently the most exciting opera director around? You can love or hate the actual productions he does, but top opera houses around the world all suddenly want a piece of him

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Dare me! Don't encourage me! I'll shock you anyway


Inevitably, Barrie Kosky had to leave Australia to establish his career as an opera and theatre director. It is fascinating reading or watching his interviews in Australia where he really has to take care of his “right of return”. Australians do not readily forgive anyone who leaves the country. The national myth is that Australia is paradise, so who in their right mind would want to leave?“
 It’s nice to be back,” he says, and gets quizzed about whether he really means it. He has to explain that “culturally, socially and politically Europe and Australia are two different planets”. He has to tell them that paradise for a theatre and opera director is when the box office takings can be as low as just 14 per cent of the budget - the diametrical opposite of Australian reality. Not to mention the huge budget for creative work, separate from what is spent in Germany on maintaining permanently employed ensembles of singers, actors, orchestral musicians, plus in-house teams working on every aspect of the product.
 One constituency in Australia is deeply suspicious about him. Theatre star John Gaden who was in The Lost Echo, Kosky’s prize-winning epic eight-hour adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, says half the audience thought it the best thing they’d ever seen, but half were enraged by it. However, “the experience of working with him is a joy. He’s hugely intelligent. He’s very funny. The rehearsal room is enormously stimulating. It’s fabulous to be there with him. I loved it. You’re being seriously manipulated, of course, but in a good way.”
 Patrick Nolan, a fellow Australian director and contemporary says, “He’s terrific because he has great integrity. He speaks so eloquently, explaining why he’s doing what he’s doing - and he’s true to his vision - which has to be what matters with an artist.”
 So what exactly is the “vision thing” with Kosky? He’s somebody for whom the Swiss director Christoph Marthaler is “the only major international genius after Pina Bausch. Those two are incredibly influential.” His motto if you see his work seems to be to “expect the unexpected”. Yet he says that he certainly does not set out to shock - though equally he says “What I do like is an audience of all ages and classes to feel that they are completely involved in the performance, and this can be like being bolted to their seats because they are so scared or shocked that they are gripped.”
 His productions do very often get booed. You can understand why his production in Essen at the wonderful Aalto Theatre of Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht's Decline and Fall of the City of  Mahagonny offended many in the audience. Showing Jake Schmidt eating himself to death was shocking because it seemed to involve so much shit everywhere - as if this human being had become literally a shit machine which is not something one often sees on stage. But the graphic shit management of the prisoners in Janacek’s From the House of the Dead in Hanover didn’t cause any offence at all.
 His talent or genius never lacked recognition down under. He was given an Adelaide Festival to run when he was 29, and did not fall out with people there the way Peter Sellars did - or as, years earlier, his cousin Elijah Moshinsky had. His theatre productions in Melbourne and Sydney have always won lots of attention, and he used to get some of the opera work that was going - including The Flying Dutchman, Wozzeck and Nabucco (though he was sacked from Sydney Opera House for the latter). But if you start out young and make progress, as Kosky did at 22 with his first fully professional opera production - Tippett’s The Knot Garden in 1989 at the Melbourne Spoleto Festival - you find you are right up there at the top in your 20s. The only prospect, if you don’t move to a bigger or at least different stage, is to go on doing what you do and getting slowly staler.
 Instead, he moved to Europe and made his career really blossom in theatre in Austria and in opera in Germany, where he takes over as Intendant of Berlin’s Komische Oper in 2012 (when Andreas Homoki moves to run Zurich) by which time Kossky will have got Wagner’s Ring thoroughly out of his system by staging it in Hanover.
 A few months ago English National Opera finally managed to settle what they wanted him to do - Rameau’s Castor and Pollux - but that’s not till the 2010/11 season. Kossky's Rameau is unlikely to suit the authenticists. It will be in English, and the staging, from a man who began as (in Moshinsky’s words) “a true Pina Bausch expressionist”, will not be baroque. “Like Offenbach,” Kosky says, “Rameau suffers from being given a piss-elegant style which is not in the story. I wanted to do something different, and everybody’s used to Handel. The challenge is to find the young cast I need. The production will come to Berlin two years later.”
 Kosky has built his career in the theatre as well as in opera, which in itself is quite unusual. Peter Sellars did it. But of British directors only Richard Jones has really managed the trick, and our theatre critics seem disillusioned with almost everything he directs. Kosky got his own fringe theatre company going immediately after he left university where he had spent his entire time working on productions. “Most opera directors,” says Kosky, “cannot direct theatre and vice versa. The way you move a singer through the stage and motivate them is an entirely different process from how you direct a text for acting.”
 His very first show at school when he was 15 was Büchner’s Woyzeck which he had found by chance in the library. The same year he watched Anthony Besch rehearse a scene from The Magic Flute in Melbourne. “I thought, I can do that,” Kosky told me. “I never assisted in an opera house in a professional way. By the time I left university it was too late - I had directed six operas including Don Giovanni.”
 The live performing arts in Australia are still heavily dependent on Jewish migrants from central Europe and Russia who arrived in the 1930s and 1940s, and their descendants.
 Crucial for Kosky was his Hungarian grandmother who spoke seven languages and taught him that German was the language of culture which he had to learn, and not to worry about French and Italian. She kept her mantelpiece lined with Heine, Schiller and Goethe and took him to his first opera which was Madam Butterfly. She made him listen to and learn the records of it before he went. “She tried something similar with my sister and it didn’t work. She tried it with me and it did.”
 She also read him the Grimm brothers’ fairy stories. “I remember because I was actually lying under her duck Hungarian eiderdown, because she had brought all those eiderdowns from Hungary before the war. And there I was with my heavily made-up bejewelled grandmother who loved wearing rings (as I do) saying in her thick Hungarian-accented way, ‘Once upon a time...’ It was fantastic, a bit like being read to by Bela Lugosi in drag. God rest her soul.”
 Also, because his father was a furrier, Kosky was taken round the world quite early on, and at just 12 went to Covent Garden for the first time. Exporting furs proved a bit of a lost cause in the long run - as producing opera might ultimately do too.
 Jewishness is Kosky’s trademark - indeed his determined normalisation of all those inherited associations is surely where, post-holocaust, we should all now be getting. He does not make any fuss about Wagner’s anti-semitism - after all there’s plenty else to object to about the German master, as well as lots to approve of. Lohengrin he claims to detest as a work, and his Vienna staging of the opera was indeed a famous disaster. He describes how he allowed himself to accept a Faustian pact from Ioan Holender the former Romanian-born Jewish opera boss there, though all his instincts were screaming against it. He knew there would only be four weeks rehearsal, whereas for each Ring opera in Hanover he will have eight.
 He was warned that the cast in Vienna would be antipathetic to anything he put forward. His Ortrud, for instance, was Baltsa. She marked throughout the four weeks rehearsals, and responded to his suggestions by referring to herself in the third person: “Agnes would never do this”,. The conductor Semyon Bychkov dug his heels in with the comment, “I don’t conduct in front of that colour,” which has a prominent place in Kosky’s comic mental operatic scrap-book. His take on Wagner is positive but concerned. “After four and a half hours of Tristan,” he says, “you sort of want a shower. It’s not healthy. There’s something not kosher about it. But that’s part of his genius too.”
 Ever since creating the Gilgul Theatre in Melbourne in 1990, and staging classic Jewish work like The Dybbuk there, he has resolutely drawn on the whole Jewish muscular theatrical tradition of story-telling and Klezmer music which underpins his instinct and confidence. But he would rightly say those are the roots of central European theatre and Lehar and Kalman operettas, and where the Salzburg Festival world of Max Reinhardt and Richard Strauss originated, before Hitler perversely destroyed it.
 His big idea for the Sydney Opera House right now is that it should be handed over to musicals and epic theatre stagings, and Sydney should build a new lyric theatre to do opera - because the acoustic of the opera house, however iconic its external architecture, is a running disaster. What point is there spending so much money trying vainly to improve a building like that.
 In Berlin the Mayor handed him the Komische job with the instruction that the one essential thing the city expected from him was to be different from the other two opera houses there. Characteristically Kosky turned the hint into an outrageous joke. At the conference to introduce him to the German press, he first apologised for the absence of his beloved dog - which everybody there associates with him - and then added that his only announcement was that after 2012 all the operas at the Komische would be performed in Hebrew. “I could see some of the journalists were not quite sure what to make of it. But I am happy I can get away with teasing them like that.”
 He is not sure about maintaining the “only in German” tradition because he notices audiences for Boheme in German are not as good as they should be. On the other hand he is adamant that Mozart must always be in the audience’s language - because they have to get the jokes and the confessions from the music with the words, and not from the surtitles. And his Rigoletto at the start of this season in Berlin was in German and has been a total sell-out and huge success. His plans for the Komische at this stage include a new opera world premiere every season. “We should be commissioning new singspiels. We are talking about art and about ideas.”
 He wants to restore the Jewish element to German theatre because its loss has rendered the Germans suspicious of the sentimental side - which is why they don’t get operetta any more. “The combination of operetta and burlseque that was natural in Germany all got transferred to America.” So his plans at the Komische include - alongside operas which the other Berlin companies are neglecting - more fine musicals like West Side Story and Gypsy. His hugely successful Kiss Me Kate showed what he could do in that department. “My dream is to build up the best. That to me is the utopia - to have a fantastic wonderful artistic family. Which is what the audience unconsciously pick up on. I don’t think the Komische should do Queen of Spades because I want to hear that with huge fabulous voices. But we can do The Nose, and maybe Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. We can mix in some Offenbach and Martinu. There will of course be more operetta because I love it, and you have to love it to do it. I’m going to open my regime with La Belle Hélène. We will do the three Monteverdi operas together in a group in my first season, non-baroque of course, all cast from within the company, all sung in German in an arrangement by a new composer. Let’s face it, Poppea is Ben Jonson meets Fassbinder - I wonder if perhaps we should do a Klezmer version. This may seem a disparate repertoire, but if it is the work of an ensemble it ceases to be contradictory or conflicting. I was delighted to read that Donald Runnicles at the Deutsche Oper plans to concentrate on the big Verdis and Richard Strauss.
 “The stories in Kalman are a problem, but with Offenbach his genius just makes you smile. Mrs Kalman won’t let you revise the texts, though they need it. But she seems to be ready to have a word with me. I hope I will do a Countess Maritza eventually. You need to see that sentimentality is not a dirty word. You need performers who can wake up the audience and play with them, and a style of staging that is not terrible old Austrian summer theatre. Being Australian and Jewish, I have no problem juggling artforms and forgetting about taste.”
 He acknowledges the German system is enormously privileged. “It can function wonderfully. But all the talk about 40 million euros is not enough, I feel I want to say ‘Yes it is. You don’t grasp what people have to manage on outside this country.’ It is a kind of repulsive decadence to suggest subsidy here is not enough.”
 Kosky is not against using screens in the squares or piazzas to involve more people, but he is absolutely convinced that we will always love the live experience. “The idea of sound flying through and into space, nothing else can give you that - which you get even if it’s not such a well-sung production. I think opera is a kind of religious experience. It is what happens with the sound in a proper opera house which you can never replace. I want to restore the visceral to the experience. The Germans are so into political concepts. But what people really get out of opera is visceral and fundamental. However clever the ideas, the dramaturgy and the programme notes, what is happening in opera is that eye and ear and skin and body are all working together thanks to and through that music.”

 

An inside view of Australia's "world-class" piano comp

In 1988, as a poor substitute for Bernard Levin, and as chaperone to the distinguished Times piano-specialist music critic Joan Chissell who had never been on that long long flight before, at the invitation of Claire Dan I was happy to drink my way to Australia (beside Joan) Qantas business class. It was fascinating observing how a jur

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An inside view of Australia's "world-class" piano comp


In 1988, as a poor substitute for Bernard Levin, and as chaperone to the distinguished Times piano-specialist music critic Joan Chissell who had never been on that long long flight before, at the invitation of Claire Dan I was happy to drink my way to Australia (beside Joan) Qantas business class. It was fascinating observing how a jury of mostly top teachers forms its judgments. I also met Jonathan Mills for the first time, and learnt quite an impressive lot about his Blue Mountains Arts Festival. A piano competition is only as good as its best players. Unless top prizewinners hit the international jackpot, impressing critics in Europe and the US and probably getting recorded, it doesn't count.
 This summer (winter, down under, though with temperatures much the same as London) has seen the 4th Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia: "Of Australia". the president of the competition Liberal Senator Bronwen Bishop explained with teeth flashing, "so we can ask Melbourne for money." None of three earlier first prizewinners (from SIPCAs in 1977. 1981 and 1985) has yet caused a ripple on the international piano scene. 1977's Irina Plotnikova gave an Opera House recital to launch the current competition: her first trip outside the Soviet Union this decade. She has nifty fingerwork, but her Mozart was desperately unstylish, her Mendelssohn and Rachmaninov pretty anonymous.
 Still. young pianists are so desperate for brownie points that 260 applicants submitted themselves to auditions for the Australian competition in Vienna, Frankfurt, Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Peking, Shanghai and Sydney. Forty were chosen to be flown free to Bicentennial Australia and put up in first class Sydney hotels until eliminated.
 Just getting to Sydney is a prize in itself. The competition has a higher profile in Australia than Leeds has in Britain. All the heats and finals this year were broadcast on ABC-FM, the national radio channel. Competitors were feted by a large circle of competition supporters and groupies. When the personable ocker pianist Michael Harvey failed to make it into the quarter-finals there was a huge storm of protest from radio listeners.
 The rewards in Sydney were generous: A$15000 from Qantas for the first prizewinner. A$7000 for the second, A$4000 for the third, and so on down to A$500 for numbers 10, 11 and 12. A special A$5000 for the best Australian pianist was this year won by Philip Shovk, the first Australian to get into the finals, but a grey musician more interested in keeping tidy and safe than in making the music tell. Other awards included a concerto prize (A$5000), a chamber music prize (A$2000), a Mozart concerto prize (A$1500), a Lotto people's choice prize (A$3000), and A$1000 for the best performance of an Australian composition. The first prizewinner has to complete an onerous tour of the antipodes. Generally the finalists considered the clever thing would be to come second - and avoid a lot of concerts that will do nothing for budding careers. Winners also get a spread of international dates, some of them significant.
 The competition was co-founded in 1977 by the very wealthy Claire Dan and Rex Hobcroft, an Australian pianist who used to be principal of the Sydney Conservatorium, with some valuable initial prompting from Roger Woodward, biggest Australian musical star after Dame Joan Sutherland. The heats are held at the Conservatorium, between Government House (residence of the Governor-General) and the Royal Botanical Gardens, just up Macquarie Street from Circular Quay and the Opera House where the concerto Finals take place in the Concert Hall. The Con is the most beautifully located music school in the world, and has excellent clean acoustics in its Verbrugghen Hall. The Concert Hall at the Opera House, on the other hand, has unreliable acoustics that blurred fast passagework, especially in the Bartok Second Concerto played by the US pianist David Buechner.
 Miss Dan used to be married to Sir Peter Abeles, who is the most politically influential of all Australian tycoons today, in constant touch with PM Bob Hawke. He and Rupert Murdoch own half each of Ansett, the internal Australian airline. She remains on good terms with Sir Peter and channels her artistic patronage through the Cladan Cultural Exchange Institute. Like Abeles, she arrived from Hungary in the Forties, and it is largely her charisma and style that keep the competition funded with no state subsidy, innovative and unusually quick on its artistic feet.
 Claire Dan remains a typically European "new Australian",  with a violent and idiosyncratic Hungarian accent that her daughters long ago told her she shouldn't think of losing. She combines a total lack of social or cultural pretension with unwavering parental ambition for the comp. She roots for her preferred talents gently and charmingly. "What do you think of my little Hungarian?", she asks. expanding wide innocent eyes. The vivacious 21-year-old Adrienne Krausz was undoubtedly one of this year's discoveries, playing with terrific brio, physical strength and panache but not well enough among the 12 semi-finalists to get further. She was a surprisingly shy mouse offstage too. "Halim is one of my babies, you know", Dan told me. The Pogorelich-like Indonesian came fourth in 1985, and is as popular with audiences as with the boss. "I don't know about music," Dan says. "But I know when playing speaks to my emotions."
 Another big hit with the female public was the handsome Russian Sergei Erohin, who stripped off and dived into Dan's pool in company with a Korean-American girl competitor, Heng-Jin Park, after a lavish dinner for competitors and judges at her Bellevue Hills mansion. "I don't know what the judges are thinking," Dan whispered as we awaited the final voting. She shrugged her shoulders and held out her open hands. "I think they want to split the first prize, which will be very bad for us. You will not be pleased, but I think it will be Halim and Erohin." It wasn't. Dan never pulls rank in artistic matters. All the judges agree Sydney, administered by a recent British migrant Penelope Brockman, is the least pressured and corrupt of any international musical contest.
 Competitions are our modern version of that popular old musical gimmick, the infant prodigy. Of course some winners are worthy. Of course the public enjoys the illusion of artistic discrimination - distinguishing the apparent best from the merely good. In art, we like to think, only the best will do. "Music is competitive", robustly declared Harold C. Schonberg former New York Times chief music critic and the American judge in Sydney this year (as in 1985). He was holding forth at a symposium about the pros and cons of competitions at the Opera House before the heats got under way, and pooh-poohed any suggestion that competitions might not be good for music. Later he told me, "You can spot the winners, three or four outstanding talents, right away after the first round."
 Well, he didn't get the first or second winners "right" as it turned out. His choice was Eduardus Halim, Indonesian player with a gamelan-like sense of sonority and a strange spidery technique on the ivories, who went to pieces rather in the semi-final and finals - barely justifying his third place. But the votes of Schonberg and the conservative and conventionally pianistic element on the panel of judges (including both Australians - Hobcroft and Warren Thomson, second in command of the Sydney Conservatorium) did keep the most distinctive and musically fertile of the competitors, Gilead Mishory, Israeli but Munich-based, out of the finals. Mishory was criticised by the Soviet judge, Lev Vlasenko, for chosing to play "little-known" works: the Webern Variations, Liszt's Liebestod transcription, Janacek's In the Mist and the Bartok Out of Doors Suite.
 The voting was secret and different from earlier SIPCAs. Instead of the complicated cumulative scoring system, which in 1985 led to an 18-year-old Chinese winning because he had scored so well in round one that nobody could catch him, this time was a simple yes-no knock-out in which judges named their choices to go through to the subsequent round, with a few tie-breaking second preferences. The 1985 winner, incidentally, was packed off back to Conservatoire on his return to China and has not been heard of since. Five judges who voted to have Mishory in the finals were sufficiently upset by his exclusion to unseal their lips to the guest observer and critic (myself). He had the consolation of 7th prize (A$750). But the Mozart and romantic concertos in the finals were dully and unimaginatively played by all save the dogged Russian winner, Alexander Korsantiya, and the elegant but self-effacing Italian Riccardo Zadra who came next. The judges' selection for the finals seemed to be democratic choice at its least inspiring.
 That's competitions, according to Joan Chissell, former Times critic and British judge. Accidents happen. Good pianists fall by the wayside. Poor pianists survive. There were at least two "bashers" among the 20 quarter-finalists whom she was horrified to find not eliminated: the American Philip Hosford and the Bulgarian Tomislav Nedelkovic-Baynov.
 One player got into the finals with accurate but rather academic and lifeless playing. "If he wins, I think I'll jump off a cliff," she said. "I've just seen the place Sydney suicides use, Watson's Bay Gap." Vlasenko had heard this player in other competitions. After round two he told me, "He plays well but he is never  going to excite people or be a winner". One of the problems for pianists who join the competition circuit is that judges are on a similar circuit and familiarity can breed contempt.
 Arie Vardi, the Israeli pianist on the judges' panel, told me that he disliked competitions so much that he had persuaded his best pupil, Yefim Bronfman, never to enter one - in order that people could see a young pianist today having a good career without ever becoming a prizewinner. Competitions, he said, were as fallible as the democratic process. But they weren't going to disappear, so he did duty as a judge as well as he was able. Vardi was one of those who voted for Mishory, having been impressed with his Ravel and Debussy. But on the whole he was disappointed with the standard of the Chopin nocturnes and Debussy preludes. Since the pianists were mostly in their late 20s and scarcely novices, his dissatisfaction was surprising.
 Some competitors who failed to get through were eager to ask judges why. What they learnt, naturally, was that judgments about piano-playing are extremely subjective. Sometimes the experts had reasons and advice to offer: Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer explained to Mishory that his beautifully played Ravel/Miroirs needed to distinguish between a barque on a choppy sea and a boat on a lake. But she was also determined to remedy his exclusion from the finals by recommending him to Boulez. Henriot liked the Sydney system - especially the idea of inviting competitors after auditions. She remembered one competitor at the Tchaikovsky in Moscow who put up music on the stand, played the first bars of a Bach prelude, stopped as if dissatisfied, flipped over a few pages, and started on another different Prelude. Thirty-eight contestants in Sydney was a lot to hear: in Moscow it can be hundreds, some of whom are just there for the trip.
 The best aspect of Sydney, from the judges' point of view, was the fact that no votes were taken until after stage II, when all 38 contestants had played two 20-minute recitals of their own choice - including two compulsory elements: a Chopin Nocturne in stage I and a Debussy prelude in stage II. There were, they said, some second thoughts. But the elimination of Megumi Fujita, a Menuhin school graduate, the Irish Peter Mack, and the English James Lisney seemed questionable and regrettable.
 The judges' panel included a Shanghai pianist, Li Mingqiang, who required frequent cough lozenges throughout, Albrecht Roeseler from the Munich paper Suddeutsche Zeitung, Kazuyuki Tohyama who graduated in aesthetics from Tokyo University in 1946, and Ana Maria Trenchi de Bottazzi an Argentinian pianist based in New York, who was very strong on musical rather than pianistic factors.
 Just for the finals, the famous pianist Eileen Joyce, who studied with a pupil of Clara Schumann and gave the British premiere of the Prokofiev Third at a prom with Sir Henry Wood conducting, joined the panel which was, plainly, of a very high standard, superbly well informed, curious, and anxious about its decisions. The choice of Korsantiya as winner was unanimous, according to the chairman Rex Hobcroft. Certainly the Italian Zadra and Korsantiya stood head and shoulders above the other finalists.
 Perhaps another year they will arrange things so that there are 12 finalists. Then there would be more chance of fireworks. Perhaps too it would then be possible to finish the competition with recitals rather than concertos. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra (for Mozart) did nothing for the overall musical standards. And the chamber music sessions, with a pair of bored violinists doing service while the accompanists were supposed to be the centre of attention, were indigestible.
 Apart from the first and second prizewinners, Korsantiya and Zadra, names to watch in the coming seasons must include the third Soviet competitor, Anton Batagov, whose Messiaen and Prokofiev were excellent, the Austrian Matthias Fletzberger whose Petrushka had terrific rhythmic bite regardless of wrong notes by the fistful, the Dutch Ivo Janssen whose Debussy and Messiaen impressed, the passionate young Hungarian Adrienne Krausz, the good conventional concerto-pianist Victor Sangiorgio (Australian/Italian, living in London), the Israeli Asaf Zohar despite his memory lapses and flop in the semi-finals, and above all Gilead Mishory - a memorable individual talent, with brains and  special sound and profound musical imagination.

Lessons in Shakespeare from Luc Bondy at Chéreau's Nanterre

This remarkable piece of theatre-work in Paris from 1989 was something I was lucky to be able to see for The Guardian: Michel Piccoli on stage, a production by Luc Bondy. The Guardian, during the 1980s, really did show some interest in culture and what was going on around the world. However, and typically, the newspaper never actually got round

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Lessons in Shakespeare from Luc Bondy at Chéreau's Nanterre


This remarkable piece of theatre-work in Paris from 1989 was something I was lucky to be able to see for The Guardian: Michel Piccoli on stage, a production by Luc Bondy. The Guardian, during the 1980s, really did show some interest in culture and what was going on around the world. However, and typically, the newspaper never actually got round to printing the piece. Shakespeare in French - not a high priority for British readers. Wrong again. But, yes, Shakespeare in French is as much a problem as Racine in English. The poetry is in the language. Yet the poetry is not the essence of Shakespeare's genius. What is said matters more than how. Le conte d'hiver (The Winter's Tale) in Bernard-Marie Koltès's clean and airy French prose translation at Patrice Chéreau's Nanterre theatre was a marvellous experience for an Englishman to take in precisely because it avoided the well-worn paths of familiar poetry. One watched the play's structures. One noted its moral intent far more potently than in some Royal Shakespeare Company productions. Above all, Luc Bondy's staging at the Théatre des Amandiers was entirely free of the professional familiarity, the misplaced academic confidence, that afflicts our own home-produced Shakespeare stagings - the terrible smugness of “we know how this goes and what it is.''
 A great revelation it all proved to be for me in how Shakespeare went about constructing his plays. He wrote in poetry. Poetry was the prevailing linguistic medium of the theatre then. But poetic drama is an Eng. Lit. concept much more than it is a theatrical concept. Art is a harvest that depends on a naturalness of means. You cannot artificially create the conditions where plays are poetry. This does not mean I would want to devalue the poetry. But after Bondy and his marvellous cast had focused on the functional drama so clearly at Nanterre, this English reader returned to Shakespeare's poetry with a healthier appetite for its beauties and purpose.
 Perhaps The Winter's Tale, hitherto not specially well-known in France, is a specially apt drama for the French mentality. In France, infidelity tends to be assumed, unless proved otherwise - which is the reverse of our typical English humbug. Leontes (played with an incredibly affecting moderation and simplicity by that great actor Michel Piccoli) here seemed, to start with, perfectly reasonable in his suspicions - however misplaced. The play opened with a bucolic but cloying atmosphere - all the friendliness qualified by Richard Peduzzi's evocatively claustrophobic Sicilian set of towering wooden-boarded walls. As usual with Peduzzi the shape of the set changed subtly from scene to scene, suggesting closets and corridors in the wings where the king's doubts and jealousies could run riot.
 Then when Polixenes, realising his welcome had run out, departed, the terrible cancer of Leontes's mistaken jealousy exploded. But even as the absurd legalities were pursued, the tone remained (however fraught) reasonable. For Bondy, Shakespeare's primary theme was not madness or evil or even jealousy as such. The Winter's Tale for Bondy was about loss of faith. The doubt Leontes experiences is a kind of blasphemy. It is not that he has set great store by Hermione's fidelity. He has never thought about it. His suspicions are the mirror of his own loss of faith. Peduzzi's set and Daniel Delannoy's lighting brilliantly described the change of emotional climate. The nightmare of storm and shipwreck that accompanied the abandonment of Perdita was presented with gripping memorable theatricality. The bear that pursued Antigonus was a palpable (and credibly realistic) figment of Leontes's punishing jealousy. So, no titters as the famous stage direction hove into view for those of us in the know (“Exit, pursued by a bear”).
 The acting out of the tragedy had wonderful dignity, lent extra poignancy by the noble fullness of Moidele Bickel's flowing and idealised period costumes. Bondy's cast showed immaculate taste and timing as they reacted to Leontes's obsession. Nada Strancar's Paulina had a biting firmness and passion that could hardly have been bettered. What an extraordinary account of courage the role is!
 The change to Bohemia and the introductory appearance of Time preceded the interval. The back of Peduzzi's set opened out to reveal a Claude-like landscape, an idealised rustic environment. Time was a giant with the face and voice of a young boy carried shoulder high and draped with robes, a striking image that pointed cleverly towards the grown Perdita. Thereafter of course the play re-runs its theme. Bernard Ballet's Bohemian monarch fails entirely to recognise his own lack of faith in his son Florizel (Marc Citti). The fury of Leontes was matched by the rage with which Polixenes threatened Perdita's adoptive family. The pilgrimage of flight and misunderstanding continued. The dreadful ironies of the play have rarely, I guess, been so fully pursued. Bondy's production was one of the most moving theatrical experiences I had had for a long time.
 The extraordinary last scene of Hermione's awakening statue most beautifully realised the terminal reconciliation of late Shakespeare. The party emerged from a tiny door in the wings, as if in the depths of a chateau in a Maeterlinck story. Hermione, a triumph of restraint, modesty and depth for that fine actress Bulle Ogier, stood straight up within a wooden case whose side Paulina let down. The sense of great secrets, of buried love revived, was overwhelming. At the end all on stage hurried away from what had seemed almost a sacred scene.
 Luc Bondy's Winter's Tale showed how much international Shakespeare can teach us. In Britain we don't own the rights to our greatest national poet: we must earn them. But are we doing him justice in our so self-congratulatory British theatre?

Nigel Lowery's brilliant career - tales of the unexpected

Cheeky, childlike, but full of quirky and unexpected depths, Nigel Lowery's work has been celebrated all over Europe, though he remains an artistic exile in his native Britain. He has worked frequently as a director and designer with opera companies in Basel, Stuttgart, Berlin and elsewhere in Europe. But his originality has been fiercely reject

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Nigel Lowery's brilliant career - tales of the unexpected


Cheeky, childlike, but full of quirky and unexpected depths, Nigel Lowery's work has been celebrated all over Europe, though he remains an artistic exile in his native Britain. He has worked frequently as a director and designer with opera companies in Basel, Stuttgart, Berlin and elsewhere in Europe. But his originality has been fiercely rejected by some of the most influential opera critics in Britain - despite the status of, for example, his Giulio Cesare designs for Richard Jones in Munich which became virtually the keynote production of the entire Peter Jonas era. A book of interviews with important cutting-edge opera directors came out in Berlin in 2005, called Warum Oper? (Why Opera?). The interviewer was a young woman director called Barbara Beyer. Only three of the 14 directors she spoke to had ever worked for British opera companies, and only one was a Brit - Nigel Lowery. (The others were Peter Mussbach and Calixto Bieito.)
 Lowery is much better known as a designer than as a director in Britain (above all as the designer of the once vilified but now by many highly regarded Richard Jones Ring for the Royal Opera, though Bernard Haitink its conductor would not fail to wince and glower at the mere mention of his name). In fact, since Lowery stopped designing for other directors, he has only worked as director/designer on four shows in the UK. At the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1997 the exiled Royal Opera staged a new Barbiere di Siviglia which was Lowery's first high profile directing job in collaboration with Iranian choreographer Amir Hosseinpour (Nicholas Payne, the then opera director at Covent Garden and now boss of Opera Europa remains a convinced believer). Lowery staged Heiner Müller’s Quartet at the Glasgow Cits in 1998. In 2002 for Almeida Opera in Aldeburgh, London and Berlin he created the first live as opposed to TV production of Gerald Barry’s Triumph of Beauty and Deceit. And at Grange Park Opera in 2004 Wasfi Kani (another great fan) got him to re-work his Basel staging of Cenerentola - and for her pains earned some of the shittiest press in her entire career as an impresario.
 Nevertheless, the success and recognition Lowery has achieved in the German-speaking world, the world’s operatic engine-room, is noteworthy - and especially intriguing after those vile crits from some English-speaking reviewers. The bulk of his work (eight productions) has been at Theater Basel. But he has also worked in Innsbruck, Hanover, Stuttgart, Munich, Montpellier, Ghent and at Barenboim’s Berlin Staatsoper, and he has staged Coward’s Blithe Spirit in Zurich. He has been booked for other operas in Berlin - La Clemenza di Tito in 2007, for instance. It’s true that Warum Oper?, Beyer’s interview book, reflects the influence of the opera dramaturg and intendant Albrecht Puhlmann who took over from Klaus Zehelein as boss of Stuttgart Opera in July 2006. Puhlmann was Herbert Wernicke’s main dramaturg, and ran the opera side of Theater Basel from 1988 until he went to Hanover in 2001. When at Basel, and subsequently also in Hanover, Puhlmann engaged Lowery as well as the under-rated British director Tim Hopkins. Beyer’s omission of Antonio Pappano’s favourite German directors, Christof Loy and Willy Decker, may not be surprising. But her line-up is not just young Turks. It boasts Peter Konwitschny, Germany’s top opera director, as well as Hans Neuenfels and Christof Nel who were part of Michael Gielen’s Frankfurt stable in the 1980s.
 Lowery is the most individual and original scenic artist the UK has produced. This is true even though the last 30 years have seen many distinguished British designers, a list that includes Tom Cairns, David Fielding, Antony McDonald, Stefanos Lazaridis, Jocelyn Herbert, Ralph Koltai, William Dudley, John Napier, John Bury, John MacFarlane, Anthony Baker, Timothy O’Brien, and Maria Bjørnson. But is he more special than historic figures like Sean Kenny, Cecil Beaton or Oliver Messel? His unique quality seems to be widely recognised among his peers. What distinguishes him, I think, is a mixture of unpretentiousness, almost roughness, and unblinking clarity. He is at a fundamental level more of a painter and creator than most designers. Lowery sets are not intended to look like anything other than what they are. Most stage design aims to be evocative, to reassure and comfort the audience, to invite sentiment and endorse emotion. But Lowery’s principle is to show clues rather than hand everything intended or implied to the audience on a plate. "I never like being funny for the sake of being funny, but I do see tragedy in comedy and vice versa. I think if one can get that edge, so much the better."
 To ask what something is meant to be - with a Lowery production - is to miss the point: that it is simply what it is. His Falstaff in Basel was set in the large entrance lobby of an old people’s home, a sort of Swiss-German Fawlty Towers, but with Alice as a fearfully smart disciplinary matron with her eye on the profits, and a pair of Victorian undertakers always at hand to stuff failing inmates turfed out of their armchairs in front of the telly into cheap coffins. His Lohengrin had the bulk of its scenes located in a memorial library with table, chairs and cupboards some sizes larger than the singers - as if, for once, it would be accurate to say “this thing is bigger than all of us.”  At least the sideboard offered somewhere to hide. In his Stuttgart Marriage of Figaro (still in the rep and popular with the public) a basic room set dressed differently for each act slides back and forth from left to right so we can see the lobbies and corridors on either side - which is a brilliant way of anchoring the events in domestic reality, and at the same time presents a very theatrical way of playing with that reality. His rooms and piazzas are often created as two-dimensional spaces, suggested inexpensively with traditional means such as painted flats, but often there’s an extravagant injection of unexpected wit in the details. To understand Lowery, one has to remember the child’s puppet theatre where he discovered his vocation.
 He is shy, diffident, very unassuming, but steely in resolve and totally committed to the ephemeral world of live theatre and opera. It is wonderful, if frustrating, that innate modesty has made him never preserve or commercially exploit the materials with which he has built up his productions - paintings, designs, notebooks, sketchbooks. He says it is always such a relief to have completed a piece of work that he just wants to get on to the next. Which means, alas, he will never - like the late German designer Axel Manthey - publish a volume of paintings, drawings and photographs of his creative work down the years. Not for him the vanity of self-preservation, the feathering of a nest. This is amazingly other-worldly considering his work is so painterly. Hopkins, a director he often designed for in the old days, says Lowery’s paintings have something of the German painter Georg Baselitz about them. His visual style on paper or canvas is highly personal, instantly recognisable – but unlike most theatre of a strongly visual character Lowery’s shows are never decorative. There’s always a sense of the governing ideas.
 The images of people and animals one finds in his painted front-cloths (most memorably in his Ring at the Royal Opera, in Blond Ekbert at ENO, and in Orphée et Euridice in Munich) are an adult’s version of children’s art. The apparently haphazard way he lays out images on a flat surface reminds me a bit of Australian aboriginal art. He had to go into directing as well as designing because his imaginative engagement with the material being staged leads him inexorably into what actually happens in the remarkable environments he creates. Text, stories, and what singers or actors actually get up to are what make a Lowery staging so specific. That is also why he loves collaborating with Hosseinpour - whose essentially naughty humour is so similar. The Handel Giulio Cesare in Munich directed by Richard Jones (which was almost signature production of the entire Peter Jonas era there) was very much an equal collaboration between a brilliant director and an equally extraordinary designer and choreographer. If one thinks how David Fielding was never credited properly with creating ENO’s Xerxes (still usually called Hytner’s), it’s no surprise that Lowery should have wanted to go it alone. It will be the English-speaking world’s loss if he is obliged to work only in exile.
 So why does Lowery infuriate some people so much? Probably precisely because his work is so clear and unmistakable, yet almost never the expected way of visualising a story. Touches that don’t obviously fit are meant to throw a different light on the work being performed. Quite often Lowery, who always loves to embroider the material on which he is working, offers audiences a triple-track approach. Those who think opera production is about sorting out a simple message and putting the public safely in the picture about what’s going on below the surface will inevitably be provoked and mystified. It’s precisely the straightforwardness and naiveté of Lowery’s stagings that can make some people feel misled.
 I adore Lowery’s work because I can accept that what looks funny just is funny. But some Brits suspect they may be victims of a clever joke. English-speaking opera audiences have a limited appetite for the subversive and what undermines their world, even if the story is tragic. Above all for an artist to be clever, in the UK, is never a term of approbation - even if he is distinctly modest and shy with it, as Lowery is. Critics have often tagged Lowery’s work as clever - a very particular form of damnation.
 Bettina Munzer, head of design in Brigitte Fassbaender’s company in Innsbruck and a close friend, has given a lot of thought to why people in the UK hate his style with such vigour. “I think it is because it is highly personal and not at all middle class!” she says. “ He does not look for an ultimate solution that people feel safe with. He offers up possibilities to get people's imagination going and they do not want to run with it - frustratingly! Think of Modern Art. Erudite opera goers will stand back to admire a Picasso portrait with three eyes and two chins, but they do not want anything like that on the stage of their opera houses. Also, they do not understand that the wit and grotesque elements in Nigel's shows all have their origin in his profound knowledge of and instinctive approach to the piece in hand and the characters in it. The jokes always develop from that: the atmosphere of Handel's battle music suggests fighting poodles more than Hercules bombers, for example, or it does for Nigel. He explores the absurdities of his characters' predicaments - too close to the bone for some spectators, maybe. They do not want to recognize themselves in some of the goings-on on stage. Opera in Britain is still a largely escapist exercise!”
 The complaints about his wickedness can be quite hilarious. I especially enjoy a letter published in Opera magazine 15 years ago about Lowery’s D’Oyly Carte Gondoliers: “Unlike Mr. Milnes, I found the corgis offensive, and a gross insult to her Majesty. And perhaps someone would be kind enough to explain the dramatic significance (no doubt very profound, but its profundity totally escapes me) of the disgusting episode when the Duchess kills and eats a rat?” Hugh Canning, the critic most opposed to Lowery’s work, calls it “smart-arsey, juvenile and pretentious.” But a DVD review on the web of Lowery’s Munich Orphée was less restrained: “The production by Nigel Lowery and Amir Hosseinpour was probably considered ‘innovative’ and ‘clever.’ Yet to this reviewer,” it went on, “the staging and choreography in Munich evince an implacable detestation of everything the work stands for, with an equal measure of contempt for the musicians and audience. It may be the single most disgraceful staging of an opera I’ve ever seen, worse than some blatantly pornographic examples I witnessed in Germany. It’s so completely disrespectful of the spirit of the opera that I am frankly revolted by it. And yet, this Farao DVD is absolutely indispensable because it is in my experience the very finest musical performance of Gluck’s essential masterwork in any of its myriad manifestations.” Lowery’s not just being disliked, but found malicious - like Al Qaeda trying to destroy opera. Yet his performers achieve the best ever. How can that be? It sounds schizophrenic. Max Hastings, forgetting he presided over the critical lunch at which various critics including me and Canning gave the Evening Standard opera award to the Lowery-Jones Ring, fulminated in a Guardian column about Lowery’s updated Grange Park Cenerentola: “The only aspect more hideous than the costumes were the sets. The critics agreed with the audience that the production was breathtakingly awful. I made a note of the director's name - Nigel Lowery. We shall go into exile rather than ever again see anything for which he is responsible.”  Hastings’s sense of the beauty and decorum which he considers appropriate for such an expensive artform had been deeply offended, I don’t doubt. But actually that Cenerentola production’s plethora of jokes were profoundly original in, for instance, showing Angelina’s two sisters as also victims of parental abuse by Don Magnifico. Similarly, most of the fun in Lowery’s Falstaff was about “elder abuse” - certainly a major Verdi theme, though the torturing of the fat knight in the forest is musically and dramatically just a game. Sex is absurd as well as something gorgeous and luxuriant, and Lowery, as always, wanted one to see every question in its richest form, to recognise and enjoy the dramatic complexity - which only a painterly designer and director could fully achieve.
 Lowery has his independent advocates in surprising places. Jürgen Otten on the Goethe Institut website described him as “a director who not only has perfectly mastered his craft but, beyond this, commands the ability of drawing, as it were, an opera anew out of itself, without doctoring its artistic core.” An opera blog by American Steve Rugare from Cleveland published a review of Lowery’s Berlin Italiana in Algeri that made a very interesting, thoughtful riposte to the usual English dismissal, the complaints about too many jokes. “The standard-issue Opera News review,” Rugare wrote, “would call the result ‘Euro-trash’, but that really doesn’t do justice to Lowery’s production, which was highly musical, painfully frenetic, genuinely funny and deeply vulgar in about equal measures. Working with a highly committed cast, Mustafá has been demoted from oriental potentate to proprietor of an ‘oriental’-themed massage parlour/peep show. He and his henchman Haly seem to be holding the male chorus captive through the whiles of a gaggle of belly dancers clad in ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ outfits. Confusingly, the chorus wear underwear and terry bathhouse robes whether in the guise of Mustafá’s court or of Italian slaves. Elvira is the unhappy wife, trying to get her husband’s attention with slinky lingerie. (The servant Zulma, by the way, begins the opera as a caricatured ‘traditional Moslem’ in full veil.) Lindoro is the janitor. Isabella and Taddeo enter this strange world through a trap door in Mustafá and Elvira’s marital bed. She is a very together blond, wearing a sheer blouse and pink mini, accessorized with a white vinyl purse. He is an English music hall ventriloquist in an ill-fitting plaid suit and pork pie hat, with matching dummy. The action was full of detail. Among the highlights in Act II ‘Per lui che adoro’ is magical. A silver lamé curtain descends, leaving only a free-standing, closed door, around which Isabella’s suitors spy as she, clad in a sort of Vegas harem girl outfit, simply stands center stage and sings. Taddeo is named Kaimakan in a ceremony in which his ventriloquist’s dummy becomes a voodoo doll. He suffers the effects as it is blindfolded, pinched and crotch-kicked by Mustafá and the chorus. The Pappatacci initiation involves infant fetish: Taddeo and Lindoro put Mustafá in nappies, after which Isabella appears in a very smart nurse’s uniform, shoves a bottle in his mouth and spanks him. Mustafá’s emasculation is followed by assimilation, as his new oppressors feed him bacon (cooked on stage). In truth, it all held together.”
 Andrea Sancini in another web review of Lowery’s Rinaldo described “a timeless place, perhaps an ‘Islamized’ West-to-be, where all insignias of Christianity have been replaced by Muslim emblems and a group of nationalists fight against typical operetta-enemies to reestablish the Christian creed under the command of a television preacher. Rinaldo was a soldier resembling G.I. Joe, while Almirena was a very blond Barbie look-alike surrounded by a team of cheerleaders. On the enemy side, Argante was a Saudi Emir far less interested in the Holy War than in female beauty, while Armida was a comical Sixties femme fatale with a revolver in her purse. One can’t honestly deny the fact that the gags followed one another irresistibly, for example when Armida was turned into an inflatable doll (during an endless cembalo cadenza in the aria that closes the second act) and again, hilariously, when Almirena’s ‘augelletti’ turn into a huge Tweety-bird.” Shirley Apthorp on the Andante website named Rinaldo at the Innsbruck Early Music Festival as one of her favourite stagings of the year: “Nigel Lowery's hugely entertaining production of Handel's opera, full of instantly recognizable references to the Incredible Hulk, GI Joe and Steven Spielberg movies, made this very politically incorrect tale of Crusaders vanquishing Muslims into a triumph of delightful silliness.”
 The suggestive use of nursery soft toys is another favourite Lowery device - a rabbit got into his Gerald Barry production, and a rat into his Kurt Weill Mahagonny (as well as lots of videos of rats on a side screen). The Giulio Cesare dinosaurs and shark were a great set-up for the story. Lowery productions revive Neue Sachlichkeit - cold-eyed about the work being performed. Perhaps the antipathy and enthusiasm he arouses are proof of his distinction. He’s used to criticism. He simply sets out to do the job as he sees it. "I am upset when people think my work facile or a joke. I’d like to think everything I’ve done is done in a thought-out way. I am happiest when it’s multi-layered  and the richness of an idea blossoms." Designers naturally are intrigued to follow through all the way where their ideas are going. Lowery has shown how well he can communicate with opera-singers and actors. One day, let’s hope, he will be recognised and appreciated everywhere.

Mid-western opera has to appeal to traditional instincts

Robert Carsen’s staging of Iphigénie en Tauride for Lyric Opera of Chicago was predictably sober. In Tobias Hoheisel’s uncluttered black-box set almost without any relief from decorative details, the focus was unwaveringly on the central characters. An offstage chorus sounded from the pit. A movement group choreographed by Phi

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Mid-western opera has to appeal to traditional instincts


This stage action did not compensate for the lack of credible acting But Gluck’s concern is tragic suffering and the noble bleakness of this opera is black not grey. He does not seek light and shade. Carsen’s abstract simplicity disregarded the way the tale is rooted in a locality, and would benefit from subtext, background, the possibility of some future. Hoheisel set the epic names of Agamemnon and Klytemnestra high up on the walls - as if we could have forgotten them. Costumes were severe, black, modernish in the case of the men, timeless frocks for the women. Entrances at the back and sides of the set were through disguised doors that opened invisibly in seemingly implacable walls, while the lighting disguised entrances and exits. At the end, after the goddess had spoken her kindly judgment, we were allowed a touch of relief as the blackish irongrey walls lifted into the flies and coruscatingly bright light poured in from outside.
All this stylish self-consciousness in physical language didn’t make the main characters more expressive. Even such a sensitive actress as Susan Graham in the title role, singing with her usual rapturous timbre and excellent French (in a class of its own unfortunately - as usual in the USA), was not helped by the cool environment and movement. Keeping the chorus to the pit and using a movement group for some disciplined would-be expressive action may make the director’s job easier, but the characters can draw from a social environment and listeners can enhance the sense of rhetorical thoughtfulness. Carsen carefully demonstrated what we were supposed to be feeling. But it did not help us identify with the actions or experience the characters’ emotions. If only the show had been as warm and human as conductor Louis Langrée’s beautifully intelligent handling of the clean sober score. Even the sacrificial altar that rose mechanically out of the floor at the stage centre seemed bloodless and artificial - an idea, not a dramatic manifestation. Pylade (Paul Groves) strained to seem passionate but came over as merely self-pitying.
At the opening of the second act the stage was littered with bodies. Iphigenie needed privacy for her exquisitely terrible dilemma but was denied it. Carsen added little to the arguments between Lucas Meachem’s fine Oreste and Groves’s Pylade. Shadowplay silhouettes on the back wall and red lighting effects as the movement group turned into furies barely stirred our imagination. There was some tiresome playing with the execution weapon, where the threats seemed thoroughly fake. The great scene of recognition was dispassionate and uninvolving. The set simply turned from black to silver-grey. Despite the picturing and posturing of the movement group, those wonderfully awkward angst-filled encounters at the heart of the drama remained remote. Kathleen Kim and Elizabeth de Shong gave a nice impression as the priestesses, and Susanna Phillips sounded good as Diane, sorting the happy ending. Susan Graham deserved a staging more theatrical and responsive to her fine charismatic gifts.
The story of Deborah Voigt’s weight loss dominated the imagination of American opera-goers, though I don’t think size is the factor it was in American opera when Rita Hunter’s Met debut was hailed with the headline "ENorma". Certainly a thin waist is not the prime qualification for Salome (Birgit Nilsson was robust in figure as well as in voice). For Chicago Francesca Zambello turned the dance of the seven veils into a nightclub floor show. Voigt did very little, certainly did not dance. If one was watching carefully, one saw her put on and take off the seventh veil at the appropriate moment. The issue of voice is not primary in this opera but I guess Lyric Opera wanted the publicity of Voigt’s new waist. She is, however, completely the wrong sort of personality for the part, comfortable and suburban rather than wilful and obsessive. She cannot be regarded as a sexual object, and that destroys the opera. Both Wilde and Strauss’s opera suggest Salome is genuinely intrigued by the Prophet, though we may not quite understand why. It is possible that Salome is attracted to Jochanaan’s message as well as to his charisma and sexuality - and the fin de siecle decadence of the piece plays up the idea that the only way she can cope with this novelty of an impassioned man who doesn’t find her attractive in the way she expects is flesh to flesh - hence the request for the head on a silver salver so gratifying to her mother (Judith Forst’s Herodias here was stuck in a camp Hollywood haze). Vogt is a nice warm ordinary middle-aged American woman - not a girlish vamp. Her timbre does not suit this wonderful role which thrills on so many different levels. Zambello made her move around the stage and had her walking along an upper walkway of George Trypin’s wobbly plastic-looking set - a cutaway through a circular wall with a mechanical lift for descents to where the Prophet was imprisoned. The space never seemed much like a palace where Herod could call all the shots.
In style and visual effect this was a "hallow’een" show. The disputatious Jews had blue faces and wore head-dresses that looked like lampshades. (I have never encountered "blue Jews" before - though the idea might suit a Disney cartoon.) Kim Begley as Herod sounded underpowered and appeared to have been ignored by Zambello - though he can be an astute operatic actor). He seemed to be wearing bejewelled drag topped with a would-be-stunning sunburst headdress (not, however, as stylish as Anya Silja’s Elena Makropulos at Glyndebourne) - ready for Mr De Mille’s cameras and a close-up. But this was a Herod totally uninterested in the Salome. In fact, with the exception of Joseph Kaiser’s excellent Narraboth and Elizabeth de Shong’s anxious Page, nobody on stage showed much interest in anything that was going on. Only Alan Held’s sturdy, profoundly committed Jochanaan (wearing a bizarre rasta wig) conveyed any drama at all. Voigt was musically competent, of course, but theatrically inert. And Sir Andrew Davis’s fulsome yet somehow shapeless conducting never raised the temperature - despite the endlessly colourful thrills in Strauss’s magnificent score.
Minnesota Opera’s Contes d’Hoffmann naturally had less pretentious ambitions. To start with, the casting here is nowhere near the same grade of starriness. The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Saint Paul has only 1900 seats to Chicago Civic Opera House’s 3600, but actually the Ordway acoustic is problematical. This 1985 Saint Paul house is laid out spaciously amd feels much larger than it is: I could hear amplification (not just ambiance but various actual singers) coming from speakers on the right of the stage - the side I was up against. The uninspired staging was rehearsed by Helena Binder who had assisted Chris Alexander on the original performances in Seattle. Although Richard Troxell’s Hoffmann sang with vitality and some fervour, and although he looked suitably worn by events and poetic over-indulgence, most of the cast (with the notable exception of Karin Wolverton’s effective Antonia and Adriana Zabala’s luscious-sounding Nicklausse - the latter with more than passable French) did not rise to the standard he set. Dean Peterson, especially, in the four villain roles, failed to give us any sort of vocal thrill - though he suggested his diabolical motivation very well. Minnesota has a significant training programme and there was some very decent work from the likes of Edward Mout in the comic tenor roles - especially the deaf Franz. Six of the named performers were "Resident Artists", and they were certainly not shown up by the “guests”. Jacques Lacombe’s conducting was unfortunately very flabby.
The company decided to perform the work in French (last time they did it in English). But in order not to expose the generally poor quality of the singers’ French, they cut all spoken dialogue and opted for a much adjusted version with heavy recitatives when necessary. It was very hard to follow the story in any coherent way: no doubt Hoffmann’s narrative skills were affected by his alcoholic addiction! But why was the Barcarolle in Venice sung as a duet by Nicklausse and Giulietta? Forget dramaturgy, I expect they were the best available voices for the purpose. The stage was throughout too large for the available human resources - crowds, especially at Spalanzani’s workshop, looked thin. Many effects were mysterious, such as the decision to have all the massed enthusiasts watching Olympia being put through her paces behave like automatons - or were they just pretending? Robert A Dahlstrom’s set for the first part of the prologue showed the tiered foyer of the Palais Garnier in Paris; for Venice we had a lovely painted backcloth with water and wave effects. Antonia’s house was parsimonious and subject to economies, though her mother (Andrea Coleman) after stepping from her picture definitely outstayed her welcome irrepressibly. The student friends of Hoffmann lined up behind a vast bar stretching right across the stage from side to side - like an Ivy League reunion. This wonderful but intriguingly incomplete opera has so much charm and memorability that it can survive a fairly flaky production. There was certainly very little added value from this co-production between Seattle and Minnesota. Hoffmann should be an opera that really stimulates imagination and humour.

Iphigenie en Tauride at Chicago Lyric Opera on Tuesday October 17, 2006; Salome at Chicago Lyric Opera on Saturday October 21, 2006; and The Tales of Hoffmann at Minnesota Opera on Saturday October 28, 2006

Bryn Terfel's extraordinary gift meant fame from the word go

Interview profile on Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel in the early stages of his career

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Bryn Terfel's extraordinary gift meant fame from the word go


New York caught Terfel-mania at the end of last October. "At full cry the sound is an elemental force," said USA Today. "The ballyhoo was justified," said the New York Observer. "The part seemed to be lived, not just presented," said Rothstein, critic of the New York Times. A week before Bryn Terfel's 29th birthday on November 9, the young baritone from Snowdonia was getting the Pavarotti treatment for his Met debut as Mozart's Figaro. He even made the Times front page - a first for a classical musician in the decades since Horowitz's come-back. And he left New York audiences crying for more, because most of his performances (including all his Leporello's) were cancelled when he went into hospital: "A disc snapped off between the fourth and fifth vertebrae and went into the nerves. I couldn't do anything with my right leg," he told me last week. "They had to move nerves - complicated microscopic surgery. I remember at school after rugby games, I used to have problems on my right side, just in the corner of my lower back." American medicine repaired the damage of those enthusiastic years leaping around on his comprehensive's playing field near Pant-glas. Things had not been helped by eight weeks rehearsing to be Patrice Chéreau's Leporello on a steeply raked Salzburg stage - "picking up lots of Giovanni's stuff, the guitar, his clothes, whatever. I was constantly over-stretching my back to load up sometimes 20 things." But here is Terfel - all 6 foot three and a half - this Saturday at Covent Garden, as Jokanaan the puritanical prophet in Strauss's Salome, a role he's already twice put on to CD. "Listen to that," he said as a great paean of orchestral brass broke into the Bedford box at the Royal Opera where we were talking. "It's my entrance they're rehearsing. I have to sing through all of that. Marvellous." Bryn Terfel Jones (as he was born - Equity made him drop the Jones to avoid confusion with another singer, Delme Bryn Jones) is a phenomenon. There's a kind of euphoric focus about his acting that makes it impossible to take your eyes off him when he's on stage. The voice is dark, rich, thrillingly vibrant when roused - and loses nothing in character when it reduces to pianissimo. Best of all he carries the meaning of words through his singing, so that you can not just hear neat singer's diction but feel what the fuss is about. And the enthusiasm and knockabout that belong with his jovial big-limbed nature are matched by an extraordinary unaffected canniness. He is open and frank, and knows how to say No. Opera houses around the world are begging him to name terms and roles. But he is going slowly. Making sure he is ready. Resisting mistakes. Surviving success. He has just moved into a Kensington apartment with his baby son Tomos and wife Lesley, a childhood sweetheart he married at 21 while still a student at the Guildhall School. His agent is Harlequin in Cardiff, where he is looked after by Doreen O'Neill, sister of tenor Dennis. Where does he get the confidence? Doing Kindertotenlieder the other Sunday with Zubin Mehta, he had acquired a new maturity and inwardness - taking risks with weightless, quiet, high passages that on record with Sinopoli he had made sound comfortable and regular. Zubin, he said, simply knew about the singer's breathing and the feelings that go with the songs, without discussion. "I wanted a stillness between the songs," Terfel said. Now with a baby he perhaps can share the anxiety in the poems about the death of children even clearer. So the performance had a powerful kind of emotional containment. Nothing broke the continuity. He stood there like a pillar, wiped his brow, turned slightly away. When I asked him if he listened to himself to get such ripe colour into his singing, he said no. "I would be too mechanical. Things are supposed to happen very naturally. That was the fifth time I've done Kindertotenlieder. You feel the sounds. You don't conscientiously think in your mind, 'I'm going to sing this phrase in headvoice'. Funnily enough in that concert I ran out of breath in the first phrase. That could have set me off on a very bad position. It's the first time that's ever happened to me. I hyperventilated, and I just couldn't breathe before the long opening phrase. My lungs went on me. But then I had to relax, to consciously make myself not get nervous. That could have really spoiled it for me. I was out of control. But I forgot about it and just carried on." This admission led to his relaying a Mehta story about Fischer-Dieskau starting crying towards the end of the last song. "This was in my mind," Terfel said. "I was fighting myself not to burst into tears. It's a wierd feeling. All these emotions go through you. In a way I can't remember singing the song, because first of all you see the people there, see this and that face whilst you are singing. I'm on a certain automatic pilot. Two people got up before the last song. Yet you still carry on in the mood of the piece." Terfel is from a musical family and sang as a boy. "It wasn't a pure Aled Jones kind of sound - I would say I had a hard-grained screeching voice." It broke very early. He was getting on for 11, just about to record some Welsh folk songs for Sain (Welsh for Sound). He taped three; then the voice went. "I remember I started crying. I didn't know what was happening to me." It settled into a quite good baritone. Of that early Terfel he's listened to tapes recently and says "the sound is so open that I cringe." There's something wonderfully healthy and unrepressed about his emotional freedom, and the way he doesn't hide anything. His father was a farmer (cows and sheep). Both parents sang. The family were Welsh-speaking and Methodist. Chapel and Eisteddfods were where music was experienced. "If we did go to a concert, we were singing in it." No theatre or opera till much later. Lots of Welsh TV. Welsh as his first language perhaps explains the love of the sound of words, the detailed verbal attention that marks his singing style. "Football was more interesting for me than going to the cinema. I liked being out in the fresh air, walking in the mountains - to be with nature, which was a very solid process of forming my character." He played clarinet and then trumpet for a few days in a vain effort to be an instrumentalist, but was automatically in the choir at school. "Perhaps some of my friends thought I was cissy for doing it. But I said never mind, I like it. From early on I always used to stand taller than lots of my compatriots at assembly. Anyway I was a very keen sportsman. I was in every team there was to be had at school: rugby, cricket, basketball, football. It was sickening I suppose, because I did these cissy kind of things like singing in the choir - and also I was top scorer for football, post position for basketball so I could get the ball in very very easily. I just enjoyed my time at school." Now his success has put former schoolmates, who he says were total yobbos and skinheads, into the way of joining choirs. "It's excellent I think." Excellent is a word he says very Welsh and very often, and fills with added optimism. He did Welsh, English and Religious Instruction for A levels, but had a relaxing time having already got a place on a performer's AGSM course, at the Guildhall where his teacher was Arthur Reckless. He only did opera in his fifth year. Reckless told him "I'm going to treat your voice like an egg," and stuck to The trumpet shall sound and English ballads for two years. Terfel still feels guilty about changing teachers. But Rudolf Piernay with whom he still works brought him to Lieder, and the roles and linguistic brilliance that have made his career. Piernay is German, speaks French, Italian, Russian - not Welsh yet, but Terfel thinks that'll come too. "Principally it's your own homework," Terfel says. "The words come first. You have got to be 100 per cent dedicated to learning a language properly. It doesn't matter if you can't speak it." You study, and if you're Terfel you learn from how other singers did the text: Fischer-Dieskau, George London, Fritz Wunderlich. Absolutely not imitating. Who could? And what would be the point? But studying. His next DG recording is in fact of English song - Butterworth, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, John Ireland. But he had to hold out at Guildhall against pressure to interfere with his accent. They wanted to refine it with a class called "Speech and Voice". "I was quite a bad boy, I would say, because I did have no interest in changing the way I spoke. I think it's a very important factor for a singer." Then along came Benjamin Luxon, another singer with, in his case, a strong Cornish accent, and Terfel was got to sing quietly - doing "The infinite shining heavens" from Vaughan Williams's Songs of Travel. "Ben just made me use this headvoice, which was something I'd never encountered before. I did rather like to raise the rafters. After that lesson I went straight into my practice room, you know, to try and sort it out and experiment." Exactly the same thing happened to his acting. Terfel, incidentally, is not one of those egotistical singers who resents direction. He likes good directors. He explains how Peter Stein said to him, "I want to teach you how to walk," which in fact will happen this summer in Salzburg when the two do some initial work on a projected Wozzeck in 1997. He learnt Ford in five days for the Stein Welsh National staging. He was tired by work with Chéreau but fascinated. He loved working with Graham Vick at ENO. He has read how Gobbi and Geraint Evans used to chose their clothes and make-up and do their own thing, refine their character and put it into any number of different productions. But opera, he says, isn't like that any more. Figaro's Wedding at ENO was a turning-point, his first ever brand new production. It made him natural on stage for the first time, instead of using big gestures all the time. "Graham cut away a lot of my arm movements. He used to come up to me and slap me. I'd be singing 'I'm off to London' and he'd ask, 'Why do you point at yourself there? It's obvious it's you.' I got applause after the long recitative with Susanna and the Countess in act 2: it had lots of tension, which came from stillness." He will be Nick Shadow in Vick's Rake's Progress for WNO next year. Chéreau was enormously detailed at Salzburg, which the audience in the huge theatre may not have seen. "It's such a wide stage," Terfel says, "I don't think even Linford Christie could walk across without losing his breath." Chéreau would act out exactly what he wanted Terfel to do - though it was un-nerving to have to re-do the cemetery scene in Don Giovanni as late as three days before the dress rehearsal. The Don, Ferrucio Furlanetto, completely reworked his role for Chéreau - which taught Terfel a great deal too. Success for Terfel means chosing the right opportunities. He could have done Hans Sachs in Vienna, but won't for years. His first Wagner will probably be not the Dutchman, which is a heavily dramatic, but the lyrical Wolfram von Eschenbach in Tannhauser. He won't do Ford again. Indeed though he used to sing "Il lacerato spirito" from Boccanegra, he's very conscious that that and Macbeth are not right for him yet. "I'm desperate to do Falstaff, and I might have a chance in Australia which is a wonderful place to do it - far away. I want to do that role when I'm young. It's a part that needs to be sung well and acted well - as well as having the dirty old man come out on the stage. It's an excellent role which you can really bite your teeth into. "I need something now to really test me. I think Arabella here will be my first big test, 'cause I'm still not sure of Mandryka. It's high for me. And when Mandryka comes on those brass instruments are very loud. I heard it at the Met and it really frightened me a bit. Here it'll be a young cast with Mandy Roocroft doing here first Arabella. And she's got a German boy freidn, so the German will be excellent." Terfel has a top G, only a bit below Placido Domingo's comfortable top note - but of course it's the general lie of the music that matters. Terfel says he'll never do Baron Ochs in Rosenkavalier, and hasn't the solid bottom F needed for the bass in Haydn's Creation. He won't do Rigoletto, and Sparafucile in the same opera is too low. But there's more than enough to look forward to: Magnifico in Cenerentola, Dulcamara in L'elisir, Riccardo in Puritani (which Dmitry Hvorostovsky who took the Cardiff Singer of the World prize from him did recently at the Garden), plenty of Mozart, and no end of Schubert, Wolf, Schumann, Brahms songs. What he wants is to be with producers and other singers who are good to work with. He listens and learns all the time. He's brave and takes risks. He's not a hypocondriac, like some he mentions in a friendly way. He loved working with Furlanetto, and with Thomas Allen and he learnt a lot from James Morris's Wotan - "but I would be totally different, because I think the words would be much more important than the singing in that piece." What he likes is variety and challenge, and singer's conductors which means Levine, Barenboim, Solti, Abbado, Colin Davis for starters. "This morning we were rehearsing Salome though Luc Bondy isn't arriving till nine days before the premiere. Yesterday we had the music call with Dohnanyi. We've done it twice in Salzburg and recorded it with him. And it was as if we'd never done the piece, because his mind changes as well, because we've got different singers around us again. It's very refreshing that he'll have different objectives, different views on doing it again. It keeps your mind ticking over."

Alfredo Kraus - the tenor who never ever cancelled

Interview profile of the Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus

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Alfredo Kraus - the tenor who never ever cancelled


At the Duke of Yorks Theatre ten days ago, Alfredo Kraus made a brief appearance in a memorial gala to raise cash for Greek hospitals. He sang the famous tenor aria from Flotow's Marta, and - to quell the persistent applause - the Duke's Donna e mobile from Rigoletto. As usual the tone was rich, firm and burnished, the top notes attacked with just the right determination, freedom and panache to thrill - held longer than the strict note value allowed, but not so long as to suggest egotism. Then he lined up with all the other performers for the closing chorus from West Side Story, putting on his spectacles to read rather self-consciously from a word sheet. Kraus, a very well-preserved 63-year-old, is the classiest and canniest of the top international tenors. He is not perhaps as rich as Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. But then he has not chanced his luck at the heavier roles for which nature did not equip him, nor sacrificed his natural reserve and musical elegance to the dinosaur-like, prize-fighter aura of international tenordom. Early on he sang Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky - even Hindemith and Berg. He did Ottavio and Cosi with Bohm for a Walter Legge recording. "Mozart would have been a different career. Mozart don't give to you the celebrity and the favour of the audience, like the repertory that I did. I started with Barber and Sonnambula but nothing happened. Then when I sang Pearl Fishers, they went crazy - and so I recognised that my repertoire had to be bel canto - but with high notes. I did Tonio's aria from Fille a few days ago in Seville with the high Cs. But you know I also like the challenge. An artist has to have this feeling of risk. But you must be sure too that you will win it. This pull up your level." Critics obsessed by size and flashiness may not appreciate him. But since his debut in Rigoletto in Cairo in 1956 at the age of 28 he has simply gone on steadily delivering immaculately turned accounts of the light lyric repertory that suits his voice. He was one of the Edgardos opposite Joan Sutherland's original Covent Garden Lucia in 1959, and four and a half years ago with June Anderson (would-be Sutherland clone) as Lucia it was Kraus as Edgardo's meditation on his grandfather's tomb that sprung the tears. He has gone on singing Nemorino in L'Elisir, Faust, Nadir in Pearl Fishers, Ernesto in Pasquale, Alfredo in Traviata, Werther, Tonio in Fille du Regiment. He is unfazed by high Ds that beefier, bluffer tenors baulk at. This autumn, nearing 64, he is booked for Werthers in Buenos Aires, Dukes in Seville, and Nemorinos and Alfredos at the Met. His sister has been his agent for many years. He does no more than 60 performances in total each year. If he has been the Duke of Mantua 300 times, he says he's never bored. "This career has to be a vocation. A role is like life. You have to find more details, and when you do it for many times you always find something to add." On Saturday he tackles Hoffmann at the Garden for the first time, and on Sunday those who want to study the miracle can hang on his advice at master classes at the Theatre Museum which no serious student of bel canto should miss. He has a unique record, never in 35 years having cancelled an opera performance - though he confesses he did once abandon the first of two recitals in Barcelona: "in opera the attention is not exclusively yours; after an aria you go back to the dressing-room to nurse yourself. But I told the concert promoter I couldn't give even 80 per cent of my potential." As a boy he was a second soprano, without any special top notes - a low, breathy voice he says. He was over 15 when the voice changed and he soon discovered: "top B was comfortable, even high C." He didn't start to study singing till he was 23, and lessons never meant much. "With singing you have to rely on your instinct. The voice is not a real instrument. You manage it with fantasy, with inner sensations." Today Kraus rarely practices, but in rehearsals he usually sings exactly as he does in performance - rather than "marking" as many stars do. "When I feel I'm getting tired I don't do it." He learnt his art, he says, mainly from conductors - and this is the great change in singing. Maestros like Karajan have become notoriously unscrupulous with singers, exploiting their often ill-advised readiness to tackle roles they weren't suited for. But in the 1950s, Serafin, Votto and De Fabritiis would spend hours personally instructing their casts in how to assault high notes and prepare phrases. Kraus sang Fenton with Stabile as Falstaff and De Fabritiis conducting. "I did an audition with Maestro Quadri who was a fantastic 'concertatore' years ago. He worked with the whole cast. He put together all the elements of the opera. He invited me to his house every day for some hours to teach the part - how to take the weight off the voice, all aspects of the task. What I know today is in large measure what I have been taught - about interpretation even more than about technique." He never thought of teaching, but a demand grew up among young admirers of his stamina, musicianship, and technical ability. "Eventually I thought the young people, they need advices - and the idea of masterclasses came." He has taught at Juilliard in New York, at the National Opera Studio, at the Academia Chigiana in Siena. Is imitation a useful approach for students, I asked? "We have to give examples to make things understandable. But don't let them imitate. The instrument, the human voice, is the same and there is only one good vocal technique. But you have to adjust for different problems and sizes. Sombody's nose is bigger, or their larynx or chords. What matters is to take care of projection, because the sound must be out of our bodies to reach the audience. We need the cavities in the bones of the head to find the resonance box. "For many listeners it's enough if the sound reaches them. But people who know do care about the sound having the maximum of frequencies and timbres and harmonics. Technique is essential for projecting nuance, vocal colour, diminuendo, crescendo. If you have a good technique you are dominating your voice, and it responds. If you follow the meaning of the words in a phrase, you inevitably create colour in your singing. Otherwise you are only able to scream the whole time, and you don't make art."

How Schiller's Luisa Miller distils the rebellion of youth

The qualities that drew Verdi to Schiller's extraordinary first play and the compromises the composer was obliged to make to form the material into an opera that suited the times

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How Schiller's Luisa Miller distils the rebellion of youth


“If I had been God on the point of creating the world, and had foreseen that Schiller would write The Robbers in it,” a prince once told Goethe, “I should not have created it.” The bleak view of humanity which Schiller’s play reflected was a contradiction of everything that the Enlightenment represented. Schiller was not (strictly) a philosopher, yet his doubts about humanity were prescient. Here was the path to Nietzsche and beyond. Schiller was impatient and bored with the world in which he grew up. The vision of reality represented in his early plays remains extraordinary - and unprecedented in German theatre. He published The Robbers at his own expense six months before it even got staged. Iffland was the first star to play the villainous brother Franz. This was the future famed actor-manager who gave his name and likeness to the ring that the greatest German actor of each generation inherits from his predecessor. Iffland was then only 22, seven months older than the playwright. The first night of The Robbers was legendary. According to a contemporary reviewer “The theatre was like a madhouse - rolling eyes, clenched fists, hoarse cries in the auditorium. Strangers fell sobbing into each other’s arms, women on the point of fainting staggered to the exit.”

            Schiller at the time was a young army surgeon in Stuttgart. It is surely significant that both Schiller and the author of Wozzeck, Büchner, were medical men. Schiller’s father was overseer of the gardens at the pleasure palace called Solitude built for Carl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg, just outside Stuttgart in the late 1760s - only a little larger than Frederick the Great’s delightful Sanssouci. Schiller was a victim of the Duke’s “kindness”, in that his father had been obliged to bind him in the Ducal service for life. A subject of Carl Eugen could not decline generous ducal sponsorship when it was offered. So Schiller was a founding pupil at the Military Academy Carl Eugen established in 1773 - at the prompting of a new mistress with enlightened ideas who suggested Würtemberg tax revenues be devoted to more than mere pleasure (she was the model, no doubt, for Lady Milford in Schiller’s second play Plot and Passion (Kabale und Liebe)).

            The necessity of youthful revolt promoted in Schiller’s early plays including Don Carlos is novel in its extremism. These plays along with Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro are unmistakable harbingers of the impending revolution. But Schiller was a whole generation younger than Beaumarchais - and he was also not an homme d’affaires. Beaumarchais was a craftsman and a salesman rather than an intellectual. The Figaro plays risked satirising the aristocracy’s abuse of power and privilege. Schiller went much further in portraying actual corruption and cruelty: his aim in the early plays was to use realism to stir the passions, though his aim was not to make people irrational - but to persuade them. Schiller’s 1785 essay on The stage considered as a moral institution stated that “Just as a visible representation certainly has a stronger effect than a dead letter and cold story, so the stage certainly has a deeper long-lasting effect than morals and laws”. Schiller’s 1803 essay on The use of the chorus in tragedy explained the rationale of “alienation” in the theatre - more than a century before Brecht called it Verfremdungseffekt. For Schiller reintroducing a chorus into his penultimate play The Bride of Messina in 1803 was a declaration of war (as he put it) “against naturalism in art”. As in ancient Greek drama (of which opera in the 1600s in Italy was meant to be a “revival”) a chorus contextualises in a variety of ways and ruminates about meaning. To quote Schiller on this crucial point, it “exercises a purifying influence on tragic poetry, insomuch as it keeps reflection apart from the incidents” of the drama “and by this separation arms [the tragic play] with a poetical vigour”. Of course Schiller did not imagine that his neo-classical gesture could operate the way a Chorus normally had in the classical Greek theatre, where it had been a fundamental convention completely understood. But he was correct that the use of a Chorus would ensure that what might seem like real life (objective reality) in a play would be framed by comment so that whatever happened, however emotionally moving it might be, would be recognised as telling illustration of a case in point.

            In opera, of course, one finds the chorus is both part of the picture and part of the frame - and in addition music plays a fundamental depictive and explanatory role, while the fact that the drama is sung means that the audience is never deluded into believing that the whole show is simply “naturalistic”. Furthermore the most powerful operatic convention is the aria, with its overwhelmingly confessional impetus. Characters honoured with an aria project their inner thoughts and anxieties directly and (in effect) personally into the heart of each audience member. Nobody can mistake operatic realism for life: nobody can be unaware of the way in which good operatic music manipulates an audience’s feelings and performs a persuasive propaganda role.

            Almost the first question concerning an opera that anybody asks is “What is it about?” To which, traditionally, the answer was to be found in the synopsis of the story. In the days before surtitles there was a big market in books where the reader could find simply explained opera plots, though another school of opera-lovers has always naughtily maintained that all opera plots are fundamentally the same: the tenor loves the soprano and the baritone or bass wants to stop him getting her because he loves her too. We all love her, of course. That is the secret of opera. The character of the heroine is expressed in, and identified by, an individual voice which we experience in song - a charged and heightened intimacy. What makes operas so powerful and richly human is the ability of the composer to adjust the viewpoint of the audience by using music to bring different characters into the foreground, where the audience can feel close to them and be emotionally involved with their dilemmas.

            The subject of Verdi’s Luisa Miller is cruel exploitative manipulation. A Count wants to marry his son to a Duchess of impeccable breeding, and prevent him from making a marriage with a low-born innocent girl. The plot is about politics and calculation, and also about the suicidal despair into which a young man can fall if he finds his beloved appears to have betrayed him. Luisa Miller is a story of deception leading to disaster, of the dangers in lies and intrigue. In many ways this is a story not unlike the plot of Handel’s opera Ariodante, a century older. It is also uncannily similar in many ways to Rigoletto, which was Verdi’s next but one opera. Miller and Rigoletto have similar concern for their daughter - the big difference being that Rodolfo is entirely honourable, whereas the Duke in Rigoletto is a charming yet corrupt lecher. Both of course present themselves as poor students, wooing in disguise. In Luisa Miller, which is very much a tenor’s opera as adapted by Verdi and his librettist Salvatore Cammarano, Rodolfo is Luisa’s beloved and Count Walter’s son. In Schiller’s great play, however, Rodolfo is called Ferdinand and is the son of the first minister Von Walter - the Prince being a figure absent from the castlist but intangibly responsible for the atmosphere of corruption, while the Prince’s thoughtful and sympathetic mistress Lady Milford is von Walter’s choice of bride for his son.

            What attracted Verdi in Schiller’s early plays was the hot-blooded romantic ardour of the poet - so un-German in a way. Verdi’s sense of the strength of Schiller’s emotions and the justice of the targets at which Schiller’s early plays were aiming only reached its fullest power in Don Carlos - with its fascinating mixture of history and propaganda. Yet, in the challenging conversion of Plot and Passion into the opera Luisa Miller, Verdi created a unique bond beyond death for his hero and heroine, and a remarkably complex set of moral conundrums. The tragedy of Verdi’s and Schiller’s star-crossed lovers - both drinking the lemonade Rodolfo has poisoned since he believes Luisa has betrayed him and is, however innocent she seems, utterly corrupt - is far more frustrating than the mere accident that led to the deaths in Romeo and Juliet. Rodolfo finds out the truth (that she had been forced to write the letter breaking off their amour) only when it is too late, and both are beyond help. There is certainly a flattening of Schiller’s poetic imagination in Verdi’s treatment. Ferdinand’s moral justification for obliging Luisa to join him in suicide without seeking her rational consent is obscure in the opera. Verdi accepted Cammarano’s shortening and simplification, and the omission entirely from the libretto of the distinctive characters of von Kalb and Lady Milford. But he was especially regretful about the loss of the latter, or at least her replacement by the younger and entirely aristocratic figure, Federica, Duchess of Oatheim, Count Walter’s niece: for Schiller the whole point of Milford was that she was English and, though a “loose” woman from necessity and inculpated in her relationship with the corrupt Prince, capable of making the most revolutionary gesture in the entire tale.

            Nevertheless, the butchering of Schiller’s wonderfully complicated  plot enabled Verdi to create a powerful and affecting Italian opera of a unique flavour, with roles for the tenor and soprano that achieve in the final denouement a level of shared pathos perhaps unmatched until Otello. The poignancy of all this passion and intrigue is beautifully explored by Verdi in music of exactly judged energy and originality - and the composer had never before attempted to flesh out a castlist of so many characters. Verdi knew that he had done justice to Schiller even if he had not achieved quite the recreation in operatic terms that he wanted. But Luisa Miller was also (and crucially) a lesson in adaptation from which he could learn when turning his attention 15 years later to that indubitable masterpiece Don Carlos.

Gerard Mortier as the Sun King of the wealthy Paris Opera

Interview profile of Gerard Mortier in charge of the Paris Opera and relishing what 100 million euros can do

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Gerard Mortier as the Sun King of the wealthy Paris Opera


Gerard Mortier told me that he was going to inherit the Paris Opera from Hugues Gall before he gave up his position as artistic director of the Salzburg Festival in 2001. The progression of this soberly dressed, bespectacled, highly intellectual Belgian into the top operatic job in France always had a certain inevitability about it. The American director Peter Sellars has called Mortier, affectionately, “a little Napoleon”. France thinks of itself as the home of fashion, and Mortier is one of the few impresarios in Europe (or perhaps anywhere in the world) who has sustained the idea that - in opera and to some extent theatre - his taste is as trend-setting as the director of a fashion house must be. We should not forget that the director of the Paris Opera from whom the suave competent Hugues Gall took over in 1995 was Pierre Bergé, boss of Yves Saint-Laurent. Bergé now claims to have campaigned for Mortier. As Bergé put it, Mortier “is the first director - since me - who has had a great artistic project.”  Unlike opera houses like the Met where sponsors call the tune, in Europe, according to Bergé, “we can still do something great. Gerard Mortier will show the way and people will come.”

            Mortier is polylingual and very charming. He can hold his own as a lecturer and semi-academic. He is good at persuading the public to his point of view - though of course he cannot succeed with all. He flew over annually to do a presentation in London about his plans to the Friends of the Salzburg Festival. On the other hand Mortier, who is neither Anglophile nor Anglophobe, frankly admits “The aesthetic they have in England I don’t like.” Yet he is enthusiastic about ENO’s Irish boss Sean Doran: “I like him so much, and I like his work. He’s very courageous I think. I want to collaborate with him because the money we have will will help him. He wants to do something with Deborah Warner, and I would be interested in co-producing Death in Venice with her and Bostridge which has never yet been seen in Paris.”

            Mortier is a political fighter. He left Salzburg because he disapproved strongly of the entry into government in Austria of Jörg Haider and his so-called Freedom Party. He campaigned vociferously (some would say rashly) in the press against people he regarded as neo-fascists. Mortier like most unashamed big spenders is on the left. His imaginative and substantial rebuilding of the Monnaie, the Brussels opera house, is still having to be paid for. But it changed opera in Belgium for ever. Mortier is Flemish and of modest origins, born in Ghent in November 1943. His father was a baker. His mother’s people worked in a French-owned cotton mill. When his mother developed TB he was sent to a Jesuit college - and he remained devout into his 20s, though he would now describe himself as more of a Christian humanist in the Mozart sense. The Jesuits developed his appetite for argument and controversy: “they believed you should know everything that was against the church,” he says. “They made us read Marx, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Sartre.” When other students in 1968 demonstrated against imperialism, Mortier was leading an operatic claque in Ghent and Antwerp booing tired old productions. He studied Law and Communications, worked as an assistant to the director of the Flanders Festival for five years, and was then taken up by the conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi to do Betriebsburo (artistic planning) work in Frankfurt, Hamburg and Cologne. He was briefly a colleague of Hugues Gall (his predecessor in charge of the Paris Opera) during the closing years of the Rolf Liebermann regime in Paris  - when the complete Berg Lulu was premiered in 1979 by Boulez and Chéreau at the Garnier.

            The new is his talisman, and the commissioning of The Death of Klinghoffer, which was premiered at the Monnaie in Brussels at the end of Mortier’s decade in charge there in 1991, was probably his major contribution to operatic history. He also got Herbert Wernicke and Karl-Ernst and Ursula Herrmann to do a great deal of innovative and stylish work in Brussels, and continued their patronage in Salzburg - where in addition he engaged much more fully than Karajan had with the whole contemporary German theatrical tradition. After years of neglect the theatre side of Salzburg was properly renewed, and a whole raft of important figures (Peter Stein, Luc Bondy, Christoph Marthaler, Calixto Bieito, Jossie Wieler) were given opportunities - as well as famous more established names like Chéreau, Sellars and Robert Wilson.

            Mortier radically changed Salzburg, which had been the traditionalist capital of the Karajan classical music empire, into a home of innovation. His shift of Salzburg’s theatrical and operatic aesthetic didn’t perhaps generate that many memorable new productions or theatrical interpretations of the works being performed - despite the best efforts of Sellars on Messiaen’s St Francois d’Assise and Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. Luckily the final staging of the Mortier years in Salzburg was a marvellous Ariadne auf Naxos, directed by the young Stuttgart team Jossi Wieler and Sergo Morabito, with Susan Graham as Composer and Natalie Dessay as a memorably brilliant, sexy Zerbinetta. At Salzburg Mortier fell out with many of the best conductors, and had trouble finding enough really talented substitutes. “I had two letters from conductors,” he says, “ when I left Salzburg. One, handwritten, was from Muti, marvellously friendly (though we had had many fights), telling me if we had arguments he always appreciated it, and we should not lose contact. Probably now we will do something with him. The other was from Maazel, who I often engaged at Salzburg. It was really horrible, saying I always hogged the limelight and did nothing for him (even though I put on a fantastic dinner for his 100th performance there). Six months after that very nasty letter, I had another from Maazel asking if something had happened between us and could we have lunch. He wanted to talk to me about 1984.

            Mortier’s taste is broad but very specific. Not everyone sees eye to eye with him about what he does. He perseveres with - and is loyal to - particular talents, because he knows what he likes and will argue firmly for what he believes. He also knows that success is never guaranteed, however much of a genius you may be employing. The European system of subsidy has enfranchised him as an impresario to follow his own bent, with a striking degree of independence from normal commercial pressures between 1991 and 2001 as artistic director of the Salzburg Festival. In any case, it would take more than a few controversial shows to keep a hungry public away in droves from attractive festivals like Salzburg.

            It was an astonishing endorsement of his vision to get £50 million from the German government for the remarkable three-year Ruhr/Triennale project to attempt to give new heart to the West German Ruhrgebiet rust-belt. Mortier immediately after Salzburg spent six months renewing his energies on a large grant at the Wissenschafts Kollegium in Berlin. All excellent preparation for the coda to his career: five years as Roi Soleil of Paris’s national opera, with £74 million of French taxpayers’ money to spend.

            In April Mortier launched has plans for the 2005-6 Paris Opera season with a press conference at 11am in the scene store of the Bastille Opera - level one minus six. The “set” for Mortier’;s performance was a huge round table, a bit like Parsifal. Generally the music critics and arts journalists present knew what to expect of Mortier. His motto is Rimbaud’s “You must be totally modern”, which of course produces groans and resistance in predictable places.

            Only now, in his 60s, has Mortier relaxed his hitherto implacable campaign against Puccini, of whom there will be two revivals. Novelties include Patrice Chéreau’s CosX at the Garnier. Gilbert Deflo (a Belgian director) will do Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges, and André Engel is staging Hindemith’s rare Cardillac. “It’s a good German piece I would say;” Mortier explains. “Nnobody knows about it. I am doing it here because it’s a French subject, set in Paris. I look always for a link to France. The Prokofiev also fits in that sense.” Christoph Marthaler is staging Nozze di Figaro, more or less as Salzburg saw it in Mortier’s last season there - when Neuenfels’s Die Fledermaus was even more notorious. There will be new stagings of Don Giovanni, L’elisir d’amore, Iphigénie en Tauride, and Simon Boccanegra - and most important of all a world premiere, Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater staged by Peter Sellars and George Tsypin and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. “Every year we shall do a world premiere. That’s not a problem for us financially,” Mortier said, “or in any way.  You feel you can pay for those things.”

            A few days later came the first night of the gem of Mortier’s first Paris season - the competitive new staging of Tristan und Isolde by Sellars and video-artist Bill Viola. It won plaudits from some but to others seemed a knock-out victory for Viola, with Sellars and the singers helplessly hopelessly upstaged. Mortier next day was complaining bitterly about “the non-concentration of the Paris audience, you don’t think so? I never found so much coughing in all my 30 years as an opera director, in the Prelude and in the cor anglais solo in the third act.” Mortier was championing his orchestra: “in a certain way, this elegant French sound for Wagner - I like it.” Not quite the Vienna Phil as in Salzburg, but a serious alternative - and in his opinion much better, he leant forward wickedly relishing the subversiveness, than Covent Garden! “The problem with this place is you always lose the dark sounds, so you have to compensate.” He had moved the eight basses into the centre of the pit: the acoustic of the Bastille, he concedes, is nothing like as rewarding as Covent Garden. The glass baffling was built too thin. Mortier did think of using electronic enhancement in the Bastille, the system developed for the Hollywood Bowl, but decided against for the time being.

            During his time with the Ruhr/Triennale he focussed on a whole area of new work using existing musical materials combined with new orchestrations, inspired by Marthaler’s Twentieth Century Blues created for Basel and seen also in Hanover. For example Wolf (based by Alain Platel on Mozart) has already been seen in Paris. Then there was Sentimenti, using Verdi “recomposed”, staged by Paul Koek and Johan Simons, conducted by the award-winning Edward Gardner. He is working on a Grail project with a new text by Amin Maalouf (using Parsifal, Lohengrin and some of Messiaen too - probably not re-orchestrated). Also he is working with Emil Kusturica on an adaptation of his Time of the Gypsies. He wants to use literary teams to do something connected with German idealism and French rationalism (Heinrich Heine, Hoffman and Beaumarchais). It’s a total of five new and unusual projects. “We have a boom in the young subscribers - 170 per cent more in that area,” he says proudly. “It was beautiful at the Garnier to see young people coming in jeans and snapping away inside with their cameras - and of course there were lots of people from the 16th arrondissement complaining about that.”

            He says he would like to have engaged Marthaler to do a new Meistersinger in Paris, but now Marthaler is working at Bayreuth he has instead engaged him to do a new Traviata and a new Wozzeck. He wants to go on finding talents with something new to offer and is inviting the French director Philippe Calvario, who staged Peter Eotvos’s Angels in America to do Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Opera. “Better than doing again something with the McVicars and the Carsens is to do something with a new name” - such as the young Carlos Wagner, for instance, whose work Mortier has noticed. Though he cannot travel very much in his present job, he still eagerly seeks new departures and unexpected talents, such as Pecheurs de Perles with Villazon. A new Faust with Alagna is in the plans. “I am always asked about my attitude to stars,” he says. “I say it’s very simple: I am not against stars.I have planned two or three productions with Alagna. But Karita Mattila, well no! I engaged her for Fidelio but she cancelled it because she wanted to sing Isolde. I said that would be fine. But, OK, if she doesn’t want to cooperate, I will live without her. Rene Fleming too, she says once a year she can come to Europe with her children, so she wants to do Desdemona in Covent Garden - and I say OK fine. I say to Bartoli, if you want to do Cenerentola I will do a new production for you, or a great Rossini, and she says she wants to do a Salieri opera, and I say No - the money is not worth it, though maybe in Italy it could pay off. There’s a big question about whether I should do a Ring: I would only do that if I had the right cast.”

            How secure for Mortier is the financial set-up in Paris. “I must really say,” Mortier explains, “when I am sitting with ENO’s Sean Doran, I feel a bit sorry for him. The truth is that at the moment the French government really does support very well a great cultural institution like this. It’s still an example in Europe I would say. I can explain exactly what circumstances I face. Continuing along the same lines as Hugues Gall, we have a subsidy of Euros 100 million (£71 million). In addition I must raise euros 40 million from the box office (which means 800,000 seats to sell a year, 87% to 90% of capacity, and euros 10 million from sponsors and AROP (the Friends of the Paris Opera). The gala opening of Tristan raised another 200,000 euros towards the target. Meanwhile I have to pay for an establishment of 1600 people, which I have promised not to reduce (though I am cutting back on freelance extra people being employed, and on lifestyle costs such as four cars now reduced to one - and I mostly take the Metro. I am very severe on travel expenses and suchlike. There has to be less of the luxury that Paris seems to require. We do 200 opera performances and 150 ballet.

             “I have just done a budget for the remaining years of my contract, and I can say that funding will build up gradually - as long as we have no strikes. To manage that I have to concentrate on the social feeling in the house, the enthusiasm and attitude people have working here. We need commitment if we are going to excel with difficult demanding productions by people like Sellars and Gruber. People should be keen. I must say everybody was enjoying working with Peter on Tristan, because he is such a nice man. We also had a marvellous time with Marthaler on Katya and Platel on Wolf. I try to explain to the staff working here what it is all about. I talk to them. And so far I have only had one strike. Those labour relations are the main problem, and very different from other countries. But comparing how we are here with England, I must say we have a real privilege.”

Peter Sellars at Glyndebourne with a politicised Idomeneo

Peter Sellars when he was last back at Glyndebourne for Idomeneo - the opera production that seems to have marked his departure from stardom as an operatic director, as least as far as Glyndebourne is concerned. But how did his radical politics ever fit in with the Sussex festival, considering its dependance on rich businessmen as sponsors, and<

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Peter Sellars at Glyndebourne with a politicised Idomeneo


Peter Sellars is back directing opera at Glyndebourne. But he’s not talking to the Press in advance about what he’s doing with Mozart’s Idomeneo (opening June 10). The set is designed by Anish Kapoor, though it doesn’t quite put it like that in the programme where Kapoor is simply listed as “Artist”.  Mark Morris is choreographing the whole of the lengthy ballet suite at the end - the celebration of the new deal represented by Idomeneo’s abdication, once the Voice of Neptune (preceded by sombre trombones) has saved the Cretan king from the burden of sacrificing Idamante his son.

            Kapoor’s involvement follows Sellars’s excitement about his massive Tate Modern sculpture Marsyas - which he dubbed “a Guernica for the 21st century: three gigantic mouths are screaming from the flayed skin in a great howl of pain”. The gist of a newspaper interview Sellars gave on this theme was to the effect that hidden or disguised political content, such as he detected in Marsyas, ought to be released. This  he proposed to do by drafting in Antonin Artaud to resound through the sculpture, condemning threats to democracy by President Bush with a staging of an Artaud 1930s text conceived as a challenge to the Germans - now updated and relocated as a Pentagon press conference. Perhaps the real attraction of Kapoor was, and in Glyndebourne’s Idomeneo will be, the imaginative freedom available in an abstract decor which can be endowed with powerful meaningfulness by the purpose to which it is put.

            Idomeneo, long planned by Glyndebourne, turns out now to be the perfect post-war work. All wars, as Sellars perceives it, are about sacrificing children - at the time, or later, or in ways that may not readily show. Handel’s Jephtha covers the same issue, as does Wilfred Owen’s vision of Abram rejecting the Ram of Pride and preferring to slay his son “and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” Sellars was for a long time in the 1980s involved with the American episcopalian church Emmanuel in Boston, whose music director Craig Smith conducted his Da Ponte/Mozart trilogy for Christopher Hunt’s memorable Pepsico Festival. But his parents were Christian Scientists and that was his upbringing, and I am told his private commitment steadfastly remains to take with total seriousness Mary Baker Eddy’s rational and profound vision of a church devoted to healing society. Moreover, like the founder of Boston’s First Church of Christ Scientist, he knows his Bible inside out. So all his work could well be seen as rooted in a typically American conviction about improving the world and bettering humanity.

            The trouble is that in Sellars’s view the USA has during his adult life been largely responsible (though not single handed) for making the world worse. And his well-advertised oppositional stance to many of the things that modern America seems to stand for has been hardening markedly in recent months and years when the size of the group in America that shares his viewpoint seems to have been inexorably shrinking. Sellars has been going on Peace marches, doing whatever he could. “After September 11,” he told dramaturg Gideon Lester, “there’s been a tangible chill on free speech in America. The limit on what can be discussed on the op-ed page of the New York Times is appalling... It’s shocking that we’re declaring war on two thirds of the planet and we can’t talk about it... The theatre provides some of the last public spaces left in the country, and we have a responsibility to create a more open, honest forum where people can speak without ideological bias.”

            I know, having myself been disinvited and abruptly rejected by Jewish friends in America (for forwarding to them tellingly satirical material about the World Trade Centre attacks lifted from the web), that what Sellars feels about all of this is rooted in reality - even if his tone seems desperate. Richard Taruskin’s suggestion in the New York Times that John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer should be “voluntarily” censored and left unperformed, because it questions whether some forms of terrorism may not be a necessary and inevitable response to aspects of historic injustice (and not only in the Israel-Palestine context), was without doubt one of the most disreputable pieces of pseudo-academic flummery published in recent years, seriously besmirching Taruskin’s academic distinction. As we mark 70 years since Hitler’s book-burning in Berlin, the fact that any American Jews can think such things simply confirms a fear that Zionism may have been infected (to a certain extent) by Nazism. The proper response from Glyndebourne should have been immediately to programme Klinghoffer, which they have never staged despite having co-commissioned the opera. But George Christie has confirmed that the Sussex festival was (and probably remains) too frightened of the power of international finance to line up rashly on the side of discussion and artistic freedom. Nevertheless, a season programmed by Nicholas Snowman, himself Jewish, that includes two productions by Sellars is in itself a demonstration that there are at least two sides to every argument involving Jewish issues.

            Sellars is hot on the idea of cultural activism - it gets him into trouble and that makes him all the more certain it’s right. But he balances that fundamental principle in his work with a lot of smiles and charm. A nasty piece written about him by Samela Harris in the Adelaide Advertiser after he was ousted last year from the premier Australian arts festival was especially incensed about his cheery friendly manner: “We are very glad that he and his infernal hugs have gone... We don't care what he thinks of us. For all his arrogant American assumptions, we were unimpressed. And we paid the bills.... I can't recall running into him in any foyer at all. I have, however, on four occasions, listened to him give much the same sort of speech about social justice and how the arts can make a difference. This, it seems, was the theme of his festival and he says in his querulous quit statement that the festival can now ‘present the first seeds and seedlings of two years of debate, discussion, reflection, imagination and commitment’. Shucks. That ain't art. That's just talk.” Adelaide, rather more than Sellars may have suspected, knows what it wants - namely distinguished imported culture to consume. And Elijah Moshinsky, raised in Australia as he was, suffered just the same kind of fate in the same job 20 years ago.

            Yet Sellars’s art, in opera and elsewhere, is by no means always overtly “political”. Yes, it’s true that he turned the Stravinsky-Auden-Kallman Rake’s Progress into an indictment of the American penal system when he staged the opera in Paris. It was certainly not the most rewarding approach to this marvellous and witty work. Yet Sellars can be, indeed often is, fun and full of the love of life. What he does is never just entertainment. And it can also go too far. It is especially interesting, as Alice Goodman librettist of Nixon in China says, that this inordinately gifted son of America should so long have been excluded from showing what he can do in the opera houses of his native country, where opera is unsubsidised and dependent on the rich who seek reassurance more than disturbance. When he directs John Adams’s Dr Atomic at San Francisco Opera in 2005, the third instalment in his collaboration with Adams and Goodman that started with Nixon and continued with Klinghoffer, it will be the first work on that scale and in those circumstances that he will have undertaken in America for a decade. (It’s no doubt significant that San Francisco’s new boss, Pamela Rosenberg, is from the German operatic world, not the American - though she is a native Californian.)

            Sellars’s decision to let his Idomeneo speak for itself without prior chats to journalists is unusual. Of course neither Sellars nor Glyndebourne needs to promote Idomeneo which is already a sell-out. But in the past Sellars has often felt the need to prepare the public by explaining in advance what he’s about - so their delight in the performance may be unconfined. That’s not something you’d find Richard Jones doing, for instance. Recently it seems that Sellars has been elaborating less in words and simplifying things more in the staging. The arguments about which he cares so deeply are so vital that they may be heard more effectively when they speak out on their own through the power of the interpretation. And Idomeneo will have the added force of Simon Rattle as conductor, Philip Langridge in the title role, and the stylish committed playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

            When Sellars, early last year, resigned (or was ousted) from running the Adelaide Festival 2003, there was much bitterness and controversy about why and how in the local Australian press - not that any of the accompanying thunder could be heard back in Blighty. Sellars will be 46 in September, and even if 50 is the new 40 (as we are now hearing) he can’t really any longer be patronised as a “young” genius or enfant terrible. But his message to Adelaide was not a very pleasing one: “Here in South Australia you have one in four people living below the poverty line. It’s appalling to charge $100 for a ticket in those conditions. It’s just a fact that most people are just one or two paychecks away from going under in most of the industrialised world, to say nothing of the rest of the planet. It’s a big thing, this question of your entertainment dollar at work. I think culture belongs to people already.”

            Asked how he defined culture Sellars boldly replied that there were three models. Prestigious and often highly refined court art was designed to enhance the display and standing of a ruler or ruling class. In street art the focus is on collectivity rather than the individual artist, and it’s not just about people standing or sitting around as spectators. “And in between,” he said, turning to his own business, “there’s this other thing, which is the arts as a profession - where somebody entertains you and you pay them.” There should be room for all three kinds. One commentator on what happened in Adelaide pointed out that those who had hired Sellars in the first place had no excuse for not expecting the kind of approach he would take. Sellars's 1993 Los Angeles Festival “did not make a profit and in fact that festival became the city’s last festival. Sellars did not see it as a failure because he believes in cultural ‘investment not parties’”.  Jim Sharman, a former successful Adelaide festival boss, backed Sellars - and the director of Adelaide 2004 credited Sellars with giving the city and its festival board “a reality check”.

            It’s one of the most intriguing aspects of his whole extraordinary international career that he has managed to sustain any kind of viable relationship with people who really are his natural enemies - the wealthy and powerful. His welcome at Glyndebourne is easier perhaps because he is not British, and is a stranger, and is highly intelligent and a theatrical wizard. He is difficult to dismiss or ignore, once you have invited him in, and some instinct (that’s probably the genius bit) enables him to know just how far he can push things. He really is not an ounce cynical. One of the most touching and wonderful moments in Theodora at Glyndebourne, to be revived later in the Glyndebourne season with the sublime Lorraine Hunt Lieberson back in the role of Irene, is when Didymus sings “I am a Christian”. It couldn’t have meant in Handel’s day what it means today, when the very word is controversial with many liberal well-intended people - and we have a Prime Minister whose religion is often scoffed at. Is Sellars a Christian? Is George W Bush a Christian? They certainly are at opposite extremes of the Christian spectrum.

            What Sellars told Gideon Lester about The Children of Herakles resonates in this respect: “The refugee crisis has entirely exceeded borders. It’s the painful contradiction of globalization that now only cash can flow internationally - businessmen can go anywhere but everyone else has to stay put. Meanwhile our economy is supported by virtual slave labour all over the world - we have far more slavery than in the time of Abraham Lincoln. And just like the first abolitionists, people are starting to notice that their economic well-being is based on the servitude of others. At what point does that become unacceptable? At what point are we neighbours? In the opening line of the play Euripides says, ‘For years I have known that anyone who is just is born to serve his neighbours.’ That thought is colossal...”

            Sellars has this commitment to one world which the Churches, or some of the Churches, are talking about - and which Islam has inscribed in its fundamental principles about the human community (along with much that can seem indigestible). He asks us to recognise the power and honour of what refugees have to offer - and as an American he knows that the founding principle of his country was to be an ark for those persecuted elsewhere, even if the country was also built on theft from the native peoples. “Take any cab in New York,” he says, “you’ll find your driver was once a physicist or surgeon. These immigrants are not criminals or second-class citizens, they’re the cream of the world’s society. They were leaders in their own countries and now they’re cleaning hotel rooms and serving as our all-night security guards... The nightmare in America is that somebody is always sending you a message and we don’t recognise it. You may not like the messenger - yes, the building is burning, yes, the World Trade Centre is collapsing, yes it’s horrifying, but it’s also a message. We have to ask the next question - why should somebody be pushed to such an extreme to get this message through? Why was no other channel left?”

            I first heard about Sellars in the London offices of Vogue magazine in 1982, where the Fashion bush telegraph had picked up on his staging of Handel’s Orlando with the central character as an astronaut stationed at Mission Control. It really is not a case of the Emperor’s new clothes, though there are still plenty of opera enthusiasts who can’t cope with the fact that Sellars’s updating and relocation of classics in an American now is not the objective purpose of his work but a convenient theatrical language - a cultural starting-point for interpretation that stops audiences thinking about aesthetics or history, and forces them to acknowledge that the loud clear message they are receiving might even be relevant. It has not all been plain sailing. He has needed European levels of subsidy and the support of Gerard Mortier in Brussels, at Salzburg, and now in the Ruhr Festival to be able to become one of that select class (like Robert Wilson, Peter Brook and a very few presiding German theatre deities such as Luc Bondy and Peter Stein) whose work in the live performing arts is successfully paraded around a rarified international circuit that often but not invariably includes the Barbican Centre in London, and occasionally the Edinburgh or some other British festival.

            We didn’t get to see The Children of Herakles in Britain - his latest venture into classical Greek theatre, and his first directing of Euripides. “I've done one Greek play every five years, whenever things get dangerous,” he told Gideon Lester. “I set Sophocles's Ajax at the Pentagon to explore the ravaging effects of the Vietnam War, and I staged Aeschylus's The Persians in 1993 because the Gulf War made me want to return to our point of origins. The Persians is the earliest extant play in the history of Western drama. With The Children of Herakles I come to Euripides for the first time. I think it's important to reach to a voice that predates the current crisis, to give us a larger perspective, a larger trajectory. And in this culture of distraction that overwhelms us with images, these ancient plays help us to speak with honesty and simplicity about very complex issues, which is one of the functions of art.”

             Sellars has been privileged - both by his native genius and by the recognition he has received, all sorts of awards and opportunities on a scale that frankly very few people in his line of business can possibly match. His whole career has been a sort of pay-back, but he’s even more conscious of the need to fulfil the role he finds himself able to adopt. His charisma in public enables him to take bigger risks than most. But the enemies of the questioning and prognostication that he stands for are getting more nervous and desperate too. Of course, he is only a creative artist, or even perhaps only an interpretative artist - as some of his audience say, complaining about what he has done to some of the works they love, or think they know and love. But the dialogue in which he is engaged with such conviction, the challenge he wants to pose to all of us, has a religious and moral fervour about it that make many people uncomfortable. It is fascinating that Klinghoffer should have stirred up such hatred in America. It is also remarkable surely that Alice Goodman, Sellars’s colleague and the librettist of this John Adams trilogy of operas, should have converted from Judaism to Christianity during the writing of Klinghoffer 12 years ago - and not just converted but decided to come and train at Cuddesdon theological college to become a Church of England woman priest. (She will be ordained priest by Peter Selby, Bishop of Worcester, on Sunday June 29 and will thereafter continue her curacy in Kidderminster.) People make different responses to the challenges they encounter and Goodman is still a poet and a remarkable one, struggling with the libretto for Dr Atomic. Goodman gave a powerful talk in London at St Matthew’s, Westminster in November to mark the 10th anniversary of the Church of England synod’s vote to approve the Measure to allow women priests. Perhaps the theatre, the Church and opera do have the power to make a difference. Let’s hope so. Somebody must.

 

 

Stuttgart Opera's bizarre gambit for approaching Carmen

Sebastian Nübling's wrong-headed and pointless reinterpretation of Bizet's Opera as a "CSI" story, seen on November 15, 2006

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Stuttgart Opera's bizarre gambit for approaching Carmen


Stuttgart's new Carmen staged by Sebastian Nübling (his first opera after much work in the spoken theatre) was perversely peculiar. Don Jose's mother was represented as an eye glaring from a television screen continuously watched by the son - who spent much of the evening in a catatonic trance. The story (of the opera that could well be regarded as the origin and forerunner of verismo) was converted into a sort of flashback in Jose's mind, thanks to which the director didn't bother to tell the familiar story at all. We saw Carmen at the start laid out (not too bloody) on the apartment floor while a shocked and shattered Jose shrank into his armchair almost too bored to watch telly. Actions which the music is clearly illustrating simply were never represented on stage. Crowds of males (not soldiers, of course) in singlets and trousers poured on to the set, singing while motionless and (as far as one could tell) emotionless. A curtain covering a large window at the back was sometimes pulled back. Micaela behaved rather like an air-hostess (though I was told that her costume was designed to resemble that of a former East German traffic cop). Carmen entertained Jose and sang her famous songs, but not in anything remotely like the context of the familiar narrative. It may perhaps be fair enough for a production to ignore the original story, when what is substituted by the director is at least as intriguing. But here it wasn't. Subsidiary characters such as Zuniga made brief, usually unfinished interventions. The smugglers were converted into a crowd of circus clowns playing tricks - wearing exaggerated clown make-up.
 Nübling gave us the opera done as a crime scene investigation. But the most tedious and tiresome of his interpolations was a mime (not silent always, however) named "Surplus" and played by Christian Brey. This figure, clad in a green body suit with a clown's red nose in the centre of his face and also sometimes an extra red nose between his legs (in front of his penis) appeared to be the embodiment of Jose's jealousy and evil mentality. He constantly made froglike gestures with his hands and arms while squatting glumly incubus-like on the depressed Jose's shoulders. There is a fashion for this kind of thing in Germany now. I was not happy being reminded of the manipulative cherub in Claus Guth's new Salzburg Nozze di Figaro.
 But, luckily for the new management here in Stuttgart, their public is broadminded. Most of the audience seemed positively relieved that their new Carmen spared them the bodily functions and sex which they suspect Bieito's forthcoming productions will inexcapably provide. Also the cast was accepted as being decent, though with the opera being performed in terrible French it could have been Greek for all most of the Germans listening knew or apparently cared. Will Hartmann, as a severely off colour Jose the night I saw the opera, ran out of voice before the final act, but was liked and applauded. Vincent le Texier on the other hand can surely never have sounded remotely capable of being Escamillo, a role stripped in this production of any association with the bullring - though the third act knife-fight with Jose was actually quite competently staged. Heinz Göhrig’s Dancaire had decent French, and Catriona Smith sounded wonderful as Micaela. But most of the cast sang terrible French, Karine Babajanian in the title role being as bad as any. Fortunately, in various other ways, her performance of the part, wearing a glamorous silver ballgown throughout, had striking moments. Nübling’s production did nothing for the performers. It was impossible to take such a staging seriously as an account of Bizet's opera. Julia Jones conducted aggressively, showing scant affection for the score. But her insensitivity scarcely mattered in such an utterly aberrant show.

Offenbach's Jourmey to the Moon staged by Stuttgart Opera

Review of Offenbach short satirical operetta The Journey to the Moon, created for the Jugend Oper department - performance seen on December 7, 2006

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Offenbach's Jourmey to the Moon staged by Stuttgart Opera


The Journey to the Moon was a delightful adaptation of the Offenbach sci-fi fairytale to suit younger audiences in Stuttgart. At the morning performance I saw, there were mainly small children all around. Composed for the Paris Gaîté in 1875 the opera has plenty of engaging dialogue and was here, appropriately, performed in German translation. The children filling the stalls for the premiere had a great time. Happily for Stuttgart Opera's Intendant, Albrecht Puhlmann, this Offenbach proved the perfect user-friendly work for Christmas. Witty, charming, and accessible, Aurelia Eggers=s staging benefited from an experienced cast with no compromising in musical standards, or in the theatrical competence and entertainment value of the show. Roderick Keating (newly honoured as Kammersänger after 17 years at Stuttgart) played a mad scientist uncle, Professor Mikroskop, who supplies his nephew Caprice (Hans Kittelmann) with the dream vehicle for the journey. The opera starts in the lad=s bedroom, naturally. The rocket is constructed with colourful panels added to the bed which after an explosive false start rises bumpily into the flies.
 The moon turns out to be like a sleepy version of a desert island ruled by Moonking Cosmos (Karl-Friedrich Dürr) through his nervy, floppy-eared, Moon-Hare prime minister, Calista (Sandra Hartmann). There is a magician-like character outside the main story played by Christoph Sökler who enjoys creating a thoroughly theatrical effect or two. Cosmos tends to narcolepsy. But the audience, on the other hand, remained totally awake - thanks to sparkling top-class singing from both the Princess and the Moon-Hare. One of the liveliest most striking characters on stage was Moonqueen Popotte (Katriona Smith, another British Kammersänger in Stuttgart, with a really excellent vocal technique and perfect diction). Her daughter Princess Fantasy (Yuko Kakuta) inevitably fell in love with Caprice. At the end the couple headed back to earth, leaving uncle Mikroskio (Keating) to pursue his lunatic researches.
 The set by Marion Menziger was dominated by a huge image of the earth seen from the moon. The orchestra was placed mid-stage sunk in a sort of moon crater. The lively score was crisply directed by conductor Bernhard Epstein. A mixture of absurd machines and semi-magic kept up the intrigue and lunacy. Moritz Junge=s exaggerated costumes were really a joy to look at. If only some of Stuttgart Opera=s grown-up productions could take a leaf out of the Junge Oper=s clarity and well-calculated fun.

Actus Tragicus, Herbert Wernicke's staging of Bach Cantatas

Review of six church sonatas staged by the late Herbert Wernicke and revised specially by Albrecht Puhlmann during his first season as Intendant of Stuttgart Opera: this is the production the company bring to the Edinburgh Festival in September 2009. The review was based on a performance seen on November 16, 2006

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Actus Tragicus, Herbert Wernicke's staging of Bach Cantatas


 

 Bach's cantatas are not intended for theatrical production. Yet, like the Passion settings that he wrote, the liturgical function of these works was always fundamentally theatrical - with their loaded presentation of souls ruminating on the turmoil of life, contemplating where it may be leading. The stories they tell are journeys of the soul - but private, intimate, intense, and, as it were, known only to God. Peter Sellars staged the late great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in a wonderfully angst-filled rendition of two cantatas - a phenomenal piece of physical as well as sung theatre that was additionally fuelled by the performer's delicate, profoundly expressive apprehension about her own mortality (tragically, her cancer later returned).
 Bach's profoundly affecting music here as everywhere in his oeuvre both consoles and explains. In Stuttgart the late Herbert Wernicke's remarkable staging of six church cantatas (as revived by Björn Jensen) is utterly different in apporoach from Sellars's - throughout it remains cool and clear, above all asserting the normality rather than the exceptionalism of spiritual experience almost as something completely mundane and everyday. Wernicke's dolls' house set showing 20 rooms, each a separate domestic scene, suggests something almost like a picture gallery of the private lives being lived before our eyes. Underpinning the whole structure we see a Christ-like corpse laid out in the cellar (just above the orchestra) as foundation and motive of the whole event - a pictorial genre familiar in the early renaissance, there are examples in many collections. Wernicke shows us the routine of everyday lives as truthful backdrop to these cantatas, as if the theme of each is running through the mind of the character being suggested - thus providing not just an accumulative musical effect, but a suggestion of what music and text mean to the character (and performer) through whom both are being brought to us. Each item that we encounter has such beauty and is so telling that this miraculous ordinariness is intensely moving.
 Stuttgart's new Intendant, Albrecht Puhlmann, was for a long time Wernicke's dramaturg and he has chosen to resurrect this blithe, simple, intensely perceived staging years after the director's death to mark out the range of theatre that interests him (not just Calixto Bieito, then). It reflects Wernicke's character and reminds one that, though Wernicke was first and foremost a designer, design in his work was always secondary to theatrical intention. Wernicke is here not restating what the texts say in alternative language, but letting the circumstance of the telling be as free for the audience's meditative imagination as possible. This myriad of everyday domestic scenes - repeated before our eyes in a never remotely mechanical way - speaks to us of the reality of life and death and of Bach's (and his poets') profound contribution to our understanding of both. Without theatrical excess, the sense of spiritual vulnerability shown to us is deeply emotional.
 The opera orchestra, immaculately conducted by Michael Hofstetter, show themselves to be adept at period practice. The chorus bring a robust, youthful freshness to bear. The solo singing is tip-top quality - especially Marita Solberg as the "lady with red shoes" (characters are defined by their appearance as much as by what they do) trying on a variety of dresses in front of a mirror in her "living-room", Michael Nowak as the "man with a watch" constantly pressed to get to his next appointment, Shigeo Ishino as a pyjama-clad invalid who appears a number of times actually to die, the male alto Kai Wessel as "Die Wäschefrau" (in a frock at an ironing-board), Martin Petzold as the Surveyor (measuring a series of rooms), Philipp Körner playing a cello as chamber music, and Daniel Henriks as a blind man. We also see a lady rearranging and packing up a library, while individual chorus members show us a pair of young lovers and numerous other detailed scenarios - such as a lady entertaining guests to a meal, a man preparing to hang himself, police 'moving on' a down-and-out beggar, a delivery man arriving with a toilet bowl, a woman moving a huge plant, and a lady with her hair in a towel reading a letter. The subtle variations of the lighting (Hermann Münzer) are part of the extraordinary impression created by all this steady but never hysterical activity. The singing of the chorales is sometimes from deep behind the stage, sometimes close up. Perspective constantly shifts. People move up and downstairs. The details from which the performance is built are endlessly fascinating. At the end the music sounds almost as if it has shifted into another universe and the performance simply unpretentiously stops. But the ideas that it has started run on and on and on.

 

Old bags is big business for mezzo Susan Bickley

Susan Bickley interview profile to coincide with launch of Richard Jones new production of The Trojans for English National Opera

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Old bags is big business for mezzo Susan Bickley


Susan Bickley, Cassandra in English National Opera’s forthcoming Trojans, is an awfully good mimic. She can perfect mimic the director Richard Jones, for instance, who is staging Berlioz’s opera. She worked with him in one of his very first opera productions, The Rake’s Progress for Opera 80 in 1986 when she was Baba the Turk, and then many years later in David Sawer’s From Morning to Midnight last year where her crimplene costume was not quite the peak of glamour. So when she saw him recently she wanted to check out about Cassandra: “A nice Greek frock is it then?” And he replied, “No. Los Angeles mental asylum. You can stop those research trips to the British Museum right now.” The prospect of spending the entire fall of Troy in a straitjacket brought out a shriek of laughter as she relayed the story. But doing Baba for Jones is a cherished memory. “It was early in my career. It made me feel that, if opera was going to be that interesting as theatre, what a great job it would be.”

            Sue grew up in Liverpool where her father was a church organist and choirmaster. She has one brother. A fellow pupil at school was Jude Kelly, now director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and Sue’s original plan was to be an actress. They, and a group of friends, got involved with the Everyman, and she canremember seeing Michael Gambon at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre in Ghost Train. Then when she left school she didn’t go to university but took a job for a few years, while her stage-struck chums went off and formed a fringe theatre group. Her basic singing skills go back to when she was roped in for church choir by her dad. But she didn’t discover singing was real fun till she joined the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir at 19. She moved to London, switched to the LPO choir, and then, when she decided she would do university, took contemporary music as her chosen subject. But without A level music the only place she could get in to was City University - which in fact proved fortunate as City’s performance side was based at the Guildhall School where she ended up studying singing with Noelle Barker, who enabled her to fulfil her then aim of getting into the Swingle Singers. Noelle was very interested in contemporary music, had sung lots of Messiaen, and numbered Mary King among her former pupils. The City music course also brought Sue into contact with tutors like Simon Emmerson and Steve Stanton who had studied at York with Berio and Birtwistle. Trevor Wishart was around there too.

            Imitating Sir Harrison Birtwistle is also in her rep as a mimic. Harry suddenly phoned her mobile when he was writing The Last Supper, in which she was cast as “Ghost” (the token woman in that idiosyncratic mythological reconstruction). “What’s your lowest note?” he asked. She replied, “To do what on?” “Bloody sing, of course.” And she said, “That’s not the point. Is it you want me to do a whole aria down there?” And he repeated, “What’s your bottom note?” and when she answered E or something, he said, “Oh that’s all right, because I’ve just written an F.” But the real issue for any singer, she says, is the overall context. “Of course what happens is he writes something that goes from a B flat to an F to an F an octave higher, and my voice can’t do it.”

            She puts mezzo after her name though she can sing quite high, “but I wouldn’t call myself a soprano because I can’t hang around up there.”  Noelle Barker was confused about her range she remembers - one week she was to be a dramatic soprano, the next a dramatic contralto. “The voice has gone higher as I’ve got older. But I think that’s to do with relaxation, and also that whole cliché of ‘When you have kids it puts everything into perspective’.” She has two sons, one 15, one 12. Her husband runs a drama school. “I’ve always had a natural voice. But I have never really got involved with the issue of technique and what muscles are moving at any particular time. I don’t think I’d make a very good teacher.” At the Guildhall she says she didn’t sing a decent note as far as she can recall most of the time she was there. “I was so petrified all the time, almost until the end when finally it was all right. I think because of doing contemporary music, and having to use different vocal approaches, and function in different registers for all those detached pitches, you are less worried about using a particular type of sound in your voice - less concerned that it might stop you singing in any other way.”

            Eight years ago when rehearsing Katya Kabanova she ran into the late Audrey Langford, Susan Bullock’s teacher, who commented (more mimicry) “Sometimes it sounds like a piece of old rope, your voice. I think we can do something with it.” The problem, she says, was too much blade and harshness in the timbre. “She tidied some of that up though I guess it may have slipped since. She wanted more of a ringing sound at the top. I haven’t been to another singing teacher. I go to coaches like Tony Legge, who’s my hero, and Mark Shanahan.”

            She says she’s not a particularly fast study. She just keeps at it. Her agent Andrew Rosner of Allied Artists spotlights the contemporary specialisation - with roles in Louis Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer for the Netherlands Opera, and Turnage’s Greek, as well as The Last Supper at Glyndebourne and the Sawer premiere for ENO. But her naturally cheerful modesty certainly disguises an astonishing professionalism, that in her case is combined with really remarkable versatility both as an actor and as a vocalist. Rosner says the secret is an acute but discreetly unpretentious intelligence. She did spend those two very useful years with the Swingles before getting her initial break in 1984 as Proserpina for Roger Norrington’s Orfeo at the Florence Maggio Musicale in the Hall of the Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio. That wasn’t the deep end, of course, but it was a five star experience. “It was wonderful - three weeks in Florence with all those lovely people and fantastic music, gorgeous costumes and lovely set. Throughout your life there are headline experiences. Well, that really was one.”

            After 18 years proving her worth and working all the time, she can be excused for wondering whether perhaps she could have used more guidance about tackling the peaks, aiming higher in her very successful career. She has fond memories of doing Octavian in Hong Kong (with Jo Barstow as Marschallin and Linda Kitchen as Sofie). She adored the production by Stephen Lawless, designed by Lez Brotherston, which involved five weeks in the Orient, not all busy rehearsing, and never a single moment feeling tired or anxious. Perhaps the ENO’s casting her as Cassandra will mean that, at last, she will start getting roles like Azucena and Eboli, even Carmen. After all, Anne-Sofie von Otter is the same age as her. She has been offered Brangäne. The role of Fricka beckons. At ENO she’s been Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro, Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte, Andromache in King Priam, and the confessional murderess in Turnage’s Twice through the Heart. She really cares about the directors she’s working with. The ones who make her feel she can contribute something are the ones she’s learnt most from, she says, like Phyllida Lloyd whose Albert Herring for Opera North earlier this year was another phenomenal formative experience (all she remembers of Peter Hall’s direction of her Florence Pike at Glyndebourne was the message “More is less” on a brief supervisory visit).

            Last year at Grange Park she was an exceedingly convincing Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, directed by the Royal Court’s Dominic Cooke. Her recording of Irene in Handel’s Theodora has been acclaimed. She took over the role at Glyndebourne from Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Peter Sellars’s memorable 1996 staging. Baroque has always been a strong suit: “Fortunately,” she says, “ by the time I was around for it the specialist conductors had decided baroque singing needed a bit more balls in it. So they were quite happy for me to come along and not sing dead straight, or without any colouring.” She is about to do Jephtha in Cardiff with Katie Mitchell and Paul McCreesh (who uses her a lot) conducting. “We had a meeting and got on very well. I gather it’s very intense working with her - no NAs, and about seven week’s rehearsal, an extraordinary period. We’ll probably be crawling up the walls after that, but we’ll certainly know the work.”

Perhaps it's true when she says "I made a mistake taking 'old bag' roles too young, while only in my thirties. It was a bit foolish. Well, I am back doing them aren't I? It took me a long time for casting directors to consider giving me anything other than an 'old bag' role." OK. The Bickley career has admittedly been slow burn. She remembers Bob Tear telling her, "Small parts and big parts, love. Just take them and you'll be going for ever. There's a lot to be said for that." As her agent Andrew Rosner is confidently expecting, her career has probably got another 20 years to run. She's that healthy and that robust, and the voice sounds blooming and fit enough to make plenty of her juniors jealous. She's undoubtedly ripe for Cassandra - and a lot else. Just wait and see.


The successful launch of Erfurt's new operahouse

Theater Erfurt opens for business in its new operahouse - presenting a brand new opera, Luther, in the two where the German reformation leader did his Dominican university studies

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The successful launch of Erfurt's new operahouse


The city of Erfurt in Thuringia opened its brand new opera house and workshops last week with the world premiere of a new opera, Luther, by Peter Aderhold. An inevitable subject in this town, I guess - and the work was an honourable success, its music bearable, nicely but rather mechanically decorated by instrumental flourishes, with some fine singing of not brilliantly characterised roles (Cranach and Luther the best). The three former nuns, one of whom Luther marries, came off worst. The libretto follows similar lines to John Osborne’s take on the story, launched by Albert Finney at the Royal Court. The production perversely updated the whole thing to the presentday, but with no overt or telling reference to post-war history in the (communist) German Democratic Republic.

            What really astonishes about Erfurt’s new opera house, on a rustbelt city site near the Cathedral and Petersburg fortress where Olympia typewriters used to be made, is the Euros 60 million that it cost and the Euros 17.4 million subsidy that the company gets each year to run the Theater Erfurt and the “Cathedral steps” festival in the summer. Euros 6.6 million come from the Land of Thuringia. But a massive Euros 10.8 million from the city itself - with only 198,000 inhabitants. The workshops alone are on a scale of lavishness comparable to the new Royal Opera House, yet the auditorium seats only 800. Guy Montavon, the French Swiss Intendant, has a budget that only requires him to raise euros 1.8 million from ticket sales and sponsorship, less than 10 per cent of expenditure. He hopes to average 70 per cent capacity in this first season. “They know nothing about opera here,” he told me, and the Wexford-style repertoire of rareities he is offering (Aida apart) will test the market severely.

            Erfurt’s opera company and new facility were meant to be part of a new deal for opera, theatre and ballet involving Weimar (pop. 65,000) - whose Deutsches Theater (where Germany’s first democratic constitution was launched) is a mere 15 minutes trainride away. Under this so-called “Weimar Model”, Erfurt was to specialise in opera, touring to Weimar, while Weimar specialised in spoken theatre (as the city of Goethe, Schiller and Herder). But Weimar people demonstrated fiercely against the loss of their opera - pointing out their orchestra was Grade A whereas Erfurt’s was less accomplished. These things are officially defined in Germany, where there are 83 full-time opera companies, and 259 theatre companies employing actors on contract. For Mr Montavon in Erfurt the backtracking in Weimar is a major headache. He sacked all his actors this summer, which was very controversial, and is filling spoken theatre slots with guest productions from Dresden and Leipzig and other short-term solutions. Also some "music-theatre" is being done by opera- and theatre-school students. The 'Weimar model' has been suspended. Thuringia has refused Weimar any increases in funding up to 2008 despite the fact that it will be paying for both opera and theatre companies there. But to make up for the consequent financial hole in the Weimar theatre's accounts, everybody in the Weimar company has agreed to forego the automatic pay rises which current German theatre union agreements impose. (Gwyneth Jones, incidentally, makes her debut as an opera director in Weimar in November with a Flying Dutchman.)

            Supporters of subsidy are always being told that the German system is falling apart with cuts all round. The generous scale of Erfurt's new buildings and artistic plans, strongly endorsed by the town's Oberbürgermeister, suggest the German system copes better with hard times than the American or the British. The Met without Alberto Vilar's funds, and San Francisco too, are in desperate straits. But in the former East Germany they are not abandoning but relishing the tradition of public support for the performing arts. The story of Theater Erfurt is subsidy on a heroic scale - and with a Christian democrat mayor. Heavy subsidy of the live perfomring arts is not politically controversial here.

 

Peter Grimes and the surprising rebirth of English opera

How Britten came to compose his first and most successful opera

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Peter Grimes and the surprising rebirth of English opera


Benjamin Britten’s operas gave the English-speaking world an authentic English operatic tradition at almost the last point in the history of classical music when that was possible. In a single decade ending with the Venice premiere of The Turn of the Screw (based on the Henry James novella) in October 1954, Britten composed six major operatic works that broke fresh ground in their subject matter and are universally recognised for the originality, beauty, charm and dramatic fervour of their music. He wrote 15 operas in all and was, except perhaps for Hans Werner Henze, the last predominantly operatic composer to have pursued a career specifically dedicated to the theatre and to song. The 20th century was an era rich in new operas. But compared with earlier times, only a handful of composers after the First World War and the 1924 death of Puccini were able to make a substantial contribution to the international operatic repertoire - Richard Strauss, Janacek, Prokofiev, and Britten. If there is to be a future for opera beyond the sterile desert that is the later 20th century, it will require expressive melodiousness and a responsiveness to words for which Britten still provides a fertile distinctive model. Moreover, the consummately modern-sounding and individual melodic language of Peter Grimes was brilliantly deployed by Britten both to portray a dozen characters sharply, and to flesh out perhaps the most dramatically active chorus in the entire operatic repertoire.
 So where did Britten get his skills? There was in fact one important English opera composer back in the 17th century - Henry Purcell whose sublime miniature Dido and Aeneas (1689) was written not for the royal court or for the professional theatre but for a London girls’ school. The great Kirsten Flagstad singing Dido’s lament, “When I am laid in earth”, perfectly demonstrates Purcell’s operatic genius, and Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur, with poetic text by Dryden about British mythical  heroes who only speak and attendant fairies who do all the singing, remained in the Covent Garden repertoire until the Napoleonic wars. Purcell’s achievement as a composer of hundreds of wonderful English songs depended on his immaculate melodic responsiveness to the English language - and a deep love of Purcell helped Britten furnish the 20th century with an equally marvellous repertoire of fresh English songs that reveal a feeling for the language at least as idiomatic as Purcell’s. Purcell also looms large in the Passacaglia form of the fourth interlude in act 2 of Peter Grimes - these five wonderfully descriptive pictorial symphonic episodes perhaps modelled on Bizet’s Carmen. In most ways, Britten structured his opera on a traditionally Italian model, mixing English verismo with a Donizettian mad scene, or matching Ellen Orford’s discovery that Grimes is again “at his exercise” - abusing John the apprentice - with an off-stage church service. But Britten’s great Purcellian Passacaglia, based on the melodic phrase when Grimes screams at Ellen “And God have mercy upon me!”, is the most memorable and expressive musical device in the whole work - examining Grimes’s interior psychological storm while also suggesting the crowd of Borough men heading for Grimes’s hut, some of whom at least want to lynch him.
 Yet Purcell’s semi-operas, of which The Fairy Queen was perhaps the greatest, were merely “musical” diversion, not proper opera. Despite the excellence of English music in the age of Shakespeare, during the period of British imperial expansion England became

known as “the land without music”. Apart from The Beggar’s Opera (an 18th-century hit on which Weill and Brecht based their Threepenny Opera) and brilliantly satirical Gilbert & Sullivan works like Iolanthe, The Mikado, and The Yeomen of the Guard, proper opera in Great Britain was almost invariably synonymous with Italian opera - from the time of Purcell right up to the time of Britten (born November 22, 1913). Indeed in the middle of the 19th century Covent Garden was actually known as the Royal Italian Opera.
 Handel’s superb 36 operas, all written for London between 1711 and 1739, were in Italian. Some made a profit, though few reached other European stages. None was performed between 1754 and 1920. A few of Handel’s secular and religious oratorios, however, did keep

their place in the English calendar. And the cause of opera in English flowered briefly in the 1840s with Balfe’s Bohemian Girl (1843) and Wallace’s Maritana (1845), two operas written for London by Irishmen. At the end of Queen Victoria’s long rein a public hungry for opera did seem to be at last emerging in Britain. From 1875 to 1960, the Carl Rosa Opera Company toured operas in English translation (especially Wagner, but also for instance Verdi, Giordano, Mascagni) and commissioned new works from a few English composers of stature. Also, from 1900, opera and Shakespeare plays were performed at London’s Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells theatres to serve the working-class populations living in the slums nearby; the Wells after 1931 was the main London focus of opera in English.

 In 1943 Britten’s partner, the tenor Peter Pears, joined Sadler’s Wells Opera to sing in English roles like Almaviva in Barbiere, Rodolfo in Boheme, Duca in Rigoletto, Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte, Vasek in The Bartered Bride, and Tamino in Il Flauto Magico. (The latter, incidentally, had had its first performance in London in 1811 not in German or English but in Italian.)
 The circumstances were at last more promising for opera in England, where unlike in Russia, Poland, or Czechoslovakia, the 19th century had produced no national operatic movement. By 1943, for the first time ever, subsidy was going into the British live performing arts including opera and ballet, because CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) had been formally established in 1940 as a subsidiary part of the British government’s Board of Education, recognised as a useful if not vital part of the war effort. CEMA brought actors, singers, entertainers and dancers to the troops as well as to the whole war-torn population. After the war the great economist John Maynard Keynes became first chairman of an Arts Council dedicated to subsidising the live performing arts. This was the world into which Britten in 1945 launched his first successful opera, Peter Grimes.
 The country had previously lacked two crucial factors that explain the large-scale establishment of opera and theatre in Italy and Germany. Both countries are amalgams of kingdoms, princedoms and duchies on one hand and city authorities on the other with hard-

won independent powers to raise and spend taxes on their own initiative for the greater local cultural glory. Both countries have also preserved the Catholic tradition of feast and famine - carnivals that sugar the pill of penitential church seasons with celebratory theatre and opera. The British aristocracy and upper classes ignored theatre and opera, except in London during the “season” of balls and parties - while London theatre was always, as it remains today, commercial.
 Yet there were a few festivals of music, such as the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial where Britten first encountered his composition teacher and predominant musical influence, Frank Bridge, with whom he studied from when he was 13. In 1924, still only 10, Britten heard and was thrilled by Bridge’s orchestral suite The Sea, conducted by the composer. Britten subsequently himself had a number of premieres at this East Anglian festival including his astoundingly original 1936 symphonic song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers with text by the poet W H Auden, which he produced aged 22. Then there was the creation of the BBC, further refining the British cultural landscape, while the British General Post Office began to make documentary films. Notable achievements were Coal Face (1935) with a script by Montagu Slater, the future librettist of Peter Grimes, directed by the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti, and  Night Mail (1936) with a poetic script by Auden, and with Cavalcanti in charge of the sound. Both had glorious musical soundtracks by Britten.
 The composer was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, much the youngest of a dentist’s four children. He had a conventional British middle class education, and started to learn the piano at his first school, being soon able to accompany his mother singing. By then he had already started composing. Britten was truly as astonishingly precocious as Mozart - which did not endear him to critics and commentators (and some other composers) when he emerged as a fully-fledged composer while still very youthful. His music was often criticised as “clever”, its subtlety and sophistication somehow felt to be not quite British. Music he wrote aged 10 he later recycled as part of his Simple Symphony (1933). At his preparatory school, South Lodge, near his home in Lowestoft he played cricket and tennis enthusiastically, and also started to learn the viola. He was good at his schoolwork.
 He left his public school, Gresham’s in Holt, Norfolk, where the poet Auden was also a pupil, after only two years to go to the Royal College of Music in London - but there “I didn’t learn very much,” he later commented. Though his genius was being widely recognised, he was also starting to find that he did not fit comfortably into the existing structure of things in Britain. The slump following the Wall Street collapse in 1929 suggested that political and social change were desperately needed in Britain. The composer became disillusioned, like many youngsters in the 1930s, with the failure of parties of the left to spearhead reform. Britain seemed stuck in a class-ridden philistine past, and that partly explains his decision, in May 1939, to emigrate to the USA - following the example of his friends the poet Auden and the novelist Christopher Isherwood, both of whom were also openly homosexual.
 By then he had met and from early 1937 formed a close relationship with Peter Pears who was to be his life partner - as well as a constant artistic collaborator. The composer’s father (who may have sexually abused him as a child: Britten certainly told the director of Peter Grimes, Eric Crozier, that he had been raped by one of his school-teachers as a child) died in 1934, and his mother at the start of 1937. There were no longer any anchors keeping him in Great Britain, and Auden who wrote the text of Our Hunting Fathers, of the 1937 song cycle On This Island (both being performed initially by the Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss, as was Les Illuminations), and also of Britten’s first opera Paul Bunyan which had its premiere in New York in 1941, was the major intellectual influence on the young composer from 1932 until 1942. Britten’s modern musical tastes were also unusual - he was hugely enthusiastic about Mahler and Shostakovich, neither of whom meant much to his British elders or contemporaries. He had already, from his inheritance, bought a house at Snape near Aldeburgh in the corner of England where he was to live his entire life after he returned from the USA in the middle of the war.
 The circumstances of Britten’s reception in, and return from, America were crucial to the composition of Peter Grimes. In fact, the three years Britten spent with Pears in the USA were as prolific as the decade after he returned to Britain. He wrote his first song-cycle for Pears, Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, his Violin Concerto, the song-cycle Les Illuminations, the Sinfonia da Requiem, his first String Quartet, a sort of concertante work Young Apollo, and the Rossini arrangement Matinées Musicales for Lincoln Kirstein which put together with Soirée Musicales (already used for a ballet by Antony Tudor) became Balanchine’s ballet Divertimento. But his most important work was his collaboration with Auden on the folk-opera or “choral operetta” Paul Bunyan, premiered in New York in May 1941, which was his first full-length work for the operahouse. His music for Auden’s slightly too witty text was quite close in idiom to the socially conscious accessible

American works created in 1936 by Aaron Copland (The Second Hurricane) and Elliott Carter (Pocahontas) - catering for a nation in depression. Bunyan also had strong echoes of Shostakovich, and in some ways was a recognisably near relation to Kurt Weill works like

Seven Deadly Sins, Johnny Johnson, and The Eternal Road.
 From November 1940 Britten and Pears roomed in Brooklyn Heights at a house owned by a friend of Auden and Isherwood: other residents included Salvador Dali, Chester Kallman, the English poet Louis MacNeice, and the entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee. Britten and Pears were unsuited to this kind of Bohemian household - Britten’s Suffolk upbringing had included a good dose of East Anglian protestantism, and he and Pears were puritans at heart, even if not religious. The performance of Bunyan was successful enough; but both Auden and Britten (who experienced few rebuffs in his career) saw that it needed revision and withdrew it. Britten eventually revised and re-released it in 1974 two years before his death. Britten and Pears left Brooklyn, spending time with friends in Amityville, Long Island, and in California. There Britten came across a back number of The Listener, a weekly magazine published by the BBC, containing the script of a broadcast talk by E M Forster about the poetry of George Crabbe (1755-1832) and especially his long poem The Borough about a Suffolk fishing town called Aldeburgh. Various inhabitants - one of them a savage fisherman called Peter Grimes - were minutely portrayed in separate sections of the poem.
 The article, and the copy of Crabbe’s poetry which Pears quickly found for Britten, affected him profoundly: “I suddenly realised where I belonged and what I lacked,” he later explained. “I had become without roots.” But returning to England then was not easy. Britten went to Boston, Massachusetts for a performance of his Sinfonia da Requiem in January 1942. Its conductor Serge Koussevitzky, recognising its musical theatricality, asked why Britten had never written a full-scale opera. Britten said he was contemplating an opera on Crabbe’s poem, but needed funding to free him for the work. Koussevitzky’s Music Foundation shortly afterwards offered him $1000 towards the costs of composition, and promised to give the premiere at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Berkshire Festival. The journey home to Britain in March lasted five weeks, though the actual crossing of the Atlantic on a neutral Swedish ship took 12 days. Britten occupied himself composing another setting of Auden, Hymn to St Cecilia, and also his Ceremony of Carols. He docked in Liverpool on April 17, 1942. The premiere of Peter Grimes took place on June 7, 1945 at Sadler’s Wells Theatre.
 Back in England Britten and Pears as committed pacifists had to appear before the conscription court to register as “conscientious objectors”. They were supported in their application by the composer William Walton and by Montagu Slater, a far Left writer and journalist with whom Britten had worked on documentaries and plays. In return for their exemption from fighting, Britten and Pears had to give recitals - touring the country. There were also many premieres ahead of compositions not yet heard in Britain. The critical climate seemed more favourable. The Serenade for tenor, horn and strings emerged, one of Britten’s most perennially popular works. Writing Peter Grimes started with the engagement of Slater to do the libretto. Slater had been a member of the Communist party since 1927. Britten had dedicated his Ballad of Heroes to him and his wife. He trusted in the uncomplicated directness that had marked Slater’s agit-prop plays, Easter 1916 and, for the Left Theatre, Stay Down Miner for which he had composed a rousing political chorus for striking miners. The libretto was ready by January 1944 - though Britten was not content with every aspect of Slater’s work and consulted both Eric Crozier and Ronald Duncan, librettists of what were to be his following two operas, about various revisions and alterations.
 Crabbe’s poem, The Borough, was not a narrative tale but a sort of poetic documentary with snapshots of Aldeburgh characters. Crabbe’s Grimes is a sadist and serial murderer of his apprentices, an unusual operatic hero. For Britten Slater wove a story about Grimes’s dreamy yet ambitious nature, an outsider hated by the gossip-ridden villagers. Is Britten’s Grimes guilty of killing his prentice William Spode? In the opening scene Swallow, the local magistrate, coroner and mayor, thinks not, but advises him to get a grown-up fishermen to help him - not a boy. Grimes knows that the case will go on in people’s minds. The pharmacist Keene finds him another orphan boy from the poorhouse, and the teacher Ellen (whom Grimes would like to marry if he ever made enough money) offers to help fetch him - which persuades the reluctant carter to do the job. Grimes argues with a friendly retired sea-captain Balstrode about his hard work and need for help. A storm threatens the coast. Grimes seems drunk or visionary when he reaches the pub to collect his boy. The general dislike of Grimes is focussed in a drunken methodist preacher’s criticism. Grimes takes the boy out into the storm as soon as he arrives to return to their hut. Then it’s Sunday and Grimes is not a churchgoer, nor is the teacher who finds a bruise on the boy’s neck which suggests the old problem of cruelty and inappropriate parenting is back. Villagers have overheard Ellen arguing with Grimes, and a posse of men led by Balstrode and the vicar  sets off to challenge him in his hut and see what he is doing with the boy. The women, the real experts on parenting, take no part in this - except the nosy Mrs Sedley who does not sing in the memorable quartet Britten provides for Ellen, Aunty and her “nieces” to explain their perceptions and sensitivities: Aunty in reality is the local brothel-keeper and publican, and her two “nieces” are whores. Grimes at the hut sees the procession coming and heads out to sea with the boy, who accidentally falls down the cliff and is killed. Neither are seen for days. The gossips are sure there has been another murder. Swallow orders Grimes to be arrested. Grimes returns mad with paranoia. A fog lies over everything, not just physical but symbolic of a general uncertainty about the facts of the

case. Grimes, on Balstrode’s advice, sails out to sea and drowns himself - the only “answer”. In the Borough life resumes its calm course.
 Slater’s original libretto, which he published after the premiere with his next volume of poems, differs from the opera mainly because Britten chose to reduce or obscure Grimes’s violence towards the apprentice. He also omitted some actual haunting by other dead boys. Britten does not want to explain precisely what had happened. His purpose is to show the tragedy of a life beset by misunderstandings and disasters. Grimes may be a bit of a monster, but he deserves our respect for trying to succeed against the odds in his chosen

craft. Grimes is trying to succeed as a fisherman, and in regard to the exploitation of child labour he is not essentially different from anybody else in the Borough at that time: in a sense the expulsion of Grimes from the Borough by his neighbours turns him into a scapegoat. Britten demonstrates the odds stacked against him, and also gives powerful expression to what is on his side - the reassuring friendship of Balstrode, the unwavering love of Ellen. Britten as a homosexual understood what it is to be an outsider. But was Grimes also a paedophile? Indeed, was Britten? Clearly the purpose of Peter Grimes is not to launch a discussion in the audience about the character of the composer. The opera gives no open account of such things, but since the title role was written for Britten’s partner

Peter Pears the issue remains to a certain extent poignantly relevant.
 Britten’s affection for children, especially for pre-pubescent boys, is well-documented - and not one of them (though they have all been asked) has suggested that he ever made a sexual advance. But many of his operas involve implicit homosexuality. In Billy Budd, based on Melville’s shipboard story, what lurks within Captain Vere and Master-at-Arms Claggart is sexual, hence their threat to the thing they love - the beautiful young press-ganged sailor Budd whom Vere fails to save. The hero of Albert Herring is repressed by his mother and, after getting drunk because Sid and Nancy have laced his lemonade with alcohol, lets his hair down and goes on the razzle. Has he had sex? He seems no longer virginal and his lack of interest in girls speaks for itself. The Turn of the Screw and Curlew River are about substitute or failed parents (the governess and the madwoman) who kill or lose their children. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about a Fairy King and Queen who both want to possess an Indian boy (the king wins), but also about a quartet of youngsters, whose emotional muddles are resolved with the aid of drugs, and a group of workers acting out a romance. Death in Venice is about an elderly dying writer’s infatuation with a beautiful young man. Even Gloriana is about the aged Queen Elizabeth’s dangerous passion for a young courtier Essex, who is more her political child than her toyboy. Yet it is also possible - and perhaps more appropriate - to see parenthood as

Britten’s overwhelming theme, parenthood as a complicated and ambivalent problematic area. The ancestry of Britten’s operas leads back to Hansel and Gretel. Was Britten’s love of boys a product of his desperate regret at not being able to become a parent himself? Parenthood, a factor and challenge in all Britten’s operas, is a highly relevant impassioned topic for an era that separates sexuality from procreation. In Peter Grimes Britten confronts the persecution in an ordinary basic society of a misunderstood being - a member of a minority perhaps, of those not like us the majority. This was a fit topic in 1945 when people were just realising what had been going on in the Nazi concentration camps. It is a fit topic now, when the limits of tolerance and the boundary between permissiveness and crime are both so awkward to determine. Parenthood is the ultimate responsibility. We are all parents, in the sense that we can all now alarmingly see what our bad parenting is doing ecologically to the world around us. The present is parent of the future, as the past is parent of the present. Can we break the cycle of abuse?
 Opera above all is a confessional artform. Britten manages to show us an enormous amount in Peter Grimes of what the people in the story are feeling for each other: the supporting roles in this opera are even more fully developed than they are in Tchaikovsky, or in classics of verismo like I Pagliacci or Il tabarro. The tragedy is not just that of Peter Grimes. It is our own.

 

Robert Carsen's unmemorable Glyndebourne Monteverdi

Robert Carsen reaches Glyndebourne - but it was not worth waiting for

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Robert Carsen's unmemorable Glyndebourne Monteverdi


Glyndebourne used to be famous Monteverdi pioneers thanks to Günther Ebert and Peter Hall. Yet, apart from their 50th anniversary staging of L’incoronazione di Poppea in 1984, they have since neglected the association. Their new Poppea confirmed again that Monteverdi’s surviving late operas are dramaturgically problematical compared to the astonishingly assured L’Orfeo, with its madrigal roots. As always the madrigal-like trio "Non morrir" marking the death of Seneca was a musical highpoint - with Dominique Visse, unattributed, stepping in as top voice. Cavalli’s recourse to arioso raises the question whether these late Monteverdi operas, like serialism, may not have been a false turn in theatrical history.
    Precisely what was Monteverdi aiming at with Poppea and did he intend us to find the characters so repellent and tedious as Robert Carsen’s production made them? Apart from that climactic jewel, the final duet "Pur ti miro", there is little very rewarding music to sing. Emmanuelle Haïm, a dashing Handel conductor, here adopted too grand and leaden a pace, majestic rather than conversational and delicate with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Music and words in Poppea are an awkward acting challenge.
    Glyndebourne boasts at least one brilliant performance - Alice Coote’s Nero - singing with dramatic power and ravishingly coloured subtlety. It’s a weird striking characterisation, Nero as adolescent gangster in an Armani-style suit. Costume designer Constance Hoffman has Coote wear shorts and a pyjama-like shirt for the frequent bed-scenes of Carsen’s heavy-handed staging: she is a square-bodied distorted Nero, at times seeming almost dwarf-like. Danielle de Niese’s Poppea on the other hand is eternally semi-clad in slinky slip, all legs and lips, though I would not call her thin colourless singing particularly sexy or attractive. Paolo Battaglia’s Seneca has no personality, and little voice. The Nurses, predictably diverting, are drag routines. Wolfgang Ablinger-Spetthacke as Arnalta is a physical and vocal presence, till the joke wears thin. Visse as Ottavia’s femme de menage wears a smart two-piece and parades a pack of ten costume-carrying maids in 1920s uniform for the bored sad empress (Tamara Mumford) to chose her day-clothes from. But Mumford has neither the individuality nor beauty of tone to impress with "Addio Roma".
    Ottone (Christophe Dumaux) thanks to his sterling falsetto technique cuts a convincing figure in his unrewarding role. Marie Arnet as his substitute beloved, Drusilla, was at least not utterly ridiculous dressed like Ottavia in the Jackie Kennedy style Carsen often fancies - though neither had the charisma to make one take them seriously. Lucia Cirillo was a chirpy Valletto in her half-baked sexy subplot. Carsen makes the two soldiers, Andrew Tortise and Peter Gijsbertsen, double as Lucano - who duets triumphantly with Nero after Seneca’s enforced suicide - and Liberto, captain of the Guard. But his spin on that triumphing duet turned it into a strange sexual murder, as Lucano is stripped and drowned in a bath. Seneca, meanwhile, never gets anywhere near his historical death bath.
    The divine interventions, especially Mercury’s todesverkundigung to Seneca, are clumsy. Carsen makes an in-joke about Glyndebourne in the Prologue: Sonya Yoncheva’s glamorous Fortune (dressed in Glyndebourne gladrags) finds Simona Mihai’s Virtue (in nun’s habit) sitting in “her” seat at the front of the stalls. Lights up for a fake “false start”. But it’s Amy Preston’s omnipresent Love, in red velvet suit with arrow in hand, who dominates and almost invariably witnesses every scene. Michael Levine’s set, as usual with Carsen suggestive rather than representational, consists of swaying red velvet curtains that hover and surround the beds on which so much of the action and motivation depend. This neutral decor allows a fluent sequence of scenes. But Carsen stretches out the mechanics of the mysteriously moving curtain - which eventually turns into Poppea’s imperial train at her coronation. Thia ia an accomplished, ice-cold and objective staging - but not visually or imaginatively stimulating. Carsen’s monsters degenerate into mere boredom.

Monteverdi: L'incoronazione di Poppea. Premiere on May 18, 2008 (review of May 25 perdformance). Conductor: Emmanuelle Haim. Production: Robert Carsen, Set: Michael Levine, Costumes: Constance Hoffman, Lighting: Robert Carsen & Peter van Praet, Chorusmaster: Thomas Blunt, Dramaturgy: Ian Burton, Cast: Danielle de Niese (Poppea), Alice Coote (Nerone), Christophe Dumaux (Ottone), Tamara Mumford (Ottavia), Marie Arnet (Drusilla), Paolo Battaglia (Seneca), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Arnalta), Dominique Visse (Nutrice), Andrew Tortise (First Soldier, Lucano), Peter Gijsbertsen (Second Soldier, Liberto) etc

 

 

Calixto Bieito's way of staging Hamlet

Interview profile with the Catalan director before his Shakespeare production was seen at the Edinburgh Festival

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Calixto Bieito's way of staging Hamlet


Perhaps it’s because our theatre world in Britain is so different from the European. British theatre is much more aware of the commercial imperative. Despite German cutbacks in arts spending their theatre world still boasts 259 companies with full-time actors on contract, and receiving pension contributions to boot. In Barcelona Calixto Bieito’s company is one of many. But we Brits, anyway, are very suspicious of Bieito, the Catalan director, soon to be 40. His work generates a deluge of publicity here, because he goes in for a lot of drugs and nudity in most of his productions. Critics imply it’s attention-seeking. And, yes, Hamlet in Bieito’s new production which opens at the Edinburgh Festival next Wednesday (August 20, 2003) does lower his trousers and show his bare bum as he fucks Ophelia hard on a black leather armchair before consigning her to a nunnery. To an extent this Scottish Prince is a case of Trainspotting meets the Bard.
    I admit I was gob-smacked during Bieito’s Abbey Theatre staging at Edinburgh of the Valle-Inclan Barbaric Comedies to see a wicked cleric pull apart his cassock to reveal a massive erection.  Actors mostly don’t or can’t do porn. I’m sure it was really plastic. But it was surprising. And it did up the ante in a show I found so gripping I went to it twice with my big sister - who happens to be a VD consultant and therefore used to anything.
    Bieito’s first operatic staging that I saw was the Welsh National’s Cosí fan tutte - done in a tée-dansant café environment and uncontroversial though not critically popular. His Don Giovanni at English National Opera (which attracted a new young audience despite, or perhaps because of, the critics) was set beneath a row of harsh concrete streetlamps on a bleak industrial estate - or perhaps ijust outside a sports stadium. It started with Anna being screwed in the back of family saloon, graphically heaving and shaking. Elvira was a chocolate-obsessed bulimic. Gary Magee’s cheeky Giovanni was hooked on coke as much as on his own cock, and the sniffing and bloody noses were as graphic as the fellatio. The latter got a bit in the way of decent singing. Bieito’s Ballo in Maschera was mild by comparison, though the main memorable image was of conspirators sitting on a row of toilets. That insider view may well explain a lot about whipping in our parliamentary parties, but it did give Verdi traditionalists a shock. A production of Il Trovatore by Bieito in Hanover included a theatrically impressive torching of an extra playing an unpopular member of the gypsy crowd - nobody can deny this Verdi is about who gets burnt. But Bieito’s operas are more hit and miss. An example of the latter was his unfunny WNO Fledermaus.
    In Edinburgh’s critically despised Valle-Inclan play I remember the lighting as wonderfully romantic, and the acting as charismatic and compelling. Brian McMaster shows no wavering in his allegiance to Bieito’s talent, and I think he is quite right. That was a “period” production, which distanced some of the violence and horror a bit. Bieito doesn’t always “do” contemporary. He told me his production of the zarzuela La Verbena de la Paloma in Barcelona caused a scandal because it was realistic in approach, rather than folkloristic. But Bieito’s productions are meant to be provocative as well as energetic. His aim is to refresh the piece, to do it anew, to defamiliarise it - so audiences don’t lapse into the mindsets of critics who certainly seem to know it all before they’ve even sat down in the theatre, and who regard spotting cliches as a primary professional duty even though style in the theatre is all about imitation.
    The impact of Bieito’s Macbeth was memorable when I saw it first in Hallein performed in German. I also experienced it in Catalan being rehearsed in Barcelona and then performed at the Barbican. What’s specially good about Bieito's Hamlet is the fact that it’s his first echt Shakespeare staging in English - and the tension between classic familiar poetic text and situation and character is what the theatre, surely, should be all about. The cast for Hamlet, which will also be given at the Birmingham Rep in September, are a fascinating mixture of right-on streetwise actors and plangent bourgeois ones. As always in Bieito’s work there are numerous thought-provoking details and frequent unforgettable moments - such as the return of Laertes from Paris, laden with presents and floating balloons, eager to get back into the party which is the perennial context of life at the Danish court (and that’s certainly an authentic reading of the text). A sense of the tyranny behind the party atmosphere, a fascination with the self-congratulation and celebration with which tyranny always seems to surround itself permit, is one of Bieito’s most characteristic and important perceptions - and a factor common to many of his productions. The graveyard scene is extraordinarily fresh and compelling. Bieito’s father died of cancer earlier in the year, and he knew the scene needed to be given a new twist. “I thought, now it would be ashes.”  Plus the tool of poor Yorick’s trade. “It’s the transmission of life - this scene - the nose is the life of the jester.”
    They’d been rehearsing already for seven weeks, when I got to interview Bieito. His English is imperfect but practical - his dramaturg Xavier Zuber from the Hanover opera, who also worked on his Trovatore there and is doing Traviata there with him in September, is perhaps a touch better at English. What’s much more interesting about his two Shakespeare productions than any nudity or violence or indulgence by characters in drugs or alcohol is their location - the reimposition  of a sense of the classical unities of time and place on the Bard’s epic discursive narrative. It is commonplace with Hamlet not to perform the whole text. In fact the piece more or less has to be butchered to fit it to a length in the theatre that modern audiences can tolerate, because really it is almost as long as two plays. Bieito, not being British, is free of the whole tradition of Bardolatry that is the bug-bear of our theatre. It’s not just the directors and the actors, it’s the rest of us in the audience who can karaoke along with most Shakespeare productions if we really try.
    But Bieito being from another culture can really bring a fresh look to a text for which he has enormous respect, and can produce an acting edition for the purposes of his production which is a unique and unprecedented approach to the material. What he wants is for audiences to experience Hamlet as if it were a brand new play. There’s a bold hostage to fortune for you. Bieito made his version in the twelve days before rehearsals started on the computer in the Birmingham Rep office. Of course, he knew what he wanted to achieve with the text - there’d be different motivations, different explanations for some of the words. “I started thinking this will be a microcosm of a royal family, a metaphor of a rotten royal family that relates to the state of things in the world very readily.” Horatio in Bieito’s interpretation is a reactionary manipulating the way Hamlet sees the world. “When Hamlet rapes Ophelia,” Bieito explains, “it is to destroy her, because he feels she is a liar. But she’s still in love with him. She is in fact a victim - of the powerful liars in the ruling older generation.”
    Bieito has placed the whole work in a kind of piano bar that’s part of the palace - and the word PALACE in lurid pink fluorescent light will dominate the set. The Danish Royals are pretty keen on this bar to which there is only privileged access - a bit like Annie’s Bar in the Houses of Parliament, but much nicer and without all those awful MPs.  Free drinks on a table. Comfortable modern black leather armchairs arrayed in ranks. Microphones for singers and speakers, useful sometimes in a play where every word tells. A not very tasteful carpet. And the whole show is going to be lit in a very striking and surrealistic way, not at all like the Tarantino gangsters’ reunion that was Bieito’s Macbeth.
    Piano music of various kinds and a number of songs are interspersed between the scenes. They are played by the family pianist, a professional singer and musician - a role like an expansion of the idea of Osric (whose lines are cut). Gertrude takes over the piano - and goes on playing while Ophelia does away with herself. Bieito is paying an appropriate homage here to Bunuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: demonstrating the bourgeois ability not to see what you shouldn’t or don’t want to see. “I wanted to include songs to refresh the audience. The function of the pianist is really to entertain the audience, to relax them so they can listen better.”
    Bieito explains, “I use the text in a modern dramaturgical context. I am manipulating the words - this gift Shakespeare gave us - to talk about these characters, and about human beings generally. Of course, it is not a piece about women. This is a totally misogynistic play. Gertrude is a victim too. Hamlet is exceedingly egocentric. In Catalan there’s a saying ‘studying your own navel’. He keeps saying he’s in a prison - but he is so free in his mind that, for me, he has total imaginative liberty in this ‘prison’. When finally he says he’s dead, it’s because there’s nothing more he can do. He cannot have any further thoughts. The rest is silence.”
    Bieito loves Montaigne and he deduces that the Shakespeare of Hamlet was also crazy about Montaigne. “I was going to interpolate some Montaigne text in the play, but I cut it out. There’s enough Montaigne at second hand with the words of Shakespeare. Of course you cannot do all 100% of this piece - it is such a huge account of the anguish of the human condition. What I want is that it should be like a dark thriller. The clothes will be modern and very smart, what Royals with money would wear these days. So I provide an intimate space with a piano to sing, to dance, to have fun, to drink. There’s an obsession in the piece with drunkenness. It’s like a film noir - sometimes very surreal. The whole production takes place in a single night. It’s never day. They never see the sun. We’ll have four fans revolving the whole time.”
    The story as Shakespeare told it is a given. “I respect it," says Bieito. "It’s a good story. I try to be specific. One could be very abstract with Hamlet. But the text is already abstract enough, and as director you need to be exact and specific with the intention and consequence of every word that is uttered. Sometimes I am moving parts of the text around so that it can always be owned very clearly by the actors and characters who use it. The essence of the play is to be a discussion. ‘To be or not to be’ is now a discussion with the dead body of Polonius. It’s rhetorical because Hamlet knows that neither Polonius, of course, nor the audience will supply answers. All the soliloquies by Hamlet are done complete and uncut, but often reallocated to different places in the story. They are the essence of the play and I respect their integrity, but since they are in unfamiliar contexts an audience may not immediately recognise they are there complete.”
    Every production has perforce to re-edit the play. Bieito’s premise, that the play is today, certainly draws inescapable attention to the way the individual characters own the material they are saying, what all the poetry and ideas must really mean to them. Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy as he wants to present it is not something remote and approachable with great difficulty, something which you almost need a degree to cope with. It’s immediate and it makes one think a lot. “That,” says Bieito, “is the most important point of the piece.”

How Juan Diego Florez got started

Profile and hostory of the Peruvian tenor written for one of his early recital CDs

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How Juan Diego Florez got started


It was a perfect way for a young singer to arrive. Juan Diego Florez’s legendary debut at the Palafestival in Pesaro aged 23 was in no sense a great occasion. It was the Rossini Festival, of course, but he was standing in for Bruce Ford (as a character called Coradino Ironheart) in a deservedly forgotten opera called Matilde di Shabran. Nobody was expecting much.
    What we heard from the unknown Florez to our astonishment was wonderfully focussed, fresh, open singing with high notes effortlessly sounded, and a good-looking young man who was not brash on stage at all - in fact rather diffident and charming. The signature of his sound was highly individual, incredibly flexible and open-throated - the kind of singing where what you hear is what you get, and no pretending. It was also amazingly confident for such a total newcomer.
    This Pesaro success put the word out. He had got on top of a difficult role incredibly quickly, a feat repeated when he stood in for Giuseppe Sabbatini 16 months later at the Royal Opera’s premiere at the Royal Festival Hall of Donizetti’s lost opera Elisabetta (discovered in a cupboard in Covent Garden cellars). Florez was not going to be a seven-day wonder. He will take as his own all those marvellous young bel canto romantic roles in Bellini and Donizetti, like Nemorino (Las palmas, 2005), Elvino, Ernesto and Tonio - all within his current repertoire - where his youth and the directness with which he projects his melodies and his words are like God’s gift.
    He is the bel canto tenor of our time, a tenore di grazia (graceful tenor) or tenore leggiero (light tenor) who in many ways resembles the elegant Austro-Spanish Alfredo Kraus. But unlike Kraus, Florez can completely specialise in the really high roles he loves, requiring the most direct expertise at florid bel canto, and those stratospheric top notes. “You see,” he says, “in the time of Kraus tenors didn’t have so much to choose from. There wasn’t the chance to do a lot of Rossini and Donizetti, so everybody ended up singing the Duke in Rigoletto and Edgardo in Lucia and Alfredo in Traviata, even the leggiero tenors. Now is different. We are more strict. I haven’t had to even begin singing Verdi. I have the privilege to sing my own things which I love and which preserve my voice better.”
    Florez possesses a delightful and apparently insatiable appetite to give the public what they want - naturalness of character and a beauty of singing reminiscent of the young Pavarotti, the words always perfectly moulded, the sound buoyant and intricately elegant. Florez is convinced that he is a natural for comedy and for roles that are light and poignant and not intended to strain the voice. The rest of the world certainly seems to agree.
    He comes from a musical family and was born in Lima, Peru on January 13, 1973. His father (now over 60) was a very soft-timbred lyric tenor too, a professional who specialised in a highly popular style of Peruvian valse songs. At family gatherings they would all make music together. Florez started learning guitar at 10, and at 14 began composing his own songs - performing them at piano bars with his school mates. None of his main experience was classical. When he was 15 a new music teacher, Genaro Chumpitazi, came to his high school who wanted to create a good school chorus, and was interested in zarzuela. He recognised Florez’s talent, giving him solos in the chorus pieces and leads in zarzuelas.
    Florez says, “He would demonstrate what he wanted, and I would try to do it the way he had shown.” Chumpitazi gave him private singing lessons, introduced him to records of Domingo and Pavarotti, and at 17 got him into the Conservatorio Nacional de Music, where tuition would be free. He was assigned to a teacher. But people said he should study with a tenor, Andres Santa Maria, who trained the Peruvian National Chorus, but wasn’t then teaching at the Conservatory. Florez sang to Santa Maria, who took him on, gave him free lessons for three years, and also a job in the National Chorus. So there he was, earning a stipend from the state, which stopped his mother worrying what he would live on as a musician. The job also changed his musical diet. He started learning arias in the Bach Magnificat, Haydn’s Creation - got to know Italiana in Algeri and Barbiere on long playing records. The National Chorus was also chorus for the opera. Florez began to know a very small part of the opera repertoire, Pagliacci, Aida. He started learning the piano, making fast progress, and went to live with his beloved grandmother - who also had a piano.
    His voice never really broke in adolescence, he says. It just gradually sank lower. He has never had the experience of that register change which singers call the passagio. He could always just sing a scale straight up into his head voice, without any break. This perfect automatic transmission is one of the main technical secrets of his success. Another, about which he was to learn more later, was breathing properly. He says he could not manage the long florid arias that he sings if he had not studied the issue of breathing for singing with Ernesto Palacio.
    A scholarship took him from Lima to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia for three years when he was 20. His teacher was Marlena Malas. He was, he says, “practically the only tenor capable of doing operas there. So they gave me practically everything, even though in Peru I had scarcely sung three arias in a row. I was given Capuleti e Montecchi to sing. It was so hard. I was pushed. And I did it, then another one, and another one: Barbiere, Viaggio a Reims, Alfred in Fledermaus...” He studied Mozart arias, but no Mozart roles. The experience of performing on stage was crucial for his future career.
    In 1994 he went back to Lima for a vacation and while there auditioned with the Peruvian tenor Ernesto Palacio, an encounter that changed his life. Palacio invited him to come to Italy and study roles. He also offered him a small part on a CD he was making of Martin y Soler’s Tutor burlado that year and of Zingarelli’s Seven Last Words the following year. He wasn’t earning in Italy but working incredibly hard with Palacio. Fortunately he was supported by well-wishers who also helped him attend Marilyn Horne’s summer academy in Santa Barbara. It was while he was in Italy that he got the job at Pesaro.
    Palacio helped him discover more about his voice, and showed him how best to tackle the details. “We never did routine voice exercises or scales,” Florez says. “When I studied with him it was just preparing music. For example, this sound should be more legato there. Try it like this. Or do this. Or this note is too dark, brighten it more. And I was finding things out for myself too. He was a perfect pair of ears for me. Something you can’t find just anywhere. It’s ideal to have somebody who understands what you are doing, who can say when it works and when it doesn’t and why. And with him I achieved certainties about how to do things.”
    In America, Florez says, he was singing with lots of chest resonance and cover. Palacio questioned why he was trying to manufacture noise that way. He suggested Florez simply make it clear and open “and I could form high notes very easily,” Florez says, “and I had a bigger voice because with an open sound, you just project it clearly and it travels. It took me some time to believe that what he was recommending was right. But it is. Also my kind of open singing makes the words much clearer than they would be with a lot of cover. When I use the consonants very cleanly it’s part of my natural voice, and the words emerge very clearly and beautifully.”
    Florez is lucky to have had the right guidance at a crucial stage of his career. Palacio, having retired from singing in 1998,  is now his manager as well as his musical adviser. Since his success at Pesaro in 1996, Florez has had the world at his feet, and he hasn’t looked back.

Neil Armfield's Ariadne auf Naxos for the Welsh

Review of Welsh National Opera production

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Neil Armfield's Ariadne auf Naxos for the Welsh


It didn’t inspire confidence that Neil Armfield, the Australian director in charge of Welsh National Opera’s new staging of  Ariadne auf Naxos, confessed he’d “taken a long time to get to love” the opera, which he’d only ever seen performed once “and nobody I’d spoken to who’d seen a production of it could remember what it was about”. The programme for his Cunning Little Vixen in Sydney had a similar disclaimer about Armfield’s difficulty getting “a sense of scale relationship between the animals and the human characters”.
    Opera directors, like clergymen, are best advised to keep stumm about their lack of faith - and, in fact, Armfield’s Ariadne took the easy route, setting the Prologue in a presentday theatre, and the opera proper against the ripped faded painted flats of what looked like a staging long abandoned in the scenery store. There may, I guess, still be “stage-door Johnnies” pursuing affaires with local Zerbinettas, and even wealthy hosts who care little about “the art” and blithely get their sidekicks to impose impossible requirements (staging a comedy and tragedy simultaneously). One British critic who liked the show confessed he usually hated the piece. The theme of the opera is how art feeds on life and vice versa, and what that teaches: the Composer must be genuinely passionate. Alice Coote in a grey flannel suit and adolescent’s floppy tow haircut gave a marvellous portrayal of the role Strauss liked best.
    Otherwise Armfield didn’t question whether Zerbinetta is nearer the mark than Ariadne. His good cast had only one native German-speaker - Gerd Grochowski’s very decent if rather too young Music Master. Richard Van Allan as the Major-domo with the “gleichzeitig” knock-out was charmless as well as poor at German. It would all have been livelier in English, however hard that might have made the casting of Zerbinetta.
    Playing the Prologue for “real” in a theatre invited some tired “lovie” jokes (George Newton-Fitzgerald as a camp pizza-chewing Wig-maker in jeans) and meant no crowd of theatrical trunks at the start. WNO’s Zerbinetta (Katarzyna Dondalska) was spry and mildly adorable, though not distinguished enough from her troupe - a powerfully cast quartet of Tim Mirfin, D’Arcy Bleiker, Wynne Evans and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks. Dondalska’s intonation was strikingly accurate, hitting all the right musical spots with a metallic, sometimes unlovely tone. Carlo Rizzi conducting was upbeat Italian rather than relishing refined Straussian rubato.
    WNO’s orchestra played the lovely prologue after the interval messily. It’s all supposed to be extemporised, but a more genuine sense of revelation and inspiration in the direction of the characters - and in what the plot lets them discover - would have been rewarding. The search for gags was excessive. At the end of Zerbinetta’s aria one of her four admirers upstaged her, flaunting fake male sexual organs. Janice Watson was more lustrous as Ariadne than as primadonna in the Prologue. Her Bacchus (Peter Hoare) also sang impressively and acted convincingly. The trio of nymphs were very good indeed. The production was unaffectedly music-led, unlikely to annoy, journeyman stuff - which Strauss and Hofmannsthal certainly are not.

 

Biography


I was taken to my first opera, Carmen, when I was 4, by my grandmother. That was 1947 and the company was the Carl Rosa Opera, which had been touring the British Isles since 1875 and in the 1930s provided the bulk of the opera that could be heard outside London. This performance was at the King’s Theatre, Southsea - built by Frank Matcham 40 years earlier. We lived a street away and during the next few years I got to see a lot of touring ballet there. A selection of orchestral bits from Carmen was one of my favourite 78 r.p.m. records. The next opera in my life was Don
Opera
Tom Sutcliffe Opera Critic
Giovanni on the BBC’s Third Programme when I was about 13. I saw Peter Grimes with Ronald Dowd in the title role at the New Theatre, Oxford in both 1962 and 1963 - toured both by Covent Garden and by Sadler’s Wells. Also in 1961 and 1962 I was lucky enough to be taken to Bayreuth and Salzburg by a cousin who had been working in Germany since 1945 and who was a close friend of Wolfgang Wagner (whose Ring production in 1961 was my first Wagnerian experience on stage, rather than on LP). The Brünnhildes were Varnay and Nilsson, whose Isolde I saw the following year along with Grace Bumbry’s Venus and Hotter’s Gurnemanz. My first Trovatore at Salzburg boasted Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli. My first Cosi was led by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig, who also were the stars of my first Rosenkavalier. Tito Gobbi was my first Iago (in Venice), and my first Simon Boccanegra (in Salzburg).

I was born in June 1943, and became head chorister at Chichester Cathedral in 1955. The organist and choirmaster was Horace Hawkins - a by then elderly former pupil of Widor and enthusiast for 16th-century polyphony and Solesmes plainchant. Chichester was not typical of Anglican cathedrals, musically or liturgically. At 13, I went to a Woodard Foundation school, Hurstpierpoint College, in East Sussex, and then at 17 as a tenor choral scholar to Magdalen College, Oxford - where I studied English literature. On graduating in 1963 I studied singing privately with Roy Hickman of the Guildhall School, and from the following year started to pursue a professional career as a countertenor. My first job, however, was teaching English at the Central Tutorial School for Young Musicians (now the Purcell School, Bushey), where my pupils included the now famous composer and conductor Oliver Knussen.

For four years until July 1970 I sang at Westminster Cathedral and in September 1970 I made my opera debut at the Landestheater Darmstadt as Ottone in The Coronation of Poppea. I also worked with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus in Bremen and Vienna, and recorded Purcell sacred songs for Swedish Radio in Stockholm. In 1967 I was alto soloist on a record of Purcell Odes, conducted by Denis Stevens with the Academia Monteverdiana. In 1970, with James Bowman as fellow soloist, I recorded the Machaut Mass with Konrad Ruhland and the Capella Antica, Munich for Telefunken. I was a soloist on Harnoncourt’s first recording of the Matthew Passion. I also was a founder member of the 9-voice ensemble Pro Cantione Antiqua, and sang for Henry Washington’s Schola Polyphonica based at Brompton Oratory. From 1965 I was manager of the controversial early music group Musica Reservata, and I did all the legwork to achieve a sell-out for Musica Reservata’s first Queen Elizabeth Hall concert in July 1967, administering a series of successful concerts for Michael Morrow and John Beckett’s remarkable pioneering ensemble for some years thereafter.

I was appointed editor of Music and Musicians in 1970, having earlier chased advertising copy, sold advertising space and written for the magazine. The picture of me above was taken by Lotte Meitner-Graf around then: she told me she thought I looked typical of modern youth at that time (flower power etc). Then in April 1973 I joined the features department of The Guardian newspaper, where I worked for 23 years in various roles: I was deputy arts editor, deputy obituaries editor, opera critic and feature writer. The picture at the bottom was taken in the early 1990s. After leaving The Guardian in spring 1996, I joined the London Evening Standard for almost six years as opera critic. I had also reviewed opera and theatre for Vogue magazine for 12 years until 1987, and was later during the 1990s London correspondent of Opera News, the New York Met’s house magazine. I have also contributed to The Spectator, Opern Welt, the New Statesman, Prospect, The Independent, Opera Now, Classic CD, the Times, the Times Literary Supplement, the Musical Times, the Financial Times, and The Bulletin in Australia. My more dramaturgical articles have appeared in the programme books of San Francisco Opera, Glyndebourne, Welsh National Opera, Garsington Opera, Grange Park Opera, Aldeburgh Festival, Holland Park Opera, the Monnaie, and the San Carlo Naples. One of my considerable recent lengthy pieces was my chapter on Technology and Repertoire in the new Cambridge Companion to Twentieth Century Opera.

I have broadcast frequently on BBC Radio, and from time to time have appeared on television - notably in 1991 when I wrote and presented a Channel 4 programme on Benjamin Britten in the J’Accuse series. I was on BBC News24 for the Pavarotti requiem in Modena Cathedral.

In 1991 I was elected to my first Leverhulme Fellowship - to give me time off from The Guardian so I could develop my book on opera in performance. During that break from journalism I was lucky thanks to Stephen Daldry, who was then running the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, to get the chance to direct a starry cast including Alan Bates, Angela Thorne, Stephen Boxer, Michael Medwin, Jan Carey, and Lorcan Cranitch in a reading there of Beaumarchais’s The Guilty Mother - the little known third "Figaro" play. It was a memorable experience and though it may have got in the way of writing the book it certainly taught me an immense amount. I was elected to a second Leverhulme Fellowship in 2005 which funded extensive travel in the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe to research and prepare for my forthcoming book on the “ecology” of the live performing arts - of which I intend in due course to post parts as I write them on this site.

Believing in Opera, my study of radical changes in the theatrical interpretation of opera since the second world war, was published in 1996/7 by Faber & Faber and Princeton University Press, and later in paperback. My historical anthology of writing about opera, The Faber Book of Opera, was also published by Faber in the UK and by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the USA. It is also available in paperback. From March 1999 to May 2009 I was chair of the music section of the Critics’ Circle in London, of which I am now Vice-President. Most of my reviewing currently is for the magazine Opera Now, for whom I have been travelling extensively in the German-speaking world. I also write for Opern Welt in Berlin (thanks to its editor Albrecht Thiemann's fine translations of my English criticism).

In May 1998 I was employed as a production dramaturg for the first time - on Keith Warner’s staging at the Monnaie Theatre, Brussels of The Turn of The Screw conducted by Antonio Pappano and designed by Stefanos Lazaridis. Later I worked as a dramaturg with Warner again on Macbeth at the Monnaie, and in 2003 again with Warner, and this time with designer Es Devlin, on the professional premiere of the English version of Ernest Bloch’s Macbeth at the Theater an der Wien for the Vienna Klangbogen Festival. For Bloch's Macbeth I also did the language coaching, a fascinating additional challenge considering it was almost 35 years since I abandoned my singing career. In summer 2006 I collaborated with Keith and Es again at the Theater an der Wien on stagings of Don Giovanni and Erwin Schulhoff’s Flammen. In the 2010/11 season I will be again working as dramaturg with Keith on a new Rape of Lucretia at the Theater an der Wien and, a few months later, on a new Street Scene at the Semper Opera, Dresden. I lectured and was for some years tutor on the "distance learning" opera course at Rose Bruford College, where in 2006 I was made an Honorary Fellow. I have also taught the opera course at Birkbeck College, University of London.

My wife Meredith Oakes is a seventh generation Australian, born in Sydney and living in London since 1970, who has worked as a music critic, dramaturg, translator, playwright and librettist. Her plays and translations have been staged at the Royal Court Theatre, the National Theatre, the Hampstead Playhouse, the Ambassadors Theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, the Crucible Studio in Sheffield, and the Battersea Arts Centre. She wrote the story of Prime Suspect 4. Her radio plays for the BBC include Glide, Trampoline, The Mind of the Meeting, and Alex Tripped on my Fairy. Her stage plays include The Neighbour (Cottesloe, 1993), The Editing Process (Royal Court, 1994), Mind The Gap (Hampstead, 1995), Faith (Ambassadors, 1997), Man for Hire (Scarborough, 2002), Her Mother and Bartok (Hampstead, 2003), shadowmouth (Sheffield, 2006), Scenes from the Back of Beyond (Royal Court Upstairs, 2006), and The Fisherman, Short Lease, and SATB (Battersea Arts Centre, 2007) She was librettist for the television opera, The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit (Channel4, 1995) by Gerald Barry, also staged at the Aldeburgh and Berlin festivals, 2002, and wrote the text for Thomas Adés’s The Tempest (Royal Opera House, 2004, also Strasbourg, Copenhagen, Santa Fé, and to be performed at Frankfurt Opera, Theater Lübeck, and in 2013 the New York Met). Her librettos include The Black Monk (for Haflidi Hallgrimsson, based on Chekhov), Chemistry (for Julian Grant, based on Elective Affinities), Jump Into My Sack (also for Julian Grant, based on Calvino). Her translations include Holy Mothers (Werner Schwab’s Die Präsidentinnen) at the Ambassadors Theatre, directed by Richard Jones, Thomas Bernhard’s Queen Elizabeth II at The Gate, and Bernhard’s Heldenplatz to be staged in 2010 at the Arcola Theatre, Ödön von Horvàth’s Italian Night and Fatima Gallaire’s Princesses (Royal Court). Our son Walter is an opera and theatre director working in Austria, Germany, Estonia, the USA and Britain. His new Cosi fan tutte opens in Tallinn on October 17. Our daughter Chloe has been working at the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, having done her Masters at UCL. She starts working for her doctorate at Leeds University this autumn.  The subject is the effects of global warming on crops and plants in southern Africa. Our home is in south London.

Tom Sutcliffe Opera Critic
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