Saturday, 21 July 2012

Falstaff at Holland Park

Verdi: Falstaff
Opera Holland Park 20 July 2012
Conductor Peter Robinson Director Annilese Miskimmon Designer Nicky Shaw Lighting Designer Mark Jonathan

Olafur Sigurdarson Ford George von Bergen Alice Ford Linda Richardson Meg Page Carolyn Dobbin Mistress Quickly Carole Wilson Nanetta Rhona McKail Fenton Benjamin Hulett Dr Caius Christopher Turner Bardolpho Brian Galliford Pistola Simon Wilding
With the City of London Sinfonia and the Opera Holland Park Chorus 

Falstaff seems like the ideal opera for this company, not least because the whole of the last act takes place in a West London park. Yet this production is the first Holland Park has ever staged. It is their last offering for the year, and they've ended the season on a real high.
Director Annilese Miskimmon was responsible for the greatest triumph in last year’s season, l’Amico Fritz in a production that updated the action to the 1950s. This Falstaff shares many of the qualities on display there. Miskimmon clearly takes a hands-on approach to every aspect of her stagings, so nothing is left to chance, and everything that happens integrates into a considered and well though out interpretation. The result is a staging that is slick, funny and sexy. And while the historical setting has been changed, every lyric and performance direction is acknowledged, occasionally with a clever twist, but never at the expense of the work itself.
The production transports the action to London, or Windsor rather, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. This idea may have been inspired by Falstaff’s discharge from military service at the start, but after that its rationale grows thin. All the union jacks, bunting and maypoles may be intended to underline issues of national identity, although that was hardly a priority for the composer or librettist here.
So no real psychological insights from the updating, but it does provide an excellent visual theme for a stage aesthetic that is both attractive and coherent. There’s plenty of slapstick here too, which is all the finnier for its tight choreography. The men appearing onstage invariably end up dressed as priests or policemen, or rather comedy priests and comedy policemen. Verdi and Boito provide the details to fill out this scenario, and it all runs like clockwork.
Musically, this performance was impressively strong. As ever at Holland Park, most of the singers are up-at-coming, and while all put in fine performances, many suggested they could be giving more consummate readings of their roles in five or ten years time. This was particularly true of the female leads, Linda Richardson as Alice, and Rhona McKail as Nanetta, both of whom had all the notes under control, but could just do with a little more finesse, especially at the top. George von Bergen, in the role of Ford, is another name to watch. His voice is light, but he has a real verismo sound, and the complexity and dark richness to his tone allows him to convey an extraordinary range of emotions.
It is rare to find a singer who is able to fill the marquee that constitutes an auditorium at Holland Park, a problem their policy of hiring younger singers can only exacerbate. How refreshing then to hear Olafur Sigurdarson sing Falstaff with as much power and presence as the venue and the role demand. Sigurdarson was born to sing Falstaff, both his voice and his body language are ideal for the part. And while he is able to fill the venue with sound, he can also bring the timbre of his singing down, almost to speaking, a talent Verdi’s music often requires. And his roly poly slapstick was excellent, fitting precisely to the mood and pace of the music.
In the pit, the orchestra had a better night of it than they did for last week’s premiere of Onegin. A few more strings had been booked, which was a great help. The orchestra was still relatively small, but the tuttis never suffered, and conductor Peter Robinson was able to create all the havoc he needed for the bust ups and brawls, while always keeping the ensemble tightly controlled.
An excellent end to Holland Park’s 2012 season then. Falstaff was here presented as a real ensemble piece, with almost uniform musical quality from the cast, and a production that finds meaningful interpretations for each of their roles. But the real star of the show was undoubtedly Olafur Sigurdarson. If you get the chance to hear him sing Falstaff, here or anywhere else, make sure you go.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Onegin at Holland Park 13 July 2012

Tchaikovsky: Evgeny Onegin
Opera Holland Park 13 July 2012
Conductor Alexander Polianichko, Director Daniel Slater, Designer Leslie Travers, Lighting Designer Mark Jonathan, Choreographer Denni Sayers

Mark Stone, Tatyana Anna Leese, Lensky Peter Auty, Olga Hannah Pedley, Madame Larina Anne Mason, Prince Gremin Graeme Broadbent, Filippyevna Elizabeth Sikora, Triquet Gareth Dafydd Moriss,
Zaretsky/Captain Barnaby Rea
With the City of London Sinfonia and the Opera Holland Park Chorus 

Tchaikovsky's Onegin is treated to a gentle re-imagining in this new production at Holland Park. Director Daniel Slater throws in a handful of clever ideas to contextualise the drama and to suggest some deeper psychology. His interventions get more radical as the evening progresses, and for some reason the musical standards at this first night performance followed suit, with both the music and drama becoming more convincing as the evening progressed.
The unfortunate result is that there is a lot of mediocrity to sit through before this Onegin really comes to life. The performance began with a less than promising prelude. Those swooning string figures in the opening bars had to compete against a wide range of noises-off from the park, and the tiny string section (how can you perform Onegin with only two cellos?) wholly failed to set the mood. The musical coordination was also shaky for the first scene or so, and the incoherent opening ensemble from the four leads was a worrying omen of what was to follow.
Perhaps this was just first night jitters though, as the standards soon improved, with each of the lead singers becoming more and more convincing, both musically and dramatically. Director Daniel Slater sets the first two acts in a decaying aristocratic environment of late 19th/early 20th century Russia. It's more Chekhov than Pushkin but it works well enough. Slater ensures that the singers always act; the drama is always engaged, and usually engaging, although the sheer weight of detail can occasionally make the interactions seem clumsy.
For his first big idea, Slater has the silent figures of the mature Onegin and Tatyana stalking their younger selves throughout this first act. Combined with the decayed opulence of the scenery and the often nostalgic music, this places the action of the first act squarely in the past tense. Otherwise, the interpretive interventions in the first two acts are minimal. There is an interesting piece of choreography after the letter scene, in which the ladies of the chorus all briefly become Tatyanas, all swarming around Onegin, each offering him a letter. But Slater doesn't mess with the set pieces, giving fairly traditional accounts of the letter scene and the duel, both of which are presented with an impressive sense of atmosphere.
The cast is mostly young, but most of the singers have the vocal maturity to inhabit their respective roles. Tatyana and Olga are certainly convincing when played by the young singers Anna Leese and Hannah Pedley. It takes a greater stretch of the imagination to see the equally young Mark Stone and Peter Auty as Onegin and Lensky, but they just about pull it off.
Top musical honours go to Anna Leese, whose performance as Tatyana is worth coming out to West London for on its own. The richness and timbral complexity of her voice makes her performance endlessly fascinating. And she's got a real knack for presenting the drama of the story in her singing, a rare gift indeed. That said, she has a tendency to go sharp and the top, and she doesn't support the ends of longer phrases as well as she might, a failing Tchaikovsky’s music highlights. Even so, she remains this company's greatest asset. There was no danger of Hannah Pedley stealing the show from her, although Pedley's Olga had the clearest diction of any of the roles.
Mark Stone presents Onegin as a complex and not very likeable character, although it took him until the last act to really inhabit the role. Peter Auty plays Lensky for laughs in the first act, allowing some character development leading into his more angst-ridden role in the second. Both could do with another ten years or so to develop the richness in the lower register that give those characters their authority. Similarly with Graeme Broadbent in the role of Gremin – he's basso yes, but profundo no. Hearing this lightweight rendition of the Prince in Act Three highlighted the fact that their wasn't a single Russian singer in the cast, an unusual situation for any Onegin.
There was a Russian on the podium though, and Alexander Polianichko has more experience with this score than anybody else involved. He gave a passionate but ordered account, and after the orchestra had settled down around the middle of the first act, he was able to deliver a thoroughly Russian sound from the pit.
The reason for the Chekov-era setting of Acts 1 and 2 become clear at the start of the third, where it transpired that the five years that Onegin had spent abroad had spanned the Revolution. That's a clever ploy on a number of levels, the most obvious being the iconography it provides for this last act, all proletarian uniforms and Revolutionary posters (the big face of Lenin in the wardrobe was taking things a bit far though). 'Prince' Gremin is now a captain in the Soviet army, with Tatyana his devoted bride, and Onegin a White Russian out of step with the new order. In terms of the narrative, this allows the director to make sense of Tatyana's devotion to her new husband – as a symptom of revolutionary fervour rather than continuing naivety. All in all the revolutionary thing is a great idea, and it doesn't seriously grate against the libretto either.
Daniel Slater's interpretive ideas are strongly weighted towards the end of the work, with even the theme of remembrance in the first act making the crucial drama there into a mere prelude for what is to come. This dramatic trajectory is at odds with Tchaikovsky’s (let alone Pushkin's) symmetrical and evenly balanced narrative. If the musical standards had been even throughout, this device might have worked better, but when combined with the ensemble problems in the first act, the overall impression was that the start of the opera was being effectively written off in favour of the more imaginatively staged conclusion.
A good Onegin then, but an uneven one. Musically, a larger orchestra and a few more mature singers could have improved matters. Dramatically, the interpretation convinces because every interaction in the story is acknowledged, and many are explored in detail. Just enough new ideas are added in to allow us to take a fresh look at the story, and without it changing beyond recognition. But it takes a long time to get going, and the first act does feel like a wasted opportunity, especially in comparison with the many musical and dramatic insights that follow.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Internet responses to Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet

With the first performance of Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet in the UK, or above it rather, just a few weeks away, those with an interest can turn to the internet to learn about the work and its history. YouTube has some interesting videos, including this one on the 1995 performance at the Holland Festival, and a short clip of a more recent performance in Salzburg in 2003. The latter is worth a look just for the comments, which now number well over 3,000.
Sadly, the level of debate is pitiful, even by YouTube's unenviable standards. But it does demonstrate a surprising lack of comprehension in this fairly transparent work. Perhaps I'm being naïve, but I'd have thought that a generation raised on the industrial sounds of thrash metal and suchlike would have little problem with the mechanical noises on which this music is based.
But no, it seems passive hostility is the best that Stockhausen can expect here. Some commentators are supportive, although mostly of the idea of modern music rather than the piece or its composer. And the one fact that Stockhausen's detractors have picked up is that he described the September 11 attacks as 'the greatest work of art ever', a statement that does have a certain resonance when disparaging the composer's airborne aesthetic.
Most responses are a bit more basic than that though. Here's a sample. My favourite is the last one:

what 4 hyperactive and completely unmusical children would do if handed string instruments for the first time.
Am I supposed to call it music just for the sake of modernity?
this video is brilliant. i LOVE Monty Python!
a hideous mockery of music
holy shit i didnt know they made classical grindcore.
Certainly, this kind of music is the most ungodly pile of shit ever conceived of by the human mind.
However terrible this sounds, it still sounds better than metal music.
this is horrendous
just pointless and terrible
Be honest--it's crap.
Stockhausen - what was wrong with this dude! it sounds awful!
Pointless....A complete waste of time.
I support odd music but this is not worth the carbon emissions those helicopters generated.
i could have been watching porn this whole time