Sunday, 14 May 2017

From harmony to discord: Myrthen Ensemble / 'The Exterminating Angel'

I won't forget Saturday 6 May 2017 in a hurry. Thanks to my haphazard attempts at the usual intricate rocket science (or 'booking', as some people call it), I was packing out the day with not one, but two musical events: a lunchtime recital, followed by the opera in the evening. But it was no ordinary recital, and no ordinary opera.

At Wigmore Hall, the Myrthen Ensemble were taking their turn in the venue's epic concert series 'Schubert: The Complete Songs' (I'm trying to get to as many of these as possible). Most of the gigs so far have featured voice/piano duos, apart from a few exceptions where veteran accompanist and Schubert guru Graham Johnson brought together several soloists at a time to tackle some of the lieder for more than one singer.

This, though, was different. While the multi-participant sessions I mention above inevitably had a slight 'scratch band' feel to them (and no less enjoyable for that), the Myrthen Ensemble are a 'proper' group. Although, as their membership is made up of accomplished soloists, you could use the word 'supergroup', even. At their centre is pianist Joseph Middleton - regular Specs readers will know I'm an admirer of his playing, in particular his work with Carolyn Sampson, but his obvious flair for collaboration is no doubt crucial to the dynamic of this larger band.

The founding vocal line-up alongside JM is Mary Bevan (soprano), Clara Mouriz (mezzo), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone) and Allan Clayton (tenor) - although guest singers also feature, and when I've seen them live (including this occasion), Nicky Spence has taken the tenor spot. Their superb 2016 debut release, 'Songs to the Moon', was a double disc, bringing to mind the obvious comparison with Frankie Goes To Hollywood. [*needs work*]

(This brilliant photo, from the album cover sessions, I believe, is by John Alexander.)

This is so good a team that choosing highlights was impossible, and it feels totally unnecessary to single anyone out from a group with such a warm rapport. While they all got to sing solo or in various combinations, it was an utter joy to hear the four-part selections, as in the closing 'Gebet' and 'Der Tanz'. One gift they all share is the ability to communicate their own individual styles even when singing together, so if you wanted to 'follow' one of them for a while - MB's shining tone at one end, MF's crystal-clear basslines at the other, or CM and NS providing the rich colours in between - it was quite easy to do so. I just found myself locking into one voice after another, and never once began thinking in terms of 'preference' - only about how well the overall sound was working.

The occasional glance to the side of the stage, where the singers not 'on' at any given time were sitting, showed them as avid listeners, with as much invested in their colleague's performances as their own. I hope these particular stars align again soon, especially if there's room in schedules for recording: a follow-up album would be very welcome.

Slight change of mood, then, in the evening, for Thomas Adès's latest opera, 'The Exterminating Angel', at the Royal Opera House. The intriguing plot - if that's the right word - is closely based on the 1962 film of the same name by surrealist Luis Buñuel - so, if you've seen neither the opera nor the movie and want to avoid spoilers against a potential future viewing... please stop reading!

To sum up the scene: Edmundo and Lucia, the Marqués and Marquesa de Nobile, are hosting a post-opera dinner party. The guests are all either fully aristocratic or at the very least part of the well-to-do upper class - with the possible exception of Leticia, the lead soprano in the opera the party have been to see, invited as a guest of honour. By contrast, the servants - seemingly gripped by a collective unease - leave the house just as the dinner gets going, abandoning Julio the butler to attend to the guests' demands by himself.

In a disconcerting opening sequence that confirms something is amiss, the guests arrive twice - as no-one as there to take their coats, they circle round back towards the door and re-enact the same movements. However, after dining, they head to the main drawing room for music: Blanca, one of the guests, plays piano and they urge Leticia to sing some more. But as the night wears on, one thing they don't do is leave - even though they are not locked in, or incapacitated. And the more they think about, or discuss leaving, the greater their inertia, and the longer they stay put. Days pass - and we see the servants, and eventually the military arrive outside to carry out a rescue... but they too succumb to a kind of paralysis and can't bring themselves to enter the mansion.

The aristocrats' disintegrating sense of decorum is savagely satirised - early on, the women are uneasy that the chaps are removing their jackets - but before long, they're all sleeping on the floor in the same room, unwashed, all sense of good manners in tatters. The true nature of some of the characters' relationships and situations is revealed, and several of the guests don't make it out alive. Finally, Leticia notices that for the first time, they have all somehow arrived back at the places they were all standing when they became 'trapped' (in an echo of the 'double' opening). Running through the movements again, they find this has broken the 'spell' and they cautiously, but successfully, leave the room. In a superb twist ending, the staging then has them meet the rest of the cast outside the house - the returning servants, the army, the townspeople and so on - only for the whole ensemble to find they can't leave the stage. (I think this is a supremely clever alternative to the film's ending, where the aristocrats give thanks at church for their freedom only to disappear among the congregation - who then discover they are trapped in the church. The movie closes with a brief scene of fighting on the streets, followed by sheep being led into the church as gunshots are still heard on the soundtrack.)

The choice of this particular story for an opera is itself a stroke of genius, as it conjures up certain kinds of tension that feel rather new: for example, instead of a traditional opera being given a modern, controversial makeover, the subject matter here is so 'out there', it almost demands to be told straight. Indeed, within the confines of the room, we witness love, sex, death, incest, attempted murder, potential human sacrifice and double suicide... so the high-octane emotions and actions are quite enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with any grand (guignol) opera.

(This brilliant photo, of my crumpled ROH cast leaflet, is by me.)

Adès seems to thrive on these tensions musically (he also conducts these performances) - woven among the orchestra, we hear - at various relevant points - the early (and eerie) electronic keyboard instrument the ondes Martenot, what sounds like a full-blown drum kit undergoing some serious punishment... and a delicate Spanish guitar. The score feels extreme - not as in difficult or alienating, far from it - but relentless and provocative. He places some of the most intense characters at the wide points of the vocal range, which increases the sense of strain and panic. In this, he's aided immeasurably by a heroic cast. Amanda Echalaz as Lucia and Audrey Luna as Leticia negotiate some astonishingly high passages, and Iestyn Davies - so good in roles requiring some edge and menace to undercut any 'angelic' countertenor clichés - was hugely impressive as perhaps the most dangerous loose cannon in the room. At the other end of the audio spectrum, the closest the opera gets to a bedrock of sense and sanity is the doctor, sung by John Tomlinson in his subterranean bass.

But I mention these folk first largely to make a dramatic point, because all told this was an absolute luxury cast, working as an ensemble - like the recital from earlier in the day, I don't want to single anyone out! Ed Lyon and Sophie Bevan (sister of Mary from the Myrthens - allowing me to achieve a rare 'double Bevan' in one day...!) generated frantic chemistry as the doomed lovers. A further array of arresting, characterful voices - Thomas Allen, Frédéric Antoun, Sally Matthews, David Adam Moore, Anne Sophie von Otter, Christine Rice and Charles Workman - all fleshed out the guests' various collapses into convincingly three-dimensional distress, each wrestling with their individual secrets and demons. Apologies to anyone I've accidentally missed out, because the teamwork on display here was remarkable: jointly ratcheting up the mood until almost everyone reaches breaking point together, negotiating some intricate stagecraft - and still sounding so convincing. Bravi, in all sincerity.

The final layer of magic was the inventive staging. Fitting the story's black comedy, there were some winning visual and aural coups. Before we went in, a tolling bell filled the ROH's passageways, and a small flock of real sheep were already onstage. (They eventually turn up in artificial format to become dinner for the starving aristos.) Later in the action, two characters - dead by their own hands - were dragged offstage, then the false pool of blood they lay in was dragged off after them. And the 'door' of the room itself, impassable and implacable, was a huge empty gateway, with literally 'nothing' keeping the characters in their self-imposed prison. This revolved depending on which parts of the house we needed to see.

What did it all mean? Well - a common interpretation would suggest that the toffs are the ruling class / bourgeoisie, whose ivory-tower inertia will spell their end. But - and this seems to be Buñuel's original, open intent - it resists a thorough-going explanation. The collapse of 'society' inside the room can reference all manner of dystopian fiction (as a William Golding nut, I thought of 'Lord of the Flies'), and it may all come down to little more than 'we're all doomed!'

Given current world events, perhaps this is what made the opera feel like such an urgent piece of entertainment - but with its snappy, economical text and haunting visuals (both courtesy of librettist and director Tom Cairns) and Adès's ceaselessly inventive music, it was an exhilarating way to ride out the horror.

Stop press: Thrilled to note that in the week or so since I saw this rather unusual 'double bill', Joseph Middleton has been given the Royal Philharmonic Society 2016 Young Artist Award... and 'The Exterminating Angel' - for its initial performances in Salzburg with the same cast and production before coming to London - won 'World Premiere' at the 2017 International Opera Awards. Both richly deserved.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Happy endings: great 'outros'

It might seem odd to say that what really makes some songs great is the way they end - but the outro is a great, mystical dark art. How a record plays out is crucial to making you listen to it again - and want to reach that ending once more.

I heard the Roxy Music track below playing somewhere recently - quite by accident (I really need to dig my Roxy albums back out from some far-flung corner of the Specs shelving labyrinth). And I found myself not wanting it to end. As a result, this sent me on a quest to retrieve some of my favourite song outros, and list 10 of them below, making a case for each. For maximum convenience, I've also included the point in the song where I believe - correctly, of course - that the outro starts. I hope you enjoy them.

Roxy Music - 'More than This'

2:45. Bryan Ferry is always the centre of attention, a kind of supernova of suavity, his mannered vocals Roxy's real signature sound through at least two distinct phases (avant and après garde, you could say). But so laidback does he seem, that he shuts up before the song reaches the three-minute mark, job done. Its gentle groove is allowed to run on, just being lovely, no real embellishments or showboating. The video reinforces this, with Ferry sitting, motionless, back to the camera, watching his own band.

The Cure - 'A Forest'

3:10. I do like mad, spooky songs that genuinely seem to be about mad, spooky things. (See also 'Home by the Sea', by Genesis.) Here, the protagonist is lured into the forest by a recurring female voice - but there's no-one there. Whether it's a ghost or the singer's psychosis doesn't really matter - to him, it's real. For the final minute or two, the band ratchets up the tension, musically illustrating the increasing desperation, climbing higher and higher - until he gives up, perhaps out of breath. The guitar echoes away and the song closes on the bass's juddering heartbeat.

Belle and Sebastian - 'Lazy Line Painter Jane'

4:30. In direct contrast to 'A Forest', this exhilarating single closes in giddy ecstasy. I think that B&S have retained their understated charm throughout their whole glittering career, but in their early days, there was a bit more of this barely-controlled clatter, their enthusiasm almost threatening to de-rail them. It's hard to imagine a song that captures so well the illicit excitement of a night out with some potential low-key rudery. Even the mighty guest vocals of Monica Queen give way to the swirling recklessness of a group sounding like they're not sure how or when they're going to stop.

Rainbow - 'Stargazer'

6:00 (ish). Metal outros are not like other outros. This track might be preposterous (as if that's a bad thing), but it contains limitless pleasures. In particular, the vocals and drums are touched by something monumental. However, it's in this list because - when you think Ronnie James Dio is simply going to launch into another chorus - he just keeps singing... and singing.... and singing. I don't think it's a case of 'ad lib to fade' as such - the vocal melody remains tightly worked out and there are repeated phrases - but it hammers home the fantastical horror of the story with a totally straight face. Extra points, too, for rhyming 'rising' with, er, 'hori-zin'.

Iron Maiden - 'The Wicker Man'

3:48. On the subjects of metal, fantasy and horror... Iron Maiden arguably came back from the dead with this track. Their most popular frontman, Bruce Dickinson, returned to the fold and it's surely no accident that the track sounds full of adrenalin, fast and playful. (For a metal band, Maiden write excellent pop songs.) I love this outro because it captures that 'We're back' confidence - not with any actual words, but with a completely gratuitous "Woah-oh!" chant that arrives out of nowhere, designed purely for adoring fans to bellow back at them from the arena floor.

Fleetwood Mac - 'The Chain'

3:04. Or: 'the Formula 1!' Justly more famous than the three minutes preceding it, this is one of the great 'musical snippets' in all of rock music. An indelible bassline, so - not wishing to spoil it - when the guitar arrives it's a propulsive monotone that increases the urgency without trampling on the low-end tune. There's also something very satisfying about a band stringing disparate sections together to make a single song called ... 'The Chain'.

Radiohead: 'Karma Police'

2:30. Radiohead - whether in their earlier, rockier incarnation or their more glitchy and elusive current guise - have always been masters of building tension to a glorious moment of release ('Planet Telex', 'You and Whose Army' right through to 'Burn the Witch'). But 'Karma Police' sustains this when, the song all but over after about two minutes, bursts into an almost oppressively catchy chord sequence with an unforgettable final line ('Phew! For a minute there, I lost myself') - itself eventually disintegrating along with the song behind it.

The Smiths - 'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore'

2:10. Another testament to the power of a chilling, repeated final line: the Smiths could be arch and humorous in their supposed misery, but this plays it relatively straight. Channelling despair into a kind of psychedelic mantra, the record sounds like what it's about. As Morrissey intones 'I've seen this happen in other people's lives, and now it's happening in mine', Marr wrestles a bending, churning riff from the guitar, slow but unstoppable. One of the great false endings, too: even when Morrissey is silenced, the band come back, overwhelming him. This part of the track was chopped off for the single version - toweringly daft decision.

Talking Heads: 'Found a Job'

3:15. The jerky, circular hook that sees this track through to its conclusion almost sums up Talking Heads's overall brilliance for me - almost maddeningly addictive, off-kilter but so tight and precise. Tina Weymouth's bassline is understandably the star turn, but listen to David Byrne's stop-start rhythm guitar, too. So bare and nonchalant, it sounds like what it is - wires being disturbed to make a pulse. If ever proof were needed that a song can be almost purely about its outro, it's in the celebrated Talking Heads concert film 'Stop Making Sense' - the band, with no explanation, dump a whole verse of 'Found a Job' and hurtle towards the instrumental ending. The late, great Jonathan Demme films them from the side, in a line, moving in sync, a living sine wave:

The Beatles - 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)'

4.37. Hang on... wasn't there that other Beatles track with the famous outro...? Well - yes, I could've picked 'Hey Jude', I suppose! But surely the most powerful extended ending in the Beatles catalogue is this, the climax to side one of 'Abbey Road', cutting to silence as it hits the run-out groove. Apparently one of the very last times the four were all in the studio together, this might have pushed an envelope or two (along with 'Helter Skelter', it points the way towards metal, and the eight minute running time nudged it towards prog and psych) ... but as the clamour increases to eventually overwhelm the layers of guitar - you realise you're listening to the Beatles implode.

Over and out!

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Global warning: John Adams's 'Doctor Atomic'

Last week, I went to see a concert performance at London's Barbican of John Adams's great 2005 opera 'Doctor Atomic'. Since current world events have turned our attention all over again to nuclear weapons, this portrait of Oppenheimer and his colleagues in the run-up to creating the first atom bomb felt queasily topical.

The gig itself is rooted in a far happier enterprise - celebrations for John Adams's 70th birthday, and the conductor himself was here to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra, plus the BBC Singers and a group of fine soloists. This team are underlining the opera's place in posterity. The concert followed recording sessions for the Nonesuch label - exciting news: while two productions have made it to DVD, I'm not sure there's an existing CD version. And this performance was recorded to go out in the near future on BBC Radio 3 - which means it will also spend a month on iPlayer. So, if you're at all curious to hear 'Doctor Atomic', you'll have no excuse for missing it!

But you won't need one. It's a shining, shattering work - exhilarating and ultimately devastating. The opening scenes of the opera take place the month before the first atom bomb test, when the terrifying implications of what they have created are fracturing the bond between the scientists. Oppenheimer's colleagues Teller and Wilson both have grave fears about the weapon, with Wilson potentially agitating the team against its use. Oppenheimer warns him against interfering in politics, but is himself profoundly troubled, as the following scene at home with his wife Kitty shows. We then fast-forward to 15 July 1945, the night before the test. Weather conditions seem about to scupper the exercise, but the formidable General Groves will not countenance any delay. Over the remaining 24 hours of the story, we move between the test site and the Oppenheimer residence, where Kitty and the family's Native American maid Pasqualita remain. As tensions rise, the bomb is finally detonated, and the final sounds we hear are voices of Hiroshima survivors (where, of course, the bomb would be used in anger only a few weeks after the test).

The libretto, part-written/part-assembled by regular Adams collaborator Peter Sellars, weaves together speeches, thoughts and opinions from existing documents by or about the characters concerned, with quotations and allusions to poetry and myth outside the 'reality' of the opera's scenario. (I was reminded of the similarly wide-ranging balance of the mystic and realistic in the two Adams/Sellars oratorios, 'El Niño' and 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary', which I also love.)

What makes this technique particularly appropriate for 'Doctor Atomic' is that Oppenheimer was a well-read man particularly drawn to poetry - so in his moments of highest anxiety, it is only too fitting that he retreats into his beloved verse. The key highlight here is almost certainly Oppenheimer's aria 'Batter my heart', which is a setting of a John Donne poem that articulates the torment of one wracked between good and evil. Poetry and storytelling link Oppenheimer to his home and family: Kitty's first appearance is unexpectedly sensual, as she tries to soothe and rouse her husband out of his gloom with the words 'Am I in your light?' - actually a quote from a poem by Muriel Rukeyser.

Listening closely to the words heightened my awareness of the voices. This may sound facile, but bear with me: it's easy to take certain operatic vocal conventions as read without thinking about them too hard. Often, the hero is a tenor. Often, the villain is a bass or baritone. Often, the heroine is a soprano. And often, mezzos are cast as femmes fatales or blokes, giving rise to the 'witches, bitches and britches' line. Obviously, these are not universal, but they're the case routinely enough to become clichés of a sort.

But I was newly struck here by how Adams had the characters' registers fit their mental state and role in the drama. Teller (Brindley Sherratt), nearly crushed by the weight of his fear and knowledge, sings in an ominous bass - as does the immovable, ultimately responsible General (Aubrey Allcock). Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley), suspended between breakdown and release, holds the piece together with his fleet baritone. The other baritone role is Hubbard (Marcus Farnsworth), the weather forecaster, who must also - at a more modest level - sing the line between expert self-assurance and uncertain conscience. The tenors are those more or less given over to panicked action or drama: Wilson the rebel (Andrew Staples) and Nolan (Samuel Sakker), the captain who tries to give Groves graphic warning of the bomb's effects. In all, the men's roles convey the unbearable claustrophobia - both physical and mental - of their situation.

Where any release is possible - however short-lived - the two women provide it: Kitty (soprano Julia Bullock) attempting to lighten her husband's spirit, and let some space into the sound; Pasqualita (mezzo Jennifer Johnston) voicing the warmth of home. As the countdown continues, both women's psyches will be as profoundly affected as the men's.

I found the soloists uniformly excellent. Although - and who knows, possibly because - they had to stay relatively close to their positions, their singing and movement were so convincing that I didn't for a second wish it had been fully-staged. Clearly working as a tight ensemble (brilliant to look forward to their recorded version), the adrenalin of performance seemed to translate perfectly into the tension of the opera. From small touches of characterisation (I'm still thinking about Finley's omnipresent cigarette and Staples's flimsy leaflet), to carefully-controlled body language and exchanged glances - every performer made an indelible contribution that supported the others. And it would be remiss of me not to award lofty praise to the BBC Singers who, as chorus, chanted both pure science and apocalyptic visions like a single horror-struck organism.

None of this would be possible, of course, without Adams's score. As a fully paid-up fan of his work, I was expecting to like and admire it, but I hadn't banked on being so profoundly moved or disturbed by it. While parts of 'Doctor Atomic' are undeniably beautiful, there is sonic terror here, too: layer upon layer of sometimes grinding, pulsing intensity that place you mid-maelstrom. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, in a suitably vast incarnation, visibly (and audibly) relished the chance to play the piece for the composer as if their lives depended on it. I don't think anyone there that evening is likely to forget those closing moments, a kind of horrified catharsis as the explosion faded and the players turned their lights out one by one, leaving us in a moral, as well as visual, void.

Eternally topical, unflinching, magnificent.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017


I've become increasingly aware in recent months of some great CDs finding their way into chez Specs (how does THAT happen?!) - and my increasing failure to tell you about them. So, weighting the content towards the music itself rather than my ramblings for once, here are a few recent records that make me come over all evangelical.

Jethro Tull: 'The String Quartets'
Being something of a proglodyte, I adore Jethro Tull - and while this disc might look like Ian Anderson could be trading on former glories, I actually think it really works. The songs translate successfully, helped by the frontman's flute (not a euphemism) which gave the originals such a timeless feel in the first place. This selection is the arrangement for 'Locomotive Breath', re-christened 'Loco'.

Elliott Smith: 'Either/Or - Expanded Edition'
I'd always considered myself a huge fan of Smith's music. But it was only when this re-issue of my favourite of his albums was announced, that I realised how hard I had found it to play the CDs following his awful death - now some 14 years ago. Revisiting this record, I found myself binge-listening to his whole body of work, and falling in love with his seemingly inexhaustible supply of melancholic melodies all over again. The appropriately named 'Either/Or' is the precise 'bridging' point between his early albums' whispery acoustic and the later, more robustly produced material. The expanded edition adds some fascinating finds, including his demo of the gorgeous 'I Figured You Out' - a song he found surplus to requirements but recorded beautifully by Mary Lou Lord. But this choice here is 'Alameda' from the original track listing - both firm and fragile, the delicate web of a tune spun over a steely shuffle. Lovely moment when the second verse - and the bass - seem to arrive in a hurry.

Max Richter: 'Orlando: Modular Astronomy' from 'Woolf Works'
Sadly, I haven't made it to a performance of 'Woolf Works', the ballet by Wayne McGregor based on three of Virginia Woolf's novels. However, the score is a haunting, addictive suite by Richter that stands up brilliantly by itself. With clear appeal to someone like me who worships at the Glass altar (among others), the 'Orlando' section variations in particular are resourceful, inventive and welcoming. They manage to conjure up a meeting point between the cerebral, restless personality they celebrate, and a life-affirming physicality for dance.

7JK: 'Ride the Solar Tide'
Regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know how much I admire Matt Howden - aka Sieben - who records his solo material with voice, violin and a loop station. Pushing constantly at these parameters, he manages to use his apparently restrictive set-up as a springboard for one heroically inventive and original album after another. However, in his collaborations - such as the mighty Rasp record with Jo Quail and this project with Maciek Frett of Polish industrial band Job Karma - he can really let rip. Dark folk and industrial/noise have long seemed to be unlikely but steadfast 'counter-culture' bedfellows, and in 7JK you have a full-on merger, with Matt's swirling, pulsing fiddle barely contained by the electronic rhythms beneath it. Placing Sheffield firmly within the outer reaches of the solar system, the whole album is a surreal, sinister yet mischievous treat - this track, 'Barry the Astonishing', a great entry point. Channel your inner Estonian!

Cavern of Anti-Matter: 'Blood-Drums' and 'Void Beats / Invocation Trex'
Cavern of Anti-Matter is the latest band from Tim Gane, one of the chief masterminds behind the much-missed Stereolab. Anyone who cherished that group's ability to produce driving, 'motorik', groove-laden anthems while simultaneously sounding so laidback and nonchalant will find much to enjoy here. Without Laetitia Sadler's understatedly cool vocals, this is inevitably a different and slightly less 'sensual' proposition. Instead, there's a kind of techno-fury added to the gloriously analogue mix - real drums propelling synths set to maximum 'squelch'. Two CDs released in quick succession: both great. This is the title track to 'Blood-Drums'.

Lavinia Meijer: 'The Glass Effect'
With one CD entirely devoted to Philip Glass already under her belt, harpist LM has returned to the source, but this time with a luxurious two-disc release that places more Glass arrangements alongside complementary works by a range of contemporary composers (such as Muhly and Arnalds). A great and satisfyingly epic listen, but it's almost impossible for me to tear myself away from the PG compositions themselves - and here is an example, Etude 17.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Eyes (and ears) front: 'Meistersinger' and 'Carousel'

It's hard to imagine how my latest two visits to an opera house could be more different. The last time I was in the Royal Opera House, I saw the new production of Wagner's 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg', while my trip to the London Coliseum yesterday was for Rodgers & Hammerstein's 'Carousel'.

And yet, rightly or wrongly, they seem to share a link that - once I started mulling it over - I found hard to shake off: that their 'offstage' circumstances are bound to influence and colour the way they are received and discussed.

'Meistersinger' was Kasper Holten's farewell production as the ROH's Director of Opera. He heads back to his native Denmark (where he has said he wants his young family to settle), earlier than we might have expected. Both his own productions and overall tenure at the ROH seem to have provoked mixed reactions, and the fact that he was bowing out with an opera featuring a bunch of reactionaries resisting artistic progress didn't go unnoticed. Personally, I'd guess that a new production of 'Meistersinger' must've been in the works for some years, longer than KH would've been deciding whether to stay on or not - but I don't know, and I don't particularly want to know. The 'critique of the critic' - if that's how one wants to view it - is all there in the opera already.

I saw three operas directed by KH - 'Don Giovanni', 'Krol Roger', then 'Meistersinger' - and they show to me, at any rate, a definite consistency of approach which appeals to me personally. Without going into all-out 'Regietheater' (the practice of reinventing source material - think modern-dress Shakespeare - but increasingly a by-word for a director-as-dictator pushing interpretation to the limits, sometimes steamrollering over the received wisdom about the composer's intentions) ... we are invited into 'Kasperworld', a slightly surreal - but not 'unreal' - domain where unexpected visuals add a further dimension to what we hear. For example, the projections in 'DG' included the writing of the anti-hero's conquests across the background - while the number of his seductions can be sung for comic effect, the endless list of names brings home his horrendous treatment of hundreds of women. 'Krol Roger', a brilliant psychodrama, was enacted around a large effigy of the king's head, with dancers moving like synapses within, playing out the mental struggle.

And so, onto 'Meistersinger', where the scenes are blurred, so that characters can occupy the same space on stage but 'be' in any location - Sachs's workshop, the meeting hall, the streets. The set also revolves, so that some of the action is played out 'backstage', without anyone breaking character. While I'm still not sure this worked 100% dramatically, I liked the idea - one thing constantly running through the opera is artifice: everyone is putting up a front of some kind. Both Sachs and Eva have to skirt round the fact that he might have won her, and she might have gone for him; Beckmesser is barely holding himself together; Walther is striving to be something he isn't - and David pretends to be something he isn't when teaching him. Spoiler alert: the most infamous example is the ever-problematic ending, where Sachs seems to 'snap' out of his progressive outlook, go back to being old-school and praise heritage German art. For this, KH had a clever twist up his sleeve, where Eva flees the scene rather than submit to Walther, who - against his initial instincts - ends up going down the trad route and joining the elite.

With this in mind, I found the 'theatrical bubble' presentation appealing and stimulating. It needed great performances to carry it, and I felt we got these: stand-outs for me were Bryn Terfel (unsurprisingly) who, I felt, caught particularly well the underlying melancholy of Sachs - no mean feat to sing so powerfully yet convey a kind of weary resignation in the acting. Rachel Willis-Sørensen was superbly cast, giving Eva a strong-willed maturity that made her convince opposite both Sachs and Walther (Gwyn Hughes Jones) and give the surprise ending a meaningful foundation. Hanna Hipp and Allan Clayton brought Lena and David - who could so easily be a sub-plot 'mirror couple' - to comic yet tender, emotionally-sung, three-dimensional life.

(Hanna Hipp and Allan Clayton, in Clive Barda's great production photo, copyright Royal Opera House 2017.)

'Carousel', meanwhile, is the latest in a series of musicals playing at the Coliseum while English National Opera ('ENO') is between seasons. But there has been a bit more 'between seasons' than usual, with ENO's business woes resulting in the decision to make the 2016/17 season shorter and less resource-heavy than usual.

I've made no secret in the past on this blog of where my sympathies and loyalties lie when it comes to ENO: they're with the company (small 'c') - by which I mean, the Chorus and Orchestra. As a punter, it's quite clear to me they are an exceptional group of musicians and I want to see them treated with maximum appreciation and respect, and given as much gainful employment as possible.

[STOP PRESS: As I type this, the Olivier Awards are being announced. ENO's 'Akhnaten' has won Best New Opera Production, and Mark Wigglesworth - their previous Music Director who sadly resigned - has won Outstanding Achievement in Opera for conducting ENO's recent 'Don Giovanni' and 'Lulu'. I couldn't be more pleased.]

The 2016/17 season - while it had some great shows which I loved - could and should have used the Chorus, in particular, more than it did. The musicals are potentially controversial because they historically bring in talent rather than use what ENO have already - but at the same time, the organisation are quite upfront about using them to generate income from the Coliseum when it might otherwise be dark.

Encouragingly, however, 'Carousel' is using the ENO Orchestra and Chorus alongside a song 'n' dance ensemble, which made me feel more comfortable about going along to support it. It's a musical I happen to like - at least in terms of the songs - and it was a chance to take my mum and dad to the Coliseum. (Phase 1 in a long game, aiming at getting them along to an opera.) However, the lead roles are not taken by opera singers, as I generally experience them - but 'crossover' classical stars Alfie Boe as Billy and Katherine Jenkins as Julie.

I had a really good time at 'Carousel' - I think it's a show that will give everyone exactly what they want to take from it. [With my blessing, please stop here if you want to avoid spoilers.]

Lots of it, I thought, was absolutely terrific: the Orchestra are on majestic form, as are the Chorus, simply adding more and more weight to my existing conviction that they can do absolutely anything, brilliantly. For a 'semi-staging', the set was a lot more inventive than I was expecting - attractive, static backgrounds gave a feel for location, while wooden platform proved endlessly all-purpose as the action required. I particularly enjoyed the pathway being constructed for Billy to walk on while he was actually performing the 'Soliloquy' number - it added to the impression of his being lost in thought, with only the theatrical machinery there to support him. And there are two thrilling dance sequences - the overture (a reverse run-through of the entire story) and the heart-rending sequence showing Louise (Billy's daughter) grow to adolescence.

AB and KJ both gave sincere, committed performances. I actually found this aspect of the show the hardest to get used to: the singers were miked up. This is not to criticise the leads at all - I can honestly say that I've never really followed their careers because they don't tend to perform repertoire in the way I want to hear it. But I'm used to hearing people in the Coliseum sing with that much power and conviction without amplification - so the point is, it simply sounded different. I took a long time to get to grips with it. But there is absolutely no question - we were surrounded by fans of both performers, who clearly loved every minute. And it's hard to imagine anyone with an emotional investment in either or both of the stars coming away disappointed. It actually made a welcome change from what one unfortunately sometimes hears on exiting the opera house or concert hall - certain attendees (casualties of extreme fandom, which can so easily damage the ability to simply enjoy oneself), racing to be the first to pick holes in a production or performance to their companions.

Here is some sample text from a recent review of ENO's 'The Winter's Tale' - I don't really want to name the reviewer:

I tweeted these 'grabs' when I saw them because they are everything I dislike in music writing. The lower one has that horrible 'Inner Smirk-le' tone that we are all sneering at a shared, hated production (well, I loved 'Thebans'). But the one on top seems to imply that if there's any difficulty or issue floating around a company or production, then it can and should be used as a kind of ammo, to back up whatever negative stuff one might want to say about it.

I reject that ill-meant smugness totally. As unlikely a pair as they may be, 'Meistersinger' and 'Carousel' have both reminded me how important it is to take what we see and hear onstage for what it is: a heady concoction of ideas, talent, effort and commitment, brought alive by gifted, dedicated people. We should never take them for granted.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Identity crisis

Huge decision for me, but I've been mulling it over - and saving up - for some time. After putting up for most of my life (since I realised at about age five or six that I couldn't read the words flashing up on the television) with my glasses, I've had enough. I've never managed to cope with contact lenses, either - partly due to just finding them uncomfortable, and no doubt also thanks to a prejudice against them since seeing one of my teachers clean his with his own saliva. (I had glasses by then, so I can assure you, that's definitely what he was doing.)

So - I'm going to have corrective laser eye surgery and get rid of the d____d specs once and for all. But - at that point, as perhaps you might - I gave pause. No more specs. Would that mean no more 'Specs'?

It's clear that once I get the op done, I can no longer call this blog by its current name. It wouldn't make any sense. I'm reluctant to let 'Specs' go, and the thought of having to build its enormous, loyal fanbase back up because no-one has any idea what it's called anymore fills me with dread. But it has to be done. To ease the problem, I've decided to get anyone who'd like to be involved in on the act and help me re-name the site.

I have made a start, but I'm not really that happy with my ideas so far:
  • "Spexit", obviously. Not only would this be a nod to my old post about the referendum, but it would represent the cutting-edge satire for which this blog is justly famed. But I don't just want to jump on some kind of transient political bandwagon.
  • "Specsavers", in that I'm saved from having to use specs any longer. But the name sounds familiar.
  • "Corrective Laser Eye Surgery", in that it would be directly equivalent to what I use "Specs" for now. But I don't think it has the necessary 'zing' to it, somehow.
  • "Eyes". Bit dull. Everyone has those.
  • Possibly something else that I have to wear all the time. "Pants"?
As you can see, I'm struggling. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated, not only by me, but by the vast number of site visitors who will probably be reluctant to type "Pants" into their search engines. Prizes should, perhaps, be awarded to those of you who check the date of this post before getting in touch.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Tale of two operas: ENO round-up

English National Opera - or ENO - has now come to the end of its 'main' 2016/2017 season at the Coliseum. What with all of its widely-reported behind-the-scenes woes making the programme slightly shorter and sharper than before (fewer productions, under-use of the chorus) ... I still came away from my last two visits of the season feeling happy to support - and hugely grateful for - such a fine company.

Although the two operas in question are vastly different, in their own ways they each represented some of the best ENO has to offer. One, 'The Winter's Tale', was a brand new work by composer Ryan Wigglesworth (based - for the best, I would say - on the Shakespeare play rather than the David Essex Yuletide hit), while the other was a revival of Christopher Alden's production of Handel's 'Partenope'.

Rory Kinnear directed the new opera, and one thing I suspect his involvement guaranteed was that the piece kept total faith with the original's 'problem play' status. While this is one of several late Shakespeare works that explore the hinterland between comedy and tragedy, the laser-sharp focus of this tight two-hour adaptation underlines how full the story is of tension and suspense. The cylindrical set emphasises the royal family's 'shut-in', ivory-tower insularity (besieged by the chorus's disgruntled mob), breaking open at moments of trauma and revelation.

(Production photo from ENO website, credit Johan Persson.)

The end of Act I in particular - where great disaster befalls Leontes as he loses his wife and son, then banishes the daughter he doesn't believe is his - was utterly nerve-jangling, with the mighty ENO chorus on audibly intimidating form, ratcheting up the intensity with every line. The score (conducted by the composer) was a co-conspirator - at one crisis point, when I thought I'd reached my limits of excitement and unease, a drum-kit jazz break burst into life, pushing me further towards the edge.

The production as a whole brandished a cruel wit in keeping with the story's dark tone. Statues to the king's vanity foreshadowed the image of the queen Hermione that will mercifully come to life at the opera's close. Shakespearean purists may have been disappointed that Antigonus didn't 'Exit, pursued by a bear' - except that as he retreats from the Bohemian cost, the stars of the Plough - 'Ursa Major' - twinkle above him. In a nice casting touch, the superb Neal Davies sang both Antigonus and the role of the Shepherd, as if he never actually gave up his duty of care to Perdita at all.

Iain Paterson - who gave such a tremendous performance as Hans Sachs in the recent ENO 'Mastersingers' - was on blistering form as Leontes, showing how monumental anger can give way to all-consuming grief. The whole cast in fact - Samantha Price and Anthony Gregory endearing as the young lovers, Leigh Melrose as Polixenes - who comes so close in his own rage to repeating Leontes's mistakes, and Sophie Bevan as a wounded, defiant Hermione - all in terrific voice, but at the same time, clearly directed with as much attention to acting as singing. As a result, we experienced something very raw and immediate: human, domestic emotion under attack from enigma, coincidence and magic.

If 'The Winter's Tale' showed us the questing, challenging, 'contemporary' ENO, then 'Partenope' gave us its irreverent capacity to innovate and delight. This production places Handel's soldier-queen into Paris of the twenties, highlighting that the opera is surely far more concerned with matters of the boudoir than the battlefield.

(Production photo from ENO website, credit Catherine Ashmore.)

It allows for some brilliant commentary on the costume and cross-dressing: Partenope dominant in top hat and tails; a woman playing a man in a 'trouser' role (Arsace), alongside a woman playing a woman playing a man (Rosmira). Emilio, the invader/observer, is styled as the photographer Man Ray, whose surreal aesthetic gave the staging much of its beauty and humour: from the use of masks (not just as symbols for concealed identities, but also a kind of protection and reluctance to engage), to the 'big reveal' as Emilio's nude photo helps Arsace to realise how to, er, expose Rosmira...

The six-strong ensemble were all at perfect ease in their roles. Sarah Tynan was an electric, exquisite Partenope, nonchalantly prompting everyone else in the opera to fall head over heels for her; Rupert Charlesworth combining a really powerful vocal presence with a clever, consistent and edgily comic demeanour as Emilio. The women in drag were both wonderful: I'm in awe of Patricia Bardon's versatility (having seen her before as the Princess in 'Suor Angelica' and in the lead role in John Adams's 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary'), here as the torn Arsace, and Stephanie Windsor Lewis seemed to be having the time of her life as Rosmira, in disguise as the bluff and at times heroically sweary Eurimine. Matthew Durkan as Ormonte and James Laing as Armindo were winning foils, with the latter in particular squaring up to some demanding physical comedy - including delivery of a key aria while hanging from a staircase.

While it will be hard to handle the ENO withdrawal symptoms, I should add here that there are other opportunities between now and next season to hear the great chorus and orchestra in action.
  • If you like musicals, the 'big ticket' at the Coliseum across April and May is 'Carousel', starring Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe. ENO's chorus and orchestra are the backbone. While anything from the 'fact' of the production to its starry casting has excited plenty of social media opinions, I really rate 'Carousel' - so I'm taking my folks, and an open mind.
  • 'ENO Studio Live' is a new initiative, presenting more modest, but still fully-staged operas at Lilian Baylis House. Particularly exciting to my mind is its remit to cast chorus members in main roles. There are two productions this year: Jonathan Dove's 'The Day After' (which I'm definitely going to), and Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Trial by Jury' (which I fear I may have to miss).
  • And there are two performances at the Southbank of Elgar's 'The Dream of Gerontius', with the company supporting a Dream cast: Gwyn Hughes Jones, Patricia Bardon and Matthew Rose.
I've focused on company performances here but there's still more - from Silent Opera's Janacek adaptation to a new work about jazz giant Charlie Parker at the Hackney Empire - so please take a look at ENO's website and support them if you can.