Sunday 29 January 2017

Skin deep: latest visits to the ROH

Three fascinating trips to the Royal Opera House in recent weeks - although only to see two operas. One was the shatteringly powerful contemporary work 'Written on Skin', by George Benjamin, which I'll come onto below. The other was R Strauss's 'Der Rosenkavalier', which - unusually for me - I saw twice.

I know many opera and ballet fans make multiple visits in a single run, and often - particularly on the ballet front - the reason is simply to catch every cast. I confess that I don't really do this - I'm too much of a tart. I tend to go and see any given work once in any run, with the aim that I have more money available to see different operas/recitals/gigs (all genres!) and buy recordings. This situation was a bit different, though.

Two major roles in this new production of 'Rosenkavalier' - the Marschallin and Octavian - were being shared: Renée Fleming and Alice Coote for five performances, and Rachel Willis-Sørensen and Anna Stéphany for the other three. The unavoidable effect of RF's mega-stardom meant that it was much easier for Mrs Specs and I to get seats for the other cast, and were quite content to do so. However... I started to feel 'opera junkie's twitch' (well-known condition). It looked reasonably certain that this production (also playing at the Met in New York in April/May) would be RF's farewell not only to one of her signature roles, but in all likelihood to 'full' opera performances altogether. I had never seen RF in an opera before, so this was looking like my only chance. Add to that the fact that AC is one of my very favourite singers ... and my cave-in was inevitable. Solo this time, I snapped up one of the affordable tickets remaining in the 'slips'.

'Rosenkavalier' is such a rich, rewarding opera that it's hard to know where to begin when describing it. The surface layer is romantic comedy: Princess Marie-Thérése - known as the Marschallin (as wife of the absent Field Marshal) - has a young lover, Count Octavian. (Octavian is a 'trouser' role, sung by a mezzo-soprano.) One morning, their state of illicit bliss is disturbed by the arrival of Baron Ochs, a noble but somewhat coarse cousin of the Marschallin who is in town to arrange his marriage to Sophie, daughter of rich businessman Faninal. Ochs wants the Marschallin to recommend an envoy to deliver the traditional engagement token of a silver rose to Sophie on his behalf. In the meantime, in a bid to avoid discovery, Octavian has disguised himself as 'Mariandel', a maid. Unfortunately, Ochs - a compulsive womaniser - is rather taken with Mariandel and won't let 'her' escape. Amused by this, on an impulse the Marschallin suggests Octavian deliver the rose.

Ochs's visit coincides with the morning invasion of subjects looking for money and patronage, so the Marschallin gets ready to face the day. Criticising her hair and make-up team for ageing her, she has a moment of clarity about time passing and, giving in to her mood, tries to break with Octavian - telling the indignant boy that he is bound to leave her for someone younger sooner or later. It turns out to be sooner.

On delivering the rose, Octavian and Sophie fall for each other almost instantly. They are driven closer when Ochs arrives and shocks Sophie with his ill-manners. It's becoming apparent that Ochs will do extremely well financially out of the alliance, but behaves as though bestowing his nobility on the Faninals means it is him doing them the favour. Ochs is at first amused when Octavian gallantly tries to tell him Sophie loves him rather than the Baron, but when things get a little nastier Octavian accidentally grazes Ochs with his sword. Seizing his chance to get rid of the young nuisance, Ochs bawls the house down as if under attack. Octavian leaves, but begins to ensare Ochs in a trap: writing to him as 'Mariandel', he arranges a rendezvous the next evening in a dodgy tavern.

Unable to resist, Ochs meets his potential 'final fling' as planned, but after toying with him for a while, Octavian and his co-conspirators unleash hell - a woman arrives (several kids in tow) pretending to be his abandoned wife and starts creating chaos, in time for the arrival of the police - and Faninal. Caught in this most textbook of compromising positions, Ochs starts pretending Mariandel is his fiancée and denies knowing Faninal and Sophie. Deeply hurt, Faninal is overcome and ends the marriage arrangement in an instant. The Marschallin arrives, and sorts everybody out with authoritative grace - making sure Ochs removes himself from the scene with relatively little fuss, and 'releasing' Octavian to be with Sophie.

Clearly, then, the opera has good humour to spare and moments of outright farce. But it possesses a kind of stealth melancholy that increases as events develop. I'm often reminded when I see or hear a Strauss opera that he was also a masterful composer of tone poems: here the music tracks the action so closely, you almost 'absorb' - rather than merely listen - the fact that everyone is singing. From the breakneck speed of Ochs's verbose outpourings to the delicate, dovetailing melody of the famous trio performed near the end by the Marschallin, Sophie and Octavian: the orchestra is almost a second chorus, aware like Marie-Thérése that all things must pass. Strauss also has fun with deliberately different musical styles - from the love-song performed by a visiting Italian singer to the insistent ear-worm of Ochs's favourite waltz.

It's also an opera about appearances and façades: about people and things not being what they seem. The central gender 'double swap' - that a woman plays a man (Octavian) who plays a woman (Mariandel) - drives much of the comedy, but there are other identity games. Two scheming hangers-on, Annina and Valzacchi, switch allegiance at the drop of a hat and Annina assumes the disguise as Ochs's 'wife'. Much is made of Marie-Thérése and Octavian's multiple names, whether it's the titles they assume or their pet names for each other - how they act as Quinquin and his Bichette is significantly different from when they are Count Rofrano and the Marschallin. She implores him in Act I not to be 'like other men' - by the end of the opera, when he has transferred his affections to Sophie, she acknowledges that, in fact, he is just that.

This production - set when the opera was first performed (1911) rather than its 'actual' 18th century timeframe - ratchets up these elements. All of the characters' intrigues are under the watchful eyes of family portraits (including the Field Marshal right above the Princess's bedhead). Director Robert Carsen has fun emphasising the tavern's use as a den of iniquity, with both the innkeeper and house band in sympathetic drag with Octavian. The later setting also points up perhaps the final façade - that of this aristocratic breed in its entirety: Ochs's insistence on receiving payment from the bride's family (normally it's the other way round) is dramatised as a real make-or-break moment for the character, a hint of desperation behind the money-grabbing; and a final coup-de-theatre allows the young lovers to fade into darkness as a montage of the Field Marshal and his comrades falling in battle takes over the closing seconds of the opera.

I was overjoyed by all the performances, and so glad I made the effort to go to both 'versions'. It was fascinating to see the different interpretations of the two Marschallins and Octavians. I tried to watch RF as a 'neutral', and clear my mind of any potential poignant real-life echoes about 'letting go' and moving on. But she was simply a delight to see and hear - although the role fits her like a glove, the performance was alert and full of depth, in particular during Act 3 when the character must find reserves of steel to deal with Ochs when arguably at her most fragile. RWS's portrayal felt understandably a little lighter, and really shone when trying to contain her mirth at the first appearance of 'Mariandel'.

Both AC and AS worked wonders as the young Count. Perhaps fittingly, AS - performing opposite RWS - seemed a little more playful. It felt to me that with AS, the 'joke' lay in the fact of trouser roles: look - this is really a girl! - and accordingly, her Mariandel in seduction mode seemed to 'reverse out' of the drag slightly. On the other hand, with AC, the joke is 'inside' the action with Octavian its victim - her version was every inch a boy, and that boy was still there within Mariandel, convincingly 'female' one second but slightly clumsy the next, all layers present and correct.

It would be wrong to leave 'Rosenkavalier', however, without mentioning a performance which - to my mind - was part of the glue holding it all together: Matthew Rose as Ochs. It would be very natural to portray Ochs as a cartoon villain, an unbearable boor, but Rose - a performer of great sensitivity - avoids this. He allows his Ochs to deepen as the opera deepens. At the start, he is all bluff and bluster, but with an air of emptiness, the suggestion that this galactic level of self-confidence is possibly all a front. Rose's bass resounded fulsomely around the house, but his supersonic, panicky chatter as events escalated was revealing and precise. His body language gradually lost its swagger along with the character's dignity. Ochs could be presented with no redeeming features, but Rose sings and acts him into a very real, fallible and even vulnerable product of his environment - a fully three-dimensional rendition, which I hope we'll see again.

[A digression on the slips - in my case, the 'Upper Slips'. These are benches, high up at the sides. If you are thinking of coming to the opera for the first time, these seats can represent quite a bargain. Not just on price, in fact - but it's as if the house is making a bargain with you: you sacrifice some of the view - as you can see in my photo (which is on 'panorama', so please forgive its slightly distorted bendiness), you lose sight of the stage's near corner - but the sound comes straight up at you. I paid about £20: the 'posh' seats can be around ten times more. And other very reasonable tickets are available - for example, in the standing sections. So do investigate.]

Not the easiest task to segue neatly from 'Der Rosenkavalier' to 'Written on Skin' although I was intrigued to note that this run also featured a role farewell. Barbara Hannigan - who created the central character Agnès when the opera was first performed in 2012 and during its 2013 performances at the ROH - is now retiring from it. (Two of the performances this time round featured Georgia Jarman as Agnès, but I didn't get to this one twice!)

I came to see 'Written on Skin' in the slightly odd position of already knowing that I absolutely loved it. Deservedly, it has received wide exposure - the very first performance (at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012) came out on CD, and the Royal Opera House released it on DVD from its run a year later. Hearing nothing but good things - and slightly aggrieved at only just missing it (I got into serious opera-going the following season) - I bought the DVD, and was knocked sideways. So, I was thrilled when this rather swift revival was announced.

The central plot is based on a medieval Occitan legend. (Occitania was an area covering southern France, Monaco and accompanying bits of Spain and Italy.) It concerns a tyrannical landowner, the Protector, who commissions an artist, the Boy, to produce a book in his honour. The Protector's wife - who he treats as an object, just another possession - is initially suspicious of the Boy but in fact develops a strong attraction to him. She challenges him to depict a 'real woman' in the book that he could desire. They begin an affair during which Agnès - announcing her name for the first time - starts to conquer her repression. Her new aura of confidence disturbs the Protector, causing him to dream that the book shows Agnès and the Boy in bed together. She provokes him to confront the Boy - who, in turn, pretends that he has been with Agnès's sister Marie (the Protector is initially happy to believe this, as Marie, visiting earlier with her husband John, was openly scornful towards the book project). Agnès is furious at the Boy's lies and demands that he create an image that will force her husband to accept the truth. The Boy leaves the Protector and Agnès a new page - with writing on it rather than pictures. Agnès cannot read - but the increasingly distraught Protector reads it aloud, to find it describing the illicit relationship, as Agnès had wanted. The Protector kills the Boy and serves up his heart to Agnès - when he tells her what she has eaten, she rages in defiance that the taste of the Boy's heart will be with her forever. Avoiding the Protector's efforts to catch her, she runs upstairs to throw herself off the balcony.

Powerful stuff in itself, but the opera diffuses any potential lapse into melodrama with its thought-provoking storytelling method. The action in fact begins with impassive observers in modern dress - we discover they are Angels - who appear to oversee and monitor all of time. Treating the events of the main plot as a kind of case history, one of the three singing Angels takes on the role of the Boy (the other two will later embody Marie and John) to re-enact and experience the tragedy as a participant.

This leads to one of the most curious features of the text, by playwright Martin Crimp, a regular collaborator with Benjamin. The characters describe their own actions aloud - for example, in the middle of her delivery, Agnès will suddenly sing "said the woman", and then carry on. The same applies to all the characters. I've read that some have found this jarring, but to me it's a stroke of genius - a reminder that this is not happening before our eyes - it's someone reading a file, telling the story, from the most detached point of view imaginable. It's one of the many ways, the opera creates tension, because the words push us away, as the music draws us in.

As this is the 'first' staging of the opera - the revival is of the original production - the way Katie Mitchell has visualised and directed it will almost certainly help define how these two worlds collide.

(Production photo by Stephen Cummiskey, from the ROH website.)

The Angels work in a sterile, modern environment (shades of Powell & Pressburger's 'A Matter of Life and Death'?). MC has said he was partly inspired by the strange appearance of angels in the margins of medieval manuscripts, and KM has them operating on the edges accordingly. The 'old' story is warm with the colour of parchment ('written on skin' refers to the creation of early books) and busy with content, in contrast to the off-white emptiness of the Angels' offices. I'm not familiar with a great deal of KM's work, but I do remember liking her controversial 'Lucia di Lammermoor' at the ROH, which showed two scenarios - what the men were doing and what the women were doing - playing out simultaneously.

Here she carries off something similar, but what I found particularly impressive was the choreographed movement involved - while we focus on the main story, the Angels (visible throughout) slow down to move at a glacial pace compared to the action of the legend, beyond normal time. As the legend draws to its climax, however, and we return to the Angels' perspective, Agnès's race to the roof slows down to a near-stop and the supernatural regime reasserts itself. The physical acting is thrillingly precise. As this celestial audit involves 're-awakening' the dead, the Angels initially - and on occasion, at later stages - help the medieval characters, who seem initially confused, as if they're not sure why they've been re-animated, move around and find their places.

(It was wonderful to watch this live and be able to see the whole stage - as good as the DVD is, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly - there you gain some great close-ups, but lose a lot of the overall visual effect.)

When the two spheres properly intersect, it makes for chilling drama. Understandably, this usually revolves around the Boy. Musing in the woods, the mask temporarily slips and he tells the Protector he's thinking of when the forest will be under concrete a thousand years later. Towards the end of the opera, when he clearly sees the Protector is about to kill him, he experiences real terror and runs to the door between the two 'worlds' to escape - but the other Angels usher him back in to see it through.

GB's score has moments of heart-rending glory but more than anything, it's supple, sinewy, and spare - revealing of detail and, in a manner as far removed as possible from the soaring swoon of a lyrical, romantic opera, it's built to create and increase sexual tension. The role of the Boy is for countertenor, never allowing you to forget his heavenly origin: but Iestyn Davies is perfectly cast, somehow lacing the purity of his tone with a laconic, wry edge. He brings his typically steely approach to create a more earthly incarnation. Christopher Purves is a marvel of confused aggression as the Protector. And while Barbara Hannigan seems to have a total-immersion, method-style approach to anything she does, it's hard to imagine a more 'complete' performance than she gives here: not only with the startling versatility of her voice but her impassioned physicality. From quiet, still, passive to raging, intense, dominant - in 90 minutes, she shows us every aspect of this 'real woman' and her transformation.

The ROH has commissioned a new opera from Benjamin and Crisp which will apparently be with us as early as next season. Is it too soon to get excited?

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