Saturday 19 September 2015

Music and movement: The Royal Opera's 'Orphée et Eurydice'

I've been a music addict in one way or another for most of my life, as regular readers of the blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) have probably realised. But I'm still so early in my opera-going career that most of my visits are to see whatever work it is for the first time. This is enormously refreshing, and I admit probably ramps up the likelihood of my being knocked for six by a piece - but for all that, I don't think I've ever had the rug pulled from under my musical feet in quite the way this production did.

I went in 'cold' with no prior study or expectations at all. I knew that Gluck aimed to reform opera by reining in its excesses and reshaping it into something more streamlined and dramatically sound. (It seems he's occasionally compared to Wagner in this respect - although perhaps not the 'streamlined' bit. But Strauss also makes Gluck's influence plain with a namecheck in 'Capriccio', which itself brilliantly pits great artistic 'abstracts' - poetry and music - against each other by making them 'real' personas.) And I now know that this French version is a substantial revision of the Italian original that premiered just over a decade earlier - Gluck adapted it to fit Parisian tastes (that is, added more ballet, as well as making Orphée a tenor - while Orfeo was a castrato, poor chap).

(The image is from the ROH poster. Features 100% more nudity than the production.)

I think that it's possible to actually include a spoiler for this opera - and it's still running - so I'll be a little circumspect. If you know the myth, you (more or less) know the story: master musician Orphée grieves for his late, beloved wife, Eurydice, to the point of madness. Amour appears, and allows him to journey to the underworld to collect the Mrs, as long as he meets a number of awkward conditions. 1: He must play his lyre winningly enough to get the Furies to let him in. 2: He cannot look at Eurydice until they're back up top, but 3: He can't tell her why. Orphée manages to carry all this off until the fateful moment when he can't stand it any longer and turns round to face his wife. All is lost. [Pause.] Or is it?

I think I rather fell for this ROH production partly because.... although I was clearly watching an opera, it seemed to be assembled exclusively from other musical artforms - part concert, part dance, part oratorio. I suppose largely because most productions are 'revivals' (by which I just mean 'old' operas that play over and over, not necessarily repeat stagings), then the focus of the evening is frequently on the stars and their presence/performance, then perhaps the director's interpretation, then the playing - and so on. But this time, I found myself thinking this whole sequence through backwards.

The true star of the enterprise is undoubtedly Gluck, channelled through living legend John Eliot Gardiner, with his own band: the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. With more emphasis shifted to ballet music, there just seems to be an infinite well of this glorious, cascading score - and it's hard to imagine any ensembles - vocal or instrumental - better suited to bringing it to life than this. As the EBS name would suggest, it's no wonder that when particular instruments took centre stage - flute for the 'Dance of the Blessed Spirits', harp for Orphée's lyre - the music soared even higher.

The production acknowledges this, with the orchestra right there in the middle of the stage. Not only that, the musicians are really the first participants to highlight what this staging is really about: movement. Before our eyes, the entire platform bearing Gardiner et al rises and falls - and the effect is to give them a 'role' in the opera (their position directs us - as when they literally sink, along with the action, into Hades).

Accordingly, next in our hierarchy come the dancers: the Hofesh Schecter Company. With Parisian-level instrumental passages, they are on the go for a long time - but we the audience don't notice because there are so many different visual treats to look at. The choreography is at once both ballet and contemporary dance - broadly, it seems, with the more classical moves performed by the 'blessed spirits', with the more restless and tormented characters from the underworld throwing their shapes in a more modern, agitated, combative style.

It seems almost cruel, then, to mention the soloists last. There are only three of them - Juan Diego Flórez and Lucy Crowe in the title roles, with Amanda Forsythe as Amour - and they all made individual, striking impressions. JDF caught the right balance between wracked and determined, and AF slinky and persuasive. I thought LC was particularly good - her time singing onstage is inevitably quite brief, but her solo 'Cet asile' sent shivers up and down my spine ... not to mention her ability to sing beautifully while acting her confusion and resentment so convincingly.

(Photo from the ROH website, copyright Bill Cooper.)

But these distinct personalities remain subordinate to the perpetual motion of the production. It's worth noting that the choreography does not end with the dancers. The Monteverdi Choir blended with their more restless counterparts in a well-judged series of lower-key moves - with no impact whatsoever on their stunning rendition of Gluck's sublime writing for chorus. But especially excellent was the physical acting of JDF and LC. It must be harder than it looks to direct this story (in whatever form) since all the interaction between the two leads must take place without Orphée once looking directly at Euryidice. The pair managed this superbly, executing duets, arguments, even embraces and caresses, without a single misdirected glance from JDF until, of course, the one he must inevitably make.

Even light is made to travel in line with the production's whims - against an otherwise muted backdrop (again, the staging's brilliant complexity is all in its movement, creating split levels and tunnels that keep Hades for the most part a dark secret), a beam is fired through a hole in a false floor, diffused into a pool of paradise, or poignantly contained in a flaming effigy. Very appropriate for an evening I found illuminating in so many other ways too.

Thursday 10 September 2015


After writing a couple of posts ago about some great music and art Mrs Specs and I experienced during our recent trip to Switzerland, here is a follow-up post with some photography from the holiday.

One feature of the region where we stayed - the Engadine valley, in the country's 'bottom right' corner - was the distinctive architecture. Instead of the traditional wooden Swiss chalet typical of, say, the Bernese Oberland, many buildings here tend to be made of stone, and feature arresting decoration known as 'sgraffito'. (This is possibly due to the Italian influence right next door.)

I was so taken with these symbols and graphics, I just started shooting them, a little obsessively. It became addictive, in fact, to try and seek out not necessarily the most flamboyant but also the comparatively austere, disciplined examples. I played with settings to bring out as best as I could the wear in the stone (or sometimes wood), as well as the patterns painted over them. I hope you enjoy the results.

Inevitably, thanks to the ever-obliging Mrs Specs, I had a go at featuring sgraffito in a portrait (although if you look closely, you'll find another living being captured in one of the earlier pictures too). Finally, there is a series of more traditional views at the end of the post - essentially, my holiday snaps! - but I still took great care over them ... and if they give you a good idea of how beautiful the Engadine region is, and even prompt you to consider visiting it - I will be more than satisfied.


Sunday 6 September 2015

Return to gender: Alice Coote at the Proms

There's nothing like booking your holiday right in the middle of Proms season to make you feel detached from the whole affair. Seemingly weeks' worth of concerts, broadcasts and highlights have flown past me, mocking my attempts to even vaguely catch up. That said - given the tiny number of Proms I have managed to get to, I think I've been extraordinarily lucky with my choices.

One gig in particular reminded me just how adventurous, unusual and even intimate the Proms can be: mezzo-soprano Alice Coote's late-night performance of Handel arias, supported by Harry Bicket and the English Concert. At first glance, this was a perfectly logical piece of programming: the 'tour of the album' - that is, the magnificent CD from the same team, issued by Hyperion Records last autumn.

(Photo from BBC website, copyright Benjamin Ealovega)

Well, as it turned out, not quite. The evening had a name - 'Being Both' - and focused on the particular position held in opera by AC and her fellow mezzos of playing both male and female roles. (These male parts sung by women are often called 'trouser' or 'breeches' roles. I'm aware that linking voice type to role gender is a much wider and more complex exercise. For example, Mozart and Strauss both wrote male roles for soprano. Equally, some roles performed by women now were previously performed by male 'castrati' - rather putting Brando or de Niro's ideas of 'method acting' into perspective - and perhaps the male countertenor voice is a natural successor to some of these. But for the purpose of this concert, we are talking about the mezzo voice being the right fit for roles of both sexes in Handel.)

AC is sometimes referred to as 'specialising' in trouser roles, but I think that's actually misleading - what's really meant, surely, is as the concert title suggests, she's equally adept at both. She's certainly an accomplished chameleon in fully-staged productions (as the YouTube clip below shows).

But even in recitals, she challenges concert-dress stereotypes, often performing in trouser suits - and the occasional magnificent cape - supporting a kind of androgynous image in its truest sense, somehow combining elements of both genders, 'sexful' rather than sexless. Although its protaganist is male, Schubert's 'Winterreise' has (rightly) been tackled by singers of both sexes and all voices: AC's live recording at the Wigmore Hall is a modern classic because of her compelling range of emotion and sense of drama - listen to her cover the lot in the commanding dynamics of 'Die Post':

So, it's hard to imagine anyone else cutting quite so cool and understated a figure as AC does when taking the Royal Albert Hall stage. Head to toe in black shirt, jacket, trousers and flats, hair tied back, her appearance betrays no clues about what we'll hear, and in what order. Sparse props - a few blocks, a set of steps and an iPad - give nothing away, either. Then the music starts, and what we get for the next 75 minutes or so is akin to an acting/singing masterclass.

The programme departed to some extent from the tracks on the Hyperion album: 'Being Both' is very much its own thing. (I should add that it wasn't even a 'Promiere' - it made its debut in a similar part-staged presentation in Brighton earlier in the year.) Cleverly, AC has assembled the aria choices to make not exactly a 'song cycle' nor a 'suite' - but a sequence that now exists as a unified whole in its own right. It almost feels superfluous to mention how beautifully AC sang - she is so experienced in Handel and meets the demands of Baroque opera head-on with a rich and passionate tone - but it's important to state how charismatically she performed. I loved the 'live-ness' of it - moving around the stage in her various personas, she was able to 'sing at' various parts of the audience so, while I could hear her clearly at all times, her sound changed slightly depending on where she was, and what she was having to do. This made me, and most of the audience I believe, feel involved in some way and helped generate the intimacy I mentioned earlier.

The staging was extraordinarily low-key ... which again, I rather liked. (I did wonder on the way to the gig if we would actually get lots of costume changes - NOW I'M A MAN! AND NOW A WOMAN! - which didn't seem like AC's style at all but I couldn't begin to guess what she would actually do.) Instead, the minimal 'coups de theatre' paid off due to the restraint elsewhere: one block was transformed into a bath for a performance of 'He was despised' from the 'Messiah', casting a completely new light on the text and sung by AC while wet shaving! 'Myself I shall adore' from 'Semele' carried a twinge of ambivalence and regret, as AC shone torchlight on her face in the gloom, as if reading a ghost story.

As a result, I think the staging brought out the extent to which this is an 'autobiographical' show. As AC covers in the programme note, Handel had no 'problem' with gender and was primarily concerned with finding the best voice to bring humanity to the character. But for this concert - in spite of the wide range of characters represented - it's the same voice, the same person bringing to life both heroes and heroines, through singing and movement alone. With no onstage distraction, AC could communicate sensuality, singing and writhing on a block-bed, to machismo - brilliantly illustrated in an extra layer of gender-crossing through the aria 'Resign thy club' from 'Hercules', where the title character's wife Dejanira spitefully sends up his masculinity (or potential lack of it). AC has written fascinatingly about what it's like 'being both' and this recital seems to be an ideal way to bring those experiences to life in performance.

I also felt that the concert's nods to the modern era - not just the sober garb but the intriguing use of the iPad as a prop, as if to 'dial up' or trigger the next character - neatly encompassed two points. First, it admirably underlined that gender neutral/binary concepts or wider sex/sexuality/gender issues - certainly hot topics in our age - are ideas that, depending on your point of view, we have been comfortable about, or struggling with, for centuries.

Secondly, it made AC one of the band. Presenting herself far more in line with the rest of her players than as the 'star', she moved around the orchestra, shared the spotlight with a fine cellist, and finally melted into the musicians' throng to take her bows until they - justifiably - brought her forward.

75 minutes or so of sublime music would be excellent enough - but this is a brave and intriguing idea, eccentric in the very best sense, and something I could only imagine this particular artist creating and carrying off. I hope I get to see Alice Coote perform it again - and that she comes up with even more fascinating programmes that take us that little bit further into the performer's psyche.

In the meantime, you should definitely order the Handel Arias CD (or download) if you don't have it: here's a link to buy from Hyperion directly (warning - suggest you browse Hyperion's site when feeling reasonably flush!). And the audio of the Prom performance will be available here until roughly the end of September.

Post-script: I tweeted after the concert that there should be some kind of film or DVD production of it - and I stand by that. I was genuinely a bit amazed that the BBC cameras weren't in there to capture it this time. I don't want a Hollywood production number - that would be entirely against the spirit - but I think the sheer range of what AC communicates through voice and movement should be recorded for posterity. (It's not as if there's no precedent - Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake made a properly-filmed 'Winterreise' - and Warner Classics have clearly felt there's enough current interest to re-release it as part of a compilation of Bostridge's Schubert song cycles. If you're intrigued, look here.) So, how about it? Hyperion? The BBC?