Sunday 13 March 2016

From hero to pharaoh: 'Orlando', 'Akhnaten'

At first, I suspected that it would be hard to pick two more different operas to attend within a few days of each other than Handel's 'Orlando' - baroque (and a tad barmy) gorgeousness from 1732 - and Glass's 'Akhnaten' - a modern, minimalist epic, and positively adolescent at little over 30 years old. And yet the odd similarity that emerged here and there drove home to me how some elements and techniques in opera are utterly deathless, and contribute to making it the unique experience it always is.

'Orlando' was performed in concert at the Barbican by Harry Bicket and the English Concert, fronted by five soloists taking the individual roles. The great heroic knight Orlando should be focusing on deeds of derring-do but instead he's pining for the princess Angelica, who is herself in love with African prince Medoro, after nursing him back to health. The couple have been sheltering with shepherdess Dorinda during Medoro's convalescence, and consequently Dorinda has fallen for Medoro as well. Unsurprisingly, it takes three acts to sort the mess out. Orlando, through a series of misunderstandings - usually involving a part-heartbroken, part-confused Dorinda - becomes increasingly deranged at the thought of losing Angelica. Despite being warned, Angelica and Medoro never quite manage to actually flee - allowing Orlando, at utter fever pitch by now, to flamboyantly kill them both (he buries the prince alive by wrecking Dorinda's cottage, and throws the princess into an abyss). Fortunately, the magician Zoroastro, committed to keeping him on the straight and narrow, has been testing Orlando all along: he restores the knight to sanity, and the lovers back to life.

Obviously, the plot is arguably more loopy than Orlando himself - and you could say that a story based around such relentless mayhem is potentially hamstrung by the need in baroque opera to pause and soliloquise or converse slightly repetitively for the (literally) showstopping arias. But none of this is ever a problem, for several reasons.

First, the sheer loveliness of the music, which is not just about beauty and melody, but also propulsion - supplying that necessary sense of dramatic movement. Also, the chamber scale - and the fact that the orchestra are on-stage - means that you can more or less see and hear what everyone's doing. The English Concert achieved a shining clarity of sound, and seem to infuse the overall score with a group personality and verve. The horns gave an especially arresting, full-on performance, while the cellists were absolutely rocking in rhythm-section mode. The physicality of the musicians - and looks of delight when they each reached their personal 'good bits' - made them 'players' in both senses, very much part of the action.

Second, the dream team of soloists absolutely 'sold' their characters and situations. Not only were they all in superb voice, their acting skills 'lifted' the story out of any stasis it might have suffered with no staging, and totally drew you in. Iestyn Davies as Orlando (ID is a countertenor; the role was originally for the castrato Senesino), gave a brilliant interpretation - rather than lay on any supposed thuggishness, he successfully conveyed a kind of quiet steeliness gone awry: sometimes choosing an awkward path to walk through the orchestra (as if they were the forest), looking about himself in confusion, or appearing behind the orchestra, jacketless, almost by 'sleight of foot'. When he man-handles Angelica to her stage-side 'death', it feels like a jolt of genuine brutality. Erin Morley was both imperious and terrified as Angelica, and Sasha Cooke's powerful, warm-toned mezzo voice was perfect for the 'trouser' role Medoro, convincingly reassuring, determined and tender, as required. (While castrato roles like Orlando are also sometimes taken by mezzos, there was a pleasing symmetry to this casting of a man with high voice versus a woman with lower voice as love rivals.) Kyle Ketelson's booming bass gave a good account of Zoroastro, the foundation upon which the whole edifice is built.

That earlier mention of tenderness is crucial: because, however farce-like the plot may seem, it still deals with death and desolation. Perhaps the character - and portrayal - that most brought out the poignancy was Carolyn Sampson, that sunniest of performers, as Dorinda. (Regular Specs readers will know I'm a card-carrying CS fan.) The opera, in a seemingly uncalled-for display of class bias, really puts the shepherdess through the wringer: forced to accept her love for Medoro will stay unrequited, she's then mock-wooed by Orlando, but - although still alone - retains enough of the human 'party girl' spirit to invite everyone back to her place at the end. Er, hopefully to help her re-build it. The luxury and precision in the voice are a given, but CS judges the characterisation perfectly - giving Dorinda a kind of innocent strength that makes every blow she receives - and every cloud that passes over her face - all the more difficult to bear.

It felt like one of those close-knit 'all on the same page' productions (the entire team are touring), with everyone involved at the top of their game. If we're really lucky, they'll record it. Let's hope so.

And speaking of the importance of brilliant teamwork, on to English National Opera's 'Akhnaten'. I had seen a Glass 'pocket opera' (what he calls his smaller-scale works) and love his instrumental music, so I knew I was likely to enjoy 'Akhnaten' to some extent - without really knowing quite what to expect.

What we got was truly one of the most memorable evenings I've ever spent at the opera. The production allows the score to burrow into your consciousness at the start, with just a slow display of hieroglyphic symbols at the start to allow the eyes to rest. Three or four notes into the cyclic sequence and you know it's Glass. The orchestra's dynamics and pacing were wonders of perfection under conductor Karen Kamensek. It was a joy to hear the contrasts between the eruptions of percussion and the tight, evenly-paced 'runs' of notes at full orchestral strength, when I'm so used to hearing this composer at piano or keyboard ensemble scale. (That said, there are no violins - originally, the story goes, because the Stuttgart theatre giving the premiere was too small and Glass had to choose a way to scale down. Lopping off that top-end turns out to be a masterstroke, as the remaining strings contribute to the murmuring and at times menacing character of the score.)

Then the staging gradually revealed itself - the first of a number of breathtaking moments. At first, we were seemingly looking at hieroglyphics more in context: a kind of large-scale realisation of those rows of symbols you see on ancient Egyptian artefacts. Then the figures began to move in stylised, choreographed patterns. Ultimately, when they had taken up various positions, some still seated, some elsewhere on stage, they began - of all things - to juggle balls. And this was serious stuff - no room for mis-timing or any other kind of cock-up. As the evening went on, the tricks became ever more impressive, and immaculate. But why, you could well be asking, were there jugglers (or as the programme has it, a 'skills ensemble' - they were clearly accomplished dancers, too) on-stage at all?

(This production still is by Richard Hubert Smith and can be found in this gallery on the ENO website.)

'Akhnaten' tells the story of a pharoah believed to have pioneered monotheistic religion. However, in place of a fully-enacted biographical narrative, Glass gives us a series of at times abstract tableaux. These range from the death ritual for Akhnaten's father and his own coronation, through to a love duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti, his private prayer hymn to God... and the final riot which shatters the pharaoh's idyllic yet isolated existence, leading to his death and the restoration of the old gods.

Again, I was viewing an opera that gained much of its internal motor from the orchestra's propulsion. But where 'Orlando' had, of course, no staging, 'Akhnaten' was a deliberately, mind-bendingly visual and symbolic experience. As the programme tells us, juggling as we know it has its roots in ancient Egypt, with the earliest known depiction of the skill on a wall painting from the Beni Hasan cemetery, and the balls themselves intended to represent celestial objects. With this conceptual link established, the production stayed true to it: while worshipping many gods, the ensemble kept many balls on the go - while, during Akhnaten's monotheistic period of rule, a single, huge sun-like orb dominated the stage.

The circular motion of spherical objects - what the jugglers are actually creating - is also a perfect visual match for the clockwork patterns of Glass' music. Every change in rhythm or sequence is perfectly matched on-stage - as an audience member, the effect is extraordinary - like my eyes and ears are working as an unusually well-synchronised team: when the action freezes, time freezes. It's an incredibly effective way of placing us in the opera's universe.

The costumes added to the overall visual splendour - the chorus and ensemble in near-camouflage colours, as if hewn from the stone itself... contrasting with the royal family's bright, opulent colour scheme. Akhnaten's lengthy coronation ritual involves his being physically dressed by his subjects, as if to protect his body while living (certain vital organs of the pharaohs are removed after death, stripping away the body below the skin, the exact opposite). Akhnaten and Nefertiti both wear red robes with stage-wide trains during their duet, joining their respective paths in what could symbolise a blood-bond, or even foreshadow an image of the Biblical red Nile.

The singing was excellent throughout but two special mentions must be made. First, this is an opera that also rests on the shoulders of a countertenor - in this case, the superb Anthony Roth Costanzo whose soaring, expressive tone brought an extra layer of emotion and spirituality that - like the new religion itself - sliced through the old rituals. (In the same way that Orlando was meant to be especially moral/noble, I've seen the 'angelic' countertenor voice used several times now in more modern operas to convey a role that is somehow apart/above/outside normality - for example, Benjamin's 'Written on Skin' or Anderson's 'Thebans'.)

Finally, though, I must - as always, it seems - draw attention to the ENO Chorus, one of the best ensembles of their kind, worldwide. Glass's music is not 'easy' - it requires its own brand of concentration and skill and, as a result, has its own peculiar power, totally harnessed by this brilliant group of people who built up the sound like it was pulsing through them. Currently, they're performing it in rotation with Mozart's 'Magic Flute' and Bellini's 'Norma'. It's no surprise that they keep being nominated for awards for outstanding achievement.

It's a testament not only to their talent, but also their dedication and professionalism that the chorus are able to give performances of this calibre while essentially under attack from their own board at ENO. Many of you will know about the proposed cuts, supposedly necessary because of the historic mismanagement of ENO finances - the board want to make the chorus go part-time, essentially, by putting them on contract for 75% of the year, on 75% pay. This is based on the entirely ignorant assumption that the chorus are 'not working' for those three months - as if they are not spending time learning roles, maintaining their voices, and so on. The board themselves are claiming they will reduce management pay too - however, it is lower than the cut they want to inflict on the chorus - which in itself beggars belief - and seems to be something more akin to an 'across-the-board' saving, so individuals won't be at the sharp end in the same way. Equally, there is scant information about any other options considered which might actually make money long-term rather than save a little bit of cash short-term.

It seems obvious that this is not a 'normal' corporate environment - people who are good at business and finance (perhaps like the board) can be relatively easily replaced, unlike a group of performers who have created a particular sound and character of world-class distinction that's essential to the ongoing success of the company. And even looked at in coldly managerial terms, the chorus - judging by their actions, reviews and award nominations - have clearly been outperforming, so should be the last people in the firing line. Rash short-termism like this could cause irreparable damage almost overnight, as some members would not be able to afford to stay in the job. Please seek out the Save ENO account on Twitter for more details, sign the petitions and - above all - spread the word. Thank you.

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