Monday 19 December 2016

Northern songs: Britten and Puccini in Edinburgh

Great excitement in Specs Towers at the start of December, as we prepared for our first dedicated travel outside our home turf, just to see opera - Opera North, to be precise. There is so much to see on our doorstep in London, that a combination of budget and conscience has tended to keep me from considering these kinds of excursions in the past. That is starting, slowly, to change - for a number of reasons.

As I become more and more serious about opera, I recognise that I'm likely to go through a slight transition. Currently, I'm still seeing an awful lot of works for the first time, as they come round in Royal Opera or English National Opera productions. These are my 'locals', and I'm determined to support them. But the more I see and hear, the more my taste evolves and I become more of a 'fan' - whether it's particular singers, players or conductors: I'm getting better at hearing the differences between them and deciding what I especially respond to. This makes it more likely that I'll travel to hear a favourite artist in something, rather than default to a London production. (I'll be keeping an eye on myself to see how this develops.)

This jaunt looked too good to resist. We knew we loved the sound of the Opera North orchestra - and, although this is harder to define, the 'cut of their jib' - from their celebrated Ring Cycle, which they brought to London. We were blown away, not just by the committed, powerful performances, but also the style: a 'dramatic concert performance', the singers acted up a storm with all the visual atmosphere generated by back projections which blended the surtitles with constantly shifting imagery. So, from that point on, I made a mental note to keep a much closer eye on Opera North seasons, even though it would normally be us who had to make the journey.

Opera North reside in Leeds, but take some or all of their productions on tour to several other cities. Two were heading to the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh: Britten's 'Billy Budd', and a Puccini double bill, 'Il Tabarro' and 'Suor Angelica'. (This pairing is the first two-thirds of Puccini's 'Il Trittico' - a set of three hour-long operas originally intended for performance in a single evening. It's quite common for companies to break it up - Opera North did the third part, 'Gianni Schicchi', separately in 2015 as part of another double bill. The Royal Opera's current production, however, is the whole shebang.) Add to that some immensely appealing casting - more of which later - and a plan began to form. As, through Mrs Specs, we 'have people' in Edinburgh, I pitched the idea of taking in both productions on the Thursday and Friday, then catching up with our connections over a gratuitous long weekend. This received the necessary approval from the authorities* (*Mrs Specs), and arrangements were duly made.

'Billy Budd' was everything I'd hoped it would be: affecting, nuanced, unflinching, ambiguous. Captain Edward Vere first appears to us as an old man, remembering the main events of the opera in flashback. Billy Budd, a naïve, easy-going able seaman, is pressed into service on Vere's ship, the Indomitable. He finds instant popularity with the other men, and the senior officers consider him a real find - his only apparent defect being an occasional stammer. However, the Master-at-Arms, Claggart, vows to destroy Billy: considering himself depraved, he loathes Billy precisely for the 'goodness' that makes him so loved by the rest. Engineering an accusation of mutiny against Billy - which Vere realises is nonsense straightaway - Claggart nevertheless confronts Billy before the Captain. Billy - stressed and enraged - cannot speak for his stammer and lashes out, dealing Claggart a fatal blow. Vere feels the horrific situation leaves him no choice: according to the Articles of War, Billy will almost certainly have to hang for killing an officer, and the swift court-martial they carry out on board confirms the verdict. Vere tells Billy the outcome himself (famously, this conversation is 'imagined' in a series of shaded chords from the orchestra alone, rather than sung), and the following morning the execution goes ahead. We return to the older Vere, wracked with the thought that he could have saved Billy... but in fact concluding that Billy redeemed him.

The staging, mostly made up of monochromatic panels, with a curved ramp slicing across the space, doubled as both an anonymous decaying hall (where the old Vere loiters) and the Indomitable. Reminding us that we are at the mercy of Vere's memories, the aged captain still lingers a while on the stage as the sailor-chorus from the past appears, making the two timeframes overlap. It was an economic, yet elegant production. The crew thronging below the ramp as the higher ranks strode along it neatly underlined the upstairs/downstairs hierarchy of the ship society. A nicely-worked surreal effect where Vere's private quarters were indicated by sailors forming a human wall shone an interesting light on who might be keeping who safe.

We were treated to three sublime lead performances. Roderick Williams was dream casting as Billy - his broad grin and sunny aura made the almost impossibly pure Billy seem real, but as the character shifted through anger, resignation and dignified acceptance, so did he. This change was fully realised in the voice, with the full-throated gusto of the early scenes dented and sharpened by experience. Alan Oke's brilliant incarnation of Vere - who as captain is robust, but as the older man somewhat broken - managed to lace his powerful tenor with uncertainty and fear. And as Claggart - who could so easily become a one-dimensional bogeyman - Alastair Miles gave a complex, searching portrayal. Again, you felt that his unstoppable, rich bass was still somehow battered by agonising self-doubt: AM gave a particularly physical, restless performance that communicated first guile, then denial and finally hatred. And I could go on to mention any number of supporting performances that all buoyed up the three main characters and animated the working ship as a functioning whole.

One can only imagine how important this opera must have felt to the men who brought it to life: composer Britten, his partner, the tenor Peter Pears (who would create Vere on stage), and librettist E. M. Forster (working with regular Britten wordsmith Eric Crozier). Living and working in a society where homosexuality was still illegal, this theme of repression in the opera is given full justice by Opera North's sensitive investigation. A key point has always been: why doesn't Vere step in and save Billy? The inference - that the captain is suppressing his love for the sailor, which widens symbolically to represent the need to conceal homosexuality from society - is inescapable. But the court martial also asks the crucial, unanswered (to them) question: why does Claggart make such a bizarre accusation against Billy? AM's tormented performance allows Claggart to mirror Vere's internal struggle through a glass darkly: his loathing is self-loathing, his violence is against himself.

I hope the fact that I left the theatre profoundly troubled, yet exhilarated, is high enough praise.

The following evening, we were back for Puccini x 2. 'Il Tabarro' - 'The Cloak' - is a high-octane melodrama revolving around Michele, a barge-owner, and his wife Giorgetta. Their marriage is in trouble - as the drama unfolds, we learn that they had a child who has died. This is not the only reason for their mutual distance: Michele is convinced Giorgetta is being unfaithful, and he's right - she's having a fling with Luigi, one of the dockworkers casually employed by Michele. While several other characters punctuate the drama, they mainly serve to help build the tension towards the climax. Giorgetta's plan to meet Luigi goes awry when the lover mistakes Michele's matchlight for their signal. He turns up for the assignation to find hubby waiting - Michele kills him and wraps him in the cloak he used years ago to warm himself, Giorgetta and their baby. When Giorgetta arrives, Michele pulls the cloak aside to show her the dead Luigi.

The Royal Opera production of 'Il Tabarro' is perhaps understandably on a grander scale and features a seemingly expansive waterside. Here, though - to the piece's infinite benefit - we get a kind of gritty claustrophobia. A substantial part of the action takes place within a suspended container (seemingly - although perhaps not exclusively - a cross-section of the barge), which focuses our viewpoint in on an area only a fraction of the stage's full width. The players, however, can move all around it, and climb into or on top of it. As well as being visually striking, the set serves the plot terrifically well too, as we can see everything more or less all the time - while the characters cannot.

Again, the lead trio of performances utterly sold the action. Ivan Inverardi roared his anguish as Michele, weatherbeaten, in turmoil. Giselle Allen and David Butt Philip were genuinely electric as the lovers. GA in particular offered a masterclass in secretive looks and sensual movement, switching from a caressing, reassuring tone for Michele into ardent, passionate declarations for Luigi.

'Suor Angelica', a sacred drama set in a convent, cleanses 'Il Tabarro' from the stage. Sister Angelica is a popular but reserved member of the community - and rather useful with remedial herbs and lotions that soothe any of the sisters' complaints. We learn that she was made to join the order seven years ago, in exile from her wealthy family. A Princess, Angelica's aunt, arrives with news that the nun's sister is about to marry. She brandishes a document the nun must sign to waive her inheritance in her sister's favour. We learn Angelica's secret: that she bore an illegitimate son. As the heated conversation nears a kind of meltdown, the Princess admits that Angelica's son became ill two years previously and died. In her grief, Angelica poisons herself to join her son, but realises too late that she will actually die in mortal sin, away from heaven. Praying for mercy, she is rewarded with a vision of the Virgin, alongside her son bidding her welcome as she dies.

While the ensemble is important and many of the nuns are given room to carve out individual character sketches, 'Suor Angelica' is really about the lead role: an extraordinary showcase for a soprano willing to push some very deep and personal emotions to the limit and spend an hour undergoing an internal - then literal - transformation. When we first meet Angelica, this pain is all on the inside and she is in fact the practical, even scientific one. The Princess's visit is the catalyst for the emotional poison she has bottled up inside her to flood out in a state of total crisis. She has had the punishment - death is the release. Anne-Sophie Duprels gave a searing performance in the title role. The beauty and agility of her voice notwithstanding, the part demands savagery as well as spirituality - we heard both, with all points inbetween.

The staging was deceptively simple - the convent wall, changing its angle slightly to suggest an exact room or location. However, Angelica's dying visions - as the real world, convent and all, just ceased to exist - were displayed as a stained glass projection, fleeing glimpses of her child inside and outside the womb as the nun slowly approached the back of the stage towards her own rebirth. The contrast between how we started and ended could not have been more effective.

I came away from the weekend with an even greater appreciation for Opera North. Clearly, they are operating within certain budget constraints, not to mention the logistics involved with making all your productions portable. But it was so obvious how this seemed to spur on their creativity and resourcefulness. (Even touring 'Billy Budd', which only features men's voices, alongside the all-female 'Suor Angelica' is a brilliantly practical way to show your chorus off to the best effect.) All three of the operas we saw displayed very little in terms of onstage bling but still scorched unforgettable images on the brain. They were performance-led, allowing the leads room to get the full measure of their characters - and, as a result, so did we. And hearing Britten one night followed by Puccini the next is an excellent way to appreciate how supple and versatile the marvellous ON orchestra can be.

I don't know how often we'll manage to arrange future pilgrimages to see this fine company - but the spirit, believe me, is more than willing.

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