Monday 23 October 2017

Grand designs: Opera North's 'Little Greats'

While I realise we are spoilt for cultural choice in London, I am still greedy enough to wish that Opera North were also just down the road. I encountered the company for the first time when they obligingly visited the capital, to perform their magnificent Ring Cycle at the South Bank - and since then, Mrs Specs and I made the trip to Edinburgh to catch their superb Puccini double bill and 'Billy Budd' on tour.

This time, we met them on their home turf, in Leeds. The latest Opera North season is made up of the brilliantly inventive 'Little Greats'. Instead of presenting three or four evening-length operas, ON have chosen six one-act works, each lasting from around 45 to 80 minutes. Tickets were available separately for every performance of every opera, to give audiences maximum flexibility - however, for practical purposes, most (if not all) 'visits' were programmed as double bills. The company mixed up the scheduling throughout, giving people access to almost any combination they fancied, and allowing some surprising juxtapositions.

Fascinated by the idea, I looked into the logistics of a trip. However - as a non-local, I found my booking decision made itself. I worked out that if Mrs Specs and I went on the final Friday evening and Saturday afternoon/evening performances, we could see all six. Rude not to, in fact.

Here are the six operas, then, in the order we saw them:
  • Friday evening: Janáček's 'Osud' ('Destiny'), with Ravel's 'L'Enfant et les sortilèges' ('The Child and the Magic Spells').
  • Saturday afternoon: Bernstein's 'Trouble in Tahiti', with Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Trial by Jury'.
  • Saturday evening: Leoncavallo's 'Pagliacci', with Mascagni's 'Cavelleria rusticana'.
[Seasoned opera-goers will know that it's in fact a longstanding tradition to perform these last two together - although more commonly the other way round (resulting in their joint nickname 'Cav/Pag'). However, the fact we saw them as a pair was simply circumstance - earlier in the season, there were several opportunities for punters to combine each one with a selection from the other four.]

ON's General Director, Richard Mantle, writes that a key aim of the 'Little Greats' season is "to explore the boundless variety of opera" - and here they certainly succeeded. Even the classic coupling of 'Pag' and 'Cav' - which both represent the short, sharp shock of Italian opera at its most visceral - had undergone a kind of interrogation of their differences: 'Pagliacci's theatre group in a chaotic state of rehearsal realism, mayhem holding sway even before the bloodshed becomes a reality... while 'CR's characters inhabit a more surreal, suspended limbo where their conversations and actions criss-cross - yet the storytelling maintains its clarity right through to the chilling conclusion.

'Osud' is an astonishing work that, to my mind, belongs properly in the repertoire. Its flashback structure (emphasising the characters' inexorable journey to the 'destiny' of the title) and self-perpetuating plot - about a composer who uses the disasters in his life to fuel his opera-in-progress and, as a result, can never complete it - give it a thoroughly contemporary 'meta' feel that would make it a natural bedfellow to a piece like 'Written on Skin'. 

Yet the biggest surprise to me of the six was the Bernstein. Familiarity with 'West Side Story' alone would suggest the ability to mix some of the most joyous music with gritty, bittersweet and even tragic situations, and the almost carefree elision of jazz and classical styles. But it seems this was all there, 100%, in his first opera-in-miniature. 'Trouble in Tahiti' is a day-in-the-life story, lasting well under an hour, which we spend with Sam and Dinah, a married couple who have lost the ability to communicate. Each day, it seems, they could reach a point where they talk it through, but instead they bicker, avoid each other, then seek refuge in a movie before 're-setting' for the following day. In a genius touch, a Greek chorus role is taken by a doo-wop style trio on the radio, singing their hymns to the perfect suburban life which we watch and hear going so poignantly wrong. Despite the fierce bravura of 'Cav', 'Pag' and 'Osud', this was in fact the Little Great that got to me the most, brought me closest to tears.

In comparison, the Ravel and G&S works are confections. In the former, a naughty boy is banished to his room, only to have everything he has abused - from the formerly inanimate objects in his room to the animals in the garden outside - come to life and turn on him. 'Trial by Jury', on the other hand, is almost beyond farce: a blurry rush of lunacy that delights in its own daftness - an early work that seems to have G&S testing each other's limits without worrying about niceties like plot or logic. However, part of the collective genius of this project is that these lighter pieces were delivered with as much care and conviction as the others, giving both the light and dark side of opera equal worth and weight.

I knew before seeing these operas that I would almost certainly post about them, and I reasoned that I would write about all six in turn, perhaps a couple of paragraphs on each. But in fact, that has proven impossible. This is because, while each one works perfectly well by itself, the cumulative effect of seeing all the Little Greats in fairly quick succession is to realise how unified the season is overall: there are references and continuities that don't make or break one's enjoyment of each individual opera at all - but they can enhance the experience if you want them to.

For example, the shared nature of the operas as 'blink and you'll miss them', momentary suspensions of disbelief is embodied in the visual presentation. While several directors were involved, Charles Edwards designed all the sets - and in each opera they present a temporary enclosed world that the characters to some extent manipulate and dismantle onstage - from the fading front room of 'Tahiti', the looming cross on the church wall in 'Cav', the disintegrating classroom in 'Osud', the bedroom imperceptibly giving way to the outdoors in 'L'enfant'... to the rehearsal area itself in 'Pagliacci' which, neatly, features designs for the other five Little Greats pinned up onto the sets. Equally, we see or hear constant reminders of time in all the productions, whether the characters are society gossips staring at a clock face willing 10am to arrive ('Trial'), a radio chorus trying to time their entrances and exits accurately ('Tahiti'), villagers heeding a tolling church bell ('Cav') or in fact the personification of a broken clock ('L'enfant')!

For all this pleasing unity, perhaps the most thrilling element of the Little Greats for audiences will prove to be the wonderful performances. It was a privilege to hear the Opera North orchestra in such clarity (when used to the sheer size of London houses and, accordingly, sitting much further away from the action - everything here was several times clearer and louder) - in particular the string section, setting their stall at the outset as engines of terror in the Janáček. The chorus, too, not only made a great sound - providing the entire cast, solo parts and all, for 'Trial by Jury' - but proved masters of physical comedy and movement: I'm thinking in particular of the crowd scenes in 'Osud' and, even more so, the rowdy players just about keeping the action in 'Pagliacci' on the sane side of anarchy until the shocking, closing tableau. My admiration for players and singers alike increased with every performance: the sheer versatility on display, in such compact circumstances.

The season also encouraged brilliance from the soloists, who would from time to time reappear as a result of fascinating casting. Giselle Allen gave two studies of the wronged woman - the down-trodden Mila in 'Osud' and the repressed Santuzza finally reaching breaking point in 'Cav' - both given gorgeously yearning voice, yet so distinctly characterised as to feel at first like two different sopranos. Rosalind Plowright also appeared in the same two operas, as a mother-figure in each: in the former a dangerous loose cannon, vocally fearsome, while in the latter, a more uptight, withdrawn individual with a more resigned, brittle tone. It was also a joy to see singers taking relatively small roles in some productions come to the fore in others: for example, two of the supporting players in 'Osud' went on to dominate 'Pag' - Peter Auty as a heartbreakingly unhinged Canio opposite Richard Burkhard's terrifyingly malevolent Tonio, attacking every syllable with all-too-believable venom.

It's so hard to single people out when this whole enterprise was so clearly the result of a committed ensemble. But I would have to mention Wallis Giunta, who switched overnight from the bolshy defiance of tearaway boy in the Ravel - played tenderly and convincingly as a proper junior 'trouser role' - to the longing and disquiet of Bernstein's Dinah. I'd also pay tribute to the acting (as well as singing) of John Graham-Hall, utterly inhabiting the lead role of Zhivny in 'Osud' - fragile nerves, paranoia, panic, obsession - only to spend the rest of the evening, thanks to Ravel, as either a tea-pot or a tree-frog. That really is range.

As I write, the Little Greats have closed in Leeds but now head out on tour to Hull, Nottingham, Newcastle and Salford - so, if any tickets remain, please get to some or all of them if you can. Just like that astonishing interpretation of the Ring, these productions have the stamp of a company with sky-high ambitions, backed up with the imagination and talent to achieve them.

Wednesday 11 October 2017

Parent company: my folks vs opera

Since retiring, my mum and dad have probably focused on the normal 'H'-related activities (home, holidays, and inevitably, a bit of hospital) - but there are signs they've acquired a slight taste for adventure. Taking travel as an example, they were essentially UK-bound thanks to a shared fear of flying - one reason I know probably every centimetre of the Isle of Wight - but in later years, seemingly possessed, they've boarded Euro-bound coaches to some further flung regions on the continent: and more power to them.

It's also starting to happen in other areas, too. For a recent Mothers' Day, Mrs Specs and I took them to the Royal Opera House: not for an actual show, but for the treat-laden afternoon tea. However, as the special occasion merited, members of the chorus performed arias with piano accompaniment throughout the session. It was a superb afternoon, but the big surprise towards the end was when Dad announced: 'You know - I'd like to go the opera one day.' Mum: 'Me too. If it's anything like this - that would be lovely.'

I instantly said: 'Well, that's great! Leave it to me.' I was overjoyed. This really was new. Dad was Team Sinatra. Tribe of Elvis. Mum probably last put a record on in 1964. We'd always had bonds culturally - books, films, TV - but music only tangentially. To hear them express an interest in anything to do with classical music awakened that impulse in me that perhaps every child recognises when there's a chance to fix something up in their 'field' for their parents: to give a bit of all that nurturing and education back.

I had a few problems to negotiate. Which opera? It would need to have 'proper' melodies (I love a lot of contemporary stuff, but this visit was not about me.) Thanks to Dad's fear of heights, I needed to find the exact point in the auditorium between affordability and terra firma. Couldn't be too long, either, or Mum could fall asleep and Dad's leg would fossilise - the last thing I'd want would be for him to stand up for the interval only to tip serenely over into the next row. So that's 'Parsifal' out. In the end, I spotted that 'Tosca' (with one of my favourite singers in the title role) was coming round early next year at the ROH. Perfect - a real thriller of a 'starter' opera: tense, tragic, tune-packed.

I can't wait for the date to arrive and see what they make of it. In the meantime, a conversation I had with Dad today indicates the learning curve may be steep-ish... it began with Mum saying 'You were at the opera all weekend!'

(The Coliseum, home of English National Opera, where I was 'at the opera all weekend'.)

Me: Well, sort of. I just ended up getting tickets two nights running. 'Aida' on Friday, 'The Barber of Seville' on Saturday.
Dad: Ah! 'The Barber of Seville'! Heard of that.
Me: Yep. You know, 'Fiiii-ga-ro', that one. Laugh-out-loud funny. Brilliant.
Dad: He's married, isn't he?
Me: No. [Pause.] Oh. You must be thinking of 'The Marriage of Figaro'.
Dad: Yes, exactly. He's married.
Me: No, I mean - 'The Marriage of Figaro' is a completely different opera. Mozart. 'The Barber of Seville' is by Rossini.
Dad: [A facial expression which says 'I am tolerating this, for now'.]
Me: Figaro is a character from some old French plays, and the operas are based on those. So, while the composers are different, 'The Barber of Seville' is a bit like a prequel to 'The Marriage of Figaro', in story order.
Dad: So he does get married.
Me: YES but not in the opera I saw on Saturday. He gets married in... well, in 'The Marriage of Figaro'. In 'The Barber of Seville', he helps a nobleman rescue the woman he loves from the clutches of her guardian.
Dad: But he's involved with some woman downstairs, isn't he? They're in on it together?
Mum: Don't look at me, dear.
Me [after some moments]: Well. The woman, ok, is upstairs. A prisoner in her own room, so to speak, but yes, she's in on what they're doing - she wants to escape.
Dad: No no no, she's downstairs. The people go down a trap door, and she puts them in the pies. She's in on it, with Figaro - right?
Me: That's Sweeney Todd, Dad.
Dad: THAT'S IT! I knew it.

If an enterprising composer out there would like to write 'The Demon Barber of Seville', my Dad's going to love it.

Sunday 1 October 2017

Beat poets: The Disappointment Choir's 'Vows'

I should say upfront - as I normally do when posting about the Disappointment Choir - that they are friends of mine. Full disclosure and all that. Luckily, that's never been an issue when it comes to spreading the word about their music. It's superb.

As one might expect from a duo with separate lives, day jobs and families, new music from Rob and Katy doesn't always arrive quickly - but when it turns up, it's worth many times the wait. These are exciting times for Choir acolytes, as the new album 'Vows' (their second full-length after 2013 debut 'Polar Ships' and interim EP from 2015 'To the Lake') arrives at last, in just a few days' time: Friday 6 October.

I'm pleased to report that 'Vows' is exactly the follow-up album one would want the band to make. From the outset, they were singular enough: an adult, melancholy sensibility - a mournful indieness that would comfort fans of the Magnetic Fields or the National - made buoyant on sparkling keyboards, synths and samples - think Pet Shop Boys in their more reflective moments. A couple of the songs on 'Vows' that exemplify this - 'Need Someone' and 'Centre of the World' - date from the EP, and are clearly too gorgeous not to find a home on a proper album.

But elsewhere on the record, there are new games afoot that push the DC sound into further realms of genre-scorning magnificence. While the production is hardly in-your-face, there's something a little more souped-up in the engine, and the inventiveness has certainly been turned up to 11. Take the first song released ahead of the album (for older readers, the 'single', if you will), 'Heartstrings'. Here it is:

I think it's almost possible to audit scientifically why 'Heartstrings' is such a glorious, affecting pop record. I shall use bullet points:
  • The verse is as immediate as some of the best choruses.
  • Then the chorus is a real winner as well.
  • The gentle, but insistent propulsion all comes from the melodies - the constantly moving synth bass makes your head nod and foot tap, but the percussion is quiet, almost a suggestion.
  • It's also the song's drive, its sense of purpose, that helps make it uplifting and wistful at the same time.
  • Where the lyrics repeat most busily, they actually match and encapsulate the exasperation of the character in the song.
  • Vocal harmonies have always been one of the band's strengths. Unlike, for example, the more familiar idea of groups with a seamless 'blend' of voices (siblings like the Everlys or Beach Boys, or Simon & Garfunkel, say), Rob and Katy have entirely distinct singing styles and timbres. So, while on the first few listens, you still get a unified feel for the overall tune, repeated plays reward close attention as you can follow each voice quite clearly and appreciate how the vocal lines dovetail around each other.
  • The song probably has the best-deployed "Oh-ho-ho" in recorded history.
  • When you get to the outro to find how THAT verse and THAT chorus can in fact be sung at the same time and sound amazing, it's a proper musical 'punch-the-air' moment.
  • And finally, the song doesn't outstay its welcome. So you play it again.
Two of the most extraordinary songs on the album are full-on dancefloor monsters. '1971' sounds for all the world like Daft Punk (armed with their vocoder) and Chic invading the Home Counties, its three minutes sporting massed anthemic chants, relentless synth bass and a genuine contender for a Deathless Disco Couplet: "It doesn't matter what's making the sound / If it's shaking the ground". Even a keening, 'Heroes'-style guitar makes an appearance towards the end.

And the opening track, 'A Quid's Worth of Free Advice' could be one of the best things they've ever done. Again, it's possible to hear them meld, and even surpass potential influences: the dancing blips nod to the 80s heyday of Depeche Mode and Erasure, while the brilliant interplay between the guitar and backing out-Electronics Electronic. But as both the Choristers increase even further in confidence vocally, the singing means this couldn't be by anyone else as Rob's regret-filled agility and Katy's forceful purity carry a lightning call-and-response through the verses.

I could go on: there's the winning closing moments of '2½ Minute Love Song' where each of the pair seem to happily inhabit their own separate record; the unstoppable 'Captain, 15' with its soaring vocal line, approximately 37 different versions of the main rhythm, and instrumental break worthy of the atmosphere of 'Telstar'; the gorgeous 'That's When We Fall', mining its poignancy from the way all the instruments appear to initially hold back from the beat. Eleven tracks in all, precision-tooled to keep both the ears and brain fully occupied.

If you're struck by what you hear, then please support the band, and we'll have more of this heady, powerful pop brew to look forward to. You can order 'Vows' on various formats, all the way from a mere phantom digital option, to a (no doubt synthesised) bells-and-whistles vinyl/CD/bag - yes, BAG - combo for those of us who appreciate something a little more luxurious. All Disappointment Choir-related sonic riches can be found here on their Bandcamp page. Make haste!