Sunday 26 November 2017

Two anti-heroines: 'Marnie' and 'Semiramide'

As can happen from time to time when juggling booking dates, I recently enjoyed a two-opera weekend - catching opening performances of Nico Muhly's new work 'Marnie' (English National Opera) and the Rossini behemoth 'Semiramide' (Royal Opera). For such an accidental and slightly odd juxtaposition, it was interesting to see these side by side: written nearly 200 years apart, but both placing strong women with dark secrets and murky pasts at their centre, asking the audience to understand and even sympathise with their passions and motivations. That both operas succeeded in doing this is a tribute to the productions and chiefly to the two mezzo-sopranos taking the lead roles.

'Marnie' is based on a novel by Winston Graham, itself far eclipsed in fame by the Alfred Hitchcock film it inspired. By all accounts, the book is a more melancholy, fatalistic affair than the movie, and it is this lower-key version that Muhly and librettist Nicholas Wright focus on. (This has led to at least one review I've seen suggesting that lovers of the Hitchcock film would inevitably be 'disappointed' by the opera - perhaps they would also, in their confusion at where they were, bemoan the lack of a big screen, special effects and popcorn? I tire of manufactured criticism like this, especially of ENO, very easily.)

The action of the opera is as much character study as it is thriller. Marnie is a career thief, with a tried and trusted MO: she gets a job, usually working with wages or accounts - then when thoroughly settled, steals whatever cash is on her employer's premises and flees. A new name, look and town - and the cycle starts again. But whatever kick-started this life of crime is rooted in some childhood catastrophe, and the action of the plot sees this repressed trauma finally break out on to the surface and bring Marnie to a kind of closure.

(Sasha Cooke as Marnie - ENO photograph copyright Richard Hubert Smith)

In the sense that the story turns on some major coincidences and contrivances, you could argue that it's perfect for opera. Marnie finally gets in too deep when she takes a job working for Mark Rutland, a client of the last employer she embezzled. Mark falls in unrequited love with Marnie, but because he works out what she's up to and catches her at the safe red-handed, he is able to blackmail her into marriage. As she won't consummate the union, he then tries to rape her. (The fact that Mark is the closest we have to a romantic lead helps explain why Marnie is by some distance the most sympathetic character in the opera.) However, Mark himself partly mirrors Marnie as the dysfunctional Rutlands provide their own subplot: he's a man in charge of a family firm but with no business acumen, saddled with his feckless brother and, crucially, still under the thumb of the iron-willed matriarch. Maternal issues also hold the key to Marnie's compulsions, and it's Mark who brings matters to a head by striking a deal with Marnie for her to undergo therapy.

Where the opera succeeds, I think, is that is fully engages - and illustrates on-stage - not just the cogs and gears of the plot but even more so, what's happening in Marnie's head. Marnie herself is tracked by four 'Shadow Marnies' dressed in bold, plain colour variants of whatever she is wearing. Not merely 'split personalities', but different moods, shades of her fractured psyche: in one riveting sequence where Marnie visits the analyst, they all dovetail among themselves to take turns on the couch, the 'real' Marnie becoming just one of their number, going neither first nor last. Equally, a troupe of male actor-dancers in grey suits and hats initially appear to close in on Marnie during the first robbery - are they police, or agents? - but in fact, they take on the more nebulous role of fate, or even conscience, as they recede as mysteriously as they came - sometimes moving scenery, or even providing abstract illustration for certain scenes, such as their fevered enactment of a fox hunt.

(The shadows surround Marnie on the analyst's couch - ENO photograph copyright Richard Hubert Smith)

Most of all, while all the other characters interact realistically, Marnie gets to break the fourth wall, make eye contact with us, and confide her schemes aloud. Here is perhaps the best place to praise Sasha Cooke in the title role - possessed of a ravishing voice (playing a master of disguise demands that she 'colour' a number of different versions of her character, a vocal representation of the Shadow Marnies' visual effect), but also a brave, brilliant actor. Resisting any temptation to make us love or pity Marnie, she fully embodies her myriad contradictions - cold fury, cruel beauty, fragile strength.

Muhly's use of voice types created some intriguing character tension. So often, the female lead is a soprano: playing on the 'mezzo as villainess' cliché gave us the opportunity to hear SC's deeper, resonant tone envelop us more or less throughout the whole opera. Daniel Okulitch is a bass-baritone, giving Mark an air of steely capability that turns out to be entirely false. While counter-tenor James Laing, in a superbly volatile performance as younger brother Terry, could use his pitch to convey the dangerous unpredictability of an overgrown adolescent.

Overall, the score felt pacey and urgent - the use of strings to build suspense was in fact more or less the only thing that reminded me of the Hitchcock film, and I'm sure the nod was deliberate - but melodic and poignant, supportive of the singers and story. I was most impressed by the choral writing - it felt to me that Muhly understands full well the particular versatility and accomplishment of the ENO chorus and wanted to draw this out. The ENO choristers have always excelled in functioning as a fearsomely tight unit, but when needed, are able to flesh out every individual as an observable character in their own right. In their key scenes as workers or onlookers commenting on the action, Muhly mostly resisted a unison approach to give what sounded like 'pockets' of the chorus various comments at different times, creating a more realistic 'bustle' effect: the moment when they hit the pub and place their orders at the bar may have been welcome light relief, but truly sophisticated and memorable for all that.

I hope 'Marnie' finds its place on a recording and in the repertoire - it has lingered in my mind with a kind of implacable staying power in keeping with its title character's resilience. Please note - especially if you won't make it to a performance - that BBC Radio 3 are currently scheduled to broadcast it on Saturday 9 December.

In 'Semiramide', the crimes of the main character are writ somewhat larger - literally, in fact, as the opera is lavish in both setting and length, and some years before the action even begins, the Queen conspired with her confidante, Assur, to murder her husband, King Nino. Their son, Ninia, disappeared. I'm fearful of describing the convoluted plot, as I'm absolutely convinced I'll leave out something crucial. But in a nutshell (assume this is quite a large nut)...

Semiramide has to name a successor, who will both become king and take her hand in marriage. There are three main contenders: Assur, her old confidante, who expects to be rewarded for his faithfulness; Idreno, an Indian king; and the fearless soldier in charge of the Assyrian army, Arsace. Romantically, there are sundry complications: Azema, a princess seemingly destined for 'trophy wife' status among these nobles, is in love with Arsace. However, Idreno loves Azema and, while he would like the throne, would much rather marry Azema than Semiramide. In turn, Semiramide has tired of Assur's attentions and has fallen for Arsace. In fact, no-one likes Assur, primarily, it seems, because he's a dolt.

To cut a (really) long story short: Semiramide announces Arsace as the, er, lucky winner - but the ghost of the murdered King chooses this moment to make an appearance and rather ruin the atmosphere. The birds come home to roost. The High Priest reveals to Asarce that he is, in fact, the long-lost Ninia, saved as a boy by one of the brethren. As a result, not only is the marriage to Semiramide now impossible, he must also avenge his father. Inclined to spare his mum, he tells her the whole story and heads off to kill Assur. In turn, Assur, driven over the edge, vows to murder Asarce. In distress, Semiramide goes to pray and all three of them end up in the darkness of Nino's tomb. Thinking he is striking Assur, Arsace kills Semiramide by mistake. Assur is taken away, leaving Arsace to take the throne.

While it's easy to make light of the melodramatic mayhem, the opera easily transcends its storyline. From the opening moments, the score is gripping - the overture is very highly regarded and, by previewing some of the work's great tunes (the kind of technique we're more used to in modern musicals), presents you at the outset with a medley of sheer magnificence. Conducted by their boss, Sir Antonio Pappano, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played with tireless vivacity and variety, making a long opera seem much, much shorter. It's quite something to sit back at the end of any 4-hour performance and think - 'I'd happily just stay here and listen to that again.'

(ROH poster graphic for 'Semiramide')

The production, by David Alden, relocated Babylon to a more modern, but still exotic, dictatorship: bright colours, military iconography. The costumes for the women in particular seemed intriguing, and meaningful: Semiramide moved from flamboyant regalia to a dark night-dress - not only showing the character's mental shift from ruler to potential lover, but underlining her vulnerability and forthcoming loss of power. Azema - shaved head and literally weighed down by her gold outfit - was the personification of a prize, untold riches to be given or traded.

With one (understandable) exception, the singers were phenomenal. While Semiramide is a soprano role, mezzo Joyce DiDonato sang with exquisite power, with the greater 'weight' to her voice arguably allowing her to embody the Queen's troubled complexity more completely. With Arsace also a mezzo 'trouser role' - here the superb Daniela Barcellona - their voices in duet seemed to blend particularly closely and lend a kind of audio-irony to the characters' initial ignorance of their being mother and son. Lawrence Brownlee sang Idreno with bravura agility and precision, and Jacquelyn Stucker - charged with a very physically demanding interpretation of the role (especially given the costume) - imbued Azema with both frustration and dignity.

The only slight technical hitch was Michele Pertusi as Assur in Act 1, who seemed quiet - no wonder, it turned out, as he had fallen ill. (He had already replaced Ildebrando D'Arcangelo in the role, so hopefully this isn't the curse of Nino working its way through a succession of basses.) At the interval, Mirco Palazzi took over at short notice and sang the role with much greater, er, 'Assur-ance'. [Eh, readers?] In an opera that revolves around strong female voices, Assur is one of the much rarer male roles to have a full-blown 'mad scene', and I feel grateful to have heard it given by someone on peak form.

Two real events, then: a handsome world premiere, and a triumphant production of a marvellous, if all-too-rarely staged classic. I'm now aware that this post might almost be long enough for Rossini to set it to music - so I will end here.

Sunday 12 November 2017

Personal space: Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

I imagine it's fair to say that the artist Rachel Whiteread is still best known for her major 'public' works. In the UK, she won the Turner Prize in 1993 with 'House', the concrete cast of an entire derelict residence (now itself demolished), and in 2001, provided one of the pieces for the temporary outdoor location on the 'fourth plinth' in Trafalgar Square. This work was a resin cast of the actual plinth, placed upside down on the top to form a vertical double image: imposing, haunting and demonstrating a strangely austere wit.

I've also never forgotten seeing her Holocaust Memorial on a trip to Vienna several years ago. It's a large room-shaped cast, but with the appearance of a library turned inside-out: the exterior walls are lined with bookshelves, and the books have their pages, rather than spines, facing outwards. Not only did Whiteread's aesthetic approach capture the industrialised horror of its subject matter, the work seemed to illuminate this suppression of history, knowledge and identity: the attempt to not only wipe out the physical presence of an entire people, but also the very idea of their existence.

(The model of the Holocaust Memorial.)

So I was very curious to see the Rachel Whiteread retrospective at London's Tate Britain. I was having trouble even picturing how it would work - for a start, I'd hardly seen anything she had produced contained within an indoor location. Brilliantly, the show bats off any concerns along these lines at the outset. On arrival in the Duveen Galleries (the huge central halls), RW's 'One Hundred Spaces' installation - resin casts of the 'gaps' underneath various chairs - guide you towards the main exhibition area like an array of vast cats' eyes.

When you reach the corridor-like annexe in front of the exhibition doors, the major public works are presented through a range of photographs, plans, video footage and scale models. The models in particular are a great idea: they give you a view of the piece that you couldn't actually get in real life, and they also 'scale you down' mentally so you don't go in expecting to see something the size of 'House'.

Although, to be honest, it almost feels like you do. I can't think of an exhibition I've been to in recent years where the 'hang' has been so important, and so clever. On walking through the entrance, you find yourself in a corner of a colossal, single space. The map on the leaflet, which in most exhibitions typically guides you from room to room in sequence, here simply indicates the type of work you can find in each part of the sprawling, open area. So, while you can plan a route of sorts, and identify the phase or series of pieces you're looking at, it's far easier after a bit of acclimatisation to just wander around and absorb the sheer 'presence' of the sculptures, visiting and re-visiting pieces as something about one of them reminds you of one of the others. I did a circuit of the room 'on duty', as it were, sensing I was almost certainly going to want to write about it, and taking the photos for this post on my phone - then I put it away and spent at least twice as long again in the exhibition, just looking and thinking.

Two large-scale works do, in fact, dominate the space. 'Room 101' casts the room in Broadcasting House (former home of the BBC) where George Orwell worked, and which apparently inspired the infamous torture chamber in '1984'. Its apparent featurelessness again brings to mind the implacable, faceless bureaucracy of the novel, while at the same time forming a somehow pleasing monument to the old BBC building, the doorways, windows - even the plug socket - remnants of the former energy.

'Stairs', meanwhile, is cast from the staircase of a building where Whiteread lived, itself an old warehouse and, before that, synagogue. As the leaflet points out, the wear and tear on the stairs is testament to all those that had come and gone in the premises: but I was hypnotised by the surreal nature of the piece - the way it seemed only the two flights in balance were keeping it upright, and how the 'spaces' cast still looked like stairs but could no longer be climbed.

Surrounding these were a host of smaller works, some of them from early in RW's career. Seeing many of these more modest casts - furniture, utensils - made me realise why perhaps it is I'm such a fan of RW's work, even though I wouldn't say I necessarily liked every individual piece. But I recognise that I'm strongly drawn to art of any discipline where the practitioner works away at central themes with obsessive commitment - minimalist classical compositions, drone/riff-based metal or electronica, the paintings of Rothko, the novels of Golding. I felt this exhibition drew out a timeline of sorts for Whiteread, with 'House' as a kind of pivot: many of the earlier pieces seem to be a working-out, establishing a style, method and template leading up to a literal magnum opus. Then afterwards, the later work, which includes 'Room 101' and 'Stairs', while inevitably reducing again in scale, seems to display a constant refining and interrogating of ideas. The dimensions visibly contract as space takes over from form, and we see arrangements of boxes, casts of doors and windows, paper casts of shed walls... edging steadily from 3D to 2D. Absence - we see the merest fragment of an original location - replaces the oppressive presence of the earlier, bulkier pieces. She even calls her more recent large casts - cabins and sheds in secluded areas - 'shy sculptures', removed from any prominent view.

As well as making the viewer acutely aware of physical space, all of the work seems to inspire a range of mental reactions and responses. I found much of the exhibition inescapably political. For example, the bookshelves with only the outline shapes of the books remaining (work made that would lead to the Holocaust Memorial) seem to represent something so current: library closures, dismissal of expert knowledge, unthinking uniformity. Or the works on paper surrounding the development of 'House', where property is erased, vanished from the street. The constant motif of substance filling spaces illustrated, to me, claustrophobia, displacement, the stress of modern urban living, the fragility of our surroundings.

Emphasising these thoughts was - as I mentioned before - the superb way the exhibition was arranged, to the point where you almost felt you were in a Whiteread space yourself. The stone colours of the gallery toned so well with those of the exhibits (in particular, I was struck by how the boxes pieces were echoed by their environment), and the single-room layout meant that there were endless ways you could 'interact' with the work as a viewer.

For all of these reasons, I would rate this exhibition as a must-see if you are in the area, and at all intrigued by artists with a singular vision of this power and consistency. Rachel Whiteread runs at Tate Britain until 21 January 2018.

Sunday 5 November 2017

Lost in Franz

The work/life/blog balance has been heavily weighted towards work/life in the last couple of weeks. To calm myself - and I hope bring you some peace and pleasure too - here's a playlist of Schubert lieder.


Elly Ameling, Irwin Gage: 'Atys'

Fritz Wunderlich, Hubert Giesen: 'An Sylvia'

[Here's Sylvia!]

Sylvia Schwartz, (pianist shrouded in mystery): 'Du Bist die Ruh'

Werner Güra, Christoph Berner: 'Nachtstück'

Bernarda Fink, Gerold Huber: 'Romanze'

Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake: 'Wilkommen und Abschied'

Barbara Bonney, Geoffrey Parsons: 'Auf dem Wasser zu singen'

Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber: 'Fischerweise'

Ruby Hughes, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (Juanjo Mena): 'Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen' (arr. Max Reger)

Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten: 'Die Taubenpost'