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Tag Archive | "Opera"

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Review: Faust, Royal Opera House

Posted on 06 April 2014 by Rebecca Latham

Faust

David McVicar’s production of Gounod’s Faust, set in 1870s Paris, is back at the Royal Opera House and brings with it some fresh as well as familiar talent.

The main stage is a luxurious haven away from the frenzied madness of Covent Garden and offers the perfect space to escape into the epic story of Faust and Marguerite. McVicar’s production is bountiful and makes optimum use of its allotted three-and-a-half hour running time. It is not often that a performance of that length can maintain the interest of its audience, but Faust manages to remain captivating for its entirety; perhaps this is why this particular opera has always remained in vogue. With a vast array of impressive set changes that utilise the gigantic space, as well as illustrious costumes and devastating dramatic moments, Faust is a thoroughly engaging production.

The movement in the first act is perhaps a tad clunky. Happily, this is more than rectified after the intermission by the powerful ballet, choreographed by Michael Keegan Dolan, that encapsulates the hellish environment in which Faust (Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja) now finds himself a prisoner. Satan’s playground is bustling with eerie and disturbing sequences that are both unsettling and entertaining. Welsh bass-baritone and Billy Connolly doppelgänger Bryn Terfel is no stranger to Mephistopheles, having played the satanic figure in 2004. He has gravitas in his performance and commands the stage with an electric presence that fluctuates between sinister and frequent comical turns. He meets his match in the fifth act, in the form of a Christian figurehead in black tie adorned with fluffy white feathers – Marguerite’s redemption is slightly undercut by the ridiculous figure of Christ.

The role of Marguerite is played by Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva and Greek soprano Alexia Voulgardiou on alternate nights: for both it is their first time singing as the character. Yoncheva delighted the audience on this particular night, who in return showered her in vocal praise at the show’s end. For them, it was she who stole the show. Marguerite’s descent from pure, virginal heroine to ruined woman is a familiar tale that remains heart-wrenching in this latest illustration, and Valentin’s rejection of his pregnant sister upon his return from war is the emotional climax of the show.

A special mention must be made of conductor Maurizio Benini, who works ferociously from the orchestra pit to give fevered leadership that injects vitality into the entire production. For much of the show I found my eyes wandering to his frenetic movements that are equally as impressive as the action on stage.

The Royal Opera House offers a space that can transport its audience far away from the chaotic bustle of the shopping capital of London. David McVicar’s Faust extends this pledge further by offering the audience a magnificent tale brimming with vigour. Aside from a few odd choices, this production is a worthy testament to the endurance of Faust.

Faust is playing at The Royal Opera House until 25 April. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website.

Photo by Catherine Ashmore.

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Review: Through His Teeth, Linbury Studio Theatre

Posted on 05 April 2014 by Laura Peatman

Through His TeethAs Gounod’s Faust arrives on the Royal Opera House’s main stage, the Linbury Studio Theatre hosts two world premières inspired by the classic tale. The first of these is Through His Teeth, a new work created in a collaboration between composer Luke Bedford and playwright David Harrower.

In Bedford and Harrower’s take on the Faust story, our heroine – ‘A’ – doesn’t quite sell her soul, but sacrifices her family, her freedom, and almost her entire sense of self as she is seduced into a web of deceit by that twenty-first century equivalent of the devil – a conman. The result is an enjoyable and interesting piece, but one that could do with delving more deeply into its own subject matter.

The plot development feels a little rushed, as the action rapidly progresses from first meeting, to full-blown relationship, to being on the run from enemies of MI5. This is in part down to the structure of the work, which highlights vignettes and snippets of the relationship to pinpoint certain conversations and emotions and is itself not a bad form to adopt. Yet the wild entanglement of duplicity and enticement deserves more time to reflect upon and understand: what makes an apparently rational, intelligent woman believe so easily that this car salesman is really an MI5 agent? Put like that, it sounds ridiculous – yet it is based on true events and almost leads to her destruction. Giving this closer attention would more deftly and powerfully highlight the Faustian inspiration.

Having said that, there’s plenty to praise here. Indeed, vocally there is very little to fault: Anna Devin’s soprano soars, and she has a keen sense of when to linger, and when to really go for it. As the enigmatic Robert, Owen Gilhooly has a solid grasp on his character’s rapidly-shifting moods and reflects them adeptly in his strong performance, while the trio is confidently completed by Victoria Simmonds. The only niggle is occasionally diction, as at several times throughout the hour I was glad of the surtitles – something I shouldn’t have to say for an opera in English. The vibrant accompaniment of contemporary chamber orchestra CHROMA is a key element of the success in this production, fulfilling the intensity and the surprising lightnesses of the score and pushing the cast on to greater emotional heights.

The risk of any clunkiness in the modern libretto is, to Bedford’s great credit, turned around for comic effect as the clichéd patter and flirtatious banter of car salesman Robert raises laughs in this operatic context. The frank discussion of the central couple’s sex life is a little uncomfortable in its abruptness, and perhaps over-simplifies the ‘seduction’ element of this deceit, yet it does allow for some chilling power games. Particularly effective are the argument scenes between Devin and Simmonds, as the layering of the two parts builds climactically, as A’s life spirals out of control and away from her family. CCTV screens of previous scenes, current scenes and apparent news reports act as a chilling backdrop to the flashback documentary-style work.

It would have been tempting to wrap up this hour-long piece as a neat moral package, with everyone having learned their lesson and, in the Faustian sense, with the devil conquered. The decision to in fact end on an unanswered question gives greater strength to the whole trajectory of the work: has this experience really changed ‘A’? Would she go through it all again? And more to the point, will she – will the ‘devil’ yet triumph?

Overall, this is a slick and entertaining new work that deserves more fleshing out and less haste if it is going to achieve all its aims.

Through His Teeth is playing at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre until 11 April. For tickets and more information, visit the Royal Opera House website

Laura Peatman

Laura Peatman

Laura is an English graduate, tea drinker and blogger. After spending three years studying and reviewing theatre at Cambridge University, she now runs marketing for an HE dance college and spends as much time as humanly possible at the theatre.

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Review: L’Ormindo, Wanamaker Playhouse

Posted on 28 March 2014 by Amelia Forsbrook

Is it okay to elope with another man’s wife, if that other man turns out to be your father? Would you forgive a lover who only stopped his unfaithful ways after you convinced him you were a ghost? Could you trust a fortune-teller to lead you through your life?

It’s probably best not to think too hard about the little moral and logical pickles our characters confront throughout L’Ormindo as the opera presents a tangle of unconvincing associates and lovers. The unlikely tale begins as Princes Ormindo (Samuel Boden) and Amidas (Ed Lyon) travel across northern Africa to offer their support to the elderly King Ariadenus (Graeme Broadbent). When matching photos of an ‘unmatched beauty’ are revealed by the young men, our princes position themselves as love rivals – and our King discovers that the affections of his spirited young wife, Queen Erisbe (Susanna Hurrell), are somewhat scattered.

Fortunately, this sharp and imaginative collaboration between Royal Opera House and Shakespeare’s Globe leaves only its characters in a muddle. Using a comically flawed narrative and a rich, dazzling space to good advantage, this opera trills on the right side of the thin line between authenticity and kitsch. While the quality of the opera is clear to see, the original, seventeenth-century plans for this indoor playhouse leave little guidance on where to position surtitle boards – making drama and storytelling the focus. Responding to this alternative venue, the Royal Opera’s Director of Opera, Kasper Holten, proceeds “treating the opera as text set to music”. Throughout, the performers’ musical brilliance remains understated.

Relentlessly ornate, the new Wanamaker Playhouse offers a distinct challenge to designers: how do you place a stamp of individuality on your production, when a stunning landmark of a venue threatens to steal the show? Anja Vang Kragh’s costume designs provide the answer, with an edgy sultriness that riffs on the macabre glamour of this opera. The designer interacts well with Christopher Cowell’s neat translation of the Giovanni Faustini’s libretto, complementing a toxic world where beauty has an obvious ugly streak. A definite, gendered cynicism bleeds through the piece’s attitude to contemporary cosmetics: “Each time you kiss a woman you swallow poison.”

Queen Erisbe gets the best costume – a vibrant, elegant gown that sweeps up at the back to double as a bedsheet, cleverly ornamented by two pillows and a headboard. The queen’s whimsical dress serves as costume and setting; what it doesn’t do is cover the back of her pink French knickers, underlying L’Ormindo’s naughty flair. Later, soprano Joélle Harvey takes to the stage as Lady Luck, in Lady Gaga’s metallic haute couture dress and Lady Liberty’s overblown crown. Paradoxically, by channelling cartoonish influences onto the opera’s superficial caricatures, Vang Kragh brings depth and richness to the show.

As beeswax candles illuminate a colourful stage that Shakespeare’s Globe insists is “an archetype, rather than a replica”, a production here could be so tacky. If done frivolously, this could certainly feel like Disneyland Baroque. Thankfully, the collaborators have done well to highlight the grotesque and playful in this work, bringing a heavily-stylised storybook quality to their adaptation. As the musicians tune up, our players relax onstage in dressing-gowns, whispering and gossiping with each other and applying their make-up. When the music begins, the actors look surprised and pack up, engineering a sharp transition into what is a fictional world that simply drips with allegory.

L’Ormindo is playing at the Wanamaker Playhouse until 12 April. For more information and tickets, see the Shakespeare’s Globe website

Amelia Forsbrook

Formerly one of the Wales Arts International critics, Amelia moved to London in early 2012 with two big aims: to continue working as an arts writer, and to discover whether it's ever possible to pull off both telephones and flying in theatre. With particular interests in regional arts, South Asian performance and twentieth century European theatre, Amelia writes for a number of other publications, as well as being an Off West End Assessor.

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Review: Rodelinda, London Coliseum

Posted on 03 March 2014 by Amelia Forsbrook

ENO-Rodelinda

The motif of the tattoo defines Richard Jones’ production of the three act tragedy, Rodelinda. Italicised names – symbols of romantic devotion – are scrawled across the bodies of Handel’s characters, dredging the preoccupations of each heart to the surface, and pulling the setting of the play into a relatively modern 20th century. The streaks of ink also underline the superficiality of lovers who spend the bulk of the narrative lamenting old flames or chasing new ones and, ultimately, foreground a production that doesn’t concern itself much with what lies beneath the skin.

After Grimoaldo usurps Bertarido’s throne, the former king abandons Milan, leaving behind Rodelinda (Rebecca Evans) and their son, Flavio (Matt Casey). Dissatisfied with having merely obtained Bertarido’s power, Grimoaldo sets out to acquire the hand of his rival’s wife. Whilst the bulk of the production sees the new leader and his spirited, unrequiting muse divided on stage by only a thin corridor, Jeremy Herbert’s bisected set clashes bureaucratic Milan with the simplistic, pious room of Rodelinda, complete with its mouldy tiles and greying whitewash. Plotted across a set that maps out Rodelinda and Grimoaldo’s opposing worlds, this attempted seduction is destined to fail.

Musically, under Christian Curnyn’s conduction, this work is faultless. With eyes closed, you could get lost in the violins’ taunts, the elegant persistence of the harpsichord and the sweetness with which countertenor Iestyn Davies’s voice melts with Rebecca Evans’s soprano.  Open your eyes, though, and you’ll be confronted with gimmickry left, right and centre. Three treadmills line the front of the stage to indicate the entrapping nature of this bureaucratic system; animated neon signs brings us to a sleazy bar, where poor Bertarido considers his rotten predicament; and Jeremy Herbert and Steve Williams’s blocky computer animation brings memorial imagery to rudely dominate the stage. There’s a punchbag that channels cross-eyes grunge imagery and, later, the characters hop around a toppled statue. Words are drawn on swords, and branded onto knuckles that feed CCTV streams, like shots ripped from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. 

After all of this flamboyant excess, Rodelinda is at its most interesting when it takes time to mull over less ornate imagery. She may live in basic surroundings, but there’s nothing grubby about Rodelina’s spirit. With energy and conviction, Evans brings a rare truth to Grimoaldo’s rhetorical proclamation, “Did you ever see a feistier woman?”. Much wiser than her husband, Evans’s Rodelinda busies herself with schemes and manipulations, whilst our runaway male lead is feebly doubting her faith.

From her abandonment, the character of Rodelinda rises as a beacon of faith and imagination, strengthened by a voice that descends exhilaratingly from vengeful cries to crisp whispers. Biblical allusions have always been here, as mischievous Rodelinda, with a Salome-like command over her own sexuality, demands a councillor’s head as a first condition for marriage; Jones’s production supplements this echo by hammering a devotional image of Virgin and child on our heroine’s otherwise-bare walls – an image that, together with a clever piece of mimicry, enables Rodelinda to toy with the image of mother and child, smashing the idea of passive, gentle victim of fate. Instead, Rodelinda cunningly poses as the quick-witted engineer to the sacrifice of her muted son. Forget the screams of neon and the out-of proportion props – the production could have afforded to linger longer on parallels such as these.

Rodelinda is playing at the Coliseum until 15 March. For more information and tickets, see the ENO website. Photo by Clive Barda. 

Amelia Forsbrook

Formerly one of the Wales Arts International critics, Amelia moved to London in early 2012 with two big aims: to continue working as an arts writer, and to discover whether it's ever possible to pull off both telephones and flying in theatre. With particular interests in regional arts, South Asian performance and twentieth century European theatre, Amelia writes for a number of other publications, as well as being an Off West End Assessor.

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