The Rake’s Progress: Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal Glasgow, 21st March 2012

As I said in my first post here two weeks ago, I am not primarily here to write opera reviews – but I think a new production by my favourite director is a good excuse for a little one, at least. It also seemed like a marvellous excuse to sit in the front row of the Stalls – especially as in Glasgow these sell for a paltry £38. What a fabulous view we had from there, and what clarity and immediacy of orchestral sound.

The Rake’s Progress has been on my David McVicar wish list for YEARS, and I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that it’s been on his, too. It’s surreal, dark, knowing, sleazy, self-consciously theatrical, and simultaneously historical and modern. All the things he seems, in my experience, to be most successful in evoking on stage.

The visuals of McVicar’s new production, by his regular collaborator John Macfarlane, are contained within a set of wooden frames, evoking the stage of an 18th-century theatre, and are closely inspired by the period and style of Hogarth. But where Hogarth’s 1733 paintings are in muted shades, and the better-known engravings of 1735 obviously monochrome, MacFarlane’s costume designs are grotesque caricatures with hugely augmented wigs, their bold colours dominated by red and black and a vast amount of hot-pink (Anne remains clad in a simple white dress throughout). The sets, however, are more subtle; even the tall trees on the backcloth in the rural idyll of the opening scene are looming and mysterious, while the walls of Tom’s apartment appear to be decorated with storm clouds. The spectre of death, in the form of giant images of a twisted skeleton, is never long absent. Even Mother Goose’s cuckoo-clock contains a grinning skull.

It’s a lively production – choreography by Andrew George, another long-time McVicar collaborator, ensured that the moments of stillness, such as in the madhouse, are thrown into relief. Cast, chorus and orchestra (conducted by Sian Edwards) are uniformly strong and full of energy. Indeed, so spirited was Baba’s scenery-trashing rant that she apparently broke a chair – one upon which Nick Shadow was required to sit later in the scene. I don’t think it was supposed to collapse beneath him.

It was great to see a bit of imagination successfully employed in the casting, too. Ahead of seeing the performance, I’d had reservations about hearing a Tom for whom it was the first-ever attempt at an English-language role (it’s hardly an easy option for a beginner!) and an Anne who I don’t think I’ve previously encountered in anything much later than Bach. In the event, I found I noticed Edgaras Montvidas’s slight accent at first then instantly forgot about it – the Lithuanian tenor delivered Auden’s text as crisply as anybody. And both the compass and the character of Anne were a lovely fit for Carolyn Sampson, who was especially touching in the dialogue with Baba and later in the madhouse lullaby. Steven Page was an attractive, sardonic Shadow and Leah-Marian Jones a glamorous and poised Baba.

The final Glasgow performance was recorded for later broadcast on BBC Radio 3, though sadly Carolyn Sampson was off sick that day. It’s a shame it isn’t being captured on film, as it’s a very visual production – it is a co-production with Turin, though it’s some considerable time before it’s due to pop up there. Scottish Opera’s brief seven-performance run has now moved on to Edinburgh, where it ends this Saturday.

Back south of the border, meanwhile, I’m seeing two more McVicar productions in the space of the next week (both things I’ve seen before – his WNO Traviata and Royal Opera Rigoletto), while yesterday news emerged of a Tristan und Isolde in Vienna in summer 2013 – I haven’t worked out whether this is a repeat of the one he did in Tokyo a year ago. Then my Glasgow travelling companion pointed out his new Elektra in Chicago in October. I’ve never been to the USA, and it’d be a horribly extravagant expedition, but I can’t say I’m not tempted. All that remains to be seen is how much willpower we have!

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A little mid-week day trip

Scottish Opera will always be dear to my heart. When I was growing up in Durham, which at the time had no theatre suitable for professional touring companies, the Newcastle Theatre Royal was a regular port of call for Scottish Opera. So when I had a compulsion to see my first opera at the age of 17, it was to Scottish Opera that I turned, and to Scottish Opera that I ran back two days later to see the same opera a second time! But for as long as I can remember, the state of the company’s finances has been parlous, and over the years their operations have eroded further and further, shedding full-time personnel and no longer touring regularly to venues south of the border – though they do now pay the odd visit to Belfast. It is a matter of wonder and relief to me that they are somehow still managing to produce, cast and tour several full-scale operas per year at a level which never seems to have diminished.

Sadly for me as an itinerant audience member, one recent casualty of Scottish Opera’s circumstances is the practice of running two or three shows at a time. I used to be able to make more of an occasion out of a visit, staying two or three nights to see Norma and Rigoletto, La traviata and Così fan tutte, Inez de Castro and Il trovatore or Die Fledermaus and Orfeo ed Euridice. Nowadays, while I can still make a long weekend of a trip to Opera North or WNO, I can no longer make more than a one-opera stay out of a Scottish Opera trip. It can seem an awfully long way to go, and time to spend travelling, for a possibly brilliant but all-too-short treat at the destination.

Some things, like their current Rake’s Progress, are appealing enough to justify the effort. And as it happens, there’s an inexpensive and non-time-consuming way of doing it from London – the Caledonian Sleeper rail service from London Euston, on which fares are available for as little as £29 per person each way. Supposedly the starting rate is £19 but I can’t say I’ve ever seen one of these available, even booking almost the moment they’ve come on sale! The sleeping-quarters are tiny twin cabins with reasonably comfortable bunk beds and a washbasin; there are clean shared toilets and a comfortable lounge/bar which serves hot snacks, and in the morning you get a cup of tea or coffee delivered to your cabin.

The Sleeper isn’t for everybody. It doesn’t run on Saturday nights. If you travel alone you may have to share a cabin with a stranger (unless you’ve paid a much higher fare to guarantee you won’t have to) and there are no showers on board, so check if your destination station has facilities – Glasgow and Edinburgh both do, London Euston doesn’t (though nearby King’s Cross does). It’s also probably not suitable if you sleep lightly. But if you don’t mind roughing it a bit and you’re organised enough to book when the cheapest tickets are released, the Sleeper can be a great way to travel, especially with a friend. No hotel bill, only one day off work required, and the dullest part of the trip happens while you’re asleep, leaving a full day of waking hours to explore your destination. It turns 800 miles of travel into what is effectively a day trip. I was out at an event at the Royal Opera House on Tuesday night, and back in my office by 8:30 on Thursday morning, having had a lovely day in Glasgow in between. There’s also the crucial point that a morning arrival means you won’t be late for the show if your train breaks down – a realisation born of bitter experience.

On this occasion we did have just such a delay on the outbound journey, and arrived in Glasgow at 9:30am. Having not eaten for nearly ten hours by that point, we immediately sought out a restorative brunch at the Tea Rooms upstairs at The Butterfly and The Pig – Scotch pancakes with bacon and maple syrup for me, Eggs Benedict for my companion, both washed down with substantial quantities of coffee. We wandered westwards and spent the rest of the morning exploring the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. An early-afternoon snack and proper, excellent-quality coffee was tracked down at Tinderbox on Byres Road. After a look around the architecturally-impressive but confusingly-laid-out Riverside Museum in the afternoon, we convened with a friend from Scottish Opera in the café-bar at the Centre for Contemporary Arts before heading to seafood restaurant Gamba for their pre-theatre meal deal. Not one morsel that passed our lips over the course of the day was anything short of delicious, so many thanks to the people on Twitter and elsewhere that pointed us in the right direction!

Then of course we went to see The Rake’s Progress, of which more in a separate post…

Ubiquitous McVicar

I’m off to Glasgow tonight to see tomorrow’s performance of The Rake’s Progress. When Scottish Opera announced their current season, it was the one opera which jumped out at me immediately as a must-see – a favourite opera, a new production by a favourite director, but more to the point, an opera/director combination which has been on my wish list for years.

I recently noticed that in the space of five months, from Le nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden on 14th February to La bohème at Glyndebourne on 13th July, I’ll have seen no fewer than eight David McVicar stagings in British houses – six revivals and two new productions. Curiosity got the better of me, and delving back into the further recesses of my memory, I was quite stunned to realise that Rake will be the twenty-first McVicar opera production I’ll have seen live. It should have been more – his Ring in Strasbourg was pencilled into my diary, but just as the four operas had been produced individually, the funding for the complete cycles sadly fell through. Of those I’ve seen, there’s only been one (the Royal Opera’s Aida) that I’ve fully failed to understand, and have since avoided in revival.

I may quip about McVicar’s directorial tics (I imagine my #McVicarBingo Twitter hashtag will be resurrected at some length tomorrow) but I like his understanding of theatre, and how best to choose a period and setting to maximise the audience’s understanding of the characters. If there’s one frequent negative criticism I often have of him, it’s that some of his decisions diverge excessively from the spirit of the libretto in order to create a great show or great drama. Occasionally I wonder if some of his work might be most effective if you don’t know the piece in advance. For me, his Alcina, Faust and Rosenkavalier are near-definitive. But as brilliantly as his splendid romp of a Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare succeeds on its own terms, it ultimately fails to get to the heart of the piece. And his Scottish Opera/WNO Traviata is terrific theatre, but it plays like a straight adaptation of La dame aux camélias set to music, without much thought given to the fact that Francesco Maria Piave bothered writing an opera libretto with its own slant on the source material. Before I saw that production, I wondered how McVicar had reconciled himself to directing a work he’d dismissed in a 2003 interview as inferior – it soon became very clear that this was how.

Curiously, I have absolutely no idea what to expect of his upcoming Troyens at the ROH. I imagine that I’ll recognise elements of his earlier work, but have no idea how he will use them. Unlike Rake’s Progress or Salome, it’s not a piece I’d have thought would automatically appeal to him. I have a ticket for the Royal Opera’s In Conversation event with him on 24th May, so we’ll see.

But the man is second to none in knowing how to deal with a stage full of people, in memorable and telling detail, and how to bring to life the cruelty of the world and of humans’ relationships with one another. More of the same, please – Peter Grimes, perhaps?

Lady in red

Happy to see that the people behind the Rosenblatt Recital Series have now uploaded some video footage from the terrific concert by Ailyn Pérez and Iain Burnside at St John’s Smith Square on 7th March, giving me a good excuse to post some rather belated thoughts on the recital (which predated the birth of this blog by six days) and on the Rosenblatt series in general.

(Update, 18th March: Three additional items now available in audio only!)

Here’s some Hahn for starters…

The Rosenblatt Recitals hold a unique place on London’s musical scene.  Visit the Wigmore Hall for a solo vocal recital and you are virtually guaranteed a song-only programme.  Guest recitalists at the Barbican tend to strike more of a balance between song and opera, but in a hall designed to accommodate a symphony orchestra, and usually as part of a promotional tour in association with a new disc.  The Rosenblatt series is, as far as I know, the only dedicated, co-ordinated vocal recital series in London to combine song and opera elements in an appropriate space, showcasing an astutely-picked selection of rising stars and more established artists.

It is only in the last few months that I have been attending these recitals regularly.  I used to catch one or two a year, always when the soloist was somebody with whom I was already familiar, but this season so far I’ve been to six out of seven.  I’d intended to miss this one, for which the scheduled soloist was tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, due to an extraordinary number of competing events on the same evening – I originally had a ticket for Jonas Kaufmann’s Mahler and Strauss concert in Birmingham.  But following my recent month-long (and then some!) love affair with Pérez’s Violetta at Covent Garden, the news that she would be taking over this recital from her indisposed colleague, giving me my first opportunity to hear her in a wider variety of repertoire, caused me to discard my long-held plans and secure a ticket immediately.  It’s unfortunate, judging by the complete absence of press coverage, that none of the national newspapers could apparently find anybody to do the same – indeed, press interest in the Rosenblatt series in general seems almost non-existent, for reasons I can’t fathom.

From Hahn and Falla songs in the first half to a generously-proportioned operatic programme of Massenet, Verdi and Puccini in the second, Pérez’s artistry was displayed across a wide dramatic range, and she has a natural communicative gift for inhabiting a character and revealing it to the audience without seeming to stand between one and the other.  The unquestionable highlights for me were her two contrasting Manon arias – an effervescent ‘Je suis encor tout étourdie’ and painfully wistful ‘Adieu, notre petite table’ – and her Desdemona, which was spellbinding in its melancholy intensity. When out of character, Pérez’s bubbly demeanour was utterly disarming, extending to a good deal of banter with the audience both between concert items and during a meet-and-greet afterwards, and despite a second half dominated by deeply involving performances of serious arias, the tone of the evening was bright and cheerful.  How very nice it was to see a recitalist exude such obviously genuine delight at being there!

The series continues with sopranos Marina Rebeka (18th April) and Sylvia Schwartz (20th June) – top price is only £20.  There is also a rare visit to the Royal Albert Hall on 8th May for a superstar recital with orchestra – Juan Diego Flórez and the Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn.

Disappointingly, Pérez’s name is absent from the Royal Opera’s newly-revealed 2012/13 roster, though she dropped hints that she will be back at least twice in the following season.  But for now, just watch this and see why I think she is such a wonderful artist, and why I’m seriously considering a long-haul trip when she makes her role debut as Desdemona.

Spread the love

Yesterday I found myself drawn into yet another discussion on the perpetual question of how best to attract and develop new audiences for opera.

There are a few big mistakes to which arts organisations (particularly taxpayer-subsidised ones, for whom funding is conditional upon broadening appeal) seem susceptible. One is a tendency to lose interest in the enthusiastic novice once the initial hurdle of getting them through the door has been crossed – in other words, to market themselves to newcomers while taking existing audiences for granted. Another is to assume – or worse, to perpetuate the notion – that development of the enquiring mind and susceptible heart should be solely the preserve of the young.

Because it isn’t just about attraction and retention of bums on seats, is it? It’s about fostering long-term enthusiasm, curiosity and passion. When I go to a performance, the last thing I want is to be surrounded by people who are there for just another social engagement, or because they feel it will do them good. As somebody who regularly seeks to introduce newcomers to opera, the greatest success I can hope for is that my protégés will fall in love with it, and that a few years down the line, they will be hooked enough to spend all their spare time and money on it as I do, to give companies a good reason to continue performing opera for generations to come, and – most importantly – to spread the enthusiasm to protégés of their own.

I was nobody’s opera protégée, as such. As a singer from a young age, I’ve found that my personal compulsion to sing translated into a compulsion to experience and discover vocal music. There was nobody in my life who sought to introduce me actively to the art form, and I certainly didn’t become interested in opera in response to marketing by any opera company. To cut a very long story short, the seeds of interest were sown very gradually throughout my childhood, and at the age of 17 I finally had the urge to go and see La traviata, which was touring within reach of my home town. I went, fell instantly in love, and the rest is history.

I’m therefore not best placed to analyse how a susceptible newcomer should best be attracted to a discovery of opera. In the last six months, however, I have found myself in just that position with regard to ballet.

I have never felt any natural affinity with dance. The newspapers have a tendency to lump ‘dance and opera’ together; opera and ballet companies are often resident in the same theatres. Ballet is something to which I have had physical access for as long as I’ve had physical access to opera – something which I have sampled occasionally out of curiosity, without ever finding a way in. About the House, the magazine of the Friends of Covent Garden, may as well have not contained ballet listings at all for all the use I made of them. I felt I should somehow be able to find a connection to one via the other, but it just never happened.

The turning point came as a result of Twitter, which I joined early in 2010. In the course of two years I have built up a large circle of regular correspondents, many of whom are as passionate about ballet as opera. Discussion of one led to discussion of the other; in London we already have a great deal in common (a venue, a membership scheme, an infuriating online booking system…!) Having also found that seemingly half the personnel of the Royal Ballet are enthusiastic Tweeters, I was publicly challenged last October by one of the company’s principal artists to explore ballet in exchange for her starting to explore opera. The gauntlet was thrown down…

Open, informal discussion with artists and enthusiasts is something I’ve taken for granted in opera for as long as I’ve been going (plenty of common ground on which to build conversations!) but ballet seemed like a separate universe – one in which, all of a sudden, I found that I’d managed to establish human contact. The mystique of an unfamiliar art form suddenly began to dissolve.

So, after a lifetime which had so far contained a tiny handful of half-hearted ballet visits, this season it’s seemed so much more accessible, and suddenly I’ve found myself embarking on a voyage of discovery. Since October 2011 I’ve been to Manon, The Nutcracker, three – three! – different casts of Romeo and Juliet, and four mixed bills. I’m booked in for two performances of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, another Romeo and Juliet, and La fille mal gardée. It has unquestionably been the enthusiasm of others – audience members and artists alike – which finally sparked my own genuine appreciation. It may sound sudden, but in the scheme of things it’s very gradual, and it’s only the start of what I hope will be a beautiful friendship.

So this one is for all lovers of art. Artists, audience members. If you love something, express your love for it. Enthusiasm can be so infectious in its own right that others will want a piece of what you’re having.

On the horizon

The 2012/13 season announcements are trickling in from the major opera companies, and I must say that so far I’m a trifle underwhelmed.  A few tasty things at the UK houses aside, there’s little to tempt me to spend serious time or money travelling anywhere (Jonas Kaufmann singing Parsifal at the Met is a notable exception, but a cinema ticket will be sooooo much cheaper…).  But I’m aware of three or four things at the 2013 and 2014 summer festivals which I’ll consider unmissable, and there are some nice rumours circulating about what certain people may be up to in the 2013/14 season.  So my inclination is towards an economy drive in the coming year, in preparation for a hardcore opera extravaganza in 2013/14!

That said, at the time of writing this, most of my favourite singers’ whereabouts during the 2012/13 season are unaccounted for.  There simply must be something, somewhere, to reel me in.  And keep a lot of opera singers off the streets…

Latecomers welcome?

Starting my first blog in 2012 hardly makes me a media pioneer, I realise.  As a student in the late 90s I had a website on which I published opera reviews, but once I started writing for other people’s publications, I quickly let it fizzle out.

Times change, social media has come to form a major part of my life, and I am no longer an active opera critic as such. A perceived conflict of interest between performing and reviewing led me to a decision last year to resign from the online arts magazines to which I had been sporadically contributing.

I didn’t think I’d miss writing, and usually, I don’t.  But recently my love for opera – not to be confused with perpetual attendance, which has never wavered – has been powerfully reignited, not that I’d previously been conscious of it having died down.  I didn’t want to create a review site, but decided I needed an outlet for my occasional ramblings – especially those that are too detailed or complex for Twitter.  So here I am.

This blog is mainly going to be about opera.  I am madly in love with Verdi, as my chosen blog title suggests.  I love Wagner.  I love lyric and dramatic sopranos.  I rather love basses, too.  I have a bit of a director-fetish when it comes to David McVicar and Richard Jones. I’m all about live performance, and only have a tiny collection of recorded music (and don’t own an iPod).  I live in London, but get to other UK opera venues when it takes my fancy; I occasionally venture into Europe (though never yet farther afield).  I imagine I may also write a little about singing, theatre, concerts, ballet, food and drink, trash television, and the idiosyncrasies of London life.  I will undoubtedly plug the odd performance that I or my friends are involved with.  I’m not going to review everything I see, and I make no commitment in respect of detail or balance.  But if you’re reading, thank you!