martin randall 2015

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Weill's Mahagonny gets a provocative new staging at Covent Garden

11 March 2015, London, UK

Jimmy get your gun: Kurt Streit as Weill’s hapless hero
Jimmy get your gun: Kurt Streit as Weill’s hapless hero(Photo: Clive Barda)

Review by Owen Mortimer

Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny is both a period piece steeped in the decadence of the interwar years and a prophetic satire that touches on themes of greed, poverty and freedom still topical today. John Fulljames offered us a raucous and colourful staging of this edgy work that only the most conservative opera lover could fail to enjoy.

Es Devlin’s sets played a big part in the evening’s success, their extraordinary detail matched by wit and sheer rumbustiousness. Fulljames’ handling of the chorus was no less virtuosic, each scene seguing smoothly to the next regardless of the huge forces involved.

The casting of key roles was similarly sumptuous, with Anne Sofie von Otter making her first appearance at Covent Garden in more than 10 years as the fugitive turned bordello madame Leocadia Begbick, Kurt Streit as Weill’s hapless hero Jimmy McIntyre and Christine Rice as his lover Jenny. Willard White (Trinity Moses), Peter Hoare (Fatty) and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Jack O’Brien) completed the starry line-up. 

Begbick presides over the downward spiralling trajectory of the city she founds, so it’s a role that requires a big personality. Otter proved ideal, even if vocally she may be past her prime. She struts confidently back and forth across the stage sporting a shock of bright pink hair, leaving no-one in any doubt about who’s the boss.

Streit’s tone is not the most beautiful, but as Jimmy McIntyre this contributed to the bawdiness of his character. Streit’s powerful performance equalled Otter’s, though perhaps missed something of Jimmy’s complexity as he grows in his feelings of repulsion towards the degradation around him. Similarly, Christie Rice’s Jenny emphasised the moral degeneration of her personality at the expense of her simplicity, offering us too few moments of respite from the opera's relentless hedonism. The ROH Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth handled Weill’s moment-to-moment shifts in style and colour with great skill, though didn’t quite capture the bite and swagger that this music needs.

Fulljames sought to bring the action up to date and introduce an overarching moral context by conflating concerns about the hurricane in Brecht’s original libretto with 21st-century fears about environmental catastrophe. This directorial intervention didn’t really take us anywhere, however, other than to heavily underline the fact that we were supposed to be seeing the work as ‘relevant’ to the present day.

Many of the themes do indeed resonate in our age of neoliberal capitalism and growing inequality, but there’s an inherent irony in staging an opera like Mahagonny at a venue that’s only accessible (whatever the Royal Opera might say) to a wealthy, well-heeled audience. Ultimately, that’s why the work has to be steeped in layer upon layer of irony, to the point where it no longer really has an agenda – other than to satirise everything, including the idea of opera itself. The result is an extraordinary and engrossing spectacle, but one that leaves you wondering whether any of it has any meaning.

ENO appoints McKinsey’s Cressida Pollock as interim chief executive

9 March 2015, London, UK

Report by Alex Stevens

English National Opera has appointed Cressida Pollock as interim chief executive. Pollock will join from management consultant McKinsey, which has been working with ENO in recent months, on 24 March.

Pollock will lead the organisation as it goes through the process of appointing a permanent chief executive and board chairman. ENO confirmed that she had resigned from McKinsey to take up the role, rather than working on a secondment or similar arrangement.

‘From her time at McKinsey she brings great experience in advising and helping businesses and other organisations to tackle their biggest challenges and raise their levels of performance,’ said a statement.

Last month it was announced that ENO had not been admitted into Arts Council England’s three-year National Portfolio funding programme, because ACE had ‘continuing concerns’ about the robustness of ENO’s governance and business model.

Pollock's appointment was made by a panel of board members led by acting chair Harry Brünjes, ‘alongside’ ACE’s London area director, Joyce Wilson.

Brünjes said in a statement: ‘No one has a better understanding of the work that needs to be done in order to be re-admitted to the Arts Council’s National Portfolio this November. Cressida will be working closely with myself, Glyn Barker (our chair of finance), John Berry, and the senior team over the coming months as ENO adapts to an operating model which will rely less on public subsidy, whilst still maintaining the highest level of artistic excellence.’

Pollock said: ‘I am thrilled to have the opportunity to play this role at one of the UK’s leading arts institutions. I am greatly looking forward to working closely with the board, John and the senior management team during what is a critical time for ENO.’

On Sunday (8 March), the Financial Times published a letter signed by 33 opera and festival directors stating that they were ‘alarmed by the recent questions that have arisen regarding English National Opera and its talented artistic director, John Berry, since they are certainly not deserved’.

The letter defended Berry’s record and highlighted the success of ENO co-productions under his tenure as artistic director (‘this season alone, 18 ENO co-productions will have been seen in 17 different opera houses in eight countries’). This way of working, it said, had ‘wisely saved [ENO] millions of pounds in shared production expenses in recent years, while at the same time making it one of the UK’s greatest cultural ambassadors’.

‘Rather than being criticised, Berry and his company should be applauded for their indefatigable efforts to keep our art form fresh. We stand together in support of him and his notable achievements.’

The letter’s signatories included Pierre Audi, director of Dutch National Opera; Bernard Foccroulle, director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival; Peter Gelb, general manager of New York Metropolitan Opera; Valery Gergiev, artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre; and Dominique Meyer, director of Vienna State Opera.

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Preview – Don Giovanni at sea

6 March 2015, Bergen, Norway

Oliver Mears: 'Fundamentally, there is a tension in the opera between sexuality and sexual repression.'
Oliver Mears: 'Fundamentally, there is a tension in the opera between sexuality and sexual repression.'

Mozart's famous seducer embarks on a cruise ship in Bergen National Opera's new production. British director Oliver Mears will transform the stage of Grieg Hall into a grand 1960s cruise ship with its classy salons and swimming pools. As Mozart´s music weaves its magic, characters slip into corners, collide in passages, deceive and declaim. We breathe the humid cabin-fever of lives at sea…

Your new production places the opera in an unusual setting: how did you get the idea to stage Don Giovanni on a cruise ship?

We wanted to set the production somewhere that was self-contained and labyrinthine, where it could be plausible that characters keep running into each other (as they do in the original libretto), and where the class and status differences so crucial to the original story could retain their importance. The opera is dominated by 'Dons' and 'Donnas' – fundamentally this is an opera about the nobility, and thus, about privilege and money. All this suggested the luxury cruise ship setting, together with the Norwegian context in which we are staging it. The cruise ships of that era, unlike those of today perhaps, also had genuine luxury and style – something people still cherish when they go to the opera, rightly or wrongly.

Your staging also takes us back to the 1960s. What is it about this decade that resonates with the spirit of Don Giovanni?

Fundamentally there is a tension in the opera between sexuality and sexual repression – between a body which is totally at ease with itself (in the figure of Don Giovanni), and people who are suspicious or conflicted about the body and its erotic potential (most of the other characters). There can be few eras where this conflict was as evident or as sharp as the 1960s, where one had a tremendous relaxation in sexual taboos but also a rear-guard effort on the part of conservatism to head this off. That, of course, is what the Commendatore's intervention at the end represents.

The colourful, energetic hedonism of the 1960 and its elevation of animal, male sex symbols is also to be found in the world of Don Giovanni, who lives purely for sensation. In this way, he foreshadows the dedicated materialism of the 1980s and beyond – though it shouldn’t be forgotten that Don Giovanni is also a conflicted figure. On the one hand he is a revolutionary, a rebel, a liberator – someone who challenges the 'Father' as Mozart did his. On the other, he is always a 'Don', a noble and a materialist who uses his status and his cash to achieve his ends and who has no social ideals whatsoever. This makes him a protean figure who is always changing his outfits to serve his own aims. John Lennon said: ‘The only thing that happened in the 1960s was that everyone got dressed up.’

A lot of your productions are strongly site-specific. In what way do your surroundings and setting influence your stagings?

In the era of jet-set co-productions, a sense of place is sometimes hard to find in opera productions. There is a kind of generic airport-meets-art gallery aesthetic which is totally divorced from the context of where its being produced – sometimes necessarily, because it will be performed from, say, Paris to California, so productions simply can't be too specific for risk of alienating one or other audience. I think increasing immediacy, generating resonances and allusions for an audience, can be uniquely engaging and enlivening.

In the case of my Don Giovanni for Bergen, I have emphasised the enormous importance of the sea, of cruise liners, and of the tycoons who own them. In our story, the Commendatore is the owner of a shipping line who has built his own statue in an act of crazy hubris. I was delighted to find out that such people actually exist here in Norway!

What is it with the Don Juan figure – as he appears in Mozart’s opera – that still speaks to us? In what way is he relevant? It's fascinating that the libertine view of love as a game or conquest feels more modern than Wagner’s romantic idealism, although the latter is closer to us in time.

Yes, doubtless we are all more likely to know a Don Giovanni figure than a Tristan, however I think that's only part of the story. What Don Giovanni has is an elemental charisma, an unstoppable energy, a completely self-contained and consistent sense of self that’s utterly amoral. This makes him both dangerous and tremendously attractive. He stares the world in the face without fear, which is admirable, but he also appears to have no limits: he takes materialism and sensuality as far as it can take him, and he has no religion. I think this resonates strongly with contemporary society. Mozart seems to be asking: What is left if one takes this approach to life? How meaningful is it? Without any guiding moral principles and with a sexual instinct that totally governs behaviour to the exclusion of all traditional restraints or scruples, what are the consequences for the self and for others? Mozart implies that the consequences are fascination yes, energy yes, but also a void, annihilation, social and personal atomisation. I think ever since the 1980s this question has become more and more relevant.

Interview by Geir Rege

Oliver Mears' new production of Don Giovanni opens at Bergen National Opera on Saturday 14 March, starring the Dutch baritone Hank Neven as Mozart's celebrated anti-hero.

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2015 finalists announced

24 February 2015, Cardiff, UK

The American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton wins Cardiff Singer of the World 2013
The American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton wins Cardiff Singer of the World 2013(Photo: Brian Tarr)

Twenty of the world’s most promising opera singers will compete in this year’s BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, to be held in the Welsh capital from 14 to 21 June 2015.

The finalists were chosen from almost 350 applicants worldwide and hail from 15 different countries – including three singers each from the USA and South Korea, and two from Belarus. At 24 years old, the Welsh soprano Céline Forrest will be this year's youngest participant.

David Jackson, artistic director of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, said: 'We've searched the world to find this brilliant crop of talent. These 20 were selected from almost 350 hopefuls, who were all wonderful singers – and each of them deserves a great future. To every singer, accompanist and venue that helped us in our search, a heartfelt thank you.'

Now in its 32nd year, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World is known throughout the classical music world as one of the most important showcases for opera and concert singers at the outset of their careers. Past prize-winners have included Karita Mattila, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Bryn Terfel and Anja Harteros. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is patron of the eight day competition.

Opera producer Jeremy Caulton, a member of this year's selection jury, described how the finalists were chosen: 'What we were looking for,' he explained, 'is that indefinable something which makes one sit up and pay attention in a different sort of way. Many small characteristics and technicalities combine to create this "difference" but, however hard you try, it is well-nigh impossible to find a single word or phrase to do it justice. "Charisma" is perhaps useful, but even this is only part of the story.'

The finalists can be heard performing their own programmes of operatic and concert works at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, from 14 to 21 June 2015, accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under their principal conductor Thomas Søndergård and the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera conducted by Martyn Brabbins. The international jury panel for the main prize includes Soile Isokoski, Claron McFadden and Dennis O’Neill, chaired by WNO's David Pountney.

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World is a pivotal part of the Classical Voices Season in the BBC’s Year of Song and Dance, and will be broadcast extensively on BBC Four and BBC Radio 3, along with BBC Two Wales, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, S4C and online at

This year's finalists:

Country / Name / Voice /Age
Belarus / Marina Pinchuk / Mezzo-soprano / 32
Belarus / Nadine Koutcher / Soprano / 32
Canada / Aviva Fortunata  / Soprano / 27
France / Anaïs Constans  / Soprano / 26
Germany / Sebastian Pilgrim / Bass / 30
Italy / Roberto Lorenzi / Bass-baritone / 25
Malta / Nico Darmanin / Tenor / 30
Mongolia / Amartuvshin Enkhbat / Baritone / 29
Norway / Ingeborg Gillebo / Mezzo-soprano / 32
Switzerland / Regula Mühlemann / Soprano / 29
South Africa / Kelebogile Besong / Soprano / 28
South Korea / Insu Hwang / Bass-baritone / 32
South Korea / Jaeyoon Jung / Tenor / 31
South Korea / Jongmin Park / Bass / 28
Turkey / Ilker Arcayürek / Tenor / 30
Ukraine / Oleksiy Palchykov / Tenor / 29
USA / J’nai Bridges / Mezzo-soprano / 28
USA / Lauren Michelle / Soprano / 32
USA / Ryan Speedo Green / Bass-baritone / 29
Wales / Céline Forrest / Soprano / 24

Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice at Scottish Opera

23 February 2015, Glasgow, UK

Caitlin Hulcup (Orfeo) and Lucy Hall (Euridice) at Scottish Opera
Caitlin Hulcup (Orfeo) and Lucy Hall (Euridice) at Scottish Opera(Photo: K K Dundas)

Review by Neil Jones

The overture to Gluck’s great reforming opera starts at a brisk pace, but in this performance conductor Kenneth Montgomery rattled through the first few bars as though the Furies themselves were following hard on his heels. Thereafter we were treated to a wonderful demonstration of musicianship that created as good a sound as you could hope to get on modern instruments playing music written for instruments of the 18th century.

Orfeo was cast as a trouser role with Caitlin Hulcup more than credible in a white three-piece suit, her mezzo tone combining beauty with the necessary subtle masculine overtones. Lucy Hall made an appropriately ephemeral Eurydice, though showed true spirit after being restored to life as she desperately tried to fathom Orfeo’s apparent lack of attention.

The evening’s stand-out vocal performance was given by Ana Quintans, who brought a honeyed voice rich in depth and power to the role of the goddess Amore. Her costume, too, in this largely monochromatic production featuring 1950s designs, was a striking pink, and she had deliberately been cast to bear an uncanny likeness to the fifties film icon Grace Kelly. The action took place in and around a large rotating cube of transparent engraved plastic, open on one side. Both set and costumes were designed by Johan Engels, who, sadly, died suddenly after completion of the design work but before the performances.

Although this production was based on Gluck’s original 1762 version it did include the full Dance of the Blessed Spirits from the 1774 Paris revision as well as the Dance of the Furies. Not surprisingly, given that the director was Scottish Ballet’s previous artistic director, Ashley Page, the dance sequences and choreography featured a superb, eight-strong team of young dancers. Once or twice, however, the choreographic element overstepped the mark: once when the noise of the dancers’ shoes was too noticeable during a section of instrumental music, and the other when Orfeo, distraught at not being able to tell Eurydice the reason he couldn’t look back at her, span wildly round the stage like a Whirling Dervish.

Overall this was a splendid production that allowed the music and singing to speak for themselves – and where the quality of the playing and singing made it worth listening.

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