martin randall 2015

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World premiere – Penny at Washington National Opera

26 January 2015, Washington, US

Deborah Nansteel as Penny
Deborah Nansteel as Penny(Photo: Scott Suchman)

Report by Karyl Charna Lynn

Penny is the gripping story of an autistic woman who both literally and figuratively finds her voice through music. Part of the American Opera Initiative, whose purpose is to nurture young American composers and librettists to create operas with contemporary American stories or themes, Penny was composed and written by AOI alumni Douglas Pew and Dara Weinburg.

Weinburg’s libretto tackles a difficult subject in a sensitive and perceptive manner that could easily stand on its own as a powerful play, but Pew’s melodic score sprinkled with occasional dissonance added incisive definition to the characters and underscored the emotions and moods, elevating this powerful and poignant story to the highest level.

The opera unfolded in sun-soaked Arizona, where Penny (Deborah Nansteel) has been brought by social worker Jaeson (Wei Wu) to live with her sister Katherine (Kerriann Otano) and husband Gary (Trevor Scheunemann) – a move prompted by the death of Penny’s guardian uncle Raymond (James Shaffran), who also happens to have left her a sizeable inheritance.

Initially, Penny rocked back and forth, responding only with lyrical wails symbolizing her isolation; both Katherine and Gary have difficulties responding to her ‘special needs’. Gary himself is a concert pianist who suffers from a neurological condition that prevents him from performing, and wants to use some of Penny’s inheritance to pay for an operation. Fortunately, Gary’s friend Martin (Patrick O’Halloran), also a pianist, forms a connection with Penny, slowly drawing her out of her isolation with music, enabling her to express herself through song until she can summon the courage to venture out on her own and live independently.

All but one of the singers, who were alumni or current members of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, gave commendable performances, especially Deborah Nansteel as Penny. Theatre director Alan Paul offered a taut, streamlined production that kept up the tension and held one’s attention throughout the opera’s hour-long duration. Anne Manson conducted the small orchestra with aplomb, drawing out the fine nuances of Pew’s score while keeping good stage, pit balance.

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ENO chair’s resignation reveals boardroom rift

26 January 2015, London, UK

John Berry: 'the problem rather than the solution' for ENO?
John Berry: 'the problem rather than the solution' for ENO?(Photo © ENO)

The resignation of Martyn Rose as chairman of English National Opera will come as no surprise to those who have observed the growing personal animosity between him and John Berry, ENO’s artistic director.

The reasons for Rose’s resignation, after just two years as chairman, were detailed in a frank letter to the ENO’s president, Sir Vernon Ellis, reportedly sent in December and subsequently leaked to the press. In the letter, Rose pulls no punches over Berry’s role in ENO’s current woes, accusing him of being responsible for losses of £10m. In the letter’s coup de grâce, he warns that he regards Berry as the ‘problem, not the solution’ to safeguarding ENO’s future at a time when the company has to look afresh at its business model, following a drastic 29 per cent reduction in the company’s annual Arts Council grant, which now stands at £12.4m.

ENO’s board has stood behind Berry, and the company has issued a statement that it does not recognise the losses quoted in Rose’s letter, adding that ENO is ‘on course to present a balanced budget’ in the current financial year. This however, has been achieved with the help of one-off transitional funding of £7.6m from Arts Council England (ACE), and with the axing of its production of Orfeo at Bristol Old Vic this season.

ACE, meanwhile, was emphatic that the decision to cut ENO’s grant was not influenced by its chairman Sir Peter Bazalgette who was Rose’s predecessor at ENO until 2012. An ACE spokesperson said, ‘Sir Peter was not able to discuss or be part of the ENO decisions because of his former role at ENO.’

Rose will stand down as chairman on 15 February. ENO board member Harry Brunjes has been appointed interim chairman until a successor can be found.

Read our full interview with John Berry in Opera Now's March issue


ENO's Executive Director, Henriette Götz, has given her notice to the company's board and will step down on 28 February 2015. A brief statement by acting chair Dr Harry Brünjes praised Götz's 'passion and commitment', but both parties remained tight-lipped about the motives behind her decision: 'Henriette Götz and English National Opera have agreed that they shall not be making any further comment in respect of this matter.'

Anthony Whitworth-Jones, currently a non-executive trustee of ENO, has been appointed as Acting Director of the company while the board carries out a search for a new full time director.

Top management arrested at Opera Valencia

23 January 2015, Valencia, Spain

Helga Schmidt
Helga Schmidt(Photo © Palau de les Arts)

Following the sudden arrest of general director Helga Schmidt, the sweeping changes among the top brass of the Palau de les Arts in Valencia have been swift and dramatic. Spain’s third most important opera house, after Madrid and Barcelona, saw Schmidt taken into custody at the end of last week, after police launched an investigation into financial irregularities at the theatre.

The 73-year-old arts doyenne has now been released on bail, but has been relieved of her duties at the Palau de les Arts. Meanwhile, the American-born stage director Davide Livermore has today been appointed general director in Schmidt’s stead, promoted from his role as head of the Palau’s young artist studio, the Centro de Perfeccionamiento Plácido Domingo.

Schmidt is a hugely influential figure in the opera world, having held major arts posts in Vienna, Amsterdam and London, where she was the youngest ever artistic director of London’s Royal Opera House during the 1970s. Her wide-ranging influence in the opera world was a pivotal factor in establishing the Palau as a serious international player when the venue opened in 2005. The kudos that came from Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s futuristic designs for the new theatre was boosted by the arrival of luminaries such as Plácido Domingo, Zubin Mehta and the late Lorin Maazel.

In truth, Schmidt’s tenure in Valencia has rarely been free from controversy. Her detractors have painted her as an overindulgent spendthrift, demanding ruinously excessive budgets for the Palau at the expense of Valencia’s other arts organisations; her supporters, meanwhile, say that it is through her efforts that Valencia has been able to establish itself as one of Spain’s principal cultural destinations, and that she is the scapegoat of a chaotic local government which is trying to cover its own record of mismanagement.

Also arrested as part of the police investigation is Ernesto Moreno, who was the Palau’s manager from 2007 to 2011. Both he and Schmidt will now be the subject of an ongoing investigation into charges made by a former employee of the Palau regarding contractual irregularities and misappropriation of funds.

L'orfeo at London's Roundhouse

16 January 2015, London, UK

Gyula Orendt (Orfeo) and Mary Bevan (Euridice) at London's Roundhouse
Gyula Orendt (Orfeo) and Mary Bevan (Euridice) at London's Roundhouse(Photo: Stephen Cummiskey)

Report by Robert Thicknesse
Claudio Monteverdi’s first opera is a serious work, though maybe not as earnest as Michael Boyd’s take on it. There were many of the ingredients of a stunning performance here – a performing space combining intimacy and grandeur, a nonpareil group of musicians of the Early Opera Company under Christopher Moulds (deputising for Christian Curnyn, whose long absence is sad and worrying) and some fine singers. But early stages were spoiled by too much gloom and too little focus before something genuine began to emerge.

Michael Boyd, the man who rescued the RSC, had left his opera-directing debut until quite late in the day (two future Garsington shows are booked for his next appearances) and some of the usual rookie’s yips were on display, notably a kind of nervous need to be doing something all the time. Boyd has always been a man for allegorising conflict – often of a religious sort – and presenting it in striking and startling ways; I’m just not sure that Orfeo needs that, or is that complicated. In any event, we were presented with a kind of metaphor of the Gonzaga court at Mantua in 1607, with Orfeo a Monteverdi-figure who loses the support of a jumpy officialdom when he overreaches himself. Led on by an etymological trick, conflating the pastori (shepherds) of Thrace with church pastors enforcing a rigid orthodoxy, Boyd sought to add a layer of human, political story to the myth.

With mixed success. You might argue that there is enough human interest (and metaphor) already in Orpheus’s bereft grief and his confrontation with death in his quest to regain his wife, and in the original drama of the over-emotional Orpheus’s journey to spiritual understanding. Boyd’s religious imagery – starting with a pietà of the dead Orpheus cradled by Eurydice – rather circumscribed the joyousness of the opening scenes, which felt more like a Passion Play being enacted in the industrial cathedral of the Roundhouse. As part of what Boyd called this ‘low-budget community outreach programme’, the young performers of East London Dance, choreographed by Liz Ranken, pulled moves of varying effectiveness including a rather brilliant enactment of the rolling River Styx and some less happy episodes of Year 10-type gymnastics.

Though I was not convinced by the theatrics, which became generally diffused in this big space, the music was another matter, creating electric bonds between band, singers and the audience who surrounded the arena, exactly as in a huge Greek theatre. Discreet amplification (I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been told) meant that every note and word could be heard. Christopher Moulds led a serious and rather stately reading of the score, with a lot of really lovely continuo – lutes, guitar and harp – and the austere beauty of sackbuts and cornets echoing round the vast hall.

The Transylvanian baritone Gyula Orendt (Orfeo) took a while to settle down, but when he did his slight accent (singing Don Paterson’s surprisingly good, poetic translation) added to the pathos of a performance that grew into something very special, with a rapt quality to the prayer-like incantation ‘Possente spirto’ and a hushed, caressing velvet sadness as he eulogised the dead Euridice in ‘Tu bella fosti’. Mary Bevan as Euridice was her usual poised, focused self; she brings extraordinary dignity and truth to everything she sings. Susan Bickley made a magnetic Messenger, delivering her bad news with exactly the right degree of stunned pathos. Callum Thorpe, a really promising, proper basso cantante, was the resonant Pluto, and Anthony Gregory and Christopher Lowrey stood out among the other singers.

A slightly effortful circus trick led to the striking final tableau: Orpheus, suspended mid-air, reached hopelessly down to dead, earthbound Euridice. It was a beautiful and touching image but like much of the evening, evidence of a sort of temperamental mismatch between the opera and the director.

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Canadian Opera Company announces major new commission

16 January 2015, Toronto, Canada

Above and below: composer Ana Sokolović and librettist Michel Marc Bouchard
Above and below: composer Ana Sokolović and librettist Michel Marc Bouchard

Canadian Opera Company has announced the commission of a major new opera by one of Canada’s most important composers, Ana Sokolović. Titled La Reine-Garçon, the libretto is by Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard and based on his play of the same name.

Queen Christina of Sweden ruled the country in the 17th century before causing a scandal by abdicating her throne at the age of 27 and converting to Roman Catholicism. Her story has been the subject of several stage works, novels and films, including the 1933 classic Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo.

La Reine-Garçon is currently in development and is scheduled to have its world premiere in the COC’s 2019/2020 season.

This will be the fourth opera commission for Serbian-born, Montreal-based Sokolović, and by far her biggest so far after writing three chamber operas for Toronto’s innovative Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, which closed in 2013. ‘As a woman and as an artist,’ she says, ‘I am particularly touched by this story about the Swedish Queen Christina. She was an inspiring woman ahead of her time.’

In 2012, Sokolović won huge critical acclaim for her opera Svadba-Wedding, which will feature in this summer’s Aix-en-Provence Festival in France.

La Reine-Garçon is Canadian Opera Company’s sixth commission for its main stage. On announcing this latest new opera, the company’s general director Alexander Neff said: ‘The subject of Christine of Sweden is one of Shakespearean proportion with universal relevance. I think it will make a fantastic opera, especially in the hands of Ana and Michel Marc.’

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