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75 years old - and still plenty of life in the old dog

22 May 2009, Glyndeboure, UK

Christopher Purves makes a splash as Falstaff
Christopher Purves makes a splash as FalstaffPhoto: Alastair Muir

Ash Khandekar reports from Glyndebourne's 75th anniversary season opener, Verdi's Falstaff

Opening night at Glyndebourne marks the start of the summer opera season in Britain, but though rain never stops play as far as performances are concerned, it more often than not puts a dampener on things outside the opera house: most opening nights in recent years have been notable for scenes of picnickers having to resort to sitting under their rugs rather than on them.

As the Glyndebourne Festival launched its 75th anniversary season on Thursday, however, the sun shone on the proceedings and all seemed right with the world. Things were equally sunny on stage, with Richard Jones’s triumphant new staging of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff.

Jones has a chequered history at Glyndebourne, where his productions have tended to favour a subversive approach: his ‘Planet of the Zombies’ Euryanthe in 2002 turned Weber’s uber-chivalric Romanticism into B-movie schlock. In 2007, Jones shocked and tickled Glyndebourne audiences in equal measure with his determinedly low-life Macbeth, dressing Verdi’s admittedly jaunty heroics in naff Scots clichés, abetted by a welter of tartan and Highland kitsch from favoured designer, Ultz.

The pair returned to Verdi and Glyndebourne in a much less hyperactive mode for this Falstaff. The aristocratic aspects of the story are expunged to bring it into a more domestic focus. Shakespeare’s Royal Windsor is transposed to Neo-Elizabethan suburbs at the end of World War II, a period of austerity (flowerbeds dug up for cabbage beds), but also hope.  Falstaff is full of the affectionate nostalgia of an old man saying farewell to a fond world. Jones and Ultz capture the mood of Verdi’s score perfectly, embroidering a Betjemin-esque vision of a half-timbered England with images of warm beer, busty barmaids and Eton schoolboys boating on the Thames. Falstaff’s rooms above the Garter Inn are flanked by shops selling wedding dresses and novelty jokes – Love is, after all, a charming prank that leaves a bitter-sweet aftertaste.

This is one of the most evenly cast ensembles that Glyndebourne has put together in recent years – not the starriest of voices, but all beautifully finished and somehow just right for this production. Christopher Purves portrays the self-delusional Falstaff not as one of nature’s grotesques, but as a preening petty official gently hoisted by his own petard.

Other highlights include the young lovers, touchingly sung by Bülent Bedüz (Fenton) and Adriana Kucerová (Nanetta). Dina Kuznetsova, meanwhile, is a delightful tour de force as an Alice who radiates good-natured intelligence and Marie-Nicole Lemieux hams it up beautifully as Mistress Quickly. In the pit, Vladimir Jurowski proves that he does possess a lightness of touch which is sometimes missing from his comic turns, and the London Philharmonic rises playfully to the occasion.

All proof that Glyndebourne can still charm the pants off its audience, even at the venerable age of 75.  

New opera proves an asset to the Abbey in St Albans

22 May 2009, St Alban's Abbey, Hertfordshire, UK

Opera Now’s Roderic Dunnett reports from the world premiere  an accomplished chamber opera that recalls the church parables of Benjamin Britten . . .  

With last Wednesday's world premiere of Alban, young British composer Tom Wiggall has served up a cogent chamber opera worthy of Britten’s Church Parables. Admirably structured around a wittily unsentimental libretto by award-winning poet John Mole, Wiggall’s score freshly persuades at every turn, from the haunting initial oboe and strings motif to the forcefully designed confrontations/mishaps that engineer a cogent dramatic build-up, thanks to conductor David Ireson. Director Beckie Mills had her alert large chorus marshalled in impressive detail: slyly plotted, all action relevant, strikingly well-clad (beiges, russets, browns) by Ann Hollowood.

Dominique Thiebaud (Alban’s wife) shines amid six strong principals and a bevy of believable youngsters (notably Alban’s Miles and Flora-like children), drilled to perfection.  Thanks to a shrewdly judged text and Wiggall’s fertile, assured composing, Alban, full of absorbing storytelling echoing the Gospels, easily rose far above a kitsch local-historical piece of amateur dramatics.

Set against the ancient stone-clad backdrop of St Albans Abbey, the ecclesiastical ambience was sensuously lit by Colin Innes-Hopkins, yards from Alban’s martyrdom. This may be harder to recreate in a theatre context, but the strength of the work should mean that it’s eminently viable. This piece should travel (Buxton, York, the Linbury Studio in Covent Garden). It betokens great expectations of composer and producers alike.  

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Opera gets into the swim of things

19 May 2009, Manchester, UK

Juliana Snapper dives into opera

The world’s first underwater opera, You Who Will Emerge From the Flood, had its premiere in one of  Manchester’s half-derelict architectural gems, the Victoria Baths. 86,000 gallons of water were pumped in for a single performance of this new ‘operella’ devised by the Los Angeles-based soprano Juliana Snapper and the Parisian composer Andrew Infanti, and presented as part of the city’s gay and lesbian festival  Queer Up North.

Adorned with swathes of white fishnet and silver sequins, Snapper impressed in the role of Blorkra – a genetically engineered aquatic ‘posthuman’ living 500,000 years in the future. She is used to challenging situations having previously worked with the extreme performance artist Ron Athey on The Judas Tree in which she hung upside down singing until her voice collapsed. But on this occasion a faulty underwater microphone rendered at least half of her underwater vocal sequences inaudible so that the unique sound of Snapper’s voice filtered through water, accompanied by percussive bubbles, was drowned out before it could surface.

What was left was a ululating warble, with snatches of intense soprano tones as Snapper glided through a sea of words by Wedekind, Wagner (Erda’s Warning) and Brecht, sung in German and the forgotten, constructed language of Volapük. Infanti’s watered-down score began promisingly enough, drawing on obscure musical systems and pitches, but ended up burbling on inconsequentially. Film footage featured some live projections of Snapper while the Sing or Swim Choir provided a suitably aqueous background to this soggy night at the ‘operella’. As a piece of performance art, You Who…  had distinct potential which was somewhat thwarted by the technical difficulties.

The experiment is not going to spawn a new genre of underwater ‘operellas’, however, and while Juliana Snapper is clearly committed to expanding the boundaries of music theatre, neither the bland pre-recorded score nor the predominantly unengaging visuals seemed to match that keen seriousness of purpose. As a work I think it is likely to sink without trace.  

Lynne Walker  

The Queer Up North festival continues in Manchester until 25 May.


Grange Park prepares for UK Premiere of Cavalli Opera

1 May 2009


Michael White looks forward to one of the summer's most lively operatic premieres...

Scandalous misdeeds in Ancient Rome, cross-dressing, slap-and-tickle sex.... Cavalli's Eliogabolo, written for the Venice Carnival of 1668 and due for a belated UK premiere at Grange Park opera festival in Hampshire this summer,  sounds like a TV script for Frankie Howerd in the 1970s and is, as its  director David Fielding admits, 'a sort of romp’.

‘But not so much in the way of Up Pompei as I Claudius' adds Christian Curnyn who'll be conducting. ‘There’s tragedy as well as comedy in this piece: after all, the central character ends up assassinated, so it's not all laughs. And in a loose sense  it’s based on history, although the character of Heliogabolus has been cleaned up here and there in the process of turning him into opera.’

Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire sums up Heliogabolus’s reign as ‘inexpressible infamy, beyond that of any other place or time’. Among the many counts on Heliogabolus's charge-sheet are that he drowned his enemies in poisonous petals (a creative death, you'd have to agree), boasted that he never wore the same clothes twice or slept with the same woman, set up an all-female senate for sole purpose of molesting its members, and nonetheless pursued a robustly bi-sexual interest in transvestitism.

This may explain why the piece was apparently never performed during Cavalli's lifetime, though the reasons for its absence from the stage are obscure.  What is known is that it's one of the last Cavalli' operas, composed when Cavalli  was in his mid-60s with long experience as one of the world's first true professionals in opera.

The Grange has seen few performances of Baroque opera beyond Handel’s Rinaldo, and it's a genre that scarcely features on the radar of the company's director Wasfi Kani. ‘But she agreed to Eliogabolo largely because in many ways it isn't quite Baroque,’ says Curnyn. You don't get all those rigid conventions. But you do get very attractive, flowing arioso – though it doesn’t culminate in quite so many tragic laments as you get in earlier Cavalli. There's a lot more comedy...’

Michael White’s full account of Grange Park’s Eliogabolo will appear in the July/August issue of opera Now. Cavalli's opera will receive its UK premiere run at The Grange, Northington (near Winchester) from 4 June to 5 July.

For details of all this year's Grange Park Festival productions, visit www.grangeparkopera.co.uk

Salome at NI Opera

10 February 2015, Belfast, UK

Strong stuff: Giselle Allen as Salome
Strong stuff: Giselle Allen as Salome(Photo: Ros Kavanagh)

Review by Robert Thicknesse

Oliver Mears’s unflinching production of Salome stirred up delicate sensibilities among its Northern Irish audience before even a note of the opera was played. This was, however, more than just an exercise in shock-value. It was an imaginative and convincing response to a work set in a warped world inhabited by the strangest people.

In its short, eventful and impressive life, NI Opera has found many advantages to working in this country, the latest being a sly use of the quaint fundamentalism of some of its denizens. Ticket sales for Strauss’s 1905 opera proving a trifle sluggish, it somehow slipped out that Salome’s dance would include 10 seconds of nakedness, whereupon stertorous affront propelled opera into the headlines, and bums onto seats.

Anyone who comes to Salome wanting to be shocked is unlikely to be disappointed, and Oliver Mears’s production was strong stuff. But most impressive was the unity of vision and effect between stage and pit, the utter commitment of a Salome (Giselle Allen) and cast who summoned up some scary intensity on a Sunday afternoon for the second and last performance.

Mears took the thing away from the Gospel to some weird Bible-belt hillbilly bungalow out of David Lynch. Low-level pervert Herod (Michael Colvin) employs armed goons in his yard to watch over the oil tank where ranting Jokanaan (Robert Hayward) is kept for obscure reasons. The rest of the household is amusingly reinvented: trailer-glam Herodias (Heather Shipp) in off-the-shoulder red jumpsuit and massive afro; Carolyn Dobbin a desperate, perceptive (female) urchin, devoted to Adrian Dwyer’s insecure Narraboth; five provincial Jews gone to seed…

There were gaps for the imagination to fill in, and the threat Jokanaan presents was not clear, but locating this in a world where unexplained, creepy things happen was smart and to the point. As an interesting by-product, the twisted humour of this set-up made the opera far less risible than it can be – a phenomenon grounded in Strauss’s misapprehension of Wilde and perpetuated by some grimly serious-minded directors.

This score is not the comfort zone of the Ulster Orchestra, happily reprieved from politically motivated extinction, but under Nicholas Chalmers they produced a supercharged performance to reach heights of sweeping Straussian sophistication – even if not all the detail was clear; this was visceral playing, really focused, and conducted with a controlled frenzy propelling it along remorselessly.

It’s hard to praise Giselle Allen enough – her Salome was an unstinting portrayal, physically and emotionally, but subtle enough to convey an initial grubby innocence transformed into monstrous sexual awakening. There was real animal power and lust, genuinely unsettling, echoed by Hayley Chilvers’s dance, a stunning microcosm of Salome’s ghastly progress. The rest of the cast was stalwart, notably Hayward’s filthy, intense, voice-of-God Jokanaan.

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