Posts Tagged ‘ENO’

Cooper’s London

October 22, 2014

Books, Music




Chanel: An Intimate Life 
(Lisa Chaney, Penguin paperback)

Chaney has written a strong and stylish book telling the life of Coco Chanel. The strength comes from its giving considerable attention to the background of her life, the era in which she lived, the stories of the various people who were her most important lovers and friends. It is incredibly informative. Lisa-ChaneyAnd the stylishness comes from the writing itself, which is meticulous and readable; and from the intellectual curiosity the book displays. It treats Chanel not just as the creator of ephemeral fashion but as a real artist who understands the uses of fashion and its relationship to its age. I have learned more about what makes the fashion world tick and what are some of the deeper issues that drive its greatest talents than I ever expectedor even knew existed.

coco_chanel 1This is a thoughtful, well-written and meticulously researched work, and as gripping as a novel. You not only get a convincing and detailed portrait of the woman, Germaine Chanel, who became the iconic Coco; you also get to know pre-World War I France from its lower Zola-esque depths to its high societyplus the impact of World War I, the craziness of the twenties, and then the era of the Depression and Occupation. Was Coco a collaborator? Read and decide for yourself which side her moral predicaments set her down on. The book is as interesting and as exciting as her greatest fashion shows. Highly recommended.



The Dreyfus Affair
(Piers Paul Read, Bloomsbury UK)

This book details, step by appalling step, the miscarriage of justice that was the Dreyfus Case. readCarefully researched and written, Piers Paul Read is interested in much more than the details of poor Dreyfus’ humiliation, incarceration and ultimate exoneration. He also portrays with vivid and intense frustration the attitudes that enabled people (who knew perfectly well that Dreyfus was innocent) to justify their involvement in keeping the truth from the public.

Dealing fully with every aspect of the case and every character who either colluded with the betrayal of dreyfusDreyfus or fought for his freedom once they became convinced of his innocence, the book directly involves you in the era. It also makes excellent background reading for everything from Proust and Anatole France to a study of the attitudes that led to the fall of France in World War II and the willing collaboration of so many with the German occupation.

The Dreyfus Affair consciously, I think, sets out to show you the attitudes at a certain level of French society that enabled people to consider themselves patriots ,when actually they were complicit in betraying the soul of their country. It’s a good companion piece to Lisa Chaney’s biography of Chanel, too.

Figaro: New and A-Maze-ing at the ENO

It took me a while to get comfortable with (or even figure out) the visual and metaphoric concept behind this ENO production of The Marriage of Figaro bullsbut by the middle of the second scene I think I figured it out and I began to like the idea.

The crazy day in the Almaviva household is well-represented by a set that keeps revolving; keeps shifting into a series of mazes; references the maze of the Minotaur myth (Figaro as Theseus doing the bull dance or Almaviva as the cruel king?). There is also a good reason for a story set in 18th century Spain to be full of the imagery of dead bulls, bull masks and the bullfight. I found the design by Peter McKintosh also evocative of the original era of Beaumarchais’ revolutionary, disturbing play. The comedy was paramount, just. But this was a darker and more considered production that you often get of Figaro. Like  the famous production a few years ago at the Royal Opera House, this castle abounds with life, with servants and supernumeraries bustling about the maze doing their duties.

fiona shawBut in the end, it is not the concept that drives this production. The evening works so well because the director, Fiona Shaw, knows how to get her singers to act their characters and to understand and convey the nuances and complications of the various relationships. This is a seriously intelligent Figaro and, by the end (though the music is telling you that forgiveness and reconciliation can be transcendent and are possible; though you are basking in the wonderful world of sound that is created by the score and the increasingly fine ENO orchestra), the thrust of the story and the way the actors have shown their reactions suggests strongly that the reconciliations will be short-lived and that the Count will betray his Countess again.

This is an interpretation informed by the third of the Figaro plays, The Guilty Mother (La Mère Coupable); and by the end of the first half you begin to suspect and foresee the affair that’s bound to happen sooner or later between the betrayed, disappointed Countess and the young Cherubino. You can also, of course, see the inspiration that this text gave to Hugo Von Hoffmansthal when he wrote Der Rosenkavalier for Richard Strauss. This is a literate and strongly theatrical interpretation of the opera and of the play behind itprobably because it’s directed by a consummate actress who here shows herself to be a mistress of theatre as a director, as well.

Ultimately, though, it’s the music that carries the emotions and provokes the intellectual interpretationand Shaw knows how to listen to the music and interpret it dramatically through the singers and their reactions to events.The constant movement of the revolving set and the actors moving through the mazes;

the choreography of all the movement (as well as of the actual dances); and the life going on in the corridors or behind the scenes that we observe and that gives the sense of the very public life of the Almaviva palace; all this enhances the sense of urgency and restlessness in the tale.

The ENO has a strong cast in this first revival of Shaw’s production, with everyone working together brilliantly as an ensemble but also shining in their solo moments. The climax of the evening, as it should be, is the third scene. Each of the events is telling, with the Countess’s solo aria bevan and brandonand her duet with Susanna outstanding both musically and dramatically (full praises with no quibbles to Sarah-Jane Brandon as the tortured and lovely Countess and to Mary Bevan, the Susanna who has been promoted from being Barbarina last time). The Count’s fury and psychopathy are brilliantly and frighteningly conveyed in his solo by Benedict Nelson in that scene; and the trio of David Stout’s Figaro, Lucy Schaufer’s Marcellina and Jonathan Best’s crabby, tight-fisted Bartolo succeeds in provoking considerable laughter in the recognition scene, where it turns out that Figaro is the long-lost illegitimate offspring of the couple that are trying to cheat him (leading so preposterously, but delightfully, to happy marriages all round, to the great fury of the Count). One must also note the fine contribution of Samantha Price’s boyish, androgynous Cherubino throughout. As for the Barbarina of Ellie Laugherne, her voice is so lovely and her acting so natural that she is very likely to be Susanna next time round.

Musically, Jaime Martin keeps complete control of the score and offers some really illuminating musical moments. The music and drama develop just as they should, and the confused dénoument in the garden/maze works with a clarity and impact that are very satisfying. Susanna’s big, loving aria and Figaro’s jealousy in the final scene are also memorable highlights, both exquisitely controlled.

cast bowingThis is a fine evening of opera, with all the elements blending seamlessly. The night I attended, Mary Bevan was presented with well-deserved Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent during the applause, having just proved by her singing and acting that she is a very deserving winner.

Note: The revival of Fiona Shaw’s production of The Marriage of Figaro is in repertoire of the English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 23 November 2014.

Cooper’s London

October 3, 2014





Spaghetti Western at the ENO

In some ways, you could think of Puccini’s opera La Fanciulla del West as the first spaghetti western. This idea is enhanced in the new and richard jonesextremely successful production of The Girl of the Golden West at the ENO by Richard Jones. Some of the signature visuals realized by Set Designer Miriam Buether (a certain amount of stylization, the use of neon lighting here and there to point things are arresting in themselves, but with the costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, the show is completely evocative of the Gold
Rush era in California and not of some arbitrary updating. The production constantly evokes the quintessentials of Western golden west setfilm design
the saloon, the heroine’s little log cabin. The final scene is set in front of the Sheriff’s office and you almost expect John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda to come on out and save the day.

Originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Fanciulla is a bit of a Cinderella among the Puccini operas because it’s Puccini at his most Giacomo_Puccini bowlerexperimental and modernistic. There are few “famous tune” moments; the score is constructed mainly from thematic cells and leitmotifs, rather than Big Moments. But it’s gorgeous and sonorous throughout. And when those moments do come (Jake Wallace’s ballad, various moments of narration by the main characters, the dance sequence in Act I, Jack Rance or Dick Johnson telling about their lives, and above all Dick Johnson’s “Ch’ella mi creda” in Act III) they have huge impact. The translation by Kelley Rourke is fine, fits the music, and allows the singers to sound American. The moods evoked by the score are consistent and emotionally suggestive throughoutthe sonorities and orchestrations are astonishing.

Richard Jones is not afraid of the great melodramatic swatches of this tale; indeed, he often almost sends them up by having them overacted, causing laughter from the audience, but also reminding one of the early cinematic acting styles contemporary with the opera’s first performances. This, ironically, makes the whole evening feel more authentic because of the way it plays into our experience of Hollywood Westerns. At times the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, but you come out feeling this has, somehow, brought to life the Wild West of the California gold rush. The story remains credible right through the rescue of her lover by Minnie at the end. There’s also a terrific recreation of the kind of mountain snow storms and avalanches that you remember from The Gold Rush or even Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

The entire cast sings and acts with exemplary commitment; the sense of the community in which Minnie is a kind of sister of mercy and mentor, a mother figure who is an object of both love and lust among the miners, is strongly conveyed. Craig Colclough makes a slightly one-dimensional Jack Rance– Sherriff and bully–and Peter Auty is a sympathetic Dick Johnson (he’s really– gasp!–the Bandit Ramerrez). Both have fine voices, while Graham Clark’s Nick, Nicholas Masters’ Ashby, Leigh Melrose’s Sonora, Clare Presland’s Wowkle and George Humphreys’ Jake Wallace, the Minstrel, must be praised as standouts among a consistently strong cast.

But the evening truly belongs to the two principal women: susan bullockSusan Bullock’s tireless, appealing, vivid Minnie; and conductor keri-lynn wilsonKeri-Lynn Wilson, making her UK debut, who draws a brilliant performance from all the musical forces and makes something coherent and luscious of the score. Susan Bullock is a Minnie in the style of Birgit Nilsson; a clarion voice at times warm, at times laser-like; soft with emotion at some moments, over-riding the orchestra at others. Her singing is tireless in a role that must be as demanding as singing Brunnhilde. Her acting’s also particularly finea gun-toting cross of Lillian Gish and Marie Dresslerbut above all her voice is simply a glorious, Puccinian instrument.

If you are new to this opera, this notable production, cast and conductor will convince you that you need to get to know it better; and if you already know it, it will please you as an excellent and extremely satisfying presentation of an often under-rated work of art. So try to see this new Golden Girl. It’s dramatically and musically practically perfect in every way. October 14 – November 1.

Modernizing the Moor

To mark his 30th work anniversary with the English National Opera, David Alden has been given Otello (celebrating 450 years since Shakespeare’s birth) and has come up with a compelling and evocative production. It is also, for Alden, fairly uncluttered and quite coherent. There are fewer chairs than usual; and the lines of the plot and action are well conveyed. The sets and costumes are contemporary, yet somehow evocative of the original era of the play, so that (for once) the double focus and contemporary references actually work tp enhance what is going on; also, the blocking is somewhat stylized ,yet perfectly clear. So Alden’s fantasies and obsessions do not really get in the way.

This is a good thing because the edward gardnermusical direction by Edward Gardner is exemplary and superbly sonorous. Gardner has a great feeling for this score and its harmonies and a wonderful sense of individual detail, as well as the whole constructed arch of music contrived by Verdi. The orchestra is completely with him; he inspires some brilliant playing. It must also be said that the work of the chorus is exemplary throughout and at times even thrilling.

Gardner also has some wonderful singers to work with. Leah Crocetto, making her company debut, is a sweet-voiced and charming Desdemona; Jonathan Summers is a cold, calculating and powerfully voiced Iago. But the dominant character, as it stuart sheltonshould be, is the Otello of Stuart Skelton. His timbre is clarion-like when required for the bigger moments yet he can pull back the sound to a moan, a sigh, a taut string-like whine, to express love, misery, jealousy or (when going full blast), his rage and pain. From the opening storm to the murder of Desdemona by Otello and his discovery of how he has been tricked, it is a superb performance and I would certainly like to hear him do the role again. Jonathan Summers’ voice and acting are also both mightily impressive and there is a real contest—as there should bebetween this Otello and Iago.

The highlights of the opera are superlatively pointed and performed; the opening storm is dazzling; getting Roderigo drunk a fine love duet; a scary and definitive “Credo”; a powerful ending to Act II from Iago’s Dream Narration onwards.

I took a friend (who once performed as Iago in the play, but had never seen the opera) to see this Otello, and he was bowled over by Summers’ interpretation of the role, and seeing both Summers and Skelton really inhabit their parts. But the full glory of the opera is so richly conveyed because of Gardner’s sensitive, intuitive conducting. Making the play/opera more contemporary in guise worked, finally, because the point of the tale—like so many of Shakespeare’s storiesis ageless. And because Verdi, in his music, offers us a great and convincing interpretation of the many layers of this very great play, while Gardner and his team of singers simply do justice to every nuance of what Verdi has achieved. It’s a triple treat, not to be missed. In repertory at the ENO playing 4, 8, 11, 14, 17 October

Cooper’s London

April 6, 2012

DISCOVERY: Georgia Jarman
Color-atura Her Delightful!

The latest operatic diva discovery in London this season was the American soprano Georgia Jarman. Taking on all four roles in the new Richard Jones Tales of Hoffman, she pretty much stole what was a very strong show. Perhaps this was simply because she was such a surprise! Everyone knew the production would be interesting, inventive, provocative and thought-provoking (as well as very attractive to look at). And everyone was prepared for Barry Banks to be a strong if somewhat vertically challenged Hoffman; for Christine Rice to be an appealing and luscious-voiced Nicklause; and for Clive Bayley to be brilliant (both vocally and dramatically) as all four villains. But they are all ENO regulars—very popular, known entities.

Everyone also expected that the four soprano roles would be well cast; but no one was expecting quite the level of accomplishment that Georgia Jarman showed in both her singing and acting in the roles of Stella, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta. It’s invidious to single her out, in a sense, when everything else about the production was so spot-on, including the definitely sensitive-to-the-Donizetti-idiom, yet seriously clean and personal conducting of Antony Walker; but she really was the major discovery of this event. Watch out for her! Her coloratura is astonishingly bright and clean; the quality of the voice is very appealing; and she has a completely convincing stage presence.

You can hear her voice on and possibly most impressively at if you’re curious. There’s also a short interview done for the ENO at Jarman will be appearing worldwide next season, and will be returning to the Met for 2012-13.


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