Category Archives: opera

Opera North’s Ring Cycle (Royal Festival Hall)

Many opera companies would balk at giving a full Wagnerian Ring Cycle, but Opera North have been spending the time since April giving six Cycles as part of a tour, in an innovative concert format.

We caught up with this tour on its London stop at the Royal Festival Hall last week; and from tonight it makes its final stop at the Sage Gateshead and on Radio 3.

ring cycle

This was the first live Ring Cycle I had seen: and without props, sets or costumes to speak of, it really had to stand or fall on how well the acting and singing puts across the story.  In this the production is helped by textual matter projected on screens and taken from Michael Birkett’s ‘The Story of the Ring’, explaining what we are about to see.  This may be irritating to Wagner purists, but makes the four operas extremely accessible.

The ‘preliminary evening’ and the first, and shortest opera in the cycle, is Das Rheingold, which tells the story of how the gold in the Rhine was stolen by the evil dwarf Alberich, forged into a ring, and used to make an attempt to achieve world domination, and how he was tricked by the gods Wotan and Loge into giving up this power, only giving it up with a curse on whoever owns the ring.  Wotan’s greed almost causes the goddess Freia to be given up to a duo of giants, Fafner and Fasolt, but the eventual passing of the ring causes them to turn on each other and to cause the cycle’s first shedding of blood (in this version, by the dropping of a red necktie to the floor).

wotanalberichMichael Druiett and Jo Pohlheim, photo copyright Clive Barda.

This evening’s entertainment presented the first of three Wotans throughout the cycle, in Michael Druiett a rather dry old stick (no match for Jo Pohlheim’s superb Alberich, who is quite the star of this production with a glorious bass baritone voice).  Yvonne Howard was a decent Fricka, and Giselle Allen making the first of three different characterisations as Freia, bewildered by her misfortune in being exiled from the fruit gardens of Valhalla.  As Loge, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was all flickering fingers and devious looks.

walkure

The second evening presented Die Walküre, which introduces not just the nine Valkyries, led by the vibrant Brünnhilde (played here in the first of three appearances by Kelly Cae Hogan, an excellent soprano and actress), but also the ill-fated twins and other children of Wotan (in his human guise as Walse), Siegmund and Sieglinde. 

Lee Bisset’s Sieglinde is beautifully sung, and her act one interaction with Michael Weinius’ Siegmund is one of the highlights of the piece, with their incestuous love so incensing Fricka (Howard again), goddess of marriage, that she sets in motion the tragic events which cause Wotan (Robert Hayward here, whose vocal deficiency at times can be forgiven when set against his moving final act) to cause his favourite child, Brünnhilde, to be cast out of the sight of the gods forever, and imprisoned in a wall of fire only a man without fear can penetrate.

haywardRobert Hayward, photograph copyright Clive Barda.

Hogan is again superb in both acts two (where she decides to defy her father and save Siegmund from his decreed death) and three (where she visibly reduces in stature as she is removed from her Valkyrie sisters – eight ladies with large voices and personalities – to face a life of eternal sleep until woken to live in mortality).  Meanwhile, Hayward’s Wotan causes the destruction of his beloved Walsung son, and affects disinterest in the offspring of the twins.

The third opera in the cycle centres on this child when he is fully grown – Siegfried, who has been brought up by the dwarf Mime, brother of Alberich.  We had first met Mime (sung by Richard Roberts) in Das Rheingold, but he has more to do here and successfully merges the evil with the comic (I loved the scene where Siegfried gains the power to read Mime’s thoughts, while the latter desperately tries to hide his true feelings), although some of his singing was lost in his early scenes, overpowered by the orchestra.

siegfriedLars Cleveman, photograph copyright Clive Barda.

As the ‘boy’ Siegfried, Lars Cleveman looked far too old but certainly had the lung power to carry the role after a shaky start, and his scenes when forging the sword Nothung from fragments, and combating the scary dragon Fafner (last seen as a giant, and sung powerfully by bass Mats Almgren), were excellent, as was his final act with Hogan’s still-stunning Brünnhilde.

In this segment of the Cycle, Wotan is disguised as the Wanderer, and in long coat and hat, Bela Perencz resembles a stylish lounge lizard.  He is the best singer of the three to take on the role in this cycle, and his scenes with Cleveman’s Siegfried and Pohlheim’s Alberich are well done.

There is no family feeling here, though, and by the end Wotan’s power is spent, his spear shattered in a mirror image of the destruction of Siegmund’s sword in Die Walküre.  (There are no swords or spears on stage, though, nor eye patches, armour, or anvils.  The audience has to imagine them all, although we do see the woodbird hovering around in the choir seats before her few lines of song).

gotterdamerung

Finally, we returned to the cycle for Sunday’s Götterdämmerung, in which the gods face destruction, and the happy lovers Siegfried and Brünnhilde, left within the fiery rock in the throes of passion, find their union threatened by spells, portions, and intrigue, all in the name of taking control of the ring and the Nibelungen treasure. 

There is a delightful scene at the beginning of act two which chills the blood as the sleeping Hagen (Mats Almgren, again, and exceptional) is visited by the slimy Alberich (Polheim again, outstanding) and goaded into hating anyone who is happy.

A change of casting as Siegfried brings the jovial Mati Turi to the part, and although I enjoyed his characterization, I felt his voice was more lyrical and less powerful than Cleveman’s.  I see that Tuti has played the lead in Siegfried in earlier performances, and would have been interested to see his interpretation, but here he is simply the easily-led fool, not the great hero his prior mastery of the sword and despatch of the dragon might suggest.

tutihogan

Kelly Cae Hogan and Mati Turi, photograph copyright Clive Barda.

His scene with the Rhinemaidens who warn him of the future is very good, though, and well-sung, and the trio (Jeni Bern, Madeleine Shaw, Sarah Castle) are just as cunning in trying to get the ring back as they were when teasing Alberich back in Das Rhinegold before he snatched their gold.

The orchestra have been superb throughout this cycle, led by outgoing Opera North conductor Richard Farnes.  He has led his company (including the Chorus in Götterdämmerung) through sixteen hours of drama, music and mythology, and rightly gained a standing ovation for both Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung.

ovation

The Opera North Ring Cycle broadcasts tonight, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evenings on Radio 3.


The Magic Flute (Budapest Festival Orchestra/Fischer)

The Royal Festival Hall hosted a one-night stop on the current international tour of ‘The Magic Flute’, performed in German with dialogue in English.  Ivan Fischer conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra with flair, and it was good to see them all obviously enjoying making the most of Mozart’s dazzling score.

In a company of mostly young principals, the soprano Mandy Fredrich navigated the Queen of the Night’s fiendish arias and bursts of coloratura with ease, while Krisztián Cser‘s young and vital bass Sarastro gives a different frisson to his interaction with the imprisoned Pamina (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller).  As Papageno, Hanno Müller-Brachmann‘s bass-baritone fits perfectly with his ridiculous yet lonely bird characterisation, and the scene near the close with his Papagena (Norma Nahoun), leaves a smile on the face.

This is a semi-staged performance, but the use of a video storybook to display the characters as well as the translation.  Actors perform the dialogue for all the major roles and Bart van der Schaff was particularly amusing as Papageno.  The switch between languages worked well and made the opera rather more accessible than a fully German version would be.

Ultimately this is a glorious piece of work, even if the text is rather misogynous in tone, referring to the subjection and inferiority of women – although, as Pamina joins her true love, Tamino (Bernard Richter) in the trials of fire and ice, she would seem to be as strong as any man.

 

 


Review of 2015

This is the point where, now 2016 has started with the traditional fireworks and hangovers, we have a look back to the good (and bad) of 2015.

Theatre

In January I saw two productions, the frankly disappointing ‘Potted Sherlock’, and the excellent ‘Taken at Midnight’, in which Penelope Wilton excelled as a woman whose son was in the hands of the Nazis.

February brought a new Tom Stoppard at the National, ‘The Hard Problem’, which tried to mix academia with personal relationships, but didn’t really do either justice.

In March I enjoyed the revival of ‘Harvey’, starring James Dreyfuss, which stopped off at Richmond before a run in the West End, and I travelled to Hampstead for my first visit to the theatre there to see Zoe Wanamaker in the revival of ‘Stevie’ (a piece I know well from the Glenda Jackson film).

April brought three top-class musicals associated with Stephen Sondheim: first, the show on which he wrote lyrics, ‘Gypsy’, at the Savoy, which some of you will have seen and enjoyed when it was on television over the Christmas break, and second, the transfer of ‘Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ at the ENO, with Bryn Terfel, Emma Thompson, and the welcome return to these shores of Philip Quast.  Finally, the concert version of ‘Follies’, at the Royal Albert Hall, which was ridiculously overpriced but certainly star-studded.

In May, a silly but perfectly-pitched tribute to the Bonzo Dog frontman, Vivian Stanshall, who died twenty years ago, was on for one night only at the Bloomsbury.  ‘Radio Stanshall’ teamed old hands with a fun reboot of the Sir Henry at Rawlinson End tales.   Meanwhile, over at the Globe Theatre Jonathan Pryce impressed as Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, and on transfer from Stratford-upon-Avon, Antony Sher and Harriet Walter reteamed for the first time since the late 90s Macbeth for ‘Death of a Salesman’, which was a definite highlight of the year.

June at the Barbican heralded the Beckett International Festival, of which I chose to see the starry ‘Waiting for Godot’ with Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh, and Philip Quast (again!).  I love the play, and this production seemed to polarise audiences, but I found it very good indeed.

In July, there was comedy at the National in ‘The Beaux’ Strategem’, and a major misfire at the Young Vic with a head-scratching version of ‘The Trial’, in which a conveyer belt set and Rory Kinnear were excellent but the translation was not.  Closer to home, Julian Clary headlined the Ealing Comedy Festival, while in town, David Suchet donned a dress for a hilarious take on Lady Bracknell in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

August brought us one of the year’s total turkeys, at the Charing Cross Theatre, where the dreadful ‘Dusty’ had cast changes, delayed press nights and worse.  Back at the National, ‘Three Days in the Country’ was a new and truncated version of the Turgenev play, which had a bit of overacting from John Simm but a finely judged comic bit from Mark Gatiss.

In September, the delightful Rattigan play ‘Flare Path’ stopped by at Richmond, while ‘Mr Foote’s Other Leg’ did well at Hampstead before a West End transfer – I especially liked Dervla Kirwan’s delicate actress-whore.    And the month ended with the new version of the Bristol production of ‘Jane Eyre’, a high-energy adaptation which was a total joy to watch.

October saw a trip to the Bridewell Theatre for an excellent version of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ by the amateur Geoids Musical Theatre, an ensemble I would happily watch again.

In November the final piece of the RSCs King and Country puzzle fell into play with the showing of ‘Henry V’, which I liked a lot, and which, coming so soon after the Paris attacks, felt oddly relevant and very moving.

Meanwhile, December brought the undoubted un-highlight of the year, with the National’s jaw-droppingly terrible ‘wonder.land’.   I would recommend a trip to the National’s Shed instead to see the fun ‘I Want My Hat Back’, and New Year’s Eve brought the year to a sentimental close with ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’.

Concerts and live cinema relays

The Southbank Centre hosted a special ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ in February which I really enjoyed: with the Light Programme being represented with everything from Max Miller and Roy Hudd to Flanders & Swann and Gilbert & Sullivan.  The concert a week later in the same series, looking at post-1959 music, was fun, but not quite in the same league.

On Valentine’s Day the Berlin Philharmonic with their conductor Sir Simon Rattle was in residence at the Royal Festival Hall, with a programme showcasing their splendid rendition of Mahler No 2.   And on the big screen there was a live relay from the Royal Opera House of ‘The Flying Dutchman’, with Bryn Terfel, which was another of the year’s highlights: he really had made this role his own.

In April Daniel Barenboim was at the Royal Festival Hall with the Staatkapelle Berlin, playing Elgar, and it was an honour to be there, especially to see him awarded the Elgar Medal which he dedicated to his late wife, Jacqueline du Pre.   This month also saw a live musical accompaniment to a little-seen Lillian Gish film, ‘Annie Laurie’, at the Barbican.

In October, the London Literature Festival gave us both Terry Gilliam (with a video retrospective of some of his films), and Tom Jones (who sang, and by heck, is he still good).  The end of the month had a return visit to the Royal Festival Hall from Randy Newman, who with just a piano, was rather marvellous.

December was the month of NT Live screenings, with the Broadway production of ‘Of Mice and Men’ and the Barbican ‘Hamlet’ (which I didn’t add here for some reason, but which can be seen in my review over on Letterboxd).  We ended the year in concert mode with the professional gloss of Andre Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra at Wembley Arena.

Film

Letterboxd (where I post as loureviews) tells me I watched 451 films – including shorts and miniseries, in 2015.  Eight of those merited a full, five-star score, and all were rewatches: Mary Poppins, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Lifeboat, I Know Where I’m Going, Guys and Dolls, Witchfinder General, Rebecca, and The Snowman.

There were, however, some four and a half star films I had seen for the first time, so these are my picks of the year: Night Will Fall (2014), Laughter in the Dark (1969), Her (2013), Maxine Peake in Hamlet (2015), Mr Axelford’s Angel (1974), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Contempt/Le Mepris (1963), Shylock’s Ghost (2015), Night and Day (2015), and Tony Benn: Will and Testament (2014).

The turkeys of the year, the true stinkers, number ten: Carry on England (1976), Happy Hooligan (1903), Ride Along (2014), Sherlock Holmes (2011 – and it isn’t the Asylum one), The Other Woman (2014), Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), The Nut Job (2014), Annie (2014), Bed and Breakfast (1938), and The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978).

Tributes

I marked a trio of anniversaries this year.  Twenty years since the death of Vivian Stanshall, thirty-five years since the death of AC/DC frontman Bon Scott, and twenty-six years since the death of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.  You can find links to all these in the ‘Index to tribute profiles’ at the top of the page.

Exhibitions

In January, the London Transport Museum was the venue for ‘Goodbye, Piccadilly’, which I loved.  Later in the year, the Hayward Gallery hosted the thoughtful ‘History is Now’, which was odd but engaging.

 


Royal Opera Live: Der fliegende Holländer, 2015 – ★★★★½

Without having the ready money to spend on seeing a live production at the Royal Opera House, I decided instead to do the next-best thing, and watch the relay to cinemas for the final performance of Wagner’s popular opera of ‘The Flying Dutchman’.

Tim Albery’s production is now on its third revival, and the role of the Dutchman was played by Wales’ finest bass-baritone, the marvellous Bryn Terfel, who has really grown into this part over the years: one might say it is one of his signature roles.

Here his dour and dark captain, doomed to sail his ghostly ship through inhospitable waters for eternity, was complemented by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka. She is in her fifties, but managed to convey through her acting and singing a portrait of Senta, a young girl in obsessive love with a legend, with her toy ship and the stories she tells her co-workers about the pale seafarer and his need for redemption.

Some of Albery’s choices might be suspect to Wagnerian purists – the ending has lost the sense of the dramatic (instead of Senta plunging into the icy waves she instead collapses holding her ship while her friends look on), and there is a lot of water (using what resembles a shower curtain to throw water against before curtain up to convey the storm, and having various characters paddling in the stream where the toy ship is anchored).

No sound problems at the Westfield London’s Vue, though, although some were reported at other screenings. The staging and presentation was quite cinematic – I like to see close-ups and be in the thick of the action. Interestingly, the most melodic and memorable pieces of the score are not those sung by the Dutchman, but rather those by Senta, and by the Steersman and the crew.

The crew’s party was jarringly modern, with a feel of Newcastle on a Saturday night with short-skirted ladies and hard drinking men, but the appearance of the ghostly crew of the Dutchman’s ship was effective. I also liked the line of sewing machines at which Senta and her friends dreamed and sang.

Peter Rose as Daland might have been a little below par (we were warned before the start that he had a heavy cold) but the pro came out in decent voice and did well to make it through to the end. No harm done there.

Great production, and I’d heartily recommend these live relays for anyone not sure about opera, as well as those, like me, who have seen these pieces before and just go along to enjoy them in a different setting.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


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