Review: The Magic Flute, ENO at the Coliseum

“Is it me who’s hard of hearing,
there is no-one volunteering”

The ENO’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute returns to the Coliseum for what will be its final ever performances. And in this Engilsh-language version – now remarkably 23 years old – originally directed by Nicholas Hytner with this revival with Ian Rutherford and James Bonas at the helm, the combination of fairytale adventuring, earthy comedy, magical instruments and glorious singing still casts an enchanting spell of huge enjoyment.

I particularly love that seeing the show reminds me of what to me, is one of the biggest incongruities in opera. One of the most famous tunes from The Magic Flute, possibly one of the most recognisable arias in all opera, is the Queen of the Night’s second act aria is “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” whose crystalline trills are impeccably, gorgeously sung here by Kathryn Lewek and generally sound just heavenly. But the title actually translates as “Hell’s vengeance boileth in mine heart” and in it the Queen urges Pamina to kill a man or else she won’t consider her her daughter any more – not quite what one might have expected from listening to the gorgeous coloratura. Continue reading “Review: The Magic Flute, ENO at the Coliseum”

Re-review: Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee, ENO at the Coliseum

“This is the language of heaven”

It wasn’t intention to revisit Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee now it has arrived at the ENO’s home at the Coliseum, but as I haven’t learned to respond to any offer along the lines of “I have a spare ticket…” in anything but the affirmative, that was where I ended up tonight. I actually caught this show last year when it premiered as part of the Manchester International Festival (review can be read here) and though my feelings were decidedly mixed, they were generally positive, especially given that the work was still raw and fresh, only having recently come out of workshopping. A year down the line, changes have been made to the show, but I have to admit that my feelings were still largely quite ambivalent.

Based on the historically significant, if neglected, figure of Elizabethan Dr John Dee, Albarn and director Rufus Norris have created something of a spectacle, but even after the refinements that have been made, it remains something of a perplexing piece. Dee’s biography reads as a thing of great fascination, a key advisor to Elizabeth I, he was a man whose extraordinary breadth of knowledge took in astrology, alchemy, philosophy, mathematics and much more besides but when this unquenchable thirst lead him to increasingly dabble in the occult, he sowed the seeds of his own downfall. But you would be hard-pressed to gather much of this from the events onstage. Continue reading “Re-review: Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee, ENO at the Coliseum”

Review: Don Giovanni, Heaven

“I showed you a life outside of the closet”

Kylie once told us ‘you’ll never get to heaven if you’re scared of getting high’ which in all honesty is less an effective way to open a review than to finally shoehorn one of my favourite pop lyrics onto this blog. The tenuous link is that this gender-switching reimagining of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni is occupying the rather unlikely surroundings of legendary gay nightspot Heaven, situated under the arches at Charing Cross on Sunday and Monday nights for the next couple of weeks.

Though one of the most popular operas in the world, it is safe to say that you probably haven’t seen a Don Giovanni like this one in Dominic Gray’s marvellous production. Relocated to the heady nightclub scene of London in 1987, this Don is more interested in tenors than sopranos and so David Collier’s book flips the gender of the majority of the characters, mixes in all kinds of sexualities in a heady brew, yet still emerges with a coherent, clear narrative for this recast story. What really makes this work spark though is Ranjit Bolt’s rejuvenated libretto. Continue reading “Review: Don Giovanni, Heaven”

Review: Carmen, King’s Head

“Come on Carmen, this is a joke”

OperaUpClose scored a huge success with their Olivier-award-winning production of La Bohème and since then have continued with their mandate of creating a more intimate, accessible style of opera to try and entice new and more diverse audiences. Their latest production at the King’s Head sees them turn to Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen, which has been uprooted from Spain and relocated in a modern-day North London in a world of gang-related crime. Rodula Gaitanou and Ben Cooper have penned an abbreviated new English libretto and Elspeth Wilkes’ musical direction pares the score down to piano and guitar but in the search for brevity, accessibility and relevance, far too much has been lost.

This Carmen lives in a cluttered bedsit with a group of seemingly-bohemian types who run an Oliver-style pickpocketing racket. She forms an instant connection with security guard José (who breaks up the initial singing in the pub) but when boyfriend Escamillo breaks out of jail and hatches a criminal masterplan, she is torn between the two men, between the chance of going straight or continuing a life of crime. But even with the truncated running time, the story struggles to come through. There’s little clarity in the new book, a woeful lack of characterisation to make us care about either man or Carmen for that matter and a series of question marks that plague the production, like the complete lack of explanation given for the Spanish-influenced music – having ex-con Escamillo singing ‘Toréador’ over and over is just simply bizarre. Continue reading “Review: Carmen, King’s Head”

Review: Don Giovanni – Soho Theatre

“How’s your moral compass doing now?”

After the Olivier Award winning success of La Bohème and spearheading a whole new trend in fringe opera, OperaUpClose have collaborated with Soho Theatre for this new production of Mozart’s classic, Don Giovanni, in a new version (and English translation) by Robin Norton-Hale who also directs.

Updating and streamlining the story of the titular ruthless lothario to a pre-credit crunch London, this version makes Johnny a city trader looking for easy pickings to add to the endless notches on his multiple bedposts and searching for ever more high-stakes thrills. Accompanied by the ever-faithful Alexander, the original’s manservant being translated a little tenuously to an intern here, they move from Sloane Square dinner parties to Soho nightclubs, Johnny leaving hearts broken and lives destroyed in his wake but not even he can avoid having to pay the price. Continue reading “Review: Don Giovanni – Soho Theatre”

Review: Dr Dee – Palace Theatre, Manchester

“You know I cannot see, nor scry”

Continuing to stretch his wings, Damon Albarn returned to the Manchester International Festival, where his Monkey: Journey to the West was quite the success, with another quasi-operatic work, this time based on a mysterious Elizabethan figure – Dr Dee: A Very English Opera. Doctor John Dee was a man of varied talents whose influence was such that it was he who chose the optimum day for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation: he also dabbled in philosophy, astrology and alchemy at a time of great new learning, but personal demons and temptations ultimately led to his downfall.

With a story as rich in potential as this – Dee is reputed to have been the inspirations for both Marlowe’s Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero – it then feels surprising that so little attempt has been made to develop a narrative. It was made worse on a personal level by employing someone as good as Bertie Carvel – so very good in Matilda and soon to return as Ms Trunchbull – to play Dee but then leave him with so little to say – I was very much looking forward to another barnstorming performance. Continue reading “Review: Dr Dee – Palace Theatre, Manchester”

Review: The Damnation of Faust, ENO at the Coliseum

“I just need you to sign this old piece of paper…”

Continuing their sourcing of directors better known in other artistic fields, ENO now feature the operatic directing debut of renowned actor, screenwriter and filmmaker Terry Gilliam with a new production of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust. Not strictly speaking an opera, but rather a ‘dramatic legend’ as it was originally composed as a concert score, this has allowed Gilliam’s imagination to run wild but working with his surreal vision is designer Hildegard Bechtler in an unlikely combination.

Berlioz’s story is based on Goethe’s original dramatic poem but takes its own route through the story of the lengths a man will go to when tempted by the Devil with promises of youth, knowledge and finally love. The ultimate price paid for Faust’s inability to resist temptation is a most tragic one in this morality tale, which in Gilliam’s major innovation, has been located in Germany, tracing a period from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century and so follows the history and indeed the art of that country. So the backdrop to Faust’s dilemmas are scenes like Bismarck negotiating pre-World War I alliances; bloodied battlefields from the Great War; Brown Shirts drinking in a Weimar bierkeller; Berchtesgaden; Kristallnacht; Auschwitz… Continue reading “Review: The Damnation of Faust, ENO at the Coliseum”

Review: The Coronation of Poppea – London’s Little Opera House at King’s Head

“I gave you all my love and this is my reward?”

Monteverdi’s opera The Coronation of Poppea is one of the first that was ever written and this new version by Mark Ravenhill and Alex Silverman marks the continuation of OperaUpClose’s rebranding of the King’s Head pub theatre in Islington as London’s Little Opera House. They were responsible for the Olivier award-winning La Bohème which was judged the best new opera of 2010, for its reinvention and modernising of Verdi’s classic and a similar blast of imagination has been aimed here.

Ravenhill has translated the work into English, modernised and colloquialised it – the first line, sung, is perhaps predictably ‘what the fuck’ reworking – and trimmed it down considerably to 2 hours 15 minutes. But perhaps the biggest change is with the music which has been re-scored and re-arranged for a jazz ensemble of saxophone, double bass and piano by musical director Alex Silverman and on top of that, Michael Nyman has been drafted in to compose a new aria which has been added into the mix. The opera follows the rise of Poppea, mistress of the Roman emperor Nero, as she fights her way to fulfil her dream of becoming empress, not letting his advisers or either of their spouses to get in the way. Continue reading “Review: The Coronation of Poppea – London’s Little Opera House at King’s Head”

Not-a-review: Aida, Royal Opera House

Not really a review because this was the general dress rehearsal of the first revival of David McVicar’s Aida to which the Royal Opera House’s marketing team had very kindly invited me and some other blogger-types. It was a fabulous afternoon, not least because I got to watch the first half from the Director’s Box and the second half from great front stalls seats, neither of which I don’t think I would ever get to sit in normally. The Director’s Box was great fun, a real chance to see and be seen by the rest of the audience and though the viewlines were a little tight on the side of the stage nearest to us, it was brilliant to be able to see straight down into the orchestra pit and see the players cutting loose and misbehaving a little whilst responding to the at-times frantic direction of Fabio Luisi. And the luxury of being able to sit in the stalls for the second half gave a different, wider perspective to the production, able to soak in the real depth of the staging.

This was my first time seeing Aida, a story both epic, in the war between the Ethiopians and the Egyptians, and intimate, in the tragic love triangle that emerges between Ethiopian slave Aida, Amneris the daughter of the King of Egypt and the man they both love, Radames the Captain of the Guard. And the first half is nothing short of epic, full of huge set pieces with innumerable personnel onstage as whether it is priests making dramatic human sacrifices and blood-letting or vast armies arriving onstage. The production incorporates a range of Eastern influences into the mix, but the samurai martial arts work was probably the most visually impressive. Continue reading “Not-a-review: Aida, Royal Opera House”

Review: Faust, English National Opera at the Coliseum

“Hell is pursuing you”

In a rather odd coincidence, my visit to the ENO’s production of Gounod’s Faust came just a couple of days after my slightly unwilling trip to Jersey Boys and unlikely as it may seem, these two shows actually share a director in Des McAnuff. You can currently see the Faust story being rocked Reykjavik-style at the Young Vic but this interpretation of the classic tale focuses on Faust’s obsession with Marguerite but has been relocated to a nuclear research laboratory in 1945 with the scientist suffering from post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki guilt and dreaming of an earlier time, and a girl, which for him is in the time of the First World War.

In the lead roles, none of Iain Paterson, Toby Spence and Melody Moore disappointed as they were all vocally strong (apart from Paterson’s lower notes) but I found it hard to really engage with them as characters. Paterson’s Mephistopheles was nicely avuncular rather than devilish; Spence’ Faust was handsome but largely wooden and Moore’s Marguerite was unconvincing at playing the lighter notes of a girl distracted by jewels or swept off her feet, only really connecting in the final scene. Continue reading “Review: Faust, English National Opera at the Coliseum”