CAN WAGNER OPÊRA REACH OUT TO THE COMMON MAN?

We review the latest brand new production of the Wagner Opêra “the Valkyrie”, at London’s ENO English National Opera, and ask – what is it about this performance, that is so special that we want to come see it?

I am seated at a nice seat, somewhere. I txt my wife. “I’m excited”, I say. “Did you bring your mask?”, she asks. “Yes. And it is very crowded” . “Then make sure you wear your mask”. The line goes dead. The man sitting next to me is not wearing a mask. He is talking with his friends.

It is not that ENO produces safe opera. You could almost say that English National Opera carries a health warning. It is risky. You don’t come to ENO because you necessarily want to sing the tunes on the way home. You come for the journey. You could almost say that ENO Members and Supporters are addicts.

So, when Annilese Miskimmon steps in advance onto the stage prior to curtain up, and says something like: “look guys, we’ve got just one or two little issues… there’s no big fire at the end… and oh -forget COVID – two of the leading singers are down with bad colds, and one of them can’t even sing a note, for God’s sake!”- seasoned supporters are used to this. It is not relevant.

How so?

Because the driving force of this “Valkyrie”. Is not the individual singer, but the communication of the emotion, the human relationship, as much as the storyline itself. It is the synergy of the parts of orchestra, the subtlety, the ambience, that support the protagonists on stage, that keep all of our attention, for the full five hours. ENO has been perfecting this approach for a very long time. Even from my very first opera, Wagner’s “Mastersingers” at Rosebery Avenue, as a 12 year old kid hitch-hiking across London to see something called an opera – looking back at my top five all-time best performances at ENO – Wagner would fill three of the spaces – and I am not even a Wagner aficionado.

This production is brand new, it brings to the table some of the best Direction and Performers. With minimalist scenery and graphic intervention -its secret is that it lets the performers “do their thing”. It treats this Wagner project as a modern opera in style and approach, and lets the singers and their relationships with each other, keep us guessing and spellbound.

The programme notes describe this new staging as “narratively gripping and emotionally poignant”, and I think that for the most part – they get there.

The standout Act, perhaps surprisingly, was Act 1 – the performance of Emma Bell as Sieglinde, is phenomenal, and her chemistry dramatically and vocally with Nicky Spence as Siegmund. Is the driving force of the opera. There is a noticeable tension when they re-emerge later in Act 2.

This is a long opera, with a deep multi-level message. You and I will not get all of this, in one sitting. But that is not the point. We go for the total experience, and pick up what we can, and then perhaps go again.

But there is also a point that might have been overlooked by so many of us, and that is one of the key objectives for both this performance, and production – and that was briefly alluded to by Annilese Miskimmon in her opening prelude – that is the giving away of free tickets, to a younger audience. There was a round of applause when she made that statement.

The inclusion of a new non-opera audience, and showing its relevance, and its ability to change lives for perhaps more than just one or two – is a key mandate at ENO. And I should know. All those years ago, I was one of them.

SATYAGRAHA – A STORY OF OUR TIME

At a time of resurgence from COVID restrictions, we look at the relaunch of the Satyagraha Opera by Philip Glass, by the ENO English National Opera, on their first day back at their home London Coliseum after 19 months – and look at why this is both an Opera and performance for the moment.

It is a full twenty minutes before I fully understand why it is that people of all ages, aims, backgrounds, ambitions, love being part of the ENO Family, and what is the single thing that draws us all together.

It is not necessarily the music. True, this performance, its direction and delivery, is brilliant, stunning, mesmerising. My two colleagues next to me, the young lady with her teenage daughter are spellbound – they described it as “resonant” – and the introduction itself had rich luscious vocal lines, even though this was no Verdi. But it was the moment when the full chorus, from somewhere in the shadows suddenly came alive and you got this fabulous wall of sound. It was as if we had all been waiting for this, and it did not disappoint.

The depth and intensity of the desire to communicate – the continual hypnotic orchestral themes and continual variations of time signature – left me uncertain, and the hesitating steps of the protagonists on stage, as each carried their own line of music and text, was confusing.

But that did not matter. This was ENO saying; “look, we are here for a reason. Nobody smiles in this ‘Satyagraha’. We are taking a solemn story and winding it around new dimensions and images in ways that you might not have seen before. And we know how to do it.”

The girl in the interval, told me that there have been some preparatory sessions, to explain the thinking behind the staging, the strange larger than life puppet characters, etc. And I can understand the need for that. I spent the first two Acts unsure of what was going on, sitting on the edge of my seat, sometimes – particularly in act 2 – actually scared. Did I really come to the Opera to be scared? And simultaneously intrigued, drawn in.

They say that “Satyagraha” is what they call a “marmite” opera; you either love it or hate it. And talking with members of the audience generally, that division is still there, The complicated story line and topics it is trying to explain, create a sort of Bach on steroids musical structure, or a Big Burger with nineteen different layers, there is just so much going on.

And there are so many clever aspects to communicate. The key points are brilliantly highlighted by the very clever use of Newspapers from the time, that assemble and re-assemble to form impromptu screens that display key words on stage as we go. The symbolism of frankly everything is just too much for one evening alone, for an average opera goer who just wants a night out with some music.

But that itself misses the point. To deliver this sort of cohesion and perfection requires absolute singing and musical quality and I am not going to single out any particular artist or group. It just all works.

Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe this is simply the formula, perhaps redolent of when I first saw “Two Boys” with Mary Bevan, that I first understood ENOs prowess with modern opera. But that too is unfair.

This “Satyagraha” is an opera that reflects a different age of how we communicate themes that are as relevant today as they have always been. Did I like it? No, I don’t think so. Did I love it?. Absolutely!

FIGARO HERE. FIGARO THERE. NOBODY DOES MOZART BETTER THAN ENO.

We review the latest new interpretation of this classic Opera, at London Coliseum’s English National Opera.

The trick in delivering “Marriage of Figaro, is not that everybody knows the story – it is that, it doesn’t matter if they don’t. The opera itself excels when it is just funny, absurd, stupid, ridiculous, – Brian Rix farce with melodies. At what point does an audience get bored watching people hiding behind doors? Actually, – never. They keep laughing. The young couple in front of me told me this was their first ever opera. This was no academic analysis. This was a night out. It does not get better than this. Heavens, don’t we need it at time like this!

This new production minimises the set, to focus on the simple reality of; have lots of doors, have people coming and going, from wherever and whoever, you have no clue. And make sure the singing is tight, crisp, – absolutely choreographed. Simples. Unusually for ENO, the opera opens straightaway into the Overture, there is no clever preamble – and then you understand. As soon as the doors start to open, close, total organised chaos ensues, and it never lets up.

And yet it is clearly more than that. Listening to Hanna Hip in discussion a few weeks earlier talk about her assessment of Cherubino, this opera depends on drama, of the protagonists reaching out to their audience. This is echoed by the complex but deliberate direction – the movement of the singers is like a jigsaw of interlocking and non-interlocking pieces – set against a pure white background of just four doors, that open, and close.

Despite the fact that for several, this was their first night Debut at ENO – Kevin John Edusei as Conductor, Bozidar Smiljanic’s debut as Figaro, and Louise Alder as the standout character Susanna – this delivery is everything that ENO does well, a sort of relaxed but very fast and spot on performance, that combines the many subtle and little touches, and letting the glorious music and melody take you along for the ride.

I loved the interplay of of Figaro and Susanna, and the small choral groupings towards the end of Act 2 were mesmeric. Even the Act 1 choreographed photo-shoots in the Overture, were clever, different, you wanted to lean in and see where all this nonsense is going.

I cane away wanting to come back and see the production for a second time – I am sure like a good movie, I will “get” even more, now that I know what is happening. Then again, who’s to say I will be any the wiser second time around?

OPERA AS IT SHOULD BE.

We are privileged to be part of the first night of the new production of  Verdi’s little known “Luisa Miller” at ENO, and ask; why has it taken so long for this superb emotional journey, to be given its  place in our modern Italian repertoire.

The young lady rushes down the steps at Charing Cross tube and bundles into the last Bakerloo carriage. She is finely dressed. She sits down quickly, next to me, there is a colour in her cheeks and she looks perplexed,  almost excited.

I ask “You went to the Opera then?”

She can hardly get the words out of her mouth; “Oh yes!   Wasn’t it absolutely fantastic!!”

You could argue that the essence of opera, is the use of voice, to transform our soul. What starts as the random singing in the shower, is the embryo of the fine tuned and perfect journey that  opera – on a good day –  can become, … can reach heights we had not envisaged.

This was not a good day. 

This was an exceptional day. A stunning and riveting musical expression that ranks  among the very best of my own many decades of witnessing ENO opera. The Direction had a tightness and absolute sync with the onstage protagonists, that drove our two protagonists, Luisa and Rodolfo forward, intertwined with a precise orchestra, and a developing and increasing symbolism from light to dark, white to black, good to evil, that is recognisable only after the event, when you get home and say to yourself : “yes indeed – that was fantastic!”

This discussion note, is not a musical critique. There are others who can do a better job than I – and my role is merely to express my feelings as a human being, of an evening that unfolds.

This modern and superbly edgy production of “Luisa Miller” has melody, a flow and inevitability that pulls you along, the chemistry between all of the protagonists, and I could name them all, the  phenomenal singing, that is so convincing in terms of emotion expressed that you know you are with Luisa in her bewilderment and despair, are alongside Rodolfo in the final scene and are powerless to intervene. We are mere bystanders watching a human tragedy that has long since gone beyond musical expression.

There is only one Harewood artist, Nadine Benjamin, and perhaps that is for the best. This opera needs experienced hands. Even then, Nadine comes to the stage as exemplary in Porgy and Bess. This is no lightweight cast. Elizabeth Llewelyn as Luisa  already has a stellar reputation in Italian opera. Baritone Olafur Sigudarson is an international Classical sInger of the Year, and I can go on.

And yet, my standout moment, is not the signing, or even the music. It is the cleverness, the subtlety, the little touches that you pick up here and throughout this production.

I left the auditorium, it was raining, and I hurried across the square down to the tube station entrance. A northbound train was already  arriving and the rear doors just stayed open long enough.

 

Storytelling. With Benefits

We review the latest production of “Carmen” at the English National Opera at London’s Coliseum, and note that its message and moral, is just as relevant. “Carmen” remains a story of all of our times.

Valentina Peleggi strides into the orchestra ensemble. She acknowledges  the gentle applause, motions to her orchestra to stand briefly – and then quickly we are off!  It is fast, furious, the melodies, swiftly move from one to the next. And there is a difference. There is an anxiousness. This is no Mozart comedy.

And then Micaela – played by the excellent Nardus Williams, making her ENO debut – gently walks into view, amongst the military who are setting the scene. And the opera proper, begins…

‘Carmen”, for me, has always held a soft spot. It was my first opera I ever truly studied as a kid. It has a universal message. In that sense, this production rarely touches the emotional deepens of say a Puccini, or a Verdi. But it may not need to to. It is storytelling after all, and it is family storytelling, the little children swarming early on, and inclusion later.

Having said that, there are some superb emotional moments; Sean Panikkar excels as Don Jose, the sadness in his “La fleur que tu m’avais jetee”, and chemistry with Nardus Williams. Plus the spot on performance and leadership of Ellie Laugharne and Samantha Price, as Frasquita and Mercedes respectively.  It is crisp, very tight, very controlled, and it is a journey about sexual and emotional control.  A story indeed.  With benefits.

ITS PANTOMIME TIME! OH NO IT ISN’T!

We sit back and laugh out loud at this latest rethink of the Offenbach classic, “Orpheus In The Underworld” – and ask; how can we laugh – and be disturbed, at the same time.

You can argue that this “Orpheus….” has everything. It is quite astonishing. It is a fusion of extraordinary drama, of sublime choral sound, of sheep that go ”bah bah” in time to the music; of myriads of balloons, that seem to be the leitmotiv (balloons are everywhere), as a symbol of transitory suspension between two worlds I suppose.

It is Mozart on steroids – a sort of Magic Flute but where there is no happy ending. Which is why you will not take your little kids to this run up to Christmas entertainment. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this performance has “wit and charm” – it is simply seriously funny. But in her chat discussion just a few weeks earlier, director Emma Rice indicated that this is going to be a different take – and she did not disappoint. The melodies of the first Act soon give way to sexual depravity, male hedonism, and the implicit conclusion that if you play with the Devil, then be careful what you wish for.

Except that Eurydice – played by Mary Bevan – has no particular wish to play with the Devil as such. Mary’s melodies, interpretation and dramatic art of her journey from one world to another, and the realisation of what marriage is – are the stand out features of this performance and I found myself reminded of when i first saw her in ”Two Boys” all those years ago, the ability to stand alone on stage and carry the audience with her.

And then we have Alex Otterburn, who was very funny, self-deprecating, as Pluto, with his West Country shepherd accent. A sort of Moliere’s “Tartuffe”. As I travel back to Devon as I write this piece, I would have loved to have seen more of this – but what the heck!

This is a cast of exceptional performers, each contributing vital elements. I loved Ellie Laugharne as Cupid. I could go on.

My first recollection of ENO’s “Orpheus” as a young teenager, used a tube train as the slapstick way to travel between worlds. Emma’s use of a London Taxi and cabbie, for the public opinion, is better, and just so ridiculous, the little things where the taxi does not start, for example.

Perhaps this is why I left the Coliseum excited and yet confused. We take for granted now the edginess of ENO productions, the taking of Opera to its limits. This performance continues that trend cum laude. The mix of elements that really should not go together, or how can anybody even think they go together – but somehow they do – that can deliver not satisfaction but a darker truth?

But again, this is to be picky. This is thought provoking entertainment on so many levels. Just don’t bring the kids, at least not yet.

A Star for Our Times

We interview Rachel Oyawale, the new face at English National Opera, to see first hand how this mesmerising and inspirational young lady has captured the attention of the opera musical world in London and beyond

I am sitting downstairs in their bar area at ENO on a warm Saturday afternoon and Rachel Oyawale suddenly arrives.

She is fresh, bright, smiling, just like her public photos but more relaxed, totally open. She is eager to talk, to communicate the passion that so evidently drives her but not in that egotistical way of so many. There is no ego here. This is a young lady who has found her dream, by chance – but it is a dream nonetheless that has become reality. Rachel Oyawale is the embodiment of the ENO dream as much as her own; the reaching out and giving the social benefit of opera, to the many young people who are unaware of its existence.

We climb the carpeted stairs and finally reach the top floor where there is some peace away from the waiting audience for a show below – and then we talk.

We talk about everything. Opera for the many; ENO and young people; the difficulty for young people to find an entry point; black people in a white world, even now; thank God for ENO Baylis; Porgy and Bess; La Boheme – where it first started – and so on. There is no stopping. Rachel is supremely eloquent, about to take up a degree offer at Cambridge, but this is no intellectual conversation per se. This is the use of words, the search for the right way to express Rachel’s passion for what she knows she loves.

My colleague Amelia Grace, the young 15 year old blogger from Hull, sits opposite – two young women on a similar trajectory, just a few years apart.

And so we talk about background. From a single parent family, living the normal life of so many in South East London, this is not the start you would expect to find the embryo of an opera singer. And it happens by accident. The coincidental remark by school teachers at 14yrs old – “hey you sing rather well!” – to the visit, instigated by Rachel’s mum – to see La Boheme, at Covent Garden – and the light-bulb moment where it all comes together; not just the fusion of art and life in music – but the moment where you know – you just know – that this is what you want to do.

And the coincidental, at that moment, availability of the last place at ENO Baylis for their Young Person entry programme – the mentoring by her older peers, and the sense of “family” that ENO is so good at, that have all slotted into place – and that have left a mark that is the foundation of where Rachel sees her opera process going.

I first saw Rachel by chance as well – at the recent ENO Gala Performance where she picked up The Lilian Baylis Award for Outstanding Potential. And yet this does not seem accidental.

I ask Rachel is there some sort of future structured plan; she is not sure, but I am sure there has to be; she says “I have made so many friends at ENO that I do hope I can continue to mix my degree course with my opera singing”.

In so many ways, Rachel is a woman for our times – at not even twenty years old, but with a strong sense of where women in general can achieve.

We leave the opera house and find the lounge bar in the St Martins Hotel just next door. We sip a Gin Tonic appropriately called a “Don Giovanni”.

“Yep, that touches the spot”, she says.

A woman for our times indeed.

A full version of the Rachel Oyawale Interview is soon online at; http://www.profomedia.uk

Lucia Di Lammermoor. A Story for Our Times


We review the English National Opera first night of this dramatic Donizetti masterpiece and say that – in the “MeToo” current world,  this is a production you have to see.

There are academic articles and opinions of the role of women and heroines and Prima Donnas in Opera, into which the creation of “Lucia” as an Opera, is designed to play a part.  This comment is not one of those. If you “get” that the fusion of music, and drama, is the key entry into deeper areas of  our soul – then the standout performance of Sarah Tynan as “Lucia” is one of the most phenomenal performances I have ever seen in all my years of watching opera.  This is a performance that you have to see, and you must say to your grandchildren that “you were there”.

How so?

Because Sarah’s interpretation rises above the protagonists around her, the wall of never decreasing orchestral and chorus support. It is a tour de force because right from the start, there was never any gentle introduction. There is angst even from the first scene. There was never going to be a happy ending.

This feeling of tragic helplessness, is enhanced by the oversized dimensions of the staging, with Lucia deliberately petite, vulnerable.

This “Lucia di Lamermoor” is drama supported by music. In many ways, the music never reaches the heights of melody of Mozart – or better insight into human nature of say Puccini, or Berlioz – and at times I just wished there was a melody that I could remember on the tube train back to my hotel. The music frequently pauses and moves into one aria after another, but it is not until the last Act does Lucia’s aria steal the show, so to say.

But this misses the point.

This production, particularly with Eleazar Rodriguez complementing Sarah with visible chemistry, is about drama and human emotion. It is riveting. At no point does the intensity ever stop, and at no time does audience appreciation ever waver. 

If you asked random people in the street, who would be their favourite composer – the name of Donizetti would hardly figure. And this is a pity. “Lucia” portrays humanity and the female situation, in a way that has hardly changed even now. I am going back to see this again – and so should you.

ENO; OPERA FOR ALL. It has always been thus…


We look with pleasure and amazement at the past 50 years of English National Opera  at their Gala Performance earlier this week.


I am fifteen years old. My cousin – who is at least five years older and a real Student – calls me. “Hey – I have two tickets for The Mastersingers. Wanna come?”


I don’t know what a Mastersinger is – and I say so. “It’s an Opera”, he says. I don’t know what one of those is either, but now is not the time for that discussion. “Sure” – I say: – “I’ll come straight from school”. The performance starts at 5pm apparently. It means catching the suburban bus, the local train into london, the tube to Islington. The place is somewhere called Sadlers Wells.


I hadn’t given much thought to this. Only when I got to the opera venue did I realise that The Mastersingers is some five hours long. It means hitching a ride back home through London. A local taxi picked me up somewhere in the street as I started walking. I’m sure there are laws about this sort of thing nowadays. I told my Mum the next morning I had a wonderful time.


I didn’t have a wonderful time. I had a change of life experience. I saw people singing and creating a life ambience – from nothing. I felt emotions I never knew existed. I discovered I could go to the pub on the corner and buy a shandy, no questions-asked. I could wear my jeans at somewhere posh. I could visualise a new musical dimension.


My cousin called me some 50 years later. “Did you get those tickets for the new production of The Mastersingers?.” This time, we are the ENO Coliseum, the grandeur, the sense of a journey as the orchestra starts to play – has not lost any of its ability to stir up excitement.


And that is the secret of ENO Opera for All. Once you walk through that door – there is no turning back.


The idea espoused by the current ENO Management that this is some new concept – is beautiful in its outreach, but it misses the point that ENO was always this. The only difference is not concept but one of scale.


The ENO Gala Performance brought together established Artists, but also showcased the upcoming Harewood Performers, who are every bit as exhilarating, – and finally focussing on the latest ENO prodigy who is still at School just finishing GCSEs. The future of ENO belongs to the new people, who are young enough to have completely new ideas and ambitions, better and newer communication skills.


Key at ENO is to be the Family. The Drop Off point at whatever stop you have reached on your opera journey. This is not a London based chic concept for SW1 – this is for pan -UK.


I sat next to two people at the Gala, who by total chance are the neighbours to my Music Professor when I was at Uni. We had never met before, but it was like a meeting of old friends, the strands of common ground, across different generations.


I took a moment of thought; if only my new neighbours in the Stalls had been there all those fifty years ago – perhaps they could have given me a ride home?
—————

A FANTASTIC BUZZ AT ENO’S LATEST “MARRIAGE OF FIGARO”!

We review the latest Figaro production at the London Coliseum

Mozart operas at ENO always have fantastic and clever beginnings. If the word “tangential “ applies to probably every ENO production and approach, then last night’s Figaro did not disappoint.

The imagery of a bumble bee trapped inside a harpsichord syncing into the rapid overture, sets the scene, and with a driving orchestra and some standout ensemble and solo performances, especially from Rhian Lois, making her role debut as Susanna, this was a performance that whilst taking just a little time to really get going – absolutely left its audience spellbound. I have always said that, for newcomers to opera, make sure you go to an ENO Mozart performance – then this production (and it was the second time I have seen it) – came alive. You got to go.

So why a difference? You could argue that Figaro of all operas, is the easiest to get along with. Nobody does a bad Figaro. And that misses the point, because yes indeed you can do a boring Figaro. The real trick is to engage with the audience, and this takes subtlety, exquisite direction, timing of humour and of music and dramatic art – all of which this performance has in spades. And it plays to mature opera-goers as well as newbies; my colleagues alongside me were humming along to the melodies, that everyone knows – but we all wanted to hear. The timing particularly of Lucy Crowe, debuting as the Countess, excelled in her “dove sono i bei momenti” aria.

What is there to love?

Sure, the visual complexity of the revolving stage creates the confusion and the rapid movement of players as the drama speeds along, compounds that – but the secret sauce of this production is the speed of the orchestra, that forces the pace.

This in turn forces the key protagonists, particularly in the close ensembles, to be rock solid in timing and harmony – and they belt out their parts. Each player has a point to make. nobody takes any prisoners in this performance but surprisingly, the performance is actually funny! I found myself LOL at the absurdity of it all, and how many times have I seen this opera?

Whilst every singer/performer absolutely does justice to their respective roles – the standout performance that is the glue that links the others – has to be Rhian Lois who has nothing to fear in commanding the big Coliseum stage. Rhian is a Harewood Artist and she reminds me of Mary Bevan in her role in Cosi Fan Tutte.

The ENO bars are closed by the time the performance finished, which is a pity. I took a glass of wine at the adjacent St Martins Hotel hidden gin bar. At times like this, you need to raise your glass.