After opening with Ben Frost’s critically mauled adaptation of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, the ROH brings its 2013/14 season of operas in the Linbury Theatre to a triumphant close. Luca Francesconi’s Quartett is a triumph, an intricately crafted work which would reward multiple viewings and listenings. It is certainly a work which should become a staple of the contemporary opera circuit, and suggests that the composer’s full-scale opera for the company in 2020 will be unmissable.
Revolution, faith, and martyrdom: Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites tackles some weighty themes. The Royal Opera House certainly did them justice in a powerful production that balanced intensity and turmoil with moments of warmth and humour. Last seen at Covent Garden in 1983, the opera is unusual in many ways: much of the vocal writing is recitative, occasionally breaking into arioso; the nearest thing to a love duet is the dialogue between Blanche and her brother; and the cast is unusually large. Musically and dramatically top-notch, this production is simply exceptional.
The most significant thing about this double bill of contemporary operas was that it happened at all. With companies like the English Opera Group, Kent Opera and Almeida Opera having disappeared, the opportunities for emerging composers to kick-start their operatic careers were few and far between. A new collaboration between Aldeburgh Music, Opera North and The Royal Opera will fill this gap, commissioning three sets of chamber operas over three years. With top-notch resources at their disposal, this framework is invaluable for the development of young composers and offers them vital experience. These two operas were the first products of this new initiative, displaying mixed results: while Francisco Coll produced a taut, memorable work, Elspeth Brooke’s venture proved less successful.
In the programme for Bizet’s Carmen, Kasper Holten (Director of Opera at ROH) remarks that the title character is a mysterious figure, and that “we can never really know who she is”. This seemed ironic: even at the end of the opera, I was not left with a clear idea of which aspects of this complex character (or, indeed, of Don José) this production wanted to bring out.
Richard Strauss’s fourth opera opened the very first season at the Royal Opera House in 1910, and has returned several times since. The present run proves that Elektra has lost none of its sensationalism, with an exhilarating interpretation led by Andris Nelsons and an eye-boggling dramatic vision from Charles Edwards. Although boasting excellent orchestral and vocal performances, I couldn’t help but feel that this Elektra was somewhat let down by the cluttered production.
A psychological study of the title character culminating in bloody murders and a dance of death, Elektra is undeniably disturbing. However, Charles Edward’s production (currently on its third outing at the Royal Opera House) strayed into the distasteful. A gruesome torture took place within the first fifteen minutes (leaving the bloodied fifth maid crawling about stage for the rest of the opera) and the dramatic denouement saw stricken maids dragging their way across the corpse-littered stage, one even hanging herself. A touch more restraint would have been appreciated: I felt that the emphasis upon gore detracted from the subtler psychological implications. Thankfully, the familial relations were presented more sensitively: the brother-sister relationship between Elektra and Orest was gently probed, and the complexities of the relationship between Elektra and Klytämnestra explored.
Richard Strauss’s fourth opera is classical myth refracted through a modernist lens, and the production certainly captured this collision. Elektra’s humble black tunic rubbed shoulders with Klytämnestra’s decadent floor-length dress and a Greek-inspired frieze adorned the wall facing. There were some nice touches, particularly the monumentalision of Agamemnon (represented by a bust) and Elektra’s desk (drawing attention to her passivity). Overall, though, it seemed that there were almost too many ideas and I couldn’t help feel that Edwards’ conception needed to be slightly more focused.
Things were looking brighter on the musical side. Andris Nelsons and the ROH Orchestra were on fine form, lending a sense of urgency to the unfolding drama. The ensemble was tight, bringing off devastating eruptions and delicate passages with élan. For me, Christine Goerke lacked a little je ne sais quoi as Elektra. Although she displayed impressive stamina, she was overpowered by the orchestra at some points and upper range was often short of fullness. Elektra’s spotlight was stolen by the rest of the family: most notably Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis. Simultaneously honeyed and intense, her top notes had a glorious amount of bloom. Meanwhile, Iain Paterson’s Orest was vigorous and tender, and Michaela Schuster’s highly strung Klytämnestra was powerful yet racked with doubt.
Ultimately, I was left frustrated that the dramatic aspect fell short of the musical. An overload of information on stage was distracting, failing to convey the dramatic arc of the opera with clarity and directness. From a vocal and orchestral point of view, the evening was satisfying indeed; I just left wishing that Edwards’ production had left such an impression.
In the week leading up to the ROH premiere of Written on Skin, writer and broadcaster Tom Service referred to Written on Skin as a watershed for British opera. Perhaps the last composer to garner a similar label was Britten, which just goes to show the weight of expectation placed upon composer George Benjamin. His first full-length opera, Written on Skin received standing ovations upon its premiere in the Aix-en-Provence festival in July 2012. The opera appears to be cementing its place in the modern repertory quickly: it has already received performances by the Netherlands Opera and the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, with future outings including Vienna, Florence and Paris.
Martin Crimp’s libretto is based upon the tale of Guillem de Cabestaing. Legend has it that the Occitan troubadour fell in love with the Lord of Rossillon’s wife. Caibestang was killed, and his heart fed to his lover, who killed herself upon learning of what she had eaten. Crimp interlaces the medieval action with commentary by a Chorus of Angels, their role reminiscent of a Greek Chorus.
Director Katie Mitchell chose to separate the stage between the medieval and the modern. She placed the angels in a room reminiscent of a laboratory, highlighting the references to twenty-first century life in Crimp’s text and giving the impression that they are simultaneously uncovering and projecting the past for our benefit. Indeed, the three characters in the love triangle were pushed and pulled about the scene like puppets. Perhaps most effective was Mitchell’s use of slow-motion movement to highlight this temporal disjunction: the Angel Archivists moved about their workplace at a different pace to the main action below them. This technique was used to great effect at the end of the opera, as Christopher Purves’ Protector chased Barbara Hannigan’s Agnès up the staircase.
The principal theme of the opera is arguably female liberation. ‘The woman’ gradually transformed from the docile possession of her husband, the wealthy and powerful Protector, to a named individual who takes her actions into her own hands. Significantly, Agnès is the only character in the love triangle to gain an identity other than an abstract category (she is originally referred to as ‘the woman’). The catalyst for this change is the Boy (counter-tenor Bejun Mehta). It is through his book of illuminations that the intelligent Agnès becomes conscious of her image, realising that she is able to shape her identity. This realisation triggers a spiral of events which culminate in Agnès’ suicide. But this action is her choice: the ultimate sign of her liberation.
George Benjamin’s score is particularly striking in its economy. Benjamin manages to imbue even the most thinly-scored, static passages with a simmering tension, making his deployment of the full orchestra even more devastating. A notable addition to his orchestral palette is the glass harmonica, used to create a trance-like sense of timelessness. The recurring horn cluster comes to signify an impending doom, this idea being confirmed at the start of the third (and final) part. This sense of accumulating dread is intensified through Benjamin’s use of extreme register. But there is no harsh juxtaposition of gravelly bass notes against vertiginous high ones: the process is a kaleidoscopic transformation of orchestral colour, deftly balanced by Benjamin’s baton.
The other notable feature of Benjamin’s music is its expressivity. At points of extreme emotion, the boundary between singing and speech becomes permeable: prime examples being Agnès’ exclamation as the Protector reveals what she is eating, and the Protector’s sobs as he reads out the Boy’s inscription in the book.
All three lead characters gave exceptional performances. Barbara Hannigan lent Agnès a curiosity and recklessness which fitted her character’s development. The cruel facade of Christopher Purves’ Protector crumbles as he loses his grasp over Agnès, replaced by an enraged desperation. Bejun Mehta portrayed the Boy as a mysterious and contradictory character, able to switch between passionate lover and apparent innocent.
Written on Skin exceeded my high expectations. The beautiful simplicity of Crimp’s libretto and Benjamin’s instinct for theatre have produced an utterly outstanding piece of opera. With an impressive staging by Katie Mitchell and exquisite performances, Written on Skin is simply unmissable, and I cannot wait to see it again. Written on Skin is on at the Royal Opera House until 22nd March 2013.
Last night was my first experience of a live-streamed opera. As I settled down into my local Odeon to watch Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, I certainly appreciated the ROH bringing the opera to me.
The ROH cinema experience comes with a number of special features, including interviews with the principal characters and Kasper Holten (the opera’s director). Upon entry into the cinema, audience members were even supplied with programme notes. The main draw of the live stream had to be the close-up camera shots, transporting the audience into the middle of the action. As impressive as the camera-work was, I found myself missing the physical element. The thrill of an opera comes from watching the action unfold in person, and it was this connection I lacked. The glossy presentation of the cinematic broadcast lacked the edge-of-the-seat feel of a performance in person.
And as for the performance itself? Holten’s debut ROH production had young dancers silently enacting the youthful exploits of Tatyana and Onegin, while their older selves commented ruefully. Although the principle was good, it was rather inconsistent. The young Tatyana (played by the wonderful Vigdis Hentze Olsen) interacted brilliantly with Krassimira Stoyanova, but the contact between the Onegins seemed more stilted. The deployment of the old/young characters seemed rather erratic, and became increasingly irritating throughout the evening.
Simon Keenlyside’s Onegin carried plenty of swagger, although his portrayal of grief and anguish seemed slightly one-dimensional. Pavol Breslik’s Lensky certainly gave him a run for his money, switching seamlessly from doe-eyed to grief-stricken. Scene 5 was the emotional crux of the performance, eclipsing even the final scene. The letter scene was the highlight for young and old Tatyana, although I felt that Stoyanova would have benefited by showing some of the vulnerability of her younger self.
The singers were well supported by Robin Ticciati’s vivacious conducting (even if the ROH strings were rather approximate at points). Holten’s use of the chorus was particularly effective, acting as both background commentary and a more threatening presence. Katrina Lindsay’s costumes particularly shone, contrasting the formless black of the chorus with the jewel-like tones of Tatyana and Onegin.
I will undoubtedly take advantage of cinematic live-streaming again in future. With the special features and the impressive camera-work, there is much to recommend it. It is an experience which is complementary to that of live opera. As much as I enjoyed last night, it cannot replace the buzz of a trip to the opera house.