Theatre/Opera/Dance reviews and news

Archive for July, 2011

Tosca, Teatro Real review

Tosca returns to Madrid’s Teatro Real to conclude the theatre’s season in the form of director Nuria Espert’s 2004 production.

Tosca is one of Puccini’s three grand masterpieces along Madame Butterfly and La Boheme. Puccini’s crowd-pleasing operas have been labeled as too conventional by some, however I find the tonal orchestration and soaring melodies to be emotive and expressively beautiful.

The story of Tosca revolves around the performer’s desperate love for a revolutionary artist.  The opera begins within the setting of the church Santa Maria della Valle where her lover, Cavaradossi, is painting a portrait. Tosca is jealous of the woman painted in her lover’s portrait. Unlike this year’s ROH production in London, this set is open and soaring. There is a large cast wandering in and out of the cathedral throughout the first act. Candles are slowly lit; nuns pass through on their way to prayer, laymen on their way to confession. It is a very effective scene before us, which is set. The beautiful chorus in Act I is vibrant and makes the air buzz with devotional harmony.

Act II presents Baritone Lado Ataneli’s Scarpia as a bishop rather than a police chief. He performs well using all the delicate cunning and deceitful power that this villain requires. Tosca’s conclusion of the murder by splashing wine an image of Christ on the crucifix was potent and appropriate. Soprano Violeta Urmana convincingly conveys her dismay and disenchantment with the religion that before that harrowing moment had been her lifelong companion and guide. She plays a strong woman who one could easily believe would attack before being attacked. The entire scene is extremely well staged and makes good use of the vast space that is Scarpia’s private room.

Cavaradossi’s “mock” execution by firing squad is brilliantly set against a stone wall, almost as if his blood were to become the paint of a work of art. Marco Berti brings life to this somewhat one-dimensional character and it takes a great personality to stand up on stage next to such a bold Soprano as Urmana. As the prisoners march in at the opening, children attempt to give the men water. A touching moment before the heart rendering execution and suicide.

I was surprised to hear booing among the audience during the final applause. But this is evidence of a much more open and conversive critique of the opera that occurs in Italy and Spain. Just imagine an American audience, rather than jumping to their feet tat the first sign of a falling curtain, instead remaining seated and vocally criticizing. Never!

Having attended both Messiaen’s St Francis of Assisi and Puccini’s Tosca in one week provided a well-rounded viewpoint of Mortier’s vast capabilities with this opera company. He has amply demonstrated that Teatro Real can both astound with a fresh contemporary piece as well as hit the mark with the crowd-pleasing classics.

Until July 28

www.teatro-real.com

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The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets @ The Holt Festival, Norfolk

I met this production with a degree of innocence and a sense of stepping into the unknown. I conducted a modicum of research on 1927 and was met with a plethora of positive reviews concerning their first, award winning production, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

This is only their second production since the company’s inception in ’05 and their brand of theatre has been met with comparisons to the early work of Tim Burton; entwining cabaret, silent movie, animation and music hall in to a maelstrom of mordant, sardonic performance. This production far exceeded my expectations, and more than lived up to its comparisons to Burton’s work.

The play is a beautifully crafted tale set within a dark dystopia and focuses on its melancholic, malcontent inhabitants in an environment characterised by misery, disease and crime. The actors embody a series of characters, aided by animation that brings this dark desolate world to the stage. The performers flawlessly interact with the animation to hilarious effect and this dark fairytale left me desiring more.

The tale focuses on the rebellious Zelda, the daughter of a junk shop owner who is surprised by her daughter’s attitude because when she was her age, she was only concerned with ‘contracting herpes’. Zelda wants what the seemingly more privileged have and instigates a rebellion, leading an army of children to take over the more affluent parts of town. This leads to a reaction from the mayor of the town to take direct action against the so-called riff-raff by insidiously luring them with sweets that ultimately pacify their ebullient behaviour, thus depriving them of their innocence and condoning them to a life of misery, characterised by their surroundings.

It is the central character of the Caretaker, who I feel stole the performance. Visually, he reminded me of Edward Scissorhands (minus the scissors); pale faced, forlorn and desperate to escape the ominous surroundings but destined to remain in place which ultimately defined him. His delivery was note perfect and he brought laughter every time he was on stage.

If you have the opportunity to see this wonderful performance then make every effort to obtain a ticket. My sole quibble was the performance was not long enough!


Saint François d’Assise review

Despite the sweltering summer heat in Madrid, a prestigious crowd gathered to see the opening performance of Massiaen’s Saint François d’Assise. It has been touted as one of the most significant cultural events of 2011. Queen Sofia of Spain, the Minister of Culture, the city’s archbishop, the mayor, along with a crowd of others on the list of Madrid’s “who’s who”.  This eminent audience who flocked to the edge of the city at the theatre’s summer residence at the Madrid Arena gave the evening an immediate sense of gravitas.

This sporting arena does not suit opera. The silver bleachers, despite being covered in black padding, are still bleachers. It felt strange to have ¾ of the audience (what would normally be in the round) empty. And table cloths were placed over the areas where normally beer and other spectator sport food is served.

Massiaen’s only opera premiered in Paris 1983, so is relatively contemporary in operatic terms. The gargantuan work, running nearly 6 hours in total, is a well-known favourite of Teatro Real’s Belgian Artistic Director, Gerard Mortier.  The celebrated and renowned director has included the piece in every programme for which he has been in charge.

This production was originally meant to be presented at New York City’s Armory during which time Mr. Mortier was meant to be the director of the new York Opera, however after a lack of fundraising and therefore funds, he chose to settle his artistic perch in Madrid instead. As a director, Mortier takes risks and pushes the boundaries. He is a gift to the operatic stages of our time.

This oratorio based opera consists of 8 scenes  from the saint’s life.  The piece is enormous: 6 hours in length, an orchestra of over 120 musicians, an enormous percussion section by operatic standards, and a chorus of 150 voices. It is truly an opera of operatic proportions.  While appreciating the skill and musicianship of the composition, the work is repetitive and at times obvious. In particular, the repeated thee of the same melody playing before a character sings becomes rather dull. Messiaen also lacks the dramatic undertone which so often spurs opera along their arching plot.

One cannot help but ponder how a crafty and well-thought cut could enhance this lengthy and at times tiresome experience. Unless of course the aim as an operatic “Einstein on the Beach”?

The stage was mostly encumbered by Emilia and Ilya Kabakov’s 22 tonne dome decorated with stained glass and tilted onto its side. It is a gargantuan, imposing piece. Although it fills this arena space, it feels static and at times irrelevant.  The shifting colours felt arbitrary. The performers were confined to a narrow metal walkway that surrounded  the musicians.

The orchestra was led by the Messiaen-specialist Sylvain Cambreling. This is an extremely complicated score and, as many contemporary pieces are, difficult to follow. Cambreling led with clear direction and the necessary confidence to convincingly perform such a challenging piece. The SWR Baden-Baden – Freiburg Symphony Orchestra did well to fill the huge arena and to accommodate such an imposing percussion section.

Marco-Buhrmester gave a magnificent performance as Saint Francois, however the length of the piece would be trying for any performer. It lacked focus. Camilla Tilling, the only female in this cast, was an angel with an ethereal voice who emerged from the cast iron bleachers. Her voice pierced the space and kept the audience mesmerized.

However the plot felt thin. To keep an audience’s rapt attention for such an extended time. Messiaen failed to provide enough texture and richness to this piece in order to warrant the required devotion.  And it showed. Yet despite the audience noticeably diminishing in size after each intermission, the crowd that remained upon the final curtain call was sizeable and enthusiastic.


Madama Butterfly review

Alas, I did not manage to get a ticket to Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production of Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House however I did take advantage of attending the free live screening in Trafalgar Square.

The setting was beautiful as the weather remained uncharacteristically dry and the sun trickled down, igniting Nelson’s column. The turnout was unprecedented as there was a reported 8000 people in attendance with a further 2000 sitting on the periphery, trying to catch a glimpse of this wonderful production of Puccinni’s classic. People were even turned away which has provoked a reaction that perhaps a new venue should be sought flor next year’s event. Picnics and bottles of wine were ubiquitous as the entire audience remained meditative and transfixed as we all witnessed the tragedy that befell the titular protagonist; and I am pleased to say, I did not hear one mobile phone ring.

Once the performance commenced, I was initially struck at the simplicity of the set with the creative team deciding to maximise the space; the only significant detail being the shoji screens placed at the back of the stage, which allowed for silhouettes to be cast upon them- the detail of which is cleverly utilised, particularly when Pinkerton returns from his 3 year hiatus.

The story revolves around BF Pinkerton, an American soldier stationed in Nagasaki, who decides he wants to marry a geisha. He is brash, arrogant, emotionally shallow and ultimately ignorant to Japanese culture, much to the dismay of his friend, Sharpless, who warns him of the differing attitudes prominent within Japanese culture. Pinkerton rejects this caveat and marries Cio-cio-san (Butterfly) but doesn’t take the vow seriously, confused between infatuation and love. He also feels that his future lies with an American woman. Butterfly however does take the marriage seriously, renouncing her religion and converting to Christianity which precipitates the abandonment of her family as a consequence. Pinkerton returns to America, leaving Butterfly to raise their son. After 3 years, Pinkerton returns with his American wife and this is met with great tragedy.

Madam Butterfly was played by Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais, remarkably a last minute stand-in. It was truly an astonishing performance by Opolais, communicating her obstinate love and later the heart-breaking anguish after her greatest fear becomes a reality. The supporting cast were excellent but it was Opolais who truly stole the show, dominating the stage with a delicacy and unbridled passion.

The opportunity to see this remarkable piece of art for free, and to share it with 8000 people, is an experience that will remain with me forever and makes me appreciative of those endeavouring to spread our incandescent cultural milieu further afield.

Madam Butterfly runs for two more performances: 8-15 July

Cinderella will be shown in Trafalgar Square on 13 July


Galà di Danza review

Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino’s summer season is well under way.  Every summer the Florence based classical music organisation presents performances in the square outside of Palazzo Vechio, Piazza della Signoria.

This “Gala of Dance” comprised of a variety of musical pieces performed by the company’s ballet dancers. From Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Nights Dream to contemporary works composed by Yo Yo Ma, there was a great variety of pieces performed. Unfortunately the choreography was substandard and repetitive. Why have dancers laying on the floor when 95% of the audience would be unable to see them. The contemporary dance choreography to Yo Yo Ma’s music was frankly boring. It entailed a dancer who seemed like she had never touched a sword before in her life trying to convince the audience that she was in fact so capable with the weapon that she could easily dance with it in hand. The addition of an east Asian inspired robe did nothing to aid the referencing.  A group rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake bordered on the edge of a school recital-like performance with all of the dancers in white lycra body suits dancing over and under one another’s linked arms.

It would also have been preferable to have the accompanying music performed live, perhaps by Florence’s youth orchestra, rather than recorded music. It would have added to the outdoor atmosphere and increased the vibrancy of the performance.

Despite the criticisms, it is wonderful to offer art to the the general populace for free. A great endeavour in fact. The audience swelled as the time passed, locals and tourists alike. A better setting than than in front of Florence’s ancient buildings and iconic statues I would struggle to imagine. The most enchanting part of the evening was seeing the dancers’ silhouettes outlined over the form of David and on the wall of the symbolic Comune di Firenze building.

www.maggiofiorentino.com