Fate, destiny, fortune. How much can we blame the fates or rather how much responsibility should we accept for our own destinies.
Miss Fortune is Birtish composer Judith Weir’s first operatic composisition in the last 17 years. She had taken a hiatus to focus her energies on a host of other endeavours including orchestral composition and leading the BBC’s annual composer weekend at the Barbican in 2008. Now she returns to the stage at the Royal Opera House.
Miss Tina Fortune, Emma Bell, was first shown at the Bregenz Festival in Austria last summer. The storyline is Weir’s re-working of a Sicilian folktale. Lord and Lady Fortune lose their money in the stock-market crash – sound familiar? Miss Fortune refuses to continue a sheltered existence and so when her parents flee via helicopter, she chooses to stay behind and make her way in the world. We see her in a sewing sweatshop, at a fast food van, then ironing in a dry cleaners. Each endeavor ends in catastrophe due to the fact that Fate countertenor Andrew Watts, and his hip-hop crew are following close on her heels. Finally Tina visits this rapscallion Fate and begs him to leave her alone – she then goes on to win the lottery, find her parents, and fall in love with a handsome rich young man who loves his shirts to be well ironed.
The story line is unbearably weak. Does it say that a woman’s only two ways out of poverty and destitution lie in either winning the lottery or marrying a rich young man? Did a woman composer really think this scenario worthy for the operatic stage? There is no depth to this surface deep tale – Tina Fortune wanders aimlessly. There is no real suffering from what I can see, only a lack of any real character and a preference to let fate rule her life while she sits and moans about it. She ruins peoples lives, yet wanders along merrily in her own.
The grand stage settings designed by Tom Pye provide spectacle, but little else. Weir’s libretto is tedious in its simplicity and lack of engagement with the full capacity of the English language. The music was charming, but unmemorable. Paul Daniel and the orchestra carried on honorably and gave the torpid notes gusto.
Fate, played by Andrew Watts, I must say, is the downfall of the show. His dancing attempts are actually comical. The lightning colored pajamas that look like a sleeping costume purchased from Primark were ineffectual. His hip-hop break dancing crew was poorly thought through. It could have been a great addition, but leaving them in street clothes and failing to integrate them into the operatic world in any real way kept them in the periphery as a sideshow.
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
Tosca is one of Puccini’s great masterpieces and the Royal Opera House’s revival of Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production brings the drama to glorious life.
The setting is the eve of the Battle of Marengo as Napoleon’s army caused disarray throughout the city states of Italy. It is a moving tale of love, personal freedom, ideals, betrayal, and redemption. Tosca (Martina Serafin), Rome’s most beautiful opera singer is in love with a painter, Cavaradossi (Marcello Giordani). Act I, placed in a cramped, split-level chapel with the altar above and the crypt below feels too small for this much drama. However, despite the limited space, the soprano and tenor movingly portray the tensions and placations of two young lovers. But yet, the waters are not calm as political betrayal is underfoot in the form of a dissident escaping from prison and begging Cavaradossi to aid hm in his escape.
Enter the villain. What a vile, putrid individual is the Baron Scarpia (Finnish baritone Juha Uusitalo making his Covent Garden debut). He even purports to prefer to have his women on the run from him rather than swooning in romance for him. It is the fear and hatred that wets his lustful appetite. Charming. Uusitalo was so effectively repugnant in his portrayal of this loathing man that he makes the viewer’s skin crawl. While chasing down the escaped political prisoner, he arrests Cavaradossi in the two-fold aim of finding the prisoner and sating his lust for Tosca. To save her lover, Tosca must make the ultimate sacrifice to the hated Baron Scarpia. Serafin’s portrayal of this woman’s inner turmoil was elegant and emotive, her warm voice growing as the anguish in heart at the thought of being betrayed by her beloved god crescendos.
Despite the current cast being a warm up for the power cast to come, their performances were moving. The vocal performances where unusually matched in theatrical capability by this production’s stars. Serafin’s shining star of Tosca evoked great passion, sympathy, and admiration. She gave an accomplished performance. The only critique was that at times she felt encumbered by her overly elaborate costumes. Giordani’s Cavaradossi was a well-rounded, traditionally Italian tenor. Uusitalo’s Scarpia while menacing and imposing in stature, did eventually feel a bit repetitive and caged in by his staging.
Antonio Pappano’s conducting draws Puccini’s precision and passion from this talented orchestra. The elaborate, gothic set designs of Paul Brown are as powerful and dramatic as the plot. The monumental statue, moody settings, and in particular leaving Scarpia’s study nearly bookless were all well-chosen for dramatic effect. I left the production pondering what we are expected to give sacrifice love and how hope, in the face of great adversity, can make believers of us all.
Love, betrayal, jealousy, poison and murder – dramatic, operatic elements drive the plot in Rimsky-Korsakov’s beautifully composed Tsar’s Bride. The work dating from 1899 is a fixed opera in the Russian repertoire, however it is rarely performed here in the UK. In fact this is its premiere at the Royal Opera House. Another first for this performance is British director Paul Curran at the ROH.
It was a delight to hear an operatic work by Rimsky-Korsakov who is much better known for his composition of classical music rather than opera. The work, upon first hearing, is enchanting. In fact, he has composed 15 operas in total.
Kevin Knight’s lavish designs are exquisite – it is as if modern, new-money rich Russia has been transported to Covent Garden. From a pool terrace to the interior of the palace – the detail and realistic portrayal of the sets are one of the true strengths of this production. I was captivated.
The four-act tragedy, based on factual occurrences surrounding the death of Ivan Vasilvevich IV’s wife, follows a young Marfa, in love with her childhood love Likov. The Tsar’s choosing her, out of a line-up of 2,000 women, to be his wife results in disaster. The ever popular Marfa is also lusted after by the nasty Gryaznoy. The plot follows a slow, but steady growing tension that leads up to the final scene of Marfa losing her sanity. The performances, a number of the singers authentically Russian, were both tender and strong in equal measures.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s fold-inspired orchestral score soars dramatically through the opera house under the expert direction of Mark Elder. The harp is well utilized in an ornate, decorative fashion. The softness of the notes was at sharp contrast with the anguish on stage. The atmosphere evoked was decisive and effective.
The parallels between the 16th century oppressive rule of the Tsar Ivan the Terrible and today’s Russian mafia are clearly drawn. It very much feels a police state as the Tsar is sends his ruffian body guards dressed in all black and designer sunglasses to handle all affairs. There is an element of vulgarity in the nouveau riche extravagance displayed in the outer circle of the social climbing court, today’s oligarchs. This production makes direct comments about todays chauvinistic, wealth obsessed aspect of Russian society. It is also a clear critique on actions being carried out in the name of the Tsar, in the name of the state, for the people.
For more information, visit www.roh.org.uk
Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, is a complex, politically entwined affair. Originally set during the French Revolution, The Royal Opera House’s production seemed to lack roots as well as a specific place and location. The stage, juxtaposed with a prison on one side and homes and offices on the other never really specified the setting. Ample ammunition in the form of guns never realises a purpose.
Rather than the actions, one feels more bogged down by the bureaucracy of the details. The singers staging felt forced, although the vocal performances were outstanding. Nina Stemme as Leonore nearly had me convinced that she was a man. Elizabeth Watts held the stage well and effectively dominated the mostly male cast. The stage only really came alive for me when the prisoners were briefly released, but even this scene in its staging felt lethargic and appeared as if it was only a mere afterthought.
Real drama emerges once the setting moves below into the deep dark dungeons where Endrik Wottrich’s Florestan is being held as a political prisoner. Yet still here the staging and political furor feels forced.
The interpretation of this performance brought apposite questions to my mind. Why choose this nameless time and town? Why not bring to the forefront today’s multitude of material regarding mistreated prisoners, which would make it all the more pertinent with the latest Guantanamo leaks, or even move it to China to echo Ai Wei Wei’s current plight? Such a passionate play requires a bit more spark before it may catch flame.
The most exciting production for me would have to be Terry Gilliam’s first foray in to opera with his imagining of The Damnation of Faust, originally composed by Hector Berlioz. Those that are familiar with Gilliam, made famous for animating Monty Python and directing such visually opulent films as, Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, will know he has been one of the most imaginative and visually stimulating directors working in film for the past 20 years. The ENO will be hosting what can only be described as a must-see event, and something I strongly recommend, even for those not normally attracted by opera. It runs from 6 May to 7 June.
The Operatic pantheon, The Royal Opera House has something that caught my eye and involves yet another of the Pythons. This time, whetting his Opera appetite, is Terry Jones; and he has written a libretto as part of the up-coming Operashots season in a piece entitled The Doctor’s Tale. 8 April- 16 April
Aside from the ENO and the Royal Opera House, there has not been a huge representative force for Opera on the fringe for reasons that I can only imagine to be related to the scale and budget usually attributed to this form. I can now bring you the great news that has now changed, and the famous Kings Head Theatre who have now coined themselves, London’s Little Opera House, have put together an exciting season that ranges from a brand new production and adaptations of classics which include Madame Butterfly(or Bangkok Butterfly) and The Barber of Seville(or Salisbury).
And finally, if you are thinking about a cultural weekend away from the big smoke, or perhaps a romantic evening where you can enjoy a brand new opera within a beautiful, serene Essex- based country house (and no, that is not an oxymoron), then please check out the short season occurring at Stanley Hall which promises to be a truly unique experience.