Archive for the ‘Opera’ Category

Review – Anna Nicole – Royal Opera House

February 24, 2011

The Jerry Springer: The Opera people take on the story of Anna Nicole Smith, “former stripper, Playmate of the year, single mom.” I mean, what really could go wrong? It’s not like I don’t already hate pretty much every modern opera I’ve ever seen and that this wasn’t just a blatant attempt to sex up the Royal Opera House with some more of that moronic celebrity-worshiping mentality that’s currently stinking up the West End.

Except, well, I loved it. It was really fun and lighthearted and blasted the cobwebs right out of the dusty old hall. From the excessive swearing on stage to the heaving, much-younger crowd in the seats, everything was new and different and exciting. The audience laughed! Frequently! There was a chorus and what they said was interesting! And funny!

Okay, well, I have to be honest and admit … the music. It was still kind of the same old boring modern opera stuff that just doesn’t ever grab you (well, me) or send you home with a spring in your step and a tune in your heart. Mark-Anthony Turnage did not give us a “Jerry Springer Moment” (fair enough as it was lyricist Richard Thomas who composed the music for that show) but I wish he could have done a little more to put some musical into the music.

Fortunately, the lyrics, story, and staging loomed so high – spilling all the way up the curtain (hot pink!) and to the image of Anna Nicole floating over the orchestra pit – that it was hard to get a head of steam about the notes coming out of people’s mouth (and the orchestra pit). Instead, we were sucked into a comi-tragic tale of a girl with not much going for her who tries to make a life in which she is, and means, something. It could have all been very ugly – wanting fame without accomplishment isn’t very admirable – but she’s built up very sympathetically, with an evil lawyer (Gerald Finley) taking most of the blame for the camera-chasing while Anna Nicole (Eva-Maria Westbroek) is supposedly just trying to get herself and her son out of poverty.

Yet despite the comic-book level of jokiness and crass humor, I felt we were shown very plainly just what a real soul-crushing situation being poor is. Stepfathers who try to grab you, men who get angry when you get pregnant, relatives with dead end lives who only show interest if you have money … a lifetime of working at WalMart, smiling at people who sneer at you and hoping you never get sick because you don’t have health insurance and can’t afford to go to the hospital. Really, if this is what you have to look forward to, why not be a stripper? I mean, hey, in this country, aren’t they trying to push it on poor unemployed women anyway? (How long before they just tell all poor women to get jobs as prostitutes?) Stripping is ethical and if you want to be a success, gigantic boobs is the way to go. And when you think about it, Anna Nicole didn’t lie or cheat or backstab or hurt other people to get out of poverty … she just took what little she had and tried to make the most of it.

Meanwhile, we’re treated to a series of songs that illustrate and frequently amuse – songs about not having boobs, songs about the benefits of getting big boobs, songs about names for boobs (sense a theme?), songs about drugs, songs about what it takes to get by when your primary asset is your body – but underlying it all is this big fat sense of tragedy. Anna Nicole gets attention and money, but she’s still having to sell herself for it. She has pretty shoes and a big house, but her hold on these material objects is as tenuous as the grasp on life of her octogenarian husband (Alan Oke, in fine voice and looking good in gold lame’). We can all rejoice that she’s managed to get that wedding ring on her finger – and the marriage is the highlight of the brilliant act one – but what is left for her?

The answer is: getting old, getting fat, losing her money but trying to hang on. Act two becomes very sad, focused on her attempts to grasp or find more dough while she’s not really able to exert real control over her life. She’s pathetic and insipid on TV, but her lawyer just keeps encouraging her to go out and make a fool of herself, while dropping clues to journos about when they can find her getting out of a car and forgetting to wear panties. Wow, this is the big time? It seemed so fitting that we’d see this sad woman using the toilet on stage (like the pole dancers an opera house first for me). She was cheap, she was cheapened, she was disgusting. And yet all the way through … she stayed sympathetic. I was a little worn out at the end – even the giant nodding doggies couldn’t make her decline fun – but overall this is one of the most exciting operas I’ve ever attended, and I’m thrilled that I had the chance to see it.

(This review is for the performance that took place on Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011. There are three more performances with the final on Friday March 4th. It’s sold out, but don’t worry; regular work with the F5 button will likely produce a seat.)

Guest Review – The Duchess of Malfi – Punchdrunk and E.N.O. on location

July 18, 2010

(There is now also a mini-review of this show done by this blog’s usual author available here if you would like to read it.)

Promenade is all the rage, remember? And when it comes to promenade performances, Punchdrunk productions are acknowledged masters in creating sprawling, immersive environments around a story, and so the announcement that they would be collaborating with English National Opera on a new production of The Duchess of Malfi this year, it was clearly going to be event of the season. Demand was so high the day tickets went on sale that the E.N.O. ticketing system crashed, and the entire run sold out in short order.

So how is it? Well, keep an eye on the classifieds: you may see more tickets going cheaper as the run goes on.

It’s the standard Punchdrunk rules: audience members are given white masks to wear and are free reign to wander a bulding full of meticulously created environments which give various clues and information about the story, and often later become locations for specific scenes. Crew and ushers wear black masks, and performers are the only ones who have faces exposed.

This time the space fills a new-but-empty multifloor office building in the wilds of far East London. As usual, there is a forensic level of detail: notes left on tables and in drawers connect in fascinating ways; labels on medicine bottles are for characters we meet later; every love letter of hundreds crumpled in a corner is a genuine text, addressed to a different person. Where they’ve taken the time to fill the space, it is done with mind-bending completeness.

The problem, though, is that they’ve not been able to take the time everywhere. The building feels simply too big to fill. Empty space is used well in a few places, creating a grand sense of scale in a forest of trees, but elsewhere we find long stretches of nothing, which end up being reminders that we are just in an empty office building – particularly when in transit between floors, either via the internal stairwells or the elevators, both located in hallways which have been almost completely ignored.

As with most opera, it’s worth having an idea of the story beforehand, or at least the big idea. I think that’s key for any Punchdrunk production, actually, as it really helps to be able to put things back into context when you see them out of order. It adds to the experience. E.N.O. provides a synopsis on the website, but reading it after the fact I think huge sections of it are backstory which we never get in the performance. And there’s stuff which never quite made sense: There was something about lycanthopy going on in many of the notes and files found in the set dressings, which I saw incorporated visually in the performance but never really figured out. Librettist Ian Burton has distilled the entirety of the story into about 40 minutes total, presumably so they can run through it all twice before the finale. This is similar to the format Punchdrunk used for Masque of the Red Death, which gives the audience more opportunity to see more of the show. But as usual, things happen simultaneously, things appear and disappear (was that bar there the entire time? I’m sure I’d walked past that door before…) and there’s really no way you can or will see all of it, and it doesn’t actually matter.

Or does it?

The biggest question I had in thinking about this piece, before and after seeing it, is whether opera can work in a non-linear environment.

Now, I found this musically challenging in the first place. The production features a new score by Torsten Rasch which is largely in a twiddly, post-modern style I find unmusical and grating anyway – most notably the seemingly random octave leaps up and down, within a single sung line. Why? I admit I’ve not studied atonal composition theory so I’ve never really understood this particular school of music, but you know what? I don’t think I should need graduate-level academic knowledge to enjoy something created for public performance. And, while our singers were quite good (most memorably Claudia Huckle as the duchess and Andrew Watts as the falsetto Cardinal brother Ferdinand), more often than not the vocal fireworks meant I lost words and frequently entire lines of text, and I ultimately found myself frustrated, with very little verbal information about the story I was supposed to be following. There’s a reason E.N.O. still runs supertitles at the Coliseum even though their productions are sung in English.

That said, I also think there’s an inherent conflict in the structural requirements of an opera – or at least of this score – and the free-form, choose-your-own-adventure format of the production. A Punchdrunk narrative provides few clear stopping and starting points but instead creates a sense that something is always happening, and as a viewer you step in and out of the continuum as you move through the world they create. If you’re ever feeling out of the loop at a Punchdrunk show, the thing to do is just follow a character and interesting things will happen along the way. Music, by contrast, fundamentally relies on developing and exploring themes in a time-based, linear fashion. Following the tuba player between orchestral movements just doesn’t have the same effect. Watching the musicians set up and play kills the whole feeling that something interesting is happening elsewhere. It’s clearly where we’re meant to be at that moment in time, and that is in direct conflict with the best part of a Punchdrunk experience.

After roaming around for a couple hours, I decided I was done. I knew they’d be running things twice, and as I stumbled into a scene I’d already seen, I decided to head for the door. I didn’t like the music, I wasn’t getting much story, random moments of “neat” were few and far between, and combined with a long journey back to civilization it just wasn’t adding up to making me want to stay longer.

Heading down and trying to backtrack to where we came in, I was turned back at the next-to-last door, with the usher saying they were just about to do the finale so he needed me to go back in. I couldn’t leave! That unfortunately took me from “done” to “downright grumpy,” but I figured at least I knew it would soon be over.

As happened at last year’s Masque of the Red Death, the finale takes place in a space we’ve not seen before, large enough for everyone to be all at once and for a truly “big” finish – in this case a sizeable warehouse attached to the building. And, as I could have expected, the finale is indeed marvelously theatrical, the few bits of story I did have kind of came together into a clearer view of the whole, and there is a truly grand moment of spectacle. But it wasn’t enough of a payoff for me, and I didn’t dally after the lights went up.

All due credit for a valiant effort at something extraordinary. You can’t win if you don’t play, as they say, but for this gamble we get nothing extraordinary, or even particularly new. If you’ve seen Punchdrunk before, you’ve seen this before, and done better.

(This is for a performance which took place on July 13, 2010. Performances continue through July 24. Though the info page on the ENO site says it’s completely sold out, the ticketing system is showing some availability, and there’s of course gumtree…)