Posts Tagged ‘English National Opera’

Mini-review – Sweeney Todd – Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel at English National Opera

April 9, 2015

Great was the anticipation and cheap were the seats (£10 top balcony) for my Wednesday night trip to Sweeney Todd. I haven’t always enjoyed Sondheim, but I seem to be warming up to him – I certainly really liked Assassins and Merrily We Roll Along, so I hoped this would be the trip that warmed me up to Sweeney Todd.

I wasn’t, however, expecting that this was going to only be a partially staged production, with the orchestra on stage and the cast running around on a few little platforms. Normally my ENO complaint is that they overstage things and don’t allow room for imagination – in this case, the emphasis was so wholly on the music that I was unable to emotionally connect with the show, and with the use of mikes I felt like my ability to connect with the singing was also curtailed. Mostly I could follow the lyrics (in the balcony the supertitles weren’t visible, but hey, it’s in English), but watching people stomping around in circles on stage, stealing chairs from the orchestra and generally trying to act like they were telling the story just using what was available on stage rather than having any proper props … it didn’t work for me. I wanted acting, I wanted to be able to see the performers 95% of the time and not 80% (the front of the stage was hidden for me), and I wanted to hear singing. I didn’t get these things.

Now, Emma Thompson has a bit of a scratchy voice, but she put across Mrs Lovett quite well and what I wanted from her was to be convinced, not sung to: but Terfel, who had a kind of forgettably perfect voice (does this make sense? – it just seemed to lack personality) as Sweeney Todd just didn’t seem to really be bothered with the whole acting thing. Perhaps it was the stiffness of the staging, perhaps it was the acute angle that we £10 vermin were watching from … or perhaps it’s that opera singers aren’t really supposed to be great actors because they don’t have to. I’m leaning toward the last option.

In the end – which, for me, was at around 8:50 PM – I decided that I’d got my money’s worth out of the show and wasn’t really enticed enough to stay for the second half. I knew what was going to happen, I got to listen to the silly song about “Try a little priest” … and I wasn’t feeling like I had to prove my £155 ticket was worth what I paid for it. Apparently I should have paid a little extra and gone to see the Tooting Arts Club’s Sweeney down the street … or perhaps the lesson is that I should just avoid this show. At any rate, I’d say, if you can still pick, go for the Harrington’s Pie and Mash experience – you’ll probably find it far more compelling and a better value on your pound.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 8, 2015. It continues through April 12.)

Mini-review – The Perfect American – English National Opera

June 11, 2013

For me, the combination of the words “Phillip Glass” and “new opera” are pretty irresistible – which is remarkable if you consider how little I like opera. But his operas are, to me, perfect for the 21st century: very cerebral and extremely engaged with the high-culture zeitgeist. You might find this hard to believe about an opera with Walt Disney as its subject matter; but I think it’s just as applicable as it is for Einstein and Ghandi. Iconic figures with deep cultural impacts? You know that it’s true for all three of them. With Disney, you get an added layer of the image versus the reality – probably as true for Ghandi but manipulated in a more self-serving way for Walt. This production also dovetailed nicely for me with seeing Mike Daisey’s American Utopias in May; it explored the reality behind a lot of Disney mythology, as well as showing where Walt aimed higher than his successors were able to achieve. I felt convinced there was more than enough material to make an opera.

The story, though, winds up seeming a bit thin: it’s about Walt’s worries during his last few months of life. He sees himself as leaving a great legacy, as proven by his fame; but (as the opera shows) a lot of his achievements were based on editing out the past – both his crushing of the rights of his workers and his elimination of voices that spoke against his vision of what America was (nicely epitomized by the scene in which Walt lectures the animatronic Lincoln – from the Disneyland attraction – about how America was reduced as a nation if blacks are equal to whites – which it appears Walt had edited out of the speech Lincoln gave at his amusement park!). Walt cherishes the past he remembers growing up in Marceline, Missouri – but the abuse he and his brothers suffered (as revealed in the Daisey piece) is left out of the opera. Instead, we see his worried about getting his body frozen after his death, and his huge egotism … which really never falls like it would if The Perfect American had been plotted more like a Greek tragedy. Ah well.

Instead of rich story telling and immortal characters, what we get is a breadth of imagination in the presentation of this opera that I found so fully engaging it merits it the label “gesamtkunstwerk” – a full spectacle for the eye as well as being musically rich (in that Philip Glass way that I enjoy). While normally I hate animated backdrops on stage – too often they’re a choice made for cheapness, and/or they distract from what we should be focusing on, the performers – but in this show they are both incredibly appropriate and (shock!) gorgeous, in part because they are frequently shown on hanging cloth (which allows for additional dramatic manipulation of the images). There’s almost no animation related directly to the Disney ouvre, other than the melancholy three circles standing for the basic Mickey Mouse – instead, it shows the thoughts in Walt’s head or otherwise illustrates additively what is happening on stage. That said, the design isn’t overly reliant on the moving image – instead, there is also amazing use of subtle costumes (such as eyes drawn on hands that allow people to look cartoony – and blink), which allows us, the audience, to expand our imaginations and see birds, deer, squirrels, and monsters on the stage. I was entranced: everything was one hundred percent technically up to date and yet still adhered to the dictum of trusting us to make the leap rather than having everything spelled out for us.

While this show was not perfect, it was an excellent piece of theater and highly enjoyable. If you don’t like Phillip Glass, there probably won’t be enough to get you over the hump; but for me, it was as good as opera gets, and a wonderful opportunity to see a show that is really and truly fresh in a genre that is so frequently dominated by 19th century war horses illustrated with dusty realism. I’ll take Princess Mononoke versus Angry Birthday Walt any day, and so should you.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 6th, 2013. It continues at the London Coliseum through June 28th.)

Good deals – Traces at the Peacock for £15 and Radamisto at ENO for £10

October 12, 2010

Yesterday’s Metro had two great deals back to back: discounts for Traces, the Canadian circus group (whom I enjoyed last year), and Radamisto, the Handel opera now on at English National Opera.

For Traces, the deal is 50% off the top two ticket prices (normally £38 and £29, so two could go for £15 each) for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday shows through October 21st. Book either by calling 0844 412 4322 and quoting “Celebrate the City” offer or go to the Sadler’s Wells website and use the code pcdcelebrate.

For Radamisto, the discount is good for £10 balcony or £20 upper circle seats (“selected areas,” whatever that means). This appears to be good for all dates (it ends November 4th). To book, either call ENO at0871 472 0800 and quote “Metro Radamisto Offer” or book online at this address (possibly using the same offer code, the ad is not clear).

Review – Faust – English National Opera

September 26, 2010

I was introduced to the story of Dr. Faustus by Punchdrunk some three or so years ago, and found the idea of a man bargaining away his soul in exchange for youth and love quite attractive. Thus, when English National Opera started advertising its production of the Gounod opera, I was a fairly soft sell. The circusy graphics helped, and then there was the further momentum of the upcoming Young Vic production to boot. To top it off, seats could be found (for early performances at least) at very good prices. I actually organized a group of three to go, and wound up with sweet dress circle seats. Rock me, Charles Gounod!

My overall experience of this show was, unfortunately, reminders of things I don’t like: 19th century opera and ENO’s heavy-handed production style. To be honest, I wasn’t actually turned off by the sappy emotions of this opera (as I am for La Boheme and La Traviata); I found Margarita’s enduring love for Faust sweet, and her ability both to be seduced by the glitter of wealth and then swept away by passion (at the expense of honor) left her a far more rich character at the end than she was at the beginning. But I found the opera too, too long, with its five acts crammed into … well, spread across three and a half hours (and to think they cut out most of the ballet!). I also didn’t really care for the music, although (detecting a theme here?) I enjoyed Margarita’s big solos rather a lot – I’m not sure if it was just Melody Moore’s pleasant singing or not, but I found Faust’s (Toby Spence) and Mephistopheles’ (Iain Paterson) music forgettable (and I had no qualm about their voices).

However, once again I hated the production. ENO seems to consistently either hire directors with no faith in the audience, or to instruct said directors to MAKE IT OBVIOUS. So at the beginning we get a face appearing in the clouds (in a projected animation appearing through actual fog) … but rather than having it be just in the corner of our eyes, Des McAnuff has the clouds clear away then LEAVES THE FACE THERE for ages. Then he does it again and again. FAUST IS OBSESSED WITH THIS WOMAN OKAY I GET IT. Similarly, we see a laboratory setting at the beginning that seems to be related to the development of the atomic bomb – but later we have LITTLE BOY AND FAT MAN HANGING FROM THE RAFTERS. Oh, wow, I would have MISSED THE POINT otherwise. And, really, all of this nuclear memorabilia pissed me off, because there was NO WAY Faust could have been in some 1860s war milieu (which was when the scenes with the soldiers & Margarita appeared to be set) and then lived all the way to the Second World War. It just didn’t make sense – we flipped back from modern people in lab coats to a quasi-Victorian era town (with a moral code that was positively medieval) in an utterly incoherent fashion. Gah.

In short, I am sure now that I will never again see this opera, unless it can be cut by at least a full act. I personally vote for all the scenes with the army going – and, frankly, I’m perfectly willing to get rid of Margarita’s brother, too, as I don’t think he added all that much to the story – she would have despaired to death just with the horrible townspeople egging her on. However, I’m not giving up on Dr. Faustus – I’m going to go back to the Young Vic next month and try again. This is a great story and I’m not going to let some heavy-handed opera company wreck it for me.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 21st, 2010. Faust continues at ENO until Saturday, October 16th.)

£10 deals for May – Plague over England, Dancing at Lughnasa, On the Waterfront, the Tigerlillies, and more

May 1, 2009

As the season changes and shows come to the end of their runs, there are good deals to be had for the patient theater-goer. First, there’s a one day only deal for Dancing at Lughnasa at the Old Vic for May 4th, Bank Holiday Monday, the only discount I’ve seen on this show for its whole run. To get it, call the box office at 09=870 060 6628 and quote “Metro.” Everyone I know has been really enthusiastic about this show, so this is a great opportunity to see it for pennies (as it were) on the dollar (as it were again). It ends May 9th so I don’t think they’ll be repeating the offer.

Also ending their runs and sweetening their pots are Plague over England at the Duchess Theater(£10 tickets for all shows except Saturday evenings, promo code ATG12), running through May 16th, and Woman in Mind (ditto, ATG13) at the Vaudeville Theatre through May 30th.

Meanwhile, TheLondonPaper are running a deal for The Tiger Lillies for £10 at the Soho Theatre through May 9th, but I’m going a bit crazy trying to find the specifics of the promo as I’ve left my copy of the Thursday LondonPaper at home. Ah, figured it out: call the theater (020 7478 0100) and say you saw the deal in the LondonPaper! Easy peasy. 🙂

In a more future-oriented view, the shockingly helpful Evening Standard have piles of tickets for ENO at £10 each. Così fan Tutte,
Madam Butterfly and L’Amour de Loin – you could have a summer full of opera for pennies! To get the opera, go to this page, select a date and location (dress circle or balcony), and choose your tickets! Cosi dates are May 29 through July 5, Butterfly is June 10 through July 10, and L’Amour is July 3 through July 11th.

All of these are of course in addition to the normal £10 series at the National and the ready availability of £10 seats at the Royal Court Theater, where I’m catching Aunt Dan and Lemon at that price on Tuesday, May 26th. Exquisite Corpse at the Southwark Playhouse can also be enjoyed for even less, £8, if you book far enough in advance. Enjoy!

Review – Vaughn Williams’ “Riders to the Sea” (and Sibelius’ “Luonnotar”) – English National Opera at the London Coliseum

December 1, 2008

Today we trucked into town for a matinee performance of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Riders to the Sea.” I will be honest about why I picked this show: it was 1) on a Sunday and sweet fuck all was happening anywhere else (except at the National), and it was 2) short (one hour long!) and 3) cheap (15 quid tickets, hurray!). This meant that no matter how bad it was, the pain was going to be short in duration and the cost wasn’t going to make me bewail my fate as a purchaser of ill priced tickets for an afternoon of doom. Plus it would get me home in time to cook a proper dinner and get to bed at the right time on a Sunday night (which I’ve gone and totally screwed up by staying up late writing this review – ah, the irony!).

Well, actually, I also went because my uncle was visiting – which was the entire reason why I was trying to find something to do on a Sunday at all (after all, I could have gone to see Sweeney Todd at the Union Theatre – but he nixed that), and the fact that it was on a Sunday was why I wanted it to not be a long show. But also, my uncle is a big fan of opera, but usually refuses to see it when he visits me in London, as he feels that between Munich and San Francisco he’s not actually likely to get anything done here that he hasn’t seen done elsewhere better (he does love his German opera). However … this was an English language opera and one that seemed rather unusual. I was right in picking it – my uncle thought it was something he’d likely never get a chance to see again. And, who knows, perhaps he’s even familiar with the composer – I had never heard of him (but I’m not one much for modern opera, so there you have it). Frank was actually pleased about going to see opera with me in London – the first time we’ve done so since I moved here.

The performance opened with Sibelius’ “Luonnotar” as sung by Susan Gritton. The setting was thus: a woman with long hair is standing in a boat stood on end in front of a screen showing water moving, so that it looks like we are overhead, in the sky, watching her floating in the ocean. She sings a song that sounds like a Finnish creation story, about a woman who floats in the sea and raises her knee above the water so a duck can nest on it, then twitches and sends the duck eggs flying everywhere, forming the land and the sky (or so I recall). The singing was plaintive, but the performance suffered again from ENO’s complete inability to let the music tell its own story without silly distractions; in this case, the singer removing her hair veil and letting it drop dramatically to the floor. Please, people, just let the singers do their work, acting when necessary, and otherwise just emoting via song. I liked both the song and the story it told and the imagery of the water – and was pleased that it was done as a fully staged piece rather than just being a recital. And it shifted perfectly into …

Riders from the Sea, which I really knew nothing about other than that it was sung in English. And what is it? It’s an operatic ghost story! I’ve never seen this genre done as opera before and I really enjoyed it. I find the atonality of modern opera generally boring to listen to, but it actually added to the creepy air of what was going on. And the staging was quite good – it took place in a house, as defined by a bright square on the stage (a plane of rock) that sometimes had a projection of the sea on it, which was furnished with very meager possessions – a chair/table (the top lifted to make it a chair), a stool or two, a basket, and a ladder. This space was set at the foot of cliffs, and the edge of the stage was the edge of another cliff, with the space behind at times showing as the sky and at times the sea. It was all grimly appropriate for the three direly poor women whose lives were completely dependent on their men, and who were all ruled over by the weather and the sea.

As the show starts, the sisters are talking about how one of the brothers, the second to last, is lost, presumably drowned, and their mother’s suffering at her son’s death. The dialogue is all what I think of as Irish vernacular, with very unusual speech patterns, i.e. “There’s a great roaring in the west, and it’s worse it’ll be getting when the tide’s turned to the wind.” (Full text available here, along with lots of background detail to the writing of the original story.) The last brother appears and says goodbye as he prepares to leave to sell two horses at the market in another city, basically a thing he feels vitally necessary given how poor they are. His mother is dead set against him leaving given the state of the wind and the tide, but he goes anyway, his mother then rushing after him (at her daughters’ urging) to undo the ill of sending him off with angry words. And then the fun happens, or, rather, the tale begins to really become creepy, and if you don’t want any spoilers, I will leave you there. It all seemed to go a bit much for the stereotypes of the “superstitious/ignorant Irish,” but these days that all seems like a fairytale itself.

While I didn’t much care for the music of this show, the libretto, singing, and setting could not be faulted. My favorite moment was when the mom (Patricia Bardon) is singing of her grief at losing every man in her life, while overturned boats are lowered from the rafters, looking like tombstones landing on the stage around her. It really conveyed the loss viscerally and looked great. The one thing that drove me nuts, however, was the cheap plastic bag that the missing brother’s clothes were in. For God’s sake, folks, can we not pretend at least a little that this is happening in a world that existed before plastic bags were used?

Overall, this was a good afternoon and I was pleased with the cost and investment of time. That said, I would really like to see more works by the playwright, J. M. Synge, who wrote the original text upon which the opera was based, far more so than I want to see anything else by Mr. Williams.

(This review is for a matinee performance seen on Sunday, November 30th, 2008.)

Great deal on tickets (£10) to see Boris Godunov and Riders to the Sea at English National Opera

November 26, 2008

The evening standard has got a deal for tickets to Boris Godunov and/or Riders to the Sea at English National Opera – only £10 a piece. No idea where the seats are but it is quite a deal. Now, you’ll see me watching bad reality television before I’ll see Boris Godunov again, but I will be off to see Riders to the Sea this Sunday – it’s just about one hour running time, which means I’ll be home in time for supper! More info on their site, but if you want to just jump on it, the deal is:

To book online click here and enter code OPERATEN when prompted or call 0871 911 0200 (24 hrs) and quote OPERATEN.

Enjoy!

Review – Partenope – English National Opera

November 8, 2008

Last night, Worthy Opponent and I went with our friend Cate to the London Coliseum, where the English National Opera was presenting Handel’s Partenope. This actually marked the second time we went to see Baroque opera in a week (the earlier time being Les Arts Florissants on Tuesday at the Barbican with an all-Rameau evening, nicely written up by Wechsler).

Opera’s a bit tricky for me – I like listening to people sing, but I don’t care for the sappy emotions of “classical” opera – both La Boheme and La Traviata leave me cold, though I really like Carmen and have a soft spot for Madama Butterfly. And I’m a big fan of Baroque music. I try to see Baroque opera as being mostly about musical/vocal fireworks and not so much about story telling – which is good because frequently the stories are just incredibly silly. While I may enjoy myself, I still can find myself worn out – as happened both nights this week after hour two went by. Those music lovers of old, how did they do it?

At any rate, despite having a plot so thin it would have served as a good dress for Salome, Partenope was a not bad night out, provided you enjoy this kind of music. I was excited to see two harpsichords in the pit as well as an archlute – the true sign of authenticity in the face of utter uselessness! Picking Christopher Curnyn, an “early opera specialist” (per the program) was, I think, a really good idea – instead of getting some mish-mash of musical styles, the whole thing sounded just right where it was supposed to be (and I’m a bit picky about this after ten years of early music concerts with the Early Music Guild back in Seattle).

I felt this performance had a particularly interesting set and staging. The set and costuming were inspired a lot by the photos of Man Ray (and other artists of the 20s), which I knew quite well from Bill Jay’s photo history classes at Arizona State, and included the showing of Ray’s 1923 film “Return to Reason.”

But … unfortunately, it all seemed to be sort of pasted on top of the opera itself as something to distract the audience rather than actually adding to the performance. There was a man wearing a flat piece of paper around his face wandering on the stage in a near total copy of Ray’s portrait of Andre Breton – but so what? He didn’t speak, he simply moved across the set, attracting attention to himself rather than the people who were actually performing. Partenope puts on a pile of bracelets up to her elbows, making herself look exactly like another portrait, of Nancy Cunard …. but again, how did it actually add to the show? (Admittedly as a costume device it was quite nice, but it was just not a moment of the level of importance as it was played to be.) These little fripperies were more distraction than addition, and in my mind show a real failure in the overall staging of the show. Did the director (Christopher Alden) have such a complete lack of faith in the text? I mean, certainly, the bits where the performers were standing around stiffly singing didn’t really have a lot to recommend them, either, but … well, at least act two was better than act one, even though I thought having the singers drape themselves across the stairs (and then sing, on their backs, while so draped) was quite novel.

There were certainly some fun moments with the performance, such as when the various guests at act two’s party were walking around on a balcony, appearing and then disappearing behind a row of screens, and when one or two arias were sung from inside a toilet (truly something I’d never seen done before – I’ve never even seen a commode on a stage during an opera before!). There were also so many women performing men’s roles that it all seemed like something from a louche 20’s Parisian bar, and when one of them took of their shirt to reveal herself MALE – countertenor Iestin Davies – I found myself completely surprised! That said, what this show was really about was lovely singing, and Rosemary Joshua was a great Partenope – her trills and vocal athletics seemed entirely casual and effortless, as if she could just go on all night and it wouldn’t have bothered her a bit. In fact, all of the cast was good, which probably shouldn’t come as any surprise given that they were chosen to perform on a huge stage in probably one of the only cities in the world where you can gather some two thousand people together to watch an obscure opera from the early 1700s – repeatedly!

However, I did find my patience wearing thin during the second act, and we decided to head home after its conclusion. Friday nights are almost always my weakest ones, and I just didn’t have it in me to watch all of the show. I had bought cheesy ten quid tickets up in the way upper side seats (H 46 if you care), and, while they were occasionally blocked, they were both more than good enough for the price AND they set me free to leave confident I’d got my money’s worth. Thanks to all of the performers for a lovely evening, and I look forward to more Handel soon – most likely The Messiah.

(This review is for a performance that took place Friday, November 7th, 2008. There will be a final performance of Partenope on November 12th. Be warned it’s three hours and forty-five minutes long. And do forgive my clumsiness in this review – I talk about opera so little it’s hard for me to find the right words to describe it.)

Mini-review – La Traviata – English National Opera

November 16, 2006

I would have stayed home tonight because it was crappy outside (short rainy days, yuck, November is truly the cruellest month) and Lisa wasn’t well enough to go out with me as we’d planned (*sob*), and I just felt very down on myself and life all day, and I just wanted to say, “I give up, what’s the point of bothering. I should spend the night on the sofa staring at the ceiling.” This became a much more likely option when I found out the penalty fee for returning the tickets would only be $5 a ticket. Why bother making an effort when sweet oblivion awaited me?

But darn it, Lili actually really wanted to go, and after talking to her I felt that indulging in my down mood would really be letting her down, so I dragged my sorry ass out and watched La Traviata tonight. I’m sure it was better than staying home, but I am really hard-hearted toward 19th century opera, and I hate a lot of the plot elements (wimpy heroine, people giving up doing what they really want to because of social constraints) this opera was built on. Monteverdi is much more my speed. But really, spending the night sitting between Lili and J was a win, and neither of them thumped me when we were waiting eternally for the curtain to rise (and the music to start) for the final scene and I said in a stage whisper, “Isn’t she dead yet?”

FYI, we enjoyed The Cryptogram last night at the Donmar, though the child actor made Mamet’s lines grating to the ears.

(This review is for a performance that took place on November 16, 2006. It was migrated from another site.)