Posts Tagged ‘opera reviews’

Review – Die tote Stadt – Royal Opera House

February 12, 2009

Last night I went with J and Cate to see Die tote Stadt at the Royal Opera House. I was attracted to this opera for two reasons; first, it was the first ever UK production of this show; second, it was a 20th century opera written in the early part of the century, when things were more musical. I like new shows and I liked the possibility of an opera that I’d actually enjoy – because, I must be honest, I am really just not much of an opera fan. I keep trying and trying but I’ve failed to create a passion for the art form, though I do enjoy listening to people sing.

Anyway, I found Die Tote Stadt really quite fun. It started slowly, in the house of a man who’s created a massive fetish about his dead wife – his house is full of pictures of her and he sits around caressing her hair (ew!). But he’s convinced he’s found her again, in the person of a dancer he’s run into on the streets of Brussels.

At this point, I am forced to quote Robyn Hitchcock, whose song “My Wife and My Dead Wife” played over and over in my head during the course of this show. I’ll refer to it again during the review as it just seemed to appropriate for the show not to share.

“My wife and my dead wife
“Am I the only one that sees her?
“My wife and my dead wife
“Doesn’t anybody see her at all?”

While listening to Paul (Stephen Gould) wax poetic about his love for his dead Marie, either to himself or to his friend Frank (Gerald Finley), I was a bit creeped out, but also not very interested – it seemed all so sterile and dull, like even when Marie was alive there was something extremely non-physical about their relationship. I feared for the evening. The staging was reminding me way too much of almost everything I’ve seen at ENO, where the singers stomp back and forth from one end of the stage to another with no apparent purpose but to demonstrate the size of the venue.

But when dancer Marietta (Nadja Michael) appeared on stage, the show gained momentum. She was full of life, dressed in yellow and full of passion and love for herself. While she was willing to play with Paul’s obsession, she made it clear that she was herself, and not anyone else, and ran off into the night to attend her show rehearsal.

“My dead wife sits in a chair
“Combing her hair
“I know she’s there.”

At this point Paul appears to pass out in a state of exhaustion, and has a conversation with his dead Marie, who appears in a room that’s behind the one in which he sleeps (and a copy of it). I found this trope quite cool – Marie sitting in the same chair in the living room that’s now empty, addressing a man whom in the dream world is sitting up (while Paul sings in the front room, apparently asleep). Marie chides Paul for not being faithful to her, then says she’s going to warn him about what will happen if he tries to renew his love for her with this other woman. What? A jealous ghost? It all seems to be Paul’s subconscious handling his guilt poorly. It all builds up to this triumphal/spooky moment where all of these top-hatted dancers come onto the stage to reveal …

WHAT? While my ultra cheap, very very very back of the opera house tickets did manage to let me read the supertitles, the climax of this scene (like “Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend”) was invisible from where I sat as the person who was revealed within the circle of dancers was only visible from the waist up and thus completely obscured by the top of the set. Wah. Was it a gowned or bejeweled dancer, the dead woman, or perhaps a skeleton? I will never know!

However, at this point the set went even wackier, as the ghost attempted to illustrate for her husband the ill things that would occur to him if he hooked up with Mariette. This part left me somewhat confused as to whether or not it was reality she was showing or just his fevered dreams, but I loved the energy and surrealism, with houses floating across the back of the stage (a la Wizard of Oz), nuns marching by carrying a crucified Mariette (or was it Marie?), and white garbed dancers (Mariette’s troupe) who suddenly flip the 6 foot portrait of Marie around to show it as WHOOP WHOOP a gaping skull! (It seemed really obvious that this would happen.)

“And I can’t decide which one I love the most
“The flesh and blood or the pale, smiling ghost”

At some point it appears that Paul has actually hooked up with Mariette in reality, but by the end of the scene he’s guilting about how he’s ruined his pure love for his wife. Mariette reproaches him for not accepting his love for her, and it seems that things are going to go well … but no, it’s German culture 1920 and women who embrace their sexuality can pretty much only be vampires, a la The Blue Angel. Mariette parades aroudn stage with no hair at all and Paul gives in and admit it’s she he loves – and his reward is to get stuck wearing the Pucinella/”Dumbo” costume. Bah. Can’t it be a good thing that he’s finally decided to move forward with his life instead of living in the past? Is all of this just his wife attempting to control him from beyond the grave?

“My wife lies down on the beach/She’s sucking a peach
“She’s out of reach/Of the waves that crash on the sand
“Where my dead wife stands/Holding my hand”

“Now my wife can’t swim/but neither could she/And deep in the sea
“She’s waiting for me …”

At this point, 90 minutes in, the interval occurs … and I realized I didn’t really have any curiosity about Paul and what else might happen to him, and I felt emotionally satisfied by him accepting his love for Mariette, and I was worn out and not looking forward to getting home after 11 and being exhausted all day at work. Cate proposed that we go home – and so we did. That said, I did enjoy the opera, and I recommend it as fun to watch, though I can’t say the music was too exciting – but that’s probably more about me than about the music, not that Erich Wolfgang Korngold would really care one way or another.

(Cast list here. This performance took place Wednesday, February 11th, 2009. Die Tote Stadt’s last performance is February 17th.)

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.)