When Dan Crawford established the King’s Head Theatre in 1970, it seemed the sort of venture which might burn brightly for a year or two, then fizzle out like other bright ideas from the Sixties: too quixotic to survive. But Crawford had a wonderfully sure instinct for where theatre was heading, and what audiences wanted: his tiny auditorium – which had previously housed a boxing ring – became the crucible for production after production which then took wing for the West End or Broadway. It may have been London’s first pub theatre, but it was also far and away the best. The roof could leak – donations to repair it were sought with a bucket at the door – and in the days before smoking was outlawed the atmosphere was a health-risk. Retro-chic before the term had been invented, the conjoined theatre and bar kept faith with their clientele in a way sweetly symbolised by the fact that pints were still being pulled for pounds, shillings, and pence thirty-seven years after decimalisation.
Crawford’s untimely death from cancer in 2005 seemed to break the spell, but a new one has since been generated thank to an invasion by the award-winning company OperaUpClose, which has made a specialism of giving talented young singers an earlier break than they might otherwise expect; last year they decamped, leaving Adam Spreadbury-Maher as artistic director of a more eclectic programme. Their current production tackles La Bohème in typically quixotic King’s Head style, with just four singers and two musicians.
And this Boheme brings the drama right home to where it’s being performed, in London N1. Mark (Thomas Isherwood) writes online reviews while Ralph (Roberto Abate) designs theatre flyers; this Mimi works part-time in a call-centre near Euston, and though she may not be the first Mimi to have a drug problem rather than TB, the way Stephanie Edwards incarnates her physical decline has a horribly familiar contemporaneousness. Caroline Kennedy’s mercurial Musetta has to press a gallant member of the audience into service as her lascivious sugar-daddy in the Café Momus, but on the night I saw it that scene felt shockingly authentic. The savagely pared-down libretto (by Spreadbury-Maher and Becca Marriott, who also sings Mimi in an alternative cast) has a convincingly demotic tone, and thanks to two talented musicians – Alison Holford on cello and Elspeth Wilkes at the piano – the score’s necessary thinness is for much of the evening triumphantly transcended. The male singers need to bring down their decibels several notches – their sound would at present carry comfortably across the Covent Garden auditorium, and here comes across as bellowing. But Edwards and Kennedy pitch their voices perfectly for the tiny King’s Head space, and their glorious singing turns the final scene into the spine-tingler we’ve all come for. ****
The first leg of Angela Hewitt’s ‘Bach Odyssey’ was neither as grandiose nor as predictable as its title had led us to expect. Having performed the core Bach repertoire more times than she could count, she wanted to go off the beaten track, so here she offered rarities, including the only piece of program-music Bach ever wrote (the Capriccio ‘on the departure of his beloved brother’), a theme and variations ‘alla maniera Italiana’, a Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, plus the complete sets of Two-part Inventions and Sinfonias.
All interesting, but not all gold. The variations – composed three decades before the Goldberg Variations – seemed mundane in comparison with that late masterpiece, and the Two-part Inventions – student exercises played with bright clarity – were a very modest warm-up for the Sinfonias. But Hewitt played these three-part inventions so that they came over as one single variegated work, with the plangent ninth acting as its dark heart, in the way the Black Pearl variation does for the Goldbergs; the succeeding two pieces brushed away the tears with a joyful lightness. The Capriccio radiated convivial warmth, plus a dip into heart-on-sleeve lachrymosity, while the Fantasy and Fugue was majestic, culminating in a grand-diapason organ conclusion.
Hewitt informed us in a pre-concert interview that, in contrast with the ‘frustrating’ harpsichord, her Fazioli piano allowed her effortlessly to create any effects she wanted. Yet the odd thing was, with much of this music – played as it was at an even dynamic, between mezzo-forte and forte – I found myself wishing it could indeed have been on a harpsichord. Because that, in different hands, could have given it more character, colour, and mystery. Faziolis and Bach don’t have anything to say to each other. ****
Stravinsky wanted his ‘opera-oratorio’ Oedipus Rex to be performed like a hieratic tableau vivant, with the principals wearing masks and the robed chorus in a single row, faces hidden. And in my experience that is how the dark and dreadful beauty of this music comes across most powerfully. Trust Peter Sellars to devise a radical take on it, but the surprise of his Southbank Centre production with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra lay in the way he put this work together with another of Stravinsky’s neo-classical masterpieces – Symphony of Psalms – and through clever stagecraft made them feel like one single emotional journey.
From the first great thunderclap of sound in Oedipus the Swedish male-voice chorus Orphei Drangar – blue-clad figures ranged above the orchestra – asserted awesome dominance, and here Sellars’ sometimes-irritating hand-ballets seemed perfectly fit for purpose. Robert Kaiser’s sweetly vulnerable Oedipus and Katarina Dalayman’s superbly fateful Jocasta were sonorously counterbalanced by Willard White brilliantly trebling-up as Creon, blind Tiresias, and the truth-telling Messenger; turning the Speaker into Antigone (Emily Barber) gave the story a new immediacy. A row of ethnographic African thrones suggested another dimension: the whole thing could be seen through the prism of tribalism, with Oedipus’s family as foreign interlopers. As the horror of Oedipus gave way to the benediction of the Psalms – reinforced by the life-affirming sound of the female-voice Sofia Vokalensemble – Oedipus and his ‘daughters’ played out the end of their story in dumb show. The Philharmonia were magnificent, their wind players beyond compare. *****
Po-faced synopses conventionally skate over the fact that most plots in Baroque opera are preposterous, so it was refreshing to find Rick Jones starting his Wigmore Hall programme-note with a cod-historical account of the picaresque doings of Assyrian Queen Sammuramat in ninth-century BCE Babylon. In the recital which the Italian mezzo Anna Bonitatibus has compiled – from which she’s also made a prize-winning disc – variations on the tale came from eleven 18th-century composers.
Anna Bonitatibus – photo credit: Frank Bonitatibus
Bonitatibus has a voice which, once heard, is never forgotten. This has less to do with its specific qualities than with the vivid intensity with which she invests every role: she’s as boldly dramatic as Cecilia Bartoli, but with none of the affectation. For this outing, in company with Vaclav Luks and his Collegium 1704 Baroque orchestra, her gown-changes – from diaphanous grey, to scarlet, to black, to high-priestess white – reflected the variegated emotional worlds she conjured up. Spurned love here took many forms, each of which she incarnated with Protean ease: with fire and fury in Caldara, darkly flowing melodiousness in Gluck, roller-coaster coloratura in Bertoni, delicate refinement in Rossini, and chaste beauty in Paisiello. She was funny as well as furious, turning some of her numbers into a dance, and proving effortlessly that, when required, she could out-blast in volume a 22-piece orchestra. *****
ETO’s Xerxes on tour (and also La Calisto and Il ritorno d’Ulisse) From October 5
English Touring Opera’s take on Handel’s sublimely beautiful comic opera is back in revival. The aria everyone knows – ‘Ombra mai fu’ – is the Persian King Xerxes’s paean to a generously-spreading plane tree. But in director James Conway’s production it’s sung to a plane – a Spitfire, to be precise, because this Xerxes is sending his fighters to avert invasion in 1940. Romilda, whom the king and his brother Arsamenes quarrel over, is a voluntary nurse, while Arsamenes is a flying ace; taking its inspiration from The Dam Busters, the show is spurred by back-projected newsreel footage of destruction from the air plus soundtrack.
Second time round this conceit wears terribly thin, particularly when it undermines what should be riveting musical moments – Xerxes’ climactic tantrum-aria, or the spikily poignant love-duet between Romilda and Arsamenes. The directorial funny business – catfights in the Nissen hut etc – is only occasionally funny, as with the symbolically-erectile wind-sock. Moreover, only half the cast have comprehensible diction, and there are no surtitles to help us with the labyrinthine (and very silly) plot.
This opera’s vocal challenges are huge – Handel didn’t stage a repeat production because he couldn’t muster a cast of the requisite quality – and only Carolyn Dobbin (Armastris), Galina Averina (Atalanta), and Andrew Slater (Ariodate) properly meet those challenges. Julia Riley’s Xerxes is sweetly-sung but underpowered, Clint van der Linde’s Arsamenes begins hootily, but settles down to deliver some very fine singing; the intonation of Laura Mitchell’s Romilda comes and goes; Peter Brathwaite functions feistily as the servant Elviro. Under Jonathan Peter Kenny’s direction, the period-instrument Old Street Band exudes charm.
It’s a shame that this initially over-praised show – and I was one of the guilty over-praisers – should be the opener for ETO’s autumn tour: as the touring company which takes opera to places where the other companies don’t reach, it plays a vital part in our musical culture. Let’s hope the next production to be unveiled – a new Il ritorno d’Ulisse, also directed by James Conway – is back up to this company’s usual high standards…
[…And a week later it was, though it came preceded by another iffy production….]
Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto is the most intriguing of 17th-century Venetian operas. Filled with Monteverdian echoes and Baroque adumbrations, and maintaining romantic passion, comic sexual ambiguity, and rutting carnal lust in perfect balance, its direction requires many skills. Timothy Nelson, who boldly both conducts and directs ETO’s new production, has only some of those skills: crude characterization and an obsession with unfunny sight gags ruin the first half of the evening, but in the second Cavalli’s serene conception shines gloriously through.
The cast, when allowed to sing unhampered by superfluous business, is strong. Paula Sides finds the right vocal mode for the title role, while George Humphreys – incarnating Jove in two guises – impresses both as baritone and falsettist; Catherine Carby’s sound as Diana is ravishing from top to bottom of her register. Tenor Nick Pritchard’s Mercury periodically transcends his imposed Julian Clary-style foppishness to sing with eloquent grace, while Tai Oney’s differently-encumbered Endymion delivers counter-tenor singing of rare refinement.
But the third element in ETO’s touring package turns out to be one of the most accomplished Monteverdi stagings I have ever seen. James Conway’s direction is faultless; Jonathan Peter Kenny’s conducting of the period-instrument Old Street Band responds to every nuance in the score, with lovely theorbo and viola da gamba continuo; designer Takis and lighting-designer Mark Howland find an elegantly simple way of making Monteverdi’s sound-world visible. For La Calisto, set in the heavens, they created a pen-and-wash impression of planetary motion; for Il ritorno they place a row of giant bows (which double as a boat) opposite a moveable wall whose panels become doors and windows; red ropes symbolize the death-dealing flight of arrows; painterly lighting-changes suggest the blue sky, the boundless green sea, the parched red earth.
Ulysses – photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Conway sets out his intentions in a programme essay: in this tale of murderous usurpers and angry gods, he says, the ‘true adventure’ is the reuniting of Penelope and Ulysses thanks to ‘something stronger than time, fortune, or erotic love’. This show has no pretentions to contemporary relevance – the costumes are Attic, the body-language has classical restraint, and the whole thing has a timelessly grave momentum – yet the drama has the immediacy of last night’s TV.
Monteverdi’s music breathes through the sung word, and each singer honours that truth in a way which reflects their character (or characters). The women are vividly delineated – Carolyn Dobbin with tragic gravitas as Penelope, Katie Bray a forceful Minerva, Martha Jones doubling charmingly as Melanto and Amore. The male-voice trio with Eumaeus (John-Colin Gyeantey), Telemachus (Nick Pritchard), and Antinous (Andrew Slater, who also sings Neptune), is sublime; Adam Player’s gluttonous Irus is a prize grotesque, Robert Anthony Gardiner and Clint van der Linde both excel in three roles, while Benedict Nelson’s Ulisse, projecting wounded nobility, sings us out gorgeously in the emotionally washed-clean close. Unmissable – and touring in the next few months to a theatre near you.
While the young Russian pianist Igor Levit gets stuck into his Beethoven sonata cycle, the Welsh wizard Llyr Williams is pursuing his own Beethoven cycle in the same venue, if in a greater arc. And since those cycles have chanced to come within two days of each other, comparisons are mandatory. Both performers possess an absolute clarity of intention, but that’s all they have in common: if the media-friendly Levit and the genial but gauche Williams are chalk-and-cheese in personal terms, so are they in their playing.
Levit has been praised to the skies for his originality, but he turned the Allegro vivace of the gracefully allusive Opus 78 into something perverse and gimmicky; he redeemed himself with brilliant accounts of the heroic Opus 7 sonata and the ‘easy’ Opus 14 pair, before closing with a chiaroscuro treatment of ‘Les adieux’; impeccable control allowed him to colour the music like a painter.
Levit’s nervy approach to the keyboard suggests a repelling/attracting electrical charge. Williams treats it as an extension of his body, and with the three Opus 10 sonatas plus the Diabelli Variations he took us onto an altogether higher plane. Space doesn’t permit me to describe how he brought out the alternating quirkiness and majesty of the early works, nor how he turned our expectations of the Diabellis so dramatically on their head, with hitherto-unheard sonorities, and tonalities which drifted mysteriously. Broadcast live on Radio 3, this performance was extraordinary: catch it on the i-player.
[This was a quick notice for the I-paper: I will try to analyse the difference between these pianists more fully in my next column in International Piano Magazine]