Following from George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s marvelous production, Written on Skin – which was performed at the Royal Opera House in 2017 – their third opera, Lessons in Love and Violence carries the duo’s (composer and librettist) signature trademark: transcending compelling storytelling with exquisite sound worlds.
Working together, again, with director, Katie Mitchell and set designer, Vicki Mortimer Lessons in Love and Violence conveys a contemporary adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s harrowing play on the reign of Edward II. Written on Skin (see my 2017 review here) has a rich landowner who forces his wife to eat the heart of her secret lover without knowing it. Here the cruelty and abuse ensue when the King’s cold-blooded wife, Isabel (outstandingly performed by Barbara Hannigan) drops a priceless pearl in a glass of vinegar and dangles it, like a carrot, in front of a group of impoverished people.
This week the Royal Opera House (ROH) ended its successful run of Verdi’s Macbeth. A terrified and guilt-stricken Lady M., performed by Anna Netrebko, left haunting memories behind including scenes of her sleepwalking and dreaming she was washing blood off her guilty hands. Now the Covent Garden’s backstage has filled its walls with Richard Jones’s 2004 production of Shostakovich’s first and last opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934.). From Banquo’s ghost to Boris Ismailov’s ghost it is no coincidence that Shostakovich’s opera presents many parallels between his version of Lady Macbeth and Shakespeare’s own.
A dramatic opera set in a dark place
There is no joy in the world of the Macbeths: no sense of love for family or nation. Just a deep-seated desire for power and domination. Verdi wrote to Antonio Somma, his librettist for Un ballo in maschera, in 1853, “I prefer Shakespeare to all other dramatists” by which point he had already finished composing Macbeth (1847, revised 1865) and continued to celebrate his respect for the Bard with Otello (1887) and his final masterwork, Falstaff (1893).
Currently, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and National Theatre (NT) have produced two new productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which, unfortunately, haven’t received the best reviews. That said, the Royal Opera House did a better job with Verdi’s opera, a reduced version of Shakespeare’s play, which was sung by the showstopping Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, as Lady M., and Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, performing the role of Macbeth.
The news just came in. Alexandra Burke and Elaine Paige hosted this year’s nominations this afternoon [March 6, 2018]. It was announced that Catherine Tate will host the 42nd annual awards on Sunday April 8 at the Royal Albert Hall. (It will be broadcasted on ITV on the evening of the Oliviers Awards from 10.20 pm.)
Looking at the long list of Olivier nominees, I’m pleased to see that a large majority of these shows are shows I’ve already seen. Some are still my to-do list. However, other shows (plays, operas, musicals, comedies) which I’ve originally put on the sideline are getting a second look now that their on the nominations list. If the Laurence Olivier judges are nominating them, it must mean something, right?
Carmen as you’ve never seen before
Apologises. This one is a long report because there was plenty to cover on Barrie Kosky’s production. Enjoy!
For those of you who are new to Bizet’s opera, you’ve heard the music before. Without knowing it, you’ve heard the music of Carmen in a perfume, insurance or car advert. It is the second most performed opera at the Royal Opera House (ROH), and many would recommend Carmen as an opera for first-timers to see, yet I’m unsure if I’d say the same for the opening night I attended on Monday.
A first night with mixed reactions
Back in 2013, the Canadian baritone Gerald Finley said in an interview, ‘if there is a Scarpia out there somewhere I’d be happy to do that.’ Come four years later and he is doing exactly that. On Monday night at the Royal Opera House, his Scarpia had long hair, a burnished rich vocal tone and menacing demeanour in Jonathan Kent’s ninth revival of Puccini’s Tosca. For a first-timer, Finley gave a distinctively refreshing portrayal of Scarpia that I shan’t forget.
The production began 12 years ago with set designs based on the Napoleonic era. I’ve seen it twice before and this version is my favourite. This is mainly due to the tremendous cast, which includes Finley, his fellow Canadian Adrianne Pieczonka and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. These international artists have a huge following and if it wasn’t for their sensational voices and breadth of experience, I probably wouldn’t have bothered seeing the production at all.
‘Don’t trip. Don’t trip and fall on your face.’ Tonight (January 16th, 2018), the Royal Opera House shall broadcast director David McVicar’s revived production of Rigoletto live to cinemas across the UK and abroad, and its conductor Alexander Joel tells me what he hopes won’t happen on his first Live Cinema event. ‘I’m excited, but the cameras won’t be on me anyway. I don’t like cameras on my face. They’ll probably film me for those first five seconds I come into the pit… and then the orchestra will start.’
Alexander Joel has performed multiple times at the Royal Opera House since his debut in 2013, conducting La bohème. He was invited to conduct again at the Royal Opera House in 2015 and 2016 for their productions of La Traviata and Carmen. He has also performed a wide range of pieces from operas, ballets and symphonies in various countries and worked with many international orchestras including the Vlaamse Opera orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Düsseldorfer Symphoniker, to name a few.
Looking at Salome through a post-Weinstein veil
Ten years ago I saw David McVicar’s production of Salome. Back then it was brand new not only to the Royal Opera House and also to me. I was 23 years old, developing my knowledge of opera productions in London and working my way through a checklist of operas I wanted to see. Between now and then, I’ve seen Salome performed by Swedish soprano Nina Stemme in a semi-stage production at the BBC Proms and another performance by British soprano Allison Oakes at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. I remember the production well for its strange stage design — a green, modern day tie store. (I didn’t buy it.) I also recall a small yet exceptional physical theatre production by Théâtre Libre at the Space Arts Centre. From these productions alone, I learnt that the character of Salome — based on the biblical text — most certainly symbolises seduction, power and lust.
Given Oscar Wilde‘s emotionally charged portrayal of Salome, his French play became a success de scandal in 1891. This was similarly the case for Richard Strauss‘s opera in 1905 in Dresden. The Lord Chamberlain banned the play and opera in London until 1907, while the Vienna State Opera was far more ruthless and didn’t perform the opera until 1918. In 1903, Strauss composed his novel, groundbreaking opera accommodating a 100-piece orchestra in Berlin, and in the space of two years it was successfully performed over 50 times after its premiere in 1905.
Last night was the big night – the premiere of David McVicar’s 2001 debaucherous production of Verdi’s devastating father-daughter opera. This night was dedicated to Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky who died last month battling with brain cancer. The legendary singer was originally intended to perform the role of Rigoletto for this season and the audience was respectful as his name was announced just before the first act.
Speaking of the crowd, they were rather restless this evening, particularly upstairs at the amphitheatre where three phones went off and several mobile screens beamed their light in ‘The Gods’ blinding those sitting nearest to them. Nonetheless, they soon piped down as the commencing scene took an interesting turn. Verdi’s grand music introduced lascivious men fascinating over female prostitutes at the court of Mantua – an orgy happening at every corner of the stage. Some members of the Royal Opera’s orchestra performed Verdi’s score behind the stage, creating a muffled sound as courtiers screamed merrily, enjoying each other’s intimate pleasures. This – obviously – made some members of the audience feel uncomfortable.>>>
This post is divided into Part I and Part II.
Part I – My thoughts on Keith Warner’s production of Otello at the Covent Garden, 2017.
Part 2 – My thoughts on seeing the opera at the Covent Garden, then seeing it again for the cinema Encore.
Part I : Othello versus Otello.
Before I begin, I want to make something clear. Othello is the original theatrical marvel written by the Bard (Shakespeare) in 1601. Verdi’s own interpretation Otello came along after, which he composed with Arrigo Boito in 1887 after seeing a production of Shakespeare’s play in England, 1847. Despite the English playwright’s influence on Verdi’s masterwork sitting in the opera house being armed with information about Othello won’t heighten your opera experience much. For anyone who is a big Othello fan (me!), they will know that watching Otello should be treated as a different reading entirely. For example, compared to the original play, Desdemona and Emilia say a lot more and unfortunately their characters don’t get the chance to develop as much in the opera. For some reason, Verdi plays down Emilia’s realism. In act 3, scene 4 of the original text, Emilia says to Desdemona, ‘Tis not a year or two shows us a man: They are all stomachs, as we are all but food…’ Not a dime of this shiny humour or wittiness exists in Boito’s libretto. Secondly, the ending is very different. Justice is not served. Iago gets away with creating the chaotic bloodbath without getting his hands dirty. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why Verdi originally wanted to call the opera ‘Iago’.
For the first time, our ‘dreamy’ tenor Jonas Kaufmann performs the lead role of Otello. This was, and still is, ‘the highly anticipated event’ of the year in the opera world. Known as Verdi’s most mature and highly orchestrated piece of work, composed during the final chapters of the composer’s life, the Royal Opera House has returned to the opera after 30 years’ absence with a superb cast sheet of performers including In Sung Sim (Lodovico), Marco Vratogna (Iago) Maria Agresta (Desdemona), Frederic Antoun (Cassio) and Kai Rüütel (Emilia).
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