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Two big opera things today:

1) The ROH starting their new season by chumming up to readers of The Sun again, this time with cheap tickets to Carmen. It was the Don last year.

2) Lots of extra grant money for English and Welsh opera.

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The Manchester Report

Back in January when I bought my tickets to see the world première of Rufus Wainwright’s first opera at the Manchester International Festival I was expecting to see a pretty piece of music.  Something that blended Wainwright’s distinctively melodic pop styling with (what I hoped to be) a competent homage to his favourite nineteenth century composers.  I was sceptical about the dramatic possibilities of his ‘day in the life of an opera singer’ concept, but hoped he could pull it all together.

Primma Donna

Prima Donna jumped a few hurdles to get on stage at Manchester this year – originally commissioned as part of a new talent project by the New York Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater, Wainwright and Met general manager Peter Gelb had a few disagreements about the piece.  Gelb wanted an American opera in English for a vacancy in the 2012 season, Wainwright’s Parisian diva couldn’t wait to get on stage.

Luckily Manchester International Festival, Sadler’s Wells, Luminato (Toronto Festival of the Arts and Creativity) and Melbourne International Festival took on the commission: it’ll be produced at Sadler’s Wells and Luminato again next year (I haven’t found dates for Melbourne quite yet).

Prima Donna was surprising. In parts the music was the sort of grand romantic reminiscence I had expected, in parts quite modern and minimal.  Dramatically I was impressed.  What could have turned out quite silly and dull – the reflections of a grand dame in the twilight of her career – just wasn’t.  This is Puccini gone PoMo.

Postmodernism worries opera critics.  It tends to only rear its mangled head in production design  – cameras on stage, characters dressed as famous historical figures, photos of recent military conflict projected behind Giulio Ceseare – more than it is intentionally embraced in modern compositions.

But Prima Donna would fill almost all the rows of Ihab Hassan’s definitive table of the postmodern.  Ageing diva Régine (Janis Kelly) is kept company by a Rossini worthy slapstick posse: Her butler Philippe (Jonathan Summers), maid Marie (Rebecca Bottone) and doorman Francois (movement artist Steve Kirkham).  She is visited by a journalist (William Joyner), and together they sing a duet from her most famous role, Alienor d’Aquitaine, then share a passionate kiss.  In the company of Marie the next day, Regine reflects on her career, romantic life and time as a student at the conservatory, accompanied by some very lovely deconstructed arpeggios dragging out a fantastically sinister tone.

But it is not just the opera-within-an-opera metafiction that makes Prima Donna dramatically interesting.  Toward the end of the second half Andre the journalist returns, explaining to Régine he cannot stay because he has plans with his fiancée Sophie  – who then appears silhouetted in the doorway dressed as Madame Butterfly.  Régine dismisses Andre and her staff, and after signing one last record for Marie, climbs through the window, prepared to plunge to her death like Tosca.  In the light of the Bastille day festivities she sings her last aria, and decides not to jump.  Accepting that her career, like the fireworks, could be both brief and spectacular.

I really enjoyed it, and judging from the number of curtain calls, so did most of the audience.  Parts were Janis Kelly and Rebecca Bottone sung together were particularly beautiful, Summers and Joyner both suited their roles very well.  Daniel Kramer’s direction and Anthony McDonald’s design worked really well in highlighting the vibrancy of the opera. We waited around for a little while outside after the performance to see Rufus who, resplendent in top had and madras tail-coat, also seemed quite happy with the show.

Rufus in hat

Rufus, mingling with fans after the performance.

Prima Donna
By Rufus Wainwright

Palace Theatre, Manchester
12/07/09

Performances 14, 17 & 19 July, some tickets remaining (Edit:  all gone!).

The very lovely Joyce DiDonato, who I saw play Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni last year, slipped during a performance of The Barber of Seville at the Royal Opera House on the weekend and broke her leg.

DiDonato proved herself quite the trooper and finished the performance, first limping, then shuffling about with the help of a walking stick.  It wasn’t until after the show anyone realised the severity of the injury.  She’ll be singing the rest of the run from a wheelchair.

It seems to be all Rufus, all the time leading up to the première of Prima Donna on Friday Night (I’ve already taken note of things I anticipate will annoy me in press coverage of the event here.)

Last night BBC1 aired a documentary about Wainwright and his new composition, combining a quite thorough profile of his life and career thus far with some great footage of early Opera North rehearsals for the upcoming show.

A highlight was an interview with Renée Fleming, who was very complimentary towards Wainwright’s music and spoke out against the way opera is increasingly becoming a museum art form.

Wainwright spoke passionately about opera “his religion and saving grace”, and shared some hilarious videos of himself as a teenager acting out his favourite operas with his cousins.  In Tosca he played Scarpia and swept about narrating in an impeccable pantomime villain voice.

If you want to see an example of Rufus’ love of opera, google his video “April fools” (It’s not on youtube at the moment for some copyright reason or another).  It’s just one of his pop songs, but in the clip he gallivants around with several doomed opera herones, including Tosca, Cio-Cio San from Madama Butterfly and Mimi from La Boheme.

The program suffered from some of the usual hyperbole  “…we follow Rufus as he takes on his biggest challenge yet.  Creating from scratch a new opera” (as opposed to all those old operas he’s composed by running together advertising jingles), and excessive focus on his personal life and struggles with drug addiction.

As I’ll be reviewing Prima Donna on the weekend I might as explain how I came to be a fan of Rufus (the story of why I’m a fan of opera is a longer story that will have to wait for another day).

It starts with Bowie.  All good stories begin with David Bowie.  I was at a music shop and picked up a copy of Wainwright’s fourth album, Want Two, thinking it was David Bowie’s  The Man Who Sold the World. They do look pretty similar:

Bowie in a dress.

Bowie in a dress.

Rufus in a dress

Rufus in a dress

I eventually realised that it wasn’t some new release of Bowie, but bought the CD anyway and was very impressed by Rufus’ melodic, instrumental style.  I saw him play in Sydney early last year and was blown away by his performance on stage.

Now I’m not claiming that Rufus is going to win the prize for young-ish-musician-sort-of-like-Bowie (because I’ve already handed that prize out to someone who shares his interest in electronic music) but I think Rufus and Bowie have a similarly theatrical performance persona.

I’m not jumping to any conclusions about what sort of composer Wainwright will be.  I realise Prima Donna might not be any good.  At very least he seems to be passionate enough about the form to give it a really good shot – non-traditional composers have done opera really well before.

But I love new music, and can’t wait to get to Manchester and have a look.

OR: The Prima Donna drinking game.  Take a shot each time…

1) Wainwright himself  is described as a ‘diva’ or ‘prima donna’, and/or the plot of the opera is described as autobiographical.

2) The word ‘popera’ is used.

3) Confusion over why the libretto is in French/why Wainwright is not performing.

But I am very much looking forward to seeing it.

Prima Donna at the Manchester International Festival.

UPDATE: read my review here.

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Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes tells the story of a misunderstood fisherman who just doesn’t seem to be able to keep hold of a decent apprentice.  The boys keep dying on him.  But Grimes is not really about fishermen or child abuse – it’s a story about the persecuted outsider, and music for the sea.

I saw the last show of the opera’s run, and so unfortunately missed out on seeing Stuart Skelton’s reportedly brilliant take on the title roll.  I’ve been lucky enough to spot Skelton in real life (backstage at a rehearsal of Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire in Sydney) and he is a very amiable man.  It’s great to see an Australian performer achieving such success overseas.  I doubt John Daszak was as strong as Skelton in the role – but I didn’t find that this interfered much with my enjoyment of the piece.  The role after all was originally written for Britten’s partner Peter Pears, who didn’t have great Wagnerian range like Skelton. The Act I aria ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’, apparently written on Pears’ only good note (E-natural a third above middle C) – was very beautifully performed by Daszak.

I have slight reservations about the ENO production.  Captain Balstrode (sung by the fantastic Gerald Finley of Doctor Atomic) was inexplicitly missing an arm.  Auntie (Rebecca de Pont Davies) cross-dresses in a vaudevillian tux.  Her two ‘nieces’ are dressed as identical school girls, who alternately pound the heads of their dolls into the ground and stroke each other’s thighs.  These drag and sideshow elements are intended to draw attention to the dance hall-esque parts of the score and evoke Kurt Weill.

This works to some extent, but it also interferes somewhat with the subtle way that more restrained productions of Grimes can make a very ordinary seaside village seethe with menace.  By making all the townspeople a little odd, the idea that  regular people are just as likely to be evil as those who stand out (like Grimes) is lost.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better minimal staging of an opera.  The main set pieces where three large benches, used to best effect piled up on each other to suggest Grimes’ cliff top hut.  The boy’s accidental death was brilliantly staged. A very strong production overall.


Peter Grimes
By Benjamin Britten

30/05/09
ENO at the London Coliseum

Atomic

I’ve just spent two hours transcribing a fifteen minute segment of Newsnight Review featuring an interview with John Adams and a roundtable discussion with Jeanette Winterson, Tom Service and Paul Morley. Frenzied argument is not easy to decipher at speed.

Doctor Atomic just seems to get people worked up.

Quoth the composer:

“I often say that next to abortion and gun control, there’s no better way to get people shouting at each other than opinions of opera. You know, all you have to do if you want a dose of toxicity is to go on the blogs and read what people’s opinions are of Doctor Atomic.”

I’ll be spewing no toxicity here.  I enjoy Adams’ musical style and I find Doctor Atomic really moving.

The opera is set in Los Alamos, during the Trinity test of the atom bomb in 1945. It particularly focuses on the inner turmoil of Robert Oppenheimer, ‘father of the atomic bomb’. He was a very interesting man. Aside from being a talented physicist he also had a keen interest in poetry and may have once tried to kill one of his tutors at university with a poisoned apple.

From the Newsnight segment I also discovered that my arch nemesis Jeanette Winterson* cried three times in Doctor Atomic.  I did not cry three times.  But I was very moved by Gerald Finley’s stunning aria at the end of the first act ‘Batter my Heart’ (probably the best known piece in the opera) and the last fifteen minutes of the second act where Adams drags out the final countdown to the test explosion.

I was lucky enough to see Doctor Atomic in its first season in San Francisco in 2005.  I believe that the piece has been revised since then, but I didn’t notice any substantial changes.

This was a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and aside from Gerald Finley (who according to something I read recently has played Oppenheimer in every staging of this opera to date), Meredith Arwady (Pasqualita) and Sasha Cooke (Kitty) are also continuing their roles from the Met.  You can read about how John Adams hid from Ninox behind a hedge at the Met here.

Doctor Atomic
John Adams

London Coliseum
28/02/2009.

*Winterson is not really my arch nemesis, I’m sure her novels are very good. But her quasi political rants about the transformative power of words are a bit earnest. I heckled one once. Very quietly.

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Bluedog left a comment here recommending Scottish Opera’s La traviata and letting me know about the 10 pound ticket offer the Scottish Opera has going for under 26s, and it looks like a good deal – the price is good for any performance and all categories of seats.

I picked up a promotional postcard with an interesting Rorschac-like graphic:
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‘Decadence, love, despair: Everyone sees something different.

They also have a website about the offer.

Unfortunately I was dragging along a 27 year old (unfortunately for the ticket buying, not the quality of company!), so I went up to get day tickets and grabbed the last two at 1.15, they sell 50 or 60 on the day so the cheap tickets seem to be in demand.  Day seats are 8 pounds, and ours were on opposite sides of the auditorium – the front row and the second.  There were quite a few empty seats in the more expensive sections of the stalls, so maybe in tough economic times the company is feeling the need to advertise down market.

The performance was very good.  I tend to find Verdi so catchy it is exhausting, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen La traviata and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Violetta was played by Carmen Giannattasio, a wonderful Italian singer who dramatically upstaged the rest of the cast.  Richard Zeller was also very good as Giorgio Germont.  Federico Lepre was a decent Alfredo, but in comparison to Giannattasio his voice got a bit lost as he moved away from the front.  The cast also included an Australian singer, Catriona Barr, as Annina – a reletively small part done very well.

The production was new to Scottish Opera this year and the design was one of the best traditional opera stagings I’ve seen in some time – great dark colours and decadent costumes.  Brief stage nudity, as I’ve come to be expect.  The use of tracking curtains midway up the stage stopped the entirely interior-set story from becoming too static.

If I hadn’t been so busy last week I would have definitely gone to see it again.  Tonight was the last night in Edinburgh, but the production will be heading to Belfast early next year.

La traviata
Scottish Opera

Edinburgh Festival Theatre
19/11/08

The important issue of nudity in opera has finally been taken up by the mainstream media.

Read more of my ramblings about nude opera here and here.

I got to London from Brighton at about midday on Wednesday, hoping to find a ticket to Don Giovanni that night. The Royal Opera website indicates that cheap returned tickets are available four hours before the performance, so I went along at three to try and get one after checking into my hotel. I didn’t have much luck. Apparently these are actually called standby tickets and while they theoretically exist the box office never has any to sell. Returned tickets are sold at the original price as soon as they come back. He said I would have a good chance of getting something if I came back at about six, as they usually got a few last minute returns. Or he said I could wait underneath the white banner (he pointed to the side of the corridor) and he would call me back when anything came in.

I decided not to loiter in the hallway for hours and instead walked over to the National Gallery to spend some quality time with Cézanne and Manet. The National Gallery is a magical place. I was just wandering around for what I thought was just a little while, but when I looked at my watch I had been there for two and a half hours and had to head back to Covent Garden.

National Gallery

Back at the box office a very nice woman told me that the cheapest returned ticket she had was a hundred and ninety pounds. I told her that I couldn’t quite spend that much and considered waiting with the little group of desperate looking people with backpacks that had congregated under the white banner (clearly they didn’t have a hundred and ninety pounds either). But I smiled and thanked her and said “That’s such a pity. I was so looking forward to seeing it.”

I’ve found over the past few days that grovelling to box office staff is well worth the effort. She tutted sympathetically and said she could take another look.

“No, no, no. Wait. Do you have twelve pounds fifty? I can see a standing room ticket here for you that just came in. It’s a very good place to stand too, no poles.”

So I thanked her profusely and bought the ticket. Although she did seem a little surprised that my name was already in the ROH database. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t overdo the ‘poor cultureless guttersnipe from the colonies’ act.

Before the performance an announcement was made:

“Unfortunately, Marina Poplavskaya is recovering from a severe respiratory infection [collective groan]. We are delighted that she will still be performing the role of Donna Anna [audience cheers], but she asks for your understanding. [slightly less audible groan].”

Opera audiences are funny. I didn’t notice any weakness in Poplavskaya’s voice, but I can imagine how difficult it must be as a singer to make the decision whether or not to perform when you don’t feel your voice is at its best.

The current cast:

Leporello: Kyle Ketelsen
Donna Anna: Marina Poplavskaya
Don Giovanni: Simon Keenlyside
Commendatore: Eric Halfvarson
Don Ottavio: Ramon Vargas
Donna Elvira: Joyce DiDonato
Zerlina: Miah Persson
Masetto: Robert Gleadow

(Conducted by Charles Mackerras)

It was a wonderful performance. Usually my favourite part of Don Giovanni is Donna Elvira’s ‘Ah, Chi Mi Dice Mai’ in the first act (and DiDonato sung it very well), but at this performance I was completely blown away by Miah Persson as Zerlina. Her voice was incredibly strong and clear. Kyle Ketelsen was also particularly good as Leporello.

The bad thing about standing room tickets is sore knees. The good thing about standing tickets (aside from affordability, of course) is you get to hang around with some interesting people. Almost as soon as the curtain went up on the second half a man to my left started yelling ‘I want my seat! I always find a seat by the second half!’ and running up and down the aisle until he was forcibly removed from the auditorium.

The design of the production was traditional. Fairly static in the first half, but with plenty of stage lifts, flaming hellfire and swinging hands of judgment in the second. In that respect this production makes an interesting comparison to Opera Australia’s modern Don designed by Elke Neidhardt currently on at the Sydney Opera house. The OA production has modern costume and abstract sets (not a problem in itself), but with several cuts. So Don Giovanni, serial seducer (1003 women in Spain alone) does not refuse to repent in the face of commands from the ghostly spirit of the man he’s killed. He gets high and dies. These young people. They like the drugs. Apparently.

Unlike the OA version, this production kept the final sextet where the other main characters have a lovely little sing-song telling the audience to learn from the mistakes of Don Giovanni and be good. But just because a performance is faithful to the original score doesn’t mean it has to be too serious about the morality lecture at the end. After the final note in this production the curtain rose to reveal a devilish red lacquered box inside which Don Giovanni stood naked with a naked woman in his arms.* Heaven would be no fun for the Don.

Tickets for the first performance of Don Giovanni last week were sold through an offer in The Sun newspaper, all for thirty pounds or less. A bus full of page three girls was stationed at Covent Garden to hand out cast sheets. According to a report in The Guardian on Wednesday the young audience was more formally dressed than at those attending regular performances, better behaved (no mobile phones went off, there was no exodus at interval) and applauded the performance very enthusiastically. If readers of The Sun can enjoy a traditional unabridged performance of Don Giovanni, I don’t see why Opera Australia had to try so hard to make it relevant to modern audiences.

Don Giovanni
Mozart

Royal Opera House
10/09/08.

*More than one person has stumbled across this blog by searching google for ‘nude opera’ and ‘naked + opera’. Naturally I’m thrilled. With any luck this will become one of the world’s best blogs on nude opera. Although I’m not sure what sort of competition I have in this endeavour and I really don’t want to find out.

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