Archive for Coliseum

Dr Dee

Posted in History, Music, Opera, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 10, 2012 by telescoper

Last Friday evening, after my afternoon shift at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, I took the chance to go and see something a bit different, in the shape of English National Opera’s production of  Dr Dee at the Coliseum. I hadn’t really known what to expect of this beforehand, actually, but needed to find a bit of distraction in London and was fortunately able to persuade my lovely friends Joao and Kim to come with me to try it out.

Dr Dee is based on the life of John Dee, the famous Elizabethan mathematician, astrologer, courtier, and spymaster. Written by Mr Damon Albarn, former lead singer of the popular beat combo Blur, it’s not exactly an opera but more of a renaissance-style pageant depicting the life of this mysterious character in a series of dramatic tableaux. Not being at all naturalistic in style it would have been quite difficult to follow what was going on without the programme notes, but each episode was brilliantly realised with dramatic staging, dancing and stunning visual effects. Rufus Norris was responsible for the overall direction of the piece. Hat’s off to him. I wasn’t really expecting the music to be so interesting, either; mixing pop vocals with orchestral music from the period could have been awful, but actually I warmed to it very quickly.

An influential polymath, Dee was, for a time, a trusted confidante of Elizabeth I and he was recruited by Sir Francis Walsingham to set up a network of informants and decipher Catholic codes in the build-up to the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada. Dee is also purported to be the inspiration behind Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. What’s particularly interesting about him from an historical perspective is that lies at the crossroads between magic and science. A gifted mathematician, Dee developed an obsession for the occult after meeting a very dodgy character called Edward Kelly, who persuaded Dee that he could talk to angels in their own language with the help of a crystal ball, a technique known as scrying. Dee eventually went mad and was alienated not only from Elizabethan society but also from his own family. Had he lived at a slightly different time, he could well have ended up burned as a heretic. His story reminds us that the distinction between rationality and irrationality has not always been so clear. Alchemy and the occult could co-exist in many great minds alongside mathematics and empirical study so it should not surprise us that science and pseudoscience both seem able to thrive in modern culture.

The run of Dr Dee at ENO has now ended, but I’m definitely glad I plucked up the courage to go and see it. It’s a truly imaginative work and produced a memorable theatrical experience.

The Magic Flute

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 15, 2009 by telescoper

On Saturday 14th February I went to the Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane to see ENO‘s revival of Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

I’ve lost track of how many different productions I have seen of this strange and wonderful masterpiece, but this one was as good as any I can remember. It is sung in English rather than the original German (all productions by English National Opera are in English, in fact). Translating the libretto isn’t at all necessary for this work because the plot makes no sense whatsoever in whatever language the words happen to be sung or spoken. It’s all so weird it might as well be about particle physics.

Technically it’s not an opera, but a singspiel: the recitative – the bit in between the arias – is spoken rather than sung. It’s really more like a musical comedy in that sense, and was originally intended to be performed in a kind of burlesque style. That blends rather nicely with the Coliseum‘s own history: it only became an opera theatre relatively recently; before the Second World War it was  a Variety Theatre or  Music Hall. The Magic Flute also has many points of contact with the pantomime tradition, including the character of the  villainous Monostatos (Stuart Kale) who, at this performance, was roundly booed at his curtain call in authentic panto fashion. His retaliatory snarl was priceless.

I won’t even attempt to explain the plot, if you can call it that, because it’s completely daft. It’s daft, though, in a way that much of life is daft, and I think that’s the secret of its enduring popularity. Mozart’s music carries you along and constantly seems to be telling you not to take it all too seriously.

This production never gets bogged down  or, worse, stuck up its own backside as some I have seen. Instead it’s played straight to the gallery and none the worse it is for that.

The English text is very clever, including dextrous rhymes and plenty of puns, but I’d still have to say I prefer the original language because it fits so much better with the music. The Queen of the Night’s aria “Die Holle Racht” has so many harsh Germanic sounds in the original which just can’t be done in English with anything like the same effect.

I don’t think there are any really weak points in this production. The sets are simple but stylish and effective, and it all looks and sounds wonderful. Tamino (Robert Murray) is earnest and rather dull, but then I think he’s supposed to be. It might have been a mistake for him to go bare-chested in Act II though, as I don’t think man boobs were really what the audience wanted on St Valentine’s day. The comic momentum was kept on the boil by on the crazy birdcatcher Papageno (Roderick Williams). Pamina (Sarah-Jane Davis) was a little hesitant at first, and can’t act at all well, but sang her show-piece aria in the Second Act with real emotion. Robert Lloyd’s Sarastro added the right amount of gravitas without the pomposity the role sometimes generates; his bass is a lovely voice too, deep and warm with a rich texture to it. And then there’s the Queen of Night (Emily Hindrichs) who also seemed a little hesitant as she found her way through the difficult coloratura of the famous Act I aria that culminates in a nerve-jangling Top F, but was awesome in the second act when calling for the death of Sarastro. Her costume and hairstyle were more than a little reminiscent of Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein. The three ladies had similar hairstyles, but without the side streaks and in a shocking blue. I couldn’t help thinking of Marge Simpson.

There were many funny moments, perhaps the best being when Papageno and Papagena fasten their safety belts before being hoisted into the rafters in a giant bird’s nest. Papageno even managed a reference to a Valentine.  I wonder if that was put in specially for Saturday?

Boris Godunov

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , on November 16, 2008 by telescoper

The production of Boris Godunov now playing at the Coliseum has had mixed reviews, largely because of the performance of Peter Rose as the tormented Tsar. I usually don’t find myself agreeing very much with what music critics say and I had been looking forward to English National Opera’s take on Mussorgsky‘s opera for some time. My trip to London this weekend gave me an excuse to see it for myself and form my own opinion.

The opera is based on a play by Pushkin which tells a story based on the historical figure who ruled Russian from 1598 until 1605. In the play, Boris Godunov only becomes Tsar after murdering the son Dmitriy of the previous Tsar, Ivan IV (“the terrible”) and is plagued with ghostly visions of the dead boy. His guilt drives him into madness and eventually to death, although in this production of the opera the audience doesn’t see how he dies.

In Tim Albery’s staging, the action is shifted forwards in time to pre-revolutionary Russia, with the costumes and designed hinting a time round about 1900. The production uses Mussorgsky’s original version of the opera which is not divided into acts, but spread across seven scenes (lasting about two hours and fifteen minutes) which are performed without an interval. The limitations of the minimalistic set are more than made up for by wonderful use of lighting at one point bathes the stage in gold and at another turns it into a chill Moscow streetscape.

The update of the period allows Albery to give this production a dimension that is entirely new. The ENO chorus deliberately conjures up the idea that revolution might be imminent. At several points the chorus appear in huge numbers on stage to be held at bay by only a few soldiers with rifles. This is a very effective device, especially since the chorus is in such good voice. The passion and attack of the mob is unleashed only sparingly but when it is it is very effective in providing a vocal backdrop to the developing plot.

Mussorgky’s music for Boris Godunov is romantic, richly textured, even lush in places and full of wonderful melodies. As you can imagine from the storyline it’s also rather dark and sombre, much of it in the basso profundo region.  That also goes for the singers: there is no conventional tenor role, though basses and baritones proliferate among the cast.

The one thing the music doesn’t have is a great deal of dramatic contrast, which I think must be why it appears to be difficult for the principals to bring their characters fully to life. It’s almost as if the opulence of the score holds them back. The other difficulty is that there are so many characters with not much time for the audience to get to know their personalities. Although they all sang well, I still felt they were strangers at the end. The one really outstanding performance in there was Brindley Sherratt (as the “chronicler” an old hermit called Pimen) who gave his character real depth and pathos.

And as for Boris himself? Was Boris good enough? I think Peter Rose actually sang very well and the limitations of his acting have been overemphasized by the critics. There aren’t that many opera singers who can act well, and he is certainly far from the worst I’ve seen. His voice is relatively light for a bass and he didn’t have the bottomless range that is really needed to get across the angst of the remorseful murderer.  In the scenes with Pimen (another bass) he generally suffered by comparison with his opposite number’s much richer sounds at the  low end of the register.

So, not for the first time, I am glad I ignored the critics and went ahead and bought my tickets for this. As it turned out I was sitting quite close to John Nettles (who plays Tom Barnaby in Midsomer Murders) and Jane Wymark (who plays his wife, Joyce,  in the same series). I half-expected there to be a murder during the performance.

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