Archive for English National Opera

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.

Le Grand Macabre

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on October 4, 2009 by telescoper

According to the programme notes, Le Grand Macabre is an anti-anti-Opera in that it is to some extent a reaction against an artistic movement (“anti-Opera“) that sought to avoid and/or subvert the conventions of Opera. Thinking as a physicist, on the basis that C2=1, you would be forced to call this work an Opera, but György Ligeti‘s extraordinary apocalyptic surrealist farce is unlike any Opera I’ve ever seen. The production now running at English National Opera (which I went to see last night, Saturday 3rd October 2009) is a fabulously over-the-top realization of this wonderfully quirky piece of  musical theatre.

I’m not sure I can really describe the plot as there isn’t one as such. The Opera is split onto four scenes which are like comic sketches bearing only slight narrative relationship to each other. The result is a bit like Monty Python meets The Magic Flute. However, Mozart’s Opera managed to become an acknowledged masterpiece without its plot making any kind of sense, so in that respect this work is certainly in good company!

It probably suffices to explain that Le Grand Macabre is actually Death (in the Opera his real name is Nektrotzar and he’s played by Pavlo Hunka). He keeps appearing, complete with scythe, trumpet and egg-timer and warning of the forthcoming End of the World. Somehow, though, there’s always an excuse for it not arriving; just like the British railways. At one point, just as he seems to be getting it together to send everyone to their doom, two characters ply him with wine so he’s too sozzled to blow the Last Trump. The idea of getting Death too drunk to organize Armageddon is just one example of the  bizarre sense of humour that courses throughout this piece.

Other principals include the lovers Amando and Amanda who are dressed in costumes of flayed skin, like refugees from the Bodyworlds exhibition. These two are at it like rabbits all the time, but also have lovely music to sing while they’re on the job. Apparently their names were originally supposed to be Spermando and Clitoris, but it was decided that was a bit too rude…

We also have the court astrologer (Astradamors; Frode Olsen)) and his dominatrix wife (Mescalina; Susan Bickley), the latter with fake comedy boobs, a full wardrobe of SM gear and an excessively hairy “spider” (nudge nudge). Prince Go-Go is the effete ruler who wears a gold suit  and who blames the impending annihilation of his land on his ministers, a role brilliantly sung by counter-tenor Andrew Watts. I’ve never heard a male singer with such effortless control at the extreme end of his vocal range.  And while we’re on about stratospheric singing, I have to mention Susanna Andersson who doubles as the goddess Venus (in a diaphonous suit that looked like it was made of pink candy-floss) and Gepopo, the chief of the secret police (in full modern body armour).

Le Grand Macabre is set in the imaginary Bruegelland, inspired by the paintings of Peter Bruegel and Hieronymous Bosch and this production borrows a great deal of imagery from their paintings.  The critics have devoted a great deal of attention to the spectacular set, but reading about it doesn’t really prepare you for the real thing. After a short piece of film projected onto a giant screen, the curtain goes up to reveal a huge-scale torso of a naked woman that looms over the stage (see below). The head of this figure moves, clever projection effects give it facial expressions and change the appearance of its body into, e.g., a skeleton, its eyes sometimes glow red, and the whole thing also rotates so it can be viewed from different directions and used in different ways in different parts of the Opera. At various points characters emerge from the mouth, nipples, and other orifices. Yes, from there too!

All the action is carried out in front of, on top of, or inside this amazing structure. In one scene the figure has been cut in half exposing its insides, an image clearly originating in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights:

Soldiers first force their way on stage through huge wobbly intestines, then the empty body cavity becomes a nightclub in which amongst other things, the dancers do a hilarious skit on Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.

Making this whole thing work to such stunning dramatic effect is an amazing achievement, and this production is worth seeing just for that. At least part of the joy of Opera is the sense of spectacle and this is indeed spectacular.

But I think it’s also important not to let the scenery and staging overshadow the rest of the work too. Although its critical reception has been very mixed, I thought Le Grand Macabre was absolutely superb. My companions thought it was a blast too.

For a start, it is hilariously funny (although quite rude and sexually explicit). Part of the humour is crudely lavatorial: there’s a sequence where two characters have a obscene name-calling contest which would have schoolboys chuckling with glee, and the whole show abounds with knob jokes and scatological remarks. However, there’s another level to the humour that derives from references to other composers and operas. My musical vocabulary isn’t that wide, but I definitely spotted irreverent quotes from Monteverdi, Beethoven, and Wagner. The final scene of the opera – a kind of epilogue for which all the principals return to the stage  and sing sanctimonious platitudes to the audience – just has to be a pisstake of the ending of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The designers of the Opera also took a cue from the nature of the music, to make lots of visual jokes on stage. I’ve already mentioned the Michael Jackson reference – which was great – but there’s also more than a nod in the direction of Ridley Scott.

Don’t get the impression that this is just a kind of pastiche. Ligeti does  borrow ideas from elsewhere but there’s also a lot of his own uniquely quirky musical material in it too. From the Dress Circle we could see the orchestra pit filled with peculiar bits and pieces: sledge hammers, whistles, air raid sirens and the like. But there are passages with a fairly conventional orchestration that are just as  innovative as those for which the funny instruments and special effects are needed. I didn’t know much about Ligeti’s music before this performance, but I’m definitely going to listen to more of his work in the future.

So there we are then. My second Opera in two days, and both of them were superb. Le Grande Macabre, played to a full house at the Coliseum, and Friday’s Wozzeck were greeted with enthusiastic applause. I’m heartened that it’s not only La Traviata that bring people to the Opera. However, that’s all the Opera I’ll be seeing and writing about until mid-November.  Until then no doubt I’ll be returning to the real Bruegelland of UK science funding…

Doctor Atomic

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on March 1, 2009 by telescoper

It’s not often that my interest in Opera overlaps significantly with my career in Physics, but this Saturday night (28th March) was a definite example, with English National Opera‘s production of Doctor Atomic by John Adams providing the opportunity. I even went with a group of six physicists to see it.

The piece is, of course, centred around the personality of J Robert Oppenheimer “The Father of the Atomic Bomb” and is set in Los Alamos in the runup to the first “Trinity” test detonation of an atomic bomb in July 1945. Other physicists feature in the story, especially Edward Teller and Robert Wilson, and images of many more taken from their security passes are projected onto the set at the opening of Scene 1.

According to what I was told, John Adams originally engaged a librettist to write the text for the Opera but this didn’t work out, and a libretto was instead stitched together by Peter Sellars from a variety of sources, including the poetry of John Donne, the Bhagavad Gita, scientific documents, and assorted memoranda from Los Alamos.

This means that the work doesn’t really have a real narrative trajectory, and there is very little in the way of character development, but instead it resolves itself into a series of impressionist tableaux. Rather than attempting to provide the coherence that the libretto lacks through the music, Adams chose to work with what he had and not try to impose a larger structure on it via the score.

The result is fascinating but it’s not without its problems. I greatly admire John Adams’ music, which manages to be both innovative and accessible. There certainly are many places in Doctor Atomic where the music, words and drama come together to make wonderful Opera. Frankly, though, there are also some passages where it gets becalmed, especially in the domestic scenes between Oppenheimer and his wife which didn’t seem to me to add any special insight into the character of either. The Opera ends with the countdown to the detonation of the Trinity Test, but I thought this was also too long, robbing the event of some of its power, although the last moments and the explosion itself were brilliantly done.

This is a new Opera, first performed as recently as 2005 in San Francisco. This production is only the second, as it has moved directly to London from a successful run at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Many of the great operas which we now regard as standards went through several iterations before they arrived at their final version. This may happen to Doctor Atomic too. The running time of around three hours is by no means excessive by opera standards, but I do think it would work even better on stage if it were shortened quite a bit and tightened up to remove the longueurs from both acts and focus on building the tension as the test approaches.

I hope all this doesn’t sound too negative. It really is a fascinating and compelling piece. The ending, involving an empty stage and a tape recording of the words of a dying Japanese woman asking for water, moved at least one of our little group to tears.

And of course there’s that aria. At the end of Act 1, just before the interval, Oppenheimer is alone on stage while the prototype bomb is suspended behind him. His thoughts are expressed by the words of a Sonnet Batter my Heart, by John Donne:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,
Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Coming back to Cardiff on the train this morning I read a glowing review of Doctor Atomic in the Observer by Fiona Maddocks which referred to this aria as the greatest written since Puccini. I’m not sure I’d go as far as that, but it is truly wonderful, especially when sung as it was last night by the flawless Gerald Finley. It also struck me that it has many parallels with, and is as at least as good as, the aria When the Great Bear and Pleiades in Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Whether Doctor Atomic eventually comes to be regarded as a great Opera in the way Peter Grimes has remains to be seen, but I would bet my bottom dollar that this aria will anyway be performed many many times as a concert piece.

Fortunately, though, you don’t have to take my word for how good  it is. Since the Met version of this production has been released on video, I can end with Batter my Heart just as we saw and heard it last night, with John Adams great music stuttering uneasily at the start but taking on a radiant quality as the aria develops. Superb.

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?

Particle Physics – The Opera

Posted in Opera, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 8, 2009 by telescoper

A new season is about to start at English National Opera and I’ve been spending a lot of time and money recently getting tickets for some of the operas, as well as organizing the logistics of getting to and from London. Among the forthcoming productions is a revival of Nicholas Hytner’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte, K. 620).

I can’t remember how many times I have seen this opera performed nor in how many different productions. It’s a wonderful creation because it manages to combine being utterly daft with being somehow immensely profound. The plot makes no sense at all, the settings are ridiculous (e.g. “rocks with water and a cavern of fire”), and the whole thing appears to be little more than a pantomime. Since it’s Mozart, though, there is one ingredient you can’t quibble with: a seemingly unending sequence of gorgeous music.

When I first saw The Magic Flute I thought it was just a silly but sublime piece of entertainment not worth digging into too deeply. I wondered why so many pompous people seemed to take it so terribly seriously. Real life doesn’t really make much sense, so why would anyone demand that an opera be any less ridiculous? Nevertheless, there is a vast industry devoted to unravelling the supposed “mystery” of this opera, with all its references to magic and freemasonry.

But now I can unveil the true solution of problem contained within the riddle encoded in the conundrum that surrounds the enigma that has puzzled so many Opera fans for so long. I have definitive proof that this opera is not about freemasons or magic or revolutionary politics.

Actually it is about particle physics.

To see how I arrived at this conclusion note the following figure which shows the principal elementary particles contained within the standard model of particle physics:

particles of the standard model

particles of the standard model

To the left of this picture are the fermions, divided into two sets of particles labelled “quarks” and “leptons”. Each of these consists of three pairs (“isospin doublets”), each pair defining a “generation”. This structure of twos and threes is perfectly represented in The Magic Flute.

Let’s consider the leptons first. These can be clearly identified with the three ladies who lust after the hero Tamino in Act 1. This emotional charge is clearly analogous to the electromagnetic charge carried by the massive leptons (the electron, muon and tauon, lying along the bottom of the diagram). The other components in the leptonic sector must be the three boys who pop up every now and again to help Papageno with useful advice about when to jangle his magic bells. These must therefore be the neutrinos, which are less massive than the ladies, and are also neutral (although I hesitate to suggest that this means they should be castrati). They don’t play a very big part in the show because they participate only in weak interactions.

Next we have the quarks, also arrayed in three generations of pairs. These interact more strongly than the leptons and are also more colourful. The first generation is easy to identify, from the phenomenology of the Opera, as consisting of the hero Tamino (d for down) and his beloved Pamina (u for up); her voice is higher than his, hence the identification. The second generation must comprise the crazy birdcatcher Papageno (s for strange) and his alluring madchen who is called Papagena (c for charmed). That just leaves the final pairing which clearly is the basso profundo and fount of all wisdom Sarastro (b for bottom) and my favourite character and role model the Queen of the Night (t for top).

To provide corroboration of the identification of the Queen of the Night with the “top” quark, here is a clip from Youtube of a bevy of famous operatic sopranos having a go at the immensely different coloratura passage from the Act 1 aria “O Zittre Nicht, mein leiber Sohn” culminating in a spectacular top F that lies beyond the range of most particle accelerators, never mind singers.

There’s some splendid frocks in there too.

The Queen of the Night isn’t actually in the Opera very much. After this aria in Act 1 she disappears until the middle of Act 2, probably because she needs to have a lie down. When she comes back on she sings another glass-shattering aria (Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen), which I like to listen to when I’m writing referee reports. The first line translates as “The rage of hell is boiling in my heart”.

The remaining members of the cast – The Speaker and Monostatos, as well as sundry priests, slaves, enchanted animals and the chorus – must make up the so-called Force carriers at the left of the table, which are bosons, but I haven’t had time to go through the identifications in detail. They’re just the supporting cast anyway. And there is one particle missing from the picture, the Higgs boson. This accounts for the masses of other particles by exerting a kind of drag on them so it clearly must be the Dragon from Act 1.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,586 other followers