Showing posts with label Glyndebourne. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Glyndebourne. Show all posts

Friday, June 30, 2017

Soprano flying high under the planes

Lise Davidsen as the Prima Donna, Nicholas Folwell as the Major Domo

Glyndebourne's Ariadne auf Naxos, directed by Katharina Thoma, has taken a lot of flak for its updating to the British 1940s. But it's actually rather good. It's been tightened up since the first run in 2013, the action flowing more slickly and convincingly; the air raid that finishes the first half does not seem incongruous at all. Part 2, in which the house is transformed into a hospital with shell-shocked patients and a suicidal Ariadne, has the aspect of a concussion-dream for the Composer, who does not vanish despite having nothing to sing. He/she appears to learn, watching Ariadne and Bacchus's final duet, that it is love that saves us, not death. This message is very much all right with me.

Moreover, with Cornelius Meister's lively, affectionate conducting, leader Peter Schoemann on great form in the violin solos and a very special cast, the score seemed to take wing and fly. Given the chance to change something about the production, I personally would cut only the straightjacketing of poor Zerbinetta, simply because it's too visually busy while we're trying to listen to all the dazzle.

Yes, that cast: plaudits are more than due to Angela Brower as a heartfelt Composer, Erin Morley as a vivid Zerbinetta, AJ Glueckert as a full-throated Bacchus (an injured daredevil pilot, in case you wondered) and the three nymphs-turned-nurses, along with Björn Bürger as an adorable Harlequin, Nicholas Folwell as the bossy little Major Domo and, of course, Thomas Allen as the Music Master, a role from which he's become indivisible. But there's no way this could be termed that critical favourite, a 'uniformly strong cast' - because there was nothing uniform whatsoever about our Ariadne.

From Norway, aged 30, please welcome the winner of Plácido Domingo's Operalia 2015, the utterly astounding Lise Davidsen. She also won the Queen Sonja Music Competition 2015 and this extract from Tannhäuser was filmed there. Just have a listen...



Vocally megawatted, toweringly tall, expressively direct, Davidsen is blessed with top notes that could ping us all the way to the moon, an eloquent middle range and a dark velvety lower register that virtually says 'Isolde' the moment you hear it. (In this interview with the Observer's Fiona Maddocks, she explains that she started off as a mezzo and wanted to be Joni Mitchell...).

Thinking of the few singers who have made a similar effect on first hearing, at least on me, I can only compare the thrill of disbelief and wild joy that her voice inspires to initial, never-forgotten encounters with the sonic glories of Anja Harteros and Nina Stemme. If she can do this at 30, imagine where she could go from here. Please, dear world, take good care of her.

And I'd appreciate it if good old Autocorrect would stop changing her name to Davidson whenever I type it, because I expect to be writing about her a good deal more in the future.

Ariadne auf Naxos is on through July - find dates, times and tickets here.

A word of warning: Southern Trains is having another work-to-rule and there are many cancellations for those trying to get to Lewes. Check before you set out, and leave plenty of time.


If you enjoy reading JDCMB, please consider making a donation by way of voluntary subscription to its year of development, A Year for JDCMB, here. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A secret history for Ariadne

Glyndebourne's favourite Strauss opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, is back and open, with a strengthened revival and an intriguing new cast including Lise Davidsen, Angela Brower, Erin Morley and AJ Glueckert. When the production was first staged in 2013 I went to visit the archivist and the director to interview them for The Independent, so it seems an apposite moment to re-run a select part of that feature. Don't miss the story of Rudolf Bing and the potties.

Erin Morley as a Zerbinetta for the 1940s
All photos by Robert Workman

An English country house; a rarified ivory tower in which to explore high art; the performance of tragedy and comedy alike; dinner al fresco; and that’s just on stage... Glyndebourne is back with Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and its first half concerns precisely such a situation. Nevertheless the concept dreamed up for it by the German director Katharina Thoma feels close to home for another reason. It was inspired by the World War II transformation of Glyndebourne itself into a centre for evacuees from east London.

Angela Brower as the Composer
When the floorboards of Glyndebourne’s Old Green Room – a panelled gallery in the Christie family’s manor house – were taken up for refurbishment in the early 1990s, they revealed an unexpected treasure-trove. Down the cracks between the boards had fallen layer upon layer of playing cards, greeting cards and little lead toy soldiers. This was a legacy of the time when, following the outbreak of war in 1939, Glyndebourne had hosted a hundred evacuated children aged between one and six. Archive photographs show the Old Green Room as a dormitory filled with rows of small beds; the Christie children’s nursery transformed into a sick bay, complete with uniformed nurses; and the tiny newcomers playing in the gardens, patting lambs on the farm and discovering that milk comes from cows, not bottles.

Glyndebourne’s archivist, Julia Aries, explains that the estate manager had seen which way the wind was blowing. “He didn’t want Glyndebourne to be taken over by the Ministry of Defence and trashed,” she says, “so he put it forward as an evacuee centre. Then, on the ‘false start’ of the war, they promptly shipped 300 babies and 72 carers down here.” The estate could not cope with such a massive influx and the story goes that Rudolf Bing, the opera festival’s general manager, had to rush into nearby Lewes to buy up every available potty.

Eventually the numbers settled to a third of the first rush, and country life with play-based learning and plenty of fresh air began for Glyndebourne’s new inhabitants, under the direction of a matron, who, in a somewhat unfortunate choice, termed herself the Commandant. The cook was able to amplify food rations with rabbits from the fields and eggs from the farm; and, supplied with drums of Klim powdered milk by some Canadian soldiers who were billeted in nearby Firle Place, she created makeshift ice-cream to give the little ones a treat.

Lise Davidson as Ariadne
Official photographs, mainly taken in summer, made the children’s existence look idyllic; but there is no doubt that some had been traumatised by their experiences in London or by being removed from their families. A newspaper clipping describes “one child who had refused up till then to open his mouth or make friends turned scarlet with ecstasy when he found himself clasping a lamb, and was happy and normal from that day.”

The opera and the family fared less well. The former ceased to function in 1940 and the company scattered. The music director Fritz Busch and artistic director Carl Ebert, who were both refugees from Nazi Germany, headed respectively to Buenos Aires and Turkey; Audrey Mildmay, Lady Christie, who was herself a well-known opera singer, took her two children to Canada for safety. Sir John Christie stayed behind, listening to his wife’s voice on gramophone records. He was all too aware of the irony that his house was filled with children while his own were 3000 miles away.

Katharina Thoma, who won second prize in the European Opera Competition Camerata Nuova in 2007, visited Glyndebourne for the first time in spring 2009, after the company’s general manager David Pickard and music director Vladimir Jurowski suggested that she could direct Ariadne auf Naxos there as her UK debut. The trip sowed the seeds of an idea for the production. She has updated Ariadne’s setting to – well, an English country house in the 1940s.

AJ Glueckert as Bacchus
In the story, which the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal crafted as librettist for Strauss, our hero is the Composer, a youth creating his first serious opera on the myth of the god Bacchus rescuing Ariadne from Naxos. He is desperately upset when instructed that his lofty work must be performed simultaneously with a competing comedy due to time pressures over dinner and fireworks. The second half shows us the Composer’s opera and what happens when the comedy troupe, led by the virtuoso soubrette Zerbinetta, interrupts Ariadne’s laments. But the opera transcends all its troubles, concluding with a sublime love duet for Ariadne and Bacchus.  

“The idea of setting it in wartime came about because I felt that in the music there were more existential issues to worry over than the protagonists in the Prologue actually do,” says Thoma. “If you listen to the end of the Prologue, when everything breaks down, it sounds like a major catastrophe.”

Therefore, instead of serving as an opera-within-an-opera, the second part offers a continuity of narrative. The Composer, injured, observes the depressed and suicidal Ariadne from his hospital bed, the house having been transformed not into an evacuee centre but into a hospital treating the wounded from the Battle of Britain. “Observing her, trying to help her, and seeing what happens to her and Bacchus, he experiences a maturing process that leaves him better able to cope with the real world outside his ivory tower,” Thoma suggests.

The Ariadne set designs by Julia Müer are based generically on English country houses of that time, but the closeness to Glyndebourne will probably be self-evident. Thoma arrived there in April and has been staying in the house, as the creative team usually does during rehearsals. “Every morning I wake up and think I am on the set of my opera,” she remarks.

Learning about Glyndebourne’s fortunes during the war, Thoma says she was impressed by the way that in Britain “turning a manor house into a hospital was a typical thing, because people needed each other and held together”. It might seem risky for a German director to choose a wartime theme for her first UK production, but Thoma’s generation can perhaps take a new perspective on those years. “For me it was fascinating to see how British people have dealt with the subject in the past and still do,” she says. “They seem very open and positive.” [NB This article first appeared in 2013. Events since then may now convey a rather different impression. jd.]

She viewed a documentary in which individuals who were in their twenties during the war described it as the happiest time of their lives: “That seemed astonishing to me, but I think it must in certain ways have been a great experience to go through this endurance, because they shared their hope and their strength and they overcame it together.”

...If this Ariadne auf Naxos highlights the atmosphere of changing times, perhaps that is no coincidence...

This is part of an article that first appeared in The Independent in 2013


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Meaty Hamlet

When I glanced down at the carrier bags and saw the two gigantic volumes of score, I realised the chap next to me on the Glyndebourne bus was none other than the composer of Hamlet, Brett Dean. "Why Hamlet?" I asked. He grinned: "Why not?"



Hamlet should be a gift for any composer - glorious soliloquies, poetry known to the entire land if not the whole world, a story of bottomless depth and endless possibilities for reinterpretation. It's not as if nobody has set it before: if I remember right, there are around 14 earlier versions, with Ambroise Thomas's effort the best known (though as Saint-Saëns said, "There is good music, bad music and the music of Ambroise Thomas...") Brett Dean's humongous new work for Glyndebourne, though, seems set to shred all competition into musical flotsam and jetsam.

Jacques Imbrailo, John Tomlinson, Allan Clayton
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
One thing you cannot do if you're turning a play like Hamlet into music is treat it with kid gloves. Dean and his librettist, the distinguished Canadian director Matthew Jocelyn, haven't. They have used only about a fifth of the actual play: Jocelyn has taken it to bits, reassembled it, restructured, redepicted, redreamed. After all, it takes, on average, about three times as long to sing a word as to speak it, so if you set every last line of Hamlet you'd end up with about 15 hours of opera. It would be possible to do it in other ways, retaining more of the poetic monologues which here are often boiled down to a mere handful of lines. But then something else would have to give; one might lose the grand sweep of the dramatic total, the ensemble work, the sonic colour with its imaginative flair.

Although you may find your favourite moments are missing ("Alas, poor Yorick" is in, but "To thine own self be true" is not) the work is masterfully structured. The impression, musically, is rather like a giant symphony of Mahlerian proportions plus some; dramatically it is full of different levels, new insights, magnificent company challenges and a vivid variety of pace and richly explored possibilities.


Symphonic Shakespeare

Allan Clayton as Hamlet
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
The opera's scenes seem to correspond roughly to the movements of a symphonic work in which the intensity rarely lets up. First, an opening dramatic exposition with slow introduction - Hamlet mourns his father at the graveside before we plunge into Gertude and Claudius's wedding party, at which the prince is drunk and disruptive; and the arrival of the Ghost, all the more chilling for the tenderness between Hamlet and his dead father.

The second main section opens almost as a scherzo, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern played by two skittish countertenors, and culminates in the play-within-a-play - lavishly decorated with a totally brilliant onstage accordionist plus deconstructed lines from Hamlet's soliloquy that pop in as self-referential touchstones. The 1hr 45min first act closes with the desperate confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude and the murder of Polonius - a great central climax that leaves Gertrude psychologically eviscerated. We all need the long interval to get our breath back.

Allan Clayton and Barbara Hannigan as Hamlet and Ophelia
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Next we turn to Ophelia's madness, death and funeral - an eerie slow movement, full of startling writing that includes a good proportion of the work's best and most interesting music. The dramatic pacing is notable here, building up to an absolute cataclysm as Hamlet cries "I loved Ophelia"; similarly cathartic is the multifaceted finale, with the sword fight and multiple murders that nevertheless retains Horatio's determination, as the match is agreed, to up Hamlet's quota of prize horses to 11. The rest is...silence.

The opera has been planned with Glyndebourne's auditorium in mind. A group of singers take their places in the orchestra pit - and sometimes in the balcony - being used, effectively, as instruments.  Indeed, almost everywhere you look there are people singing, thumping instruments or doing strange things with unusual percussive gadgets... The LPO tweeted this image from the score:



Electronics are subtly woven in, whether using sampled (apparently pre-recorded) extracts of the singers' lines or setting up atmospheric rumbles and roars. Even the more conventional aspects of the instrumentation are clever, clear, often ingenious; for instance, the countertenors of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are aurally shadowed by two clarinets almost trying to edge one another out of the way. As for the designs, Ralph Myers places the action in a Nordic Noir type of design featuring shiftable Scandic white walls with huge windows; Alice Babidge's costumes are contemporary in style, which makes Claudius's crown look faintly ridiculous, but I suspect it's meant to be. Neil Armfield's direction is so organic a part of the work that it is hard to imagine it done in any other way.


To thine own self be true...

To say that it's a superhuman effort, and not only for the composer, is not saying enough. Dean and Jocelyn have risen to the challenge of transforming the play with fearless aplomb, and in so doing have created giant roles for their lead singers.

Allan Clayton's Hamlet may prove the ultimate making of this rising-star British tenor. He is on stage almost all the time; we rarely see anything from anyone else's point of view. A doomed, bearlike desperado, he travels from agonised grief through madness real or imagined and out the other side to the fury of his final (expertly performed) sword fight with David Butt Philip's Laertes. It's a huge sing for this often classically-oriented performer - we have loved his Mozart and Handel although, most recently, he was pushing the boat out further as David in Meistersinger - and he proves himself not only in glorious voice but a master of the stage in every way. For Barbara Hannigan's Ophelia, Dean has created ethereally high, dizzyingly complex arabesquing lines, offset by Sarah Connolly as a persuasive Gertrude, hard-edged in character but mellifluous and radiant of voice. Sir John Tomlinson is the Ghost, as well as the Lead Player and the Gravedigger - an intriguing alignment of the three figures - and owns those scenes with his outsize presence and sepulchral tone.

The chorus frames the action with plenty of impact, plunging into "Laertes shall be king" to launch the second half with maximum oomph. There's also a rewarding plethora of smaller roles, luxuriously cast: Rod Gilfrey as Claudius, Jacques Imbrailo as Horatio, Kim Begley as Polonius and Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. As for Vladimir Jurowski's conducting, I doubt anyone else could have pulled this off even half so magnificently.

I am reliably informed that some of the stage blood found its way onto a first violin part in the orchestra pit. At least, I think it was stage blood. Pictured left...

You can see Hamlet in a cinema relay on 6 July. Other performances can be found and booked here, and we are promised that the opera will be included in the Glyndebourne tour, with David Butt Philip taking over in the title role.


If you've enjoyed this review...please consider supporting JDCMB's development over the next year by making a donation at this link: https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb





Friday, May 19, 2017

Meet Glyndebourne's new Violetta



Kristina Mkhitaryan
Photo: Emil Mateev
This summer at Glyndebourne is dominated by Tom Cairns' production of Verdi's La Traviata, which gets not one run but two, the second in August, the first starting this Sunday. The first of their Violettas is the Russian soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan. I was fortunate enough to attend the dress rehearsal yesterday, but One Does Not Write About Things Until They Open, so for the moment let's just say that you might like to hear her.

She is from Novorossyisk and is 30 this year. Above, she sings Gilda's aria 'Caro nome' from Rigoletto, fabulously airborne at the Bolshoi. Here's a little more about her.

A graduate of the Galina Vishnevskaya Theatre Studio, Moscow, Kristina went on to join the Young Artist Programme at the Bolshoi Theatre where she remains a studio artist. She has most recently won first prize at the Queen Sonja International Competition in Oslo (2013), 3rd prize at the Neue Stimmen Competition (2013) and the Viotti Competition in Vercelli (2014).

And more here from the Bolshoi.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Glyndebourne launches major new singing competition

Glyndebourne. Photo: glyndebourne.com/David Illman
Glyndebourne's announcement today of a new competition for young singers is a big deal indeed. The top prize in the biennial Glyndebourne Opera Cup will be £15,000 and a "platform for launching an international career"; the jury consists of directors, agents and head casting honchos from some of Europe's top operatic organisations; and Sky Arts is to televise an associated series of programmes. Preliminary rounds will be held in different cities and the finals at Glyndebourne itself. Dame Janet Baker is honorary president. 

Intriguingly, they have decided to focus on a different composer every time the competition is held - and for the first session in 2018 it is Mozart, with idiomatic accompaniment provided by the OAE. 

The contest is the brainchild of Glyndebourne's general director, Sebastian Schwarz, who says: 
“I’ve been on the judging panels of a number of singing competitions and have seen what works and what doesn’t. When I arrived at Glyndebourne, with its giant reputation for discovering exceptional talent, it seemed an incredible opportunity to design the perfect singing competition from scratch. To me this means offering maximum benefit to those who enter. This is reflected in the jury which comprises esteemed colleagues representing houses that, like Glyndebourne, have a lot to offer competitors as they seek to develop careers. Our ambition is to establish The Glyndebourne Opera Cup as among the premiere competitions of its kind and we are delighted to be partnering with Sky Arts to bring this to a wider audience.”
Singers up to the age of 28 are eligible. Applications open later this year and preliminary rounds will be held in January in Philadelphia, London and Berlin, with the final next summer at Glyndebourne. The jury is:


  • Sebastian F. Schwarz, General Director, Glyndebourne (Chair)
  • Barrie Kosky, Artistic Director, Komische Oper Berlin
  • David Devan, General Director and President, Opera Philadelphia
  • Joan Matabosch, Artistic Director, Teatro Real de Madrid
  • Sophie de Lint, Artistic Director, Zurich Opera and Director designate of Dutch National Opera
  • Fortunato Ortombina, Artistic Director, Teatro La Fenice, Venice
  • Pål Christian Moe, Casting Consultant for Bayerische Staatsoper Munich and Glyndebourne
  • Maria Mot, Associate Director, Vocal & Opera, Intermusica



Friday, March 25, 2016

A farewell to the home pages

The Independent produces its last print edition tomorrow. Many unknown quantities remain regarding the future - as I'm a mere freelancer I work from home and I know nothing, but a great many superb journalists are losing their jobs and/or their columns, there's been a roaring silence thus far concerning future arts coverage and let's say I'm not holding my breath regarding classical music articles.

So here's what's probably my last piece, barring some miracle, and I'm glad to say it's a Glyndebourne preview. They've got an absolute peach of a season coming up and I enjoyed a lovely chat with Gus Christie - but it has to be noted that if you want a top-price seat for Meistersinger it'll cost rather a lot. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/glyndebourne-preview-seats-at-britains-best-known-opera-festival-this-summer-will-cost-up-to-300-a6946276.html

My heart is with my friends and colleagues today, editors, writers and columnists, people at the very top of their profession who in some cases have devoted almost their entire working lives to that newspaper and never ceased trying to make it the best in the business. I'm proud to have worked with you for 12 years and I am going to miss you very, very much.

Over and out.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Finnish National Opera's chief conductor steps in to Glyndebourne's Meistersinger


Glyndebourne has drafted in the German conductor Michael Güttler to take over Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from the indisposed Robin Ticciati. Hailing originally from Dresden, he is principal conductor of Finnish National Opera, where he has recently performed the same work. He'll be along to start rehearsals next week. More about him here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Ticciati is out of Glyndebourne's Meistersinger

Sad news from Glyndebourne that its music director, Robin Ticciati, has had to withdraw from conducting Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at this summer's festival. He is recovering from surgery from a herniated disc in his back.

Robin says:
I’m incredibly disappointed to have to withdraw from what would have been my first ever Wagner opera. I was so looking forward to being reunited with David McVicar for the production and would like to wish the company all the best as they start rehearsals. It is my great wish to continue with my second engagement at this summer’s Festival, Béatrice et Bénédict; I’ve been advised that this is a realistic prospect and my attention is focused on achieving a swift recovery to fulfil this.”
They'll announce a replacement conductor "in due course".

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Glyndebourne baby arrives!


Many congratulations to soprano Danielle de Niese and her husband Gus Christie, chairman of Glyndebourne, on the birth of their baby son, who arrived today. Glyndebourne tells us that mother and child are doing well.

Here's some musical champagne to celebrate...

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

David Pickard to head the Proms


Some very welcome news yesterday from the Proms, which has appointed a new director at long last. And it's not a BBC insider with an axe. It's David Pickard of Glyndebourne - a charismatic, well-liked, forward-thinking, online-aware guy who seems, to many of us, an inspired choice. I've expounded a few thoughts on the task ahead of him in today's Independent.

Here is the Director's Cut, a slightly longer version.


The BBC Proms has named its new director at last: David Pickard, who is currently general director of Glyndebourne. The appointment process has been lengthy – it is 14 months since Roger Wright resigned from the job – but one hopes that the organisation has taken its time in order to find just the right person.

Pickard’s appointment has surprised many in the music world; it was widely expected that a BBC insider would be chosen, possibly one ready to wield an axe. Instead, this decision appears to signal a willingness to be open to the new, the forward-looking and the creative. Pickard has brought all these qualities to Glyndebourne; and that opera house’s continuing success despite the crash years suggests that he is no stranger to helping an institution weather a blast.

Wright’s shoes at the Proms won’t be easy to fill. His determination to think big reaped dividends, bringing to fruition ambitious projects such as a tie-in with the 2012 Olympics and, the following year, a complete Wagner Ring cycle for the composer’s bicentenary year, conducted by Daniel Barenboim and featuring some of the world’s finest Wagnerians singers – each opera accessible to promenaders for a mere £5.

Pickard is bound to face thorny challenges. The BBC licence fee is due for a rethink next year; any changes to the funding model can scarcely help but affect the Proms. At Glyndebourne Pickard has presided over an institution that receives public funding only for education work and touring – the opera festival relies entirely on private money. He will now need to apply the diplomatic skills he has honed during 14 years dealing with sponsors, donors and patrons to fighting the Proms’ corner in the boardrooms of the BBC.

The Proms’ position as “the world’s greatest classical music festival” – as it trumpets itself – will demand maintenance in the programming department and requires a fine balance between the new and risky and the tried and tested. Expectations land on the festival’s shoulders from every direction – some call for more premieres, others for more Mozart; some may demand more BBC tie-ins, while others regard the occasional foray into pop or musicals (each happening about once a season) as the End of the World As We Know It. Pickard must steer a slalom course through all of this.

Then there’s the brave new world online. Almost every year the Proms announces further digital initiatives – this year’s innovation is a Proms App – and Pickard must make sure that they keep pace with the ever-more digitally aware younger audience. Under his direction Glyndebourne was the first UK opera house to stream performances live online for free and to send its productions to cinemas for HD relay. All of this is surely a must for the Proms to consider in the years ahead.

But above all Pickard needs to embrace the scale of vision for the Proms that Wright established. This means not only continuing the mission of bringing world-class classical music to the widest possible audiences. It also means doing so with a flair that can make the finest events an experience to remember for a lifetime.

Meanwhile, there's a very nice job up for grabs in East Sussex. Arts administrators fond of opera, picnics and sheep should form an orderly queue.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mrs Christie changes trains


The soprano Danielle de Niese and her husband, Gus Christie of Glyndebourne, are expecting a baby at the end of this month. The irrepressible Danni had to pull out of The Merry Widow at the Met - "can-can dancing and acrobatic lifts when your waters might break..." didn't seem a good idea, and she couldn't have flown home again. But she's planning to be back on stage for the Ravel double bill at Glyndebourne in August, all being well - and she wouldn't give up the Last Night of the Proms "unless I was dead".
Recently, en route to a charity gala with her tell-tale bump disguised beneath the drapes of a Vivienne Westwood gown, she changed trains at Clapham Junction. A hand on her arm, an "Excuse me, but…" – and there on the station platform, she declares, was Dame Vivienne Westwood herself: "She spotted her dress first and then said – 'Oh, it's you!'.."
My interview with her is in today's Independent. 

Here's a little video from Hello magazine, made last year. (I think this particular journal here enjoys its JDCMB debut...)


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Meet Jonathan Kent

I interviewed the director Jonathan Kent for The Independent, trailing the opening tonight of his celebrated production of The Turn of the Screw at Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Do catch it if you can. Interview is in today's Radar section, but somewhat chopped, so here's the director's cut.



Search online for “Jonathan Kent” and you might discover he is the adoptive father of Superman. As it happens, the real Jonathan Kent, 68, the versatile theatre director, has nurtured many super stagings across an eclectic variety of styles and genres. I catch him during a break from rehearsals for his new Gypsy at Chichester Festival Theatre, starring Imelda Staunton; simultaneously, Glyndebourne is reviving for its autumn tour his production of Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw. 

A former actor himself, born in South Africa and resident in Britain since the late 1960s, Kent was joint director of the Almeida Theatre with Ian McDiarmid between 1990 and 2002; but since testing his operatic wings at Santa Fe in 2003, he has soared in this field. 

Kent describes himself as “a theatre director who does opera”, rather than a specialist. “I was occasionally asked to direct an opera while I was running the Almeida,” he says, “but opera books you three or four years ahead and it was always impossible because theatre operates on a much shorter timescale. One of the glories of being freelance is that I can now take on more opera and I’ve had a very happy and fulfilling time.”

He insists that working with singers is not so different from working with actors: “It’s rather a canard to think that singers don’t want to act,” he says. “They absolutely do – they are interested in the psychology of their roles – and they want to be recognised for it, especially now that so much is being filmed.” 

Psychology is more than central to The Turn of the Screw. Britten’s opera is based on Henry James’s novella in which a governess tries to save two children from what she suspects are malevolent spirits bent on their destruction. “It’s about the nature of being haunted” says Kent, “and the exploration of what evil is – whether there is such a thing, and how we generate our own evil.” 

This production, first created for Glyndebourne On Tour in 2006, has travelled well – it been taken up by Los Angeles Opera, among others – and Kent says he is “thrilled” by its longevity. It makes use of contemporary devices such as filmed projections, while nevertheless placing the action firmly in the 1950s, in which era Britten composed it; the mix gives it a timeless feel. “That was a decade when social hierarchies were in place, however shakily – governesses and housekeepers ‘knew their place’ and also had credibility,” says Kent, “but it also marked the end of a sort of age of innocence.” The two ghosts sing a terrifying line from WB Yeats: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” 

“The opera is different from the novella because the ghosts inevitably are corporeal: they sing, they exist and there’s no question about it,” Kent continues. “The ‘thin skin’ of a window separates reality from imagination and keeps feared things at bay, but of course it’s completely translucent and permeable.” 

The projections, which Kent says he wanted to resemble the wobbly old home movies he remembers from his childhood, were mostly filmed at Glyndebourne itself, apparently more out of necessity than design. “Still,” he adds, “one could almost do a production of this opera that travels around Glyndebourne as an installation. It has a lake, an old house – everything is there.” 

Unlike certain other directors, Kent’s stagings do not have recurrent hallmarks; he brings each an individual approach on its own terms. For Glyndebourne he has created visions as distinctive as what he terms “a firework” of celebration in Purcell’s The Fairie Queen for the composer’s 350th anniversary in 2009, last year’s venture into Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, and a powerful Don Giovanni in the style of Fellini’s La dolce vita.

At the Royal Opera he has tackled Puccini: his Tosca is a detailed period-piece that has been filmed with the all-star cast of Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel. But earlier this year, his Manon Lescaut – again with Kaufmann, singing opposite the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais – transferred the action squarely to the present, drawing out the squalid nature of its tragedy. Perhaps inevitably, some critics took against it. 

Tosca demanded to be done in period,” Kent says. “There’s so much historical reference; it’s absolutely specific. But Manon Lescaut explores many of our current preoccupations – the exploitation of women, the cult of celebrity and the collateral damage of all that – so I am unrepentant about not having done that opera in powdered wigs.” 

Does he ever feel that critics just don’t get it? “If one’s waiting for critics to ‘get it’, one could be waiting a long time,” he laughs. “You can only do what you do and hope people will like it.”


The Turn of the Screw launches at Glyndebourne on Saturday 18 October before touring to five venues across the country. To book tickets go to: Glyndebourne.com  


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Meet...Tara Erraught

Rising star alert: Irish mezzo Tara Erraught is giving her London debut recital at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday afternoon. She is then singing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne. I've been following her career for a good few years as she's worked her way up, not least via the Bavarian State Opera's young artist programme, and her enthusiastic advocates include pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who introduced and accompanied her in a big outdoor concert in Amsterdam a few years back. I asked her for an e-interview... First, an extract from La Clemenza di Tito in Munich...




JD: Tara, tell us about you. You’re from a big family in Ireland? How did you start to sing?  

TE: I am one of three children, but we grew up on my grandfather’s farm on the east coast, with all of my mother’s family.
        I began to play the violin aged five, as we had a wonderful orchestra in the primary school, and all of my family had learned before me. However, when I was ten I was taken for my first singing lesson with the wonderful Geraldine Magee in Dundalk, with whom I studied until the age of 17. I was a huge fan of singing and I knew every word to the cassette tapes of Neil Diamond and the hits from the 60s that my parents had, so it was a good time to learn an appropriate song for a young girl! I loved it from the very beginning - there was never any question of which I preferred.

JD: What have been your big career breaks so far? Which roles/concerts have you enjoyed most up til now?

TE: I have been so lucky! Really blessed to have such opportunities. Firstly, I have been blessed with wonderful teachers, without whom one could not tackle wonderful opportunities when they arise. Before we mention professional success, I should mention how important it was to my career becoming a member of the opera studio of the Bavarian State Opera. That was already a "big break". Directly after the third year of my undergraduate degree, they offered me a position in Munich, which of course I jumped at! Two immensely important years that helped form my performance abilities, stage technique, understanding of the industry and audition practices. Without these things I would not be where I am today. 
            Since then, I think most everybody would say my big break was jumping in at five days notice to sing Romeo in the first night of Vincent Boussard's production of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. It was an amazing evening, one that I will never forget for the rest of my life, so I hold that opera very close. I sang the title role in a first night of Rossini's La Cenerentola at the Vienna State Opera in 2013, another wonderful time, with a composer I LOVE! Of course I must also mention my last role debut as Sesto in a premiere production of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito at the Bayerische Staatsoper this past March. Another production I will never forget, a stunning role, surrounded by my best friends on the stage, this was a very special experience! 
JD: What has it been like to be on contract to the Bavarian State Opera? What does their young artist programme offer that is special? In what ways has it been good for you?
TE: It is wonderful to be a principal Soloist at the Staatsoper, not only as a performer but also because many other incredible performances and artists surround us on a daily basis. I loved my time in the opera studio. There were only eight members and not only did we have singing lessons, repertoire coaching, drama class, language classes, but also one full production a year, as well as small roles on the big stage, the ability to watch performances, and more importantly, to watch other artists rehearse. What I learned there about my own voice, my performance abilities, was incredible, but it was so very important to watch older singers, to learn the tricks of the trade through observation.
JD: You’re about to sing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne. How do you like Glyndebourne? And how do you like Octavian? What are your thoughts about his character?

TE: Glyndebourne is the most stunningly beautiful place! You can’t imagine what it is like to take a break from rehearsal, and enjoy some air while walking through the gardens or around the lake! I mean, it’s something from a dream. I am loving our rehearsals, the cast and collective colleagues are a great team, and although we laugh a lot, we get a lot done! 
Without giving away much about my character, I will say that I don't play him, I try to inhabit him, and in turn I think there is quite a depth to this young man. He is not in an easy situation from any angle, and he goes from being a young lover, to being a man... it’s an amazing growth to experience. However, to say any more would be giving things away... I must say, I LOVE this music, it enraptures you! This is my first Strauss main role, and I tell you, it pulls at your heart strings! At our first musical rehearsal I didn't even make it to the end of the first act without shedding a few tears of total awe.

5. Tell us about your programme for the Wigmore recital - how did you choose it? (It is an unusual line-up of Brahms, Britten, Wolf and Haydn.) Are you excited about singing at the Wigmore?

TE: I cannot tell you how excited I am to make my British recital debut in the stunning surroundings of the Wigmore Hall. I have just finished my second recital tour in the USA and I loved every minute, so I am so looking forward to doing a recital here! A recital is a wonderful way to get close to the audience, to feel them, what they like, and to discover new levels in your own performance.
            The programme: I wanted to do some of my favourite repertoire, which reflects where my path has taken me thus far. The Wolf and Brahms, both German, are so so much fun to sing, goodness me, I mean, talk about a belly full of fire! I desperately wanted to do some Britten as I have not yet had the pleasure to sing any of his operas, but I have always been a big fan of his music, and to take his folks songs out and present them seemed like the perfect idea! Finishing with the Haydn, I began singing in Italian as I learned my vocal technique, so to come back to this language is always a pleasure, and I just LOVE this piece! 
JD: What are your dream roles for the future? 

TE: There are so many - it all depends on where the voice decides to go. I would love to sing a Donna del LagoItaliana in Algeri andOtello from Rossini as well as Mozart’s Susanna from Figaro - those four are right up there on my list. Some day, I want to revisit Romeo, I will also look at Der Componist from Ariadne auf Naxos, Adalgisa from Norma, Orsini from Lucrezia Borgia and Sarah from Roberto Deveraux. But right now, I am happy with the roles I am singing! 

JD: Any more highlights for the rest of the summer or the 2014-15 season that you’d like to flag up?
TE: I am very much looking forward to taking a supporting role this autumn in a new production of the Makropulos Case in Munich, a holiday performance of Hansel with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, singing Barbiere and La Cenerentola in Hamburg next winter, making my US operatic debut in Cenerentola at Washington National Opera, and returning home to Dublin for my first solo gala with the RTE next June.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Um, in case you were wondering where I was...


...I've been in New York and - in between shopping, museum-hopping and seeing all my oldest and dearest friends - spent a rather pleasant hour in a press room at the Met with a certain tenor, who recovered from his bout of flu in time for a good chinwag. I've been trying to make this happen for years rather than months...and it was worth the wait.

JFK - Jonas Fluey Kaufmann, natch - is in NY preparing for a new production of Werther, which opens on 18 Feb, directed by Richard Eyre and also starring the glorious Sophie Koch as Charlotte (see the new issue of Opera News, just out, for my cover feature about her). HD cinecast is on 15 March. Be there. You'll like it.

It was also wonderful to see Glyndebourne's production of Billy Budd - imported wholesale, orchestra, chorus, Marks Elder and Padmore and all - receive a massive ovation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the other night. New Yorkers, you have two more chances to see it this week. Here's a rave review from the New York Times.

Just flew home from...JFK. Incredibly, only 5 hrs 40 mins.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

More precious than rubies

Who can find a virtuous woman? And what does "virtue" mean? I had a fascinating talk with Fiona Shaw, who is directing Britten's The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. The first night is on Saturday and the cast includes Kate Valentine and Allan Clayton/Andrew Dickinson as the Choruses, Claudia Huckle as Lucretia and Duncan Rock as Tarquinius, among others. Part of the interview appeared in The Independent the other day, and here is the director's cut...




Fiona Shaw is worried about our view of “virtuous” women of stage, page and history. Earlier this year, the renowned Irish actress and director took the role of the Virgin Mary on Broadway; but the production, Colm Tóibín’s play The Testament of Mary, sparked protests outside the theatre by members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.

“Who is the Virgin Mary? We discovered her to be a mother very angry about her son being crucified,” Shaw says. “But apparently it is sacrilege to suggest that a ‘virtuous’ woman is more interesting than the bland version that’s been handed down to us.”

This is a concept more than pertinent to Shaw’s latest project: she is staging Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Its storyline is outwardly simple, but the emotions behind it are anything but; and its final attempt to extrapolate meaning from tragedy heightens its ambiguities. 

The story is based on a Roman legend that has been reinterpreted in many forms over the centuries. The army officers have tested their wives’ fidelity in their absence; only Lucretia, wife of the general Collatinus, has emerged untainted. This provokes jealousy among the soldiers whose spouses have strayed. To test her virtue, or indeed to prove it, the prince Tarquinius visits Lucretia’s house by night and eventually rapes her. When Collatinus returns he places no blame on his devastated wife; but rather than live under such a shadow, she takes her own life. 

“What is virtue?” Shaw demands. “It’s interesting that we meet Lucretia when she is at her most frustrated and fed up, with her husband away. ‘Virtue’ is nothing to do with not being frustrated, or with not having another glass of wine because you want to stay up; after all, it’s also virtuous to want to be awake because you can’t bear to go to bed without your husband. That doesn’t come in any guise of prudery. Lucretia’s an immediate person, not a saint.” The central role is sung by the mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle, who will, Shaw says, give a “feisty” interpretation.

The opera, which was premiered at Glyndebourne itself in 1946, must have been shocking in its day, when rape was very much a taboo subject. “I find it quite shocking still,” Shaw remarks. “It’s painful, what is being exposed, and the music is so brilliantly constructed that you feel pierced by it. It leaves Mozart standing, some of it.”

Nevertheless, the composer – famously homosexual in an era when this was still illegal – was not always at his best when creating female characters. His finest are often motherly figures, like the Governess in The Turn of the Screw; but his Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana never becomes as real as the eponymous heroes of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, outsiders amid hostile societies that reject their troubled or non-conforming visions of life. Lucretia is often regarded as his one truly convincing heroine; and Britten and his librettist, the poet Ronald Duncan, provide her with a wealth of concealed or unconscious depths, desires and conflicts. 

“Britten is so good at dealing with the most complex issue: what is it to have secret desires and be punished for it?” Shaw says. She has no doubt that in the opera the rape is precisely that: Lucretia refuses Tarquinius at every turn, is ultimately forced, and the act drives her to suicide. Yet there is still a suggestion of an attraction to him, upon which she refuses to let herself act. “What a hell to be put through: to be forced to do something that your moral sense would make you not do, but your instinct would desire you to do. In that way, with that double twist, the opera is nearer to a Greek tragedy than anything else. At the end she tells us the she knows the consequences of living now, admitting to desire – not to acting on desire, but to having desire – would be a blemish on her marriage. So she’s the most honourable person – and the opera throws a little light on a very dark part of our psyches.

“Britten is looking under the stone and seeing the muddy waters that lie beneath us all, maybe beneath morality itself,” she continues. “The Greeks were very good at this – but the notion of Christianity is that Jesus looked with compassion at us, but our sin is to be human, is to be flawed, is to have these contradictory feelings and try to deal with them. Lucretia is the most upright person. She is at home, passive, she made no action – but somewhere her secret desire came to her in the night. And she resisted. And yet it ruined her marriage. That’s the tragedy of it.” 

Britten adds a male and female ‘chorus’, who watch and comment on the action throughout; Shaw says that in the new production they are a present-day couple whose marriage is suffering and who work through their own issues by observing Lucretia’s story. The opera’s Christian element is articulated in their bleak yet compassionate postlude: “Is it all?” they ask.

She has introduced a further twist still: “I want it to be about the destruction of a family, not only a couple.” Lucretia and Collatinus therefore have a small daughter, an eight-year-old who witnesses the horror of her mother’s death: “It’s to do with the continuity of children; the consequences for the next generation are worth showing.” 

Lucretia, in Shaw’s opinion, is “up there with the classics,” as she declares. “It’s explores that terribly deep psychic schism that’s in us and it’s a brave and beautiful opera. Humans in it are not all terrible; Tarquinius is not a baddy and Lucretia is not a goody. That’s the beauty of opera: it allows you to meditate on the complexity of our choices. I think it’s fantastic that Britten writes so much about that. The chilly unease that he brings to most of his work is to do with the fact that the major chord of society’s vision of itself is not his experience.” 

Is Britten, then, his own outsider, that “different” figure at the heart of most of his operas? “Yes,” says Shaw. “But we all are.”

The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne Touring Opera, from 19 October. Tour dates and booking online: http://glyndebourne.com/production/rape-of-lucretia-tour-2013

Fiona has also written a 'director's diary' which is out in The Guardian today.