Tuesday 10 July 2012

Buxton Festival - Double Bill (now with images)

The Maiden in the Tower Kate Ladner and Richard Berkeley-Steele, Buxton Festival
The Maiden in the Tower
Kate Ladner and Richard Berkeley-Steele
Double bills are always a problem, how to make a pair of disparate operas work together. And the canon is littered with one act operas which languish because they have no obvious mates. Few pairings function with the complementarity of 'Cav and Pag', so it was both canny and fortuitous that Buxton managed to find not one but two operas both of which deserved to be staged and which worked together as a double bill. Sibelius's The Maiden in the Tower is his only completed opera, early Sibelius but Sibelius nonetheless and deserving of a hearing. Rimsky Korsakov's Kashchei the Immortal is a little masterpiece and it is puzzling why it has not been staged in the UK before. Both works were receiving their first UK staging on 9 July in productions by Stephen Lawless, conducted by Stuart Stratford.

At the pre-concert talk Lawless had talked about how he was wary of double-bills, but that this one had worked because in fact both operas had very similar plots, men who lock women up; or as Stephen Barlow put it, Ladies in Detention, the festival's nickname for the double bill. The festival played both operas with the same cast using the same set (designs by Russell Craig) and Lawless had found interesting ways of not only linking the two but dealing with the wonky dramaturgy of the Sibelius.

The Maiden in the Tower was staged in 1896, to a Swedish libretto by a well known poet Rafael Hertzberg. It is the only one of Sibelius's operatic projects to reach completion. Sibelius was serious about opera and if conditions in Finland had been different we might have had a series of operas from his pen. The Maiden in the Tower has some fine music in it, but Hertzberg's libretto is a little perfunctory at times and Sibelius is not always in command enough to remedy this. The composer always talked of revising the opera, but never did so, which is a shame. The premise is very simple, the maiden is locked in a tower by the bailif; there is a long prelude during which we have to assume that the bailif ravishes her, afterwards, she has a long prayer, asking the Virgin for forgiveness. The chorus sings of the coming of spring, but also taunts the girl's father that she has sold herself for money. The girl's lover appears and the whole thing is brought to a swift conclusion by the lady of the manor.

Lawless's solution to the dramaturgical limitations was to play the whole thing at a children's party, with all the characters as children except for the governess. The bailif's son (Owen Gilhooly) is a bully and imprisons the young girl (Kate Ladner) in a large tower-like dolls house during his birthday party celebrations; she is complicit with him, playing a game. He climbs in with her and during the instrumental prelude we are led to believe things happen; afterwards you realise that it is no longer a game. The postman (Robert Poulton) arrives, lamenting the loss of his daughter and he is simply taunted by the other party guests. Here Lawless brilliantly exploited the way that children can be casually cruel. The only one to seek for the maiden is her lover (Richard Berkeley Steele). All is solved when the governess arrives, Emma Selway in the only adult role.

Ladner was brilliant in the way she articulated the way a game went far further than intended; at the concluding party she remained huddled in the corner with shock. Gilhooly was very believable as the selfish bully and Berkeley Steele fine, but underused as the lover.

The setting was roughly the 1950's with all the children in fancy dress. The chorus were particularly brilliant in the way they entered into the spirit of the piece.

Sibelius's music isn't perfect; it doesn't have that strong sense of character which an early work like Kullervo has. But there are some strong moments. Ladner's delivery of the prayer was ravishing and the following chorus was one of the strongest moments in the piece Lawless's revision of the dramaturgy ensured that the strongest musical moments were taken seriously but that the weaker ones were skated over as children's games..

At the end of the opera, the bailif's son stood, facing a wall with his mask (of the magician Kaschei) on the back of his head.

Kaschei the Immortal Emma Selway, Owen Gilhooley, Robert Poulton, Buxton Festival
Kaschei the Immortal
Emma Selway, Owen Gilhooley, Robert Poulton
As  Kaschei the Immortal opened, Kaschei (Richard Berkeley Steele) was stood in similar clothes, in the same position with the mask on the back of his head. In Lawless's scenario, Rimsky Korsakov's opera takes place in the same room many years later. The bailif's son has grown up into Kaschei the Immortal and he has imprisoned the Princess (Kate Ladner). The Princess was the young girl grown up, and she was now imprisoned for real. She was still imprisoned in the dolls house, now fitted out with heavy wire mesh, a real cage in which she sat cradling a doll.

Berkeley Steele's Kashchei was a rather creepy middle aged man with long straggly beard and hair, intent on cutting up newspapers. At first, I'd wondered if Lawless and designer Russell Craig were going to eschew magic entirely. But first of all, Kashchei allows the Princess to look into the magic mirror, this is in fact a TV set and first she sees herself, then Kaschei's daugher (Emma Selway) and finally Ivan (Owen Gilhooly) who is searching for the Princess.

At this news, Kaschei panicked and decided to send the Storm Wind to warn his daughter to entrap and kill Ivan. The Storm Wind was the post-man (Robert Poulton), imprisoned in the grandfather clock. When the Princess freed him, she confided her tale to him asking him to tell Ivan.

In the first opera, when the children at the party had mobbed and tormented the postman, he had sat on a rocking horse. The rocking horse again appeared, this time as the means of the Storm Wind's travelling to Kaschei's daugher and in both the orchestral interludes, shadow images of the Storm Wind riding his horse were projected onto the scenery.

In order for Kaschei to sleep safely he had to cast a spell to secure his realm. Berkeley Steele used a record player. When he described his daugher, Kaschei had talked of the men she had seduced and killed to protect him and a cupboard had opened up to show all their embalmed heads. Now, during the magic music, the cupboard opened up again to reveal the heads, this time the real heads of the chorus and it was these disembodied heads who sang the chorus part in the spell; a brilliant and creepy touch.

To go to sleep, Kaschei climbed into the dolls house tower with the Princess.

During the orchestral interlude the scene changed to Kaschei's daughter's realm, the set did not change but John Bishop's highly effective lighting ensured that we knew changes were afoot. Kaschei's daughter (Emma Selway), was busy sharpening her sword and knives, and preparing opiates. When Ivan (Gilhooly) arrived, she seduced him, gave him opiates and was about to kill him but was unable to.

Finally the South Wind arrived with the message from Kaschei; furious at being imprisioned he delivers Kaschei's message to his daughter but also deliver's the Princess's message to Ivan and whisks Ivan off back to the realm of Kaschei.

Here things got complicated. The lovers were re-united, but Kaschei was understandably furious. His daughter appeared by magic (through the cupboard), having fallen in love with Ivan. He refused to be parted from the Princess and Kaschei's daughter weeps. Her tears, the first she has shed, destroy her father and turn her into a willow. All ends happily.


At the very end, Lawless added a twist, one that referred back to the events of the first opera. Despite the rapturous music for Ivan and the Princess, she was listless and finally instead of leaving with Ivan went back to the body of Kaschei. The curtain came down with the Princess sat mute, embracing the dead Kaschei/bailif's son.

Rimsky Korsakov's opera works on all sorts of levels; plot-wise it belongs to the group of late operas, including The Golden Cockerel, which can be seen as satirising the Tsarist regime (Kaschei is the Tsar and the Princess is Russia). But it also works as a simple fairy tale; Rimsky Korsakov's score is complex enough to take this. Though he does use folk music in it, he works it into a web of more Western counterpoint, but then counter-balances this with various experiments in tonalities and scales (much of this was helpfully explained in the pre-concert talk). All this is used to characterise the different protagonists, but the result could seem very modern and in 1902 caused some comment.

In 2012 Rimsky Korsakov can still seem modern, and we are less tolerant of producing folk-based operas as jolly romps. Usually I am rather sceptical of productions which insist on altering the dramaturgy, particularly when audiences have not seen the opera before; you can't really do a production which is a commentary on the work when the work itself is unknown. In this case, Lawless and his team gave us a modern interpretation which remained true to the plot, you could see Berkely Steele's Kaschei as a magician or as a sad old man (Steptoe gone bad or the Austrian who locked his daughter in the basement). The production was admirably non-specific, whilst being detailed in its own internal logic. The only major dramaturgical change was in Lawless not having a resolutely happy end, and frankly, I can live with that.

After all, the result created interesting resonances between the two operas. With one small gesture, Kate Ladner made us question everything we had seen before and see it all in a new light.

Richard Berkely Steele was quite brilliant as Kashchei, managing to combine the creepy old geezer with some shining heroic tones and the perpetual suggestion of danger and threat. The role seemed to suit his voice and he was transformed from the first opera, almost unrecognisable. I certainly hope that we get to hear him in it again.

Ladner was similarly transformed, no longer the naive maiden of the Sibelius, but a more complex character. Rimsky Korsakov's music for her was full of exotic longing and Ladner had an edge to her voice which aptly responded to this. Accurate and lyrical, but with hints of other things, never simply a victim.

Owen Gilhooly was suitably heroic as Ivan, unusually Rimsky Korsakov casts the hero as a baritone rather than a tenor. Emma Selway was seriously creepy as Kashchei's daughter, attractive to look at but warped underneath with a strong liking for sharp knives. Unfortunately her tone went a bit wobbly when she put it under pressure, so her performance of the music sometimes lacked the edge that she brought to the drama.

Robert Poulton was admirable in the small but important role of the South Wind. The chorus, who sang the final chorus off stage, were again in strong form.

Stuart Stratford clearly had the measure of both pieces. He coaxed the best out of the Sibelius and clearly loves the Rimsky Korsakov (in fact he studied for three years at the Rimsky Korsakov State Conservatoire, where the composer himself taught). Rimsky Korsakov's score is strongly theatrical (Lawless at the pre-concert talked likened it to a Bernard Herman score for a Hitchcock film). It has a darkness and wit about it which Stratford brought out, keeping the pace going so that the drama never lagged.

The Northen Chamber Orchestra were on fine form. In the Sibelius I missed the sort of luxuriant string tone which you would have got from a bigger body of strings, but in both works the players worked well with the unfamiliar material and gave strongly characterised performances.

Both works were sung in translations by Rodney Blumer (who write opera reviews as Rodney Milnes). He had produced good, direct singable words and the cast put them over well; we hardly needed the title projected at the sides of the stage. At the pre-concert talk Blumer had explained how he had aimed for a timeless element, eschewing words which would not have been around at the time of composition. This ensured that, though the setting of the operas was updated, the performance had a lack of modishness and a depth to it which was a great help.

Butxon Festival are to be greatly credited for allowing us to see two contrasting but interesting works. We need to see Rimsky Korsakov's opera again and perhaps this double bill might tempt companies into performing both works together.

See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012
City of London Festival 2012

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