Sunday 7 February 2021

A Life On-Line: an operatic ghost story from OperaGlass Works, an urban fairytale from OperaUpClose, Francis Poulenc and rare Kurt Weill from the archives

Robin Norton-Hale & Rosabella Gregory: Sammy and the Beanstalk - Abigail Kelly, Tom Stoddart - OperaUp Close
Robin Norton-Hale & Rosabella Gregory: Sammy and the Beanstalk - Abigail Kelly, Tom Stoddart - OperaUp Close
This week we have a new film version of Britten's operatic ghost story from OperaGlass Works, a new opera for families based on a modern fairytale from OperaUpClose, Bryce Dessner's Concerto for Two Pianos live from Prague, and archive recordings of Kurt Weill's The Firebrand of Florence and Poulenc's The Carmelites/

Way back in February 2020, I interviewed Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson from OperaGlass Works during a gap in rehearsals at Wilton's Music Hall in advance of their production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw. Days before the first night, the performances were postponed/cancelled, and ultimately the production was re-invented as a film which has debuted on Marquee TV. You can read my (slightly revised) interview article on the blog, Never say Never

The film, directed  by Cadell, Thompson and Dominic Best, uses the whole of the theatre space, not just the stage, and makes the presence of cameras clear. Tom Piper's set gives us only a glimpse of Bly on the stage; the auditorium is filled with grass and trees in a non-realistic fashion, whilst the evocative foyer spaces are used for some of the more intimate, claustrophobic scenes.

Costumes (by Rosalind Ebbut) are completely in period, but there is one significant but telling detail; as the Governess, Rhian Lois wears a very modern hair-style. Lois is poised and quite knowing, often addressing the camera in a telling and direct way. Yet this very confidence seems to come over almost as delusion, that she is in control.

The ghosts, Robert Murray as Peter Quint and Francesca Chiejina as Miss Jessel, are firmly ghosts with remarkably stagey makeup which we deliberately see in close-up; another example of the production's showcasing the theatrical mechanisms of the work. The directors seem to take the opera's stage directions literally, and we are never given a hint that the Governess might have conjured the ghosts from her own psyche. Murray and Chiejina make strong ghosts, wonderfully seductive in their scenes with the children.

Leo Jemison is an unnervingly self-possessed Miles, and Jemison manages to make the character remarkably creepy by apparently doing nothing. There is no sexual frisson between Miles and the Governess (a trope common in modern productions), but neither is the tension between Miles and Quint very explicit either. Alys Mererid Roberts makes an engaging and naturalistic Flora, rather touching at the end. Gweneth Ann Rand gives strong support as Mrs Grose, making the character's position in the hierarchy clear, characterful yet subservient.

John Wilson conducts his Sinfonia of London, and whilst the musicians were recorded at Cadogan Hall the film does feature occasional glimpses of them in a slightly arch way.

The film makes you wonder what the vanished stage production would have been like, but it showcases a group of terrific performances as well as making a virtue of filmic necessity and creating quite a traditional creepy The Turn of the Screw. [Marquee TV]

Britten: The Turn of the Screw - Rhian Lois, Alys Mererid Roberts, Gweneth Ann Rand - OperaGlass Works at Wilton's Music Hall
Britten: The Turn of the Screw - Rhian Lois, Alys Mererid Roberts, Gweneth Ann Rand - OperaGlass Works at Wilton's Music Hall

Watching the film of the Britten I started to think about the role of Miles, and wondered what would happen if the part was played by a counter-tenor as a slightly older teenager. It would change the dynamic, but think that it might be intriguing. Discuss!

In December 2020, OperaUpClose released a new piece for families, Sammy and the Beanstalk, with words by Robin Norton-Hale and music by Rosabella Gregory, and the 30 minute play with songs is available on extended run until 22 February. Featuring Abigail Kelly as Sammy and Tom Stoddart as her Dad, the piece is directed by Norton-Hale with delightful hand-drawn, life-size theatre sets by designer Anna Bruder. Kelly makes an engaging heroine with Stoddart has her well-meaning but ineffectual Dad.The piece is a modern, urban fairy-tale involving a bean-stalk and moving walls, and a number of Gregory's songs have a definite sing-along feel, whilst Norton-Hale's plot does not quite go where you expect. Intriguing and totally delightful, the piece is only £5 to view and there are free tickets for those on low incomes. [OperaUpClose]

On Thursday, Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic were due to give a live concert in Prague with a new work by Bryce Dessner. As public concerts were cancelled, the event became a live-stream with Bryce Dessner's piece changed to his 2018 Concerto for Two Pianos written for Katia and Marielle Labeque, who played the work with Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic (Marielle Labeque is married to Semyon Bychkov). The opening of the concerto seemed to filter Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos and Ravel's Piano Concerto in G through Dessner's own distinctive post-modern musical persona. Through the three movements of his work, Dessner has written an almost continuous solo part, as the two pianist create a series of dazzling, free-flowing textures under and around which the orchestra moves. Rather than exploring the soloists' role as purveyor of bravura moments, the work explored a series of dramatic textures and contrasts, The second work in the programme was Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 in A minor 'Scottish' and strong, quite large-scale performance. [YouTube]

Kurt Weill found his feet on Broadway with Lady in the Dark and followed it up with One Touch of Venus. He would go on to write Street Scene, Love Life and Lost in the Stars, all of which did well on Broadway yet between Love Life and Lost in the Stars came The Firebrand of Florence, Weill's operetta about Benvenuto Cellini, based on Edwin Justus Mayer's play and with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. It is full of songs that you know, thanks to their being taken out of context, and it has a wonderfully rich orchestral score. Yet the piece failed on its first outing and has hardly been seen on-stage since. In 2000, Andrew Davis conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers at the Barbican in a concert performance which was released on disc (still the work's only major recording). On Thursday, BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast the performance. It featured terrific performances from Rodney Gilfrey as Cellini, Lori Ann Fuller as his beloved Angel, George Dvorsky as Alessandro de Medici, and Felicity Palmer as the Duchess of Florence, but Simon Russell Beale's witty account of the linking narration could not disguise quite how lame the work's plot seems today. Perhaps someone should think about writing a new book to rescue the music, hear for yourself as it is on BBC Sounds for 30 days from Thursday 4/2/21.

Poulenc: Carmelites - Jessye Norman - Metropolitan Opera
Poulenc: The Carmelites - Jessye Norman - Metropolitan Opera

More archive recordings, this time from the Metropolitan Opera which transmitted a 1987 broadcast of Francis Poulenc's The Carmelites, in John Dexter's iconic 1977 production with Maria Ewing as Blanche, Regine Crespin as Madame de Croissy, Jessye Norman as Madame Lidoine and Florence Quivar as  Mother Marie, conducted by Manuel Rosenthal. A terrific cast indeed, with a fine array of supporting players contributing to a stunning performance (in English). Ewing was perhaps a little too mature, her voice shading a trifle too close to mezzo-soprano; she had played Blanche when the production was new in 1977, here she seemed a little too positive at times. Norman was commanding and moving as the new Priores with Crespin stunning as the old Prioress. I saw Crespin in the role at Covent Garden in the 1980s (a production which featured Felicity Lott as Blanche and Pauline Tinsley as Mother Marie), and Crespin has played Madame Lidoine at the work's French premiere in 1957!  You can catch a clip on the Met website,  and the full opera is available on demand, [Metropolitan Opera]

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