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Monday, 23 December 2013

Roberto Devereux with WNO

Bristol Hippodrome

The three Donizetti queens were never intended as a cycle, but the fact that they represent a historical succession and contain four of Donizetti's most vocally and dramatically formidable female roles gives them a peculiar fascination, and their subjects are of course currently particularly fashionable in this age of Philippa Gregory fever*. The part of Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux is considered by many voice mavens to be the most challenging Bel Canto assoluta role, which is to say nothing less than the most demanding role ever composed for a woman's voice. Every voice will find different things more or less difficult, but in many ways it's hard to disagree with this assessment - the part is a virtual catalogue vocal techniques, requiring a very wide range, the most intricate fioratura, all dispatched with a dramatic vocal weight, and all this for great stretches of time. Most importantly, it goes to greater extremes than any of the contemporaneous bel canto roles in these things. It's the rarest done of the three Queens, so there's a certain morbid fascination and thrill in seeing someone tackle it.

It's very interesting to have a principal female character in an opera who is an older woman. Though a fictionalised piece of history, the action of this opera takes place 1598-160, when Elizabeth would have been between the ages of 65-68. As is to be expected in a role this challenging, it really needs a singer in their prime, and Alexandra Deshortie is not even nearly Elizabeth's true age. To age herself she adopts a very unusual physicality in which her movements are very angular and powerful, her posture stooped, and she has a limp that comes and goes. I found it all a little artificial and couldn't quite buy into it, and I did wonder what inspired it. After seeing the opera I looked for eyewitness reports of the older Queen - contemporary descriptions of her countenance and bearing are surprisingly and brutally honest, but notably comment on her grace and statelyness into her last years, so it's difficult to know where this idea came from.

Allesandro Talevi's production is rather arch, both revelling in and satirizing the gothic melodrama of Donizetti's opera. Madeleine Boyd's sets present an abstracted, quasi-modernised Tudor style, rich in deliberate anachronisms to create a "stylised historical" aesthetic just as Donizetti's libretto and music is. Matthew Haskins' lighting designs create a gloomy atmosphere, but Talevi's physical direction can't quite match the steampunk design for moody, referential, knowing grimness. The costumes, also by Boyd, are a mish-mash of styles, periods and fabrics and there are obvious references to Vivienne Westwood in the drooping grandeur of Elizabeth's dresses. The informative preconcert talk given by Sophie Rashbrook pointed out further similarities to the fashion designer in the person of Elizabeth herself - both are eccentric, powerful, ginger, matriarchal doyennes. There are strong visual elements in the production - one example that sticks in the mind is a nice piece of shadow play where the gigantic figure of Elizabeth is contrasted with her tiny ladies in waiting. In Act I Robert has brought Elizabeth a tarantula from his travels, which crawls around its cage; in Act II Elizabeth takes her revenge in a giant mechanical spider which is almost the definition of badass, even if it is also puerile, camp and silly. The opera is tricky, because so much of the action has already occurred when the curtain is raised, and much of the drama is psychological - sadly there's not that much insight offered into any of the characters in this production.

The central performances were quite strong. Alexandra Deshorties is in the rare position of having the right sort of voice for the role and basically sings the notes with expression, even if it's not the most ingratiating or flexible voice you've ever heard. The role doesn't call particularly for a beautiful sound it has to be said, and Deshorties certainly has her moments of acid and steel, but largely she does a good job musically in an impossible role. Leah-Marian Jones also has a very large voice, and again though it is not timbrally beautiful, she provides a musically very satisfying portrayal of Sarah because she has such an excellent legato and can effect beautiful nuances in the vocal line while maintaining full vocal support - the voice becomes beautiful through her musicianship - something not altogether common. Leonardo Capalbo's vibrato is a little wide at all times for my tastes, but he's definitely a tenor of some vocal accomplishment. I found his portrayal of Roberto hammy and self involved, but that might have been the production. As the Duke of Nottingham David Kempster has one of those rock solid voices where you just know that every single note in the entire opera will be hit without any risk. Some will like unfussy, solid singing like this, and again it's no mean feat to sing this consistently, but I found the timbral palette very narrow and as a result was not that interested in the characterisation. Daniele Rustioni's conducting throughout the evening was decent, certainly better than most of the ROH's recent bel canto offerings, though dramatic tension is never raised above "moderate" and it's difficult to transcend the score's tootling dum-de-dum sections without more urgency.

I'm glad I saw it and enjoyed what I could take from the production, but this was a decidedly odd evening of opera that didn't quite hang together well enough. In other news, the Bristol Hippodrome, just like the Birmingham Hippodrome where I saw the superb Lohengrin last season with the WNO, is an excellent venue for opera with very good acoustics and great sightlines. If only London had venues like this!

*this didn't seem to convert to there being a younger audience on the night I went.

The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne on Tour


The Rape of Lucretia makes a return to Glyndebourne after a hiatus of 67 years, and for me it wasn't quite the triumphant revival that others have found it. The opera has never held its place in the repertoire despite the fact that it comes from Britten's most musically fertile decade; the score has many beauties, but the central problem is all too obvious - the fanciful, wanky libretto by Ronald Duncan which Britten has to work around, rather than with to make this a viable drama. (Britten cannot be excused in this - after Auden he was too proud and insecure to work collaboratively with creative artists of his own level, and his work suffered as a result*.) Lucretia represents a retreat from the splendid grandeur of Peter Grimes, a stripping down and thinning out in the post war years. These tendencies are of course essential to the character of all of Britten's work, so it's not a break with the expected, and the fundamental themes - loss of innocence, and society against the individual and the same as in all his other operas, though very unusually we're dealing with a woman protagonist and there's not a prepubescent boy in sight.

Fiona Shaw's production uses a single set which is suggestive of several layers of reality all lying on top of one other. The two narrators (the Male and Female Chorus) are archaeologists, themselves romantically involved, poring over the ancient walls of their dig. (Hmm... archaeologist narrators who become involved in the action - sounds a lot like Katie Mitchell's production of Written on Skin...). But as much as a historical excavation, Michael Levine's set also suggests a crime scene investigation. Shaw attempts to salvage the libretto by making the "historical" Greek characters earthy, gritty and human, bypassing entirely Duncan's florid language and purple prose by focussing on its content over its style. But this creates its own problems - part of the strange aesthetic of this piece is its dissociation and classical distancing of the characters and subject matter, which should grant the dramatic rupture of the crucial rape scene its shocking power. Again and again in this production the action we also see on stage directly contradicts what the libretto and music is telling us is happening. I couldn't figure out why this was, but the thwarting of the textual narrative is so overt that it can't have been due to carelessness - is Shaw showing us that the history that the archaeologists are piecing together is wrong in some important details? And simply ignoring the far-fetched words (e.g. the soldiers' egregious exchanges in the first scene) doesn't make them go away. Shaw makes it hard to take Lucretia's rape seriously because the characters aren't even addressing each other in the crucial scene, and there no sense of genuine threat from Duncan Rock's Tarquinius. Weirdly the rape makes the male archaeologist horny - even normal, healthy relationships are poisoned by this rape. There are other dramatic misfires - when Lucretia then tells her servants what to, the singers are singing but not communicating, and it's not obvious why the servants aren't getting what's going on. When David Soar's Collatinus finds out that his wife has killed herself there is absolutely no physical or aural reaction to be discerned in his character. All very strange - was this just the evening I went?

Claudia Huckle is a vocally pleasing Lucretia, possessing a genuine contralto voice of impressive colour. Unfortunately in the lower half of her voice she is repeatedly covered by the chamber orchestra - it's not the largest voice, but conductor Nicholas Collon could have done a lot more to help her out. Kate Valentine is vocally strong as the Female Chorus and an engaging stage presence. She is matched by Allan Clayton's Male Chorus who also sings admirably. Soprano Ellie Laugharne is one to watch in the small role of Lucia - singing as limpid, sweet and pure as this is always welcome; Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Bianca is also very good. The other men are more problematic. Duncan Rock's Tarquinius is acceptably sung, but as mentioned is totally without threat despite his powerful physicality. David Soar's Collatinus is also OK musically, but again there are dramatic issues. I have to say my suspicion is that the direction is off here - when lots of singers exhibit the same sort of problems, you have to assume the director is culpable. Oliver Dunn didn't on this occasion seem quite comfortable singing Junius. Britten's score seems translucent, brittle and thin in Nicholas Collon's hands. The direction is similar in feel, so it's not an unreasonable approach to take, but it's an evening light on lyricism, instrumental colour, and energy, and so doesn't make the case that this is one of Britten's forgotten masterpieces.

*he wasn't nearly so threatened by top level performers, hence the work with Rostropovich, Baker et al.

Photos (c) Richard Hubert-Smith/Glyndebourne

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Parsifal at ROH (New Langridge Production)

photo copyright ROH/Telegraph

Parsifal is a tricky work. No one I know claims to fully understand it, and of Wagner's mature opus it's the one that gives me most trouble. The work is obviously exceptionally far-reaching intellectually, musically, emotionally, spiritually, but at times it also veers extremely close to utter absurdity. Seen in one light it is a clear summation of Wagner's lifelong intellectual/spiritual/musical concerns, but seen in another it repudiates the message of most of his previous work. All of Wagner's oeuvre is sex obsessed, but before Parsifal erotic love, however anguished, has been a source of salvation and redemption. The character of Parsifal shares many of the same characteristics as Siegmund and Siegfried, but finds himself most fully by rejecting sex, whereas for the previous heroes the opposite was true. That sex causes problems is nothing new in Wagner, but in Parsifal, without exception, sex leads only to anguish and bad consequences, and more than this, is the only source of evil that we witness. Before Parsifal, women have held an exalted position in Wagner's work, but in Parsifal they are figures of fear, temptation and evil. The opera is a comedy in the Christian sense (as in Grimald's Christus Redivivus, a "comoedia tragica", or slightly more tangentially Dante's The Divine Comedy) in that there is a happy ending after all the suffering - but it's the only Wagner opera where this happy ending is a return to society's status quo, a resounding affirmation of the going social order. By the end of the story (the opera starts in the middle of the story of the complete story in its fullest sense), fundamentally nothing has changed: it is implied that we have returned to the state of the good old days of Titurel's reign.

Wagner's musical material is the most fully integrated and closeknit in construction of any of his operas, every leitmotif simply derived from the unaccompanied melody that opens the work, and so by extension related to every other leitmotif. But in performance the themes are so entirely distinct in colour and shape, so characteristic of themselves, that we are aware every time we hear the Kundry motif say, or the Parsifal motif, or the Dresden Amen, to name but three - the result is anything but seamless and calls to mind Debussy's complaint of leitmotifs as "calling cards", though of course their working out is much more far reaching than this glib comparison suggests. Compare the similar usage of leitmotifs in Tristan (i.e. that every one derives from the opening phrase) and notice the very different aural effect that the earlier work has as each leitmotif blends and blurs into the indistinction of the compositional melos.*

This rambling prelude is another way of saying that I'm still trying to make sense of where all of these concerns fit in, and whether they are in fact worthy of consideration at all! And by extension I suppose, that though I enjoyed this ROH production, I'm still waiting for the the production of this opera that opens the gate to the work for me.** I like Parsifal, but I don't yet love it like I do Wagner's other mature operas. I understand some of what the piece is trying to say, but I certainly haven't reached that level of understanding that we reach with works that we really love where finally we discover ourselves within them, and the truth of the work becomes a truth in our own lives. 

Stephen Langridge's production is basically quite plain, though has enough novel touches to raise eyebrows of pleasant surprise or grumpy disapproval. It's updated certainly, but remains ahistorical and allegorical in feel. In Act I the Knights' sacred realm is represented by a clean square of consecrated ground on which a large cube rests, containing Amfortas's sick bed. This cube is lit so that sometimes we can see in, and sometimes not. This is used to reveal some shocking scenes: the moment of Amfortas's lovemaking with Kundry, occuring already in the sick bed he is later to occupy; later, at the mention of Klingor, we see the poor young man hunched on his infirmary bed, looking at his mutilated genitals with horror and loathing. During the prelude, flower maidens are seen watching Amfortas sleep, though they are soon chased away by suited guards.

The grail when it is revealed is not a chalice, but a young boy. I wondered whether this linked in with the modern idea of the grail as the genetic lineage of Christ, rather than the cup used at the last supper. During the grail ritual the child gets an incision in his side where Christ and Amfortas have previously been gored. I'm not sure what this substitution meant or added to the story - it was a strong image, but the symbolism of Parsifal needs clarification if anything, not further obfuscation! Maybe others got more out of this, but I felt like Gurnamenz's admonition of Parsifal when the latter fails to comprehend what he has seen was a bit unfair. I did like that Parsifal runs over to the boy after ritual, and clearly just feels sorry for the child, rather than seeing him as this mystic symbol - but he almost learns compassion too early for the plot, so the child is promptly whisked away. The ritual culminates in Gurnamenz's four young acolytes being armed for a religious war - they are given revolvers and dark clothing and seem to be part of a guerilla group.

Klingsor's realm in Act II is very similar to the Knights' realm - it also comprises a cube structure surrounded by very large trees. This time Klingor himself remembers his self castration as we once more witness the image I mentioned above. The lighting changes to a lurid magenta for the garden scene, the gaggle of flower maidens in tacky cocktail dresses. For me there wasn't enough contrast in the design between the glowing purity and sterile grandeur of the outer acts and voluptuary seductiveness of the garden, but the change is obvious at least, and we get the gist. There's a tiny moment of levity when the captivated Parsifal asks whether the girls are flowers, which here becomes another touchingly innocent moment for the character in the context of the modern dress. During Parsifal's moment of realisation after Kundry's kiss, we see Amfortas in his hospital bed, suddenly illuminated at a distance. Kundry's curse on Parsifal blinds him. When Parsifal reclaims the spear, Klingsor dies as his power is vanquished, but disappointingly his realm remains fully intact. Parsifal shuffles slowly offstage, unable to see his way back to the grail.

Parsifal's blindness is cured in Act III only after he is crowned by Gurnamenz and Kundry has washed his feet. Where the swan was buried in Act I, new shoots are growing. The Christ-child-grail has grown up, though is not here literally reunited with the spear. The temple has fallen into disrepair and the Grail Knights now dress slobbishly where they were previously in suits. After Amfortas is healed by Parsifal, the flowermaidens make a return, now dressed as respectable, dowdy frumps - maybe they'll start their own order, because the abstinent Knights show absolutely no interest. Finally a surprising moment: the healed and absolved Amfortas and Kundry leave hand in hand for pastures new. No death and no dove.

When this cast was announced I was worried because it sounded half excellent and half bad, but everyone proved much better than expected.

First and foremost Gerald Finley as Amfortas. This was simply one of the finest assumptions of any role I've ever seen. I can't imagine this beautiful, tortured music being more expressively sung, Finley's diction crystal clear, his legato flawless, the range of vocal colours enormous and subtle. He is a very fine actor too, and after his superlative Sachs at Glyndebourne, this great Mozartian seems to have joined the select group of great Wagnerians almost in one stride. A triumph and a privilege to hear.

René Pape makes an exceptionally fine voiced Gurnamenz - like Finley, he is capable of enormous dynamic and colouristic range, though this time the voice is a category or two larger. He must be the the most vocally accomplished Wagnerian bass working today. If I was quibbling I would say that he doesn't have the charisma or acting ability of a John Tomlinson, but perhaps his heart was not in this production - there have been rumours of tensions with Pappano during rehearsals. I also find his diction muzzy. 

Now onto the two singers that had been cause for concern based on their recent performance history. Simon O'Neill's voice has been pinched and nasal (though always rock solid) in every performance I've seen him in from the last two years, but this represents a real return to form for him. The sound is heroic again, it has more colour, and he's as secure as ever. Still not the most luscious tenor, but this was very decent indeed. Even better was Angela Denoke as Kundry, whose well acted 2012 ROH Salome had been vocally close to disastrous; here she sounds like she has a new set of vocal chords, and does a very fine job overall in this exceptionally difficult role. In the first act, she brought a gruff, mezzo like darkness to her racked vocal lines, the voice never pushing or wobbly, and the chest voice satisfyingly present. In Act II, she manages to sound very seductive, the sound burnished, large and liquid - the transformation from Act I is remarkable and again the wobble of old excised. Only in the final stretches of the act, some of the most extreme vocal writing in all of Wagner, did she come to occasional grief on the high notes. It's unfortunate that this is the last significant stretch of music that the character sings (In Act III she has just two words) because it's also what one inevitably remembers, and though this passage was basically fine here, before it she had been quite excellent. A delightful surprise to find both in such good form.

It seems that bad guy roles in Wagner attract two sorts of interpretations - bellowing, and whining. Willard White tends strongly towards the former as Klingsor, but his voice is holding up very well for a singer of his age, and though the fundamental sound of his voice is now hard and loud, he actually does far more with the role than bellow. He makes an effort with the diction, but it never sounds truly idiomatic, and like Papé he remains difficult to understand. Robert Lloyd is impressive and orotund as Titurel, a pleasure to hear him sounding so good. The smaller roles are all well taken. The ROH chorus are uncharacteristically wobbly in places, but generally make an impressive sound.

Antonio Pappano is perfectly fine in the pit, holds everything together, and the orchestra make a lovely sound throughout. The singers are always extremely audible and well supported. But that's it. The moments of true wonder just never seem to arrive. Considering the level of the artists on stage, and that the ROH is meant to be one of the greatest houses in the world, this doesn't feel like enough. Pappano was better in the earthier realm of the Ring last season, but Wagner is not his natural territory.

Recommended for an excellent cast and a decent, if not opinion changing production. Amazingly, it's the only Wagner at the major British houses this season so get your fill.

*It should also be noted that the leitmotifs in Tristan mostly refer to abstract nouns rather than characters.
**I've yet to see Herheim's...

Satyagraha at ENO


Of the American minimalists, Glass is the composer with the least native talent perhaps, but he is the one with the most unmistakable musical profile. Where Reich and Riley have continued to explore and develop their particular musical interests over the past half century, each producing a varied and wide ranging oeuvre, Glass has stuck steadfastly and virtually exclusively to his energetic yet static arpeggiated diatonic chords. Glass's music inspires bafflement, tedium and disgust in many listeners, and is with some regularity (and not unfairly) accused of mindlessness, banality and extreme poverty of invention. But to do this is to miss the point and ask of the music something which it is patently not trying to achieve. He is not interested in refining, or improving, or developing - either within each piece, or within his oeuvre as a whole. Unconcerned also with technical felicity, his orchestration is just as clumsy now as it was in the beginning of his career, his ear for instrumental colour crude and unnuanced. Similar things could be said for his harmony, melodic invention and rhythmic sense. This is all moot. His music cannot be adequately criticised in conventional terms because it is manifestly not playing the same game as most classical music. An interesting case.

The minimalist composer Tom Johnson said that his composition teacher Morton Feldman had encouraged him in the late 60s to "start with notes". This idea, expressed as it was during/after the avant guard of the 1950s and 60s, was first an encouragement to make "notes" rather than "sounds" the foundation of music (as Johnson fascinatingly goes on to explain, notes are precise and objective entities, while sounds are entirely subjective and unrepeatable phenomena). But Feldman's exhortation is also an encouragement to make aural phenomena rather than ideas the starting point of musical composition. In contrast to this view, Feldman's closest composer friend, John Cage, represents the extreme aesthetic stand point of music being the expression or working out of an intellectual idea. In many instances, the entire content, meaning, form and interest of a piece by Cage is the intellectual idea and the subsequent aural events of the piece are almost incidental and uninteresting by comparison. Glass is the opposite end of this spectrum. This is not to say that Glass's music is totally abstract, without influence from the world of ideas - the influences and musical concerns, however simple, are obvious, unconcealed and undigested. But these never become the point of music, never affect its fundamental style, are never inherent in the intrinsic "meaning" of the notes, and by extension of the total work. For all its unmistakable character and single minded hammering, his music is astonishingly bland and unsuggestive psychologically and intellectually - there's no sense of him ever trying to depict striving, seduction, sorrowing, or any other abstract noun that music has the power to so strongly suggest in us.

Rather than intellectual ideas then, his music comes at us as an exploration and celebration of the most fundamental aspects of music. Chief amongst these is the diatonic chord. Harmonic tension and therefore progression exists only as an insubstantial ghost in the background of this music, as does tonal development and therefore traditional structure. Diatonic (usually triadic) chords become abstracted entities, entirely non functional as harmony, repeated and expanded to such lengths as to allow us to fully hear every aspect of them. There is no rhythmic interest in the sense that rhythm might be explored as an expressive parameter (as it is by say Stravinsky, Messiaen or Reich), but the music's pulsating, throbbing repetition is celebrated for its particular feeling, the pleasure of it simple yet powerful. Pop music in all its guises and varieties represents a superb vindication of the power and overwhelming popularity of the physical and sexual power of strong regular pulse.

Part of the problem of Glass's oeuvre is that his music is performed in the context of classical music venues, when in actual fact its aesthetic is closer in technique, intent and effect to club music than it is to anything in the canon of classical music (Western Art music, call it what you will). If it doesn't on its own induce a mind transcendent ecstasy in every listener, then it might be heard to best effect, or "make most sense" as it were, in the context of taking ecstasy, MDMA or a favourite mind altering narcotic. This is not a glib suggestion, nor a slight on the music, merely a statement of fact deriving from the aspects discussed above as well as from the music's origins in non western trance music, its similarity to western "trance" music (not just the specific genre that that implies), and the cultural context of 60s/70s liberal America in which his style crystallised.

Onto the opera at hand. It's a bit of a misnomer to call Satyagraha an opera. There's an orchestra, choir and soloists in costume surrounded by a set, but other than the physical facts of what lies in front of the audience, there are few things that link the experience of seeing it to what we expect from standard operatic fair. There is no plot as such, no dialogue, no characterisation. One would be hard pressed to tell that the singer who portrays Ghandi was Ghandi were it not for the trademark glasses and skimpy white get up. Instead the work proceeds as a series of tableaux each based around a single intellectual and musical idea. The audience is invited to fill these vast, empty spaces with what they want or need from the music - listening becomes an act of collaboration. In a Wagner opera, everything is given to us - plot, character, subject are all embodied in the music, a meaning attached to and inherent in every musical phrase - to large extent his operas come pre-interpreted for us. The audience must submit themselves to it and accept what they are presented with if they are to experience the work in the fullest way possible. Debussy, the reluctant Wagnerian, in Pelléas et Mélisande produced an opera that is a distillation of etiolation, thinness, emptiness, which requires the exact opposite of its audience. We need to be fully engaged with ourselves when we watch his opera and fill in the blanks with our own meanings, psychology, in a word, ourselves. According to Robin Holloway, it is this that gives this frigid work its elusive but strangely moving character. Perhaps surprisingly, the Dionysian Glass is an ally of Debussy in this moving a step further along this road towards poverty of material, by providing only a title and vaguest of subject matters - there is no dramatic situation, character - and almost no musical content*. Glass does not even provide a language we can hold onto. The libretto is in Sanskrit, and as it was composed in 1980, before the age of surtitles, we can safely assume that Glass isn't particularly concerned about whether we understand the words or not, since Sanskrit is hardly common currency in the venues the opera is likely to be performed in.** Effectively, the listener is given carte blanche to imagine anything they like whilst watching the opera, and since the music is almost devoid of surface interest we are given the space and time to reflect on the images we are presented with, and the broad subject matter at hand.

All this makes the opera either a gift or a real challenge for a director, depending on one's point of view. The director becomes as much a collaborator as an interpreter. Director Phelim McDermott has worked with Designer Julian Crouch to create a compelling version of the piece, visually strong yet ambiguous enough, and never pushing the music to do something which it can't support. Costumes are Edwardian and so of the "correct" period for the opera, but sets and action remain steadfastly symbolic, everyone moving in slow motion. There is no psychological action, and the text, projected into the set, is all aphoristic in character. Deriving from the Baghavad Gita, the text is sometimes put by Glass to embarrassingly jejune political use - the capitalists of Act II are a ludicrous caricature. Similarly the morality that the text espouses is all part of the horrendously repressive, socially controlling nature of the caste system that was a necessary principle for the founding of Hinduism. Abstract battle scenes are presented on stage with huge puppets, but the idea of non violent protest (which is part of the meaning of the word Satyagraha) isn't clearly presented. Figures emerge from sellotape and newspaper, the latter a recurrent motif of the show. One particularly memorable image is a recycling waterfall of newspaper (see top image above). The point is, none of these things have fixed meanings, but merely produce suggestions, things to contemplate as visual or symbolic phenomena. The final tableau is quite beautiful - a clouded sky, video projected, with a black man preaching from a great height to an imagined crowd with his back to us (presumably Martin Luther King rather than Malcolm X in the context of the word Satyagraha). The rising scalic figure that Ghandi sings is perhaps the work's most beautiful and hopeful musical idea. In a work of this size and sort, one can't avoid being bored occasionally, but it should be much more boring than it is here. I personally don't respond to Glass's music or ideas very strongly, so I didn't much enjoy the experience as a whole, but this is a very decent production of this piece.

The musical performance is basically good. For all its simplicity, this music is deceptively challenging to sing and play - the stamina required to execute identical music figures again and again (each iteration of course constantly inviting direct comparison to the last) and the presence of mind to count huge numbers of bars are challenges taken to excruciating extremes here. Alan Oke is mixed as Ghandi, clearly committed, but he took too long to warm up during his first scene, singing out of tune in both of his extended monologues. Intonation is even dicier for one of the sopranos, painfully flat in each successive repetition, ruining a couple of sequences, the singer apparently unable to hear or correct the problem***. Most of the cast sing accurately however, which is the most that can be asked of this music, eschewing as it does opportunities for expressive affekt. Conductor Stuart Stratford keeps things under control most of the time, and doesn't try to make the music more interesting via dynamic contrast or sharpening the aural surface - which is either a good or a bad thing depending on what you want! The orchestra do an astonishing job stamina wise, showing no evidence of tiring at all throughout the evening.

Photos (c) Tristram Kenton, Clive Barda, Alastair Muir

*Of course in aural effect, music more different than Debussy's fragrant, subtle, shimmering evanescence, and Glass's propulsive, vulgar, primary colour solidity is hard to imagine.
**Further evidence of this attitude: Ghandi in fact spoke English in South Africa where the "action" of the opera is "set" - Glass is not interested in representing history or characters here).
***cf. Michael Jackson in Santa Claus is Coming to Town or Anita Ward in Ring My Bell.