Arcana at the opera: Madama Butterfly @ ROH

Puccini Madama Butterfly

Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London

Saturday 22nd April, 2017

Review by Richard Whitehouse

Productions of Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera are notable for their longevity. That by Robert Helpmann held the stage over three decades until 1983, while the current production from Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier has now reached its fifth revival in barely 14 years.

Notions of the balance between Japanese tradition and American imperialism have inevitably changed much since Puccini’s day (though aren’t the music’s frequent allusions to The Star-Spangled Banner more than a little ironic?), but this Leiser/Caurier production continues to strike a plausible balance between social comment and an archetypal Japanoise which skirts without descending to cliché. Enhanced by Christian Fenouillat’s plain though unfussy sets, Agostino Cavalca’s unexceptional if appropriate costumes and Christophe Forey’s subdued yet pertinent lighting (the silhouette strategy paying dividends in Act Three), it makes for a presentation which avoids subversion while also underlining those provocative elements in Puccini’s music too often sacrificed when his score is rendered as a sentimental tear-jerker.

Vocally this ‘second cast’ is anything but second rate. Reprising the role from 2015, Ana María Martínez brings ardour and eloquence aplenty to Cio-Cio San; besides an edginess to her sending-up of Yamadori’s pretensions in Act Two then a deft pivoting between elation and desolation, before the fateful denouement, which only adds to the range of a character made wise beyond her years. With notable Royal Opera roles in Mozart and Verdi already behind her, Martínez is clearly an artist as versatile vocally as she is arresting dramatically.

As also is Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincai, previously heard as Rodolfo at the ROH and here harnessing his natural richness and resonance of tone to a portrayal of Pinkerton that, if not making him exactly sympathetic, contextualizes his shortcomings to a degree that avoids the callous or mean-spirited. His plangent Act Three aria is the more affecting for its absence of false emoting, while his vocal elegance elsewhere works admirably in those numerous duets which throw into relief his shortcomings – resulting in a striking and resourceful assumption.

The secondary roles are hardly less successful, not least Scott Hendricks as Sharpless whose desire to do the right thing is always outdone by his inability – even unwillingness – to alter the course of events. Elizabeth DeShong exudes warmth and compassion as Suzuki, and her masterly acting makes appreciably more of this part on-stage than is evident from the score alone. Carlo Bosi is a cunning and deceitful Goro, Jeremy White summons all his vocal and dramatic presence for a riveting cameo as the Bonze, while Yuriy Yurchuk brings the right sardonic touch to that of Yamadori. Emily Edmonds does what she can with the overly brief role of Kate Pinkerton, while Gyula Nagy is a properly portentous Imperial Commissioner. The roles of Butterfly’s family seem as well-contrasted in vocal as they are in visual terms.

A further plus is Renato Balsadonna’s conducting, superbly geared to this opera’s emotional contrasts and dramatic pacing while securing a committed response from the ROH orchestra. It sets the seal on this revival of a production by no means at the end of its natural life-span.

BBC Proms 2016 – Shostakovich, Rachmaninov & Emily Howard from Alexey Stadler, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

proms-stadler

Alexey Stadler pictured during his performance of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 53; Royal Albert Hall, 25 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

The BBC Proms should be commended for their commitment to new music, though this does come with a caveat, for it is not often that a commission for the Proms makes it to a second or third performance. Hopefully that fate will not befall Emily Howard’s Torus, a joint commission with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave it a thoroughly committed and virtuosic first performance under Vasily Petrenko.

Torus is based on a mathematical phenomenon, but to Howard’s credit she did not make this the domineering feature of the piece – if she did, like all good composers, it was part of the essential framework rather than explicitly signposted. Instead we were able to enjoy the colours of the large symphony orchestra, and especially the percussion, the three players using bows on their cymbals to make the textures glint towards the end.

Though subtitled Concerto for Orchestra, there was no display of gravity defying, musical athletics for the sake of it. Rather we enjoyed the orchestra as an instrument, the melodic content taking on a distinctive falling motif as though the music were heading for a trap door.

proms-petrenko

Shostakovich’s popular Cello Concerto no.1 followed, with a last minute substitute, Alexey Stadler, standing in for the unfortunately ill Truls Mørk. Any doubts about inferiority were immediately quelled, the young Russian cellist finding the soul of the music in a searching account of the slow movement and cadenza in particular. Petrenko and the RLPO, so attuned to this composer’s music in their award winning accounts of his symphonies for Naxos, were superb in support, especially horn player Timothy Jackson – but Stadler rightly stole the show, adjusting to the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall with commendable ease. His beautiful tone brought both pain and hope to the solo part in equal measure, and led to a gorgeous encore in the form of the Sarabande from Bach’s Solo Cello Suite no.2.

Finally Petrenko led his orchestra in the music of another composer with whom they share great familiarity – Rachmaninov. There are several warhorses in his output that are arguably overplayed in concert, but the Symphony no.3 is not one of them – and how wonderful it was in this account, with soulful melodies, sleights of hand from Petrenko and sudden bursts of light from the orchestra.

The tricky syncopations of the finale were expertly handled, the orchestra delivering the suddenly loud snaps like the slamming of a door, a thrilling effect in the live arena. Yet they were also alive to the music’s lyrical and occasionally less certain undercurrents, where leader Thelma Handy was a superb soloist.

As an encore Petrenko brought out Shostakovich’s arrangement of YoumansTea For Two, and gave it a brilliant send-up, as though conducting the last night. It was a beautifully judged encore, and showed again just how much this orchestra and conductor enjoy working together – which is what it’s all about, surely!

Ben Hogwood

BBC Proms 2016 – Bluebeard’s Castle & Dvořák Cello Concerto with Alban Gerhardt

gerhardt

Alban Gerhardt pictured during his performance of the Dvořák Cello Concerto, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 25; Royal Albert Hall, 3 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

The course of this Prom ran true to the plot of the psychological drama that unfolded in the second half. Bluebeard’s Castle was a darkly lit tour de force, but before that we had the small matter of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto to attend to.

The best-loved of all cello concertos, this is a piece where the cello really sings, but has to come from within the orchestral sound to do so. Alban Gerhardt was the ideal vehicle, with probing insights and a wonderful, song-like delivery that brought out the best of Dvořák’s bittersweet lyricism. His duet with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra woodwind and brass, subtly but expertly managed by the seemingly ageless Charles Dutoit (now 80!) was sublime.

bluebeardThings took a much darker tone after the interval as Bartók’s first stage work exerted a chilling grip on the Royal Albert Hall. There was little to no coughing here, all eyes focused on the sonorous John Ralyea (Duke Bluebeard) and his latest ill-fated lover Judit (Ildikó Komlósi). Their exploration of the seven doors of Bluebeard’s Castle were vividly brought to life by Dutoit, using all his expertise with French orchestral music to bring out the parallels in the Hungarian Bartók’s own writing, but also finding the darkness beneath that really drives the work.

Komlósi was superb, every sleight of her eyes telling a thousand words, while harps, strings, horns, woodwind and brass all told the silvery tale in turn. Ralyea, meanwhile, brought his incredibly sonorous tones to the spoken introduction, setting the scene perfectly. Unsettling through the drama was – perhaps unwittingly anticipating The Shining, and the use of Bartók’s music in one of its crucial scenes – this was a performance holding the audience captive from the first dark note to the last.

Ben Hogwood

Arcana at the opera: The Devil Inside

devil-inside

Peacock Theatre, London, Thursday 4th February, 2016

Music by Stuart MacRae, Libretto by Louise Walsh

Sung in English with English surtitles

Ben McAteer (James), Nicholas Sharratt (Richard), Rachel Kelly (Catherine), Steven Page (Old Man/Vagrant)

Matthew Richardson (director), Samal Blak (designer), Ace McCarron (lighting)

Orchestra of Music Theatre WalesMichael Rafferty

Written by Richard Whitehouse

As he nears his 40th birthday, Stuart MacRae can reflect on a transformation in his standing in that a reputation for orchestral and instrumental music has become one centred on opera. A decade ago, The Assassin Tree was a bold step that later stage-works – dance-opera Echo and Narcissus, TV opera Remembrance Day and music-theatre Ghost Patrol – consolidated prior to The Devil Inside, which assuredly takes its place next to Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek and Thomas AdèsPowder Her Face as the most significant British chamber opera from the past four decades.

Its seven scenes playing for 100 minutes, The Devil Inside takes its cue from a short story by master of the genre Robert Louis Stevenson. The Bottle Imp (1891) is typical of its author by being forward-looking in concept yet wholly of its time in content. Understandable, then, that MacRae and librettist Louise Welsh should have wished to update this latter such that it takes on an essentially 21st-century ambience of aspiring individuals both attracted and repelled by the trappings of what might be called late-capitalism. Whether such updating could have seen fit to dispose of the actual bottle in favour of a present-day equivalent (a social-media patent, perhaps?) is a moot point, but there can be little doubt that the present scenario works well on its own terms – the mundanity of its environs counterbalancing the otherness of its message.

Scenically the opera is a triumph. Matthew Richardson’s direction is fast-paced yet flexible in its delineating of character and circumstance, abetted in both respects by Samal Blak’s starkly immediate sets – the handling of scene-changes by a group of black-clad and masked figures a telling adjunct to the drama at hand – and Ace McCarron’s typically claustrophobic lighting. This performance took place at London’s Peacock Theatre – its stage well suited to chamber opera, with an auditorium where any lack of perspective is outweighed by its clarity and focus.

The cast could hardly be improved on. Ben McAteer conveys James’ doubt and vulnerability in full measure, his resonant baritone an admirable foil to the edgy tenor of Nicholas Sharratt who captures both the impulsiveness and vacillation of Richard in his fatal obsession with the bottle and its magic. The mezzo Rachel Kelly has eloquence to spare as Catherine, ostensibly a victim of circumstance who belatedly seizes fate by the throat, with baritone Steven Page bringing his customary authority to the ‘minor’ roles of Old Man and Vagrant which frame the drama in sound fashion. Whether the denouement as composer and librettist envisage it is an improvement on the terse original is debatable, but there is no doubting the conviction of Michael Rafferty’s conducting or commitment of the musicians from Music Theatre Wales.

The score itself bears all the hallmarks of MacRae’s lucid and perceptive take on a post-war modernism in which theatrical intensity goes hand with that musical cohesion as ensures the opera’s overall success. The orchestration, for an ensemble of 14 players, is as economic and resourceful as is to be expected from one who might reasonably be termed a seasoned opera composer, making one anticipate more keenly where his dramatic instinct may lead him next. The Devil Inside will be touring these next two months, and should on no account be missed.

Further performances take place on February 9th (Cardiff), 10th (Basingstoke), 16th (Manchester), 23rd (Aberystwyth), 26th (Huddersfield), April 3rd (Mold) and 18th (Birmingham)

For further information on The Devil Inside and Music Theatre Wales click here