On the evidence of their Siegfried, Regents Opera’s Ring will be well worth catching

It’s sometimes said that if Wagner were alive today he’d be making movies, but come on – really? A generation of Wagnerites has grown up for whom the first and definitive encounter with Der Ring des Nibelungen was on the small screen – in my case, the BBC’s early-eighties serialisation of the Bayreuth centenary production. What lingered was not the spectacle, but the intimacy: Donald McIntyre and Gwyneth Jones enveloped in darkness, reaching into each other’s souls. If you grew up with Wagner on TV and came of age, culturally speaking, around the time The Sopranos first aired, it seems obvious that the Ring isn’t some effects-laden Marvel blockbuster before

ENO’s Peter Grimes shows a major international company operating at full artistic power 

In David Alden’s production of Peter Grimes, the mob assembles before the music has even started – silhouetted at the back, muttering and menacing. Ah, Britten’s mob: simultaneously the source of some of the most electrifying, elemental choral writing since Mussorgsky and a licence for British directors to indulge in premium-strength snobbery. Fully endorsed by the composer, of course: it’s essential to Britten’s artistic schema that we believe the inhabitants of small-town England are only ever one beer away from forming a lynch mob. As their hatred boils over, Alden has them pull out little Union Flags, completely without pretext. There’s no trace of political nationalism anywhere in the libretto

In defence of the Arts Council

I once knew a monster who said she could not read Proust because there were no figures in Proust with whom she could identify… Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Aesthetics’ (1958-59) Getting an audience to identify themselves in a work – ‘being seen’ – is one of the only reasons why art is commissioned, celebrated or even allowed to exist today. In other words, the 21st century world belongs to Adorno’s monster: we just live in it.  The 20th century’s definition of art, as expressed by another Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse, where ‘art is committed to that perception of the world which alienates individuals from their functional existence and performance in

A miniature rite of a very English spring: a Vaughan Williams rediscovery in Liverpool

Imagine a folk dance without music. Actually, you don’t have to: poke about on YouTube and you’ll find footage from 1912 (there’s music dubbed on, but it’s a silent film) of Vaughan Williams’s friend George Butterworth in full Morris fig, going through the moves with Cecil Sharp and a pair of pinafore-wearing gals. Note the precision of his movements, that big Kitchener moustache: how seriously Butterworth is taking it, four years before he stopped a bullet on the Somme. And they really were sincere, those folk song pioneers. The same modernising impulse drove Bartok on his song-collecting journeys at the opposite end of Europe, and in 1913 – two weeks

Why the Arts Council should kill off ENO and ENB

Pity Arts Council England, least loved of our NGOs, understaffed and under-resourced, its arm’s-length status gnawed to the shoulder by DCMS ukases, the stinginess of the Treasury and the government’s (in some respects, welcome) indifference to our higher culture. In return for its annual grant-in-aid (currently £336 million), it is obliged to cheer-lead policies of inclusivity and diversity and step gingerly over the eggshells of elitism, racism, gender politics and decolonisation. Its hands are further tied by the requirement to operate as extensions of the social services. The diktats of Levelling Up have to be honoured. The disabled and the disadvantaged, the young and the old are all crying out

The opera that wouldn’t die

When Erich Wolfgang Korngold completed his third opera, Die tote Stadt, in August 1920, he’d barely turned 23. Yet such was his reputation that what followed was practically a Europe-wide bidding war for rights to the première. The young composer had his pick of companies and conductors (the Vienna State Opera tried and failed). In the end – almost unprecedentedly – Die tote Stadt was launched on the same night in two cities simultaneously. Audiences in Hamburg and Cologne both erupted into applause, but Korngold, who could be in only one place, had chosen Hamburg – where he was so dazed by the response that Richard Strauss, who was present

Deserves to become an ENO staple: The Cunning Little Vixen reviewed

Spoiler alert. The last words in Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen come from a child playing a frog. The story has come full circle — there was a frog near the start of Act One, and naturally you assume it’s the same one. But no: ‘That wasn’t me. That was my grandaddy. He used to tell me about you.’ It’s the final sad-sweet sting; the orchestra swells and the curtain falls. Perfection. Or so Janacek thought, anyway: ‘To end with the frog is impossible,’ insisted his German translator Max Brod — the same well-meaning meddler who either rescued or (according to taste) wrecked Kafka. Brod wanted a final hymn to

40 per cent sublime, 60 per cent ridiculous: ENO’s The Valkyrie reviewed

It’s the final scene of The Valkyrie and Wotan is wearing cords. They’re a sensible choice for a hard-working deity: practical but with a certain retro flair. Slumbering under a red puffer jacket lies his daughter Brünnhilde, and as Wagner’s music yearns and flickers, the Lord of Ravens shuffles slowly around on all fours, methodically attaching the carabiners for the climactic flying effect. First one, then another. Then another. Four more to go! Possibly we’re not meant to be seeing this. Possibly it was meant to be obscured by the ‘large final fire effect’ that a slip in the programme tells us has been cut (‘despite extensive planning’) at the

This is how G&S should be staged: ENO’s HMS Pinafore reviewed

Until 1881, HMS Pinafore was the second-longest-running show in West End history. Within a year of its première it had broken America too; at one point there were eight competing productions on Broadway alone. The single most wrongheaded notion that still clings to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas is that they’re somehow low-rent or parochial. They were blockbuster international hits, superbly written, lavishly staged and exported far beyond the Anglosphere. Pinafore was performed in Denmark as Frigate Jutland and in Vienna, Johann Strauss was driven off stage by the runaway success of The Mikado. In the words of the operetta historian Richard Traubner, Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaborations were ‘simply the best

The promoter the critics love to hate: an interview with Raymond Gubbay

When Raymond Gubbay left school, he was articled to an accountant’s firm. Fascinated by opera and depressed at the prospect of life as a Golders Green beancounter, he wriggled out of it in a matter of months, and into an assistant’s job at Pathé Newsreels. Sensing that newsreels had a looming expiry date, he asked Arnold Wesker (a family friend) to wangle him an interview with Victor Hochhauser, Britain’s leading promoter of mass-market classical concerts. Hochhauser sat behind a desk in his office above a fridge shop in Kensington and asked the 17-year-old Raymond three questions. Where did you go to school? Are you a Jewish boy? And can you

British opera companies and orchestras must start investing in native talent

Early in 1946, two men boarded a train at Euston and went trawling for talent. Audition notices were posted at town halls up and down the land: singers wanted, no experience required. Two thousand applied. One town after another, they lined up for Karl Rankl, Covent Garden’s music director, and David Webster, its general manager. Those who sang in tune were hired, £8 a week for chorus, £40 for soloists. An organist in a Harrogate church was appointed chorusmaster. ‘At Carmen rehearsals,’ recalled Constance Shacklock, a farm girl from Nottinghamshire and future star, ‘none of us had ever seen a Carmen before, let alone sung one.’ By mid-year, Covent Garden

The grotesque unevenness of Mozart’s Requiem

It is amazing what fine performances you can get beamed to your computer these days. Slightly less amazing is the packaging these events come in, when they do. ENO relayed free a concert of Mozart’s Requiem, but it was preceded by a snatch of Strictly, with a row of muscular young guys ripping off their shirts, before we entered the Coliseum for a heavily pregnant Danielle de Niese hyping the event we were about to see and hear. She is delightful, but I wish she hadn’t been compelled to tell us that, despite his hard life, Mozart was sending us a message of hope that everyone, however ignorant of classical

I pounded my car horn like a Neapolitan cabbie: ENO’s drive-in Bohème reviewed

The email from English National Opera was blunt: ‘Your arrival time is 18.25. If you arrive outside your allocated time slot, you may not be allowed entry.’ Perhaps, to habitual London drivers — if such people exist — negotiating the residential streets of Muswell Hill during a Saturday rush hour is all good clean urban fun. I couldn’t say. I just know that by the time I’d been marshalled into a parking space at Alexandra Palace, my no-claims bonus miraculously still intact, I was in no mood for an evening of updated and interval-free Puccini. Three hours later I was pounding my car horn like a Neapolitan cabbie. ENO’s announcement

Ravishing and poignant: ENO’s Orphée reviewed

Billy Wilder, asked for his opinion of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of his movie Sunset Boulevard, famously replied: ‘Those boys hit on a great idea. They didn’t change a thing.’ I don’t think you could say exactly that about Netia Jones’s new staging of Philip Glass’s Orphée, a piece that takes the script of Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film and turns it into — well, into an opera by Philip Glass. Cocteau’s shimmering cinematic imagery (think Man Ray come to life) defies physical realisation, so Jones and her designers Lizzie Clachan (sets) and Lucy Carter (lighting) have found poetic, often blindingly beautiful theatrical equivalents. But that apart, Jones takes Wilder’s

A triumph: ENO’s Mask of Orpheus reviewed

ENO’s Mask of Orpheus is a triumph. It’s also unintelligible. Even David Pountney, who produced the original ENO staging in 1986, admitted to me in the interval that he didn’t have a clue what Harrison Birtwistle’s opera was about. But who cares when, visually and musically, you’re being socked between the eyes? Mask makes sense in the same way an earthquake makes sense. Fittingly we begin with total nonsense: Orpheus, in the bath, attempting to reform language. This is Orpheus the Man, in red velour and gelled-up hair, looking like Rod Stewart. An unlikely charmer of fishes and trees, it has to be said. But soon enough another Orpheus pops

More misogynistic than the original: ENO’s Orpheus in the Underworld reviewed

It’s Act Three of Emma Rice’s new production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, and Eurydice (Mary Bevan) is trapped in the backroom of a Soho peep show. But that doesn’t really matter because Jupiter (Willard White), a cigar-toking love walrus in a silk bathrobe, has transformed himself into a fly and is about to ravish her, once he’s worked out the practicalities of doing so while three millimetres long. Eurydice’s more than game. ‘Zzzz, zzz,’ she sings, draping herself lasciviously over the mattress. ‘Zzzz, zzz,’ buzzes Jupiter, wings popping erect. Rice’s puppeteer darts about with a toy fly on a string, dressed in a black catsuit and (the killer

Chilling out | 11 July 2019

Think of the children in opera. Not knowing sopranos and mezzos, pigtailed and pinafored or tightly trousered-up to look child-like, but actual children. There are Mozart’s Three Boys, Menotti’s Amahl, possibly Debussy’s Yniold and Handel’s Oberto and, if you stretch a point, Marie’s little son in Wozzeck. But that’s about it. Until, that is, you come to Benjamin Britten. It’s a rare Britten opera that doesn’t include a child. Whether it’s Grimes’s doomed apprentice, the chattering powder monkeys of HMS Indomitable, teenage vision Tadzio in Death in Venice, Tytania’s fairies or the watchful Miles and Flora, they are ever-present, but why? There’s something about innocence, certainly, but it’s interesting just

Call of duty

Is it possible to write a feminist opera about Jack the Ripper? Composer Iain Bell thinks it is, and his Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel tries very, very hard to prove it. But while the result is respectful, topical and agonisingly, paralysingly sincere, it’s also a sheep in wolf’s clothing. You can’t have your victims and kill them too. You have only to look at the opera’s title, bent awkwardly round its central colon, to see the conflict. Front and centre you have Jack the Ripper — a marketing department’s darling, promising Gothic horror and lashings of gore. Following behind (in slightly smaller type) you have his victims,

Sinking the unsinkable

Garrick Ohlsson is one of the finest pianists of his generation. Why, then, was the Wigmore Hall not much more than half full for his recital last week? Brahms. Ohlsson is at present touring with four programmes, all Brahms’s solo piano music. He treated us mainly to solid chunks, though he ended with the enchanting and almost light-hearted Paganini Variations, fiendish for Ohlsson but enlivening for us. Actually, he played an encore by Chopin, the solitary Op. 45 Prelude, preceding it with a charming lecturette about how Brahmsian, avant la lettre, Chopin could be. Ohlsson was a student of the great Claudio Arrau, whose attitude to Brahms verged on the

Voices of doom

It’s December, and while musical theatre is busy celebrating ‘warm woollen mittens’, opera, as usual, is far more interested in the tiny frozen hands inside them. Because nothing says Christmas quite like consumption, and I’m not talking turkey and mince pies. London’s opera companies are serving up a heaped sleighful of heartbreak this year. English National Opera is going traditional with La bohème, while the Royal Opera is thinking outside the snow-covered coffin with Carmen. There’s something for everybody, so long as it’s tragedy. ENO’s Bohème is the safe option, the show you take your granny to. She’ll be enchanted by Jonathan Miller’s production, which makes its young bohemians’ poverty