Friday, January 23, 2015

Guest blogger Judy Dixey has been at it again!

Two masterpieces in one week – comic and sublime!

London has a wealth of excellent opera and the audience is lapping it up — even in obscure places. I went to a brilliant adaptation of The Barber of Seville in a pub theatre, and a stark, sublime production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in a former railway repair shed, all within a week.

The Kings Head in Islington has hosted a huge range of stunning, challenging theatrical productions over the last 30 years and this was no exception. Opera Up Close presented the Barber, transferred to Salisbury, which is absolutely fine for a British audience who know that Salisbury was a backwater at the end of the 1700s, beginning of the 1800s, i.e., the Regency period. Bath was THE place to be, and Rosina and her guardian are just returned home from a visit to Bath, where Rosina and the count, a noted rake, had somehow met.

Singing great, piano reduction excellent, production sharp, translation witty — what more can you want? We were really up close and personal, and the singer/actors gave it their all. The moment of revelation when Almaviva is unmasked and Rosina realizes she’s hooked a Count — WOW! Her expression said it all — she loved him before, but now she really loves him! Enormous fun.

And then the Royal Opera House/Roundhouse, live-streamed on 21st January. The Roundhouse for opera? Why not? It’s a massive circular building, topped by a broad, conical roof supported by 24 columns and cast iron girders, built in the 1840s to function as a railway repair shed. Inside, it’s stark, and atmospheric. It became a performing arts venue in the 1970s and has had an extraordinary career. I think this is the first foray into opera and, boy did it work brilliantly, due to the imagination and verve of the entire production team and the participants. In terms of audience, it brought in the usual opera audience but additionally many people really new to opera – perhaps because of the venue but also because of the engagement of a number of young people. There was a balcony for the great and good to watch proceedings (perhaps they were the Duke and Duchess of Mantua, where the piece had its first performance?); from there, at one point, they came down as dei ex machina (Pluto and Persephone); but otherwise, the set was formed by young dancers from East London Dance who became, most effectively, the rolling River Styx, the gates to the underworld, the silent chorus – what a coup. We are getting used to minimal sets, and in this venue, it certainly works.

Mary Bevan as Euridice and Gyula Orendt as Orfeo
Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey © ROH
As for the performances, another wow. The Roundhouse itself holds 20 times as many people as the Kings Head but because of its arena-like auditorium, we were close to the stage, sound was excellent and every note worth hearing. I don’t remember appreciating the intensity of Orfeo’s appeal to Charon to let him across the Styx and into the underworld as it is rendered so thrillingly by virtuosic repeated stressed notes, heard here far more than through the rest of the opera. Music and meaning matching — as should happen in opera. Even if you don’t know the story, you can tell from the opening notes that it is a sad story, the outcome is not going to be good; but you are gripped and enthralled. There are some weird concepts which have you scratching your head — is the bevy of priests there because Orfeo sings “father” several times? Why the Pieta tableau? What is all that about? Rather mixed messages here, Christian and pre-Christian religious. I wish they’d not done that.

But such exciting things happening around the UK capital for opera. It sure is a lively art form!

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