Broken wings: Ermonela Jaho a devastating Madama Butterfly at Covent Garden

Puccini: Madama Butterfly ****

The Royal Opera, 27th March 2017

Ermonela Jaho sure likes to put herself (and us) through the emotional wringer on Covent Garden’s stage. Her characters usually meet with a sticky end: Violetta and Mimì both succumb to tuberculosis; a delirious Manon expires in Des Grieux’s arms before she even gets deported; Suor Angelica takes poison when she discovers the child she was forced to give up has died. Only Magda in La rondine makes it to the curtain alive (but having abandoned her lover). This time, London finally got to see her as another tragic Puccini heroine: Madama Butterfly.

Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio San)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Read the full review on Bachtrack.

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Rite of passage for a bold company: ENB dances a devastating Pina Bausch Sacre

In the Middle/ Adagio Hammerklavier/ The Rite of Spring ****

English National Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, 25th March 2017

Tamara Rojo has turned English National Ballet into a must-see company. The big draw in this new ENB triple bill was undoubtedly The Rite of Spring. It is a major coup for Rojo that she has secured permission for her company to dance Pina Bausch’s iconic version for the first time. Created in 1975, for years only Tanztheater Wuppertal, Bausch’s own company, was permitted to perform it. When Paris Opéra Ballet took on the work, Bausch herself oversaw the casting. It’s a measure of Rojo’s bold vision as artistic director that ENB is the first British company to share custody.

Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps by English National Ballet
© Laurent Liotardo

The Guardian once described Pina Bausch as the “high priestess of dance theatre” and a sense of fevered anticipation certainly buzzed around Sadler’s Wells during the second interval. Giant wheelie bins dumped enormous quantities of peat onto the stage, which was then meticulously raked by fourteen attendants like a horticulturally choreographed episode of Gardener’s World.

Bausch physicalises Stravinsky’s score in a visceral, shattering way, leagues beyond the reconstruction of the original Nijinsky choreography, with its shuffling, turned-in toes, which I saw the Mariinsky dance back in 2003. Here, Bausch’s choreography is as shocking as Stravinsky’s earthy score. As the bassoon unfurls its wailing opening solo, a single woman is resting on a scarlet slip, like spilt blood on the ground. She seems to be the guardian of the dress, protecting it. Suddenly, other woman join her, darting into beams of light, convulsed with fear. These women know what is coming; motifs of breast-beating and self-flagellation recur throughout. They huddle together in tight clusters, taking turns to break away and express their individual fear. Predatory men arrive and perform a ritualistic dance, during which the women hurl themselves into dramatic lifts, legs wrapped around the mens’ shoulders, panting, gasping. It has a frenzied, primitive power that Rojo’s very young company threw itself into wholeheartedly, kicking up the dirt savagely.

Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps by English National Ballet
© Laurent Liotardo

In Part 2, the Chief selects the Chosen One – several women present themselves, holding the red slip, until he suddenly, violently clutches one by the shoulders. Bausch asked: “How would it be to dance knowing you have to die? The Chosen One is special, but she dances knowing the end is death.” Young Francesca Velicu, displaying unsettling vulnerability, danced herself to death as The Chosen One with a child-like terror in her eyes. A performance that really dealt a punch to the stomach.

Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps by English National Ballet
© Laurent Liotardo

I found this as powerful, as devastating a performance as that of Sasha Waltz’s Sacre – a work that draws on many of Bausch’s traits – back in 2015. An advantage of this version was that Stravinsky’s score was played live by the ENB Philharmonic, conducted by Gavin Sutherland (although when I saw the Mariinsky in Cardiff last year, they had Gergiev at the helm, who always brings an extra frisson of primeval excitement).

Isaac Hernández in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated
© Laurent Liotardo

This triple bill has been described in some quarters as another “Modern Masters”, yet the youngest item on the programme – William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated – is already 30 years old. Commissioned by Rudolf Nureyev for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1987, it’s fast and angular, with off-kilter balances catching you unawares. Although danced en pointe it is a sharp, thrusting work, set to Thom Willems crunching electronic score. A mood of competition and jealousy pervades, dancers staring each other out. While one pair of trio is dancing, another is already taking place to push them from the spotlight. Isaac Hernández was on his cleanest form, almost nonchalant in his solo, a quality not always achieved elsewhere, although blond-bobbed Tiffany Hedman, ate up the Sadler’s Wells stage with her enormous stretches.

English National Ballet in Adagio Hammerklavier
© Laurent Liotardo

Hans van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier formed the middle work of the evening, its icy restraint providing necessary balance to the programme. A billowing curtain flutters constantly as three couple dance, sometimes in parallel, sometimes in duet. The choreography can be cool and distant – lifts where the female dancers freeze mid-flight, like mannequins, controlled, manipulated by their male partners – which seem at odds when set to one of Beethoven’s most intimate and personal adagios, eloquently played by Olga Khoziainova. But the slow arabesques, attitudes and turns, with Katja Khaniukova, sensitively partnered by Fernando Bufalá, and Laurretta Summerscales particularly impressive, gradually drew me into this sombre work.

An ambitious programme and a splendid achievement.

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Mediterranean heat: a scorching Daphnis et Chloé from Altinoglu and the LSO

Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Ravel: LSO/Altinoglu ****

Barbican Hall, 23rd March 2017

It’s over twenty years since I last saw Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé danced by the Royal Ballet, yet every step of Sir Frederick Ashton’s choreography is imprinted on my memory: Stuart Cassidy a bold Daphnis; Adam Cooper, his rival; Sarah Wildor a charming, delicate Chloé; Irek Mukhamedov the swaggering pirate chief who abducts her. I replayed much of it yesterday evening during the London Symphony Orchestra’s terrific performance which basked in Mediterranean heat. I imagine Alain Altinoglu was also playing through the visuals in his mind, conducting with a mixture of histrionic flourishes and balletic flair.

Alain Altinoglu
© Marco Borggreve

Read the full review on Bachtrack.

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Betrayal, vengeance and a Scottish fantasy: Verdi’s rarity Aroldo staged by UC Opera

Verdi: Aroldo

UC Opera, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 20th March 2017

Two Verdi operatic rewrites within four days! But whereas Jérusalem (reviewed in Liège on Friday) was a proper revision of I Lombardi for Verdi’s first Paris Opéra commission, Aroldo (presented here by UC Opera) was done out of necessity. The final scene of his 1850 opera Stiffelio was a stumbling block for the censors, with the title character a Protestant minister who forgives his adulterous wife. A bowdlerized version, Guglielmo Wellingrode turned the German pastor into a minister of state. Verdi would have nothing to do with it and resolved that the only way for Stiffelio to survive on the Italian stage would be to give it a different setting.

Céline Forrest (Mina)
© Enola Colorado

Taking inspiration from Sir Walter Scott’s The Betrothed, Verdi turned Stiffelio into an English crusader (Harold/Aroldo) returning from Palestine to find his wife has been unfaithful. Jorg, the elderly minister in Stiffelio, becomes the hermit Briano, whom Aroldo met in the Holy Land and who is the opera’s voice of Christian conscience (Brian is surely drawn from the hermit in Scott’s The Lady of the Lake). Unlike Jérusalem, the plot of Aroldo is not an improvement on its predecessor. As Julian Budden argued, crusaders are ten-a-penny in Italian opera, “but spiritual piety forms no part of their make-up”. Having a medieval warrior ask his wife for a divorce after failing to dispatch her seducer stretches credibility.

Musically, much of the first three acts are the same as Stiffelio. There’s a new aria for Aroldo, which Verdi pinched from his overture, and a cabaletta when Aroldo discovers his wife, Mina, is not wearing her wedding ring. The greatest interest comes in the final act though, which is entirely new. We suddenly transfer from Kent to Loch Lomond(!) where Aroldo and Briano have retreated as hermits. After a few pastoral choruses, Mina and her father, Egberto, arrive to plea forgiveness. Aroldo resists, but Briano – quoting the biblical story about the woman taken in adultery – forces a change of heart.

Richard Morrison (Egberto) and Céline Forrest (Mina)
© Enola Colorado

In her production, Pia Furtardo updates the action to the present day. Through a heavy shroud of Kentish fog, Aroldo – Harry – returns from military duty in Syria to his father-in-law’s disused nightclub. Minnie (Mina) has been ‘aving it away with Vinny (Godvino) and ‘Arry flips when ‘e finds aht. It’s all a bit Eastenders… but then we are in Stratford and the production stayed true to the spirit of Verdi’s opera. The problem comes in Act 4 which is depicted here as some sort of dream or Scottish fantasy of Aroldo. Mina arrives in a giant origami boat, in full bridal gown, Egberto in a gold suit and crown, Brian (the hermit) in cardinal’s robes… Frankly, it’s a bit late in the day for Furtado to go all Regie and it doesn’t convince. There’s probably a good contemporary setting of Aroldo about a soldier returning from duty in the Middle East suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but it doesn’t happen here.

Antony Flaum (Aroldo), Julian Debreuil (Briano) and Céline Forrest (Mina)
© Enola Colorado

UC Opera fields professionals in principal roles and all four turned out strong performances. Anthony Flaum, as Aroldo, has a pleasant lyric tenor, which doesn’t always quite bloom at its top just yet, but he’s an engaging actor and portrayed the troubled husband convincingly. Rich-voiced soprano Céline Forrest sang well as Mina, Aroldo’s wife. She displayed some thrilling top notes, but there was hollowness to her lower register in Act 2’s coloratura. The baritone gets the best music here and Richard Morrison (disappointingly not The Times’ chief music critic going all poacher-turned-gamekeeper) was on fine form, phrasing his big Act 3 aria splendidly and really attacking the following cabaletta. Briano doesn’t get any big solo, but Julian Debreuil’s sturdy bass made his presence felt. Minor roles were effectively taken.

© Enola Colorado

The student chorus sang with conviction – young, untrained voices, but committed. Their intonation in the a cappella Act 4 prayer, anchored by Flaum and Debreuil, was solid. The orchestra, with strings and woodwinds in the Stalls, brass and percussion buried (almost unseen, Bayreuth-like) in the pit, gave a spirited reading under Charles Peebles. The overture was taken at a hell-for-leather pace that led to some scrambled playing, and intonation was variable, but the tricky trumpet solo was tackled admirably. In Act 4, aided by much net curtain choreography on stage, they stirred up a fearful tempest.

Productions of Aroldo don’t come around too often. I can think of a few operagoers who’ll be heading to Stratford to tick this one off their Verdi list. They’ll see an entertaining show.

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A Verdi pilgrimage to Liège for Jérusalem

Verdi: Jérusalem ****

Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, 17th March 2017

Asked to list Verdi’s operas, even the most knowledgeable may come a cropper over Jérusalem. Even Parma’s infamous “Club dei 27”, whose members each take the name of an opera, doesn’t rank it among their number when it meets every October at the foot of the Verdi Monument to sing “Va, pensiero”. Opportunities to see Jérusalem are all too rare, so kudos to Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, artistic director at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, for this plucky new staging. It is a co-production with Turin’s Teatro Regio, where the opera will be given in its original version, I Lombardi.

Elaine Alvarez (Hélène) and Marc Laho (Gaston)
© Lorraine Wauters | Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

Read the full review on Bachtrack.

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