How Idomeneo looks from here

The audience are never going to experience an opera the way the chorus does. Even though performance in the round gives them some idea, as they peer through the crowds to catch a glimpse of th action, but actually, the action is what they are peering round.

Our chorus experience is  sweaty, loud and partial – we never get to see the whole show, but the bits we do experience are visceral.

Idomeneo - Mozart - Blackheath Halls Community Opera - 14th July 2015 Musical Director - Nicholas Jenkins Director - James Hurley Designer - Rachel Szmukler Lighting Designer - Ben Pickersgill Idomeneo - Mark Wilde Idamante - Sam Furness Ilia - Rebecca Bottone Electra - Kirstin Sharpin Arbace - William Johnston Davies Pupils from Charlton Park Academy, Greenvale School, Year 5 from Beecroft Garden Primary School and Year 5 from Mulgrave Primary School Blackheath Halls Chorus and Blackheath Halls Orchestra

escaping the monster IdomeneoBH copyright Robert Workman

This is quite a physical show, and we are very glad that the carrying corpses off stage was cut, and we weren’t convinced we’d manage it without injury, to us or the ‘corpse’. The costumes are very hot (winter weight flying jackets with 2 inches of wadding in them, gas masks…) but at least there are no quick changes – last year’s nun-to soldier-in-3-mins is mercifully not challenged for award for fastest change. The emotions change faster, one minute a concerned civil servant,

concerned civil servants copyright Robert Wiseman

concerned civil servants IdomeneoBH
copyright Robert Workman

the next an anxious guard,

Anxious Guards - IdomeneoBH copyright Robert Workman

Anxious Guards – IdomeneoBH copyright Robert Workman

then a cheery well-wisher (although an imagined one!)

Imagined well- copyright Robert Workman

Imagined well-wishers IdomeneoBH
copyright Robert Workman

and finally a zealous follower of Poseidon turned vigilante – (no photos of this, will have to see what we can do in the dressing room!)  but there is a lot of anger throughout, I just have to remember what I’m being angry about and ‘on whom rest the blame’.

If you would like to discover who is to blame, we are performing again tonight at 7pm and on Sunday at 2pm. tickets and info here

Orchestral Manoeuvres

One of the delights of being involved in the community opera at Blackheath Halls is working with the Blackheath Halls Community Orchestra. We don’t get to hear what they are up to until the sitz probe, when we run through the entire opera and work out the corners. This is one of my favourite sessions, because we rarely hear the whole work. Then we get two stage & orchestra rehearsals and a couple of dress rehearsals (two of everything because of the split between the schools we are working with) to get used to what the music sounds like full on, before the first night.

Sitz Probe

Sitz Probe

And very necessary it is too, when we’ve been working with a piano accompaniment up until then. Jeremy, our assistant musical director plays a cut down version of the orchestral score magnificently, and it doesn’t always seem possible that he has enough fingers.

I wonder how much attention the audience pay to the orchestra, there is so much going on in an opera, although they are at least visible in our production.

I know I listen differently as a performer to how I would as an audience member – ear tuned to the instrument that will play the note I need a bar and a half before I have to sing it, that sort of thing; making it hard to take in the whole, but two things really struck me last night during the first performance of Idomeneo.

One was how very full and brassy the sound is considering how little brass there is playing – Mozart makes fantastic use of horns, but that’s about it.

The other was during a brief interlude when the tenors & basses are up with the orchestra for our ‘off stage’ chorus of drowning mariners during the storm. We all creep on and lurk at the side and wait for our cue. This gives us an unusual ‘conductor’s eye view’ of the orchestra. I can’t imagine the concentration and eye for detail it takes to conduct an opera, with orchestra soloists and chorus to pay attention to – I couldn’t even begin to make sense of the full score. Nick Jenkins, I salute you! Anyway while waiting for the music to cue us in,  I noticed these waves of movement going through; not the documentary film cliché of the bows all moving at the same time (although of course they do), but for example, a point at which all the violins put down their bows as one, and plucked the strings instead. It was an incredibly elegant little movement, which delighted me – and then I had to get on with singing and had no thought for anything but coming in correctly on the tricky bit…


Who are all these people?

We are a reading household (there’s a surprise) and an oft-quoted  exclamation, when one of us, uninvited, reads an extract from the current book to the other is ‘Who are all these people?’ I think it’s from a Peter Nichols play but I could be wrong – we are also very poor on attribution.

So it is something I’ve been thinking whilst we’ve been rehearsing Mozart’s Idomeneo. Assiduous readers of this blog will know that I’m not averse to plundering Homer myself, and Idomeneo is set in the aftermath of the Trojan war, so naturally I’m curious as to the source of the story.

This opera was first performed in 1781, and Mozart’s librettist Giambattista Varesco seems to have borrowed heavily from an earlier 1712 opera Idomenée by André Campra (I’m listening to it as I write) libretto by Antoine Danchet, who in turn borrowed from a stage play of the same name by Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon performed in 1707.

Idomeneo (Idomeneus) King of Crete (Grandson of Minos in case you are wondering) does appear in The Iliad occasionally, and comment is made on the vast size of his fleet (relevent to the plot!). He has a tricky journey home like so many of the Greek allies, and in order to be saved from drowning promises to sacrifice the first person he sees, who is, of course, his son – it wouldn’t be a Greek tragedy otherwise.

2015-07-07 11.36.17

Rehearsals: Preparing for a sacrifice

I’m not sure this is in The Iliad, but in all the other versions of the story I can trace he does  kill his son (Idamante in this version) either as a sacrifice, or by accident, and is then banished either by the Cretan’s themselves as a murderer, or driven mad by Poseidon.

So where do the women come in? Neither Ilia not Electra appear in Crébillon’s play, and Ilia seems to be a completely 18th Century invention, she is not mentioned in the Iliad, and the only person of that name I can find is a daughter of Aeneas who would presumably not have been born at this stage in events (hark at me going on like it was real…) In this version she is one of Priam’s many children, shipwrecked from one Idomeneo’s many ships, along with the rest of the Trojan captives. As for Electra – daughter of  possibly the unluckiest family in the history of time…

In case you don’t know, she was the daughter of Agamemnon (brother of Menelaus whose wife was Helen, married to Clytemnestra, sister of Helen – keep up!). He sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia (Electra’s sister) to get favourable winds to get to Troy in the first place. When he got home from the war, Clytemnestra killed him, and then Orestes, their son (Electra’s brother) killed Clytemnestra.  (according to Sophocles and Euripides, since you ask) After that it gets murky as to what goes on with Electra, but various options are open including her becoming a kidnapper, or a quiet marriage to a cousin, but in none of them does she end up in Crete in a jealous fit of pique at Idamante’s adoration of ‘Trojan Slave-girl’ Ilia, as she does here, and in the Campra version. Hey ho, that’s Opera for you, as if there isn’t enough going on already, there has to be someone driven mad by jealousy!

There are several editions of the Mozart opera in any case, with varying inclusions and omissions so I shan’t give you clues as to the ultimate fate of poor Electra.

Come along and find out what happens in our version, under the direction of James Hurley, and how we manage the sea monster (did I not mention the monster??)… tickets here

It’s about to get loud…

If you’ve been thinking I’ve been a bit quiet lately it’s because I’ve been so busy.

One of the things I’ve been busy with is the Blackheath Halls Community Opera. We are doing Idomeneo [Mozart] this year and it is tremendously singable – lush baroque music to make you weep with joy at the cleverness of the harmonies. But Idomeneo is a pretty bleak tale of ill thought out promises and monsters (some of whom are human) and sacrifice. Our production is blood drench and stark, a bit of a shock after last year’s gloriously silly Count Ory.

Normally I do a blog through out the process but it’s not been possible this year – too much else happening. So this is it, really. First night is TOMORROW. tickets are going fast – especially this morning apparently the phones at the halls were red-hot, possibly down to being previewed in the Sunday Times & the Telegraph, though modestly(!) I’d like to think its down to us flash-mobbing Blackheath Village yesterday during our lunch hour from dress rehearsals.) You can buy tickets (unless we’ve sold out already…) online here or by phone on +44 (0)20 8463 0100.

There’s a thunderclap with about 15 mins left to run to hit the target, JOIN IN NOW!!!

2015-07-09 12.50.26

Fast and Furious Figaro

The Boss stitching Figaro up copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Puzzle Piece Opera’s Figaro in 50 minutes, is the latest in a series of 50 minute operas they have performed and my second Figaro in a week, but  it was worth the journey, and what a journey! Figaro transported to the office at top speed.

Figaro sulking copyright Cherry Potts 2011

How do you get through the Marriage of Figaro in fifty minutes?  Lose the choruses, take out the recitative, truncate some of the arias and dispense with some minor characters: Barbarina does not feature nor does the Gardener. Although the singing is in Italian, the action is held together by a narrative in rhyming couplets in English written by Lucy Drever who also directs and page turns for a nimble fingered Gaspar Hunt on piano; and performed by Figaro himself, (Simon Dyer) doing cheeky chappie by turns plotting and sulking; and taking the narration a tad too fast, although his singing was excellent.  In fact everyone was in good voice, it would be unfair to single anyone out (although I will).

Mrs Boss masquerades as Susanna copyright Cherry Potts 2011

The Regent Hall is an obscure performing space, right on Oxford Street but almost invisible.  It is a massive echoing space, and the singers had a lot of stage room to fill too: much effective use is made of a  coat stand centre stage, hiding in turn: Cherubino, Figaro, the Boss and Mrs Boss; this last played by Emily Garland typically mopey, and rather static, but her voice is amazing: vibrant, clear and delectable, her duets with Susanna (Emma-Claire Crook) were particularly fine.

The Boss (Casey-Joe Rumens) was played with conviction as feeling absolutely entitled to grope Susanna, stitch Figaro up and sack Cherubino on a whim, and thoroughly undeserving of his wife’s forgiveness.

Susannah's 'faint' copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Basilio (Matthew Straw) was a very effective toadying second in command, conniving at the Boss’ attempts to seduce Susannah whilst secretly yearning after the boss himself.  Susanna herself flirts and bats her eyelashes and fakes a faint to protect Cherubino from discovery.

Marcellina restrained copyright Cherry Potts 2011

I particularly enjoyed Clara Lisle playing  Marcellina as a bit of a would-be vamp (wearing enormous gold platform shoes reminiscent of Vivienne Westwood). She thoroughly enjoyed twisting Figaro’s tail and was anxiously checking her makeup (or possibly her crows’ feet), in between cat fights with Susanna, and had to be physically restrained by Basilio and Steven East’s Bartolo, a loyal supporter of Marcellina who seems a bit surprised to find himself named as the father of her child.

Cherubino makes for the window copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Cherubino’s escapade with the window is managed wittily, and cheeky use is made of coffee jugs.  Georgina Mottram playing him staggeringly young I felt, possibly on work experience!

All is resolved as the office workers bury their differences, grab coats and scarves, and head for the pub.

Puzzle Piece are performing 50 minute Figaro again, 28th October 1pm at Charlton House, and next month at Blackheath Halls, go and be entertained.

Get your coat... copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Feverish Figaro

To the ENO for the Marriage of Figaro last night, with around 20 fellow Onegin  chorus members, which added to the entertainment value.  We went because Kate Valentine, who sang Tatyana in our production of Eugene Onegin, is singing the Countess, and very relieved we were that she was singing the Countess, as she missed the opening performances due to a chest infection.

There was no sign of this recent illness impeding her, Kate has a phenomenal voice, with great beauty, clarity and power.  It is only with the distance of being in the audience rather than on stage with her, that I truly appreciated just how lucky we were to get her for Onegin.  Up in the balcony (never again in the balcony, uncomfortable is an understatement, I was worried about developing DVT, my feet went numb!) we could hear brilliantly, in fact it was only Jonathan Best as Doctor Bartolo who let us down on that front, he seemed unaware that the top stack existed and projected his voice exclusively at the stalls.

With a piece that will be (very) familiar to a lot of the audience it is important to have a fresh approach without going off the rails.  If I don’t have much to say about Iain Paterson (Figaro), Devon Guthrie (Susanna) and Roland Wood (Count Almaviva) in this production it is because they are wonderful, but equally I’ve never seen a production of Figaro where this wasn’t the case, and in a big opera like Figaro its the quality of the minor characters that sets it apart for me.

Being in the balcony had its advantages with understanding the ever spinning set. (that’s an exaggeration it does stand still a fair bit.) I imagine that from the stalls you only get glimpses of what’s going on behind the front layer, through the windows and doorways, whereas we had a bird’s-eye view of the Almaviva’s household about its business.  There has been a bit of discussion about this in reviews, but I liked it, it freed the action from the confines of the one room and rigid entrance/ exit options and allowed us to witness the characters interacting with others in ways that particularly filled in their temperament and state of mind: The Count pursuing other serving women, and their strategies for staying out of his way; him ignoring the one who rather wants him to notice her.  In fact there is a lot of ducking through doorways to avoid each other going on, and with the steady turn of the revolve, this became balletic and exciting rather than tedious; although I can imagine it making the rehearsal process a lot more challenging, you would need to time the movements a lot more carefully and stick to it; less room for improvising an exit.

There was  something about the hustle and bustle, spying and overhearing, ducking and diving, and pursuit and hiding that puts the main action into context, and genuinely gives a feeling of threat: the Count really is a powerful man who can dispose his favours and his displeasure as he sees fit, and no one, including his wife, is safe from him.  It makes the subterfuge less silly, and more plausible; these are not people with a lot of tools to fight their battles, they have only their wits and the power of ridicule – there is this constant feeling of if this goes wrong we are in major trouble; which accentuated the humour; and the libretto translation by Jeremy Sams, is very funny, there was a lot of startled laughter from the audience; and laughter from something that your audience can anticipate the humour of is quite an accolade.

The cast have no doubt benefited from Fiona Shaw’s acting experience informing her direction, and the chorus get a lot of silly things to do like lugging the Count’s hunting kill into the Countess’s bedroom (was it a wild boar? couldn’t tell from that high, even with binoculars) and mugging their way through Figaro’s conducting of their hymn to the modern thinking of their feudal overlord.

Kate Valentine plays the Countess as addicted to smelling salts and wine, jittery, at the end of her tether and liable to do anything in her misery, even play along with Figaro’s crazy schemes.  Good for her, the Countess is often played whining or sulky and I have never been much on her side before.

I’m always fond of a britches part and Cherubino has some of the best tunes is a dazzlingly satisfying score, and Kathryn Rudge does a superb job both vocally and in her acting; which if a little broad at times doesn’t have that lovesick-calf-mooning-pricipal-boy discomfort that some  singers give it, naming no names.  She does adolescent irrepressibility very well, and is very funny when ‘cross dressing’ to hand over flowers to her/his beloved countess, dress rucked up and proffering an entire rose-bush, roots and all, which is later battered against a kitchen table by the Count. (I bet the gardener had something to say about that).

Marcellina (Lucy Schaufer) is a vigorous, sparky and rather arch madam, and again, refreshing for it.

The costumes are not what you’d call ravishing, but I rather liked the austerity of almost everyone in black with white trim, and there are some wonderful hats.  Against the white walls of the set, it felt more like Flanders than Spain, but then the bull skulls drew you back into the suggestion of bull fighting.  There was some interesting use of projection onto the screen that doubles as part of the set and a curtain; both of live action with shadows and of filmed snatches of the cast in costume and in mufti mainly for the overtures, but also occasionally commenting on the action, a silhouetted horned man, made by the use of sickles stands behind the Count when he thinks he’s being cuckolded.  That mufti seeps out into the action: there are a few deliberate anachronisms, Cherubino wandering around with a cine camera, the Countess in a trench coat and trousers when she threatens to leave the Count at the end, by implication literally walking out of the story, not just her marriage;  Cherubino skipping about in an anorak when he has no more to do.

I do have a nit to pick however, why is Don Basilio (Timothy Robinson) played as blind – or played as playing blind, perhaps?

Overall, an enthralling and charming evening.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011