Posts Tagged ‘Opera’

Akhnaten at the English National Opera

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

Last week I went to the opera, a first for me, as it’s not entirely my thing. I went to see Akhnaten, by Philip Glass, which I rather like for reasons I can’t properly explain. And that’s how he chooses to spell it (rather than the more traditional Akhenaten) – it’s not my typo!

And spoilers follow, so if you don’t want to know the fate of an Egyptian King from 1350BC, or how the opera is staged in London, look away now!

Visually it started very obscurely, with symbols projected onto the curtain. Probably hieroglyphs, but not very meaningful to the non-specialist! The curtain then opened on the death rites of Amenhotep, with the dead king being prepared for his funeral. A surprising amount of juggling! The 3 tier stage had the gods watching from above, juggling what I assumed were the souls of the departed. Nice touch. Also very true to the imagery of the period, where paintings show the gods lined up to watch the ceremony from above. There’s lots more very authentic imagery later on too, where they recreate pictures from the Amarna period – I was impressed by that. 

The first act climaxes with the heart of the King weighing the same as a feather, which is good news for him and allows him to proceed to the afterlife, and coronation of Akhnaten who then unexpectedly renounces the faith of his fathers, and declares his allegiance to a new god, the Aten instead. 

Very stylistic performances, with slow motion movements spreading the action out across the music. The first act also had some gratuitous nudity, as the new king is stripped and reclothed as King – only to be expected from the Arts 🙂

I’m fairly familiar with the music, having listened to it lots of times. But hearing it live was different – I especially appreciated the tuba, whose power as an instrument was very striking. 

In the second act we finally hear Akhnaten sing, and his counter-tenor voice is strikingly odd, especially in duets with women, where it blends in a most unusual way. We also get amazing stylised fighting, where the jugglers throw clubs across the stage at each other, and each weapon becomes part of their own juggling pattern. They got a big round of applause for that!

Act 2 also includes a massive sun (the Aten)  which dominates the stage, looking at times a bit like the Death Star, and at other times like a production of James and the Giant Peach depending on the lighting. 

Thus ends act 2. 

Act 3 is the tragic ending, the fall of the King as his people revolt (very slowly) against their remote and detached ruler. After the flawless mass juggling throughout, the point where all the balls drop to the floor has a real emotional impact – this is it, it’s broken, it’s all over. And the final contrast between the students throwing rolled up notes at each other contrasts beautifully with the skill of all the previous juggling (it’s a professional juggling outfit by the way, who don’t sing). 

I am still ambivalent about some of the music, but I really like other parts. I have to admit, I wished I could have seen more of the orchestra from my seat. But it was a genuine spectacle, and as someone who likes the music, it was a very good night. For the record, the Guardian reviewer liked it, and the Times reviewer didn’t!


Monday, June 18th, 2012

I had an unexpected pleasure on Saturday, of going to the Grand Opera House in the afternoon to see Gilbert and Sullivans’ Ruddigore. I know! Opera on a Saturday afternoon! What kind of crazy person does that! Well, me apparently. And maybe a hundred other people – I wasn’t there on my own.

I’d seen a few posters around town for this, and after enjoying a Gilbert and Sullivan opera last year I thought I should look into it. But I am disorganised clown, and I didn’t. Then a friend raved about it in work on Friday after seeing it the previous evening. I assumed I had missed my chance, but he pointed out that there was a Saturday afternoon matinee. So with his glowing recommendation, off I went.

The seats in Opera House remain as uncomfortable as I remember. But I really enjoyed my afternoon nonetheless. The spoiler-light summary of the story would be that Rose and Robin find their romance complicated greatly by the fact that he is the rightful Baron of Ruddigore, a title which comes with a curse that he must commit a crime every day or die horribly, by the fact that his friend Richard must always follow his heart wherever it may lead him, and by the fact that Rose must at all times behave properly according to her book of etiquette.

The play opens in the style of a silent film to provide some background, which is very nicely done. The curtain then opens to Rose being awoken by the local girls, all dressed as bridesmaids. As she is the prettiest girl in town, no-one will propose to them until she marries, and so they are all getting increasingly exasperated by her choosiness, and very keen for her to marry as soon as possible. It’s a lovely opening, well sung, with a large cast of bridesmaids, nicely choreographed, and with all the wit we expect from Gilbert and Sullivan.

Ruddigore is not apparently among the most loved of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, and I freely admit I had never heard of it and recognised none of the songs. But it was exactly what I had expected and hoped for – the tunes are catchy, the lyrics are witty, and there were plenty of laughs. The staging was very good, with the ghostly Ruddigores emerging from their portraits very well, and generally high production values (as I guess they say in these situations). The little orchestra were very good once the clarinet player had sorted out his squeaky reed in the first couple of numbers, and never overpowered the singers.

One song had a surprising update to include crimes such as phone hacking, expenses fiddling, and Greek debts which was marvellous and completely unexpected. But highlight for me had to be the playing of the baron as the classic pantomime villain, with black moustache, top hat, and black cape which was swished and swirled around at every opportunity.

A great afternoon, and not bad value at £20 for a long and lavish show. I loved it, and will definitely seek out more Gilbert and Sullivan.