It seemed fitting in the year of the centenary of Claude Debussy’s death for the pianist Denis Kozhukhin to devote half of a concert to his music, and appropriate to include George Gershwin in the second half. Debussy was undoubtedly aware of – and influenced by –  American ragtime and jazz, and had an immense influence on Gershwin, and later jazz composers, including Duke Ellington, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. The ghost of the French composer haunts many of Gershwin’s works with their pungent harmonies, simple melodies and improvisations.

Never had Book 1 of Debussy’s Préludes seemed so languid, so laid back as in Kozhukhin’s hands: even the up-tempo pieces such as Le Vent dans la plaine and Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, or the capricious La Danse de Puck had a relaxed suppleness which suggested music played not in a grand concert hall but rather late evening in a Parisian café with a glass of something before one. Danseuses de Delphes set the tone: this first Prelude had an erotic grace, a hint of naughtiness behind the direction Lent et grave (slow and serious). Voiles even more so: was this a boat gently rocking on water, its sails barely ruffled by a warm breeze, or perhaps diaphanous veils wafting in an altogether more sensuous scenario? Kozhukhin kept us guessing, lingering over Debussy’s intangible perfumed harmonies, subtly shading his colourful layers and textures, and highlighting the quirky rhythmic fragments which frequent these miniature jewels. His approach was concentrated and intense – the frigid stillness of Des pas sur la neige was almost exquisitely unbearable – but there was wit and playfulness too, Minstrels prancing cheekily across the keyboard to close the first half with an insouciant flourish.

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Artist photo: Marco Borggreve

The characters in English National Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten might have stepped down from an ancient Egyptian tomb painting as they glide across the stage in extreme slow-motion, arms outstretched or palms turned upwards. Restaged by Phelim McDermitt of Improbable peeformance company, the inspiration for this new production is Egyptian bas reliefs reflecting life in Akhnaten’s court, the stylised rays of the sun represented on stage by neon light sticks and the unfurling of golden ribbons, together with some gorgeous lighting effects by Bruno Poet. There are jugglers too, in this production, also inspired by ancient Egyptian art, and their activities enhance both narrative and music.

Akhnaten, his wife Nefertiti and their children, with rays of the sun disc, c1340 BC (Wikimedia Commons)

I saw the very first ENO production of Akhnaten, back in 1985. Then, the setting was spare, ultra-minimalist, with just a pyramid and a sun disc (as I recall). This new production is sumptuous, with opulent, richly-decorated costumes designed by Kevin Pollard, and fine singing from both soloists and ENO chorus.

We know that the ancient Egyptians were a ritualistic people, and this aspect is given full rein in this new production. The opera opens with a long orchestral sequence, during which hieroglyphs are projected onto a painted screen. As the stage is illuminated, the screen takes on the gauzy, grainy appearance of ancient papyrus, and through it we see seated figures with the heads of Egyptian gods – Osiris, Horus, Anubis. In the bottom segment of the set, which takes its inspiration from Egyptian wall-paintings, another ritual is taking place, as the dead Pharaoh Amenhotep III is prepared for burial. Meanwhile, his son appears, naked and vulnerable. Another ritual then ensues as Akhnaten, sung by American counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, is carefully, passively attired by his minions (played by the juggling troupe), and transformed into the new king.

No one rushes, no one runs. Even the jugglers’ balls move with grace, always perfectly synchronised. Combined with Glass’s pulsating, hypnotic score, with its luminous harmonic shifts, the overall effect is of a bas-relief or wall-painting miraculously brought to life and viewed in exquisite slow-motion. More art installation than opera, the narrative moves with an intense concentration which is both absorbing and thrilling, and this slowness, rather than creating longeurs, amplifies the epic scale. Add to this Anthony Roth Costanzo’s extraordinary other-wordly voice – made even more extraordinary when combined with Emma Carrington’s beautiful, statuesque Nefertiti and Rebecca Bottone’s Queen Tye, who haunts the stage like the old Queen Mary of Tek – plus the ENO chorus’s powerful and elegaic contributions.

Scribe (Zachary James) and Queen Tye (Rebecca Bottone) (photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

The non-naturalistic direction never appears contrived and the slow-motion narrative builds in intensity like a solemn meditation. Even the destruction of Akhnaten’s city and his own death are told with the same glacial control, the jugglers tossing their balls into the air and simply letting them drop to the floor to illustrate the fall of Akhnaten’s empire and his belief system.

In a way, the narrative – the story of Akhnaten the Pharaoh who exchanged a polytheistic (many gods) belief system for a monotheistic system (worship of the sun disc) – is irrelevant, and the programme contains a detailed synopsis, libretto and copious accompanying notes. Simply allow yourself to be bathed in Glass’s rapturous music and feast your eyes on this captivating and evocative production.

‘Akhnaten’ continues in repertory at English National Opera until 18th March 2016

(Header image: Clive Bayley, Anthony Roth Costanzo, James Cleverton and Colin Judson, photo Richard Hubert Smith)

The transfer of the International Piano Series to St John’s Smith Square while the Southbank Centre undergoes a facelift is proving successful and popular. An elegant venue with a fine acoustic and a beautiful Steinway piano, coupled with one of the UK’s most gifted pianists active today, made for an evening of music making of the highest calibre, in a diverse programme which opened with Schubert and closed with Rachmaninov.

Steven Osborne
(photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Schubert’s second set of Impromptus D935 are less frequently performed than the first set, with the exception of the third of the set (a set of variations based on the Rosamunde theme). The first and the last, both in F minor but very contrasting, were presented in this concert. The word “Impromptu” is misleading, suggesting a small-scale extemporaneous salon piece or album leaf. Schubert’s Impromptus, composed in 1827, his post-Winterreise year of fervent creativity, are tightly-structured and highly cohesive works.

There is nothing “small scale” about the opening of the first of the D935, and Steven Osborne‘s account of this was brisk, almost terse, and bold, with a grandeur redolent of Beethoven at his most expansively gestural. But Schubert does not linger in this territory for long and soon the music moved into a far more introverted realm. The middle section, tender duetting fragments over an undulating accompaniment, was poetic, intimate and ethereal. By contrast, the other F minor Impromptu was infused with Hungarian flavours, with offbeat rhythms and twisting scalic figures. Osborne pulled it off with a modest bravado, alert always to Schubert’s miraculous harmonic shifts and fleeting moods.

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The operettas of W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are much-loved national treasures, as English as strawberries and cream and tennis at Wimbledon. These light comic operas poked fun at Victorian mores, politics and society, and their sharp observations, dressed up in Gilbert’s “topsy-turvy world” where each absurdity is taken to its logical conclusion, would have been easily comprehensible to their audiences – and remain so today. The operettas have stood the test of time, as evidenced by their enduring popularity, many revivals, and performances around the English-speaking world, and their messages remain witty and topical. The operas have encouraged political debate, social discourse and much pastiche, and the innovations which Gilbert and Sullivan introduced to content and form directly influenced musical theatre in the 20th century.

The Mikado was the most successful of the ‘Savoy Operas’, works which were written to be produced at the Savoy Theatre, built in 1881 by Richard d’Oyly Carte, the impresario who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together. Its story pokes fun at English bureaucracy and social standing, thinly disguised by a Japanese setting in the fantasy city of Titipu, a seaside resort. The narrative and the characters who populate it resonate today, in an era where career civil servants and political mandarins, sycophants and hangers-on appear to hold sway over those who govern us, and at a time where donations to political parties can lead to elevation to the House of Lords and other positions of privilege. All this commentary is delivered with catchy, memorable tunes (The Mikado contains some of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most well-loved songs, including ‘A Wand’ring Minstrel’, ‘Three Little Maids’ and ‘Tit Willow’), wit, warmth and humour. Add an attractive set, fine singing and a great chorus, and you have the recipe for a splendid night’s entertainment.

As a child growing up in Shrewsbury, we had members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company lodging with us while the company were on tour, and in Birmingham in the 1970s I saw Welsh National Opera productions of The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore. I’ve always enjoyed the clever combination of words and music, the hummable tunes and colourful settings of these operettas, and so when Jonathan Miller’s production of The Mikado first burst onto the scene in 1986, I was keen to see his fresh take on this much-loved story. It’s taken me 30 years to achieve this, and the latest revival at English National Opera did not disappoint.

The curtain goes up on a light bright cream set, depicting a hotel in a 1930s English seaside resort. The setting may suggest faded gentility, but there is nothing cosy about satire, and the production shines an amusing but critical light on political bureaucracy and scheming and the English middle class and their obsession with status. It is Gilbert’s poking fun at our own status anxiety, and the satirist’s talent for highlighting the absurdities of bureaucracy, which makes Mikado so enjoyable for us today.

The costume colour palette is simple, black and cream with tiny flashes of red, and the chorus and dancers are dressed as bell-hops and maids. Richard Suart as Ko Ko (the tailor-turned-Lord High Executioner) steals the show. It’s a role he’s played many times, and it shows in his exquisite comic timing: obsequious bowing and scraping one minute, the next flirting and patting bottoms of maids. His “moment” comes in the great number ‘I’ve Got a Little List’, updated as is traditional to reflect the zeitgeist. Thus, Jeremy Clarkson, Sepp Blatter and FIFA, cheating Russian athletes, David Cameron (with a not-so-veiled reference to ‘Pigggate’) and Donald Trump get a mention.

Nanki-Poo, the young man and “second trombonist” (which provides much scope for comic asides) who is in love with Yum Yum (Ko Ko’s ward, and wife-to-be) was elegantly played by Anthony Gregory with a nice balance between pathos and comedy, while Yum Yum (Mary Bevan) was winsome and coquettish.

Youth and experience were celebrated too in this revival: young conductor Fergus Mcleod was making his house debut on this occasion, while and Robert Lloyd, who made his debut at ENO 46 years ago, reprised the role of the Mikado, tottering and portly in his over-sized cream linen suit.

The evening fizzed along, the singing and drama enhanced by some wonderfully quirky and surreal Busby Berkeley-style dance interludes, and it was lovely to see Jonathan Miller there, cheerfully greeting friends in the bar beforehand, and later taking a bow at the end of the show. The standing ovation was as much an appreciation of that evening’s performance as the enduring appeal of Miller’s sparkling production.

The Mikado continues in repertory at ENO until February 2016. Details here