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Ken Russell opera 


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Opera and theatre

Opera is just like the musicals, only the music is better, and if they're produced properly, they're much more exciting.  I've always tried to make opera a human story so that people feel emotionally involved.  It mustn't be unbelievable because people need to relate to the characters.  Ken Russell, 1987.


1982 The Rake's Progress (Stravinsky)

Ken Russell Rakes Progress

Russell was invited to direct The Rake's Progress at the prestigious Maggio Musicale festival in Florence.  Russell says "Auden, one of the librettists, gave me a clue via an old programme note in which he stated that he both he and the composer considered their simple talk of moral decay to be a timeless one. Accordingly, my designer, Derek Jarman, and I updated it to Thatcher's Britain"

Ken Russell Rakes Progress

Gösta Winbergh plays Tom Rakewell (the rake) and Cecelia Gasidia plays Anne Truelove. Nick, the devil, is played by Istvan Gati.  Tom, with walkman, is gradually seduced by Nick with material wealth, and his progress leads to his suicide in the London underground, in the Angel tube station

.Ken Russell and Riccardo Chailly

Russell and conductor Riccardo Chailly.


1983 Madama Butterfly (Puccini)

Madama Butterfly

Staged in Spoleto, Houston and Melbourne.  Russell's American debut.  Site visitor Michael Thomas Roe says "I saw Ken's production of Madama Butterfly during Spoleto in Charleston.  It was unbelievable.  The "cast" was mingling around outside the opera house (in full costume) and I had this great feeling like I was in the middle of a Ken Russell movie!"

Madama Butterfly

Russell says "I wanted to get across Puccini's message- the real clash between East and West. I mean, I feel the piece was prophetic. Why, for example, should Puccini have chosen to set in in Nagasaki? He could have chosen hundreds of other places in Japan. Well, when I saw that, the rest just fell into place. I worked back from the bomb and ended up in a brothel".  Ken's direction includes Madama Butterfly putting a Mickey Mouse mask on her child to illustrate his Americanization, at the wedding feast the sailors bring cans of beer. Russell ends the opera with the explosion of the atom bomb.

Ken Russell Madama Butterfly

The photos shows Ken Russell directing Rosalind Plowright and Richard Leech in the dream sequence in the Houston version.  The photo is by Ava Jean Mears.

Barry McCauley  Catherine Lamy

Barry McCauley plays Pinkerton and Catherine Lamy plays Madama Butterfly. John Matheson conducts the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.

Donal Henahan in The New York Times of 23 May 1983 writes about the direction taking over the music "The choral and orchestral Intermezzo that ends the second act, when Cio-Cio-San and her child keep a sleepy vigil in expectation of Pinkerton's return, is one of opera's magical moments. During this evocative interlude, Mr. Russell puts on a comic-book pantomime in which Butterfly dreams of married joys to come, such as feeding her husband and child Corn Flakes out of an enormous box and Coca-Cola from a two-foot-high bottle. A hamburger of monstrous size and other touches of Americana add to the effect. The audience, understandably, laughed right through the music."


1984 The Italian Girl in Algiers (Rossini)

Italian Girl in Tangiers

Staged in Geneva Opera, Switzerland. John Rawnsley performed Taddeo.  Russell said "I'm going to base it on a marvellous Bud Abbott and Lou Costello movie called Lost in a Harem".


1984 La Boheme (Puccini)

Ken Russell La Boheme

Ken tackles La Bohem by Puccini, one of the most famous operas ever.  The story of the love of a seamstress Mimi and a poet Rodolfo.  Famous arias include "your tiny hand is frozen" (Che gelida manina).

Ken Russell La Boheme

In Ken's version a giant copy of a Gaudier (Savage Messiah) statue dominates the stage.

Ken Russell La Boheme

And no Ken Russell opera is complete without Nazis.

Ken Russell La Boheme  Ken Russell La Boheme

Staged as part of the Macerata Festival.  The conductor was José Collado, the designer was Richard MacDonald and the roles were played by Cecilia Gasdia (Mimi), Elena Zilio (Musetta), Angelo Romero (Marcello), Giancarlo Ceccarini (Schaunard) and Mario Luperi (Colline).  Thanks to Joseph for the information.  The photos are by Alfredo Tabocchini, you can see many morehere (recommended).


1985 Die Soldaten (Zimmerman)

Nancy Shade

Staged in Lyon and later the ENO, London.  Ken Russell says "When we did it in Lyon, Nancy Shade, our leading lady, who received ovation after ovation, later told the press that it was the most disgusting, filthy thing she'd ever been associated with".


1985 Faust (Gounod)

Ken Russell Faust

Charles Gounod's opera of Goethe's Faust directed by Russell. Singers are Francisco Araiza as Faust, Gabriela Benackova as Helena and Ruggero Raimondi as Mephistofeles. The Wiener Staatsoper is conducted by Erich Binder.  Vienna State Opera.

Ken Russell Faust  Ken Russell Faust

My original review, based on the poor video, was "Despite the opera including nuns, priests and crucifixes this is a conventional staging of the opera, but no less good. Similar to his restrained work on Judith Paris´ play of Weill and Lenya.  Opening with Faust in his study, a coffin is delivered and a girl removed and placed on a table. She is revived, another Metropolis/ Bride of Frankenstein image (Aria, Dante's Inferno).  Mephistofeles later appears in a flash of smoke.  Faust is in one scene in front of a large fence, with nuns clawing his body through the fence, again a reference to Glenda Jackson in The Music Lovers (also reused in Valentino).  This is the only scene that is typical Ken Russell. But intriguingly the video includes the statement "The Walpurgis Night scene is omitted from this performance". Too many nuns?"

Ken Russell Faust  Ken Russell Faust  Ken Russell Faust

Watching the DVD changes everything.  The DVD, with the missing scene restored, shows Ken's visual imagery, Mephistofeles spearing the status of Jesus which then bleeds, the guillotine overshadowing the stage.

Ken Russell Faust



1989 Mefistofoles (Boite)

Il Mefistofele  

Il Mefistofele

Il Mefistofele

Russell's staging of the opera is also filmed by him and available on video. It is well staged and remains exciting throughout: from the beginning with a workman in the dark holding a torch to the audience, to the ending with the singers disappearing in the smoke.  Russell used all his old tricks on this opera and almost all his themes occur without the whole collapsing.  Adam and Eve are tempted by a snake which is a vacuum cleaner hose- Lair of the White Worm uses the same image.  The cover misspells Goethe as Ghoete.

Il Mefistofele

There is a crucifixion scene, as well as Nazis throwing nuns into a pit of fire. In one scene a drunk holds a giant beer bottle as if it is a giant dildo. There is a television playing during the performance.  The fridge, when opened, has shelves with a head on one and hands on another (as in the short film Aria).

Il Mefistofele

The performers are Paata Burchuladze, Ottavio Garaventa and Adriana Morelli. 


1992 Princess Ida (Gilbert and Sullivan)

Ken Russell Princess Ida  Ken Russell Princess Ida

English National Opera at the London Coliseum.  Ken tackles light opera this time.  His London debut.  Russell's staging was highly original in this story set now in 2002 (then 10 years in the future) outside Buck´n´yen Palace.  Ken was invited to stage the Gilbert and Sullivan opera when the ENO's production of Tannhäuser was withdrawn as being too costly.

Rosemary Joshua in Ken Russell Princess Ida

Pricess Ida was performed by Rosemary Joshua.   Richard Van Allan played Hildebrand, Mark Curtis was Hilarion and Richard Suart was Gama. The designer was James Merifield, who had just finished working with Ken of Lady Chatterley.

Ken Russell Princess Ida  Ken Russell Princess Ida

Predictably the audience were split between those who booed and those who cheered at the end (what's new!!).


1993 Salome
(Richard Strauss)

Five years after Ken filmed the Oscar Wilde play, he returns and directs Richard Strauss´opera of the same work. Opera magazine (October 1993) says that "The first-night audience did not enjoy the new work.  Ken Russell returned thanks for their demonstration of displeasure in his own fashion, by bowing with his behind towards the audience".  The singers were Graham Clark (Herod), Helga Deresch (Madame Herodias), David Pittman-Jennings (Jokanaan) Emily Rawlins (Salome), Marcus Haddock (Narraboth), Regina Mauel (the page).  Dennis Russell Davies conducted the Beethovenhalle Orchestra.  It was staged in Bonn.


2000 Weill and Lenya (Paris and Russell)

Ken Russell Weill and Lenya

Russell's directs David McAlister and Judith Paris in the latter's play about composer Kurt Weill and singer wife Lotte Lenya. In London timed to coincide with the centenary of Weill's birth.

It is primarily a musical, with Weill´s songs sung by Paris and McAlister. Weill and Lenya are married having escaped Nazi persecution, but are having difficulties in America both in their married life and professionally. It is a two person show plus two musicians on stage who sometimes join the story, for example doubling as Nazis checking passports.

Russell had already made a television film Lotte Lenya sings Kurt Weill in 1962. Judith Paris has appeared in Russell's work from Dante's Inferno to Lady Chatterley.  The play is written by Paris with additional dialogue by Russell. This is Russell's first direction of a play as distinct from an opera.


2008 Mindgame (Anthony Horowitz)

Ken directs Anthony Horowitz's Mindgame in New York's SoHo Theatre.  Ken describes the play Midgame as "A play in which nothing is as it seems. Strains of violence, intrigue, questionable identity, serial killers and sexually loaded psychodrama stretch the imagination to breaking point or breakthrough point: your choice and your ride... Alone in my room, reading the script... ,by the end of Act II was ready for a large scotch. By the last page, I had finished the bottle. Yes, it was honestly the scariest script I had ever read."

And how he came to do the play "Some time ago I was approached by the talented American actor Lee Godart to direct the play, by the British author Anthony Horowitz, whose TV series Foyle's War and whose Alex Rider books are international hits."

The play stars Keith Carradine, Lee Godart and Kathleen McNenny.  Beowulf Boritt is the production designer, Ken's wife Elise is assistant director and the producers are Monica Tidwell and Michael Butler.  It is on from 29 Oct 2008 and opens on 9 Nov 2008.



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