Tara Erraught as Octavian, Lars Woldt as Baron Ochs and Kate Royal as the Marschallin in the 2014 Glyndebourne production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Photo: Bill Cooper
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Glyndebourne 2014: Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

From acid social satire to romance, the new season at Glyndebourne has something to offer those willing to go beyond mere appearances.

Glyndebourne’s season opened last week with a tragedy and a comedy, but overpowering both was a scandal. When the “big five” broadsheet music critics voted as one to christen Tara Erraught’s Octavian in the company’s new Der Rosenkavalier “dumpy”,  “unsightly and unappealing”, and “a chubby bundle of puppy-fat” it touched a national nerve that still continues to twinge with opinion pieces and radio interviews.

The question of physical appearance in opera in an old wound that flares up periodically. Must singers be held to the same standards as actors, or should appearance be irrelevant as long as the voice is good enough? Are we favouring model-like Mimìs while indulging portly or elderly Rodolfos? Good questions all, but ones with little place in a review. I pay Erraught and her cast-mates the compliment of discussing the production as the thoroughly entertaining and impeccably executed art that it was, rather than getting bogged down in soap-boxing or sermonising. Anyone hoping for invective should consult the Guardian (whose own critic was a prime-mover in all of this) instead.

Richard Jones was always going to be a bold choice to direct Rosenkavalier in Strauss’s anniversary year. Witty and provocative, his productions don’t always offer quite the veneration to the original work that devotees desire. Everything in Jones-land is brighter and bigger – thought-provoking, certainly, but also thoughtful.

Here, aided by Paul Steinerg’s designs, Jones creates a Rosenkavalier that’s polished up so brightly that we can see our very twenty-first century faces reflected back at us in its glinting surface. There’s a certain elegance to a production that sees the young Sophie (sold in status-enhancing marriage to the ghastly Baron Ochs) paraded up and down a boardroom table like livestock at an auction provoking the same kind of dispassionate physical scrutiny by critics. We live in an age of glittering surfaces, and Strauss’s Vienna is no different.

Signature Jones wallpaper covers the sets from floor to ceiling like the pastel-coloured interior of a box of Viennese truffles. His characters’ psychodramas – real and vivid – chafe fruitfully against this belittling confinement, before being liberated into the glorious pomposity of the Faninals’ home – reimagined here, deliciously, as an Art Deco hotel.

Much of the impish delight of Jones’s production stems from his casting. Too often we see Marschallins well past their prime. Here, as Hofmannsthal intended, she is young and beautiful. Kate Royal makes a fine role debut; vocally this isn’t the largest or the most generous heroine, but for clarity and energy it’s a winner, sparking and sparring with Erraught’s Octavian in a way that’s both playful and deeply affectionate.

Erraught brings full-toned directness and real character to her role, channelling a youth that makes for a particularly innocent and touching courtship with Teodora Gheorghiu’s jewel-box ballerina of a Sophie. But though dramatically effective, Gheorghiu as yet lacks the vocal control (especially at the top of the voice) for the role, and with Royal’s lighter Marschallin this makes for some less-than-grounded ensembles. The final trio is moving, certainly, but not musically quite as exquisite as it could be, tending slightly shrill.

They aren’t helped by Ticciati’s pit, who produce lovely sounds but far too little of them. A good Rosenkavalier should float, supported by its billowy orchestra, but here the singers are left to fend for themselves too often.

At risk of spoiling the trick for those yet to see it, I will say only that Jones has plenty of other innovations and reimaginings up his sleeve. The final stage direction concerning the Marschallin’s forgotten clothing has rarely felt so natural a conclusion.

Ekaterina Sergeeva as Olga in the 2014 production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

From acid social satire to romance in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Graham Vick’s Glyndebourne production celebrates its twentieth birthday this year by returning in the hands of the original director himself. Much of the gilt-and-velvet excess of Pushkin’s Russia is stripped away here, leaving just its essence in the ballrooms and drawing rooms of St Petersburg. There’s a Baltic cleanness to Richard Hudson’s sets for the rural scenes that balances this, giving us wide emptiness and grandeur where we more often get busy domestic scenes and colourful peasantry.

The effect is to focus us more directly on the characters, rather than losing them in the bustle of atmospheric action. Ekaterina Scherbachenko’s Tatyana is more contained than most, an introverted teenager with a vivid inner life. She is paired with a slightly-too-manic Olga (Ekaterina Sergeeva) in an opposition that feels more extreme than usual. The women lead the cast, from Scherbachenko’s ecstatic letter scene to Irina Tchistjakova’s earthily resonant Filipyevna.

The men are more problematic. Though solidly sung, Andrei Bondarenko’s Onegin never really catches fire. Physically stilted and ill at ease in his movements, he makes a plausible enough judge in the early scenes, but not a sufficiently passionate lover in the latter. Edgaras Montvidas feels miscast as Lensky. This Lithuanian tenor is no more capable of forgetting he is a star than of singing badly, and the result is a Lensky who lacks anything of innocence or sweetness, but gains a rather unexpectedly glossy assurance.

Moving from the naturalism of the countryside to the grotesque exaggerations of the closing scenes, Vick’s drama has a natural crescendo to it that heightens Tchaikovsky’s tale excitingly. It would help if lengthy scene-changes didn’t threaten continuity of emotion and if the director had perhaps moderated his fondness for curtains, but quibbles aside this is still a fine production and one that wears its age lightly.


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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.

Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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