Bampton’s Salieri

13 Sep

It’s always good to welcome Bampton Classical Opera to St John’s, Smith Square for their annual visit.  Their performances are almost always of pieces that are new to me and they throw light on a type of opera that is hardly ever done otherwise.

This year, they returned to Salieri and to one of his very successful operas, La scuola di gelosia – or the School of Jealousy.  Written for Venice in 1778, it was revived in Vienna in the early 1780s with a a cast including Michael Kelly, Nancy Storace, Caterina Cavallieri and Francesco Bernucci.  Anyone familiar with the early performances of Mozart’s da Ponte operas will recognise those names.  It was, apparently, a big success in London in 1786 – though there haven’t been performances here since, so far as we know.  This performance was on 12 September.

The plot reminds me a lot of Marivaux’s plays.  There are two largely unhappy marriages – a Count and Countess where the Count goes philandering and a merchant who is intensely jealous of his wife.  There’s a servant who, seeing all this, isn’t at all certain whether he wants to marry his female colleague.  And there’s a lieutenant who argues that the jealous wife and husband should play it cool and make the other believe that they are unfaithful.  Various situations are manufactured to enable the moral of the piece to be prepared – it’s an opera that plays with feelings and emotions but without the skill of Marivaux or, indeed, da Ponte.

Which brings me to the main problem.  Anyone with the faintest knowledge of Mozart’s operas will recognise links to Le nozze di Figaro and  Cosi fan tutte.  You will be comparing. There are undoubtedly similarities and, since da Ponte provided  some additional numbers for the Vienna performances, it’s inconceivable that he and Mozart didn’t know the piece when, a very few years later they were working on their masterpieces.  Which is a real problem when the Countess has a cavatina bemoaning her loneliness and another one planning to bring her husband back and neither of them bear a patch, at least on this showing, to their equivalents in Figaro.

It also brings me to the Bampton problem.  This was an opera written for a sophisticated audience and for sophisticated, starry singers.  Bampton has many qualities – curiosity and enthusiasm among them, but you can’t really call it sophisticated.  I don’t know whether this is a really poor, uninspired libretto with rather lame situations and a structure that Mozart and da Ponte drew on and improved significantly, or whether it suffered from Gilly French’s jolly hockey sticks cliché-ridden translation, with effortful rhymes that made it seem incredibly remote and safe.  Perhaps a more dangerous production than Jeremy Grey’s might have caught some ambiguities and interest in the relationships.  And perhaps some real stars could have made a better case for the music.

As it was, Grey’s production was amiably effective enough without particularly helping any of his soloists to project any depth of character.  Anthony Kraus’s conducting struck me as needing an ounce or two more sparkle: tempi struck me as a notch too cautious and the very decent young singers simply didn’t have the level of experience or sense of style that, I imagine, would have been displayed in Vienna in 1782.

Best, I thought, was Alessandro Fisher as the Count – displaying a very pleasing Mozartian tenor, a strong sense of style and some engaging acting.  Rhiannon Llewellyn made her best stab at some cruelly taxing arias and came out on top, just.  Matthew Sprange needed much better direction to make the jealous Blasio credible or interesting (and, possibly, better arias).  Nathalie Chalkley made a nice, vivacious Ernestina (his wife, who did some of her feistier numbers rather well).  Thomas Herford was an engaging Lieutenant and Samuel Pantchoff made a very alert, promising Lumaco (the servant).

Despite their best efforts, the piece came across as rather dull.  The arias didn’t strike me as being a patch on anything by Mozart, though they were pleasant enough.  There is quite an engaging quintet and an Act I finale that isn’t a million miles from the Rossini of Turco in Italia or pietra del paragone.  But, somehow, just not quite there.  The situations seemed contrived, the recitative lumbering and I wasn’t really sure that it added up to anything in the end.

There is, apparently, a CD and there have been productions in Italy and Vienna with another one mooted for Uruguay.  Whether this actually amounts to a “new wave of popularity”, as Jeremy Grey suggested in the programme, strikes me as debatable (a ripple of interest, possibly).  On this showing, I wouldn’t cross the street (let alone the Channel or the Atlantic) to see it again.  If, however, a suitably starry cast and interesting director were to try it in London, I might just give it another go.

Sorry if this is churlish.  I am grateful for the opportunity to see it.

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Second Glyndebourne Traviata

27 Aug

Glyndebourne’s experiment this year was to have a very long run of Traviatas with two casts.  As well as giving lots of people the opportunity to see a popular opera, they also saw people like me coming.  I saw the first lot on May 31.  I saw the last night with the second cast on 27 August, the last night of the season.

Tom Cairns’s production actually looks better from further back: you get more of a sense of the different spaces in the party scenes and you still get the detailed acting of the excellent Douphol and Grenvil of William Dazeley and Henry Waddington, respectively.  It remains an intelligent, strong production.

The three leading roles were new.  Joyce El-Khoury was the Violetta.  She created an isolated, passionate individual.  Her singing was very strong indeed, convincingly managing the different demands of the role.  She’s at her best in Sempre libera and in the scenes with the elder Germont.  While I admired the technical expertise, my doubt was whether she created any of the heart-stopping moments that a great Violetta does.  I was not involved as much as I wanted to be.

Atalla Ayam was the Alfredo, less gauche and less well-acted than his predecessor, his voice is warmer, his personality more passionate.  He made a good, convincing Alfredo.  he didn’t even try for the high notes at the end of the cabaletta and I wondered how much Violetta, in the end, really mattered to him.

Dmitri Platanias was the Germont and the most luxurious casting.  It’s marvellous to hear the strong, sheer luxurious sound of a baritone in its prime in a house that requires no straining.  His acting didn’t strike me as being the original in the world and, if anything, the scene between him and Violetta didn’t strike me as quite as immediate as it did with the first cast.  But this was exceptionally classy singing.

Stefan Soltezs conducted – a late replacement.  I admired it a lot.  The first phrases of the prelude were stretched as far as you could imagine with comfort and it made an immediate statement about the opera.  He accompanied the singers considerately and, I thought, built up the Act II finale as impeccably as anyone I’ve heard.  This was unfussy, very natural Verdi conducting which didn’t seem to feel the need to make every point.  The LPO was in excellent form.

It’s been a decent, if not a great Glyndebourne season.  The interest came from the Hipermestra and the Hamlet, both worthy efforts but neither exactly catching light.  The revivals have been of a high standard and highly enjoyable, but it’s one of the few seasons in my recollection where I can’t think of an evening where you come out thinking “It really doesn’t get better than this”.  There was a lot of enjoyment and all the shows were very strong, but none have quite captured the magic of Glyndebourne at its best.

Clumsiness of Glyndebourne’s Tito

11 Aug

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Glyndebourne’s new production of La Clemenza di Tito which halving the design budget and sacking the dramaturg would probably not have solved.  I saw it on 11 August and, despite the irritations of a cluttered set and silly films, found it a pretty satisfying evening.

The crucial person in this opera is the title character, or so it seems to me.  The essence of the opera is that Tito has the choice between revenge and forgiveness, between understanding and despotism and living by his principles or by his emotions.  The crucial part is the accompanied recitative in Act II and the scene with Sesto.  If the Tito can bring those off and make you interested in them, then the opera becomes interesting not just about enlightenment political theory but about how individuals live and take decisions.

I thought that Richard Crofts, a late replacement for Steve Davislim, got this point brilliantly.  We see him early on as a conflicted, emotional ruler, possibly unstable, deeply attached to Berenice – how brilliant it is that we never see Tito and Vitellia together, so we have absolutely no sense of any attachment.  Anyway Crofts made that huge scene in Act II interesting and commanded the final scene and made you believe in the conflict that goes on in his mind about what he should do when faced by betrayal by his best friend and his future spouse.  This was an intense, deeply convincing performance.  He sang the music really well, making the arias interesting.  He was the centre-piece.

He had some seriously fine performances surrounding him.  Anna Stephany was originally scheduled to sing Annio but, when Kate Lindsay became pregnant, was moved up.  I’d been looking forward to hearing Lindsay in this role (and I hope I will one day) but Stephany made the finest Sesto I’ve heard since Brigitte Fassbaender knocked me sideways at Edinburgh in 1981. She looked the most convincing man I’ve seen in this role ever – helped by a wig, sideburns and stubble, but my companions (who hadn’t seen the cast list) couldn’t make up their minds until the interval whether this was a mezzo or counter tenor.  She sang the role with real intelligence, a beautiful voice and lacks only Fassbaender’s sheer energy and dynamism.  This was a conflicted, introverted Sesto that I found hugely convincing.

Then there was Alice Coote as Sesto, making the most of her glorious low notes and having fun as this thoughtless, cigarette smoking siren.  She caught the sheer selfishness of the woman and then changed our minds with a Non piu di fiore that caught exactly the repentance and understanding that you’d hope for.  It was a raw, open performance and, again, wonderfully sung.

Joelle Harvey sang Servillia.  The way in which she began her second Act aria was heart-stopping.  This wasn’t a singer seeking to charm, this was a desperate sister, playing the guilt card and it made perfect sense.

Michele Losier was Annio.  I’ve heard some make their Act II aria the highlight of the show.  She didn’t, but made a pretty credible figure.  Clive Bayley made an ambiguous Publio and didn’t make much of his aria.

I thought Robin Ticciati’s conducting outstanding.  This was a lithe, intelligent reading: deeply considerate to his singers and, apparently, at one with the production.  He caught the grandeur of the score and also the personal side.  This felt like Glyndebourne Mozart at its peak.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was on wonderful form and the chorus in great voice.  He made you realise how extraordinary the score is – arias running into finales, that astonishing finale to Act I which ends way before you expect and Mozart’s sheer dramatic intelligence.

So to Claus Guth’s production.  The fact that I feel so positive about the individual performances, the sheer intelligence and rawness of the acting suggests that he’s done a great job in interpreting an opera that fails as often as it works.  And yet… He begins with a video during the overture (seriously, can there be a moratorium on these for the next three years?).  It shows Tito and Sextus as boys playing in the grounds at Glyndebourne (again, seriously, can Glyndebourne get out of this childish habit of referring to itself all the time – what with this and Hipermestra this season, it’s become really tiresome – we all know it’s a wonderful place, they don’t have to tell us).   We keep getting reminiscences superimposed on the set usually irritatingly.

The set consists of two parts – an upper part which is black and modern. presumably the cold state, the lower part is full of reeds and water and rock where, presumably, natural feeling takes place.  Those reeds are a real nuisance and you feel sorry for the singers having to negotiate them.  It would, actually, make an outstanding set for Pelleas et Melisande (or, indeed, Rusalka) and I urge Glyndebourne to think of recycling it for next season’s production.

The audience reaction was enthusiastic.  I had the impression of them listening, engaging and being gripped by the piece.  Will they want to see it again?  I rather doubt it.  For me, it will depend on the cast.  But I am grateful for a performance that, actually, got to the heart of an under-rated work and made a difficult, problematic opera look interesting and relevant.

Enjoyable Don Pasquale

30 Jul

Glyndebourne’s Don Pasquale has returned for its fourth run – twice on tour and, now, twice the Festival. I saw the latest run on 30th July.

Mariame Clement’s production, backdated to a Chardin-ish 18th century is a cynical piece of work.  Malatesta is clearly having an affair with Norina and will also continue to do so after the marriage with Norina (unlike previous incarnations, she no longer runs off with him at the end).  I found myself disliking it very much at its last outing on the tour.  It didn’t seem so bad here – though I find the idea of Malatesta and Norina going into a bathtub pretty fully clothed a bit unlikely.   I’m not sure about the chorus as an audience.  Bits and pieces have been changed but, at this run, it seemed to get the piece generally about right – a cynical comedy where nobody comes out particularly well.  It’s clearly been built for the tour rather than the festival but the acting is strong and the performance held its own.  The audience enjoyed itself.

The cast was adequate.  Renato Girolami acts Pasquale rather well, though not quite Corbelli.  Vocally, he sounded under-powered but put the words across pretty well.  Andrew Stenson as Ernesto did a perfectly decent job but I can’t particularly imagine wanting to hear him in anything else. Andrey Zhilikhovsky acted a nasty, sinister, sexy Malatesta and sang pretty strongly.  It’s not the largest or most beautiful of voices, but he made a stylish Malatesta who certainly held the stage as the manipulator.

He was matched by Lisette Oropesa as Norina.  She struck me as having the biggest personality and a really attractive voice that was pretty much ideal for the role.  She sang very stylishly and gave a lot of pleasure with accurate coloratura and strong pointing of the words.  I’m not sure that she made Norina a particularly sympathetic character, but she probably isn’t.

Giacomo Sagripanti conducted an alert, performance.  The chorus was in splendid form and so was the LPO.  The performance zipped along at just the right speed and there was no question that I was watching one of the finest Italian comic operas even if I could imagine performances which were vocally a bit more accomplished and productions a bit less cynical.  It’s worth a visit.

Kaufmann’s Otello

7 Jul

Possibly, after 30 years, it was time for a new Otello at Covent Garden.  It was an interesting feeling to realise that it was more than 30 years since I saw the old Moshinsky production during its first run (Kleiber, Domingo, Ricciarelli and one of my abiding “great evenings”).  Anyway, Jonas Kaufmann taking up the role was a good enough reason for a new production and I saw it on 6 July.

Usually with Otello, I find myself blown away by the first couple of acts and then find the last couple pall slightly.  Here, it was other way round and the whole performance built up to, I thought, a really shattering conclusion.

So during the first act, I found myself deeply unconvinced by Antonio Pappano’s conducting.  The storm felt slow, almost becalmed – though I noticed the point that, actually, the chorus here are watching, preparing and that I was concentrating on what they were saying.  It wasn’t particularly helped by Keith Warner’s very static direction of the chorus.  This is a scene which, it seems to me, cries out for the bustle and energy that it got from Moshinsky in the old production, not to mention Peter Stein’s unforgettable WNO production.  I sort-of got what they were getting at, but I missed the sheer energy that I think Verdi needs here and which it got from Kleiber, Elder, Armstrong…  Kaufmann delivered his Esultate very strongly and I got a bit excitement, only to have it dashed again by the lumpen direction of the following scene and the fight: clear, yes, exciting, no.  Marco Vratogna’s Iago struck me as intelligent and active but not in particularly strong voice.

Then came the love duet, tender, intelligently sung and conducted with Kaufmann tender and powerful and Maria Agresta very promising indeed as Desdemona.

In Act II, I thought that Pappano was at his best in the quiet passages, the dialogues though, again, not getting the nuances that Kleiber did – he made that whole act sound like a piece of chamber music. Kaufmann seemed well able to cope with the vocal challenges but I didn’t have a sense of who this man was.  I missed the elemental power that Domingo brought – just as an example, the cry “Desdemona rea” was not the angry cry of a wounded man that it often is, but much softer, almost unbelieving – except that you almost missed it.  And shouldn’t he and Vratogna have been looking at each other during their duet?  The set was busy, at times swaying to match the drunken dancing, at others just bringing on particular pictures that, I have to admit, were rather beautiful.

At the end of Act II, therefore, I thought this was turning into a very good, decent Otello but not really catching light.

In Act III, it started to get interesting.  The Otello/Desdemona scene was intensely painful even if you did feel that they wandered about a bit: the end with Desdemona silhouetted at the back and Otello at the front made a superb picture.  Kaufmann did a wonderfully intelligent Dio mi potevi – making you feel the thought processes, though I wasn’t as moved as I have been.  Then Pappano managed the best paced Act III finale I’ve heard since Kleiber – another technically very well directed scene where you were alive to what was going on and the music built up intelligently and very satisfyingly.

Then, in Act IV, Agresta came into her own with the most intensely beautiful and moving performances of that scene that I’ve ever heard.  I often find this something of a bore.  Here I followed the thoughts, loved the gorgeousness of her voice and, most of all, the sense of innocence and awareness of death that she brought to it.  Kaufmann took command in the final scene and I found myself deeply moved by his singing.  Pappano’s conducting became all of a piece and, at the end, there was a couple of seconds hush as we absorbed what had happened.

So, overall, this was very good indeed.  I’m not convinced on this showing that Kaufmann has all that it takes to be a great Otello.  Vocally, he’s as convincing as I’ve heard since Domingo and you can’t doubt the intelligence or the sheer heft of the voice.  He didn’t make an ugly noise all evening.  My problem was that dramatically he seemed at a loss.  There needs to be a fire and passion about Otello and I wasn’t convinced he got near it.

Vratogna makes a very decent, solid Iago without offering any particular insights.  Agresta is really special and I’d love to hear her again.  The lesser parts were perfectly adequate with no-one really standing out.

Warner’s production is perfectly fine and serviceable.  There are some superb stage pictures and he offers an almost expressionist take on the piece.  There’s a lot going on with the set when I felt that I’d prefer more to be going on with the characters.  I wasn’t convinced that he’d particularly helped Kaufmann with a view of how he could make Otello his own and a lot of the direction frankly didn’t improve on the old Moshinsky production.  However, it’s a serviceable enough piece of work and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t serve as a decent backdrop for future casts.

As for Pappano, superbly seconded by his orchestra and chorus, I admired the accompaniment of the singers and the pacing of many parts but there were others where it just felt too ponderous.  I compared his timings to those of the recording I have of Kleiber in Milan – Pappano added at least 15 minutes to those and it showed.  And, irritatingly, a performance that should ended by 10.20 at the latest was not out until 10.40.

So this was high quality evening which got better and better as it went on even if it didn’t sweep you away from the start, as I still feel Otello should.

All about sex at the RCM

1 Jul

The Royal College of Music’s summer show is a double bill of two French opera’s Chabrier’s Ene Education Manquée and Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tiresias.  Lord knows when the Chabrier was last done here.  The Poulenc appeared at ENO and Opera North in the 1970s and ’80s but since then has been largely for students.  I saw it at the Guildhall in 2005 and can remember nothing about it.  I saw the first night of this show on 28 June.

It’s an imaginative pairing.  Both are very firmly about sex and making babies and, at first blush, at the lighter end of the French tradition.  It’s slightly surprising that they’re not paired more often – insofar as you’re likely to see either of them much.

I’m a Chabrier fan and Une Education Manquée on CD.   The impression I had was of a genial enough piece with nothing which really makes you sit up.

That was more or less confirmed by this performance.  It’s an amusing-ish jeux d’esprit.  Two young people have just got married but what you do when you’re left together afterwards and the husband’s pedantic tutor Pausanius is no help either.  Then a thunderstorm arrives and, as the lovers close, they learn what comes next naturally.  Chabrier’s music is jolly enough in his fairly typical vein – yearning romance and some lush harmonies, mixed with some Offenbach-ish speed.  The arias early on sound a bit generic but it livens up with some sparky duets towards the end.  The last three numbers are the best.

There’s a fair amount of dialogue which the RCM did in an alert translation by Stephen Unwin.  The arias were in French.  I longed for a Jeremy Sams-type translation of the whole thing which might have livened things up a bit and added some smut.  Unwin’s direction was reliable enough without doing much more than the obvious things.  The singers were decent.  I liked Juliet Lozano as Gontran – a rather lovely mezzo and a nice way of acting.  Rosanna Cooper as Helene didn’t convince me for a moment that she didn’t know about sex but, again, she displayed a nice mezzo.  Kieran Rayner is a bit young for Pausanius but he sang it well enough.  I can’t honestly say that this is more than a moderately enjoyable curiosity and I won’t be going out of my way to see it again.

I was rather enjoying the Poulenc until my partner pointed it out to me what an unpleasant piece it is: about the havoc created by women daring to want to have careers and not doing the good catholic thing of making babies.  The fact that it’s disguised in almost Monty Python-ish surrealism and some witty and very beguiling music actually makes the taste a bit nastier.

However, you can’t deny the wit and there are some rather funny situations and setting of language.  Unwin’s production was slick despite a few first night mishaps.  Men on roller skates are, by definition funny, as is a policeman on a bicycle.   I thought that he probably got the piece as right as you can. There were some good routines and you were never bored.

It was helped by a really splendid Therese/Tiresias from Harriet Eyley.  Here is a really lovely light voice in the Mady Mesplé mould, produced effortlessly and with a sense of style that was spot-on.  Buy shares now. Julien Van Mallaerts did a lovely job as the Husband – hilarious in his ghastly flowery frock and with a splendid command of the stage: a lovely warm personality and outstanding timing.  His voice went a bit awol at one point but otherwise, I thought this was a very promising performance.

Among the other roles, I enjoyed James Atkinson’s Gendarme, Benedict Hyman’s reporter and Stephen Mills’s scene stealing cameo as the Son. Kieron Rayner was back as the Theatre Director and delivered his opening scene with the right deadpan seriousness.  It felt as thought the hard-working cast was enjoying itself.

Michael Rosewell conducted.  He caught the romance and wit of the Chabrier and the lighter textures and contrasts of the Poulenc.  The orchestra was good.

It’s well worth a visit if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

Ariadne revival at Glyndebourne

25 Jun

I’ve always liked Ariadne, though it’s quite hard to put my finger on why.  It shouldn’t work.  The mixture of the comic prologue and the rather strange opera that follows it ought not to work.  Yet it does. I think it’s that mixture of high emotion and comedy and the way Strauss contrasts the two and paces it.  Unlike many of his pieces, it doesn’t outstay its welcome and, apart from Capriccio, it’s probably my favourite of his operas.

The current Glyndebourne production by Katherina Thoma is now having its second outing.  I enjoyed its first incarnation and rather liked the conceit of the country house opera turning into a hospital for the serious second half.  It still works well enough though I don’t think that it’s a production that particularly repays repeated viewings.  It’s clever rather than profound and I thought a lot of the distractions in the hospital setting didn’t work that well and that Thoma misses a number of opportunities.  With the comedians dressed the same way, you can’t identify individuals and, more seriously, she doesn’t expand on the Zerbinetta/Harlequin relationship as Loy does at the ROH.  There’s a supernatural, operatic element bout the second part that this relentlessly earthbound, hospitalised production misses.  I doubt that we’ll see it back.

There was still a lot of pleasure to be got from this revival, with its largely new cast.  Lise Davidsen is, for me, the find of the evening, as Ariadne.  She’s a very tall lady and has one of those vast, Nilsson-like Scandinavian voices that sounded, to me, to be crying out to get on to Brunnhilde and Isolde.  This was a hugely confident debut for the sort of vast, voice that we don’t hear too often.  It’s almost too big for Ariadne and I missed the sheer stillness and subtlety that Isokoski and Mattila have brought to the role but there’s vast talent here.

I was also much taken by Erin Morley’s cheeky, accurate, confident Zerbinetta who delivered a pretty faultless Grossmaechige Prinzessin. AJ Glueckert was Bacchus and sounded really good.  He made almost light work out of it.  It’s a bright, Straussian tenor with considerable heft but also managed to make a rather nice sound too.  Bjorn Burger, back after last year’s good Figaro, sounded very fine indeed as Harlequin – he must be a great lieder singer.  Manuel Gunther’s tenor sounded pretty good as Brighella.

I was less taken by Angela Brower’s Composer.  It’s a nice sound, but it didn’t sound as though there was quite enough power there and she didn’t efface memories of Kate Lindsay and others.

Thomas Allen was back as the Music Master.  Why would you want anyone else?  Nicholas Folwell was a pompous Major Domo and I though that Edmund Danon made rather a lot of the Lackey.  The female trio in the opera proper was gorgeously sung.

Cornelius Meister struck me as conducting very nicely.  He got out both the chamber quality of the score and the climaxes.  The LPO were on pretty good form.

So this was a jolly good revival.  If you didn’t see it last time round, then I’d recommend a visit for an alert, intelligent, musically excellent performance.  If you did see it, then, maybe, not worth a special journey.