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.

Camp Mikado

18 Jun

The Sasha Regan All-Male Mikado, which I saw at the Theatre Royal in Brighton on 17 June in the evening, is set in a camp in the wood in the late 1940s as a group of scouts – well, I’m not sure what they’re there for, but a bit of teasing and bullying and some balletic dancing, apparently – turn into a performance of the Mikado.  It’s much, much less clear or appropriate than their HMS Pinafore last year but you forget that pretty soon.

There is barely a nod to Japan in the costumes – khakhi shorts and shirts and you miss all of Gilbert’s social satire.  What you do have is a very funny, very clever version of the piece that manages to get the overwhelming bulk of the spirit of the piece spot on.  As ever, it’s done simply – the baggy shorts turned up for the ‘female’ part of the chorus give them a quite convincing and very funny South Pacific-ish look.  Katisha comes in on a bicycle with a series of straw hats to give her height and a string bag.  There are lots of good sight gags around the tents.

Above all, Sasha Regan’s direction pays attention to the words.  David McKechnie as Ko Ko does his speech to Katisha as intelligently and wittily as I’ve heard it and makes “Tit-Willow” the gently comic number that it is.  The Madrigal is really funny and Alan Richardson’s Yum Yum gets a laugh out “The sun whose rays”.  In Gilbert and Sullivan there’s always a tension between the emphasis you place on Sullivan’s very serious music and on Gilbert’s witty text.  I’ve always felt that the mastery of the operas lies in that tension.  Here Gilbert unquestionably won, with the words clearly under-cutting the seriousness of the music.  Above all, the dialogue was sensitively and thoughtfully put across and you could hear pretty much every word.

Musically, it was decent and you do have to make allowances for men singing falsetto and, often, not quite managing it.  The noises Mr Richardson made reaching for his top notes in the ensembles really were not pleasant and rather points out the limits of an all-male approach to G&S particularly as the operas get more ambitious.  You also have to make allowances for people who are not trained opera singers and who play about with note values (and notes) rather more than we’re used to.  It didn’t worry me hugely in the context of a really witty, lively performance but don’t go expecting the sort of singing you would get from an opera company.

The cast was excellent.  Mr McKechnie makes an excellent Ko Ko – alert, cheap and slight sleazy with a funny updated (but not topical) little list.  Ross Finnie could have been even more Scottish as Pooh Bah and, maybe, was a bit too understated.  James Waud was a super Mikado and I loved the way “My object all sublime” got faster as the it went on (super choreography for the chorus).  Alex Weatherhill made a large Katisha who got both the sympathy and the monstrosity of the woman (though I don’t think she needed to be pumping up her bike during ‘”Hearts do not break”) and, again, the dialogue with Ko Ko after that was outstanding (and, again, some really lovely, understated choreography for “There is beauty in the bellow of the blast”).

Richard Munday made a sensible Nanki Poo and, top notes apart, Mr Richardson was a very good, funny Yum Yum. The ensemble worked incredibly hard and made it all look easy and fun. Richard Baker on the piano did an excellent job.

Don’t go expecting a lavish, traditional Mikado, but I’d strongly recommend this clever, intelligent and very slick performance to anyone who likes the operas, particularly if they prefer Gilbert to Sullivan.

 

Hamlet collage

11 Jun

There is one unforgettable moment in Brett Dean’s new opera Hamlet, which I saw on its first night at Glyndebourne on 11 June.  This is when Sarah Connolly, as Gertrude, comes to tell Laertes of Ophelia’s death.  She sings a version of “There grows a willow…” with her usual glorious heartfelt emotion and simplicity and, as she does so, you hear Barbara Hannigan singing flashes of her mad scene from the dome.  It’s a gorgeous, moving moment which reminds why opera, as a form, gives you things that the straight theatre can’t.

Otherwise, this struck me as a very clever opera that didn’t quite explain why it needed to be written.  Matthew Jocelyn has taken the text and played about with it and those of who know the play well have a lot of fun working out what bits come from where – so “do not saw your hand in the air” is used for the duelling at the end.  It’s rare, if at all, that you get a single speech set entirely as it was.  I don’t object to that, but it is distracting to have bits of the play that you know coming up in unexpected places.  And there are lots of jokes about the different variant readings which are funny, if you get them.

What worries me more is that there isn’t really an over-arching idea to this opera.  There are a succession of more or less successful scenes and an exhausting role for the protagonist but that feels like it.  They’ve sensibly got rid of Fortinbras and the bulk of the political side of the play, but what I missed was the need for revenge or any sense of Hamlet’s vacillation or the irony associated with that.  If Hamlet isn’t a political play, it’s a revenge tragedy with some really good meditation about life and death.  Here the existential side seemed to take centre stage without the revenge plot.

It was also long and needed cutting- the performance lasted half an hour longer than Glyndebourne thought it would.  I first became aware of this in the scene where Polonius suggests that they put Ophelia in Hamlet’s way.  Aside from the tedium of Polonius (who the music makes a lot less funny than the play) there’s a sextet with comic backing for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  They turn up in the Osric role later on (the whole bit about Hamlet being sent to England is cut) and have a silly duet about the odds.  And the play scene takes forever.  I wasn’t convinced about the need for a gravedigger.  Surely you can cut Yorick?

Dean’s music strikes me as professional.  There’s some smashing word-setting and quite a lot of others where you feel that it all feels a bit leaden.  The orchestration has a semi-chorus, antiphonal percussion and brass up on either side of the Upper Circle.  There are some nice moments, some great climaxes and quite a lot where it sounds as though it’s just grumbling in the background.  It didn’t dislike and there are moments, particularly in the second half where the things sort-of takes off.

Overall, however, this brings me back to the problems of setting the texts of Shakespeare in English.  If you don’t use the original, everyone says that the libretto isn’t as good.  If you do, then there are the problems of setting great lines that actors will generally do better.  It helps if you can condense it in a foreign language and let your version speak for itself.  This seems to me to join the group of honourable failures.  And it’s too long.

It’s pretty brilliantly done.  Neil Armfield’s production moves fluidly and, technically, is a very adept piece of work. Vladimir Jurowski conducts the LPO and the Glyndebourne chorus with huge assurance.  There wasn’t a hint of uncertainty about the performance and you felt that everyone was engaging with and utterly committed to the piece.

Allan Clayton gives a hugely energetic performance as Hamlet and sings the lines clearly, beautifully, intelligently.  What I missed, and I think this is the opera’s fault, not his, was any hint as to why we should care about him at all.  Sarah Connolly was her typically fabulous self as Gertrude.  Barbara Hannigan has a stratospheric (and very successful) mad scene for Ophelia and she pulls it off as a marvellous set-piece.  Rod Gilfry as Claudius sang clearly even if you didn’t quite get what the character was all about.  Kim Begley was a clear Polonius, but I wonder if he didn’t have too much to do.  John Tomlinson had three lovely roles as the Ghost, the First Player and the Gravedigger and was his usual, booming, hugely intelligent, charismatic self.  David Butt Philip (who will be singing Hamlet on the Tour) was excellent as Laertes.  Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey had a fine double act as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Maybe it’s time to give the joke that it’s impossible to tell which is which a rest.

As ever at Glyndebourne you can’t fault the sheer commitment and professionalism of the performance.  It’s given this piece the best possible send-off.  I’m simply not convinced that I really want to see it again.  Sorry.