Archive | May, 2012

Caligula – or the problem with the Coliseum

26 May

The ENO had cheap tickets for Caligula so I went down to Row H in the Dress Circle (normally I stick to the front of the Upper Circle) for this, the UK premiere of Glanert’s 2006 opera (25th May).  The acoustic is surprising good (I’d thought the sound might be affected by the Upper Circle stretching out above you, but what I heard was very clear) but you feel miles away.  And this was accentuated by the huge set that Benedict Andrew had chosen to fill the stage.  It’s a vast bank of seats from a sports stadium: it’s a really good background, in theory, for an opera about a dictatorship and it pushes a lot of the action to front of the stage – again, good in theory.  The problem was that this vast set dwarfed the characters and made some scenes – like the remarkable impersonation of Venus – seem cramped and clumsy.

This was a shame because I’m sure it blunted the impact of what struck me as a very promising, potentially exciting opera.  It shows you a series of episodes in the life of Caligula and, in particular, his relationships with his wife, Caesonia and a group of senators, as a he pulls a series of increasingly sadistic tricks and bizarre events.  It’s also an existentialist exploration of power, as you would expect, given that it’s based on Camus.  Perhaps it is little too long, but there are some haunting scenes and some that are really beautiful – like Caesonia’s arias and the lamenting of the citizens.  He makes sure that you can hear the words (the translation by Amanda Holden was clear and impeccably delivered by the cast – surtitles were almost completely redundant).  There are some exciting things in the music though it strikes me as very strong if quite generically late 20th/early 21st century, owing a lot to Berg, Henze and Britten but without the uniform dramatic force or individuality of those. There are striking moments and episodes but I found my attention wandering.  I don’t think the theatre or production helped: I think you need a smaller auditorium and less massive set to allow some of the more internal moments to come across but also to enable the horror and ghastliness of Caligula to dominate the audience a bit more.

And it depends a great deal on the Caligula who has to dominate the stage and the auditorium.  Peter Coleman-Wright has always seemed to me to be a very able, intelligent and committed singer, good at drawing you in to the internal workings of the character, but not someone with the extrovert flashiness to command and dominate the stage.  You couldn’t but admire the stamina and his versatility, but it felt distant, not horrific or involving enough and, from my seat, it felt a long way away.  He had to compete against an overwhelming set and the vast barn and, I thought, lost, but lost valiantly.

The other roles offer great opportunities to shine at moments in the piece and I thought that Yvonne Howard as Caesonia, Christopher Ainslie as the slave, Helicon, Pavel Hunka as Cherea and Carolyn Dobbin as Scipio make particularly strong impressions – making you listen to them and conveying, so far as was possible in the vast auditorium, some of the difficulties they faced.  Ainslie and Dobbin in particular struck me as people to watch. Ryan Wigglesworth and the musicians seemed to have the score entirely within their command.

We don’t get nearly enough opportunities to see new European operas and this is a “must see” simply because of that.  It’s great to be introduced to Glanert’s music – I’d like to see some of his other operas and, in a different theatre and production, I’d see this one again.  It’s a strong, well-prepared, committed performance and it’s just a shame that I felt that, ultimately, it didn’t grab me as I feel it ought to have done.

Or perhaps I should just bite the bullet and buy more expensive seats in the Coliseum.


Cenerentola at Glyndebourne

23 May

It’s good to be back at Glyndebourne and particularly on the warmest day of the year so far.  Since last year, they’ve built the famous wind turbine and have managed it so that, while it dominates most of the countryside around, it’s possible to avoid it being obvious from a number of parts of the garden.

The best news is that this Cenerentola is a very special experience indeed.  It’s 60 years since Glyndebourne started the post-war Rossini revival with this opera and gained for itself a special reputation for Rossini style.  This struck me as being fully within that tradition and also showing that Glyndebourne can still create an alert, vibrant ensemble of young singers, giving a superbly prepared, alert and stylish performance.

There wasn’t a weak link in the cast which had three UK stage debuts.  You knew it was going to be special when Elizabeth DeShong, as Angelina, sang her opening phrases.  This is among the finest Rossini contralto voices that I’ve heard – think Simionato or Marilyn Horne without the metallic edge – a gloriously rich, even, generous sound.  And she can manage the pathos and the bravura features of the role as completely as anyone else I’ve heard.  I now want to hear her as Isabella, Rosina, Isolier and maybe some of the Handels too.  This is a real star in the making.

Taylor Stayton only made his professional debut two years ago but he struck me as a mature, confident Ramiro, well able to manage the notes, singing stylishly, acting with wit and getting the words across.  He had a lovely double act going with Armando Noguera’s Dandini.  Noguera (a late replacement for the advertised singer) has one of those attractive, dry-ish voices that work so well for this sort of music – not unlike Bruscantini or Corbelli and he sang it as fluently and idiomatically as those two.  As all good Dandinis should, he created a rapport with the audience but never quite overdid the clowning – you felt that there real disappointment at his return to being a valet. Whether he (or Mr Stayton) would come across as well in a larger house is more debateable but here was an audience favourite who suits this theatre well and I hope he’ll be back.

Umberto Chiummo struck me as on the young side for Magnifico without quite the authority that his predecessors here have had, but he was always intelligent and created a really unpleasant character.  Again, there was a great rapport with the other cast memebrs.  Shenyang, the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World, made as a good an Alidoro as the role allows.  The sisters were strong.

James Gaffigan conducted an elegant performance – shaping the lines well, enjoying the dialogues between the instruments, building the crescendos with perfect timing.  Maybe he isn’t quite Gui, but he will do very well and the LPO were on alert, strong form.

The slight down-side comes from Peter Hall’s production.  It was never his strongest piece of work and looked pretty old-fashioned in 2005 when it was new.  The routines feel self-conscious and the cast comes to face the audience in a row in the great ensembles a little too often.  You can overlook this because the acting and the way in which the characters interact is fresh, intelligent and rings absolutely true.

This was a true ensemble performance of strong, young singers, working together, interacting, treating the piece seriously and as if it mattered – fresh, unhackneyed and hugely enjoyable.  It made you realise what a gem of an opera this is.  I don’t think I’ve seen a better performance.  I suspect it can only get better as the run goes on and they can relax a bit..

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

19 May

I imagine that every blogger on opera and music in the world is writing something about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau today.  This is what I felt about him.

I never saw him on the stage – after the 1960s, I don’t think he came back to the Royal Opera House (allegedly because of the vitriol the press poured on his Falstaff), though were performances in Edinburgh and by the time I was travelling he had more or less given up stage performances.  He was, however, the person who started my love of German lieder.

I was a teenage opera lover but was not sure about whether lieder was for me.  I was afraid that it would be dull, inaccessible and not that relevant.  However, some friends had a spare ticket to a recital he was giving of Brahms lieder at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh and I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to hear him.  It was a revelation.

I remember two things in particular.  The first was the sheer stature and star quality of the man: the way in which one person with a pianist (Hartmut Höll, I think) could keep an audience in the huge Usher Hall in rapt attention and build these miniatures into works that fitted the building.  The second was what he was able to make of those songs.  He showed me the depths of emotion and the ideas that they could convey and what a great composer and interpreter could do with mediocre poetry to create something bigger.  I knew in theory this was possible simply from listening to opera, but I hadn’t applied it to lieder.   That recital changed me: I had, quite suddenly, “got” lieder.

I went out and bought as many LPs of DFD as I could afford and so got, through him, an introduction Schumann, Wolf, Mahler and, particularly, Schubert.  When I moved to London, I went to as many of his recitals there as I could.

There is one recital which I remember particularly.  It was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in  the late 1980s when, again with Höll, he performed a selection of Schubert’s settings of Goethe.  The voice was well past its best by then but it was an object lesson in how to use what he had to make the songs work so that you didn’t feel that you needed the things that he couldn’t do any more. I will not forget, in particular, the juxtaposition of two songs: Prometheus with its wonderfully almost atheistic defiance of the Gods (we can get along without you) and Grenzen des Menscheits which explores the limits of humanity and the need for a spiritual higher plane.  DFD made us engage with these philosophical texts: they mattered and were about more than simply a culinary, clever setting of songs.

Many people I respect have reservations about him, feeling that in the late ’60s and beyond he became mannered and his attention to the text and obsession about nuance obscured as much as it enlighteded.  In the recitals I heard, this never struck me.  For me, he is one of those artists, like Callas, who an authority and integrity that you cannot ignore and the fact that some of what he does may or may not appeal to an individual simply isn’t the point.  Attending his recitals was watching a great artist create and explore with vast intelligence, technical expertise and curiosity.

I enjoy his opera recordings too – particularly the sheer beauty, gentleness and intelligence that he brings to Verdi.  None of them might be a top recommendation for the opera but his performance is always hearing.

I would doubtless have “got” lieder sooner or later, but it was DFD who converted me and who was responsible for a couple of the most profound experiences that I have gained in the concert hall.  He started me on a path that enabled me explore other singers and other ideas.  I owe him much for that and the day on which I heard the news of his death is a good time to set that down.  I’ll obviously want to listen to at least one of his CDs today and I think the one that I’ll choose is a 1987 recording that he made, with Höll, of 16 late Schubert songs – to remind me of the DFD that I heard: a great singer bringing all his experience to my favourite songs.

New ROH Falstaff

17 May

You are directing Act III scene 1 of Falstaff.  It begins with one of the crucial moments in the opera: Falstaff’s monologue “Mondo laddro”, where the mask of confidence and ebullience slips and you get a picture of a rather embittered failure, who suddenly realises it.  In directing that monologue, do you want the audience watching (a) Falstaff or (b) a horse eating hay? If you are Robert Carsen, the answer, apparently, is (b).  Rupert, the star of the show, appears to be a charming horse and it was a treat to watch him eat his hay.  Who cares about whatever Ambrogio Maestro happened to be doing at the same time?

Apparently Carsen considers Falstaff to be one of the great masterpieces of music drama.  I suppose that’s not inconsistent with doing a pretty average production of it, but it’s a shame that he didn’t rise more to the occasion.  He’s updated it to the 1950s, having spotted a link between the emerging middle class in the 1590s and the increased prosperity of the 1950s.  He’s not the first to do this: Bill Alexander did a brilliant production of the Shakespeare for the RSC which did a similar updating.  It looked quite a bit more convincing than this.  I don’t think there were many kitchens quite like that in Windsor in the 1950s – nor did people take a carton of ice cream out of deep freezers – and I wasn’t sure why the Garter Inn was turned into some sort of plush gentleman’s club (with stabling).  To an extent, it didn’t matter: the production looked elegant, was slickly directed and didn’t frighten Rupert.  Most people in the audience seemed to love it.

The problem is that Richard Jones’s production at Glyndebourne updated the action to about ten years earlier and had a panache and accuracy that this just misses.  This production courts comparisons with that and, except possibly for the last scene, is on the losing side every time. There’s nothing massively wrong with it: it just isn’t as good.

Falstaff isn’t an easy opera.  It can often feel quite cold and rather calculated – too clever.  Falstaff and Mistress Quickly apart, it’s very easy for the characters to appear quite anonymous, almost like stock characters.  I didn’t feel that Carsen helped them gain much individuality: it was as if they were too busy following the elaborate routines to be allowed any particular personality. There is quite enough happening in the second scene without adding the comedy of other guests in the restaurant.

The cast was good but didn’t strike me as great.  Maestri has quite a lot going for him – a way with the words, a large figure and a nice, large voice.  What I missed was the sheer grandeur of the character, the pungency that Terfel or Gavanelli or Gobbi have brought, the sheer arrogant self-confidence.  It was a perfectly respectable performance in a role that needs a little more.

You got far more of this from Marie-Nicole Lemieux  as Quickly.  Very different from her “Brown Owl” performance at Glyndebourne, this was a gloriously ebullient, sexy performance that was beautifully judged and got just the right sort of comedy for the role.

There was nothing particularly wrong with anyone else, though Dalibor Jenis sounded a under par as Ford, Amanda Forsythe sounded lovely as Nannetta (the aria in the last scene was gorgeous) and Joel Prieto seemed very promising as Fenton.  Bu there was nothing that special either.

I liked Daniele Gatti’s conducting – it made it sound like a chamber piece with really thoughtful accompaniment and individual instruments allowed to shine.

If you’ve not booked, I’d give this a miss.  There’ll probably be a revival and, with any luck, Carsen will send an assistant and a different cast may well have more scope to be individual: there’s nothing here that a different cast given a shorter rein (and without competition from Rupert) couldn’t turn into something quite memorable.  If you have booked, it’s not a disaster.


12 May

Welcome to my blog.

I fell in love with opera at the age of four when my father played me a record of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, having assured me that I “wouldn’t like it”.  I insisted on listening that record every evening until it was scratched (I still have it somewhere) and a visit to the D’Oyly Carte next time they came to Newcastle was inevitable.  I don’t know how much of it I followed and understood but I do know that I could think of very little else for days afterwards.  My first “proper” opera, when I was eight, was Il barbiere di Siviglia and, since then, I’ve been as often as, first my parents, and then I could afford. I started reading OPERA magazine when I was eleven and have been an addict ever since.

I suspect that, like many opera lovers, I’m a bit of an obsessive.  One day I’ll probably blog about what that means, but here are some of the symptoms (in now particular order):

  • I think that owning three recordings of Don Carlos is the absolute minimum that you need (one day I’ll discuss what they are);
  • I vow that I’ll never see another Aida because it never really works for me – until the next one comes along;
  • My eyes get an intense, rather mad look, when someone mentions the word “opera” to me and I have to be careful not to bore people about my pet loves and hates;
  • I do not think that opera is “a nice evening out” – it is one of the things that are simply essential to life.  I find it difficult to talk patiently to people who say “I went to Glyndebourne last year” but can’t tell me what they saw;
  • I do not think that the plot Cosi fan tutte is “silly”;
  • 28 performances ofLe nozze di Figaro over 50 years is just about adequate, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing others;
  • Opera tickets take precedence over clothes, friends, work and meals;
  • There is no such thing as “my favourite opera”.

I will go and see almost anything calling itself an opera and will usually find something of interest even in the most obscure.  In addition to the acknowledged greats – Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Berg – I have particular weaknesses for Handel, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Chabrier, Offenbach, Kalman, Janacek, Tchaikovsky, Sullivan, Sariaho and Britten, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying L’incoronazione di Poppea and Death of Klinghoffer. As I grow older, I find I have more time for Massenet, Debussy and Richard Strauss and the verismo composers. I find Philip Glass and Birtwistle heavy going and I’ve yet really to work out why people bother with Rameau.  I also have my pet hates – Der Rosenkaverlier, Parsfal and Madama Butterfly – but so does everyone.

I like great singing as much as the next man, so you’ll find me paying for Netrebko (assuming she doesn’t cancel – I’ve had bad luck with her), Florez and Kaufmann but am not strong on beauty for beauty’s sake, so I’m sceptical about the Flemings, Te Kanawas and Sutherlands (while recognising some wonderful performances).  But I also enjoy the rougher and readier ones where there’s intelligence and engagement.  I often find these at Opera North or at student performances.  What makes me cross is the idle or the brain=dead or the she wrong-headed.

I’m writing this in the hope that people will engage with it, tell me if they agree of disagree and because I think what I say might be of interest.  Let me know what you think..