Archive | July, 2012

When do you cry in La boheme?

31 Jul

I imagine that, if psychiatrists thought it worth their while, they could tell all kinds of things about the personalities of people about whether, and if they do when, people cry in La bohème.  My partner, for example, always finds that the tears start flowing in Act III at the beginning of the Rodolfo/Mimi duet and continue for the rest of that act – and it happens pretty much every time he goes to see Bohème.  For me, it happens much less frequently, but if it does, it’s usually in the Act IV duet for the two of them, as you get the reminiscences of the previous numbers.  What about anyone else?

The thought was brought on by my visit to Bohème at Glyndebourne this evening.  He sat quietly blubbing for most of Act III.

This was my fourth encounter with David McVicar’s production (I think its fifth outing at Glyndebourne).  At its first run, for the 2000 tour, I thought it one of the most immediate and impressive Bohèmes I’d seen – there was a freshness and honesty about the acting and pared-down set, the contemporary setting worked and the ensemble worked really well.  At the Festival in 2003, helped by the presence of Rolando Villazon and Nathan Gunn, it retained its flair, as it did on the 2004 tour.  Eight years on. and without McVicar on hand to rehearse, I found it had lost its immediacy: the Act II crowd scene seemed less precise and it was very hard indeed to follow what was going on without losing track of the principals, while some of the by-play between the men seemed a bit forced, as if they were following routines devised for others.

I’m not sure that Kiril Karabits in the pit helped.  This struck me as a mannered reading – often going very slowly indeed (Rodolfo’s sobs over the dead Mimi went on far, far longer than they needed to, or would have if Karabits hadn’t made such a meal of the closing chords) and sometimes at breakneck speeds.  It didn’t feel quite right – though there were some lovely details and he pointed the textures in the orchestration very well indeed.

It also made me wonder about Glyndebourne’s casting arrangements.  Bohème is an ensemble opera and it often helps if the main singers know each other, have worked together before or at least with the company.  I’m not sure how Glyndebourne had come up with this particular group of people – all of them, individually decent singers, but with all but Andrei Bondarenko making their Glyndebourne (and in some cases UK) debuts in this production I wondered whether they had gelled in the way that, for example, the Cenerentola cast had, and why Glyndebourne had chosen these individuals over others.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t some very classy individual performances indeed.  The surprise to me was Serena Farnocchia who took over Mimi for this performance (and the previous one).  She may not have the purest, most beautiful voice ever, but she sings the role marvellously: I remember the glorious crescendo starting from a really beautiful pianissimo as she described the arrival of spring, the honesty of her first confession of love for Rodolfo and the way in which she drained the voice of all its colour for the last scenel  This was a lovely performance and I felt that I very much wanted to hear her again.

David Lomeli was a burly, well-meaning Rodolfo who came into his own particularly in the last act.  I thought the finest singing came from Andrei Bondarenko as Marcello.  He has a way with the phrasing for the role and an expressive beauty about the voice which, again, made me want to hear him in any number of baritone roles – it’s a very grateful voice.  He created a rather gentle character and I’ve seen more volatile interpretations.  Irina Iordachescu made a glamorous Musetta, but made the decency of the last act come through.  The others were perfectly fine.

The performance warmed up as it went on and I found the last Act the most engrossing, if not as moving as it might be.  It was, I suppose a perfectly decent respectable performance, but I can go to Covent Garden or Opera North or ENO for those.  I thought that the point of Glyndebourne was to find an excitement and interest about a piece like this. I think the McVicar production is probably past its use-by date.

And, no, since you ask, I didn’t cry this time.

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Otello – 30 years on

19 Jul

In some ways my early experiences of Otello spoiled me.  My first was in Vienna almost exactly 30 years ago – my first visit to the Staatsoper – with Domingo and Price. The production was pretty ordinary but it didn’t matter and I was blown away by the power of the opera. As soon as I got home I bought the Toscanini recording and went to virtually every production of it that I could.

What grabbed me particularly about the work was the astonishing skill that Verdi has in combining the epic and the intimate.  I was carried away by the power of the work.  As I got to know it more, it was the details that impressed me most – the way he manages the lead up to the fight in Act I and the whole of the finale to Act III, together with the sheer brilliance of the dialogues.

The 1980s was quite a good decade for Otellos. Jonathan Miller’s production at ENO was clear and caught the tragedy of the piece and had a really good cast and Elder conducting (I still listen to the CD now and again). Then there was Peter Stein’s version for WNO which had me on the edge of my seat with its sheer power and brilliance. And, of course, the first two runs off Elijah Moshinsky’s ROH production had Klieber conducting with Domingo and Ricciarelli. The first of those was one of those “tell the grandchildren” evenings where everything seemed to go right and Kleiber’s conducting made for a near-perfect evening (for the second run, I was unlucky because Domingo cancelled on the night I went).

I’ve been to fewer performances since then, partly because there’ve been fewer productions (there hasn’t been a London performance since 2005 – I had booked for that, but for the performance on 7th July which, understandably if irritatingly didn’t happen) but also because the casts haven’t been that inspiring.  And with a promising group of singers for the latest ROH revivial, I thought it was high time to see it again.

I saw the performance on 18th July.  Moshinsky’s production still looks handsome.  He was back to rehearse it and it worked intelligently and the singers’ motivations were clear.  It’s an object lesson in a really good, technical production, that is not going to age, that will survive any number of cast changes and, rather like John Copley’s Boheme, you can’t see why the ROH ever need to change it.  It’s a setting for the leading singers – neutral, sensible, but depending on those singers.

They were very good.  Aleksandrs Antonenko is one of the best Otellos I’ve seen since Domingo – a voice that doesn’t tire, that he uses subtly without bellowing all the time and he acts it decently enough. He hasn’t got Domingo’s sheer beauty of tone or, yet, the power and intensity that he brought.  Anja Harteros (good to see her at last) makes a strong, perhaps too feisty, Desdemona, but she doesn’t have Ricciarelli’s sweetness or ability to float a note.  I thought Lucio Gallo was an excellent, subtle Iago.  The support was fine and Pappano was excellent – nobody quite eclipses Kleiber, but this was a typically clear, powerful reading – my only doubt being over the Act III finale where I wondered if the tempi weren’t a bit slow and you were almost being shown how the music worked.  If I’d been seeing the opera for the first time, I think I’d have been bowled over.

But I wasn’t seeing it for the first time and it did all feel a bit remote.  I felt as though I was watching a performance, comparing, noting, admiring but not caught up in it.  Part of me wondered if I’d grown out of the opera – that it had lost its power to grip and inspire, that I know it too well.  Perhaps it just isn’t an opera like, say Figaro, where different interpretations and singers can give you a whole new insight into characters even in an old production.  Another part wondered if it’s just that I need to see a different production, one where a director simply started from scratch.  Or was it just that the cast didn’t quite gel?  Or maybe I was tired and irritable.

So I left at the end, feeling that I’d had a good evening but that it was a bit too ordinary and, almost, routine.  Perhaps 25 years is too long for a production.  Or perhaps I’ve just been spoiled.

Surtitles and Dr Dee

8 Jul

I sat through the first act of Dr Dee at ENO on 4th July.  What surprised me was the lack of surtitles.

Now my views on surtitles have changed a lot over the years. Originally, I was strongly in the Rodney Milnes camp of regarding them as the devil’s own work, wrecking the concentration on the stage and on what the singers are doing there.  Then I had to concede that in an opera I don’t know (at the time, Elektra), they were useful if you’re command of German is less than middling.  And I have gained far more out of performances of the Wagner with them than I would have without, so I actually quite like them in foreign language performances.

I’ve been very much more ambivalent about them for performances sung in English. largely because I remember that, for so many performances at ENO and elsewhere you barely needed them (listen to those recordings of Werther and Pelléas taken from live performances – you don’t need the text inf front of you).  I remember, for example, the joy of being in audience for the Opera North Don Carlos where we were actually listening to the Philip/Rodrigo and the Philip/Inquisitor dialogues, or for Semele at the ROH where the audience were lisitening to the text and laughing at it.  One of the real irritations of surtitles at the ENO’s Billy Budd was that part of the sentence always comes slightly before you hear the word and so you miss the spontenaity that you get when people are communicating directly and you are not expecting what is comiong next.  On the other hand, as my mother tells me, your hearing deteriorates with age and I certainly don’t think that diction is always what it used to be and, if the opera is by Birtwistle you generally need them.  So, while I remain cross that ENO have them (and the ROH and Glyndebourne for performances in English), I don’t regard it as much of a matter of principle as I used to.

So why were there no surtitles for Dr Dee?  Did ENO think that because the singers were amplified we’d hear the words clearly.  That certainly wasn’t the case.  Did Albarn refuse to allow them? Or was the piece reckoned to be somehow “different” from ENO’s normal fare, more like a musical, perhaps, so not needing surtitles.  I don’t know but it struck me as though some double standards were being operated somewhere and I thought that if you needed them for Billy Budd, you more than needed them for this.

I found the piece pretty tiresome and couldn’t really see the point of it and the music didn’t help. I don’t think that I’m the demographic it was aimed at and it was good to see a young audience, clearly well-informed about Damon Albarn, at the Coliseum.  i wonder if they’ll be back for Julieta or even Flute?

Billy Budd at ENO

8 Jul

Everyone gets excited about the homo-erotic sub-text Billy Budd and you’d have to be pretty blind to be unaware of it.  Aside from Claggart’s admiration, the Budd/Vere duet in Act 2 strikes me as one of the finest duets of unstated gay love in opera. For me, however, what is far more interesting is the politics.  It’s an opera about oppression and the class system and the way in which human beings treat each other.  It describes the way the upper classes control the lower ones through violence and fear and where the letter of the law has to be followed even where plain justice demands the opposite result.  For me it’s a bleak, disturbing picture with nothing to suggest any redemption: I don’t think I’ve ever found myself convinced by the idea that in some way Vere is saved by Budd. He hadn’t the guts to save Budd’s life but in some way Budd’s death redeems him, so that’s alright then. It may mean more to Christians who buy the idea of redemption generally but, to me, it doesn’t work.

You rarely see a bad performance of it, but for me, the most effective ones have been those which don’t worry about creating the historic detail of what a ship in 1797 and it’s crew but concentrate on the power imbalances and the relationships – Graham Vick’s production for Scottish Opera in 1987 was a particularly brilliant way of using a unit set with some element to suggest a ship manage to make this a universal story. And I really admired David Alden’s latest ENO production ( I saw the first night on 18th June) precisely because I thought it got more or less to heart of the politics and the brutality behind the opera.

The sets are enough to suggest a ship (or possibly a submarine) – rounded wooden and metal walls, tunnel like corridors – but also suggest more.  The men are in their subterranean wooden/metallic quarters while Vere has a bright white cabin. The crew is brilliantly delineated – the bulk of the men in overalls, kept under control by different levels of police with leather uniforms and batons;  there are marines to keep guard and you feel that the main problem is not the French but keeping the men under control. Alden deals with them particularly finely in the beginning ad Act II by delineating the different ranks closel, very much as they are defined in the text.  It’s a dark, period-less setting that struck me as working really well.  Only one cavil. The curtain descends for scene changes: I found this jarring – more so than I do in Grimes. In previous performances, I’ve barely noticed the interludes as such – they are part of the drama and it’s been possible to move location fluidly without needing to drop the curtain. I remember how in Vick’s production we just looked at the bare stage varied only by subtle lighting changes as those chords come one after another following the trial scene. Here concentration faded slightly.

Alden gets some very fine performances from his cast. Matthew Rose struck me as giving a very remarkable performance as Claggart. This was an introverted, unctuous Claggart who managed to suggest better than anyone else I have seen the evil, self-loathing, nihilism of “oh beauty, happiness, goodness” – physically rolling twisted on gthe floor and making a fetish out of the neckerchief he’d taken from Billy. I thought this was among the finest Claggarts that I’ve seen. It’s good to see Kim Begley back as Vere, perhaps not so free vocally as he once was, but suggesting the intelligence and weakness of the man.

Benedict Nelson was Budd. He seems to be the ENO’s young baritone of choice at the moment.  He looks good and has the size and strength for the part; he conveys the honesty and enthusiasm of the man. He sings it well enough, but am I the only one who isn’t that excited by the sheer quality of the voice which, to my ears, sounds anonymous and without the individuality that Allen, Keenlyside and Maltman possessed when they first took on the role?  He was perfectly credible and sang his farewell affectingly but he didn’t seize the stage and the role as others have.

The support was really good. Jonathan Summers made a strong, slightly ambivalent, almost sinister, Mr Redburn – easily the most memorable performance of the role I’ve seen. Nicky Spence was a bespectacled Novice who sang really clearly. Gwynne Howells seems to have singing Dansker for as long as I’ve been seeing Budd and is really good.  The chorus were on fabulous form – precise, together and singing with real power.  There’s a particularly interesting image of them at the beginning of the last scene where they face the audience, with their mattresses like a group of refugees or prisoners, and sing that shanty straight out to us.  Diction was excellent and you barely needed the surtitles.

Edward Gardner rarely puts a foot wrong and this was up to his normal standards – clear, dramatic and kind to his singers.   Perhaps there were times when it was a bit slow – I was conscious of what a long opera it is and, at times, how slowly it moves.  But this didn’t in any way compromise one of ENO’s very finest evening.

I was left slightly shaken and depressed by the bleakness of the piece while finding that, at every visit, I get something more out of it.

What does this mean?

1 Jul

“On stage, all the characters participate in an intense story consistent with the original Metastasian plot, while simultaneously creating a parallel world, separate from both contemporaneity and history.”

I think this, a quote from the programme note,  might explain why I found the performance of Gluck’s Il trionfo di Clelia at the Linbury on 25th June such a remote, passionless, uninvolving evening.  Maybe I shouldn’t complain about David McVicar too much.  Mary-Ellen Nesi, as Orazio, struck me as a  mezzo to watch, however.

Les Troyens at the ROH

1 Jul

“Tiens, la doulour  c’est rien”, sings Cassandra as she stabs herself at the end of Act II of Troyens.  Just occasionally in opera, the way a single phrase is sung captures the imagination and imprints itself on your mind – I remember Janet Baker in Alceste singing “Non, ce n’est pas une sacrifice” and capturing a sense of liberation that will always stick in my memory.  So, with Cassandra’s line, Anna Caterina Antonacci made you realise the sheer heroism of the women, not be any grand gesture, but singing it absolutely naturalistically, almost as if it were spoken.  It crowned an outstanding performance by Antonacci who, disdaining grand gestures, sang with an intensity and quiet despair miles away from the usual barnstorming that you associate with this role.  And if there was one reason which justified this entire project, it was her performance.  Why do we see her here so rarely?

I feel ambivalent about Troyens generally.  There are some wonderful things in it – Casssandra, the death scene for the Trojan women, much of Act IV, particularly the love duet, and much of the final Act.  You have here a composer who has a wonderfully individual vision of how Virgil should be on stage and he achieves what he wants fitfully: you don’t sense someone who is complete command of his material and there are plenty of passages, particularly in the ballet music when I, at least, wonder whether there is much to be proud about performing every note of the score.  In each act there are passages where I just wish he would get on with it.

At this performance, this was less of a problem than it can be, largely because of Pappano and the orchestra.  Some complained his tempi were slow.  They sounded fine to me, making the music sound beautiful, a and drawing sinuous beauty from the orchestra where it was needed, together with the grandeur of the ceremonial and public scenes.  The man is a genius.  Antonacci apart, I thought the cast was good, if not great.  There were no obvious weak links but, possibly damagingly, no native francophones either.  I’m a huge admirer of Eva Maria Westbroek and she conveyed a generous, open Dido, but I didn’t get the intensity that, say, Sarah Connolly brought to the role.  Bryan Hymel was perfectly fine as Aeneas.  He didn’t make me actively wish for Kaufmann, which is probably as good as you could hope for.  Ed Lyons was were good as Hylas but no-one else particularly stood out.  It was a strong, solid cast for an opera that needs just a bit more.  Perhaps some native French speakers might have helped.  The chorus was on fabulously good form.

I thought the same was true of David McVicar’s production which seemed well within his and the audience’s comfort zone (apart from those people behind me who felt that a representation of the Trojan Horse in metal rather than wood was the end of civilisation as we know it).  The problem is that Berlioz, least of all in this opera, was never within anyone’s comfort zone.  He challenged and his reach permanently outstripped his grasp, but there are flashes of such genius there that a production has to try and engage with them.  Here, we had a sensible, capable staging.  He landed himself with a monumental semi-circular set, reminding me of what Zambella provided for Don Giovanni and Carmen here.  In one sense it was flexible – one side provided a distressed set of Troy’s city walls; the other a sun-baked North African city.  But we were stuck with it for the entire evening and the scenes which cried out for an airy openness- particularly the fourth Act felt cramped and overshadowed.  The dances said nothing to me about the piece and I missed,  particularly in the Dido/Aeneas relationship the sort of tension that you have when two people are attracted to each other and falling in love.  There were some splendid special effects – particularly the fire coming out of the horse’s nostrils at the end of Act II but I wondered if all the rehearsal time had been spent in coping with these effects and moving the crowds (has there been a larger set of chorus, dancers and extras ever that the ROH?) rather than in really exploring what you can make of the piece.  It felt like a decent solution to the problems of staging a very difficult work rather than a means of grappling with what the work might be saying to us today.

It feels mean to complain.  It’s nearly 40 years since the ROH last did the work and they had thrown everything at it and taken it as seriously as you would hope.  Even if they do manage to revive it (surely doubtful in this climate), it’s unlikely that we’ll have a new production for another couple of decades.   It’s just a shame that they think that what our generation needs for Troyens is a high quality, safe, conservative production that brings the work down to its level, rather than one which aims at the height of what Berlioz was attempting.