Archive | November, 2012

Bieito’s Carmen and how ENO has changed

29 Nov

Before I get to the performance of Carmen that I saw at ENO on 27 November, forgive a short trip down memory lane. Exactly 26 years before, I was at the first night of David Pountney’s production of the opera.  That was set on a Latin American car dump. It was not perfect. I recall thinking that the principals were rather dwarfed by the set and that spectacle at times overwhelmed what the opera was about. But it had a vigour and a certainty and was a daring new Carmen.  It w as a collaboration between the company’s music director and Director of Productions with house regulars, all anglophone, in three of the leading roles.

Fast forward and the ENO no longer has a Director of Productions and this production, by Calixto Bieito was first seen in Spain in 1999.  The Carmen and Don Jose were making their company debuts (one from the States, the other Romanian).  Moreover, this is the second of three “new” production this season which has originated elsewhere, none of which wre co-productions and two of which were more than a decade old.

I don’t know whether this is good or bad.  Buying in successful productions, particularly of unfamiliar operas, can be a good way of enabling us to see them – Julietta, Die Tote Stadt and Mathilde di Shabran spring to mind and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to see an important production that originated elsewhere.  But that doesn’t stop some regret that the company can’t produce its own production or invite Bieito to create his vision of another opera.  I think that it’s more serious that they no longer have the wherewithal to cast the leads from their own regular members. Typically, you would use Carmen as an opportunity to give company regulars a stab at the roles.  Was there really nobody suitable available?  Whatever the virtues of the evening, it was a reminder of change which is not necessarily for the better.

A couple of days after seeing Pountney’s production, I saw Graham Vick’s at Scottish Opera, which sticks in my mind as one of the finest Carmens that I’ve seen.  It was set on a black revolving set with, as I recall, a doorway which raised and fell.  Costumes were fairly traditional but the bare stage allowed a concentration on the relationships and the essence of the opera.

I mention these two because it’s interesting to note the contrasts and similarities with Calixto Bieito’s production.  Like Pountney’s, it’s updated and has a fascination with cars. Like Vick’s, it uses a very sparse set and concentrates on the relationships and tensions: both had the Act IV duet for Carnen and Escamillo with them alone on the stage, making it a touching, intimate moment that heightens the tragedy of what comes later.

As lots of people have remarked, this production was controversial for being much less controversial than might have been expected.  For much of the first two acts, I found it interesting but unengaging. I thought that Bieito missed some of the wit and spectacle of the work. I think this was partly because the dialogue was very heavily cut (I’d guess that less than 5% remained). I also felt that a production set obviously in Franco’s Spain does not have the same resonance for an English audience.  So the opening chorus of bored soldiers here is of soldiers upright, on parade, with a soldier in his underpants running circuits round them.  You get the sense of a repressive state and also a discussion of sexuality in Spain.  There’s a lot of male flesh on display: during the prelude to Act III, a naked man gently mimics a bull-fighter’s moves which made for a very beautiful effect.  The women are treated as sex objects: there’s a pent up sexual tension.  It’s a very dark, serious view and one that avoids the glamour and colour that’s in the score.

Where I started to get interested was at the moment where José tells Carmen he has to return to the barracks.  Suddenly the tension ratcheted up and the conflict between the two began.  This led to a rivetting last scene where Ruxana Donose and Adam Diegel struck sparks off each other.  They were imprisoned in a circle, giving an idea of a bull-ring and, at the end, José slits her throat, like a bulls.  This was a great presentation of a destructive relationship.  In this reading, Michaela is a strong, vibrant, angry modern woman who has no fear of Carmen, Escamillo not particularly glamorous and, overall, the atmosphere is dark with little that’s spectacular or to lighten the gloom.  Nor, however, was there much that you felt was there for the sake of shocking.  It’s a thoughtful, interesting, very coherent production of the opera concentrating on the darker side.  I’m glad to have seen it.

I thought that Ruxandra Donose made a very fine Carmen.  Her rich mezzo sounds really good.  She caught the ambivalent amorality of the part even if I wasn’t convinced about the allure that she surely ought to have exercised over men.  Her English was good, though accented.  I couldn’t help feeling that this was someone who should be singing the role in French at the Royal Opera House or Glyndebourne.  Mr Diegel looked good as José. I was less convinced vocally: it’s a dry sounding voice that lacked the tenderness needed for the Flower song or the duet with Michaela.  He was better in the more dramatic, violent moments but, vocally, I wasn’t convinced that he was in the same league as his Carmen.

This was the first time that I’d encountered Elizabeth Llewellyn.  I was hugely impressed by the size and timbre of the voice.  There’s a quality and beauty there that really makes you listen to her.  I wasn’t completely convinced that Michaela is her part.  For all the creamy, beauty of her voice, there are colours and a size there that strike me as more suitable for Verdi – it’s interesting that she’ll be doing Amelia for ETO.  I even found myself wondering if there wasn’t a Carmen in there sometime as well.  She has a strong, positive stage presence.

Leigh Melrose made an efficient, not terribly glamorous Escamillo and the smaller parts were pretty well done, with Duncan Rock fine as Morales and Rhian Lois and Madeleine Shaw giving a a very nice double act as Frasquite and Mercedes (patently jealous of each other over the cards).  The chorus were in very strong form indeed and acted its heart out.  You couldn’t doubt the commitment to the concept and the performance.

Martin Fitzpatrick was conducting.  I thought it was an efficient performance, with perfectly good playing from the orchestra, but nothing that particularly stuck in my memory.

I tend to be quite picky about the Carmens that I go to: it’s an opera that easily becomes routine.  I’m glad I saw this one which made for one of the most coherent visions of it that I’ve seen.  That said, it was also a limited one that missed some aspects of the opera, even though it also opened up a view of it that, on its own terms convinced me.  I’m not sure that it was a “must see” for London and I hope that, next time, ENO finds a way of producing its own opera that creates the excitement of David Pountney’s and finds a way of convincing us that it still has a form of company and talent that it’s keen to develop.

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Elisir at Royal Opera House

24 Nov

I hadn’t intended to go to the current ROH l’elisir d’amore – I’ve seen the opera quite a lot and saw the Pelly production and Alexandra Kurzak when it was new and thought I could probably give a miss.  But there was an attractive late offer for the Friends, I succumbed and spent the evening of 23rd November having rather a nice time there.

I like Elisir. It’s one of the very few entirely amiable operas in the repertory. I suppose it would be possible to accentuate the sheer unpleasantness of Adina’s behaviour early on, the idiocy of Nemorino (you could play it that they deserve each other) together with the dubious morality of Dulcamara’s quackery.  But this would go against the charm of Donizetti’s music and I think it would do the work a disservice to look for any more (or less) than a gentle story of one person working out that she’s in love with someone else: Belcore may be a pompous fool but he gives in gracefully at the end and Dulcamars’s charm overcomes any doubts you may have about his ethics. You can’t but admire the gentle skill of Donizetti’s characterisation both in the individual arias and in the duets, duets which are really dialogues and arguments that develop and make you feel that the action and your understanding of the characters has moved forward. If they have a flaw, it’s that they can feel a bit long. Of Donizetti’s major comedies, I prefer the wit of Fille du regiment and the sharper edge of Pasquale, but Elisir is still a nice evening.

Laurent Pelly’s production looks good. It’s gently updated to a bucolic 1950s Italy, miles from the tourist trail with a strong sense of the peasant life and some nice effects for Dulcamara’s caravan, various farm vehicles and a small Jack Russell.  I felt that, at times, it could help the singers provide slightly  larger performances – it isn’t that easy for Belcore to be as fatuous and silly as he could be if he’s clambering over hay bales; and I felt that the opening parts of Dulcamara’s entrance require some interaction with the chorus rather than singing to an empty stage and a Jack Russell. Having said that, it provides a nice frame for whoever happens to be around to sing the various roles and I can see no reason why it shouldn’t be revived as often as the Copley production that it replaced.

This looked like a happy cast. The star attraction was Roberto Alagna as Nemorino. It’s an interesting role for him to go back to at this stage of his career.  It’s not unheard of for tenors to return to Nemorino after having sung Radames and Manrico (Pavarotti and Bergonzi are obvious examples) but they did so a bit later in their careers.  My first impression was that he was singing very loudly and I don’t think he went much below mezzo forte for most of the evening. There were many virtues – elegant, intelligent phrasing, fabulous breath control and, in the occasional passages requiring passion or anger, the sense of a voice finally being given its head. I enjoyed Una furtiva lagrima as a continuous piece of musical thought – an unbroken idea – but I missed a tenderness in the voice that he used to have and the sort of variation in volume that the role needs. He tried to sing the penultimate phrase piano and very shaky it sounded. He showed himself to be a very engaging clown and used his personality to project a character and fill the house in a way that the others didn’t quite.  Rather like his singing, I don’t think you could call his acting subtle, but it was thoroughly enjoyable and, whatever his flaws, he’s still a star.

Alexandra Kurzak was back as Adina.  She was in even lovelier form than last time.  She has bags of charm, sings the role beautifully with just the subtlety and intelligent use of words that you need.  She created an intelligent, very beautiful charmer of an Adina.  What I miss, if I’m being hyper-critical, is the sort of individuality that other singers have used to make Prendi, per me se libero  the heart-stopping moment that it can be.

Fabio Capitanucci was Belcore.  He has a nice warm baritone, sings the words beautifully and it’s lovely to have an authentic Italian sound to them and the instinctive understanding and phrasing that goes with that.  What I missed (and I think this is Pelly’s fault as much as his) was the sheer pomposity and ridiculousness that other singers found – he was a just a bit bland.  I’d like to see him back, though.

Nobody could accuse Ambrogio Maestri of being bland and it was a joy to hear his full, rich bass in a role that is often taken by more elderly, drier voiced basses.  I felt that the early part was slightly hectoring but he warmed up in Act II and gave as beguiling a performance of the old rogue as I’ve seen.  He displayed the sort of personality that I felt was missing slightly from his Falstaff and a ripe, incisive use of the language.  I’d like to see him other roles, perhaps more serious ones – what about Philip in Don Carlos?

Bruno Campanella presided over this benignly and stylishly.  He knows what he is doing in Donizetti and brought out the warmth and delicacy of the score.  I felt that he could have made more of the crescendo in Adina credimi in the finale to Act I (listen to Pritchard’s under-rated recording to hear how he does it), but this was an elegant reading that worked well with the singers.  The orchestra played stylishly and the chorus were on good, clear form.  Susanna Gaspar was a strong Gianetta.

I’ve used the word “nice” rather a lot in this review, but I think that rather sums up the evening. Despite my reservations, I found myself hugely through most of the evening, enjoying an intelligent, joyfu, nicel performance and was glad I’d gone.

 

Faith restored in Opera North

18 Nov

After the truly horrible Faust of the night before, Don Giovanni on 17th November made me realise exactly why Opera North is so special.  I’d managed to miss the reviews so had now particular expectations for the evening.

It started promisingly.  Before the house lights were fully down, the two chords of the overture began and Anthony Kraus (standing in more than ably for Tobias Ringborg) conducted a  very fast overture – the orchestra had its work cut out to keep up, but it always made musical sense.   The curtain was down for the entire overture.  You could listen to it without watching whatever was going on onstage.  When it went up all you could see was a small framed curtain, rather like a Punch and Judy show.  Two hands appeared followed by Leporello.  The frame and curtains part and we are on an artificial stage surrounded by three walls with doors and, at the back a window where you can see Giovanni attempting to seduce Anna.  The walls have commedia dell’arte figures faintly painted on them.  Anna and Giovanni enter from different doors and you instantly become aware that this is not a naturalistic setting but a stage show.  Costumes look Victorian – not inappropriate.

After the death of the Commendatore, Giovanni and Leporello appear in front of that frame again, like a music hall double act, but also a bit like the clowns in Godot – very funny and absolutely apt.  That double act is carried on throughout the opera.  At one point, they (and, indeed, Elvira and Leporello and Giovanni and Masetto) appear like Punch and Judy characters for some of the slapstick.  At others, Giovanni is above the stage, manipulating the action.  For his downfall, ropes are attached to him and he flies off like some marionette taken out of the show.  For the epilogue, the characters lie there like abandoned puppets.

The costumes change – Zerlina and her friends are straight out of the ’60s.  At the end, Giovanni is in a contemporary suit and he is dragged down, or rather up, by the women that he has seduced.  Leporello’s catalogue is on an iphone.  Hats are important – Giovanni wears a bowler, Leporello a straw boater – a good way of identifying them and enabling their disguises to work.  During the first part of the Catalogue aria, Elvira is framed in the picture and lots of different hats are put on her for each nationality – you see them at the end on women who are Giovanni’s nemesis.

It works in lots of ways.  The piece owes a lot to the commedia dell’arte tradition and a naturalistic setting doesn’t work well – it needs lots of doors and it can work with a Brechtian approach.  What I admired was the way in which he caught the sheer theatricality and enabled characters to interact as if in a play or a music hall.  There were lots of interesting touches.   Giovanni and Zerlina swapped hats in La ci darem.  Ottavio plundered the dead Commendatore’s corpse of his watch and money.  Batti batti was turned in a scene where Zerlina and Masetto achieved orgasm as she mounted him in one of the most brilliantly clever versions of that aria that I’ve seen.  For Non mi dir, Anna and Ottavio were framed, as if in a portrait – you could just see their torsos and their hands.  Those were wonderfully expressive and managed to concentrate your mind on the way in which that relationship was going.  I don’t think I’ve ever got as much out of that aria.

Was all this cleverness at the cost of the humanity and horror in the piece?  I didn’t think so.  Three examples, on top of that really wonderful Non mi dir.  In Vedrai carina you actually felt that Zerlina and Masetto were reaching a compromise and understanding in their relationship that would last the test of time.  In Mi tradi, Elvira plumbed the depths of her emotion about Giovanni. In the graveyard scene, the Commendatore’s head pushed up out of the grave. And, in the finale, an arm pushed up for Giovanni to grab.  Above all, the characters interacted, worked together and you believed in them.  They weren’t just puppets.

All this was the work of Alessandro Talevi and a hugely talented cast who kept the audience interested, amused, horrified and moved. There was a theatricality and interest about it that needed no technology or video input – just intelligence and fine acting.  I’ve admired his work at the Guildhall and it’s good to see Opera North taking him up.  I hope he comes back before the major companies grab him.

The cast was great.  Of course I’ve heard every role sung better by others but that really wasn’t the point.  Everyone in that cast was absolutely convincing and right for their roles and, I felt, were putting everything into it.

William Dazeley has become a house baritone with Opera North and I’ve been lucky to see him as Posa, Marcello, Wintergreen in those ghastly Gershwins, Danilo and now as Giovanni.  It suits him marvellously.  He’s a fine, sexy actor and the voice has just the right elegance and gratefulness and he got the authority, the nastiness, the elegance and the wit of the role.  It’s a great performance.  I was, in theory, sorry not to be seeing Alistair Miles as Leporello – another artist that has done great work here and I’d have liked to see him take the role.  However, Matthew Hargreaves’s gangling, lugubrious sidekick was a gem of a performance.  Perhaps I’d like his voice to be a little ampler, but he sings the text really well and fitted in to the production perfectly.  Keeping with the men, Oliver Dunn struck me as a really promising Masetto – an alert actor and good singer – Michael Druiett was a good Commendatore and only Christopher Turner struck me as being over-parted as Ottavio – Dalla sua pace stretched him and Il mio tesoro was cut.

In some ways, however, the most impressive performance came from Meeta Raval as Anna.  She has a large voice.  It’s absolutely secure and she manages the horrible demands of that role fearlessly.  I often find Non mi dir a serious trial – it so easily becomes a whining aria for a self-indulgent madam.  She made it interesting because, with Talevi’s help, she understood the emotions behind each phrase and was able to convey them.  I think she’s likely to go very far indeed.  Elizabeth Atherton was also a really impressive Elvira.  Usually I like a slightly more varied voice, with a greater depth and range of colour and I wouldn’t like to hear her do it in a larger theatre.  Here she seized the role, getting the madness, the desperation and the integrity to perfection.  Zerlina is a gift of a role and I thought that Claire Wild seized all the opportunities – she was sexy, believable and absolutely honest and sang really beautifully.  I remember how Lesley Garrett used to do the part in the ENO production by Jonathan Miller and made everyone fall in love with her: Wild was as good.

As I’ve suggested, there was one major cut.  We moved straight from the end of the Act II sextet to the recitative before Non mi dir.  I couldn’t particularly understand why.  With Mr Kraus’s tempi we were out in almost exactly three hours and it seemed odd to cut Leporello’s escape and one of the most grateful numbers in the opera.

Now this wasn’t a “world class” Don Giovanni, whatever that means.  Talevi’s production would be lost in the vastness of the Coliseum, Covent Garden or Paris (though it would look good at Glyndebourne and, probably even Vienna).  Classier singers will do glossier, more subtle things with the roles and, often, just have nicer sounding voices. Opera North’s orchestra can’t match the elegance of the metropolitan orchestras.  What I know, however, is that I haven’t enjoyed a Giovanni more, ever.  And I haven’t seen as interesting or intelligent a response to it since Deborah Warner’s wonderful 1994 Glyndebourne production.

This is what makes Opera North special.  They hire a decent director who has a good idea and who can experiment.  They get a well-balanced cast.  They prepare it properly so that the singers react and act together and integrate.  They are irreverent and dare.  They have an ensemble of people who work regularly with the company – not just Dazeley, but Claire Wild, Matthew Hargreaves and Michael Druiett have sung with them regularly.  You feel that they are comfortable with each other.  And the result is a Don Giovanni that will stick in the mind for its daring, its great imagery and as a smashing evening in the theatre.  They show that opera needn’t be about the greatest singers in the world, the biggest budgets or the glossiest sets.  And for evenings as thoughtful and enjoyable as this, I will happily forgive them Faust.  A capacity audience loved it, too.

 

 

Where is Opera North’s Quality Control?

17 Nov

On 16th November at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, I saw Opera North’s latest Faust. It happened to be the 100th performance that I’ve seen them give.  As I’ve said before, I admire this company hugely.  However, every now and then it falls flat on its face and you wonder who actually let it get this far.  Up until now the absolute nadir was their Entführung – the one with the panda.  This Faust runs it pretty close and, actually, may well be even worse.

Although the opera’s been done reasonably frequently in London over the last 40 years, it hasn’t been performed much outside.  Indeed, I think this was the first fully professional performance in Newcastle in 50 years or more.  This performance made me realise why and, frankly, I think Newcastle could have waited a little longer.

It’s not an easy opera for these times.  It’s a piece of high Victorian hokum with magic, a comic devil, seduction, a church scene and the poor wronged Marguerite being saved by a host of angels.  It has soldiers, fights, jewels, death scenes and grand tunes.  You can go in there without many brain cells engaged and just sit back and enjoy the spectacle.  I’m not sure that it was intended as any more than a piece of unchallenging entertainment – one that met the particular aesthetic of  the time.  I don’t think it has a lot of social relevance now.  It works as a sort of pantomime and, in the right hands – such as Ian Judge’s in his 1986 ENO production – can even be moderately exciting and moving.  In the theatre, Les Miserables is probably the nearest equivalent but, actually, culturally, James Bond might be closer.  It helps if there’s a big budget.

Now I don’t have a problem with updates or productions that depart from the composer’s intentions – whatever that means – but it has to be done well.  This production was rather like seeing a James Bond film minus the car chases, escape scenes, exotic locations or glamorous women.   What Rob Kearley and Ran Arthur Braun, together with a “visual artist” called Lillevan did was to provide a set with a group of moving screens.  On these they projected a series of images.  Some of these were of Manhatten – presumably, given the costumes, where the action is set.  Others were of the faces of the characters with varying expressions, none of them very helpful.  Then there were images of raindrops, of smoke, of graphs of what looked like frogspawn and these moved and changed in a way that seemed to have very little to do with whatever was actually happening onstage and distracted you from it.  What was worse was that they seemed quite amateurishly put together.  From where I was sitting at the side of the auditorium, the images didn’t quite fit on all of the screens, looked a bit fuzzy and the characters cast shadows on them.  It all looked a bit like a pretentious art-student’s production – the sort you’d go to and think that they might do better when they’d grown up a bit.  I didn’t think a lot of the production, but it would have been infinitely improved without the images.

The opera was updated and, in the programme notes, Kearley and Braun talked about making it relevant to an age of technology.  What that seemed to mean was a society that used smart phones and Ipads to film Faust’s attempted suicide and Valentin’s death, the waltz scene taking place in a casino and Valentin being the leader of a right wing religious political party.  Faust has plastic surgery to make him look young. Marguerite has an abortion and the Soldiers’ chorus becomes an anti-abortion rally.  Now that chorus has often been played as anti-war episode with wounded and maimed soldiers returning.  Here, there wasn’t a military uniform in sight but the projected translation still referred to returning from battle and, if you are going to change the status of the number completely, I think you should change the surtitles as well.

You could see the germs of ideas there but there was too much that was confused.  Magic seemed to be entirely drained out of the production – why do you need Mephistopheles if all Faust gets is plastic surgery to make him look youthful?  You don’t get the wine being changed, there are no swords (Valentin refers to his “metal” being broken, whatever that means) and the last few scenes, particularly those after Valentin’s death, are heavily cut and utterly incoherent.  There would have been a frisson for the Victorians watching the devil tempt Marguerite in church.  You don’t have to do it like that but here there was no sense of anything much happening there.  I had no sense of Faust being damned at the end or, indeed, of Marguerite being saved.  I defy anyone to tell me what the directors thought was going on there.

Above all, it looked cramped and ugly.  It was a busy production but I would have expected that, given that much of Braun’s experience is as a movement director and fight choreographer, that the chorus movement would have been less incoherent and fights less risible.  They clearly had a budget of about 50p but does that excuse the sheer ugliness of the costumes?

And where was the direction of Opera North in all this?  I think it’s fair to say that neither director has had significant experience of putting on their own shows (as opposed to assisting other people) for companies of the size and status of Opera North.  I’m all for young talent being given a chance, but could somebody not have stepped in or produced some guidance when it became clear that, visually, this was going to be a complete mess and, really, something that would do Opera North no good to its paying public?

I felt sorry for the singers.  James Creswell came out of the whole thing best.  His voice sounds a perfect fit for Mephistopheles and I thought that his witty, malevolent, knowing performance was the outstanding performance of the evening.  When he was singing you could ignore the rest of the chaos and enjoy the sheer confidence and exhileration of what he did.  I regret missing his ENO Dutchman.

Peter Auty was a brave Faust.  He wasn’t helped to look convincing by his crumpled suit.  He sang tirelessly with ringing tone.  What I missed was the sort of elegance and finesse that Gedda or Kraus have brought.  He didn’t make it sound easy.  Juanita Lascarra was a nice Marguerite who again, managed the role well vocally and gave quite a lot of pleasure.  Marcin Bronikowski was a splendid Valentin and Sarah Pring a neatly observed Marthe.  We had a tenor Siebel and Robert Anthony Gardiner looked appropriately youthful and gauche but sounded tested by the music.  The chorus did what the could.

Stuart Stratford conducted a very decent, performance that kept the piece moving and shaped the melodies well.

So, overall, quite a dispiriting evening and one that shook slightly even my loyalty to this company.  The theatre wasn’t full and I wonder how many people who are less addicted to opera than I am, wondered why they had paid so much money to see such incoherent, incomplete drivel.  The company needs to get its quality control sorted quickly.

Opera North’s Makropoulos Case

16 Nov

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks, but I’m now up in Newcastle to sample the latest set of Opera North’s new productions.  I saw Makropoulos Case on 15th November.
I like Opera North very much.  They may not have the same sheer glossiness of their London colleagues but, at their best, there’s an excitement, a sense of experimentation and daring which can produce some seriously exciting and gripping theatre.  They tend also to be good at Janáček – a composer who is as interested in the drama and the characters as in beautiful singing and who lends himself to daring productions.  Their Katya Kabanova, Cunning Little Vixen and  From the House of the Dead have been among the finest performances of those operas that I’ve seen.
I felt this Makropoulos Case was not quite at the same level.  For much of the performance, I found myself thinking what a difficult, elusive opera it is and I had the impression that much of the rest of the audience (it hasn’t been done here for almost 20 years) were a bit mystified by it.  It’s a portrait of EM – the 337 year old woman and a picture of someone who has seen everything, done everything and now feels little. Beside her, the other characters are midgets and it’s very difficult indeed to feel an interest in them or to care much about them.  There’s a lot of “plot” – a complex family history, documents that may or may not assist in the case and Janáček never really resolves who owns the estate.  Essentially, they become a device to explore EM and her reactions and approach.  Janáček’s operas are all concise and this is one where you feel that he could have given us more.

So a lot depends on the EM. And the finest productions have tended, I’ve felt, to be where companies have a star who wants to do the role – think of Barstow, Harries and Silja, who have each brought their own allure and fascination to the piece – so, in fact, nobody else matters much in the role.  Here, I felt that Opera North had decided that they wante to complete their Janáček cycle and had cast around for an EM.  Ylva Kihlberg has a CV which suggests that the role isn’t impossible for her but equally nothing to suggest that she was an obvious person for Opera North to hire.  Weren’t there others they could have tried – I’d love to see Amanda Roocroft, for example, have a go at it.

Ms Kihlberg was certainly not a disaster as EM.  She has a fine, powerful, grateful voice.  She sings extremely good, clear English and had an idea of the glamour of the role.  There was a marvellous moment at the end when she clearly regretted losing the recipe and, as it burned, reached out to try and stop it.  What I missed was an understanding of the egocentricity of the role and the sheer star quality that other singers have brought.  I missed the sheer watchabilitity that singers bring.

The support was strong.  Robert Hayward, in particular, conveyed the sleaziness beneath the respectability of Prus.  Paul Nilon sang strongly as Gregor but without conveying much about the role – there’s a suggestion in the text that he’s a bit of a wastrel and I didn’t get much of that or anything else from him.  James Creswell was a clear, intelligent, petty-minded Kolenaty – it’s good to see that he’s becoming a regular with the company.  Stephanie Corley did what she could with Kristina – one of Janáček’s least interesting female characters.  Hauk-Sendorf is a gem of a role and Nigel Robson, as you would expect, seized all the opportunities created by the one likeable character in the piece.  It wasn’t his fault that his scene with EM didn’t have quite the sense of wistful nostalgia on both sides that I’ve seen elsewhere.  Adrian Dwyer made a very promising Janek and Mark Le Brocq a very credible, clear Vitek.

The smaller parts create good opportunities for singers to shine and here, I thought they were outstandingly taken.  So particular plaudits for Matthew Hargreaves (Stage Technician), Sarah Pring (Cleaner) and Rebecca Affonwy-Jones (Chambermaid) who seized their opportunities really strongly and created convincing vignettes that were a pleasure to watch.

Tom Cairns isn’t one of my favourite directors and here I couldn’t help feeling that, while producing a perfectly adequate production, it didn’t have the clarity or sheer brilliance that other directors have brought.  Hildegard Bechtler’s set struck me as almost too busy and I found the comings and goings of the second and third acts a bit cramped and unclear.  There was nothing that you could put your finger on that was wrong with it, but it didn’t grip.

Richard Farnes’s conducted certainly did.  He had a sure grasp of the pace of the piece, accompanied his singers really well so that you could hear the words and appreciate the orchestral commentary.  He gave the final scene all the power and dynamism that it needed and the orchestra was on it Ring-standard form.

So this seemed to me to be a more-than-decent, good evening.  Most of the ingredients for success were there, but I didn’t leave the theatre particularly gripped or changed or convinced that this is a masterpiece by a great composer.  Judging by the comments, nor did most of the audience.  Rather, it was an interesting, perfectly good performance of a rather tricky curiosity.