Archive | December, 2012

Galina Vishnevskaya

16 Dec

I was sorry to read of the death of Galina Vishnevskaya earlier this week.

I only saw her live twice.  The second time was at a performance of Britten’s War Requiem at the the Royal Festival Hall in the 1980s.  The more important one for me was the first time when I saw her sing Verdi’s Lady Macbeth for Scottish Opera in 1976.  In retrospect that was probably the first thime that I’d even seen a real operatic star.

At the time, Scottish Opera was using a lot of classy singers, but they didn’t always make it down to Newcastle.  However, even though Norman Bailey, the original Macbeth was otherwise engaged (we had the excellent Malcolm Donnelly), Vishnevskaya was persuaded to make the trip.

My first impression was of a huge, rather cutting voice and a presence that commanded you to watch her.  I think I was also aware that she wasn’t singing it perfectly, but that this really was neither here nor there.  She was a Lady Macbeth who seemed utterly single-minded and determined on her goal.  I remember her advancing down stage with a menacing power, like a force of nature and singing her entrance aria and La luce langue with a piercing eloquence.  You emphatically would not want to get on the wrong side of her.  The cast was good, but this creature seemed to come from a different world, one where, when she was onstage, she was the only one who could remotely matter.

At this distance, I can’t honestly say that I remember in detail how she sang it and what she did but there remains a memory in my mind of this outstandingly passionate operatic character filling the theatre and expanding beyond.

There aren’t many other singers with that sheer intensity and grandeur: Silja, Behrens, Fassbaender, Vickers spring to mind of those that I’ve seen and, of course, there are others.  You feel that they are a declining breed.  Is there anyone around who has the sheer grandeur to perform roles like Tosca and Lady Macbeth in that old fashioned, but entirely convincing way? Perhaps the arrival of Directors’ Opera has meant that some of the personalities get lost.

Anyway, she is one of those singers whom I regret having been born too late to see her as much as I’d have liked.  Her recordings, particularly the wonderful Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk are fabulous, but they’re still not the same as seeing her live.

You get a feel for her grandeur and intensity from her autobiography

Either way, I feel that I washugely privileged that I had the opportunity to see her even once, but it’s tinged with regret that I didn’t get to any of her later recitals or that I wasn’t born early enough to have seen her more often.

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Robert le Diable – after 120 years

7 Dec

Let’s leave the shenanigans over the casting for the Robert le Diable that I saw on 6th December for another, shorter blog and concentrate on the performance and the opera.

The opera has been on my wish list ever since I read The Count of Monte Cristo in my early teens. It carries an aura of melodrama, grandeur and the exoticism and is clearly important in the history of opera. It appeals to the romantic and the fantastic side that is part of many opera lovers.  So I was obviously looking forward to this, but with some trepidation. The last Meyerbeer that I saw was the ghastly, under-cast Berlin production that landed like a lead balloon 21 years ago. The show did Meyerbeer no favours and my impression was of a bombastic, mediocre, boring composer who had nothing to say to an audience.

This looked more promising with a promising cast and Laurent Pelly, who’s work is usually worth seeing, directing. I was nervous about Daniel Oren in the pit simply because I thought his Sonnambula last year one of the slowest, most tedious and unsympathetic pieces of conducting I’d heard at the ROH in many years. And the opera might turn out to be duff.

In fact, I had a good time. On its own terms, the opera works rather well. It’s a “will he choose heaven or hell” piece in which Robert, who is in love with Princess Isabelle finds himself foiled by his companion, Bertram, who turns out to be his father and in league withe devil against Bertram.  Robert’s half sister Alice keeps trying to save Robert with memories of his mother. In the end, after a really splendid trio, she succeeds – and in a nice joke, does so largely because the trio goes on so long that the crucial hour of midnight is reached before Robert can sign his soul away.

After a slow-ish first Act, the piece gains momentum with a series set piece confrontations and ensembles. Act III struck me as very fine with a nice comic duet for Bertram, the evil genius, with the minstrel, Rimbaut, a powerful aria for him with accompanying demons, two strong duets where he manipulates respectively Alice and Robert and a splendid unaccompanied trio.  It’s followed by the dancing dead nuns who force Robert to steal the sacred branch.  There’s a really good aria for Isabelle as she remonstrates with Robert in Act IV.  It’s kitted out also with beguiling choruses and ensembles and some skilful orchestral writing.

The plot is, objectively,  leave your brains in the cloakroom tosh and, at this distance, it’s difficult to know whether the 1831 audience got more out of it than a very slick evening’s entertainment – rather as many of us .might feel about Phantom of the Opera or Lord of the Rings. On those terms, it just about works.

The music is fun in a very French way. It doesn’t try for the conciseness of much Italian opera of the time and there don’t seem to be the same melodies or catchy tunes that you find in Rossini or Donizetti. It moves in quite leisurely set pieces which require really stylish singing – bel canto without the flashiness.. It needs superb singers – in the last generation, I couldn’t help reflecting, Caballe, Domingo, Gruberova and Ghiaurov would have been a knock out cast.

What I also felt was that suddenly I understood a whole lot more about 19th century opera generally. Bertram is surely one of the great operatic visions and a direct ancestor of Gounod and Berlioz’s Mephistopheles, Offenbach’s four villains in Hoffmann – though he’s actually more complex than all of then.  Next time I see Sullivan’s Sorcerer with its chorus gradually falling asleep I shall remember how Robert produced the same effect here and Ruddigore where the ghosts coming out of their frames surely owes a bit to the nuns leaving their graves here. I admired Tom Stoppard’s Real Inspector Hound as soon as I saw it, but I didn’t get the whole it until I saw The Mousetrap. Like that I suddenly feel that I have got the joke or discovered a piece of opera’s DNA.  Whether it’s any good or not almost doesn’t matter.  In fact, I think this piece is quite good enough to edge its way back into the repertory – I don’t think it’s one for every day, but I hope I’ll get to see it again.

So how, after all the tribulations, was the performance?  Just a bit nervous on the first night, I thought: I felt it would settle down later on, Oren’s conducting struck me as a major improvement on his Sonnambula. I thought that he brought out the beauties in the orchestra and the dynamism of the big ensembles really well. I couldn’t make up my mind whether what seemed like some very leisurely numbers were his fault or Meyerbeer’s. on balance, I think it’s the latter’s but I’m also conscious that, we’ve lost the performance style for these pieces and that, rather like Handel, we may need to do some work to discover it.  The orchestra played well but I wasn’t sure that they were comfortable with it.

The soloists were very good indeed.  Bryan Hymel gave an impressive performance as Robert.  It’s a huge, technically challenging role requiring both top notes and strong, heroic belting singing. He gave us both and seemed confident on the stage.  If he lacked the ease and star quality that I expect Nourrit would have brought, it wasn’t far off. I suspect John Relyea as Bertram may have had a slightly easier task in that pantomime villains are easier to relate to. He was, however, magnificently black, menacing and witty in the role. He can come back as Mephistopheles, the four villains or even Claggart any time he likes.

Patricia Ciofi showed no signs of under-preparednes,s which rather makes you wonder about the need for long rehearsal periods.  Her singing struck me as fabulously good with her Act IV aria a real highlight – she has the delicacy and agility to manage the role to perfection. Marina Poplavskaya isn’t, I think in perfect health and atone stage it looked as though she wouldn’t be singing.  She began hesitantly – her first act aria didn’t go we’ll but she got better and was very strong indeed in Act III and in thaw glorious Act V trio.  I suspect she’ll get even stronger as the run goes on.  Jean-François Borras as Raimbaut showed a lot of promise – a nice, light tenor voice.

Pelly’s production struck me as mixed. The original production had huge resources thrown at it and needs a level of visual opulence that we probably can’t afford now. The visual references ought to be those anachronistic historical pre-impressionist French paintings, with a bit of Caspar David Friedrich thrown in.  It needs to be taken seriously on its own terms. I think Pelly felt we might not be able to cope with all of this so he presented a stylised medieval world of painted horses, a toy town castle, skeletal cathedral and, very effectively a print-like mountainside with Bosch-like images for Act III.  Some critics have compared it slightly to Spamalot and I know what they mean.  I thought that perhaps he’d sent some of his designs for his forthcoming Le Comte Ory by mistake.  Certainly the atmosphere seemed to be  nearer t0 that (any chance of doing it with Florez, please, soon?) rather than to a gothick melodrama.  There was some very strange choreography for the chorus and I sensed an unease with the piece.  It’s a professional piece of work but I’d rather like a larger, more expensive, more serious production.  One very important plus was that he kept much of the action right down stage by the proscenium.  It made engagement with the singers easier.  It also made me realise how well the piece sounded in the ROH auditorium – which was, after all, built for just this sort of opera.

The audience reaction was just a bit uncertain – rather as the other critics seem to have been.  I think this was partly a lack of familiarity with the piece and the fact that a lot of it isn’t instantly appealing.  I think there was also uncertainty about the production and some of the nervousness on the stage may have projected.

So I was very glad to have seen it.  I’d like to see it again.  And I hope that we might get some more Meyerbeer soon but, please, with a decent cast and enough money spent on them.