Archive | February, 2013

Belarussian Boheme in Hastings

23 Feb

I have friends in Hastings.  They know I’m an opera nut and quite like it themselves.  Would I like to see the Grand Opera of Belarus doing La Boheme there, they asked, nervously.  I’m not squeamish when I come to opera – I tend to think that you can get something out of most performances.  While I probably wouldn’t travel to Hastings on my own to see this, it was likely to be a jolly evening out and, on 22nd February, we braved snow squalls to get there.

I think this is the company’s first UK tour.  The programme told me that they’ve been going for around 80 years, were one of the major companies in the old Soviet Union and now, presumably, are where it’s at, operatically, in Belarus. They have embarked on a 7 week tour of La Boheme and Madama Butterfly going to such operatic centres as Hastings, Rhyl, Billingham and Lowestoft in addition to slightly larger scale places like Buxton, Newcastle and Hull. For many of these, this must be the only opera they get.

They have brought 13 soloists (including a number of their leading singers, judging by the company’s website), a chorus of 17 and a decent sized orchestra.  It strikes me as a gruelling tour: they are performing six nights a week and, one week’s performances sees them going from Halifax to Swindon to Chesterield to Yeovil to Dorking to Stafford with only one day off.  They have two tenors each singing Rodolfo and Pinkerton, while four sopranos share Mimi, Musetta and Butterfly (one of them apparently able to sing all three).  I would guess that a good number of the singers, particularly the leads, will be singing four or possibly five nights per week.  One of them, Ilya Pevszner sings every night as Colline and the Commissioner (with the occasional Bonze thrown in ).  They have clearly constructed their own touring sets which need to be easy to transport and fit in to very different theatres.  Seats at Hastings cost up to £30.  The top price in Minsk appears to be the equivalent of £7.50, so you can see why there may well be advantages to them touring.

So what was it like?  Well, the sets were tawdry and badly put together.  You’d forgive them in a village church hall panto but that’s about it.  The costumes were better but had a very Russian accent (lots of furs in Act II and the peasants selling cheese looked very Russian indeed).  The staging involved little more than traffic direction and there was a range of acting styles, mostly involving heavy, exaggeratedly operatic acting.  The singers were smartly dressed and Mimi was a healthy young woman with none of the fragility you expect; there seemed to be little chemistry between them and eyes remained resolutely dry throughout.  There was no sense that anyone had seriously thought about preparing the performance to put the opera across.

Worse were the surtitles – they rolled across a dot matrix screen at the edge of stage and it was sheer luck if they coincided with what was actually going on.  Fortunately, they weren’t visible from lots of seats.  You cannot operate surtitles like that with any sort of artistic integrity and we would have been better off without them.

Musically things were better.  The orchestra was very good indeed and Victor Ploshkina, the company’s chief conductor, conducted idiomatically, letting the details come out, with sympathy for the singers and never drowning them.  It helps that the acoustic at the White Rock, at least in the circle, is very good indeed (but people whose bodies are larger then those of most supermodels and whose legs are longer than the average 12 year old’s will not be comfortable there).  This was an orchestral performance that would go down perfectly well in most places.  The chorus sang well and enthusiastically.

The singing was very decent, albeit the Italian pronunciation had a very strong Russian accent to it.  The programme didn’t tell you exactly who would be singing on which nights, so I am going by the programme photographs, always dangerous, in attributing names.  If I get them wrong, let me know.  The finest was the Mimi, Helena Bundeleva.  She has a really lovely, clear, pure voice and she sang the music with a good sense of style.  I wouldn’t mind hearing her again and would hope that a decent director might actually enable her to appear fragile and moving: she looked a bit as though she was about to go off to a smart restaurant before returning to her job as a high powered lawyer.  Inna Rusinovskaya made a very sexy, exuberant Musetta, though I found her voice rather on the acid side.

Sergei Frankovsky needs more help than he got here to look like a young and impoverished poet.  His repertory apparently includes a lot of lyric and heroic Italian roles.  I can’t imagine wanting to hear his dry, uningratiating singing in any of them.  It may be that the tour had over-tired him.  Vladimir Gromov sang well enough as Marcello without suggesting anything more than generalised heartiness.  Ilya Pevzner as Colline and Aleksandr Krasnodubsky were perfectly fine without being particularly memorable or individual.

It is an interesting question as to how you should judge a performance of this sort.  So far as I know, none of the subsidised companies gets to Hastings.  I was told that they audience (which was, I would guess, around 700 and filled about 75% of the auditorium) probably represented the bulk of the opera-going public in Hastings and was good for that theatre.  They may well feel that anything is better than nothing and the seats are probably about as expensive as they will stand.  For my friends, it was their first Boheme and for two in the party their first opera.  I don’t suppose they were alone.  They told me that they’d enjoyed the music and sort-of followed the plot and enjoyed it.  I don’t see how they can have avoided the idea that opera is something with beautiful music but with a silly story and people who can’t act.  I could not help feeling incredibly privilege to have the access, both physically and financial, not just to the ROH and Glyndebourne, but to Opera North and ETO, all of which have massively higher visual values.

It’s a shame.  All the ingredients were here for a rather good performance that could have left us moved.  What actually happened was that they were thrown onto the stage with gimcrack sets and no attempt to treat the piece as a dramatic event.  A half decent director could have done something with this.  I blame the promoters who, presumably, rather cynically thought that it was good enough for Hastings.  Well, at least visually, it wasn’t.

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Medea – admiring but not loving

21 Feb

There was so much that was really special about ENO’s production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medea, which I saw on February 20th, that it feels churlish to say that I wasn’t bowled over by it.

There was a predictably towering performance from Sarah Connolly in the title role.  She is one of the singers that I will go and hear whatever she does and I don’t think I have heard her in better form.  She conveyed the love, the sorrow, the anger and the vengeance of the role marvellously.  She was at her finest in the scenes with Jason, in the incantation scene in Act III and throughout Act IV when the scenes with Oronte and Creon conveyed a huge range of emotion.  Her voice seems to have acquired a slight rawness about some notes, reminiscent of Janet Baker and is adds to the power and emotion that she conveys.  If I have a criticism it was that I felt that her acting could have conveyed more of the anger that she managed vocally: I wanted a bit more chewing of the scenery.

The supporting cast around her were outstanding.  There are at least five other roles in the opera requiring great singers.  We had Jeffrey Francis as Jason who sang with style and drew sparks from Miss Connolly during their duets.  The only doubt was that he looked a bit elderly to be a credible rival for Roderick Williams’s supberb Orontes.  Williams, as anyone who remembers him from Castor and Pollux will know, sings this music perfectly.  His diction is impeccable, he sounds wonderful and he acts convincingly.  Brindley Sherratt was a splendidly vigorous, clear Creon and Katherine Manley displayed a lovely, pure voice as Creusa, Medea’s rival, and was particularly fine in the lovely final duet for her and Jason and in her death scene.

Christian Curmyn conducted vigorously, stylishly and, I thought, got really convincing playing from the orchestra and fine singing from the chorus.  This was conducting that had absolute faith and belief in the piece. This was a grand performance that managed to project the piece into a theatre the size of the Coliseum and had the calibre of singers to make it work.

And David McVicar gave us a very classy production The period is Second World War, which provides an opportunity for stylish military costumes and some elegant clothes for the women and provides a good, consistent period feel.  The set looks 18th century (I thought it would not be completely impossible for Act II of Rosenkaverlier).  There was an elegance and formality that is not at odds with this particular stylised form.  He managed to find a way of working in the dances.  His characters acted and understood what they were doing and saying.  It looked good.

So why did I feel only intermittently involved?  I think there are a number of reasons, mostly personal to me:

1.    I don’t feel particularly comfortable with the French baroque style.  I’m deeply ambivalent about Rameau and I find the conventions of the ballet and the rather austere formality repellent.  It may be that I simply don’t know the music well enough and haven’t adjusted to the conventions but here I found the opening scenes uninvolving and the dances in the first two acts interminable and unhelpful, however well staged.

2.    I think the Coliseum is too big for this.  No matter how grand the performance, it loses something by having to reach out into this barn.  Apart from some set pieces, this is an opera of intimate conversations and subtle vocal effects – you lose some of this.

3.    For all its elegance and precision, I wonder if McVicar’s production helped.  There is an element of the magic and fantastical here – Medea is meant to end up flying off on a chariot drawn by dragons, the palace is meant to collapse and there is scope for all kinds of effects as the demons help Medea poison Creusa’s dress.  I think that by placing it in the very un-magicial 1940s, McVicar robbed us of these – Miss Connolly being lifted up was a good attempt at ending the piece, but dragon-drawn chariots it was not.  And isn’t there something of the outsider about Medea even from the start.  I know that Charpentier deliberately accentuates the love and sadness of the early scenes but it was hard to see how this elegant, respectable woman could be a threat to Corinth, let alone turn into the poisoning murderess of the last few acts.

I sensed a slightly tepid, puzzled response from the audience and, while applauding the enterprise of ENO for the first ever British staging of this work (and first ever Charpentier by one of the main companies), being delighted to have the opportunity to see the opera and admiring the whole way in which the show was put together, I doubt that it will return or usher in a particular Charpentier revival.  Not for a while, anyway.

I admired the effort, but can take or leave the piece.

Welcome to Konwitschny

9 Feb

My first La traviata was at the Edinburgh Festival in 1979 – a production by Kent Opera directed by Jonathan Miller at the time when you felt that Miller was actually interested in opera and in what he was doing.  I still remember it fondly, partly because I hardly knew the opera and still remember the frisson of Alfredo’s intervention in Sempre libera and of following the Germont/Violetta scene as if it were a play.  It was sung in English, the sets were simple – delicate sepia tints and it was done with a concentration, simplicity and intelligence that got to the heart of the piece.  I’ve heard many musically finer performances but few which seemed about the whole opera.

This performance (I saw it on February 7th) came very close to matching and, in some places, surpassed it.  In my comments about ENO’s recent Carmen,  I worried about buying in distinguished directors’ productions and regretted that ENO can’t, these days, cast the leading role from within its regular singers.  The same thoughts apply but this evening seemed to justify the means in the way that Carmen didn’t quite.

Peter Konwitschny’s production is newer than Bieito’s  and is billed as a co-production, rather than one that has been bought it.  It’s already available on DVD, though, from the original Graz performances.  I might get it.

Konwitschny’s production is spare and contemporary.  The set is a series of curtains that can be opened to deepen the stage or bring the action closer to the audience.  The only piece of furniture is a chair for Violetta.  There is a pile of books for Alfredo and that’s about it.  He has re-invented the plot, which is set out in the programme and sees the opera, quite rightly, as a piece about convention versus individuality.  He creates a world in which men treat women as play things, using violence to keep them in order. In the Act III party, the guests wander round throwing cards around getting an air of decadence, of alienation.  Alfredo is the outsider, turning up at a black tie party in his slacks and cardigan and staying in those for the whole evening.  Violetta wears natty cocktail dresses in town and trousers, looking like an environmental activist, in the country.  I think we are meant to doubt that the relationship can possibly last.  The elder Germont brings his daughter to persuade Violetta to change her mind and it is his ill-treatment of the daughter that leads to Violetta’s capitulation.  It’s done without an interval and we were out in well under two hours.

Alfredo interrupts Sempre libera from the auditorium and, at the end, his father makes his entrance there making a wonderful separation from the two lovers.  Then Alfredo joins him and they watch Violetta, on her own, dying and going away from them.  It’s a wonderful effect, concentrating our attention, as it has been most of the evening on Violetta herself.

It’s a production which requires really detailed, thoughtful acting and where there is no hiding behind crinolines or in beds.  It’s cut – no dancing in the second scene of Act II, no chorus in Act III and no cabaletta for Di Provenza.  There is a real link, however, between the musical performance and what went on onstage and a rare honesty about the acting.  I was only really puzzled by one part – I don’t think it was clear enough what happened at the end of Act II – Alfredo didn’t throw his money at Violetta, I didn’t notice a challenge, there just seemed to be some kind of brawl and most of the curtains were brought down.  I don’t know what was going on there.

There were, however, three very fine performances indeed from the leads.  Corinne Winters is a talent to watch.  Vocally, she makes the challenges sound easy and manages both the exuberant coloratura of Sempre libera and the legato of Addio del passato with equal panache.  She found the passion for Amami, Alfredo and the pathos of Dite alla giovine.  This was combined with energy and an ability to convey visually the torture that Violetta goes through with absolute truthfulness.  I hope we’ll see more of her.

Ben Johnson was Alfredo.  It’s not a particularly Italianate sound but he sings stylishly and with attention to the words.  He was a believable bookish outsider.  Anthony Michaels-Moores’s elder Germont was outstanding.  The voice may not be as smooth as it once was, but I don’t think it needs to be for this role and I don’t know how anyone could not admire the way in which he opened the second stanza of Di Provenza – managing to be tender, soft and firm with his son.  He’s a fine actor and caught the stiff-necked, bigotted provincial to perfection.  The distinction between his treatment of Violetta, his daughter and his son was beautifully done.

The smaller roles were well enough performed with some very good acting indeed from all of them even if none made you sit up vocally.

Michael Hofstetter conducted, absolutely in tune with the production and got strong playing from the orchestra.

This was a production that, I thought, got as close to the heart of Traviata as any other than I’d seen.  It’s pared down and goes straight to the emotions and was rivetting to watch.  It made me angry and it made me think.  I didn’t, however, find it moving but perhaps that’s not the crucial thing here.  I’d urge anyone who loves opera to go and see it.

The ROH Onegin – too much love?

9 Feb

The ROH has had a disappointing run of productions of Eugene Onegin.  After the Peter Hall production clocked up 9 revivals, the last two, by John Cox and Stephen Pimlott, limped to a single revival each, hobbled by ghastly sets.  There’s nothing wrong the Johannes Leieacker’s set for Kasper Holten’s production, which I saw on 6th February, but it’s what goes on inside them that makes me wonder if it will manage even that.

This is Holten’s first production since becoming Director of Opera and, on paper, he had a good cast and an interesting young conductor.  He’s a respected director and says that this is his favourite opera and one that obsessed him as a child.  My overwhelming feeling about this performnace was that Holten loves the piece too much and wants to put too much into it.  Time and again, during this performance, I felt that it was in need of a good editor who was really going to challenge the director’s ideas, cut some of them and inspire others.  That’s the sort of role that, for example, a good Director of Opera might have.  Unfortunately, Holten holds that post as well.

In lots of places, I could see what Holten was getting at.  Onegin is about people who do idiotic things when they are young and regret them when they are older, or find that things change when they are older.  And he’s not the first director to try to contrast the first two acts with the last. David Pountney’s production for Scottish Opera started life with a scrim down for the first two acts making it look like a series of old photographs and then you came up to the present day for the last act.  That idea didn’t last for more than six months of the production’s life simply because you cannot get the rawness of emotion of the second scene with a gauze between the singers and the audience.

Holten tried a different device.  He had dancers playing the young Onegin and Tatyana and the older singers sometimes watching, sometimes participating in the action.  This worked variably.  There were two moments when I thought it added something: in the duel scene, when the older Onegin tries to stop his younger self from going forward to the duel and in the last scene where, for a moment, the two younger characters ran into the room as the older ones remembered their youths.  But these mildly effective moments were at the unacceptable price of, at worst, complete distortion and, at best, confusion of key parts of the rest of the opera.

The worst problem came in the letter scene where the dancer wrote the letter and was spoken to by Filipyevna while the older Tatyana sang what she was saying, almost as if dictating and certainly feeling an over-lay of later emotions.  I can see that this might indicate that the older Tatyana still has those feelings (though that becomes clear enough in the final scene anyway) or, as I felt, that there was an overlay of older experience.  Now the power of the letter scene is that it is about raw, immediate, youthful emotion and you need direct communication of that from the singer to the audience. We simply did not get that.  I find it really hard to believe that anyone who really loved and understood the opera could seriously think of wrecking one of the central episodes in this way.

Beyond this, there was the sheer confusion caused by Tatyana at one moment watching, but singing for, the double and, the next, apparently fully involved in the scene.  There was no logic discernible for the changes and I felt very sorry for Krassimira Stroyanova who, I felt, was hobbled in her portrayal of Tatyana.  Having said that, I’m not sure that this is the ideal role for her.  As her Ariadne in Vienna showed, she is a very elegant and cultured singer.  She was at her best as the Princess Gremin finding the tension between the life she had chosen and the life she would have liked.  I’d love to see her do Elisabeth de Valois or Amelia in Ballo or as the Countess in Capriccio. I’m not convinced that she has the sheer raw emotion for the young Tatyana: she sang the letter scene strongly and well but without once uttering a memorable phrase or one that tugged at the heart – to be fair, I don’t think she was allowed to.

Then there was the characterisation of Onegin.  Rather than being the dignified, bored young man, there’s something of the excitable puppy about him as he sits on the floor in the first scene at Tatyana’s feet, well up for a flirtation and the dancers suggest a deeper attraction on both sides than we usually see.  His behaviour in the rejection scene was of a young man who has got himself into a mess rather than someone who is giving a lecture and simply hasn’t the taste to see the potential in Tatyana.  At the Larin’s party he’s simply out of control.  It’s an interesting reading and Simon Keenlyside played up to it gamely, almost changing his mind in the third scene and suggesting a real erotic charge between him and Tatyana. My problem was that I didn’t feel that this worked closely enough with Onegin’s rather distant, formal music or the text and I also feel that part of the really unpleasant irony of the opera is that he doesn’t realise the depth of his love for Tatyana until the third act and it’s too late.  Now I’m happy to accept that there may be other ways of playing Onegin than as a cold, proud Mr Darcy figure and I can see a logic in the way in which Holten has tried to play it, but this is the logic that you get from thinking about it after the event, rather than because it felt right at the time.

Holten also tries to get a dream-like element there – not unreasonably, a lot of the opera is about Tatyana’s fantasy about Onegin and her dreamy novel-reading.  Sometimes this worked: I liked the way the chorus at the beginning of the third scene was of women who had written similar letters and whose lovers clearly welcomed it.  I was less sure about using the opening of Act III as a sort of dream sequence for Onegin as he has to deal with, I think, ghostly Tatyanas and Olgas, presumably haunting him after Lensky’s death.  Onegin’s narration gives you all you need and Keenlyside is quite good enough an actor to let you see it.

I also wasn’t convinced by the accretion of symbols during the second half.  For the final scene, Tatyana and Onegin had to negotiate their way around a very large branch (pulled in by Lensky at the start), Lensky’s body, scattered books and little piles of snow.  I think there’s quite enough going on in that scene for all of that to be unnecessary (can anyone who saw it forget Graham Vick’s empty stage save for two chairs at Glyndebourne?) and you felt that the singers were a bit hampered by it all.  Audiences aren’t stupid and we don’t need this clutter to get the ideas.

As for the singing, I think I’ve dealt with Stroyanova.  Keenlyside was predictably fine but without, I felt, being allowed to give of his best.  Pavel Breslik was a decent enough Lensky though he probably wasn’t helped by being hugged by Onegin through much of his aria.  In an opera which has quite a few grateful lesser roles, only Diana Montague as Larina and Peter Rose as Gremin stood out.  Rose appeared for the last part of the rejection scene.  Again, I thought this provided a whole lot of gloss that you don’t need: the point of that scene is Tatyana’s rejection of Onegin, not what it does to her marriage or his relationship with Gremin and by adding that dimension, you actually distract from what is going on with the characters.  I thought Rose sang it very well indeed but seemed like a glum, suspicious, ungenerous character.

Robin Ticciati conducted and clearly had a lovely time.  He drew some beautiful playing from the orchestra but I can’t help remembering Gergiev and the delicacy and wit that he drew out of M Triquet’s number and, overall, the sheer passion of the piece.  Ticciati’s conducted struck me as perfectly fine with a tendency, like the production, to overdo the slower passages (I thought that Lensky would never actually begin the finale to the Act II scene 1) but without having anything particularly special about it.  Is he being pushed too fast?

So this evening never quite reached its potential and at times was deeply frustrating.  And I’m afraid much of this was Holten shouting “Me, Me, Me” at key stages.  I wish I thought it boded well for his tenure here.