Archive | May, 2013

Authentic Falstaff

19 May

Let me begin by urging anyone interested in great Verdian music-making to snap up seats for Glyndebourne’s present revival of Falstaff before everyone else does.  The first night (19th May) struck me as among the very finest performances of the opera that I’ve come across.

Ostensibly the reason for it being particularly worth a detour is the fact that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is in the pit, playing on instruments or replicas of instruments none of which were made or designed later than 1893.  Presumably this hasn’t happened since the war.  I admire the OAE hugely, but without Mark Elder leading them, I wonder if they would have made it so special.  There are some things that you notice that are particular to the orginal instruments – the slightly more pungent sound to the woodwind, the edgier brass – which add a freshness, or something that you observe as  a keen listener.  What Elder brings is the deep knowledge of the score (he conducts at least half of it with the score in front of him closed) and his knowledge of Verdi and sense of the way that the music highlights the drama.  There is probably also something about the articulation needed to play those instruments which helps his performance sound so “right”.  When Falstaff is talking about Alice and Meg in the first scene, Elder gets a slight mushiness about the strings that suggests an element of sexual excitement.  He also brings out the different strands of the score with a clarity that I simply haven’t heard since Carlos Kleiber did Otello 25 years ago.  It’s a score with lots going on, much of it at the same time: Elder lets you hear the different layers, the counterpoint, without distracting you by accenting details just for the sake of them.  The phrasing is superb – he catches the way different parts of the orchestra carry forward individual phrases from each other and he weaves them into a clear tapestry.  He paces it marvellously – tempi sound natural – and manages the climaxes fabulously well – the build up of the Act II finale, or Ford’s monologue or, indeed, Falstaff’s honour monologue, are done with you barely noticing.  He catches the wit and the joy of the score.  The OAE plays outstandingly.  I love Falstaff very much.  This is my 14th visit and I play it frequently on CD.  I’ve not heard so much or gained so much musical pleasure in any other performance.  Can Glyndebourne please revive the Hall Otello for him and the OAE?

It helps also that there’s a really good cast and Richard Jones’s marvellous production.  The latter has been rehearsed by Sarah Fahie.  It comes up as freshly as ever.  I find his 1946 setting of mock-Tudor houses, English pubs and shady characters a very satisfactory setting for the opera.  What makes it special is the wonderful timing and choreography.  I don’t think that I’ve seen so brilliantly directed a second scene where, simply by listening to music and having a simply device of, essentially, three levels, Jones manages a staging which dazzles just as much as the music.  The movements are wonderfully timed and go very much with the very precise with of the score.  There are the nice flourishes – the cats, the rowers going through Ford’s garden, the brownies, the swans, all of which add to the joy without distracting from the essence.  Its only flaw seems to me that the last scene is a bit bare and that he could find a bit more cruelty – I wanted a bit more invention but, to be fair, the opera also hangs fire a bit.

The leading roles are all new for this revival.  Laurent Naouri did not, on paper, strike me as an obvious Falstaff, but he confounded my doubts.  He has a richness and depth to the voice that his predecessor here lacked and he gave a beautifully detailed performance of a vain, pub bore – always alert, always finding some detailed piece of acting.  Was it coincidence that he looked just a little like Nigel Farage?  Roman Burdenko was a splendid Ford who did his jealousy aria very intelligently.

The women were good.  Ailyn Perez is an alert Alice, who sings her soaring phrases beautifully and catches the intelligence of the woman.  Susanne Resmark has a lovely, full mezzo for Quickly and was just as funny as her predecessor.  Elena Tsallagova was a sweet Nanetta and Lucia Cirillo a good Meg.

Antonio Poli, as Fenton, sounded slightly dry in his last act aria but did the remainder well and relished the production.  Graham Clark was luxury casting as Dr Caius while Colin Judson and Paolo Battaglia were back and excellent as Bardolph and Pistol.  It looked like a happy cast, enjoying itself.

So this was an evening that didn’t put a foot wrong.  Falstaff tends to work well at Glyndebourne because it’s an ensemble piece and benefits from the preparation they can provide.  Here, with Elder, it became very special indeed.  Glyndebourne already have a (good) Falstaff in their CD series, but it would be marvellous if they could issue one from this series as a souvenir of a classically fine evening.  In any case, you should try to get to it if you can.



Soap opera Wozzeck

18 May

In the right hands, Wozzeck is one of the most shattering experiences in the theatre, one that, in the past Dohnanyi, Silja and Van Dam, for example), has had me physically shaking for twenty minutes after the performance finished.  Despite admiring lots of things about the performance of the ENO’s new production of the opera on 13th May, it didn’t have quite that effect.

Carrie Cracknell has set the opera in contemporary England.  Wozzeck is back from the Iraq war, haunted by his experiences, acting as a drug carrier for the Captain and the Doctor, visiting Andres – disabled by the conflict in a wheelchair, in a room with saws and drills hung on the wall.  He lives in a tenement, where Marie puts her child to sleep under a table while she takes the Drum Major inside.  You see soldiers in gas-masks, carrying dead and mutilated women, coffins returning and you get the message.  This is an opera about a man destroyed by war in a society that simply exploits him.  At the end the child, carrying his dinosaur containing cocaine is left staring out into the audience as his friends and the set move away – this is the future.

It sort-of works.  Cracknell doesn’t shirk the horror – Wozzeck cuts his and Marie’s throats – blood comes pouring out.  The child sees them dead before the final scene.  You get the casual bullying, the cheapness of life and images for Wozzeck’s visions.  There is no room for the natural world here or for the contrast between Wozzeck’s visions and the world surrounding him.  The set, by Tom Scutt is ingenious – a tiered tower-block that looks like something out of Eastenders enabling the different scenes to be played on the same structure.  It’s oppressive.

This vision turns Wozzeck into a study of broken man in broken Britain – a tawdry episode of a soap opera that makes us think about the society we live in.  It misses the expressionism and the slightly supernatural horror of Berg’s vision.  There’s no forest, no moon to turn blood red, no lake to drown in.  I don’t insist on following all the instructions but I do miss the cosmic element that is part of this opera.  I also thought the set tended to dwarf the characters and accentuate how small they look in a theatre the size of the Coliseum.  I also felt that Richard Stokes’s translation didn’t particularly fit this view.  This isn’t a society where people talk about “my dear doctor” – the syntax sounded 19th century.  I felt uninvolved.

It must be hard having to act and project against a set that size and I thought the cast managed variably.  Leigh Melrose has always struck me as an amiable, honest, committed singer.  He displayed all of that here without, so far as I was concerned, suggested the more nightmareish side of the character or what causes him to kill Marie.  He’s a sympathetic singer – and sang strongly – but I wasn’t clear that he was ready for this role.  Sara Jakubiak was a really strong Marie, who projected a strong, tormented personality (but would she really read the Bible in this setting?).  Tom Randle was a vicious captain, James Morris a lumbering doctor.  I wasn’t greatly impressed by Bryan Register’s Drum Major – not strutting or thuggish enough and under-powered vocally.  Adrian Dwyer was a good Andres and nobody particularly let the side down, though I didn’t feel that I was seeing an outstanding cast.

Edward Gardner, predictably, starred in an very clear, powerful reading of the score.  The orchestra was in great form and you felt the horror gradually growing as the opera went on.  The interlude after the murder of Marie – one of my touchstones for the effectiveness of any performance had the right horror and intensity.

My partner absolutely hated the performance, feeling that it completely missed the expressionism that’s vital to the work.  That didn’t worry me so much.  I admired a detailed, professional, thoughtful piece of work (in an entirely different league from the Opera House’s La donna del lago later in the week) which sought to engage with the opera and present it to us.  What I did feel was that, in a theatre this size, it all needed to be a bit bigger and that I did not come out feeling as shattered and moved as I ought to be after this piece.

Donna del lago disappoints

18 May

I’ve loved La donna del lago ever since I bought the Pollini LP of it in the late 1980s.  It has a series of gorgeous arias and duets, the only one of which disappoints isn’t by Rossini.  The Act I finale is one of his most unusual, at least at that stage, because of the importance of the chorus – one of his very few where a double chorus makes an appearance, providing a really effective ending.  At least so it sounds on disc.

The plot is relatively slight – essentially about Elena negotiating her way through three lovers (only one of whom she cares about) with a Scots rebellion in the background.  It struck me at this performance that this must be the first Romantic opera, in the sense that the remote setting is an integral part of what the piece is about and it leads the way towards pieces like William Tell, Lucia di Lammermoor, Linda di Chamounix and Norma.  Watching it at this performance, I also saw ready links with Cenerentola and Tancredi as well, with Rossini exploring the conflict between love and duty.

So I was really looking forward to seeing the first night on 17th May 2013.  It had as good a cast of Rossini singers as you could hope for and a director whose work for Opera North I have hugely admired.  I wasn’t expecting it to be revealed as an undiscovered masterpiece, but I was hoping for something that was in sympathy with the work.  I didn’t get it.

One of the things that I have admired most about John Fulljames is his ability to get to the heart of an opera.  I remember his Roméo et Juliette for Opera North where he pared down what I’d always thought of an over-dressed piece of Victoriana into a show where you got to the heart of the lovers’ emotions and, very cheaply, managed some gorgeous visual effects and made it a deeply moving experience.  I’d hoped for something similar here.  What I’d not reckoned with was the fact that he’s (a) not obviously worked with stars before and (b) probably not dealt with even the relatively low budget that he’d have had for this work here.  I also strongly wondered whether he even liked the opera.

This production essentially was about Sir Walter Scott and Rossini staging the opera to Scott’s guests.  We open in a library with Scots relics in a cases, including a ghostly Elena.  The opening scene happens there until Elena escorts the King to her house (a huge spiral staircase making a mockery of the humble retreat she talks about).  Scott and Rossini are on the side all the time and play the roles of Serano and and Albina, respectively – after a particularly emotional scene, they let Elena into the library and give her a brandy.  The guests at the party sing the opening chorus (it’s odd seeing wealthy people in evening dress singing about tending their flocks).  They also sing the bards at the end of the first Act enjoying, I suspect, some nice venison while the rebels onstage removed the entrails from a stag to prepare for battle.  I’d given up trying to work out whether the two matched by that point.  What this did was to put all the characters at one remove from the audience so that they became cardboard cut-outs that could safely be put back in their boxes at the end.  Then there were sillinesses like a massive tartan backdrop for the last scene and a crown for Flórez that didn’t fit.

I think Fulljames’s rationale goes something like this.  Scott was consciously rediscovering/creating Scots myths – indeed, many of his books begin with historical discussions which have little to do with the novel, but lead in to it.  Therefore it’s right to create a similar artificial framework for this opera: we are watching the creation of an opera which was creating its own world.

Aside from the fact that showing us this isn’t very interesting (I can read about it in the programme if I need to know about it), I think he’s mistaken on lots of levels.  First, Scott doesn’t use this technique in the very early Lady of the Lake.  Secondly, the “antiquarian” parts of his novels are the bits that everybody skips and must have been pretty boring even in the 1820s.  Scott’s skill was in córeating a world where his readers directly identified with his characters and their situations, not in creating an academically interesting exploration of Scottish myths.

Even if I’m wrong about that, Rossini was certainly not trying to create a distance between between the audience and his characters – he was perfectly capable of doing so if he wanted (see Turco in Italia).  He was creating a world which appealed directly to a growing romantic sensibility, creating a fantasy in exactly the same way that Puccini did with Fanciulla or Turandot.  He didn’t want you to see him doing it.  Now it may well be that we find it difficult to take that particular romantic idea and setting these days (I doubt it, in fact, but assume that we do).  In that case, the director’s job is to find a way of making it work for us so that we identify with and empathise with the characters.  I don’t see why it’s impossible to envisage a way of bringing a world at a time of conflict where a woman has to negotiate between three men to life for a modern audience.  And Fulljames’s conceit of showing you how the opera was made is, in my book, a way of dodging that task or saying that the opera just isn’t worth doing on its own terms.  In which case, can we just have a concert of it and you can spend the money on something else.  It placed a barrier between audience and characters and this was exacerbated by a sense that the three leading singers weren’t being helped to show characters that grew as the opera went on.

There was, I thought, only one point where the opera really came vividly to life to as drama.  This was at the entrance of Rodrigo and his men – vagabond, vicious rebels determined to rape and pillage.  You got a sense there of why Elena had no wish to marry that man (not obvious from Rossini’s music) and brought a real element of danger.  The characters at the edge were not doing much then and you could concentrate on what was going on.  For the rest, it was remote and unengaging at any level beyond the musical.  Fulljames and his team were strongly booed at the end and I’m afraid I supported the booers.

And I even had reservations about the music.  Michele Marriotti was making his house debut and, promisingly, was born in Pesaro.  I admired the elegance of his conducting and the way in which he caught the orchestral textures.  I found the onstage banda (apparently yet another innovation from the Rossini) rather tinny and irritating after a while.  I thought the orchestra played very well indeed.  What worried me was the tempi and the sheer lack of tension- a lot of the arias and the duets were slow and tended to stop and start.  I wanted them to move a notch more quickly and for there to be some sense of urgency and tension about them.  I wondered whether this was case of singers dictating to a less experienced conductor  or deliberate decisions.  Most of it sounded like a very charming salon party and added to the remoteness of the experience.  As I write this, I’m listening to Muti’s recording.  There are problems with many of the singers on it, but at least there is a sense of urgency and drama that struck me as entirely missing from this performance.

And all of this couldn’t but compromise the effectiveness of the singers.  Joyce DiDonato is always a joy to listen to and she sang Elena wonderfully from a technical point of view, crowning it with a glorious Tanti affetti.  I badly want to hear her here as Cenerentola, Ninetta, Adalgisa, Leonora in Favorita and loads more.  What I missed was any sense of character, of her going on some sort of journey or anything to interest beyond the singing.  I also wondered whether, in fact, she was right for the role.  Both Ricciarelli for Pollini and June Anderson for Muti provide a vulnerability that adds to the pathos.  Miss DiDonato doesn’t really do vulnerability and the mezzo-based timbre doesn’t achieve that as well as a true soprano does.

Juan Diego Flórez was predictably strong and stylish as the King – here called Uberto (as in his disguise, why not use the generally used Giacomo?).  He sings this kind of music brilliantly, making it sound easy and did his duets with Miss DiDonato idiomatically, giving lots of pleasure.  He sounded marginally more effortful than usual and there’s a whiteness to his voice which rather accentuates the strain.  He presented his usual charming character, with the usual gestures and never went beyond operatic stock.  I wonder whether Fulljames had a hope of getting more than this out of him.  I still can’t think of anyone I’d rather hear in these roles and it’s a joy to have him.

Daniella Barcellona is new to me and was outstanding as Malcom.  Here is a lovely, warm contralto who sings with admirable stylishness, making light of the technical problems of her music.  I want to hear her as Tancredi, Isabella, Rosina, Angelina and Arsace and I hope she’s back regularly.  She didn’t make much of the character.

Colin Lee was due to sing Rodrigo but was ill.  He was replaced by Michael Spyres who was due to make his debut in the role later in the run.  I was, frankly, uncertain about him.  He came across as an enormously confident singer who made a ringing entrance.  The top of the voice is strong and fluid – excellent for this sort of music.  He also has an entirely different lower register, sounding almost like a baritone – to the extent that I wondered if he were singing part of it an octave too low.  The effect of hearing at least two different registers, almost two different voices, in one aria is disconcerting and I wondered if this really was what Rossini was looking for.  I’m reserving judgement until I hear him again when it’s not an emergency.

Simón Orfila struck me as rather ordinary as Duglas but he did what the role was meant to do well enough.  Justina Gringyte made the most of her part as Albina and Robin Leggate sounded old as Serano.  The chorus were fine.

So I’m feeling deeply frustrated.  All my instincts tell me that, even though this may not be a blazing masterpiece like Ermione or some later romantic works, it’s an interesting and worthwhile piece in its own right and worth staging it with a cast of this calibre.  When I see it obscured and the effectiveness of the cast hampered a director and conductor who don’t seem willing to get a handle on it, it makes me angry.  I don’t suppose the Royal Opera House care – the eight performances are sold out and I can’t imagine that they’ll stage it again.  It alienates their supporters, though.

Kaufmann’s triumph and an unexpected debut

11 May

There was I counting my blessings.  I’d deliberately booked an early performance of Don Carlos simply because I couldn’t imagine missing Jonas Kaufmann singing the title role.  Then, when Anja Harteros announced that she wouldn’t be singing the final four performances, I felt distinctly smug – even more so after the reviews of her performance on the opening night. So when the email arrived on my blackberry at 12.16 on 8th May telling me that Harteros had cancelled that performance because of acute tonsilitis, I probably deserved it.  The Royal Opera House offered assurances that Liana Haroutounian, her replacement, was very exciting and I consoled myself that, with Kaufmann, Kwiecien, Furlanetto and Pappano still there, it wasn’t going to be a wasted evening.

Actually, it was far from that and Miss Haroutounian proved to be very exciting indeed.  More of her anon.  What I’d like to start with, however, is a paean to Jonas Kaufmann.  Carlos isn’t exactly a grateful role and, at this stage in his career, you could forgive Kaufmann if he decided that there are other roles that he’d rather do.  What we would have missed, had he done so, is as fine a portrayal of the role imaginable.  You can chart his portrayal through the three scenes with Elisabeth – the first puppy-ishly enthusiastic with real love that is dashed, the second where he is almost unhinged (he despairing entrance was just right) and the last one where, you feel, he achieves some stability.  Elsewhere he is ardent, alert and always aware of what is going on and his emotions.  And he sings it marvellously.  There were hundreds of phrases that I treasured because they felt so right.  His first aria was sung reflectively, introspectively that it felt sacreligious to applaud afterwards.  In his duet with Elisabeth, he sang the latter part with a wonderfully controlled pianissmo, emphasising the introspection and I was moved as I never have before by this scene – I don’t think I’ve such outstanding soft singing ever.  The man is a genius.  It’s great that he’s got more work planned with the House, but can he come and live here, please?

He was the peak of a hugely accomplished cast.  This is the third time round for Ferruccio Furlanetto and, I suppose, one day it might be interesting to hear another Philip – it’s jsut that, off hand, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather hear.  He’s able to produce an outstanding range of colours in the voice – lightening it for the more introspective, sympathetic parts, but darkening and managing a terrifying intensity for the anger and power.  He understands the role and the words, he listens to the other characters and presents all the complexities of the character.  He charts effortlessly the movement of the debates between himself and, first, Posa, next the Inquisitor.  There’s something shy about him = a difference between the man as King and the human being that he conveys perfectly.  Of the many treasurable moments, I’ll remember the start of the quartet in Act IV as Elisabeth collapses and he holds her up and he conveyed the sorrow and regret for what had happened.  He is a great singer.  I’m looking forward to his Fiesco – any chance of hearing him in other roles here?

He was matched in his scene by Eric Halfvarson’s marvellously powerful Grand Inquisitor – not someone you’d want to meet in a darkened cloister.  Familiar, but very, very welcome.

The rest were largely new.  Mariusz Kwiecien was Posa – a handsome, intelligent, assertive figure.  I wondered if he was in the best vocal health in the early part.  He sounded just a bit anonymous and he doesn’t convey the sheer intelligence and passion that Simon Keenlyside brought to the role.  By the fourth act, however, he was in outstanding form and gave a moving, gripping and really beautiful performance of his aria and death – which seemed the tragedy that it is.

I was less taken by Beatrice Uria-Monzon as Eboli.  She’s a tall, striking figure with a nice, slightly edgy mezzo.  I found her rather a cold, calculating figure, slightly anonymous.  I missed the range of dynamic and imagination that Sonia Ganassi brought to the role when this production was new – particularly in O don fatale.  She was a perfectly decent Eboli but not outstanding.  I wondered if she’d be more comfortable in the French version or whether I might no rather hear her as Charlotte or Dido.

So what of Miss Haroutounian?  I’m always cautious about unknown replacements saving the show – they have nothing to lose, the audience is willing them to be the next star and it’s all a slightly artificial experience.  You can’t necessarily predict a great future. However, simply on this performance, I thought that she is a much more than promising singer and was fully up to singing with colleagues at this level.  Her voice is warm, reminding me of Caballé, and her personality matches it.  She was taking care of the words, reacting and engaging with her colleagues – all the duets with Carlos came over really well and she caught the dignity of the woman as well.  She did both arias well but not outstandingly.  For me, the big test for an Elisabeth is how she manages the final Act aria.  It comes late in the show when the audience is tiring and it’s a very subtle, unshowy piece which is not easy to bring off.  Of the dozen Elisabeths that I’ve heard only Freni and Mattila have convinced me.  Haroutounian didn’t join their number but I felt that she would one day.  I also missed the arching phrasing that others have brought but this is to cavil at a performance that was at a very high level indeed.  I hope that she’ll be back.

Pappano was in the pit and secured the usual excellent playing from the orchestra and singing from the chorus.  As ever, what I admired most was the way he works with the singers and makes it possible for them to give of their best.

The Hytner production is now rehearsed by Paul Higgins.  I felt that it had lost some of the precision that it had had in its earlier performances and that it looked more operatic, the gestures slightly hammier, than before.  I was conscious of how difficult the second scene of Act III is to stage and felt that there were passages where there was just not enough going on and you were waiting for the next piece of action.  There were odd moments when I longed for a less traditional view. For most of it, however, I was gripped by the outstanding acting and singing of the cast and, really, I’m just being picky here.

This was a performance at the highest level and I had a sense of an audience gripped and engaging with one of the greatest and most interesting operas in the repertory.  There was, rightly, little applause during the opera.  At the end, far fewer people were rushing for the exits than usual: we stayed to applaud, forgetting my last train rule.