Archive | July, 2013

Glyndebourne tries Rameau

20 Jul

A few years ago, I seem to recall Sir George Christie saying that they didn’t do Rameau at Glyndebourne – it was a Handel house.  I had quite a lot of sympathy, always having found Rameau difficult.  What was special about this production of Hippolyte et Aricie was that it very nearly succeeded in making Rameau interesting and almost made me wish that they’d do some more.

This is my sixth opera by Rameau.  I remember seeing one not so long ago and deciding that, really, I understood why there was a French revolution.  Let me expand.  You have a very formal setting usually with gods setting the scene which lends an artificiality to the piece.  Then there may be a really interesting scene between some characters.  Then it gets interrupted by a divertissement.  Then you go on to something else and, just as you’re getting interested in that, there’s another divertissement.  It’s as if the piece is designed for you not to get involved in the plot and to make you as remote as possible from the characters.  Compare that with Handel where, irrespective of the silliness of the plot, the characters interact and there’s a directness of communication with the audience which gets permanently interrupted by the archaic fashions of the French at the time.  I can admire a lot of the music, but I find his operas difficult to like, let alone love.

On this performance, Hippolyte et Aricie (which I saw on 19th July) is one of his best.  There are four really strong characters – Hippolytus, Aricie, Phaedre and Theseus and some very fine scenes indeed – I admired particularly the ones involving Phaedra, Theseus’s rage and sorrow and the love scene for Hippolytus and Aricie – all of which were great until most of them were interrupted by one of those divertissements.  There are some marvellous things in the music – especially where Rameau uses the orchestration to paint pictures of the natural disasters.  The word setting and declamation is marvellously done.  And yet I can’t help longing for some real vocal acrobatics and bravura.

I doubt that it could have been better performed from a musical point of view.  William Christie’s conducting was dramatic, at one with the direction and brought out the beauties of the score.  There wasn’t a weak link in the cast.  Ed Lyon proved himself to be a real star in this repertory with his clear, committed and beautifully sung Hippolytus, matched by Christine Karg’s clear, limpid, sympathetic Aricie.  Sarah Connolly sang with her usual commitment and magnificence as Phaedra and Stéphane Degout was a really wonderful Theseus – firm voiced and passionate, making him probably the most interesting character on the stage.  Among the smaller roles, I was hugely impressed by François Lis as the three main gods – Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune.  He has a fabulous bass and managed his roles very expressively indeed.  I wanted to hear him in much more.  Musically, this was as good as it gets.

Jonathan Kent was in his best Fairy Queen-mode in directing this and, I think, was absolutely right in identifying that these operas need to have really bravura visual invention.  He identified Diana’s kingdom as being one of chilliness and frigidity and so we opened in a refrigerator – Cupid hatched out of an egg in there and there was delightful use of broccoli sticks, lemon slices and more to create a landscape.  Hades was set behind the fridge peopled by creatures you’d rather not know about.  The third act was set in a suburban house – Hippolytus with a typical teenager’s room and the scene between him and Phaedra and the subsequent discovery by Theseus was done absolutely naturally and intently.  Kent even used the divertissement to effect with Theseus and Phaedra not in the mood to watch the jolly sailors.  In Act IV, Phaedra came up from the pit after Hippolytus had been dragged down into the water and descended there again to confess to Theseus.  He got marvellously natural acting performances out of his singers, while enabling them to make the moments of high drama, really dramatic and interesting.  You believed in the love of Hippolyte and Aricie, while Miss Connolly and Mr Degout gave intense, full-blown, passionate performances that were fascinating to watch and convinced you of the drama of the piece.

Up until this point, I thought that Kent had marvellously managed the tightrope between wit and seriousness and created a convincing, invigorating, fascinating interpretation – the best since Mark Morris’s Platée.  I think there were two misjudgements in Act V.  First, he divided it into two scenes with a pause that you didn’t need after Theseus’s soliloquy.  And then, he decided that he didn’t like the pat ending, so set the last scene in a morgue where there was patently going to be very little physical love between Hippolytus and Aricie and the spectres of Theseus and Phaedra were going to be with them.  It lead to a very down-beat ending that was not, I think, what Rameau wanted and which, I felt, the piece could not sustain.  If this production comes back – and I hope it does – he ought to rethink this.

I don’t think Rameau will ever be a repertory composer in the way that Handel has become.  The form is too obscure, expensive and artificial, I think.  However, his operas could well be suited to festival productions of this sort, where a strong, thoughtful director and an outstanding musical director can make an interesting, enjoyable evening of the piece.  Very strongly recommended, especially for Rameau-sceptics.



La rondine flies at the ROH

19 Jul

La rondine is an oddity, not just for Puccini, but, generally, as an opera.  It has a very simple plot – a courtesan falls for an innocent young man and leaves him when she realises that their relationship can never lead to marriage.  Like one or two other Puccini operas (Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, Tosca) its early acts are set in a particular social milieu with plenty of minor characters who gradually thin out as the action concentrates on the major characters.  Like Bohème, there isn’t an obviously dislikeable character in it.  Unlike most of them, however, the tension arises entirely within Magda and what we have is a picture of her growing up emotionally – almost as a commentary on the discussion of the nature of love in the first act.  And it is this lack of tension between the characters that makes it most odd.  The first two acts are a succession of charming, elegant vignettes and set pieces, with the developing love between Magda and Ruggero beautifully depicted.  And then their relationship suddenly goes wrong and you just aren’t prepared for it and, musically, you don’t get the inexorable move towards tragedy that you get in the other operas. 

With sympathetic performers, it can work but, of all Puccini operas, it is the one that needs the most work and which plays itself least.  And you can’t help feeling that other composers did this subject better – he’s often compared to Lehar, but the Lehar operettas most like rondine (Der Zarewitsch, Land of Smiles) were written in the following decade and, to be honest, are more successful pieces.

It’s an opera I can take or leave – a pleasant enough evening but my life wouldn’t be wrecked if I never saw it again – a once a decade piece unless a really gorgeous cast comes along.  My partner, however, has a really soft spot for the piece and, since the last time we saw it was in 2002, I had no good reason not to go again to the latest ROH revival.  I had quite a good time at the performance on 17th July.

We had a choice of Angela Gheorghiu or Ermonela Jaho and I chose Jaho.  I’ve seen Gheorghiu in the role twice before and very much admired Jaho in Suor Angelica.  She started off, I thought, rather tentatively – almost drowned by the orchestra in the conversational passages in Act I and the voice not completely secure when trying to sing pianissimo.  I wasn’t sure how comfortable she was as the rather arch society lady.  She seemed much more comfortable in the love scenes in the second act and, I thought, was very special indeed in the third.  She has a particular gift for expressing doubt and guilt in an otherwise sympathetic character and the grief that this causes.  She sang her music in Act III with just that quality and with great beauty and I very much admired her direct, honest portrayal.  I think it would have made an even stronger impression in a smaller house.

Her Ruggero was Atallo Ayan who again, seemed slightly uncomfortable at the start but who warmed up to give a very nicely, strongly sung, sympathetically acted portrayal.  I can imagine that he’d make a nice Rodolfo or Alfredo Germont.

Edgaras Montvidas made a charming, very elegant Prunier even if there were times that I wanted just a little more warmth to his voice.  He had a lovely Lisette in Sabina Puertolas very wittily acted and rather a nice soubrette-ish voice.  The two of them provided a warmth and counterpoint to the leading couple that was absolutely right.

Nobody else really matters in the opera and most of the ladies seem to be indistinguishable.  However, they were all very well played indeed and Pietro Spagnoli did what he could with Rambaldo. 

Marco Armilato conducted with enthusiasm and a real sense of style.  The beguiling melodies made their effect and the whole was perfectly paced.  At times, particularly in the first Act, I felt the orchestra was just a touch loud and was drowning the voices.  And perhaps this is one of the problems of doing the piece in this house.  It’s actually an intimate piece and all of the singers might have benefitted from a more intimate production and being closer to their audience.

I must have been in quite a mean mood when I booked because I went for cheap seats in the amphitheatre – perfectly adequate ones, but not quite my normal ones.  Occasionally, meanness pays off.  Everyone clearly went for the Gheorghiu performances and I had a nice email a couple of weeks ago offering me a free upgrade to the Orchestra Stalls.  There also seemed to be a number of cheap offers going the rounds as well.  The seats gave a splendid view of Ezio Frigiero’s massive but very beautiful and elegant sets and of Nicholas Joel’s very elegant, witty  production (rehearsed so that it looked as fresh as if it were new by Stephen Barlow).  It’s strong enough so that the piece just escapes being drowned by the set, with the important action taking place nicely downstage with lots of room beyond for the crowd to be doing their stuff.  If you’re going to do the piece at the ROH, it’s hard to imagine a more satisfactory way of performing it and I hope that they keep this production around for a bit longer.

I still don’t think it’s a great opera, but I enjoyed this a lot more than I had expected.

Russell Thomas triumphs in Boccanegra

4 Jul

For me, the most special thing about the very good, but oddly uninvolving performance of Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera House on 3rd July was the Gabriele Adorno of Russell Thomas.  For some reason, this man’s name has by-passed me, though he’s sung with the Welsh and at the Met. What I heard was one of the most promising Verdi tenors that I’ve heard in a long time.  His repertory appears to range from Mozart to John Adams, through Berlioz and Verdi.  In this role, his voice reminded me of Bergonzi – a plangent, slightly dry-ish tenor, but with the style and technique to make this rather difficult role sound grateful.  His phrasing in his big aria, his duets with Amelia and in the trio struck me as immaculate and hugely intelligent – no obvious gear changes and real control of dynamics and an understanding of the words.  He doesn’t strike me as the most of expressive actor in the world but, frankly, with singing like this I don’t care.  I want to hear him again as Carlos, Alvaro, Gustavus, Foresto and Stiffelio, perhaps also in Donizetti and as Cavaradossi.  This was one of the most assured and promising debuts here that I’ve seen since Jonas Kaufmann’s Don José in 2006.

This isn’t to say that the rest of the cast was bad but that it is very special to hear a Gabriele Adorno sung so outstandingly.  He had a very fine Amelia in Hibla Gerzmava.  I regret missing her Tatyana and Donna Anna here.  She struck me as having a really beautiful, creamy, grateful voice – obviously suited to Amelia.  Vocally, I couldn’t fault her and I hope she’ll be back.  She made a sympathetic figure but I have seen Amelias who have made more immediate impressions in, say, the recognition scene and if I sometimes wondered whether she really cared about what was going on onstage.

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco undoubtedly did care.  His Fiesco is familiar but still wonderfully sung and carrying a passion with it that, particularly in the last scene, I found really impressive and moving.  He sang with a raw understanding of the text and was unafraid to heighten the emotion and emote a bit. He’s a powerful presence and, like his Philip, I really can’t think of anyone else I’d rather hear in the role.

My principal reason for booking, however, (aside from the fact that I love the opera) was to hear Thomas Hampson as Boccanegra.  He’s a favourite singer of mine, but I can’t help wondering whether this is a role which really suits him.  He undoubtedly has the right sort of voice for the part.  He sings the words well, with a lieder singer’s attention to colour and dynamic and you feel that this has been a very carefully thought-through interpretation.  The problem for me, however, is that thought-through singing is exactly what you don’t want for this role.  There needs to be the sense of raw emotion, passion and daring that Furlanetto has.  You have to convey the passion and anger at the death of Maria, the heart-stopping joy that Domingobrought to the recognition scene or the authority you need for the Council scene.   I simply didn’t get that from Hampson’s, elegant, committed, intelligent but ultimately rather distant Boccanegra.  And on stage, I missed the impetuosity and power and anger of a man who has eloped with an aristocrat’s daughter, lost his own daughter, been snubbed by the aristocracy, has ruled by fear but who has an idealism as well.  Hampson’s persona of a slightly troubled, enlightenment figure missed this and so made the performance a rather distant experience.  Domingo may have been the wrong voice for the part, but he made me cry in the duet with Amelia and I found the reconciliation with Furlanetto hugely touching.  I lost that here.

I don’t think I could fault Antonio Pappano’s conducting (save, perhaps, for an almost military feel to the Figlia, qual nome part of the Boccanegra/Amelia duet).  He paced the score well, got lovely, detailed playing out of the orchestra and managing the climaxes marvellously.  What was missing was the sparks that ought to fly from the interactions between the characters.

Perhaps part of the problem lies in Elijah Moshinsky’s production, now in its seventh series of performances.  It looks handsome and the wide open spaces work well for the first scene of Act I and the Council Scene.  In the later Acts, where the action is much more intimate, I wanted the characters further forward, perhaps with less space.  I thought his direction of the characters also lacking – it wasn’t helpful to have Hampson with his back to us during Amelia’s narration  and I found her rather silly dance of joy later in that scene contrived and there’s surely more that you can do with the Council scene.  Characters rarely looked directly at each, rarely seemed to strike sparks.

This isn’t to say that this wasn’t a fine performance.  We were lucky to have singers of this calibre in a handsome, strong staging with excellent conducting and playing.  But, for me, this rickety, problematic but hugely rewarding opera needs to have a bit more than that.  It needs the spark and fire of a Domingo or Gobbi in the title role or the visual genius of David Alden in the old ENO production and we just missed those.  On the other hand, I’m more than grateful to have heard Russell Thomas and this was anything but a wasted evening on that account alone.