Archive | August, 2013

Elegant Pasquale rounds off Glyndebourne 2013

25 Aug

I think Don Pasquale is probably the summit of pre-Falstaff Italian comic opera (excluding, of course, those by Mozart).  I love Rossini’s comedies and, of course, Elisir and Fille du Régiment, but with its small cast, brilliantly concise libretto and an unerring mixture of brilliance, cynicism and sentiment.  Donizetti distills all the tradition into as perfect a light comedy as you could want.  Musically, it may not have an aria as winning a Una furtiva lagrima but the characterisaton of the different characters is outstanding, the finale to Act II is a complete joy and has anyone written a more brilliant chorus than the servants’ chorus in Act III?

It seems to be quite a difficult piece to do well.  I didn’t much enjoy Jonathan Miller’s Royal Opera House production, with characters dwarfed by a huge dolls’ house of a set.   The last ENO/Opera North version was just horrible – a case of someone trying too hard to put the opera across in a large house.  It’s actually a piece that needs a small, intimate house, where the singers can simply play the show – one of the best I ever saw was a touring production the WNO did in the 1990s (Rebecca Evans as Norina) where an alert, well-rehearsed cast got on with the show with the minimum of gimmicks and the maximum of intelligence.

I saw Mariame Clément’s production when it was toured in 2011.  She moved the setting back a hundred years to the world of Laclos and Marivaux – a world of cynicism and artificiality which, on the whole, works pretty well.  A revolve enables different locations and the costumes, largely black and white, turn brilliant as Norina starts to have fun.  She has revised it slightly since then.  When it was new, Malatesta and Norina went off with each other at the end – her Norina stays with Ernesto, I think rightly.  There are some doubts: the chorus is an elegant 18th Century audience who comment rather than take part – it works, but does the revolve throughout the servants’ chorus distract from the sheer brilliance of that music: it’s difficult to concentrate fully on them if other things are happening on stage.  The sets were built for the tour and they look a bit cheap and small-scale for the main house, but rather that than the sort of sets that are really the star of the show.

Overall, however, the performance I saw on 24th August (the last of the run) was hugely enjoyable.  The house is the right size for the piece, the direction concentrates on acting and characterisation.  The characters know what they are doing, move elegantly and communicate with each other and us. I hope that Clément can return.

The leading roles have been recast and, overall, this was a very nice cast indeed.  Alessandro Corbelli is already one of the great Pasquales and it is wonderful to see someone get the role so effortlessly right.  He creates a pompous, fussy character but the joy is in watching his superbly mobile face.  He listens and registers every emotion and thought – you can see Pasquale thinking – and he does this without exaggeration, with undertstatement and perfect timing.  His voice may not be the largest or most grateful of instruments, but his enunciation is outstanding and he sings with complete understanding of the style.  He gave a hugely enjoyable masterclass on how to play the role.

Daniele di Niese, predictably, was a lovely Norina.  I thought her first aria a bit tentative, but she warmed up and had a marvellous time as the disguised Sophronia.  She is a star and is simply one of the most watchable sopranos I know.  The scenes between her and Pasquale were a complete delight.

Nikolay Borchev was Malatesta – his baritone sounds good in this music and he sang with elegance and acted alertly, not stealing the show from the others, but acting as a strong foil.  He’ll be welcome back.

Alek Shrader was ill so we had Alessandro Scotto di Luzio as Ernesto.  As ever at Glyndebourne, he was well rehearsed and showed no signs of any uncertainty in his acting.  Vocally, he has a nice, sappy tenor that suits this music well.  He was tested beyond his limits, however, during the high lying parts of the role – the end of the Act II aria simply didn’t have the confidence that it needed.  He sang the words well and interacted well with the other characters.

The chorus were excellent and the LPO seemed to appreciate Enrique Mazzola’s conducting hugely.  I enjoyed it as well – zippy, at one with the direction and with just the right sentimental elegance that this piece requires.

And elegance is the word that really sums up this evening.  I’ve been to funnier Pasquales and some with showier singing but few which got closer to what this opera is about.  We left with a smile.

It’s been a pretty good season.

Britten and Britten Variations at Glyndebourne

18 Aug

One of the nice innovations at Glyndebourne in recent years has been the free performances in the Jerwood Studio before a small number of the performances towards the end of the season.  It’s an opportunity for experimentation and for some chorus members to get some additional experience. The Yellow Sofa was first done here and proved a fine opportunity for a promising young composer to try his hand at opera.

This year, their Composer in Residence, Luke Styles had an opportunity with Wakening Shadow.  I saw the last performance on 17th August.  Styles has taken three of Britten’s Canticles, orchestrated them and added three of his own settings and an opening to, apparently, explore the relationship between man and divinity.  It lasts about 70 minutes.

The good things about the performance were the committed performances by the cast (particularly outstanding performance from Owen Willetts as the counter-tenor roles in the Canticles, Rupert Charlesworth in the Saint Narcissus canticle and Stuart Jackson in Abraham and Isaac, Vladimir Jurowski’s splendid conducting and, I felt Styles’s confidence with the orchestra.  The sound world that he created for the instrumentalists was fascinating and, particularly in the Britten settings, provided a really strong background for the words.  I enjoyed listening to it.

The less good things were the overall concept itself, which struck me as messy and difficult to follow, Daisy Evans’s frankly desperate attempts to make it interesting and, ultimately,  Styles’s setting of words.  By putting his own settings of Shelley, Brodsky and Byron alongside Britten’s, he was setting himself a very high bar indeed.  Whenever Britten’s settings started, you felt a sense of relief at being able to make out the words and, more importantly, the sentences and the meaning.  I wasn’t convinced this was a coherent or dramatic work.

Still, it wasn’t a wasted afternoon.  It’s good to have the opportunity to hear Styles’s music and I heard enough to feel that I wanted to hear more.  It will be good to hear WIlletts, Jackson and Charlesworth again, too.

The main reason for the visit, though, was to see the revival of Billy Budd. The reviews have been outstanding and it’s an opera i love.  When I saw it in 2010, I wasn’t completely convinced by Michael Grandage’s production, finding it a bit remote and without the insights that, say, Vick, Albery and Alden have found in this opera and I thought Jacques Imbraillo’s Budd a bit anonymous.  But the prospect of Andrew Davis conducting and Mark Padmore as Vere was enticing.

I spent the first three quarters of this performance admiring the evening but without being involved.  Grandage’s production is clear and honest.  It tells the story cleanly but without a single interesting or memorable image.  Characters act and react to each other well.  I suspect that this is a production which works better from the stalls where you are closer and can watch the acting (Grandage’s main successes recently have been at the Donmar Warehouse, where every blink counts).  The set, specifically a ship is claustrophobic (of course it’s meant to be) and heavy, which works for telling the story but doesn’t provide some of the lightness and spaciousness that, in fact, the opera needs if the metaphysical element is to come across.  Twice a ceiling comes down which effectively cuts off those of us in the upper regions of the theatre.

Davis’s conducting struck me as strong, clear but without making you aware, as Mark Elder did when this was new, of the remarkable tinta of the opera, the specific dark colouring.  The singers were excellent and there was nothing to dislike.  Padmore was a fine, clear Vere, Imbraillo seemed much more assured than last time, but still a bit anonymous; Brindley Sherratt was a well-sung, reptilian, sinister Claggart.

Then, after Claggart died, the whole piece started to become gripping and enthralling.  The trial scene became a centre piece as everyone new what the outcome would be and knew that it was wrong.  You understood the dilemma and agonised over it.  Then came Billy in the Darbies and I don’t think I have ever heard it more beautifully sung.  Imbraillo caught anger and about it that I’d not heard before, but also a stillness.  I don’t think I’ve heard it sung more softly.  The scene with Jeremy White’s marvellous Dansker was heart-breaking and one of Grandage’s finest images is the picture of Dansker, the Novice’s Friend and the two other pressed men, holding the rope that hangs Billy.  The rebellion seemed to me to be the most threatening and likely to succeed that I’ve seen.  At that point, the audience was gripped and it was left to Mark Padmore to wrap it up wonderfully.  This is the magic that at good Budd should weave.

Padmore didn’t disappoint.  He sounds entirely right for the role and has exactly the right intellectual, other-worldly worried mien for the man – he is easily the finest Vere since Philip Langridge and I don’t think I can imagine a better.  Sherratt’s Claggart managed to combine the violence and sheer creepiness that it is in the man.  There were super performances from Peter Gijsbertsen as the Novice, Duncan Rock as his friend and the remainder of the officers.  The chorus was outstanding.

I had thought until the interval that Andrew Davis’s conducting was, as you would expect from him – fine, idiomatic and hugely reliable.  In the second Act, it was substantially more than that.  It’s a long time since I’ve heard the battle scene have the level of impact that it provided here.  He ratched up the tension as the Act went on and, at the end, there was a silence as the audience absorbed what it had seen and heard.  He’s a great conductor and, after his return for Rusalka in 2011, it would be nice to see him back again soon.

So it was a good day at Glyndebourne – but go for the more expensive seats.

Well-matched Figaro

3 Aug

Glyndebourne seems to have had some trouble selling this revival of Michael Grandage’s aimiable production of Le nozze di Figaro.  Maybe 17 performances is a couple too many and perhaps a cast that would be pretty much entirely unknown to most of the likely audience put people off.  In fact this, the last of the run on 2nd August, was a hugely enjoyable performance by the sort of cast that made you feel that you would probably hear quite a bit more of all of them.

So, Joshua Hopkins as the Count has rather a lovely, firm baritone that sounds just right for the Count (and Giovanni, Papageno, Guglielmo and Onegin) that you very much hope that he’ll be back soon.  He’s a nice actor and plays the arrogant stupidity of the man really well.  He’s matched by Amanda Majeski’s Countess – a gorgeous, creamy voice, absolutely right for the role, who sang one of the most gorgeous Dove sonos that I’ve heard in a long time.  She creates a lively, witty Countess but conveys also the depth of her disgust at her husband at the end of Act III.  Again, she would be welcome back at any time.

Adam Plachetka is well-know in Vienna and makes a very personable Figaro.  In keeping with the production, it’s a quiet, relatively thoughtful Figaro but also a patently decent man, if not as quick on the uptake as his beloved.  His darker baritone contrasted nicely with Hopkins.  Laura Tatalescu was an alert, witty Susanna who was obviously upset by the Countess’s forgiveness of her husband.  The only slight disappointment was a rather choppy Deh vieni.

What was important was that the voices sounded good together and that they interacted intelligently – the emotions were true and logical.

Lydia Teuscher, last year’s Susanna, sang Cherubino.  From where I was sitting, I wasn’t convinced of her boyishness but was completely won over by her singing.  Voi che sapete was sung with such beauty and depth of real feeling that it felt wrong to applaud it – I don’t think I’ve heard a better sung version of the aria since Teresa Berganza and I don’t think even Berganza got that level of sheer feeling out of it.

Anne Mason was a lovely, motherly Marcellina, Luciano di Pasquale a very funny Bartolo and Timothy Robinson even more sleazy as Basilio than his predecessor.  Alasdair Elliott was a really good Curzio and had opportunities to make the part into a real, rather toady-ish little man.

Jérémie Rhorer conducted.  He looks about fifteen, but conducted a lively, alert and brisk reading.  The LPO were on good form and this was one of those evening where pit and singers were part of a single whole.

Ian Rutherford was in charge of Grandage’s productions (one of the best jokes of which is to have a water feature in the last act which nobody falls into).  Details had changed to suit individual singers, mostly for the better.  Christopher Oram’s sets form a handsome, believable backdrop and, on the whole, Glyndebourne has the sort of production that is just right for a young cast to play around in.  It should stand the test of at least another couple of revivals and I hope it comes back.

The audience had a lovely time.  However, the timing of the surtitles needs watching.  Too often the audience was laughing at them rather than at what the singers were singing – to drown the opening of the Act III sextet as a result of that, strikes me as pretty much unforgivable.  But that’s really the only thing wrong with this very happy, satisfying revival.  As ever, I found myself smiling from the Susanna’s entrance from the closet, pretty much to the end and that’s as good a test of a good Figaro as I know.