Archive | October, 2013

Lucretia returns to Glyndebourne

26 Oct

I’m never quite sure what to make of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, which I saw at the Glyndebourne tour on 25th October.  I still have very vivid memories of performances at ENO in 1987 (Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Kathryn Harries and Jean Rigby) which left me emotionally shattered – so good that I went twice.  And nothing else has quite lived up to them.  Those were performances where the intensity and certainty of the acting and singing overcame the huge difficulties of the libretto and that rather strange ending.

At this performance, I found myself admiring and enjoying the music and the way in which the opera is paced, interested in the ideas but also quite detatched from it.  I was aware of the weaknesses of the libretto.  It isn’t so much in the structure of the opera, which is taut and works well, or the deliberately artificial ritualistic quality as its sheer wordiness and incomprehensibility.  There are the sheer sillinesses of “The oatmeal slippers of sleep/creep through the city” while there are others where the syntax is so contorted that you cannot follow what it says.  Surtitles do not help – and, in fact, make it worse because you are so busy trying to work out what the lines mean that you lose the sense of the whole.  Then there is that strange epilogue, not unlike that in Billy Budd which tries to link what goes on with a specifically Christian message.  I find it difficult to see the connection and that there’s an offensiveness about a religiosity which seeks to excuse or gloss over what has gone on or, in some way, make it more bearable.

Against this, there are some wonderful things in the piece.  I find the Male and Female chorus fascinating creations as they watch and comment on the action.  I love the music and the way in which Britten manages the tension of the army camp, the peace of Lucretia’s household, the violence of Tarquin’s journey and the calm, desperation of the tragedy.  There is a dignity and integrity about the piece which overcomes the libretto, even though that libretto means that it unlikely that it will ever be among Britten’s most popular works.

Glyndebourne gave the first performance of the opera and it makes sense for them do it again in this centenary year.  It’s probably the last of his operas that Glyndebourne will do unless the Jerwoods one day do one or other of the Parable Operas.  I can’t imagine them getting round to Gloriana or Paul Bunyan.   This was one of their typically intelligent, probing productions that approached the opera afresh and, even if Fiona Shaw’s production didn’t quite match Graham Vick’s at ENO, it made a probing, disturbing evening.

Fiona Shaw sets it in 1946 with two archeologists unearthing Roman remains and discovering the story of Lucretia.  She charts a complex relationship between them – the male chorus at times identifying with Tarquinius – even to the extent of them having sex after the rape.  I found this entirely convincing and fascinating.  She also creates a world outside – soldiers, whores and a child for Lucretia.  None of these were essential and, perhaps, they robbed some of the concentratoin on the main characters, but it was undoubtedly part of a clear vision of the piece.  What I missed was the sheer concentration and clarity of vision that Grahm Vick found.  She’s a really good opera director.

There were some marvellous performances too.  Allan Clayton, in particular, was a splendid Male Chorus – clear diction, beautifully sung and catching the ambiguity of his emotions – excited and repelled by Tarquinius.  Kate Valentine was almost his equal as the female chorus – only the occasional touch of weakness – and, again, very much took Lucretia’s part, asking what the story was doing to her husband.

Claudia Huckle displayed a lovely contralto as Lucretia and was really touching in her acting.  What I missed was the slight astringency that Janet Baker or Jean Rigby brought to this.  Duncan Rock was a virile, well-sung Tarquinius, Oliver Dunn a clear, disgruntled Junius and David Soar a dignified Collatinus.  Catherine Wyn-Rogers gave a star turn as Bianca – unassuming but singing her part with quiet dignity and grace that was very moving.  Ellie Laugharne was a neat Bianca.

Nicholas Collon conducted with great assurance and the orchestra played outstandingly, I thought.

It’s not a perfect opera, but this production struck me as asking the right questions, exploring the right areas and making an audience think about what they were seeing.  I don’t think you can ask more.  I hope it has time to grow before its next outing.


Vapid Vespers

21 Oct

I’d be the first to accept that Les Vêpres Siciliennes isn’t Verdi’s greatest or most convincing opera.  But I’ve had a fondness for it since the 1984 ENO production and listen quite often to the Muti recording (in Italian, I know, but with on form Studer, Merritt, Zancanaro and Furlanetto, should I complain?).  What I find most interesting about it is the division of loyalties of a son discovering who his father is and feeling required to abandon his friends who are about to assassinate an unpleasant tyrant.  Throw in Verdi’s interest in liberty and politics, a feisty mourning heroine and an implacable leader and there is interesting operatic potential there.

We don’t get to see it enough, and so I was happy that the ROH were finally going to get round to it.  I wobbled slightly when I saw the cast, none of whom would feature in my first few attempts at an ideal cast (even in today’s straitened times for Verdi voices).  I wobbled even more when I read the advance publicity about Stefan Herheim’s production – set in a world of ballet and the Paris Opera.  Nevertheless, I booked for the second performance on 21st October and was greatly buoyed by the generally very positive reviews.

Originally Marina Poplavskaya was announced for Hélène.  Then she fell ill and it was announced that Lianna Haroutounian would sing the first three performances.  I’d enjoyed her as Elisabeth, so fine.  When we get there we find that Haroutounian, in her turn, had fallen ill and that Poplavskaya had made a speedy recovery and was ready to go on.  Kasper Holten said that this was the first time he’d had to make an announcement that the cast was as advertised and thanked Poplavskaya for saving the show.  Does that suggest that, if she hadn’t, the evening would have been cancelled?  I do wish she hadn’t felt ready.  I would then have got my money back and avoided the sitting through the first two and a quarter hours of a desperately disappointing evening.

Where to begin?  You will either like the Herheim production or you won’t.  It’s set in an opera house with a ballet troupe in Paris at the time of the premiere.  During the overture there’s a mime of the story so far which seems to involve the rape of the ballerinas by the vicious French soldiers and aristocrats, one of whom is Montfort.  As the opera starts, it looks as though the Sicilians are the chorus of the opera house with the French troops as the audience.  Lord knows who Hélène, Henri and Procida are in all this.  Herheim says that he listens to the music.  So he obviously thinks that the flute accompaniment to Procida’s entrance aria is like Mendelsohn or Adam’s delicate ballet music and so we have the ballerinas doing their routine to it.  There are some points when he obviously thinks that Verdi’s music is a bit clichéd, so the ballerinas do clichéd moves to make the point.  In Montfort’s Act III aria we see the three ballerinas in the overture who had played Henri’s mother dance round him, with the child in varying stages of development.  In my book, this is called hammering it home.

I could go on.  Herheim seems only perfunctorily interested in direction of characters.  At times, he resorted simply having people sing out directly to the audience.  If you think that Vêpres is an old-fashioned, silly warhorse which needs sending up and lots of movement, you’ll love it.  My problem was (a) I don’t think it necessarily is and that there are things about liberty and relationships that you can bring out and (b) he made it look like a cheap, tawdry, silly evening.  For the record, I didn’t object to the excision of the ballet music. Herheim is obviously the latest European hot property but, having read the critic’s reaction, I couldn’t help thinking of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

So to the cast who went through their routines manfully.  Poplavskaya did not sound fully recovered to me and I hope that illness was the reason for her squally, ill-pitched singing and often ugly noises.  Bryan Hymel had a decent enough stab at Henri’s music but I didn’t feel he had either the confidence or the style for it vocally.  The director and designer clearly intended him to be a weak, unconvincing cipher – or gave him no help to be anything else.

I’m a big admirer of Erwin Schrott but I like a blacker voice for Procida.  I admired his singing, which is accomplished, but I didn’t have much of a clue about what he was doing.  For someone who is one of the most striking and charismatic of modern singers, he seemed pretty subdued.

I admired Michael Volle as Montfort most of all.  Here was a very committed, intelligent performance, whose singing of his Act III aria gave much pleasure and he actually seemed to know what he was doing.

None of the smaller roles made much impression and the chorus was in very poor form.  They sang in pretty much unintelligible French and made that sort of woolly noise that you get when they’re not together and aren’t that sure of themselves.  I’ve don’t think I’ve heard this chorus so disappointing in years.

Antonio Pappano conducted.  I’ve mixed feelings generally about his Verdi (see his last Boccanegra).  It’s also possible that I was so busy watching and hating the production that I didn’t give his conducting much attention.  What I was aware of, however, was how slow and disjointed it felt, how woolly the ensemble was and of occasional and uncharacteristic orchestral fluffs.  This did not feel like a confident performance.

At the end of Act III, there is one of those wonderful Verdi, stand and sing finales – a glorious melody that should carry you away.  I well remember it from the ENO performances where Mark Elder achieved absolutely precise choral singing and a fantastic subito piano – you can hear it also on Kleiber’s 1950 Callas recording.  This performance stayed earthbound and I couldn’t help reflecting on how lucky we were at ENO where a cast of the young Plowright, Kenneth Collins, Neil Howlett and Richard van Allan and Elder’s visceral conducting made you feel that this was an opera worth hearing and engaging with.

So, with this half-baked (or over-cooked?) production, frankly indifferent singing and an off-form Pappano and chorus, there really seemed no reason to stay after Act III.  If it all got better, I apologise.

Taking a child to Hansel and Gretel

20 Oct

I saw my first proper opera when I was eight (Barber of Seville, since you ask) and was hooked.  I’m a great believer in giving young children the opportunity to see opera – at that age, they’re not cynical and they find it easier to accept people singing rather than speaking and it’s all new and interesting.  Of course, it depends on the opera.  I’m not suggesting that you take them to Parsifal or Pelleas.

Glyndebourne obviously wasn’t selling its tour as well as usual this year and I was offered two seats for the price of one if I brought someone who had never been to Glyndebourne before and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.  I have a nine year old niece whose mother does not like opera: let’s see if I can subvert that.  Rape of Lucretia obviously wasn’t suitable (I’m going on Friday) and Elisir might charm her or might bore her rigid.  I’m not great on Hansel and Gretel – a bit too Wagnerian, perhaps for a child (see my previous blog) – but the Pelly production is nice and it’s the sort of thing that might appeal.  I’ve taken her to plays and ballet before, successfully.  So I took the plunge and went to the child-friendly Sunday matinee on 20th October.

The weather wasn’t great and, perhaps, nine year olds probably aren’t that impressed by gardens and lakes, but she seemed to like the setting.  Tea in the Mildmay went down pretty well and so to the opera.  As I was watching, i tried to see it through the eyes of a child who had never been to an opera and didn’t know the music.

It’s difficult.  The overture is quite long, but it’s early enough on for you not to get bored – and watching a conductor is fun (we had a good view).  The opening scene with its cardboard box house isn’t too difficult – you may not understand the words but there’s plenty of movement and the action is pretty self-explanatory.  There’s then a knock-out animation for the Witch’s Ride, which cannot fail.  I thought the second act, again, was quite self-explanatory and the fear and terror came across pretty well.  The people in white eating hamburgers might have been confusing and,perhaps, by the end of Act II, the beautiful music may be wearing a bit thin.  On the other hand, the singers conveyed the terrors of that act really well.  The third act with its wonderful sweet shop of a witch’s house looks good, but I actually became aware of how long it is and I could understand why she might flag a bit.  Possibly the witch, with knives as well as junk food, might be a bit too frightening.  She also ought to have gone to the toilet in the interval, which probably made the last ten minutes a bit uncomfortable.  The surtitles were in rhyme, which really didn’t help comprehension.

Overall, however, she sat there still, watching earnestly and seemed to like it.  I asked if she’d like to go to another and she said she would.  She was impressed by the size of the voices, by the orchestra and conductor.  She assured me that she hadn’t been frightened.  I don’t think she was bowled over by the music.  She wasn’t worried by it being in German and said that the surtitles were fine.  She’s not a demonstrative girl but I think and hope she liked it.

What about me?  I like the Pelly production very much indeed – it’s assured and fun to watch and the effects are great.  The direction of singers is excellent.  It looks good and I rather hope that this isn’t its final outing here.  The Hansel and Gretel were excellent. Victoria Yarovaya has a gorgeous mezzo voice, looks convincingly boyish as Hansel and sang hugely impressively – I’d like to hear her again.  As Gretel, Andriana Chuchman struck me as having one of the purest, most beautiful sopranos I’d heard in a long time.  I’d love to hear her in Mozart (Zerlina, Servillia, Susannna) or Handel.  She acted a lovely hoydenish Gretel and I really enjoyed her singing. Anne Mason and Stephen Gadd were oustanding as the parents and Colin Judson had fun as the witch,  Angharad Morgan had fun as the Dew Fairy.  This was a really good cast.

I was a bit less taken with the conducting of Ilyich Rivas.  It felt very slow and I wanted more bounce to the dances – the fact that I was aware that Act III was a bit long suggested that he hadn’t quite got the pacing right.  On the other hand, he got some lovely playing from the orchestra; you heard the different textures and the counterpoints.  Even if Emma wasn’t irritated by the rhyming surtitles, I was.  Glyndebourne tried the same trick in Onegin and it really doesn’t help comprehension and feels tricksy.

So it was nice afternoon and, even if Emma doesn’t become an opera nut like her uncle, I hope she’ll have happy memories of it.


Happy feline discovery

17 Oct

The joy of the Meet the Young Artists Week at the Royal Opera House is that they do short operas that are rarely seen and which, for lots of reasons, you won’t see in a traditional opera house.  This year, they surpassed themselves with both an opera and a composer that I’d not heard of before – El gato con botas by Xavier Montsalvatge.  I saw the performance on 16th October – I think it was the UK premiere.

Grove describes El gato con botas as a Magic Opera.  It struck me more as a Children’s opera – it’s based on Perrault’s Puss in Boots and there’s an endearing charm about it.  There are very few decent operas for children – the Little Sweep has, I suspect, dated, Hansel and Gretel always strikes me as a bit heavy.  There’s Jonathan Dove’s wonderful Pinocchio  and Amahl and the Night Visitors but few others.  I thought this added to the group.

I bet you haven’t heard of Montsalvatge either.  He was born in 1912, died in 2002 and, according to the programme spent most of his career in Barcelona.  He’s not in Viking and the Grove and Wikipedia entries don’t give you much of a flavour of his work.  I have an impression that he’s more of a critic than a composer.  El gato con botas was first performed in Barcelona in 1948.  The version we saw was of the 1996 Chamber version by Albert Guinovart.

It’s a sweet little piece, moving quickly and, at 50 minutes, never outstaying its welcome.  The music is engaging and professional, without being particularly challenging.  You can feel the influence of film music (in a good way) and there’s lots of nice, quirky orchestral writing. The vocal lines sound grateful – there aren’t any great tunes or glorious numbers – but you listen to it with pleasure.  It sounds as though the word setting is clear – you’re meant to hear the words.  There is a nice quartet at the end and a sense of here is a composer who is at ease with the form.  I’d like to hear some more of his music if only to see whether there’s more to him than a proficient, intelligent composer.

It was done very nicely.  Pedro Ribeiro’s production had nice designs by SImon Bejer and used some Portuguese puppeteers to provide the animals – the cat, the rabbits he catches and the animals that the Ogre, Fafner-like, changes into.  It was witty, didn’t flag and made for a really enjoyable half-evening.

It’s not really the sort of opera where there are opportunities for stars, but I was hugely impressed by Jihoon Kim’s splendidly black Ogre (a Fafner, here, I think).  Rachel Kelly was a very nice, clear cat, Luis Gomes displayed a rather nice tenor as the Miller (he’d be a good Nemorino) and Anna Hovhannisyan as the Princess and Michel de Souza as the King were both very good.

Paul Wingfield conducted with huge zest and enthusiasm and the Southbank Sinfonia played very capably.  It made for an excellent performance where no allowances were needed.

As an opener, we had Dusica Bijelic singing Berio’s Folk Songs.  They’re hugely enjoyable pieces and Ms Bijelic sang with gusto and enjoyment.  She doesn’t have the sort of ease that, I suspect, more experienced singers would bring to this and I felt that she was more comfortable in some languages than others – but it was a nice performance, enjoyed by the audience, and nicely conducted by Michele Gamba.

All praise to the ROH for putting on this evening.  What would be really lovely would be if the Glyndebourne Tour or Opera North could take up El gato con botas, translate it into English and do some matinee or early evening performances aimed at children.  It would be a great way of getting them introduced to the form.

Freudian Fledermaus

15 Oct

For all its supposed popularity, Die Fledermaus seems to have been a bit out of fashion here recently.  The last ENO production was in 1993 and the last major revival was at Glyndebourne, in 2006.  In the 60s, 70s and early 80s everybody seemed to do it as a popular piece of frothy operetta.  Managements seem less comfortable with it now – or is it just too expensive?  Either way, I was glad that ENO were getting round to it again and I saw the performance of their latest production, by Christopher Alden, on 9th October.

My partner loathes Fledermaus, finding it smug.  I think that, like many operettas, it poses difficulties for us.  There’s a generation that thinks of it as nice piece of froth, dressed up in lovely Strauss waltzes, at which you can leave your brains in the cloakroom  and wallow.  The music itself connives at that but nobody seems to dare to do it like that in the UK.  Pehaps they shouldn’t.  Although the plot is a fairly simple one of sexual infidelity dressed up as an elaborate joke, there’s a pretty strong element of social satire.  It would be enormously easy to update to the present day and could make us question a society of conspicuous consumption on champagne and ambivalent attitudes to monogamy.

Alden doesn’t quite do that.  He takes an approach which recognises its 19th century provenance, moving to the hedonism of the 1920s interrupted by the repression of the 1930s.  Falke is a Freudian psycho-analyst, Orflofsky one of his deeply troubled patients, Frank a cross-dressing homosexual who caresses the naked Alfred in Rosalinde’s bed. Frosch is a nazi thug who interrupts the party with shots and shouts of “rausch, rausch” and beats up Frank.  There’s also a sense that the whole thing is a dream – party guests appear to have jumped out of bed and Falke sends Rosalinde to sleep and wakes her up at crucial moments  As a picture of the contradictions and history of Vienna, it’s fascinating.

As ever with this Alden, it can feel fragmentary, the ideas almost random, but I found that they interested me and made me think about the piece and that it refreshingly avoided all the usual clichés of this operetta.

So this made for a really interesting visual experience.  However, I felt that the casting didn’t quite work and made the evening feel rather low key.  It’s good to have a tenor Eisenstein, but Tom Randle didn’t seem to me to be entirely comfortable in the part – the voice sounded a bit ragged and I didn’t feel that he projected it that well.  Julia Sporsén seemed to me to have similar problems as Rosalinda – she sang it nicely (a good Csardas) but perhaps spending most of the time on the bed isn’t the easiest basis to establish a character.

The minor characters made more of an impression.  I enjoyed Rhian Lois’s cheeky, Welsh Adele, Jennifer Holloway’s manic depressive Orlofsky and Edgaras Montvidas’s lascivious Alfred.  Richard Burkhardt was a good Falke but would probably have benefitted from a smaller theatre (as, frankly, would almost everyone).  Andrew Shore was, obviously, excellent as Frank but this production didn’t give much opportunity for him to take the limelight as Franks often can.

Eun Sun Kim conducted.  It struck me as a very competent performance but not one that grabbed me particularly or made me feel that she particularly stamped her personality on the music.  It’s not idiomatic in the way that Kleiber or Jurowski have been.

So not a perfect performance, but one which made me think and also reminded me of the glories of the music.