Archive | March, 2014

Die Frau mit dem Schatten

18 Mar

The performance of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera House on 17th March was among the most glorious musical events that I can recall.  It was one of those evening where, you felt, whatever was going on visually, nothing could go wrong aurally.

We had Semyon Bychkov, always good in Strauss, conducting an outstanding performance by the orchestra: the colours and textures of the piece came across with superb clarity, but he also manages climaxes that filled the theatre and almost persuaded you that this was one of the greatest operatic scores.  He accompanies the cast marvellously – I don’t think I’ve heard so many words in a Strauss opera before – the cast projected them thrillingly and he made sure you could hear them.  The piece flowed gloriously and you could not but admire the stamina and skill of the orchestra.  You felt a physical excitement at the grand moments – the end of the second act was shattering musically and the contemplative, reflective moments were incredibly beautiful.  It felt right and it sounded like great music throughout.

He had an outstanding cast.  Johan Botha has such a glorious heldentenor voice that you tend to ignore a figure that looks more like a banker – accentuated by the Victorian costume here.  He sang fearlessly, intensely and with huge strength. He made the fearsome demands sound beautifully.  Is there a finer heldentenor around today? He was matched by Emily Magee as the Empress – she matches intense power with a beautiful, ethereal quality for the more reflective passage.  Again, for sheer confidence and beauty, I’m not sure who I’d rather hear today.  Why do we hear so little of her in London?

Johan Reuter was Barak  It’s a gem of a role, but he managed his monologues in each act with a simplicity and nobility, together with glorious tone that was deeply moving.  He is a very special singer indeed.  As his wife, Elena Pankratova displayed a powerful voice, well up to the demands of the role – she was, I think, hampered more than most by the production, but she managed her monologue in Act III when she realises her love for Barak with great beauty and, again, involved you in her predicament.  As the Nurse, Michaela Schuster was, again, outstanding.  She appeared to have no problems with the demands of the role and was terrifying at the end of Act II.  The other roles were all well-cast and gave considerable pleasure.

I’ve deliberately left a discussion of Claus Guth’s production until the end.  This wasn’t my first visit to Frau ohne Schatten – I saw the revivals here in 1987 and 2002 but that is, really, my full exposure to the piece; I don’t possess a CD or DVD and recall being thoroughly bored at the 2002 revival to the extent that I left, I think, after Act II (or it might even have been Act I).  I’m not particularly a believer in doing homework before going to the opera (particularly not now that there are surtitles) – you should be able to take a performance on its merits.  So I came to the performance pretty much cold – a recollection of the overall plot but no musical or any other detailed memory.

So, on that basic level, how did I fare with this most complex, allusive opera?  Well, the surtitles helped to an extent.  So did the acting – the singers expressed the emotions with absolute conviction and clarity – their predicaments on a human level were clear and moving – particularly from Magee, Reuter and Schuster.  You could not separate their performances and acting from the music and you identified them as human: Guth must take substantial credit for that.

However, you can’t just get by with the acting in this opera.  Hofmannstahl’s synopsis in the programme, aside from demonstrating the extent of the cuts, tells of fish flying into a pan, of a house collapsing and lots of other visual effects that are quite important for the story.  The libretto itself gives some clues about the staging – conflicts between air and earth, between humans and immortals. They may well be nonsense and, it’s possible that Hofmannstahl’s libretto is a load of vacuous tosh but there is some sort of vision here.  I’ve no problem with directors substituting a convincing vision of their own – and would potentially welcome it in this piece – I just didn’t think that Guth’s helped.

We begin and end in an anonymous room with the Empress asleep in bed (is this her dream then and, if so, how does that help us?).  Gazelles and Falcons dance about the stage (one of whom, I think, is Keikobad.  Oh, and the Empress has one very fine and obvious shadow – was I really missing the point in wanting to get up there, point his out and suggest that everybody could stop worrying and go home?  Isn’t this one, pretty basic thing that a director gets wrong at his peril?

There’s no appreciable change of locale for Barak’s house (isn’t one point of the opera the distinction between Barak and the Emperor) and Barak’s wife and the Empress are dressed identically.  I found the set constricting – this an opera where you need to let your imagination roam and where space matters.  Here you became bored by the unit set, irritated by the video and assailed again and again by two thoughts: (a) I haven’t a clue what is going on here and (b) there must be more to it than this.  Guth explained some of the imagery he was using in the programme.  I don’t think that you should have to pay £7 on top of the seat to have this explained – it should be clear – and, in any case, I wasn’t any the wiser having read them.  It made me think of how else you could do it – how an immortal world based on Klimt and a mortal world based on Schiele might be a starting point.

So this was a staging, that cluttered, constricted and baffled.  It didn’t undermine the fantastic performances of the singers but I felt short-changed.  We see Frau ohne Schatten rarely; it’s a difficult piece and, ultimately, I didn’t get it.  I will, however, get it on CD – Bychkov and the cast convinced me that there’s music here I need to know better.

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Opera North’s Ensemble Fanciulla

15 Mar

Opera North seems to be the UK company that has the nearest to an ensemble.  By that, I mean a group of singers who work together frequently and who you can see in a number of roles as the season goes on.  It must give an edge to a company – giving confidence to its performances and some sort of loyalty.  This struck me particularly at the performance of La fanciulla del West which I saw on 14th March at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.  Here the three leads and all of the minor roles were Opera North regulars and this must have helped the performance.

I have mixed feelings about Fanciulla.  The first act, in particular, strikes me as over long and taking time to get going.  It’s difficult to get a handle on who the minor characters are and I’m not sure that it matters if you don’t succeed.  The second and third acts are pure, enjoyable hokum with Puccini ratcheting up the tension very professionally and, with some good arias, actually almost making these quite unattractive characters sympathetic.  It improves as it goes on and, if it’s not on the same level as his earlier pieces, makes a pretty jolly evening.

Opera North did it very nicely indeed.  I very much liked Giles Cadle’s set – nicely suggesting the milieu and I liked the very slightly tongue in cheek videos – a desert landscape with shadows of people coming up to the bar or Minnie’s cabin.  I wasn’t sure that it was the sort of landscape that would see a lot of snow and I assume that the very large full moon while snow was falling was meant to be a joke.  In some ways, it’s that sort of opera.  Aletta Collins directed it absolutely straight, telling the story clearly, allowing the emotions to be felt.

The cast was good.  I found Alwyn Mellor slightly strident as Minnie at first and wasn’t sure that she was finding it easy to get the character.  She warmed up significantly by the end and did her last number very convincingly indeed.  Rafael Rojas looked like a convincing bandit chief and sang really nicely – perhaps at the Royal Opera House you would need a bigger voice but this was a very nicely acted, beefily sung performance and he managed to be touching in his Act III aria.  Robert Hayward made a great, brooding, hulking Rance.  The role suits him as well as the many that he’s done here and he suggested the intense introversion and despair that characterised his Scarpia here.  The was a towering, memorable performance.

Graeme Danby as Ashby, Bonaventura Bottone as Nick and the rest gave committed, strong performances.  Richard Farnes conducted securely – the piece flowed nicely, tension was kept up and the orchestra was on good form.

This was a very enjoyable, home team performance and, if it didn’t quite match Opera North’s greatest evenings, it showed them at their best – a committed, dramatic performance by a good cast.  The shame was that the Theatre Royal wasn’t packed out for it.  Where have Newcastle’s opera lovers gone?

Matinée Fille

12 Mar

The Royal Opera House does mid-week opera matinees so relatively rarely that it never crossed my mind when I booked for the performance of La Fille du Régiment on 12th March that it would start at 2.30.  Fortunately, I noticed in time to avoid conflicts getting into my work diary and, having checked that Florez was indeed down to be singing, I could look forward to a mid-week afternoon off.

Fille is one of my favourite operas.  It’s a charmer from a composer at the height of its powers.  There isn’t a weak number in the show and the situations are touching and witty and, provided the singers are strong, it doesn’t outstay its welcome.  It’s a show that should be fun for singers and audience.

I was at the first night of the Pelly production seven years ago.  It must be one of the most travelled productions around at the moment – as well as four series here, there’ve been repeats in Vienna and New York and performances in Paris and Barcelona.  It still strikes me as being as fine a production of the opera as you could hope for.  It has the flair, the charm and the wit to create a really joyous evening – it feels as though the cast are having a whole lot of fun.

Hand on heart, this performance wasn’t quite as good as those memorable 2007 shows.  This isn’t surprising: Pelly wasn’t on hand to rehearse, the cast has changed and, perhaps, there’s just a whiff of routine about it.  It started really well.  Yves Abel conducted a beautifully paced overture with just the right amount of gallic precision and getting Donizetti’s style pretty much spot on.  The orchestra played admirably.  The opening chorus was great and Ewa Podles made a marvellous impression as the Marchioness of Berkenfeld – rather broader than Felicity Palmer and with stronger lower notes – this was a grand, very funny comic performance.  We see her here too little.

I missed the last revival so didn’t see Patricia Ciofi there.  She’s a lovely singer who took Pelly’s conception of the tomboy absolutely to heart.  Was she quite in her best voice?  I thought there was a cloudiness to the sound that didn’t serve her well, particularly in the second act aria.  Otherwise, this was a game, happy, hugely enjoyable interpretation even if she didn’t quite beat Dessay. And there was Juan Diego Florez in one of his great roles.  We’re pretty much used to the charm, the security of the high Cs, the moving, controlled phrasing in his Act II aria.  We shouldn’t take them for granted: he was in glorious form and it’s a joy to watch him reprise one of his finest roles.  Is there anyone you’d rather see in it?

Pietro Spagnoli was a strong Sulpice.  He didn’t have quite the same twinkle as Alessandro Corbelli but, if you hadn’t seen Corbelli, you’d have no complaints.  Donald Maxwell gave a more than reliable performance as Hortensius – witty and really nicely observed and timed, he turned it into a major role.

There was one major weakness.  Apart from sentiment, why did anyone think it was a good idea to ask Kiri Te Kanawa to play the Duchess of Crackenthorpe?  Just looking back over her main roles you don’t see much comedy there or much requiring spoken dialogue (and clarity of words was never her strong point).  What we had was a strikingly handsome woman (playing an old bat) speaking in rushed and pretty execrable French with neither the power nor the timing to make anything of the role.  I don’t think it was a good idea for her sing: you could see why she’s retired.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter: belated loyalty to a much-loved singer is a fine thing, it’s a relatively small role and there is a tradition of former prima donnas taking the role – but those (Welitsch, Edith Coates) had far more experience of the kind of extrovert, dramatic acting than Te Kanawa had. Remembering Dawn French, you could hardly help feeling that the audience here was being badly short-changed.  Couldn’t they have found a better way of celebrating the 70th birthday?  It didn’t wreck the afternoon, but it was a shame.  How about Anja Silja next time?

That’s the only real cavil.  It’s a lovely show and I hope it comes back.

New Rigoletto

11 Mar

I suppose it was time for a new ENO Rigoletto.  The Jonathan Miller one lasted 30 years and was, last time I saw it (my sixth), looking a little bit tired.  It remained, however, a brilliant example of how you can update an opera while remaining true to the basic story, create a convincing milieu and keep the visceral excitement of the piece.  I saw it during its first run and returned reasonably regularly – it was a good show to take opera novices to.  The Coliseum will not feel the same without it – it’s been a constant of my London opera-going life.

Christopher Alden’s new production (I saw the production on 10th March) is another co-production with the Canadians.  He sets it in a nineteenth century gentlemen’s club  and, according to his note in the programme, deliberately has the second scene of Act I and the last Act set there too – apparently as a way of showing that, however much Rigoletto may wish to divide his life, he can’t.  Or was it because the budget couldn’t stand more than one location?  It starts off well – Rigoletto sees a dead woman behind a cloth.  It parts and we are in the club – it looks good, the huge stage works well for this scene with its different areas of action.  You get the sense of masculine power and their attitude to women and there’s actually enough differentiation between the scenes for the club setting to be a sort of background rather than a precise location.

Yet there are also doubts which my literal mind insists upon.  I don’t have a particular problem in this club being the sort of place where women get raped and treated as chattels, but would a Duke hold so much power there that he could get one of the members hanged?  And nobody particularly bothers to change the English translation so you just have to assume that the club is somewhere near the Thames and, and – well, with Christopher Alden, it doesn’t do to be too literal.  There are striking moments – the procession of courtiers coming to abduct Gilda, Ceprano’s daughter a maddened figure haunting the club, the courtiers watching the rape.

What I missed (and this is often a feature of his productions) is a lack of tension between the characters.  They tend to speak to us, rather than each other.  At the end of Act II there was a very powerful effect of Gilda and Rigoletto, throwing huge shadows as they came downstage during their duet (with Monterone being hanged in the background and his daughter going mad) but you didn’t get the feel that she was trying to stop him murdering the Duke or that he was particularly registering her.  I wasn’t sure that I got Rigoletto’s obsessive worry about Gilda – at the end of the first act, he was left in front of the drop cloth and didn’t really have a hope to convey the sense of a man running through the house with growing panic building up to the recollection of the curse. The last lines came as a slight anti-climax.  And there was also a sense that the set was just too large for what is, essentially, quite an intimate opera -eyes wandered and, for final scene, with Rigoletto and Gilda right in the centre of the stage, it felt as if they were too far away for the emotions to tell. It’s a strong, interesting piece of work but it’s not one I’d particularly want to see again.

The cast was pretty good and it’s worth, in particular, commending the diction.  For the first Act, I couldn’t see the surtitles and heard a very high percentage of the words – to the extent that I was noting the alterations made to James Fenton’s translation from the version that has becoming familiar over 30 years and the CD.

Quinn Kelsey was the Rigoletto.  I was impressed by his large, dark voice which sounded good for the role and his sense of bitterness and desperation.  He gave a lot of pleasure  in his duet with Gilda in Act I and his Act II scene with the courtiers and I felt that here was someone to watch.  Barry Banks was in outstanding form as the Duke – the voice suits the role and he sang it effortlessly, with great style and acted it marvellously: of all the singers, he gave the greatest overall pleasure.  I was less taken by Anna Christy as Gilda.  She has a very light, very pure voice that does not work badly for the opening scenes but didn’t seem to me to have the depth and colour for scenes after her rape.  Peter Rose, predictably was excellent and luxury casting as Sparafucile (even if not quite effacing memories of John Tomlinson thirty two years ago).

The smaller roles were a mixed bunch: Justina Gringyte a slightly anonymous Maddalena, George Humphreys rather a good Marullo.  The Monterone lacked the power you need for the curse to register.

Graeme Jenkins conducted.  I loved the way he did the prelude, lowering, brooding,  beautifully developed and, throughout, he brought out the textures and colours in the score and accompanied the singers fabulously well.  He caught the foreboding, brooding melancholy of the piece.  Tempi struck me as a tad on the slow side and what I missed was the sheer excitement that, say Mark Elder or Edward Downes have brought to the score.

The audience clearly enjoyed the music and those of us who new the piece weren’t going to let Alden faze us but, as so often with this director, I felt he let his ideas get in the way of the piece making its effect rather than providing illumination.

It’s good to see a new Rigoletto and it made for an enjoyable, thoughtful evening, but I don’t see this one reaching its third, let alone its thirtieth, birthday.

Rodelinda passes the last train test

1 Mar

I’ve mentioned my “last train test” before.  My last train home from London is horrible (well, the people on it usually are) and arrives so that I’m lucky if I’m in bed by 2 am.  In order to get the train before, the opera has to finish by 10.25  – often quite tight. As I get older, shows have to be pretty special for me to stay beyond that hour (and thank goodness for internet booking enabling me to choose seats at the end of a row).  The ENO’s new Rodelinda on 28th February emphatically passed that test and had me ruminating on the opera and the production all the long way home.  Mind you, it shouldn’t have needed to – as seems to be an occupational hazard of ENO first nights the performance started late and intervals dragged on as the criterati rabbited on and seemed unwilling to take their seats.  Had I gone to a later performance I might just have made that earlier train.

Anyway, to the opera.  One of the joys of the Handel revival is that the operas are performed often enough for you to see the links and contrasts between them.  Jonathan Keates’s article in the programme reminded me that this sits with Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano in his output and, having seen all of those at least once in the last five years and listened to them, it’s interesting to plot the similarities and contrasts in structure and plot.  I admire all three hugely and, particularly in Cesare and Rodelinda, the way in which Handel marries wit and comedy with the violent.  In all three, he shows a dangerous world and how people cope with it.  If Cesare is the lightest of the three, Rodelinda strikes me as the most personal and heartfelt.  It also has the weakest plot – the comings and goings seem lengthy and implausible and are a test for directors.

I saw the last major production here (Villegier at Glyndebourne) on each of its outings and it was fascinating to compare it with Richard Jones’s approach here.  There are similarities.  Both had a strong visual setting – Villegier in a 1920s, Mussolini-ish silent film road; Jones in a more realistic totalitarian state, full of surveillance cameras, vicious implements of torture and huge monuments.  Both are stylised and well choreographed – catching the arch, almost camp (not meant derogatively here) air that seems to be an essential part of Handel performance (at least for operas of this time – I’m not convinced you need it for, say, Ariodante).  Both play the early part of the third act for laughs and have lots of business going on during some of the arias.  Where Jones differs and, for me, improves is that he catches the raw emotion and the danger of the opera far, far more than Villegier’s very comfortable never-never-land.  .  He creates a world where Grimoaldo has a hidden camera behind Rodelinda’s mirror so that he can letch over her and where there is a very convincing tyranny indeed.  He seizes on the reality of the threats of death by Grimoaldo and Garibaldo and works out how these affect the characters: instead of the happy ending, you see Unulfo badly wounded and ignored by the rest of the cast and Flavio murdering Grimoaldo watched on video by the exultant Rodelinda. Far from the usual little boy, Flavio is a late teenager and was given a great deal to do – reminding me of the Cornelia/Sesto relationship in Cesare.

Doubts?  Maybe there is a bit too much going on in some arias so that you miss out on the singing – but this certainly doesn’t affect the great serious arias as the show goes on.  More seriously, there is a contrast in the opera between the pastoral and the city – between peace and politics – that Jones’s relentlessly urban setting misses.  This is important for two arias: Bertarido’s marvellous second act aria where the recorders and wind writing create a glorious picture of streams, hills and meadows that having him sat in a smart bar simply does not capture – and it jars – and for Grimoaldo’s final aria – there’s a link there which Jones ignores.  However, these doubts pale beside the sheer inventiveness and clarity of the staging.  For me, it’s a staging of a Handel opera to set beside David Alden’s of Ariodante and Hytner’s Xerxes here as one of the very finest productions of a Handel opera (as opposed to oratorio) that I’ve seen.  It delights and disturbs in equal measure.

I’ve written a lot about Jones’s production, but this was one of those evenings where the musical vision was entirely at one with it and where the singers acted and sang the music so that the emotions felt absolutely true and convinced you that Handel is second to none in creating convincing characters and describing their emotions truly through music.  Christian Curmyn needs to take the credit for a lot of this.  His tempi struck me as a bit on the slow side but this went so completely with the vision of the work that they felt right – he had the orchestra playing stylishly and sympathetically.  I found myself smiling at the witty, joyous arias and following the more serious, heartfelt pieces with baited breath.  The one thing that I missed was the last ounce of bravura and sheer showiness that one or two of the arias call for.

There was some really fine singing that, again, was all at one with the vision.  Rebecca Evans was an almost completely successful Rodelinda.  She conveyed the grief, the anger and the love of the woman and she sang her Act II aria before the return of Bertarido so beautifully and movingly that we didn’t applaud after it.  There were odd moments where I wondered whether she was having some problems – she wasn’t always audible and some lines seemed a bit broken, but that may have been to do with the not-too brilliant acoustics towards the back of the Dress Circle at the Coliseum.  But for most of it, this was assured, daring Handel singing that created a complete character.  She was partnered by Iestyn Davies as Bertarido.  He’s marvellous in the reflective passages and my only complaint is that he can’t quite get the sheer bravura for the last aria – Vivi tiranno – he does it well but there is just a sense of carefulness about it when you want complete abandonment and joy in surmounting this fearsome aria.  This is being hypercritical.  He, Evans and Jones gave me one of the most unforgettable operatic experiences in a long time when they sang their duet at the end of Act II.  It’s one of Handel’s most wonderful creations and they caught the differing emotions, the sheer regret, anger and sadness to perfection as the set inexorably pulled them apart.  That alone made the visit worthwhile and the audience was hanging onto every note.

John Mark Ainsley created a nasty, weak, seedy Grimoaldo and sang his arias predictably marvellously.  Susan Bickley was a lovely, alert Eduige, singing her arias marvellously.  Christopher Ainslie made a really good job of Unulfo: his arias are among the most attractive and optimistic in the piece and they were engagingly staged and joyously sung  – I found myself smiling throughout.  I’m not sure that Richard Burkhard’s future is really in Handel and he sounded tested by the arias but he’s one of our most engaging singing actors and he was an alert, threatening presence.  I think that Matt Casey deserves a mention as well for a very strong, convincing silent performance of Flavio, turned into a key additional character.

Diction was excellent and Amanda Holden’s translation was pretty good – strong, clear and knowing with a wit about it, even though you sensed that some of the note values had been played about this in the recitatives.

I found this a fascinating and very strong evening: not a teacup in sight and the only use of Champagne is decidedly threatening – the normal tropes of Handel staging have gone and in their place was vivid, truthful disturbing evening that I can’t recommend too strongly.  I hope it comes back and I hope that ENO have booked Jones to do a Tamerlano for them.  And stay to the end.