Archive | April, 2014

Steps towards putting the “National” back in ENO?

29 Apr

The ENO’s plans have been announced today –

It makes an interesting mixture of the conventional but worth seeing (Otello with Skelton, Gardner and David Alden, a Richard Jones Fanciulla with Susan Bullock and Jones’s WNO Meistersinger with Iain Paterson), the interestingly off-beat (Peter Sellars doing John Adams and The Indian Queen and Mike Leigh doing Pirates of Penzance) – and, more than ever, work at other venues that the Coliseum.  Two things interest me.

The first is the duplication of repertory between ENO and the Royal Opera House.  London is going to have at least three runs of Boheme in the twelve months – the Copley production has two outings at the ROH (with quite desirable casts) and the Miller production is coming back for fourteen performances in between.   The same applies to La traviata – after this year’s series at the ROH, it returns there for another double cast run next May (with rather less desirable casts, unless it is your heart’s desire to see Domingo as the elder Germont) and then we have the Konwitschny production back in between.  Is there the audience in London simply for those two?  And is it fair to audiences that the choices here should be so limited?

The third duplication is Montiverdi’s Orfeo.  The ROH will be doing this in January at the Roundhouse; the ENO will be doing this in April at the Bristol Old Vic.  And it’s this move outside London that interests me most.

In recent years the ENO have given over the Coliseum to ballet in April and done smaller scale work at other places – the Young Vic, the Hampstead Theatre and the Barbican in particular.  It’s given a welcome opportunity for them to do stuff that doesn’t really fit at the Coliseum.  And the ROH has taken steps to follow suit with this years’ Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and next year’s Orfeo.   This year, ENO will be working at three outside venues: the Old Vic for a children’s opera (Joanna Lee’s “The Way Back Home“) in December; the Barbican for Tansy Davies’s Between Worlds in April and, also in April, thats Orfeo.  This must be the first time the ENO has performed in the UK outside London since they stopped touring in the 1980s.

In the old days the Sadler’s Wells Company, as it then was, had two companies that cox and boxed it between London and the provinces.  That ended in the late 1960s and the company ended its season at the Coliseum in March and then went on tour for the next couple of months.  Those tours gradually got whittled down until by, I think 1983, they came to an end.  Doubtless money was a problem but there was also the sense that touring was an inconvenience and standards couldn’t be as high as in London.

I am old enough to remember those tours when they visited Newcastle and Sunderland.  My first proper opera, The Barber of Seville was part of that (Derek Hammond-Stroud as Bartolo) and I’ve very happy memories between 1972 and 1979 of my first visits to Merry Widow, Fledermaus, Mary Stuart (with Sarah Walker), Carmen, Belle Hélène and, most wonderful of all, the Ring (Remedios, Elizabeth Connell, Aage Haugland) , as well as Patience, Cosi, Figaro and Vie Parisienne.  I wasn’t critical enough then to be able to judge what the standard was like and memory plays tricks.  I do remember being able to hear the words and having a really good time.  Had I been older and my parents richer, I could have seen Trovatore, Katya, Makropoulos Case, Gloriana, Semele, Entfuhrung, Butterfly, Boheme, Traviata and Tosca.  There was some overlap with Scottish Opera but it was rare.

The point was, first, that I got the opportunity to see these pieces but also that we were seeing work which was relatively new: this was what was going on in London, even if the casts weren’t always the same.  We felt that we were getting something for our subsidy.  It almost certainly isn’t practical now – the company was a huge ensemble and could credibly double cast productions from its own resources.  Productions were more practical to tour.  But I felt that something was lost when they stopped touring (even though I suspect that the company members were delighted).

So I think that it’s great that ENO is taking work to Bristol.  Live broadcasts to cinemas are better than nothing, but they can’t be the same as the experience in the theatre.  I hope that this will be the first of a number of projects for ENO outside the metropolis and that, perhaps, ENO may actually be able to justify the National in its title.


Damrau triumphs as Violetta

22 Apr

Traviata at the Royal Opera House is traditional, handsome, little that’s seriously unexpected and is a vehicle for individual stars to give their performances of the leading roles.  It keeps happy that part of the opera-going public that doesn’t like to be unsettled by productions.  It can hit and miss, depending on the cast.  This was my fifth visit in its 20 year history – Gheorgiu twice, Ansellem, Jaho (Netrebko cancelled…) and, now, Diana Damrau.  We see her too little at the Royal Opera House and I don’t think I’ve caught up with her since she did Gretel, before the world caught on to her talent.  So it was largely for her that I went to see the latest revival – the performance on 21st April.  It actually turned into rather a special evening.

Damrau is as good as the reviews say.  This was a wonderfully thought-through, gloriously sung, wholly individual Violetta.  As with all the best ones, she uses the words, understands them and means them.  She does the conversational passages really well – you feel that she’s talking to people and she colours the words with real intelligence. As she’s struggling to get up in the last act, the word “non posso” aren’t the usual burst of frustration, but sung softly, as if she can barely summon up the breath to speak.  She contrasts the brittle brilliance of the first act party with the sheer honesty of her duet with Germont.  You feel absolutely her love for Alfredo, the sense that she has no idea of how she will break the news to him and her huge desire to be accepted by him.  Dite alla giovine had an artless, honest, desperation about it, as if life was going completely blank.  And she sang Addio del passato with such attention to the words and the logic of the music that you felt the audience really listening – listening so hard that there was almost a surprise when it ended and a pause before the applause began.  Vocally, there wasn’t a weak or uncertain moment.  She made the part sound easy and real – there wasn’t an ugly or misplaced note all night, but the emotions came through movingly and true.  This was one of the Violettas that I’ll treasure, along with Cotrubas, Miriciou and Gheorghui (Netrebko was ill when I was meant to see her…) as being complete, outstanding interpretations.

I admired Francesco Demuro’s Romeo in Verona and he made a really excellent Alfredo here.  It’s not the largest voice in the world and he sounded stretched in those passages which needa bit of heft – the cabaletta to De miei bollenti spiriti, for example – but he can sing subtly and softly and with real tenderness.  I thought he did Un di felice and Parigi o cara wonderfully, with honesty, with glorious pianissimi and subtlety.  He looked good and presented a youthful, infatuated young man –  a really good foil to Damrau.  I hope he comes back.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is an old hand at the elder Germont and a very, very good one.  It’s thoughtfully acted – you feel him unwillingly admiring Violetta,while he and Demuro suggested that there were all kind of things wrong with the father/son relationship here.  Vocally, I found him rather loud – he could have afforded to fine the voice down a bit more if only because it felt a little unbalanced with the others.  He sang Pura siccome un’angelo as well as we can expect and made the cabaletta to Di provenza so that it made sense.

Dan Ettinger’s conducting was not much liked by the reviewers and I know what they mean: he pulled the score about a lot, tempi suddenly lurched mid-phrase (the Act II finale was a particular example) and he sounded intent on under-scoring particular passage.  It didn’t all work but what I felt we had here was a very intelligent conductor looking at a score which it’s all too easy to take for granted.

Orchestra, chorus and other part were all strong without being anything particular to blog about, so I won’t

Richard Eyre’s production does its job very well.  There’s enough detail (Violetta asking a servant to bring Alfredo to her in the second scene of Act II) to convince you that someone has been thinking about it and enough freedom for great artists to bring their own qualities.  Bob Crowley’s sets manage to give you both the public and the private – the grandeur of the party scenes and the intimacy for the duets and the end.  It also enables performances that transcend the every day and, on its own terms, I thought the Traviata among the finest I’ve seen.  It’s worth catching and I hope that the management has taken the opportunity to sing her up for Elvira, Lucia and much, much more.


Wallowing in Faust

15 Apr

Faust is one of my guilty pleasures.  It sums up 19th Century hokum – a piece with wit, charm and religiosity and the sort of attitude that it’s quite difficult to take seriously these days.  But it’s fun and there are glorious tunes and it feels as though it gets stronger as the evening goes on.  But it needs to be well done.

I saw the Royal Opera’s Faust at its first outing ten years ago and, while I like the piece and admired the McVicar production, the intervening casts didn’t strike me as ones that I would regret missing. This revival with the promise of Calleja, Netrebko, Terfel and Keenlyside, looked more promising. Netrebko, as everyone knows, cancelled at about 5 minutes notice, leaving the ROH desperately seeking Marguerite. They found two. Sonia Yoncheva, apparently, was excellent on the first night. Alexia Voulgaridou at the performance I saw on 14th April was pretty good, too.

McVicar’s production catches that hokum rather well. He sets it in a theatre with Faust as an ageing composer. The 19th century setting fits the attitudes perfectly and it enable Mephistopheles as a seedy theatre manager to provide a really nasty, grisly ballet. And the melodrama works in this setting also. I’m not sure that the pure Marguerite is really right for a barmaid in a seedy caberet but I can overlook that. Even after 10 years it’s a good-looking, lavish, successful version of the opera which serves as a setting for various different star turns. There’s no particular need to replace it for a while.

And we had a cast with the sort of confidence and star quality that you need to bring the piece off. Terfel makes a magnificent Mephisto – a lovely, insouciant performance, catching the threat and the charm and the cynicism of the character. He pointed the words wonderfully, understated the humour and sang magnificently. He caught the wit and threat of the ballet in his massive black ball gown.  Perhaps I’d like a slightly blacker quality to the voice – Tomlinson or Christoff – and there were odd imprecisions, as if he’d been singing a bit much Wagner, but this is the sort of star quality the role needs.

I also enjoyed Calleja’s performance. He’s not my favourite tenor – there’s a white, almost bleating quality to the voice at times that I don’t find attractive – but he can put out the top notes and do some really marvellous diminuendos. He makes a rather solider, more clumsy Faust than Alagna, having a lot of fun in the early acts and becoming really quite moving in the last.

Voulgaridou has sung Mimi here. She’s a new singer to me and I very much enjoyed her singing. There’s a nice purity to the voice and she manages the role’s challenges well. I’ve heard slighlty more sparkling jewel songs but she did the latter acts very strongly.

Keenlyside made a very reliable, believable Valentin. I found his first aria slightly disappointing but his death scene was outstandingly done and you can never fault his acting or commitment. Diana Montague gave a great cameo as Marthe.

Maurizio Benini conducted sensitively to his singers’ needs. Orchestra and chorus played well, but I can’t really believe that anyone was much challenged by his perfectly decent conducting. But then Faust isn’t a challenging opera and this wasn’t a challenging production. It was, however, hugely enjoyable and, when hokum is done this well, it’s easy to sit back and wallow.


Buying CDs – How I collect

13 Apr

I was listening to CD Review on Radio 3 last Saturday and they were talking about Decca’s new celebration of Pavarotti – 11 operas, the Verdi Requiem and three recitals on 27 CDs. One of the presenters asked who would buy it, given that most fans of Pavarotti would have the operas anyway. I’ve heard this question asked before in respect of the increasing number of large compilation sets that are coming on the market – a few weeks ago they were asking the same question about the DG complete Richard Strauss set.

Of course, to an extent he’s right.  This set includes the recordings with Sutherland of Lucia, Elisir, Puritani, Fille du Régiment, Rigoletto and Turandot, together with the Karajan Boheme and Butterfly.  You’d have to be quite a determined Pavarotti-avoider not to have at least a couple of these in your collection and serious Pavarotti and Sutherland fans probably will indeed have the majority.  But the rest of us may not and I tend to feel that it’s for the likes of me – the haphazard collector – that sets like this were created.

My collection of CDs has grown eccentrically and I suspect this is true of many collectors.  I started, to show my age, with LPs when I was in my early teens and the collection grew from a mixture of Christmas and birthday presents or odd ones that I could pick up with pocket money.  My parents tended to buy with an eye to price rather than reputation – I still have quite a lot of the early 1950s Cetra recordings which nobody would name, even when they came out, as first choice recordings, but which did. As I got more discriminating, or started to read more, I became more demanding – if they were going to get me a Don Carlos, could it please be the Giulini and, if Norma, it had to be Callas (I wasn’t prescriptive about which).  But it was not methodical: I did not have a pre-planned pattern of recordings that I meant to buy or singers that I had to collect.

And when CDs came along, I did not necessarily want to duplicate my LP collection.  If I had the Giulini Giovanni, Figaro and Trovatore on LP, why get the operas on CD, even in different performances, when I still didn’t have all of the core repertory and there were attractive things, such as the Gardiner Les Brigands, coming out freshly?  This view didn’t last long as the advantages of CDs in terms of life and shelf-space became apparent – but my buying was haphazardagain, often depending on what was on offer at the Music Discount Centre or what struck me as particularly desirable.  And it was informed by a view that preferred Callas to Sutherland, Muti or Serafin to Bonynge, Domingo to Pavarotti, Carlos Kleiber or Giulini to almost everyone – unless Simon Keenlyside or Thomas Allen happened to be in the cast.

And then I began to prove to myself that collections don’t stop.  Don Carlos was the case in point.  My partner had arrived with the Solti recording (which I now prefer to the Giulini) but you clearly also need one in French – there was just the Abbado at the time when I bought it.  And then Pappano came along. And then the Opera Rara reissue of the BBC broadcast (really good) and I realised that I also wanted to have Christoff and Gobbi in the opera.  And then the Chandos version in English was a nice souvenir of the Opera North version. And then there were seven.

Then, of course, I like Mackerras in Mozart and so his Teldec recording of Figaro seemed a good choice.  But then Jacobs came along with Simon Keenlyside and rave reviews.  And then came one of those huge boxes of Colin Davis conducting.  And then the Gardiner series came along at a ridiculously cheap price, so I had to get that.  And, of course, there’s still the Busch Glyndebourne recording, and the Gui…

So what these huge sets do is to give me a chance to enjoy hear recordings that I don’t own  and to learn more.  And I reckon that, if I happen to have the odd duplicate, it’s probably worth it. When I’m  listening to opera I’m not just listening to the work, I’m listening to the interpreters and the joy is having access to lots of them. It’s also remarkable have few perfect recordings there are – in the 1970s and before reviewers often wanted to take individuals from two recordings and fuse them together. That’s pointless – but you can, in the course of your collecting lifetime grow up a collection to enable you to have both Callas and Sutherland in their duplicate roles, together with Tebaldi, Scotto, Caballé and Price.  And why not?

So I think I’m the person at which these huge boxes are aimed at. The Davis set introduced me to his Cosi fan tutte and the joy of Baker and Caballé as the women.  In the last year I’ve gained a lot of pleasure from exploring two huge boxes of Verdi from Decca and EMI – comparing the Muti and Levine Vespri, getting Jon Vickers as Otello, discovering the marvellous Mehta/Nilsson/Corelli Aida, getting back some old friends from LP days (the Gobbi Falstaff and the Merrill/Solti Rigoletto).  It’s fun sampling them and having the luxury of thinking whether I want to hear Rameyand Zancanaro or Raimondi and Milnes doing the duet from Attila.

And so to the Pavarotti set.  I only possessed two of the recordings included – Fille du Regiment and Turandot – and I’ve been having a lovely time over the last few days rapidly revising all my prejudices.  Is there a better Duke of Mantua on disc? – I’ve always been a Kraus fan, but Pavarotti is even more beguiling.  I still probably prefer Gobbi and Callas in the other roles, but it’s a pretty close run thing.  I really enjoy the Muti/Caballé/Kraus Puritani but I have to admit that, even if Muti conducts better, Sutherland and Pavarotti are very special indeed.  I’ve rediscovered Beatrice di Tenda and, while I probably just prefer Callas in Lucia with Bernstein, I have to admit that Sutherland and Pavarotti are pretty marvellous – and the sound is better.  And I paid £50 for it on Ebay – and can probably make something from selling on my duplicates.  That’s just over a fiver per opera.

So, if you’re like me, you could do a lot worse than get this – though it’s a bad size for your CD shelves.  It may not leave your other CDs in the cold, but I found myself succumbing to all that I’ve heard and I know the set won’t be far from my CD player.

Authentic Ormindo

3 Apr

I’m not a great fan of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. The seats are uncomfortable, the weather unreliable and the audiences irritating. The performances that I’ve seen there have been variable too. However, the creation of an indoor theatre (attempting to reproduce the one at Blackfriars, or at least something like it) was going to address at least two of the major problems: we would be protected from the weather and we would not have audiences moving around and chatting. So the collaboration between the Globe and the Royal Opera House on an unfamiliar Cavalli opera – L’Ormindo – was irresistible. I saw the performance on 2nd April.

The theatre is lovely – all wood and candlelight, with a nicely painted ceiling, a gallery and a real sense of luxury. It’s warm and welcoming. It’s also intimate – I’d be surprised if it seats as many as 500. I must get to a play there sometime.  It also struck me as perfect for this sort of opera. The orchestra (only 8 players) is placed up in the gallery, meaning that there is nothing between the singers and the audience – they can speak to us, come among us and engage. The acoustic is warm and you can hear the words.

And, praise be, they did the piece in English. Cavalli’s operas are witty, recitative-heavy pieces. They are comedies and you need to understand the words. The only other Cavalli that I’ve truly enjoyed was Jason, as done at Buxton, in a hugely witty, inventive translation by Ronald Eyre. Here, Christopher Cowell’s translation didn’t quite get that level of wit and precisions, but it did very nicely. It is so refreshing to be in an audience where the audience is actually listening to the words and responding as they are spoken – an experience that I thought that surtitles had completely killed.  I felt this was how Cavalli wanted the piece communicated.

I’m not convinced that Cavalli is a great opera composer. The operas are amusing, enjoyable, generally quite inconsequential romps. He doesn’t have the gift that Montiverdi has of contrasting scenes effectively or providing music that goes straight to the heart of the piece. They need to be done sympathetically and given a bit of help.

I thought that Kasper Holten pretty much got the atmosphere and ambience of the piece perfectly. He played the piece straight with no glosses, allowing the singers to act, to engage with the audience, express the ridiculousness of the situations. He caught the balance between artificiality and real emotion really well. He was assisted by some fabulous costumes and a really good young cast.  This struck me as his most successful production so far and suggested a real talent for this sort of intimate, baroque opera.

The opera is about Ormindo and Amidas who have fallen in love with Erisbe, the wife of King Ariademus. Amidas has jilted Sicle who, together with her nurse, disguised as gipsies come to find out what’s going on. You can guess the rest. The cast also includes the obligatory servants, a general and prologues to each act from gods and goddesses. The music is not that memorable – there are a couple of nice duets for the lovers (and some interesting chromatics in the prison scene) and some nice cheeky arias for the lesser characters. It moves swiftly and, in Holten’s production, doesn’t flag.

Samuel Boden and Ed Lyons make a strong handsome pair as Ormindo and Amidas. Boden apparently was ailing, but he sang strongly and convincingly. Lyon, as the slightly more ridiculous one, caught the arrogance of the character well. Susanna Hurrell was a lovely, capricious Erisbe and Joelle Harvey a tender Sicle. James Laing almost stole the show as the servant Nerillus -permanently bewildered but he had very strong competition from Harry Nicoll as the Nurse, Eryka, and Rachel Kelly as Mirinda. Ashley Riches was strong as Osman, the captain of the Guard and Graham Broadbent was nicely geriatric Ariademus.

Christian Curmyn conducted the orchestra of the Early Opera Company really well, making sure that words were heard and that the score came across.

The audience, listened, laughed and applauded hugely at the end and I thought this made for a really good evening. I do hope there are more collaborations of this sort – the theatre suits this sort of opera really well. The next one is at the Round House but it would be good if they were to come back here. It would work beautifully for Poppea, Jason and, perhaps some of the French baroque as well.