Archive | May, 2014

Near ideal Onegin

25 May

The first revival of the season at Glyndebourne is often one of the highlights and this year’s Eugene Onegin was no exception.   Glyndebourne is also conscious of its history and, for the twentieth anniversary of the new house, it was, presumably a no-brainer to revive the first new production seen there. I saw the performance on 25th May and it felt like one of the finest performances of the opera that I’ve seen.

There were two very significant reasons for this.  This first is that Graham Vick was involved in the preparation of it had a certainty and freshness about it without the remotest sense of routine.  Chorus, dancers (Ron Howell’s choreography is a joy) and all the roles knew exactly what they were doing and what they were about and were superbly prepared.  At one point as Onegin and Lensky were quarrelling, Lensky spilled a cup onto the stage where it smashed.  I don’t know whether this was deliberate or an accident, but the reactions were so much in character and managed so successfully that it simply didn’t matter.

It’s a production that looks perfect – you can’t imagine a better setting – a deceptively simple set enabling some brilliant stage pictures and clear, thoughtful acting.  The two scenes for Onegin and Tatyana are linked by those two chairs set apart from each other (and there’s a wonderful moment in the first where Onegin passes Tatyana to sing his aria and barely looks at her).  The party in the second act has the same naturalistic detail that characterised Vick’s ROH Meistersinger but which never distracts you from what’s going on and is superbly contrasted with the stylised caricature of the Petersburg ball.  I can’t imagine wanting to change a single move or image.

The second was the conducting of Omer Meir Wellber.  Conducting without a score and eliciting hugely committed, visceral playing from the LPO, he made everything seem absolutely right.  I loved the way in which shaped the arias, particularly Triquet’s, Lensky’s and Gremin’s so that they made sense.  He was in absolute control and got the passion and tenderness of this opera to perfection.  This was on a par with Jurowski’s at this opera’s last outing here and the sheer excitement and intensity reminded of Gergiev’s debut at the Royal Opera House in this piece.  This was a hugely confident debut and he’ll be welcome back here or, indeed, anywhere else.

Glyndebourne had got a very good cast indeed – mostly slavonic and with the looks to carry off their roles well. Andrei Bondarenko catches the bored arrogance of Onegin perfectly and also the change that comes over him first after the death of Lensky (a new wig helps too) and then when he meets Tatyana at the ball.  He sings the rejection aria with a cool matter-of-factness that is absolutely right and conveys the regret and inevitability of the duet before the duel.  Only in the last act did I question whether he had quite the vocal heft or the sheer passion that can make that final scene gut wrenching and leave you feeling shaken.

I think this was partly to do with Ekaterina Scherbachenko’s Tatyana.  She has a gorgeous voice and she sang with purity, with taste and beauty without ever convincing me of the rawness of the passion in the letter scene.  She conveyed the loneliness and the sadness of the role – and there was real sincerity in the last scene – but, again, I never quite felt that she was giving up the love of her life.  There was an element of calculation about it.

There was a really fine Lensky from Edgaras Montvidas – he looked like the ideal Russian poet and conveyed the innocence of the man.  I don’t think I’ve heard his aria better sung: this was passionate, beautifully controlled singing conveying the nostalgia, the regret and the certainty of death.  This is a singer who suddenly seems to be ready for leading roles and I hope I’ll see him in more.

There was a convincing, moving and beautifully sung Gremin from Taras Shtonda, a lively, really beautiful Olga from Ekaterina Sergeeva (how well Vick directs this role, particularly in the party scene), a really fine Larina from Diana Montague who caught the nostalgia beautifully in her duet with Irina Tchistjakova’s warm Filipyevna and a charming Triquet from François Piolino, not caricatured, just right.  The chorus was in outstanding fettle, singing fully and precisely and having a wonderful time in the party scenes. 

I love this opera.  It has so much to say about age and youth, about lost opportunities and about thoughtless arrogance and this production conveys all of this with a simple elegance that most directors can simply aspire to.  With outstanding conducting and very, very fine singing, this makes an excellent evening that lacks only the last ounce of passion and, perhaps, chemistry between the leading the characters, to make it great.


The looks debate

22 May

Being of the fuller figure myself, I hesitate to enter the debate sparked by recent reviewers of the Glyndebourne Rosenkaverlier and their comments on Tara Erraught’s Oktavian.  I’m going to see it on 12th June and will be better placed to comment then.  For readers who have not been following the controversy, there has been universal praise for Ms Erraught’s singing but visually, apparently, she does not conform to most people’s conceptions of the role – a number have commented that she is more Just William, or even Billy Bunter, than Sir Lancelot.

What has been interesting is that singers have been fighting back – see, for example,Alice Coote at Norman Lebrecht echoes her and demands a public apology from the critics.  Those of us who have read his comments on the looks of a number of individuals in Covent Garden: The Untold Story  (Lilian Baylis is “Stout, bespectacled, thick lipped and almost execrably ugly”) may diagnose a strong case of pots and kettles.

The essence of the argument has been that what is really important is the voice and the way people sing rather than their looks and that, in some way, critics should ignore physical appearance for fear of offending the singer.

I don’t condone offensive remarks.  Equally, I suspect that critics may well have been giving voice to what was going through the minds of a number of people in the audience and I think that it is wrong to ignore this.

The fact is that opera is about the only art form where the tension between looks and voice arises.  When was the last time there was a Juliet or Romeo who caused critics to remark on their size or physical unsuitability for the role?  That has nothing to do with theatre critics being politically correct or politer and everything to do with the fact that casting directors can pick and choose on looks.  Indeed, I seem to remember that when Simon Russell Beale did Ariel the comments were that he managed to be convincing despite a less-than-classically Ariel-like figure.

Opera asks for a massive suspension of disbelief for audiences.  We have to accept that people sing rather than speak and we have to accept that singers will take roles which, ideally, would call for people significantly younger or more conventionally attractive than they are.  And I don’t think that we would be human if we weren’t aware of this.  It has also been an occupational hazard for singers to receive comments on their physique.  This applies to men as well as women: I’m guilty of finding Joseph Calleja a rather comfortably proportioned Faust (and I’m not the only one) and Pavarotti and Sutherland both had to cope with this (it’s a danger that must apply to any averagely proportioned Mimi or Violetta), let alone Rita Hunter and Deborah Voight.  It does require some artistry to get over that: I never saw the mature Pavarotti, Bergonzi or Gedda as Nemorino but I remember Mirella Freni convincing me that she was teenage Tatyana and, when Anja Silja did Emilia Marty at Glyndebourne, I felt that she could go on as Juliet whenever she chose, but these were exceptional performances.

Also, it’s a regrettable fact that, if you put yourself up onstage as someone whom it is right for people to pay large sums of money to hear, then you cannot censor their thoughts.  It is all very well for Alice Coote to demand that critics be kind to singers and, like all of us, of course they are human, but critics do nobody any favours if they gloss over the duff performances that singers can put in.  And I think that they are entitled to comment on how convincing a figure that singer presented.  This doesn’t mean that the singer has to be classically beautiful or to meet the conventional demands of the role, but the singer does have to convince you that they are right for the role.  And a critic does nobody a service if he or she ignores what may well be going through the minds of fellow members of the audience.

I’ll be better placed to comment when I see it, but I suspect that Dame Kiri te Kanawa got it right on the Today programme when she suggested that the real problem was with the costuming and the direction rather than with the singer’s figure – men and women come in all shapes and sizes.  Maybe the criticism ought to been more forcibly placed in that direction.



Coney Island Cosi

17 May

The ENO’s new Cosi fan tutte was originally announced as being directed by Katie Mitchell. I’m not a great fan and, when she was quietly dropped, I felt some relief – this would, at least, not be a dimly lit Cosi in shades of beige with lots of extras doing impentrable things.  I was, however, a bit surprised that she was replaced by Phelim McDermott and his Improbable troupe. Cosi is a comedy of manners, an intimate drama and it seemed, so to speak, improbable that they were really suited.  On the other hand, the Coliseum is not that well suited to intimate drama (though I remember the old John Cox production managed it brilliantly) and nor is the Met, with whom this was a co-production.  I saw the performance on 16th May, the first night and, if the reaction of the audience is anything to go by, it should be a hit.  I probably don’t need now to say that I felt much more ambivalent.

It’s set on Coney Island in the 1950s with the characters on holiday and Despina the chambermaid at the motel they’re staying at.  That needn’t of itself be a problem: David Freeman did a brilliant beach holiday Cosi in the late 1980s and it’s suitable for this Midsummer Night’s Dream of an opera.  It all depends on how the director and characters interact.

The overture is a dumb show for Alfonso, Despina and the troupe doing a circus “roll up, roll up” for the opera, with some amusing captions and a very slick routine.  It certainly did its job of stopping us listening to the music. The first scene is in a restaurant where Alfonso and the men do the traditional things for the first scene pretty well surrounding by a gaggle of extras as waiter, waitresses and bunny girls. I noticed appreciatively the excellent diction (surtitles weren’t working, apparently).  For the second scene we are at the fair with fortune teller and candy floss seller to act as props for the girls. Again, it carries on traditioanlly enough. After the farewells, the set begins to join in. The motel rooms swing round so we can see inside and outside. This provides a nice bit of farce and enables McDermott to treat Fiordiligi’s aria as the comedy number that, deep down, it is.  The rest of the act proceeded amiably enough with Despina as one of the circus acts for her disguise as the doctor. I found myself enjoying it – the first act of Cosi is farcical, witty and we should laugh.  I admired the very slick execution.

The second act struck me as much more disappointing. The test of a good Cosi, for me, is how serious it becomes, how convincing the emotions and how the game turns nasty.  Here, we had lots of gimmicks as the lovers experienced the funfair, but I believed none of the emotion and the surface was never tapped.  It’s a long time since I was so bored in a Cosi.  In short, the gimmicks and the extras seemed to be a way of distracting the audience from the emotion rather than helping them engage with it. I’m in a minority here: the audience cheered it to the echo.

The music was good, if not great.  I very much admired Ryan Wigglesworth’s quicksilver conducting – fleet, intelligent, considerate and sounding “right”.  He’s a serious talent.  I couldn’t help feeling that some of his cast would have sounded and looked a lot better in a smaller theatre.  Kate Valentine was stretched to the limits as Fiordiligi – Per pieta went better than Come scoglio – and this felt like a really promising first stab at the role.  Randall Bills did a splendid and very beautiful Un aura amorosa and he has a nicely naive, witty personality: I just wasn’t convinced that he was able to plumb the depths fo Tradito schernito.  Marcus Farnsworth was a good Guglielmo though, again, sounded stretched by having to project it into a theatre of this size.  He’s a good actor.

Christine Rice had huge potential as Dorabella – vocally, she was gorgeous and conveyed the daffiness and cynicism of the role – I just wish that she had been helped more by the director.  Roderick WIlliams made a splendid Alfonso – singing marvellously and in command of the stage.  Mary Bevan was a lovely, witty Despina – probably the best drawn of all the characters though, again, without the depth that I’ve seen in other performances.  She sang with character and, again, it was a really promising performance.

There is an outstanding translation by Jeremy Sams which worked for the production and woulnd’t need much alteration to fit any other.  The rhymes were delightful and he caught the elegance and intelligence of the piece.

At the end, the lovers returned to their original partners with little to suggest that this was anything other than a gentle game with no consequences.  This was absolutely right for this production which treats the piece as little more than a holiday game: what I found unbelievable and alienating was the idea that these people could go through all this and sing this music with so little apparent effect.

It’s a jolly romp, no more.  I hope that they appreciate it in New York.