Archive | July, 2014

Marvellous Moses

26 Jul

Not many of my friends seemed that envious of me going to see Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron at the Royal Opera House on July 25th. That puts it mildly. The word Schoenberg seems to be sufficient to cause people to grimace and run a mile even though they have never knowingly heard a note of his music and would be hard pressed to name anything he had written. It’s rather like the effect the name Karl Marx has on people who haven’t seen a copy of the Communist Manifesto, let alone any of his serious work.

I left the evening wishing that people would give it a try. I think that if I were going to suggest somewhere to begin, I’d start with the chorus that begins Act II “Wo ist Moses?” with it’s whispered start, differing dynamics and tempi. It’s hard to think of that as “difficult” music and it’s music that draws you in to the piece. I think I’d then just keep them going and see how far they got. I’m sure they’d make it to the end of Act II and then think about hearing some of Act I. It’s not music that you have to try to understand or need a degree in music to get anything out of: it’s visceral and hugely exciting with real beauty as well. It makes me want to get to know more of his music. This isn’t music that anyone need feel apologetic about.

There are two problems with the opera, however. The first, I think, is the text – which is dense, difficult to follow, even with surtitles and which is intensely cerebral. It’s important but it needs very sensitive staging. You don’t really get much emotion until the end of the second Act and you tend to feel that the conflict between Moses and Aron doesn’t really come across well and this leads to the fact that it’s unfinished. The end of the second act leaves you hungry for more.

Everyone has praised that outstanding musical performance by the WNO chorus and orchestra. I don’t think I’ve heard any chorus, anywhere, sing music of this complexity so well, so accurately and with such intensity. Lothar Koenigs conducted and achieved complete clarity and considerable beauty from the orchestra. It was alert and really beautiful in its own right. We had John Tomlinson, excellent, of course, as Moses and Rainer Trost, a beautiful voice singing easily, fluently and beautifully as Aron. He hadn’t sung at the first night and so reviewers didn’t mention him, but this was a starry, superbly acted and effortlessly sung performance. Nobody seemed aware that this music is difficult and everybody performed it wonderfully.

The problem, for me, lay in the production by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. It’s set in a Parliament Chamber (Act I) and an empty cinema (Act II). The orgy is spent with people looking at a film apparently projected into the auditorium and some low level, rather uncomfortable-looking fumbling. It failed to project the position of the Israelites in a way that meant anything or to help me understand what the opera was about. It may well have worked better in Stuttgart with an audience able directly to understand the words. Here the mind wandered quite a lot, you longed for some of the stage effects that Schoenberg envisaged and you wondered why they hadn’t just done in concert. I felt that, with such importance placed on debate and the words that it needed to be sung in English so that we could directly understand what was going on. Moving from stage to surtitles all the time was really too difficult.

It may be that this piece is impossible to stage and that it’s just too heavy ever to work as more than a connoisseur’s piece but I left this wanting to see another staging and wanting to get to know the piece better. It had better not be another 48 years before the next London staging.

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Maria Stuarda – Were the critics at the same show?

9 Jul

So what had changed since the first night? The reviews have been universally horrid about the visual side of the ROH’s Maria Stuarda. When I saw the second performance on 8th July, there seemed little to dislike and much to enjoy.  It struck me as the most convincing production of the opera that I’ve seen.

I was disappointed when the ROH announced that they were doing this piec as theirlatest new production. It’s the fifth time I’ve seen the opera and the sixth individual production in the UK since 1974.  I don’t believe that it’s so much better than La Favorita, Lucrezia Borgia, Anna Bolena, Roberto Devereux, not to mention many of the other Donizetti’s that we have to see only in concert. Apart from Pasquale and Elisir, it’s had more productions since 1970 (as opposed to revivals of productions) than any other his operas and I find that puzzling. Its subject matter is appealing to Anglo-Saxon audiences who can feel superior about the re-writing of history while enjoying what we all secretly feel should have happened. It has that glorious final scene as well as the confrontation but a lot of the rest of the music strikes me as pretty standard Donizetti, while the absence of Elizabeth for the last two scenes is a mistake.

So I would ideally have liked to see a different Donizetti, but the cast was beguiling and I’m a fan of the Caurier/Leiser team. I left the performance seriously thinking of shelling out to go again.

Let’s begin with the production. Lots of people seemed to be upset by the fact that the two queens were in Tudor costume while everyone else was in modern dress. It didn’t worry me: it also seemed to heighten the sense of two protagonists, two rivals, two people exposed as monarchs from the ordinariness around them. Lots of people seemed not to like the prison setting for everything after the first scene. It struck me as entirely apt – it is precisely what Maria’s first aria is about and I found the last scene, where she was in the isolated execution cell, undressed, her hair cut, accentuated the humiliation of the woman and emphasised the dignity of her response – the picture of the crowd outside lighting candles for her brought home resonances for other political prisoners imprisoned and executed by their political rivals. Fine, it wasn’t pretty. It doesn’t fit with the romantic sensibility but it found a way of convincing me that there might actually be something more to this opera than an excuse for some barnstorming and some pretty tunes.

Then there was the direction of the singers. Personally, I tend to agree that it’s probably a mistake to have Cecil wandering around with an axe so much, but that apart there was much that was good. I loved the image of Elizabeth eating a picnic lunch for the first part of the confrontation. I enjoyed the sense of political machinations in the first scene, characters liberally helping themselves from the drinks trolley. I thought they conveyed the loneliness and sad of Maria in the second beautifully – the costume evoking Cenerentola. I thought that the scene for Maria and Talbot – just the two of them in chairs, at the front of the stage – managed the intensity that you needed for that scene. And he got some completely compelling performances out of his cast. So lots to enjoy if you can bear the idea that opera doesn’t have to be a historically accurate museum piece.

I also can’t believe that Joyce DiDonato’s fabulous performance as Maria was simply down to her inherent genius. There was an integrity and completeness about the performance which was at one with the production and with the music: it did not seem at odds. She caught the sadness, the anger and the dignity or the character and managed to be very moving indeed in the last scene. Musically, I don’t think I’ve heard such wonderful singing since Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Theodora. She is at the height of her powers and bound us in a spell as she sang her entrance aria: moving, technically perfect and with a wonderful softness and poignancy. She caught the changing emotions of the duet with Talbot (one I’ve always found quite tedious until now) unerringly and her final scene was a gorgeous piece of singing. I remember one cadenza when she went up and down a scale with complete security and absolute control of the sound – fining it down and building it up, that was complete perfection. There were colourings that reminded by of Callas because they had the same dramatic truth behind them. I’m a big fan of Janet Baker’s recording but for me DiDonato surpassed it because she struck me as having an even wider range of emotion and a very different musical conception of the role – the tempo for the cabaletta in the last scene slower, less angry, even more intense, the first aria freer, more open. This was one of the great musical performances that I’ve seen.

Carmen Gianattasio has fewer opportunities as Elizabeth but she created a frustrated, nasty character, desperately pawing at Leicester’s flesh. She conveyed the suspicion and arrogance of the queen and was also blackly funny. You could almost see the sparks between her and DiDonato in the confrontation scene – a beautiful piece of directing. And she sang really well also. Can we have some more Donizetti for her please? She’d be brilliant in Roberto Devereux.

Ismael Jordi in his debut was a late-ish replacement but he was very, very good indeed as Leicester. It’s a nice, light voice and a charming personality. He sang his arias and did the duets really well and I hope he’ll be back. He’d be a super Duke of Mantua, Ernesto or Nemorino.

Matthew Rose was, predictably, excellent as Talbot. Jeremy Carpenter was rather anonymous as Cecil. I remember Alan Opie making a lot more of it at ENO. Kathleen Wilkinson was a strong, concerned, committed Anna.

Bertrand de Billy conducted. It’s not always easy to tell how far the tempi were his or his principals. They struck me as fast and furious early on, becoming musch more langourous in the final scene. They worked. Orchestra and chorus followed gamely.

It’s been a good summer at the ROH. With Mattila in Ariadne, Kaufmann and Opolais in Manon Lescaut and DiDonato and colleagues in this, it’s hard to imagine higher musical standards and they’ve been matched by thoughtful, compelling productions. It’s been a great couple of weeks. I hope it continues and that Kasper Holten doesn’t let the critics grind him down.

Outstanding Manon Lescaut

5 Jul

I  don’t know Manon Lescaut well: the performance that I saw at the ROH on 1st July was only my third and, not being a massive Puccini fan, it’s not one that I think I’ve ever listened to on CD.  It has always struck me as needing a lot of help. There are undoubtedly some great arias and marvellous duets but somehow it doesn’t have the same conciseness as Puccini’s later operas or the same momentum. I’m not the greatest fan of Massenet’s version of the story but it seems to me to create more interesting characters and situations than Puccini’s version and with some real conflict of the situation.  Above all it gives you a picture of the real relationship between Manon and Des Grieux.  This isn’t to say that it’s  a bad opera but that, if Puccini hadn’t written anything else, this would be rather like La Wally or Adriana Lecouvreur – an opera done now and then because of some good arias rather than because it’s a masterpiece.

This might explain why I was much more taken by Jonathan Kent’s production then most critics or, indeed, many in the audience. To a great extent I think this is due to the theatre. If it had been done at ENO it would have been hailed as a brilliant interpretation of the work. Here you felt that the audience was longing for frills and petticoats and an authentic 18th century setting. Kent sees the opera as being about the exploitation of women by men and updates it to the present day. The first act is set outside a seedy hotel, the second act is in a glorious faux rococco room where Manon is filmed for the benefit of an audience of dirty old men. The third act turns the exile of the prostitutes into a reality TV show and the last act is set at the end of an unfinished highway in the desert. If an audience just wants to look a pretty costumes and wallow in the music, this is a bit challenging.

It doesn’t wholly work. It’s hard to accept this tarty, sexually aware Manon of ever being likely to go near a convent. It wasn’t easy to follow exactly what relatonshhip the visual side of Act III had to the story of the opera. And sightlines from the side of the theatre were a major problem particularly in the last act, but also in Act I. Placing the action on the motorway as high as it was struck me as an act of pure designer arrogance.

On the other hand, I thought that the concept in the second act was absolutely brilliant and worked superbly; Act III looked compelling even if it didn’t completely work, while the final scene struck me as a superb metaphor for the place where those characters had reached. I liked the direction of the characters: Manon’s ambivalence, Des Grieux’s obsession and the sheer nastiness of Lescaut were beautifully caught. Simply as a staging and a piece of theatre, this was a slick, convincing, compelling piece of work that made you think about the characters and their situations.

Musically it was even better. Jonas Kaufmann was in wonderful form as Des Grieux. He caught the innocence and the obsession of the man and he was in simply fabulous voice. He makes it sound easy, believable – it’s a complete performance with the acting and the singing entirely at one with the stage.  He looks like the innocent, obsessed student who simply cannot bear to part with Manon (possibly the single most unbelievable thing about this opera).  It’s great that he seems to be coming once a year, but it really would be nice if the greatest tenor of our time could be booked a little more often.  He’s singing a lot of great Italian roles, but I’d love to hear his Lohengrin or Walther here.

He was matched by Kristina Opolais as Manon. This is a very lovely voice with a nice edge to it. I thought her acting of the part was fabulously good – mesmerisingly effective in her Anna Nicole costume and catching the sheer moral ambivalence – I thought that the way she really regretted leaving the money of Geronte was outstandingly done.  The duets for the two of them were, for me, the muscial highlights of this year so far.

Christopher Maltman made a seedy, well sung, thoroughly nasty Lescaut, Maurizio Muraro was a very convincing lecher of a Geronte and the smaller roles and chorus were excellent.

Antonio Pappano was in the pit for the second night running. He a superb accompanist of singers but he also paces the opera perfectlly, making a piece of drama out of it. I thought his accompaniement of the last duets and the playing of the final chords very moving indeed.

I don’t particularly expect to be moved in Manon Lescaut. I don’t particularly to expect to engage with it as drama. This great evening made me do both,  It was, in its way, the same sort of questioning, thoughtful approach that characterised the Ariadne the night before. I hope it comes back – with Kaufmann and Opalais too, please.

 

Ariadne – elegant as ever

2 Jul

Christoph Loy’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos opened Pappano’s tenure as Musical Director at the Royal Opera House outstandingly and it remains one of their great successes.  The opening few minutes of the prologue with its breathtaking move from upstairs to downstairs still works its magic and the direction of the prologue generally is outstanding: it’s clear, funny and catches just the right sense backstage discomfort.  With Loy on hand to rehearse, it went like a bomb at the performance I saw on 30th June.

I find the opera itself a bit less convincing, missing some of the magic that there can be hear and appearing almost earthbound.  On the other hand, the direction of the singers and the emotions is excellent.  In many ways, it’s like the opera – quirky, elegant, classyand not always easy to grasp.  Ariadne‘s never going to be an easy opera but this makes it pleasurable and makes you admire both the opera and production.

The musical side is pretty good.  One of the advantages that Ariadne has is that, because it’s not an opera that’s ever going to be a popular treat, companies do it because they want to and so take trouble with the casting.  All the revivals here have been superbly cast and this is no exception.  The star is undoubtedly Karita Mattila as Ariadne.  She has a wonderful time as the prima donna in the prologue: it’s a role that can get lost in less expert hands: here you had no doubt about who was the star of the show.  In the opera itself, she sang with intelligence and commitment and much beauty.  She is a complete star and you cannot help but watch her – I’ve heard more purely beautiful singing, but few more heartfelt, convincing performances overall.  This is a performance to go with her Marie and Arabella.  Her Bacchus is Roberto Sacca – less taxed by the role than most that I’ve heard and doing what he can with a thankless role.

Jane Archibald makes a very successful Zerbinetta – singing the aria barely turning a hair and making it sound easy – but also suggesting the depths of her character – one of Loy’s best ideas is to have Harlequin dump her at the end, bring a sense of melancholy to the end.  Ruxandra Dunose is the Composer – warm, intelligent and enthusiastic.  I’ve found her in the past to be a slightly passive singer.  Here she was engaged, her tone warm, her identification with the role convincing – and also just a touch bland.

Thomas Allen is a familiar and expert Music Master: I’m not sure I’d want to see anyone else.  Ed Lyon is the new Dancing Master – elegant and cynical in a slightly different way from Allen’s down-at-heel pragmatist.  Markus Werba repeats his excellent Harlequin and the nymphs and comedians are first rate.  Christoph Quest is back as the Major Domo and retains exactly the right sense of superiority.

In the pit, Pappano and the orchestra seemed to be having a lovely time.  The balance was great, the textures clear and he caught the elegance, the eroticism and the wit of the score.

In short, it’s a lovely evening.  Even if you’ve been before, I’d recommend a visit if only for Mattila and Pappano and to remember what a really engaging opera and production this is.