Archive | August, 2014

Final Finta

19 Aug

Dear Glyndebourne,

Please take your time.  I am a patient man and you have earned considerable respect and affection, but can you please tell why, for the love of any deity you care to believe in, you thought it was a good idea to put on La finta giardiniera, which I had the misfortune to see on 18th August.

It’s not that it was a bad performance, it’s that the opera is a complete stinker.  Once you get into Act II, I defy anyone to tell what is really going one, who is in love with whom or pretending to be in love with whom or why it matters.  There isn’t a single attractive character in the piece.  Motivation is perplexing, to put it kindly, though un-considered is probably more accurate.  And there is “pleasant enough aria that slightly outstays its welcome” after “pleasant enough aria that badly outstays its welcome” without anything more.  You get fed up of the ghastly little show-off of a composer that Mozart evidently was at 18 (yes, I saw Amadeus at Chichester recently).  As to the finale to the second Act, just when you think it’s going to end, another section comes along and you realise that it could go on like this forever.  No wonder, Frederic Wake-Walker was reduced to getting his characters to tear up the scenery to keep our interest going.  That’s what I wanted to do to the score.

Alright, I will grant you that there are moments where what is to come shines through.  I’m thinking of the finale to the first Act – where, suddenly, you realise that Mozart was, at heart, an ensemble composer and, rather like the quartet in Entfuhrung, everything begins to mean something.  There’s Nardo’s aria, originally in the first Act, here moved to the end, which reminds you of Aprite un po in Figaro and makes you wish that you were hearing that instead.  And the Sandrina/Belfiore reconciliation has some beauties.  Otherwise, I had a distinct sense of an audience slowly wilting and losing the will to live.  Rossini might have made something of it and at least there’d have been some decent ensembles and strettas.

Perhaps it was Robin Ticciati’s fault.  He clearly loves the score, but did he love it too much?  Were the textures just too heavy, the tempi a bit on the slow side and exaggerated?  Probably not.  There’s a limit to what you can do with a squib like this.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were, of course, great – and I hope they’re playing some real, late Mozart soon.

There was a really good cast, too.  Christiane Karg, a lovely Aricie last year, seized Sandrina’s opportunities and sang really gorgeously begging the question, Glyndebourne, of why on earth you weren’t casting her as Susanna or Pamina.  Similarly, Nicole Heaston had a high time camping up the ghastly Arminda and sang strongly – you could have cast her as Elvira, for example – and Gyula Orendt sang his aria so well and displayed an engaging personality, making me wish that you’d cast him as Figaro in either or its last two performances here.  Joel Prieto as Belfiore displayed a pleasant, light voice as Belfiore and it would be nice to see him as Fenton or Rinuccio or even Ottavio.

I was slightly less taken by Joelle Harvey as Serpetta and Rachel Frankel’s rather anonymous Ramiro but both sang very nicely. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke sang his arias very well and displayed a very nice sense of humour as the rather fussy Mayor.  He plays character roles so often here that it was good to hear him sing a legato tenor role so successfully.

Frederic Wake-Walker attempted to make the piece interesting.  It was set firmly in the 18th century – suggestions of a Clarissa-like rape or argument during the overture in a set suggesting a down-at-heel baroque palace – also perhaps parodying pictures of Glyndebourne’s sets for Mozart operas in its early days.  He also set it in a theatre – and it looked as though many of the characters, at times, were simply marionettes.  As Sandrina and Belfiore go mad, they demolish the set and, at the end of the (thank God) heavily cut third Act, the went off in the woods together, leaving the remaining characters to sing the epilogue.  I had the feeling of someone trying too hard to keep us interested and I found myself becoming more and more irritated as the lengthy, irrelevant action went on and on and on.

So Glyndebourne, there are lots of other better operas you could have done and I resent your wasting my time and money and your talented cast on this one.  I suppose that I can at least be grateful that I’m now convinced that the piece doesn’t work and, if I have anything to do with it, this will be the last time I ever see it.  Please don’t do it again.



Surprisingly enjoyable Rinaldo

10 Aug

It’s funny how shows which I didn’t like much first time round can seem better at the revival.  Glyndebourne’s decision to cast all the castrato roles in Rinaldo with counter tenors and Iestyn Davies in the title role was enough to make me decide to go, despite the fact that I’d really disliked Robert Carsen’s production when it was new in 2011.  At the first night of this revival, very capably rehearsed by Bruno Ravella, on 9th August, with no expectations of enjoyment, it didn’t seem so bad and I even found myself moderately enjoying it.

Rinaldo is an opera about spectacle.  It doesn’t have the same depth of emotion as Handel’s later operas, despite having some of his finest arias.  Most of those, in fact, were recycled (nothing particularly wrong with that, when they are so good) and you sense a plot built around them and around opportunities for dragons, furies, sirens and spectacular sets.  I can sort of see why Robert Carsen liked the idea of it as a schoolboy’s fantasy about the crusades.  And, on its own terms, it’s slick, witty and has some good moments – Rinaldo flying on a bicycle on his rescue mission and the Magus’s mad chemistry laboratory and a very funny football match.  I still think that the opera needs more colour – it looks all a bit beige and cheap.  Perhaps it suffered from being new in the same season that they did Meistersinger.  But, perhaps because I had an idea of what to expect, I found myself enjoying myself without the irritation that I remembered from the first time round.

Perhaps the new cast helped.  Iestyn Davies is on fabulous form at the moment and his performance of Rinaldo was even better than his Bertarido at ENO – singing Venti Turbini from a bike high above the stage can be no fun, but he managed it was aplomb and real excitement.  He was moving in the previous aria lamenting the absence of Almirena and throughout sang with passion, style and fervour.  I’m quite sure I wasn’t the only one buying his latest CD of Handel oratorio arias (it’s excellent).  I very much enjoyed his slightly bemused heroism.  It’s great that he’ll be back here for Saul next year.

The difference in timbres and types of counter tenors was strongly on display here.  Tim Mead was in excellent voice as Goffredo – a strong, virile sound that suggested that he wouldn’t make a bad Rinaldo himself.  Anthony Roth Costanza has a much lighter voice, not unsuitable for Eustazio and sang his arias well.  James Laing was splendid as the Magus.  With singing of this sort, I wonder how far we need to have mezzos in these roles any more.  Mind you, I wouldn’t mind hearing Sarah Connolly do Rinaldo, either…

The women were good too.  Karina Gauven was a fiery, vicious Armida who did her aria at the end of Act II splendidly and was properly villainous.  Christina Landshamer was an attractive Almirena who did her Act II aria, Lascia que piange, really beautifully.  I’m really not sure that giving her pigtails and glasses helps the character or anything else, really.  Joshua Hopkins showed you why singers such as Finley and Pisaroni have been cast as Argante – there are some really splendid arias, far above the quality of most of Handel’s bass arias, and he sang them really well, entering nicely into the production.  I think we’ll be hearing quite a lot more of him.

So there wasn’t a weak link in the cast, Ottavio Dantone’s conducting was vigorous, fleet and stylish and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was on excellent form.  Musically alone this was an evening of huge pleasure and one felt a certain indulgence towards the production.  If you’re a fan of really good Handel singing, it’s well worth trying to get hold of a ticket.






Intimate Traviata

7 Aug

La traviata, for me, works best when it’s intimate and when the relationships and characters are properly delineated so that we can identify and empathise with them. That’s why Glyndebourne, with its intimate auditorium and long preparation time has the potential to do an outstanding production of it. And, even if their latest production by Tom Cairms didn’t quite make the “outstanding” list, the performance I saw on 5th August had a great deal going for it.

The preparation time showed here. This production had been incredibly thoughtfully rehearsed – you felt that each member of the chorus had a particular personality and that the relationships among the minor characters had been well thought out. Just as an example, I don’t think I’d ever noticed the servant at Flora’s party who announces dinner. Here, the role was shown clearly. The servants at Violetta’s place in the country were fully in the picture and had personality. Oliver Dunn’s Marquis D’Obigny and his relationship with Hanna Hipp’s Flora again was really well drawn. Eddie Wade’s Baron, Graeme Broadbent’s Doctor and, particularly Magdalena Molendowska’s Annina had strong, truthful personalities and acting. They were real people.

Then the casting was excellent. I have a hunch that this season is particularly rich in the “you heard them first here” aspects of Glyndebourne casting and, with Venera Gimadieva’s Violetta, it strikes me that we have a major star in the making. Here is a very beautiful voice and one for whom the role appears to hold absolutely no technical terrors. She sings the words with real clarity and colour – I loved the way she did the opening of Ah fors e lui to Annina – conversationally so that, for the first, time I realised what that line was about and that there had been a dream of “the one”. Her Dite alla giovine was very affecting and she conveyed the inherent goodness of Violetta. Others have moved me more and, as she sings it more often, I hope that she’ll develop the ability that Cotrubas and Miriciou had to stop my heart and move me to tears with their singing – but this is a very special voice indeed and I’m hugely looking forward to her Manon at the ROH.

Michael Fabbiano impressed me in the ENO’s Lucrezia Borgia and here he made a really interesting, gauche Alfredo who sang the role impeccably and, again, displayed a really attractive tenor, with a strong sense of style and good acting. We’ll hear a lot more of him.

Tassis Christoyannis was a slightly disappointing Ford here in 2009 but here made a very, very good elder Germont. He didn’t just sing it beautifully, making his cabaletta make sense, but also conveyed a character who never quite understood
Violetta until it was far too late – offering her money after she had capitulated in Act II and bringing out all the heavy guns of the father in his scene with Alfredo.

Mark Elder’s conducting, predictably, gave lots of pleasure and insights. The score was absolutely complete (second verses of absolutely everything but with a nice variation to all of them). I loved the way he pointed the orchestral details so that you were aware of them, but they didn’t distract – the precise articulation of the strings in the Germont/Violetta duet gave real pleasure. Companies often give Traviata to their latest pet routinier and it was a joy to a hear a major conductor deal with the score.

I’ve often felt sceptical about Tom Cairns as a director but was impressed by this production. it feels like a series of flashbacks from Violetta’s deathbed. It’s in modern dress and we’re not quite clear exactly what she is dying from. Hildegard Bechtler’s sets are quite stark – a bare grey curved wall, providing different spaces – possibly a little sparse but allowing you to concentrate on the acting. And, as I’ve suggested, it was the clarity and conviction of the acting that carried this production through. He achieved two heart-stopping moments. The first was in the second Act finale where it actually looked as though Alfredo and Violetta might get back together in spite of it all and Germont stopped them. Then, at the very end, Violetta was left entirely on her own and, as she felt that she was recovering, walked towards a white light, alone in her death.

Looking back on it, the most memorable Traviatas that I’ve seen have been the ones that specialised in the intimacy and the relationships and which were in theatres small enough for those to come across: Jonathan Miller’s for Kent Opera in 1979, Annabel Arden’s for Opera North in 1997 or those, like Konwitschny’s at ENO whcih took a particular take on the opera. This production was in the former category and if, in the last resort, I’ve been more moved in others, it was a joy to see the opera treated with such care and intensity and in a theatre where it fits perfectly.

My cheapskate Don Giovanni

3 Aug

If you want to go to Glyndebourne on the cheap, I strongly suggest that you avoid Box 20, seat 3.  I remember the logic of my choosing it for the performance of Don Giovanni on 29th July: I wasn’t that fond of the Jonathan Kent production, but the young cast might be interesting and, for £30, what did I have to lose?  The answer was about 75% of the action and, even if you don’t like the production, it’s quite frustrating not to be able to see the action and how that cast react to each other.  The sound, however, was fine.

It begins well.  The opening chords of the overture crash out just as the house lights dim, causing considerable surprise to the audience.  Andres Orozco-Estrada conducted a lively, fleet, quicksilver account of the overture and the LPO played smoothly and gave considerable pleasure.  Throughout the evening, their playing and conducting was alert and thoughtful, the speeds dynamic and stylish.  It’s not the greatest or deepest conducting of the opera that I’ve heard, but it gave a lot of pleasure and had a youthful energy about it that worked very well for the young cast.

Elliot Todore made a very handsome, sexy Giovanni – charismatic and with a steely determination about him.  I prefer a slightly more honeyed voice – La ci darem and the serenade were very nicely done but, ultimately, lacked the element of making you go weak at the knees that I really look for here.  I wonder if his future isn’t as a Leporello.  That role was sung very well indeed by Edwin Crossley-Mercer: he had the right cynical air, a very strong voice and simply needs more experience before he has the pungencyand way with the text of some of his predecessors.

The women were very strong indeed. Layla Claire struck me as a major find as Anna: a bright, clear voice, absolutely secure in both arias.  Both arias were sung out of my sight and I can’t speak about her acting.  Serena Farnocchia, a nice Mimi here, made a very impressive Elvira – passionate, secure, articulating the words, as you would expect, with real meaning.  I’ve heard more desperation and depth in Mi Tradi, but this gave lots of pleasure.  I very much enjoyed Lenak Macikova’s Zerlina – a cunning, rather manipulative performance – I loved the way she kept watching for Masetto’s reaction in Batti, batti.   If I were Masetto, I’d be calling that marriage off right now.  He was played by Brandon Cedel – a good, strong voice and a nice presence.  I could see him graduating to Giovanni or Leporello without much trouble.

Ben Johnson made a nice Ottavio and I very much enjoyed his elegant sing of Dalla sua pace – some gorgeous pianissimi and colouring of the phrases.  I was sorry that the Vienna version used here deprives us of Il mio tesoro – the Zerlina/Leporello duet is amusing once but I hope that next time Glyndebourne goes back to the usual composite version.  Taras Shtonda was one of the best Commendatores I’ve heard – his black voice implacable and, indeed, commanding.

I can’t really speak about the visual side, but what I could see suggested that Lloyd Wood, the revival director, had slightly lightened the dark approach of Jonathan Kent (fine by me) but that he couldn’t alter the fact that this Don Giovanni is as much about negotiating the very heavy set and some spectacular effects as about trying to tells about characters.

So, not a bad evening and I really ought to have been more selective with my seats or paid a bit more.  It wasn’t one of those definitive or hugely special evenings that you’ll remember for ever as one the great Don Giovannis but it was very enjoyable, well prepared, without a weak link in the cast and I’ll wager that I come across most of them again in starrier circumstances and that I’ll pay more to hear them.