Archive | September, 2014

Reliable Otello

28 Sep

There was one great scene in the ENO’s Otello, which I saw on 25th September which reminded me of all the advantages of singing opera in English. This was the opening scene of Act IV. In that scene, Leah Crocetto sang the words so clearly, with a level of innocence and intensity that made this audience really listen. It’s a scene that I often find a bit tedious. Here, it became the emotional heart of the opera. I’ve heard it better sung, technically, the top notes more beautifully floated, but never with someone who conveyed the sheer simplicity and emotion. The English came over clearly, intelligibly and meant something. You weren’t looking at the surtitles.

This was the high spot of what struck me as a good, reliable but ultimately rather remote, unexciting Otello. David Alden’s production is updated and set in a vaguely ruined palace – positively traditional. It had its share of perversities. In the opening storm, the chorus is divided into different parts – people shout to each other across the stage and from different angles – it’s a picture of a crowd that’s busy, panicking, looking out, getting weapons and ropes. Here they’re standing at the back of the stage, a huge mass and, while this is effective, the different groups singing to each other seem odd and, however fine Adam Silverman’s lighting, it can’t avoid feeling dull, dampening the excitement, limiting the effect of Otello’s arrival.

I could go on. I’ve never felt before that the ‘fuoca di gioia’ chorus and the childrens’ chorus round Desdemona were basically rather tedious interludes in between the action or so conscious of the sheer length or the Act III finale. This may not just be Alden’s fault but his response to these numbers seemed curiously traditional. Meanwhile, the absence of a bed for Desdemona just seemed perverse.

So it was down to the performers, helped, no doubt, by Alden’s skill there. I’m a huge fan of Stuart Skelton and I thought he sang Otello magnificently. There wasn’t a hint of strain and he managed the tender passages and the love duet with real beauty.  It was among the most confident performances musically that I’ve heard. And yet he lacked that power that, say, Domingo and Charles Craig have had to move me, to make my heart stop and tears come to my eyes in, say, Ora e per sempre addio or  Dio mi potevi scagliar or at the end. And I think part of this was that I did not get the sense of the huge military giant – an aspect of the opera mostly ignored by Alden – or of the outsider. In the programme we were told that he was a very lightly tanned assimilated North African moor with virtually no blacking up. That’s fine but without the sense of the outsider of someone different, of the great hero who is brought down, you miss the grandeur and epic part of Verdi’s tragedy.

This must also have slightly blunted the effect of Jonathan Summers’s outstanding Iago. Vocally, he’s not a s free as he once was, but his abiltity to conbvey lowering jealousy and villainy is second to none. He got a level of hatred and anger into his credo that was terrifying because of its very stillness and his stillness and uncompromising certainty This was among the finest Iagos that I’ve seen.

Before the final act, I’d been less than certain about Ms Crocetto – dressed in shades of grey, she seemed a bit anonymous, her tone a bit pale.  As I’ve suggested, however, her performance in Act IV was outstanding.

Allan Clayton was a dissolute alcoholic of a Cassio – you really wondered about the wisdom of leaving him in charge in Cyprus.  And he sang very well.  Pamela Helen Stephens created a dour, uptight Emilia who came into her own in the last Act.

Edward Gardner conducted as well as you’d expect.  The orchestra sounded terrifying in the storm scene and accompanied the singers well.  As I’ve suggested you could hear a very high proportion of the words of Tom Phillips’s rather good translation.  The chorus were excellent and made just the huge sound you look for here.  The overall effect wasn’t as overwhelming as Kleiber’s but this made for a very convincing Otello.

So it was good piece of work and I strongly recommend a visit even if it didn’t strike me as the either the most radical or the most convincing take on the opera visually.

Bored and boring Rigoletto

26 Sep

Everyone makes mistakes now and then.  Mine was to buy tickets for the performance of Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House on 23rd September.  Ther ROH’s was putting it on in the first place.

To be fair, it all looked so promising.  Simon Keenlyside is one my favourite singers, Aleksandra Kurzak has impressed me every time I’ve seen her here and Saimir Pirgu seems to have a growing reputation.  Maurizio Benini couldn’t spoil it and, the last time I saw David McVicar’s production (admittedly in 2002), I thought it thoroughly enjoyable.

Oh dear.  The prelude was unobjectionable but then the opera itself started.  What may have been bright, alive and well-planned was turned into an orgy by numbers: loads of simulated sex with clothes firmly in place, people fondling each other to order and a naked man making sure we saw his genitals for a bit.  It looked tawdry and brain-dead.  Monterone was accompanied by a group of soldiers with axes which they pointed ineffectually at him. Pirgu sang his aria with the grace of a bored accountant and sound under-powered in the ensembles.  He gave that sort of generalised operatic acting of someone who doesn’t really know why he is standing there.

Keenlyside looked lithe and bounced a lot – using his sticks as aids to moving long distances rather than because he needed them.  His acting seemed uncertain. Vocally he was, perhaps, a little light but nothing to complain about.

After that scene, the revolve cranked arthritically round.  Keenlyside came back, rather like a dodgy monk and not really needing the sticks at all.  Brindsley Sherratt made a very strong Sparafucile and that scene went pretty well.  Kurzak arrived, sounding slightly out of voice as Gilda and the most dispiriting part of the evening began.  There was nothing particularly wrong with her singing or Keenlyside’s – there was just no evidence of interest, of connection or emotion between them.  Once Pirgu arrived, it got even worse.  He moved gamely enough, sang adequately, but, again there was nothing to suggest what he was thinking, if indeed he was.  Both he and Kurzak seemed to move because they’d been told to.  His cry of anger at the interruption made no effect at all.

Kurzak went on to sing probably the best Caro nome that I’ve heard in the theatre but it was fine technical singing and, in any case, too late.  The remainder of the Act happened and I left.

I love Rigoletto for its passion, its over-the-top melodrama but, above all, for the sheer conviction. The singers need to believe in and know what they’re doing and the director needs to be able to get them meld and provide some sort of conviction. All the conviction of 2002 had ebbed away in the umpteen revivals between then and now. The set looks tatty and, unless McVicar can be persuaded back to rehearse it, it should be retired quickly.  It’s unacceptable to anyone seeing the opera with their brain present rather than in the cloakroom or switched to neutral.

In lots of ways, I was less worried by whether or not Simon Keenlyside is a true Verdian singer than by what struck me was what an uncertain, unhappy dramatic performance he gave. The voice is no less suitable than Fischer-Dieskau’s and, while it might not be my preferred sort of baritone for the role you can’t deny the fact that he sings the notes easily and effortlessly and with real elegance. This would be fine for, say Ankarstrom or Luna, but Rigoletto needs an additional dimension – bite, words, an ugliness and bitterness about the tone and Keenlyside lacks these. He seemed profoundly uncomfortable in an interpretation built for a much larger, more powerful individual. The sticks seemed an encumbrance rather than a necessary aid and he didn’t have the presence or power to make this work.  I hate writing this about one of my favourite singers but, if he’s going to go this far out of his comfort zone, he really needs a strong director and a production built round him if it’s to stand a hope of working.

Kurzak gave us brand X acting and Pirgu a brand X tenor, with a voice not quite big enough for the house making no attempt to point words or have any involvement in the plot.  Both needed direction if they were going to make this work. The smaller roles seemed well enough done – I liked Duncan Rock’s enthusiastic, show-off Marullo.  Benini, orchestra and chorus went through the motions without giving the impression that they cared much.

If it all suddenly gelled in the second act, then I’m sorry but I thought this was a horrid throw-back to the bad old days of throwing opera on the stage and hoping the best and that the audience don’t notice.  Well I did and it does the ROH no good at all.

Vivaldi in concert

19 Sep

Opera Settecento is a new venture planning to specialise in the opera of the 18th century, particularly, the first half. The thesis is that, now that Handel is pretty much mainstream, we ought to explore the other composers of the time – Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Hasse and the like. They want to do this as fully as possible and with casts, as close as possible to those of the first night. I’m in favour of anyone who’s going to extend my opera collection and so was at the Cadogan Hall for their first performance – Vivaldi’s Griselda – on September 18th.

The story’s relatively familiar – the wife, Griselda, whose fidelity is tested by her husband Gualtiero is the subject of unwanted attention from the villain Ottone while Gualtiero gives out that he will marry Costanza who has arrived with her guardian, Corrado and her lover, Roberto.  Costanza happens to be Gualtiero and Griselda’s long lost daughter.  Once you’ve sorted that out, the plotline is readily followable and, as it struck me, quite thin. It’s one of Vivaldi’s shorter operas and, I think, was done successfully by Buxton about 30 years ago.

It’s difficult to judge a piece on a concert performance. Inevitably comparisons are made with Handel – the opera was written in 1735, so post the London composer’s greatest operatic masterpiece. What struck me was the amount of recitative, which seemed to be in significantly longer chunks than in most Handel operas – perhaps understandably if you are writing for a Venetian audience that can understand. Secondly, there are fewer arias and they are all lengthy da capo numbers. This means that there is less opportunity to establish character – Handel’s technique of giving his leading characters at least six arias of varying lengths doesn’t seem to apply here and I wasn’t convinced that they were geared with a particularly character in mind. Take the villain, Ottone. His first aria is a gorgeous aria of love for the heroine. Fair enough, but there isn’t anything to suggest the man who removes her son, threatens to kill him and tries to force her into marriage. As in most operas of the time the arias were of varying quality. Apart from Ottone’s aria and a final virtuoso one with horn obbligato for Corrado, those in Act I struck me as pleasant but ordinary. Those in Act II, particularly for Corrado, Ottone, Costanza and Roberto are in an altogether different league and were a real delight to hear. The trio at the end of that act is pleasant too. But it struck me as meagre compared with Handel’s masterpieces. The acts are odd lengths – the first two an hour each, the last half an hour – with musical goodies mostly in Act II. I could understand it if a director were to divide the second act in half to make it a two, rather than three, acter.

It might work on the stage with a sensitive director and, possibly, an English translation. There are, as I’ve suggested some really good arias, but whether it would really make a satisfying evening strikes me as debatable.

So what was the performance like? Thomas Foster conducted vigorously and, I thought, stylishly. The orchestra played well and relished the rather charming accompaniments. The arias gave a lot of pleasure.  There was a musical commitment and belief in the piece.

The singers were mostly young, which always rings alarm bells for me in operas that were written for seriously fine virtuoso singers. None were Italian speakers and you could tell. Surely the recits should be swifter, fleeter and take less time than the rather, plodding, heaviness that we had here and surely they should be more communicative. A sense of lassitude descended whenever they started.  All sang from the parts with variable attempts at acting.

As with the recits, I felt that the arias would have benefited from great attention to the words and to the opportunities for varying the expression and actually putting the thoughts across. What we had were a group of singers coping to a greater or lesser extent with some very, very virtuosic arias and you wondered how much real preparation or coaching they’d had. With this caveat, there was a lot to enjoy. Hilary Summers made a noble Griselda even if you felt that she was far too sensible to be made to go through this rigmarole. Kiandra Howarth as Costanza sang her second Act aria really strongly and I wished only for clearer words. Erica Eloff as Ottone struck me as someone to watch with two gems of arias which she did very nicely indeed. Andrew Watts as Roberto, Costanza’s love interest, has the best range of arias and showed his experience. As Corrado, Tom Verney seized his opportunities with infectious enthusiasm – he’s still at the Guildhall, according to the programme but should, I imagine, be on the list of every group wanting to find a good young counter-tenor. He confirmed the promise his Swallow with the BYO last week. Ronan Busfield, as Gualtiero, the stern husband, struck me as having the weakest arias and as being most stretched by them.

So it was an interesting and worthwhile evening that deserved a better audience than turned out (though it was attentive and enthusiastic).  Those behind the company are clearly serious and enthusiastic (and provided an expensive, but very full programme with the text and translation) and I do hope that they build on this strong start and let us explore even more of these by-ways.  They promise a Handel piece for the London Handel Festival another opera here (“probably by Pergolesi”) this time next year.

Swallow Flies

14 Sep

I enjoy Jonathan Dove’s operas – Flight, Pinocchio and Enchanted Pig may not be the most up-to-the-minute pieces of work musically but they make for seriously enjoyable, accessible evenings in the theatre and they deserve their success. So I was looking forward to seeing his first full length opera – The Little Green Swallow – done by British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre on 13th September, which also gave me the opportunity to hear some young singers and indulge in star spotting.

To be honest, it feels like a first opera.  The libretto, which Dove himself arranged from Gozzi’s sequel to Love of Three Oranges, seems to me to make a lot of mistakes – a major love interest only gets to sing in the final act, we never really understand until too late what the Swallow is and why he gets to marry another of the leading characters and, with five couples on the stage at the end there are probably too many major characters for two hours twenty of music.  Then musically you often feel that he hasn’t worked out when to stop.  There’s a quartet in the first Act where two characters discover that their parents think they are bastards – you get fed up of the repetitions of the word “bastards”, not because there’s a problem with the word but because it just gets boring.  The ensembles generally suffer from an uncertainty about when they should end.  Orchestrally, you long for something other than John Adams-ish ostinato beginning every musical number and long for a bit more individual musical characterisation of the characters.

Having said that, there are quite a lot of virtues.  Dove writes very gratefully for the voice: you hear the crucial words and thesse came across really well in Adam Pollock’s excellent translation from the Italian.  Above all, he writes ensembles: it’s a joy to have so many quartets, sextets and septets.  Watching this, you sense a composer who loves the operatic form, is at ease with its conventions and keen to exploit them.  Dove has written and, I hope, will write better operas but this is confident, enjoyable first attempt.

The cast struck me as talented and all the roles were well taken.  I was impressed by Adam Temple-Smith as Renzo who has a very good light-ish tenor voice that sounded to me as if it would be very good in Rossini if he has the top for it.  Filipa van Eck started off a light, soubrettish soprano as Barbarina but developed real depth and feeling as the role went on.  Emma Kerr as Ninetta has two major arias and her large, dramatic voice struck me as having very significant potential – she has a personality that makes you watch her as well and she turned what could be a very passive role into something interesting.  Ed Ballard displayed a nice personality and good baritone as the Papageno-like Truffaldino and Joseph Padfield, whom I’ve seen at the Guildhall recently, was an alert, puzzled King.  Elizabeth Karani had great fun as the wicked queen.  Tom Verney, as the Swallow, displayed a more than promising counter-tenor even if the role didn’t give him much scope for acting.  Ditto for Eirlys Myfanwy Davies and the statue Pompea (really good in her Act III number) and Matt Buswell as the other statue, Colman.

As you may gathered, the opera requires some magical effects – people transformed into statues and animals, singing apples and so forth.  It was apparently effortlessly staged by Stuart Barker with outstanding designs and puppet effects from Simon Bejer.  Colourful costumes and props against a black background struck me as absolutely right and the singers moved well and acted strongly.  These two strike me as seriously talented individuals who ought to be used more often.

Lionel Friend conducted, as you would expect, expertly.  He was considerate to his singers and got the Southbank Sinfonia playing really well.

I had the sense that, for all its flaws, this opera was hugely enjoyed by the performers and by the audience while the performance itself pretty much made the best case you could imagine for the work.  It’s a good piece for students and, I would also say, for the young children in the audience.