Archive | October, 2014

Golden Girl

28 Oct

ENO’s new Girl of the Golden West, which I saw on 27th October is one of their great evenings.  Itstarts with a bang – the prelude begins while the lights are up and Keri-Lynn Wilson conducts it with gusto, subtlety and absolute command of the idiom. You know you’re in safe hands. The same applies when the curtain goes up, a picture of the Polka – three rooms, bar safe and dance area – just before it opens. You know it’s Richard Jones and you know it’s going to work.

It has all of Jones’s trademarks: precise, clear movements, striking stage pictures and really good, clear acting. He gets the melodrama of the piece – at one point, Minnie opens her cabin door and all you see is a gun pointing at her. The stage are pictures strong and achieved withouts looking contrived or unnatural. It’s a gem of a piece of technical direction. Aside from some slight updating – the Polka has electric light – there’s hardly any interference. It’s a strong, clear reading of the piece which holds you in its grip and which responds directly to the music.  It’s as winning and sensible a version as the old Faggioni production at the Royal Opera House – interesting that, if you ignore the dismal Holland Park offering, this is only the second London production in fifty years.

Miriam Buether’s set looks great – clearly defined areas and the stage suitably reduced for Minnie’s cabin. At the end, the miners and sheriff’s office are pulled away disappearing into the distance – a lovely effect.

The cast is great. Susan Bullock’s Minnie is marvellously assured. She conveys the integrity and certainty of the woman, of the dawning of love for Johnson. You could tell that she had the men under her thumb and almost made you believe that she could persuade them to let Johnson go at the end. She may not quite have the voluptuousness of Westbroek and at times the voice tends towards the squally when under pressure, but she sang with beautiful softness and charted the woman’s emotions perfectly. She sang the English words clearly.

Peter Auty was Johnson, catching the certainty, the charm and the selfishness of the man. He sang really well. Ideally you might want a little more heft but there’s a nice Puccinian bloom about the voice and, again, the diction was great. Craig Colclough was a gruff, convincingly depressive Rance. The three struck sparks off each other.

The rest were first rate – a nice mixture of youth and experience. It was great to have Graham Clark as Nick – beautifully observed and clearly sung – and there was great work from Nicholas Masters (Ashby), Leigh Melrose (Sonora), George Humphreys (Jake Wallace) and Clare Presland (Wowkle) in particular, but they were leading a really excellent group of miners and fine chorus work.  It felt like a community

It’s the first time that I’ve heard the piece in English and Kelley Rourke’s translation caught the idiom of the piece really well. The opening sounds slightly odd – even translated it sounds italianate, but as the dialogue begins you start listening as if it were a play or musical. Diction, as I’ve suggested, was really clear and I loved having the directness of the words.

Ms Wilson strikes me as a major talent – she had the piece perfectly under control; you could hear the words, the orchestra was in the sort of form it reserves for Edward Gardner and the whole thing gelled into a hugely successful, enjoyable show.  Girl of the Golden West is a piece of hokum, but it’s perfectly contrived and with a production that gets it as well as this, it feels like a masterpiece.  I hope they bring it back.

Return of the Screw

26 Oct

Glyndebourne’s Turn of the Screw is back again – its fourth incarnation – and I saw the performance on 24th October.  It’s one of their strongest productions and repays seeing again even though Jonathan Kent wasn’t back to rehearse it – too busy in Chichester doing an outstanding job with Gipsy – well worth a visit if you can get a ticket.

I have mixed feelings about Turn of the Screw.  I find it compelling and gripping to watch.  At the end of a good performance, I feel rather as I do after Wozzeck or Winterreise or King Lear, wrung out and not really feeling like applauding or anything much.  Technically, it seems to me to be almost faultless, the scenes just the right length, the vocal writing impeccable and inexorably building up to the climax.  You watch fixated as the tragedy unfolds.  And yet, and yet.  I find the ghosts and their relationship with the children most problematic in the sense that I find it quite hard to pin down exactly what it is that causes the possession.  And that perhaps says more about my literal approach.  I find Myfanwy Piper’s text for the ghosts, in particular, difficult to take.  I don’t know what it means.  While this gives scope for directors, I rarely find that it’s satisfactorily addressed and that feeling of unresolved ambiguity also leaves me with a slightly unsatisfied feeling.  Probably my fault.

One thing which struck me at this performance which I’d not heared before was the little crackle of percussion and trumpet preceding Peter Quint’s first entry which reminded me very strongly of that associated with Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I think it would be interesting if directors could explore more the attraction that the ghosts possess for the children.  We always seem to see Peter Quint in his black valet’s clothes and Miss Jessel in dripping black like some refugee from Rusalka.  But don’t they also present a world that’s different from the stifling boringness of Mrs Grose and the Governess?  Isn’t there a magic to it?  Could they be attractive?  Does there need to be a sexual element between the ghosts and the children?   Isn’t it more about an idea of an alternative?  And is there not something in Britten about that attraction of being outside the norm?

Jonathan Kent’s production doesn’t explore that particularly but it’s very good at everything else.  Paul Brown’s set is mesmerisingly good with its multiple revolves and ability to achieve scene changes seamlessly – if, these days, a bit noisily.  I think that the updating to the 1950s works well in creating the right sort of social ambience and Natalia Romaniw’s Governess nicely caught the element of social climbing about her.  Perhaps some of the focus has become fuzzier over time.  This time I missed an element of knowingness and defiance about Miles that previous productions brought out and I seem to recall greater ambivalence about the Mrs Grose/Governess relationship before.  That didn’t stop the opera packing a huge punch.

The cast is strong.  Ms Romaniw makes an impulsive, naive Governess, she sings it beautifully and her diction (as was the case with everyone) made the surtitles more or less redundant.  This was a hugely promising performance, making me want to hear her in more Britten and much else.  Anne Mason is excellent as Mrs Grose, though I missed the sense that I’ve had from others, that she was taking Flora away as much to get her away from the Governess as for any other reason.  She sang it convincingly and acted it convincingly.  Miranda Keys made a fearsome Miss Jessel and others have made her grief and bitterness more moving – there’s a bit more to the relationship between the two than Piper’s libretto or this production make clear.  Anthony Gregory was a young, handsome Prologue and Quint.  I could have done perhaps with an extra ounce more power, but this was encouragingly promising singing and good sinister acting.

The children were pretty strong.  Tom Delgado-Little sang clearly as Miles and brought his own personality to the part.  Louise Woodley was also excellence as Flora and got the best out of her burst of anger at the Governess – one of those harrowing moments in the opera.

Leo McFall conducted confidently and the orchestra played as well as it should.  It felt like a strong ensemble performance and every word told.

So, it’s good to see the show again.  The audience on this Friday night wasn’t full, but I hope that audiences on the road will be better.  Whatever my doubts about the work, it’s an enthralling evening and, at the end, I was silent and didn’t feel like applauding – which is as it should be.

Futile Foscari

18 Oct

I’ve yet to see the point of I due Foscari, which I foolishly attended at the ROH on 17th October.

I share Verdi’s mature view on it that it is just dull. First, there are acres of back story which aren’t adequately conveyed in the plot. The principal villain has about three lines and no opportunity to convey any motivation other than villainy and the opera seems to consist entirely of people bemoaning their fate and doing hardly anything about it.  There is absolutely nothing to make you interested in the plot, wonder what might happen next and there is no action which determines what happens next.  Friends who were seeing this for the first time raved about hearing ideas which Verdi was to do better later – fair enough, but that can’t compensate for the sheer monotony of the piece.  The musical use of the chorus may be interesting but it’s not remotely as exciting as, say, Nabucco or Macbeth. And there’s also an absence of any really exciting or interesting arias. Most of them are pleasant enough and do their job of conveying what the characters are thinking but you really imagine them appearing in any singer’s Verdi Favourites recital disc.

But for some reason, companies will do it. This is the fourth production here in the last 40 years. I’ve seen three of them: at Scottish (dull), the last ROH one (dull and silly) and this (dull and nasty). Did we need it? The ROH hasn’t done Ernani in living memory and that is at least fun. I’ve no great brief for I Lombardi, but Jerusalem hasn’t been staged in London in my memory and is the only Verdi that I haven’t seen. The last Luisa Miller was a disaster and another would be nice.  I’d love to see another Stiffelio, which at least has real interest and a decent plot, together with some really outstanding arias and ensembkes. Why not try staging Battaglia di Legnano, Corsaro, or even Giorno di Regno or Oberto?

The reason, of course, was that Placido Domingo felt that he owed the world his Francesco and what Mr Domingo wants, the opera houses of the world feel they have to provide – in this case Los Angeles, where he just happens to be in charge, Valencia, Vienna and London. He is a great artist and we owe him a lot and you can only admire his phenomenal energy and wonder how he manages to learn all those roles, conduct and run a couple of opera houses.  But exactly how much indulgence do we have to give him when he moves to roles for which his voice is patently unsuitable or where, as with some of Wagner roles, I’ve felt that he’s relied on the beauty of his voice over depth of characterisation?  I felt that he got away with Boccanegra because it provided an opportunity for him to deliver an outstanding characterisation in a really great opera and you could almost forget that the voice really doesn’t have the sort of qualities that Verdi was looking for.

Here, however, I really wondered what he was doing.  The timbre of his voice is just wrong for most Verdi baritone roles. Francesco needs something to contrast with Jacopo – a darker, deeper tone with different colours than Domingo can provide. It’s crying out for Hvorostovsky and, in an opera that needs all the help it can get, the absence of that was a major drawback. At this performance, Domingo seemed to me to sound his age. His first aria didn’t gather much applause and I don’t think this was because we were all moved by it. There was greater enthusiasm about the duet with Lucrezia and he did the prison scene decently enough. But it isn’t a role that gives him much to do dramatically and I felt that his presence actually made the opera seem even duller. I believe that he did his death scene well, but by that time I’d given up.

The rest were adequate to good. Francesco Meli, in particular, did some very fine things as Jacopo – delicate phrasing, not putting the voice under pressure and avoiding showmanship. He couldn’t avoid the role appearing lacrymose and dull but he did that very sympathetically.  It was particularly impressive that he was able to sing so well when being lowered from the flies in a very wobbly cage or being hoisted on a rope.  I felt that the role was at the edge of his capability but I’d like to hear him in more sympathetic circumstances as the Duke in Rigoletto, Nemorino or Edgardo. I wasn’t greatly taken by Daniela Agrosta as Lucrezia – rather an breathy, squally performance, I thought, with not much interesting to do. Maurizio Murraro was a very excellent Loredano even if I didn’t register who he was until the end of the second Act.

Pappano conducted. He secured excellent playing from the orchestra and fine singing from the chorus without actually making the piece sound remotely interesting or exciting.  Of course there are some good things in the opera but none of it interested me or made me feel that I was doing anything other than wasting my time.  This short piece felt very long indeed.

Thaddeus Strassberger directed as if he was aware that the action is pretty boring and took the usual director’s way out of giving us lots of other things to look at, except when Mr Domingo was on the stage.  This meant lots of prisoners being tortured nastily, councillors crossing the stage and a bevy of nuns in white.  What is it about this opera and nuns?  Everding’s production here in 1995 gave Lucrezia a bevy of them that followed her around wherever she went.  Apart from that, he did nothing to make the characters interesting or the piece itself dramatic.  The direction of the characters was pretty non-existent.  I blame the opera.  The costumes were in period and Kevin Knight’s set was ugly and we had the obligatory video designs for interludes which didn’t help much – and flashed up a puerile summary of the story so far that rather insulted our intelligence (“The serious crime of High Treason”).  I don’t think that there’s much you can do with this piece and Mr Strassberger didn’t convince me otherwise.

As I’ve suggested, I left at the interval at Act II.  I think I’ve seen this piece more than enough for this lifetime.

Family Traviata

12 Oct

You know that feeling when you’re watching a show with someone and they’re clearly not enjoying it.  And it infects you and you start to think what’s wrong with it and you cease to enjoy it yourself.  There is an opposite feeling which is that of sitting next to someone who is obviously completely spellbound by it.  That’s what happened when I took Emma, my niece, to see the Glyndebourne Tour’s La traviata on 11th October.

Family and friends had been sceptical.  How do you explain about courtesans?  It’s in Italian; she won’t understand.  That huge Germont/Violetta duet’s awfully long and then she just sings in the last Act.  I think this completely misunderstands how children approach theatre and opera.  Or at least how some do.  I remember seeing Cosi fan tutte when I was eight.  I found the arias a bit long but I could follow what was going.  I didn’t get the nuances; I was too young to understand the emotions but I was fascinated by the action, by sounds and the glamour of it all.  They don’t have to understand everything – that will come – but if you can find that they like the business of people singing when they should be speaking then, I would say, La traviata is as good an opera as any for them.  And Sarah Lenton did an excellent pre-performance talk that struck exactly the right balance between adult and children’s understanding.

The good things about Tom Cairn’s production that I enjoyed in the summer remain.  It’s well thought-through.  Time has been taken to plan and get the detail right.  The singers know what they’re singing about and convey it.  The moves and choreography are really well judged.  I remember two visual moments that we both loved.  The first is at the beginning of the Act II finale, with Violetta’s solo – she’s stood there, spotlit and all eyes are on her as she  explains what she feels about Alfredo.  The second was for Parigi o cara – the two of them sat on the flaw together, looking out, planning the future that cannot be – and this was helped by Zach Borichevsky’s really soft, gorgeous, tender singing of it.  The sets look a bit less cramped  if you’re sitting further back.  Above all, as I watched this I was aware of what a good opera this is – how perfectly paced, how wonderfully the music makes you understand the emotions.  In this respect, the contrast between this and the dismal ROH Rigoletto the other week, could not have been greater.

The cast wasn’t quite up to the summer.  Irina Dubrovskaya has the notes for Violetta and the technique to bring off each of the scenes.  She’s a sympathetic presence and acted convincingly – more obviously ill than her predecessor.  What I missed was the level of colouring, the ability to sing words and invest them with the meaning they need.  As I right, I’m listening to Gheorgiu sing the Act I aria and cabaletta, where phrasing and attention to the words are of the first order.  Dubrovskaya is good, but doesn’t grab you in the was the best Violettas do.

Zach Borichevsky makes a tall and gauche Alfredo and I admired his singing hugely.  I’ve mentioned Parigi o cara, but his Act II aria and cabaletta were really sensitively done.  He strikes me as a very promising tenor for this repertory.  He may not be quite as finished a tenor as Fabbiano, but he does excellently here. Roman Burdenko, familiar from the last Falstaff here, was a good Giorgio Germont, though there was a roughness about his voice and, again, not quite the same care about the words that his predecessor brought.

Eddie Wade repeated his threatening, excellent Douphol and Magdalena Motendowska her fine, concerned Annina.  Otherwise, the smaller roles were done a bit better at the Festival and came over more vividly there.

David Afkham had conducted the latter performances at the Festival and there was an awful lot of Mark Elder’s performance that I recognised.  There were the details in the orchestra throughout the Germont/Violetta duet and a great sense of pace.  I’m not complaining about this at all: I can’t think of many models I’d rather have for a young Verdi conductor and it was all of a piece for the opera.  The orchestra and chorus were both really excellent and the piece came across as a vivid, dramatic piece of theatre.  And the only thing that seemed wrong to Emma was Violetta being left alone at her death – and I could see what she meant.

When opera’s taken as seriously as it is here, it’s hard to imagine it not working.  Emma’s seat cost me £10 and she sat, watching it fixedly, listening.  She’s decided that she like opera.  What should be the next?  I think she ought to see the Copley Boheme before it goes and then if someone does a decent Barber or Figaro or Elisir, that would be the thing for her to learn that opera is fun too.

Family Day at Glyndebourne

12 Oct

Last year, Glyndebourne did their first Family Day – an opportunity to look round and see backstage. I couldn’t make it.  This year they did it again – free entry for people with tickets for that evening’s Traviata (though nobody seemed to be checking).  A perfect opportunity to take a niece and build on the Hansel and Gretel experience last year.  I’ll write about Traviata in the next posting, but I did want to give a special piece to praise Glyndebourne for giving us a fabulous day out and to wonder if other companies couldn’t build on it.

The setting helps, of course: there’s the space, the gardens, the sheep and the facilities and that relaxed friendliness about the place.  The weather started off threateningly but actually wasn’t too bad for most  of the day – we could walk round the gardens and get some fresh air when we felt like it.

There were a lot of events around the garden, and I hope that these were popular.  We arrived early and slipped in a demonstration of how to take cuttings – I think Emma wasn’t quite expecting that, but it gave her a nice souvenir to take home and I just hope it roots.  That filled in the time before the first event.

This was a show called Songs about Us devised, directed and presented by Dominic Harlan.  I thought this was an outstanding event.  He takes eight songs in the original languages and plays with them – telling us what they’re about, inviting us to act them, to direct them and to add new bits.  So we were all advising Heine’s hero in Morgens steh’ ich auf… to “Get a new girlfriend, drink lots of beer, go to the opera” to get over his lost love.  Pretty good advice if you ask me.  There were favourites of mine – Britten’s setting of At the Railway Station, Upway, Schumann’s Der Contrabandiste and Die beiden Grenadieren and Sibelius’s Var det en drom. together with Barber’s Solitary Hotel, which I didn’t know but loved and a really lovely song, Utah 1975 by Harlan himself.  Harlan has that incredible energy and ability to think on his feet that you need when dealing with an event of this sort, massive charm and wit and he’s a very good pianist – all the accompaniments by heart.  Paul Carey Jones and Sarah Gabriel were the splendid and very game singers.  As an encore the did Anything you can do and that was Emma’s favourite.  A lovely hour and I strongly recommend you to take any half willing young people to Harlan’s future shows.

There was an activity event surrounding La traviata, but that appeared to have been booked out within about 48 hours of booking opening.  It didn’t matter.  We could wander round the Jerwood studio and sit on the massive armchair from Enfant et les sortileges, admire the car from Nozze di Figaro, the stick of broccoli from Hippolyte et Aricie and open a box to see Banquo’s head.  We could print costumes, see how they made wigs and have our faces made up. Then there was a session in the auditorium where Sarah Lenton took us through the elements of lighting, scene shifting and dressing, talking to the articulate and passionate members of the team.  After that, we could go on the stage, touch scenery and play with the lights.  If we’d had the time there was a talk about the history of Glyndbourne.

You need refreshment during this and there was an ideal, simply, pretty inexpensive menu perfect for children and for adults looking for the equivalent of a decent pub lunch and really well done.

Finally, Sarah Lenton gave us an excellent half hour introduction to La traviata.  She told the story in a way that worked for ten year olds, made me think a bit more about the opera – I’d never quite got the catholic element of the Germont/Violetta scene before – and showing a passion and love of the opera that really whetted the appetite for what was to come.

So it made for a smashing day out – not too rushed, friendly, relaxed and great for me and for Emma.  There weren’t as many people there as I’d feared but enough for me to be pretty sure it’s worth their while doing again.  If you live within striking distance of the place, do go next year.  It would be great if other opera houses were to follow suit.