Archive | November, 2014

Rivetting Poppea

16 Nov

The final Opera North offering in its autumn season in Newcastle was its new production of Coronation of Poppea on 15th November.  I don’t think it’s been seen here since the mid-70s when I think that Scottish Opera brought it for a single performance.  What interested me was that this performance was (a) watched by a pretty full house, which I very much doubt was case in the 1970s, and (b) cheered to the rafters.  It reminded me of exactly why Opera North is special.

The first and most important thing was that I felt that they got to the heart of how this piece should be done: as an intimate piece, with a strong text which the audience could understand.  And so we had an orchestra of eight on the stage, a strong translation, outstanding diction and no surtitles.  So we had that wonderful experience of being in a theatre where an audience is listening to the words, laughing at the jokes and doing so with a concentration that you get with a play.  I’ve not had felt that for a while – since Don Carlos here or Semele at the Royal Opera House.  There was a silence, people weren’t coughing or fidgeting or whispering (as they had during last night’s Traviata).

Laurence Cummings and Albery had made their own edition.  I don’t know enough about the piece to be able to know how far it was changed and amended.  Certainly the serving maid had been cut and the duet with the Valetto was with between him and Ottavia.  Not sure what I think about that – in an opera about the complexities sex, power and love there’s something to be said for a duet showing the uncomplicated side.  Cupid had a larger role than I remembered but that may be my memory playing tricks (I haven’t seen the piece since 2008).  The orchestra – all strings and harpsichords – played very persuasively and elegantly for Cummings.

Albery’s production was, as you would expect, strong and thoughtful, with great acting.  It’s set in what looks like a a morgue or a canteen and in modern dress.  There’s a threatening, almost mafioso atmosphere and a young, sexy, good looking cast able to act an convey the emotions outstandingly.  I won’t forget the varied, ambivalent emotions of the final duet, the mixture of sex, fear, lust and love was portayed stunningly.  Albery portrayed a violent, fearful state, absolutely correctly.  The fact that Drusilla, Ottone and Ottavia ended up dead seemed appropriate for a state where Nero was on the rampage.  He caught the distinction between the hard-bitten cynicism of the servants and the idealism and angst of the aristocracy and told the story clearly.  The tension ratcheted up during the evening and I couldn’t say for sure that Monteverdi would have had any problems with it.

The cast was as good at acting as singing.  Sandra Piques Eddy makes a very beautiful, commanding, certain Poppea while retaining a certain naivete  that seemed to me absolutely right. She clearly had James Laing’s Nero in thrall and he managed that mixture of sexual dependence with the psychotic power of the man.  Both sang marvellously and created an atmosphere of beauty and stillness with and underlying tension in their duet at the end.  James Creswell was a dignified academic of a Seneca and his three students sang their number really well.  Catherine Hopper was a rather dowdy, desperate Ottavia, which I liked and sang her farewell to Rome with a real sadness and desperation.

Christopher Ainslie gave a really fine performance as Ottone.  He sang it marvellously and acted it even better, getting the conflict between love and hate really well – you sympathised with the mess he’d got himself into.  He and Katherine Manley as Drusilla did their scenes together beautifully – she catching the innocence, love and strength of the character.  Their duet was rivetting as they explored the different emotions.

Fiona Kimm gave an understated but hugely effective performance as Arnalta – what a gem that last recitative of hers is.  And I liked it that she wasn’t a tenor in drag – it chimed with Albery’s dark view of the piece and didn’t distract you with the associations.  Of the support, I was particularly impressed by Emilie Renard as a bright, really well acted Cupid – brightly sung as well and Clara Hendrick’s doubling of Fortuna and the Valetto.

Some critics have been a bit sniffy about the production and the evening.  Whatever imperfections there might have been – and perhaps the odd more opulent voice and a little more money for a slightly less grungy set might have been welcome – the sheer power of the evening, the way in which it demonstrated what a great masterpiece this is, held this audience absolutely spellbound.  It’s intelligence, clarity and honesty are all part of what make this company special and we left on a high after a really fine evening.  Catch it.



Thoughtful Traviata

15 Nov

After last night’s half full Bartered Bride, I was getting concerned about Newcastle’s opera audience.  At least the Traviata tonight (14th November) was just about sold out and there was a warmth in the auditorium and a sense that there was a nice mixture of people who knew their opera and those for whom this was a first visit to an opera which, by my calculations, hasn’t been done here for over a decade.

They were treated to what struck me as a thoughtful, intelligent, imperfect performance but one where the pluses hugely outweighed the doubts.

The first act was the least good.  The prelude seems to consist of a video of the TB bacillus developing and close-ups of the internal parts of the lungs.  I wasn’t convinced that this was either helpful or necessary.  We begin in a sleazy party in the 19th century.  It’s good to be reminded of exactly what Violetta’s profession is even if the execution of it looks almost as cliched as the David McVicar Rigoletto.  There’s a very promising, young looking Alfredo from Ji-Min Park who sings softly and uses the words, a really good Douphol from Peter Savidge and a vocally excellent Violetta from Hye-Youn Lee.  What I missed from her, though was any individuality or sense that she had a clue what Violetta was about in this act.  Her Sempre libera was pretty stunning, though.

The second act improved considerably.  Visually, it looked absolutely right – a simple blue cyclorama and almost bare stage was all you needed.  Mr Park sang his aria really well – he looks young and gauche and caught the sheer simplicity and inexperience of Alfredo.  Roland Wood’s arrival as Germont raised the temperature even further.  From his entrance he seemed to have the character right.  His opening lines made you feel that here is a real Verdi baritone and he and Ms Lee knocked sparks off each other.  The direction of the two of them was brilliant – the way in which they touched or reacted to being touched was enormously persuasive.  Ms Lee does misery beautifully and her expression as she wrote her letter to Alfredo was heartbreaking.  Mr Park did his realisation of her desertion really well and the relationship with his father was wonderfully developed – the two of them sitting, father trying to communicate and failing was absolutely great – except that Germont’s cabaletta was cut.  It’s an interesting comment on what was once commonplace that now its absence feels wrong.  Mr Wood would have sung it marvellously.

The second scene was done very well and, for the finale, you had the spotlight on each of the principals as they conveyed, absolutely accurately, the different emotions.  I’m not sure, though, why the chorus had to sway.

In Act III, Ms Lee sang her aria (one verse only) well and movingly, the reconciliation with Alfredo was good, with Mr Park doing a fine, loving, tender, Parigi, o cara and completely rejecting his father.  The only thing wrong seemed to be the audience of masked men in evening dress who applauded as Violetta died.

I enjoyed Alexander Talevi’s direction of Don Giovanni here hugely.  Traviata doesn’t give quite the same scope for invention.  He was at his best in the direction of the characters and in some of the images – the two Germonts, back to back for Di Provenza for example.  Elsewhere it looked rather conventional or with ideas that just didn’t help.  I admired Madeleine Boyd’s single set hugely.

As I’ve suggested, the principals were good.  Mr Wood’s career strikes me as about ready to take off.  I’m not sure that I would like to hear Mr Park go to heavier roles than this, but he’d be a lovely Nemorino or Ernesto and Ms Lee has a really secure, technically excellent voice which is hugely exciting – again, a good Gilda, I should think.  Apart from Peter Savidge’s outstanding Douphol, the lesser roles were pretty much cast from Opera North’s chorus – and very well indeed.  If this is Opera North’s way of economising, it didn’t seem to me to compromise quality much.

The conductor was Gianluca Marciano.   I thought he conducted well but without the same certainty or thoughtfulness of Elder. He adotped some slow tempi – particularly for Alfredo in the Act II finale – and a nice rubato and you felt he knew what he was doing.  Orchestra and chorus were perfectly fine.

So this was the sort of alive, alert, thoughtful Traviata that I’d expect from Opera North.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good, enjoyable evening that deserved its really enthusiastic applause.  It’s worth a visit and it held up well against the other three that I’ve seen this year.

Half full Bartered Bride

14 Nov

There is something quite special about the opening of the Bartered Bride overture – like all great overtures it should provide an instant shot of excitement while, at the same time, making you feel secure that there’s a really enjoyable evening coming up.  Those first chords, delivered as soon as the lights went down at Opera North’s performance of the piece at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal on 13th November did just that.

The problem with the opera, however, is that, all too often, that promise doesn’t get fulfilled.  It’s quite a difficult piece for us these days.  It’s very easy for us to become aware of the weaknesses in the plot (not helped here by the dialogue revealing early in Act I that Micha’s first son was called Jenik) and of the fact that Smetana’s music goes on a bit – all those duets and repetitions.  A good performance needs to capture the gentle comedy of character, the emotion of Marenka and the sheer exhileration of the circus and the dances.  Performances can plod a bit, particularly in the first two acts and lose the excitement of the dances.

This performance didn’t avoid this problem.  It was pleasant enough, but you couldn’t avoid the feeling of people working just a bit too hard in the wrong direction and it wasn’t until third act that I lost the slightly apologetic feelling that sometimes bedevils this sort of 19th century romantic comedy.

Partly, it’s the production.  Daniel Slater’s production is now sixteen years old and it’s set firmly in communist Czecheslovakia and it succeeds quite nicely in avoiding a cliched, folksy feeling and in creating some believable characters.  What it seems to miss is a larger than life element that I think you probably need for characters like Kecal and Vasek.  What it definitely misses is anything which really matches the sheer excitement of the music in the dances: turning the Furiant into a drunken brawl didn’t really work for me and the circus needs to be slicker and simply have more excitement.  It all looked slightly tired and revival-ish.

Similarly Anthony Kraus’s conducting struck me as perfectly sound but without the sort of stylish understanding that Mackerras or some others bring.  It felt a bit slow and plodding and I was aware of how long some of the duets in the first two acts are.  I was aware of what a tricky score this is to get right.  The orchestra was in decent enough form but not at the level that Farnes gets from them.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the cast.  Kate Valentine struck me as making a success of Marenka – it’s the right sort of lyric soprano for this and I’d love to hear her in similar roles, Ellen Orford, the Governess and, in due course, some of the Strauss ones.  She acted it nicely and was really sympathetic and moving in the third act – her aria there was great.  Brandon Gunnell seems to have the right sort of voice for Jenik, with the right power and he had the right sort of charm and sense of being in control that the role needs.  James Creswell was a really excellent Kecal but I felt that a different interpretation from his director would have allowed him to develop a bigger personality.  His singing was great and I think he has a great future in this sort of role.  I also liked Nicholas Watts as Vasek – a role that you don’t want too exaggerated and I thought he made the character convincing and sympathetic.

The parents were strongly cast – particularly Peter Savidge as Krusina and Fiona Kimm as Hata.  The chorus seemed to enjoy itself and sang well enough.

So not a bad evening but you didn’t quite leave with the sense of exhileration that ideally you should after this opera.  Maybe it didn’t help that the theatre was less than half full – there’s a chill that tends to descend over this theatre when it’s like that, which can’t help the performers.  Overall, it was a decent enough, glass half-full performance, a bit like the audience.

Irritating Idomeneo

8 Nov

Idomeneo isn’t an easy opera but I wonder if it has to be as difficult and unpleasant as Martin Kušej’s irritating production of it at the ROH made it. I saw it on 6th November – there was no booing but I don’t think that the audience felt that it was one the house’s great evenings.

Kušej wants to make a political point of the opera and he does so by changing the plot and telling you about this through the surtitles. There is no god, Neptune. Only a false cult led be a pantomime villain of a High Priest. Apparently, that High Priest “forces” Idomeneo to promise to kill his son because the priest is offended by the release of the Trojan slaves. The cult forces the chorus to praise Neptune and, it would, appear, a giant rubber shark. Idomeneo, apparently, is a totalitarian ruler, though there is no particular evidence of this in acting. I’ve no idea what the sea monster was or how Idamante killed it – the surtitles suggested that he “fell upon this plague”. On hearing this, the chorus take out red cloaks and these people, led by “The Voice” (so it says in the programme), depose Idomeneo. He is seen, apparently imprisoned and, I think, blinded. The ballet music is played, but there is no ballet. The front cloth falls and has some words projected on to it – some about regimes remaining the same. It rises and the stage slowly revolves and there is enough to suggest that Ilia and Idamante do not solve the problems of Crete.

Did it work? Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not its legitimate to use the surtitles to explain what’s going on – I’m not suggesting that it can never work.  Here it didn’t. I found myself confused by what was going on and often had problems working out who the chorus and actors were representing at any particular time and why it mattered.  The scene of Idomeneo’s arrival and, apparent discussion with the High Priest was mimed and, I thought, confusing.  I wasn’t sure why Elettra had a group of white-clad schoolchildren unless they were to set up the ballet picture of them all toting guns. The whole staging of the last part of Act III seemed confusing to me while the staging of the ballet music screamed that here was a director who had lost a battle over the cuts with the conductor and was taking revenge.

It’s in modern dress. The set – a sort of revolving maze would serve very well for a number of other operas and did well enough here about from a quite badly executed bank of mud, blood and clothes for Act III. There were a lot of distracting rain effects early on. There was the odd touch of interest: Elettra was an extremely attracting woman and there was an obvious attraction between her and Idamante. Kušej suggested a really interesting portrayal of Arbace as a Thersites-type clown or outsider without it really contributing anything to the story.  Most of the other direction of the characters would not have looked out of place in the most traditional production you could imagine.

Part of this is to do with what I think about Idoemeno.  For me, one of the important things about the opera is the impotence of individuals against the will of the gods and how things they cannot control affect their decisions and relationships. There is an element of politics in and about how decisions of rulers affect the people but this seems to me to be compromised when there are people themselves intervening. All the successful productions that I’ve seen have managed to get across a reality involving implacable, uncontrollable gods and events.  I didn’t get that here and Kušej’s replacement vision simply wasn’t well enough executed to work.

Musically, it had a lot going for it. Not everyone has praised Marc Minkowski’s production but, apart from an uncomfortably fast tempo for Zeffiretti lusinghieri and an irritatingly intrusive fortepiano, I thought that he provided very strong leadership.   He couldn’t make a strong case for the ballet music, partly because of the production, but mostly because its inclusion strikes me as completely incompatible with modern taste.  Mozart wrote it because it was required in Munich at the time (though, as the programme pointed out, he could easily have delegated it to someone else) and he’d surely have been only too happy to cut it if he felt that it wouldn’t go down well.  Here, I felt the overwhelming feeling of being kept in after school and all the boredom and irritation that goes with that – and the only thing I’d done wrong was buy a ticket!  Otherwise, the music sounded alert and dramatic but with enough relaxation for us to enjoy the textures and colours of the score. I thought the orchestra and chorus absolutely first rate and it reminded me of a what a wonderful score this is.

Matthew Polenzani made a young Idomeneo. I thought his singing excellent. What I missed was a level of anguish and intensity that you might expect from a man who is desperately trying to find a way of breaking a promise and then seeing the result – a tension that Philip Langridge used to manage wonderfully. I doubt that he had much help from the director.

Franco Fagioli was a counter tenor Idamante. He looked handsome and acted the role well enough. Vocally, I wasn’t sure whether he was quite right. He could clearly manage the notes and got quantities of passion and bravura into the music. On the other hand, the words weren’t clear and it struck me that this was a style of singing that might work for music of half a century earlier but which might not be clean enough for Mozart.

Malin Byström struck me as a marvellous Elettra. As I’ve suggested, she was a hugely attractive woman and sang her arias really beautifully – though there is a terrifying madness in her last number which she didn’t quite get. Sophie Bevan, perhaps a tad young, sang very nicely indeed as Ilia – she made it sound as fluent and easy as you’d hope.  As I’ve suggested, Kušej had come up with a fascinating concept for Arbace and Stanislas de Barbeyrac executed it brilliantly and sang really well – he made you regret that the role is so small and suggested all kinds about the man that you’d never get from the opera.  I’m still not sure what it had to do with Idomeneo but I’d really like to see him again – he strikes me as an important singing actor.  Krystian Adam made a suitably vicious High Priest.

I’ve a very soft spot for this opera and try to get to see it whenever it’s done.  This performance renewed my love for the music and admiration for an opera where you suddenly feel that Mozart is engaging with the form and able to get towards his ambitions in a way that simply doesn’t happen in, say Finta giardiniera.  I simply felt irritated at a production that didn’t help the piece or bring out its strengths.  It’s 25 years since it was last done at the ROH.  I can’t see this one coming back and hope we’ll get a different production in less time than that.

Marvellous Martyrs

7 Nov

I know we have a very busy operatic life in London, but can there not be a bit more co-ordination between the organisations? Like not performing little known operas on the same day?  Apparently this is just too difficult. On 4th November, the Mariinsky were performing Schedrin’s The Left Hander at the Barbican and Opera Rara were performing Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at the Royal Festival Hall. Insofar as they thought about, they may have thought that the public for Schedrin and the public for Donizetti didn’t overlap much, so they were safe. Most opera addicts will tell you this is nonsense and I’ve no doubt that there were a number of us who were seriously angry and having to miss one or the other. I plumped to go to the Donizetti.  Judging by the reviews, I think I was right.

It’s a curious piece. Poliuto had been forbidden in Naples – and Scribe was asked to translate and add to it to turn it into something fit for the Paris Opera. It was a moderate success but, what is interesting is that, in the 19th Century, Poliuto was a much more successful work. I can’t wait to see it at Glyndebourne next year if only to see the contrast.  On the evidence of this evening, I can see why it might be the case that Donizetti’s original might be preferable.

It is set in Armenia in Roman times: Polyeucte has converted to christianity. This is a problem because he’s married to Pauline, the daughter of Roman governor, Félix. Before she married Polyeucte, she was deeply in love with Sévère, a fanatical anti-Christian who is meant to have died in battle. Of course he didn’t and he duly turns up to do his bit of ethnic cleansing and finds himself in a nice situation where his former beloved is begging him to save her present husband. The deals is that Polyeucte will be saved if he recants. Paulina tries to make him do so but the end result is that she sees the light herself and the two are duly delivered to the lions.

I missed the lions scene. I have written before about the “is it worth the last train” problem. Today it was not just the last train, but a bus and I’m not sure that a combination of Florez, Kaufmann, Baker and Callas would make me endure that. The Parisians obviously didn’t have this problem in 1840 but, even so, the music lasted three hours with only a small part of the ballet music and we only had one interval.  Did none of them have jobs to go to the next day?

That points to the problem. It’s quite a leisurely piece. It feels as though a domestic drama lasting a couple of hours has been stretched quite a bit. It feels slower, more stately than Donizetti’s Italian works, as if there’s some padding and I’m not convinced that there’s enough added to make it work for this length. La Favorite and even Dom Sebastian strike me as dealing more interestingly with the grand opera form and, in the former case, much more successfully.  There really are only two interesting characters – Polyeucte and Paulina – and this isn’t quite enough for this length of time.  It might well have been more satisfying with the full extravagance of a performance at the Paris Opéra where there would at least have been more interesting things to watch.

That said, there are some really fine things in it. Two superb arias for Paulina and Poleucte, a fine trio at the end of Act I, a really good finale to Act III. I couldn’t make up my mind whether the duet for Paulina and Poleucte in the penultimate scene was kitsch or moving, but it’s jolly enough. There’s a lot that looks forward to Aida, particularly for the ceremonial stuff. Plot wise, it struck me that this was something which was easily updatable – a political class trying to deal a faith it can’t control, It could be a much more interesting work without the grand opera paraphernalia.

This was an excellent performance of it.  Polyeuctes was originally written for Nourrit and actually performed by his success Duprez.  He has a series of fearsome, but grateful pieces of music to sing.  Michael Spyres was outstanding in the role – elegant, impassioned singing and a top note (D, E?) that had us gasping at the technique.   He looks as though he may be about to become the next great bel canto tenor.  Joyce El-Khoury as Pauline had a similarly showy aria herself and did it remarkably well.  She also conveyed the passion and dignity of the role.  She’s obviously another major talent to watch.  David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Wynne Evans and Clive Bayley didn’t have much to do, really, but did it pretty well.

Mark Elder’s conducting was fluent, beautifully judged and brought out the best of the piece.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played really well – the opening of the overture – a concerto for four bassoons – was really well done and the details of the instrumentation came through well. The singers were supported properly and the Opera Rara chorus was strong.

The more I see of Donizetti the more fascinated I am by the sheer range of his output and his ability to convey emotion and action musically.  This is him at the height of his powers and, even if he may not be that comfortable with the form, it makes a hugely enjoyable evening.  It would be fun if someone could throw money at it and stage it as it might have been staged.  In the meantime, I’ll be getting the CD.