Archive | June, 2015

The booing debate

30 Jun

I don’t often go to first nights at the ROH and this may be why I haven’t experienced booing as vigorous and unpleasant as I did at the opening night of Guillaume Tell on 29th June. Until then I had been broadly on the side of booers – I think that if you really dislike a performance then booing at the end can be a helpful outlet, a good way of letting the director and the company know what you think. Having paid for your seat, you’re entitled to expect to enjoy yourself and there is little so frustrating as sitting there, watching a show that you really hate.  They’ve been taking up four and a half hours of your life that you’ll never get – surely you have a right to let them know.  I still think, broadly, but the booing last night raised questions in my mind.

You could sense that the audience weren’t sure about the production. What caused the booing was a passage during the Act III ballet music where we watched a group of soldiers abusing a woman, stripping her and attempting to rape her. As they got her on the table a man started booing – he was in the lower slips on the left hand side – and I wonder whether he could actually see what was going on, given the placing over said table. A number of others joined in. It stopped when the singing started, then continued after the Act finished. There was even a boo for Finley after sois immobile and then heavy booing at the end of the Act. There was an attempt to disrupt the opening of the fourth act with someone shouting “Shame on you Tony” as the music began, loud snoring and a bit of disruption until the rest of us made it pretty clear that enough was enough. I didn’t wait for the curtain calls.  I don’t imagine that Damiano Michieletto, the director, got a standing ovation.

Now I felt that the booing during the music was inexcusable. Aside from the sheer rudeness to the performers and the distraction this must cause them, it’s incredibly rude to the rest of the audience. By doing it, booers prevent them from concentrating on the performance and hearing the music. There’s an incredible arrogance about assuming that you are can impose your views on everyone else like that.  Just because the director may be ruining an opera for you doesn’t make it right for you to ruin things for everything else. That needs to stop.

But it stirred other questions.

1.  Why is it always the people in the cheaper seats who boo? I don’t think I’ve ever heard booing from the stalls. Is it because people in the expensive seats are inherently more civilised or because they’ve paid so much they don’t want to show that they’re not enjoying it? Do people in the cheap seats come more often so feel they know more? Or are they just inherently boorish? Does the fact that you’ve contributed least to the performance make you feel you have an entitlement to boo? Or does the fact that you are in the cheap seats make you feel alienated and out of it?

2. Why does nobody boo the bits that really irritate me – those little things that distract you from the singing or the mindless, thoughtless, bland direction? Like that Ballo in maschera.

3. Why is it often the scenes of sex and violence that cause it? There seems to be an idea that opera is beautiful and inherently civilised and that you cannot possibly have explicit sex and violence on the stage. It’s for nice people and nice people don’t go for that? That seems to be the psychology of it and seems to ignore the fact that many operas are about incest, illicit sex and mindless violence and revenge. I blame the fact that it’s sung in a language people don’t understand.

4. I don’t really believe that most directors actually want to be booed, just as I don’t think most people go to the theatre hoping to boo. I’m ignoring some established vendettas for these purposes, but I’m pretty sure this holds, at least in London. But this is an expression of real anger at what is seen.

5. Why does it happen much more often at the ROH than at ENO where, on the whole, far greater liberties are taking with operas and the direction and what does that say about my theory about people in cheap seats?  I don’t think I’ve every heard booing in the straight theatre and I’ve seen far more shocking and poor quality performances there than I’ve ever seen at the ROH.  Is it about the language?

6. I’m all for opera directors challenging audiences and I don’t think that the ROH Tell was that bad but, if I were Holten and the ROH Board, I’d be getting worried about what feels like a high proportion of productions that are getting this treatment. Is it the booers or the House that are out of line?

Or am I just taking it too seriously?

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ROH William Tell

30 Jun

The nice thing about a blog is that I can write as many posts as I like and I’m going to try to divorce what I suspect will be the main feature of most reviews – the booing – from the performance of the Guillaume Tell that I saw at the ROH on 29th June, its first night.

Let’s start with the opera. I’m a fan of Rossini. I love his wit, his sense of drama and the way in which, particularly in his later Italian operas, he uses ensembles, duets and the music to move the drama forward. What struck me particularly about this performance was how different it is from the style of his Italian pieces and how thoroughly he’d absorbed the French style and taken advantage of the facilities at the Opéra. There is a breadth to it and a complete lack of those tunes that could almost be comic if what was going on onstage didn’t make you realise that it was tragic. The great parts of Tell are among the finest things he ever wrote – I think particularly of Act III, Arnold’s aria in Act IV and the final chorus. This is wonderful operatic music.

But, let’s face it, it’s very long and you can’t help feeling that the first couple of acts go on a bit. I think that, at this performance, some of the second Act finale was probably cut – I remember other performances of this being interminable as the different cantons came together, but is that huntsman’s chorus at the start really necessary? The chorus stuff in the first act is lengthy and you tend to think that perhaps his quip about the “mauvaises quarts d’heures” was a case of pots and kettles. It’s a long, thoughtful, intelligent opera but, for me, it suffers the same problems as Meyerbeer – an over-indulgence and a leisurely pace. I’m not sure anyone really found a way of making grand epic operas work until Don Carlos and Wagner.

Having said that, and despite the reviews that you’ll read, I thought that this performance made a very good case for the piece. It helped first that we had Pappano in the pit. He achieved some absolutely gorgeous playing from the orchestra, making you realise what a great piece of music the overture is. He catches the drama of the piece – propelling it forward, really making the music make sense and express the emotions and he accompanies the singers absolutely marvellously – you felt that nobody had to strain. Orchestra and chorus were fabulously good: the chorus in particular have some hugely difficult, precise music to sing and they mastered it outstandingly. The solo playing in the orchestra, particularly the ‘cellos, but also the horns, was as good as you could hope for.

Damiano Michieletto’s production was thoughtful and engaged with the piece even if not completely successfully. He set it in a 20th century totalitarian state with no sense that we might be in Switzerland. I felt that he took two ideas from the opera. The first is about fathers and sons, the second about maintaining idealism and the difficulty of rising up against a powerful dictator and about the burdens of legends. We see this mostly through the eyes of Jemmy – he Is playing with soldiers during the overture and reading a comic about this historic William Tell. We see parts of that comic during the storm scene – a contrast perhaps between the easy heroism of legend and the truth of people not really equipped to destroy a heavily armed enemy. The dance in Act I is about Tell teaching Jemmy to shoot. Michieletto also has a figure dressed in medieval clothes trying to persuade a reluctant, lethargic people to stir and rise up against their oppressors. You sense a real reluctance to take action but also the reasons for this: the Austrians are gun-toting thugs who humiliate the Swiss and try to rape a woman in Act III – the booing started here.

The natural world in the opera (possibly important with its references to shepherds and huntsmen) gets short shrift. An apple tree gets uprooted by the Austrians at the end of Act I. The remainder of the opera is set round a huge fallen tree – a place of hiding for the Swiss refugees, a place which excludes them from the Austrian rulers. It lifts up at the end and a child comes forward to plant a young sapling.  That’s it.  The floor is mostly mud, the remainder off-white: it’s not interesting or beautiful to look at.

There are problems with this. The medieval figure is on a bit too much and looks silly. A quite static opera becomes more so through the lethargic direction of the chorus. I wasn’t particularly troubled by the rape scene but I was more irritated by the picture of Hedwige setting a table while Tell sings “sois immobile” you were watching her rather than admiring Gerald Finley’s fine singing. The storm scene was invisible from the second row of the amphitheatre which, in my view, counts as pure amateurism. I’m not sure why we needed those strip lights, nor why people kept taking off shirts and digging in the mud.
The successful parts were the great finales – to Act I and Act III where the oppression really came across well – and the duets and trio where real emotion and debate took place. The Act III finale where the booing started – largely because the audience did not like the idea that totalitarians regimes might have soldiers that raped and abused the population. But I thought that Michieletto really got the personal tension around Tell and Gessler and Jemmy that held attention. It’s a difficult piece and I welcomed his attempts to engage with it as something more than a historical pageant.

The cast was good, on the whole. The star was undoubtedly Gerald Finley as Tell. He sang with perfect style and with just the right ease and intelligence.  This was clear, beautifully judged, entirely honest singing. He’s a great actor and this struck me as one of the finest things I’ve seen him do. It’s a glorious voice and, as I’ve suggested, the only irritation was the distraction during his great aria.

Initially I found John Osborn as Arnold disappointing. The “Ah Mathilde” duet was decently sung but without the sheer bravura that Gedda or Pavarotti bring to this. Perhaps he was saving himself because he was outstanding later on: his final aria and cabaletta justifiably brought the house down – this was fabulous heroic singing that never became harsh or unstylish. Acting isn’t his strong point.

Pappano obviously feels that Malin Bystrom is the Mathilde for him. She doesn’t really stand up to Caballé or Freni and I’d love a little more individuality and variation. She wasn’t bad, you just wished for something a bit more interesting.
Sonia Fomina made a splendid Jemmy – well acted and gorgeously sung. Enkelejda Shkoda was also very strong as Hedwige. Eric Halfvarson struck me as showing his age as Melcthal, Alexander Vinogradov was rather an anonymous Furst and Nicolas Courjal rather a good Gesler. Overall it was a good cast rather than a great one.

I doubt that you can get a perfect Tell. It’s too big and challenging a piece and our sensibilities have changed.  The reviews will tell it was a disaster visually: I don’t think so and this was a serious attempt at the opera – imperfect but that’s inevitable. And for Pappano, the orchestra, chorus and Finley it was very special.  I don’t suppose it’ll be back and there are still seats available.

French Carmen at Glyndebourne

25 Jun

I last saw the Glyndebourne Carmen when it was new in 2002. I remember it as being an alert, detailed, attractive production that wasn’t going to frighten any horses and was likely to last forever. Thirteen years on, in an intelligent, alert, detailed revival, I again had the feeling that, if you want a vanilla Carmen, this was about as good as it gets.  I saw the performance on 22nd June.

There are lots of good things about the production: Michael Vale’s sets and Paule Constable’s lighting get exactly the right sort of effects – brilliantly, the set for Act III is virtually created entirely by the lighting. McVicar’s production doesn’t put a foot wrong technically and the details – particularly the acting and chorus work are excellent – there are some wonderful comedies going on at the opening of Act IV. The comedy for the smugglers is done marvellously and he gets that heady mixture of eroticism, violence, threat and comedy pretty much perfectly blended. Graham Vick’s production for Scottish may have been cleverer and had more striking images, Calixto Bieito’s explores the piece more deeply, Pountney’s at ENO may have had greater flare, but this, overall, is as good a Carmen visually as you could hope for.

Where it becomes outstanding is in the direction of the Carmen/José relationship and of those two characters. You suddenly felt the temperature ratchet up when Carmen declares that she is “amoureuse” and you sense the determination of the character and the following scene with José is fascinatingly done – is she making love to pay her debt or because there’s an attraction there? Stephanie D’Oustrac’s acting of this was beautifully ambiguous – erotic, determined and you could understand why Jose was so spellbound. In Act III, the trauma of a broken relationship and her dawning realisation of the likely end was really well delineated. And the final duet was mesmerisingly well done as you saw two people battling and the death an accident.

Ms D’Oustrac is the first French Carmen that I’ve heard in the theatre. It helps hugely. She sings the word clearly and naturally, the colours come from their meaning: it’s not exaggerated but wonderfully idiomatic. Vocally, she fits the part well and she acts the wild, amoral but actually highly principled heroine with real integrity.  You could understand the fascination. Overall, this was the most convincing Carmen that I’ve seen.

Pavel Cernoch was José. He acted the role outstandingly: the look of mesmerised despair and sheer pig-headed determination grew throughout the third and fourth acts. Between them, they got to the heart of this relationship. Vocally, he was at his best in the outbursts of violence, the passion and he managed the last act heroically. I wanted a softer, more beautiful and subtle sound and approach for the scene with Micaela and for the flower song.

These two carried the drama. The others were simply bit players. Lucy Crowe sang strongly as Micaela, though I’ve heard sweeter sounds and more communication. David Soar, promoted from Zuniga, was a very fine Escamillo with just the right ease and swagger and sang very well. Loic Felix and Christophe Gay were outstanding as the smugglers and the two gipsies were excellent.

The chorus was in predictably strong form and must have had great fun with the multiple roles. Jakob Hrusa conducted. It was a clear, gutsy performance that supported the singers well. I remember that Philippe Jordan had more elan when the production was new, but this was a very satisfying reading of the opera and the LPO sounded on good form.

It may not be the height of modern interpretations of Carmen but it’s well-prepared, well-sung and packed just the punch that the opera should.

Hit and miss Queen of Spades

10 Jun

The last new production of the ENO’s season was The Queen of Spades. It was time the company did this again – the last was David Pountney’s in 1983 and that hasn’t been seen since the early 1990s. I saw David Alden’s production at its second performance on 9th June.

I don’t think I’ve been that lucky with the performances of the opera that I’ve seen. I missed Graham Vick’s production at Glyndebourne and Richard Jones’s for the Welsh – by common consent the best of the bunch in my opera going lifetime. At best, I’ve admired the opera but I’ve never been carried away by it. Frequently, I’ve been bored by its length, or irritated by a silly production. It’s a long opera, difficult to pace and it’s very hard to find any of the characters sympathetic or interesting. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this performance – though Edward Gardner and David Alden seemed to be a promising combination – and the cast didn’t look that inspiring.

I wasn’t converted. Alden’s tropes look tired to someone who’s lived with them, on and off, for the last 35 years or so: neon lights, a clock, piles of chairs, a false stage: we’ve seen all of this before and, frankly, I wasn’t sure what they added here. I haven’t seen him use cuddly animal costumes before and didn’t find that they added insight to the Ball scene. It looked like a group of random ideas and, for me, didn’t gel into anything convincing. There were some memorable images – the cast flinging cards about at the end – but I wasn’t engrossed or horrified or even particularly interested.

Alden is, of course, very good at getting strong acting performances from his cast and I did find myself watching them and listening to the words more than in many other performances. A pleasant translation by Neil Bartlett and Martin Fitzpatrick was used and I heard more words than in any other production I can remember. It sounded as though it was grateful to sing.
I’m not sure how much credit he deserves for Felicity Palmer’s performance: she’s been singing the role for more than 20 years. Her voice seems ageless – it’s as full and ripe as I recall it from her Kabanicha at Glyndebourne in 1988 – and her singing and acting of this gift of a role were pitch perfect. The words came across strongly, the aristocracy, the regret and the memories in that wonderful scene were as well done as you could hope and she brought a vulnerability and fear to the role that struck me as spot on.  It’s always a joy to see one of my very favourite singers.

Peter Hoare as Hermann was a late replacement for Peter Bronder. I admired the clarity of his singing and his diction and thought that he conveyed Hermann’s obsession nicely. Ideally, you look for a larger voice and maybe for a bit more vocal colour. I didn’t feel that he kept the interest up in the final scene. This was a Loge or a Basilio being stretched to his limits: perhaps not a bad idea, but a bit more power would have helped.

I’m a fan of Giselle Allen and this performance brought out her virtues – her honest, open portrayals and her committed singing without avoiding the feeling that the voice is a bit small for the house and, again, maybe a bit more colour might not come amiss. I didn’t feel much power or attraction between her and Mr Hoare.

In the other roles, Gregory Dahl made a strong, clear Tomsky; Nicholas Pallesen didn’t strike me as having the sheer beauty or richness of tone that Yeletsky needs – the Act II aria just wasn’t strong or committed enough and got little applause. Catherine Young was made to play Pauline as a high class tart but sang nicely. Colin Judson as Chekalinsky and Wyn Pencarraeg as Surin were very good indeed: clear, individual performances.

Edward Gardner conducted his last production as musical director. It was, of course, excellent. I heard more of the details in this score than I usually do and enjoyed his sheer control of the piece. The orchestra played fabulously well and he enabled singers to sing really softly. It was subtle, well paced and, ultimately, missed the sheer power and horror of the piece. He’s been a galvanising influence at ENO and the excellence of the musical performances here have been outstanding features of the last few years.  He’ll be missed.

So it wasn’t a bad performance and there was quite a lot to enjoy but I stayed disengaged throughout, never grabbed or horrified as, I think, Tchaikovsky wanted; I left feeling, “so what?” I probably just don’t really get on with the piece.

Rare Henze at the Guildhall

9 Jun

Another imaginative double bill from the Guildhall. This was of two sort-of operas by Hans Werner Henze – Ein Landarzt and Phaedra. Neither of them are common and, although the programme didn’t say so, I wonder if these were the English premieres. I saw the opening night on 8th June.

Ein Landarzt (The Country Doctor) is a setting of a short story by Kafka and originally written for radio in 1951 and subsequently adapted for the stage in 1964. It’s a piece for baritone in which the doctor tells of a nightmarish call to cure a patient involving magical horse, a groom that will rape is servant girl, strange, incurable wounds and an end with him desperately trying to return home. It’s a virtuoso piece for a baritone, written for Fischer-Dieskau. I thought that Martin Haessler gave a remarkably assured performance where he caught the balance that all good lieder singers need between acting and letting the singing speak for itself. He’ll make a smashing lieder singer, I think. As for the piece I rather wished it had been sung in English – I think you need to have the immediacy of understanding the words. The accompaniment struck me as no more than that. It sounded like most people’s idea of difficult modern music – spiky, astringent and not very lyrical. It was a strong enough half hour, particularly with Mr Haessler in charge, but I’ve no particular desire to see it again.

Phaedra is very late Henze, premiered in 2007, five years before his death, described as a Concert Opera. The first half tells the Greek Hippolytus story in which the wishes of the gods are linked with those of the humans – Aphrodite siding with Phaedra, Artemis (sung by a counter-tenor) with Hippolytus – it’s almost a battle of the sexes. I found the libretto for the first act impenetrable and the music, while much lusher than in Landarzt, less helpful, more soporific. The second act was more remarkable. Here Henze takes the Roman sequel to the Greek legend and has Artemis revive the dead Hippolytus, save him from Phaedra and Aphrodite who want to take him to the underworld and unleashes him as the lord of her forest. It’s an exploration of life after death, informed by Henze’s own experience of two months in a coma in between writing the two acts. The music feels as if it’s in an entirely different vein and I found myself interested in the ideas and concepts and in the expressive quality of the music itself. I thought this piece had something going for it.

It seemed to me to be impeccably performed. Lawrence Thackeray sang Hippolytus with real beauty and care for the words. He conveyed the predicament of the man with the dimmest of memories of his previous life really well. Ailsa Mainwaring was a suitably tortured Phaedra, Meili Li a strong, certain, Artemis, Laura Ruhi-Vidal a glamorous Artemis. Rick Zwart sang strongly as the Minotaur.

Ashley Dean’s production struck me as very strong indeed. He directed the first opera sensibly, not getting in the way of direct communication of the text. I found the first act of Phaedra a bit of a trial, the second Act fascinating and I thought that he caught the nightmarish uncertainty of Hippolytus’s position very successfully. There was real visual clarity about the interpretation and certainty in the acting.

Timothy Redmond conducted. I don’t know the scores, but the orchestral playing sounded convincing and assured. These cannot be easy scores to learn but there was real confidence about this performance and some really fine playing.

Unusually for operas at the Guildhall, the theatre was half full but the audience reception was more than respectful. I can’t see either of these becoming repertory operas but I think I’d see Phaedra again.

Farewell to Copley’s Boheme

6 Jun

I last saw John Copley’s production of La boheme at the ROH in 1987 (Domingo, Tokody and Allen). Although I’m an admirer of the opera, I’ve never particularly felt the need to go back. They’ve done it so often that it’s felt like one of those relatives that you feel you ought to visit but never quite manage to because there’ll always be another time. This is its last revival (though I understand Kasper Holten has said that he’s not getting rid of it just yet) before a new production by Richard Jones. Given that there was a moderately attractive cast, I felt that I ought to go along to see a piece of history. And I enjoyed the performance I saw on 5th June.

It is a masterpiece of a production from a technical point of view. The second act is wonderfully, effortlessly, naturalistically choreographed.  You don’t notice the sheer technical skill: everything looks right. There are the lovely, perfectly timed cameos for the chorus and actors, Musetta’s dog, the waiters, the child wanting his trumpet and the presentation of the bill to Alcindoro. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being completely carried away by the sheer brilliance of it. It’s a masterclass in how to stage a really complex piece of drama. Act III catches the cold and bleakness of the setting and, again, the detail and timing of the characters coming in and out was outstandingly done. The production is special partly for the gorgeous sets by Julia Trevelyan Oman and partly for Copley’s ability to set a scene and to manage the movement convincingly. If you want a “traditional” production of the opera you could not ask for better. But I wasn’t moved.

After seeing this, I dug out Harold Rosenthal’s OPERA magazine review of the opening run of the production. He generally liked it, but found those things which now seem to be its hallmarks – the “super realism” of Acts II and III – distracting from the music. That, too, was a performance that, according to him, didn’t pull at the heart strings. But, then, Copley’s productions rarely did – he was good at detail, atmosphere and comedy and relied on the singers to provide the intensity to move you and, perhaps, gave some less help than they needed. And this is probably one of the reasons why I’ve avoided going to this production regularly. It’s a frame that distinguished singers can slot into to give their versions of the leading roles where there may or may not be chemistry between them and they may or may not be convincing actors: you take pot luck as to whether you get a really memorable or moving experience.

The pot for this revival was mixed. We had a very well-nourished set of fairly middle-aged Bohemians.  It was hard to believe that any of them were really starving in this garret: clothes are immaculate, figures pretty full. This was not a cast where it was easy to believe in young love flowering or, for that matter, dying of consumption.

Joseph Calleja sang Rodolfo and very well. I find the slightly bleating quality of his vibrato off-putting but you can’t deny the elegance of the singing and the technical skill. He gives a lot of pleasure vocally even if you don’t quite get the sense of deep love and emotion that, say, Villazon provided. He acts, if that is the word, genially and amiably with little passion.

Anna Netrebko was Mimi. I enjoyed her singing very much indeed (though something went wrong with that final top note at the end of Act I). She made a sympathetic figure and, I thought, did her Act III aria very movingly indeed, singing the words expressively and making you believe in her predicament. Her deathbed scene was touching. Ultimately, however, I felt that I was seeing a very classy singer rather Mimi.

Jennifer Rowley made an excellent Musetta – seizing the opportunities for comedy and creating a very sympathetic figure. There’s a very strong personality there and she was the one person on stage who truly created a memorable, believable character – I was moved by her little outburst of tears at the end far more than by anything that was happening on the deathbed. Lucas Meacham sang Marcello superbly – it’s an ideal voice for the role. Other singers have been hotter blooded, more convincingly angry. Marco Vinco was a strong Colline and did the coat song very nicely. Simone del Savio struck me as rather an under-voiced Schaunard and rather anonymous.  With them you could sort of believe that they hadn’t eaten lately but you didn’t particularly get a sense of the bonded relationships. Jeremy White and Ryland Davies did excellent jobs as Benoit and Alcindoro respectively.

So this was a pretty strong cast that sang nicely but didn’t gel. I’ve seen younger, less gifted but better prepared casts move and interest me more even if the singing has been less impressive.

Dan Ettinger conducted a perfectly competent performance with the orchestra and chorus in pretty good form. I didn’t feel that anyone was particularly challenged or interested by his conducting. Incidentally, Rosenthal’s review described Domingo’s Rodolfo as the best sung since Bjoerling. Domingo will be conducting the last couple of performances here, presumably somebody’s idea of a special treat to celebrate the anniversary. I don’t suppose anyone will be describing it as the best conducted Boheme since Kleiber. Decisions like this make you wonder how seriously the house takes Boheme. Surely if this was intended to celebrate the passing of a well-loved production they might have got someone, well, better to conduct it – Pappano, say.

I’m glad I refreshed my memories of this production. I can see why the ROH has held on to it for so long. It’s a perfect frame for multiple casts: a strong vanilla production for tourists and first-timers and those who want to see their idea of Boheme and a night at the opera. People will miss it. But Boheme is a tougher, nastier opera than this production shows and deserves more. It’s good that this one’s going when it’s looking strong and crisp and people can still lament its passing, but I’m really excited to see what Richard Jones makes of it in two years’ time.