Archive | September, 2015

Mark Wigglesworth triumphs with Lady Macbeth

30 Sep

I’ve been a fan of Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk ever since I saw David Pountney’s ENO production in 1987 and I was immensely looking forward to the performance that I saw there on 29th September.  And it was very good but, for me, lost its way slightly in the second half.ENO are back at their old habits of buying in other people’s productions.

The good things first. And it starts with the conducting and orchestral playing which was as good as I’ve heard in this piece. The orchestra played outstandingly and Mark Wigglesworth, in his first outing as music director here, caught the passion, the colours and the sheer excitement of the music. The interludes were astonishingly played – brass in the boxes above the pit sounding thrilling. He made it sound as though every chord, every note had a purpose, the playing was characterful – bassoons, clarinets, horns in marvellous form – and precise.  I found myself listening to the orchestral details and carried awya by its sheer power.   And the singers could be heard – I don’t think I’ve heard so many words of this opera. This was a good thing: I couldn’t see the surtitles from where I was sitting and I simply didn’t need them. This performance struck me as taking over from where Gardner left off with the orchestra and building in a level of sophistication and precision in the playing that I don’t usually associate with this orchestra.  How do you improve on this?

The soloists were excellent too. We had Patricia Racette as Katerina. It’s a light voice and the interpretation here makes her slightly helpless – besotted by Sergei. Whatever one thinks of that (and I suspect that there is more strength to be found than she did), she sang with perfect diction and caught a simplicity and beauty about the character that I wasn’t sure was there. It’s a very different interpretation from Josephine Barstow’s but unquestionably compelling. John Daszak sang Sergei and caught the fecklessness of a character out for a few shags rather than anything lasting and was simply not interested enough in Katerina. His voice struck me as pretty much ideal for the role and, again, every word was clear.

I’m used to darker voices than Robert Hayward’s as Boris but he created a really nasty, bullying creature, doing the scene before he catches Sergei rivetingly. He caught the mixture of bully and sleaze brilliantly. Peter Hoare as Zinovy, the ghastly husband, caught the hopeless nature of the character and, again, sang it really well.

The smaller roles were cast from strength: Graham Danby and excellent priest, Adrian Thompson as the Shabby Peasant, Clare Presland as a vicious Sonyetka and Matthew Best as the Old Convict – excellent singing, strong clear acting. The chorus sounded pretty good too.

ENO is continuing to buy in productions rather than make their own.  This one, by Dmitri Tcherniakov, started off life in Dusseldorf and has been passed round a number of addresses before turning up here. I thought it started well enough but rather lost its way later. It’s updated to modern times.  Much of the action takes place in the offices where there are computers and typists for him to molest. There’s a separate space for Katerina. This works well enough for the scenes set on Boris’s land. It’s less good for police who appear to invade the place too early and simply aren’t funny enough. He doesn’t capture the nightmarish, zany quality that’s in the music. The last scene is in a prison cell, cramped in the centre of the stage, the chorus unseen. Sergei has sex with Sonyetka as Katerina watches in the same cell and Katerina kills her with a chair and is beaten to death by the prison officers. I really wasn’t sure that this worked. The chorus were singing something different (the Pountney translation, done for his own very different production, was used) and you had ceased to care, ceased to be carried along by the power of the piece.  There is a huge pause for the scene change before the last act, dissipating the tension that’s been built up before.  What happened onstage failed to match the scale, the epic satiric scale of a the piece – and it’s worth remembering that this is a young man’s opera and needs to have the slightly scatter-gun effects that you get with such pieces – effects that Pountney brilliantly understood almost thirty years ago.

So huge admiration for the music and commitment of the singers, slight disappointment at a production that left you enervated rather than excited at the end of the piece.  But if Wigglesworth can keep these standards up, we’re in for musical treats in the coming years.

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Intense, beautiful Orpheus

24 Sep

With the main company in Japan, the ROH invited John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Players and the Monteverdi Choir to come and do Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice. Hofesh Schechter and his company were invited to provide the dancing. I saw the performance on September 23rd.  It turned out to be a really successful one-off show.

I’ve never quite got the enthusiasm for this opera. To me, Gluck’s later works, particularly the two Iphigenia pieces are far stronger, more interesting and dramatic than this which isn’t much more than a pièce d’occasion, albeit with some fine music in it and, of course, a fine opportunity for whoever is playing the leading role – in this case, Juan Diego Florez.

This was, therefore, the Paris version extended ballet music and this performance struck me as making about as good a case as possible for that, at least until the last half hour.

The orchestra is moved onto the stage, which is in three sections which are raised and lowered. The orchestra spends part of the time above the action and some of the time below the stage.  When above, you have a maze of and darkness.  When below, you can see right to the back of the stage and light is filtered through holes in the huge plates that hang above the stage – to magical effect for the Dance of the Blessed Spiirts – you see see the chorus and dancers from afar, mistily.  For the journey back, the plates descend and it feels as if you are in a passage, pressurised.  There’s a single chair, a dummy Euridice to be burned.  The rest is done by the moving platforms and plates: it’s simple, austere, concentrated.

The playing is outstanding. Gardiner makes the piece sound dramatic, the EBS make the music sound raw, new and energetic with glorious trombones in the furies scene, superb flute and oboe solos for the Dance of the blessed spirits and the following scene. I don’t think I’ve heard Gluck sound better, more dramatic or more convincing.

At the start, the body of Euridice is burned. Orpheus, with only a chair, expresses his grief simply. Amor, cheekily got up in a gold trouser suit sends him on his way. The scene between Orpheus and Euridice is directed with urgency, beautifully choreographed and provides great tension. At the moment of her death, the lights switches, heartbreakingly into something looking a bit like real life. The return of Euridice turns out to be little more than an illusion and, after the dances, he body is burned again. Direction is shared between Schechter and John Fulljames, the latter showing the form that made him seem so special doing work for Opera North.  It’s simple, ungimmicky and gets the work absolutely right.

It all goes fine until those dances and I felt about them exactly as I did with those after Idomeneo that they feel utterly wrong these days. They seemed to me to add nothing to the opera beyond keeping us in the theatre for a further half hour. Schechter’s choreography which, until then had seemed to be sensible, matching the music and, at times very beautiful, became unintelligible to me – but then I’m not a dance enthusiast. I really question why they need to be done.

Juan Diego Florez sang Orpheus with what struck me as a superb understanding of the style. He was elegant, restrained but passionate with the intensity and honesty that make him such a great artist. He sang his bravura Act I aria marvellously, with flair and passion; he understandably charmed the spirits, provided the sense of wonder for the Elysian Fields and the right conflicted urgency and love for the dialogue with Euridice. His J’ai perdu mon Euridice was superbly sung, cool, intense and with a some really love piano singing – he seemed to be able to find greater subtelty in the lines than most mezzos or counter tenors that I’ve heard. Physically he conveyed the conflict in the scene with Euridice marvellously well.

Lucy Crowe made a bewildered, passionate Euridice, siging really convincingly. I liked Amanda Forsyth’s bravura, cheeky Amor very much indeed. The Monteverdi Choir sang outstandingly and acted rather convincingly.

This was as satisfying and convincing an Orpheus as I’ve seen and would have been perfect for me, were it not for that wretched ballet.

Triumphant Pergolesi

17 Sep

One of the joys about exploring the obscure lanes and twittens of opera is that, just occasionally, you come across an entirely unexpected gem. I found one at the Cadogan Hall on 16th September when I heard Opera Settecento’s concert performance of Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria.

I don’t know much Pergolesi. I saw La serva padrona twenty years ago and remember nothing about it at all. There’s the Stabat Mater, of course, but that’s about it. I felt less guilty about this when I learned that 90% of music attributed to him probably isn’t by him at all. I wasn’t expecting much and I feel that I’ve seen a masterpiece revealed. The piece is a complete joy.

I quite enjoyed JC Bach’s version of Metastasio’s text when Classical Opera did it in April this year but this seems to me to be an infinitely finer piece. The plot makes more sense on the stage than in writing: the Emperor Hadrian falls in love with the princess Emirena who is in love with prince Farnaspe, with everything complicated by the arrival of Hadrian’s bride, Sabina, and the intrigues of Aquilio who is in love with Sabina and those of Osroa, the deposed king of the Parthians – well, maybe I’ll leave it at that. But there isn’t a weak number and the sheer inventiveness of the music is a delight. The vocal numbers are grateful, glorious melodies, accompanied by inventive, sympathetic, joyous orchestration. It’s hard to know where to start – the superb final number in Act I for Farnaspe with outstanding oboe obbligato struck me instantly as one that should be on the recital list for all mezzos specialising in this area – but Pergolesi manages pathos, sadness, anger and heroism with huge success. The lovely duet at the end for made you wish that he’d written more duets.

Towards the end there may be a couple of routine arias, but the bulk of them made me want to hear them again, more or less immediately. Most of them are long, five minute da capo arias but the last sections are done with real inventiveness that the musical interest is kept up – and the quality of the ideas is so high – you greet the da capos like a friend making a welcome return.

Would it work on the stage? The plot line doesn’t strike me as the strongest of Metastasio’s dramas but I don’t see why it couldn’t work if there were a sympathetic director. There’s nothing here more intrinsically difficult than Handel and audiences need to hear these arias. I found myseIf sitting there smiling at the sheer genius of it.

Opera Settecento did it proud. At performances of this sort, I often, rather ungratefully, suggest that classier singers might do the work more favours. I didn’t feel that here. This was an impeccably prepared performance by singers who gave some impossibly difficult music their all and, succeeded remarkably in putting the work across well. What impressed me was the knowledge and thought that had gone into it. The piece was written for Naples in 1734 with Caffarelli singing the role of Farnaspe and sopranos singing Adriano and the minor role of Aquilio as trouser roles. Without a Caffarelli to hand they sensibly allotted Farnaspe to a mezzo and cast the other men as counter tenors. It sounded fine.

We had Erica Eloff as Farnaspe, who had some of the finest arias in the opera. This struck me as the best thing I’ve heard her do, creating a strong character and singing the music with real flair, keeping the interest going and managing some outstanding coloratura. Michael Taylor is a Canadian counter tenor, new to me. He strikes me as a valuable discovery. He sang the title role with urgency, virility and a striking command of very florid music that, by turns was angry and imperious. Maria Ostroukhova was Emirena. It’s a large voice and a strong personality and she managed her very beautiful arias really well. As Sabina, Augusta Hebbert made a strong case for all of her taxing numbers, particularly the opening one in Act III.

As the only traditional male voice in the piece, Gyula Rab played Osroa really well and his voice grew in strength and fluency as the evening went on. This was hugely promising tenor singing. Cenk Karaferya as Aquilio had less to do but did it pretty well.

What also struck me was how well prepared this performance had been. There was an assurance about the singing and there was the sort of acting that worked in a concert setting – to convince you that they were knew what they were singing about and were reacting to each other. The Orchestra of Opera Settecento is, I assume, a scratch band. You wouldn’t have known. Led by Guy Button, they seemed to be hugely enjoying themselves and there was a lovely oboe obbligato playing from Daniel Lantier. It was hard to believe this was Leo Duarte’s first outing as an opera conductor – he was considerate to his singers, clearly loved the piece and got outstanding playing from the orchestra. This was a performance where you didn’t need to make allowances for singing or resources: you could simply sit back and enjoy the piece.

This is Opera Settecento’s third venture and by far their finest so far. There are odd indications still that this is an amateur outfit, albeit employing very professional artists. The programmes arrived late and weren’t available until the very end of the first interval: it’s a tribute to the performers that the audience, although a bit bewildered, were held by the music and really desperate to get their hands on the programmes to find out what on earth was going on. And maybe their Chair is just a bit too enthusiastic – he doesn’t need to bravo after each good number. But we still owe huge gratitude to them for putting this performance together and revealing some utterly glorious music. Please can someone give us a CD of the opera?  And if Opera Settecento were to have a go at one of Pergolesi’s other opera serie, I’d be first in the queue.

Salieri’s Grotta di Trofonio

16 Sep

Bampton Classical Opera’s devoted excavation of operas from the second half of the 18th Century has unearthed Salieri’s La grotto di Trofonio. It was first performed in 1786, just before Mozart’s Figaro and this was the first UK production in modern times (though there’s a recording of it) – probably the first ever performances of it here in the form presented at the first night.  For those unfamiliar with Bampton Classical Opera, it provides annual productions of rare operas of this period in the gardens at Bampton and elsewhere. They bring one of their productions each year for a single performance at St John’s Smith Square.  I caught their performance of this piece on 15th September. Overall, I’m glad I did.

It’s a mildly amusing piece. Aristone has to daughters: Ofelia, who is studious, and Dori, who is lively. They are loved, respectively, by the studious Artemidoro and the lively Plistene. All looks fine for a wedding until the men go into a cave owned by the philosopher/magician Trofonio and turn out with their opposite personalities, to the consternation of the girls. They go back into the cave and are transformed back to their old personalities, at which point Trofonio lures the girls in with the same results. It all works out in the end.

Shakespeare had a similar sort of device in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as did WS Gilbert with his “magic lozenge” idea and you can see parallels with Cosi fan tutte. The problem here is that the libretto does not create the same opportunities for confusion or for exploring different emotions or combinations of lovers: there’s no suggestion that the parties learn anything from the experience. Da Ponte (who was in Vienna, but had had a row with Salieri) would surely have done it better.

Salieri’s music is attractive. It sounds like Mozart with the certainty taken out. There is gorgeous woodwind writing, some fizzy comic numbers and one or two very pleasant arias. The music for Trofonio and his demons is strong. I wanted to hear more Salieri following this, though had the impression that his orchestration and use of instrumentation is much more interesting than his vocal writing or his dramatic instincts – how far that was to do with the performance is difficult to say.  In his very informative programme note, Jeremy Gray, Bampton’s presiding genius, artistic director and director of this production, talks up the similarities with Mozart’s later operas, particularly Figaro and Cosi (many of the same singers were involved) and suggests that this may have an influenced them. I’m not sure that the comparison helps this opera. There are no heartstopping melodies, none of the certainty of the emotions and little of the comic timing. You keep thinking that Mozart would have made so much more of the situations and the arias. There are a couple of very fine extended finales, but this performance couldn’t avoid them being simply a series of individual numbers – you don’t notice that in Mozart’s collaborations with da Ponte.  Insofar as there are influences, I think they would have been about Mozart thinking how much better he could do it.

Yet this was a tremendous success at its first performance, with 25 performances in its first season. I wonder how far that was to do with what sounds like a brilliant cast – Nancy Storace (the first Susanna) as Ofelia, Benucci (the first Figaro) as Trofonio, the first Count as Plistene and the first Ferrando as Artemidoro – together with resources that Bampton could only dream about. As I sat through this performance, I unworthily but longingly wondered what a cast made of, say, Bartoli, Persson, Schrott, Pisaroni and Breslik would make of it.

And this is the rub. Bampton deserves huge gratitude for letting us experience these pieces but it tends to be hamstrung by the almost home-made aspects of the show – a sort of English amateurishness that is probably beguiling in gardens at Bampton in the strawberries and cream season but looks just a bit thin at St John’s on a damp autumnal evening in September.

It starts with the translation. In principle, I’m all in favour of doing these pieces in English, but gratitude for that turns to irritation when the translation seems to sacrifice sense for fairly predictable rhyme (or, too often, pretty optimistic assonance), is full of words like “really” and other indicators of a translator desperate to fill in a couple more syllables and word order goes all over the place. You get the gist of what’s going on but I’m not sure that it does anyone, least of all the cast and the music, any favours.

There’s also a knowing jokiness about Jeremy Gray’s productions that doesn’t really carry through. Trofonio’s cave is a Tardis and he looks like one of the seedier incarnations of Dr Who. It’s a pleasant enough idea that doesn’t go very far. And the ambience is a bit student-ish: a happy vicarage garden summer romp where you don’t really worry about the relatively amateurish, rather creaky sets and costumes that don’t quite fit. Grey directs well enough as a traffic policeman and has some very nice ideas, particularly around the changes of character which were really well done, but doesn’t help his singers get particularly into character.

The musical side, however, was rather impressive. The singers are young and assured even if they don’t match the names that I’ve mentioned above. Aiofe O’Sullivan makes a lively Dori and I really enjoyed her singing, Christopher Turner a studious Artemidoro who sang his Act II aria very well.  I think he’d be a splendid Ottavio or Ferrando.. Nicholas Merryweather has a very pleasing voice indeed for this sort of music and was a lively, very safe pair of hands of Plistene – again, I can see him as a Count or Guglielmo. As Trofonio, Matthew Stiff displayed a very strong bass voice and a good stage presence and James Harrison bumbled effectively as Aristone.

Disappointingly, Anna Starushkevych, who was meant to sing Ofelia couldn’t get a visa in time to enable her to turn up. The role was sung with impressive assurance at extreme short notice by Caroline Backhouse and acted by Marieke Bernard-Berkel, one of the ASMs. Both did as well as you could possibly ask under the circumstances but I’ve no doubt that it didn’t help the performance nor that the effectiveness of what is meant to be one of the finest arias – Ofelia’s in Act II – was compromised, however well Miss Backhouse sang it.  I’d like to hear her again under happier circumstances.

Paul Wingfield conducted surely and stylishly and Chroma played with impressive fluency, given the that this was the only performance of the work that they were giving. It sounded good and I hugely enjoyed the elegance and imagination of Salieri’s orchestral writing.

Whatever the imperfections of the performance, I was delighted to have the chance to see my first piece by Salieri. I’d like to see some more.

Experimental Macbeth

10 Sep

Glyndebourne’s most recent Composer in Residence, Luke Styles, has produced a further opera for them. It’s a version of Macbeth cut down to 75 minutes with the text adapted by Ted Huffman, who also directed. It was given a few performances at the end of the season before performances of Saul free to people attending that opera. They brought it to the Linbury for a single London performance on 9th September. I caught it.

It’s a difficult task to reduce even the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays to 75 minutes. And just to make things a little more challenging, they decided to set Shakespeare’s words (albeit moved around) rather than trying to create their own text. This is a very brave decision. The only composer I can think of who has successfully set Shakespeare’s dialogue is Britten in his Midsummer Night’s Dream and it’s worth remembering that that was through very carefully selected text by Pears, who would have a feel for the vocal possibilities.

Huffman and Styles decided that they would eschew the supernatural altogether – no witches, no Banquo’s ghost, no Birnam Wood marching to Dunsinane. Lady Macbeth loses her sleep-walking scene and, apparently, doesn’t die. So far as I could tell, Macbeth wins – he certainly seemed to deliver Macduff’s final words. I don’t necessarily object to this. All stories involve choices as to what happens next and, at a time when tyranny appears to be increasingly victorious and atrocities happen at a pace that my generation at least, thought was of the past, a victorious Macbeth is not unthinkable. But doesn’t this also give you a bit more licence with the story itself and with the text?

The aim of the Glyndebourne scheme is, presumably, to encourage experiment rather than to create a masterpiece and I’d like to treat this in that spirit. In his programme note, Styles suggests that he and Huffman, may try to expand it to a full evening. If they do, then perhaps a few friendly suggestions may assist.

1. Do you really need to use Shakespeare’s words so slavishly, particularly when they are being projected behind the singers? First, syntax is dense and often difficult to follow.  Secondly, the vocabulary can be obscure. I doubt, for example, that many people in the audience know what a limbeck is (I need to look it up) or that a gin is a trap – this distracts attention. More seriously, these words weren’t written for singing: they are there for actors to take up and play with. When Shakespeare did write words to be set to music, the technique is very different – the lines are shorter, the expression less complex. By setting this text you impose a straitjacket on the text and the way it is expressed. I couldn’t find a single memorable phrase or musical expression which amplified or improved on the text. I think they need to find a different way of telling the story.

2. Do you really need an all-male cast? I know Shakespeare did, but that was the convention of the time and I suspect that at least some of the voices were trebles. I don’t object, per se, to a tenor Lady Macbeth – Britten’s Madwoman is a marvellous example of how intense female passion can be conveyed by this voice – but I’m not sure that Styles yet has the skill or the assurance to make the most of the opportunities that this creates. The relatively limited vocal palette gets a bit monotonous.

3. Verdi had the right idea when he cut out all the Rosses, Lennoxes etc. It’s a very fine production in the theatre that enables you to work out which is which and, honestly, it doesn’t matter. Either cut them or give them more to do. And costume them so that they look different.

4. Bits of the text seemed unnecessary. To take an easy example, you don’t need Macbeth to go through the business of asking whether the murderers are outside and then calling them in. The early scenes struck me as being full of exegesis that wasn’t always necessary – do we need to know all about Norway and the evil MacDonald? It took up too many of the 75 minutes.

5. It is seriously worth thinking about the opportunities that the operatic form gives in terms of opportunities for extended arias, duets and ensembles to provide characterisation, to create tension, to move the plot along and also give a bit of variation. Here we simply had the characters singing the dialogue one after the other and at what felt like a uniform pace, with little variation and little to suggest the different emotions or the dynamics of a conversation. It felt dutiful, earth-bound, boring.

The part I found most enjoyable was Styles’s marvellously assured orchestration. He found colours which suggested emotions and created tension and atmosphere. The woodwinds surrounding Lady Macbeth created a sense of love, there was a lovely, almost salon-ish introduction to the banquet scene and his use of percussion is fabulously good. I got lots of pleasure listening to that. This is very special. Some of the best moments were those where the singers shut up and allowed the music to speak: I remember a passage before the murder where Macbeth is left standing on the stage, thinking – the music told you quite a lot about what was going on in his mind. If only there had been more interesting vocal lines.

It was well enough done. Huffman directed clearly and intelligently, save for the fact that it was impossible to tell who most of the minor characters were and I was frankly confused by the end, because I know what happens in the original. Jeremy Bines conducted a group of the LPO well and, as I’ve suggested, got the colours and textures outstandingly well. Ed Ballard made a strong impression as Macbeth even if you wished for more opportunities for him to delve into the character. Aidan Coburn was an impressive Lady Macbeth even though the role disappears after the banquet scene – but there was absolutely no sense of sexual chemistry between the two – a decision, or embarrassment at having two blokes playing man and wife? There’s a very good Britten tenor voice there.

Alessandro Fisher made a clear Banquo and Andrew Davies did a very good double act as the Porter and Lady Macduff – some lovely acting there. As I’ve suggested, I didn’t find it easy to work out who the others were.

So it’s an experiment. I think it needs a lot of work if this is really to succeed for an audience and I’d be tempted to start again from scratch with a new text. It felt a lot longer than its 75 minutes. I wonder if Styles is really an operatic composer – it was the skill with orchestral sounds that I’ll take away from this evening and which make me want to hear more of his work.