Archive | November, 2015

Discovering Zaza

28 Nov

Normally, I don’t have a problem with going to the opera on my own – quite a good thing you may say.  I don’t see it particularly as a social occasion, but one where I’m quite happy just to appreciate by myself.  However, Opera Rara’s performance of Leoncavallo’s Zaza on 27th November was one of those where I wanted to have someone with me to share the experience, not because I think that Zaza is an undiscovered masterpiece, but because this performance made a very strong case for it and featured a fabulous achievement by Ermonela Jaho in the title role.

It was first performed in 1900 and achieved quite a decent success.  Leoncavallo revised it in 1919 (the performance Opera Rara did was that version).  Geraldine Farrar had a huge success with it at the Met in the 1920s and Loewenberg notes that it was still being performed in Italy in the early 1940s.  It’s now got rather lost with those other operas composed under the shadow of Puccini.

At this performance it came across as rather an appealing piece, albeit with a couple of potential problems. Zaza is a minor cabaret singer who infatuates the wealthy businessman Milio. They are blissfully happy until Zaza discovers that there appears to be another mistress. She goes to Paris to discover not a mistress, but a wife and child. She gives Milio up after a suitable scenery-chewing scene – her last words are “e tutto finito”.
It struck me as quite a technically well-constructed piece. The first act, which reminded me a bit of the opening of Adriana Lecouvreur, is in the cabaret – lots of bustle, you hear the different acts from backstage and has an appealing duet for Zaza and Milio. The second act has less bustle and is the most concise – a nice scene for Zaza and Milio before Cascart, her old flame, reveals the existence of the “mistress”.

The third act is potentially the trickiest. There’s a good aria for Milio after which he leaves. Zaza then arrives and meets his daughter, Toto (“my real name’s Antoinette but everyone calls me Toto”). There is a real danger that this could be so saccharine (“I will play an Ave Maria because it’s my mother’s favourite”) as to induce serial vomiting in an audience or gales of laughter. You need a very strong Zaza to be able to carry it off. The last act has a very good aria for Cascart as he comforts Zaza and that final confrontation.  Leoncavallo’s orchestration is beguiling, detailed and he builds up the drama really well.

Aside from the little child Toto, the problems could be the fact that it’s really quite hard to like Milio who evidently is quite happy to leave his family for six months to live with Zaza without mentioning his wife, and the fact that the music isn’t as instantly memorable as Puccini. Lots of the same techniques are used – conversation, bustling orchestration – but it feels less certain, the music more incidental to a sung play rather than an integral part. You get glimpses of strong ideas that somehow fade away – at least in the first couple of acts. What actually is happening, is that Leoncavallo is building up to a strong finale, leaving me, much to my surprise, involved and rather moved.  This is an opera which could be revived in mainstream houses successfully.

That success will depend on the performance of the leading role. You need a good old fashioned singing actress capable of holding the performance together – you can understand why Geraldine Farrar made it such a success. I imagine that Netrebko, Gheorghiu, Freni when she was singing her heavier roles, would be or have been smashing in it. However, I don’t think their services will be required after the performance that Ermonela Jaho gave here. She took the role completely seriously, developing from the flippant prima donna of the first act, to the smitten lover of the second, through the tortured anguish of Act III to the anger, bitterness and despair of the last act. She has a way of conveying emotions and a fundamental honesty and decency so that they are utterly believable.  This wasn’t a showy, self-conscious performance but one where you she created someone entirely believable.  She held the hall mesmerised by the sheer passion, anger and sadness that she got into that final scene. She sang it superbly – it’s a gorgeous voice and she seizes the words and makes them mean something. I do hope the Royal Opera House have some plans for her to return for things other than Angelica. She’s a very special soprano indeed.

The rest were pretty good too. Riccardo Massi sang strongly as Milio, conveying the charm and fecklessness of the character and gave lots of pleasure with singing that struck me as perfectly in style.  He has a very attractive spinto tenor that has some heft behind it.  He’s doing Cavaradossi at the ROH later in the season and could be worth catching. Stephen Gaertner was a late-ish replacement as Cascart, Zaza’s ex and confidante, but he’d sung it before and I really enjoyed his concerned, stylish and intelligent singing. He did his Act IV aria really well. There may be some starrier names out there who could do the roles, but I’m not sure that I’d swap either of them.

There are quite a lot of small roles which were pretty strongly cast here even if not always easy to distinguish. I’d single out Nicky Spence for his outstandingly stylish and committed Courtois (Zaza’s boss) and Kathryn Rudge as Natalia the maid. Patricia Bardon was ill and Rebecca Lodge learned the role of Anaide (Zaza’s drunken mother) in 24 hours and put in a performance that did the job admirably.  Julia Ferri played Toto and managed to avoid making you want to strangle her or to rush for the sick bucket.

Some of that must be due to Susannah Waters’s direction.  She managed the comings and goings pretty well in front of the orchestra.  I’m not sure how far she can credited with helping Ms Jaho, but she obviously did nothing to hinder her and, as I’ve suggested, managed the third act really well.

Maurizio Benini conducted strongly. He took the piece absolutely seriously, played it for what it was worth and more and was well supported by the BBCSO and by the BBC Singers. This performance took place after the cast had recorded the opera and, as a result, they were all well into their roles – most used the scores as a fall-back and looked at each other and reacted.

This then struck me as demonstrating that Zaza is a viable opera – certainly no less so than, say, Adriana Lecouvreur or Fedora. I may be wrong, but I’d be surprised if this were even approaching the bottom of Mr Holten’s list of operas to perform at the ROH.  I’d say it would be worth it if only for Ms Jaho.   I’d certainly like to see a staging and will definitely be buying the CD when it comes out.

 

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Bieito’s Force of Destiny

21 Nov

It’s 11 years since the last Forza in London and it was certainly time for another.  It’s the sort of difficult opera that ought to be right up Calixto Bieito’s street and so I was looking forward to seeing the new ENO production which I saw on 18th November.

I think that it’s a shame the opera’s seen so little. There is so much fabulously fine music there and, as a picture of obsession in a time of uncertainty and war, I’m sure there’s a really memorable, interesting opera in there. Possibly. It’s an opera which requires a director to dare and to manage the epic aspects that I’m quite sure are here. Or, alternatively, something which accepts it as a grand opera with all that this implies.

Bieito’s production had its moments and I certainly wouldn’t write it off the way some people In audience did, but there are still some difficulties with it. First, and irritatingly, it begins with a very bright light being shone from the back of the stage into the audience. It provides a marvellous first shadowy picture of the Vargas family at dinner but at the expense of significant discomfort to quite a lot of the audience. The design concept is based on facades of buildings that are on huge trolleys and move around, are raised, lowered and angled – it seems to take forever for this to happen and army of stagehands seem to needed here – worse, it’s noisy. This feels like the clumsiest set I’ve seen in a long time.

More seriously, I think, is the way Bieito stages the crowd scenes at Hornachuelos and Velletri. In both cases the chorus stands and sings and there seems to be very little in the way of movement or direction of the characters. I found this partly unhelpful but, more seriously, really boring – there was nothing going on here to stop me closing my eyes.

Against this, I thought that the direction of the singers was strong. It feels odd that Leonora isn’t disguised as a man but the scene between her and the rather unpleasant Padre Guardiano was rather well done. I’ve never found Melitone a comic character and Andrew Shore’s grumpy, small-minded, rather sinister portrayal of him, with outstanding diction, struck me as spot-on. You get the mono-mania of Carlo really well – and also the sense, at times, of a chaotic, lawless society – it’s not too difficult to get refugees or wartime brutality wrong these days. I found myself intermittently engaging with the piece and, when I did, enjoying it.

Musically, there was marvellous stuff going on. Mark Wigglesworth struck me as conducting outstanding well: there was a real Verdian sweep to this, he accompanied the singers really well, phrasing gloriously and getting some really fine, subtle playing from the orchestra. I don’t think I’ve heard such a fine piannissmo from them as he coaxed out at the end. It sounded right.

He used bits of the original version – a shorter overture and the Act III scenes switched.  I thought this worked rather well and better than Verdi’s second thoughts.

Tamara Wilson, who sang Leonora, is new to me. She has a grand figure and a voice to match – firmly produced, dramatic, apparently unfazed by any problems that lie in the writing. Her singing of her two arias gave you the sort of pleasure that you get from a singer completely in control. She has outstanding diction and I don’t think I’ve understood Pace pace so well before. She’ll be very welcome back in sing this sort of role any time she likes. Bieito made her kill herself at the end and that may not be a bad response for her.

Gwyn Hughes Jones through caution and elegance to the winds to make a vocally impassioned, possibly over-the-top Alvaro. He’s not really an actor but he sang the words clearly and believably. Anthony Michaels-Moore’s voice doesn’t sound as young as it used to, but he sounded pretty good and it’s a joy to hear stylish Verdi singing even if there are the odd rough edges: he gave a great portrayal of monomania. James Creswell sang the Padre Guardiano strongly and made an ambiguous figure.  Rinat Shahan was a vicious, lively terrorist of a Preziosilla who ended up shooting the prisoners in Act III.

What was best of all was the clarity of the diction and the fact that you could follow most of the piece without looking at the titles.

So musically this was a pretty satisfying evening. Bieito could, I felt, have explored a lot more about this piece and dared more.  But it’s good to see the piece again and this was a good evening for ENO.  I don’t suppose that we’ll see this production again but it would be good to see the opera again.

 

 

Morgen und Abend – Fascinating or vacuous?

18 Nov

As you’ll have gathered from the headline, I’m in two minds about Georg Friedrich Haas’s new opera.  I saw its second performance at the ROH on 17th November.  I was glad to be there and, particularly, to be introduced to Haas’s music.  Whether the piece actually says anything or is a viable piece for the opera house strikes me as much more debatable.

The opera is, apparently, a meditation on life and death, based on a novel by the Norwegian novelist, Jon Fosse. We begin with the protagonist, Johannes’s birth – as his father, Olai (Klaus Maria Brandauer speaking English in a comedy German accent), waits outside repeating, in English, quite a small number of sentences.  After 20 minutes and yet another repetition of “nothing’s going on”, you’re tempted to shout out “too right”.

We are then transported to the time of his death as he sees his dead wife, Erna and his dead friend Peter and finds himself unable to talk to his daughter, Signe. The singing is in German. Again, there is little more than the repetition of the same sentences. There’s not a plot to speak of. I’m not even sure that there’s any development or even the exploration of ideas. Certainly no car chases.  On the other hand, there is a sense of reflection, of a picture of a life through the crucial people in it.  It’s more like looking at a picture than at a stage work.
Haas’s music is extraordinary. I don’t think I’ve heard such piercingly immediate sounds. It feels as though there’s a background of undulating sounds – I was reminded of the sea, of an aircraft revving up its engine and then calming it down and of wind, interspersed with piercing, achingly beautiful brass sounds, violent percussion. The vocal lines are clear and grateful. You feel that, despite the text, there’s a sense of movement, of ideas and exploration.

And yet, despite its short length (only ninety minutes), I felt it outstayed its welcome. There isn’t enough going on onstage to justify this length of time of this music. I do wonder whether this piece would stand a second visit. While I could imagine becoming entirely engrossed and fascinated by it, particularly by the music, I could also imagine getting very bored indeed and thinking that this was no more than Emperor’s new clothes.

It’s rather wonderfully done. Graham Vick directs with the assurance and certainty that you’d expect. Richard Hudson’s off-white set and costumes looked superb and caught the elegiac, reflective, gentle nature of the piece. The movements of cast, the placing of the few props looked perfect. The only thing which jarred was the bright light shining directly into the audience at the end. You didn’t need it. Similarly, in the pit, Michael Boder conducted compellingly and the orchestra played, apparently, with complete accuracy and conviction.

Christoph Pohl was clear, beautifully sung, entirely convincing as Johannes, who was absolutely clear about the different relationships and made a very sympathetic, believable, thoughtful figure. I’d love to hear him sing Wozzeck. Sarah Wegener was immediate, clear, emotional as his daughter Signe and joyous as the midwife. Will Hartmann as Peter and Helena Rasker as Erna struck me as peripheral but sang with commitment and real beauty.

I’ve had many worse evenings and seen many less engaging operas. But I really don’t see this committed, reflective, offbeat and, ultimately, rather self-indulgent piece as inspiring many newcomers to give more operas a try. I suspect its future is in the concert hall and it certainly doesn’t do much to dispel ideas that opera is an elite art-form for a minority.  I’d recommend a visit, though.

Mignon in Sussex

12 Nov

I’ve had a strong affection for Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon ever since I saw a marvellous production of it at Wexford in 1986, staged by Richard Jones, at the beginning of his career, it had flair, elegance and made you wonder why it had dropped out of the repertory.  I’ve seen a student performance at the Guildhall since, play the Antonio de Almeida recording now again and was very much looking forward to the performance by New Sussex Opera at Lewes Town Hall on 11th November.

I still think that it’s a lovely opera.  The first act may be a bit sprawling – a lot of characters, action and back-story to get through – but the second act strikes me as standing up pretty well to anything else written in France (or in most other places) in the 19th Century, while the third act rounds things off nicely, if a bit suddenly.  There are plenty of lovely musical numbers: not just “Connais-tu la pays” and that marvellous coloratura show-stopper, “Je suis Titania” but a gorgeous tenor aria for Meister in Act III, fine duets for Mignon with Meister and Lothario and a lovely aria for her in Act II.  Add to this some jolly choruses, amusing minor characters and a really exciting finale to the second Act, it’s easy to see why it hit a thousand performances in Paris and it’s equally easy to see how a certain musical snobbery took it out of the repertory.  It ain’t Puccini or Verdi and doesn’t have Mozart’s sheer genius but it’s a gentle, charming, rather moving piece that would work in much the same way that pieces like Adriana Lecouvreur or Fedora or some of those other pieces that we’ve been lumbered with recently do.

So I’m still wondering why I felt slightly disappointed after the New Sussex Opera performances.  I think it was probably mostly to do with the conditions in which NSO work – a shoestring budget, probably limited rehearsal time and, frankly, an unsympathetic venue.

For all that it’s lovely to be able to walk to the opera and I love having it on my doorstep, there are real problems with Lewes Town Hall as a venue.  The acoustic feels very orchestra-heavy, the seats are uncomfortable (Mignon has more than two and half hours of music in it), there’s no rake, so you’re at the mercy of chance as to who sits in front of you and how well you can see – and the stage itself is too low so you can’t really get a full picture of what’s going on – you feel a bit jostled visually.  And the fact that there was no backdrop made you even more aware of the venue.  It’s a noisy place with singers and stage hands distracting you with their clunking as they exit and enter.  I suspect that audiences in Eastbourne and at the Cadogan Hall won’t have the same problems but I wonder if it wouldn’t be worth experimenting, a la Opera North with having the orchestra behind the singers.

Harry Fehr had set the piece in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic.  In an opera which is really about character, the setting doesn’t matter much (though I did wonder whether Mignon’s position in the troupe of players would have been quite so difficult then as it might have been two hundred years before).  This allowed for some superb and very good looking costumes.  Eleanor Wdowki’s set was largely made up of travelling cases and tables.  The former aren’t a bad design motif for this opera which is about journeys.  I think it’ll look a whole lot better in more sympathetic venues.  Fehr moved the chorus reasonably effectively in not quite enough space for them and made the story clear..  Direction of the principals was, again, clear but I wonder if there was enough time to explore character in the way that he might elsewhere. The piece was done in its original Opera Comique version with dialogue and happy ending.  A good idea to do it in Hugh MacDonald’s translation and this side was pretty well done.

Musically, this was very decent.  It helps having the St Paul’s Sinfonia playing and providing clear, reliable support.  I felt, however, that Nicholas Jenkins’s conducting was a bit tentative, rather cautious – “connais-tu la pays” felt as if it went on rather longer than it should and the Act II finale didn’t quite have the impact that it should.  I couldn’t help feeling that just a couple more rehearsals might have led to a more comfortable performance.  The chorus sounded a lot better than it did the last time I heard it, though diction was misty – it wasn’t that easy to make out the words.

The principals were pretty good.  I was hugely impressed by Ruth Jenkins-Robertsson as Philine.  .”Je suis Titania” appeared to hold no terrors for her and she provided just the right frivolous glamour – even if I didn’t particularly believe her reconciliation at the end. I’d like to see more of her.  Victoria Simmonds doesn’t have the same eye-catching quality and I felt that she was a bit stumped by Mignon’s character (understandably, it’s quite easy to make her seem sulky and petulant most of the time) – you couldn’t quite see why Meister might be interested in her.  She sang her arias and the duets very well indeed – clear diction and vocally sounding just right.

Ted Schmitz doesn’t strike me as having the most grateful tenor voice to listen to but he sang his Act III aria pretty stylishly and, again, needed a bit more work to get the tension between his feelings for Mignon and those for Philine expressed more clearly.  Adrian Powter was vocally very reliable as Lothario, the half-mad father looking for his daughter.  I rather liked Fehr’s portrayal of him with a case, rather like a stateless refugee but it’s not an easy role and I think there’s a bit more madness and danger that could have been conveyed there.

Christopher Diffey made an elegant, amusing Laertes who managed the dialogue very well and injected some life into the proceedings whenever he was onstage.  Jason Crook as the ghastly circus owner, Jarno, was very good too.  The rest seemed rather more tentative.

How fair am I being?  I would guess that my chances of seeing a professional staging of this piece in the next ten years, if not my lifetime, in the UK are pretty much non-existent. I should be grateful to NSO for putting it on and I am.  You can’t expect the sort of standards that you would find at the Royal Opera House or a couple of miles down the road to the east of Lewes.  I’ve no doubt that this will come over very much more strongly at the later performances in Eastbourne and London, partly because of the real problems in putting anything on at the Lewes Town Hall.  Nevertheless, I still felt that there was a tentativeness and caution about this performance, for all its strengths, that didn’t quite put the piece across in its best light.  Perhaps because so many of the ingredients were so good, I wanted it to come across more strongly.  I wanted to come out feeling that the audience feeling enthusiastic for the work.  I’m not sure that they would have done so. I do hope it relaxes at later shows.

Student Donne Curiose

10 Nov

I wonder what I’d do without the music colleges and, particularly the Guildhall in introducing me to the by-ways of the repertory.  Just this year, I’ve seen five operas that I’d be lucky to see elsewhere.  The latest, which I saw on 9th November, is Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Le donne curiose, a comedy from 1903, his first successful opera.  It was originally performed in a German translation before Toscanini did it at the Met in 1912 in the original Italian.

I wonder what Toscanini thought of it.  It’s quite interesting in that it comes in that slightly odd point in operatic history before Puccini and Richard Strauss had taken off, before Lehar had redefined operetta, before Stravinsky and the 2nd Viennese School.  It feels like a very conservative work indeed – an attempt at an opera buffa based on Goldoni and written heavily under the influence of Falstaff.

The plot feels like Merry Wives of Windsor without Falstaff. A group of men have their club where they meet to drink and complain about women. Their wives and girlfriends are curious about what’s going on and have all kinds of theories and attempt various devious ways of getting in. They succeed and find, of course, that their fears are groundless and that there’s nothing to worry about.

The problem is that it all feels a bit lame and inconsequential without the sort of strong characterisation that, I suspect, is likely to be in Goldoni’s original and which can be the only justification for putting on what is otherwise a piece of nonsense. The piece works best when dealing with the different relationships. For me, it woke up in the second act where there seems, quite seriously, to be some domestic violence going on (but skated over) and in the following one where there is a gorgeous quartet for husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend, a smashing aria for the girlfriend and a gem of a duet for her and her boyfriend.

The rest of it is enjoyable enough, though I found the first act a bit on the long side.  The music isn’t quite individual enough. You hear flashes of Rossini, Donizetti, pre-indications of Puccini and a huge amount that isn’t quite good enough for Falstaff. I was reminded slightly of Cimarosa’s Matrimonio segreto where the opening impression is one of pleasure at the fizzing music to be succeeded by an urgent desire that it would stop and go somewhere interesting.  It’s a relatively short piece, but you often feel that it could have been shorter. And it’s rather hard to feel sympathy for any of the characters.

I could imagine this being quite enjoyable if you had an enthusiastic enough director with a strong enough concept. Here, Stephen Barlow got part of the way.  He had the sense to see that an eighteenth century setting was likely to be the kiss of death. Whether a late 1960s setting was the answer, I’m not sure. The men’s club seemed to be more like a teenager’s bedroom with football posters, games and other masculine clichés – no porn, of course. Their food preferences appeared to be beer and pizza. This was a place for slumming it. Their homes appeared to be relentlessly middle class. There were some amusing touches – the group of lost tourists, for example – and superbly garish sets and costumes from Yannis Thavoris who managed the quick change needed between the last two scenes to perfection (the first time I’ve heard the sets get a round of applause at this address).  Otherwise, it was amiable, with the nastier side only just hinted at.

The cast was very strong. There are nine main roles and a number of minor ones and there were some rather promising singers out there. The most interesting seemed to me to be Thomas Atkins from New Zealand. I don’t think I’ve heard such a promising spinto tenor in a student performance before. He has a real “ping” aligned to a gentle, reedy quality and has a nice, enthusiastic acting ability. He gave enormous pleasure in some of the most grateful music of the opera.  He’ll make a lovely Rodolfo or Alfredo and probably beyond. I hope he can manage the career sensibly. You could imagine all kinds of opera houses queuing up for him.

Of the other men, Christopher Cull made a rather nasty Lelio and displayed a rather good baritone, Josep-Ramon Olivé was pretty strong as Pantalone, the club owner and Milan Siljanov struck me as quite promising as Arelecchino. These were good voices, not over-taxed by the music and game actors.

Of the women, Nicola Said was a very sweet, Nanetta-like Rosaura with plenty of personality, Elizabeth Karani showed bags of spirit and a spit-fire soprano as Eleanora, the potentially battered wife, Bethan Langford was a sensible Beatrice and Katerine Balejko was a resourceful, sweet, nicely sung Columbine.  It all made for a very nice ensemble performance.

Mark Shanahan conducted – the orchestra sounded a bit scratchy but never drowned the singers and there was some elegant, confident playing while the music was in the strings’ comfort zone.

In today’s climate, I don’t see this ever making the repertory but it made an enjoyable evening and I was glad that I saw it.

Seventeenth Century Feminist Opera?

9 Nov

This year’s Brighton Early Music Festival is examining women in early music and gave us the opportunity to see what is, apparently, the first opera by a female composer: La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’ isola di Alcina by Francesca Caccini.  They did four performances of the piece at the Old Market in Hove and I saw the last one, on 8th November.

Caccini was the daughter of singers and, obviously, an accomplished composer at the Medici court in Florence (ruled, at the time by two female regents).  This piece was written for the visit of Prince Wladislaw of Poland in 1625 and is one of the few compositions of hers that survive.  He liked it enough to commission at the very least a translation into Polish and probably performances of it in Warsaw and to commission some more operas from her.

It’s the same subject matter as Handel’s Alcina – the sorceress Melissa succeeds in rescuing Ruggiero who from clutches of Alcina, first by persuading him that the world needs his strength as a fighter and, secondly, by defeating Alcina’s army of spirits, and then releasing Alcina’s other captives (and their wives) from their imprisonment as plants.  It opens with a prologue welcoming the Prince, then Melissa arrives determined to rescue Ruggiero, there’s a love scene for Ruggiero and Alcina followed by one for Melissa and Ruggiero.  Having been persuaded, Ruggiero then has a scene with Alcina where he rejects her.  Melissa then defeats Alcina’s spirits and releases the plants.  It would have been part of a larger entertainment, with dances included (one of them, apparently, for horses).

Structurally, it reminded me most of Handel’s Acis and Galatea – written for a similarly intimate space.  The music struck me as attractive in a generic seventeenth century way.  There were some lovely choruses and the dialogues between the characters seemed to be dramatic and characterful.  There’s little in the way of arias and relatively few opportunities for individual singers to shine.  It’s an ensemble piece with a large number of minor roles and some very grateful, imaginative orchestration.  I’m not enough of an expert in 17th century opera to be able to compare with others but it didn’t strike me as obviously inferior to Cavalli or, indeed, Rossi, given that it was intended to be a piece d’occasion rather than a dramatic piece of work.

Musically, this performance struck me as excellent.  Deborah Roberts conducted by the Brighton Early Music Festival Renaissance Players who seemed to me to play excellently, idiomatically and accompanying the singers well.  The Old Market is an ideal space for this sort of opera – you can fit three or four hundred people in there easily but it feels intimate and the acoustic was fine.  An ensemble of eighteen (ten with solo roles and eight supporters) did the choruses really well and sang their solo roles with varying success – some first rate (Justin Way, Hannah Ely and William Bouvel in particular) others rather less so.

Anna Devin was Alcina and gave an assured, idiomatic, glamorous performance.  Denis Lakey, a counter-tenor based in Germany and new to me, camped up Melissa (who turns herself into Atlas for part of the performance) considerably but seemed comfortable vocally.  Was this role originally written for a mezzo or a castrato or male alto?  Either male or female would work, I think.  Nick Pritchard has an ideal tenor for this sort of music and sang very pleasingly with understandably gauche acting for one of the most passive tenor roles imaginable.

Susannah Waters did the production.  I’m uncertain about how far this piece is intended to be comic or serious or, possibly, both.  She updated it to the turn of the 20th century on Brighton beach.  Melissa was a Lady Bracknell figure, the others in various forms of beach wear with props of buckets and spades and inflatable beach equipment.  The celebration at the end became a celebration of the suffragettes.  The overall tone was of a slightly student-ish, one-off bit of fun.

This was most evident in that, instead of surtitles, characters held up boards which reduced what sounded like several lines of verse into a single, silent film-like line, summarising the words.  These raised quite a lot of laughs.  What I wasn’t able to  do was to understand enough of the Italian to work out whether there is more to the piece than this.  It added to my conviction that, for these early operas, the settings of the words are crucial and you need to understand them.  I imagine that a translation couldn’t have been afforded but those idiot-boards meant that you were distracted from the words and the emotions.  I felt that there was a lot going on that we were missing.  Equally, I may be over-estimating something that was obviously written simply for a celebration and was never intended to be more than a piece of fun.

Either way, it was an interesting evening.  I was glad that I went and to learn more about a period of opera that you rarely get to see and a piece that’s unlikely to be seen outside of this sort of festival setting.  Whatever reservations I may have about the staging, the seriousness of the musical side was beyond doubt.

Friends’ Schemes: Playing on Greed?

7 Nov

I had an email this week from the Edinburgh Festival.  It told me that, at the next Festival, Cecilia Bartoli would be singing Norma in the Salzburg production for only three performances.  It helpfully set out the booking dates and pointed out that priority booking for Festival Supporters began in a week’s time with a useful link to help you pay £60 if you want to become a Supporter and get that priority booking option.

The message wasn’t stated but it was pretty clear.  This is going to be the hot ticket for the Festival; we can probably fill the Festival Theatre at least three times over for these performances. If you give us £60 you stand a better chance of getting a ticket.   This makes quite a hefty surcharge on seats that cost between £30 (for “no view”!) and £140.  And I imagine quite a lot of Bartoli and Norma fans will pay up just to improve their chances of getting a seat.  Of course, they can’t guarantee that you will get that get ticket and, if this marketing scheme is successful, presumably the chances will be even slimmer.  And is it, in fact, right for arts organisations to be marketing the Supporters schemes in this way.

This led me to think about the reasons why I join these schemes.  I’m a member of the equivalent schemes at Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, the Wigmore Hall, the South Bank Centre, the Barbican, the RSC, the National Theatre and Chichester.  I’ve joined them for a mixture of four different reasons: a general feeling of benevolence to the organisation, to get information so that I actually know what’s on, to take advantage of priority booking and because of occasional discounts (if a couple of you go to half a dozen shows at Chichester, with the right combinations, you can save the cost of the membership).

How far those different reasons apply in individual cases will vary.  Priority booking is generally more important at the ROH, the Wigmore, Glyndebourne and the National either because of the shortage of tickets (the Wigmore) or the ability to choose seats in particular places and prices (the remainder).  Awareness of what’s going on is more important at the South Bank, the Barbican or the RSC where, generally, it’s not too difficult to get seats (though there can be exceptions – think about the Cumberbatch Hamlet).  However, all of them are places that I attend reasonably regularly and want to support.

And this was the original idea of most Friends/Supporters schemes.  They were intended for people who had more than an occasional relationship with the organisation – were regular visitors and who it was appropriate to reward with some benefits in return for that support, whether those be advance bookings, discounts, access to rehearsals or whatever else.  First, you’re getting a quick buck but will it be a lasting one?  The operatic fair at Edinburgh has been pretty mixed in recent years: I might pay the money for a chance to get to hear this Norma but I probably won’t stay.

More seriously, you may be offering something that you can’t deliver.  Being a Friend of the Wigmore Hall doesn’t deliver me all the concerts that I’d like (most times, I find that at least one is sold out).  Being a Friend of the Barbican still had me keeping an eye on the queue on one window of my computer for four hours an indifferent Cumberbatch Hamlet – it was lucky I didn’t have meetings that morning and could delay lunch.  And I decided that I needed to upgrade my membership of the Friends of Covent Garden to be sure of getting the tickets that I wanted (I’m pretty sure that the additional cost is offset by the savings, I make but, naturally, I don’t broadcast this fact).  I’ve been fortunate at Glyndebourne in my small number of years as a member of the Festival Society, but I wonder if that will extend to Meistersinger next year.

I don’t know how many people are Edinburgh Festival Supporters but I’m not naive enough to think that paying £60 is going to be enough to guarantee me seats.  But if I were an existing supporter, I’d be pretty irritated if my chances of getting a ticket to this have been reduced by people joining the scheme just for that very show.  They may be alienating the people who will be the continuing supporters.

And, also, isn’t there enough of a problem with opera’s image as a socially exclusive art form without, in effect, suggesting that you may need to pay a surcharge of between 40% and 200% of the face value of the ticket to increase your chances of getting one?

So I have strong doubts about whether that was an appropriate way of marketing the Supporters scheme.  I would be very interested to see Bartoli as Norma – a special singer and an opera I love. I could afford the £60 and I’d probably use the opportunity to see a couple of other things at the Festival. But I can’t really say that I’m a Festival Supporter – I’ve been to something once in the last 10 years, dislike the city at Festival time and, while there’s some attractive stuff there, it’s not usually enough to make me think it’s worth the journey from Sussex and to pay Festival accommodation prices.  Am I really the sort of person they want as a supporter?  Or is getting the money in more important than the values side?

I’m not sure what I’ll do.