Archive | December, 2015

Half a decent Onegin

23 Dec

Is Onegin right in one of his early remarks to Lensky that, really, he ought to have gone after Tatyana? In Kasper Holten’s production of this opera (I saw the revival on 22nd December), Olga is patently more interested in Onegin than in Lensky and the latter seems to have some sort of sympathy with Tatyana.

Holten’s production has, apparently, been re-thought slightly since its first performance a couple of years ago. I didn’t notice a lot of difference and the problems that I felt with it then are still there: it’s too heavy, too detailed and the whole business of having Tatyana and Onegin watching their younger selves strikes me as fatally undermining the immediacy of the emotions: it’s clever but this isn’t an opera that really needs that level of cleverness. Ugly costumes and a production that’s just too heavy and self-conscious don’t help the opera.

And that was why I left at the interval (as is now fashionable after the first scene of Act II. I’d bought a cheap ticket because I was attracted by the prospect of Semyon Bychkov conducting and Fabbiano as Lensky, while the presence of Hvorostovsky wasn’t exactly a disincentive either. There were lots of good things about this performance but, ultimately, nothing that I needed to miss a train for.

The discovery of the evening turned out to be Nicole Car as Tatyana. She struck me as having an ideal voice for the role and an intensely sympathetic presence that almost overcame the handicap of having to sing the letter scene to her younger self. I thought she sang that scene as well as anyone that since Cotrubas and Freni in this house – appealing, intelligent and entirely convincing: the emotions were raw and not overdone. The singing was clear, with a voice just the right size for the house and with a lovely range of colour.  She is unquestionably someone to watch.

Fabbiano made a very sympathetic, intelligent Lensky.  He chewed the scenery appropriately in the party scene. He does have a tendency to sing forte and it would have been nice to have slightly more tenderness and the occasional piano now and then but it’s a really grateful voice to hear and, again, there’s no question that he’s got a splendid career coming.

It’s great to see Hvorostovsky performing, given his current state of health. He still looks an elegant Onegin but the voice seems to have darkened and become heavier: he sounds a bit older than he should. On the other hand, his way with the text and the way in which he colours the words and the emotions is outstanding. I didn’t feel he was helped by the production and this was a performance where the vocal quality and the care that he bestowed on that were special.

The other roles were pretty well cast. Oksana Volkova made a lively Olga even if I wasn’t quite convinced that her rather heavy, almost contralto-ish, mezzo was the ideal foil for Ms Car. Diana Montague was first rate as Mme Larina, Catherine Wyn-Rogers a very fine Filipyevna who sang and acted the words really well. We had Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as M Triquet who sang his number really beautifully – as well as I’ve heard it. I was sorry to miss Ferruccio Furlanetto as Gremin.

I thought Bychkov conducted very well, shaping the music nicely (and doing the Triquet number as well as Gergiev). What I didn’t get was the level of febrile excitement and passion that Gergiev can bring to this opera. It felt like a very solid, reliable, distinguished performance rather than one that caught you up and didn’t let you go.  Perhaps the production didn’t give him a chance. The orchestra played mostly well though there was the odd slip in ensemble. The chorus sang strongly even if I wasn’t completely sure that they understood what they were singing about. Holten treats them as an unpleasant, gossiping community.

If I’d not seen this production before, I’m pretty sure that I would have stayed to the end. This was a very strong musical performance and I’m glad I had the opportunity to hear Ms Car and Mr Fabbiano. But I had seen and the quality of the music wasn’t going to overcome the handicap Holten has imposed on this opera.  With any luck, this will be its last outing.


RIP Rodney Milnes

17 Dec

I’ve just come across the news that Rodney Milnes died earlier this month.  I didn’t know him (though the immediate quality of his writing made me feel that I did) but the thought that there won’t be any more of his pieces in OPERA magazine or elsewhere for me to read means that my world will be a less comforting, less amusing, less interesting place.

I first came across him in 1974.  I was an earnest 11 year old fascinated by opera and all it held.  My father bought me a copy of OPERA magazine and, in it, was a review by Milnes of a revival of Jenufa at the ROH.  It began “Janacek is like Mozart in one respect if no other: when asked which your favourite Janacek opera is you can only answer that it is the one you have heard most recently.”  I’m not sure that I agree with any of that now but, then, to someone who had never heard any Janacek and who was a bit nervous of him, putting the two composers in the same breath this was surprising; it caught my interest.

And it was that ability to catch your interest, make you laugh, think, nod in agreement or throw the magazine across the room in disagreement, that was his essence.  He made bold statements, he’d say things that he’d later recant and cheerfully admit it and it was this very humanity and fallibility that made him so engaging.  He wrote as he spoke – reading him was like being in a conversation with someone tolerant and passionate, irascible and patient – a human being.

I didn’t agree with him about everything.  In principle, you shouldn’t need surtitles but for those of us who don’t have time to study libretti and scores and whose German, Italian or Czech isn’t as good as it might be, been they help a lot.  But I think we are all allowed our prejudices and it’s the passion behind those that made his writing immediate and entertaining.

The comfort about him was that, whereas with some music and theatre critics you have a feeling that opera is a peripheral to their interests possibly even a curiosity, to him it was centre of his interest and that it mattered as an essential part of human existence.  When I read him, I felt that was at the core and, as a result, I took what he said seriously.  And I don’t think I ever read anything he wrote that didn’t have some grain of an argument behind it.

Of that generation, Rosenthal might have been more encyclopedic, Porter more erudite and academic and Greenfield more gentle, but Milnes’s individuality, his personality and passion mad him the one I felt closest to as a reader.

So thank you, Rodney Milnes, for introducing me to new operas, for your passion and your wit.  I will miss you.


Michielotti returns triumphantly

16 Dec

It’s more than 25 years since the ROH last did Cav and Pag.  I missed them then and also the WNO visit with the pair in the 1990s and simply refused to pay the prices the ROH were charging for the 2003 revival of Pagliacci.  So the performance that I saw on 15th December was the first time that I’ve seen them in that theatre.  It was also only the fourth time time that I’d seen them in, pretty much, 4o years of going to the opera.

I think this says a couple of things.  First, it has been genuinely quite difficult to get to productions of them here in that time  – pretty much a 20 year gap at ENO and only the WNO production in the regions.  I suppose that, done properly, they don’t necessarily make for a cheap evening.  But, also, I don’t actually enjoy them very much as pieces.  They’re effective enough (though I feel that Cav goes on a bit) and there are some good musical numbers in them, but I don’t feel that there’s a lot to them.  There doesn’t seem to be the same scope for exploring ideas or motivation that you find in other pieces and I find it difficult to get interested in the characters.  They depend on powerful stagings and interpretations.

They got them here.  Damiano Michielotti decided not to do a Guillaume Tell on them and simply played the pieces pretty straight and with real intelligence.  He’d updated them to the present in a fairly timeless Sicilian village.  The sets looked absolutely convincing and were beautifully detailed.  The chorus acted marvellously and, again looked the part.  A revolve enabled different locations to be seen and worked particularly well in Pagliacci where, for the last scene, he distinguished between the real emotions going on by having much of the play within the play acted out offstage while doubles played to the audience.  He gently suggested links between the operas – posters for the play are posted in Cav and Silvio and Nedda fall in love during the intermezzo.  In Pag, Mamma Lucia and Santuzza are reconciled during that intermezzo.

Above all, he got really strong acting performances out of his cast.  The emotions were clear and overwhelming and you were carried along by the narrative and the strength of the individual performances.  It’s interesting that some of the most successful productions in London in recent years have been of verismo operas.  Directors seem to have a feel for them and an ability to make them work on their own terms.

We had a really strong cast.  Aleksandrs Antonenko sang both Turiddu and Canio.  Reviews suggested an uneasy opening night for him.  By this performance whatever problems there had been struck me as being resolved and he seemed fully into both roles and sang pretty tirelessly, putting the text over well and creating the agony of Canio and the fecklessness of Turiddu.  If we can’t have Kaufman, he will do very nicely indeed.

Dimitri Platanias doubled Alfio and Tonio and was excellent.  As Tonio particularly, he had the opportunity to display his rich, ideally strong baritone.  He acted the embittered Tonio strongly, credibly and had just the right sardonic relationship with the audience – the last line was chillingly done.  He’s becoming a major singing actor and I hope we’ll see more of him.

Luxury casting gave us Eva-Maria Westbroek as a sympathetic, intense Santuzza, singing really beautifully and Carmen Gianattasio as a superbly acted and really attractively sung Nedda.  She seemed to me to have just the right sort of voice for the role – light enough to be seductive and innocent but with the strength to ride the orchestra.  She created a beautifully frustrated character.

There was a gem of a cameo from Elena Zilio as Mamma Lucia – looking like the classic Italian old woman and managing the love and heartbreak and doubt in the role perfectly – she very nearly stole the show.  Martina Belli made a glamorous Lola, Benjamin Hulett a strong Beppe and Dionysios Sourbis was an attractive Silvio singing his duet with Nedda very strongly indeed.

Chorus was in stout form and was clearly absolutely with the production.  Pappano conducted the orchestra marvellously – the music sounded “right” with the production.

The joy of this evening was to see a performance where everything seemed to come together: supremely intelligent directing and conducting, a great cast and a technically complex production that made a really good case for the operas.  I imagine that the ROH can revive these reasonably often – but it needs to make sure that the revivals have the same care lavished on them as they had for this series.  In any case, Mr Michielotti is welcome to return.




Cesti’s L’Orontea charms

15 Dec

There’s obviously a huge number of interesting operas from the first century of opera’s existence for us to explore and this autumn it’s been good to go Monteverdi and Cavalli and meet Luigi Rossi, Francesca Caccini and now Antonio Cesti – La nuova musica did his L’Orontea in a concert at the Wigmore Hall on 14th December.

Apparently this opera, with Cavalli’s Giasone (a lovely piece that ought to be done more often), was one of the most performed operas in the seventeenth century.  That didn’t stop its music being lost for more than two centuries until some manuscripts turned up. At this happy, energetic performance, I could see its appeal.

The plot feels like quite a lot of other seventeenth century comedies. Queen Orontea falls in love with a beautiful youth, Alidoro, who is almost murdered. So do all the other women in the cast. Orontea can’t marry him because he’s a penniless pauper – until it’s revealed that he’s really a prince. There are a couple of nice sub-plots for a pair of servants and Alidoro’s randy mother and some amusing commentary from a page and a drunk. It seems to move swiftly to a witty text (though whether as witty as the surtitles suggested, I couldn’t say).  There are some good situations and some constantly changing emotions.  These are believable, interesting characters.

Cesti’s music impressed me – swift recitatives move the plot along and there are some rather nice arias and duets, aptly suggesting the emotions. The accompaniment – just eight players – struck me as witty and great fun with some imaginative sounds mirroring the emotions and commenting.  I wished I could have understood the text better because I felt that, to an Italian audience, the enjoyment of the interaction between text and music would have been much greater. In the right venue and with a good English translation and a sensitive director, this could be just as much of a hit as any of Cavalli’s pieces.

The Wigmore Hall is a good venue: it’s the right sort of size and is considerably more comfortable and with much better sightlines than the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Perhaps the acoustic tends to favour the players over the singers – one or two seemed occasionally in danger of being drowned – or possibly David Bates’s conducting was a little too enthusiastic. This apart, the piece came across well. The characters were in varying degrees of costume and acted and interacted well – singing with the music but confident enough to make this feel like a dramatic presentation of an opera, not a simple concert.

The cast was pretty good. Anna Stephany made a glamorous, sultry Orontea, well able to manage the changeable emotions and displaying a voice that is fulfilling lots of the promise that I remember when I saw her in her early years here. I think that she could have made more of some of the arias, or possibly David Bates could have given her a little more latitude to do so. As the general love interest Jonathan McGovern was a nicely bewildered Alidoro – a character of Adonis-like beauty and a strong tendency to unattractive opportunism: he’s very happy to dump a servant he was in love with in order to be king. He sang really well displaying strength and doing the lyrical parts very beautifully.

Mary Bevan and Michal Czerniawski were very strong as the second couple – Silandra and Corindo – she glamorous and seductive, he much more lyrical and impassioned. Sam Furness stole the comedy honours as a dragged up Aristea – Alidoro’s mother. His timing, singing and acting were outstandingly good, suggesting an element of pathos as well as grotesqueness.  He really sang the piece and this suggested a very strong future, not just in character roles.   Christopher Turner as the page and Edward Grint as the drunk commented nicely and had their moments of fun. Mr Grint was probably the most understated drunk I’ve seen but rather engaging.

La Nuova Musica played with huge enthusiasm and seemed to be enjoying the opera as much as we were. As I’ve suggested, there were times when I wondered whether David Bates could not have kept them a little quieter and given the singers a little more leeway – not all the words came across and I felt that there might be more emotion in the music than we heard.

That’s a minor cavil.  This engaging, intelligent, committed performance helped a not-quite full Wigmore Hall enjoy a charming and very engaging comedy.  I’d like to see it staged and I’d also like to see more of Cesti’s operas.

Goodbye, Kasper

9 Dec

So the ROH has announced that Kasper Holten will be departing. Conspiracy theorists will be wondering if he’s paying the price for too many unpopular new productions and one or two comments seem to suggest that the departure isn’t unwelcome to some.  There’s little in the release itself to suggest this is the case – the reasons are persuasive (if I had children, I’d probably rather bring them up in Copenhagen than in London) and the statements from Beard and Pappano far more fulsome than duty requires (we wanted to keep him until 2020 but couldn’t…).

I’m in the camp that says that it’s a shame that he’s going.  Any opera director is going to have an interesting time finding his feet with a new audience and it actually looked as though Holten might be doing so.  This is is the first season he’s fully planned and the signs so far are good: Orpheus and Morgen und Abend have been seriously good events, Cav and Pag has been well reviewed (I’m seeing it next week) and the revivals, by all accounts, have been fine.  I may not like the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as a venue but the events there were excellent and just what London needed.  I felt he was just getting into his stride.

Yes, there have been problems.  I’ve hated some of the productions, but there’s nothing new there.  The place seems to be less starry than it used to be (not helped by some unfortunate cancellations) and this is a theatre that needs the stars in their big roles.  But you couldn’t doubt Holten’s seriousness, his intelligence and his enthusiasm.

He’s a major figure in the world and he’ll do well wherever he’s based.  However, I do wonder about how to attract his successor.  How attractive it is to run a theatre in a cash-starved environment with a section of an audience that can be as unpleasant and vitriolic as some of those can be.  I hope we can find someone with comparable imagination and drive.