Archive | January, 2016

Ariodante in Amsterdam

28 Jan

A visit to Amsterdam coincided with the Netherlands National Opera performing Handel’s Ariodante.  With Sarah Connolly, Sandrine Piau and Sonia Prina in the cast and a production by Richard Jones (originating in Aix in 2014), this was too good to miss.  I went to the performance on 25th January.

Ariodante is one of those great masterpieces that repays interpretation and which is open to any number of approaches.  Predictably, Richard Jones took the nastiest one possible and made you realise what a cruel work this is.  He sets it in Scottish fishing community in the 1970s.  Polinesso is the local pastor – we see him conducting a service during the overture while Ariodante and Lurcanio are the local fishermen.  It may not quite fit with the surtitles (which refer to Polinesso as the “Duke” and Ariodante as Scotland’s saviour, but the issues are the same whether it’s courtly love or the local pastor leching after the village elder’s daughter.

It’s set on a single set – a three-roomed cottage – which enables different things to happen during arias and the surround plot to be developed.  So Polinesso and Dalinda are plotting during Lurcanio’s first Act aria and you see the villagers praying over Ginevra as Ariodante returns in Act III.  For the dances, the chorus bring in puppets of Ariodante and Ginevra and promise babies and glory for them.  At the end of the second Act, Ginevra is shown as expelled from the community and becoming a prostitute in the city.  In the third, the Act I show is repeated but Ariodante is so caught up in it that he doesn’t notice Ginevra leaving of her own accord.  There is, of course, no joyous aria for Ginevra and nothing to suggest that the couple do, in fact, live happily and the depths in the arias suggest that a happy ending is unlikely.  Dalinda and Lurcanio’s reconciliation is similarly ambivalent.  It’s all acted marvellously and Jones’s trade mark, highly choreographed works ideally.  This is a thoughtful, really intelligent performance that involves you with the characters and has you sharing the emotion.

The cast was pretty good.  Sarah Connolly has deepened her interpretation of the title role since her ENO performances a decade ago.  Scherza infida was pretty much up there with Ann Murray’s unforgettable performance.  She captured the pain and the anger, acted the man engagingly, with the joy and the pain beautifully done.  She coped with some pretty brisk tempi for All’ aria di costanza and Dopo notte with fluent, impressive coloratura.

She was matched, if not exceeded, by Annett Fritsch as Ginevra.  This was some of the most outstandingly accurate, moving Handel singing that I’ve heard.  She brought a depth of despair and integrity to her Act III arias that matched Connolly’s and made Ginevra into an entirely sympathetic, believable character.  She has a gorgeous, limpid soprano that sounded ideal for this sort of music.  Both charted a range of emotions through each area so that the eventual outcome seemed entirely right.

As Polinesso, Sonia Prina caught the balance between pantomime villain and unpleasant, creepy pastor really well.  The slight harshness of her voice didn’t seem out of place here and she sang her three arias really well.  Sandrine Piau caught the daffiness of Dalinda, but also the real love and conflicting emotions of the role.  There was some really dazzlingly good Handel singing here, reminding you that this role is a cousin of Morgana in Alcina and needs similar agility and skill.

Luca Titotto as the King sang his arias cleanly, movingly and intelligently.  Only Andrew Tortise, as Lurcanio, seemed stretched beyond his limits: coloratura sounded effortful, the voice a tad small for the house.  He acted the role well.

Andrea Marcon conducted Concerto Koln.  Tempi tended to vary from the pretty brisk to the really quite slow and these contributed to a very long evening: four and quarter hours in total.  The band played with vigour and commitment.  The only serious criticism I have is one of balance which, I suspect, may be due to the acoustic of the opera house here.  The pit was raised and, while this helped you hear the orchestral textures it also tended to drown the singers.  Marcon’s continuo, particularly, seemed intrusively loud and far closer to me (in the eleventh row of the stalls) than it actually was.

The opera house struck me as a welcoming, perhaps rather large building – it seats 1600 people and is pretty wide.  I wonder what the acoustics are like for Wagner.  What was particularly impressive was the audience – informally dressed and containing a remarkably high number of people in the 16 – 22 age group that you hardly ever see in London.  They stayed to the end and appeared enthusiastic.  Aside from an outstanding performance of the opera, that committed, diverse, youthful and unstuffy audience was an additional bonus to a gem of an evening.  It’s a shame Jones’s production doesn’t look as though it’s coming here any time soon.


Alarm bells ringing for L’étoile

5 Jan

Happy new year to everyone.  The ROH has managed to wreck mine with the announcement that there are to be two “additional roles” in its new production of Chabrier’s L’étoile – see

I’ve nothing against Mr Addison and I’m sure he’ll do whatever he’s meant to do brilliantly.  I must also guard against dismissing something before I’ve seen it, but this announcement made my heart sink.  Particularly the bit which said: “The double Perrier Award-nominated stand-up has been cast as Smith in Mariame Clément’s production, an acting part the director has created to provide a stereotypically English commentary on the opera’s absurd events”.  It gets worse.  There’s also going to be a  French actor (Jean-Luc Vincent) who will “comment on the action from a French perspective“.  Again, I’m sure M. Vincent will do this superbly.  I just wish he didn’t have to.

Now, I’ve been lucky enough to see L’étoile twice – the Opera North production was a particular joy.  The Gardiner recording gets to my CD player pretty regularly.  It may not be well known, but it’s a coherent, zany, absurd comic opera.  It’s Offenbach on speed – a sort of French take on The Mikado – supported by some gloriously wistful, frothy, tuneful, very funny music (I think it was Saint-Saens who had to be carried out of the premiere helpless with laughter).  It is very French, but so are Manon, Carmen, and La belle Hélène, none of which, last time I saw them, were in need of a commentary from any perspective – and, for my money, L’étoile is in their league.

Even if you don’t think as highly of the piece as I do, I think that it’s possible to agree that adding characters or texts to operas is a Very Bad Idea.  Cutting can be acceptable (even a very good idea), updating dialogue can often work very well (as in Pelly’s productions of Offenbach and, indeed, La fille du régiment).  But I can’t think of a single occasion where adding things has helped anything.  I remember a particularly vile production of Entfuhrung at Opera North narrated by a slave girl (who subsequently dressed as a panda), an additional dialogue for Rocco in an ENO Fidelio and some pretty dire concert narrations of a plot when doing the dialogue would have worked just fine.  Even where operas have needed a bit of help (Le roi malgré lui, Oberon, Princess Ida), the adaptations haven’t survived.

I would bet quite a lot of money on the new material in this opera being embarrassing, patronising and, undermining of the opera.  It screams that Mariame Clément is scared that the opera either isn’t strong enough to cross the channel or that the ROH audience won’t be able to cope with it.  Which begs questions about why she’s doing it.

As I write this two questions nag me.  One is that I haven’t seen it and it may prove to be brilliant.  I’ll take that risk.

The second is in working out why I feel so much more strongly about this than I do about “radical” productions.  Is there any different, you may say, between inserting a text that Chabrier and his librettist didn’t envisage in the opera and, say, a rape scene that Rossini didn’t envisage in Guillaume Tell?

I suppose it all comes down to my approach to opera.  I wasn’t upset by the rape scene because I bought the argument that Rossini was writing about a tyranny where that sort of thing probably happened and where the action wasn’t a million miles away from the spirit of that scene.  Michielotti there was at least engaging with the dramatic situation.

What appears to be planned for L’étoile seems far more like the sort of production that really enrages me – ones “about” rather than “of” the opera.  Ones like, say, La donna del lago or Idomeneo or Onegin at the ROH where you feel that the director simply isn’t trusting the piece because they’ve super-imposed an additional narrative on the opera.  So why do it?

I was really looking forward to seeing this.  There’s a super cast; Elder conducting and Clément should be a great director for it.  I’m not any more and feel irritated that I’ve bought some good seats for it.

Heigh ho.  I’ve got that off my chest and, you never know, it may be fabulous.