Archive | May, 2016

Glyndebourne’s new Barber

29 May

Glyndebourne’s re-exploration of its core repertory has finally arrived at Il barbiere di Siviglia and high time too.  Rossini’s operas work in this theatre and the ensemble approach is really important in these works.  I saw the performance on 28th May.

Musically, it was a joy from start to finish.  So let’s start with Enrique Mazzola’s conducting.  What I loved was the way in which he made the score come alive: the instruments chatted and responded to each other, they sounded earthy, rasping ‘cellos, cackling bassoons, clear, well strongly articulated strings.  Crescendos grew without the effort that you sometimes get from conductors determined to show you how they should go.  Speeds were fleet, the comedy fizzed.  It was one of those readings where everything sounded “right” even where Mazzola was taking unusual decisions – a very swift Fredda ed imobile, hushed and urgent, for example.  You felt this was an alive, individual response, informed by a real knowledge of the style.  The LPO seemed to be entirely with him and I found myself smiling through most of the evening at the sheer joy of this music.

It helped that there was a really well-balanced cast that, honestly, struck me as being at the same, if not a better level than Gui’s famous 1950s ensemble, with an interpretation that was a bit freer.  In the title role, Björn Bürger struck me as a real find.  An attractive baritone that I’d love to hear in Mozart, Britten or Debussy and the handsome easy presence that you need for the role.  He brought the house down with the sheer ease and aplomb of his opening number.  Taylor Stayton has a light-ish voice and I’d ideally like a bit more colour, but he sings effortlessly and acts with a real spirit and wit.

Christoph Stamboglis has a cavernous bass and a deadpan presence that works marvellously for Basilio – he and Mazzola made La calunnia the tour de force it needs to be.  Alessandro Corbelli was, of course, an ideal Bartolo, stylish, grumpy, dangerous, the voice showing little wear and tear but he still gives a master-class in how to do Italian comedy.  Janis Kelly had a great time as Berta and was allowed a really good dance routine for her aria.

Minor reservations about Danielle de Niese as Rosina.  She’s a soprano in a mezzo role and I wasn’t sure how comfortable she sounded.  She overcame this with her sheer personality and her alert diction and ability to manage the words.  She was given an aria before the storm which was new to me: pleasant enough but not really justifying holding up the action.  What was it?

Annabel Arden’s production has come in for some stick.  The setting – a large space with a semi-circular cyclorama in blues and whites – suggests no concrete location but looks good.  Within that, furniture, balconies, harpsichords (quite a lot of them) are brought on and off and staircases move.  Costumes are vaguely 20th century and a mix of styles, with Basilio identifiably a priest.  It’s a deliberate decision and one which allows the characters freedom to interact – characterisation is clear, they talk to us and to the conductor.  It’s clearly a performance and, given the artificiality of the opera, I don’t object to that.

I enjoyed it and laughed a lot at the intelligent acting and the way in which the characters worked with each other.  What I missed was the element of mayhem in an orderly world that, I think, is part of the piece, particularly the Act I finale. On the other hand, there was an engaging randomness about the entrances and exits that kept you guessing.  I thought it was a deceptively skillful  production.  I’d see it again.

Whether it would work so well with a less skilled cast and a different production is open to the debate, but doesn’t matter.  This was an enormously well-prepared, intelligent, witty production, reminding me of what a strong piece it is and keeping me smiling and chuckling throughout.


Enescu’s Oedipe

27 May

Enescu’s Oedipe was written between 1910 and 1936.  It was apparently successful at its first performance but got rather forgotten following the second world war.  The ROH finally got round to it on 23rd May and I was there.  It wasn’t billed as the UK premiere but i certainly can’t recall a staged production here.

The piece strikes me as typical of operas by composers who only wrote one, or possibly two, pieces in the genre – Genoveva, Doktor Faust, King Roger spring to mind – where (a) the musical interest is greater than the dramatic and (b) you have to be interested that sort of musical idiom if you’re going to enjoy it.

Enescu has taken the Oedipus legend, set slimmed down versions of the two Sophocles plays and preceded them with scenes depicting Oedipus’s birth, he decision to return to Thebes, the murder of Laius and the encounter with the sphinx.  It creates a portrait of Oedipus himself with meaty roles for the people he encounters in each scene and one or two very effective scenes: that with the sphinx struck me as particularly fine, as were the last two scenes.  He creates superb atmosphere for the scenes: the opening of the scene for Laius’s murder and that for the sphinx were the ones which had me sitting up.

The idiom owes a lot to Debussy, Chausson, even Sibelius.  It’s perfectly pleasant to listen to and you admire the very vivid, imaginative orchestration and, if this is a period of music that you respond to, you will react like stout Cortez.

You’ll have guessed that I didn’t.  I admired in a rather distant way, but felt no urge to rush to buy a CD.  I missed any sense of dramatic impetus; I missed memorable vocal lines or ones which had me really listening; it feels leisurely – the opening seems to go on for ever and I started wondering whether I would stay for the second half.  I’m glad I did because it gets better even if it never quite makes you feel that Enescu was comfortable with the form.  I’m very glad that I saw an interesting, worthwhile opera but I could happily wait another twenty years before seeing it again.

This was in spite of a really outstanding performance.  The cast must be as good as you can get.  Johann Reuter was, predictably, an intense, clearly sung and very convincing Oedipe, getting almost Lear-like sense of development to the character and aging superbly.  It’s a huge role and he paced it with assurance.

Surrounding him were John Tomlinson as Teiresias, clear, angry and loud; Sarah Connolly who made the most of a relatively small role as Jocasta; Marie-Nicole Lemieux brilliant as the sphinx; Alan Oke as the Shepherd; Samuel Youn as Creon and Stefan Kocan, who did his scene as the Watchman with great authority.  This was great casting: a marvellous ensemble put together with great care.

Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, together with Alfons Flores, the designer, have created a masterpiece of a production: from the opening frieze-like coup to the final shower of silver water as Oedipus died, it was full of memorable scenes and images: the sphinx as a plane with propeller whirring, the shepherds as road workers.  He managed an outstanding response to the piece which looked beautiful and seemed at one with it.  I couldn’t fault it.

I don’t know the piece enough to comment about Leo Hussain’s conducting.  I thought it was authoritative and clear without making a compelling case for the work as anything other than an occasional visitor.  The orchestra and huge chorus seemed outstanding to me – again, not obviously putting a foot wrong.

Oedipe is never going be to a repertory piece but it’s good enough to be done every fifteen years or so and anyone curious about forgotten operas should hurry to this truly superb performance of it.

Glyndebourne’s revived Meistersinger

22 May

It’s five years since Glyndebourne first tried Meistersinger.  It was their most challenging show ever and one of their hottest tickets.  Interestingly, this revival, possibly because the first outing wasn’t a unanimous success, possibly because of the ticket prices and possibly because there are a lot of Meistersingers around at the moment, isn’t a sell out and, even on the first night on 21st May, there were a few empty seats.

This was a shame: it’s an interesting, worthwhile production with some very good performances indeed.  Overall, it improved on its first outing but I still had the nagging doubt as to whether this really is the right piece for Glyndebourne.  It feels as though it’s stretching the place beyond its limits and I missed the sheer exuberance and sense of space that you get in larger theatres.

The performance was centred round Gerald Finley’s outstanding Sachs.  The role stretches him to his limits and there were a couple of points in the last act where I wondered if he would last the course.  He did but you were aware that it was hard work. That aside, he made a fascinatingly complex Sachs: angry, thoughtful, someone who cared deeply and who might very well have married Eva.  It was a passionate, detailed reading, sung with his usual care for the words and in a way which managed the vocal demands pretty convincingly and completely identified with the character.  Surely this is the greatest performance of his career so far.

David McVicar’s amiable production is full of clear, detailed acting and an engagement with the text. He gets the social nuances really well- Beckmesser obviously sees himself as Sach’s superior.  The relationships are beautifully delineated, but it felt like a chamber production, constricted by the size of the space: a solution to  problem rather than something uniquely special: the riot seemed leaden, the festival cramped. Vicki Mortimer’s set looks good but the pillars that are used in every scene end up constricting.  Within these doubts, there’s lots to enjoy and the show looks as fresh as ever.

That may well be because, apart from Finley, Alastair Miles’s strong, paternal Pogner, the main roles were newly cast.  Jochen Kupfer made a younger than usual Beckmesser – very tall, very thin and with a high opinion of himself.  He was, if memory serves, more comic than his predecessor, deeply suspicious and wary of Sachs.  He struck me as having an excellent voice and it would be good to see him back.

Amanda Majewski was Eva, looking beautiful and singing lots of it very with clarity and beauty.  I found her personality a bit cold, almost manipulative (perhaps Eva’s like that).  Hannah Hipp was a very strong, warm Magdalene and David Portillo a really excellent David.  The latter strikes me as a major find – a strong, clear tenor and he conveued the character really strongly.

Casting Walther is always a problem and I don’t think Michael Schade was a perfect solution.  He sounded very stretched by the role, the sound wasn’t that pleasant and, as so often, you were puzzled by Eva’s infatuation with him.

As you would expect, the other roles were excellently done and the chorus sang outstandingly: the Wach Auf section being hugely satisfying.

Michael Güttler was a pretty late replacement for Robin Ticciati.  I enjoyed his clear, measured conducting.  You heard the details in the score and he had the LPO playing beautifully for him.  It was assured, confident conducting.  Maybe  it was a bit too measured: there were points when I was aware of how long this piece is and how wordy.  A bit more pace might have helped.

So it’s a very good evening and, if you have the money to throw about, it’s worth seeing for the insights it gives and, particularly for Finley, who lifts it above the ordinary.  It’s an intimate performance and is strong but, ultimately, it doesn’t convince you that Glyndebourne can do this repertory better than anyone else.


Terrific Adelson e Salvini

12 May

Opera Rara tends either to uncover interesting, neglected works that would repay a staged a performance or interesting neglected works that wouldn’t.  Bellini’s first opera. Adelson e Salvini, is probably in the latter category, but it was great to have the opportunity to hear it at the Barbican on 11th May.

Musically, there’s a lot to enjoy.  He wrote it when he was 23 and there’s a huge amount of very strong music in it, much in his mature style.  Indeed, a good deal of the music got recycled into later operas (the heroine’s Act I aria went straight into Capuleti.  There’s also a good deal of music betraying the influence of Rossini – given that Bellini had been studying in Naples, this isn’t surprising; indeed, Bellini writes very good cod Rossini.  For me, the best numbers were a superb duet tenor/baritone duet for Adelson and Salvini and Salvini’s 3rd Act number but there isn’t one that is less than enjoyable and well made.

There are a couple of curiosities. It was written for male voices, presumably the women being sung by boys or male altos, which explains why the heroine has relatively little to do. Also, the first version was written with spoken dialogue rather than recitative – I don’t think I’ve come across an Italian opera with dialogue before.  Here, it was well spoken by the cast who had been nicely directed by Kenneth Richardson and Daniel Dooner.

The problem is the plot which is an uneasy mixture of comedy, melodrama and genuine feeling.  The first act does little more than set up the plot and takes 70 minutes to do so.  The relationships are complicated to work out and there’s a villain who is determined to abduct the heroine for no very plausible reason.  in fact the whole premise is silly.  I think it would be roared off the stage if you ever tried it.  It might be fun for students, though.

The performance, however, was very fine indeed.  Daniele Rustioni conducted outstandingly.  He caught the style perfectly and made the music exciting, interesting and, for me, caught all the strengths of the piece.  The BBCSO played strongly for him.

The most interesting role is that of Salvini, caught between a conflict of love for his friend and his friend’s beloved.  Enea Scala began a rather uncertainly but warmed up as the evening went on and gave a truly outstanding performance of his Act III aria.  This is another very promising bel canto tenor and that aria got the audience justifiably excited.  Adelson is much less interesting but Simone Alberghini did what he could and the two did their duet, torno, o caro, very well indeed.

The opera contains Bellini’s only comic character – a Neapolitan servant, Bonifacio.  He has the most Rossinian music and you can see why Bellini didn’t write more like him.  Having said that, Maurizio Muraro gave a really lovely, endearing performance of the role and had the audience in the palm of his hand.  I’d love to see him do more of this sort of role.  He’d be a smashing Don Magnifico.

Daniella Barcellona was a bit wasted as Nelly but sang very nicely.  Rodion Pogossov was a nicely melodramatic Count Struley, the villainand displayed rather a good voice.  David Soar, Kathryn Rudge and Leah-Marian Jones were fine in the smaller roles.

I doubt that this will ever be a viable stage piece, but this excellent performance showed its strengths, was invaluable in teaching us more about Bellini and was hugely enjoyable into the bargain.  Look out for the CD.

Iphigenia in Crawley

6 May

English Touring Opera’s Iphigénie en Tauride got some excellent reviews, at least one – from the Guardian – giving it five stars and, since opportunities to see the piece don’t come round that often, I went over to Crawley to see it when they performed it at The Hawth on 5th May.

You don’t really associate Crawley with Gluck, but the auditorium is a lovely size for this sort of opera and the staff are among the friendliest I’ve come across – in how many other theatres do they ask you if you’ve enjoyed the show and wish you goodnight afterwards?

And the theatre was very respectably filled: the stalls were, pretty much, packed and a good many had been to see Don Giovanni the night before while a number of others, like me, had clearly travelled to see the opera.  From that point of view, it’s very conveniently placed for both London and the South East.

I admire Gluck’s operas but find it hard to love them.  There is powerful, affecting music.  The declamations and the arias are beautifully written, the dilemmas well expressed.  But I always find a distance, making it hard to sympathise with the characters.  There have been times when I’ve felt him speak directly to me: I was lucky enough to hear Janet Baker’s Alceste and still remember the way her singing of Divinités du Styx hit you where it hurt with its sheer power.  And there were marvellous moments in Glyndebourne’s Iphigénie en Aulide but, generally, I find him detached – even the ROH’s last production of this opera with Keenlyside didn’t grab me.  And its Orfeo was as memorable for its visual effects as for its drama.  Here, I feel that there’s almost something comic about the way in which Orestes and Pylades vie to be sacrificed, while the recognition scene seems curiously unmoving.  I admire, I don’t get involved.

I thought that it was given a good, but not great performance here.  The set is excellent –  grey concrete towers with a platform stretching across a brightly lit gap.  It looks good and catches the lowering gloom of the temple.  The priestesses are in heavy dresses, bloodstained from the human sacrifices.  Thoas and his men are barbaric.  The story is told clearly and there  a mixture of restraint about the production while recognising the violence of the opera.  You’re not distracted by business

Martin André conducted idiomatically.  He got the violence of the dances, the limpid beauty of so many of the phrases, those gorgeous oboes, and kept the opera moving securely.  The orchestra played really well for him and Gluck’s instrumental commentary and that wonderful way he has of melting into arias came across superbly.

The singers were good.  I thought Catherine Carby made a dignified, intelligent Iphigénie.  She sang securely, confidently – a lovely, clear, pure tone.  What I missed was the full level of despair and the ability to pierce your heart that great Gluck singing should achieve.  Grant Doyle was Oreste, singing vigorously, confidently but not movingly.  You sensed some, but not all of the desperation of a man in thrall to the Furies.  As Pyalde, John-Colyn Gyeantey used what struck me as a rather small, dry voice very successfully.  His caught the limpid style Gluck needs, phrased really expressively and he acted  well.  I just didn’t quite believe the intensity of the bond between the two men.

As Thoas, Craig Smith sounded pretty rough.  The lesser priestesses were good.  Diana was sung by a child – innocence yes, but perhaps it needs more sheer power and brilliance.  The chorus was really excellent, singing with conviction and power.

This was a very strong, honest and successful performance.  Anyone keen on or interested in Gluck should try to get to it.  It lacked, for me, the last element of intensity and emotion that the opera needs if it’s to be the sort of experience that Gluckians claim for it.  ETO are doing some pretty outstanding work at the moment.