Archive | June, 2016

All-male Pinafore

25 Jun

I was a bit sniffy when I saw Sasha Regan’s all-male version of Pirates of Penzance in Brighton last year.  That didn’t stop me going to see her HMS Pinafore when it arrived here this year – I got to the Saturday matinee on 25th June.  It was a huge amount better.

Pinafore is one of my favourites.  There isn’t a weak number and Gilbert’s dialogue is short but absolutely to the point.  It’s still very, very funny and doesn’t begin to outstay its welcome.

Regan’s production has a bit more point to it than last year’s.  It’s as if a group of modern sailors are staging the opera, improvising costumes and getting involved in the piece.  It’s a nice framing device and explains limited props and costumes.

The direction is a whole lot better than Pirates.  The dialogue is done better and the jokes and staging a huge improvement.  There are some lovely jokes – a Chariots of Fire moment for He is an Englishman and a Titanic moment for Josephine.  It helps that Michael Burgen (very funny, very nasty, very good) as Sir Joseph is about a foot shorter than anyone else.  There’s some fine choreography and some good fitness exercises for what is obviously a very well-trained crew.  A nice in-joke is that Captain Corcoran definitely is not in the same league.  There some nice lunacy around the sisters, cousins and aunts and the escape in Act II.

There’s also a serious element.  I don’t think that I’ve seen the Josephine/Rackstraw taken so seriously – making it both more funny and more touching.  It’s helped by a really excellent performance by Tom Senior as Rackstraw – understated, nicely sung and taking the thing seriously.  He’s matched by Ben Irish’s very funny Josephine, which is also sung really well.

Neil Moors makes a rather thick Captain Corcoran, David McKechnie stays the right side of camp and makes an almost touching Buttercup, Richard Russell Edwards has a lovely time camping up Hebe – just right here.  James Waud is rather fine as Dick Deadeye and the ensemble works hard and is very, very easy on the eye.

Certainly not a full house, but it was extremely enthusiastic and I thought that this performance was more fun, more true to the original and had more life than many of more lavish, better resourced productions that I’ve seen.  I recommend it.

Grigolo and DiDonato in Werther

25 Jun

I like Werther, but it does matter who is singing: if you haven’t got two convincing leads then you might as well forget it.  The prospect of Joyce DiDonato in her first Charlotte and Vittorio Grigolo in the title role made the latest ROH revival one of the “must sees” of the season.  I caught the performance on 24th June.

Grigolo looks marvellous as Werther – slim, vulnerable, poetic.  Vocally, he’s great: a lovely piano sound, passion when you need it and the ability to become really moving.  His 2nd act aria meditating about death was gloriously done; Pourquoi me reveiller matched Kaufmann and his death scene was moving.  It’s an elegant, passionate portrayal.  He’s not the the world’s greatest actor: it’s a long timesince I’ve seen someone use their hands in as old fashioned a way as him: arms stretched out at full tilt and all the cliches of an Italian operatic tenor.  He makes up for it with the glorious, easy, intelligent singing that I’ve described.  Maybe Kaufmann’s is the more complete portrayal and his voice stronger, more baritonal, but Grigolo’s version is more delicate, neurotic and just as valid.

Charlotte doesn’t really become interesting until the third Act and, here, Joyce DiDonato made the most convincing, interesting Charlotte that I’ve seen.  I prefer a Charlotte with a bit of bite in the voice and a bit of personality: think Baker and Fassbaender, even Baltsa, rather than, say, Koch or Donose.  DiDonato has the richness and the colours to get the regret, sadness and strength of Charlotte.  I thought she did the letter aria gloriously and, together with Grigolo, made his death really moving.  It’s great to see one of my favourite mezzos in a role that challenges her and which she manages really well.  Perhaps she is just a touch mature.  Her French isn’t always clear, but this is a lovely assumption of the role.

But maybe the real star was Antonio Pappano.  This is one of the finest performances that he’s done at the ROH.  He paces the score gloriously, is, of course, considerate to his singers.  But what impressed me most was the phrasing, the colours that he drew out of the orchestra.  I don’t think I’ll easily forget the she delicacy of sound that he drew out at the beginning of Charlotte’s letter aria – a sound that made of think of paper rustling.  The moonlight interlude caught the sheer beauty and indulgence of the sound.  Pappano has said that, while he’s musical director here, no one else is allowed to conduct Werther in the house.  That’s just fine by me.  It’s a bench-mark performance.

The rest were pretty good.  I was impressed by Heather Engebretson’s Sophie – just the right youthful enthusiasm and love.  Her voice suits the role wonderfully and she contrasted marvellously with DiDonato, while suggesting the “might have been” of the relationship with Werther.  David Buzic made a solid Albert and Jonathan Summers a lovely Bailli.

The Benoit Jacquot production doesn’t challenge anyone very much.  It looks pretty good, but it was old fashioned when it was new in 2004.  It’s a decent enough frame for the leading singers and, on this occasion, that was all they needed.

A pretty good evening.  There are still seats available and it’s well worth seeing both DiDonato and Grigolo – but most especially for Pappano and the orchestra.

Scottish Mikado

19 Jun

Following the rather good Pirates of Penzance a couple of years ago, Scottish Opera have moved on to The Mikado – the first time they’ve produced it – and, again toured to it to some English venues.  I caught the performance at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 18th June.  The reviews had been rather discouraging but it was nice and reassuring to have a full house.

It actually wasn’t half bad.  Martin Lloyd-Evans uses Japanese images – lacquer boxes, sliding doors, the great wave for his sets.  The costumes are Victorian English with Japanese elements.  It looks good.  He has some lovely ideas – the overture includes Ko-Ko doing a failed sawing the a body in half trick; Nanki-Poo has a bank of instruments around his person; Katisha is a Miss Havisham figure, the Mikado in full military uniform.  He treats Tit-Willow as a comedy number with a puppet bird, which nicely avoids it being over- sentimental and he catches the engaging silliness of the piece.  He uses the words and the music – I don’t think I’ve seen a better directed Madrigal, again turning it into a comic number rather than a slightly tedious piece of Victoriana.  Characterisation was strong and I found myself happily smiling throughout.

My one doubt was that, at times, it looked just a little too traditional and didn’t quite have the panache that it needs.  There were times, particularly with the chorus, where you felt that it needed a touch more energy, a touch more imagination to really catch light – it looked a bit cramped, routines not quite together.  That may have been due to the slightly cramped Theatre Royal stage, but the colourful, never-never-land costumes and archness of the material couldn’t stop me feeling at times that the whole thing looked a bit archaic.  And then you get Gilbert’s jokes about chopping off heads, burying alive and I was reassured – it’s a clever text, the music is wonderful and, in the end the absurdity won out.

It was helped by expert performances.  Richard Suart must have played Ko-Ko more times than anyone else living.  He understands the style but here presented a cockney, wily, rather pathetic figure, completely the star of the show.  His voice is more ragged than it was but it’s fine for this and reminded you that he’s ideally cast in these roles.  He had a splendid double act going with Andrew Shore’s Pooh Bah – catching exactly the right pomposity and singing well.  Ben McAteer was an extraordinarily costume Pish Tush and was rather funny, singing strongly.

As Katisha, Rebecca du Pont Davis doesn’t have the traditional fruity contralto but she made a hilarious and touching figure, singing really well and intelligently.  Stephen Richardson’s Mikado was keenly observed, catching just the right detachment and was probably the funniest Mikado that I’ve seen.

As the love interest, Nicholas Sharratt as Nanki Poo and Rebecca Bottone as Yum Yum were alert, catching the ridiculousness of the situation – that unique mixture of ideals tempered by acute self-interest that Gilbert gets – while reminding you that the original singers of the roles must have been rather good singers: neither managed all the challenges of the role with complete success.

Derek Clark conducted really well: the speeds were spot-on, the orchestral textures clear – you heard the details and kept things together.  The chorus sang nicely even if you wondered whether just a bit of routine might have crept in.  Diction was excellent.  I know the piece more or less by heart, so I didn’t need surtitles – I’m not sure that the audience really did either, but you tended to get laughs at the surtitles and then again with the singers.

I’ve used a few superlatives here. They’re deserved.  This was a lavish, serious, imaginative and hugely enjoyable show and it would be nice if Scottish Opera G&S could become a regular tradition.

Mixed Martinů

4 Jun

The Guildhall has unearthed two more rarities for its summer offering – two short pieces by Martinů, written in French at different stages of his career.  I thought they’d be worth a look and got to the first night on 31st May.

The first was Ariane, one of his last works, performed posthumously.  It’s a psychological interpretation of the Minotaur myth.  Theseus and Ariadne fall in love; he kills the Minotaur but recognises it as being another facet of his own personality and leaves.  Ariadne has a final aria lamenting her state.  It lasts about 45 minutes.

The title role was written with Maria Callas in mind, though there’s no evidence that there was the remotest chance of her singing it.  Rodula Gaetonou’s production set it in a Paris recording studio, imaging that Callas herself and a group of other “famous” singers (“Giuseppe di Bergamo” was about the level we’re looking at) were making a recording of the piece.

I’ve never quite got Martinů and I’ve tended to find the subject-matter of his operas more interesting than the music for them, which I usually find quite bland.

I’m ashamed to say that I can’t speak much about Ariane.  I was lulled to sleep after about 10 minutes of what struck me as rather bland, generic music and opaque direction.  I woke in time for the last 10 minutes and heard Nicola Said make what sounded like a strong job of a challenging but not terribly memorable final aria for Ariadne.  You’ll have to go yourself to find out if I missed a long-last masterpiece. Sorry.

I was wide awake for the second opera, Alexandre bis, a witty, absurdist piece from 1937 when the composer was living in Paris and, again, only performed posthumously.  It’s  about a man who shaves off his beard in order to pretend to be his American cousin and test his wife’s fidelity.  He’s observed by the maid and his own portrait. As a result, his wife decides to go off with  her admirer, Oscar.  It’s a cynical, absurdist take on Cosi fan tutte.  The music owes a lot to French operetta and jazz.  It’s jolly without being memorable or interesting, though the story itself is huge fun.  I very much enjoyed Gaetanou’s witty and inventive production, elegantly choreographed, catching the absurdity and very funny.

The opera doesn’t strike me as having major opportunities for singers but I thought that Bianca Andrew as the maid, Milan Siljanov as the portrait, Josep-Ramon Olive as Alexandre and Elizabeth Karani as his wife gave fluent, excellently prepared performances that were a joy to watch.

Timothy Redmond conducted fluently without convincing me that either piece was in the second, let alone first rank of operas, but I was very glad to have seen Alexandre bis.