Archive | July, 2016

Opera North Rheingold

6 Jul

The final complete cycle of Opera North’s much-praised Ring began at the Sage in Gateshead on 5th July.  It’s four years since my last complete Ring and it was high time for another.  On the evidence of this Rheingold it’s not going to be a disappointing week.

I often find Rheingold the hardest work of the four: it’s like a play: political, with dialogues and none of the lyrical love duets or vast monologues of the other operas.  It’s easy to feel, sometimes, that Wagner takes rather a long time as characters circle round each other and use that “hard will you find it O crafty but credulous god/nibelung/giant” formulation before actually getting to the point, while nothing that interesting happens in the music while they’re at it.  In a good performance, however, the politics and the tensions between the characters are fascinating and you begin to pick up the parallels with the sorts of political dilemmas between justice and self-interest, of emotion and intellect that are crucial to the cycle.

Opera North’s approach – an acted concert with images projected on huge screens together with surtitles and a very slightly arch narrative – gives you the essence of the piece and rather more.  The acting and characterisation is as good as you’d get in a full staging.  The closeness of the singers to the audience allows you to savour the words and see the expressions: it’s immediate, you’re not distracted by the additions that most directors feel they need to add and you can form your own ideas from the words and music.

So at this performance, I became aware of the fractured Wotan/Fricka relationship in a way that I’d never quite got before, together with that tension between the gods over how you treat the giants.  And, of course, the more I hear the score, the more I get the interplay of leitmotivs.

There are disadvantages.  There are times when you long for a stronger visual representation of Valhalla, of the Rhine, of the Rainbow bridge, where you would just like more space and more physicality about the performances and a a more concrete interpretation.

And it’s important to be honest that this isn’t a perfect performance.  The orchestral playing had its share of fluffs, the singers aren’t world class.  This Ring is limited by resources and by space.  What isn’t limited is the imagination and enthusiasm and these overcome any doubts.

Richard Farnes is central to this.  He has the orchestra expertly drilled and it makes a thrilling sound.  Those huge climaxes, the details sound glorious.  He paces the climaxes superbly and the playing and consideration to the singers helps you concentrate.  I was never bored or found my mind wandering.  The orchestra doesn’t disappoint.

And it’s a pretty good cast.  Only Michael Druiett makes a vocally dull Wotan, at the limits of his range and without the nobility of sound and sheer arrogance that you ideally want from a Wotan.  He manages, he’s acceptable, but I wanted a little more.

Otherwise, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacker is an outstanding, I would say world-class, Loge.  He seizes the dramatic opportunities, creating a cynical, dislikeable, but also sympathetic character.  His clear tenor sounds perfect for the role.  I loved the way he gentle played with the red handkerchief, representing the dead Fasolt, at the end.  Here was a Loge completely in control.

Jo Pohlheim was a powerful, clear Alberich.  Maybe I’d have liked a bit more intensity in the curse but he caught the craving for power and wealth and the hatred of the gods. Richard Roberts made a clear, servile Mime.

The other gods were strong: Yvonne Howard’s sensible, rather sad Fricka, Giselle Allen’s gorgeously sung, frightened Freia – personally, I wouldn’t have let Wotan near my golden apples after that experience.  Mark le Brocq and Andrew Foster-Williams were fine as Froh and Donner.  Perhaps I could do with a slightly darker, firmer mezzo than Ceri Williams’s for Erda, but she knew absolutely what her episode was about.

James Creswell made a clear, almost sympathetic Fasolt and Mats Almgren an ideally dark Fafner – the by-play between the two was marvellously clear and perhaps the only way in which costumes and a full staging might have helped could have been to accentuate the fact that the giants are, surely, rather terrifyingly powerful and have a strength that the gods just don’t.  Good, strong Rhinemaidens too.

A really good start.




Il Trova-fly

3 Jul

Il Trovatore has two problems: a perception of an improbable plot and a requirement for singing that is pretty rare these days.  If you don’t need absolutely the four greatest singers in the world, you need four who are in the top rank and able to cope with the generosity and accuracy that Verdi demands.  Most of these problems were in evidence at the very disappointing first night of the new ROH production on 2nd July.

Let’s begin with the production.  It was by David Bösch, a young German Director who has done some opera in Germany and a lot of plays.  I think this is his first Verdi and perhaps it’s unfair to have given him the sort of opera that has all those elements of opera than non-specialists find so difficult to take: arias and cabelettas, trios, dramatic ensembles and numbers that involve people standing round doing not much more than singing out. We’re rapidly losing the art of directing this sort of melodrama and I don’t think Herr Bösch has the answer.

The setting is a wintry landscape in some sort of modern state  – I think, but Leonora and the nuns seem to go around in ball gowns, even when trying to rescue Manrico.  Luna’s army has a tank – which looks very funny as it comes in huge shooter forward at the beginning of Act III.  The gipsies, interestingly, are circus, fair-ground types, rather than rebels, with Azucena in a Carmen costume.  The last scene is set in a barbed wire compound with Manrico and Azucena walking round more or less at liberty.  It’s an opera that depends a lot on darkness and people not seeing each other.  Even under camouflage, I think the nuns might have noticed that tank and the stage was pretty clearly lit: there was no chance of Leonora seriously mistaking Luna for Manrico.

There’s the obligatory video – birds circling and, most irritatingly, a butterfly that flies amusingly as Leonora sings (distracting you from her) and which looks really funny.  I don’t think this is intended.  What it has to do with Trovatore was utterly opaque to me.

There was some pretty half-hearted violence – a prisoner in Act III who seems to have all kinds of things happening to him but which never quite works.  At the end of the first scene, Azucena has petrol poured over her and faggots piled up by her, only to be taken away at the end.  There were two half-good moments: Leonora paused before her abduction by the grave she believed to be Manrico’s; and a prisoner was killed at Castellor just in time for Leonora to muse on this place of death.  But there wasn’t a lot else.

More seriously, despite the setting and odd ideas, the direction of the principals was distressingly inept.  They did nothing more than stand at the front and sing. There was little chemistry between them, little passion and, with one exception, I didn’t believe a word of it.  And the point about Trovatore is that it only ever works if the participants believe absolutely in what they’re doing and have some conviction to their passion. And just standing there isn’t enough.

Of course, Trovatore can be saved by great singing and a great musical performance.  Neither were really in evidence here and, probably, can’t be expected today.  The finest performance, and one which was very special indeed, came from Ekaterina Semenchuk.  In both Stride la vampa and Ai nostri monti she sang with an intensity and a really special pianissimo that had the house reaching out to listen to her.  There was that special silence that goes with really fine singing.  As she gets more experience, she’ll make more of some of the melodramatic declamation – Il mio figlio needs more bite and clearer words.  And in a better production, she’ll be a really great Azucena.  If I had any doubts about going to Don Carlo next season, her performance of Eboli will be a must see.

I had hoped that Zeljko Lucic would be similarly fine as Luna and, at the start, it sounded so promising – the rich astringent tone sounded like Gobbi and I really warmed to him.  But Il balen was, to put it mildly, only intermittently in tune and, as the evening went on, he seemed to lose interest.  It was a major disappointment.

Lianna Haroutounian was the Leonora – impressive in the first Act, but less and less interesting as it went on. It was perfectly decent, strong singing without ever making you feel that this was a particularly interesting Leonora.  Manrico is an impossible role.  Francesco Meli sang it probably as well as you can expect.  The high Cs, probably wisely, were avoided, and something very odd seemed to happen round about his entrance in the Miserere.  He makes a handsome figure on the stage and it was good to have some authentic Italian pronunciation.  On the other hand, you could not possible say that this was the answer to our prayers for a world-class Manrico.

Maurizio Muraro was a good Ferrando and Jennifer Davis made a very strong Inez.  The chorus was on outstanding form: clear, virile and together: this was as good choral singing as I’ve ever heard in this opera.

I admired a lot of Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting.  He found textures in the orchestration that I’d not heard before – the interplay of the instruments was really clearly done, the trumpets particularly fine.  On the other hand, tempi seemed variable: fast at the beginning, but feeling rather meandering and slow – particularly at the end of Act II and of the opera itself.

There may have been some first night problems.  The ROH have scheduled quite a lot of performances into the last fortnight of the season with alternating casts.  I wonder whether there’d been quite enough rehearsal and it may well be that, at later performances it might gel more musically.  And if you could delete the video and that wretched butterfly then you’d get rid of half the problems.  It still wouldn’t be a vibrant or interesting Trovatore.  I can’t see it lasting and I really can’t recommend that you go to see it.

In Parenthesis

3 Jul

1st July 2016 was about as appropriate a day as it gets to see an opera about the Battle of the Somme.  And the WNO chose this as the last performance of their production of In Parenthesis – about that battle – in their very welcome annual visit to the Royal Opera house.

The opera is based on a poem by David Jones – a modernist synthesis of his feelings about the battle.  I don’t know the poem.  The opera begins with the Bards of Britannia and Germania and moves pretty quickly to the Welsh regiment that will end up, mostly, being slaughtered at the Somme.  The hero, Private John Ball, is one of the last survivors and ends up being surrounded by the Queen of the woods and her fairies.  There are pictures of the regiment preparing for war, moving to the south, experiencing Christmas and then moving to the slaughter.

Iain Bell wrote the music.  There are good things: clear setting of the words, some marvelous choruses.  I’m not convinced that there’s anything here that takes us any further than the Britten of Billy Budd or the War Requiem.  It’s unobtrusive, inoffensive music for an opera that doesn’t have a lot of dramatic tension or interest.  It struck me, as much as anything, as a celebration/centenary piece rather than a particularly dramatic opera or one that would make its way in the repertory.

It was pretty well done.  The cast was excellent.  John Hidlake, a new name to me, was very strong indeed as Bell, the hero and main interest of the piece.  His clear, bright tenor suits the work well and I’d like to hear him in more – he’d be fine in Britten.  As his friend, Lewis, Marcus Farnsworth gave another very sympathetic, clear performance.

Among senior members of the cast, Donald Maxwell as Greatcoat, Graham Clark as the Marne Sergeant and Mark le Brocq as Snell gave well acted, eye-catching performances.  As the Bard of Britannia, Peter Coleman-Wright was in dry voice but gave an experienced performance, even if you weren’t quite sure what the point of his role was.  Alexandra Deshorties as the only female principal, impressed as the Bard of Germania, Alice the Barmaid and the Queen of the Woods: it’s an impressive voice and she sang strongly.

Carlo Rizzi conducted apparently very clearly.  The WNO orchestra was good and its chorus absolutely outstanding in some pretty wonderful choruses.

David Pountney directed.  It was pretty obvious stuff and he didn’t seem challenged or particularly interested in challenging us.  A lot of the stage pictures looked pretty 1950s to me.  Much the same applies to Robert Innes Hopkins’s set.

It was a pleasant enough, moderately enjoyable evening.  I can’t say I’d break my heart if I never saw it again.