Archive | October, 2016

Glyndebourne’s first Butterfly

29 Oct

Madama Butterfly is one of my pet aversions.  I’ve never had much time for the heroine and have never found myself particularly moved by her predicament.  If I’m to have Puccini, I’d rather have the melodrama or Tosca or the relative vivacity and realism or Boheme, as opposed to what I always feel is slushy and patronising in its pseudo-orientalism.  I find the second half, in particular, a bit of a trial.  I haven’t seen it for 24 years so I decided that a new Glyndebourne production might be the time to revisit it and see whether I’ve mellowed.  There’s also an ROH one coming up with Jaho and Pappano and I may have to go along.  Anyway, I saw the Glyndebourne tour production on 26th October.

I didn’t hate it or have that feeling that I recall having once, at the beginning of the second act that there was 80 minutes of wailing women to come and I ought to have left at the interval.  I wasn’t converted either.

Anneliese Miskimmon has updated the opera to the 1950s.  Act I is in Goro’s marriage bureau and he clearly has a roaring trade in child brides.  Alun Rhys-Jenkins’s acting was created a convincing, repulsive businessman even if I found his voice a bit on the dry side and he undercuts the love duet by turning up to count his money as Butterfly and Pinkerton leave.  Otherwise, I couldn’t see that it shed any new light on the opera – personally, I doubt that there is.  What we had was a well-prepared, convincing telling of the story with no particularly striking images or anything to upset anyone.  Glyndebourne well within its comfort zone.

Nicky Shaw’s set works well enough for the tour, but it actually looks rather old-fashioned and almost cheap, particularly in the second act where I wasn’t convinced by the wooden trees.  I wonder how it will look in the context of the Festival, particularly where there isn’t really enough going on inside it to make it interesting.

The cast was very decent.  Karah Sun, a Korean pupil of Mirella Freni’s was a strong Butterfly.  She suggested the strength and integrity of the character.  Her voice is strong, with a slight metallic edge, not unsuitable here.  There’s a lot of intelligence and potential here.  Matteo Lippi has a very warm, grateful Pavarotti-ish tenor and I hugely  enjoyed his vocal contribution, particularly to the love duet and the trio.  He looked good but didn’t really suggest any particular depth to the character.  Probably because there isn’t any.

Claudia Huckle seized Suzuki and made a very fine, concerned, angry, protective character and sang it really strongly.  That is a gift of a role.  Francesco Verna made a a tired, cynical, decent Sharpless and sang it pretty well.  None of the others particularly stood out, but then you don’t expect them to.

John Wilson conducted.  He didn’t resist the temptation to give a very slight sense of Hollywood now and then to the score.  It was a perfectly fine reading but I didn’t feel that he particularly had Puccini in his blood and, for that reason, I probably need to get to hear Pappano do it.  The orchestra was fine.

So this was a perfectly decent, well-prepared Butterfly and it’ll appeal to audiences.  And that’s fair enough.  Glyndebourne may well feel that it does enough interesting and out-of-the way work and that this needs to be balanced with something more conservative to keep the punters coming in.  I just didn’t feel that it had quite the life that David McVicar injected in Boheme or anything that made it particularly unique or provided a visual perspective equivalent to Graham Vick’s 1980s ENO version.

Dark Don Giovanni

29 Oct

Has Don Giovanni had more new productions than any other in the UK in the last forty years?  It feels like it.  Counting Jonathan Miller’s, Richard Jones’s new production at ENO was the company’s fifth in 30 years and most of the other companies seem to reckon that one a decade isn’t quite enough.  It’s an opera that resists a “definitive” staging and I’m quite happy to see different interpretations.  Jones’s, which I saw on 24th October, is one of the best.

It’s typically questioning.  In the overture we see Giovanni in front of a series of doors.  Women come along, Leporello opens the door, the woman and Giovanni go in, then come out, then the next woman comes along.  It’s like a transaction, a conveyor belt. Anna arrives at the end. She produces a knife: she wants the sex to be violent, to be threatened by a masked man with a knife.  In the next room the Commendatore has a prostitute.   At the end, by a sleight of hand, Giovanni sends Leporello down with the Commendatore and begins his routine with women, with a new Leporello.

In between it’s more patchy.  Paul Steinberg’s set is excellent: walls of doors, revealing rooms, suggesting streets and opportunities to hide and surprise.  The look is of depressed, 20th Century Spain.  Jones’s direction of the characters is excellent.  More than anyone else he catches the tension between Masetto and Zerlina – they’re not reconciled after Batti batti and not completely after Vedrai carina.  Giovanni serenades Elvira’s maid over the phone and Anna sings Non mi dir over the phone to Ottavio  Christine Rice’s Elvira gets madder as the evening goes on, seizing a gun from Ottavio before Mi tradi.  You had a sense of lonely characters with only Giovanni and Leporello having any form of rapport.  On the down side he has no solution to the Act I finale – one of the messiest and least successful scenes I’ve seen Jones do and the sextet in Act II didn’t fare much better.

It helps that it’s sung in English – Amanda Holden’s translation has been adapted for this and is still very good.  There were no surtitles for the recits (and you didn’t need them) and you were able to follow the piece, like a play, enjoying the situations and the ideas.  After a heavy day, I was kept interested and involved throughout.

It helped to have Christopher Purves as Giovanni.  He’s one of the most charismatic singing actors on the stage today.   This Giovanni is cold, calculating, ruthless and determined.  There’s a mordant wit and cynicism.  He gets women by fascination and strength rather than charm.  But you don’t feel that he likes them very much.  There’s a relentless, driven quality about him.  His voice isn’t the most honied and he doesn’t have typical dashing good looks, but he’s one of the most believable that I’ve seen.  He got the aristocrat carelessness, absolutely certainty of what he wants and sheer bullying violence to perfection.  I’ve heard it more gratefully sung, but that wasn’t really the point.  His rapport with Clive Bayley’s sinister, red-wigged Leporello was as successful a double act as I’ve seen.

Christine Rice was an outstandingly fine Elvira – catching the sheer madness and intensity of the woman and singing outstandingly: a glorious Mi tradi and managing the difficulties of the role fearlessly.  She was matched by Caitlin Lynch’s Donna Anna, though after the interesting start, Mozart doesn’t really give Jones quite as much material as he needs to explore the character.  Ms Lynch’s singing was hugely assured.  Mary Bevan was a very good Zerlina.

Allan Clayton made a predictably fine Ottavio – concerned and ineffectual but doing his arias well.  Nicholas Crowley was a very good Masetto – nicely acted and sung and one of the best that I’ve seen.   James Creswell made a strong Commendatore.

Mark Wigglesworth conducted.  It sounded fine with generally sensible tempi and the textures interesting.  He accompanied the singers well and was clearly at one with the production.  The orchestra played very strongly indeed.

So this was an alert, highly intelligent, thoughtful, enjoyable production with really good music and among the strongest of the 19 productions of this opera that I’ve seen.

Figaro in Naples

4 Oct

If you haven’t been to the San Carlo in Naples, it’s worth seeing.  It’s easily one of the most gorgeous auditoriums in Europe: golds and pinks, six tiers of balconies, a glorious painted ceiling and one of he most over the top Royal boxes you’ll come across.  A short holiday there coincided with a performance of Le nozze di Figaro on 30 September and the opportunity was too good to miss.

Sadly, it didn’t really live up to the beauty of the auditorium.  The overture was a pretty good guide to the evening – correct, slightly plodding and rather flat – though that may be what strikes me as a dull acoustic.  Ralf Weikert’s conducting was like that for the entire piece.  The orchestra played efficiently for him but this was one of the dullest, least loving musical performances of this opera I’ve heard for a long time.

The production is by Chiara Muti and isn’t great either.  It’s set in a huge structure of steps and galleries so that people can watch each other and you can see them approaching.  It struck me that it would be a great set for Butterfly, Rosenkaverlier, Chenier or, indeed, Adriana Lecouvreur, which is the next one in the San Carlo’s season.  Here it detracted more than it added.  It didn’t help that a door handle refused to work at one point in Act II leaving you wondering whether people would actually be able to get through it in time – and Cherubino had to go up steps to get to the dressing room, only to go down them again once in.  It allowed for some interesting ideas – Cherubino watching the Countess sing Dove sono, and a hint at the theatricality of the piece.  But what I missed was the characterisation and natural acting.  Everything seemed generalised and overdone.

I felt the cast had the potential to be better than it was.  The absolute star was Rosa Feola as Susanna.  Fresh from Glyndebourne, this was as beautifully and alertly sung and thoughtfully, truthfully acted.  She’s one of the very best Susannas that I’ve seen.  Cinzia Forte was ill and the understudy Countess was nervous and, I’m sure, is better than she sounded.  Simone Alberghini sounded a bit light for the house as the Count but I enjoyed his alert acting and confident way with the words.  Alessandro Luongo, the Figaro was light, amiable but didn’t dominate as he should.

Marina Comparato’s Cherubino was far, far too feminine and I’m not sure that she was singing at her best.  The Marcelina was doing fine as a blowsy, rather vulgar woman until it came to her aria, which, in an amazing act of sadism we had to put up with.  I’m afraid she wasn’t up to its demands.  We also had Basilio’s and I’ve never really seen the point of that.  I really enjoyed Bruno Lazzaretti’s performance of the latter role – alert, singing the text as clearly and naturally as I’ve heard and he didn’t need the aria to help him.  What worried me most of all was how badly the cast blended.  I never imagined that the sextet in Act III could sound ugly but here were four voices simply not working together.

I’ve heard that the Italians don’t really get Mozart.  This felt like evidence of it.  Certainly the audience felt bored rigid and the pleasure that I’d anticipated in hearing an almost completely native Italian cast singing to an audience in its native language was lost.  There was barely a chuckle throughout the evening and, in this opera, that is a major achievement.

Do go to the see the San Carlo, but maybe take care about what you see.