Archive | May, 2017

Heavy Hipermestra

21 May

It’s quite difficult to judge an audience’s reaction to an opera sometimes.  I could have sworn that a substantial part of the audience for the first night of Glyndebourne’s new production of Cavalli’s Hipermestra on 20 May were deeply bored and, like the man sitting next to me, falling asleep and desperately waiting for the thing to end.  At the interval, people was using words like “interesting” and “different” suggesting at least an ambivalence about it.  Yet at the end, the applause seemed warm and enthusiastic.  Make no mistake though, this is not a show for the faint hearted or for operatic novices.

From what I can gather, this seems to have been about the third performance of the piece ever and the first since 1680.  Unlike many of Cavalli’s operas it was commissioned and first performed at an aristocratic wedding with lavish sets and dances and lasted over five hours.  I don’t know whether this was with or without intervals.   William Christie had cut out a lot of paraphernalia (include the gods and goddesses at the opening and had got it down to slightly less than three hours of music.

It has rather a good plot.  King Danao has 50 daughters.  His brother, Egitto, has 50 sons.  To cement peace between them, the 50 daughters are married to the sons.  Danao, then gets his daughters to kill all their husbands because of a prophecy from an oracle.  Only Hipermestra, who is really in love with her husband, Leonice, refuses and lets him escape.  Leonice returns with an army for revenge and, as part of the diplomacy is told that Hipermestra is unfaithful.  He still ravages the kingdom.  Hipermestra throws herself off a building but is saved by one of Juno’s peacocks and the confusion is resolved with a happy-ish ending.  There’s a sub-plot for Arbante (in love with Hipermestra) and Elisa (in love with him) and there is the usual share of cynical servants and, of course, a tenor in drag as the nurse.

I also thought that Cavalli’s setting of it was masterful.  It feels Shakespearean in its length and pacing and the scope of its discussion of dilemmas, personal and political and about the effects of war.  There are some beautiful scenes for lovers and ones of considerable passion and emotion and, of course, quite a lot of bawdy comedy.  It struck me as a really good opera.

So what might an audience find difficult?  I think the first arises from the nature of Cavalli’s operas.  There is a lot of recitative and it tends to move seamlessly into arias which are not really what most audiences think of as arias.  There are no big tunes or really memorable parts, little opportunity for bravura singing and they are short.

This means that there is a huge premium on the words and following the plot. Since composers at this time saw themselves as servants of the words, this is understandable, but this causes a real problem for audiences whose comprehension of Italian is limited.  The most enjoyable Cavallis that I have seen (and the ones which made me realise what a great composer he is) are those that have been sung in English – Giasone at Buxton in the 1980s and the ROH’s recent L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.  You need to have direct understanding of the words and, even with surtitles, there was a barrier between performers and  audience.  In many operas you get round this because the music itself is inherently wonderful to listen to.  That doesn’t apply so much to Cavalli.

The next problem is that the first part lasted two hours and five minutes.  That is an awfully long time for an audience to be sitting trying to engage with dialogues that it doesn’t really understand.  An interval would have worked wonders. You really have to be dedicated to last that out.

Finally, many people will probably feel uncomfortable with Graham Vick’s staging.  It’s updated to a contemporary middle east where beheadings, stonings, ill-treatment of women and the destruction of cities are common-place.  There were a lot things that an audience at Glyndebourne wanting to escape might not have liked to be reminded of.  No expense has been spared on the sets, but it’s not a comfortable evening.

For myself, I enjoyed the production, mostly, while wondering whether, in fact, the work bears the full weight that Vick is imposing.  The dialogues, the interaction between the characters are beautifully observed.  Stuart Nunn’s sets are very handsome indeed and chart the move from wealth and lavishness to war and destruction brilliantly.  Even the orchestra, costumed as a rich, paid arab band for the first half, become refugees in the second (there’s a glorious solo violin passage at the beginning of that half).

There are some doubts.  The show begins as you arrive with a number of the brides and grooms wandering round the garden being photographed and there is a spoof news item on the video screens setting the scene and placing it in Glyndebourne.  One of those examples of Glyndebourne taking itself too seriously which is one of the tiresome things about the place.  I wasn’t sure also that he’d got the balance of comedy and seriousness right.  Mark Wilde’s glamorous, hugely enjoyable performance as Berenice, the nurse, might have been even better if he’d been singing in English rather than mugging furiously.  The coup de theatre of Juno’s peacock happened and was astonishing, but was also funny and left the audience giggling.  I’m not sure how you avoid that or if you need to.

No doubts at all about the musical performance, at least to a non-specialist.  William Christie and the very small orchestra achieved wonders – he barely conducted and they followed the singers and worked with them to provide a complete performance – that would have been that much more effective if you actually understood the words.

There wasn’t a weak link in the cast.  Emoke Barath, from Hungary, was strong, beautiful and dignified in the title role.  She has an ideal voice for this (I’d love to hear her in Handel) and she made an immensely characterful, sympathetic performer.  She was matched by Raffaele Pe as Linceo – a very fine Italian counter-tenor who caught the eroticism and swagger of the role.  Ana Quintans was delightful as Elisa and Benjamin Hulett did the best piece of work that I’ve seen from him as Arbante – an outstandingly good performance by a very confident, compelling tenor.

Renato Dolcini was splendid as Danao and there was really good work from Antony Gregory and Alessandro Fisher as assorted servants.  This was a cast that was entirely committed and confident.

So this was a really high quality piece of work in every respect.  Just what you’d expect from Glyndebourne.  Anyone interested in Cavalli or the baroque should go.  Whether it will really appeal to a wider audience is another question.  It did feel like hard work.

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Moderate Don Carlos

21 May

Ok, time to get back to this blogging lark.  I’ve had some good times over the last few months – smashing Faramondo and Ormisda at the London Handel Festival and the fantastic Exterminating Angel at the ROH and Dr Atomic at the Barbican – but somehow didn’t get to writing them up.  Mind you, there also that Meistersinger… Anyway, back to work and first up is Don Carlos at the ROH which I saw on 15 May.

There is so much that there is wonderful about Don Carlo that it’s quite easy to get into the mindset that any performance short of the extraordinary is, in some way, a failure. It’s an attitude that ignores, first, the real problems with the opera and, second, the fact I would rather see a flawed one than miss the piece at all.  But the overall attitude to the opera is so easy to get into one’s head that I think it explains why people have been rather muted about what struck me as a very decent performance.

The cast, despite two late replacements, was pretty strong.  Bryan Hymel as Carlo sang strongly, if not subtly and made probably as good an authentic Verdian sound as you can get these days.  Maybe the odd pianissimo would be nice and he doesn’t exactly look the young romantic hero.

I was also impressed by Ildar Abdrazakov as Philip who created a very human king indeed. I loved his pianissimo opening to his Act IV aria and the way in which he caught the authority and the dilemmas of the role.  He opened up to Posa humanly.  Whereas with Furlanetto, you felt that here was a king unbending slightly, this was a man who was faced with being a king.

Christoph Pohl was a late replacement for Ludovic Tezier.  I think he’s a rather special baritone.  He has absolutely the right sound for the role: a sort of virile lightness that impressed me.  He caught the open, humanity of the role and looks good.  I wouldn’t mind hearing him again.

There was a gloriously old-fashioned, mezzo/contralto Eboli from Ekaterina Semanchuk: again as good as I’ve heard.  The role seemed to hold no terror for her and if, occasionally, you wanted more subtlety she’d then wow you with a top note or her gorgeous, rich lower register.  Her acting was pretty generic Eboli and I missed the some of the softness that Sonia Ganassi brought when the production was new, but if you want a Verdi mezzo…

I had most reservations about Kristin Lewis as Elisabeth – a late replacement for Krassimira Stroyanova.  She has a dark, Verdian voice, very much in the Leontyne Price mould but without the same control.  There was a real squalliness about her singing and, as with most Elisabeths, I found my mind wandering during her Act V aria and, indeed, the following duet.  I did enjoy her acting, particularly in Act I where she created a loving, youthful, open princess and she charted the journey from that to the sad, despairing queen rather well.

Bertrand de Billy conducting struck me as very fine too: he conjured some wonderful sounds out of the orchestra and his tempi seemed to be effortlessly right.  I really enjoyed the phrasing, particularly of the early parts and the wailing, growling strings in the last act.  He caught the sheer terror of the Grand Inquisitor (Paata Burchuladze, not as effectual vocally as he might have been ten years ago, but a strong presence) and he paced it really effectively, making you listen to the dialogues and the arias.  This was conducting that made you realise what a great work this is.

So maybe the problem was the staging.  Nicholas Hytner’s production had its problems even when it was new.  It’s at its best in the dialogues where, still, the emotions, the characterisations and the ideas ring true and they’re interesting.

The problem comes in the public scenes.  The auto da fe never really worked and, though it’s been reworked, there were just too few people for the space, Carlos’s insurrection was a mess and the picture of people with swords just standing there doing nothing is really poor.  The end of Act IV is similarly weak and the opening of the second scene of Act II can’t disguise the fact that the veil song is just a bit of padding.

The sets are variable.  The shaking trees in the first act are still there and are a bit of a disgrace and, for a lot of the time, the space is just too large.   They’re still beautifully lit.

Overall then, this was a decent, perfectly adequate performance of Don Carlos – the problems I’ve identified with the production are problems that the opera itself presents and Hytner’s failure is in coming to grips with those.  You don’t feel that there’s a vision for the opera or any guiding idea.  On the other hand, I still got a lot of pleasure out of this performance, mostly from the musical side and a newcomer will have got a good idea of why this is such a special opera.