Archive | June, 2017

Ariadne revival at Glyndebourne

25 Jun

I’ve always liked Ariadne, though it’s quite hard to put my finger on why.  It shouldn’t work.  The mixture of the comic prologue and the rather strange opera that follows it ought not to work.  Yet it does. I think it’s that mixture of high emotion and comedy and the way Strauss contrasts the two and paces it.  Unlike many of his pieces, it doesn’t outstay its welcome and, apart from Capriccio, it’s probably my favourite of his operas.

The current Glyndebourne production by Katherina Thoma is now having its second outing.  I enjoyed its first incarnation and rather liked the conceit of the country house opera turning into a hospital for the serious second half.  It still works well enough though I don’t think that it’s a production that particularly repays repeated viewings.  It’s clever rather than profound and I thought a lot of the distractions in the hospital setting didn’t work that well and that Thoma misses a number of opportunities.  With the comedians dressed the same way, you can’t identify individuals and, more seriously, she doesn’t expand on the Zerbinetta/Harlequin relationship as Loy does at the ROH.  There’s a supernatural, operatic element bout the second part that this relentlessly earthbound, hospitalised production misses.  I doubt that we’ll see it back.

There was still a lot of pleasure to be got from this revival, with its largely new cast.  Lise Davidsen is, for me, the find of the evening, as Ariadne.  She’s a very tall lady and has one of those vast, Nilsson-like Scandinavian voices that sounded, to me, to be crying out to get on to Brunnhilde and Isolde.  This was a hugely confident debut for the sort of vast, voice that we don’t hear too often.  It’s almost too big for Ariadne and I missed the sheer stillness and subtlety that Isokoski and Mattila have brought to the role but there’s vast talent here.

I was also much taken by Erin Morley’s cheeky, accurate, confident Zerbinetta who delivered a pretty faultless Grossmaechige Prinzessin. AJ Glueckert was Bacchus and sounded really good.  He made almost light work out of it.  It’s a bright, Straussian tenor with considerable heft but also managed to make a rather nice sound too.  Bjorn Burger, back after last year’s good Figaro, sounded very fine indeed as Harlequin – he must be a great lieder singer.  Manuel Gunther’s tenor sounded pretty good as Brighella.

I was less taken by Angela Brower’s Composer.  It’s a nice sound, but it didn’t sound as though there was quite enough power there and she didn’t efface memories of Kate Lindsay and others.

Thomas Allen was back as the Music Master.  Why would you want anyone else?  Nicholas Folwell was a pompous Major Domo and I though that Edmund Danon made rather a lot of the Lackey.  The female trio in the opera proper was gorgeously sung.

Cornelius Meister struck me as conducting very nicely.  He got out both the chamber quality of the score and the climaxes.  The LPO were on pretty good form.

So this was a jolly good revival.  If you didn’t see it last time round, then I’d recommend a visit for an alert, intelligent, musically excellent performance.  If you did see it, then, maybe, not worth a special journey.

Camp Mikado

18 Jun

The Sasha Regan All-Male Mikado, which I saw at the Theatre Royal in Brighton on 17 June in the evening, is set in a camp in the wood in the late 1940s as a group of scouts – well, I’m not sure what they’re there for, but a bit of teasing and bullying and some balletic dancing, apparently – turn into a performance of the Mikado.  It’s much, much less clear or appropriate than their HMS Pinafore last year but you forget that pretty soon.

There is barely a nod to Japan in the costumes – khakhi shorts and shirts and you miss all of Gilbert’s social satire.  What you do have is a very funny, very clever version of the piece that manages to get the overwhelming bulk of the spirit of the piece spot on.  As ever, it’s done simply – the baggy shorts turned up for the ‘female’ part of the chorus give them a quite convincing and very funny South Pacific-ish look.  Katisha comes in on a bicycle with a series of straw hats to give her height and a string bag.  There are lots of good sight gags around the tents.

Above all, Sasha Regan’s direction pays attention to the words.  David McKechnie as Ko Ko does his speech to Katisha as intelligently and wittily as I’ve heard it and makes “Tit-Willow” the gently comic number that it is.  The Madrigal is really funny and Alan Richardson’s Yum Yum gets a laugh out “The sun whose rays”.  In Gilbert and Sullivan there’s always a tension between the emphasis you place on Sullivan’s very serious music and on Gilbert’s witty text.  I’ve always felt that the mastery of the operas lies in that tension.  Here Gilbert unquestionably won, with the words clearly under-cutting the seriousness of the music.  Above all, the dialogue was sensitively and thoughtfully put across and you could hear pretty much every word.

Musically, it was decent and you do have to make allowances for men singing falsetto and, often, not quite managing it.  The noises Mr Richardson made reaching for his top notes in the ensembles really were not pleasant and rather points out the limits of an all-male approach to G&S particularly as the operas get more ambitious.  You also have to make allowances for people who are not trained opera singers and who play about with note values (and notes) rather more than we’re used to.  It didn’t worry me hugely in the context of a really witty, lively performance but don’t go expecting the sort of singing you would get from an opera company.

The cast was excellent.  Mr McKechnie makes an excellent Ko Ko – alert, cheap and slight sleazy with a funny updated (but not topical) little list.  Ross Finnie could have been even more Scottish as Pooh Bah and, maybe, was a bit too understated.  James Waud was a super Mikado and I loved the way “My object all sublime” got faster as the it went on (super choreography for the chorus).  Alex Weatherhill made a large Katisha who got both the sympathy and the monstrosity of the woman (though I don’t think she needed to be pumping up her bike during ‘”Hearts do not break”) and, again, the dialogue with Ko Ko after that was outstanding (and, again, some really lovely, understated choreography for “There is beauty in the bellow of the blast”).

Richard Munday made a sensible Nanki Poo and, top notes apart, Mr Richardson was a very good, funny Yum Yum. The ensemble worked incredibly hard and made it all look easy and fun. Richard Baker on the piano did an excellent job.

Don’t go expecting a lavish, traditional Mikado, but I’d strongly recommend this clever, intelligent and very slick performance to anyone who likes the operas, particularly if they prefer Gilbert to Sullivan.

 

Hamlet collage

11 Jun

There is one unforgettable moment in Brett Dean’s new opera Hamlet, which I saw on its first night at Glyndebourne on 11 June.  This is when Sarah Connolly, as Gertrude, comes to tell Laertes of Ophelia’s death.  She sings a version of “There grows a willow…” with her usual glorious heartfelt emotion and simplicity and, as she does so, you hear Barbara Hannigan singing flashes of her mad scene from the dome.  It’s a gorgeous, moving moment which reminds why opera, as a form, gives you things that the straight theatre can’t.

Otherwise, this struck me as a very clever opera that didn’t quite explain why it needed to be written.  Matthew Jocelyn has taken the text and played about with it and those of who know the play well have a lot of fun working out what bits come from where – so “do not saw your hand in the air” is used for the duelling at the end.  It’s rare, if at all, that you get a single speech set entirely as it was.  I don’t object to that, but it is distracting to have bits of the play that you know coming up in unexpected places.  And there are lots of jokes about the different variant readings which are funny, if you get them.

What worries me more is that there isn’t really an over-arching idea to this opera.  There are a succession of more or less successful scenes and an exhausting role for the protagonist but that feels like it.  They’ve sensibly got rid of Fortinbras and the bulk of the political side of the play, but what I missed was the need for revenge or any sense of Hamlet’s vacillation or the irony associated with that.  If Hamlet isn’t a political play, it’s a revenge tragedy with some really good meditation about life and death.  Here the existential side seemed to take centre stage without the revenge plot.

It was also long and needed cutting- the performance lasted half an hour longer than Glyndebourne thought it would.  I first became aware of this in the scene where Polonius suggests that they put Ophelia in Hamlet’s way.  Aside from the tedium of Polonius (who the music makes a lot less funny than the play) there’s a sextet with comic backing for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  They turn up in the Osric role later on (the whole bit about Hamlet being sent to England is cut) and have a silly duet about the odds.  And the play scene takes forever.  I wasn’t convinced about the need for a gravedigger.  Surely you can cut Yorick?

Dean’s music strikes me as professional.  There’s some smashing word-setting and quite a lot of others where you feel that it all feels a bit leaden.  The orchestration has a semi-chorus, antiphonal percussion and brass up on either side of the Upper Circle.  There are some nice moments, some great climaxes and quite a lot where it sounds as though it’s just grumbling in the background.  It didn’t dislike and there are moments, particularly in the second half where the things sort-of takes off.

Overall, however, this brings me back to the problems of setting the texts of Shakespeare in English.  If you don’t use the original, everyone says that the libretto isn’t as good.  If you do, then there are the problems of setting great lines that actors will generally do better.  It helps if you can condense it in a foreign language and let your version speak for itself.  This seems to me to join the group of honourable failures.  And it’s too long.

It’s pretty brilliantly done.  Neil Armfield’s production moves fluidly and, technically, is a very adept piece of work. Vladimir Jurowski conducts the LPO and the Glyndebourne chorus with huge assurance.  There wasn’t a hint of uncertainty about the performance and you felt that everyone was engaging with and utterly committed to the piece.

Allan Clayton gives a hugely energetic performance as Hamlet and sings the lines clearly, beautifully, intelligently.  What I missed, and I think this is the opera’s fault, not his, was any hint as to why we should care about him at all.  Sarah Connolly was her typically fabulous self as Gertrude.  Barbara Hannigan has a stratospheric (and very successful) mad scene for Ophelia and she pulls it off as a marvellous set-piece.  Rod Gilfry as Claudius sang clearly even if you didn’t quite get what the character was all about.  Kim Begley was a clear Polonius, but I wonder if he didn’t have too much to do.  John Tomlinson had three lovely roles as the Ghost, the First Player and the Gravedigger and was his usual, booming, hugely intelligent, charismatic self.  David Butt Philip (who will be singing Hamlet on the Tour) was excellent as Laertes.  Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey had a fine double act as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Maybe it’s time to give the joke that it’s impossible to tell which is which a rest.

As ever at Glyndebourne you can’t fault the sheer commitment and professionalism of the performance.  It’s given this piece the best possible send-off.  I’m simply not convinced that I really want to see it again.  Sorry.

 

Enchanting Elisir

4 Jun

The Royal Opera was clearly having problems selling this revival of Elisir d’amore and offered its Friends some half price stalls seats.  I took the opportunity to take my niece.  It turned out to be a really happy performance.

It’s as hard to dislike Laurent Pelly’s neatly updated, very well-drilled production as it is hard to dislike the opera.  Neither puts a foot wrong nor outstays its welcome.  Some seemed to be hearkening back to the old Copley production and didn’t like Dulcamara’s lorry.  You have to be a bit of an old sourpuss to feel like that, it struck me, particularly when the lorry has flashing lights and fireworks.  There are lovely, daft ideas like the little dog that dashes across the stage and, above all, a deep understanding of how to keep the opera interesting.

Above all, Pelly keeps the human interaction at the core.   His characters are human beings who react to each other, listen and love.  That is what this lovely piece is about and the great duets where moved like dialogues.  This is a production that could quite easily go on forever.

I’d not originally been that taken with the cast but it was, actually, extremely good.  Pretty Yende has a lovely bright voice and she uses it intelligently, tastefully, musically.  I’ve heard other singers make more of a fuss out of Prendi and others with simply more sparkle in the voice for La ricetta e il mio visino.  I felt that she was tiring, slightly towards the end – the voice became just a tad shriller, the top slightly less grateful.  But, as well as a lovely voice and really good singing, she acts the role alertly.  I’ve ever found Adina a particularly sympathetic or attractive character.  Yende at least found a decency and honesty in her which made her rather interesting.  This was a super debut, however, and she’ll be welcome back.

So will Liparit Avetisyan who sang Nemorino – a replacement for Rolando Villazon.  I must say that I cannot imagine anyone regretting Villazon’s absence.  Avetisyan has a lovely gentle, warm voice that struck me as absolutely ideal for his role: nice high notes, but a warmth of phrasing and an openness about his singing that made him an absolute winner with the audience.  I’ve heard Una furtiva lagrima sung perhaps with greater style, with subtler pianissimi and more art, but rarely more openly or honestly.  He has a nice, gentle charm and the role seemed ideal for him.

Paolo Bordogna struck me as another very useful, stylish Italian baritone who I’d like to hear more of in these roles.  He caught the ridiculousness of Belcore but also, again, the basic decency.

Alex Esposito is that rare thing, a thin Dulcamara.  Maybe, a fuller, fruitier voice and a slightly more over-the-top personality would have helped but I really enjoyed his intelligent acting and his clear, strong singing.  He was alert, didn’t overplay and, again you believed in him.

The four made a lovely ensemble and, I’ve no doubt, were helped by Bertrand de Billy’s stylish, sensitive conducting.  The pace seemed right, the singers were able to breath and the delicacy and emotion of the score came across just about perfectly.  I like a stronger climax to the slow crescendo in the Act I finale (just listen to Pritchard on CD here) but its absence was, pretty much the only cavil I hard.  Chorus and orchestra were just fine.

Emma sat, pretty much, entranced, enjoying the fun, following the way the emotions turned and this was a show which made this opera seem as good as new.  A really lovely evening.

Glyndebourne’s engaging Traviata

4 Jun

“Did you think that ending was outrageous?” asked an excited American lady as I queued for coffee at the end of the performance of La traviata at Glyndebourne on 31 May.  I thought that she was referring to the moderately controversial ending of Tom Cairns’s production, where Violetta dies alone.  But no, it was to the end of the opera itself: that the woman, who was about the only one in the opera not at fault, should be the one who dies and ends up apologising for it.  She was right, of course, and it’s the reaction Verdi would have wanted. And I thought that it was great that a newcomer could react to an opera so freshly and intelligently, reminding me how easy it is to take this piece for granted.

I think it was also a tribute to Tom Cairns’s production that, while not being outstanding is, in fact, a very good, clear, thoughtful version of the opera.  It often happens that the second showing of a production here improves upon the first and this felt more settled and secure than in 2014.  If there are problems, I think it they are to do with Hildegard Bechtler’s set which feels strangely cluttered and ugly and with the modern setting: our social mores are very different today and there are occasions, particularly in the Germont/Violetta duet where this becomes naggingly worrying.

There was, pretty much, a new cast and a very, very strong one.  It’s perhaps worth noting the lesser roles that are so important in Traviata and which were cast from strength.  William Dazeley, for example, made the best Douphol that I’ve seen simply through his experience and authority (and he sang it very well, too): his acting and presence were crucial in creating the wider milieu and context.  Ditto Henry Waddington as Grenvil, creating the sympathetic outsider who is also part of the revelry (I loved him hastily hiding the evidence of a night on the tiles in Act III) and singing it really well.  The casting throughout, right to James Newby’s single line as the messenger at the end of the first scene of Act II – clearly, authoritatively delivered but presenting a character as well.  These included a vital, flirtatious Flora from Rihab Chaieb, an elegant Marchese from Daniel Shelvey and a passionately concerned Annina from Eliza Safian.  These, and the excellent chorus, clearly having a high old time with some really detailed characterisation and acting, reminded you that Glyndebourne really has the time to prepare things from scratch.

Kristina Mkhitaryan was the new Violetta.  She is rather special. She looks beautiful and elegant and she acts the part beautifully – you felt that she was the only one of the cast who really understood the implications of what was going on and she created a highly sympathetic, intelligent character.  Vocally, she sounded more comfortable in the conversations than in the show pieces: Ah fors’e lui better than Sempre libera.  I’ve heard individuals (Cotrubas, Miriciou) make more of some of the passages and present a more sparkling, emotional figure, but she was a very satisfying, vulnerable, striking Violetta and I’d like to hear her again.

Zach Borichevsky sang Alfredo on the tour in 2014.  He’s strikingly tall and provides just the right gauche, young, thoughtless, impulsive character.  I don’t think that I’ve seen a more convincingly acted Alfredo.  Vocally, he was stretched by the end of his cabaletta but, that apart, sounded good and sang as if he meant it.

Igor Golotavenko was the Germont.  It was a joy to hear this baritone again after the joys of Poliuto.  Off hand, I can’t think of another voice that sounds more “right” for this sort of role.  The sound is burnished, bronzed and seems to flow effortlessly.  His phrasing is thoughtful and, I don’t think I can recall anyone who has given me quite so much sheer pleasure from his singing in this role or the sheer glory of the sound.  I was less taken by his acting which didn’t really seem to have got into the role.  He did some nice things – suggesting the sexual attraction he also feels for Violetta and in trying to manage the relationship with his son but he made me realise what a very difficult role this is to put across convincingly these days.

Richard Farnes conducted, pacing the score very well indeed and accompanying the singers very thoughtfully.  Perhaps he focussed a little too much on the details but I enjoyed the way he brought ou, first the oboe and then the cellos in Dite alla giovene.  The LPO played very nicely – the clarinet as Violetta writes to Alfredo marvellously phrased.

This may not go down as one of Glyndebourne’s great, unforgettable occasions, but it was typical of what the place does well: a fresh, beautifully prepared evening with keen singers and musicians, giving a very, very good take on the opera.  And, if it brought out that reaction in a newcomer, that suggests that it got very close to complete success.