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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.

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Complex Pasquale

3 Nov

Glyndebourne has a wonderful policy of charging £10 for children’s tickets to some performances of its tour. This year it was Don Pasquale and, again, I took my eleven-year old niece to see it on 28th October.  It’s always interesting to try to imagine how the person next to you is seeing it and to watch the reaction.

I became aware first that, for all that it’s a comedy, Don Pasquale isn’t as easy an opera for an 11 year old to follow as Traviata and, second, that Mariame Clément’s sophisticated production here actually complicates the opera, possibly unnecessarily. My niece was puzzled by the relationships and the fact that Malatesta and Norina appeared to be sharing a bath at the end of scene two didn’t make it easier. Although Malatesta and Norina didn’t actually run off together at the end as they used to, there was still a very definite chemistry between them. I don’t think Donizetti necessarily had that in mind and I tend to think that this opera is quite nasty enough without adding that complication. Similarly, I’m not sure that having the chorus as an eighteenth century audience – glorious though it looks – necessarily helps you understand what’s going on. It’s a clever, interesting one-off version of the piece, but I don’t think I want to see it again.  Having said that, I think my niece enjoyed it and liked the music.

It was well rehearsed by Paul Higgins and had a cracking cast. The discovery for me was José Fardilha as Pasquale. Here is a gentle, dry ideal buffo voice who handles the words with confidence, ideal style. And he can act. He gives Corbelli and Pratico as serious run for their money and I’d love to see him do more of this sort of repertory.

Eliana Pretorian made a strong, rather nasty Norina singing with great style and accuracy – again, a very promising performance in this repertory. Tuomas Katajala made a very nice Ernesto – a nice, reedy tone that works really well in this role and he acted engagingly. John Brancy also has a very strong, baritone and good presence for Malatesta. He’d be a very could Count in Figaro or Don Giovanni. They made a strong ensemble, voices blending well and with nice alert, convincing performances.

Duncan Ward conducted. I found his overture a bit cautious – lacking the speed and exhilarating fizz that it ought to have. After that, he struck me as conducting considerately to his singers, with nice style. It was a promising debut. The orchestra was very decent indeed and the chorus a great deal better than that.

A good quality evening and I enjoyed hearing one of my favourite operas again even if I think that the Clément production can probably be retired.

Return of the Screw

26 Oct

Glyndebourne’s Turn of the Screw is back again – its fourth incarnation – and I saw the performance on 24th October.  It’s one of their strongest productions and repays seeing again even though Jonathan Kent wasn’t back to rehearse it – too busy in Chichester doing an outstanding job with Gipsy – well worth a visit if you can get a ticket.

I have mixed feelings about Turn of the Screw.  I find it compelling and gripping to watch.  At the end of a good performance, I feel rather as I do after Wozzeck or Winterreise or King Lear, wrung out and not really feeling like applauding or anything much.  Technically, it seems to me to be almost faultless, the scenes just the right length, the vocal writing impeccable and inexorably building up to the climax.  You watch fixated as the tragedy unfolds.  And yet, and yet.  I find the ghosts and their relationship with the children most problematic in the sense that I find it quite hard to pin down exactly what it is that causes the possession.  And that perhaps says more about my literal approach.  I find Myfanwy Piper’s text for the ghosts, in particular, difficult to take.  I don’t know what it means.  While this gives scope for directors, I rarely find that it’s satisfactorily addressed and that feeling of unresolved ambiguity also leaves me with a slightly unsatisfied feeling.  Probably my fault.

One thing which struck me at this performance which I’d not heared before was the little crackle of percussion and trumpet preceding Peter Quint’s first entry which reminded me very strongly of that associated with Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I think it would be interesting if directors could explore more the attraction that the ghosts possess for the children.  We always seem to see Peter Quint in his black valet’s clothes and Miss Jessel in dripping black like some refugee from Rusalka.  But don’t they also present a world that’s different from the stifling boringness of Mrs Grose and the Governess?  Isn’t there a magic to it?  Could they be attractive?  Does there need to be a sexual element between the ghosts and the children?   Isn’t it more about an idea of an alternative?  And is there not something in Britten about that attraction of being outside the norm?

Jonathan Kent’s production doesn’t explore that particularly but it’s very good at everything else.  Paul Brown’s set is mesmerisingly good with its multiple revolves and ability to achieve scene changes seamlessly – if, these days, a bit noisily.  I think that the updating to the 1950s works well in creating the right sort of social ambience and Natalia Romaniw’s Governess nicely caught the element of social climbing about her.  Perhaps some of the focus has become fuzzier over time.  This time I missed an element of knowingness and defiance about Miles that previous productions brought out and I seem to recall greater ambivalence about the Mrs Grose/Governess relationship before.  That didn’t stop the opera packing a huge punch.

The cast is strong.  Ms Romaniw makes an impulsive, naive Governess, she sings it beautifully and her diction (as was the case with everyone) made the surtitles more or less redundant.  This was a hugely promising performance, making me want to hear her in more Britten and much else.  Anne Mason is excellent as Mrs Grose, though I missed the sense that I’ve had from others, that she was taking Flora away as much to get her away from the Governess as for any other reason.  She sang it convincingly and acted it convincingly.  Miranda Keys made a fearsome Miss Jessel and others have made her grief and bitterness more moving – there’s a bit more to the relationship between the two than Piper’s libretto or this production make clear.  Anthony Gregory was a young, handsome Prologue and Quint.  I could have done perhaps with an extra ounce more power, but this was encouragingly promising singing and good sinister acting.

The children were pretty strong.  Tom Delgado-Little sang clearly as Miles and brought his own personality to the part.  Louise Woodley was also excellence as Flora and got the best out of her burst of anger at the Governess – one of those harrowing moments in the opera.

Leo McFall conducted confidently and the orchestra played as well as it should.  It felt like a strong ensemble performance and every word told.

So, it’s good to see the show again.  The audience on this Friday night wasn’t full, but I hope that audiences on the road will be better.  Whatever my doubts about the work, it’s an enthralling evening and, at the end, I was silent and didn’t feel like applauding – which is as it should be.

Family Traviata

12 Oct

You know that feeling when you’re watching a show with someone and they’re clearly not enjoying it.  And it infects you and you start to think what’s wrong with it and you cease to enjoy it yourself.  There is an opposite feeling which is that of sitting next to someone who is obviously completely spellbound by it.  That’s what happened when I took Emma, my niece, to see the Glyndebourne Tour’s La traviata on 11th October.

Family and friends had been sceptical.  How do you explain about courtesans?  It’s in Italian; she won’t understand.  That huge Germont/Violetta duet’s awfully long and then she just sings in the last Act.  I think this completely misunderstands how children approach theatre and opera.  Or at least how some do.  I remember seeing Cosi fan tutte when I was eight.  I found the arias a bit long but I could follow what was going.  I didn’t get the nuances; I was too young to understand the emotions but I was fascinated by the action, by sounds and the glamour of it all.  They don’t have to understand everything – that will come – but if you can find that they like the business of people singing when they should be speaking then, I would say, La traviata is as good an opera as any for them.  And Sarah Lenton did an excellent pre-performance talk that struck exactly the right balance between adult and children’s understanding.

The good things about Tom Cairn’s production that I enjoyed in the summer remain.  It’s well thought-through.  Time has been taken to plan and get the detail right.  The singers know what they’re singing about and convey it.  The moves and choreography are really well judged.  I remember two visual moments that we both loved.  The first is at the beginning of the Act II finale, with Violetta’s solo – she’s stood there, spotlit and all eyes are on her as she  explains what she feels about Alfredo.  The second was for Parigi o cara – the two of them sat on the flaw together, looking out, planning the future that cannot be – and this was helped by Zach Borichevsky’s really soft, gorgeous, tender singing of it.  The sets look a bit less cramped  if you’re sitting further back.  Above all, as I watched this I was aware of what a good opera this is – how perfectly paced, how wonderfully the music makes you understand the emotions.  In this respect, the contrast between this and the dismal ROH Rigoletto the other week, could not have been greater.

The cast wasn’t quite up to the summer.  Irina Dubrovskaya has the notes for Violetta and the technique to bring off each of the scenes.  She’s a sympathetic presence and acted convincingly – more obviously ill than her predecessor.  What I missed was the level of colouring, the ability to sing words and invest them with the meaning they need.  As I right, I’m listening to Gheorgiu sing the Act I aria and cabaletta, where phrasing and attention to the words are of the first order.  Dubrovskaya is good, but doesn’t grab you in the was the best Violettas do.

Zach Borichevsky makes a tall and gauche Alfredo and I admired his singing hugely.  I’ve mentioned Parigi o cara, but his Act II aria and cabaletta were really sensitively done.  He strikes me as a very promising tenor for this repertory.  He may not be quite as finished a tenor as Fabbiano, but he does excellently here. Roman Burdenko, familiar from the last Falstaff here, was a good Giorgio Germont, though there was a roughness about his voice and, again, not quite the same care about the words that his predecessor brought.

Eddie Wade repeated his threatening, excellent Douphol and Magdalena Motendowska her fine, concerned Annina.  Otherwise, the smaller roles were done a bit better at the Festival and came over more vividly there.

David Afkham had conducted the latter performances at the Festival and there was an awful lot of Mark Elder’s performance that I recognised.  There were the details in the orchestra throughout the Germont/Violetta duet and a great sense of pace.  I’m not complaining about this at all: I can’t think of many models I’d rather have for a young Verdi conductor and it was all of a piece for the opera.  The orchestra and chorus were both really excellent and the piece came across as a vivid, dramatic piece of theatre.  And the only thing that seemed wrong to Emma was Violetta being left alone at her death – and I could see what she meant.

When opera’s taken as seriously as it is here, it’s hard to imagine it not working.  Emma’s seat cost me £10 and she sat, watching it fixedly, listening.  She’s decided that she like opera.  What should be the next?  I think she ought to see the Copley Boheme before it goes and then if someone does a decent Barber or Figaro or Elisir, that would be the thing for her to learn that opera is fun too.

Family Day at Glyndebourne

12 Oct

Last year, Glyndebourne did their first Family Day – an opportunity to look round and see backstage. I couldn’t make it.  This year they did it again – free entry for people with tickets for that evening’s Traviata (though nobody seemed to be checking).  A perfect opportunity to take a niece and build on the Hansel and Gretel experience last year.  I’ll write about Traviata in the next posting, but I did want to give a special piece to praise Glyndebourne for giving us a fabulous day out and to wonder if other companies couldn’t build on it.

The setting helps, of course: there’s the space, the gardens, the sheep and the facilities and that relaxed friendliness about the place.  The weather started off threateningly but actually wasn’t too bad for most  of the day – we could walk round the gardens and get some fresh air when we felt like it.

There were a lot of events around the garden, and I hope that these were popular.  We arrived early and slipped in a demonstration of how to take cuttings – I think Emma wasn’t quite expecting that, but it gave her a nice souvenir to take home and I just hope it roots.  That filled in the time before the first event.

This was a show called Songs about Us devised, directed and presented by Dominic Harlan.  I thought this was an outstanding event.  He takes eight songs in the original languages and plays with them – telling us what they’re about, inviting us to act them, to direct them and to add new bits.  So we were all advising Heine’s hero in Morgens steh’ ich auf… to “Get a new girlfriend, drink lots of beer, go to the opera” to get over his lost love.  Pretty good advice if you ask me.  There were favourites of mine – Britten’s setting of At the Railway Station, Upway, Schumann’s Der Contrabandiste and Die beiden Grenadieren and Sibelius’s Var det en drom. together with Barber’s Solitary Hotel, which I didn’t know but loved and a really lovely song, Utah 1975 by Harlan himself.  Harlan has that incredible energy and ability to think on his feet that you need when dealing with an event of this sort, massive charm and wit and he’s a very good pianist – all the accompaniments by heart.  Paul Carey Jones and Sarah Gabriel were the splendid and very game singers.  As an encore the did Anything you can do and that was Emma’s favourite.  A lovely hour and I strongly recommend you to take any half willing young people to Harlan’s future shows.

There was an activity event surrounding La traviata, but that appeared to have been booked out within about 48 hours of booking opening.  It didn’t matter.  We could wander round the Jerwood studio and sit on the massive armchair from Enfant et les sortileges, admire the car from Nozze di Figaro, the stick of broccoli from Hippolyte et Aricie and open a box to see Banquo’s head.  We could print costumes, see how they made wigs and have our faces made up. Then there was a session in the auditorium where Sarah Lenton took us through the elements of lighting, scene shifting and dressing, talking to the articulate and passionate members of the team.  After that, we could go on the stage, touch scenery and play with the lights.  If we’d had the time there was a talk about the history of Glyndbourne.

You need refreshment during this and there was an ideal, simply, pretty inexpensive menu perfect for children and for adults looking for the equivalent of a decent pub lunch and really well done.

Finally, Sarah Lenton gave us an excellent half hour introduction to La traviata.  She told the story in a way that worked for ten year olds, made me think a bit more about the opera – I’d never quite got the catholic element of the Germont/Violetta scene before – and showing a passion and love of the opera that really whetted the appetite for what was to come.

So it made for a smashing day out – not too rushed, friendly, relaxed and great for me and for Emma.  There weren’t as many people there as I’d feared but enough for me to be pretty sure it’s worth their while doing again.  If you live within striking distance of the place, do go next year.  It would be great if other opera houses were to follow suit.

Lucretia returns to Glyndebourne

26 Oct

I’m never quite sure what to make of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, which I saw at the Glyndebourne tour on 25th October.  I still have very vivid memories of performances at ENO in 1987 (Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Kathryn Harries and Jean Rigby) which left me emotionally shattered – so good that I went twice.  And nothing else has quite lived up to them.  Those were performances where the intensity and certainty of the acting and singing overcame the huge difficulties of the libretto and that rather strange ending.

At this performance, I found myself admiring and enjoying the music and the way in which the opera is paced, interested in the ideas but also quite detatched from it.  I was aware of the weaknesses of the libretto.  It isn’t so much in the structure of the opera, which is taut and works well, or the deliberately artificial ritualistic quality as its sheer wordiness and incomprehensibility.  There are the sheer sillinesses of “The oatmeal slippers of sleep/creep through the city” while there are others where the syntax is so contorted that you cannot follow what it says.  Surtitles do not help – and, in fact, make it worse because you are so busy trying to work out what the lines mean that you lose the sense of the whole.  Then there is that strange epilogue, not unlike that in Billy Budd which tries to link what goes on with a specifically Christian message.  I find it difficult to see the connection and that there’s an offensiveness about a religiosity which seeks to excuse or gloss over what has gone on or, in some way, make it more bearable.

Against this, there are some wonderful things in the piece.  I find the Male and Female chorus fascinating creations as they watch and comment on the action.  I love the music and the way in which Britten manages the tension of the army camp, the peace of Lucretia’s household, the violence of Tarquin’s journey and the calm, desperation of the tragedy.  There is a dignity and integrity about the piece which overcomes the libretto, even though that libretto means that it unlikely that it will ever be among Britten’s most popular works.

Glyndebourne gave the first performance of the opera and it makes sense for them do it again in this centenary year.  It’s probably the last of his operas that Glyndebourne will do unless the Jerwoods one day do one or other of the Parable Operas.  I can’t imagine them getting round to Gloriana or Paul Bunyan.   This was one of their typically intelligent, probing productions that approached the opera afresh and, even if Fiona Shaw’s production didn’t quite match Graham Vick’s at ENO, it made a probing, disturbing evening.

Fiona Shaw sets it in 1946 with two archeologists unearthing Roman remains and discovering the story of Lucretia.  She charts a complex relationship between them – the male chorus at times identifying with Tarquinius – even to the extent of them having sex after the rape.  I found this entirely convincing and fascinating.  She also creates a world outside – soldiers, whores and a child for Lucretia.  None of these were essential and, perhaps, they robbed some of the concentratoin on the main characters, but it was undoubtedly part of a clear vision of the piece.  What I missed was the sheer concentration and clarity of vision that Grahm Vick found.  She’s a really good opera director.

There were some marvellous performances too.  Allan Clayton, in particular, was a splendid Male Chorus – clear diction, beautifully sung and catching the ambiguity of his emotions – excited and repelled by Tarquinius.  Kate Valentine was almost his equal as the female chorus – only the occasional touch of weakness – and, again, very much took Lucretia’s part, asking what the story was doing to her husband.

Claudia Huckle displayed a lovely contralto as Lucretia and was really touching in her acting.  What I missed was the slight astringency that Janet Baker or Jean Rigby brought to this.  Duncan Rock was a virile, well-sung Tarquinius, Oliver Dunn a clear, disgruntled Junius and David Soar a dignified Collatinus.  Catherine Wyn-Rogers gave a star turn as Bianca – unassuming but singing her part with quiet dignity and grace that was very moving.  Ellie Laugharne was a neat Bianca.

Nicholas Collon conducted with great assurance and the orchestra played outstandingly, I thought.

It’s not a perfect opera, but this production struck me as asking the right questions, exploring the right areas and making an audience think about what they were seeing.  I don’t think you can ask more.  I hope it has time to grow before its next outing.

Taking a child to Hansel and Gretel

20 Oct

I saw my first proper opera when I was eight (Barber of Seville, since you ask) and was hooked.  I’m a great believer in giving young children the opportunity to see opera – at that age, they’re not cynical and they find it easier to accept people singing rather than speaking and it’s all new and interesting.  Of course, it depends on the opera.  I’m not suggesting that you take them to Parsifal or Pelleas.

Glyndebourne obviously wasn’t selling its tour as well as usual this year and I was offered two seats for the price of one if I brought someone who had never been to Glyndebourne before and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.  I have a nine year old niece whose mother does not like opera: let’s see if I can subvert that.  Rape of Lucretia obviously wasn’t suitable (I’m going on Friday) and Elisir might charm her or might bore her rigid.  I’m not great on Hansel and Gretel – a bit too Wagnerian, perhaps for a child (see my previous blog) – but the Pelly production is nice and it’s the sort of thing that might appeal.  I’ve taken her to plays and ballet before, successfully.  So I took the plunge and went to the child-friendly Sunday matinee on 20th October.

The weather wasn’t great and, perhaps, nine year olds probably aren’t that impressed by gardens and lakes, but she seemed to like the setting.  Tea in the Mildmay went down pretty well and so to the opera.  As I was watching, i tried to see it through the eyes of a child who had never been to an opera and didn’t know the music.

It’s difficult.  The overture is quite long, but it’s early enough on for you not to get bored – and watching a conductor is fun (we had a good view).  The opening scene with its cardboard box house isn’t too difficult – you may not understand the words but there’s plenty of movement and the action is pretty self-explanatory.  There’s then a knock-out animation for the Witch’s Ride, which cannot fail.  I thought the second act, again, was quite self-explanatory and the fear and terror came across pretty well.  The people in white eating hamburgers might have been confusing and,perhaps, by the end of Act II, the beautiful music may be wearing a bit thin.  On the other hand, the singers conveyed the terrors of that act really well.  The third act with its wonderful sweet shop of a witch’s house looks good, but I actually became aware of how long it is and I could understand why she might flag a bit.  Possibly the witch, with knives as well as junk food, might be a bit too frightening.  She also ought to have gone to the toilet in the interval, which probably made the last ten minutes a bit uncomfortable.  The surtitles were in rhyme, which really didn’t help comprehension.

Overall, however, she sat there still, watching earnestly and seemed to like it.  I asked if she’d like to go to another and she said she would.  She was impressed by the size of the voices, by the orchestra and conductor.  She assured me that she hadn’t been frightened.  I don’t think she was bowled over by the music.  She wasn’t worried by it being in German and said that the surtitles were fine.  She’s not a demonstrative girl but I think and hope she liked it.

What about me?  I like the Pelly production very much indeed – it’s assured and fun to watch and the effects are great.  The direction of singers is excellent.  It looks good and I rather hope that this isn’t its final outing here.  The Hansel and Gretel were excellent. Victoria Yarovaya has a gorgeous mezzo voice, looks convincingly boyish as Hansel and sang hugely impressively – I’d like to hear her again.  As Gretel, Andriana Chuchman struck me as having one of the purest, most beautiful sopranos I’d heard in a long time.  I’d love to hear her in Mozart (Zerlina, Servillia, Susannna) or Handel.  She acted a lovely hoydenish Gretel and I really enjoyed her singing. Anne Mason and Stephen Gadd were oustanding as the parents and Colin Judson had fun as the witch,  Angharad Morgan had fun as the Dew Fairy.  This was a really good cast.

I was a bit less taken with the conducting of Ilyich Rivas.  It felt very slow and I wanted more bounce to the dances – the fact that I was aware that Act III was a bit long suggested that he hadn’t quite got the pacing right.  On the other hand, he got some lovely playing from the orchestra; you heard the different textures and the counterpoints.  Even if Emma wasn’t irritated by the rhyming surtitles, I was.  Glyndebourne tried the same trick in Onegin and it really doesn’t help comprehension and feels tricksy.

So it was nice afternoon and, even if Emma doesn’t become an opera nut like her uncle, I hope she’ll have happy memories of it.