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Happy feline discovery

17 Oct

The joy of the Meet the Young Artists Week at the Royal Opera House is that they do short operas that are rarely seen and which, for lots of reasons, you won’t see in a traditional opera house.  This year, they surpassed themselves with both an opera and a composer that I’d not heard of before – El gato con botas by Xavier Montsalvatge.  I saw the performance on 16th October – I think it was the UK premiere.

Grove describes El gato con botas as a Magic Opera.  It struck me more as a Children’s opera – it’s based on Perrault’s Puss in Boots and there’s an endearing charm about it.  There are very few decent operas for children – the Little Sweep has, I suspect, dated, Hansel and Gretel always strikes me as a bit heavy.  There’s Jonathan Dove’s wonderful Pinocchio  and Amahl and the Night Visitors but few others.  I thought this added to the group.

I bet you haven’t heard of Montsalvatge either.  He was born in 1912, died in 2002 and, according to the programme spent most of his career in Barcelona.  He’s not in Viking and the Grove and Wikipedia entries don’t give you much of a flavour of his work.  I have an impression that he’s more of a critic than a composer.  El gato con botas was first performed in Barcelona in 1948.  The version we saw was of the 1996 Chamber version by Albert Guinovart.

It’s a sweet little piece, moving quickly and, at 50 minutes, never outstaying its welcome.  The music is engaging and professional, without being particularly challenging.  You can feel the influence of film music (in a good way) and there’s lots of nice, quirky orchestral writing. The vocal lines sound grateful – there aren’t any great tunes or glorious numbers – but you listen to it with pleasure.  It sounds as though the word setting is clear – you’re meant to hear the words.  There is a nice quartet at the end and a sense of here is a composer who is at ease with the form.  I’d like to hear some more of his music if only to see whether there’s more to him than a proficient, intelligent composer.

It was done very nicely.  Pedro Ribeiro’s production had nice designs by SImon Bejer and used some Portuguese puppeteers to provide the animals – the cat, the rabbits he catches and the animals that the Ogre, Fafner-like, changes into.  It was witty, didn’t flag and made for a really enjoyable half-evening.

It’s not really the sort of opera where there are opportunities for stars, but I was hugely impressed by Jihoon Kim’s splendidly black Ogre (a Fafner, here, I think).  Rachel Kelly was a very nice, clear cat, Luis Gomes displayed a rather nice tenor as the Miller (he’d be a good Nemorino) and Anna Hovhannisyan as the Princess and Michel de Souza as the King were both very good.

Paul Wingfield conducted with huge zest and enthusiasm and the Southbank Sinfonia played very capably.  It made for an excellent performance where no allowances were needed.

As an opener, we had Dusica Bijelic singing Berio’s Folk Songs.  They’re hugely enjoyable pieces and Ms Bijelic sang with gusto and enjoyment.  She doesn’t have the sort of ease that, I suspect, more experienced singers would bring to this and I felt that she was more comfortable in some languages than others – but it was a nice performance, enjoyed by the audience, and nicely conducted by Michele Gamba.

All praise to the ROH for putting on this evening.  What would be really lovely would be if the Glyndebourne Tour or Opera North could take up El gato con botas, translate it into English and do some matinee or early evening performances aimed at children.  It would be a great way of getting them introduced to the form.


Stamp Collecting with the Jette Parker artists

20 Oct

The friend that I met at the Jette Parker double bill at the Linbury (19th October) described the evening as stamp collecting and other addicts will know exactly what he means.  When was Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne last done here? And to put it in a double bill with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri struck me as a stroke of genius.  I hadn’t seen either before and both were on my list of operas I wanted to see.  They made a nice contrast to the Ring and gave the opportunity to take a look at the latest crop of Young Artists on the scheme.

I’m ambivalent about early Mozart.  I tend to find it the sort of music that a supremely talented 12 year old might well produce – entertaining, hugely competent, with some nice inventions but let’s not mistake it for having the scope, knowledge or experience that Mozart was later to bring or even that significantly less talented older composers show. This opera doesn’t change my mind.  I think that, if it was indeed first performed at a garden party, Dr Mesmer’s guest would have started off thinking how charming and wonderful it was but might have been consulting their watches after about half an hour and wondering when the drinks were coming back.  The text is meant to be a parody of Rousseau’s Le devin du village and it might possibly have been amusing to an audience that knew that piece, but I rather doubt it.

It’s an inconsequentail operetta about a quarrel between a shepherd and shepherdess over his unfaithfulness, which they then make up with a bit of help from Colas, the local savant. It’s made up of a few short but competent arias for each of the characters,a duet and a trio. There’s a lot of charm in the orchestration and in the word setting struck me a very good even if characterisation is non-existent.  The libretto strikes me as absolutely suited to a 12 year old prodigy in that it’s pretty naive and doesn’t set any particular challenges.  It could do with losing about 20 minutes and I think it’s one for collectors which I feel no great desire to see again.

The singing here was quite as good as the piece deserved. Dušica Bijelić and David Butt Philip made a nice pair of lovers and Jihoon Kim was fine as Colas. I just wished they’d been given something a bit meatier to get their teeth into.  Michele Gamba conducted a slightly scratchy Southbank Sinfonia which, if the story is true, is probably not very far from what it was like at the first performance. Pedro Ribeiro directed and didn’t really help the piece. The couple spent their time pushing trolleys of sheep along a railway line and the whole thing moved very slowly. Possibly it’s not Mozart’s fault that the piece outstayed its welcome.  Ribeiro tried too hard.

Mozart and Salieri is a very different story.  It’s a setting of a short text by Pushkin. It’s in two scenes, lasts 45 minutes and tells how Salieri poisoned Mozart. It’s infinitely preferable to the flummery of Peter Shaffer’s play and is a nicely concentrated, intense two-hander. The interest is in the lowering portrayal of Salieri and his growing jealousy of Mozart, leading to the scene where he poisons him after hearing a portion of the Requiem. The piece opens with a huge aria for him outlining the development of his envy.  It’s followed by the first of two meetings between the two characters, Salieri’s decision to poison Mozart and then the poisoining scene.  Rimsky’s score is pastiche Mozart but fully informed by developments since then.  It’s well paced, with outstanding characterisation of the two parts and has real interest both as an experiment in the form, but also in its outstanding depiction of the two characters. I wanted to see it again, either with native Russian singers or with slightly more mature singers singing in English – it’s an opera where the text is important.

This is not meant to be unfair to two very talented singers but simply to remark that someone with the experience of a Chalyapin is likely to make more of the colours and emotions of Salieri than Ashley Riches could at this stage of his career.  Even so, I thought that Mr Riches is someone to look out for.  This was a hugely confident performance by a singer with a fine voice, admirable security in Russian and a personality that commanded the stage and the audience.  I’d love to see him do the role again in 10 years time and a good many other roles too.  I think then he’ll make even more of that rather chilling moment at the end when Salieri remarks that Mozart will be sleeping for a long time – as it was, I thought he conveyed the conflicted emotions of Salieri really strongly.

Pablo Bensch was a very successful Mozart who was, perhaps a bit serious but he has a strong tenor that seemed to me to suit the Slavonic repertory really well. He created a lonely figure.  This was, again, a really strong, confident performance by a tenor who should go far.

Paul Wingfield got really good playing out of the orchestra and Ribeiro’s production – suits and black, with excellent lighting giving the right sense of melodrama, shadows and darkness – seemed to me to capture very nicely this haunting little piece.

It’s a shame that the way we currently watch opera isn’t well suited to performances of excellent one-acters like this.  It would be good to catch it as a lunchtime or early evening pre-dinner event.  It might make a nice curtain raiser to something like Osud or even Vixen or perhaps as a triple bill with, say Trial by Jury and Enfant et les Sortilèges to make a really varied evening.  Any other thoughts?
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