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Grigolo and DiDonato in Werther

25 Jun

I like Werther, but it does matter who is singing: if you haven’t got two convincing leads then you might as well forget it.  The prospect of Joyce DiDonato in her first Charlotte and Vittorio Grigolo in the title role made the latest ROH revival one of the “must sees” of the season.  I caught the performance on 24th June.

Grigolo looks marvellous as Werther – slim, vulnerable, poetic.  Vocally, he’s great: a lovely piano sound, passion when you need it and the ability to become really moving.  His 2nd act aria meditating about death was gloriously done; Pourquoi me reveiller matched Kaufmann and his death scene was moving.  It’s an elegant, passionate portrayal.  He’s not the the world’s greatest actor: it’s a long timesince I’ve seen someone use their hands in as old fashioned a way as him: arms stretched out at full tilt and all the cliches of an Italian operatic tenor.  He makes up for it with the glorious, easy, intelligent singing that I’ve described.  Maybe Kaufmann’s is the more complete portrayal and his voice stronger, more baritonal, but Grigolo’s version is more delicate, neurotic and just as valid.

Charlotte doesn’t really become interesting until the third Act and, here, Joyce DiDonato made the most convincing, interesting Charlotte that I’ve seen.  I prefer a Charlotte with a bit of bite in the voice and a bit of personality: think Baker and Fassbaender, even Baltsa, rather than, say, Koch or Donose.  DiDonato has the richness and the colours to get the regret, sadness and strength of Charlotte.  I thought she did the letter aria gloriously and, together with Grigolo, made his death really moving.  It’s great to see one of my favourite mezzos in a role that challenges her and which she manages really well.  Perhaps she is just a touch mature.  Her French isn’t always clear, but this is a lovely assumption of the role.

But maybe the real star was Antonio Pappano.  This is one of the finest performances that he’s done at the ROH.  He paces the score gloriously, is, of course, considerate to his singers.  But what impressed me most was the phrasing, the colours that he drew out of the orchestra.  I don’t think I’ll easily forget the she delicacy of sound that he drew out at the beginning of Charlotte’s letter aria – a sound that made of think of paper rustling.  The moonlight interlude caught the sheer beauty and indulgence of the sound.  Pappano has said that, while he’s musical director here, no one else is allowed to conduct Werther in the house.  That’s just fine by me.  It’s a bench-mark performance.

The rest were pretty good.  I was impressed by Heather Engebretson’s Sophie – just the right youthful enthusiasm and love.  Her voice suits the role wonderfully and she contrasted marvellously with DiDonato, while suggesting the “might have been” of the relationship with Werther.  David Buzic made a solid Albert and Jonathan Summers a lovely Bailli.

The Benoit Jacquot production doesn’t challenge anyone very much.  It looks pretty good, but it was old fashioned when it was new in 2004.  It’s a decent enough frame for the leading singers and, on this occasion, that was all they needed.

A pretty good evening.  There are still seats available and it’s well worth seeing both DiDonato and Grigolo – but most especially for Pappano and the orchestra.

Bad mood for May Night

8 Mar

I apologise in advance for this discussion of the Royal Academy of Music’s performance of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s May Night on 7th March.  I had not had the easiest day and my mood wasn’t really helped by the ambience at the start of the performance.  In fact, I was quite surprised at how far the ghastliness of the entrance to Ambika P3, where the the piece was being performed affected my approach to the show.

The RAM theatre is being rebuilt (good). They decided to stage their spring production, therefore at Ambika P3 (bad). I’m not sure what this place is normally, but it feels as though it’s some sort of incomplete aircraft hangar.  The entrance is on the Marylebone Road.  You go down some metal fire-escape stairs and then have a thoroughly depressing walk which feels as though you are going round the back entrance of some dodgy factory into a concrete bunker, where you collect your tickets. You are then sent down more fire-escape stairs and round several corners to a holding area where a very small table sells drinks.

You are then allowed in to the auditorium – with badly lettered rows and the most uncomfortable seats I have sat in for a long time. There is barely enough light to read the programme. Christopher Cowell’s description of the plot in there is so garrulous that I lost the will to live about half way through Act I.  People had arguments about where they are sitting. The performance starts 7 minutes late. I have a busy day tomorrow. I was feeling irritable.

The overture was lumpily played by the orchestra and sounded unconvincing (though there was some nice string playing in places). When the chorus begins, you realise that the surtitles are rather small, badly placed and not easy to follow. Mood worsens.

The opera itself ought to be a charmer, but somehow isn’t. It’s a story of Ganna and Levko who are in love but have the problem that Ganna’s father, the village Mayor (here called the Headman), has his eyes on her too.  All is saved by the local troupe of distressed water nymphs who have a stray witch among their number. The hero identifies the witch and he gets a deus ex machina to allow him to marry. There’s a would-be comic second act where people wreck the Headman’s posh dinner with the Distiller who is about to convert the local haunted house into a brewery. You can see the scope for fun.

Except that it isn’t. The pace is slow, the mood witless. You’re desperate for a bit of fun. Ganna spends ages trying to persuade Levko to tell her the story of the haunted house so that you want to shout at him to get on with it. The chasing of Ganna by the Henchman is unexciting. The second act lumbers, stiffly.

I think part of this is due to the libretto and Rimsky’s setting of it (it’s his first full opera) and part to Christopher Cowell’s production which looks good but has absolutely no wit or comic edge. I think that a decent English translation might have helped a good deal, as might a venue where the characters don’t have to walk several miles in order to get on stage.

So were there good things? Well, Rimsky’s orchestration is a joy and, I have to admit, the acoustics in the Ambika P3 were excellent – warm, clear and making voices sound good. The RAM had evidently spent a lot on this and it showed.  There’s lots to enjoy in the pit and, after a rough-ish overture, the orchestra under Gareth Hancock warmed up very nicely.

The singers were very fine indeed. I was hugely impressed by Oliver Johnston’s hefty Slavic-sounding tenor as Levko – clear, attractive, strong singing and a nice stage personality. Ditto for Laura Zigmantaite as Ganna – a lovely clear soprano which will be ideal for Tatiana and, I should think Mozart, Agathe and that sort of role. Alex Otterburn as Kalenik, the village drunk, displayed an excellent baritone even if he couldn’t make the character remotely comic. Bozidar Smiljanic has a very fine bass voice and made a nasty, arrogant Headman and William Blake showed a clear character tenor and subversive personality as the Distiller.

Cowell’s production was efficient but with little wit or invention. It was set in a distillery: Bridget Kimak’s design looked good. Mandy Demetriou provided some good choreography which was performed with great gusto and impressive precision by the chorus. They sang well, too.  It just wasn’t very funny and I think that you’re meant to laugh, or at least be charmed, rather than rather bored and irritated.

I left after the second act, unable to face sitting in that horrible venue on uncomfortable seats any longer. If Act III is a masterpiece, then that is my loss. Whatever the strengths of this performance (and I stress that the music and singing was really good and suggested very strong careers for the leads), they were undermined by the fact that the opera just isn’t strong dramatically, by the problems of an unsympathetic venue and charmless production, and by me being in a bad mood. Sorry.