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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.

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.

Two Normas

24 Sep

Three Normas, in fact, if you count the ENO one earlier this year.  I’ve been a fan of the opera for a while and been frustrated at the lack of performances it gets these days.  So I took a trip to Edinburgh to go to the Festival Theatre on 5th August, when Cecilia Bartoli appeared as Norma in the Salzburg production of that opera.  Then I saw the ROH’s new version on 16th September.  There’s no question which I preferred.

For me, the Bartoli production went straight into the top ten of great operatic performances that I’ve seen and provided the conviction that I’ve longed for that Norma is one of the great operatic masterpieces.

Let’s deal with the last point first.  Norma has always seemed to me to be interesting and worth seeing because of its plot: a conflict for a woman who has loved the leader of the occupying force, is spurned by him and has the opportunity to kill him.  As an adjunct the relationship with Adalgisa – of support rather than hatred – is really well done. It’s political and it’s personal.  And Bellini’s genius lies in his ability to provide the vocal music to express those conflicts, to manage the conversations between the characters.  And also to provide some of the most glorious melodies in opera.

My point is, however, that the genius of Norma doesn’t lie in the great melodies or the gorgeousness of the music, but in the declamation, the dramatic development of character and the situations: the dialogues between Norma and Adalgise, Adalgisa and Pollione and that glorious Norma/Pollione scene beginning In mia man alfin tu sei.  It’s in that outstanding scene for Norma at the beginning of Act II when she considers murdering her children.  This is dramatic, vocal writing of highest order and, when it’s done well makes you realise what an outstanding composer Bellini was, how tragic his death was and how far he exceeds Donizetti and influenced Verdi and Wagner.  It’s a riveting dramatic piece.

But it’s an unforgiving piece.  If you don’t have musicians with the understanding and ability to sing and play it and a director who is able to overcome the fact that druids look rather silly to us and to get the singers to act  and understand the roles, then the opera can seem tedious, even silly.  The triumph of this performance was that we had both musicians and directors who took the piece seriously and made it work as a piece of drama.

Patirce Caurier and Moshe Leiser set the piece in occupied France.  Pollione is Nazi governer, Norma the teacher at a school which becomes the headquarters of the resistance.  Maybe the supernatural and religious element gets lost slightly but that barely matters: the issue here is the resistance to occupiers not the significance of mistletoe.. Norma’s house has a kitchen table for her and Adelgisa to sit at for their heart to heart  It’s intimate and allows you to concentrate on the fact that these are people with emotions rather than mythic figures in silly costumes.

This is further accentuated by a period band – I barroccisti – in the pit and lighter voices that you usually associate with the work.  Gianluca Capuana – deputising for Diego Fasolis – take things pretty briskly on the whole, but also allowing space for the situations to breathe and develop: the dialogues between the characters for example.  The tempi felt unusual but never wrong and they clearly suited the band and the singers.  I thought the orchestral playing was excellent: attuned to the singers and to the emotions: lovely woodwind particularly at the beginning of the second act.

It’s all built around Bartoli and many critics will say that she has no business doing Norma: she’s not a soprano and the voice is too and then carp at the rest for being built round her.  Bartoli argues that this is going back to what Bellini would have expected: lighter voices, a soprano Adalgisa and so forth.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter given that the performance struck me as so convincing on its own terms.  Bartoli catches all the emotions: the anger, tenderness, conflicts and, ultimately, the heroism of the role.  She uses the words, colours them and makes you realise how marvellous Bellini’s writing is.  There’s an intensity and understanding about her acting that I’ve never come across in her before: the archness has gone and we have an honest, raw, highly emotional performance. I won’t easily forget her agony at the start of the second Act, the way she made her voice soft and gentle in the scene with Adalgisa and, at the end with Pollione: the perfect sustained piano at the end of Casta diva.  The coloratura works,  If you want a Norma with a huge barn-storming voice, this isn’t it – I don’t know how she would fare in the Royal Opera House with a huge modern band between her and the audience.  What I got was refined, delicate singing backed with real venom and anger when it was need.  The audience stood for her at the end and, for me, this was a performance to set beside Janet Baker’s Alceste, Anja Silja’s Kostelnicka and Emilia Marty and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s Irene as among the great individual performances that I’ve seen.

We then had John Osborn as Pollione.  He created a very credible, nasty military governor and sang outstandingly well.  I don’t think I’d imagined the final duet being done so tenderly, so lovingly.  I’d not come across Rachel Olvera, the Adalgisa, before.  She has  very light soprano and looks right as the young, naïve priestess.  I thought she sang expressively, understanding the issues and matching Bartoli extremely well vocally.  She created a strong figure even if her singing was less memorable than Bartoli’s.  She could only get away with the role in a performance of this size and I suspect that her future lies in the baroque and Mozart rather than here.

Peter Kalman was a strong Oroveso, the chorus didn’t strike me as ideally confident but I suspect that the very low key Act II interlude for them was intended as exactly that: depressed, low key and dim.

This is a particular type of Norma. It won’t appeal to those who demand the vocal security of Sutherland and the soprano/mezzo contrast: those who think it’s as forerunner of Aida.  I don’t think it is and this intimate, intelligent, engrossing performance delighted me in showing me a side of Norma that I knew was there.  And the audience was with it: you felt the silence as they listened to the music, leaned forward to take in the intimate moments, laughed in the right way at the moment when Norma asks Adalgisa who her lover is and, again, when Pollione arrives.  This was opera as theatre and it was worth every inch of the journey to Edinburgh and every penny of the rail fare.

So the ROH production was going to have some problems keeping up with this and it wasn’t helped when Anna Netrebko decided that her voice was going in a different direction.  After her withdrawal from Marguerite, the ROH seems to be permanently slightly behind her vocal developments.  Faced with this, the company decided to take a punt on Sonya Yontcheva for the title role, notwithstanding the fact that she’s never sung it before and her cv (Marguerite, Violetta, Lucia, Alcina with Tatyana coming up) isn’t exactly classic preparation for a Norma.

It wasn’t a disaster.  The voice is large and has a steely edge at the bottom, not unlike Callas.  The problems struck me as being at the top, particularly during the runs in the first act, where you felt that the top notes were snatched, uncomfortable.  There was a nice legato for Casta diva but the cabaletta sounded ordinary.  It’s an impossible role, needing brilliance, flexibility, depth, fire – the sort of qualities that very few voices can match.  It also needs a feeling for the words and an ability to colour them that Yontcheva possess only patchily.  She doesn’t have, as yet, the sheer intensity that Bartoli brings and the concentration and integrity that triumphs over the odds.  Context is everything: it might have felt a lot better somewhere smaller but with a programme note reminding you of Callas and Sutherland in this house, you couldn’t avoid feeling that Yoncheva is not yet in this league.  There were fine moments: the recitative at the beginning of Act II was fine, the duet with Adalgisa was gorgeously done and the last scene with Pollione was musically very fine – even if she didn’t reach the depths that Bartoli managed.

Sonia Ganassi sounded a bit frayed as Adalgisa, the voice a bit tired.  She dueted very well with Yoncheva but seemed mature and I wished I’d heard her in this role ten years ago.  As Pollione Joseph Calleja sang mostly loudly and with none of the acting ability that John Osborn brought the role.  He sounded out of place with the other voices and the bleat in the voice still irritates me.  Brindley Sherratt was a strong Pollione.

The stars were Antonio Pappano and the orchestra.  This was entirely different from Edinburgh but equally valid.  The tempi felt right but what was most special was the way he managed the textures and the playing to keep the tension in the music and, again, make you realise what a masterpiece this opera is.  This was some of the finest big house bel canto conducting I’ve heard.  It’s wonderful that Pappano is at last beginning to take bel canto seriously here.  The chorus were on excellent form too.

Alex Olle’s production was about as far away from Edinburgh as it was possible to be.  Norma is the priestess of some extreme catholic sect (maybe not catholic since she’s a woman and, last time I looked, the catholics weren’t too hot on that) and he almost makes them the villain of the opera.  Certainly there’s almost nothing to suggest that Rome is an oppressive state or to bring out the political side of this opera.

It looks splendid – a forest of crucifixes, beautifully lit frames the stage – a one point some of them turn to make a crown of thorns.  You get a sense of the furtiveness of the rebels but it seems strange that their numbers include some very nattily dressed generals.  It’s set in contemporary dress.

There are irritations: I’m not sure why you needed a huge censer swinging during Casta diva – relegating Norma to the side of the stage.  I thought that the play area for the children with Watership Down on the DVD distracting and having one the children bounce around on a space hopper during the latter part of mira o Norma was just silly.  What irritated me most, however, was the sheer lack of direction of the singers.  For all the spectacular set and modern costumes, the movements were rarely any different from what you would expect in the most traditional production.  The communication, the sheer intelligence and humanity of the direction in the Caurier and Leiser production was completely missing.   Ms Yoncheva deserves better than this.

So a moderate, curate’s egg of an evening that didn’t do justice to the opera partly because of the production and partly because Ms Yoncheva simply didn’t strike me as ready to do the role in this theatre at these prices.

Enescu’s Oedipe

27 May

Enescu’s Oedipe was written between 1910 and 1936.  It was apparently successful at its first performance but got rather forgotten following the second world war.  The ROH finally got round to it on 23rd May and I was there.  It wasn’t billed as the UK premiere but i certainly can’t recall a staged production here.

The piece strikes me as typical of operas by composers who only wrote one, or possibly two, pieces in the genre – Genoveva, Doktor Faust, King Roger spring to mind – where (a) the musical interest is greater than the dramatic and (b) you have to be interested that sort of musical idiom if you’re going to enjoy it.

Enescu has taken the Oedipus legend, set slimmed down versions of the two Sophocles plays and preceded them with scenes depicting Oedipus’s birth, he decision to return to Thebes, the murder of Laius and the encounter with the sphinx.  It creates a portrait of Oedipus himself with meaty roles for the people he encounters in each scene and one or two very effective scenes: that with the sphinx struck me as particularly fine, as were the last two scenes.  He creates superb atmosphere for the scenes: the opening of the scene for Laius’s murder and that for the sphinx were the ones which had me sitting up.

The idiom owes a lot to Debussy, Chausson, even Sibelius.  It’s perfectly pleasant to listen to and you admire the very vivid, imaginative orchestration and, if this is a period of music that you respond to, you will react like stout Cortez.

You’ll have guessed that I didn’t.  I admired in a rather distant way, but felt no urge to rush to buy a CD.  I missed any sense of dramatic impetus; I missed memorable vocal lines or ones which had me really listening; it feels leisurely – the opening seems to go on for ever and I started wondering whether I would stay for the second half.  I’m glad I did because it gets better even if it never quite makes you feel that Enescu was comfortable with the form.  I’m very glad that I saw an interesting, worthwhile opera but I could happily wait another twenty years before seeing it again.

This was in spite of a really outstanding performance.  The cast must be as good as you can get.  Johann Reuter was, predictably, an intense, clearly sung and very convincing Oedipe, getting almost Lear-like sense of development to the character and aging superbly.  It’s a huge role and he paced it with assurance.

Surrounding him were John Tomlinson as Teiresias, clear, angry and loud; Sarah Connolly who made the most of a relatively small role as Jocasta; Marie-Nicole Lemieux brilliant as the sphinx; Alan Oke as the Shepherd; Samuel Youn as Creon and Stefan Kocan, who did his scene as the Watchman with great authority.  This was great casting: a marvellous ensemble put together with great care.

Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, together with Alfons Flores, the designer, have created a masterpiece of a production: from the opening frieze-like coup to the final shower of silver water as Oedipus died, it was full of memorable scenes and images: the sphinx as a plane with propeller whirring, the shepherds as road workers.  He managed an outstanding response to the piece which looked beautiful and seemed at one with it.  I couldn’t fault it.

I don’t know the piece enough to comment about Leo Hussain’s conducting.  I thought it was authoritative and clear without making a compelling case for the work as anything other than an occasional visitor.  The orchestra and huge chorus seemed outstanding to me – again, not obviously putting a foot wrong.

Oedipe is never going be to a repertory piece but it’s good enough to be done every fifteen years or so and anyone curious about forgotten operas should hurry to this truly superb performance of it.

Tannhäuser after thirty years

27 Apr

It’s over thirty years since I last saw Tannhäuser  – when the old Moshinsky production was new.  I missed its only revival because the performance I’d booked for was cancelled because of a strike and, for other reasons, I missed the first run of the ROH’s present production.  I made up for that by making sure I got to the first performance of its first revival on 26th April.

I still remember that 1984 performance because of the sheer luxury of the singing.  I remember feeling that I’d never heard such gloriously easy Wagner singing before and that cast – Gwyneth Jones, Klaus König, Thomas Allen and Eva Randova -was probably about as good as you could get at the time.  On reflection, it may just have been the sheer volume of some of that cast that impressed me.  And Colin Davis knew what he was doing with the score.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t think much of the production and thought the opera a bit of a bore.

I still have my doubts about the opera.  I’m not sure that it’s much more than a piece of 19th century hokum on the same sort of level as, say, Faust, which is far more entertaining.  What seems wrong these days is that Venusberg, whatever that symbolises, is unreflectingly seen as A Bad Thing – and nothing Wagner does suggests that there might be a half-way house between that and the ghastly society of the Wartburg.  With that lot, it’s no surprise that Tannhäuser broke free.  And an exploration of the tension between the two would make the opera more interesting.  As it is, we have tale of redemption which Wagner did better in, say, Dutchman, Tristan or the Ring.  There’s some nice music, but there’s a fair bit that plods.

Tim Albery’s production was highly praised first time round.  I’m not sure.  Of course, it’s a professional, thoughtful piece of work that looks good, but I’m not convinced that it makes the opera seem good. The problem begins quite early on.  We see Tannhäuser at the beginning, lured away by Venus through a replica Royal Opera House proscenium and curtain.  He’s followed by a group of other men, taken away by Venus’s harpies.  The Venusberg ballet takes place round a vast table which revolves.  The choreography by Jasmin Vardimon is clever and takes your breath away with the sheer athleticism and precision that it requires.  But you’re watching a spectacle.  It isn’t erotic, even though the men lose their shirts and the women their tops.  It isn’t dangerous – except insofar as you wonder whether one of them might fall off that table.  And it’s slightly comic.  It’s hard to see what the Wartburg mob were getting so worked up about.

Act II is set in a wrecked hall – parts of the proscenium covered in dust and rubble.  The Landgrave’s people are armed, poor and suspicious.  Shouldn’t they be religious too?  This asks for a statement about a theocracy or some other totalitarian state and it simply doesn’t get it.  And the failure of the contrast, for me, makes the whole thing seem a bit pointless.  The third act is well enough done but I was unconvinced by the identification of the ROH or any other theatre with depravity.

The characterisation of the roles is generally good and strong, as you would expect, but this didn’t engage or , particularly, interest me.  It was a clear, sensible narrative of the story but I didn’t think the production went beyond that.

The cast was good and almost entirely different from the 2010 incarnation (a good thing Albery was back to direct).  The exception was Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram, who was highly praised in 2010.  You can’t doubt the quality of his singing or that you were listening to a really wonderful lieder singer, relishing the words, communicating through the words and the notes without show and making it sound easy and natural.  His enunciation is a joy, his colouring of the notes outstanding.  For much of the time he sings softly, drawing you in, making you listen, but he can open up the passion and volume when he wants to without sacrificing the beauty of the tone or the sheer consistency of the line.  It’s a long time since I’ve heard singing of this care and integrity in this theatre.  And yet…  Dramatically, Gerhaher seems to present Wolfram as an outsider, gauche, uncertain, thoughtful – his look seemed to be one of perpetual earnest concern.  It’s hard to see how he relates to everyone else or to understand the conflict between his friendship with Tannhäuser and his love for Elisabeth.  I still remember how outstandingly Thomas Allen did that and how his fuller voice and just more open buoyant personality made more of the role.  As I write, I’m listening to Haitink recording – Weikl gets greater generosity a more operatic sound to Wolfram’s piece in Act I.  There’s room for both and I’m glad I experienced Gerhaher’s performance.

For me, however, the real star was Emma Bell as Elisabeth.  This was the finest performance I’ve yet heard from this singer.  Here is a full, beautiful voice capable of managing the sheer radiant joy of Dich teure Halle and the passion and despair of her third Act number and the honesty of her duet with Tannhäuser.  And she sang precisely and clearly with none of blowsy spreading that you often get with Wagner sopranos.  She’s an expressive actress and makes the words tell.  She’s an outgoing, generous singer who made Elisabeth into a believable, moving character.  Can we please have her back as Sieglinde, Agathe, Ariadne, Chrysothemis and Senta?

It’s more than 25 years since I saw Peter Seiffert here as Parsifal.  The voice is still in remarkably fine fettle, managing the horrors of Tannhäuser, if not with ease then convincingly, which is about as much as you can ask.  Words were clear and expressively sung and I thought that he did the narration in Act III really well, getting the  despair and anger over really well.  It’s a shame we haven’t heard more of him in the interim.  Visually, he’s stolid and not an expressive actor.

Sophie Koch was Venus.  She’s a singer whose integrity and voice I admire, without ever finding her particularly exciting or interesting.  Venus needs an element of glamour about her (which Randova had redoubled in spades) and, despite the beauty of her singing, I never felt that this Venus was a significant rival to Elisabeth.  She struck me as rather passionless.

Stephen Milling made an excellent, dark-voice Landgrave, Ed Lyon sang Walther von der Vogelweide strongly, more than holding his own in this company and Michael Kraus made his mark as Biterolf.

I’d expected more sheer noise from the chorus, given the fact that there were approaching 100 of them, but their singing was clear, strong and distinguished.  This seemed in line with Hartmut Haenchen’s approach to the score: clear, detailed, concentrating on the texture and accompanying the singers thoughtfully, intelligently. The orchestra played very well indeed for him and you couldn’t doubt the quality of the interpretation.  But there were points where I would have welcomed just a bit less care, a bit more passion and the sweep to remind us that this is early Wagner, still writing with the Parisian, even Italian influences there and that there’s a melodramatic, grand operatic side to this score.  I never felt he quite let go.

This sounds as though I had a disappointing evening.  It wasn’t.  It was a performance of really high quality with intelligent, strong direction and really good singing and conducting.  It was good to see the opera again even if, ultimately, I’m not convinced that it has a lot to say to us today or if the interpretation completely worked.  And Bell and Gerhaher were very special.

 

 

 

 

Intelligent, feminist Lucia

12 Apr

I’m not a fan of Katie Mitchell’s work – I have memories of an Iphigenia in Aulis at the National where people milled around moving suitcases for about half an hour and I wanted to shoot myself.  Nor do I particularly like Daniel Oren – remember that plodding Sonnambula and that tedious Robert le Diable?  So I was not particularly expecting to enjoy the new ROH Lucia di Lammermoor, which I saw on 11th April.  This was the second night and there were reports of booing on the first night.

What I actually saw was one of the most brilliant, intelligent and interesting Lucias I’ve ever seen due, largely, to Mitchell’s direction and some very fine singing.  There were some doubts but, overall, this was took opera for the serious, dramatic piece that it is.

It’s set in the 1850s – not a bad decision for a patriarchal society where women were still seen as chattels and in a rather richer environment than Scott may have imagined. It also catches the gothick, sensational element of the opera.  The set is split in two for the whole opera with Lucia onstage for virtually the whole time and so we see what happens offstage with her while the men are telling the story.

So in the first scene she is preparing to meet Edgardo.  In the second they make love.  The third scene is between her bedroom and a very fine bathroom – she is clearly suffering from morning sickness.  During that scene, men remove her property from the room, presumably to take it to Arturo’s place: it brilliantly symbolises her helplessness and sheer lack of privacy: her retreat to the bathroom doesn’t save her from having to listen to Enrico and Raimondo.  During the Wolf’s Crag scene, we see her murder Arturo – he puts up quite a struggle – and then have a miscarriage, which is what pushes her over to madness.  In the last scene, we see her bleeding to death in a bath and taking an overdoes – the water floods onto the stage.

Within this, there is some marvellously truthful acting and direction that has you watching and engaging – you could feel the audience holding its breath in the pause before the sextet and actually watching the piece as if it were a play.  Enrico is a bullying, violent brother who threatens to hit Lucia – while Edgardo actually does so.  It’s a production that makes you angry and which treats the opera for what it is, an adult, angry, feminist drama.

There are some doubts.  Vicki Mortimer’s set looked a bit cramped in some scenes and I was not convinced by the need to have two ghosts.  More seriously, I couldn’t help feeling that Mitchell was telling Donizetti’s story the way she wanted it told by distracting you from the inconvenient bits that he actually wrote.  The Wolf’s Crag scene may not be great Donizetti, but it must have been extraordinarily frustrating for the Edgardo and Enrico to sing it, presumably acting their socks off, knowing that nobody in the audience will be watching them at all because a graphic murder is happening a few feet away.  Much the same happened to Raimondo’s aria – it must be quite difficult to sing knowing that, this time, Lucia’s having a miscarriage.  She took her overdose during Edgardo’s aria, but at least he got to sing the cabaletta in the bathroom with her.  What we had was Mitchell telling Donizetti’s story but using a different method from his.  It was compelling stuff and absolutely nailed what this opera is about, but at a price.  And the ROH might find that the price includes finding that decent baritones and basses may be reluctant to sing in future revivals.

Diana Damrau was Lucia.  She’s a singer I admire hugely and she threw herself into this interpretation.  Her mad scene was soft, internal, sung with fabulous pianissimi and a really intelligent, angry use of the coloratura.  Her entrance aria was nicely done and the duet with Edgardo wonderfully tender, that with Enrico angry and pathetic.  She portrayed Mitchell’s conception – an angry, helpless, loving woman – to perfection and her singing was of a piece with it.  And yet, it also felt a bit studied.  I missed the sheer virtuoso bravura that you get on record from Callas and Sutherland and which I remember particularly from Edita Gruberova in this house – this didn’t knock your socks off, it had you listening intently.  There’s room for both and you can’t argue with the sheer quality and intensity of Damrau’s performance.

Charles Castronovo was probably the best Alfredo that I’ve heard in the theatre: ardent and tender in the love duet and singing his final aria and cabaletta really well.  You believed in him.  Ditto Ludovic Tezier as Enrico – a heavy, bully of a man, singing with force rather than elegance, which fitted absolutely in this production.  I’m pretty sure that they both did the Wolf’s Crag scene really well.  Kwanchul Youn sang Raimondo nicely but didn’t make much impression as a character – possibly because his big aria was being upstaged.  Taylor Stanton was good as Arturo (a serious, slightly weedy character) and Peter Hoare very, very fine as Normanno – luxury casting here and it paid off.

Daniel Oren seemed to be entirely at one with the production and gave the finest performance I’ve heard from him.  I remember particularly his phrasing of the love theme – slow, loving, arching and heart-stoppingly tender.  The mad scene was delicate, hushed, the glass harmonica unearthly and working really well.  He worked up the drama and speed for the wedding and Act II finale which was as exciting as it should be.  The orchestra and chorus were with him throughout.

I’ve never believed that Lucia is a canary-fancier’s piece of nonsense and it’s great to see it treated as the serious drama of conflict and politics that it is.  This thoughtful, intelligent and compelling evening with some outstanding music was, with the recent Cav and Pag a reminder of how good the ROH can be and how opera can work as theatre rather than simply as a costume in concert.

Heavy Boris

22 Mar

Boris Godunov is one of those operas that I can sort-of admire while rarely feeling that I’ve had a satisfactory evening watching it.  I tend to go feeling that I ought to like it and see it as a masterpiece, but never quite do.  The, rather good, performance of the Royal Opera’s new production which I saw on 21 March did nothing to change that view.  At best it’s an interesting failure.

The fashion today is to try to get as near as possible to Mussorgsky’s original intentions and, for this production, the ROH went for the original 1869 version, rejected by the St Petersburg management.  Frankly, I’m with that management.  As it stands, this is little more than an interesting draft of some episodes from Pushkin with little unifying them.

For opera houses, of course, it has the advantage of lacking a Polish Act, so it is cheaper, and you can turn it into a short evening140 minutes.  It also tempts directors to try to get it all through in one sitting.  We miss also quite a lot of rather attractive music to leaven what is otherwise a pretty dark, heavy evening.  There’s no over-arching idea or story and, while five of them concentrate, if indirectly, on Boris – the Pimen scene and the Inn scene feel out of place, irrelevant and deeply tedious.  And then there are the vocal lines, which to Russian ears may be expressive settings of the text, to non-Russian speakers sound repetitive and unimaginative.

Of course there are some great things: Boris’s monologues (though how much more grateful they are in the later version), the dialogue with Shuisky and the death scene.  And the orchestration is fabulous – Mussorgsky creates atmosphere wonderfully: it’s a skilful, intense score, atmospheric.  But it also feels long and ill-paced.  It’s all narration and very little action. More than two hours of this with no break felt like quite a trial.  Equally, it’s hard to see where you’d put the break and that, of itself, suggests that there’s something wrong with the piece.

Richard Jones’s production did his best with the piece.  There’s lots of good stuff in it – the set is mostly a black box but with an upper tier that is lighter, looking almost like the top of an icon or a church.  You can see Dmitri being murdered, Boris vacillating about the crown and as a place where people can watch.  You get the sense of treachery and intrigue.  The crowd is moved really well (so that you’d rather like the other scenes with them), the debate between the boyars, clear and political.  Mostly, the stage pictures are as strong as you expect, though the Inn scene feels vast, which surely it shouldn’t be.  And there’s very strong direction of the principals: he gets great acting performances out of them. The final picture of Boris dead and, on the upper level, Dmitri advancing on Fyodor with the boyars and Shuisky watching was excellent, struck me as spot-on.

And yet there are signs of repetition of the Jones tics – these will get to feel like laziness, if he’s not careful. In Macbeth, he used moving cardboard boxes to good effect.  Here, it was the child Dmitri’s spinning top moving across the stage.  We see the murder five times.  That’s too many. If this wasn’t, for me, one of Jones’s very finest pieces, however, it was still a good production that ought to be readily revivable – I wonder if he could expand it to cover the longer versions.

The cast was great and without a weak link.  Bryn Terfel is one of those singers who have the sheer size of personality and charisma to make Boris work.  He created a tortured, guilt-ridden, relatively sympathetic character.  Vocally, I  prefer a blacker, slightly richer sound – Christoff, Lloyd or Tomlinson – but you can’t argue against the sheer power of the voice and his ability to fine it down to soft pianissimo when he needs to.  He creates the anger, the pathos and the guilt of the man outstandingly.

Ain Anger was a very fine, dark, certain Pimen (even though my heart sank in the last scene when, just as it looked as though we were about to end, we were clearly going to have yet more narration); David Butt Philip made a really good Grigory – I think that his voice is really well suited to this sort of role and his acting was excellent.  John Graham Hall made a nicely subtle politician of a Shuisky – watching all the time and beautifully contrasted with Terfel.  And John Tomlinson was Varlaam – voice showing no sign of age and a beautifully acted, not quite over the top performance.

We had a boy as Fyodor and Ben Knight sang strongly and acted really well.  Rebecca du Pont Davies as the Hostess and Sarah Pring as the Nurse had even less to do than usual, but were fine.  Vlada Borovko mourned convincingly as Xenia.  The other roles were all really well done.

The chorus was on outstanding form.  The big crowd scenes were clear, passionate and completely committed.  It’s hard to ask for better.

Antonio Pappano conducted.  As you expect, this was clear, beautifully played Mussorgsky.  It sounded great and the orchestra played marvellously: he unleashed a huge volume of sound where necessary, but .refined it down for the intimate moments.  I still have memories of the sound that Abbado created in 1983 and the sheer visceral intensity that he brought to the score – a performance that I’ve always put alongside the Kleiber Otellos as among the great conducting performances I’ve heard.  Pappano didn’t quite match that, but this was as good as we have any right to expect.

So all the ingredients were there.  You can’t not admire the performance.  I just wish that Boris were a more satisfactory opera.