Tag Archives: Alice Coote

Clumsiness of Glyndebourne’s Tito

11 Aug

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Glyndebourne’s new production of La Clemenza di Tito which halving the design budget and sacking the dramaturg would probably not have solved.  I saw it on 11 August and, despite the irritations of a cluttered set and silly films, found it a pretty satisfying evening.

The crucial person in this opera is the title character, or so it seems to me.  The essence of the opera is that Tito has the choice between revenge and forgiveness, between understanding and despotism and living by his principles or by his emotions.  The crucial part is the accompanied recitative in Act II and the scene with Sesto.  If the Tito can bring those off and make you interested in them, then the opera becomes interesting not just about enlightenment political theory but about how individuals live and take decisions.

I thought that Richard Crofts, a late replacement for Steve Davislim, got this point brilliantly.  We see him early on as a conflicted, emotional ruler, possibly unstable, deeply attached to Berenice – how brilliant it is that we never see Tito and Vitellia together, so we have absolutely no sense of any attachment.  Anyway Crofts made that huge scene in Act II interesting and commanded the final scene and made you believe in the conflict that goes on in his mind about what he should do when faced by betrayal by his best friend and his future spouse.  This was an intense, deeply convincing performance.  He sang the music really well, making the arias interesting.  He was the centre-piece.

He had some seriously fine performances surrounding him.  Anna Stephany was originally scheduled to sing Annio but, when Kate Lindsay became pregnant, was moved up.  I’d been looking forward to hearing Lindsay in this role (and I hope I will one day) but Stephany made the finest Sesto I’ve heard since Brigitte Fassbaender knocked me sideways at Edinburgh in 1981. She looked the most convincing man I’ve seen in this role ever – helped by a wig, sideburns and stubble, but my companions (who hadn’t seen the cast list) couldn’t make up their minds until the interval whether this was a mezzo or counter tenor.  She sang the role with real intelligence, a beautiful voice and lacks only Fassbaender’s sheer energy and dynamism.  This was a conflicted, introverted Sesto that I found hugely convincing.

Then there was Alice Coote as Sesto, making the most of her glorious low notes and having fun as this thoughtless, cigarette smoking siren.  She caught the sheer selfishness of the woman and then changed our minds with a Non piu di fiore that caught exactly the repentance and understanding that you’d hope for.  It was a raw, open performance and, again, wonderfully sung.

Joelle Harvey sang Servillia.  The way in which she began her second Act aria was heart-stopping.  This wasn’t a singer seeking to charm, this was a desperate sister, playing the guilt card and it made perfect sense.

Michele Losier was Annio.  I’ve heard some make their Act II aria the highlight of the show.  She didn’t, but made a pretty credible figure.  Clive Bayley made an ambiguous Publio and didn’t make much of his aria.

I thought Robin Ticciati’s conducting outstanding.  This was a lithe, intelligent reading: deeply considerate to his singers and, apparently, at one with the production.  He caught the grandeur of the score and also the personal side.  This felt like Glyndebourne Mozart at its peak.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was on wonderful form and the chorus in great voice.  He made you realise how extraordinary the score is – arias running into finales, that astonishing finale to Act I which ends way before you expect and Mozart’s sheer dramatic intelligence.

So to Claus Guth’s production.  The fact that I feel so positive about the individual performances, the sheer intelligence and rawness of the acting suggests that he’s done a great job in interpreting an opera that fails as often as it works.  And yet… He begins with a video during the overture (seriously, can there be a moratorium on these for the next three years?).  It shows Tito and Sextus as boys playing in the grounds at Glyndebourne (again, seriously, can Glyndebourne get out of this childish habit of referring to itself all the time – what with this and Hipermestra this season, it’s become really tiresome – we all know it’s a wonderful place, they don’t have to tell us).   We keep getting reminiscences superimposed on the set usually irritatingly.

The set consists of two parts – an upper part which is black and modern. presumably the cold state, the lower part is full of reeds and water and rock where, presumably, natural feeling takes place.  Those reeds are a real nuisance and you feel sorry for the singers having to negotiate them.  It would, actually, make an outstanding set for Pelleas et Melisande (or, indeed, Rusalka) and I urge Glyndebourne to think of recycling it for next season’s production.

The audience reaction was enthusiastic.  I had the impression of them listening, engaging and being gripped by the piece.  Will they want to see it again?  I rather doubt it.  For me, it will depend on the cast.  But I am grateful for a performance that, actually, got to the heart of an under-rated work and made a difficult, problematic opera look interesting and relevant.

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The looks debate

22 May

Being of the fuller figure myself, I hesitate to enter the debate sparked by recent reviewers of the Glyndebourne Rosenkaverlier and their comments on Tara Erraught’s Oktavian.  I’m going to see it on 12th June and will be better placed to comment then.  For readers who have not been following the controversy, there has been universal praise for Ms Erraught’s singing but visually, apparently, she does not conform to most people’s conceptions of the role – a number have commented that she is more Just William, or even Billy Bunter, than Sir Lancelot.

What has been interesting is that singers have been fighting back – see, for example,Alice Coote at http://slippedisc.com/2014/05/alice-coote-an-open-letter-to-opera-critics/. Norman Lebrecht echoes her and demands a public apology from the critics.  Those of us who have read his comments on the looks of a number of individuals in Covent Garden: The Untold Story  (Lilian Baylis is “Stout, bespectacled, thick lipped and almost execrably ugly”) may diagnose a strong case of pots and kettles.

The essence of the argument has been that what is really important is the voice and the way people sing rather than their looks and that, in some way, critics should ignore physical appearance for fear of offending the singer.

I don’t condone offensive remarks.  Equally, I suspect that critics may well have been giving voice to what was going through the minds of a number of people in the audience and I think that it is wrong to ignore this.

The fact is that opera is about the only art form where the tension between looks and voice arises.  When was the last time there was a Juliet or Romeo who caused critics to remark on their size or physical unsuitability for the role?  That has nothing to do with theatre critics being politically correct or politer and everything to do with the fact that casting directors can pick and choose on looks.  Indeed, I seem to remember that when Simon Russell Beale did Ariel the comments were that he managed to be convincing despite a less-than-classically Ariel-like figure.

Opera asks for a massive suspension of disbelief for audiences.  We have to accept that people sing rather than speak and we have to accept that singers will take roles which, ideally, would call for people significantly younger or more conventionally attractive than they are.  And I don’t think that we would be human if we weren’t aware of this.  It has also been an occupational hazard for singers to receive comments on their physique.  This applies to men as well as women: I’m guilty of finding Joseph Calleja a rather comfortably proportioned Faust (and I’m not the only one) and Pavarotti and Sutherland both had to cope with this (it’s a danger that must apply to any averagely proportioned Mimi or Violetta), let alone Rita Hunter and Deborah Voight.  It does require some artistry to get over that: I never saw the mature Pavarotti, Bergonzi or Gedda as Nemorino but I remember Mirella Freni convincing me that she was teenage Tatyana and, when Anja Silja did Emilia Marty at Glyndebourne, I felt that she could go on as Juliet whenever she chose, but these were exceptional performances.

Also, it’s a regrettable fact that, if you put yourself up onstage as someone whom it is right for people to pay large sums of money to hear, then you cannot censor their thoughts.  It is all very well for Alice Coote to demand that critics be kind to singers and, like all of us, of course they are human, but critics do nobody any favours if they gloss over the duff performances that singers can put in.  And I think that they are entitled to comment on how convincing a figure that singer presented.  This doesn’t mean that the singer has to be classically beautiful or to meet the conventional demands of the role, but the singer does have to convince you that they are right for the role.  And a critic does nobody a service if he or she ignores what may well be going through the minds of fellow members of the audience.

I’ll be better placed to comment when I see it, but I suspect that Dame Kiri te Kanawa got it right on the Today programme when she suggested that the real problem was with the costuming and the direction rather than with the singer’s figure – men and women come in all shapes and sizes.  Maybe the criticism ought to been more forcibly placed in that direction.