Tag Archives: Anna Stephany

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.

Cesti’s L’Orontea charms

15 Dec

There’s obviously a huge number of interesting operas from the first century of opera’s existence for us to explore and this autumn it’s been good to go Monteverdi and Cavalli and meet Luigi Rossi, Francesca Caccini and now Antonio Cesti – La nuova musica did his L’Orontea in a concert at the Wigmore Hall on 14th December.

Apparently this opera, with Cavalli’s Giasone (a lovely piece that ought to be done more often), was one of the most performed operas in the seventeenth century.  That didn’t stop its music being lost for more than two centuries until some manuscripts turned up. At this happy, energetic performance, I could see its appeal.

The plot feels like quite a lot of other seventeenth century comedies. Queen Orontea falls in love with a beautiful youth, Alidoro, who is almost murdered. So do all the other women in the cast. Orontea can’t marry him because he’s a penniless pauper – until it’s revealed that he’s really a prince. There are a couple of nice sub-plots for a pair of servants and Alidoro’s randy mother and some amusing commentary from a page and a drunk. It seems to move swiftly to a witty text (though whether as witty as the surtitles suggested, I couldn’t say).  There are some good situations and some constantly changing emotions.  These are believable, interesting characters.

Cesti’s music impressed me – swift recitatives move the plot along and there are some rather nice arias and duets, aptly suggesting the emotions. The accompaniment – just eight players – struck me as witty and great fun with some imaginative sounds mirroring the emotions and commenting.  I wished I could have understood the text better because I felt that, to an Italian audience, the enjoyment of the interaction between text and music would have been much greater. In the right venue and with a good English translation and a sensitive director, this could be just as much of a hit as any of Cavalli’s pieces.

The Wigmore Hall is a good venue: it’s the right sort of size and is considerably more comfortable and with much better sightlines than the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Perhaps the acoustic tends to favour the players over the singers – one or two seemed occasionally in danger of being drowned – or possibly David Bates’s conducting was a little too enthusiastic. This apart, the piece came across well. The characters were in varying degrees of costume and acted and interacted well – singing with the music but confident enough to make this feel like a dramatic presentation of an opera, not a simple concert.

The cast was pretty good. Anna Stephany made a glamorous, sultry Orontea, well able to manage the changeable emotions and displaying a voice that is fulfilling lots of the promise that I remember when I saw her in her early years here. I think that she could have made more of some of the arias, or possibly David Bates could have given her a little more latitude to do so. As the general love interest Jonathan McGovern was a nicely bewildered Alidoro – a character of Adonis-like beauty and a strong tendency to unattractive opportunism: he’s very happy to dump a servant he was in love with in order to be king. He sang really well displaying strength and doing the lyrical parts very beautifully.

Mary Bevan and Michal Czerniawski were very strong as the second couple – Silandra and Corindo – she glamorous and seductive, he much more lyrical and impassioned. Sam Furness stole the comedy honours as a dragged up Aristea – Alidoro’s mother. His timing, singing and acting were outstandingly good, suggesting an element of pathos as well as grotesqueness.  He really sang the piece and this suggested a very strong future, not just in character roles.   Christopher Turner as the page and Edward Grint as the drunk commented nicely and had their moments of fun. Mr Grint was probably the most understated drunk I’ve seen but rather engaging.

La Nuova Musica played with huge enthusiasm and seemed to be enjoying the opera as much as we were. As I’ve suggested, there were times when I wondered whether David Bates could not have kept them a little quieter and given the singers a little more leeway – not all the words came across and I felt that there might be more emotion in the music than we heard.

That’s a minor cavil.  This engaging, intelligent, committed performance helped a not-quite full Wigmore Hall enjoy a charming and very engaging comedy.  I’d like to see it staged and I’d also like to see more of Cesti’s operas.