Tag Archives: Antonio Pappano

Kaufmann’s Otello

7 Jul

Possibly, after 30 years, it was time for a new Otello at Covent Garden.  It was an interesting feeling to realise that it was more than 30 years since I saw the old Moshinsky production during its first run (Kleiber, Domingo, Ricciarelli and one of my abiding “great evenings”).  Anyway, Jonas Kaufmann taking up the role was a good enough reason for a new production and I saw it on 6 July.

Usually with Otello, I find myself blown away by the first couple of acts and then find the last couple pall slightly.  Here, it was other way round and the whole performance built up to, I thought, a really shattering conclusion.

So during the first act, I found myself deeply unconvinced by Antonio Pappano’s conducting.  The storm felt slow, almost becalmed – though I noticed the point that, actually, the chorus here are watching, preparing and that I was concentrating on what they were saying.  It wasn’t particularly helped by Keith Warner’s very static direction of the chorus.  This is a scene which, it seems to me, cries out for the bustle and energy that it got from Moshinsky in the old production, not to mention Peter Stein’s unforgettable WNO production.  I sort-of got what they were getting at, but I missed the sheer energy that I think Verdi needs here and which it got from Kleiber, Elder, Armstrong…  Kaufmann delivered his Esultate very strongly and I got a bit excitement, only to have it dashed again by the lumpen direction of the following scene and the fight: clear, yes, exciting, no.  Marco Vratogna’s Iago struck me as intelligent and active but not in particularly strong voice.

Then came the love duet, tender, intelligently sung and conducted with Kaufmann tender and powerful and Maria Agresta very promising indeed as Desdemona.

In Act II, I thought that Pappano was at his best in the quiet passages, the dialogues though, again, not getting the nuances that Kleiber did – he made that whole act sound like a piece of chamber music. Kaufmann seemed well able to cope with the vocal challenges but I didn’t have a sense of who this man was.  I missed the elemental power that Domingo brought – just as an example, the cry “Desdemona rea” was not the angry cry of a wounded man that it often is, but much softer, almost unbelieving – except that you almost missed it.  And shouldn’t he and Vratogna have been looking at each other during their duet?  The set was busy, at times swaying to match the drunken dancing, at others just bringing on particular pictures that, I have to admit, were rather beautiful.

At the end of Act II, therefore, I thought this was turning into a very good, decent Otello but not really catching light.

In Act III, it started to get interesting.  The Otello/Desdemona scene was intensely painful even if you did feel that they wandered about a bit: the end with Desdemona silhouetted at the back and Otello at the front made a superb picture.  Kaufmann did a wonderfully intelligent Dio mi potevi – making you feel the thought processes, though I wasn’t as moved as I have been.  Then Pappano managed the best paced Act III finale I’ve heard since Kleiber – another technically very well directed scene where you were alive to what was going on and the music built up intelligently and very satisfyingly.

Then, in Act IV, Agresta came into her own with the most intensely beautiful and moving performances of that scene that I’ve ever heard.  I often find this something of a bore.  Here I followed the thoughts, loved the gorgeousness of her voice and, most of all, the sense of innocence and awareness of death that she brought to it.  Kaufmann took command in the final scene and I found myself deeply moved by his singing.  Pappano’s conducting became all of a piece and, at the end, there was a couple of seconds hush as we absorbed what had happened.

So, overall, this was very good indeed.  I’m not convinced on this showing that Kaufmann has all that it takes to be a great Otello.  Vocally, he’s as convincing as I’ve heard since Domingo and you can’t doubt the intelligence or the sheer heft of the voice.  He didn’t make an ugly noise all evening.  My problem was that dramatically he seemed at a loss.  There needs to be a fire and passion about Otello and I wasn’t convinced he got near it.

Vratogna makes a very decent, solid Iago without offering any particular insights.  Agresta is really special and I’d love to hear her again.  The lesser parts were perfectly adequate with no-one really standing out.

Warner’s production is perfectly fine and serviceable.  There are some superb stage pictures and he offers an almost expressionist take on the piece.  There’s a lot going on with the set when I felt that I’d prefer more to be going on with the characters.  I wasn’t convinced that he’d particularly helped Kaufmann with a view of how he could make Otello his own and a lot of the direction frankly didn’t improve on the old Moshinsky production.  However, it’s a serviceable enough piece of work and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t serve as a decent backdrop for future casts.

As for Pappano, superbly seconded by his orchestra and chorus, I admired the accompaniment of the singers and the pacing of many parts but there were others where it just felt too ponderous.  I compared his timings to those of the recording I have of Kleiber in Milan – Pappano added at least 15 minutes to those and it showed.  And, irritatingly, a performance that should ended by 10.20 at the latest was not out until 10.40.

So this was high quality evening which got better and better as it went on even if it didn’t sweep you away from the start, as I still feel Otello should.


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.

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.

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.

ROH William Tell

30 Jun

The nice thing about a blog is that I can write as many posts as I like and I’m going to try to divorce what I suspect will be the main feature of most reviews – the booing – from the performance of the Guillaume Tell that I saw at the ROH on 29th June, its first night.

Let’s start with the opera. I’m a fan of Rossini. I love his wit, his sense of drama and the way in which, particularly in his later Italian operas, he uses ensembles, duets and the music to move the drama forward. What struck me particularly about this performance was how different it is from the style of his Italian pieces and how thoroughly he’d absorbed the French style and taken advantage of the facilities at the Opéra. There is a breadth to it and a complete lack of those tunes that could almost be comic if what was going on onstage didn’t make you realise that it was tragic. The great parts of Tell are among the finest things he ever wrote – I think particularly of Act III, Arnold’s aria in Act IV and the final chorus. This is wonderful operatic music.

But, let’s face it, it’s very long and you can’t help feeling that the first couple of acts go on a bit. I think that, at this performance, some of the second Act finale was probably cut – I remember other performances of this being interminable as the different cantons came together, but is that huntsman’s chorus at the start really necessary? The chorus stuff in the first act is lengthy and you tend to think that perhaps his quip about the “mauvaises quarts d’heures” was a case of pots and kettles. It’s a long, thoughtful, intelligent opera but, for me, it suffers the same problems as Meyerbeer – an over-indulgence and a leisurely pace. I’m not sure anyone really found a way of making grand epic operas work until Don Carlos and Wagner.

Having said that, and despite the reviews that you’ll read, I thought that this performance made a very good case for the piece. It helped first that we had Pappano in the pit. He achieved some absolutely gorgeous playing from the orchestra, making you realise what a great piece of music the overture is. He catches the drama of the piece – propelling it forward, really making the music make sense and express the emotions and he accompanies the singers absolutely marvellously – you felt that nobody had to strain. Orchestra and chorus were fabulously good: the chorus in particular have some hugely difficult, precise music to sing and they mastered it outstandingly. The solo playing in the orchestra, particularly the ‘cellos, but also the horns, was as good as you could hope for.

Damiano Michieletto’s production was thoughtful and engaged with the piece even if not completely successfully. He set it in a 20th century totalitarian state with no sense that we might be in Switzerland. I felt that he took two ideas from the opera. The first is about fathers and sons, the second about maintaining idealism and the difficulty of rising up against a powerful dictator and about the burdens of legends. We see this mostly through the eyes of Jemmy – he Is playing with soldiers during the overture and reading a comic about this historic William Tell. We see parts of that comic during the storm scene – a contrast perhaps between the easy heroism of legend and the truth of people not really equipped to destroy a heavily armed enemy. The dance in Act I is about Tell teaching Jemmy to shoot. Michieletto also has a figure dressed in medieval clothes trying to persuade a reluctant, lethargic people to stir and rise up against their oppressors. You sense a real reluctance to take action but also the reasons for this: the Austrians are gun-toting thugs who humiliate the Swiss and try to rape a woman in Act III – the booing started here.

The natural world in the opera (possibly important with its references to shepherds and huntsmen) gets short shrift. An apple tree gets uprooted by the Austrians at the end of Act I. The remainder of the opera is set round a huge fallen tree – a place of hiding for the Swiss refugees, a place which excludes them from the Austrian rulers. It lifts up at the end and a child comes forward to plant a young sapling.  That’s it.  The floor is mostly mud, the remainder off-white: it’s not interesting or beautiful to look at.

There are problems with this. The medieval figure is on a bit too much and looks silly. A quite static opera becomes more so through the lethargic direction of the chorus. I wasn’t particularly troubled by the rape scene but I was more irritated by the picture of Hedwige setting a table while Tell sings “sois immobile” you were watching her rather than admiring Gerald Finley’s fine singing. The storm scene was invisible from the second row of the amphitheatre which, in my view, counts as pure amateurism. I’m not sure why we needed those strip lights, nor why people kept taking off shirts and digging in the mud.
The successful parts were the great finales – to Act I and Act III where the oppression really came across well – and the duets and trio where real emotion and debate took place. The Act III finale where the booing started – largely because the audience did not like the idea that totalitarians regimes might have soldiers that raped and abused the population. But I thought that Michieletto really got the personal tension around Tell and Gessler and Jemmy that held attention. It’s a difficult piece and I welcomed his attempts to engage with it as something more than a historical pageant.

The cast was good, on the whole. The star was undoubtedly Gerald Finley as Tell. He sang with perfect style and with just the right ease and intelligence.  This was clear, beautifully judged, entirely honest singing. He’s a great actor and this struck me as one of the finest things I’ve seen him do. It’s a glorious voice and, as I’ve suggested, the only irritation was the distraction during his great aria.

Initially I found John Osborn as Arnold disappointing. The “Ah Mathilde” duet was decently sung but without the sheer bravura that Gedda or Pavarotti bring to this. Perhaps he was saving himself because he was outstanding later on: his final aria and cabaletta justifiably brought the house down – this was fabulous heroic singing that never became harsh or unstylish. Acting isn’t his strong point.

Pappano obviously feels that Malin Bystrom is the Mathilde for him. She doesn’t really stand up to Caballé or Freni and I’d love a little more individuality and variation. She wasn’t bad, you just wished for something a bit more interesting.
Sonia Fomina made a splendid Jemmy – well acted and gorgeously sung. Enkelejda Shkoda was also very strong as Hedwige. Eric Halfvarson struck me as showing his age as Melcthal, Alexander Vinogradov was rather an anonymous Furst and Nicolas Courjal rather a good Gesler. Overall it was a good cast rather than a great one.

I doubt that you can get a perfect Tell. It’s too big and challenging a piece and our sensibilities have changed.  The reviews will tell it was a disaster visually: I don’t think so and this was a serious attempt at the opera – imperfect but that’s inevitable. And for Pappano, the orchestra, chorus and Finley it was very special.  I don’t suppose it’ll be back and there are still seats available.

Brave King Roger

9 May

King Roger is having its first performances at the Royal Opera House.  I’d seen it before (the Polish National Opera brought it over 10 years ago) but felt I ought to try it again and turned up to the second performance on 6th May.

It’s not a piece that I feel a great affinity with.  I can take or leave Szymanowski’s sound world – a gloop of rather anaemic treacle in the strings overladen with some flashy brass would be one way of characterising it.  That’s certainly unfair but it’s not a sound world that immediately attracts me.  The vocal lines are declamatory and it would be nice to have the occasional tune or even the odd duet or quartet.  It doesn’t draw me in.

Nor does the text, which is an interpretation of Euripides’s Bacchai.  A Shepherd arrives in Roger’s kingdom breaching a doctrine of freedom and converts all the people away from Roger himself.  As the philosphic contents get deeper, so the surtitles become less and less penetrable – making Tippett’s text for A Midsummer Marriage seem like Enid Blyton.  The motivation of characters, their backstory and relationships are underdrawn.  And yet for all that it lasts around an hour and a half (with a rather unnecessary interval taking it up to two hours), it feels longer. So you’ll understand why I wasn’t really best place to enjoy the performance.

For all that, I thought that Kasper Holten did a marvellous job of trying to make the piece accessible.  It’s updated to the time of composition and suggests a political reading of a conventional state having to react to an inspirational outsider and how the decent leader deals with that.  The philosophical side is symbolised by a massive head, which into Roger’s palace and, at the end, the palace is burning rubble and books are burned on it as Roger is beaten up by the Shepherd’s followers.  It looked good and struck me as a really intelligent way of addressing the piece and making it more accessible.  The homosexual subtext is there, but this is seen as a political piece.

The cast was outstanding.  Mariusz Kwiecien is the reigning Roger of the day.  He had evidently recovered from the cold on the first night.  He was in noble, eloquent voice, singing passionately if not, for me, ultimately making the role that interesting.  Georgia Jarman sang glamorously as Roxana, his queen – again, though, what was the relationship between them?  Saimir Pirgu gave the best performance that I have seen from his as the Shepherd.  His voice came across sharply and beautifully.  He sang with brilliance even if I would have liked a slighlty more charismatic figure on the stage.  Kim  Begley was outstanding as Edrisi, the advisor.  He’s a singer who’s been absent for too long and he sang easily and with the assurance you’d expect.

Antonio Pappano conducted.  I was impressed by the orchestral playing – the sound world seemed right, the action progressed fluidly.  I don’t think you could ask for more sympathetic conducting.  The chorus was in strong voice.

So a really strong performance and a fine intelligent production.  I feel bad for finding so little in the work to speak to me and involve my emotions.  For all the skill and commitment, I was left cold.


end, the

Starry Chenier

24 Jan

Something is going badly wrong with London’s operatic life. I’ve had to wait over a month for an opera to come round for me to go to. Do London’s opera audiences go into hibernation after Christmas? And there’s precious little outside London. I’m not sure when I’ve last had to wait so long between visits. It’s hard for addicts like me and I’ve been getting twitchy again. Fortunately, the drought ended with my visit to Andrea Chenier at the Royal Opera House on 23rd January.

It’s 31 years since I last saw the opera (Carreras, Plowright, Weikl, Armstrong conducting). I remember enjoying it but not finding it a particular piece that I wanted to get to know well and I’ve barely had anything to do with it since. A couple of years ago I bought the Levine recording (Domingo, Scotto, Milnes) and dug it out before going to this performance and I’m listening to it again as I write this.

I rather like the opera. It certainly deserves to be seen rather more often than every 30 years. It’s got a nice melodramatic plot, some really good arias and duets and plenty of action. I don’t mean it as a complaint if I say that it feels rather longer than its actual length: you get to the end of the acts and are a bit surprised that he’s managed to pack that amount of action and music into only 35 minutes and has done so without it seeming either rushed or boring. I suppose that it’s easy to sneer at it: it doesn’t have quite Puccini’s skill at creating perfectly structured and very touching masterpeieces or Verdi’s engagement with politics or Mozart’s with the depth of human emotion. It’s equally hard to dislike. It feels very much of its time, reminding me of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac as a late 19th century depiction of a romantic historic past. But it still has those arias – Maddalena’s Senza Mamma and Gerard’s Act III aria both struck me a really powerful human statements – and there are very touching elements – the scene for Madelon (at this performance really wonderfully done by Elena Zilio) and its depiction of the Gaoler (another really lovely performance by Jeremy White). It’s a piece I’d like to get to know better.

Unless you actually despise the opera I think it would be hard to dislike this performance which delivered at least what you’d expect from this particular cast and director. I suppose that you could update the opera to some other revolutionary time or try something post-modern about a composer in the 1890s trying to write about the French Revolution but I’m not sure what the point would be. This is a consciously historic opera written to entertain and David McVicar’s period production did not more or less than follow that. It was beautifully detailed and looked gorgeous in a sort of Downton Abbey way. You could imagine that it might have been done exactly like this at its first night. To some that won’t be a compliment but I felt that it made the work come across honestly as exactly what it is: a good, old-fashioned melodrama. I’m not sure that I’d have it any other way.

We had Jonas Kaufmann as Chenier, looking absolutely the dashing romantic poet and singing with full-throated commitment and style. There certainly isn’t a tenor I’d rather see or hear doing the role today. He creates an intense, believable character: open, intellectual, honest. Sparks flew in his duets with Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Maddalena and they created a level of passion in their final duet that it will be hard to equal. Elsewhere, Miss Westbroek sang and acted with her usual generosity – she’s a very open, expressive artist with a really sympathetic stage presence. Vocally, I wondered if she was absolutely right for Maddalena -there’s a slight blowsiness about her singing and the words don’t come across as well as Scotto managed, but this is cavilling at a performance at a very high level.

I’d not come across Zeljko Lucic so far, but I hope this isn’t the only time I see him. He created a complex, black, lowering Gerard and sang his Act III aria with the sort of old fashioned power and understanding that struck me as spot on. He interested you in the character and made you believe in his dilemma and complexity. I’d love to hear him as Macbeth, Rigoletto or Boccanegra and he must make an absolutely terrifying Scarpia. This was outstanding singing and acting.

There are a lot of lesser roles in Chenier and they were generally well enough taken. In addition the two I’ve already mentioned, it was a nice idea to have Rosalind Plowright back, this time as Maddalena’s mother, and she gave a witty, very fine performance. Roland Wood made a lot of Roucher – sympathetic and really well sung – and Denyce Graves was a glamorous Bersi. The chorus was in good form.

Antonio Pappano conducted and got excellent playing out of the orchestra. I thought his reading was good and rose to considerable heights in the third and fourth acts – all very nicely placed. Levine, though, strikes me as getting a bit more sparkle and vigour out of the score.

Enough of criticism. Unless you essentially dislike the whole premise of operas and productions like this, you’d have to be a real sourpuss to do anything other than surrender admiringly to sheer conviction and strength of this performance. If you’re going to do it in this way, I can’t imagine it done beter. I hope we’ll see it again soon.