Tag Archives: Barbican

Terrific Adelson e Salvini

12 May

Opera Rara tends either to uncover interesting, neglected works that would repay a staged a performance or interesting neglected works that wouldn’t.  Bellini’s first opera. Adelson e Salvini, is probably in the latter category, but it was great to have the opportunity to hear it at the Barbican on 11th May.

Musically, there’s a lot to enjoy.  He wrote it when he was 23 and there’s a huge amount of very strong music in it, much in his mature style.  Indeed, a good deal of the music got recycled into later operas (the heroine’s Act I aria went straight into Capuleti.  There’s also a good deal of music betraying the influence of Rossini – given that Bellini had been studying in Naples, this isn’t surprising; indeed, Bellini writes very good cod Rossini.  For me, the best numbers were a superb duet tenor/baritone duet for Adelson and Salvini and Salvini’s 3rd Act number but there isn’t one that is less than enjoyable and well made.

There are a couple of curiosities. It was written for male voices, presumably the women being sung by boys or male altos, which explains why the heroine has relatively little to do. Also, the first version was written with spoken dialogue rather than recitative – I don’t think I’ve come across an Italian opera with dialogue before.  Here, it was well spoken by the cast who had been nicely directed by Kenneth Richardson and Daniel Dooner.

The problem is the plot which is an uneasy mixture of comedy, melodrama and genuine feeling.  The first act does little more than set up the plot and takes 70 minutes to do so.  The relationships are complicated to work out and there’s a villain who is determined to abduct the heroine for no very plausible reason.  in fact the whole premise is silly.  I think it would be roared off the stage if you ever tried it.  It might be fun for students, though.

The performance, however, was very fine indeed.  Daniele Rustioni conducted outstandingly.  He caught the style perfectly and made the music exciting, interesting and, for me, caught all the strengths of the piece.  The BBCSO played strongly for him.

The most interesting role is that of Salvini, caught between a conflict of love for his friend and his friend’s beloved.  Enea Scala began a rather uncertainly but warmed up as the evening went on and gave a truly outstanding performance of his Act III aria.  This is another very promising bel canto tenor and that aria got the audience justifiably excited.  Adelson is much less interesting but Simone Alberghini did what he could and the two did their duet, torno, o caro, very well indeed.

The opera contains Bellini’s only comic character – a Neapolitan servant, Bonifacio.  He has the most Rossinian music and you can see why Bellini didn’t write more like him.  Having said that, Maurizio Muraro gave a really lovely, endearing performance of the role and had the audience in the palm of his hand.  I’d love to see him do more of this sort of role.  He’d be a smashing Don Magnifico.

Daniella Barcellona was a bit wasted as Nelly but sang very nicely.  Rodion Pogossov was a nicely melodramatic Count Struley, the villainand displayed rather a good voice.  David Soar, Kathryn Rudge and Leah-Marian Jones were fine in the smaller roles.

I doubt that this will ever be a viable stage piece, but this excellent performance showed its strengths, was invaluable in teaching us more about Bellini and was hugely enjoyable into the bargain.  Look out for the CD.


Discovering Zaza

28 Nov

Normally, I don’t have a problem with going to the opera on my own – quite a good thing you may say.  I don’t see it particularly as a social occasion, but one where I’m quite happy just to appreciate by myself.  However, Opera Rara’s performance of Leoncavallo’s Zaza on 27th November was one of those where I wanted to have someone with me to share the experience, not because I think that Zaza is an undiscovered masterpiece, but because this performance made a very strong case for it and featured a fabulous achievement by Ermonela Jaho in the title role.

It was first performed in 1900 and achieved quite a decent success.  Leoncavallo revised it in 1919 (the performance Opera Rara did was that version).  Geraldine Farrar had a huge success with it at the Met in the 1920s and Loewenberg notes that it was still being performed in Italy in the early 1940s.  It’s now got rather lost with those other operas composed under the shadow of Puccini.

At this performance it came across as rather an appealing piece, albeit with a couple of potential problems. Zaza is a minor cabaret singer who infatuates the wealthy businessman Milio. They are blissfully happy until Zaza discovers that there appears to be another mistress. She goes to Paris to discover not a mistress, but a wife and child. She gives Milio up after a suitable scenery-chewing scene – her last words are “e tutto finito”.
It struck me as quite a technically well-constructed piece. The first act, which reminded me a bit of the opening of Adriana Lecouvreur, is in the cabaret – lots of bustle, you hear the different acts from backstage and has an appealing duet for Zaza and Milio. The second act has less bustle and is the most concise – a nice scene for Zaza and Milio before Cascart, her old flame, reveals the existence of the “mistress”.

The third act is potentially the trickiest. There’s a good aria for Milio after which he leaves. Zaza then arrives and meets his daughter, Toto (“my real name’s Antoinette but everyone calls me Toto”). There is a real danger that this could be so saccharine (“I will play an Ave Maria because it’s my mother’s favourite”) as to induce serial vomiting in an audience or gales of laughter. You need a very strong Zaza to be able to carry it off. The last act has a very good aria for Cascart as he comforts Zaza and that final confrontation.  Leoncavallo’s orchestration is beguiling, detailed and he builds up the drama really well.

Aside from the little child Toto, the problems could be the fact that it’s really quite hard to like Milio who evidently is quite happy to leave his family for six months to live with Zaza without mentioning his wife, and the fact that the music isn’t as instantly memorable as Puccini. Lots of the same techniques are used – conversation, bustling orchestration – but it feels less certain, the music more incidental to a sung play rather than an integral part. You get glimpses of strong ideas that somehow fade away – at least in the first couple of acts. What actually is happening, is that Leoncavallo is building up to a strong finale, leaving me, much to my surprise, involved and rather moved.  This is an opera which could be revived in mainstream houses successfully.

That success will depend on the performance of the leading role. You need a good old fashioned singing actress capable of holding the performance together – you can understand why Geraldine Farrar made it such a success. I imagine that Netrebko, Gheorghiu, Freni when she was singing her heavier roles, would be or have been smashing in it. However, I don’t think their services will be required after the performance that Ermonela Jaho gave here. She took the role completely seriously, developing from the flippant prima donna of the first act, to the smitten lover of the second, through the tortured anguish of Act III to the anger, bitterness and despair of the last act. She has a way of conveying emotions and a fundamental honesty and decency so that they are utterly believable.  This wasn’t a showy, self-conscious performance but one where you she created someone entirely believable.  She held the hall mesmerised by the sheer passion, anger and sadness that she got into that final scene. She sang it superbly – it’s a gorgeous voice and she seizes the words and makes them mean something. I do hope the Royal Opera House have some plans for her to return for things other than Angelica. She’s a very special soprano indeed.

The rest were pretty good too. Riccardo Massi sang strongly as Milio, conveying the charm and fecklessness of the character and gave lots of pleasure with singing that struck me as perfectly in style.  He has a very attractive spinto tenor that has some heft behind it.  He’s doing Cavaradossi at the ROH later in the season and could be worth catching. Stephen Gaertner was a late-ish replacement as Cascart, Zaza’s ex and confidante, but he’d sung it before and I really enjoyed his concerned, stylish and intelligent singing. He did his Act IV aria really well. There may be some starrier names out there who could do the roles, but I’m not sure that I’d swap either of them.

There are quite a lot of small roles which were pretty strongly cast here even if not always easy to distinguish. I’d single out Nicky Spence for his outstandingly stylish and committed Courtois (Zaza’s boss) and Kathryn Rudge as Natalia the maid. Patricia Bardon was ill and Rebecca Lodge learned the role of Anaide (Zaza’s drunken mother) in 24 hours and put in a performance that did the job admirably.  Julia Ferri played Toto and managed to avoid making you want to strangle her or to rush for the sick bucket.

Some of that must be due to Susannah Waters’s direction.  She managed the comings and goings pretty well in front of the orchestra.  I’m not sure how far she can credited with helping Ms Jaho, but she obviously did nothing to hinder her and, as I’ve suggested, managed the third act really well.

Maurizio Benini conducted strongly. He took the piece absolutely seriously, played it for what it was worth and more and was well supported by the BBCSO and by the BBC Singers. This performance took place after the cast had recorded the opera and, as a result, they were all well into their roles – most used the scores as a fall-back and looked at each other and reacted.

This then struck me as demonstrating that Zaza is a viable opera – certainly no less so than, say, Adriana Lecouvreur or Fedora. I may be wrong, but I’d be surprised if this were even approaching the bottom of Mr Holten’s list of operas to perform at the ROH.  I’d say it would be worth it if only for Ms Jaho.   I’d certainly like to see a staging and will definitely be buying the CD when it comes out.


Revelatory Dalibor

3 May

Where has Dalibor been all my life? One slightly shaming answer is that the CDs have been on my shelves, languishing unplayed for the last 20 years or so. I bought them in Prague in 1994 along with a load of other Czech classics and, what with one thing and another…  Well you know how it goes. So far as I know it’s not been done in London since the ENO had a go at it in the 1970s. So it was high time for the BBCSO’s concert performance at the Barbican on 2nd May.

The plot is interesting. Dalibor is a heroic outsider in medieval Bohemia. He has killed a Duke to avenge the murder of his best friend. The Duke’s sister Milada, demands justice, and Dalibor is condemned to death. At his trial she falls in love with him and determines to save him, disguising herself as a beggar to get into the gaol and, in due course, to Dalibor’s cell. They fall in love. The rescue attempt fails and both die. There’s a Rocco-like gaoler who betrays them to the king and a secondary couple who are loyal supporters of Dalibor. You can see the resonances with Fidelio but with a tragic ending. There’s an element of Don Carlos too – Dalibor is clearly an admirable character but just too dangerous for the regime. There is loads of potential in this plot.

The opera sort of gets some of it. There are problems. The first act takes a bit of time to get going with a lot of ceremonial marching and declamation of the story so far.  The Milada/Dalibor relationship really doesn’t get going until the end of Act II. The second trial scene takes a bit long as well. And often I felt that Smetana is too interested in the music rather than in creating a dramatic event. I felt that it needed an interventionist director – a Jones or Alden to find a way of making it compelling on the stage. I would throw away the Czech medieval flummery and turn it into a political tale set in a totalitarian state and in modern dress.  I’m sure it could work.

The music is mostly fabulous. Smetana’s orchestration conveys atmosphere, particularly for the prison scenes and is gorgeous to listen to. The opening prelude, very short, gives huge promise of the interest to come and the different colours in the score conveying the darkness, the joy and the love that exists in the story. It’s a joy to listen to music of this quality. There are some marvellous arias. For me the greatest was Dalibor’s aria in his prison after his dream: a gloriously intense, wistful aria of love which comes after a gorgeous prelude to the scene as Dalibor dreams of his former friend.  There’s an absolutely gorgeous horn obliggato and, listening to this, I felt the joy you get hearing something a glorious as this for the first time – stout Cortez time. This struck me as one of the great tenor arias that I’d not heard before. The following duet with Milada is equally good – impassioned, tender and very beautiful. I also greatly enjoyed the scenes for the lesser characters, particularly the gaoler, Beneš, and Jitka and Vitek. There are good choruses and I found it an entirely fascinating, very enjoyable evening. Some have suggested that the ending is too abrupt. To me, it felt absolutely right with nothing left to be said after the death of Dalibor. Others have suggested that a libretto translated from the German but deliberately trying to keep the German rhythms plays havoc with Czech: that probably worries Czech speakers more than it does me.

It was given an outstanding performance here. Jiři Bělohlávek conducted with care and passion. He made the best possible case for the music and it all sounded coherent and beautiful with the singers accompanied carefully and sensitively.  He patently loves the opera. He made you realise how much more there is to Smetana that the Bartered Bride. The BBCSO was in fabulous form.

The cast was all Czech and were without a weak link. Richard Samek was Dalbor – displaying a very pleasant lyric tenor. Perhaps he could have done with slightly more heft for the more heroic parts of the role – as I’m writing this, I’m listening to Pribyl which is, perhaps unfair.  He caught the tenderness really well. Dana Berišová as Milada displayed a gleaming lyric soprano capable of tenderness as well as easily surmounting the heroic side of the role – this is the woman who leads the rescue of Dalibor.

In the smaller roles, Jan Stava made an honest, nicely sung Beneš, Alžbĕta Poláchková a very fine Jitka who would have been a convincing Milada too, I think. Aleš Voráček made a strong, likable Vitek. Ivan Kusnjer did his best with the King, probably the least interesting role.

It was sort-of staged. The characters wore approrpriate modern dress and entered andd exited sensibly. The virtues of this were primarily musical and the intensity of the singing and the understanding of the words conveyed by the artists was all you needed.

I’d expected this to be a rather heavy, stodgy evening. It turned out to be hugely enjoyable and worthwhile. Dalibor deserves a staging here that takes it seriously.  It would be ideal for Opera North.  It’s probably too much to hope that the ROH could persuade Kaufmann to give the title role a go.  We can probably whistle for it in this age of austerity.  The audience here was on the thin side, but appreciative.  I’m really enjoying  my CD at last.  I do hope that Bělohlávek could explore some more Smetana in the coming years.

Sunken Garden sinks

13 Apr

I had a feeling when I booked that going to the first night on 12th April of the ENO’s lated commission – Michel van der Aa’s Sunken Garden at the Barbican was a mistake. I tend to resist multi-media and 3D.  But I thought I should give it a try.  As I watched this, I felt as though I was watching the emperor’s clothes disappearing one by one.  It is, of course, possible that I’m way out of touch and just don’t “get” these things.

I really can’t be bothered to tell you much about the plot.  Toby, a conceptual artist gets tempted by a patron, Zenna to find two lost people, Simon and Amber and finds himself part of her created garden where images of people remain until they turn into immortal moths.  Or something.  Opera readily copes with the supernatural, but there are two types of such opera: where the supernatural, as in Alcina, say, or Wagner, represents something about power or love; and where, as in Meyerbeer, it is an excuse for a spectacle.  I think Michel van der Aa wanted to have a go at opera in 3D and this farago provided an excuse for it.  In fairness, I should say that I don’t readily respond to science fiction or magic realism and so you may find it a fascinating exploration of something or other.

It had its moments.  David Mitchell’s text struck me as witty with some amusing scenes but the women in particular had huge difficulty projecting the text (no surtitles) even with amplification which caused problem in their long scene in the garden.  But it was hard to be even slightly interested in or to care about the characters or feel that there was some point to the story.  I suppose it might be a parody of post-modern conceptual art, but it wasn’t funny enough for that.

I’ve never really seen the point of 3D, other than as a rather expensive children’s toy that is impressive once but you get tired of after quite a small time.  It looks and feels synthetic and, at times simply didn’t work in a theatre where there are different sight-lines and edges to the stage (and, after all, is already in 3D).  There were some pretty effects but there were also clumsinesses.  There was one point where Roderick Williams as Toby was meant to be talking to Amber, the disappeared girl.  If you had the 3D glasses on, she was in front of him and he was to talking to a tree.  If you took them off, he was talking to her image.  I think he was meant to be talking to her image.  Worse, the fact that it was on the stage meant that you could see the edge of 3D image and, frequently, the actors were outside that edge but still part of the set.  Having the glasses on puts you at one remove from the characters.  The whole reason I love live theatre over cinema is that I want the direct contact with the singers rather than images of them.  Having to wear those wretched specs was the worst of all worlds.  Above all, I felt that this was gimmick.  You could use 3D in opera, but I didn’t feel that there was anything going on here that an imaginative stage director could have managed without employing a massive film crew at Lord knows what cost.

Michel van der Aa’s music struck me as very competent film music.  His lines sounded friendly to the singers and, where you could hear them, they were set idiomatically and intelligently.   There wasn’t a single moment where you felt interested in the music or any point of beauty or horror.  It wasn’t objectionable, had nothing to frighten the horses and nothing to interest them either.

The singers were good.  I thought Katherine Manley, as Zenna, apart from problems getting the words accross was excellent.  Ditto Claron McFadden as her foil, Iris Marinus.   Roderick Williams was, as ever, a comforting presence and it’s always a joy simply to listen to him.  I don’t think he could make any sense of his role but he’s one of those singers (Thomas Allen is another) who seems incapable of putting in a bad or unconvincing performance and you always wake up whenever he is on the stage.

André de Ridder conducted and appeared to hold all the various parts together.  Van der Aa also directed and technically managed the differences between stage and film adeptly without, as I I’ve suggested really managing to solve the technical problems of 3D in the theatre.

The friendly first night audience was enthusiastic but then I had the feeling that it was a very friendly audience.  There seem to be a fair number of seats available if you’re interested.  I can’t imagine it coming back again.

Should opera singers do musicals?

1 Sep

I went to Carousel on 30th August.  The original production is by Opera North and is playing at the Barbican until 15th September with some of the original cast, the Royal Ballet orchestra and, I think, a new chorus.  It’s a co-production with the Chatelet.

I think that, technically at least, Carousel is one of the masterpieces of the Broadway musical and is easily the most interesting of the Rodgers and Hammerstein pieces.  I’ve a particular fondess for the first act where the sheer mastery of the way dialogue and musical numbers intertwine, particularly the duets in the early part, is fluent and works absolutely brilliantly.  I think that the whole soliloquy for Billy including “My Boy Bill” has the range and emotion of the finest operatic arias.  I part company from some of the ideas now and then, particularly the whole heaven business towards the end.  I think the issues around wife beating are more complex than they demonstrate here, but it’s a very good stab for a Broadway musical at the subject.  The text is as interesting and well constructed as the music.  And, of course, there are really good tunes and, at the end, I didn’t bother to try to restrain the tears.  It’s a superb piece of music theatre.

Opera North have a really good record with musicals.  I retain very fond memories of their Showboat, Sweeney Todd (as good a production of the piece as I’ve seen) and One Touch of Venus and I think that it’s good that opera companies should do them: they’re part of the same tradition and they widen a company’s focus and experience.  Here we had a very fine production by Jo Davies, whose Ruddigore last year was as good a production of a Gilbert and Sullivan piece as I’ve seen.  She had the style pretty much pitch perfect, Anthony Ward’s sets looked good, the show danced and sparkled.  There good accompaniment by the orchestra under John Rigby, the choreography by Kim Brandstrup was really good and the show packed a punch.

The main problem was what caused my heading to this post.  The leads were in the hands of people who have successful operatic careers and their voices trained as such.  They have a different method of singing which pays almost too much attention to the notes and the musical phrasing, rather than using the words and their sense as the clue to the way you sing them.  It doesn’t apply to everyone: two of my favourite discs are of Bryn Terfel and Thomas Hampson singing Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter respectively.  Hampson is wonderful in the EMI CD of Kiss Me Kate, but listen to Josephine Barstow murder “I hate men” on that disc and you will see what I mean.  I call it “singing in inverted commas”, exaggeratedly enunciating the words and completely losing the flow and impact of the numbers.  It’s not just musicals – it can be a problem in Gilbert and Sullivan and Offenbach too.

In this production, Eric Greene does not make a bad Billy Bigelow at all – he manages the good-hearted complexity and basic stupidity of the man really well and managed the dialogue well.  But I felt he spoiled “My Boy Bill” by trying to sing it too beautifully, by pausing to enunciate particular words where the sense and impetus of the music required him to move on.  The violence was missing.  A similar problem afflicted Elena Ferrari as Nettie Fowler – “You’ll never walk alone” was done perfectly nicely, but without the directness that musical singers bring – it felt contrived.

It was less of a problem for Claire Boulter who, I thought, was lovely as Carrie Pipperidge or Joseph Shovelton as Enoch Snow (he has done quite a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan) but Gillene Herbert as Julie had that problem, though she acted and did the dialogue with conviction and dignity.  Michael Rouse displayed much more of the style as Jigger Craigin.  The remainder were very strong and John Woodvine did a lovely turn as the Starkeeper.  I thought that the chorus did their turns wonderfully well: here we had the benefits of clear, accurate and very fine ensemble singing while acting convincingly and enjoying themselves: their big numbers came over really well.

So there’s lots going for it and it may be that the other cast has some stronger performances but, on this showing, I wouldn’t particularly class it as a “must see”.

This is the second year the Barbican has used a musical to fill August. For last year’s South Pacific, I was inundated with half price offers for it.  I was reassured by the fact that there were no such offers for this.   This wasn’t borne out.  When I came to pick up my Upper Circle tickets, I was offered an upgrade to some much better seats at the back of the stalls and it was clear that lots of other people were too.  This show was much better than the South Pacific which had obviously lost a lot of its Broadway glamour in the crossing and had received better reviews.  But the seat prices are high, the Barbican isn’t actually known as a musical venue and is a bit off the beaten track of people who might think of going to it.  I wonder if they’ll try to continue the tradition next year.