Tag Archives: Claus Guth

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.

Die Frau mit dem Schatten

18 Mar

The performance of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera House on 17th March was among the most glorious musical events that I can recall.  It was one of those evening where, you felt, whatever was going on visually, nothing could go wrong aurally.

We had Semyon Bychkov, always good in Strauss, conducting an outstanding performance by the orchestra: the colours and textures of the piece came across with superb clarity, but he also manages climaxes that filled the theatre and almost persuaded you that this was one of the greatest operatic scores.  He accompanies the cast marvellously – I don’t think I’ve heard so many words in a Strauss opera before – the cast projected them thrillingly and he made sure you could hear them.  The piece flowed gloriously and you could not but admire the stamina and skill of the orchestra.  You felt a physical excitement at the grand moments – the end of the second act was shattering musically and the contemplative, reflective moments were incredibly beautiful.  It felt right and it sounded like great music throughout.

He had an outstanding cast.  Johan Botha has such a glorious heldentenor voice that you tend to ignore a figure that looks more like a banker – accentuated by the Victorian costume here.  He sang fearlessly, intensely and with huge strength. He made the fearsome demands sound beautifully.  Is there a finer heldentenor around today? He was matched by Emily Magee as the Empress – she matches intense power with a beautiful, ethereal quality for the more reflective passage.  Again, for sheer confidence and beauty, I’m not sure who I’d rather hear today.  Why do we hear so little of her in London?

Johan Reuter was Barak  It’s a gem of a role, but he managed his monologues in each act with a simplicity and nobility, together with glorious tone that was deeply moving.  He is a very special singer indeed.  As his wife, Elena Pankratova displayed a powerful voice, well up to the demands of the role – she was, I think, hampered more than most by the production, but she managed her monologue in Act III when she realises her love for Barak with great beauty and, again, involved you in her predicament.  As the Nurse, Michaela Schuster was, again, outstanding.  She appeared to have no problems with the demands of the role and was terrifying at the end of Act II.  The other roles were all well-cast and gave considerable pleasure.

I’ve deliberately left a discussion of Claus Guth’s production until the end.  This wasn’t my first visit to Frau ohne Schatten – I saw the revivals here in 1987 and 2002 but that is, really, my full exposure to the piece; I don’t possess a CD or DVD and recall being thoroughly bored at the 2002 revival to the extent that I left, I think, after Act II (or it might even have been Act I).  I’m not particularly a believer in doing homework before going to the opera (particularly not now that there are surtitles) – you should be able to take a performance on its merits.  So I came to the performance pretty much cold – a recollection of the overall plot but no musical or any other detailed memory.

So, on that basic level, how did I fare with this most complex, allusive opera?  Well, the surtitles helped to an extent.  So did the acting – the singers expressed the emotions with absolute conviction and clarity – their predicaments on a human level were clear and moving – particularly from Magee, Reuter and Schuster.  You could not separate their performances and acting from the music and you identified them as human: Guth must take substantial credit for that.

However, you can’t just get by with the acting in this opera.  Hofmannstahl’s synopsis in the programme, aside from demonstrating the extent of the cuts, tells of fish flying into a pan, of a house collapsing and lots of other visual effects that are quite important for the story.  The libretto itself gives some clues about the staging – conflicts between air and earth, between humans and immortals. They may well be nonsense and, it’s possible that Hofmannstahl’s libretto is a load of vacuous tosh but there is some sort of vision here.  I’ve no problem with directors substituting a convincing vision of their own – and would potentially welcome it in this piece – I just didn’t think that Guth’s helped.

We begin and end in an anonymous room with the Empress asleep in bed (is this her dream then and, if so, how does that help us?).  Gazelles and Falcons dance about the stage (one of whom, I think, is Keikobad.  Oh, and the Empress has one very fine and obvious shadow – was I really missing the point in wanting to get up there, point his out and suggest that everybody could stop worrying and go home?  Isn’t this one, pretty basic thing that a director gets wrong at his peril?

There’s no appreciable change of locale for Barak’s house (isn’t one point of the opera the distinction between Barak and the Emperor) and Barak’s wife and the Empress are dressed identically.  I found the set constricting – this an opera where you need to let your imagination roam and where space matters.  Here you became bored by the unit set, irritated by the video and assailed again and again by two thoughts: (a) I haven’t a clue what is going on here and (b) there must be more to it than this.  Guth explained some of the imagery he was using in the programme.  I don’t think that you should have to pay £7 on top of the seat to have this explained – it should be clear – and, in any case, I wasn’t any the wiser having read them.  It made me think of how else you could do it – how an immortal world based on Klimt and a mortal world based on Schiele might be a starting point.

So this was a staging, that cluttered, constricted and baffled.  It didn’t undermine the fantastic performances of the singers but I felt short-changed.  We see Frau ohne Schatten rarely; it’s a difficult piece and, ultimately, I didn’t get it.  I will, however, get it on CD – Bychkov and the cast convinced me that there’s music here I need to know better.