Tag Archives: Ekaterina Semenchuk

Moderate Don Carlos

21 May

Ok, time to get back to this blogging lark.  I’ve had some good times over the last few months – smashing Faramondo and Ormisda at the London Handel Festival and the fantastic Exterminating Angel at the ROH and Dr Atomic at the Barbican – but somehow didn’t get to writing them up.  Mind you, there also that Meistersinger… Anyway, back to work and first up is Don Carlos at the ROH which I saw on 15 May.

There is so much that there is wonderful about Don Carlo that it’s quite easy to get into the mindset that any performance short of the extraordinary is, in some way, a failure. It’s an attitude that ignores, first, the real problems with the opera and, second, the fact I would rather see a flawed one than miss the piece at all.  But the overall attitude to the opera is so easy to get into one’s head that I think it explains why people have been rather muted about what struck me as a very decent performance.

The cast, despite two late replacements, was pretty strong.  Bryan Hymel as Carlo sang strongly, if not subtly and made probably as good an authentic Verdian sound as you can get these days.  Maybe the odd pianissimo would be nice and he doesn’t exactly look the young romantic hero.

I was also impressed by Ildar Abdrazakov as Philip who created a very human king indeed. I loved his pianissimo opening to his Act IV aria and the way in which he caught the authority and the dilemmas of the role.  He opened up to Posa humanly.  Whereas with Furlanetto, you felt that here was a king unbending slightly, this was a man who was faced with being a king.

Christoph Pohl was a late replacement for Ludovic Tezier.  I think he’s a rather special baritone.  He has absolutely the right sound for the role: a sort of virile lightness that impressed me.  He caught the open, humanity of the role and looks good.  I wouldn’t mind hearing him again.

There was a gloriously old-fashioned, mezzo/contralto Eboli from Ekaterina Semanchuk: again as good as I’ve heard.  The role seemed to hold no terror for her and if, occasionally, you wanted more subtlety she’d then wow you with a top note or her gorgeous, rich lower register.  Her acting was pretty generic Eboli and I missed the some of the softness that Sonia Ganassi brought when the production was new, but if you want a Verdi mezzo…

I had most reservations about Kristin Lewis as Elisabeth – a late replacement for Krassimira Stroyanova.  She has a dark, Verdian voice, very much in the Leontyne Price mould but without the same control.  There was a real squalliness about her singing and, as with most Elisabeths, I found my mind wandering during her Act V aria and, indeed, the following duet.  I did enjoy her acting, particularly in Act I where she created a loving, youthful, open princess and she charted the journey from that to the sad, despairing queen rather well.

Bertrand de Billy conducting struck me as very fine too: he conjured some wonderful sounds out of the orchestra and his tempi seemed to be effortlessly right.  I really enjoyed the phrasing, particularly of the early parts and the wailing, growling strings in the last act.  He caught the sheer terror of the Grand Inquisitor (Paata Burchuladze, not as effectual vocally as he might have been ten years ago, but a strong presence) and he paced it really effectively, making you listen to the dialogues and the arias.  This was conducting that made you realise what a great work this is.

So maybe the problem was the staging.  Nicholas Hytner’s production had its problems even when it was new.  It’s at its best in the dialogues where, still, the emotions, the characterisations and the ideas ring true and they’re interesting.

The problem comes in the public scenes.  The auto da fe never really worked and, though it’s been reworked, there were just too few people for the space, Carlos’s insurrection was a mess and the picture of people with swords just standing there doing nothing is really poor.  The end of Act IV is similarly weak and the opening of the second scene of Act II can’t disguise the fact that the veil song is just a bit of padding.

The sets are variable.  The shaking trees in the first act are still there and are a bit of a disgrace and, for a lot of the time, the space is just too large.   They’re still beautifully lit.

Overall then, this was a decent, perfectly adequate performance of Don Carlos – the problems I’ve identified with the production are problems that the opera itself presents and Hytner’s failure is in coming to grips with those.  You don’t feel that there’s a vision for the opera or any guiding idea.  On the other hand, I still got a lot of pleasure out of this performance, mostly from the musical side and a newcomer will have got a good idea of why this is such a special opera.

Il Trova-fly

3 Jul

Il Trovatore has two problems: a perception of an improbable plot and a requirement for singing that is pretty rare these days.  If you don’t need absolutely the four greatest singers in the world, you need four who are in the top rank and able to cope with the generosity and accuracy that Verdi demands.  Most of these problems were in evidence at the very disappointing first night of the new ROH production on 2nd July.

Let’s begin with the production.  It was by David Bösch, a young German Director who has done some opera in Germany and a lot of plays.  I think this is his first Verdi and perhaps it’s unfair to have given him the sort of opera that has all those elements of opera than non-specialists find so difficult to take: arias and cabelettas, trios, dramatic ensembles and numbers that involve people standing round doing not much more than singing out. We’re rapidly losing the art of directing this sort of melodrama and I don’t think Herr Bösch has the answer.

The setting is a wintry landscape in some sort of modern state  – I think, but Leonora and the nuns seem to go around in ball gowns, even when trying to rescue Manrico.  Luna’s army has a tank – which looks very funny as it comes in huge shooter forward at the beginning of Act III.  The gipsies, interestingly, are circus, fair-ground types, rather than rebels, with Azucena in a Carmen costume.  The last scene is set in a barbed wire compound with Manrico and Azucena walking round more or less at liberty.  It’s an opera that depends a lot on darkness and people not seeing each other.  Even under camouflage, I think the nuns might have noticed that tank and the stage was pretty clearly lit: there was no chance of Leonora seriously mistaking Luna for Manrico.

There’s the obligatory video – birds circling and, most irritatingly, a butterfly that flies amusingly as Leonora sings (distracting you from her) and which looks really funny.  I don’t think this is intended.  What it has to do with Trovatore was utterly opaque to me.

There was some pretty half-hearted violence – a prisoner in Act III who seems to have all kinds of things happening to him but which never quite works.  At the end of the first scene, Azucena has petrol poured over her and faggots piled up by her, only to be taken away at the end.  There were two half-good moments: Leonora paused before her abduction by the grave she believed to be Manrico’s; and a prisoner was killed at Castellor just in time for Leonora to muse on this place of death.  But there wasn’t a lot else.

More seriously, despite the setting and odd ideas, the direction of the principals was distressingly inept.  They did nothing more than stand at the front and sing. There was little chemistry between them, little passion and, with one exception, I didn’t believe a word of it.  And the point about Trovatore is that it only ever works if the participants believe absolutely in what they’re doing and have some conviction to their passion. And just standing there isn’t enough.

Of course, Trovatore can be saved by great singing and a great musical performance.  Neither were really in evidence here and, probably, can’t be expected today.  The finest performance, and one which was very special indeed, came from Ekaterina Semenchuk.  In both Stride la vampa and Ai nostri monti she sang with an intensity and a really special pianissimo that had the house reaching out to listen to her.  There was that special silence that goes with really fine singing.  As she gets more experience, she’ll make more of some of the melodramatic declamation – Il mio figlio needs more bite and clearer words.  And in a better production, she’ll be a really great Azucena.  If I had any doubts about going to Don Carlo next season, her performance of Eboli will be a must see.

I had hoped that Zeljko Lucic would be similarly fine as Luna and, at the start, it sounded so promising – the rich astringent tone sounded like Gobbi and I really warmed to him.  But Il balen was, to put it mildly, only intermittently in tune and, as the evening went on, he seemed to lose interest.  It was a major disappointment.

Lianna Haroutounian was the Leonora – impressive in the first Act, but less and less interesting as it went on. It was perfectly decent, strong singing without ever making you feel that this was a particularly interesting Leonora.  Manrico is an impossible role.  Francesco Meli sang it probably as well as you can expect.  The high Cs, probably wisely, were avoided, and something very odd seemed to happen round about his entrance in the Miserere.  He makes a handsome figure on the stage and it was good to have some authentic Italian pronunciation.  On the other hand, you could not possible say that this was the answer to our prayers for a world-class Manrico.

Maurizio Muraro was a good Ferrando and Jennifer Davis made a very strong Inez.  The chorus was on outstanding form: clear, virile and together: this was as good choral singing as I’ve ever heard in this opera.

I admired a lot of Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting.  He found textures in the orchestration that I’d not heard before – the interplay of the instruments was really clearly done, the trumpets particularly fine.  On the other hand, tempi seemed variable: fast at the beginning, but feeling rather meandering and slow – particularly at the end of Act II and of the opera itself.

There may have been some first night problems.  The ROH have scheduled quite a lot of performances into the last fortnight of the season with alternating casts.  I wonder whether there’d been quite enough rehearsal and it may well be that, at later performances it might gel more musically.  And if you could delete the video and that wretched butterfly then you’d get rid of half the problems.  It still wouldn’t be a vibrant or interesting Trovatore.  I can’t see it lasting and I really can’t recommend that you go to see it.