Tag Archives: Graham Vick

Heavy Hipermestra

21 May

It’s quite difficult to judge an audience’s reaction to an opera sometimes.  I could have sworn that a substantial part of the audience for the first night of Glyndebourne’s new production of Cavalli’s Hipermestra on 20 May were deeply bored and, like the man sitting next to me, falling asleep and desperately waiting for the thing to end.  At the interval, people was using words like “interesting” and “different” suggesting at least an ambivalence about it.  Yet at the end, the applause seemed warm and enthusiastic.  Make no mistake though, this is not a show for the faint hearted or for operatic novices.

From what I can gather, this seems to have been about the third performance of the piece ever and the first since 1680.  Unlike many of Cavalli’s operas it was commissioned and first performed at an aristocratic wedding with lavish sets and dances and lasted over five hours.  I don’t know whether this was with or without intervals.   William Christie had cut out a lot of paraphernalia (include the gods and goddesses at the opening and had got it down to slightly less than three hours of music.

It has rather a good plot.  King Danao has 50 daughters.  His brother, Egitto, has 50 sons.  To cement peace between them, the 50 daughters are married to the sons.  Danao, then gets his daughters to kill all their husbands because of a prophecy from an oracle.  Only Hipermestra, who is really in love with her husband, Leonice, refuses and lets him escape.  Leonice returns with an army for revenge and, as part of the diplomacy is told that Hipermestra is unfaithful.  He still ravages the kingdom.  Hipermestra throws herself off a building but is saved by one of Juno’s peacocks and the confusion is resolved with a happy-ish ending.  There’s a sub-plot for Arbante (in love with Hipermestra) and Elisa (in love with him) and there is the usual share of cynical servants and, of course, a tenor in drag as the nurse.

I also thought that Cavalli’s setting of it was masterful.  It feels Shakespearean in its length and pacing and the scope of its discussion of dilemmas, personal and political and about the effects of war.  There are some beautiful scenes for lovers and ones of considerable passion and emotion and, of course, quite a lot of bawdy comedy.  It struck me as a really good opera.

So what might an audience find difficult?  I think the first arises from the nature of Cavalli’s operas.  There is a lot of recitative and it tends to move seamlessly into arias which are not really what most audiences think of as arias.  There are no big tunes or really memorable parts, little opportunity for bravura singing and they are short.

This means that there is a huge premium on the words and following the plot. Since composers at this time saw themselves as servants of the words, this is understandable, but this causes a real problem for audiences whose comprehension of Italian is limited.  The most enjoyable Cavallis that I have seen (and the ones which made me realise what a great composer he is) are those that have been sung in English – Giasone at Buxton in the 1980s and the ROH’s recent L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.  You need to have direct understanding of the words and, even with surtitles, there was a barrier between performers and  audience.  In many operas you get round this because the music itself is inherently wonderful to listen to.  That doesn’t apply so much to Cavalli.

The next problem is that the first part lasted two hours and five minutes.  That is an awfully long time for an audience to be sitting trying to engage with dialogues that it doesn’t really understand.  An interval would have worked wonders. You really have to be dedicated to last that out.

Finally, many people will probably feel uncomfortable with Graham Vick’s staging.  It’s updated to a contemporary middle east where beheadings, stonings, ill-treatment of women and the destruction of cities are common-place.  There were a lot things that an audience at Glyndebourne wanting to escape might not have liked to be reminded of.  No expense has been spared on the sets, but it’s not a comfortable evening.

For myself, I enjoyed the production, mostly, while wondering whether, in fact, the work bears the full weight that Vick is imposing.  The dialogues, the interaction between the characters are beautifully observed.  Stuart Nunn’s sets are very handsome indeed and chart the move from wealth and lavishness to war and destruction brilliantly.  Even the orchestra, costumed as a rich, paid arab band for the first half, become refugees in the second (there’s a glorious solo violin passage at the beginning of that half).

There are some doubts.  The show begins as you arrive with a number of the brides and grooms wandering round the garden being photographed and there is a spoof news item on the video screens setting the scene and placing it in Glyndebourne.  One of those examples of Glyndebourne taking itself too seriously which is one of the tiresome things about the place.  I wasn’t sure also that he’d got the balance of comedy and seriousness right.  Mark Wilde’s glamorous, hugely enjoyable performance as Berenice, the nurse, might have been even better if he’d been singing in English rather than mugging furiously.  The coup de theatre of Juno’s peacock happened and was astonishing, but was also funny and left the audience giggling.  I’m not sure how you avoid that or if you need to.

No doubts at all about the musical performance, at least to a non-specialist.  William Christie and the very small orchestra achieved wonders – he barely conducted and they followed the singers and worked with them to provide a complete performance – that would have been that much more effective if you actually understood the words.

There wasn’t a weak link in the cast.  Emoke Barath, from Hungary, was strong, beautiful and dignified in the title role.  She has an ideal voice for this (I’d love to hear her in Handel) and she made an immensely characterful, sympathetic performer.  She was matched by Raffaele Pe as Linceo – a very fine Italian counter-tenor who caught the eroticism and swagger of the role.  Ana Quintans was delightful as Elisa and Benjamin Hulett did the best piece of work that I’ve seen from him as Arbante – an outstandingly good performance by a very confident, compelling tenor.

Renato Dolcini was splendid as Danao and there was really good work from Antony Gregory and Alessandro Fisher as assorted servants.  This was a cast that was entirely committed and confident.

So this was a really high quality piece of work in every respect.  Just what you’d expect from Glyndebourne.  Anyone interested in Cavalli or the baroque should go.  Whether it will really appeal to a wider audience is another question.  It did feel like hard work.

Morgen und Abend – Fascinating or vacuous?

18 Nov

As you’ll have gathered from the headline, I’m in two minds about Georg Friedrich Haas’s new opera.  I saw its second performance at the ROH on 17th November.  I was glad to be there and, particularly, to be introduced to Haas’s music.  Whether the piece actually says anything or is a viable piece for the opera house strikes me as much more debatable.

The opera is, apparently, a meditation on life and death, based on a novel by the Norwegian novelist, Jon Fosse. We begin with the protagonist, Johannes’s birth – as his father, Olai (Klaus Maria Brandauer speaking English in a comedy German accent), waits outside repeating, in English, quite a small number of sentences.  After 20 minutes and yet another repetition of “nothing’s going on”, you’re tempted to shout out “too right”.

We are then transported to the time of his death as he sees his dead wife, Erna and his dead friend Peter and finds himself unable to talk to his daughter, Signe. The singing is in German. Again, there is little more than the repetition of the same sentences. There’s not a plot to speak of. I’m not even sure that there’s any development or even the exploration of ideas. Certainly no car chases.  On the other hand, there is a sense of reflection, of a picture of a life through the crucial people in it.  It’s more like looking at a picture than at a stage work.
Haas’s music is extraordinary. I don’t think I’ve heard such piercingly immediate sounds. It feels as though there’s a background of undulating sounds – I was reminded of the sea, of an aircraft revving up its engine and then calming it down and of wind, interspersed with piercing, achingly beautiful brass sounds, violent percussion. The vocal lines are clear and grateful. You feel that, despite the text, there’s a sense of movement, of ideas and exploration.

And yet, despite its short length (only ninety minutes), I felt it outstayed its welcome. There isn’t enough going on onstage to justify this length of time of this music. I do wonder whether this piece would stand a second visit. While I could imagine becoming entirely engrossed and fascinated by it, particularly by the music, I could also imagine getting very bored indeed and thinking that this was no more than Emperor’s new clothes.

It’s rather wonderfully done. Graham Vick directs with the assurance and certainty that you’d expect. Richard Hudson’s off-white set and costumes looked superb and caught the elegiac, reflective, gentle nature of the piece. The movements of cast, the placing of the few props looked perfect. The only thing which jarred was the bright light shining directly into the audience at the end. You didn’t need it. Similarly, in the pit, Michael Boder conducted compellingly and the orchestra played, apparently, with complete accuracy and conviction.

Christoph Pohl was clear, beautifully sung, entirely convincing as Johannes, who was absolutely clear about the different relationships and made a very sympathetic, believable, thoughtful figure. I’d love to hear him sing Wozzeck. Sarah Wegener was immediate, clear, emotional as his daughter Signe and joyous as the midwife. Will Hartmann as Peter and Helena Rasker as Erna struck me as peripheral but sang with commitment and real beauty.

I’ve had many worse evenings and seen many less engaging operas. But I really don’t see this committed, reflective, offbeat and, ultimately, rather self-indulgent piece as inspiring many newcomers to give more operas a try. I suspect its future is in the concert hall and it certainly doesn’t do much to dispel ideas that opera is an elite art-form for a minority.  I’d recommend a visit, though.

Near ideal Onegin

25 May

The first revival of the season at Glyndebourne is often one of the highlights and this year’s Eugene Onegin was no exception.   Glyndebourne is also conscious of its history and, for the twentieth anniversary of the new house, it was, presumably a no-brainer to revive the first new production seen there. I saw the performance on 25th May and it felt like one of the finest performances of the opera that I’ve seen.

There were two very significant reasons for this.  This first is that Graham Vick was involved in the preparation of it had a certainty and freshness about it without the remotest sense of routine.  Chorus, dancers (Ron Howell’s choreography is a joy) and all the roles knew exactly what they were doing and what they were about and were superbly prepared.  At one point as Onegin and Lensky were quarrelling, Lensky spilled a cup onto the stage where it smashed.  I don’t know whether this was deliberate or an accident, but the reactions were so much in character and managed so successfully that it simply didn’t matter.

It’s a production that looks perfect – you can’t imagine a better setting – a deceptively simple set enabling some brilliant stage pictures and clear, thoughtful acting.  The two scenes for Onegin and Tatyana are linked by those two chairs set apart from each other (and there’s a wonderful moment in the first where Onegin passes Tatyana to sing his aria and barely looks at her).  The party in the second act has the same naturalistic detail that characterised Vick’s ROH Meistersinger but which never distracts you from what’s going on and is superbly contrasted with the stylised caricature of the Petersburg ball.  I can’t imagine wanting to change a single move or image.

The second was the conducting of Omer Meir Wellber.  Conducting without a score and eliciting hugely committed, visceral playing from the LPO, he made everything seem absolutely right.  I loved the way in which shaped the arias, particularly Triquet’s, Lensky’s and Gremin’s so that they made sense.  He was in absolute control and got the passion and tenderness of this opera to perfection.  This was on a par with Jurowski’s at this opera’s last outing here and the sheer excitement and intensity reminded of Gergiev’s debut at the Royal Opera House in this piece.  This was a hugely confident debut and he’ll be welcome back here or, indeed, anywhere else.

Glyndebourne had got a very good cast indeed – mostly slavonic and with the looks to carry off their roles well. Andrei Bondarenko catches the bored arrogance of Onegin perfectly and also the change that comes over him first after the death of Lensky (a new wig helps too) and then when he meets Tatyana at the ball.  He sings the rejection aria with a cool matter-of-factness that is absolutely right and conveys the regret and inevitability of the duet before the duel.  Only in the last act did I question whether he had quite the vocal heft or the sheer passion that can make that final scene gut wrenching and leave you feeling shaken.

I think this was partly to do with Ekaterina Scherbachenko’s Tatyana.  She has a gorgeous voice and she sang with purity, with taste and beauty without ever convincing me of the rawness of the passion in the letter scene.  She conveyed the loneliness and the sadness of the role – and there was real sincerity in the last scene – but, again, I never quite felt that she was giving up the love of her life.  There was an element of calculation about it.

There was a really fine Lensky from Edgaras Montvidas – he looked like the ideal Russian poet and conveyed the innocence of the man.  I don’t think I’ve heard his aria better sung: this was passionate, beautifully controlled singing conveying the nostalgia, the regret and the certainty of death.  This is a singer who suddenly seems to be ready for leading roles and I hope I’ll see him in more.

There was a convincing, moving and beautifully sung Gremin from Taras Shtonda, a lively, really beautiful Olga from Ekaterina Sergeeva (how well Vick directs this role, particularly in the party scene), a really fine Larina from Diana Montague who caught the nostalgia beautifully in her duet with Irina Tchistjakova’s warm Filipyevna and a charming Triquet from François Piolino, not caricatured, just right.  The chorus was in outstanding fettle, singing fully and precisely and having a wonderful time in the party scenes. 

I love this opera.  It has so much to say about age and youth, about lost opportunities and about thoughtless arrogance and this production conveys all of this with a simple elegance that most directors can simply aspire to.  With outstanding conducting and very, very fine singing, this makes an excellent evening that lacks only the last ounce of passion and, perhaps, chemistry between the leading the characters, to make it great.