Tag Archives: Keith Warner

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.

Half seen Orpheus

3 Nov

I am coming to hate the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. First, it must surely be the most uncomfortable theatre in London: seats are incredibly uncomfortable and with minimal leg room and they squeeze you in. It is also really poorly located for reliable public transport which means that you have to factor in quite a lot of walking time in between performance end and trains. It’s a nice intimate theatre, but there are lots of others and I am increasingly finding the candle light something of a gimmick. Still, the ROH decided that it would build on the success of L’Ormindo last year with a performance of Luigi Rossi’s version of Orpheus. I couldn’t resist and went to the performance on 27th October.

The ROH then added insult to injury by starting the opera at 7.30 with an end time of 10.40 pm which meant that the last train test had to come into play, which it marginally failed. Was there any reason why it couldn’t have started at 7?

So what was it like? This was the first opera written for Paris. Anne of Austria and Mazarin imported Rossi, one of the leading Italian composers of his day and Francesco Buti as his librettist. To meet French taste they embellished the plot significantly. The first two acts feel like a Venetian comedy: Orpheus has a rival, Aristaeus, who enlists the help of Venus and Cupid to win Euridice for him (Did Offenbach know the opera?). Euridice is staunch, Cupid deceitful and, by the end of Act II, Venus having disguised herself as an old crone (an opportunity for a drag act by a tenor) she contrives to murder Euridice. The part of the Orpheus legend that we all know starts in Act III but only after Aristaeus has committed suicide.

It has a large cast – 23 named parts sung here by 12 singers – and it moves at a fairly leisurely pace. There are some good comic scenes, some nice cynicism from a satyr (Graeme Broadbent having huge fun), Cupid and the disguised Venus (Mark Milhofer, ditto). I thought that there was some very attractive music – that after the death of Euridice struck me as very touching indeed. But this reminds me a lot of Cavalli – sung plays, short arias without the character that he provides and with little to stir the senses musically. After two acts, it felt like a very interesting and pretty enjoyable curiosity. I’m afraid that wasn’t enough for the piece to pass the last train test and so I left then. If Act III is masterpiece, that is my loss.

The production was by Keith Warner and felt very similar to Holten’s Ormindo last year. There was another jolly translation by Christopher Cowell (joining the fashion of being careless about rhyme and assonance but amusing enough) – which was put across well by the cast. Warner’s direction allowed the acting more or less to survive the close scrutiny of an audience and it’s always a pleasure to have the singers so close. The comedy was very well done and I think that he caught the slight unevenness of the piece.

The cast was full of good young singers. Siobhan Stagg was a late replacement for Mary Bevan as Orpheus. I don’t think it was her fault that, at least for the first two acts, Orpheus isn’t that interesting a character and didn’t seem to have much to do. The other male soprano role, Aristaeus, was sung by Caitlin Hulcup who gave a strong, performance of a very silly character. Sky Ingram was a very glamorous, assertive Venus for the time when she was not disguised, Keri Fuge made a neat Cupid and Verena Gunz an enjoyable Aegea, Euridice’s nurse.

Christian Curmyn conducted. The orchestra of the Early Opera Company played strongly and, I imagine, stylishly. It sounded good and came across very well in this theatre. The audience was enjoying it.

I don’t think they’ve uncovered a masterpiece but I was very pleased to have the opportunity to see at least part of it. However, if there are to me more such, I really do think that the ROH ought to think about the venues for these projects and, particularly, the starting time of these ventures.

Peter Pan Flies In

25 Jul

David Pountney has done an outstanding job in reviving the Welsh National Opera’s artistic drive and one of the welcome developments is the short residency at the ROH each summer.  This year they brought their new production of Richard Ayres’s Peter Pan, less than 20 months after the opera’s premiere.  I saw the first performance in London on 24th July.  Judging by the delays in starting and the lengthy intervals, I’d guess there were technical problems around the transfer to the much larger theatre.  I also found it hard to disentangle my aversion to the subject matter of the opera from the quality of the performance.

I’ve never been much taken by Peter Pan. As a child, the whole thing seemed to me to silly, rather patronising and very slightly frightening.  As an adult it feels nauseatingly sentimental, creepy and silly: an arch idea of childhood and I don’t believe a word of it.  I know that others see it as a fascinating pre-Freudian study of oedipal complexes and the death wish, which somehow makes it worse that it’s fed to children.

So there was probably no way that I was really going to enjoy this opera and I wasn’t much looking forward – it might be a half time job, I thought. #

I was pleasantly surprised to start with. The music was accessible, Lavinia Greenlaw’s libretto seemed to have filleted the novel reasonably succinctly and I decided, after the quite short first act, that I was happy to stay on until the end.
That was probably a mistake. The time in Neverland struck me as both compressed and embarrassing. Ayres’s music seemed less interesting and I started to get very bored. The return to London struck me as perfunctory. I liked the piece much less and was irritated that I was wasting my time.

Ayres’s music is indeed accessible and pleasant enough to listen to. It strikes me as not unlike Jonathan Dove’s, though a bit less astringent. It’s influenced by the minimalists, and there are touches of Stravinsky and Janacek in there – in places I was reminded of Cunning Little Vixen – but I found that it didn’t develop much. There are some nice set piece numbers – for Mrs Darling, for Peter and for Wendy – and it’s a proficient piece without exciting or interesting me.  There’s nothing to frighten the horses and the many parents and children in the audience wouldn’t have been disturbed by it at all.  There’s even the odd tune.  Equally, I didn’t find it particularly memorable or haunting.  It felt efficient.  I felt that I’d quite like to hear more of his music

Keith Warner’s production was pretty and inventive enough – the flying was outstandingly well done and there were lots of little jokes around building blocks, toy trains and so forth. I couldn’t help finding some of it a bit busy and clunky – particularly around the scene changes.   The set looked cluttered and I couldn’t help feeling that, perhaps, a bit more space, would have helped.  I don’t think he solved the problem of adults playing children – it all seemed quite embarrassing.

The cast was good: Iestyn Morris was a vigorous, other-worldy Pan and caught about as much of the character as you can expect – rightly the star of the show and suggesting a very promising dramatic future. Hilary Summers was very strong indeed as Mrs Darling, rather moving in a ditty about tidying up chidlren’s mind (what the f… is that all about?) and Ashley Holland doubled Mr Darling and Hook with aplomb. Marie Arnet sang strongly as Wendy and had nice support from Nicholas Sharratt as John and Rebecca Bottone as Michael. They all gave polished, accomplished performances within the limitations of the piece and the fact that I didn’t believe for a moment that any of them were children.#

Erik Nielsen conducted surely.  The music and performances filled the house well.  He made a good case for the piece and the orchestra struck me as being on pretty marvellous form.

Audience reaction struck me as a bit muted, enjoying the staging but maybe less sure about the opera, though, the children around me seemed to like it.  I won’t be going again, myself, but I could easily imagine it, however, taking off as a pleasant family show.