Tag Archives: Opera

Glyndebourne’s engaging Traviata

4 Jun

“Did you think that ending was outrageous?” asked an excited American lady as I queued for coffee at the end of the performance of La traviata at Glyndebourne on 31 May.  I thought that she was referring to the moderately controversial ending of Tom Cairns’s production, where Violetta dies alone.  But no, it was to the end of the opera itself: that the woman, who was about the only one in the opera not at fault, should be the one who dies and ends up apologising for it.  She was right, of course, and it’s the reaction Verdi would have wanted. And I thought that it was great that a newcomer could react to an opera so freshly and intelligently, reminding me how easy it is to take this piece for granted.

I think it was also a tribute to Tom Cairns’s production that, while not being outstanding is, in fact, a very good, clear, thoughtful version of the opera.  It often happens that the second showing of a production here improves upon the first and this felt more settled and secure than in 2014.  If there are problems, I think it they are to do with Hildegard Bechtler’s set which feels strangely cluttered and ugly and with the modern setting: our social mores are very different today and there are occasions, particularly in the Germont/Violetta duet where this becomes naggingly worrying.

There was, pretty much, a new cast and a very, very strong one.  It’s perhaps worth noting the lesser roles that are so important in Traviata and which were cast from strength.  William Dazeley, for example, made the best Douphol that I’ve seen simply through his experience and authority (and he sang it very well, too): his acting and presence were crucial in creating the wider milieu and context.  Ditto Henry Waddington as Grenvil, creating the sympathetic outsider who is also part of the revelry (I loved him hastily hiding the evidence of a night on the tiles in Act III) and singing it really well.  The casting throughout, right to James Newby’s single line as the messenger at the end of the first scene of Act II – clearly, authoritatively delivered but presenting a character as well.  These included a vital, flirtatious Flora from Rihab Chaieb, an elegant Marchese from Daniel Shelvey and a passionately concerned Annina from Eliza Safian.  These, and the excellent chorus, clearly having a high old time with some really detailed characterisation and acting, reminded you that Glyndebourne really has the time to prepare things from scratch.

Kristina Mkhitaryan was the new Violetta.  She is rather special. She looks beautiful and elegant and she acts the part beautifully – you felt that she was the only one of the cast who really understood the implications of what was going on and she created a highly sympathetic, intelligent character.  Vocally, she sounded more comfortable in the conversations than in the show pieces: Ah fors’e lui better than Sempre libera.  I’ve heard individuals (Cotrubas, Miriciou) make more of some of the passages and present a more sparkling, emotional figure, but she was a very satisfying, vulnerable, striking Violetta and I’d like to hear her again.

Zach Borichevsky sang Alfredo on the tour in 2014.  He’s strikingly tall and provides just the right gauche, young, thoughtless, impulsive character.  I don’t think that I’ve seen a more convincingly acted Alfredo.  Vocally, he was stretched by the end of his cabaletta but, that apart, sounded good and sang as if he meant it.

Igor Golotavenko was the Germont.  It was a joy to hear this baritone again after the joys of Poliuto.  Off hand, I can’t think of another voice that sounds more “right” for this sort of role.  The sound is burnished, bronzed and seems to flow effortlessly.  His phrasing is thoughtful and, I don’t think I can recall anyone who has given me quite so much sheer pleasure from his singing in this role or the sheer glory of the sound.  I was less taken by his acting which didn’t really seem to have got into the role.  He did some nice things – suggesting the sexual attraction he also feels for Violetta and in trying to manage the relationship with his son but he made me realise what a very difficult role this is to put across convincingly these days.

Richard Farnes conducted, pacing the score very well indeed and accompanying the singers very thoughtfully.  Perhaps he focussed a little too much on the details but I enjoyed the way he brought ou, first the oboe and then the cellos in Dite alla giovene.  The LPO played very nicely – the clarinet as Violetta writes to Alfredo marvellously phrased.

This may not go down as one of Glyndebourne’s great, unforgettable occasions, but it was typical of what the place does well: a fresh, beautifully prepared evening with keen singers and musicians, giving a very, very good take on the opera.  And, if it brought out that reaction in a newcomer, that suggests that it got very close to complete success.

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Götterdämmerung – Susan Bullock stars

27 Oct

So it’s over. Götterdämmerungcame to an end on 24th October and I feel a mixture of huge satisfaction and admiration for the works, of exhaustion after four evenings of very hard work, regret that it’s all over and an element of frustration at the bits that didn’t quite work or were downright perverse.

The great things first. I thought Susan Bullock grew into a fabulously good Brünnhilde.  It may not be the fullest or most grateful voice, but how I admired her sheer stamina and feeling at the end of the immolation scene, that she could probably go on for quite lot longer had Wagner written the music.  She is an intensely communicative singer – singing the words, conveying the meaning and the emotion behind it.  She conveyed the intensity of her love for Siegfried, the sheer bewilderment and humiliation in the Gibichung’s hall and, at the end, the realisation of her role and the joy at the prospect of reunion with Siegfried.  Watching this portrayal grow has been one of the glories of this Ring.

Stephan Vinke is, again, a very strong Siegfried – not the most mellifluous, rather dry of tone but he has the stamina for the role and creates a believable innocent (one day I may do blog about the relative intelligence of tenor roles in opera – Siegfried runs Manrico pretty close). He acts alertly and struck me as highly convincing. His final words about Brünnhilde were very moving.

John Tomlinson makes a wonderfully black Hagen pretty much dominating the stage and his vast voice, black as ink, his completely believable acting, conveying the evil and bitterness of the role was a joy. I thought he created a sense of regret and bitterness in the scene with Alberich that I’ve not seen in other portrayals.  The voice may not be as fresh as it was a few years ago, but it still sounds pretty much ideal for this role.

I wasn’t greatly convinced by either of the Gibichungs – two of the least grateful roles in the cycle, but Rachel Willis-Sørensen struck me as having a voice that might well have a very strong future in Mozart and Strauss.  Rhinemaidens and Norns were all very strong indeed.  The chorus was strong and as exciting as it should be.

I’ve praised Pappano’s conducting and the orchestral playing.  I think that Pappano’s huge strengths are his consideration for the singers and the sheer clarity of the textures, the way that he brings out the themes and commentary as an organic part of the score.  He gets the dark, threatening side excellently but there were times when I missed the sheer energy and the huge climaxes that I’ve heard in more romantic readings. At the end of all the operas, I’ve felt a little earth bound, in the sense that I haven’t quite had the themes playing around in my head for the next 24 hours.

The virtues and vices of Warner’s production haven’t changed much since Walküre. There is the wonderful direction of the singers, achieving marvellous acting performances and an understanding of their motivation and real imagination.  There are some great stage pictures.  I loved the statue of Wotan looking over the end of the second Act, reminding you of his responsibility for Brünnhilde’s predicament and his inability to help.  Hunding snapping off his spear for the oath scene for a great touch.  There are some things that I just don’t get – why we see Alberich in his boat on a life-support system (why does he need a boat anyway?), what’s all the algebra about?  Why is the Gibichung Hall like the Tarnhelm?  What irritates me more, however are the bits that look to me like sheer clumsiness.  I like the idea of the gods’ statues being melted down in the immolation scene but getting the crowd to attach them to the ropes seemed obvious. I can see why you need to have a platform the last scene of Act II but it did bounce a lot which was distracting and looked amateurish.  Having a splash of water as the Rhinemaidens return to the Rhine is amusing once, tiresome and predictable on repetition.  It’s one of those productions which you feel could have been vastly improved if the design budget had been halved.

There’s never going to be a production of the Ring that gets all the subtleties and ideas in there or a cast that can completely satisfy you musically.  For all my complaints, this was a hugely engaging, enjoyable and satisfying four evenings, that I’ll remember for Bullock, Terfel, Tomlinson and Pappano in particular and for the intensity of the acting.  What I’m less sure about is whether I want to see it again.  The days of Rings every year seem to have gone for ever but I bet Pappano will want to have another go at it before he goes and I can’t see the house running to a new production for that.

Stamp Collecting with the Jette Parker artists

20 Oct

The friend that I met at the Jette Parker double bill at the Linbury (19th October) described the evening as stamp collecting and other addicts will know exactly what he means.  When was Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne last done here? And to put it in a double bill with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri struck me as a stroke of genius.  I hadn’t seen either before and both were on my list of operas I wanted to see.  They made a nice contrast to the Ring and gave the opportunity to take a look at the latest crop of Young Artists on the scheme.

I’m ambivalent about early Mozart.  I tend to find it the sort of music that a supremely talented 12 year old might well produce – entertaining, hugely competent, with some nice inventions but let’s not mistake it for having the scope, knowledge or experience that Mozart was later to bring or even that significantly less talented older composers show. This opera doesn’t change my mind.  I think that, if it was indeed first performed at a garden party, Dr Mesmer’s guest would have started off thinking how charming and wonderful it was but might have been consulting their watches after about half an hour and wondering when the drinks were coming back.  The text is meant to be a parody of Rousseau’s Le devin du village and it might possibly have been amusing to an audience that knew that piece, but I rather doubt it.

It’s an inconsequentail operetta about a quarrel between a shepherd and shepherdess over his unfaithfulness, which they then make up with a bit of help from Colas, the local savant. It’s made up of a few short but competent arias for each of the characters,a duet and a trio. There’s a lot of charm in the orchestration and in the word setting struck me a very good even if characterisation is non-existent.  The libretto strikes me as absolutely suited to a 12 year old prodigy in that it’s pretty naive and doesn’t set any particular challenges.  It could do with losing about 20 minutes and I think it’s one for collectors which I feel no great desire to see again.

The singing here was quite as good as the piece deserved. Dušica Bijelić and David Butt Philip made a nice pair of lovers and Jihoon Kim was fine as Colas. I just wished they’d been given something a bit meatier to get their teeth into.  Michele Gamba conducted a slightly scratchy Southbank Sinfonia which, if the story is true, is probably not very far from what it was like at the first performance. Pedro Ribeiro directed and didn’t really help the piece. The couple spent their time pushing trolleys of sheep along a railway line and the whole thing moved very slowly. Possibly it’s not Mozart’s fault that the piece outstayed its welcome.  Ribeiro tried too hard.

Mozart and Salieri is a very different story.  It’s a setting of a short text by Pushkin. It’s in two scenes, lasts 45 minutes and tells how Salieri poisoned Mozart. It’s infinitely preferable to the flummery of Peter Shaffer’s play and is a nicely concentrated, intense two-hander. The interest is in the lowering portrayal of Salieri and his growing jealousy of Mozart, leading to the scene where he poisons him after hearing a portion of the Requiem. The piece opens with a huge aria for him outlining the development of his envy.  It’s followed by the first of two meetings between the two characters, Salieri’s decision to poison Mozart and then the poisoining scene.  Rimsky’s score is pastiche Mozart but fully informed by developments since then.  It’s well paced, with outstanding characterisation of the two parts and has real interest both as an experiment in the form, but also in its outstanding depiction of the two characters. I wanted to see it again, either with native Russian singers or with slightly more mature singers singing in English – it’s an opera where the text is important.

This is not meant to be unfair to two very talented singers but simply to remark that someone with the experience of a Chalyapin is likely to make more of the colours and emotions of Salieri than Ashley Riches could at this stage of his career.  Even so, I thought that Mr Riches is someone to look out for.  This was a hugely confident performance by a singer with a fine voice, admirable security in Russian and a personality that commanded the stage and the audience.  I’d love to see him do the role again in 10 years time and a good many other roles too.  I think then he’ll make even more of that rather chilling moment at the end when Salieri remarks that Mozart will be sleeping for a long time – as it was, I thought he conveyed the conflicted emotions of Salieri really strongly.

Pablo Bensch was a very successful Mozart who was, perhaps a bit serious but he has a strong tenor that seemed to me to suit the Slavonic repertory really well. He created a lonely figure.  This was, again, a really strong, confident performance by a tenor who should go far.

Paul Wingfield got really good playing out of the orchestra and Ribeiro’s production – suits and black, with excellent lighting giving the right sense of melodrama, shadows and darkness – seemed to me to capture very nicely this haunting little piece.

It’s a shame that the way we currently watch opera isn’t well suited to performances of excellent one-acters like this.  It would be good to catch it as a lunchtime or early evening pre-dinner event.  It might make a nice curtain raiser to something like Osud or even Vixen or perhaps as a triple bill with, say Trial by Jury and Enfant et les Sortilèges to make a really varied evening.  Any other thoughts?
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Die Walküre – Triumphing over the set

20 Oct

I’m still on a high after the ROH Walküre on 18th October.  Most of the reasons why I was ambivalent about Rheingold are still there, but the wonderful things about this performance overcame them and I found myself increasingly engrossed and in a way which transcended the feeling that I was “at the opera”.

The programme talked about family relationships looking at fathers and children. But it also struck me that there is something strong in this opera about marriage and we see two different failing or failed marriages which you cannot but contrast with the love of Siegmund and Sieglinde.  In Act I you have (very vividly depicted here) the abusive nature of the Hunding/Sieglinde marriage where Hunding has Sieglinde completely in thrall. And then there’s the Wotan/Fricka scene where Fricka pretty much by virtue of going on and on and applying emotional blackmail, trounces Wotan.  What interested me particularly in this performance was that Bryn Terfel’s Wotan suggested a respectful tenderness towards Fricka and a suggestion that this is a relationship that has endured, however unsatisfactory it may be, albeit at the same time that he was rather patronisingly telling her that she didn’t know what she was talking about.  This wasn’t just the marriage of convenience between two people who hate each other, as you often see.  With Sarah Connolly’s implacable, emotionally secure but deeply unhappy Fricka, this scene was one of the most fascinating of the cycle so far.

But Walküre is, pretty much, Wotan’s opera and Terfel demonstrated what a wonderful Wotan he is. What I admire most about him is his ability to sing this music softly and as if it were dialogue in a play. This huge man, with a vast voice, can sing softly and tenderly creating a hugely moving character.  He knows absolutely what Wotan is thinking and communicates it – passages you expect to be loud and hectoring become persuasive, explanatory. I got the depth of his love and trust for Brünnhilde and his anger at her betrayal, the bitterness at sacrificing Siegmund and the sheer regret at the loss of them both.  One of the things that he brought out for me, as well as the love, was the transition from the god who, at the start, still thinks he can control everything and, by the end realises that he can’t, that his role is simply to watch.  And that gives a link to Siegfried.  I’m looking forward impatiently to his Wanderer.

Last time I saw this here, Susan Bullock stepped in as Brünnhilde for an ill Lisa Gasteen and I remember being astonished by her assured performance then.  With proper preparation this time, I thought she was very fine indeed. It’s not a voice I would instantly think of for the role – it’s not as full and powerful as, say, Nilsson (who is?) and it also lacks the voluptuousness of Eva-Maria Westbroek who, as Sieglinde, sounded as though he voice was bigger.  And yet there is a steely stamina there and, like Terfel, an ability to use the words and music to convey the thoughts. I don’t normally think of the Ring as  particularly moving series of operas – fascinating and interesting but not that emotional – but when Bullock talked to Wotan about love in Act III, the colours that she found there, combined with Pappano’s achingly responsive conducting, brought tears to my eyes.  This was someone who had been changed by her experiences in Act II.  Bullock’s hoydenish opening turned into someone who had chosen what was to follow.  The dialogue with Wotan was so intense that she caught you up in her joy when he announced that he’d be surrounding her with fire.  The way that she developed the character in this opera bodes well for the rest of the cycle.

The others were of an equally high calibre.  Westbroek was a generous, beautiful Sieglinde.  Simon O’Neill has the heft and stamina for Siegmund but if, like me, you’ve always thought that heroic warriors were, well, fit and probably youthful, then he can’t really be a visually acceptable Siegmund. John Tomlinson was a vicious thug of a Hunding and, as ever, it’s wonderful to hear his voice and his intelligence in Wagner.

Pappano was in complete accord with his singers and, even if the orchestra wasn’t as completely secure throughout the evening as it had been in Rheingold, this was a reading that sounded “right” in that it worked with the production and the singers so that the emotions, the ideas were reflected in the orchestra.  He weaves the textures in the score beautifully – I remember particularly the passage for ‘cellos and woodwind in the first scene as Sieglinde and Siegmund have their nervous introductions – the two voices there were perfectly balanced and gave huge pleasure as well as commenting on what was going on onstage.

Keith Warner has to take a lot of the credit for a performance as intelligent and effective as that.  His direction of the interaction between the characters is outstanding and shows such knowledge and thought of the text that it’s a privilege to watch.  And yet you admire this in spite of sets and the sheer clumsiness and occasional inconsistencies of parts of the staging and the sheer heaviness of the set.

Perhaps I’m just too literal, but in my experience you do not have a fan working in a room where there is also a blazing fire (Siegmund warms himself against it).  The furnishings chez Hunding suggest wealth (and, indeed, Hunding suggests that he has wealthy patrons so some of this has clearly rubbed off).  They include a nicely upholstered chaise longue with ram horn decorations which is clearly also a shrine to Fricka and one which Brünnhilde is put to sleep – ürather a good touch).  If this is right, I think that Hunding might want to keep his wife in something rich rather than the typical Sieglinde-fustian that she wore here.

It’s a very busy set.  Hunding’s house is set clumsily within the Magic Mountain set that we had for the gods in Rheingold and which is now derelict for Act II of this (looking slightly like the preparations for a house clearance).  When the house flies up for the end of the love duet, the steps up to it have to fold up like the steps into an aircraft – and you’re watching that rather than concentrating on the lovers.  There’s still the ladder leading to Valhalla until Siegmund destroys it with Nothung after the Todesverkündigung – a nice, flashy gesture but is this the right place in the cycle for it or is it even appropriate? I felt that the revolving wall revolved rather too often while the door placed in it looks random, inelegant.

And you feel there are self-imposed hindrances.  It’s a nice idea for Brünnhilde to descend by the ladder from Valhalla but isn’t that really compromised by her undoing her safety harness when she gets to the bottom: wasn’t there another solution?  You feel that Terfel has to worry too much about where to leave his spear and his cloak and when to put them on again.  The mattress for the Valkyries’ ride just looks random and silly.  More seriously, I didn’t get why Sieglinde had to wander round the stage during the Todesverkündigung and I found that this, together with the projection of the rotating wall frustratingly distracted me from what Miss Bullock and Mr O’Neill were doing in one of the most important scenes in the entire cycle.  I think it’s a definite failure that you are left looking at the white wall while Wotan puts Brünnhilde to sleep behind it.  Presumably this is to give Terfel the time to attach the contraption to his hand so that he can hold the magic fire in the next scene and to find a way of getting a spear and breast plate for Brünnhilde by the chaise longue, two items that have rather obviously not been part of her acoutrements for the rest of the opera.  This feels like laziness.

I don’t underestimate the problems of staging the Ring but it’s frustrating that so much that is strong and good in this performance is compromised by a design concept that simply doesn’t have the flexibility that’s needed.  The singers and conducting triumphed over the problems and made for a great evening.  I just felt that it might have been easier for them without the distractions.

CD Shopping

4 Jun

One of the sadnesses of 21st century life is the paucity of specialist classical music CD shops.  In Central London, only Harold Moores seriously caters for the classical music lover.  I find it hard to believe that we are all really so addicted to internet shopping or downloading that a major capital city cannot support more than one shop to supply a population that must include at surely tens of thousands of classical music lovers.  One of my great pleasures used to be to wander into MDC or one of the specialist shops with no particular intention of buying  anything, but open to temptation, and leaving, with my wallet rather lighter and my shopping bag quite a lot heavier, simply because I’d seen all those CDs that I didn’t know I wanted at prices that, on balance, were too good to miss.

Internet shopping, for me at least, isn’t the same and, if my wallet is heavier and my shelves filling at a slower rate, life has lost a bit of its joy.  On the internet, somehow, the eye isn’t caught by that reissue of a CD you’d never have bought at full price, or that collection that contains two or three things you realise your own collection desperately needs, or the import or live performance that you didn’t know existed.  Maybe I just haven’t got the knack or found the sites that will do that for me.

I was reminded of this on a visit to Newcastle.  I get there pretty regularly because (a) I have family there and (b) Opera North visits.  There are two places there that I always look at.  First, there is JG Windows, not what it was, but still a decent source of the odd off-beat or unexpected recording or the special price – where you need at least half an hour to browse and weigh up the options.  The second is HMV which, unlike many of its other branches, still has a classical section in an area a bit removed from the general sound system and where, again, you can find the occasional keenly priced item.  My normal routine is to have good browse in HMV, then wander to Windows to compare and, if necessary, return.

This time my eye at HMV was caught by Decca’s reissue of La cenerentola with Bartoli and Chailly.  I’ve coveted it for a while but, with three others (Gui, Abbado and Ferro, since you ask), could never quite bring myself to pay full price for it.  At HMV, it was a tenner.  Windows charged slightly more, but then they had the Hampson recording of Thomas’s Hamlet, substantially cheaper….  What interested me, however – and this is the real, musing purpose of this blog – was that the alternatives, or lack of them, to the Bartoli Cenerentola.

In both shops the only alternative was the Glyndebourne version conducted by Gui from 1953.  And it was about £2 more expensive.

I looked online.  As you would expect, I could have got all of the recordings a bit cheaper (shaving off about £1.50, so barely a massive consideration) by going to itunes or Amazon or one of the specialist online dealers.  What interested me was that, unless you want the original Decca Bartoli recording (presumably because it has a libretto), it’s quite difficult to find a respectable Cenerentola for more than about £15.  And, apart from Amazon which had it quite sensibly priced at £7.50, the Gui was more expensive than all the more modern versions.

Now one of the things that has improved in my lifetime is the standard of Rossini performance.  With conductors like Ferro, Rizzi and Scimone, mezzos like Larmore, Valentini-Terrani and di Donato, tenors like Matteuzzi, Gimenez and Florez and buffo baritones like Corbelli, Dara, Alaimo and Pratico, it’s very hard to go wrong with any recording made after 1980. So what on earth is going on here?  There are lots of things I like about the Gui recording – not least Gui’s own conducting, Bruscantini’s stylish Dandini and a nice sense of ensemble.  It’s of historic interest as probably the earliest Rossini recording with a true sense of ensemble and style.  But the Angelina is ordinary, it’s not complete and Ian Wallace’s Magnifico sounds quite leaden compared with his successors.  Even in 1976, Harold Rosenthal didn’t think it was completely recommendable.  At the moment, even Glyndebourne aren’t stocking it in a season when they’re doing the opera.  That must tell you something.

It took me a while, but then I realised that the only reason that I could think of for the premium was the fact that EMI have included an extra CD with text, translation and synopsis.  They have done the same with the really pretty dreadful Giulini Italiana in Algieri, which no-one in their right minds will buy other than for masochistic reasons or to prove beyond doubt that we do Rossini better nowadays.  Most of the others don’t include a libretto or make you go online for one.

So there are two questions.  First, would anyone pay more for an older, inferior recording simply because it has a CD with libretto and synopsis?  Personally, I wouldn’t but then I have a libretto and know the piece pretty well and rarely follow CDs with libretto in hand.  But maybe I’m not the demographic EMI have in mind.

Secondly, is it any wonder that nobody goes to CD shops if you have a choice of only two recordings of quite a major opera?  It seems to me that there is a vicious circle going on there: shops aren’t making enough money from classical CDs to justify the space, so they stock fewer, which means that fewer people buy from them because there is less choice.  And so the random CD buyer like me, buys less.

Anyway, unless you’re allergic to Bartoli (and this is her in the 1990s  before she became more mannered), I do strongly recommend this Cenerentola – it’s fabulously good.

2 Jun

What interested me most about Sum (Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House – I saw it on 28th May) was that the composer, Max Richter, described it as a chamber opera and itt struck me how far we had come from the Boulez inspired days when composers would go miles to avoid using the O word even for pieces which obviously were – “music theatre” was a favourite. And yet here was a piece that was about as far away as you could get from a conventional opera, short of removing the orchestra and the words and replacing the singers with dancers.

There is no conventional plot.  It is a setting of various extracts from: Sum; forty tales from the afterlife by David Eagleman, a neuro-scientist.  These are a group of reflections/stories about the afterlife. There are no conventional characters. The three singers clearly have personalities, as you would expect, but I couldn’t discern any particular journey or thread that led them to be given one passage than another to narrate. Structurally, the piece reminded me of a Bach cantata or something like Carmina Burana or even Schwanengesang – a group of texts set to make a convincing musical meditation rather than a dramatic piece. The singers are miked.

The orchestra is sunk in the middle of the Linbury auditorium and we are sat around it. The singers come from among us and occasionally try to interact with individuals in the audience – often failing, largely through the embarrassment of the audience member they choose. They are directed by Wayne MacGregor and you can see the choreographer in the precise, graceful movements. You also get, urgent, intelligent responses to the text. Each of the 16 numbers is accompanied by projections, abstract or concrete – often distracting from the words.

Richter’s music is very beautiful, tending towards the minimalist. On a first hearing, it struck me that there were some interesting structures and very gorgeous textures, coming from the orchestra. It is a reflective piece, with the word admirably set – clear, comprehensible and with no points where you thought he had gone for a particular line over sense.  He struck me as a very talented composer for the voice.

The performance seemed to me to be about as good as it could be. And Massey had the performance well under control and the singers – Rupert Enticknap, Caroline MacPhie and Damian Thantrey were uniformly excellent.

The real problem for me was that I found it very difficult to relate to the texts, to see why they had any connection or anything particular to say. I can see that the texts were intended as a commentary on life, providing whimsical, slightly surrealistic, sometimes mildly thought-provoking ideas on other ways in which life might be and what might happen afterwards.  I found the reflection on how long you remain alive in the memory of others struck a chord.  I am, however, the sort of person who finds this sort of reflection pretty sterile and unhelpful and I found it difficult to see the point.

It doesn’t matter, particularly, how you categorise this piece. Operas don’t have to be full of love, blood, vendettas and car chases.  I think Richter is a major talent and it was good to encounter his music.  It’s good to see artists engaging with the form and seeing how far they can take.   Even if this wasn’t, for me, a massively impressive or unforgettable experience, I’m glad I was there and who knows what it may lead to.

Caligula – or the problem with the Coliseum

26 May

The ENO had cheap tickets for Caligula so I went down to Row H in the Dress Circle (normally I stick to the front of the Upper Circle) for this, the UK premiere of Glanert’s 2006 opera (25th May).  The acoustic is surprising good (I’d thought the sound might be affected by the Upper Circle stretching out above you, but what I heard was very clear) but you feel miles away.  And this was accentuated by the huge set that Benedict Andrew had chosen to fill the stage.  It’s a vast bank of seats from a sports stadium: it’s a really good background, in theory, for an opera about a dictatorship and it pushes a lot of the action to front of the stage – again, good in theory.  The problem was that this vast set dwarfed the characters and made some scenes – like the remarkable impersonation of Venus – seem cramped and clumsy.

This was a shame because I’m sure it blunted the impact of what struck me as a very promising, potentially exciting opera.  It shows you a series of episodes in the life of Caligula and, in particular, his relationships with his wife, Caesonia and a group of senators, as a he pulls a series of increasingly sadistic tricks and bizarre events.  It’s also an existentialist exploration of power, as you would expect, given that it’s based on Camus.  Perhaps it is little too long, but there are some haunting scenes and some that are really beautiful – like Caesonia’s arias and the lamenting of the citizens.  He makes sure that you can hear the words (the translation by Amanda Holden was clear and impeccably delivered by the cast – surtitles were almost completely redundant).  There are some exciting things in the music though it strikes me as very strong if quite generically late 20th/early 21st century, owing a lot to Berg, Henze and Britten but without the uniform dramatic force or individuality of those. There are striking moments and episodes but I found my attention wandering.  I don’t think the theatre or production helped: I think you need a smaller auditorium and less massive set to allow some of the more internal moments to come across but also to enable the horror and ghastliness of Caligula to dominate the audience a bit more.

And it depends a great deal on the Caligula who has to dominate the stage and the auditorium.  Peter Coleman-Wright has always seemed to me to be a very able, intelligent and committed singer, good at drawing you in to the internal workings of the character, but not someone with the extrovert flashiness to command and dominate the stage.  You couldn’t but admire the stamina and his versatility, but it felt distant, not horrific or involving enough and, from my seat, it felt a long way away.  He had to compete against an overwhelming set and the vast barn and, I thought, lost, but lost valiantly.

The other roles offer great opportunities to shine at moments in the piece and I thought that Yvonne Howard as Caesonia, Christopher Ainslie as the slave, Helicon, Pavel Hunka as Cherea and Carolyn Dobbin as Scipio make particularly strong impressions – making you listen to them and conveying, so far as was possible in the vast auditorium, some of the difficulties they faced.  Ainslie and Dobbin in particular struck me as people to watch. Ryan Wigglesworth and the musicians seemed to have the score entirely within their command.

We don’t get nearly enough opportunities to see new European operas and this is a “must see” simply because of that.  It’s great to be introduced to Glanert’s music – I’d like to see some of his other operas and, in a different theatre and production, I’d see this one again.  It’s a strong, well-prepared, committed performance and it’s just a shame that I felt that, ultimately, it didn’t grab me as I feel it ought to have done.

Or perhaps I should just bite the bullet and buy more expensive seats in the Coliseum.