Tag Archives: Richard Farnes

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.


Opera North Rheingold

6 Jul

The final complete cycle of Opera North’s much-praised Ring began at the Sage in Gateshead on 5th July.  It’s four years since my last complete Ring and it was high time for another.  On the evidence of this Rheingold it’s not going to be a disappointing week.

I often find Rheingold the hardest work of the four: it’s like a play: political, with dialogues and none of the lyrical love duets or vast monologues of the other operas.  It’s easy to feel, sometimes, that Wagner takes rather a long time as characters circle round each other and use that “hard will you find it O crafty but credulous god/nibelung/giant” formulation before actually getting to the point, while nothing that interesting happens in the music while they’re at it.  In a good performance, however, the politics and the tensions between the characters are fascinating and you begin to pick up the parallels with the sorts of political dilemmas between justice and self-interest, of emotion and intellect that are crucial to the cycle.

Opera North’s approach – an acted concert with images projected on huge screens together with surtitles and a very slightly arch narrative – gives you the essence of the piece and rather more.  The acting and characterisation is as good as you’d get in a full staging.  The closeness of the singers to the audience allows you to savour the words and see the expressions: it’s immediate, you’re not distracted by the additions that most directors feel they need to add and you can form your own ideas from the words and music.

So at this performance, I became aware of the fractured Wotan/Fricka relationship in a way that I’d never quite got before, together with that tension between the gods over how you treat the giants.  And, of course, the more I hear the score, the more I get the interplay of leitmotivs.

There are disadvantages.  There are times when you long for a stronger visual representation of Valhalla, of the Rhine, of the Rainbow bridge, where you would just like more space and more physicality about the performances and a a more concrete interpretation.

And it’s important to be honest that this isn’t a perfect performance.  The orchestral playing had its share of fluffs, the singers aren’t world class.  This Ring is limited by resources and by space.  What isn’t limited is the imagination and enthusiasm and these overcome any doubts.

Richard Farnes is central to this.  He has the orchestra expertly drilled and it makes a thrilling sound.  Those huge climaxes, the details sound glorious.  He paces the climaxes superbly and the playing and consideration to the singers helps you concentrate.  I was never bored or found my mind wandering.  The orchestra doesn’t disappoint.

And it’s a pretty good cast.  Only Michael Druiett makes a vocally dull Wotan, at the limits of his range and without the nobility of sound and sheer arrogance that you ideally want from a Wotan.  He manages, he’s acceptable, but I wanted a little more.

Otherwise, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacker is an outstanding, I would say world-class, Loge.  He seizes the dramatic opportunities, creating a cynical, dislikeable, but also sympathetic character.  His clear tenor sounds perfect for the role.  I loved the way he gentle played with the red handkerchief, representing the dead Fasolt, at the end.  Here was a Loge completely in control.

Jo Pohlheim was a powerful, clear Alberich.  Maybe I’d have liked a bit more intensity in the curse but he caught the craving for power and wealth and the hatred of the gods. Richard Roberts made a clear, servile Mime.

The other gods were strong: Yvonne Howard’s sensible, rather sad Fricka, Giselle Allen’s gorgeously sung, frightened Freia – personally, I wouldn’t have let Wotan near my golden apples after that experience.  Mark le Brocq and Andrew Foster-Williams were fine as Froh and Donner.  Perhaps I could do with a slightly darker, firmer mezzo than Ceri Williams’s for Erda, but she knew absolutely what her episode was about.

James Creswell made a clear, almost sympathetic Fasolt and Mats Almgren an ideally dark Fafner – the by-play between the two was marvellously clear and perhaps the only way in which costumes and a full staging might have helped could have been to accentuate the fact that the giants are, surely, rather terrifyingly powerful and have a strength that the gods just don’t.  Good, strong Rhinemaidens too.

A really good start.



Opera North’s Dutchman

4 Jul

In the year’s break before their complete Ring, Opera North is continuing its Wagner work with The Flying Dutchman – another of their semi-staged concert versions with the orchestra at the back and projections.  I caught it at the Sage in Gateshead on 3rd July.

Can I begin by lamenting the old days?  My first Dutchman was staged by Opera North in 1979 at the Empire Theatre in Sunderland.  It had Peter Glossop as the Dutchman and Arlene Saunders as a first rate Senta.  It was fully staged in what felt like an excellent, fairly traditional production.  I remember the orchestra and chorus being excellent.  What has changed to  make it so difficult for the regional companies to stage Wagner?  Is it that their house orchestras and chorus are simply smaller?  Is it so much more expensive to stage Dutchman than, say, Grimes or Don Carlos?   Or was this simply a cheap way of getting this opera done?

It’s not that this wasn’t a very good performance but, unlike the Ring which, to an extent, benefited from the simplicity of the semi-staging so that you could concentrate on the words, Dutchman is a much more conventional work and much less interesting musically.  It benefits less from the concert staging and needs more space.  It’s essentially a late romantic opera, building on Freischutz.  It plays on atmosphere and spectacle and, for me, this performance didn’t properly address that.

Musically, it went a long way.  Richard Farnes conducted an outstandingly good orchestral performance.  The performance was clear but also very exciting.  Farnes found terror and melodrama and passion in the score.  The orchestra played with red hot intensity.  The chorus also were excellent – singing the words clearly and precisely. They made a thrilling noise.  The Royal Opera House chorus has been outstanding in this opera but this, far smaller chorus, was just as good. My one regret was that there weren’t enough of them to have a different group sing the ghosts in Act III.  The playing and singing of both was of international class.

The cast was good, but not quite on the same level.  Bela Pererncz sang strongly as the Dutchman but others have given more agony, more sheer emotion.  As Senta, Alwyn Mellor reminded me of what a good singer she is in these roles: gleaming tone, clear words and absolute confidence.  It’s not a big voice and she might not come across so well in a big theatre, but this was very satisfying singing.  Mats Algrem was a fine Daland, though his heavy vibrato will not be to everyone’s taste.  His acting was the most convincing of them all.  Mati Turi was no better or worse than most Erik’s – a big voice, but constricted tone and little by way of acting.  Mark LeBroq was a first rate Steersman.

Peter Mumford’s production didn’t have the same clarity or interest as his versions of the Ring.  This opera is not about conversations or ideas in the same way and the direction of the conventional duets and trios didn’t grip or, particularly, interest.  The background of waves and hands and rigging seemed decorative rather than helpful and you missed the theatrical tricks and sheer space that a good production can give.  It felt cramped.

The single act Dutchman makes for a long evening.  It just worked because of the quality of the orchestral playing and choral singing but you came out having enjoyed the evening, but not elated, and aware that, quite simply, this isn’t as good as the Ring.

Beginners’ Götterdämmerung

29 Jun

The title isn’t meant to be patronising but, as Opera North’s Ring reached its conclusion, it struck me that this was, pretty much an ideal staging for anyone new to the cycle.  It’s 35 years since audiences in the North East had a chance to hear the Ring on their doorstep and many at the performance at the Sage in Gateshead that I saw on 28th June would have been experiencing Götterdämmerung live for the first time.

The staging, as for the other operas tells the story simply. It’s very easy to follow the plot, the emotions of the characters are conveyed directly.  There are passages in Götterdämmerung where it’s quite easy for the mind to wander.  It didn’t here and it was a joy to be in an audience that was listening and engaging with barely a cough or a fidget.  The humanity of the characters was clear.  This was an accessible, clear and very, very good version.  This isn’t to say that I don’t miss the insights of more amitious productions (I won’t easily forget Brünnhilde being brought in with the paper bag over her head in Richard Jones’s production) but I don’t think, for example, that I’ve understood the words of the Immolation Scene so clearly or experienced a more immediate performance of the Waltraute scene than I have here.

As in the previous three operas, the performances have been led by the outstanding work of the Opera North orchestra under Richard Farnes.  Just watching Farnes, you have the sense of someone genuinely leading and in control and it is the clarity and the sureness of the pacing that I will take away from the these performances.  The two orchestral show pieces came off outstandingly well, as they ought to, but I’ll also remember the pauses, the management of the dialogue between singers and orchestra, the way in which he caught the dramatic mood, particularly in Act II and those dialogues between the characters so that the emotions were utterly clear.  This was compelling conducting.  Others may get more incandescence, possibly subtler playing, but this was hugely satisfying.

I don’t know how far this cast would work in a huge, acoustically challenging barn and having to ride over the orchestra. Here, stood in front, with nothing between them and the orchestra, they were excellent.  Alwyn Mellor hasn’t the sheer heft of many Brünnhildes but she conveys the wisdom, the sadness and the anger marvellously and her last scene was as moving as I’ve seen it.  Mati Turu Siegfried delivered his best singing in the narration at the end and, throughout, was enthusiastic, confident and you felt able to relax that he would be fine.  Mats Algrem made a lowering, vicious, disturbed Hagen who sang was magnificent malevolence.  Jo Pohlheim made his mark as Alberich.  Eric Greene was a nondescript Gunther, but Orla Boylan was a worried, basically decent Gutrune.  Susan Bickley was luxury casting as Waltraute and the sincerity and openness of her singing made her scene one of the highlights.  Good Rhinemaidens and Norns and predictably excellent work from the chorus.

I do hope they manage to put this cycle together and do them all in 2016 as they seem to be promising.  It’s been great to watch it being built up, but you can only get the whole experience by seeing them in close proximity.  The commitment and intelligence and sheer skill of the performances shows how wonderful Opera North can be and, as in all the others, we came out on a Wagner high, leitmotivs going round our heads and debating aspects of the work.  You can’t legitimately ask for more.


Opera North’s Ring continues

30 Jun

Opera North brought their Siegfried to the Sage in Gateshead on 29th June and I’m still on a glorious Wagner high – that one where the tunes go round and and round and you feel that anything is possible.

I described their approach when I wrote about Die Walküre last year.  It hasn’t changed much and it remains a very strong, simple way of getting the operas across.  The singers know what they’re singing about and act as committedly.  They communicate vividly to the audience.  You’re able to imagine those things that are so difficult in the theatre but so wonderfully managed by Wagner – Siegfried crossing the magic fire, the forging of the sword.  There are also one or two irritations.  The constantly changing images provide a mildly pleasant backdrop but don’t add much.  I also found reading the narrative distracting at times – at the beginning of Act II you want the stage to be as dark and black as the music rather than to read the surtitles.  The surtitles were projected over the images and, particularly, in the last act, really did not contrast well, so you couldn’t follow them as well as you needed.

What I suspect was missing most was the connection with the other operas.  It’s a year since Walküre and two since Rheingold.  It’s easy to forget the images of the previous operas and, in Siegfried, the references to what has gone before, the previous relationships are extremely important.  There’s a rumour that they’ll be doing the full cycle in 2015 and that would help.

The cast is good.  The discovery is Mati Turi as Siegfried.  He has the heft and the youthful ringing quality to the voice that make him sound like a genuine heldentenor.  His last notes sounded as fresh and as ringing as his first.  It’s not perfect – there were some passages which stretched him absolutely to his limits.  I wonder how he would come across in a larger house, with a less considerate conductor than Richard Farnes.   His acting was perfectly adequate for this performance and he created a nice sense of wonder in the forest scene.  He doesn’t look an obvious young hero but, frankly, with this voice, I’m unworried.

Michael Druiett was also stretched absolutely to his vocal limit as Wotan.  He managed to get through it – the voice sounds good and he knows what it’s about, but you good hear the struggle.

Annalena Persson was back as Brünnhilde – her clear, steely voice sounds good for the role and she managed the shifts in Brünnhilde’s emotions beautifully.  You needed to make no allowances in the duet as both singers made it sound joyous and charted the way their attraction goes really intelligently – even though you were aware that Wagner takes a huge amount of time to get it there.

Richard Roberts made a cringing, intelligent Mime – nicely sung and interracting well with Siegfried.  Jo Pohlheim struck me as a major discovery as Alberich – a great, grainy black voice and a lowering presence who made the most of his scene with Wotan.  Mats Almgrem as Fafner was equally good – a superb black voice and he made you sympathise with the dragon.  Ceri Williams was a firm, strong-voiced Erda who made a lot of her scene with Wotan – she struck me as very promising indeed.  Joanne Dexter was the understudy Woodbird and was very good indeed.

The star, of course, is the English Northern Philharmonia and Richard Farnes.  Farnes and the orchestra relish the climaxes and the different colours of the score.  He paces these marvellously and guides you through the themes and the ideas really coherently.  It sounds great in the Sage.  The orchestra is good even if you don’t get the sheer skill and sheen of more expensive ones.  You were aware of exactly how difficult it is – the jaunty end to the second Act needs a bit more precision, the horns at the end of the opera a bit more precision and clarity.  But you have to admire the skill commitment and intensity of this performance.

Roll on Götterdämmerung.