Tag Archives: Richard Strauss

Ariadne revival at Glyndebourne

25 Jun

I’ve always liked Ariadne, though it’s quite hard to put my finger on why.  It shouldn’t work.  The mixture of the comic prologue and the rather strange opera that follows it ought not to work.  Yet it does. I think it’s that mixture of high emotion and comedy and the way Strauss contrasts the two and paces it.  Unlike many of his pieces, it doesn’t outstay its welcome and, apart from Capriccio, it’s probably my favourite of his operas.

The current Glyndebourne production by Katherina Thoma is now having its second outing.  I enjoyed its first incarnation and rather liked the conceit of the country house opera turning into a hospital for the serious second half.  It still works well enough though I don’t think that it’s a production that particularly repays repeated viewings.  It’s clever rather than profound and I thought a lot of the distractions in the hospital setting didn’t work that well and that Thoma misses a number of opportunities.  With the comedians dressed the same way, you can’t identify individuals and, more seriously, she doesn’t expand on the Zerbinetta/Harlequin relationship as Loy does at the ROH.  There’s a supernatural, operatic element bout the second part that this relentlessly earthbound, hospitalised production misses.  I doubt that we’ll see it back.

There was still a lot of pleasure to be got from this revival, with its largely new cast.  Lise Davidsen is, for me, the find of the evening, as Ariadne.  She’s a very tall lady and has one of those vast, Nilsson-like Scandinavian voices that sounded, to me, to be crying out to get on to Brunnhilde and Isolde.  This was a hugely confident debut for the sort of vast, voice that we don’t hear too often.  It’s almost too big for Ariadne and I missed the sheer stillness and subtlety that Isokoski and Mattila have brought to the role but there’s vast talent here.

I was also much taken by Erin Morley’s cheeky, accurate, confident Zerbinetta who delivered a pretty faultless Grossmaechige Prinzessin. AJ Glueckert was Bacchus and sounded really good.  He made almost light work out of it.  It’s a bright, Straussian tenor with considerable heft but also managed to make a rather nice sound too.  Bjorn Burger, back after last year’s good Figaro, sounded very fine indeed as Harlequin – he must be a great lieder singer.  Manuel Gunther’s tenor sounded pretty good as Brighella.

I was less taken by Angela Brower’s Composer.  It’s a nice sound, but it didn’t sound as though there was quite enough power there and she didn’t efface memories of Kate Lindsay and others.

Thomas Allen was back as the Music Master.  Why would you want anyone else?  Nicholas Folwell was a pompous Major Domo and I though that Edmund Danon made rather a lot of the Lackey.  The female trio in the opera proper was gorgeously sung.

Cornelius Meister struck me as conducting very nicely.  He got out both the chamber quality of the score and the climaxes.  The LPO were on pretty good form.

So this was a jolly good revival.  If you didn’t see it last time round, then I’d recommend a visit for an alert, intelligent, musically excellent performance.  If you did see it, then, maybe, not worth a special journey.

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Ariadne – elegant as ever

2 Jul

Christoph Loy’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos opened Pappano’s tenure as Musical Director at the Royal Opera House outstandingly and it remains one of their great successes.  The opening few minutes of the prologue with its breathtaking move from upstairs to downstairs still works its magic and the direction of the prologue generally is outstanding: it’s clear, funny and catches just the right sense backstage discomfort.  With Loy on hand to rehearse, it went like a bomb at the performance I saw on 30th June.

I find the opera itself a bit less convincing, missing some of the magic that there can be hear and appearing almost earthbound.  On the other hand, the direction of the singers and the emotions is excellent.  In many ways, it’s like the opera – quirky, elegant, classyand not always easy to grasp.  Ariadne‘s never going to be an easy opera but this makes it pleasurable and makes you admire both the opera and production.

The musical side is pretty good.  One of the advantages that Ariadne has is that, because it’s not an opera that’s ever going to be a popular treat, companies do it because they want to and so take trouble with the casting.  All the revivals here have been superbly cast and this is no exception.  The star is undoubtedly Karita Mattila as Ariadne.  She has a wonderful time as the prima donna in the prologue: it’s a role that can get lost in less expert hands: here you had no doubt about who was the star of the show.  In the opera itself, she sang with intelligence and commitment and much beauty.  She is a complete star and you cannot help but watch her – I’ve heard more purely beautiful singing, but few more heartfelt, convincing performances overall.  This is a performance to go with her Marie and Arabella.  Her Bacchus is Roberto Sacca – less taxed by the role than most that I’ve heard and doing what he can with a thankless role.

Jane Archibald makes a very successful Zerbinetta – singing the aria barely turning a hair and making it sound easy – but also suggesting the depths of her character – one of Loy’s best ideas is to have Harlequin dump her at the end, bring a sense of melancholy to the end.  Ruxandra Dunose is the Composer – warm, intelligent and enthusiastic.  I’ve found her in the past to be a slightly passive singer.  Here she was engaged, her tone warm, her identification with the role convincing – and also just a touch bland.

Thomas Allen is a familiar and expert Music Master: I’m not sure I’d want to see anyone else.  Ed Lyon is the new Dancing Master – elegant and cynical in a slightly different way from Allen’s down-at-heel pragmatist.  Markus Werba repeats his excellent Harlequin and the nymphs and comedians are first rate.  Christoph Quest is back as the Major Domo and retains exactly the right sense of superiority.

In the pit, Pappano and the orchestra seemed to be having a lovely time.  The balance was great, the textures clear and he caught the elegance, the eroticism and the wit of the score.

In short, it’s a lovely evening.  Even if you’ve been before, I’d recommend a visit if only for Mattila and Pappano and to remember what a really engaging opera and production this is.

Returning to Rosenkaverlier

14 Jun

Rosenkaverlier, like Madama Butterfly is one of my pet hates and the performance I saw at Glyndebourne on 12th June was the first I’d been to in 27 years.  I enjoyed it more than I’d expected but that was as much to do with Richard Jones’s production and the fact that I am much more enthusiastic about Richard Strauss’s music than I used to be, as with any rapprochement with the opera itself.  I find the piece horribly artificial and kitschy: a piece of self-conscious artistry in creating an image of eighteenth century, aristocratic Vienna. with a plot that’s toilet-paper thin, bulked out with minor characters of no interest or sense of reality.  Cutting 20 minutes out of each act would be quite a good start, but I’m unconvinced that even that would reconcile me to the piece.  The people I respect who enjoy Rosenkaverlier get very emotional about the characterisation of the Marschallin and the sense of time moving on.  I’ve never quite got this, which probably says as much about this as them but, unlike, one of my companions at this performance, I simply don’t find the monologue at the end of Act I remotely moving.  Gorgeous music, but it never makes me cry.

This production has all the hallmark’s Richard Jones’s style: strikingly garish sets and costumes, precise movement and really intelligent direction of character.  There is barely any sense of tradition about the production – the costumes are a mixture of styles, the sets tend to cramp, pushing action downstairs.  There are some glorious images – the opening of the nude Marschallin like a Botticelli Venus taking a shower watched by Oktavian and, at the end of the act curling up on the huge sofa.  The other bits of business are well enough managed and there is wit and elegance about the production.  It’s a strong piece of work but doesn’t save the opera.

The cast was decent.  I thought that Kate Royal made an absolutely gorgeous Marschallin.  She’s looks good and sang gorgeously, every word told and she sounded ravishing, caught the dignity of the role and its sadness – but there was also a hard-edged certainty, almost cynicism about her which came out as she dealt with Ochs in the last act.  I’m not sure how far vocally she would survive in a larger theatre.  Here it was great.

I also admired Lars Woldt very much indeed as Ochs.  He was a splendidly boorish country cousin with not the smallest idea of how to fit in in this society.  I’ve heard darker, richer voices, but this, again, worked really well in the house.

So to Tara Erraught.  What struck me about her looks was that this was what Jones intended – puppy-ish, young, gauche and immature.  I suspect he was consciously going away from the traditional image of an Oktavian.  I don’t think it’s wrong to comment on that and I think that a lot of the comments, quite frankly, have been misunderstood.  She sang well but not exceptionally.  Teodora Gheorghiu looked petite and young as Sophie but vocally did not really float the top notes and sound as beautiful as I would like.

Of the other roles, Michael Kraus was a really excellent Faninal – unexaggerated and absolutely right; Miranda Keys was a marvellously funny Marianne Leitmetzerin, Andrej Durnaev a fine Italian Tenor.  David Francis-Swaby and Joseph Bader were excellent as Mohammed and Leopold – both well developed characters which they managed to make convincing and funny without upstaging or hogging the stage.

Robin Ticciati conducted.  One of the most admirable things about it was the way he accompanied the singers.  It’s easy in Strauss for singers to be drowned.  Here, you could hear every word and follow the piece like a play.  Otherwise, I thought that what he provided was very decent, unexciting and reliable.  The LPO struck me as on pretty good form.

So, for an opera I don’t like, it could have been a lot worse.  I may even try to get to the rumoured new one at the Opera House when that comes round.

Die Frau mit dem Schatten

18 Mar

The performance of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera House on 17th March was among the most glorious musical events that I can recall.  It was one of those evening where, you felt, whatever was going on visually, nothing could go wrong aurally.

We had Semyon Bychkov, always good in Strauss, conducting an outstanding performance by the orchestra: the colours and textures of the piece came across with superb clarity, but he also manages climaxes that filled the theatre and almost persuaded you that this was one of the greatest operatic scores.  He accompanies the cast marvellously – I don’t think I’ve heard so many words in a Strauss opera before – the cast projected them thrillingly and he made sure you could hear them.  The piece flowed gloriously and you could not but admire the stamina and skill of the orchestra.  You felt a physical excitement at the grand moments – the end of the second act was shattering musically and the contemplative, reflective moments were incredibly beautiful.  It felt right and it sounded like great music throughout.

He had an outstanding cast.  Johan Botha has such a glorious heldentenor voice that you tend to ignore a figure that looks more like a banker – accentuated by the Victorian costume here.  He sang fearlessly, intensely and with huge strength. He made the fearsome demands sound beautifully.  Is there a finer heldentenor around today? He was matched by Emily Magee as the Empress – she matches intense power with a beautiful, ethereal quality for the more reflective passage.  Again, for sheer confidence and beauty, I’m not sure who I’d rather hear today.  Why do we hear so little of her in London?

Johan Reuter was Barak  It’s a gem of a role, but he managed his monologues in each act with a simplicity and nobility, together with glorious tone that was deeply moving.  He is a very special singer indeed.  As his wife, Elena Pankratova displayed a powerful voice, well up to the demands of the role – she was, I think, hampered more than most by the production, but she managed her monologue in Act III when she realises her love for Barak with great beauty and, again, involved you in her predicament.  As the Nurse, Michaela Schuster was, again, outstanding.  She appeared to have no problems with the demands of the role and was terrifying at the end of Act II.  The other roles were all well-cast and gave considerable pleasure.

I’ve deliberately left a discussion of Claus Guth’s production until the end.  This wasn’t my first visit to Frau ohne Schatten – I saw the revivals here in 1987 and 2002 but that is, really, my full exposure to the piece; I don’t possess a CD or DVD and recall being thoroughly bored at the 2002 revival to the extent that I left, I think, after Act II (or it might even have been Act I).  I’m not particularly a believer in doing homework before going to the opera (particularly not now that there are surtitles) – you should be able to take a performance on its merits.  So I came to the performance pretty much cold – a recollection of the overall plot but no musical or any other detailed memory.

So, on that basic level, how did I fare with this most complex, allusive opera?  Well, the surtitles helped to an extent.  So did the acting – the singers expressed the emotions with absolute conviction and clarity – their predicaments on a human level were clear and moving – particularly from Magee, Reuter and Schuster.  You could not separate their performances and acting from the music and you identified them as human: Guth must take substantial credit for that.

However, you can’t just get by with the acting in this opera.  Hofmannstahl’s synopsis in the programme, aside from demonstrating the extent of the cuts, tells of fish flying into a pan, of a house collapsing and lots of other visual effects that are quite important for the story.  The libretto itself gives some clues about the staging – conflicts between air and earth, between humans and immortals. They may well be nonsense and, it’s possible that Hofmannstahl’s libretto is a load of vacuous tosh but there is some sort of vision here.  I’ve no problem with directors substituting a convincing vision of their own – and would potentially welcome it in this piece – I just didn’t think that Guth’s helped.

We begin and end in an anonymous room with the Empress asleep in bed (is this her dream then and, if so, how does that help us?).  Gazelles and Falcons dance about the stage (one of whom, I think, is Keikobad.  Oh, and the Empress has one very fine and obvious shadow – was I really missing the point in wanting to get up there, point his out and suggest that everybody could stop worrying and go home?  Isn’t this one, pretty basic thing that a director gets wrong at his peril?

There’s no appreciable change of locale for Barak’s house (isn’t one point of the opera the distinction between Barak and the Emperor) and Barak’s wife and the Empress are dressed identically.  I found the set constricting – this an opera where you need to let your imagination roam and where space matters.  Here you became bored by the unit set, irritated by the video and assailed again and again by two thoughts: (a) I haven’t a clue what is going on here and (b) there must be more to it than this.  Guth explained some of the imagery he was using in the programme.  I don’t think that you should have to pay £7 on top of the seat to have this explained – it should be clear – and, in any case, I wasn’t any the wiser having read them.  It made me think of how else you could do it – how an immortal world based on Klimt and a mortal world based on Schiele might be a starting point.

So this was a staging, that cluttered, constricted and baffled.  It didn’t undermine the fantastic performances of the singers but I felt short-changed.  We see Frau ohne Schatten rarely; it’s a difficult piece and, ultimately, I didn’t get it.  I will, however, get it on CD – Bychkov and the cast convinced me that there’s music here I need to know better.