Tag Archives: Robin Ticciati

Clumsiness of Glyndebourne’s Tito

11 Aug

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Glyndebourne’s new production of La Clemenza di Tito which halving the design budget and sacking the dramaturg would probably not have solved.  I saw it on 11 August and, despite the irritations of a cluttered set and silly films, found it a pretty satisfying evening.

The crucial person in this opera is the title character, or so it seems to me.  The essence of the opera is that Tito has the choice between revenge and forgiveness, between understanding and despotism and living by his principles or by his emotions.  The crucial part is the accompanied recitative in Act II and the scene with Sesto.  If the Tito can bring those off and make you interested in them, then the opera becomes interesting not just about enlightenment political theory but about how individuals live and take decisions.

I thought that Richard Crofts, a late replacement for Steve Davislim, got this point brilliantly.  We see him early on as a conflicted, emotional ruler, possibly unstable, deeply attached to Berenice – how brilliant it is that we never see Tito and Vitellia together, so we have absolutely no sense of any attachment.  Anyway Crofts made that huge scene in Act II interesting and commanded the final scene and made you believe in the conflict that goes on in his mind about what he should do when faced by betrayal by his best friend and his future spouse.  This was an intense, deeply convincing performance.  He sang the music really well, making the arias interesting.  He was the centre-piece.

He had some seriously fine performances surrounding him.  Anna Stephany was originally scheduled to sing Annio but, when Kate Lindsay became pregnant, was moved up.  I’d been looking forward to hearing Lindsay in this role (and I hope I will one day) but Stephany made the finest Sesto I’ve heard since Brigitte Fassbaender knocked me sideways at Edinburgh in 1981. She looked the most convincing man I’ve seen in this role ever – helped by a wig, sideburns and stubble, but my companions (who hadn’t seen the cast list) couldn’t make up their minds until the interval whether this was a mezzo or counter tenor.  She sang the role with real intelligence, a beautiful voice and lacks only Fassbaender’s sheer energy and dynamism.  This was a conflicted, introverted Sesto that I found hugely convincing.

Then there was Alice Coote as Sesto, making the most of her glorious low notes and having fun as this thoughtless, cigarette smoking siren.  She caught the sheer selfishness of the woman and then changed our minds with a Non piu di fiore that caught exactly the repentance and understanding that you’d hope for.  It was a raw, open performance and, again, wonderfully sung.

Joelle Harvey sang Servillia.  The way in which she began her second Act aria was heart-stopping.  This wasn’t a singer seeking to charm, this was a desperate sister, playing the guilt card and it made perfect sense.

Michele Losier was Annio.  I’ve heard some make their Act II aria the highlight of the show.  She didn’t, but made a pretty credible figure.  Clive Bayley made an ambiguous Publio and didn’t make much of his aria.

I thought Robin Ticciati’s conducting outstanding.  This was a lithe, intelligent reading: deeply considerate to his singers and, apparently, at one with the production.  He caught the grandeur of the score and also the personal side.  This felt like Glyndebourne Mozart at its peak.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was on wonderful form and the chorus in great voice.  He made you realise how extraordinary the score is – arias running into finales, that astonishing finale to Act I which ends way before you expect and Mozart’s sheer dramatic intelligence.

So to Claus Guth’s production.  The fact that I feel so positive about the individual performances, the sheer intelligence and rawness of the acting suggests that he’s done a great job in interpreting an opera that fails as often as it works.  And yet… He begins with a video during the overture (seriously, can there be a moratorium on these for the next three years?).  It shows Tito and Sextus as boys playing in the grounds at Glyndebourne (again, seriously, can Glyndebourne get out of this childish habit of referring to itself all the time – what with this and Hipermestra this season, it’s become really tiresome – we all know it’s a wonderful place, they don’t have to tell us).   We keep getting reminiscences superimposed on the set usually irritatingly.

The set consists of two parts – an upper part which is black and modern. presumably the cold state, the lower part is full of reeds and water and rock where, presumably, natural feeling takes place.  Those reeds are a real nuisance and you feel sorry for the singers having to negotiate them.  It would, actually, make an outstanding set for Pelleas et Melisande (or, indeed, Rusalka) and I urge Glyndebourne to think of recycling it for next season’s production.

The audience reaction was enthusiastic.  I had the impression of them listening, engaging and being gripped by the piece.  Will they want to see it again?  I rather doubt it.  For me, it will depend on the cast.  But I am grateful for a performance that, actually, got to the heart of an under-rated work and made a difficult, problematic opera look interesting and relevant.

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Outstanding Glyndebourne Entfuhrung

12 Aug

It’s 25 years since Glyndebourne last did Entfuhrung at the Festival (there was a rather poor revival of the Peter Wood production on the tour in 1997). The reviews for this production had been pretty good, though I was wary of the fact that it was obviously going last half an hour longer than had been planned – the prospect of a slow, dialogue heavy evening didn’t necessarily sound enticing. I needn’t have worried. The performance I saw on 10th August, the last of the run, was probably the finest performance of the piece that I’ve seen.

I remember my first Entfuhrung – the Glyndebourne Tour production of 1972 (Valerie Masterson as Konstanze and Elizabeth Gale as Blondchen) – which I enjoyed enormously. I remember it as a pretty traditional comic opera, Gilbert and Sullivan with long arias. Nobody then was particularly troubled by the overtones and that was a time when it didn’t seem wrong just to have a pretty good, untroubling time. Since then, we’ve come to think of it as a difficult opera – an uneasy combination of a play with elaborate arias and a politically difficult story. We’ve come to half believe in Josef II’s “too many notes” comment and there are times when it can feel like an unhappy compromise between opera seria and singspiel.   Companies have either shied away from it or sought, as in Opera North’s debacle of a production, to retell the story – all I remember from that is the Panda. David McVicar’s production made the piece look like a masterpiece.

They performed the fullest version of the text that I’ve come across and it worked, rather as Jonathan Kent’s Shakespeare-heavy Fairy Queen did. You understood more of the back story, more of the tension between the characters. The Pasha emerged as a central character, rather than as a noble walk-on and there was altogether more about him, about Osmin and about the relationships between the characters than you usually get. And it wasn’t boring because the acting was first rate and you believed in it.

This was helped considerably by David McVicar’s brilliant direction of the characters and outstanding ability to help the music make its mark and to build on the back story. A few random pleasures – the Pasha was besieged by lots of European artists and architects who wanted him to buy their wares; we saw him with his other wives and children (to the music of one of the serenades. We saw the extreme ambiguity of Konstanze’s feelings towards the Pasha – the byplay during Martern aller arten was outstandingly well done with a mixture of her being tempted,  and him almost raping her. As she left at the end you felt that she too hoped that she had not made a mistake. McVicar caught the sexual politics wonderfully.

He also caught the class/social mores. Belmonte is a stiff, unpleasant bully of a snob from the start both in his attitudes to the east and to Pedrillo. It made the confrontation with the Pasha at the end particularly interesting. The interaction between the leading characters and the lesser ones – Klaas and the eunuch particularly – was really well done. He created a world where the fascination and tension between east and west beautifully expressed. Above all, he got fine acting performances out of his cast: the dialogue and movement were absolutely perfectly paced, you watched and believed in these individuals – miraculously, it did not feel a moment too long and certainly not a problematic opera.

It looked wonderful too. Vicki Mortimer’s sets and costumes – explicitly 18th century – catch the mixture of airiness and oppression to perfection and look incredibly pleasing. It feels like a production where no expense has been spared to create beautiful and believable pictures. Paule Constable’s lighting created a believable Eastern look – the quality of the light made you believe in the location.

Doubts? Maybe there was a bit too much slapstick – I wasn’t completely convinced by Blondchen and Osmin wrecking the kitchen and felt that it was a bit too like Pedrillo and Osmin wrecking the garden. Did the quartet need to be interrupted by guards looking through the window? These are details – this was an outstandingly detailed, imaginative and convincing version of the piece, convincing you of McVicar’s sheer genius as a director of Mozart and his intelligence. It’s one of his finest pieces of work.

Musically, it was outstanding also. As something of a Robin Ticciati-sceptic, I was overjoyed by the free, flexible and airy conductive of this piece. The overture was a joy to hear with the details coming out perfectly but with the orchestra really listening, working together. He showed us the joyous details of the score, accompanied considerately and seemed entirely at one with the production. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was on stunningly good form – the sound was warm, dramatic and the dynamics and phrasing absolute perfection. This performance was easily the most satisfying musical performance of a Mozart opera that I’ve heard since Mackerras – there was an ease, a certainty about it and a feeling of “rightness” about tempi, phrasing and texture.

And there was a really good set of soloists. Sally Matthews seemed entirely untroubled by the difficulties of Konstanze’s arias and sang with certainty, accuracy and real emotion. My only criticism was that she seemed to be getting into the Te Kanawa/Fleming habit of swallowing consonants – the words weren’t clear and, for me, this detracted from the pleasure that I got from her gorgeous creamy voice and really intelligent acting. The same problems afflicted Edgaras Montvidas as Belmonte and I wondered if he was in best voice. Mind you, he had all four arias to sing and could, perhaps, be forgiven for odd phrases that seemed to get slightly lost. I thought he was at his best in Ich baue ganz where he provided some really gorgeous pianissimo singing. He phrased elegantly and presented the up-tight European aristocrat to perfection.
I very much enjoyed Brendan Gunnell’s Pedrillo – you felt that his time here had an effect on his view of Belmonte. He did Im Mohrenland really well – turning it into a comedy number whilst also singing it beautifully. He had a very nice double act going with Tobias Kehrer’s Osmin. The latter was credibly young and also uncouth. His low notes were all in place and he managed a dangerous, funny and very credible character. I’ve seen a lot of good Osmins but this as one of the finest.

Mari Eriksmoen was a sparky Blondchen – determined, high notes in place and a complete tomboy, She caught the slight nervousness of the servant among her betters while being well able to hold her own with Osmin and Pedrillo. It was nice that she was introduced in the first act, albeit briefly, rather than waiting for Act II.

Franck Saurel was a handsome, convincing Selim. He caught the tension between the values he espoused and his desires. It wasn’t clear at the end that Konstanze was really better off with Belmonte. It was splendid that he had these opportunities.

This evening struck me as epitomising Glyndebourne’s values at their best and most successful: intelligent, thoughtful direction, really good casting and music and production values that put every other company in the country in the shade. You could imagine more radical and exciting productions, but this was deeply satisfying, intelligent and as good an Entfuhrung as I could hope to see. It’ll be back.

Final Finta

19 Aug

Dear Glyndebourne,

Please take your time.  I am a patient man and you have earned considerable respect and affection, but can you please tell why, for the love of any deity you care to believe in, you thought it was a good idea to put on La finta giardiniera, which I had the misfortune to see on 18th August.

It’s not that it was a bad performance, it’s that the opera is a complete stinker.  Once you get into Act II, I defy anyone to tell what is really going one, who is in love with whom or pretending to be in love with whom or why it matters.  There isn’t a single attractive character in the piece.  Motivation is perplexing, to put it kindly, though un-considered is probably more accurate.  And there is “pleasant enough aria that slightly outstays its welcome” after “pleasant enough aria that badly outstays its welcome” without anything more.  You get fed up of the ghastly little show-off of a composer that Mozart evidently was at 18 (yes, I saw Amadeus at Chichester recently).  As to the finale to the second Act, just when you think it’s going to end, another section comes along and you realise that it could go on like this forever.  No wonder, Frederic Wake-Walker was reduced to getting his characters to tear up the scenery to keep our interest going.  That’s what I wanted to do to the score.

Alright, I will grant you that there are moments where what is to come shines through.  I’m thinking of the finale to the first Act – where, suddenly, you realise that Mozart was, at heart, an ensemble composer and, rather like the quartet in Entfuhrung, everything begins to mean something.  There’s Nardo’s aria, originally in the first Act, here moved to the end, which reminds you of Aprite un po in Figaro and makes you wish that you were hearing that instead.  And the Sandrina/Belfiore reconciliation has some beauties.  Otherwise, I had a distinct sense of an audience slowly wilting and losing the will to live.  Rossini might have made something of it and at least there’d have been some decent ensembles and strettas.

Perhaps it was Robin Ticciati’s fault.  He clearly loves the score, but did he love it too much?  Were the textures just too heavy, the tempi a bit on the slow side and exaggerated?  Probably not.  There’s a limit to what you can do with a squib like this.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were, of course, great – and I hope they’re playing some real, late Mozart soon.

There was a really good cast, too.  Christiane Karg, a lovely Aricie last year, seized Sandrina’s opportunities and sang really gorgeously begging the question, Glyndebourne, of why on earth you weren’t casting her as Susanna or Pamina.  Similarly, Nicole Heaston had a high time camping up the ghastly Arminda and sang strongly – you could have cast her as Elvira, for example – and Gyula Orendt sang his aria so well and displayed an engaging personality, making me wish that you’d cast him as Figaro in either or its last two performances here.  Joel Prieto as Belfiore displayed a pleasant, light voice as Belfiore and it would be nice to see him as Fenton or Rinuccio or even Ottavio.

I was slightly less taken by Joelle Harvey as Serpetta and Rachel Frankel’s rather anonymous Ramiro but both sang very nicely. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke sang his arias very well and displayed a very nice sense of humour as the rather fussy Mayor.  He plays character roles so often here that it was good to hear him sing a legato tenor role so successfully.

Frederic Wake-Walker attempted to make the piece interesting.  It was set firmly in the 18th century – suggestions of a Clarissa-like rape or argument during the overture in a set suggesting a down-at-heel baroque palace – also perhaps parodying pictures of Glyndebourne’s sets for Mozart operas in its early days.  He also set it in a theatre – and it looked as though many of the characters, at times, were simply marionettes.  As Sandrina and Belfiore go mad, they demolish the set and, at the end of the (thank God) heavily cut third Act, the went off in the woods together, leaving the remaining characters to sing the epilogue.  I had the feeling of someone trying too hard to keep us interested and I found myself becoming more and more irritated as the lengthy, irrelevant action went on and on and on.

So Glyndebourne, there are lots of other better operas you could have done and I resent your wasting my time and money and your talented cast on this one.  I suppose that I can at least be grateful that I’m now convinced that the piece doesn’t work and, if I have anything to do with it, this will be the last time I ever see it.  Please don’t do it again.