Tag Archives: Royal Opera House

Moderate Don Carlos

21 May

Ok, time to get back to this blogging lark.  I’ve had some good times over the last few months – smashing Faramondo and Ormisda at the London Handel Festival and the fantastic Exterminating Angel at the ROH and Dr Atomic at the Barbican – but somehow didn’t get to writing them up.  Mind you, there also that Meistersinger… Anyway, back to work and first up is Don Carlos at the ROH which I saw on 15 May.

There is so much that there is wonderful about Don Carlo that it’s quite easy to get into the mindset that any performance short of the extraordinary is, in some way, a failure. It’s an attitude that ignores, first, the real problems with the opera and, second, the fact I would rather see a flawed one than miss the piece at all.  But the overall attitude to the opera is so easy to get into one’s head that I think it explains why people have been rather muted about what struck me as a very decent performance.

The cast, despite two late replacements, was pretty strong.  Bryan Hymel as Carlo sang strongly, if not subtly and made probably as good an authentic Verdian sound as you can get these days.  Maybe the odd pianissimo would be nice and he doesn’t exactly look the young romantic hero.

I was also impressed by Ildar Abdrazakov as Philip who created a very human king indeed. I loved his pianissimo opening to his Act IV aria and the way in which he caught the authority and the dilemmas of the role.  He opened up to Posa humanly.  Whereas with Furlanetto, you felt that here was a king unbending slightly, this was a man who was faced with being a king.

Christoph Pohl was a late replacement for Ludovic Tezier.  I think he’s a rather special baritone.  He has absolutely the right sound for the role: a sort of virile lightness that impressed me.  He caught the open, humanity of the role and looks good.  I wouldn’t mind hearing him again.

There was a gloriously old-fashioned, mezzo/contralto Eboli from Ekaterina Semanchuk: again as good as I’ve heard.  The role seemed to hold no terror for her and if, occasionally, you wanted more subtlety she’d then wow you with a top note or her gorgeous, rich lower register.  Her acting was pretty generic Eboli and I missed the some of the softness that Sonia Ganassi brought when the production was new, but if you want a Verdi mezzo…

I had most reservations about Kristin Lewis as Elisabeth – a late replacement for Krassimira Stroyanova.  She has a dark, Verdian voice, very much in the Leontyne Price mould but without the same control.  There was a real squalliness about her singing and, as with most Elisabeths, I found my mind wandering during her Act V aria and, indeed, the following duet.  I did enjoy her acting, particularly in Act I where she created a loving, youthful, open princess and she charted the journey from that to the sad, despairing queen rather well.

Bertrand de Billy conducting struck me as very fine too: he conjured some wonderful sounds out of the orchestra and his tempi seemed to be effortlessly right.  I really enjoyed the phrasing, particularly of the early parts and the wailing, growling strings in the last act.  He caught the sheer terror of the Grand Inquisitor (Paata Burchuladze, not as effectual vocally as he might have been ten years ago, but a strong presence) and he paced it really effectively, making you listen to the dialogues and the arias.  This was conducting that made you realise what a great work this is.

So maybe the problem was the staging.  Nicholas Hytner’s production had its problems even when it was new.  It’s at its best in the dialogues where, still, the emotions, the characterisations and the ideas ring true and they’re interesting.

The problem comes in the public scenes.  The auto da fe never really worked and, though it’s been reworked, there were just too few people for the space, Carlos’s insurrection was a mess and the picture of people with swords just standing there doing nothing is really poor.  The end of Act IV is similarly weak and the opening of the second scene of Act II can’t disguise the fact that the veil song is just a bit of padding.

The sets are variable.  The shaking trees in the first act are still there and are a bit of a disgrace and, for a lot of the time, the space is just too large.   They’re still beautifully lit.

Overall then, this was a decent, perfectly adequate performance of Don Carlos – the problems I’ve identified with the production are problems that the opera itself presents and Hytner’s failure is in coming to grips with those.  You don’t feel that there’s a vision for the opera or any guiding idea.  On the other hand, I still got a lot of pleasure out of this performance, mostly from the musical side and a newcomer will have got a good idea of why this is such a special opera.

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Two Normas

24 Sep

Three Normas, in fact, if you count the ENO one earlier this year.  I’ve been a fan of the opera for a while and been frustrated at the lack of performances it gets these days.  So I took a trip to Edinburgh to go to the Festival Theatre on 5th August, when Cecilia Bartoli appeared as Norma in the Salzburg production of that opera.  Then I saw the ROH’s new version on 16th September.  There’s no question which I preferred.

For me, the Bartoli production went straight into the top ten of great operatic performances that I’ve seen and provided the conviction that I’ve longed for that Norma is one of the great operatic masterpieces.

Let’s deal with the last point first.  Norma has always seemed to me to be interesting and worth seeing because of its plot: a conflict for a woman who has loved the leader of the occupying force, is spurned by him and has the opportunity to kill him.  As an adjunct the relationship with Adalgisa – of support rather than hatred – is really well done. It’s political and it’s personal.  And Bellini’s genius lies in his ability to provide the vocal music to express those conflicts, to manage the conversations between the characters.  And also to provide some of the most glorious melodies in opera.

My point is, however, that the genius of Norma doesn’t lie in the great melodies or the gorgeousness of the music, but in the declamation, the dramatic development of character and the situations: the dialogues between Norma and Adalgise, Adalgisa and Pollione and that glorious Norma/Pollione scene beginning In mia man alfin tu sei.  It’s in that outstanding scene for Norma at the beginning of Act II when she considers murdering her children.  This is dramatic, vocal writing of highest order and, when it’s done well makes you realise what an outstanding composer Bellini was, how tragic his death was and how far he exceeds Donizetti and influenced Verdi and Wagner.  It’s a riveting dramatic piece.

But it’s an unforgiving piece.  If you don’t have musicians with the understanding and ability to sing and play it and a director who is able to overcome the fact that druids look rather silly to us and to get the singers to act  and understand the roles, then the opera can seem tedious, even silly.  The triumph of this performance was that we had both musicians and directors who took the piece seriously and made it work as a piece of drama.

Patirce Caurier and Moshe Leiser set the piece in occupied France.  Pollione is Nazi governer, Norma the teacher at a school which becomes the headquarters of the resistance.  Maybe the supernatural and religious element gets lost slightly but that barely matters: the issue here is the resistance to occupiers not the significance of mistletoe.. Norma’s house has a kitchen table for her and Adelgisa to sit at for their heart to heart  It’s intimate and allows you to concentrate on the fact that these are people with emotions rather than mythic figures in silly costumes.

This is further accentuated by a period band – I barroccisti – in the pit and lighter voices that you usually associate with the work.  Gianluca Capuana – deputising for Diego Fasolis – take things pretty briskly on the whole, but also allowing space for the situations to breathe and develop: the dialogues between the characters for example.  The tempi felt unusual but never wrong and they clearly suited the band and the singers.  I thought the orchestral playing was excellent: attuned to the singers and to the emotions: lovely woodwind particularly at the beginning of the second act.

It’s all built around Bartoli and many critics will say that she has no business doing Norma: she’s not a soprano and the voice is too and then carp at the rest for being built round her.  Bartoli argues that this is going back to what Bellini would have expected: lighter voices, a soprano Adalgisa and so forth.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter given that the performance struck me as so convincing on its own terms.  Bartoli catches all the emotions: the anger, tenderness, conflicts and, ultimately, the heroism of the role.  She uses the words, colours them and makes you realise how marvellous Bellini’s writing is.  There’s an intensity and understanding about her acting that I’ve never come across in her before: the archness has gone and we have an honest, raw, highly emotional performance. I won’t easily forget her agony at the start of the second Act, the way she made her voice soft and gentle in the scene with Adalgisa and, at the end with Pollione: the perfect sustained piano at the end of Casta diva.  The coloratura works,  If you want a Norma with a huge barn-storming voice, this isn’t it – I don’t know how she would fare in the Royal Opera House with a huge modern band between her and the audience.  What I got was refined, delicate singing backed with real venom and anger when it was need.  The audience stood for her at the end and, for me, this was a performance to set beside Janet Baker’s Alceste, Anja Silja’s Kostelnicka and Emilia Marty and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s Irene as among the great individual performances that I’ve seen.

We then had John Osborn as Pollione.  He created a very credible, nasty military governor and sang outstandingly well.  I don’t think I’d imagined the final duet being done so tenderly, so lovingly.  I’d not come across Rachel Olvera, the Adalgisa, before.  She has  very light soprano and looks right as the young, naïve priestess.  I thought she sang expressively, understanding the issues and matching Bartoli extremely well vocally.  She created a strong figure even if her singing was less memorable than Bartoli’s.  She could only get away with the role in a performance of this size and I suspect that her future lies in the baroque and Mozart rather than here.

Peter Kalman was a strong Oroveso, the chorus didn’t strike me as ideally confident but I suspect that the very low key Act II interlude for them was intended as exactly that: depressed, low key and dim.

This is a particular type of Norma. It won’t appeal to those who demand the vocal security of Sutherland and the soprano/mezzo contrast: those who think it’s as forerunner of Aida.  I don’t think it is and this intimate, intelligent, engrossing performance delighted me in showing me a side of Norma that I knew was there.  And the audience was with it: you felt the silence as they listened to the music, leaned forward to take in the intimate moments, laughed in the right way at the moment when Norma asks Adalgisa who her lover is and, again, when Pollione arrives.  This was opera as theatre and it was worth every inch of the journey to Edinburgh and every penny of the rail fare.

So the ROH production was going to have some problems keeping up with this and it wasn’t helped when Anna Netrebko decided that her voice was going in a different direction.  After her withdrawal from Marguerite, the ROH seems to be permanently slightly behind her vocal developments.  Faced with this, the company decided to take a punt on Sonya Yontcheva for the title role, notwithstanding the fact that she’s never sung it before and her cv (Marguerite, Violetta, Lucia, Alcina with Tatyana coming up) isn’t exactly classic preparation for a Norma.

It wasn’t a disaster.  The voice is large and has a steely edge at the bottom, not unlike Callas.  The problems struck me as being at the top, particularly during the runs in the first act, where you felt that the top notes were snatched, uncomfortable.  There was a nice legato for Casta diva but the cabaletta sounded ordinary.  It’s an impossible role, needing brilliance, flexibility, depth, fire – the sort of qualities that very few voices can match.  It also needs a feeling for the words and an ability to colour them that Yontcheva possess only patchily.  She doesn’t have, as yet, the sheer intensity that Bartoli brings and the concentration and integrity that triumphs over the odds.  Context is everything: it might have felt a lot better somewhere smaller but with a programme note reminding you of Callas and Sutherland in this house, you couldn’t avoid feeling that Yoncheva is not yet in this league.  There were fine moments: the recitative at the beginning of Act II was fine, the duet with Adalgisa was gorgeously done and the last scene with Pollione was musically very fine – even if she didn’t reach the depths that Bartoli managed.

Sonia Ganassi sounded a bit frayed as Adalgisa, the voice a bit tired.  She dueted very well with Yoncheva but seemed mature and I wished I’d heard her in this role ten years ago.  As Pollione Joseph Calleja sang mostly loudly and with none of the acting ability that John Osborn brought the role.  He sounded out of place with the other voices and the bleat in the voice still irritates me.  Brindley Sherratt was a strong Pollione.

The stars were Antonio Pappano and the orchestra.  This was entirely different from Edinburgh but equally valid.  The tempi felt right but what was most special was the way he managed the textures and the playing to keep the tension in the music and, again, make you realise what a masterpiece this opera is.  This was some of the finest big house bel canto conducting I’ve heard.  It’s wonderful that Pappano is at last beginning to take bel canto seriously here.  The chorus were on excellent form too.

Alex Olle’s production was about as far away from Edinburgh as it was possible to be.  Norma is the priestess of some extreme catholic sect (maybe not catholic since she’s a woman and, last time I looked, the catholics weren’t too hot on that) and he almost makes them the villain of the opera.  Certainly there’s almost nothing to suggest that Rome is an oppressive state or to bring out the political side of this opera.

It looks splendid – a forest of crucifixes, beautifully lit frames the stage – a one point some of them turn to make a crown of thorns.  You get a sense of the furtiveness of the rebels but it seems strange that their numbers include some very nattily dressed generals.  It’s set in contemporary dress.

There are irritations: I’m not sure why you needed a huge censer swinging during Casta diva – relegating Norma to the side of the stage.  I thought that the play area for the children with Watership Down on the DVD distracting and having one the children bounce around on a space hopper during the latter part of mira o Norma was just silly.  What irritated me most, however, was the sheer lack of direction of the singers.  For all the spectacular set and modern costumes, the movements were rarely any different from what you would expect in the most traditional production.  The communication, the sheer intelligence and humanity of the direction in the Caurier and Leiser production was completely missing.   Ms Yoncheva deserves better than this.

So a moderate, curate’s egg of an evening that didn’t do justice to the opera partly because of the production and partly because Ms Yoncheva simply didn’t strike me as ready to do the role in this theatre at these prices.

Compelling new ROH Cosi

24 Sep

The interpretations that directors get out of Cosi fan tutte seem limitless.  Some of them don’t work but it’s rare to come out of a Cosi thinking that you’ve learned nothing new about the work.  And this was confirmed by the marvellously intelligent and inventive new production at the ROH, which I saw at its first night on 22 September.

The majority of Kasper Holten’s imported directors have misfired but we have a notable exception in Jan Philipp Gloger.  His idea is that the performance begins after a production of Cosi and we see the four lovers in the audience, the boys arguing about the opera until invited up on to the stage by Alfonso.  Gradually, the couples are drawn backstage and he beautifully catches the mix of artificial commedia dell’arte comedy with the real emotions.  Alfonso and Despina are part of the troupe and use their theatrical resources to set up the different set pieces.  At times we see the audience as well – watching during Alfonso’s summing up of the moral and, themselves, illustrating the idea.  And Gloger has the idea that Fiordiligi and Dorabella realise what’s going on at the beginning of Act II and play along for the fun of it.

It’s a very busy production with multiple sets and props moving about, heavily choreographed and very precise.  But none of this detracts from the emotional side.  Ferrando sings Un aura amorosa looking at the sleeping girls – a beautiful, ambiguous moment.  During Per pieta, Guglielmo comes on to retrieve some of the clothing he’s lost during the previous duet while both the men’s arias catch the seriousness of the emotions.  It’s a lovely, fascinating, happy production that catches the artificiality of the opera while keeping its emotions close to you.  It reminds me of the sort of invention that we got with Christoph Loy’s Ariadne here.  Some have described it as charmless – since I’ve never found Cosi a particularly charming opera, that didn’t worry me.

We had a lovely young cast, four of them making their debuts here.  Corinne Winter was Fiordiligi – I wasn’t completely convinced that she’s a natural Mozart soprano – not all of the singing sounded completely true – but she delivered an outstanding Per pieta – one of the most moving and intense that I’ve heard and her acting was clear, direct, youthful.  Angela Brower was a lighter, flightier Dorabella, in excellent voice.  Sabina Puertolas was a lively, intelligent, stroppy Despina.

Daniel Behle sang one of the best Ferrandos that I’ve heard – some gorgeous, intense pianissimi, an outstanding stylist and a nice actor.  Alessio Arduino caught the livelier, stroppier Guglielmo and Johann Martin Kraenzle was a heavier than usual Alfonso but alert, enjoying stage managing the show and, as is the fashion at the moment, rejected by Despina and everyone else by the end.

Semyon Bychkov was conducting his first ever Cosi.  It was a loving, intense, very leisurely reading.  I’m not sure that I’ve heard slower Mozart since Haitink’s four hour Don Giovanni.  Bychkov didn’t quite reach that but an opera that some conductors can get through in three hours took three hours 40 and that was with the usual cuts.  I didn’t mind.  None of the tempi felt wrong (that for Per pieta felt intensely, beautifully right) and I loved the way in which he handled the textures, the interplay of the instruments and the phrasing.  I heard new things, new ideas in the pit and the orchestra played wonderfully for him.  This was elegant, thoughtful, happy Mozart.

This run doesn’t appear to be selling that well: an unknown director and a cast without big names.  That’s a shame: it’s an engaging, highly professional, beautifully sung and prepared piece of work and is breath of fresh air at the ROH.  I hope that Mr Gogler is invited back and I hope this Cosi returns regularly.  Go and see it.

Il Trova-fly

3 Jul

Il Trovatore has two problems: a perception of an improbable plot and a requirement for singing that is pretty rare these days.  If you don’t need absolutely the four greatest singers in the world, you need four who are in the top rank and able to cope with the generosity and accuracy that Verdi demands.  Most of these problems were in evidence at the very disappointing first night of the new ROH production on 2nd July.

Let’s begin with the production.  It was by David Bösch, a young German Director who has done some opera in Germany and a lot of plays.  I think this is his first Verdi and perhaps it’s unfair to have given him the sort of opera that has all those elements of opera than non-specialists find so difficult to take: arias and cabelettas, trios, dramatic ensembles and numbers that involve people standing round doing not much more than singing out. We’re rapidly losing the art of directing this sort of melodrama and I don’t think Herr Bösch has the answer.

The setting is a wintry landscape in some sort of modern state  – I think, but Leonora and the nuns seem to go around in ball gowns, even when trying to rescue Manrico.  Luna’s army has a tank – which looks very funny as it comes in huge shooter forward at the beginning of Act III.  The gipsies, interestingly, are circus, fair-ground types, rather than rebels, with Azucena in a Carmen costume.  The last scene is set in a barbed wire compound with Manrico and Azucena walking round more or less at liberty.  It’s an opera that depends a lot on darkness and people not seeing each other.  Even under camouflage, I think the nuns might have noticed that tank and the stage was pretty clearly lit: there was no chance of Leonora seriously mistaking Luna for Manrico.

There’s the obligatory video – birds circling and, most irritatingly, a butterfly that flies amusingly as Leonora sings (distracting you from her) and which looks really funny.  I don’t think this is intended.  What it has to do with Trovatore was utterly opaque to me.

There was some pretty half-hearted violence – a prisoner in Act III who seems to have all kinds of things happening to him but which never quite works.  At the end of the first scene, Azucena has petrol poured over her and faggots piled up by her, only to be taken away at the end.  There were two half-good moments: Leonora paused before her abduction by the grave she believed to be Manrico’s; and a prisoner was killed at Castellor just in time for Leonora to muse on this place of death.  But there wasn’t a lot else.

More seriously, despite the setting and odd ideas, the direction of the principals was distressingly inept.  They did nothing more than stand at the front and sing. There was little chemistry between them, little passion and, with one exception, I didn’t believe a word of it.  And the point about Trovatore is that it only ever works if the participants believe absolutely in what they’re doing and have some conviction to their passion. And just standing there isn’t enough.

Of course, Trovatore can be saved by great singing and a great musical performance.  Neither were really in evidence here and, probably, can’t be expected today.  The finest performance, and one which was very special indeed, came from Ekaterina Semenchuk.  In both Stride la vampa and Ai nostri monti she sang with an intensity and a really special pianissimo that had the house reaching out to listen to her.  There was that special silence that goes with really fine singing.  As she gets more experience, she’ll make more of some of the melodramatic declamation – Il mio figlio needs more bite and clearer words.  And in a better production, she’ll be a really great Azucena.  If I had any doubts about going to Don Carlo next season, her performance of Eboli will be a must see.

I had hoped that Zeljko Lucic would be similarly fine as Luna and, at the start, it sounded so promising – the rich astringent tone sounded like Gobbi and I really warmed to him.  But Il balen was, to put it mildly, only intermittently in tune and, as the evening went on, he seemed to lose interest.  It was a major disappointment.

Lianna Haroutounian was the Leonora – impressive in the first Act, but less and less interesting as it went on. It was perfectly decent, strong singing without ever making you feel that this was a particularly interesting Leonora.  Manrico is an impossible role.  Francesco Meli sang it probably as well as you can expect.  The high Cs, probably wisely, were avoided, and something very odd seemed to happen round about his entrance in the Miserere.  He makes a handsome figure on the stage and it was good to have some authentic Italian pronunciation.  On the other hand, you could not possible say that this was the answer to our prayers for a world-class Manrico.

Maurizio Muraro was a good Ferrando and Jennifer Davis made a very strong Inez.  The chorus was on outstanding form: clear, virile and together: this was as good choral singing as I’ve ever heard in this opera.

I admired a lot of Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting.  He found textures in the orchestration that I’d not heard before – the interplay of the instruments was really clearly done, the trumpets particularly fine.  On the other hand, tempi seemed variable: fast at the beginning, but feeling rather meandering and slow – particularly at the end of Act II and of the opera itself.

There may have been some first night problems.  The ROH have scheduled quite a lot of performances into the last fortnight of the season with alternating casts.  I wonder whether there’d been quite enough rehearsal and it may well be that, at later performances it might gel more musically.  And if you could delete the video and that wretched butterfly then you’d get rid of half the problems.  It still wouldn’t be a vibrant or interesting Trovatore.  I can’t see it lasting and I really can’t recommend that you go to see it.

Grigolo and DiDonato in Werther

25 Jun

I like Werther, but it does matter who is singing: if you haven’t got two convincing leads then you might as well forget it.  The prospect of Joyce DiDonato in her first Charlotte and Vittorio Grigolo in the title role made the latest ROH revival one of the “must sees” of the season.  I caught the performance on 24th June.

Grigolo looks marvellous as Werther – slim, vulnerable, poetic.  Vocally, he’s great: a lovely piano sound, passion when you need it and the ability to become really moving.  His 2nd act aria meditating about death was gloriously done; Pourquoi me reveiller matched Kaufmann and his death scene was moving.  It’s an elegant, passionate portrayal.  He’s not the the world’s greatest actor: it’s a long timesince I’ve seen someone use their hands in as old fashioned a way as him: arms stretched out at full tilt and all the cliches of an Italian operatic tenor.  He makes up for it with the glorious, easy, intelligent singing that I’ve described.  Maybe Kaufmann’s is the more complete portrayal and his voice stronger, more baritonal, but Grigolo’s version is more delicate, neurotic and just as valid.

Charlotte doesn’t really become interesting until the third Act and, here, Joyce DiDonato made the most convincing, interesting Charlotte that I’ve seen.  I prefer a Charlotte with a bit of bite in the voice and a bit of personality: think Baker and Fassbaender, even Baltsa, rather than, say, Koch or Donose.  DiDonato has the richness and the colours to get the regret, sadness and strength of Charlotte.  I thought she did the letter aria gloriously and, together with Grigolo, made his death really moving.  It’s great to see one of my favourite mezzos in a role that challenges her and which she manages really well.  Perhaps she is just a touch mature.  Her French isn’t always clear, but this is a lovely assumption of the role.

But maybe the real star was Antonio Pappano.  This is one of the finest performances that he’s done at the ROH.  He paces the score gloriously, is, of course, considerate to his singers.  But what impressed me most was the phrasing, the colours that he drew out of the orchestra.  I don’t think I’ll easily forget the she delicacy of sound that he drew out at the beginning of Charlotte’s letter aria – a sound that made of think of paper rustling.  The moonlight interlude caught the sheer beauty and indulgence of the sound.  Pappano has said that, while he’s musical director here, no one else is allowed to conduct Werther in the house.  That’s just fine by me.  It’s a bench-mark performance.

The rest were pretty good.  I was impressed by Heather Engebretson’s Sophie – just the right youthful enthusiasm and love.  Her voice suits the role wonderfully and she contrasted marvellously with DiDonato, while suggesting the “might have been” of the relationship with Werther.  David Buzic made a solid Albert and Jonathan Summers a lovely Bailli.

The Benoit Jacquot production doesn’t challenge anyone very much.  It looks pretty good, but it was old fashioned when it was new in 2004.  It’s a decent enough frame for the leading singers and, on this occasion, that was all they needed.

A pretty good evening.  There are still seats available and it’s well worth seeing both DiDonato and Grigolo – but most especially for Pappano and the orchestra.

Enescu’s Oedipe

27 May

Enescu’s Oedipe was written between 1910 and 1936.  It was apparently successful at its first performance but got rather forgotten following the second world war.  The ROH finally got round to it on 23rd May and I was there.  It wasn’t billed as the UK premiere but i certainly can’t recall a staged production here.

The piece strikes me as typical of operas by composers who only wrote one, or possibly two, pieces in the genre – Genoveva, Doktor Faust, King Roger spring to mind – where (a) the musical interest is greater than the dramatic and (b) you have to be interested that sort of musical idiom if you’re going to enjoy it.

Enescu has taken the Oedipus legend, set slimmed down versions of the two Sophocles plays and preceded them with scenes depicting Oedipus’s birth, he decision to return to Thebes, the murder of Laius and the encounter with the sphinx.  It creates a portrait of Oedipus himself with meaty roles for the people he encounters in each scene and one or two very effective scenes: that with the sphinx struck me as particularly fine, as were the last two scenes.  He creates superb atmosphere for the scenes: the opening of the scene for Laius’s murder and that for the sphinx were the ones which had me sitting up.

The idiom owes a lot to Debussy, Chausson, even Sibelius.  It’s perfectly pleasant to listen to and you admire the very vivid, imaginative orchestration and, if this is a period of music that you respond to, you will react like stout Cortez.

You’ll have guessed that I didn’t.  I admired in a rather distant way, but felt no urge to rush to buy a CD.  I missed any sense of dramatic impetus; I missed memorable vocal lines or ones which had me really listening; it feels leisurely – the opening seems to go on for ever and I started wondering whether I would stay for the second half.  I’m glad I did because it gets better even if it never quite makes you feel that Enescu was comfortable with the form.  I’m very glad that I saw an interesting, worthwhile opera but I could happily wait another twenty years before seeing it again.

This was in spite of a really outstanding performance.  The cast must be as good as you can get.  Johann Reuter was, predictably, an intense, clearly sung and very convincing Oedipe, getting almost Lear-like sense of development to the character and aging superbly.  It’s a huge role and he paced it with assurance.

Surrounding him were John Tomlinson as Teiresias, clear, angry and loud; Sarah Connolly who made the most of a relatively small role as Jocasta; Marie-Nicole Lemieux brilliant as the sphinx; Alan Oke as the Shepherd; Samuel Youn as Creon and Stefan Kocan, who did his scene as the Watchman with great authority.  This was great casting: a marvellous ensemble put together with great care.

Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, together with Alfons Flores, the designer, have created a masterpiece of a production: from the opening frieze-like coup to the final shower of silver water as Oedipus died, it was full of memorable scenes and images: the sphinx as a plane with propeller whirring, the shepherds as road workers.  He managed an outstanding response to the piece which looked beautiful and seemed at one with it.  I couldn’t fault it.

I don’t know the piece enough to comment about Leo Hussain’s conducting.  I thought it was authoritative and clear without making a compelling case for the work as anything other than an occasional visitor.  The orchestra and huge chorus seemed outstanding to me – again, not obviously putting a foot wrong.

Oedipe is never going be to a repertory piece but it’s good enough to be done every fifteen years or so and anyone curious about forgotten operas should hurry to this truly superb performance of it.

Tannhäuser after thirty years

27 Apr

It’s over thirty years since I last saw Tannhäuser  – when the old Moshinsky production was new.  I missed its only revival because the performance I’d booked for was cancelled because of a strike and, for other reasons, I missed the first run of the ROH’s present production.  I made up for that by making sure I got to the first performance of its first revival on 26th April.

I still remember that 1984 performance because of the sheer luxury of the singing.  I remember feeling that I’d never heard such gloriously easy Wagner singing before and that cast – Gwyneth Jones, Klaus König, Thomas Allen and Eva Randova -was probably about as good as you could get at the time.  On reflection, it may just have been the sheer volume of some of that cast that impressed me.  And Colin Davis knew what he was doing with the score.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t think much of the production and thought the opera a bit of a bore.

I still have my doubts about the opera.  I’m not sure that it’s much more than a piece of 19th century hokum on the same sort of level as, say, Faust, which is far more entertaining.  What seems wrong these days is that Venusberg, whatever that symbolises, is unreflectingly seen as A Bad Thing – and nothing Wagner does suggests that there might be a half-way house between that and the ghastly society of the Wartburg.  With that lot, it’s no surprise that Tannhäuser broke free.  And an exploration of the tension between the two would make the opera more interesting.  As it is, we have tale of redemption which Wagner did better in, say, Dutchman, Tristan or the Ring.  There’s some nice music, but there’s a fair bit that plods.

Tim Albery’s production was highly praised first time round.  I’m not sure.  Of course, it’s a professional, thoughtful piece of work that looks good, but I’m not convinced that it makes the opera seem good. The problem begins quite early on.  We see Tannhäuser at the beginning, lured away by Venus through a replica Royal Opera House proscenium and curtain.  He’s followed by a group of other men, taken away by Venus’s harpies.  The Venusberg ballet takes place round a vast table which revolves.  The choreography by Jasmin Vardimon is clever and takes your breath away with the sheer athleticism and precision that it requires.  But you’re watching a spectacle.  It isn’t erotic, even though the men lose their shirts and the women their tops.  It isn’t dangerous – except insofar as you wonder whether one of them might fall off that table.  And it’s slightly comic.  It’s hard to see what the Wartburg mob were getting so worked up about.

Act II is set in a wrecked hall – parts of the proscenium covered in dust and rubble.  The Landgrave’s people are armed, poor and suspicious.  Shouldn’t they be religious too?  This asks for a statement about a theocracy or some other totalitarian state and it simply doesn’t get it.  And the failure of the contrast, for me, makes the whole thing seem a bit pointless.  The third act is well enough done but I was unconvinced by the identification of the ROH or any other theatre with depravity.

The characterisation of the roles is generally good and strong, as you would expect, but this didn’t engage or , particularly, interest me.  It was a clear, sensible narrative of the story but I didn’t think the production went beyond that.

The cast was good and almost entirely different from the 2010 incarnation (a good thing Albery was back to direct).  The exception was Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram, who was highly praised in 2010.  You can’t doubt the quality of his singing or that you were listening to a really wonderful lieder singer, relishing the words, communicating through the words and the notes without show and making it sound easy and natural.  His enunciation is a joy, his colouring of the notes outstanding.  For much of the time he sings softly, drawing you in, making you listen, but he can open up the passion and volume when he wants to without sacrificing the beauty of the tone or the sheer consistency of the line.  It’s a long time since I’ve heard singing of this care and integrity in this theatre.  And yet…  Dramatically, Gerhaher seems to present Wolfram as an outsider, gauche, uncertain, thoughtful – his look seemed to be one of perpetual earnest concern.  It’s hard to see how he relates to everyone else or to understand the conflict between his friendship with Tannhäuser and his love for Elisabeth.  I still remember how outstandingly Thomas Allen did that and how his fuller voice and just more open buoyant personality made more of the role.  As I write, I’m listening to Haitink recording – Weikl gets greater generosity a more operatic sound to Wolfram’s piece in Act I.  There’s room for both and I’m glad I experienced Gerhaher’s performance.

For me, however, the real star was Emma Bell as Elisabeth.  This was the finest performance I’ve yet heard from this singer.  Here is a full, beautiful voice capable of managing the sheer radiant joy of Dich teure Halle and the passion and despair of her third Act number and the honesty of her duet with Tannhäuser.  And she sang precisely and clearly with none of blowsy spreading that you often get with Wagner sopranos.  She’s an expressive actress and makes the words tell.  She’s an outgoing, generous singer who made Elisabeth into a believable, moving character.  Can we please have her back as Sieglinde, Agathe, Ariadne, Chrysothemis and Senta?

It’s more than 25 years since I saw Peter Seiffert here as Parsifal.  The voice is still in remarkably fine fettle, managing the horrors of Tannhäuser, if not with ease then convincingly, which is about as much as you can ask.  Words were clear and expressively sung and I thought that he did the narration in Act III really well, getting the  despair and anger over really well.  It’s a shame we haven’t heard more of him in the interim.  Visually, he’s stolid and not an expressive actor.

Sophie Koch was Venus.  She’s a singer whose integrity and voice I admire, without ever finding her particularly exciting or interesting.  Venus needs an element of glamour about her (which Randova had redoubled in spades) and, despite the beauty of her singing, I never felt that this Venus was a significant rival to Elisabeth.  She struck me as rather passionless.

Stephen Milling made an excellent, dark-voice Landgrave, Ed Lyon sang Walther von der Vogelweide strongly, more than holding his own in this company and Michael Kraus made his mark as Biterolf.

I’d expected more sheer noise from the chorus, given the fact that there were approaching 100 of them, but their singing was clear, strong and distinguished.  This seemed in line with Hartmut Haenchen’s approach to the score: clear, detailed, concentrating on the texture and accompanying the singers thoughtfully, intelligently. The orchestra played very well indeed for him and you couldn’t doubt the quality of the interpretation.  But there were points where I would have welcomed just a bit less care, a bit more passion and the sweep to remind us that this is early Wagner, still writing with the Parisian, even Italian influences there and that there’s a melodramatic, grand operatic side to this score.  I never felt he quite let go.

This sounds as though I had a disappointing evening.  It wasn’t.  It was a performance of really high quality with intelligent, strong direction and really good singing and conducting.  It was good to see the opera again even if, ultimately, I’m not convinced that it has a lot to say to us today or if the interpretation completely worked.  And Bell and Gerhaher were very special.