Tag Archives: Sarah Connolly

Hamlet collage

11 Jun

There is one unforgettable moment in Brett Dean’s new opera Hamlet, which I saw on its first night at Glyndebourne on 11 June.  This is when Sarah Connolly, as Gertrude, comes to tell Laertes of Ophelia’s death.  She sings a version of “There grows a willow…” with her usual glorious heartfelt emotion and simplicity and, as she does so, you hear Barbara Hannigan singing flashes of her mad scene from the dome.  It’s a gorgeous, moving moment which reminds why opera, as a form, gives you things that the straight theatre can’t.

Otherwise, this struck me as a very clever opera that didn’t quite explain why it needed to be written.  Matthew Jocelyn has taken the text and played about with it and those of who know the play well have a lot of fun working out what bits come from where – so “do not saw your hand in the air” is used for the duelling at the end.  It’s rare, if at all, that you get a single speech set entirely as it was.  I don’t object to that, but it is distracting to have bits of the play that you know coming up in unexpected places.  And there are lots of jokes about the different variant readings which are funny, if you get them.

What worries me more is that there isn’t really an over-arching idea to this opera.  There are a succession of more or less successful scenes and an exhausting role for the protagonist but that feels like it.  They’ve sensibly got rid of Fortinbras and the bulk of the political side of the play, but what I missed was the need for revenge or any sense of Hamlet’s vacillation or the irony associated with that.  If Hamlet isn’t a political play, it’s a revenge tragedy with some really good meditation about life and death.  Here the existential side seemed to take centre stage without the revenge plot.

It was also long and needed cutting- the performance lasted half an hour longer than Glyndebourne thought it would.  I first became aware of this in the scene where Polonius suggests that they put Ophelia in Hamlet’s way.  Aside from the tedium of Polonius (who the music makes a lot less funny than the play) there’s a sextet with comic backing for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  They turn up in the Osric role later on (the whole bit about Hamlet being sent to England is cut) and have a silly duet about the odds.  And the play scene takes forever.  I wasn’t convinced about the need for a gravedigger.  Surely you can cut Yorick?

Dean’s music strikes me as professional.  There’s some smashing word-setting and quite a lot of others where you feel that it all feels a bit leaden.  The orchestration has a semi-chorus, antiphonal percussion and brass up on either side of the Upper Circle.  There are some nice moments, some great climaxes and quite a lot where it sounds as though it’s just grumbling in the background.  It didn’t dislike and there are moments, particularly in the second half where the things sort-of takes off.

Overall, however, this brings me back to the problems of setting the texts of Shakespeare in English.  If you don’t use the original, everyone says that the libretto isn’t as good.  If you do, then there are the problems of setting great lines that actors will generally do better.  It helps if you can condense it in a foreign language and let your version speak for itself.  This seems to me to join the group of honourable failures.  And it’s too long.

It’s pretty brilliantly done.  Neil Armfield’s production moves fluidly and, technically, is a very adept piece of work. Vladimir Jurowski conducts the LPO and the Glyndebourne chorus with huge assurance.  There wasn’t a hint of uncertainty about the performance and you felt that everyone was engaging with and utterly committed to the piece.

Allan Clayton gives a hugely energetic performance as Hamlet and sings the lines clearly, beautifully, intelligently.  What I missed, and I think this is the opera’s fault, not his, was any hint as to why we should care about him at all.  Sarah Connolly was her typically fabulous self as Gertrude.  Barbara Hannigan has a stratospheric (and very successful) mad scene for Ophelia and she pulls it off as a marvellous set-piece.  Rod Gilfry as Claudius sang clearly even if you didn’t quite get what the character was all about.  Kim Begley was a clear Polonius, but I wonder if he didn’t have too much to do.  John Tomlinson had three lovely roles as the Ghost, the First Player and the Gravedigger and was his usual, booming, hugely intelligent, charismatic self.  David Butt Philip (who will be singing Hamlet on the Tour) was excellent as Laertes.  Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey had a fine double act as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Maybe it’s time to give the joke that it’s impossible to tell which is which a rest.

As ever at Glyndebourne you can’t fault the sheer commitment and professionalism of the performance.  It’s given this piece the best possible send-off.  I’m simply not convinced that I really want to see it again.  Sorry.

 

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.

Ariodante in Amsterdam

28 Jan

A visit to Amsterdam coincided with the Netherlands National Opera performing Handel’s Ariodante.  With Sarah Connolly, Sandrine Piau and Sonia Prina in the cast and a production by Richard Jones (originating in Aix in 2014), this was too good to miss.  I went to the performance on 25th January.

Ariodante is one of those great masterpieces that repays interpretation and which is open to any number of approaches.  Predictably, Richard Jones took the nastiest one possible and made you realise what a cruel work this is.  He sets it in Scottish fishing community in the 1970s.  Polinesso is the local pastor – we see him conducting a service during the overture while Ariodante and Lurcanio are the local fishermen.  It may not quite fit with the surtitles (which refer to Polinesso as the “Duke” and Ariodante as Scotland’s saviour, but the issues are the same whether it’s courtly love or the local pastor leching after the village elder’s daughter.

It’s set on a single set – a three-roomed cottage – which enables different things to happen during arias and the surround plot to be developed.  So Polinesso and Dalinda are plotting during Lurcanio’s first Act aria and you see the villagers praying over Ginevra as Ariodante returns in Act III.  For the dances, the chorus bring in puppets of Ariodante and Ginevra and promise babies and glory for them.  At the end of the second Act, Ginevra is shown as expelled from the community and becoming a prostitute in the city.  In the third, the Act I show is repeated but Ariodante is so caught up in it that he doesn’t notice Ginevra leaving of her own accord.  There is, of course, no joyous aria for Ginevra and nothing to suggest that the couple do, in fact, live happily and the depths in the arias suggest that a happy ending is unlikely.  Dalinda and Lurcanio’s reconciliation is similarly ambivalent.  It’s all acted marvellously and Jones’s trade mark, highly choreographed works ideally.  This is a thoughtful, really intelligent performance that involves you with the characters and has you sharing the emotion.

The cast was pretty good.  Sarah Connolly has deepened her interpretation of the title role since her ENO performances a decade ago.  Scherza infida was pretty much up there with Ann Murray’s unforgettable performance.  She captured the pain and the anger, acted the man engagingly, with the joy and the pain beautifully done.  She coped with some pretty brisk tempi for All’ aria di costanza and Dopo notte with fluent, impressive coloratura.

She was matched, if not exceeded, by Annett Fritsch as Ginevra.  This was some of the most outstandingly accurate, moving Handel singing that I’ve heard.  She brought a depth of despair and integrity to her Act III arias that matched Connolly’s and made Ginevra into an entirely sympathetic, believable character.  She has a gorgeous, limpid soprano that sounded ideal for this sort of music.  Both charted a range of emotions through each area so that the eventual outcome seemed entirely right.

As Polinesso, Sonia Prina caught the balance between pantomime villain and unpleasant, creepy pastor really well.  The slight harshness of her voice didn’t seem out of place here and she sang her three arias really well.  Sandrine Piau caught the daffiness of Dalinda, but also the real love and conflicting emotions of the role.  There was some really dazzlingly good Handel singing here, reminding you that this role is a cousin of Morgana in Alcina and needs similar agility and skill.

Luca Titotto as the King sang his arias cleanly, movingly and intelligently.  Only Andrew Tortise, as Lurcanio, seemed stretched beyond his limits: coloratura sounded effortful, the voice a tad small for the house.  He acted the role well.

Andrea Marcon conducted Concerto Koln.  Tempi tended to vary from the pretty brisk to the really quite slow and these contributed to a very long evening: four and quarter hours in total.  The band played with vigour and commitment.  The only serious criticism I have is one of balance which, I suspect, may be due to the acoustic of the opera house here.  The pit was raised and, while this helped you hear the orchestral textures it also tended to drown the singers.  Marcon’s continuo, particularly, seemed intrusively loud and far closer to me (in the eleventh row of the stalls) than it actually was.

The opera house struck me as a welcoming, perhaps rather large building – it seats 1600 people and is pretty wide.  I wonder what the acoustics are like for Wagner.  What was particularly impressive was the audience – informally dressed and containing a remarkably high number of people in the 16 – 22 age group that you hardly ever see in London.  They stayed to the end and appeared enthusiastic.  Aside from an outstanding performance of the opera, that committed, diverse, youthful and unstuffy audience was an additional bonus to a gem of an evening.  It’s a shame Jones’s production doesn’t look as though it’s coming here any time soon.

Joyous Fantasio

16 Dec

I don’t normally go up to London on a Sunday but the opportunity to hear a new Offenbach, particularly a British premiere was too important to miss.  And so I got on the train at 5.20 on 15th December to see the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Opera Rara present Offenbach’s Fantasio at the Royal Festival Hall.

The opera was a failure in Paris (though it was more of a success in Vienna) and then has been pretty much forgotten, with all its parts pretty much scattered.  Jean-Christophe Keck, as part of his campaign to complete Offenbach’s operas, has had the task of gathering an edition together and what we have is probably about as near as you can get to what was heard on the first night.

It’s based on a play by de Musset from the 1830s.  A marriage has been arranged between the Prince of Mantua and the Princess of Bavaria.  She is sad because her jester has died.  Fantasio, a student, hears her sing and sings back.  He disguises himself as the jester in order to meet her.  They fall in love.  Meanwhile, the Prince of Mantua has decided to swap costumes with his servant to find out whether or not she loves him.  This is a pretty disastrous ploy and Fantasio, to save the Princess, pulls the servant’s wig from his head.  He is imprisoned; the princess releases him and all ends happily.  There’s a strong anti-war sentiment which, from a German composer, might not have gone down that well in Paris in 1872.

Otherwise, it’s a gentle comdey which ought to have appealed to nineteenth century audiences – it could also have made a convincing early 20th century musical comedy.  I was reminded of Chabrier’s L’etoile (though it lacks the sheer surreal lunacy of that opera – and the music isn’t as good) as well as a rather nasty take on the Cinderella story.  It feels rather old-fashioned these days and it’s hard to see how the plot could readily take off, though perhaps Laurent Pelly or Martin Duncan might make something out of it.

The music, however, is rather wonderful.  It doesn’t have the sheer continuous brilliance of the more famous operettas or, indeed, of Hoffmann but it does deserve to be better known.  There is one absolute knock-out tune – a glorious waltz, first heard in the overture and then in the first act duet (and the third) for Fantasio and the Princess.  Beyond that there are attractive ballads, a glorious quintet which, you feel, Bizet must have known for Carmen, a really strong finale to Act II and some fiendish coloratura for the princess.  The music has echoes of Hoffmann and is in the vein of Robinson Crusoe rather than the operettas and is none the worse for that.  It may not be vintage Offenbach but it deserves an occasional outing.

Mark Elder conducted.  Has he done any Offenbach since the 1980s Orpheus at ENO?  I enjoyed the precision of his conducting and the way in which he let the tunes unfold.  Was it a bit too drilled, a bit too cautious?  There were odd times when I felt that, perhaps, a bit more relaxation and a little more speed (particularly in some of the entr’actes) might have helped.  But this was a minor cavil for someone who demonstrated the considerable musical strengths of the work.  He played a small, speaking part as well and had great fun with that, too  – as did we.  You don’t associate the OAE with this sort of music but there was some really lovely playing and intelligent accompaniment of the singers.

He had an excellent cast.  Sarah Connolly was ideal casting as Fantasio.  She doesn’t seem able to do anything wrong at the moment and I loved her stylish, gorgeous singing and witty acting.  She caught the wit and integrity of the character.  Brenda Rae was a late replacement as the Princess but showed no sign of this – her coloratura was outstanding and she worthily partnered Connolly in their duets.

Russell Braun as the Prince and Robert Murray as his servant had lesser roles but gave very strong support, as did Brindley Sherratt, Neal Davies and Victoria Simmonds.  The Opera Rara chorus did very well indeed.

I found myself smiling happily through most of this.  Offenbach fans won’t hesitate to buy the CD and they should be in for a treat. Other admirers of French music should enjoy it too.  A staging would be nice, if unlikely, and it reminded me also of how nice it would be to see decent stagings of Les Brigands, Robinson Crusoe, Bluebeard and Grande Duchesse before too long.

Only one complaint.  The programme and the advance information from the RFH suggested this would be over by 9.15.  We started slightly late and the interval last 10 minutes long than planned, but the performance didn’t end until about 9.50 – surely someone would have noticed this beforehand?

Medea – admiring but not loving

21 Feb

There was so much that was really special about ENO’s production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medea, which I saw on February 20th, that it feels churlish to say that I wasn’t bowled over by it.

There was a predictably towering performance from Sarah Connolly in the title role.  She is one of the singers that I will go and hear whatever she does and I don’t think I have heard her in better form.  She conveyed the love, the sorrow, the anger and the vengeance of the role marvellously.  She was at her finest in the scenes with Jason, in the incantation scene in Act III and throughout Act IV when the scenes with Oronte and Creon conveyed a huge range of emotion.  Her voice seems to have acquired a slight rawness about some notes, reminiscent of Janet Baker and is adds to the power and emotion that she conveys.  If I have a criticism it was that I felt that her acting could have conveyed more of the anger that she managed vocally: I wanted a bit more chewing of the scenery.

The supporting cast around her were outstanding.  There are at least five other roles in the opera requiring great singers.  We had Jeffrey Francis as Jason who sang with style and drew sparks from Miss Connolly during their duets.  The only doubt was that he looked a bit elderly to be a credible rival for Roderick Williams’s supberb Orontes.  Williams, as anyone who remembers him from Castor and Pollux will know, sings this music perfectly.  His diction is impeccable, he sounds wonderful and he acts convincingly.  Brindley Sherratt was a splendidly vigorous, clear Creon and Katherine Manley displayed a lovely, pure voice as Creusa, Medea’s rival, and was particularly fine in the lovely final duet for her and Jason and in her death scene.

Christian Curmyn conducted vigorously, stylishly and, I thought, got really convincing playing from the orchestra and fine singing from the chorus.  This was conducting that had absolute faith and belief in the piece. This was a grand performance that managed to project the piece into a theatre the size of the Coliseum and had the calibre of singers to make it work.

And David McVicar gave us a very classy production The period is Second World War, which provides an opportunity for stylish military costumes and some elegant clothes for the women and provides a good, consistent period feel.  The set looks 18th century (I thought it would not be completely impossible for Act II of Rosenkaverlier).  There was an elegance and formality that is not at odds with this particular stylised form.  He managed to find a way of working in the dances.  His characters acted and understood what they were doing and saying.  It looked good.

So why did I feel only intermittently involved?  I think there are a number of reasons, mostly personal to me:

1.    I don’t feel particularly comfortable with the French baroque style.  I’m deeply ambivalent about Rameau and I find the conventions of the ballet and the rather austere formality repellent.  It may be that I simply don’t know the music well enough and haven’t adjusted to the conventions but here I found the opening scenes uninvolving and the dances in the first two acts interminable and unhelpful, however well staged.

2.    I think the Coliseum is too big for this.  No matter how grand the performance, it loses something by having to reach out into this barn.  Apart from some set pieces, this is an opera of intimate conversations and subtle vocal effects – you lose some of this.

3.    For all its elegance and precision, I wonder if McVicar’s production helped.  There is an element of the magic and fantastical here – Medea is meant to end up flying off on a chariot drawn by dragons, the palace is meant to collapse and there is scope for all kinds of effects as the demons help Medea poison Creusa’s dress.  I think that by placing it in the very un-magicial 1940s, McVicar robbed us of these – Miss Connolly being lifted up was a good attempt at ending the piece, but dragon-drawn chariots it was not.  And isn’t there something of the outsider about Medea even from the start.  I know that Charpentier deliberately accentuates the love and sadness of the early scenes but it was hard to see how this elegant, respectable woman could be a threat to Corinth, let alone turn into the poisoning murderess of the last few acts.

I sensed a slightly tepid, puzzled response from the audience and, while applauding the enterprise of ENO for the first ever British staging of this work (and first ever Charpentier by one of the main companies), being delighted to have the opportunity to see the opera and admiring the whole way in which the show was put together, I doubt that it will return or usher in a particular Charpentier revival.  Not for a while, anyway.

I admired the effort, but can take or leave the piece.