Tag Archives: Verdi

Kaufmann’s Otello

7 Jul

Possibly, after 30 years, it was time for a new Otello at Covent Garden.  It was an interesting feeling to realise that it was more than 30 years since I saw the old Moshinsky production during its first run (Kleiber, Domingo, Ricciarelli and one of my abiding “great evenings”).  Anyway, Jonas Kaufmann taking up the role was a good enough reason for a new production and I saw it on 6 July.

Usually with Otello, I find myself blown away by the first couple of acts and then find the last couple pall slightly.  Here, it was other way round and the whole performance built up to, I thought, a really shattering conclusion.

So during the first act, I found myself deeply unconvinced by Antonio Pappano’s conducting.  The storm felt slow, almost becalmed – though I noticed the point that, actually, the chorus here are watching, preparing and that I was concentrating on what they were saying.  It wasn’t particularly helped by Keith Warner’s very static direction of the chorus.  This is a scene which, it seems to me, cries out for the bustle and energy that it got from Moshinsky in the old production, not to mention Peter Stein’s unforgettable WNO production.  I sort-of got what they were getting at, but I missed the sheer energy that I think Verdi needs here and which it got from Kleiber, Elder, Armstrong…  Kaufmann delivered his Esultate very strongly and I got a bit excitement, only to have it dashed again by the lumpen direction of the following scene and the fight: clear, yes, exciting, no.  Marco Vratogna’s Iago struck me as intelligent and active but not in particularly strong voice.

Then came the love duet, tender, intelligently sung and conducted with Kaufmann tender and powerful and Maria Agresta very promising indeed as Desdemona.

In Act II, I thought that Pappano was at his best in the quiet passages, the dialogues though, again, not getting the nuances that Kleiber did – he made that whole act sound like a piece of chamber music. Kaufmann seemed well able to cope with the vocal challenges but I didn’t have a sense of who this man was.  I missed the elemental power that Domingo brought – just as an example, the cry “Desdemona rea” was not the angry cry of a wounded man that it often is, but much softer, almost unbelieving – except that you almost missed it.  And shouldn’t he and Vratogna have been looking at each other during their duet?  The set was busy, at times swaying to match the drunken dancing, at others just bringing on particular pictures that, I have to admit, were rather beautiful.

At the end of Act II, therefore, I thought this was turning into a very good, decent Otello but not really catching light.

In Act III, it started to get interesting.  The Otello/Desdemona scene was intensely painful even if you did feel that they wandered about a bit: the end with Desdemona silhouetted at the back and Otello at the front made a superb picture.  Kaufmann did a wonderfully intelligent Dio mi potevi – making you feel the thought processes, though I wasn’t as moved as I have been.  Then Pappano managed the best paced Act III finale I’ve heard since Kleiber – another technically very well directed scene where you were alive to what was going on and the music built up intelligently and very satisfyingly.

Then, in Act IV, Agresta came into her own with the most intensely beautiful and moving performances of that scene that I’ve ever heard.  I often find this something of a bore.  Here I followed the thoughts, loved the gorgeousness of her voice and, most of all, the sense of innocence and awareness of death that she brought to it.  Kaufmann took command in the final scene and I found myself deeply moved by his singing.  Pappano’s conducting became all of a piece and, at the end, there was a couple of seconds hush as we absorbed what had happened.

So, overall, this was very good indeed.  I’m not convinced on this showing that Kaufmann has all that it takes to be a great Otello.  Vocally, he’s as convincing as I’ve heard since Domingo and you can’t doubt the intelligence or the sheer heft of the voice.  He didn’t make an ugly noise all evening.  My problem was that dramatically he seemed at a loss.  There needs to be a fire and passion about Otello and I wasn’t convinced he got near it.

Vratogna makes a very decent, solid Iago without offering any particular insights.  Agresta is really special and I’d love to hear her again.  The lesser parts were perfectly adequate with no-one really standing out.

Warner’s production is perfectly fine and serviceable.  There are some superb stage pictures and he offers an almost expressionist take on the piece.  There’s a lot going on with the set when I felt that I’d prefer more to be going on with the characters.  I wasn’t convinced that he’d particularly helped Kaufmann with a view of how he could make Otello his own and a lot of the direction frankly didn’t improve on the old Moshinsky production.  However, it’s a serviceable enough piece of work and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t serve as a decent backdrop for future casts.

As for Pappano, superbly seconded by his orchestra and chorus, I admired the accompaniment of the singers and the pacing of many parts but there were others where it just felt too ponderous.  I compared his timings to those of the recording I have of Kleiber in Milan – Pappano added at least 15 minutes to those and it showed.  And, irritatingly, a performance that should ended by 10.20 at the latest was not out until 10.40.

So this was high quality evening which got better and better as it went on even if it didn’t sweep you away from the start, as I still feel Otello should.


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.

Futile Foscari

18 Oct

I’ve yet to see the point of I due Foscari, which I foolishly attended at the ROH on 17th October.

I share Verdi’s mature view on it that it is just dull. First, there are acres of back story which aren’t adequately conveyed in the plot. The principal villain has about three lines and no opportunity to convey any motivation other than villainy and the opera seems to consist entirely of people bemoaning their fate and doing hardly anything about it.  There is absolutely nothing to make you interested in the plot, wonder what might happen next and there is no action which determines what happens next.  Friends who were seeing this for the first time raved about hearing ideas which Verdi was to do better later – fair enough, but that can’t compensate for the sheer monotony of the piece.  The musical use of the chorus may be interesting but it’s not remotely as exciting as, say, Nabucco or Macbeth. And there’s also an absence of any really exciting or interesting arias. Most of them are pleasant enough and do their job of conveying what the characters are thinking but you really imagine them appearing in any singer’s Verdi Favourites recital disc.

But for some reason, companies will do it. This is the fourth production here in the last 40 years. I’ve seen three of them: at Scottish (dull), the last ROH one (dull and silly) and this (dull and nasty). Did we need it? The ROH hasn’t done Ernani in living memory and that is at least fun. I’ve no great brief for I Lombardi, but Jerusalem hasn’t been staged in London in my memory and is the only Verdi that I haven’t seen. The last Luisa Miller was a disaster and another would be nice.  I’d love to see another Stiffelio, which at least has real interest and a decent plot, together with some really outstanding arias and ensembkes. Why not try staging Battaglia di Legnano, Corsaro, or even Giorno di Regno or Oberto?

The reason, of course, was that Placido Domingo felt that he owed the world his Francesco and what Mr Domingo wants, the opera houses of the world feel they have to provide – in this case Los Angeles, where he just happens to be in charge, Valencia, Vienna and London. He is a great artist and we owe him a lot and you can only admire his phenomenal energy and wonder how he manages to learn all those roles, conduct and run a couple of opera houses.  But exactly how much indulgence do we have to give him when he moves to roles for which his voice is patently unsuitable or where, as with some of Wagner roles, I’ve felt that he’s relied on the beauty of his voice over depth of characterisation?  I felt that he got away with Boccanegra because it provided an opportunity for him to deliver an outstanding characterisation in a really great opera and you could almost forget that the voice really doesn’t have the sort of qualities that Verdi was looking for.

Here, however, I really wondered what he was doing.  The timbre of his voice is just wrong for most Verdi baritone roles. Francesco needs something to contrast with Jacopo – a darker, deeper tone with different colours than Domingo can provide. It’s crying out for Hvorostovsky and, in an opera that needs all the help it can get, the absence of that was a major drawback. At this performance, Domingo seemed to me to sound his age. His first aria didn’t gather much applause and I don’t think this was because we were all moved by it. There was greater enthusiasm about the duet with Lucrezia and he did the prison scene decently enough. But it isn’t a role that gives him much to do dramatically and I felt that his presence actually made the opera seem even duller. I believe that he did his death scene well, but by that time I’d given up.

The rest were adequate to good. Francesco Meli, in particular, did some very fine things as Jacopo – delicate phrasing, not putting the voice under pressure and avoiding showmanship. He couldn’t avoid the role appearing lacrymose and dull but he did that very sympathetically.  It was particularly impressive that he was able to sing so well when being lowered from the flies in a very wobbly cage or being hoisted on a rope.  I felt that the role was at the edge of his capability but I’d like to hear him in more sympathetic circumstances as the Duke in Rigoletto, Nemorino or Edgardo. I wasn’t greatly taken by Daniela Agrosta as Lucrezia – rather an breathy, squally performance, I thought, with not much interesting to do. Maurizio Murraro was a very excellent Loredano even if I didn’t register who he was until the end of the second Act.

Pappano conducted. He secured excellent playing from the orchestra and fine singing from the chorus without actually making the piece sound remotely interesting or exciting.  Of course there are some good things in the opera but none of it interested me or made me feel that I was doing anything other than wasting my time.  This short piece felt very long indeed.

Thaddeus Strassberger directed as if he was aware that the action is pretty boring and took the usual director’s way out of giving us lots of other things to look at, except when Mr Domingo was on the stage.  This meant lots of prisoners being tortured nastily, councillors crossing the stage and a bevy of nuns in white.  What is it about this opera and nuns?  Everding’s production here in 1995 gave Lucrezia a bevy of them that followed her around wherever she went.  Apart from that, he did nothing to make the characters interesting or the piece itself dramatic.  The direction of the characters was pretty non-existent.  I blame the opera.  The costumes were in period and Kevin Knight’s set was ugly and we had the obligatory video designs for interludes which didn’t help much – and flashed up a puerile summary of the story so far that rather insulted our intelligence (“The serious crime of High Treason”).  I don’t think that there’s much you can do with this piece and Mr Strassberger didn’t convince me otherwise.

As I’ve suggested, I left at the interval at Act II.  I think I’ve seen this piece more than enough for this lifetime.

Family Traviata

12 Oct

You know that feeling when you’re watching a show with someone and they’re clearly not enjoying it.  And it infects you and you start to think what’s wrong with it and you cease to enjoy it yourself.  There is an opposite feeling which is that of sitting next to someone who is obviously completely spellbound by it.  That’s what happened when I took Emma, my niece, to see the Glyndebourne Tour’s La traviata on 11th October.

Family and friends had been sceptical.  How do you explain about courtesans?  It’s in Italian; she won’t understand.  That huge Germont/Violetta duet’s awfully long and then she just sings in the last Act.  I think this completely misunderstands how children approach theatre and opera.  Or at least how some do.  I remember seeing Cosi fan tutte when I was eight.  I found the arias a bit long but I could follow what was going.  I didn’t get the nuances; I was too young to understand the emotions but I was fascinated by the action, by sounds and the glamour of it all.  They don’t have to understand everything – that will come – but if you can find that they like the business of people singing when they should be speaking then, I would say, La traviata is as good an opera as any for them.  And Sarah Lenton did an excellent pre-performance talk that struck exactly the right balance between adult and children’s understanding.

The good things about Tom Cairn’s production that I enjoyed in the summer remain.  It’s well thought-through.  Time has been taken to plan and get the detail right.  The singers know what they’re singing about and convey it.  The moves and choreography are really well judged.  I remember two visual moments that we both loved.  The first is at the beginning of the Act II finale, with Violetta’s solo – she’s stood there, spotlit and all eyes are on her as she  explains what she feels about Alfredo.  The second was for Parigi o cara – the two of them sat on the flaw together, looking out, planning the future that cannot be – and this was helped by Zach Borichevsky’s really soft, gorgeous, tender singing of it.  The sets look a bit less cramped  if you’re sitting further back.  Above all, as I watched this I was aware of what a good opera this is – how perfectly paced, how wonderfully the music makes you understand the emotions.  In this respect, the contrast between this and the dismal ROH Rigoletto the other week, could not have been greater.

The cast wasn’t quite up to the summer.  Irina Dubrovskaya has the notes for Violetta and the technique to bring off each of the scenes.  She’s a sympathetic presence and acted convincingly – more obviously ill than her predecessor.  What I missed was the level of colouring, the ability to sing words and invest them with the meaning they need.  As I right, I’m listening to Gheorgiu sing the Act I aria and cabaletta, where phrasing and attention to the words are of the first order.  Dubrovskaya is good, but doesn’t grab you in the was the best Violettas do.

Zach Borichevsky makes a tall and gauche Alfredo and I admired his singing hugely.  I’ve mentioned Parigi o cara, but his Act II aria and cabaletta were really sensitively done.  He strikes me as a very promising tenor for this repertory.  He may not be quite as finished a tenor as Fabbiano, but he does excellently here. Roman Burdenko, familiar from the last Falstaff here, was a good Giorgio Germont, though there was a roughness about his voice and, again, not quite the same care about the words that his predecessor brought.

Eddie Wade repeated his threatening, excellent Douphol and Magdalena Motendowska her fine, concerned Annina.  Otherwise, the smaller roles were done a bit better at the Festival and came over more vividly there.

David Afkham had conducted the latter performances at the Festival and there was an awful lot of Mark Elder’s performance that I recognised.  There were the details in the orchestra throughout the Germont/Violetta duet and a great sense of pace.  I’m not complaining about this at all: I can’t think of many models I’d rather have for a young Verdi conductor and it was all of a piece for the opera.  The orchestra and chorus were both really excellent and the piece came across as a vivid, dramatic piece of theatre.  And the only thing that seemed wrong to Emma was Violetta being left alone at her death – and I could see what she meant.

When opera’s taken as seriously as it is here, it’s hard to imagine it not working.  Emma’s seat cost me £10 and she sat, watching it fixedly, listening.  She’s decided that she like opera.  What should be the next?  I think she ought to see the Copley Boheme before it goes and then if someone does a decent Barber or Figaro or Elisir, that would be the thing for her to learn that opera is fun too.

Reliable Otello

28 Sep

There was one great scene in the ENO’s Otello, which I saw on 25th September which reminded me of all the advantages of singing opera in English. This was the opening scene of Act IV. In that scene, Leah Crocetto sang the words so clearly, with a level of innocence and intensity that made this audience really listen. It’s a scene that I often find a bit tedious. Here, it became the emotional heart of the opera. I’ve heard it better sung, technically, the top notes more beautifully floated, but never with someone who conveyed the sheer simplicity and emotion. The English came over clearly, intelligibly and meant something. You weren’t looking at the surtitles.

This was the high spot of what struck me as a good, reliable but ultimately rather remote, unexciting Otello. David Alden’s production is updated and set in a vaguely ruined palace – positively traditional. It had its share of perversities. In the opening storm, the chorus is divided into different parts – people shout to each other across the stage and from different angles – it’s a picture of a crowd that’s busy, panicking, looking out, getting weapons and ropes. Here they’re standing at the back of the stage, a huge mass and, while this is effective, the different groups singing to each other seem odd and, however fine Adam Silverman’s lighting, it can’t avoid feeling dull, dampening the excitement, limiting the effect of Otello’s arrival.

I could go on. I’ve never felt before that the ‘fuoca di gioia’ chorus and the childrens’ chorus round Desdemona were basically rather tedious interludes in between the action or so conscious of the sheer length or the Act III finale. This may not just be Alden’s fault but his response to these numbers seemed curiously traditional. Meanwhile, the absence of a bed for Desdemona just seemed perverse.

So it was down to the performers, helped, no doubt, by Alden’s skill there. I’m a huge fan of Stuart Skelton and I thought he sang Otello magnificently. There wasn’t a hint of strain and he managed the tender passages and the love duet with real beauty.  It was among the most confident performances musically that I’ve heard. And yet he lacked that power that, say, Domingo and Charles Craig have had to move me, to make my heart stop and tears come to my eyes in, say, Ora e per sempre addio or  Dio mi potevi scagliar or at the end. And I think part of this was that I did not get the sense of the huge military giant – an aspect of the opera mostly ignored by Alden – or of the outsider. In the programme we were told that he was a very lightly tanned assimilated North African moor with virtually no blacking up. That’s fine but without the sense of the outsider of someone different, of the great hero who is brought down, you miss the grandeur and epic part of Verdi’s tragedy.

This must also have slightly blunted the effect of Jonathan Summers’s outstanding Iago. Vocally, he’s not a s free as he once was, but his abiltity to conbvey lowering jealousy and villainy is second to none. He got a level of hatred and anger into his credo that was terrifying because of its very stillness and his stillness and uncompromising certainty This was among the finest Iagos that I’ve seen.

Before the final act, I’d been less than certain about Ms Crocetto – dressed in shades of grey, she seemed a bit anonymous, her tone a bit pale.  As I’ve suggested, however, her performance in Act IV was outstanding.

Allan Clayton was a dissolute alcoholic of a Cassio – you really wondered about the wisdom of leaving him in charge in Cyprus.  And he sang very well.  Pamela Helen Stephens created a dour, uptight Emilia who came into her own in the last Act.

Edward Gardner conducted as well as you’d expect.  The orchestra sounded terrifying in the storm scene and accompanied the singers well.  As I’ve suggested you could hear a very high proportion of the words of Tom Phillips’s rather good translation.  The chorus were excellent and made just the huge sound you look for here.  The overall effect wasn’t as overwhelming as Kleiber’s but this made for a very convincing Otello.

So it was good piece of work and I strongly recommend a visit even if it didn’t strike me as the either the most radical or the most convincing take on the opera visually.

Bored and boring Rigoletto

26 Sep

Everyone makes mistakes now and then.  Mine was to buy tickets for the performance of Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House on 23rd September.  Ther ROH’s was putting it on in the first place.

To be fair, it all looked so promising.  Simon Keenlyside is one my favourite singers, Aleksandra Kurzak has impressed me every time I’ve seen her here and Saimir Pirgu seems to have a growing reputation.  Maurizio Benini couldn’t spoil it and, the last time I saw David McVicar’s production (admittedly in 2002), I thought it thoroughly enjoyable.

Oh dear.  The prelude was unobjectionable but then the opera itself started.  What may have been bright, alive and well-planned was turned into an orgy by numbers: loads of simulated sex with clothes firmly in place, people fondling each other to order and a naked man making sure we saw his genitals for a bit.  It looked tawdry and brain-dead.  Monterone was accompanied by a group of soldiers with axes which they pointed ineffectually at him. Pirgu sang his aria with the grace of a bored accountant and sound under-powered in the ensembles.  He gave that sort of generalised operatic acting of someone who doesn’t really know why he is standing there.

Keenlyside looked lithe and bounced a lot – using his sticks as aids to moving long distances rather than because he needed them.  His acting seemed uncertain. Vocally he was, perhaps, a little light but nothing to complain about.

After that scene, the revolve cranked arthritically round.  Keenlyside came back, rather like a dodgy monk and not really needing the sticks at all.  Brindsley Sherratt made a very strong Sparafucile and that scene went pretty well.  Kurzak arrived, sounding slightly out of voice as Gilda and the most dispiriting part of the evening began.  There was nothing particularly wrong with her singing or Keenlyside’s – there was just no evidence of interest, of connection or emotion between them.  Once Pirgu arrived, it got even worse.  He moved gamely enough, sang adequately, but, again there was nothing to suggest what he was thinking, if indeed he was.  Both he and Kurzak seemed to move because they’d been told to.  His cry of anger at the interruption made no effect at all.

Kurzak went on to sing probably the best Caro nome that I’ve heard in the theatre but it was fine technical singing and, in any case, too late.  The remainder of the Act happened and I left.

I love Rigoletto for its passion, its over-the-top melodrama but, above all, for the sheer conviction. The singers need to believe in and know what they’re doing and the director needs to be able to get them meld and provide some sort of conviction. All the conviction of 2002 had ebbed away in the umpteen revivals between then and now. The set looks tatty and, unless McVicar can be persuaded back to rehearse it, it should be retired quickly.  It’s unacceptable to anyone seeing the opera with their brain present rather than in the cloakroom or switched to neutral.

In lots of ways, I was less worried by whether or not Simon Keenlyside is a true Verdian singer than by what struck me was what an uncertain, unhappy dramatic performance he gave. The voice is no less suitable than Fischer-Dieskau’s and, while it might not be my preferred sort of baritone for the role you can’t deny the fact that he sings the notes easily and effortlessly and with real elegance. This would be fine for, say Ankarstrom or Luna, but Rigoletto needs an additional dimension – bite, words, an ugliness and bitterness about the tone and Keenlyside lacks these. He seemed profoundly uncomfortable in an interpretation built for a much larger, more powerful individual. The sticks seemed an encumbrance rather than a necessary aid and he didn’t have the presence or power to make this work.  I hate writing this about one of my favourite singers but, if he’s going to go this far out of his comfort zone, he really needs a strong director and a production built round him if it’s to stand a hope of working.

Kurzak gave us brand X acting and Pirgu a brand X tenor, with a voice not quite big enough for the house making no attempt to point words or have any involvement in the plot.  Both needed direction if they were going to make this work. The smaller roles seemed well enough done – I liked Duncan Rock’s enthusiastic, show-off Marullo.  Benini, orchestra and chorus went through the motions without giving the impression that they cared much.

If it all suddenly gelled in the second act, then I’m sorry but I thought this was a horrid throw-back to the bad old days of throwing opera on the stage and hoping the best and that the audience don’t notice.  Well I did and it does the ROH no good at all.

Damrau triumphs as Violetta

22 Apr

Traviata at the Royal Opera House is traditional, handsome, little that’s seriously unexpected and is a vehicle for individual stars to give their performances of the leading roles.  It keeps happy that part of the opera-going public that doesn’t like to be unsettled by productions.  It can hit and miss, depending on the cast.  This was my fifth visit in its 20 year history – Gheorgiu twice, Ansellem, Jaho (Netrebko cancelled…) and, now, Diana Damrau.  We see her too little at the Royal Opera House and I don’t think I’ve caught up with her since she did Gretel, before the world caught on to her talent.  So it was largely for her that I went to see the latest revival – the performance on 21st April.  It actually turned into rather a special evening.

Damrau is as good as the reviews say.  This was a wonderfully thought-through, gloriously sung, wholly individual Violetta.  As with all the best ones, she uses the words, understands them and means them.  She does the conversational passages really well – you feel that she’s talking to people and she colours the words with real intelligence. As she’s struggling to get up in the last act, the word “non posso” aren’t the usual burst of frustration, but sung softly, as if she can barely summon up the breath to speak.  She contrasts the brittle brilliance of the first act party with the sheer honesty of her duet with Germont.  You feel absolutely her love for Alfredo, the sense that she has no idea of how she will break the news to him and her huge desire to be accepted by him.  Dite alla giovine had an artless, honest, desperation about it, as if life was going completely blank.  And she sang Addio del passato with such attention to the words and the logic of the music that you felt the audience really listening – listening so hard that there was almost a surprise when it ended and a pause before the applause began.  Vocally, there wasn’t a weak or uncertain moment.  She made the part sound easy and real – there wasn’t an ugly or misplaced note all night, but the emotions came through movingly and true.  This was one of the Violettas that I’ll treasure, along with Cotrubas, Miriciou and Gheorghui (Netrebko was ill when I was meant to see her…) as being complete, outstanding interpretations.

I admired Francesco Demuro’s Romeo in Verona and he made a really excellent Alfredo here.  It’s not the largest voice in the world and he sounded stretched in those passages which needa bit of heft – the cabaletta to De miei bollenti spiriti, for example – but he can sing subtly and softly and with real tenderness.  I thought he did Un di felice and Parigi o cara wonderfully, with honesty, with glorious pianissimi and subtlety.  He looked good and presented a youthful, infatuated young man –  a really good foil to Damrau.  I hope he comes back.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is an old hand at the elder Germont and a very, very good one.  It’s thoughtfully acted – you feel him unwillingly admiring Violetta,while he and Demuro suggested that there were all kind of things wrong with the father/son relationship here.  Vocally, I found him rather loud – he could have afforded to fine the voice down a bit more if only because it felt a little unbalanced with the others.  He sang Pura siccome un’angelo as well as we can expect and made the cabaletta to Di provenza so that it made sense.

Dan Ettinger’s conducting was not much liked by the reviewers and I know what they mean: he pulled the score about a lot, tempi suddenly lurched mid-phrase (the Act II finale was a particular example) and he sounded intent on under-scoring particular passage.  It didn’t all work but what I felt we had here was a very intelligent conductor looking at a score which it’s all too easy to take for granted.

Orchestra, chorus and other part were all strong without being anything particular to blog about, so I won’t

Richard Eyre’s production does its job very well.  There’s enough detail (Violetta asking a servant to bring Alfredo to her in the second scene of Act II) to convince you that someone has been thinking about it and enough freedom for great artists to bring their own qualities.  Bob Crowley’s sets manage to give you both the public and the private – the grandeur of the party scenes and the intimacy for the duets and the end.  It also enables performances that transcend the every day and, on its own terms, I thought the Traviata among the finest I’ve seen.  It’s worth catching and I hope that the management has taken the opportunity to sing her up for Elvira, Lucia and much, much more.