Fidelio and Tsar's Bride
I've been so busy the last few weeks that I didn't manage to comment on these two productions when they happened. Full reviews seem beside the point now that they're both over, but I did want to post a few thoughts on them.
Rimsky Korsakov's 15 operas are largely an unknown quantity for me, so it was good to finally see one - one wonders when the next one will be performed in London. I thought this production was one of the best things that the ROH had done this year - cleverly and stylishly updated, visually stunning and with direction and musical values particularly notable for their quality. Maybe I was just relieved after the relative mediocrity of Fidelio, Aida and Anna Nicole that had preceded it.
This is an example of an intelligent piece of Regie (the action took place in approximately present day, and centred around Russian mob activities) - never does the libretto fight what's on stage, and the brutality of the characters actions is both more explicable and more sinister. The acting and direction were particularly notable for their naturalism and subtlety, both A Good Thing in my book. Kevin Knight's sets were some of the best that the ROH has had this year - capturing that curiously Russian mix of periods and lack of taste, they had a very strong sense of atmosphere and place, and in every scene, the set really added to the drama and visual spectacle in a grimy, low key way.
Marina Poplavskaya as Marfa, the Tzar's bride, was completely uninvolving, and rumours from rehearsals suggest that she was impossible to work with, badly behaved and completely narcissistic. But we could have told this from the performance, which even in the climactic mad scene (which seems an anachronism this late in the 19th century) left the audience unmoved - some nights there wasn't even any applause afterwards, and this from her "home crowds" - she is one of the ROH's most famous Young Artists Programme graduates. The voice is quite large and quite beautiful in places but her technique is lacking and as a result the voice feels squeezed and not quite fully in control. Her stage presence isn't exactly commanding either and her strange looks don't really register at a distance (now that Joan Sutherland has died is she the biggest jaw in opera?). Blandness is the issue, which perhaps explains the diva-ish antics. Her glacially ungracious manner with the audience afterwards rendered her even less endearing.
The rest of the cast were generally very good, particularly Ekaterina Gubanova's captivating performance as Lyubasha, the furiously obsessed love rival, whose refulgently warm mezzo, stage presence and superior acting made her the centre of the action. She's also an ex-ROH Young Artist and seems to me to be a far better ambassador for the House. Mark Elder in the pit gave the strongest possible advocacy for what is an exciting and passionate score, even if one knows and feels throughout that it is not a first rate opera.
A couple of days before, I saw the ROH's Fidelio, and it was not a pleasurable evening. This Met production is drab and dull and is thankfully being retired now - why did the opera house ever take it in the first place? I literally can't be bothered to comment on it any further, so I'll move onto the singing which was mostly fine, but never spectacular. Steven Ebel is a tenor currently in the ROH's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, and took on the relatively large role of Jaquino. His bleating, mosquito like buzz of a vibrato is just not at all pleasant, and his cumbersomely gangly lope means he only moves badly on stage. This might seem unfair, as he's theoretically still developing as a singer and artist, but the ROHJPYA scheme is meant to be a finishing school, a last port of call before the terrifying ocean of professional operatic life. I just cannot see that he will ever be successful.
The only other singer I feel moved to talk about is Nina Stemme as Leonore/Fidelio. I have never seen a bad word written about Stemme, especially from London audiences, and this was the first time I'd seen her live, so I was quite excited. And then very disappointed. I was near the front of the stalls and found it hard to hear her much of the time. I don't know if the direness of the production meant that she wasn't trying, as it's clearly a voice of some power and resource but the voice just seemed rather dry and didn't carry at all. Maybe she was having an off day. But like my recent Glyndebourne experience with Anna Gabler as Eva there was just no sense of line whatsoever. It's not that she's sacrificing line for textual clarity either, it just wasn't pleasurable to hear. I have heard her Strauss disc which is fine for the Salome excerpt and the Four Last Songs (though vocally doesn't compete with the leading rivals. The orchestra is amazing), but related problems arise in the last scene of Capriccio - the voice just powers through the thing without any regard for musical detail or the text, and the huge dramatic vibrato and tone just seems completely inappropriate for the role. In an interview she classifies herself as a lyric-dramatic soprano and there are indeed a lot of lyric roles in her repertoire but I would not want to hear her in a single one.
I really wanted to like her too! I'll endeavour to see her in one of her Wagner roles...