Musings and updates at

Friday, 29 April 2011

Capriccio Met Opera Broadcast review

Metropolitan Opera House broadcast

There has been a very large hiatus since my last blog post, unintentional, but caused by my extreme busyness in the last few weeks. Reviews of Fidelio and the Tsar's Bride at the ROH hardly seem worth publishing in full, but I'll post a few thoughts in the future for the sake of completeness.

I had originally also planned to produce a series of posts on the complete operatic oeuvre of Strauss in preparation for this broadcast of Capriccio, and although most are almost finished, I didn't quite manage them on time - they'll be coming soon no doubt.

Capriccio is in my opinion Strauss most perfect opera, and as is suggested by my namesake, is held very dear to my heart. In some ways it's my favourite opera of all, and its gradual ascension into the fringes of the canon fills me with great joy. The fact that it has been presented in a Metropolitan Opera broadcast is further indication of its rising status.

Now I must confess that this was my first Met broadcast experience, and on the whole it was not a good one. Throughout the entire thing the sound was extremely muffled and quiet, which I blame the cinema for, and the transmission went awry several times during the glorious final scene, which I think is the fault of the Met. I'm seeing Die Walkure in mid May at the Barbican, so we'll see how that fares, but I'm now wary of the whole thing, where before I was wildly enthusiastic. For me it's clear that this is (or could be, or should be) the future of increasing opera's appeal and winning new audiences, rather than trying to make opera ticket prices less expensive, or mounting operas with self consciously tawdry "modern" themes.

I don't like this production by John Cox. The same set (by Mauro Pagano) has been presented in crinolines, notably with Kiri as countess, and with updated furniture and costumes several times - again with Te Kanawa at the Royal Opera house in the mid 90s, and here at the Met with the costumes again changed (this time the decor and costumes by Robert Perdziola). The whole thing is quite unimaginatively done, doing no more or less than what is in the libretto - characters just walk on and off, with little thought for how the thing will look on stage. In this opera, the Countess Madeleine has to be the focus of the production for the piece to make sense, and this means looking the part too - there has to be a reason that she arouses such excitement in the poet and composer. Unfortunately Fleming's dress, makeup and hair all conspired to look extremely unflattering and partly because of this, and partly because of the poor direction, she hardly seemed to register as the central figure of the action until the last scene, where it was all too late. This was an instance where one realises how important costumes (combined of course as good direction) actually are in opera. Compare this with Carsen's production where everything is just right in this regard - Fleming looking extremely beautiful here and being the firm focus of the action (the direction, while superficially similar, is also much better. The only thing that mars the Carsen production, and it's a big fault, is the horrible treatment of the final scene.)

Other things that grated were the pointless cuts - pointless because they hardly shortened the the thing, and annoying because what was cut was so crucial - first the discussion about the theme of the opera that they are going to write - The Count's felicitous suggestion comes far too soon, and hardly registers as the theatrical masterstroke that it is. Little cuts in La Roche's speech (it's meant to drag!), and the discussion of the opera after the counts suggestion again cut out further beauties, whilst hardly shortening it - Strauss' dramatic pacing is perfect here, and meddling with it because you don't know how to direct it is death. It also irked me that they changed the libretto (something which I've never heard of before) to fit with the updating as the Count leaves with Clairon - they're meant to talk about horses, and she said she is awaiting at least six (a possible sexual pun here), but instead a coupe and a limousine are mentioned. This last point is minor in some ways, but I'm sure will have annoyed many devotees of this work.

Renée Fleming is the world's reigning Strauss soprano. Twelve years ago she recorded what is to me the most gloriously beautiful and intelligently sung recital of Strauss excerpts on disc. The Marschallin's monologue on that CD is not only radiantly beautiful but has an intelligence and sensitivity to the text matched only by Schwarzkopf. The luxuriantly schmaltzy duet for the sisters in Arabella is sumptuous, and then the last excerpt, the final monologue scene from Capriccio is the most ravishing of all, the finest account of this scene on record, both in the breathtaking singing, and the peerless beauty of the Vienna Philharmonic under Eschenbach.

It's fair to say then that I am a Fleming fan. In fact she is unequivocally my favourite singer. How has the voice fared since that CD then? Fleming is now 52, and while the voice still is remarkable for her age, there are unmistakable signs of decline in the voice. This completely to be expected for a soprano of her age, and there are without question several years of very healthy singing ahead of her (plus two new Strauss roles - Christine from intermezzo, and the long promised Ariadne. More on these later) I won't go too much into this, as I want to do an overview of her career in a separate post. Her acting on this occasion didn't really do it for me, strange since it's so much better in her Carsen DVD performance. Bad direction? It was just too OTT and camp. That was a theme of the whole thing actually - for Capriccio to succeed, it cannot be a camp indulgence, but that is exactly how the Met presented it and as a result the whole thing was curiously uninvolving.

Joseph Kaiser's Flamand was a bit rough around the edges for my liking, and completely overacted (this is a subtle piece. Subtle!), though he delivered some quite considerable goods in his ardent monologue in praise of the Countess. Olivier, played by Russell Braun, was rarely anything but brooding and discontented, and again whether this was poor direction, or poor acting choices, is hard to say. This is always a risk in Capriccio, because although the Countess doesn't officially come to a decision at the end, Strauss hints at her choice of the composer in several ways (more on this in another post). If these hints aren't subtle, and she clearly is far more interested in the composer than the poet, as here, the central metaphor doesn't hold up, the little drama that there is falls flat, and the final scene makes no sense. Another major problem.

Morten Frank Larsen was a decent count, but largely unremarkable. La Roche was well played and sung by Peter Rose, and oddly became the centre of the action. Very good though he was, what was strange was that Olivier, a baritone, had a darker tone quality to his voice than La Roche, a bass, which really didn't work in terms of the roles they were meant to be playing, and the operatic conventions that Strauss is so clearly playing with. Real miscasting this. Sarah Connolly as the actress Clairon was again decent, but the comedy somehow failed to catch light - and Connolly really is a good actress, so one strongly suspects that this was the poor direction again.

The vignettes were mostly nicely done, even if the whole didn't flow like it was meant to. The scene with the ballet dancer was beautiful, and then the Italian singers duet was lovely, but seemed irrelevant, because the other characters were hardly seen reacting to them. The farewells were again badly handled in the direction (the countess here again clearly favouring Flamand). The scene with the servants, another joy of this opera, was brilliantly executed in its semi-choreography and humour. Unfortunately, the even more delightful following scene with the prompter was marred by the Bernard Fitch's complete lack of voice - the Met should maybe note that the fach "character tenor" still has the word tenor in it.

The orchestra under Andrew Davis was on absolutely magnificent form - I really have never heard this score played better - beautifully shaded, the details coming out wonderfully, and such warmth too. Occasionally a few of the orchestral "jokes" were smoothed over, but this is caviling. There was one excruciating horn flub in the exquisite horn melody that introduces the final scene - I wonder if they'll correct this if this performance ends up on DVD?

So an unsatisfying performance. What really emerged triumphant against the dull staging and poor acting, was the magnificence of the music: it's wit, intelligence and perfect, muted beauty. I couldn't help but fall in love with the piece again.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Into the Woods

I have always been proud to say that I hate musicals - their terrible plots, worse music, corny dialogue, artificial sentiment, manipulative emotional content - that is, until a few weeks ago. Kings Musical Theatre did a run of performances of Sondheim's musical Into The Woods, and I can honestly say it was superlative in every way. As a comedy it's superb - consistently laugh out loud funny (though the comic acting in this particular production was excellent, it has to be said). Dramatically it is also very strong, characters mostly brilliantly drawn, story arcs polished and logical, plot logical, cogent and gripping. And musically - the whole thing uses an almost obsessively small range of motives which add a real structural unity and integrity to the piece, very similar to that found in the musically more generous, but similarly tightly constructed score of Westside Story. If there aren't many hummable tunes, the score is all the more impressive for being so compelling musically and never flagging in interest - above all, what's needed is always provided (in this last way he has not a little in common with Strauss!). The orchestration (and by extention, the harmony) is always inventive, sometimes dazzling, occasionally extremely beautiful, and all done with such care and economy of means, though I can't work out if this is the handywork of Sondheim or his long time collaborator Jonathan Tunick. What really surprised me was that it treated and explored its themes in such an intellectually and morally engaging and adult way (far more honest and in depth than the much standard operatic repertory) - morality and conscience, responsibility, the relationship between the individual and society, good consequences from bad actions, bad consequences from good intentions - all standard theatrical material, but here somehow made fresh and interesting.

I have to say that as an evening's entertainment I have not been so transported for a long while, and (I can't believe I'm writing this!) it was certainly more enjoyable, thought provoking and moving than much of what I have seen at the Royal Opera House this year. A student production of a musical! I am a bigot no longer.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Opera Shots

The Tell Tale Heart & The Doctor's Tale
Linbury Theatre

An interesting and thoroughly entertaining evening this. Nothing profound, but I was charmed by both operas. Stewart Copeland wrote both the music and libretto for The Tell Tale Heart, adapted of course from Poe's classic short story. Copeland's style is clearly very rooted in pop and jazz, and though this isn't at all a rock or pop score, rhythmically and harmonically and timbrally one can hear many commonalities with his more famous musical phase. The result, initially pleasantly piquant in its vitality and subtly pungeant harmony, doesn't quite have enough range to sustain purely musical interest, but luckily the piece is only 45 minutes so it never outstays its welcome.

"Edgar", the main protagonist, keeps the first person perspective of the short story and is in cahoots with the audience and is often joined by other singers (neighbours, cops, friends) singing exactly the same lines. This works very well, and the piece retains something of the psychological intensity of the original - the other characters seeming reported, rather than actual, as they are in the book. Richard Suart in the role of Edgar sings almost continuously throughout, or rather, and I hesitate to say it, raps his way through a lot of it. Hesitate because rapping in classical music is usually heinous. It isn't horrible I promise you - and actually seems completely right for the context somehow. Jonathan Moore's staging is simple but very effective I think - just a room, but the walls are made out of gauze so that the neighbours can sing and be seen through them. Edgar keeps stepping out of the "stage" of the room (complete with footlights) which works well as he narrates his own story. The use of projections is also used simply and effectively - the whole thing feels polished and unified, even if the denouement seemed too brief and sudden. I liked it quite a bit though.

It seems that the Monty Pythons are going mad for opera at the moment: Terry Gilliam doing Faust at the ENO, and the next opera of the night, another short one acter, written and directed by Terry Jones and composed by Anne Dudley. Are Cleese and Palin going to get in on the action? The basic premise is extremely simple. There's a well loved doctor who is a dog. A sort of vet in reverse. Cue hilarious consequences. The whole thing had a sort of surreal, mildly amused air, with good comic acting and singing from the ensemble cast. Some people around me found it absolutely hilarious whenever any characters said any words, which was a bit unsettling as the content was more titter worthy than belly-laughingly hilarious, though the final scenes which play perhaps a little too predictably with operatic convention and meta-theatre are quite funny. Anne Dudley's score is what you'd expect for anyone familiar with her work (apparently she has a penchent for comedy, composing as she did Bill Bailey's remarkable guide to the orchestra) - well orchestrated, plenty of tunes, lovely throughout. It's sort of a musical really - the singers clearly relishing their parts (all are very decent). The staging is very minimal, but provides all that is required, though scene changes are clumsily handled. Again, it worked well as a whole, and I actually found the moments of greatest parody quite touching - the scene with the angels and then the final scene where everyone inexplicably falls in love - actually transcend the satire and work to move despite it all - shades of Noel Coward: extraordinary how potent cheap music is...

Largely a successful evening then, entertaining, even if one doubts that either piece will last much longer than this run. It's not expensive and perhaps surprisingly hasn't been selling well so I recommend giving it a go.